The Dogman Cometh
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by Jonathan Womack
Category: Suspense/Thriller/Historical Fiction
Description: The Past--The Cheyenne Dog Soldiers of the old west, or Hoe-tuh met-tuh nay-yoh, were skilled warriors serving as a last line of defense, the embodiment of purity and sacrifice. Many gave their lives protecting the tribe from enemies. In November 1864, one hundred Cheyenne escaped the Colorado Sand Creek massacre and were chased into Montana, disappearing into the snow-capped mountains, never to be seen again. The Present--Intrepid anthropologist Jessica Corbett leads a team of nine diggers into the wilds of Glacier National Park, Montana, searching for signs of the legendary lost-band of Cheyenne, hot on a trail leading her to the heart of evil. Late one night, under the light of a blood moon, she learns one of her crew is a murderous racist who's after an amulet worn round her neck, and will kill to possess it. Glacier Park-Ranger Jared Neeling is a man with no roots, his foster parents dead, his biological parents a mystery. Perched high on a remote cliff overlooking the majestic Ma'heono Falls, he ponders his place in the world, and where next to steer his life's course. After a near-fatal misstep, Jared finds himself inside a dark cavern where a lone shaman shares a vexing tale. The White Devil of Sand Creek has returned, meaning to paint the earth red with Cheyenne blood. Even more shocking is the shaman's claim Jared is the one of legend, the Oe?keso He-tah-ne, the Dogman, a fierce warrior charged with stopping the killer from wiping out the Cheyenne people. In a night filled with terror, Jared and Jessica fight against threats from man and beast as they struggle to save an entire race from extinction!
eBook Publisher: Charles River Press, 2008 2008
eBookwise Release Date: December 2008
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [310 KB]
Reading time: 170-238 min.
Reviewed by: Randy O'Brien, News Director, WMOT FM, Nashville, TN In this classically structured action/adventure story involving a Native American and his vision quest, novelist Jonathan Womack has crafted a deeply moving and life-affirming novel. Set in the stark beauty of Glacier National Park, Montana, Park-Ranger Jared Neeling is despondent and depressed when he escapes certain death. Jared is then called upon by his Cheyenne ancestors to confront a brutal serial killer who is searching for an amulet that will endow him with the power to destroy the Cheyenne race. Blinded in an unfortunate accident, Jared is forced to call upon inner strength and supernatural development of his remaining four senses to aid him in his journey. Along the way, Jared meets noted anthropologist Jessica Corbett, the leader of a team of nine diggers murdered by the supernaturally strong and evil Zach Arsonault. Jessica is the keeper of one half of the magical amulet and soon becomes a pawn of desire for both men. Set on the night of a lunar eclipse, this tale of action and suspense twists and turns like the mountain passes traversed by Jared and his beloved horse, Stonewalker. Each character is fully realized, told in a knowing and wise narration, "The Dogman Cometh" is seeped in ancient lore and flowing with blood and violence. The gory climax features the best fight to the death in many moons, as Jared and Zach square off, calling on otherworldly powers to settle their conflict. Open your mind to influences from paranormal energies, auras, ghosts, zombies and spontaneous healing, and "The Dogman Cometh" is a hopeful tome of our connection to the universe.
The Dogman Riseth
"The God, who took away my eyes,
that now my soul may see"
From the gospel song "The Blind Plowman"
* * * *
The Ma'heono Rapids
Glacier National Park, Montana
Another birthday had arrived, and Jared Neeling was thirty-two years old. Six rugged-feet tall, bar-bouncer wide, laden with the kind of attitude that befriended few and pissed off most, Jared had neither cake nor candles on his mind this brisk Montana morning. The sun was in full force, sharing the sky with a white and blue expanse, the air whipped clean by mountain winds.
He clambered over a high cliff edge and descended fifteen feet down a rock wall leading to his favorite and most private spot in all of Glacier National Park. The remote perch was inaccessible to anyone but an experienced climber. A seven-year veteran of the River Rangers, Jared had been here many times; knew every foot hold and finger crevice.
A whinny drew his attention upward to his trusted companion, an Appaloosa mare, peering down at him from above. Jared had forgotten to hand out the customary palm full of oats upon reaching this summit and his horse was not letting him forget it. Though the mare occupied a precarious point as it watched him, Jared was not concerned for her safety. Stonewalker, named appropriately by her former Native American owner, could sure-hoof her way over rocky terrain in a way that shamed Billy goats. The only danger confronting Stony was that she might miss out on lunch.
Once at his spot, Jared settled onto the blanket-sized outcropping of smooth granite jutting from the cliff, situated seven stories above the wide and powerful Ma'heono Rapids. The raging torrent saturated the air with reflective droplets and slip-sliding air currents, creating a hovering rainbow patch of prisms in the mist. A short distance down river, the turbulent waterway spilled over the one-hundred-and-eighty-foot Ma'heono Falls into a picturesque basin, even-roar softened to a steady hush.
Jared removed his backpack, propped it against the wall for a cushion, and settled in. Thirty-two and out of a job, out of a relationship, and just plain out of luck. His live-in girlfriend of five years had broken up with him last month and the wound seemed as fresh as if he had just caught her in bed with another man. However, infidelity was not the reason for her absence or his unemployment. Jared's tendency toward recklessness the past twelve months had escalated, disturbing behavior that had not gone unnoticed by Jenny or his boss.
Whether he wanted to admit it or not, his adoptive parents' tragic death in an auto accident one year ago had affected him more than he realized. On their way over to celebrate his thirty-first birthday, then "wham, bam, you're dead ma'am," they were gone. A sour grief had fermented in Jared's heart ever since, a melancholy born of regrets, unfairness, and the pain of loss.
Jared had never mastered any social graces, never would. For the most part he was a loner and liked it that way. Other than his adoptive parents and Jenny, lasting ties were not part of his psychological equation. He depended on one person: himself. Trusting others led to hurt and disappointment. Now that the three people he had let into his steel-plated life were gone, he was more a loner than ever. "Once an orphan, always an orphan," someone once said to him.
He leaned over, peered down at the churning rapids, mist shining his face, the morbid curiosity of falling to one's death enticing. How easy it would be to end his troubled journey with a leap into the abyss. Better to perish alone in death than live alone in life, right?
He scolded himself. He did not come here to dwell on heavy-handed mistakes or fatalistic solutions, but to focus on where life's course would steer him next. This lone, jutting ledge mirrored his own isolation and provided a place to shore up his troubled spirit. He had always loved the night sky and tonight would be spent out here in scenic solitude, camping under the stars in anticipation of the lunar eclipse, a celestial event that represented more than an awe-inspiring dance of shadows. It stood as a philosophical metaphor for his conscious effort to let go of the past and embrace the future, in essence to begin life anew. In keeping with that affirmation, he decided then that upon his return home, he would resume his efforts to seek out his biological parents, discover his heritage; things that may offer some closure.
Money was not an immediate problem. In spite of losing his job, he was a practical man when it came to financial matters. Along with a modest inheritance, he had saved enough to live on for a few years if necessary. He was aware from past attempts that uncovering the identity of his birth parents would not be an overnight endeavor, and may lead him to journey far and wide.
An eagle nesting on the cliff face directly across the river took flight with an echoed screech, wings flapping. Seventy feet below, the rapids sounded a brutal song.
Ears tuned, eyes closed, he grew still as a stone gargoyle on a parapet, wandering in thought if not in body: sharing his pain with no one save for Mother Nature.
A building noise reached him, the beat of a distant drum. Initially he thought he was hearing his own pulse inside his head, but the beating grew louder until it echoed off the canyon walls.
As soon as he opened his eyes, the drumming ceased. He surveyed the area, confirmed that except for his horse, he was completely alone, probably the only human within a twenty-mile radius, the sound a trick of the wind. He closed his eyes, relaxed a deep breath.
In moments the drums returned, steady, insistent, accompanied by a male voice chanting in an unknown tongue.
Hoe-tuh met-tuh nay-yah...
Assailed with eerie boding, Jared was certain that someone, or something, was watching him. Pupils tensed, hand sliding to his waist, the hilt of his eight-inch blade tight in his grip, he scrutinized the cliffs.
Within the mist appeared a foggy shape that swirled into a leathered face, an elderly Native American male, staring at him, features partially covered by a severed wolf's head made into a fearsome war bonnet. Before Jared could question his senses, the apparition repeated the chant.
Hoe-tuh met-tuh nay-yah...
He stifled a shiver, rubbed at his eyes, wondered if the phantom was a manifestation of his inner turmoil, indicating a "one arrow shy of a quiver" mental state. Sanity reset, he looked again.
The drums, the face, the voice, were gone.
Uneasy, he sheathed his knife, gathered his backpack. Seeing Native American spooks hovering in the mist was a sure sign he needed more than a nature walk to cure what ailed him. Unfortunately, Fifth Avenue therapists were hard to come by in these parts.
He began the climb up the cliff, just as he had done before, a foot here, right hand there...
Halfway up, by devil, destiny, or dumb luck, his foothold crumbled under his weight, then his hand, slipping on the wet rock.
A shout escaped him, for he knew he had made a fatal error, felt the Reaper's call as he dropped like a stone toward the deluge. His life flashed by in exquisite detail, slapping him with a harsh realization that despite his out of control behavior these past months, he feared death as do most, and was not at all prepared to die.
He plunged into frothing water, barely missing jagged rocks mottling the surface, was immediately swept away, smacked hard against a boulder, flailed for a handhold, the unyielding current tumbling, dragging, bobbing him toward the falls. Stunned and bleeding, he clutched at a passing formation, landed a firm hold, pulled his torso onto a couch-sized crop, gasping, blood coloring the water around him.
His River Ranger training calculated avenues of escape. Without anyone knowing his location, there was no possible way to effect an outside rescue. He couldn't access survival gear within his backpack. Releasing his hold in the slightest would guarantee another ride on the rapids. His demise seemed imminent, saving himself a fool's hope. For once in his life, he wished not to be so alone.
He clung for minutes more, strength ebbing, limbs growing numb, head pounding. He wondered if his adoptive parents would be there to greet him at death's door, the way they claim on those "crossing over" programs. That thought afforded him some comfort, as he believed in an afterlife, and in the final moments before the inevitable outcome, he prayed that his departure from this world be free of suffering.
He released his fragile hold, let the waters take him, wholly ensconced by doom.
Then, Jared Neeling, thirty-two years young, plunged over the falls, and fell to his death.
* * * *
Jared's first sensation as he reclaimed consciousness was a tongue, licking his face, less course than a cat's, and larger. A cow? The deafening thunder of the falls was close, dank air thickly misted. A multitude of pains next: throbbing head, cracked knees, arms lacerated, his body as battered as a sneaker in a clothes dryer. A wiggling of his toes and fingers detailed no broken bones, though a fracture or two seemed likely. The bulk of his backpack was gone, stolen by the rapids. His knife had survived the assault; that and his wits his only survival tools.
Soaked and shivering, he rose to an elbow, wiped black matted hair from his eyes, surroundings blurred. He was behind the falls. Two arm lengths at his front, thousands of gallons of water rained a furious descent, a benign elegance that moments ago represented certain death, afternoon sunlight visible beyond. The reason for his survival became evident. Instead of dropping eighteen stories to his death, he had fallen ten feet to land here on a plateau large enough to park a limousine, its existence hidden by the fall's never-ending gush. A dense layer of vegetation had cushioned his drop. The absence of a cow or other such animal cued him that his licked face was another figment of his worsening mental condition.
By happenstance or divine intervention, he was not certain. Luck, destiny and God's Will were gray areas to his spiritual sense. The belief in the existence of a supreme being who guarded over each and every one of us twenty-four-seven seemed too naïve to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, he sent a heartfelt thank you to any such power that may have had a hand in deeming his life worth saving.
Raising a finger to his temple, he gingerly examined an inch-long wound. The bleeding had stopped but left behind a throbbing pain clouding his faculties. He rose to his feet, limped to the rim, and searched for a means to scale an escape. Each end of the plateau revealed the same smoothed absence of handholds. Teasing irony snickered at him. It seemed he had escaped one pitfall to arrive at another.
Then, from behind, the same hollow voice beckoned.
Hoe-tuh met-tuh nay-yah...
He turned from the falls to the cliff wall at his back; squinting at a shadow that turned out to be an opening in the rock broad enough to accommodate a Volkswagen.
Hoe-tuh met-tuh nay-yah...
A palpable malaise purged from the cave, crawled under his skin, rippled his superstition. Raised by white, middle-class parents since the age of eight, ghosts were not part of his Christian training. Entering a dark tunnel seemingly possessed by demons was as foolhardy and dangerous as tramping naked through hell.
Hoe-tuh met-tuh nay-yah...
Left with little choice, he unsheathed his knife, approached the entrance, steel blade held ready as though capable of slaying both beast and ghoul.
His eyes refused to focus within the dark passage, forcing him to rely on other senses. Save for the occasional spider web, there were few obstacles in his path. The smooth walls did not have the feel of being carved by manmade tools, rather a branch of the river where water once flowed.
The tunnel floor was sloped, leading him under the rapids; each soaked hiking boot making a squishing sound as he tested the ground before putting his weight to it. He did not want to discover the presence of a bottomless fissure by falling into it. He continued his slow pace for half a mile, running his hands up both sides, checking the ceiling, the need to mentally map his environment vital to his survival. He came upon interspersed tunnel branches, stayed on the main path, one slowed step after another, ice-cube chill in the stagnant air, dulled roar of the rapids now distant.
Immersed in a total absence of light, Jared tensed at a scuttling of claws, expecting a return of the ghost from the mists. Whatever it was seemed more frightened of him, the scritch-scratch disappearing into tunneled bowels. He resumed his steps, black void ahead and behind, no way of telling how far the tunnel continued, whether ten yards or ten miles, to freedom or misfortune.
Eventually he lost track of time, his normally tuned senses robbed of any outside influences. His depth perception was that of a submariner trapped on the ocean floor. Even his sense of reality seemed subtly altered.
Splashed water at his feet stopped him short as paranoia spread a frightening possibility through him. He might not be standing in a harmless puddle, but unknowingly positioned at the entrance to a large cavern containing a vast underground lake; skeletal remains cluttering the shore, like dead man tales of those who had failed their blind attempt at crossing.
Stacked odds bearing down, he stooped to his haunches, growing delirium compounded by physical trauma. He doubted his chances of surviving the tunnel, wondered if he had been better off back at the falls. A closer inspection might reveal an earlier missed path to safety, a hanging vine or miniscule ledge. Yes, that was the best plan. He stood to leave.
The response was thunder inside his head.
Hoe-tuh met-tuh nay-yah...
He balked at his traumatized brain. The voice was not real, he was not fatally wounded, would not perish alone inside a granite coffin.
The drumbeat resumed, a deep thrum emanating from the rock itself, and the voice, as haunting as any nightmare.
No longer able to trust his own mind, he cried out as might an ailing wolf sensing its end. "Who are you!"
His echoed shout sounded desperate to his ears.
There was no response, the quietude of a dungeon taking hold, leaving him alone in the dark with the angered spirit of the mountain.
Unsure of how to proceed, his thirst decided for him. He cupped water in his hands, brought them to his lips, sniffed. It smelled clean and pure; tasted even better. He drank as one preparing to cross a dessert.
His quenching was interrupted by a sudden onslaught of chills. The temperature had steadily decreased during his passage. If he didn't get warm and dry soon, he would eventually succumb to fever, pneumonia, more nails in his coffin.
Reduced to the point of despair, he berated himself for his behavior. A rising insight reminded him that throughout his life, whenever overwhelming adversity challenged his mettle, he would sink to a moral low in the face of insurmountable odds, only to then rise above the strife with a steadfast inner strength. He understood he needed that strength more than tools or torches to survive.
Holding back tides of discouragement, he took a final drink, straightened, and listened to the sound set forth by his stamped foot in the water. The echoed splash was shallow, no more than made by stomping pooled rainwater. He stepped over the puddle uneventfully, continued on, begrudging his madness, evil spirits be damned.
He had not gone far when he detected the whiff of burning wood. He kept his hope even, aware of the implications. Where there was smoke, there was fire, the scent making its way here from a possible exit to the outside world.
The path ahead soon revealed a yellow radiance spreading from around a bend, the shine engendering a ray of hope. Jared approached the turn with the lightness of falling snow, concealing his presence, sensing that whatever lay beyond would decide his outcome, ruin or rescue, defeat or freedom.
Breath stayed, knife ready, he peered around the corner.
The passageway opened into a barn-sized cave, flutter of bats overhead. In the center of the cave, sitting cross leg in profile before a campfire was an old man dressed in Native American garb, unarmed and unthreatening. He untied a tethered pouch from his waist, and spread a handful of powder into the fire. It flamed high and bright, the released scent of marshmallow root and lemon grass. Smoke rose through a funneled hole in the vaulted ceiling. The stranger began chanting in a tongue that affronted Jared with surreal confusion.
Now I know I've gone off the deep end.
The Native American ceased his chanting, tilted his head toward Jared, his tone that of a concerned counselor beset by a strayed teenager. "You are safe now. Come out from the shadows."
Bewildered, Jared looked around and behind, confirming they were alone and that it was to him the man spoke. With the vulnerability of an injured eagle, he positioned himself across the fire from the stranger, putting away his knife.
"Please, I need help. I'm hurt, need a doctor. Do you know the way out of here?"
The Native American nodded. "I will show you the way out, but first you must sit, rest your spirit by the fire."
A hard throb pulsed Jared's temple. "I don't have time to sit. The nearest doctor's half a day's ride, I have to get out of here, find my horse..."
"Your horse is not far. Please, sit."
Jared heard both lunacy and enlightenment in the old man's tone. "How could you know about my horse? You don't even know me."
The loner offered no explanation, picked up a stick, stoking the fire as though stoking Jared's impatience.
"And why are you sitting alone in a cave full of bats?"
Again no reaction. Shadows flickered as the native man spread more powder into the flames.
A sense of wonderment trumped Jared's frustration. "Who are you?"
"One who knows better than you." He gestured with a tolerant hand. "Sit."
The shock of his injuries wearing off, Jared succumbed to exhaustion, sat on the ground, held forth his hands, soaking up heat.
"I am Two Hearts, healer of body and soul, shaman of the lost tribe." Two Hearts passed Jared a small cup containing a brown, pungent liquid. "Drink."
Jared wrinkled his nose. "What is it?"
"Sage, sweet grass, and yarrow. For your wounds."
Jared accepted the generosity, and sipped the potion. Hot, twice the bitterness of tea, the consistency of cream. As he sipped, an elusive sense of familiarity emanated from the stranger, of meeting him before, not so much in waking life, but in a lucid, boyhood dream. The effect warmed his core, his nearness to the fire drying his clothes. Puzzlement tantalized Jared's curiosity as he finished the herbal remedy, delirium eased, aches subsiding. He thanked the medicine man, returned the cup, turning his gaze around the cave. "Do you live here?"
Two Hearts intoned a reply. "This is my home, where I live, where I will die."
Jared shuddered, recalling his certain death tumble over the falls. "I fell into the rapids, went over the falls, thought for sure I was done. If it wasn't for that ledge sticking out behind the falls..."
"This mountain holds many secrets. It is on sacred ground you walk."
"That would explain the voices. This place is haunted."
The old man was stoic. "It is a place where the dead walk among the living."
Jared's attitude held repentance, recalling his mental bout with cave madness. "I've never been so spooked. I've always thought of myself as being strong, but there was a point when I was ready to just ... give up."
Two Hearts nodded. "When the weak despair, so comes fear. When the strong despair, so comes courage."
Jared met eyes with the shaman. "Yeah, well, thanks for helping me. You may have saved my life."
Two Hearts dismissed his praise. "Do not thank me, Hoe-tuh met-tuh nay-yah. Your future holds much pain and suffering. Your trial has only begun."
Jared's head dipped, self-defenses realigning. "What did you call me?"
Contemplative, Two Hearts removed an ornate pipe from a leather satchel, pulled a burning twig from the fire; lit the bowl, puffing smoke.
"Your spirit is gray with sadness. Long have you sought the mystery of your birth; like a flaming totem, it burns at your heart, and mocks you."
Jared was astonished. "How do you know that?"
The Native American passed Jared the pipe, voice hypnotic. "The man you are today is a shadow of the man you are tomorrow. The time has come for you to smoke the sacred pipe, walk the spirit journey, learn your true path."
Jared accepted the pipe. "I don't understand."
"You are not Jared Neeling."
The utterance of his name steamrolled the last vestiges of Jared's skepticism. He felt a dizzying rush of Parapateo, the moment in a Greek tragedy when the hero finds out that everything he knows is wrong. "But, if I'm not me, then who am I?"
Two Hearts indicated the pipe, as though the answer would be revealed within the ensuing cloud of smoke. Jared toked on the stem, the taste that of wild peyote.
"In your veins is the blood of Cheyenne. It is the spirits of your ancestors that call to you now, the Hoe-tuh met-tuh nay-yoh, the Dogmen."
"Cheyenne warriors, protectors of the tribe. Their hearts cry out against the return of the Blight."
"Return of the Blight, as in famines and plagues?"
Two Hearts shook his head. "It was many seasons ago in a time of war. The white man's Cavalry declared peace with the Cheyenne, signed a treaty with Chief Black Kettle, gathered all Sitsistas together, agreed on a valley for our people to settle in. Early one morning while the tribe slept, the Cavalry turned on them, massacred many men, women, children. Led by another chief, Chief Rising Elk, one hundred Cheyenne escaped. The White Devil chased Rising Elk and the survivors for a season. They escaped into these mountains, never to be heard from again."
"I've heard of that, the Colorado Sand Creek Massacre. Eighteen sixty four."
Two Hearts nodded. "he'pohtôtse. Smoke."
Jared toked, exhaled through his nostrils, plumes swirling. "So my ancestors were Cheyenne warriors?"
"Cheyenne is the name given to us by the Sioux. The name we call ourselves is Sitsistas. You are the descendant of Sitsista chiefs. Rising Elk was your great, great grandfather, a Dog Soldier before he was Chief. After escaping the white army, the lost tribe settled here in these caves, hidden for many years, bore children, grandchildren. All of that has passed on now."
Two Hearts drew figures in the dirt with the end of a stick. "There is a legend among our people that the White Devil will one day return to finish what it started. As before, it will come in the form of a man who means to color the earth red with Sitsista blood."
By pipe or by potion, Jared was afforded an uncanny sense of intuition. "And you believe the legend has come to pass because you saw a sign...?"
Two Hearts nodded, held up three fingers. "When the blue moon turns red, and the wind sleeps on the mountain, the White Devil will reveal itself."
Jared recalled tonight's blue moon; the term ascribed to the uncommon occurrence of a second full moon within a single month. A blue moon eclipse was even more rare, the last event happening more than a century and a half ago. He couldn't connect the sleeping wind reference. "What's the third sign?"
"The legend tells of the coming of a fierce warrior, Oe'keso He-tah-ne, the Dogman. He will be the last son of the lost son, and possess powers given to him by the Great Spirit. With his powers he will vanquish this evil and bring prosperity to the people."
Jared had the look of a man who'd traveled far and wide to discover something right under his feet. "The last son of the lost son..."
"The lost son is Rising Elk. You are the last of his bloodline."
Indecision hovered in Jared's eyes. The story was too fantastic to be believed, and yet, it felt right. "But if that's true, then that would make me..."
"The one of legend, Oe'keso He-tah-ne. You are the Dogman."
Two Hearts took the pipe from Jared's hand, resumed his chanting, a baritone fill of the cavern's acoustics.
Jared felt the top of his head being tugged upward, as though the vaulted ceiling was a magnet, his skull made of iron. Suddenly, a rushing sensation gripped his inner self, whisked him far and away to another time and place, the quiet, early-morning peace of the Cheyenne encampment at Sand Creek. From his vantage point high above the scene, Jared could see the camp's wooded perimeter, where ranks of soldiers readied for a sneak attack. Leading the assault was an officer, perched monarch-like upon his horse. Medals pinned to his uniform spoke of battles fought; of courage and strategic brilliance, though in reality Colonel John M. Chivington's exploits were bereft of such qualities. Colonel Chivington's skewed moral core was ever enflamed by heathen ways. He considered the Cheyenne people to be a stain on mankind; mankind being those of white decent. In addition, for doing his part toward creating a heathen free America, Colonel Chivington was certain that he would long be remembered as a military hero.
Jared's heart thumped as he watched the White Devil raise a hand, give the signal. A fierce attack followed: soldiers gunning down defenseless Native Americans, blood and screams mingling.
Jared lurched at the executions, stomach knotted with empathy.
Mercifully, the scene changed, unfolding Rising Elk's three-month evasion of the Cavalry, followed by the discovery of caves and tunnels interlacing this mountain. Then came glimpses of a white wolf, running full-tilt: free, proud and strong.
Jared's vision next revealed a middle-aged, pony-tailed, Cheyenne man, stooped to the ground, his back to Jared. As if zooming in a lens, the vision closed in on his movements. He was hiding something, a necklace decorated with wolf teeth and eagle feathers. From the necklace hung an intricately carved, disc shaped metal object two inches across. One half was missing, as though the disc had been broken in two sometime in its history, each half-moon piece now adorning separate necklaces. The man wrapped it in Sitsista cloth before placing it in a shallow hole and covering it over. Once finished, he turned toward Jared, seeking his gaze across time and space, trying to convey the import of Jared's destiny.
The man's features impacted Jared's mind like a charging buffalo; the same eyes, same black hair, and same proud cheekbones; all mirrors of his own features. Jared was undoubtedly looking upon the face of his father.
The vision fast-forwarded from the past to the present, revealing a Caucasian male similar in both size and age to Jared. In the span of a few minutes, Jared witnessed the white man committing dozens of murders, spilling human blood the way Bordeaux spills wine, the majority of victims of Native American decent, both male and female, old and young. The vision ended abruptly, closing the door to further revelation.
Jared kneeled by the fire, hunched over with revulsion. The vision had sledge hammered the psychological concrete normally safeguarding his deepest emotions.
"I saw the massacre, heard the cries of our people ... I could feel them dying.... "Tears welled in his eyes.
Two Hearts waited patiently, sharing Jared's pain. Then, gently, "What else did you see?"
Jared raked his hair back with a hand. "I saw a man digging a hole in the ground, burying a necklace. He turned to me and somehow I knew I was looking into the eyes of my father. For the first time in my life, I felt ... connected."
"Your father was a brave man. He was also my friend."
"He is no longer with us."
Jared was deeply saddened. For a brief moment, he felt the rising hope of discovering his biological father, a chance to connect with his roots, something he had dreamed of since childhood. Now, just as quickly, it became clear that such a meeting would never take place. "How did he die?"
"After your birth, your mother became sick, beyond my medicine. Your father wanted to leave the sanctuary of the mountain and travel to the white man's land so that he might find stronger medicine for her. She begged him not to go. If the white man found out about the tribe, they would return and again make war. Against his heart, your father stayed with her until the end. She died in his arms."
Though he had never known her, sorrow seeped from Jared's marrow. He had considered the possibility that his birth parents might not be alive. However, these thoughts did not prepare him for the starkness of being teased, then robbed by fate. Now more than ever, Jared was alone in the world. "What was her name?"
"Enemene Tah-es-he. Sings at the Moon."
"And my father?"
"Ma-o Vo-i. Red Cloud. Soon after your mother died, Red Cloud took you and left the sanctuary. He was never seen again. Some say he died from a great sadness that grew in his heart. Others say he was killed by the White Devil, who still lived and had lied in wait for many years."
Jared tasted bitterness. "I wish I could have known them."
"Take heart, Oe'keso He-tah-ne. There is much of them in you. Honor their memory by accepting your legacy." Two Hearts arced an arm, indicating the space around them. "This sacred place is now your sanctuary. In time, you will come to know these caves as your father did. Keep them secret from the outside world."
Jared nodded solemnly. "What was my father hiding that was so important?"
"An ancient talisman with strong magic, passed down through the ages, a shield against evil. Rising Elk was wearing it when the White Devil shot him at Sand Creek. The bullet struck the talisman, and broke it in two. It was enough to save Rising Elk's life."
"Do you know what happened to the other half?"
"It fell to the ground during the massacre, lost in the confusion."
"What if the two halves were put back together?"
Two Hearts nodded. "The magic would return."
Jared played back the harrowing scene in his mind. "I couldn't tell where my father was when he buried his half of the talisman. Assuming he was somewhere in Glacier Park, it could take a platoon of archeologists centuries to find it."
Two Hearts held forth a dish-towel sized piece of Sitsista cloth. "Your father left this behind."
Jared studied the series of foreign symbols painted above a crude drawing of a tomahawk, horizontal handle, blade stuck in the ground. "What does it say?"
"It says to look for the broken talisman where the axe has fallen."
"What does that mean?"
"I do not know, but when the time comes, you will be made to understand."
Dread frazzled the hairs on Jared's neck. "I saw someone else in my vision. A white man, ruthless and twisted. He's already killed scores of people. He's out there right now, maybe stalking his next victim."
"It is the White Devil. He has returned to destroy the Sitsista people. He must be defeated."
"You are the Oe'keso He-tah-ne. You will defeat him."
Jared was unconvinced. "I'm just one man. How can I stand alone against such evil?"
"You will not be alone. You will have the guidance of the ancients. They will speak to you if you listen."
Jared shook a dubious face. "How would I find him? We don't know his name or where he comes from, only what he looks like. It's not enough. He could be anywhere in the world."
Two hearts understood Jared's frustration. "Have faith, Oe'keso He-tah-ne. You will find the answers if you keep your mind pure and your heart unburdened." Two Hearts returned the cloth to the satchel, passed it over to Jared. "The time has come. Take this with you. Food for your belly, medicine for your wounds, the sacred pipe for your spirit."
Jared stood, slipping the satchel over his shoulder. The horror witnessed in his vision still clung to him. If unchecked, the White Devil's hatred would become a genocidal juggernaut. He had to be stopped.
Two Hearts pointed down a dark corridor. "This tunnel will lead you out. Follow the sun for two pipe-smokes. There you will find your horse."
Jared stooped, removing a burning baton-size stick from the fire to act as a torch.
His mentor flatly objected. "The flame. You will not need it."
Jared was reluctant. "But it's dark. I don't know the way."
"You will see all there is to see without the flame. Go now. Take with you the strength of the Hoe-tuh met-tuh nay-yoh. The fate of many rests in your hands."
Jared returned the torch to the fire. "Will I see you again old man?"
Two Hearts lingered a pause. "I know not of the future, but if our paths should cross again in this world, I will greet you as a brother."
"And if they don't?"
"Then I will greet you in the spirit world."
Jared pledged an oath, embracing his destined role. "Know this, then, Two Hearts, that I will honor my legacy. I will find this White Devil, and by my life, or by my death, I will cleanse this blight from the land of my ancestors."
"May the Great Spirit be with you, Oe'keso He-tah-ne." Two Hearts resumed his chanting, the cries of a nation in his tone.
Déjà vu poked Jared's resolve as he turned away from the fire and entered the murky egress, cautious footsteps measured. He wondered at Two Heart's ill advised urging that he trek this path in darkness. A torch would make for a more timely and safe passage to the outside world.
The shaman's intent became clearer with each step. Jared soon discovered that his transformation was not limited to a spiritual level. He now possessed an astounding array of heightened physical senses, a sudden swelling of input that mushroomed in his mind. Sound came to him on an amplified level. So acute was the effect that Jared could feel the reflection of sound waves produced by the scrape of his boots, the labor of his breathing. This hypersensitivity imparted a faint, but palpable mental image resembling a photographic negative of his surroundings. He thought of the multitude of bats hanging from the cave ceiling, using radar to see in a light depraved environment.
Exhilaration swelled from the depths of his being, a magical awakening of mind, body, and soul. Here in this inky black darkness where light dared not tread, Jared Neeling could see.
His sense of smell was likewise enhanced, detecting the scent of sweat leaking from his pores, his breath, the spores of humans and animals that had passed through here, the must of centuries old air. Testing his sense of touch, he reached left and right, fingers lightly tracing the rock walls, the cold granite now warmed by an ethereal sense of returning home. He felt the mountain's age, its existence measured on a scale of time in which all of human history would register as less than a moment. A subliminal connection of ancient minds spilled from the walls, wove about him, his tactile sense perceiving the pulse of their disembodied souls veining the body of the mountain. This third-eye union was confirmed when a chorus of ghosts called to him.
Jared was no longer disturbed by the voices, but drew strength from their presence, knowing them to be fallen brothers who had perished at Sand Creek.
Armed with his new gifts, Jared pressed on, profoundly changed, approaching an uncertain future promising both danger and enlightenment. Gaining a handle on his radar sense, he detected a bend in the tunnel ahead, the scents of plants and trees, critters and beasts wafting from what must be the tunnel exit, aromas as invigorating as a Beverly Hills spa. He rounded the turn, expecting to see filtered light illuminating the outlet.
To his dismay, there was no hint of light, only continued darkness stretching in all directions. Undaunted, he continued his stride, certain that the exit lie not far ahead.
A sudden breeze ruffled his hair, followed by a bombardment of plant and animal scents. Sounds next; the distant screech of a hawk, the scatter of a squirrel scaling a tree, the wind cruising around the mountain, all producing noise received and translated by his super tuned eardrums, his bat-like radar producing a steel-gray image of a wide open area. Warmth from an unseen heat source caressed his skin.
A rock-hard tremor wrenched his gut. Something was horribly wrong. His radar showed him to be standing outside the tunnel exit, in what should have been daylight, yet darkness still shrouded him, inky and complete. Panic flared, clutched at his heart. He stepped, tripped over rocks in his path, fell hard to the ground, senses reeling.
It was not a dark tunnel that sheltered light from his eyes, but something much worse. Unfairness kicked his mind. He was the chosen one, the Oe'keso He-tah-ne, granted extraordinary powers by the Great Spirit. He repeated that this could not happen to him, but there was no denying the callous truth.
Jared Neeling, the heralded Dogman of legend, the last, best hope against the genocide of his people, was blind.
* * * *
Jared grappled with his curse. To be born blind was tragic, but to live half a life with the use of one's eyes before being sentenced to darkness was nearly unbearable. He feared the mission of the Dogman was over before it began, considered turning back, explain to his mentor what had happened, seek his advice. But of course, Two Hearts already knew; had known all along. Jared was meant to be tasked, the price for his newly acquired powers.
He clamped down unruly emotions pounding his gut. His initial reaction was understandable, but he could ill afford another bout of panic. Never had he been one to accept defeat, and this obstacle, though daunting would not sway him from saving his people. Tracing the gash at his temple, he considered the possibility that his handicap was temporary, his optic nerve needing a time-out while the injury healed. He took hope from this, the thought of someday regaining his eyesight a comfort to his weakened fortitude. Until his sight returned, he would master the powers granted him, and learn to use them in place of his eyes. If he could accomplish this, then all was not lost.
He turned away from the exit. His quest lay ahead, not behind. According to legend, the White Devil would reveal himself tonight during the lunar eclipse, the red-tinted totality commencing at 12:34 a.m. and lasting one hour. That meant he had until then to track down his enemy, a seven or eight hour window of opportunity if his time sense was functioning properly. Initially, the unknown location of the killer presented a perplexing dilemma, but insight now revealed to Jared that his nemesis was not in a foreign land or even another state, but close, traversing the same wilderness Jared occupied. He shuddered with the knowledge that this maniac was loose in his own backyard.
Jared tuned into the noises around him, wielding the gift of a heretofore-untapped region of his brain now translating minute sound vibrations into a gray panorama of his surroundings. It was as though a dark cloth hung before him, the visible outline of an unseen object pressed against the material from the other side. At a clap of his hands, his radar rippled with added clarity, detailing a scrub-brush high sierra, the details fading as the echo died out. This confirmed that the louder his surroundings, the more sound waves reflected; the clearer his sight.
Next, using his upturned face like a compass needle, Jared focused on sunrays warming his skin, turning around until maximum heat was felt. Satisfied he had found due west, he trudged off, adapting to his senses as would a newborn, stumbling here, tripping there, growing more confident with each step.
An hour passed before he arrived at the cliff where his odyssey began, thundering hush of the rapids below, wind wrapping him in cool scents. He stood poised at the edge, overlooking the falls, his successful hike to this spot instilling him with the confidence of a visually challenged climber conquering Everest.
His horse was not in sight.
Twin fingers to his lips, a piercing whistle: a pause.
In moments, the musk of Stonewalker salted the air, the beat of hoofs felt in the ground at Jared's feet. The dull-gray image of his horse approaching was as beautiful a sight as he had ever witnessed. Stonewalker moved close; nudged Jared, whinnied, loose reins dragging.
Jared stood at her side, patted Stony's neck, and ran a calming hand through her mane. He thought never to see her again. Now that he had been given a second chance, he loathed endangering the mare by putting her in harm's way.
"It is good to see you too, old friend. There is no better companion I could wish for on my journey. But, I fear that before this night ends, you and I will be sorely tested."
Stony trained one brown eye as Jared retrieved a stainless-steel bowl from a saddlebag, un-strapped a canteen, and took stock of their supplies while Stony quenched her hunger and thirst. Jared rarely had need of the Colt forty-five caliber pistol strapped to the saddle, a mainstay deterrent against larger predators crossing his path. Tonight may be different, and he considered the moral implications of taking another man's life, even though his enemy. He belted the weapon around his waist, tied off the holster to his thigh, looking part cowboy, part Native American. A band of black cloth tied around his forehead kept his black locks from his face.
When man and horse were ready, Jared slipped into the saddle, grooved leather molding to his shape. He lingered a steadfast pause, wondering where next to steer his steed. Somewhere within the great wilderness of Glacier Park lurked a madman intent on destroying his race, but how to find him? Two Hearts claimed the spirits of the dead would communicate with Jared if he listened.
Faith held firmly to his heart, Jared focused his hearing, his being a tuning fork for the souls of the past.
To a less gifted human, most sounds would be drowned out by the roiling churn of the rapids, but to Jared the tune of nature was sated with noises both loud and soft. He picked out the overhead beat of wings, an eagle swooping a return path to its nest on the cliff face across the river, a foul-smelling rabbit carcass locked in it claws. The scent of a lone wolf, some fifty yards distant, insinuated more care than dare: the ethereal notion of a spirit guide ruffling Jared's mind. A host of scents and sounds rustled about him, but none offered clues as to the whereabouts of his enemy.
Jared straightened in the saddle; arms spread wide, head tipped back. "I call to you now, spirits of the Hoh-tuh met-tuh ney-yoh. Guide me so that I may fulfill my destiny and bring peace to your troubled souls."
He waited patiently, but after a full minute, no voices, cracked lightning, or burning bush; none of the typical signs one might expect. If they were listening, the Dogmen of old were not talking.
Then, a buzzing sound, rising in the west. As one adjusting a short-wave radio, Jared zeroed in on the disturbance, the hum of an engine, perhaps an airplane or other small craft, several miles away and heading in his direction. Pinpointing his super-hearing revealed the added whup-whup of a chopper cutting the air, sounding like the Ranger helicopter used in search and rescue missions. Their presence here seemed more than coincidence. Were they coming for him, or was there a more sinister implication?
He waited, hoping to glean its intent. The engine noise lowed, slowing to an idle as it landed. Ten long minutes elapsed, idle now revving as the aircraft climbed above the terrain and disappeared over a snow-iced peak.
Feeling validated, Jared smiled inwardly. If he had harbored any doubts, this confirmed that they were indeed listening, and had answered.
Shouldering the plight of his people, Jared coaxed Stonewalker into motion, and followed where the souls of his warrior brothers led.
* * * *
The Sitsista Dig Site
Two miles west of
A black dot appeared in the western sky against a red-orange sunset; growing in size as it approached the campsite. The sound of whirling blades announced the arrival of a Glacier Park Ranger pilot showing up for his once-a-week rendezvous with the eight-person anthropological team. The diggers were cut off from civilization; far from any cell towers or medical facilities should harm descend. The weekly supply-drop was their only link to the outside world. This rendezvous was significant as it brought not only supplies, but a passenger, a new member of the team, hired to help get the project back on schedule.
Watching the copter's approach from outside her tent was Dr. Jessica Corbett. As Curator of Native American Anthropology for New York's Museum of Natural History, Jessica had spent the past month here coordinating this isolated Montana site, unearthing testimonials from the past. Though her poise and charm were well suited for black-gown Manhattan soirees, she belonged in the wild, dressed as if on safari, exploring, surviving, learning, as her frontier ancestors had long ago. Her kinship for that era caused her to wonder if she had been born two centuries too late.
After a long day of mapping, digging, and cataloging, she retired to her tent, sat at a fold-out table that served as a kitchen counter, bathroom vanity and work desk. A Wet-nap over her face, along her neck, auburn hair released from a bun, a shake of her head. A glance in a hand mirror showed a 35-year-old single professional, tomboy cute with a touch of sass, alluring enough to attract men, but married to her job. In those times when loneliness courted her, Jessica would double her workload, lose herself in whatever project she had taken on at the time, too busy to feel alone. So long had it been since her last intimate relationship, her sexuality had become a relic, buried beneath layers of isolation, dormant until the day Prince Charming came forth to reawaken it.
She picked up a Native American cooking implement from her desk, admiring the craftsmanship. This site was more than promising, and in her bones was the charged marrow of an explorer perched on the edge of discovery. She believed this settlement belonged to the fabled Lost tribe of Cheyenne, and that the pendant she sought was somewhere nearby, perhaps under a rock or hidden beneath a cover of earth. She reined in excitement, reflecting on past failures. Part scientist, part historian, part sleuth, the nature of her profession often left her more frustrated than enlightened, and she would not reveal her full intentions to the other seven members of her team until the magical totem was firmly in her hand.
Jessica had inherited her life's passion from her father, Dr. Lance Corbett, also an anthropologist, gone a year now from a sudden heart attack. She reached inside her blouse, pulled the leather necklace from her cleavage, regarding the broken talisman her father had unearthed at the Sand Creek site some forty years ago. It had belonged to Rising Elk, split in two by Colonel Chivington's bullet; one half lost to the battlefield until her father came along and discovered it. It was presumed Rising Elk had escaped Sand Creek with the remaining half. What became of it after that was to this day a mystery, one she was compelled to solve. Other than its purported magical properties that protected the tribe from outside evils, and the legend regarding its origin, she knew little of the sacred amulet. Its provenance had been passed down from shaman to shaman, a secretive part of tribal culture rarely shared with foreigners. Her father had believed in its arcane properties and hoped to one day reunite the two halves in an effort to explore supposed powers not of this earth.
Jessica was more a grounded sort, gave little credence to such lore. Her interests were cultural and historical. The talisman was a pinnacle icon of a proud race that had survived the blood-thirsty ravages of the frontier white man. To display it as part of her treasured museum collection of Native American artifacts would mark a milestone in her career.
Due to a recent tragedy befalling a member of her crew, Jessica had composed a letter of condolence to the deceased woman's parents. On the day Allison Wetstone was to fly from Boston to Montana to join Jessica's crew, she was struck down by a hit-and-run driver while she stood in the street checking her mailbox. No one saw the driver or the vehicle. The police had no leads. Jessica's friend and colleague Mike Runyan served as liaison to the Ranger pilot and would pass on her condolence letter once the goods were unloaded.
She heard the copter's loud whine as it landed in a nearby clearing, rotors slowing, engine idling. After a short stay, it lifted off, whine fading into the distance.
Minutes later, a pair of footsteps approached her tent, stopping outside the close-flapped entrance.
It was Mike Runyan, just finished with the pilot. A few years her senior, Mike was not too rugged or mature to have a crush on her. Jesse respected Mike for his work ethic and his able-bodied guardianship gave her comfort against the threat of predators large and small. It was during those times when romantic innuendo spiced his conversation that made her uncomfortable. Mike knew she maintained a professional distance from her co-workers, but apparently felt the rule did not apply to him.
Mike eased through the opening, removed his western hat, Jessica's back to him. "Allison's replacement is here. Do you want to see him?"
She twisted in her seat to face him. "Yes I do, thank you. I need to finish up a few things first. Would you have him stop by once he's settled?"
"Sure thing." He paused then added, "Gannison and Maria are staying here, but the rest of us are going up to the ridge to watch the eclipse. Care to join me?"
She noted his choice of words; "me" instead of "us."
"Eclipse? Oh, that's right. I forgot all about it." She stretched her arms, arched her back, this side of a yawn. "I don't think I can stay up that late. I've got too much to do tomorrow."
"I thought you might say that, so I brought a little incentive." He pulled a bottle of her favorite wine from behind his back, crowned with two upside down plastic cups, a corkscrew in one hand. "A bottle of Pinot Grigio, good conversation, the best view of the moon in the Northern Hemisphere. How can you resist?"
Jessica canceled a sigh, offered diplomacy. "You're very sweet, Mike, but..."
"You can grab a nap. I'll wake you up later."
She rubbed a hand at the nape of her neck. "It does sound nice, but I think I'm going to turn in early, get a good night's sleep. Can I take a rain check?"
Though persistent, Mike had been around her long enough to know when to push, when not too. "Okay then, maybe next time." He moved beside her, placed his bottled surprise and corkscrew on her table, winked down at her. "A gift for you, compliments of the management."
She smiled, gracious. "Thank you."
Mike scoped the nine-millimeter Beretta he had left her for protection, hefted it, checked the safety and loaded clip. The two-way radio on her desk had fresh batteries, but he turned it on, spoke a "check-check" into it nevertheless. "You know what to do if there's a problem."
She nodded, smiling over an ironic regret that he was not her type. Regardless of her reasons for rejecting him, there was no denying that Mike was one of the good guys and would make for a good husband.
He stepped to the exit, facing her with unconcealed admiration. "And you know where to find me if you change your mind." He propped his hat on his head, tipped it at her. "Have a good night."
"'Night Mike." She watched him leave, returned to her artifacts, at times feeling closer to them than to those around her.
Outside, nocturnal sounds ushered in the night; the chirping of crickets, conversation of coworkers gathered around the fire, random murmurs of wind. Nature's solace permeated the encampment.
She finished cataloging the last find of the day, next retrieved a file from a stack of folders. Minutes ticked by as she perused the résumé of the new arrival, Andrew Zachariah Arsonault, detailing his twenty-nine years of age, New Jersey birthplace, educational background, and anthropological experience. Andrew had applied months ago for a spot on her team, though Jessica had passed him over in favor of Allison Wetstone. Now, a month into the dig without Allison, the project had fallen behind schedule. Andrew Arsonault had landed the job by default.
Absorbed in her work, she froze in her seat, assailed with an eerie sense of being watched, fine hairs on her arms rising.
The voice at her back was butter-soft. "Dr. Corbett?"
Her heart banged against her ribs, dropped file papers slip-sliding to the ground. She turned a startled look toward the entrance where a blond-haired man stood, six feet tall, well-honed physique suggesting more hours spent in a gym than at a desk, handsome features displaying an eagerness to prove, to please.
Seeing her fright, he turned apologetic. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. Your flap was open and I thought..."
She whiffed relief. "It's alright. I was preoccupied, didn't hear you come in, Mr...."
He stepped close, stooped to one knee, collected the strewn papers, tap-tapped them even, offered them to her, his hand brushing her bare thigh. Animal-attraction leaked from his fingers, spread up her leg, wet her sensuality. He gave her a look that made her feel like an item on a dessert menu. "Andrew Arsonault, at your service, doctor."
Unsettled by his sudden breaching of her personal space, yet undeniably attracted to his energy, she reflexively scooted her chair back, crossed her legs, and took the pages from him. "Thank you, Mr. Arsonault. Please have a seat. I was just going over your file." She indicated stacked packing crates that served as a visitor's chair.
He stood, but did not move away. "It's an honor to meet you, Doctor Corbett. I can't tell you how thrilled I was when your people called. I want to thank you for giving me a second chance."
She smiled at his enthusiasm. "Well, to be quite honest, Andrew, we've been short handed from the start, and my superiors have a way of sticking to timetables. The last thing I want is to have this project pulled out from under me because of unforeseen delays. If you can help us get back on schedule, then it's you who will be providing me a second chance."
Andrew was earnest. "I'm a hard worker, doctor. You won't be disappointed."
She held up a stop-right-there palm. "For the record, we're a pretty informal bunch out here. We leave the titles back at the office." She extended her hand. "Jesse will do."
As though accepting a challenge, he tested her limits, cupped her hand between his, met her gaze with eyes blue as a mountain lake, his sexual heat flaming the walls of her reserved poise.
"Jesse. That's a nice name. Though I must say, you don't look like an outlaw."
Her face turned hot at his touch, heart pounding out a hungered rhythm, sultry moans of unbridled passion echoing in her ears.
Both brazen and tender, he touched the back of his hand to her cheek, imparting a raw need that sizzled the polar ice caps of her frozen desire. "Are you sure you're okay? Your face is flushed."
She pulled her hand from his, leaned back, breaking the spell. "I'm fine thank you, just a bit warm in here. Please, have a seat."
He made no effort to move away, looked down at her like a lion in the rut. "For the record then, I've never cared much for Andrew, always went by Zach." His eyes narrowed in on her bosom. "What do we have here?"
She looked down to see the exposed talisman, felt a sudden wave of vulnerability as though he had walked in on her as she stepped naked from a bathtub.
Rapt with interest, Zach touched a finger to it, tracing its form if not its function, his hand nudging her cleavage. "What is it?"
She recovered, feigned casualness, tucking it inside her blouse. "A gift from my father. I wear it as a sentimental reminder."
"He's passed on?"
"A year ago. Heart attack."
"Thank you." She cleared her throat, put down the file. "Zach, in all fairness to you, there's something you should be aware of."
"Say no more. I've worked jobs before where you had to hike a hundred yards to bathe in a river or dig a hole to go to the bathroom. Don't worry about me, I was an Eagle Scout. Living under these conditions is not a problem."
"Yes, I noted that on your résumé, but you misunderstand me. One of our colleagues whom we all knew and cared for was supposed to be here with us. She was killed by a hit-and-run driver the day she was to fly here. If you find that the others don't warm up to you right away, or seem distracted, well, I just want you to know it isn't personal."
Zach's expression displayed an abundance of compassion, the face of a friend. "Thank you for sharing that with me. I'll do my best to make this a smooth transition."
"I'm sure you'll fit in fine. Now if you'll excuse me, I still have a few things to finish up here. We start at 7 a.m. Breakfast is at 6:30."
At last, he receded from her space, stepped to the doorway. Like an approaching tsunami drawing water from the shoreline, his sudden absence from the spot in front of her left behind a cold, empty wake, filling Jesse with a longing appreciation for his sensual aura.
He paused at the entrance, turned to her. "Doctor Runyon tells me there's an eclipse tonight."
"Yes, the majority of the group is going up to the ridge to view it."
"Are you going?"
She shrugged a white lie. "I haven't decided yet. Depends on how much I get done. How about you?"
He held her eyes for a long beat; part predator, part lover. "It would be a shame to miss an opportunity to look upon something of such rare beauty."
The heat in her face spread to her loins. She wondered if he could sense her arousal, tried to cover with small talk, but it came out as innuendo. "You have a point. You never know if you'll get a second chance."
Zach switched his gaze to her table. "I also think that a bottle of Pinot Grigio is best when shared with another."
No words were spoken in the pause that followed; communication handled by their eyes, posture, and released pheromones.
When her acceptance of his invitation was not forthcoming, he took it as a cue. "Well then, I better get going. Good night Doctor Jesse." He turned and left; his exit as silent as his entrance.
Jesse heaved a deflating sigh, warmed by the stirrings of a heat she had not felt in many months. An undeniable force had just entered her life in the form of a co-worker, her lusty thoughts toward him courting a taboo she had vowed never to break. In light of past behavior, she would normally have denied such feelings, but she found herself wanting nothing more than to bend before the winds of change, considered the possibility that perhaps it was time to rethink her work ethic, adopt a new approach to life, and love.
She picked up his file, seeing the black and white information in a new light.
Yes, she mused, at the not-so-tender age of thirty-five, perhaps it was time for Jessica Corbett to come out of her shell.