The Promise Of A Lifetime

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


Chapter 11


Maggie bought three pairs of hideously expensive designer jeans that she didn’t need, four heavy winter dresses that were too dressy to wear to work, several pairs of boots, and two bright green sweatshirts with a large wolf on the front for the boys. She signed the sales slips without looking at them, and knew she’d hate herself when the bills came in.

Oh, well, the mindless activity had probably saved her sanity, and she’d start acting like an adult tomorrow.

The boys were spending the night with their aunt and weren’t expected home until late tomorrow. Esther, her long time housekeeper-cook, was taking a rare weekend off, meaning she’d have the house all to herself for two days. On her way home she stopped and picked up a double cheeseburger and a large order of fries. It was dinnertime and she was in no mood to cook. Or to eat, either, for that matter, but she was going to choke down every bit even if it killed her. She was through letting Preston Hooper affect her appetite. Damn man has too much control over his desires. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t entice him into my bed. You’d think I didn’t have any appeal left in this thirty-eight year old body, even if I still think it’s pretty covetous.

Maggie saw the green van parked in front of her house as soon as she turned onto her street. Preston’s vehicle! Her heart started pounding before she could remind it that he wasn’t going to affect her that way anymore.

What was he doing here? How long had he been waiting? Surely he’d said all he had to say to her last night, and then walked off with her wanting him so much she couldn’t sleep. Just because he could control his needs and felt his main concern should be about her reputation, didn’t mean she felt the same way, or that she could stand the sexual tension and the letdown.

She drove past him and turned into her driveway and parked. Now what? Damn it, he’d obviously been sitting on the steps for some time as the snow has covered his hat and coat. So why wasn’t he sitting in his car in front of her house? That man definitely needs-needs what Maggie? Needs me to take care of him and those sweet little girls. Dammit!

She put her hand to her chest hoping her heart would get the message and slow down, but it paid no attention to her and kept right on thumping joyously away. Well, she’d deal with it later, now she was going to be coolly polite but nothing more.

She got out of the car and saw him coming toward her. Her foolish fantasies died a very painful death. How could she be angry with him, she loved the man.

“Hello, Preston,” she said, when he came up to her while she was leaning into the car gathering up her numerous packages. She was pleased to note that none of her inner turmoil sounded in her voice. “What are you doing here? How long have you been waiting?”

He didn’t attempt to touch her. “Not long. Here, let me help you.”

Maggie slung the long strap of her purse onto her shoulder and picked up the Wendy’s bag and several other shoe sacks. “You can carry the remaining shopping bags to the house if you don’t mind.”

He followed along behind her as she led the way to the door. Without asking, he took the keys from her and opened the door, then stood back to let her precede him. He shut the door behind them, and she turned to face him.

His expression was carefully neutral, but she saw the regret in his eyes and steeled herself against it. “Thank you for bringing in the bags for me,” she said formally.

“I want to talk to you, but first let’s get rid of this stuff.” He walked away from her toward the stairs and where the bedrooms were. She didn’t want to be in her bedroom alone with him, but he left her no choice but to follow.

“I-I think we said all we had to say to each other last night.” She hoped her tone wouldn’t betray her surprise.

“Not quite,” he answered softly as he set the shopping bags on the end of the bed, and reached out to relieve her of some of the numerous packages that were threatening to spill out of her arms. He put them on the bed beside the ones he had brought in. She dumped the others with them, retaining the white one with the food in it, then turned and hurried down the hall and stairs into the kitchen.

“If you’re going to stay awhile then you’d better have something to eat.” She opened the cupboard door and took down two small plates, all the while berating herself for her folly.

Margaret Raletta Nichols, you’re a sniveling masochist! Why else would you have this compulsion to feed the man who denies you? It’s true he lost weight during the weeks since he started dating you, and he looks gaunt and pale, but that’s not your problem. He’s a grown man. He knows enough to eat when he’s hungry. Just hand him the sack, if it’ll make you feel better, and tell him to go home.

Ignoring her own good advice, she reached into the sack and put the double cheeseburger and fries on one plate, then handed it to him. “Here,” she said gruffly, “go sit at the table and eat this while it’s still warm.”

“Maggie, I can’t eat your dinner,” he insisted.

“It’s all right, I’ll fix myself a tuna sandwich. I’d rather have that anyway.” She reached into the sack again and brought out a large plastic cup with a lid on it. “You can have the cola, too,” she said, and handed it to him. “I’ll have milk.”

She noticed that his expression had changed from neutral to shuttered, as though something had shattered inside of him and he was determined not to let it show on his face.

Without thinking, she marched up and caressed his cheek. “Preston? What’s the matter? What did-?”

He didn’t answer, just silently set the plate and plastic cup on the counter, then reached out and drew her into the circle of his arms and stood there holding her.

She relaxed against him and knew that trying to resist was a waste of energy. They were joined at the heart whether they wanted to be or not. They could only get so far apart before they snapped back together like a rubber band or a yo-yo.

After a few minutes Preston rubbed his cheek against hers. “I’ve never had anyone to take care of me before,” he said softly. “My mother was too swamped with trying to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, my dad was too drunk to notice me and my wife was too busy with the babies to give me much attention. When you do things like making sure I eat and get home early to get enough sleep and kiss away my hurts, it--it overwhelms me.”

Margaret thought of her own loving, care-giving parents and could have cried for all Preston had missed, but before she could say anything, he continued. “I carried on so last night, like an insensitive jerk and denied you the chance to talk to me, or even attempt to get me to stay, and now when I’ve come to apologize and beg your forgiveness, you’ve given me your dinner, even before I’ve told you why I’m here, because you don’t want me to be hungry.

“What happened last night was as much my fault as yours,” she said. “You’re right. You made it very clear that you wanted marriage and it was wrong of me to suggest we could have each other without it.”

He tensed. “That’s not what I said--”

She put her hand to his mouth. “No, please, let me finish. I’ve always been an extremely determined person, even as a child. Fletcher and Mother can vouch for that. If I want something I go after it, and I usually get it. I guess that gave me an exaggerated sense of power, but I have to admit that I’m way out of my league with you.” A burst of nervous laughter broke through her tenuous control. “I probably have been playing games with you. One-up-on-you, I believe it’s called. The harder you resisted me, the stronger I came on to you.”

“That’s not true--”

Again she silenced him. “You’re a bright man, Preston. You saw right through me to the spoiled, self-centered brat I’ve become. I can see why you don’t want me as a stepmother to your daughters, but you’re not totally blameless. You keep sending me mixed signals. Like last night. Your words were kind but the message was clear. You’re welcome to eventually become my wife, but don’t expect me to satisfy your needs without the ring!”

“Margaret, no!”

“Yes!” She was as vehement as he was as she pulled herself out of his arms and stood facing him. “But there are limits to what I’ll do to get my own way. I won’t be any man’s personal whim-not even yours-so I left assuming everything was over between us, if I wouldn’t wait and marry you. Now I come home and find you waiting on my doorstep wanting absolution.”

His face was chalky as he stared at her.

“You’re an expert at puffing my strings, Preston. You coldly push me away one moment, and melt me with sweet words and hot kisses the next. You keep me constantly off balance. I don’t know what you want of me, and I don’t think you do, either.”

She closed her eyes and slumped against the cabinet, her emotions shredded and her energy depleted. That should do it. She’d set him free. He could leave without feeling guilty about walking away from her, and she could try to get on with her life without him.

She listened for his footsteps as he walked toward the door. Instead she felt his hands clasp her upper arms, and her eyes flew open. He was looking at her with a mixture of disbelief and tenderness. “You’re wrong,” he said softly. “Wrong about everything, but especially when you say I don’t know what I want of you.”

He moved his hands gently up and down her arms. “I know exactly what I want of you, my darling. I want you to marry me.”

Margaret blinked, and felt shock waves all the way to her top. Good Lord, the man must be intent on pushing her over the edge. Or maybe she was hallucinating and only hearing what she wanted to hear.

No, that couldn’t be it because she didn’t want him to propose marriage just because he knew he’d hurt her feelings and wanted to atone. The only answer she could think of to give him was the one he’d given her when she’d told him she wanted an intimate relationship with him even though they had four children between them, and there would be nasty rumors and ugly talk about them.

“Why?” The word came out garbled, and she cleared her throat and tried again. “Why have you changed your mind? Last night you were positively brutal in your eagerness to let me know that you emphatically did not want to have an intimate relationship with me, and put everything on hold.

He winced and dropped his hands. “I know, but I’m not as strong as I thought I was. I can’t bear the thought of losing you-not again.”

It was her turn to wince. “What do you mean ‘not again’?”

“Maggie, I’ve loved you since I was sixteen. I was heart broken when you married Nichols in medical school. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my wife, but not with all my being, there was always a place in my heart that was only for you. I mean that you get lucky once in a lifetime to find the woman of your dreams, much less have time past and her reenter your life.” She didn’t know whether to laugh or throw something at him. “I’m not the one who’s putting limits on our relationship, or setting up barriers filled with conditions and waiting.”

He jammed his hands in his pockets and turned away. “I know, but it’s you who stands to lose so much, including your reputation, or even happiness if you marry me. I’m trying to protect you from that.”

She was more exasperated than flattered. “Preston, you’re not making sense. Just what is it that you’re proposing?”

He reached out and took her hand. “Let’s go in the other room and sit down, and I’ll tell you.”

His hand was warm and strong, and she resisted the urge to squeeze it as they walked into the living room and sat down on the couch. She wasn’t going to encourage him until she found out what he had in mind. Knowing Preston, it was probably something she didn’t want to hear.

Pulling her hand away, she folded it with her other one in her lap. She didn’t look at him but kept her gaze focused on the oil painting of one of the area’s lakes painted by Fletcher years ago. It was one she’d been given for her twenty-fifth birthday and hung on the wall opposite the couch.

“You were right when you said being married would give me a better chance of raising my girls better with a woman around; or that I’m a good influence on the twins,” he began, “but that’s not why I want to marry you. What I hadn’t thought of before was that an illicit relationship with you would put me at a distinct disadvantage with the girls, your boys and your family.”

Maggie felt as if he’d slapped her, and her gasp of pain caught his attention.

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m sorry,” he said anxiously. “I’m handling this badly. We’re not doing anything wrong, but in the eyes of our children and your mother, and the town-folk it could seem as if we were. Especially since I’m asking you and your sons to let my daughters and me be one large family, and for you all to live with us.”

“Are you telling me that you don’t want to see me anymore?” She couldn’t keep the hurt or the anger from her tone.

“No, dammit.” He sounded as hurt and angry as she had. “What I’m saying is that I don’t want to sneak around about it, which is what we’d have to do. You deserve better than that. We all do.” He was only making it sound worse.

“Yes, I do deserve better than that, but marrying me just so we can legally make love is a pretty shaky foundation for a lifetime commitment.”

“Dammit, Maggie, you’re being deliberately obtuse,” he roared in frustration. “I don’t want to marry you just so I can legally make love to you. I’m not an animal. I can control my sexual desires. What I can’t control is my deep-seated need for you as a part of me, like my heart, or my soul.”

He looked at her with all the torment he was feeling mirrored in his face. “I love you so much that stop seeing you is no longer an option. If I’m forced to make a choice between you and my own daughters, I’ll be torn asunder and I couldn’t do that.”

This time the shock was totally disabling. Maggie couldn’t move, speak or think. All she could do was stare at him, her eyes wide and her mouth open. She’d always hoped that someday he’d admit that he loved her, but never in her wildest dreams had she expected him to make such profound statements.

He reached out and put his hand under her hair to stroke her nape. “What’s the matter, love? Didn’t you ever suspect how I felt about you?”

His touch restored some of her senses, and she managed to blink and moisten her dry lips with her tongue. “You--you never said anything about loving me. Only you wouldn’t make love without being married--wouldn’t love me.” Her voice sounded hollow.

“I lied.” His gentle fingers unknotted her shock-tightened muscles. “At first I believed it, but even after I knew better I continued to lie to you. It’s not in your best interest to be married to me Maggie, and-well--you mentioned we could have it all, only without marriage, but that’s not what I’m asking of you.”

It wasn’t possible for him to shock her more than he already had, and this time she simply rolled with the punch, for she simply didn’t understand where he was coming from or exactly what he wanted. “But you said you wanted to marry me.”

His hand at the back of her neck guided her head down to his shoulder, and he settled her comfortably in his embrace. Now that she was cuddled against him she realize that he was trembling.

This was as difficult for him as it was for her! She put her arms around his waist and held him as he was holding her.

“I know this is just going to confuse you more, sweetheart,” he said, “but try to understand. I do want to marry you. Very much. But I don’t want you to be married to me.”

He was right; she was hopelessly confused, but she’d been that way for some time now, so it didn’t make much difference. “You can’t have it both ways,” she reminded him.

“Maybe I can,” he said, “but only if you’ll agree.”

She was pretty sure she’d agree with anything he wanted, whether it made sense or not. “Tell me about it.”

He tightened his arms around her as if he were afraid she might pull away from him. “All right, but I don’t think you’re going to like it. Just remember, you’re under no obligation to go through with this.”

Margaret was too numb to react, but she wondered if there would ever come a time when she and Preston could just talk to each other without one of them shocking the hell out of the other.

“I’d like for us to be married as soon as possible,” he began, “but first we’ll have a prenuptial agreement drawn up-”

“That’s all right,” she interrupted, anxious to reassure him. “I won’t make any claims on your money, property or businesses. I understand that those things rightfully belong to the girls. I’m well able to support my sons and myself. We will never have any issues of money or needs, their father made sure of that, and my family inheritance assures me and my heirs comfort for several lifetimes to come.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” he said firmly. “As my wife you’ll be entitled to half my estate, and that’s the way it will be. Your assets are yours and the boys for always, Maggie. Those things aren’t the issue. It’s the terms of our marriage that will be set forth in the agreement. It will state that you’re free to leave me at any time you choose, and that I will not attempt to restrain you or contest a divorce.”

“You want to make arrangements to dissolve the marriage even before its taken place?”

He nodded. “Yes. I’d have continued to lie about not loving you, but you were blaming yourself for our problems and it was affecting your self-esteem. I couldn’t allow that, but nothing else has changed. I’ll always be the son of the town drunk, who was a wife and child-beater-”

“Preston, for heaven’s sake, will you forget about the past! I don’t-”

“My past is not that easily forgotten,” he muttered, and stared off into space. “It will always follow me wherever I go, and when it’s exposed, things can get ugly indeed.”

Damn! Now she’d done it again. When would she learn not to speak before she thought?

She snuggled closer and nuzzled the pulse in his neck. “Oh, darling, I know,” she said contritely. “I must have sounded like an insensitive clod, but you’re not responsible for your father’s assaults or character. You pulled yourself out of the drudgery of an abusive parent, went on to school, became an excellent pharmacist, own several enterprises, serve on the town counsel for years, married a lovely woman who gave you two beautiful daughters, which I adore, and for all that I’ve heard over the years, you were an extremely thoughtful and wonderful husband. You’re one of the most respected men in the area. There is not a shred of doubt about your love for those two little girls. You’ve not only risen above any character flaws of your father, you have surpassed most other men in the county-no, by god, the entire state. You are free from your fathers past, why can’t you free yourself from that awful experience and get on with your life?”

He shivered when her tongue replaced her lips and roamed over his skin, but his voice remained firm. “Look, honey, we’ve been through this before. I don’t see any need to rehash it. You’re too young to be burdened with my families’ history. I know it sounds like a contradiction, but I love you too much to let you make a lifetime commitment to me, and I won’t father more children to be tarred with the cringing shadow of a heritage that might cause you or them any grief or heartache!”

He paused, as if gathering the strength to goon. “I’m sorry, but if you won’t sign the agreement then we’ll have to stop seeing each other.”

Margaret knew he meant it. If anything, he was even more determined than she was when he thought he was right. “Are you asking me to take vows before God that I don’t intend to keep? I don’t think an arrangement such as you’re proposing is even legal.”

He tensed, and once more she knew she’d caused him pain. “You must know I’d never ask you to do anything you can’t square with your conscience,” he said sadly. “We don’t have to be married by a minister in a church. We can have a civil ceremony if you prefer.”

“As to the legality of the agreement, I’m not sure whether it’s legally binding or not. We’ll consult an attorney and have him draw it up, but between the two of us it will be morally binding. We’re both too honorable to go back on our word once it’s given. It can be used as a declaration of intent, if not a legal document.”

Maggie knew they’d reached an impasse. She could either give in to his request, or try to live without him. Since the latter was impossible she really had no choice. She’d sign the blasted paper and hope he’d eventually realize she wasn’t ever going to leave him, and would love him until breath took its last journey through her.

“All right, Preston,” she said with a sigh. “I love you, and I suppose I’d do almost anything to be with you, so I’ll marry you on your terms, but just so there won’t be any misunderstanding there’s one thing you should know.” He looked at her quizzically as she raised her head and kissed him. “I’ll never voluntarily leave you, so when you want me out of your life you’ll have to send me away.”

A shiver ran through him, and he lowered his face till it was almost touching hers. “We’ll see,” he whispered before capturing her mouth, and her soul, with his own, “But you should know something yourself Maggie, I’ll never send you away.”

***

Margaret and Preston were married the following weekend at her mother’s home. It was a small, intimate wedding performed in the great room that was her mother’s pride and joy. Huge blossoms from Andrea’s hothouse were a bright splash of color against which they repeated their vows.

Maggie’s family, although startled by her sudden decision to marry, warmly welcomed Preston and his girls with open arms. If her mother was dismayed by her insistence that justices of the peace officiate instead of their own minister, she didn’t argue. Fletcher walked her sister down the short aisle and handed her off to her tall friend, with Maggie’s two son’s acting as best men jointly, and Preston’s daughters beamed as Maggie’s bridesmaids. A twist at the end of the ceremony was when the justice of the peace then turned to the four children and asked if they agreed to the final wording of the ceremony. All four children burst out immediately with, “I do”, and the justice then pronounced them all as one family.

Jamison, Tammy, Finley and a few of the older firefighters and rangers attended the private ceremony. Finley was a little surprised when Maggie called her with the invitation, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

In an upstairs bedroom before the ceremony, Maggie has asked Finley to join her alone for a few minutes for them to talk. “Finley, don’t allow Fletcher to shut you out. You’re the one that will have to be willing to-how do I say this-worm your way into her life and get her to open up. She isn’t going to give inkling as to how or what she is feeling. Have patience, as you slowly assemble the missing clues to what she is about, one small piece at a time. As your relationship unfolds, you can explore the deeper, more subtle aspects of her personality, and get to know her quite well indeed.”

Finley looked intensely at Maggie. “Give an inkling-she doesn’t allow even that, and it’s so frustrating. We are so much alike-so stubborn and pigheaded. We can’t even have a tête-à-tête without it becoming a bantering of sorts--attempting to be in control-in command, so to speak.”

“Get past the initial awkwardness in the conversation with smiles, jokes, "small talk", banter, inane observations, or whatever else works at the time. With practice, you will loosen up and become more spontaneous, and the talk will flow from you without effort. This, too, is an acquired skill, and body language, particularly the posture and muscle tension, the set of the mouth, and the eyes, the windows of the soul.” Maggie held the younger woman’s hand as she smiled. “Finley, you and I both know you are perfect for my sister. I sensed this that first time I saw you in her bedroom. You are more than you let on, young lady. You have very deep persuasive powers that you aren’t willing to allow others to see, but Mother and I not only sense them. We’ve discussed this, and we both will be here for you, if you want to talk.”

The shorter woman attempted to smile back, but she hung her head instead. “Oh Maggie, I sense the movements and changes in the lines of her face and its features, particularly the forehead, the eyebrows, and the lips. I thought I could read the signals, tune in on the subtle nonverbal cues, but I’m so unsure of what’s there.”

“Listen Finley--you will have to listen to and interpret what Fletcher says and how she says it, her tone of voice and gestures. Listen as well to your own experience and that exquisitely sensitive intuitive judgment of people that you have so carefully nurtured. Develop an empathy for the woman and let it deepen to the point where it becomes mimesis, where you share her feelings and tune in to her intentions. Blur the barriers between you.”

Finley slowly removed her hand from the larger ones and stood up. She walked to the window and gazed out at the falling snowflakes. Maggie remained silent, still watching her from the bed. Grandmamma always said upon meeting a person, immediately take a snapshot of her, a fuzzy first approximation. As you become better acquainted, fine-tune that judgment into a second approximation, a somewhat more accurate overview, as the picture gradually comes into sharper focus. This could further evolve into an elaborate structure, a multicolored mosaic representing your experiences with her, as you slowly assemble the missing clues to what she is about, one small piece at a time. As your relationship unfolds, you can explore the deeper, subtler aspects of her personality, and get to know her quite well indeed. Finley smiled at the recollection. Maggie was trying to tell her the same thing-to point out the same process so delicately her Tunisian grandmother had years before when they both realized Finley preferred women.

“Is she going to allow any closeness between us, Maggie? She seems to put up such a high wall.” Finley asked, turning to face Maggie.

“Be discreet and patience, Finley. Fletcher is very vulnerable when it comes to you. Both Mother and I have sensed something about her when she is with you-or even when a conversation concerns you. She’ll start opening up-a little here, a little there-but it will be slow, Finley. All will be exposed--every revealed nuance, every secret desire, every confession of weakness, every exploration of hope and admission of paralyzing fear strengthens the bond between the two of you, helping you connect with her as one human being to another, flawed but worthy of acceptance as a trusted and intimate companion.”

“Oh goodness, Maggie, I do want that so much.”

“Then be determined and honest with your feelings-don’t be overly obvious, but slowly allow that sweet, caring part of you to appear to her.”

“If she allows me the opportunity. She-she is so stubborn, so-“

“Finley, she will allow you in, if you really want in. But you need to approach her differently than you have. Be open with her; share your past, your pain and disappointments as well as your triumphs and joys. Allow her to laugh with you, and to cry also. There is a saying, not sure it’s Seneca, but it say, “Humor is healing, and tears are sacred’. You both obviously need to set things right with some honesty and truth.” Maggie surmised, standing to put the small ivory hat with an even smaller veil on before the mirror.

Slowly and reverently peel back the layers of mystery in each other, then you will both see the human spirit of the other part of your soul--your soulmate . Her grandmother’s words returned to her as she exhaled slowly.

Maggie eyed the smaller woman’s reflection in the mirror. “Show her how much you cherish her. Things are not as they seem, skim milk masquerading as cream.” She said kindly and turned to face the younger woman.

Finley grinned, “Ah-Shakespeare.”

“But he said it so well, don’t you think, my fine, young future sister-in-law?”

Finley’s stomach plummeted. Future sister-in-law! She clamped her mind shut to the thought as Maggie took her hand and they exited the room for the ceremony.

***

The bridal couple spent their wedding night in New York at the Waldroff- Astoria, high atop of Park Avenue. From their window they had a stunning view of the city…Central Park, The Empire State Building, the bridges, the bay, none of which interested them nearly as much as their absorption in each other.

After a night that was more romantic than even Maggie had dreamed possible, they boarded a plane in the morning and flew to Grand Bahamas, where they spent the next ten days in a paradise of their own making. They shut out everything but the fact that they were on their honeymoon, and spent mornings sightseeing, afternoons on the beach, evenings sampling the islands’ night life, and nights...

Oh, those wonderful, fabulous, glorious nights!

By the time they got back to the Adirondacks, they were fully rested, deeply tanned and totally carefree.

Andrea had kept all four children, and would keep them for the first two nights after they returned as well. They had mutually agreed to live in Maggie’s house, as it had six bedrooms and five baths, whereas Preston’s only had four bedrooms. They all loved the property, the forest on all sides and the lake just down the hill. Preston had been somewhat reluctant at first, but Maggie explained, the house was everything they needed, and why waste money in buying or building another. Preston had finally approved when Maggie reminded him that he was the only man to ever have her in every room of the house those first two days and nights home, and had put his stamp-of-approval, or marked-his-terrain, so to speak, on her and their domain.

“Okay, you win, we’ll live here,” he laughed as Maggie pulled the sash of his robe loose once more.

The last morning before they were to go pick up the kids from Andrea’s, they came down the stairs hand and hand and into the large eat in kitchen.

“You’d better go sit down at the table and let me feed you,” she teased, “or you’re going to run out of steam.”

He laughed happily and pressed his groin into her bottom. “As you can see there's no danger of me running out of much of anything.”

She turned her head and accepted his quick kiss. “Okay, buddy boy, that does it,” she said airily. “No more hanky-panky until you eat your bacon and eggs and then take a trip to the pick up our anxious children.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he muttered, and grinned as he swatted her playfully on the derriere before taking his place at the table.

The day after Preston was waiting on her steps that night, Maggie had gotten a prescription for birth control pills. Her gynecologist warned her it could be a couple of weeks before she was completely safe, which she already knew, but was reminded again and advised her to use double protection until then. Maggie had…and would, until...

Although she would very much like to have another child, they had talked about it and decided that they should wait for at least six months to allow the twins and the girls to get use to each other. Maggie had made it very clear, that she was against birth control, but that she would honor his request for a six months adjustment period.

Maggie for some reason had expected some resistance, but was presently surprised when he leaned over and kissed her again. “I’d love to father a child with you Maggie Hooper, several if you’re up to it.”

“I’m up to it, darling. Six months isn’t so long to wait.”

“No, it isn’t long at all, sweetheart.” He leaned over and leisurely kissed her again. The kiss deepened. He stood up, reached down and swept her up in his arms and carried her up the steps to their bedroom.

Needless to say, the children weren’t picked up until late afternoon.

***

Andrea, Ruth, Burley, and two rangers had been to the cabin that morning to clean a little and stock the foodstuffs. Andrea and Ruth had placed clean linens on the bed and the sofa sleeper, while Burley had checked out the wood-burning stove and made sure it was working properly.

She arranged a few pots and pans on wood pegs to the right of the stove and made sure the spices and seasons in the rack were filled. Ruth and a ranger had cleaned the bathroom and a dozen fresh towels and washcloths placed on the over-the- toilet shelves as well as half a dozen rolls of toilet paper. Everything that was needed to make staying in the cabin as pleasant as comfortable was done, including two battery-operated lights for emergencies.

“Dr. Bucannan, this stove is a beauty, but I don’t know if the Chief will be able to bake anything in it or not, as I can’t gauge the heat myself.” Burley stuck her head in the bedroom where the veterinarian and a female ranger were placing a warm comforter on the regular size bed.

“Well, she’ll have to prepare some things on the top of the stove, and let the oven be for warming up other things you might send up here for them.”

“That’s probably what we should do.” Burley turned out of the door then stopped, and chuckled as she stuck her head back in the doorway. “We’re assuming that the Chief will be doing the cooking for Finley and herself. You think Finley might have any idea as to how to work this wood oven?”

Andrea burst out laughing and sat down on the side of the bed. No sooner had the older woman clutched the pillow up to her chest then Ruth came through the bathroom door laughing just as hard and sat down on the foot of the bed.

The female ranger that had been cleaning the bathtub stood in the doorway to see what all the lively hilarity was about. Off to one side of the bed, the other ranger was leaned against the chest with a puzzled look on her face, for she hadn’t heard one thing that she thought was funny, or would cause the two older women to laugh so hard that they both had begun to cry.

The side of cook’s mouth was turned up slightly at the corner as she waited for the two women to regain control.

“Oh, Lord, I needed that.” Ruth wiped her eyes.

“I guess we both did,” Andrea used the end of the pillowcase to dab at her eyes.

The two baffled rangers looked at each other then back to the seated women. Finally, Ruth saw the strange look she and Andrea were getting from the ranger in the bathroom doorway and gesture her hand towards Burley.

“Burley, you know if Finley got close to that stove, this whole place might burn down.” Andrea got out between stifled chuckles.

“And besides that,” Ruth butted in, “if she even put on coffee, they’d probably not be able to drink it.”

“Oh Sweet Burley, you’ve been around Finley for several weeks now and you know that precious child can’t even boil water without burning one of your pots.” Andrea interjected. “If they get anything to eat, it will be because you took mercy on them or Fletcher stirs up something on the top of the stove. Our young paleontologist is a genius with bones and rocks, but honey, she is a catastrophe waiting to happen with a stove.” The veterinarian stood up from the bed and tossed the pillow down at the top and motioned for the amused ranger to pull up her side of the comforter.

“Guess you’re both right. She is a conscientious helper, and peels stuff really good, but I haven’t been able to show her how to scramble eggs yet, without them turning brown.” Burley retreated to the open room and scratched her head as to what she could send out for the Chief and Finley to eat.

***

The cabin would be the two women’s general quarters while the site exploration was going on. Although the Park Director had pretty much laid out the general conditions of the rustic cabin, she hadn’t gone into full detail about certain things. Well…Finley will find out soon enough about one little detail I left out, she thought as she slowed down and pulled to the side of the snow-covered road to allow another park vehicle to pass.

Fletcher waved to the rangers that had placed the snowmobiles and sled on the porch of the cabin, and had made a fire inside and stocked the inside wood box for the stove and fireplace. They waved back to their supervisor and tipped their hats to Finley, who threw up her hand in a friendly gesture.

Fletcher pulled her SUV into the clearing and backed it up to the cabin. The rangers had been there that afternoon and unloaded supplies for the cabin, including fuel for the generator, and snowmobiles and had stacked firewood from the park office from one side of the door to the end of the porch. It was at least five foot high and stopped as it hit the windowsill on that the west side of the porch. They had stacked three cords on the end of the maintenance shed and draped a heavy tarp across it to keep it dry. A dozen split logs lay on top of the tarp to keep it in place and several logs were at the bottom of the pile to hold it in place there. In case something happened to the butane heater inside, or the generator, they would have heat in the cabin.

“You can have the bedroom, Finley. I’ll sleep on the sofa, it pulls out into a good size bed.” Fletcher opened the door then stepped aside for smaller woman to enter. Finley raked her feet across the stiff mat to remove as much of the snow as possible before she entered. Fletcher stepped to the side of the door and stomped her boots, then raked her boots over the mat also.

Finley looked around the large combination living, cooking and eating room. “Wow, this is the best site accommodations I’ve ever had,” she turned around and around to get the full impact of the rustic cabin. “That blazing fireplace engulfs the entire room with warm flickering light,” she smiled and lowered her oversized touring bag to the floor.

“Yes, it does.” Fletcher went over to the side wall and placed her duffle bag on the floor and tossed her hat on top of the stuffed bag. “I’ll bring in the rest of the things, and I’ll put the skis and snowshoes on the racks on the front porch,” she glanced over to see Finley remove the fireplace screen and place a small log on the grate. It really didn’t need any additional logs, as the rangers had place two oversized ones under half a dozen others that were blazing away.

“Need any help?” Finley asked as she sat down on the couch and admired the hand carved stone chess pieces on a beautiful hand made board sitting in the center of the rustic plank coffee table.

“No, I can handle it. Weahan’s family moved all his personal belongs out of the bedroom to their place up state, so all the drawers and small closet is available for you to put your things in.” She gestured towards the open bedroom door. “I’ll bring out what I need so you can have all the space.”

“Thanks,” she looked over to the where Fletcher was standing. “ I’ll get my belongs stored and maybe we can play a game of chess. I noticed you have a beautiful chess set in your living room, so I assume you play?” She wiggled her eyebrows questionably at the taller woman.

“Yep, I play, but you should know, I show no mercy when I play chess,” Fletcher wiggled her eyebrows back at the seated woman.

“Ah-hah, want to place a small wager on your ability, Chief Bucannan?”

“Make it easy on yourself, Dr. Jorgensen,” she grinned as she walked towards the front door.

“We’ll discuss the terms of the wager when I get my belongings put away,” she jumped up from the sofa and rushed to her bag. Picking it up, she chuckled under her breath. Her father and mother were grandmasters and had taught her to play chess as soon as she could understand the moves. Oh goody, a pigeon! Now just what do I want from you, Fletcher Bucannan? Obviously I can’t have that…well, what’s the second thing I’d like from you? Nah, can’t have that either, so what do I settle for? Hmm, should be a very interesting evening. A rather conspicuous snicker filled the bedroom.

On Fletcher’s second trip, she fastened two sets of skis and snowshoes on the pegged slots on the wall outside the cabin door. As she stepped off the porch, her head snapped to the north at the sound of a howling wolf in the distance. A smile covered her face as she recognized the bark as the big gray wolf that had wandered off the reservation again at the end of the summer. The Park Director rounded the corner of the cabin and listened for another yap. Seconds later she heard a different howl and recognized the big gray’s mate, answering the first call. The prize wolf let out another howl, and was immediately reply by its mate.

“Found a new den, huh boy? You’d better get busy up there, the winter will be hard this year and your mate may not allow for a litter until spring.” The tall ranger chuckled to the distant sounds.

It was close to dark before she settled in front of the roaring fire. A cup of strongly brewed dark coffee sat cooling on her uniformed covered leg. She closed her eyes waiting for the beverage to cool enough to drink. Her mind unconsciously went to the other side of the closed bedroom door, where Finley was singing loudly “Tonight, tonight…I’m winning at chess tonight. Tonight, tonight, I get to choose…”

Fletcher heard the shower curtain being raked back across the rod and chuckled softly at the singing as she raised the cup to her lips.

“Ahhhhhh, son-of-a-biscuit-eater, hellfire and damnation,” shrieked Finley from the tub-shower, plus a dozen or so other words of vulgarity in Swedish, German, and Arabic that Fletcher couldn’t understand.

The piercing shriek was so loud that it startled the park director, causing her hand to shake and coffee spilled all over the front of her pants. Fletcher jumped up swatting at the coffee on her trousers. “Doggone that’s hot,” she sat the cup down on top of a magazine on the coffee table next to the chessboard.

“FLETCHER BUCANNAN, YOU’RE A MEAN, SADISTIC FIEND!”

“What are you talking about, Finley?” The surprised ranger looked over at the doorway to find the young paleontologist standing with her hands planted firmly on her shapely hips. The only covering on her curvaceous body were droplets of water that continued to run down the figure and puddle on the floor.

“Don’t try and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about,” she hissed through clinched teeth.

The taller woman didn’t divert her eyes. Instead a slight curve tried to form on the corner of her mouth but reluctantly, Fletcher fought to keep her face blank. Now that is one, very eye-catching body.

As Fletcher regarded her in continued silence, Finley felt her anger drain and she dropped her hands to her side. She could feel the tall woman’s desire, even if she wasn’t showing it. It was palpable between them. Should she break the spell or continue to stand there? She continued to stand.

“You did tell me there was running water here, didn’t you?" The question was foolish, a way of buying time and remaining completely unclothed before the woman she wanted.

Fletcher fixed her with a cool, unblinking stare.

"Yes, I told you there was indoor facilities here, including running water," Fletcher said at last.

“You deliberately mislead me into believing there was hot water for bathing.” The frown on Finley’s face deepened.

“No, Finley, my exact words were, there is running water here for baths. Perhaps you misunderstood me to some extent, but there is hot water available for baths, just not here inside the cabin.”

They stared at each other for a moment more.

“Not here inside the cabin," Finley retorted smugly.

“There is a hot spring just over behind the rock formation, less than a hundred yards away,” the tall woman nodded her head towards the east. “It means that you’ll get to soak in a natural hot spring water after a long days work in the cave,” shrugged the woman. “Because you’ve been so diplomatic in the latest developments for the site research, I’d meant the hot springs to be a special surprise for you.” Fletcher waited for Finley’s reaction. She received none.

“The large soaking pool will let you enjoy the spring as it comes from Mother Earth...very hot, soothingly warm. If that isn’t appealing, up the way another forty or fifty yards, there is a breathtakingly coldwater spring large enough for you to even swim in.” Fletcher’s thoughts moved quickly.

“Why didn’t you tell me this before I jumped under that ice water?" She asked, her pale blue eyes fixed on the taller woman.

“Hell Finley, no one jumps into a shower without testing the water first,” Fletcher said at last.

“I turned on the hot faucet full open and the cold side only part of a turn. I stuck my foot under the downspout to test the water, but it was so cold that it startled me and I slipped under the shower stream before I could adjust the knobs,” Finley flipped back.

Fletcher continued to look at the now shivering wet body. “Sorry.” Her brow puckered in apologetic manner.

Finley could see that in the most personal of moments were the simple truths. The true irony was that, at the moment she stepped into the shower, she needed the cold water to ease the up-tight tension she had been having. She had truly worked herself up over the thought of winning the un-wagered bet with Fletcher. She hadn’t checked the spray before she stepped into the tub. The simple truth, as much as she disliked admitting it even to herself, was the entire cold shower incident was her fault.

“Okay,” she sighed. “Now, how about showing me this nice, hot, warm pool?” she said in a quiet voice.

“Uh…Uh, I’d be happy to, but you might want to think about some clothes of some sort. Maybe a robe, or a jogging suit,” Fletcher muttered. “Some boots might be best for the snowshoes,” the taller woman said dryly.

“Oh! Okay, give me a minute. I’ll be right back.” Her head was spinning as she looked into that warm vortex of molten brown. Intense and hypnotic energy radiated from Fletcher. She could smell it, feel it scorch her psyche just as it had for the last few weeks. She was almost consumed by it. What’s more, she no longer tried to deny to herself that it was there, or that she had fallen in love.

The Park Director watched as the dripping woman turned and closed the bedroom door gently behind her. Wow, was all that went through her mind as she reached down for the cup.

A brief time later the door opened, and Finley appeared. “I’m taking shampoo. Is that permitted in the hot-springs?”

“The springs has a small runoff, so the soap won’t stay. Don’t forget a towel,” she mentioned as she went to the corner to get her coat.

“Right here,” Finley held up the nap-sack, before she placed it on her back and followed Fletcher out the door.

The walk to the hot springs in knee deep in snow only took only a few minutes. Finley looked around at area and noticed that the rocks blended in with the numerous trees surrounding the area and concealed the natural springs completely. “I’ll have to check this out in the daylight,” she said as she sat down on a flat rock and took off her snowshoes.

“You can see the lights from the cabin,” Fletcher pointed back towards the barely visible dwelling. She leaned against a tree, but didn’t remove her snowshoes. “You won’t have any trouble finding it,” she said, running her hand through her hair. “If you’re in the mood for a warm mineral spring bath, down there about twenty yards, you’ll find one with only a trace of minerals. It flows into the tiny footbath beside that large rock formation there.” She pointed to the south of their current location.

Finley stood up and looked in the direction Fletcher had pointed. “That might be nice after a cold day in the cavern and as a substitute for this place. Golly this is nice. Almost makes up for that cold shower you let me take,” she replied as she stood and continued to disperse with hers coat and gloves.

Fletcher muffled a groan as she looked over at Finley

She was stripping off her clothes. Quickly. Unselfconsciously. With economical yet graceful movements, she pulled her sweatshirt off over her head, skinned her matching pants down over her legs and stepped out of them. Standing first on one foot and then on the other, she peeled off her socks. While Fletcher held her breath, Finley slipped her panties off the curve of her buttocks and slid them down her legs.

Fletcher was trembling, watching her body unwrapped until she stood like a slim marble statue wreathed in mist surrounding the hot springs.

Finley was lovelier than Fletcher had remembered from her experience of a few minutes before in the cabin. With the moon silvering her skin, catching unexpected glints from her shining hair, Finley stood there for a moment. As her gleaming body played peek-a-boo within the shielding shreds of fog floating around her like the veils of an exotic dancer, she reached her arms up and stretched, her breasts lifting high.

Fletcher’s head swam as she watched her, longing to go to her but rendered immobile by a kind of uncertainty that was alien to her. Had her lack of modesty indeed been a subtle invitation to the tall woman? Would Finley welcome the advance or even want it? Could Fletcher protect her and cherish her forever, and make her life complete? But…could she even make such a promise? Fletcher knew she loved her now, she might even love her a year from now-or in fifty years. Fletcher had never loved anyone before, and she just didn’t know.

Did love last? Could it last as long as she would need it to? Could she destroy Finley if she promised her something and then had to break her promise? She had never known anyone with needs as vast as Finley’s, needs she suspected she might never fully understand. The responsibility of it filled Fletcher with awe. Did Finley love her too? She wanted Finley and knew Finley wanted her. But love?

The tall woman stood studying Finley’s face in the silver light. She wanted to tell her how she felt. She wanted to ask her if she loved her. Yet, the answer she might give terrified Fletcher.

She was scared to death. If she had the sense Sky Mother gave a duck, she’d turn and walk away. No, she wouldn’t walk, she’d run away swifter than a wild wolf. Oh, hell. Who was she trying to kid? She’d never walk away from the women she loved when she was lying naked in a warm, secluded hot spring in the middle of a misty night. No woman could walk away under those circumstances. What she should do was walk boldly out of the shadow of the trees. She should kick free of her bindings, stab her snowshoes into the snow beside Finley’s, and strip naked too. She should wade into that pool with her and make love to the smaller woman until she couldn’t think, and then tell her that she loved her and wanted to spend the rest of her life loving her.

So what in the hell was she doing standing cold and alone beside the tree while Finley was warm and just as alone in the pool?

“You’re welcome to come and join me, Fletcher,” she said, with what the tall woman thought was a note of uncertainty in her voice. “Or isn’t that why you continue to stand there?”

Fletcher’s breath left her lungs in a whoosh. “There’s a fiat rock where I left my things,” Finley continued quietly. “It’s damp, but warm there,”

“Oh, hell,” she said softly, not moving from her shadowy spot between the trees. Because, for the first time in her life, there was a woman she didn’t think she could live without. “Oh, hell,” she said again, and with five swift steps Fletcher was at the side of the pool. Finley was only two yards away from her now, and wisps of steam still kept floating between them, hiding her expression.

Fletcher cleared her throat. “If you think you can find your way back, I’ve some paperwork I need to complete.” She felt awkward…Inept, and very vulnerable. She heard her voice shake and despised herself for revealing such weakness.

“Sure.” Finley whispered, trying desperately to read what she saw in Fletcher’s eyes, but the mist prevented that. “No problem, I see the lights. I’ll be fine.” Before she could say anything else, Fletcher had turned and was swooshing through the snow and out of site behind some trees.

“Habina, habina, Fletcher. Love Me, Love Me.” She moaned into the night. “This should have been our laylet hob, my darling, our night of love.” Dammit! That didn’t go well. Her mind had growled as she reached for the shampoo.

Back at the cabin, Fletcher hurriedly removed her clothes and jumped into the cold shower. “Brreeww,” the tall woman shivered and felt some of the emotional tension leave her overly hot wanting body.

“Don’t think I can stand another night seeing her naked and so desirable like that,” she stammered as she turned off the water and quickly dried off. “Ak`sotha would be so ashamed of me.” Fletcher buried her head in the towel and almost cried. “Yes, my grandmother would be so ashamed.” Never had she allowed such unguarded emotion to spill forth. This woman, however, exasperated her beyond reason, which upset her formulated way of life even more. This coupled with the powerful, emotional, feeling of love for Finley had her completely out of touch with her normal focus. “What in the heck do I know about love anyhow? If this is love, it’s too strong for me. I don’t know how to handle it.” She hung the towel over the showerhead and pulled the curtain across the tub.

In the larger room, she put on her pajamas and long tube socks. She reluctantly drug out her brief case and sat down on the sofa to finish a report the park would need the next afternoon. She was still working on the report when Finley returned.

“That was wonderful, and I forgive you for not telling me about it before the cold shower.” She placed her coat on the peg next to Fletcher’s and disappeared into the bedroom, not waiting for a response from the seated woman.

And I was worried…Things are back to normal, Fletcher wrinkled her nose and grinned to herself. Well, as normal as I think they ever will be.

Fletcher heard the coffee pot start to perk and got up to refill her mug. This time she set it carefully down on the old magazine and not on her leg. Again she picked up the paperwork and flipped to the last page that required her signature when a blood-curdling scream from the bedroom caused her to jump so that the table was jogged and the coffee mug tipped over.

“What the hell,” she jumped up, flung the report down on the sofa and ran into the bedroom.

Finley was on top of the bed jumping up and down screaming loudly, “Eeeeeeooooooooo!!!” and flinging her hands every which way, making absolutely no sense with her gyrations or screams.

“What’s wrong, Finley? What’s the matter?” she asked anxiously as Finley continued to jump up and down and scream at the top of her lungs. “Are you hurt? I don’t see any blood, answer me, are you hurt someplace? What’s wrong?”

Finley was pale as a ghost.

Suddenly, the screaming woman jumped from the bed, one foot hit the floor in front of Fletcher and she was out the door. The Park Director was knocked against the doorframe with such force she almost lost her balance. She watched Finley take two huge steps and cleared the back of the couch as if it was only a foot high. Spine-chilling shrieks continued as the light, olive skinned woman jumped up and down on the cushions of the sofa. Pointing at the bedroom, she screech something about “there on the floor” or “it’s big and ugly,” then continued the jumping which turned into what reminded Fletcher of a rain dance.

The Park Director realized Finley was in extreme fear and was completely freaked out by something she was frightened of…but of what, the tall woman was still unclear. Finley was pointing dynamically toward the bedroom floor, so Fletcher turned and scanned the room, first the floor in the bedroom then the bathroom. There was nothing visible to cause such fright.

She went to the couch and pulled Finley down and held her tightly to get her to stop shaking. The smaller woman stopped screaming and started sobbing as she gripped Fletcher in a bear hug.

“Finley, what on earth is wrong? Are you hurt somewhere that I can’t see?” All sorts of dreaded thoughts crowed into her brain. It was obvious that the smaller woman was scared witless.

At that instant, Finley screamed again, and jumped back onto the couch, pointing towards the bedroom and shouting, “RAT! A BIG RAT!”

Fletcher turned instantly prepared to grab her gun and shoot the rodent, but to her surprise, a little bitty mouse stood quietly in the doorway. The Park Director let out a sigh of relief. “Finley, it’s only a little field mouse. It won’t hurt you...” she was cut off by a determined harsh voice.

“IT”S A DAMN RAT! A VICIOUS RODENT,” Finley sat on the back of the sofa and raised her feet to the back as well. Her dark, menacing eyes were fixed on the small mouse with a cold, direct stare. “Fletcher shoot it. I want you to kill that sucker,” her ruthless tone made the tall woman cringe.

“I’m not going to shoot it, Finley. It’s harmless, it probably came in to get out of the cold, or it might even be old Weahan’s pet, for all I know.” She attempted reason with the frightened woman.

“HARMLESS? You say it’s harmless, well just look at this,” she reached down and snatched the tube sock off her foot and stuck it towards Fletcher. “Tell me that’s harmless. One vicious bit on a site and I almost lost my foot. I can get around without the pinkie toe, but I refuse to sleep with a damn rodent again.” Implicit in the piercing gaze of Finley was all the anger and frustration she didn’t bother attempting to keep in check. Her tone indicated she wasn’t repressing a desire to inflict immediate and serious deadly harm on the small mouse. She wanted the tiny rodent dead, and wasn’t going to settle for anything less.

“I’m sorry Finley, I didn’t know about your toe, but that was done by an infected rodent of some kind. This is nothing more than a helpless little field mouse. But settle down, I’ll get it out of here,” she promised as she raised both hands towards the seated woman in a soothing manner. “I’ll take care of it.”

“You need to kill it,” Finley insisted.

Fletcher looked back at the perched woman and sighed, “Trust me.” Guess she is more naïve about some things than I thought. How do I tell her it’s common knowledge that mice don’t operate alone? Where you have one, there will probably be another. The tall woman moved towards the doorway slowly, but apparently not cautiously enough for the little critter turned and disappeared into the bedroom.

“Get it, get it,” Finley shouted incredulously, almost deafening her from her roost on top of the sofa.

The tall woman’s head swiveled towards the perched woman. “All that shouting is only frightening it, and causing it to run for cover.”

“You think I give a shit what frightens that rat, well, think again,” she sneered in a low, impatient voice.

Fletcher shook her head and picked up a flashlight from the shelf above her coat and proceeded to the bedroom.

“Close that door so it won’t get out,” Finley bellowed.

“Sky Mother give me strength,” Fletcher said softly as she eased the bedroom door shut and dropped to her knees. Although the overhead light was on, she switched on the flashlight and began a thorough search of the bedroom. She crawled along the floor with his head nearly on wooden planks. She chuckled to herself as she was getting a mouse-eyed view of the battle zone. She checked under the bed and chest and was sliding her face across the plank floor when she finally uttered, "There you are." Fletcher had found the little mouse’s hiding place under the old dresser in the corner of one of the back triangle footrest. The flashlight beam caught the frightened look of the tiny eyes.

“Come on little fellow, I won’t hurt you,” the ranger slowly stretched her arm and open hand towards the small, alarmed mouse. “All you want is a nice place to live, huh. Maybe someplace without so many noises,” she slowly maneuvered her hand under the rodent. “Well, there were some noises here tonight, right little fellow?” She gradually dragged her arm from under the dresser, cupping her hand slowly as it appeared from under the skirt of the home-made piece of furniture.

“It was too cold in the field or bushes huh? And you thought you’d find a nice warm, quiet place in this old place. Guess you didn’t think about the old woodshed. Now that would have been a much safer place and there wouldn’t have been any noises…well, maybe that’s not entirely correct. The changing temperatures make wood expand and contract and that makes squeaking and creaking sounds not only here in the cabin, but that old woodshed also. There is going to be squeaks and creeks, my little friend,” she cupped her other hand around the small creature to prevent it from jumping and slowly rose to her full height.

“Shoot little guy, there are large trees whose branches scrap across the walls of this cabin and the shed causing scratching sounds. You and I understand those sorts of noises don’t we? But I bet that loud screaming and screeching were noises that you couldn’t easily explain could you? Hey, I didn’t understand the shouting myself.” She slowly slid a long finger over the head of the shaking critter. “There, there, settle down. I won’t harm you. But we have to find you someplace else to live, or the temporary resident of this cabin will want you nailed to a tree, if she has her way.” Fletcher cupped her hand with the mouse to her pajama top and opened the door.

“Got him,” she grinned as she went to the corner and removed her hat from the peg above her coat and placed it on the table. Slowly she lowered the mouse into the hat and placed a magazine over the top.

“Why don’t you just stomp it, then throw it outside?” Finley’s grip on the back of the sofa had turned her knuckles white.

Fletcher looked up and then reached for her coat. “You want blood all over the floor, to smell up the cabin? Best I take it further away from the building,” she finished zipping up her parka and walked over to her boots. After slipping them on and tying one loop around the top, she turned to face the paleontologist. “Sure you’re safe Finley, I’ll take care of it, you’re safe,” her heart went out to the frightened woman.

Through eyes that had narrowed to minuscule slits from the fright of the mouse’s appearance, Finley stared into eyes that was pulling everything inside her into their depths. She felt the air in her lungs being sucked out by the intense inferno that was Fletcher Bucannan. She began to relax. She felt safe. Her eyes opened to their normal size.

“I’ll be right back, okay?” Fletcher’s warm smile spoke volumes to the still perched woman as she carefully picked up her hat. “You might want to consider getting off the back of that sofa while I’m gone,” she said lightheartedly. She wanted to tease the seated woman, but felt it would be too insensitive.

“I’ll get down once that thing is out of here.” The intensity of the moment was clear.

Fletcher nodded and quickly opened the front door and closed it behind her.

“Phew,” she exhaled and slide down the back of the sofa to the cushions.

Fletcher never would tell the smaller woman that she had taken the tiny field mouse to the woodshed and had released it behind a neatly staked pile of wood. Neither would she tell her that mice aren’t loners. Hopefully, this was one of those occasions that there was only one. Damn, I truly hope so, Fletcher thought as she reentered the warm cabin.

“All taken care of,” she chirped as she untied her boots and slipped them off. Next her coat was off and hung on the peg as well as her hat.

Finley was cleaning up the last of the spilt coffee and looked courteously at her benefactor. “Thank you, Fletcher. I know you think that was childish, but I just can’t help it.” She stood, and tossed the wet paper towels into the trashcan.

“No problem, I’m really sorry about your toe, Finley. I should have guessed something was up the way you reacted to that marmot on the trail that first day.” She picked up the report, shoved it back into the briefcase and returned it to the top of her duffle bag. “Thanks for cleaning up my coffee mess,” she said.

“It was the least I could do.”

Their eyes met and remained fixed on each other. Both women felt the heat starting to rise.

“Guess it’s too late to start a game of chess tonight, huh?” Finley broke the stare and settled on the sofa.

“It is getting kinda late, and we’ll both have a full day tomorrow.” She slumped down on one of the kitchen chairs. “Clark will be here around seven to pick up a report and take it back to the park for me, but I’ll be spending the remainder of the day at the site with you. I have several other reports I need to work on and it’ll certainly be quiet enough up there,” she smiled.

“Hmm, may be quiet for you, but I hope you don’t mind my constant humming and sometimes, I burst into song for no reason.” Finley grinned as she drew her feet up under her.

“So I’ve noticed from earlier, but no, it won’t bother me.” Fletcher got up and moved the coffee pot from the direct heat and onto the leaf of the stove. “You want another cup before we turn in?” She pointed to the pot.

“No thanks, I need to go to the bathroom already. I almost wet my pajamas earlier.” Finley focused on the bedroom door instead of Fletcher’s warming eyes.

“I guess it's true then what they say, that when you get really, really scared, you have to pee,” she unconsciously wrinkled her nose and laughed.

“Not sure, but I did have to go, that's for sure,” Finley shrugged.

“You haven’t been to the bathroom yet?” she asked, sitting back down on the chair.

“If you think I’m going into that bathroom…well, you can think again.”

“My god woman, you can’t avoid the bathroom forever. What do you plan on doing, running outside every time you need to go potty?” Fletcher stood up and leaned across the table.

“I know, I know, but I thought you might check the floor one more time before I went back in there.” Finley mumbled, then looked up pitifully at Fletcher.

“Oh for crying out loud,” she shook her head briskly and walked into the bedroom. After carefully looking on the floor in the bedroom she went into the bath. “It’s all clear,” she called from the bathroom.

“Are you sure?” Finley asked as she got up slowly from the sofa.

Fletcher appeared at the bedroom door. “Not another unexpected house guest in sight.” She stepped forward and bowed for Finley to enter.

“Fletcher, please check once more for me. I don’t think I could take another pair of beady eyes raking me over as if I’m its next meal.”

The taller woman exhaled loudly and reentered the room, checking the floor in both areas closely before she returned to the open door. “No uninvited guest. The bathroom is all yours.” She walked passed Finley, who remained standing, with a very undecided expression on her face.

The Park Director went to the front of the couch and moved the coffee table to the side. She stacked the cushions on the floor next to the table and pulled out the hide-a-bed. She looked over to see Finley was still standing in the same spot and hadn’t moved towards the door one inch. “Uh…you want me to go in first, Finley?”

“Would you,” the shorter woman looked pathetically around at Fletcher.

“No problem,” she stopped beside Finley and reached down and took her hand. “Come on, it’s okay, I’m right here with you,” a slow curve of her mouth started to show and she gently pulled rigid woman towards the doorway. She moved in slowly and allowed the paleontologist to look around as they proceeded to the bathroom doorway. “I’m not going in with you, but you can see, it’s all clear.” She released the hand and stepped aside for the smaller woman to enter.

“You want me to wait out here, or is it okay if I go back into the other room?”

“I guess I’ll be okay, thanks for rescuing me again.”

Although she had gone into the bathroom by herself, Fletcher knew from the sound that she hadn’t shut the door. That might have made a quick get away impractical if it had been closed, she muffled a chuckle and she tossed another log on the fire and turned out the lights.

“What are you doing,” Finley asked as she reentered the room.

Fletcher had pulled back the cover of the hid-a-bed and was about to get in. “I’m going to bed.” “

If you think I’m going to sleep in a room with rats, you’re out of your mind, Bucannan.” Finley stood with her hands on her hips.

The Park Director dropped the covers and moved around the sofa. “Okay, I’ll take the bedroom and you can have the hid-a-bed.” “Are you crazy?” She hurled, bringing her hands to her head.

Fletcher stopped. “What? I don’t understand, I’m giving you the hid-a-bed and I’ll sleep in the bedroom. Trust me, Finley, there isn’t any rats in here.”

“Not on your life, Oh Mighty Park Director, I am not sleeping on that sofa bed by myself. What if one of those rodents comes back? If it does, I want someone else’s toes to be available for their snack time, not mine. Think about it Fletcher, you tricked me about the hot water and then the bedroom is infested with rats. I won’t sleep here by myself.” This time, clinched fists rested on her hips.

“Oh, for crying out loud, you can’t be serious...” She looked at Finley closely. “You are serious. You really won’t sleep by yourself.”

“Not until I’m sure there isn’t any more vermin making this its home.”

“Good lord. Okay, go get in.” Her head was still shaking in disbelief as she stepped to the bedroom door and snapped off the light. Upon turning around she saw Finley crawling under the covers on the far side of the bed. The side she had chosen for herself. Oh well, at least she is staying in the cabin. Why I didn’t just set up a tent for her in the snow is beyond me, she thought, but stopped and stood still when another thought occurred to her. She’d be sleeping in the same bed with a woman that she wanted very much. How would that work out? Could she keep her hands to herself? Would she be able to sleep? I sure as hell bet I won’t rest with her so close. Damn, that tent was probably the best idea after all. She slowly crossed the room and sank into the bed.

Fletcher lay there with her hands behind her head and her eyes open. It had been a very trying evening. Emotions had been thrust to their highest peak. She felt drained, and yet, she felt content lying beside the smaller woman. It felt so natural. The ranger couldn’t think of anyplace on earth that she’d rather be than at Finley’s side.

“What was that?” Finley jumped and sat up.

Fletcher joined her. “What was what, Finley? I didn’t hear anything.”

“No, I meant didn’t you see that?” She asked looking over at the soft brown eyes that captured her.

The ranger looked around the room. The logs on the grate crackled and the flames flickered. Other than the dancing light of the burning kindling, Fletcher didn’t see anything out of the ordinary in the room. “Its only the fire, Finley. Lay back down and go to sleep,” she suggested as she lay back on the pillow and placed one arm over her head.

“Guess you’re right,” she looked over at the fire and slowly returned to her pillow. However, her eyes didn’t close, instead she watched the flickering of the warm fire dancing on the ceiling of the cabin.

A few minutes later, she spoke softly. “Fletcher have you ever thought you saw something that wasn’t there?”

The tall woman lowered her arm and pulled the covers up higher on her chest. “What do you mean?”

“You know, the odd games that light plays on your eyes at night that makes you think you saw something in the corner of your eye when there really was nothing there. You know what I’m talking about. You’re sitting in your favorite chair reading and see a shadow move in your extreme peripheral vision. Just enough to make you look but you never really see anything. It’s just your imagination, right?”

“Yeah, I’d say you’re right. Had it happen to me a couple of times, but like you said, it was my imagination and there wasn’t anything there.”

“Un-huh, and all sorts of silly thoughts crowd into your brain.”

“Silly thoughts?”

“Yes, you know…silly thoughts…like the image of large sharp pointed teeth slicing like nothing through my blankets and into my hapless person that danced in my mind. Meanwhile, I was scared senseless when it even started getting dark and it was bedtime.”

“You’re referring to rodents, Finley?”

“Yes,” she turned and faced the larger woman.

I know she’s frightened of rats for good reason, but that little field mouse wouldn’t hurt her at all. How can I put her mind as ease about staying here?

“Once I was released from the hospital and able to walk without assistance or the possibility of the foot becoming infected or inflamed again, I returned to Tibet and the site.” Finley lay her head over on one arm and let out a long sigh. Fletcher reached over and with one finger gently moved a lock of hair off her face and placed it behind her ear and waited for her to finish.

“I’d work such long hours and be so tired that you’d have thought that I’d be exhausted enough to slide under the covers and drop off immediately. However that wasn’t the case and sleep was almost impossible. Every odd movement of the bed sheets over my skin made me jump awake sure it was a set of teeth or claw feet. I laid there in the dark positive I could hear the shuffling of tiny feet scurrying across the canvas floors below my bed. I had a major case of the rodent hysteria!”

“Sounds to me like you had good cause for the heebie-jeebies,” Fletcher placed her hand on Finley cheek and ran a finger down to her chin in a comforting gesture. “Your fear of vermin is understandable, but that little field mouse is nothing like a rat. It might even have become a little pet of yours.” She cooed and offered a grin with the suggestion.

“A pet? I don’t think so.”

“Hey, think about it for a minute…when you come home at night the little fellow will be in the window sill, just jumping up and down waving to you.” Fletcher attempted to stifle her giggles.

“You’re joking,” Finley moved her arm and tapped Fetcher on the forehead with it. “Just what would the vermin be doing that for?”

“Well, let’s see…he might be wanting to see another Indian war dance, or rain dance if that hopping you were doing earlier…or it might be singing to you its favorite song,” she tried to keep a straight face.

“A rain dance? Fletcher you have a very vivid imagination and what would a rodent be singing to me?” She tried to tap Fletchers head again, but the tall woman caught her hand.

“Why, the little fellow would be sing at the top of his lungs…Where’s my dinner….where’s my dinner.”

“Fletcher Bucannan if you think I’m going to share a table with the gaze of two beady little eyes connected to a little rodent body, you’re crazier than a bed-bug.” She reluctantly pulled her fingers loose from the large hand.

“Now, Finley, you have to be nice to house guests.”

“Uck...you say. If you expect me to greet a mouse perched on my table as an honored guest, you have another think coming. That rodent was not the kind you might hug at a major amusement park. Neither was it the cute rat-related kind that shows little resemblance to the cute fuzzy little guys you see on television. Shoot Fletcher, I don’t even think mice in a pet store are cute. Neither is a field or barn rodents cute. And…” she thumped Fletchers forehead, “A mouse sitting on our dinner table is not cute.” She thumped Fletcher’s head once more.

“Not even close, huh?”

“NO.” Finley snuggled down in the bed and pulled up the covers.

“Okay, so if you ever get the feeling you’re being watched by your little friendly house guest, you aren’t going to do a welcome dance?” Fletcher kidded her.

“Most definitely not!” She jerked the covers over her head.

Fletcher scooted over slowly and with two of her fingers, walked across the covers and up onto Finley’s stomach. Finley suspected what she was doing and tried not to move, but the closer the walking fingers got to the other side of her rib cage the harder it was for her to keep still. Finally she burst out giggling and caught Fletchers fingers. “Stop that, you nut.”

“You know, your little pet will squinted his eyes and muttered in his best Terminator style, ‘I’ll be right back’ in a quiet raspy voice then made run get his friends to come see his playmate doing her famous rain dance.” “

Yes, and that’ll be the day he dies,” she swung her body over and straddled Fletcher’s. “"Trust me,” she leaned down over Fletcher’s head and whispered, “Trust me, Chief, that’ll be the day he and his little scrawny friends met their maker.”

Fletcher burst out laughing, then reached up and brushed Finley’s hair from her face. “Okay, okay, so we won’t have open house for your little guests. Now, it’s late so what you say, we try to get a few hours sleep.” It wasn’t a question. She didn’t think she could stand being that close to Finley and not grabbing her and making made passionate love to her, but that wouldn’t be proper…I wish it was appropriate, I want you so much Finley, she let out a slow breath as Finley quickly moved back to her side of the bed and straightened the covers.

Damn, I almost kissed her. Get a grip, Finley, she hasn’t shown the faintest interest in you when you were naked; so don’t make a fool out of yourself for she might reject you again.

A few minutes passed.

“Fletcher?”

“Hmm.”

Finley leaned over and kissed Fletcher’s cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“You’re welcome, Finley.”

The smaller woman sank back on her pillow. A pleasant expression covered her face as she closed her eyes and sank into a deep, restful slumber.

She kissed me. I was only trying to help her let go of some of her fears. She thanked me and…She kissed me. Fletcher beamed a contend smile as a peaceful sleep settled over her.

Sometime during the night, both bodies found the middle of the hid-a-bed with their heads barely touching, but the contact was all the sleeping women needed. It was enough for now.

***

Chapter 12


“Finley, don’t paleontologists do anything besides dig around and mess with bones hour after hour, day after day?” Jamison asked as she sat up from the ledge she had been lying on for the last twenty minutes. Her perch gave her complete a complete view of the cavern. She had been watching the dark-haired scientist methodically measure each part of the skeleton, from different sides of the mound, then jot it down in her little maroon covered book that was always at her side. She noticed the expression on Finley face was of concentration and fascination with what she was doing.

Finley stopped writing and glanced over at the ranger. “All paleontologists aren’t the same, Jamison. Just like all rangers don’t do the same things all the time either.”

“Yeah, but rangers do a lot of different duties, and might have several specialties that they are really qualified to do.”

Finley hesitated in her response, as she didn’t want to belittle what the ranger has said. She fastened her pen to the inside of the book, closed it, and picked up the brush and gently brushed away a few grains of sand from the fossil. When she had completed the brushing to her satisfaction, she replaced the small brush in her tool pouch on the floor next to her notebook and looked over at the rock ledge. The young paleontologist decided it was time for a short break and motioned for the water canteen, which Jamison tossed to her. She drank heavily, re-screwed the top and pitched it back to the seated woman.

She brought her knees up, and crossed her arms on top of them. Her chin rested on top of her folded arms as she responded. “Hewana, paleontologists study fossilized remains of plants and animals that are found underneath the earth's surface. They describe the animals, plants, and environment, as it was millions of years ago. They trace the evolution of plants and animals of long ago. They develop hypotheses about conditions of the environment that it provided organisms with. The scientific data is used in many ways in evaluation conditions and theories of an era that little is actually known about, either scientifically or in reality, except for the exploration of the fossil remains.” Jamison continued to listen to Finley as she scooted back on the ledge and leaned back against the cold wall.

“Just like you rangers, paleontologists work very long and very hard. They work 50 or more hours a week when they are excavating. They usually work 7 days a week, 10 to 14 hours a day, in all kinds of weather and conditions that always the most pleasant or healthy. Belief me when I say that working here is a treat to some projects I’ve been on. When I was on a Tibet site, we had to heat water to pour on the area around a mummy to unfreeze the area enough to chip out the fossil. Even the clay pot and weaved baskets were frozen for hundreds of years and had to be methodically and painstakingly removed from the glazier. I don’t think my fingers or toes unthawed for days after we came down from that ice hole.” Her nose sequenced up in remembrance of the bone chilling cold and the thick ice that covered everything.

“I can vouch for your long hours here, and it corresponds with some of the shifts we rangers have. You’re pretty young to be in-charge of a major project aren’t you?” Jamison drew one leg up on the ledge.

“Not really, Hewana. Remember me telling you I grew up on excavations under my parents command, and was on field expeditions before I was twenty. Yes, I’m younger than the majority of my fellow comrades, but have more time on sites than most paleontologists, even those with years over me,” she grinned as she answered the question.

“I’ve worked my way up through the ranks like anyone else, I just started earlier than most, Jamison. “Paleontologists usually start working as research assistants. As they gain experience on the job, they get more responsibilities. They also get to organize their own research projects and field expeditions. I’m actually the Assistant Research Director at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Although I’m not tenured, I do fill in for Professor Eckersley when he can’t make his classes, which is getting to be more often than I would like.”

“I wasn’t questioning your qualifications, Finley. It’s just you seem so young, and you sure as hell know more than several of those smart asses that were on Dr. Eckersley’s dinosaur dig a few years back. Besides that, you are much better to look at also.” Her leg shot off the ledge and she sat up straight. “Hey, don’t you go telling Tammy I said that.”

Finley used two fingers and ran them over her mouth mimicking a zipper and her lips were sealed.

“You don’t get bored working as a bone hunter?” The ranger chuckled with relief and leaned back against the cavern wall again.

“Some things about being a paleontologist are extremely interesting. You get to work both inside and outside, in all kinds of weather, all over the world. You get to use some neat tools to dig up fossils. Also, you get to work with dinosaur bones that are millions of years old-and,” she grinned, “you get to meet fascinating people like Tammy, Fletcher, Lira, Dr. Bucannan, Ms. Ruth, Burley-oh, and you Squirt.” She tossed a small pebble into Hewana’s lap, who in-turn tossed it back, but it landed in Finley’s hair.

She brushed it off and looked up at the seasoned ranger. “Jamison, I was wondering, and although Dr. Bucannan explained to me about what the medical facility does, and Lira about the research facility, I was wondering about the parks endangered species and treatment program. It seems so expansive and so--”

“Dedicated.” Jamison answered. “Yeah, it is, and only because Fletcher worked so hard to get it established and funded.” She raised her boot upon the ledge again, and loosed the boot strings a little. “The main goal of the parks endangered species and wildlife treatment center, is to return recovered wildlife back into the wild. Capturing and transporting an injured, orphaned, or displaced animal to the center by different rangers accomplish this goal. Then the medical and research staff performing a physical exam to determine its injuries; nursing it back to health through medical treatment, correct diet and housing; conditioning it for release. Finally, a detail of rangers locate and release the animal into a suitable habitat, and keep a close eye on it to make sure its okay and doesn’t come to harm. There are many things to consider before a wild animal can be safely released.” She loosed her other boot string and scooted back, but this time, she lay down on the ledge and propped her head up on her arm.

“At the center, Dr. Bucannan and her staff take action to see the animal is cared for immediately by being warmed, examined for broken bones, eye injuries, parasites, infections and emaciation. Injections and fluids are given, when necessary, and the animal is then isolated in a dark, quiet place to reduce stress. As they improve, they are moved to recovery cages located away from human traffic and noise.”

“Like the hawk that I’ve fed off and on since I’ve been here?”

“Un-huh. Sometimes we get animals or birds that are without parents. Orphan babies often need the warmth and comfort of others of its own species and are often added to litters already being cared for, but first, new arrivals must be checked for diseases, parasites and other problems. Finley sometimes a period of quarantine time is necessary-for a variety of reasons as you might guess. When it has been determined that an animal is physically able to survive in the wild and the weather and other natural conditions are appropriate, the animal is released to the wild.”

“But you don’t just release the animals do you?”

“Nope, that wouldn’t be in the animal’s best interest or in accordance with the parks programs or policy. A group of rangers take the animals to an appropriate habitat, where they have the best possible chance for survival, and released them there. Most of those animals have radio collars placed on them so we can keep surveillance on the creatures and that’s where Lira’s staff gets a lot of their research data from.”

“She showed me some of the research and analysis, and there is so much more to the park then just coming and going hiking. Camping, or skiing.” She shook her head in disbelief. “I would never imagine so much could go on here.” Finley sat up and extended her legs and arms in a long stretching motion.

“Most people don’t have a clue what actually goes on in a park. Like I didn’t have a clue as to all the work paleontologists do on their bone hunts,” she grinned, and stood up. “Finley, most people can’t even conceive of how large this park really is. You know it’s kinda difficult to get them to picture over six million acres.”

“You can say that again. I had no idea myself, even after Dr. Eckersley brought out a map of the state that had the park colored in. Whew, you guys sure have your work cut out maintaining some systematic order in a place this vast.”

“Fletcher has made some huge steps in formulating plans and procedures for the park. If it seems that the park is well run, it’s mainly because of her.” Jamison moved around the cavern several times as she spoke.

“I was reading about the Stern Foundation Endangered Wildlife Program here at the park. By any chance is that former Ambassador Stern from New York?”

“It’s part of the Stern family, mainly Rosalin Stern, the Ambassador’s sister, and Joanna Stern, his daughter. Ms. Rosalin donated over twenty million dollars in her partner name, and matched it with funds in her own name. Joanna Stern, her niece donated another ten million.” Jamison leaned forward and examined the smallest drawing on the cavern wall. “The money was a life saver to thousands of animals that are disappearing rapidly.”

“Hmm, such a worthy program. You said Joanna Stern, is that the famous actress on television and movies? You know who I’m talking about don’t you, that “Crisis Negotiator” show that is the top show of the last four or five years?

“Yep, that’s the one. She comes up here all the time. Even did a movie up on the Canadian side of the park last year and visits the park regularly. She is a down to earth, beautiful woman that loves animals. She assured Fletcher that when those funds were down, she’d not only donate more, but get her colleagues to do the same thing.”

“She is a beautiful and very talented. I went to the opening of her Broadway Musical, and I loved it. The musical had been sold out for months, and my grandmother had to bribe someone she knew to get us tickets for the opening night.” Finley chuckled at the face her grandmother made when she was told the tickets would cost her over three hundred dollars apiece. It was the only thing that the young paleontologist had requested for her birthday months earlier, and was very surprised when her grandmother came through with the front row seats, and gave her a new Bentley to boot. Of course, she realized the car was her grandmother’s way of getting rid of the thirty-year old Jeep she had driven for ages.

“Actually, most of us here at the park have seen it, Finley.” The ranger turned from the drawing. “Joanna donated three hundred tickets to the park for a special Wednesday matinee. We took three buses down for the night and came back the next day.”

“Wow! Three hundred tickets,” she emphasized as she shook her head back in forth in disbelief. “Now that is being very generous.” Finley turned back to the mound. “

Ms. Rosalin and she both are special kind of folks.” The ranger squatted down and looked at the one of the bags Finley had placed beside the mound. “Plaster? Why are you using plaster?” Jamison asked inquisitively as she thumped the bag.

“As we can’t remove these bones to the museum to do extensive research, several cast(s) will be made of the entire skeleton where it lays. It won’t harm any part of the remains and will be invaluable in scientific research. When the study is complete, it will probably be one of the most visited displays in the museum.”

The young ranger stood up. “Yeah, I can see it now,” Jamison spread her hands across the wall like a banner, “Mystery Fossil Causes Stampede In Adirondacks!”

Finley pulled on rubber gloves as she stood up next to the ranger. “There won’t be a sign stating where it was located, only photographs, slides and the video that I’ve shot. It will say, New York, but this is definitely a large state and it will never mention the Adirondacks, Jamison. That’s part of the agreement between the park, the Weahans and the museum.”

“Glad to hear that, Finley. Half the Seneca Nation would be up in arms right now if they even suspected we were going to exploit a burial mound or anyplace considered sacred.” She turned and walked to the overhang entrance. “If this wasn’t being handled as discretely and honorable as it is,” the seasoned ranger turned to face the paleontologist straight on, “I’d be one of the first to be heard on the subject.” Her tone hit home with Finley, who wasn’t about to enter into a discussion or debate of any kind that might cause conflict with the ranger.

“I understand, Jamison and I’ve given my word on honoring the agreement between all parties.” She squatted back down and blew on the skeleton again before she reached for the bucket to mix-up the plaster. The imprint had to be as perfect as she could get it, without any debris if possible. “While you’re moving around, please take a look at that back wall,” she pointed to the small concave niche off to the right of the back wall. “Fletcher pointed it out to me several days ago that it looked unusual, as if perhaps, it wasn’t always deep-set like that. Then again, it might have happened when Fletcher was in that landslide.”

“I noticed that myself when I first entered the overhand.” Although the three battery operated lights illuminated the cavern completely, Jamison rummaged through her backpack and found her flashlight. While examining the alcove she grunted inaudibly several times. Finally she kneeled down and pressed her ear to the stones. After several minutes, she “swooshed” Finley.

“What?” The paleontologist turned questionably and noticed the ranger with her head against the wall, just as Fletcher had several days before.

“Be quiet for a minute, Finley. I can almost hear--” she moved her ear to several places along the darken recess, closed her eyes and listened carefully.

Finley’s breathing slowed and she strained to hear what the seasoned ranger was hearing to no avail. All she heard inside the overhang was the whistling of the wind outside, or a flap on the made shift tarp gently hitting the rocks. A stillness descended, bringing with it a feeling Finley had when she was in underground burial chambers, in one of the deepest digs in one specific tomb several year before. It wasn’t an altogether eerie stillness, but it still made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She closed her eyes and breathed out slowly. She’d had the same feeling on several occasions in the overhand-one of being in a very consecrated, or righteous sitting. Finley couldn’t explain the feeling, but she didn’t think it had anything to do with the skeleton remains. It was almost as if she had a bond of some sort to the area. She recognized the same feeling, the same sort of connection she felt when she was in the underground burial chamber years before. The enchanted woman almost cried out, but forced herself to remain silent and not disturb the sensation she was experiencing.

After several minutes, Jamison sat down in front of the jaggered wall, and ran the flashlight over the entire area several times. Still puzzled, she again leaned against the rocks and listened. Finally, the ranger stood up and backed out of the alcove; shaking her head as she returned to the ledge she had used as a rock bed and sat down. Finley had opened her eyes and was watching the young ranger, especially the baffled expression covering her face.

“Finley, I can track a hare that has hopped under a foot of fresh fallen snow. I can trace the sounds of an animal hundreds of yards away when they crunch leaves or twigs, and my keen ear can recognize an animals wail miles away.” She placed the flashlight back in the pack and sat it on the floor. “I’d be willing to bet that sound coming from the wall is wind whipping against it from the other side. I think it’s an old animal hooch, or a wind tunnel or my name isn’t Hewana Judith Jamison.”

The young ranger retied her boots then stood up. “Will you be alright for a few minutes while I go check out the other side of the trail?” She asked as she took out a radio and changed the signal channel. “I’ve set the radio, which Fletcher explained to you, and if you need me, just call and I’ll be right back.”

Finley didn’t see the need for the precautions, but she wasn’t going to go against Fletcher had set up, or cause problems about anything. Well, maybe sleeping with rats, or mice wouldn’t go over well with her, but she now had a bed-partner and that made it worth the fit she had pitched about the little rodent. “You and Fletcher have this sixth sense or something about things like this, don’t you?” She asked the ranger, who was putting on her uniform coat. “She did the same thing the other day when she was here. Couldn’t find a thing in over an hours search outside.”

“Fletcher is a good tracker and I’ll give her due credit, but I’m better,” a lopsided grin came upon her face. “Guess I inherited the instincts from my dad. There has to be another entrance on the other side of that wall. Maybe only an old abandoned fox hole, or smaller, but I could hear the wind, and I aim to find out for sure.” Jamison tugged on her hat and tied the ear- flaps in place. “If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn I heard water running off in the distance,” she said as she finished with the hat, and placed the spare radio in her belt holster. “I’ll check in with you in a few minutes, but don’t leave this place until I return, and--” she picked up the rifle Fletcher had insisted she bring, and laid it beside Finley, “I hear you know how to use this?” She pulled out her pistol and spun the cylinder before she replaced in her hip holster and re-snapped the safety strap over the hammer.

“Yes, I know how to use it,” she picked up the Winchester and laid it over on the other side of her out of the way of the plaster she was mixing.

“I know you feel this isn’t necessary, Finley, but Fletcher has her reasons, and I’d never go against her intuition or decisions.” She opened the flap and nodded to the seated paleontologist. “I’ll be back shortly.”

“She is usually right most of the time so I hear, so I suppose the carbine is another of her safety precautions,” Finley said to the empty opening, and shook a little at the cold air that had entered the cavern when Jamison left. She rubbed her sleeves of her turtleneck pullover, and got up and moved the heater closer to the mound so the plaster would set up properly instead of freezing.

Fifteen minutes later, the radio went off, causing her to jump. “Finley, you there, come back?” Jamison squawked loudly on the radio sitting to the right of the Winchester. “Jamison you sneak, you turned that volume control up on high just to scare the daylights out of me,” she laughed as she scrambled to pick up the radio.

“I’m here ranger, bet your butt is cold out there in those snow drifts,” she purred into the radio.

“You bet your sweet ti-you are right again, Oh Great Bone Hunter. I’m going to check out the lower side of the ridge now. Check back with you in thirty.”

“Roger that Jamison. Guess I’m wasting my breath to tell you to be careful?” she spoke into the radio.

“Nah, but I’m always careful.” Jamison chuckled and released the call button. She shoved the radio back into its leather pouch and snapped the strap over the instrument before she looked down the ravine.

The ranger quickly turned to the distant sound of a snap of a branch she heard up wind from her. She stood motionless for several minutes, listening. Another snap and she changed her mind about going down the gulch, and headed in the direction of the breaking twigs. Might be an animal, but it didn’t sound like one. I’d best go check it out, she thought as she cautiously and almost silently moved closer to the ridge, making sure she kept herself concealed along the crest line. After all, she was the second best tracker in the country, or so she’d been told. The only one that could track better than the talented young ranger was also named Jamison-Joseph, her father.

***

Jamison gazed at the ridge above the tether rope each time they brought up a crated cast to take back to the cabin. Her keen sense of hearing was glued to the upper summit, and each sound was scrutinized. She had that uneasy feeling, which meant something wasn’t quite right, but each search of the ridge with her binoculars hadn’t shown anything out of the ordinary. Yet, the young ranger’s instincts caused her to hurry Finley up and down the rope and stacked the boxes securely on the sled behind the snowmobile. She wanted to get the cargo, including Finley back to Weahan’s cabin safely before anything happened, and she had the nagging feeling that something was about to come down, and the young ranger didn’t like the feeling.

“Come on Finley,” she looked towards the ridge crest once more. “I’ve checked the ropes three times now, so get on and let us get moving. You see that cloud formation,” she pointed to the distant sky, “It’s going to start snowing again and probably before we get back to the cabin.”

Finley noticed how antsy the ranger was and took a look at the formation. She didn’t know what she was looking at, but her assigned ranger had called it right off and on for almost two weeks, and she didn’t want the boxes to get wet, even though she had placed a tarp over them and tied it down securely with Jamison help. “Keep your boots on Jamison, I’m ready,” she said, throwing her leg over the back of the snowmobile and sitting down behind the young ranger. She placed her arms around Jamison’s waist and leaned into her back slightly. “I’m ready,” she spoke as Jamison turned the throttle a little and the sled moved slowly forward.

Although they had to go down the mountain differently from the trail because of the snowmobile, they were back at the cabin within ten minutes.

“Fletcher’s here already,” Jamison turned and yelled to Finley.

“How can you tell,” Finley asked, trying to see the cabin, which was still out of sight.

“Smokes coming from the chimney,” she pointed to the trees to the right.

Finley looked in the direction the ranger was pointing and chuckled, for she had been looking in the opposite direction for sight of the cabin. “I haven’t gotten use to this new trail yet,” she spoke into the young ranger’s ear.

“I took a different way back this afternoon, Finley. You’ve never been this way before,” Jamison explained.

The paleontologist eyes, looked quizzically at the trail behind them, then to the direction she had seen the smoke. “At least the cabin will be warm,” she said as the cold frosted her breath.

Jamison made a half circle around the cabin to make sure that it was Fletcher at the cabin and not some stranger. Upon seen the park directors’ SUV beside hers, she made a beeline for the covered porch.

Fletcher was standing on the stoop as they pulled up. She glazed at the direction from which the snowmobile had come and one eyebrow rose questionably at Jamison.

“We’ll talk later, when I help you get the generator filled for the night,” Jamison stated, and motioned for her to help Finley off the back of the craft. Fletcher acknowledged her trusted ranger’s comment with a nod of her head, even though she had been at the cabin for over an hour and had filled the generator shortly after she had arrived.

“Looks like you two have been busy today,” she smiled at Finley, whose gloved hand she had taken, and nodded to the laden sled.

“She’s a tyrant, and a slave driver, Chief, and I deserve extra pay.” Jamison kidded as she un-strapped one side of the tarped sled and threw the rope to Fletcher.

“You aren’t being fair, Jamison. You only helped carry the boxes up to the sled-Well, you did help me put them into the crates.” The smaller woman attempted to dispute the titles she’d been given.

“See, even she admits she worked me like a dog,” the ranger chuckled as she lifted one of the boxes and took it into the cabin, followed closely behind by Fletcher with another one.

Outside Finley was mumbling about not being true and spoke loudly as she entered the door with one of the smaller boxes. “Don’t believe her Fletcher, not a word of truth to it-heck, she even went for one of her strolls for the longest time, and left me to fend for myself.” Finley sat the box down beside the others and looked up at Fletcher who was giving Jamison an evil eye if she ever saw one. “Just kidding-just kidding, don’t get your uniform all out of sorts, Chief, she left me the Winchester.” The paleontologist wasn’t sure she had relieved any of the concern she had seen in the park director’s eyes moments before.

“Come on, help me get the rest of the boxes in, and get the generator serviced, I’d like to be back down the mountain before it starts to sno--” she stepped through the open door and didn’t complete her sentence as the flakes had started, and were drifting down.

“Looks like you’ll hit a good one by the time you get home,” Fletcher said, as she looked towards the north. “Suppose to snow all night, so as soon as we get these things inside you’d better take off for home.”

“Chief?” Jamison spoke.

“I’ll walk you to your truck Hewana; need you to pick up something for me as you go by my house.” She winked at the young ranger and picked up a large box and took it inside. Jamison followed her and sat another box down on top of the pile. Several more trips for all three of them and the sled was unloaded and the containers were stacked safely on the wall closest to the door.

“See you tomorrow, Finley. Burley promised she’d send you a thermos full of her stew and half a pie for dinner,” she chuckled as she re-zipped her coat and waved.

“See you tomorrow, Hewana, and don’t you dare eat any of my pie before you get here,” she called good-naturedly after the departing ranger.

“Nag, nag, nag. I bring the goodies and she nags about me sampling them,” the ranger jokingly jostled with paleontologist as she waved again from the open door.

“I’ll be right back, Finley.” Fletcher smiled and closed the cabin door as she went out and quickly jogged to where the Jamison was standing waiting for her.

“I found tracks up on the upper ridge today.” Jamison said at Fletcher stopped beside her. “Someone had been standing there for a couple of hours. There was trampled snow and underbrush. I even heard a couple of branches snap, so I went to check it out. Looks like the party was hopping up and down to keep warm.” She opened the door to her park jeep.

Fletcher looked off in the direction the ranger had returned to the cabin, and back to the trail beside the cabin that went up to the site.

“I took a different trail back; didn’t know if there was more than one person watching us.” She slid into the jeep, and put her keys in the ignition. “Chief, you can partially see the overhang from where the guy was standing. By the way the snow was packed, I’d venture to say he’s been watching what he could see of the overhang for several days. I was careful to cover my tracks when I left, so he wouldn’t know I’d found his lair.”

“Good girl, Hewana. You hear anything besides the broken twigs?”

“If you mean a snowmobile, snow-runner, or scooter no. But the tracks had on snowshoes when they left the burrow. He stuck them in the snow next to the tree where he sat for most of the time.”

“Did you track him, Jamison?”

“For a piece; he tried to cover his tracks by pulling a brush behind him, but he wasn’t really good at it. However, I did conceal mine on the way to the top of the second ridge and back down the far side. I didn’t want him to know he’d been discovered.” She unzipped her jacket and pulled out her handkerchief from her inside coat pocket. “I did find quite a few of these up at his stomped-out lair. I took one, but left the others just in case he might notice them all being gone.” Jamison handed the handkerchief to Fletcher, who carefully unfolded it.

“A chewed up cigar. Not lit, just chewed to the nub.” Her eyes shifted back and forth as if to think. “Were any of them lit?”

“Nope, just chewed down like that. You know, someone that likes the taste of tobacco, but won’t light up one, or didn’t want the smoke to give him away.”

“You touch this with your fingers?” Fletcher asked, wrapping the butt back in the green uniform handkerchief.

“Are you nuts, Chief. Tammy would smell that on me and have a fit. No, I picked it up with two twigs and made sure I didn’t touch it.”

“Hewana, you are the best tracker I know. Thanks for taking care of Finley today. I don’t know what this is about, but it doesn’t smell right.”

“You got that right, Fletcher. Something stinks and it isn’t Mother Earth, or the Snow Angels, either.”

“Take this back to the office with you, and place it in a plastic seal-lock bag. Tape the handkerchief over the bag and put it in my center desk drawer, okay?” She handed the folded handkerchief back to Jamison.

“Consider it done.” Jamison placed the small package back inside her coat pocket and zipped it up. “Fletcher, you be extra careful out here, I don’t like this one bit. Something isn’t right,” she said as she patted her supervisor’s gloved hand resting on the door. “Not to change the subject, but I think the cavern has a sealed up area, where Finley showed me you pointed out to her. I heard the wind, and I’m sure water, but I searched up and down the ridge for several hundred yards and couldn’t find anything. I was on my way to look around the falls, when I heard the branch snap up the ridge behind me.”

“Yeah, the stones, even though someone went to a lot of trouble to make them look the same, didn’t quite get enough of that type granite to seal it up. Only Sky Mother knows what’s behind there, and I don’t plan on finding out, so keep this between us.”

“Too late, I told Finley, I thought it was a wind tunnel, or an old animal burrow, but I don’t think she realizes it didn’t get there by itself.”

The snow was falling faster now. Fletcher rose up, and closed the door to the jeep. “Drive carefully, Jamison.” She waved as the motor roared and Jamison backed the partially covered jeep into the clearing and drove carefully down the winding snow covered road.

Turning to face the cabin, she raised her gloved hand and squeezed the back of her neck, trying to release some of the tension and knots, but was unsuccessful. She scanned the area in all directions for anything out of the ordinary, and sniffed the air, but could only smell the burning fireplace and smoke from the wood-burning stove.

“I don’t like it,” she said after scanning the area one more time, then going to her SUV, she removed the rifle from behind the front seat and box of cartridges from the center console and placed the box in her jacket pocket. Just to be sure, and for extra protection, she reasoned as she stopped to cover the snowmobile with the tarp and place several pieces of firewood on top to keep it from blowing off. The tall woman stepped off the porch and a few feet behind the cabin to get a clear view of the region. Her eyes intently scanned the area north of the cabin. Sensing no presence other than her own, she slowly retreated to the front of the building. As Fletcher opened the door, she forced her solemn expression to change, and a happier one appeared as she stepped into the small cabin and closed the door.

“From the looks of the boxes, I’m assuming you have all the casts of the bones you need?” Fletcher asked casually.

“I made extra ones, in case something happens to one of them, and we don’t get the opportunity to visit the site again. In the two weeks we have been here Fletcher, I’m done so much with the discovery. I would give almost anything to be able to take one sample of the bones so tests can be run.” She looked pleading at the tall woman. “Don’t get upset with me,” she said standing in front of the roaring fire. “I know it can’t be, so I’ve attempted to recreate the form in major detail with the cast, drawings, photographs, and the clay molds I did last week. Today finished the plaster-of-Paris casts I felt necessary.”

Fletcher placed the rifle in the corner of the cabin. She removed her coat and hung it on the wooden peg to the right of the standing gun and turned to face the paleontologist.

“It will have to be enough, Finley. I won’t allow more than what was agreed upon, please don’t make it more difficult than it already is on the both of us.” She declared to the younger woman and settled on the sofa.

“I won’t, I just was hoping that a slim chance of--”

“Finley, please don’t.” Fletcher interrupted her before she could finish her statement, as she arose and went to the coffee pot bubbling on the wood stove. “Hey, you must have made some impression on Burley, because she sent you five or six dishes of food for dinner. It’s in the oven, and I was told, ‘no sampling, no holding anything aside, it’s all for the lovely Finley to share at her pleasure.’ So if you will set the table with plates and utensils, oh, yeah, you need to set out a couple of bowls too.” She turned and went to the sink and washed her hands.

Finley stood there, warming her hands at the open fire. She was still amazed how quickly Fletcher had changed the subject, and had maneuvered food into the conversation to distract her from the site.

“Well?” Fletcher said brusquely when the silence lengthened and she tossed the towel back on the sink. Finley was still standing in front of the fire with a far away expression on her face.

Finley’s eyebrows went up. “I beg your pardon?”

“So help me,” Fletcher said in a pleasant conversational tone, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you didn’t hear a word I said about FOOD!” The tall woman puckered her lips and said F O O D again.

Finley’s sudden grin showed that she realized Fletcher was talking about a hot meal. “Goodness, I didn’t realize I was so hungry. You say Burley sent me some special dishes?” She quickly went to the cupboard, swooped up two plates, and mixed-matched bowls and sat them on the wooden table.

“You’ll be better after some dinner. I promise you,” Fletcher said, and used the potholders to remove the aluminum covered pans from the hot oven and sat them on top of the wood stove.

“What you got there?” Finley looked over her shoulder as she unwrapped two of the containers.

“I’d say we have a royal treat. I tell you Finley, Burley has really found a home at the park. She is one great cook, and the personnel go out of their way to make sure no one upsets her, or makes any negative comments.”

Finley quickly retrieved the bowls from the table and handed them to Fletcher.

“Goodness that smells wonderful,” she took the first bowl from the park director and sat in on the table. “You want coffee or lemonade with your dinner?” she asked as she took a mug from the shelf above the sink.

“I’ll have coffee. But be warned, I made the coffee, not Burley.” She snickered as she sat her bowl on the table.

“Mummy, this is wonderful,” the smaller woman sipped the soup. The consommé was a good indication that Burley’s was a real marvel in the kitchen; it was still piping hot from an old-fashioned tureen and was thick with vegetables in a subtly flavored but heady beef stock. Tiny herb dumplings bobbed on top to add the final savory touch.

“And the woman said she couldn’t cook fancy food,” Fletcher helped herself to another bowl of the flavorful broth.

By the time Fletcher was halfway through the first course, she knew the park had a real treasure with the new cook and the ninety-day probation period wouldn’t even be considered. Burley had a job for as long as she wanted it.

After the soup, Fletcher brought a heaping platter of fried chicken accompanied by baking power biscuits that were light and flaky. Containers of amber flavored honey were placed alongside. Mashed potatoes and country gravy were piled high in another container, plus fresh garden peas swimming in butter.

Fletcher wasn’t surprised that most of their conversation stopped when the soup was set on the table. After that, there were only a few crucial decisions such as, who deserved the last piece of chicken and whether to risk a fourth biscuit just before the pie was removed from its warm perch on the back of the stove.

When it was time for dessert, Finley could barley contain herself as Fletcher offered her a hefty slice of wild raspberry pie still warm.

“Sorry Finley, no ice cream for the top,” the park director sat the cracked saucer in front of the paleontologist.

Finley appeared as captivated by the food as Fletcher. “I have no intention of leaving a thing, and who needs ice cream with this,” she told Fletcher almost defiantly when the first piece of pie appeared. “Probably I’II be dieting for the rest of the month to make up for it.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Fletcher replied, “your vital statistics don’t matter a damn to the people who love you, and besides that, you could use a little fattening up.”

Finley kept her eyes on her pie as she thought about Fletcher’s comment. It had been offered in an offhand, almost sisterly manner, she decided. Either that, or her relationship with the woman at her side was secure enough that it wasn’t necessary for her to bother with social pleasantries. She found that thought so cheerful that it was a relief to concentrate on food to the exclusion of anything else. Whether you meant it or not Fletcher, you did say the L word, Finley smiled and spooned another bite of pie into her mouth.

Later Fletcher expressed the general sentiments of her dining companion when she finished her dessert and said over a fresh cup of coffee, “If I ate any more, I’d have to be carried over to the couch.”

“I may have to, anyhow,” Finley said, pushing her empty plate forward and picked up her coffee. “I’m stuffed,” she moaned contentedly.

The sipped their coffee in relative silence, except for the wind, which picked up and whipped around the cabin. The shutters rattled a little and a gust of the wind brought some snow down on the logs, making a sizzling sound.

“We’re suppose to get four inches of snow tonight, Finley. I think I’d better stay here tomorrow instead of having Jamison make the trip.”

“We will be able to get back to the cavern tomorrow won’t we?”

“Probably, but don’t plan on staying all day. We may get several feet of drifting snow on the trail, and it will be slow going. Do you have something specific that you need to get done tomorrow?”

“Need to work on more of the geological data.” Finley stated, as she sipped her coffee.

“You have degrees in geology too, don’t you Finley?”

“Yes, geology and paleontology go hand in hand. Documentation is the single most important aspect of responsible fossil collecting. A well-documented fragment of weathered bone may have far more scientific value than a perfectly preserved fossil skull without documentation-or what is called ‘a no-data specimen’. Good documentation of a fossil involves recording in a field notebook, on a map, and on the specimen, or on the casts, photographs and drawings in our case here, and various information about the data collection process-basically everything that was involved in recording the discovery.” She set the cup down and rubbed her stomach and let out a pitiful moan.

Fletcher muffled a chuckle at the younger woman’s discomfort. She had wanted to groan herself, but didn’t want to let on that she had made a glutton of herself. Instead she stood up and stretched to relieve some of the discomfort she was feeling. “You want a refill,” she pointed to the empty cup in front of Finley.

“No thanks, if I drink another swallow-well, make it a half cup while you’re up. I don’t think I can get it for us.” She grinned and held the cup up to the tall woman.

“Excuse my interruption,” she said as she placed the half full cup in front of the paleontologist and sat back down, “you were explaining the importance of data.”

“Well, this data can be divided into three general categories: specimen information, geographic location, and geology. The documentation of all three aspects of a fossil find is extremely important.” Finley sipped the coffee slowly.

“Fletcher, documentation verification is vital for a scientific discovery like this, for very good reasons. There is a very important distinction because the scientific value of any fossil is determined by information occurring with it in-situ, or ‘in the ground.’ Other fossils that may be found nearby can tell us about ancient animal communities and climate; the sediments can tell us the age of the deposit, how it was formed and how the fossils accumulated; the positions of the fossils and their relationships to one another can tell us a great deal about ancient stream courses or what may have happened to the bones after the animal's death. Regardless of what we are led to believe by the movies, paleontology is a science built upon the painstaking collection and interpretation of data, not simply fossils.”

“Why is the geology so important?” She twisted her cup around and around, but didn’t lift it. She didn’t want the coffee, but she was enjoying Finley’s warm voice and didn’t want her to stop.

“An outcrop may expose a section of rocks several hundred feet thick and there may be several geological formations, or rock units represented. Exactly where the fossil comes from within this column of rock is very important. The layers of rock represent time, and when an animal lived, or died is critical to our understanding of the sequence of events in the history of life. The best way to record the fossil's stratigraphic occurrence is to draw a detailed cross section of the rocks exposed in the area and mark on the drawing the level from which the fossil came. To make an accurate section drawing requires much training in geology.” She took another sip of the coffee, even though she didn’t want it. Being close to Fletcher made her feel warm and comfortable inside, and if drinking coffee was required to be close to her, then she’d drink the strong brew, wanting it or not.

“Weathering profile, meaning does the rock form gentle slopes or vertical ledges, grain size-that’s whether its fine like silt or coarse like gravel, the color--many rocks range from "greenish" to "reddish" and bedding, which is ‘shaley’, cross-bedded, or massive are all suitable features to be noted on about the section. We also rely on common-sense observations and descriptions and well-labeled rock or sediment samples. We measure the section as we draw it using a simple hand level to divide the outcrop into eye-height intervals. That is what I’ll be doing tomorrow, and your help with some of the measurements will make the compilations go much faster.”

“I’ll help any way I can,” she said warmly. “Finley, there is something I need to discuss with you.” Fletcher leaned back in her chair and bit her lip.

Warm blue eyes stared at the dark-headed woman questionably.

“I don’t mean to worry you, but you should know that there is a possibility that there may be some danger involved--”

“What are you talking about Fletcher,” she interrupted, and sat up straight in her chair, “what kind of danger?”

“There have been a couple of incidents that occurred that may have been deliberate. The leak in the brake line on my SUV was intentionally. There were two holes punched in the tubing.”

“WHAT?” She stood up so quickly the chair tipped over behind her.

“Settle down, Finley,” Fletcher stood and rounded the table and took a firm hold of Finley’s shoulders. “I don’t think it has anything to do with you or the site. I think it was meant for me.”

“Oh god no!” Finley stepped forward and encircled Fletcher waist in a tight hug. “Who would do such a thing?” She buried her head in the taller woman’s chest. Fletcher could feel her trembling and hugged the smaller body closer to her in a protective embrace.

“I don’t know, Finley. I just don’t know.” She breathed into the sweet smelling hair, and let out a slow sigh.

Finley felt a protective rush as she raised her head slowly and looked into very caring eyes. “That’s most of the reason for the rifle inside the cavern isn’t it?”

Fletcher didn’t’ release her hold on the smaller woman, and attempted to reassure her with her eyes that she was there and would protect her no matter what. Before she could say more, Finley backed up a step.

“There’s more isn’t there? I can tell by the way your heart is beating, and that look in your eyes.”

The park director nodded her head, frowning. “A few weeks back on a return trip from upstate to see old Weahan, someone took a pot shot at me and blew out a tire. I almost ran off the highway into a ravine.”

“Oh, Merciful Saints, No!” The frightened paleontologist threw herself back into Fletchers caring arms and hugged her more tightly than before. “You could have been killed.” This can’t be happening. I can’t loose you now that I found you and know you’re my spiral of endless love. Oh, Fletcher, you’re my soulmate, my hearts companion-I just can’t lose you now. Not now! Those thoughts were momentarily pushed aside as another more dreadful thought came. She lifted her eyes and saw what she feared in Fletcher’s. There was more, and it concerned her. “Fletcher?”

“When Jamison was out scouting around earlier today, she heard something up the ridge. She carefully made her way up the crest--” Fletcher didn’t want to alarm Finley, and was fairly certain that she, and not the paleontologist was the intended target. However, she didn’t’ want to take a chance of anything happening to the young woman. She has become…She means more to me than life itself. I don’t want her in harm’s way.

“Fletcher?”

“Someone has been watching the overhang, apparently for several days.”

“What? Why?” Finley cried out.

“Again, I don’t know Finley. Jamison tracked the stalker’s trail, which had been somewhat concealed for over a mile, and turned back because she didn’t want you to be alone. We don’t have a clue as to the reason or purpose, or the intent of the surveillance, but I don’t want to take any more chances than absolutely necessary. So, I’m going to have to ask you to do as much tomorrow as possible, then we’ll wait a few days while I have the rangers to scour the area to see what they can find.”

“If you feel that we shouldn’t-what if something happens to the site?” She exclaimed, “We need those specs, Fletcher. They are so important, and necessary for the geological data.”

“I realize that from what you said earlier, and that’s the reason I ask you to do as much as possible tomorrow, Finley. You have to trust me on this. I can’t explain, it but-We’ll be shutting down for a few days after tomorrow.” She removed her arms from around Finley, stepped back and attempted a smile.

Finley looked startled for a brief moment, then regained her composure. “What ever you think is necessary, Fletcher.” She turned and went to the sofa and slumped down. “This is so ludicrous. Why would anyone want to harm you?” She looked over at Fletcher. “Or me? Maybe it has to do with what’s in the overhang and nothing to do with us at all.”

Fletcher shook her head. A frown formed a line between her brows. “Uh-- Maybe.”

“But you don’t’ think it does?” She pressed.

Looking at Finley now, in this setting, she had to remember not to overly alarm the young woman, but to reassure her. I will do my best to keep anything from happening to you Finley. I need you in my life, and I won’t let anything take you from me now. Not now, not ever.

She crossed her arms, and a spark of the old stubborn Finley showed. “Fletcher Bucannan, I know you’d love to shield me from this ugliness, but I need to be familiar with everything that affects me--us-the site. You don’t need to keep me in the dark if you have suspicions, then tell me.” Her blood pressure began to simmer.

Fletcher shrugged.

“Well…”

“Short of making a guess, I’m not sure about anything, Finley.” She cleared her throat. “It’s possible the site could be-No! I really think someone is out to get me, but I don’t want you in harm’s way. You and the site are my responsibility and--”

“Fletcher, you aren’t very good at hiding some things.”

“I’m not?” Fletcher regarded her seriously. I thought I hid my feelings about you pretty well. A ripple of cold apprehension climbed her spine. Fletcher cleared her throat again and passed her tongue over her lips. “Guess I’m not as good as I thought, huh?”

“No, you aren’t.” Finley shook her head, and the distant, troubled look was back. “Please talk to me.”

“Call it instinct, call it my sixth sense, call it whatever, I just know something isn’t right. Not only up here, but-“ she hesitated. “But I’ve had an unusual, but strange sense of being watched wherever I go for over a month now. Can’t put my finger on it, but I can feel someone’s anger, someone’s presence off in the distance, waiting-just waiting. Something is amiss and I aim to get to the bottom of this before someone is hurt.” She ran her long fingers through her hair, and went towards the corner and her coat.

Finley flinched, then felt her body start to tremble again as she closed her eyes. Fletcher really felt danger for her--for them. Even Jamison has been acting a little weird, she thought.. She looked up sharply into amazingly brilliant dark eyes. “What?-Where are you going?” She sat forward.

Fletcher had put her coat on and picked up the rifle and was standing in front of the seated woman. “Here, take this-just in case.” She handed her the carbine and the box of shells from her pocket. “I need to go check the generator before we turn in. I don’t want you to worry, just being cautious.” She pointed to the Winchester, and zipped up her parka. While she was standing near the corner, she had removed her pistol from the belt on the peg next to her coat and slid the weapon into the parka pocket without Finley being aware of her action.

“You might want to come put the bolt in place until I can get back.” She smiled as she reached for the door.

Finley jumped up, but laid the Winchester and box of shells on the sofa. “You won’t be gone long will you?” She asked, just as Fletcher opened the door.

“About fifteen minutes, maybe less.” She leaned back in as she flipped up her hood. “Don’t worry, I don’t feel anything right now. Besides it’d take a nut to be out in weather like this.” She attempted a half smile.

Finley’s eyes arched. “And you’re going out in it-okay, Miss Nut, but call out when you get back because this door stays bolted until you do.”

Fletcher winked and disappeared.

“Damn. This just doesn’t make any sense.” Finley searched her overcrowded brain for an answer as she slipped the security bolt into place. After several minutes of thinking, she couldn’t’ come up with a logical explanation of what was going on. “It makes no sense; there has to be a reason, but what?” She spoke to the empty room as she turned towards the table. “Guess I’ll clean up the table and dishes while she’s gone.”

Outside, Fletcher attempted to scan the area but couldn’t see more than fifteen feet because of the thick, falling snow. She kicked the snowdrift from the door of her vehicle and slid behind the steering wheel. She turned on the radiophone and dialed the main number. After giving the ranger on night duty several directives and telling him to notify Jamison to report to duty at the main office tomorrow, she called her mother to let her know where she would be, in case she needed her.

The side-shed door didn’t have snowdrifts yet, and after unlocking the padlock, she entered the enclosure with little effort. It only took a couple of minutes to top off the tank of the generator before Fletcher was back out in the falling snow again. The snow had drifted and was banking on the north side of the cabin as Fletcher made her way to the front and banged on the door for Finley to let her in.

“You’re covered with snow. Here let me have your parka and you go warm by the fire.” Finley slid the bolt back in place and helped her off with the coat and shook it. “This has ice on it, Fletcher.” She exclaimed before she hung it back on the peg in the corner.

“Thanks. Yes, it’s sleeting with the snow,” she rubbed her sleeves rapidly and went to the hearth, and kicked her boots on the grate. “It’s colder than I though, and it’s coming down harder than I had thought, Finley. If it keeps up like this, it’ll make tomorrow very difficult.”

“Perhaps it will slow down, or even stop, before morning. Here, I poured you a cup of coffee,” she handed the hot mug to Fletcher.

“Thanks, I need this,” she took the cup and wrapped both hands around the warm mug. “We’ll just have to wait until morning, but don’t get your hopes up, Finley. I’ve seen storms like this before. Once it’s mixed with ice, it can be very treacherous, even with snowmobiles.” She looked at the eager young woman. “Hey, with a bit of luck it might even change before midnight,” Fletcher said, hoping to soothe Finley’s anxiety. Fletcher smiled at her and forced a lively light back into her eyes. “It’ll be okay, we’ll give it a try.”

“I hope so.” Finley smiled back at her and, as usual, the glint in her eyes, the glimpse of very white teeth catching at her lower lip, warmed Fletcher much more than the hot coffee she was drinking.

Fletcher gave her a level look. “Do you ever take ‘no’ for an answer, Finley.”

“Practically never. Don’t have much of a choice on this one, now do I?”

“We had a rather difficult beginning, Finley, but we weathered that storm, and we’ll weather this one too.” She admitted with a wry smile.

“That was bad enough, Fletcher, now we have this other, perhaps more serious problem.” Finley walked to the closed window above the sink, and sat her cup down on the small drain. “Some nut out there is trying to kill you,” Finley murmured without thinking.

Fletcher’s eyebrows drew together. “I won’t let anything happen to you, Finley.”

The dark-haired woman turned, “I wasn’t worried about me,” Finley said hastily, with no thought of the concerned pitch of her voice.

Her tone was so different than normal that Fletcher shot her an incredulous look before she managed a gentle, “Thank you for caring, Finley. It’s been a long time since anyone gave my well-being a second thought.”

Finley’s expression was attentive as she considered Fletcher’s heightened color. She blushes. The paleontologist brightened as she thought about it. She’s not the only one. If the light was better, she’d see just how much I do care for her. There was silence for several minutes. Neither wanted to break the mutual feeling that was passing between them.

Finally, Fletcher shifted her stance and stepped away from the fireplace. Her smile widened. “Well, I’ve had my quota of getting chilled to the bone for today. I suggest we turn in.” She placed her cup on the drain next to Finley’s. She momentarily closed her eyes and allowed the smell of the sweet smelling perfume the smaller woman was wearing to make its way up her nostrils. Deep within she felt a rush of desire, but wasn’t sure if it was Finley’s scent or her closeness, or both. She turned and walked towards her bag next to the bedroom door. “You are welcome to the bathroom first. I took a long hot shower when I went by to pack a bag.”

Finley’s heart was beating so hard from Fletcher’s closeness she could hardly hear her over the thumping in her chest and temples.

“Finley.” Fletcher said gently as she looked up from the bag she had just unzipped.

“Excuse me, what did you say?” Her voice was uneven as she saw how a look of bliss illuminated Fletcher’s face, making it lovely beyond belief.

For a moment, the kneeling woman wished that time would stand still. Finley’s disturbing glance showed clearly that there was something there. Oh, Finley, if you only knew how much I care. You’ve caused utter havoc in my heart from the very beginning. Instead, Fletcher drew in her breath sharply as she saw the radiance of the standing woman’s smile.

“Bathroom, cold water, ready for bed.” Fletcher grinned.

“Oh, yes, the bathroom.” She started toward the door and stopped. “Did you say you stopped and had a hot shower before you came here,” she placed her hands on her hips and waited for a response.

Fletcher had to laugh at the posture of the smaller woman. “Yep, and lady, it was wonderful. Sorry you won’t get to go to the hot springs tonight, but a cold sponge won’t hurt you for one night,” she ducked as Finley picked up a dishtowel from the table and threw it at her.

“You rat fink!” She exclaimed and let out a muffled chuckle as she went into the bedroom.

Fletcher watched her leave the room and sighed. As Finley closed the bedroom door, she turned back to her open bag and pulled out a pair of pajamas and bedroom slippers. After changing into the pajamas, she checked the door again, and placed the rifle on her side of the bed on the floor, then pulled out the sofa bed and turned down the covers. Several logs were placed on the grate and put the screen set back in place before she brushed her teeth in the sink and returned the brush and past to her duffle bag. The tall woman looked around the room before she switched off the light. Her flashlight was placed next to the rifle on the floor and she slowly climbed into bed. Her thoughts went to the smaller woman in the other room. A warm feeling covered her again and she smiled. There has to be a way, she was thinking when Finley reentered the room and quickly climbed into bed.

They didn’t talk anymore, and both kept to the edge of their side of the bed. Being careful not to touch the other, or move to keep the other awake, sleep wouldn’t come to either women until hours later. Drifting off Finley shifted and caught herself about to turn over and drape her arm over Fletcher. She wanted nothing more than to snuggle up close to the tall woman and embrace her. Instead she sighed inward and turned completely around and lay on her side with her back towards the park director. Finally, tiredness overtook them and they drifted off to an uneasy slumber.

***

“Damn hoarfrost,” he cursed as he dropped to his next selected spot in the snow and started digging. “Guess I shouldn’t bitch though, cause there sure as hell won’t be any traces of me being here.” A gloved hand rammed the long eagles claw-bar into the opening the man had scooped out seconds before. It clinked as it struck rock. The heavily clothed figure worked the clawed end of the bar several inches into surface and removed the steel rod placing it to his side. Removing his gloves, he shoved them into his coat pocket before he quickly opened the backpack and removed the heavily wrapped box. Carefully he unwrapped the container and cautiously removed the last bottle of clear liquid from its sponge slotted bed. He placed a blasting cap on the side of the bottle and carefully squashed the gray compound he had stored on the box lid around the blasting cap. Two wires could be seen dangling from the putty as he moved it closer to the flashlight. The creation was turned slowly, making sure the compound was firmly in place, and then the two wires were attached to a small black box he removed from the backpack. The unshaven man examined his work once more and carefully placed it in the hole and gently flipped the switch on the dark box. The dirt and rock were gently packed on top of the devise, then snow was scrapped back over the area and scattered loosely from side to side.

Standing up, the man put his gloves back on, picked up the crowbar and strapped it to the backpack. The burley figure reached into his inside pocket and removed a half crewed cigar and placed it between his teeth and bit down. “Damn that taste good. Might as well light it up, won’t be no smell here in two seconds.” He reached inside his jacket to get his lighter, then stopped. “Nope, better not take the chance that it might linger until tomorrow.” A nasty chuckle filled the air as he slung the pack over his shoulder. He looked around the area, but was barely able to see four feet in front of him. “If I can see anything, she damn sure won’t be able to either.”

The snow covered figure moved slowly up the ravine. The snowfall covered his tracks completely before he had reached the crest of the ridge and disappeared into the darkness.


***



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




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