No! It couldn't be him. It wasn't supposed to end like this.
The edge of the cliff slipped just out of his reach. As if in slow motion, it fell away from him. He reached out, grasping at air, then heard the high, girlish scream. It was coming from his own mouth.
"No! Please . . .."
But the wind carried his scream away, bouncing it off the canyon walls indifferently. Then, no longer frozen in that slow motion of unreality, he fell. The face of the cliff sped by, as did flashes of his life. Jessie. His best girl. He shut his eyes, his mind unraveling as fast as the cord of his life. He didn't feel the rocks of the canyon rise up to meet him, rise up to meet his empty body.
"How the hell should I know?"
Frustration was creeping into her voice and she pulled to the side of the dirt road, tossing her sunglasses on the now dusty dash of her open Jeep. She had half a mind to toss her cell phone there, as well. If there was one thing Chris McKenna hated, it was being lost.
"Goddamnit, McKenna, how hard can it be? You're supposed to be an expert at this."
"Don't start with me, Roger. If you'd let me take the main road out of Reno, I would be there by now." She glanced around, her frustration preventing her from enjoying the beauty of the backroads Roger had suggested.
"If you could follow directions, you'd be here by now."
"If you could give directions," she shot back.
"Listen, I think you're on Forest Road 713."
"If you continue on, you'll find Forest Road 740. Take it to the left. That'll hook you up with the road you were supposed to be on in the first place, 709."
"You know, Roger," she started, her voice now low and threatening. "It will be very embarrassing if you have to send someone out to look for your new S.A.R. You're sure of your directions this time?"
"McKenna, one more thing. I think the sign for 740 is missing. You'll just have to . . .."
"If you tell me to turn at the big pine on the corner one more time, I'm turning around and going back to fucking Yosemite!" she yelled before disconnecting. This time she did toss the phone on the dash.
She was hot, tired and dusty. The pleasant drive through the mountains had turned into a fiasco. She should have been there two hours ago. Instead, Roger had her traipsing through the mountains on forest roads without a map.
"A cold beer," she said out loud. She turned off the engine and got out, stretching her arms overhead and popping her sore back. A loud meow brought her around and she stared into Dillon's cage. Her normally passive cat glared at her.
"I know, I know. I promised it would be a short trip." Then she grinned. "Probably gotta pee, huh?" She rummaged into the cooler for a cold beer, pulling it out from under the ice. "Well, you'll have to hold it a little longer."
She took a long swallow, then sighed, finally allowing the beauty around her to register. By the time she had left the spectacular grandeur of Lake Tahoe behind and traveled into the foothills of the Gold Country, she had been too intent on remembering Roger's directions to pay attention to the scenery. But she had climbed out of the river valley and back into the high country, again surrounded by tall pines and spruce, but not tall enough to block the rugged mountains springing up around her. The Sierra Nevada Range.
She had worked in Yosemite for so long, she thought she had become immune to sights such as this. She realized that her indifference sprung from the constant crowds of people and the increasing crime in the park. There had been little time to enjoy the scenery. Search and Rescue had become a full-time job. That's why she jumped at the opportunity to come to Sierra City. That, and it offered her another chance to work with Roger. He had taken her under his wing in Yellowstone when she had been fresh out of college and had shown her the ends and outs of the Forest Service. She, like most first-timers, knew little about the politics of the Service. She soon grew tired of being a tourist guide and weary of the manual labor expected of the younger rangers. But no matter how hard they all struggled, in the end it all came down to politics and money. It hadn't taken but a few years for her to lose her enthusiasm for the job. That's about the time organized Search and Rescue was just coming into its own, with the local law enforcement agencies no longer able to handle the demand caused by the explosion of tourists in the parks and National Forests. Volunteer S.A.R. teams had begun to organize, all with good intentions but little money and training. When the Park Service finally began training their own, Chris was one of the first to volunteer. Her training took her from the classroom deep into the backcountry and she finally found what she had been looking for when she joined the Forest Service.
Now, nearly all of the National Parks had full-time Search and Rescue teams, but National Forest Land was still mostly volunteers. Roger had finally persuaded his managers at Lake Tahoe that the Sierra Ranger District warranted its own S.A.R. and he had called Chris away from Yosemite, luring her with a promise of uncrowded trails and little or no crime. He hadn't had to ask twice.
She finished her beer and tucked the empty bottle back inside the cooler. As she passed Dillon's cage, she stuck a finger inside to scratch his head, then withdrew quickly as he threatened to bite.
"Okay, let's see if we can find the elusive 740 so we can get this tiger out of his cage."
She brushed her fingers through her hair and shoved the sunglasses back on before heading along the bumpy road, her frustration over Roger's earlier directions having faded.
Forty-five minutes later she pulled in front of the Ranger Station, a charming log building tucked neatly into the forest. She looked back over her shoulder, the dust just settling back on the dirt road and she watched a large white dog run along the edge toward town. She noticed only a handful of cabins along the road and she supposed the main part of Sierra City was at the other end of town, toward Sacramento.
Chris tried to straighten her wind-blown hair with her fingers, then gave up. She must look a sight and she bent down to look into the side mirror.
"Jesus," she murmured, but there was little she could do about her appearance at this point. She gave Dillon's cage a gentle shake. "Just a little longer, Tiger."
She walked into the Ranger Station and watched the different groups of tourists milling about. Only a few gave her curious glances and she walked to the counter, impatiently tapping her fingers while she waited for the receptionist to finish restocking the brochures.
"May I help you?"
Chris offered her a quick smile then glanced around again, hoping Roger would show his face. Maps and pictures of the local wildlife lined the walls, and both were for sale on a rack in the corner. A topographical map was taped on the counter. It was faded from too many fingers running across its surface, looking for hiking trails and cross-country ski routes. Before Chris could answer, the radio scanner broke with static before a voice came on, calling the county sheriff to a minor traffic accident on Highway 89.
"I'm looking for Roger Hamilton," Chris finally replied.
"I'm sorry, he's out on the trails. Can I help you with something?"
"I'm McKenna . . . Chris," she said, sticking out her hand. "He's expecting me."
"Oh? The new Search and Rescue? You're the one that got lost," she stated, but gave Chris a firm handshake.
Chris smiled briefly. "His directions left a lot to be desired."
"Well, I'm glad you finally made it. We were all pretty excited to learn we were getting our own S.A.R. I'm Kay, by the way. I tend to the paperwork around here."
Chris nodded. "Any idea when Roger will be back?"
"No. A group of scouts came out on Monday and we're short-handed, what with Matt being sick. Mr. Hamilton went around to check on them."
"Great. He gets me lost for two hours then bails on me." But she softened her words with a quick smile. "Listen. I'd about kill for a shower. Any idea where I'll be staying?"
"Oh yes. Mr. Hamilton has a cabin rented for you. Pine Ridge Cabins, only about a mile out of town. I'll call for you and let them know you're on the way."
"Thanks. I'd appreciate it."
Kay went to her desk to call and Chris walked to the wall, studying the map tacked there. She had been in Yosemite the last five years and knew the trails like the back of her hand. She hated the thought of starting over, but at least she knew Roger. He would make it okay. She listened to Kay on the phone, thinking it would be different living in such a small town. She had only worked in National Parks before, where the only full-time residents were Forest Service and the summer concessionaires. Everyone generally left you alone and went about their own business, all too busy to worry about their neighbors. But here, in this small town, everyone knew everyone else and no doubt they all kept tabs on each other.
"You're all set, Chris. Ruth has your cabin all cleaned and ready. Keep going towards town and turn right on Spruce. It's well before you get into town. The office is about a mile down that road. Ruth will give you directions from there."
"Thanks so much. I'll be back later to check in with Roger."
Chris followed Kay's directions and found Spruce Street easily, thinking it was aptly named as the boughs of the trees covered the road, blocking out the sun in places. She pulled in at the first road, a sign painted red telling her it was the office. Before she could get out, a tiny, gray-haired woman opened the door and came out to meet her.
"You must be the new ranger," she stated, offering her hand.
"Search and Rescue, actually," Chris corrected. She was surprised at the firmness of the woman's handshake.
"Oh, well, same thing," the woman said in a singsong voice. "I'm Mary Ruth Henninger. Some call me just Ruth, though." She turned and headed back inside as fast as she had come. "Come along," she added, motioning for Chris to follow as she glided up the steps.
Chris followed the old woman inside and landed in the middle of a large kitchen. The smell of baking cookies hit her and there were already two dozen or so cooling on the table.
"Just be a second, honey. Let me get this batch out."
Chris watched as the woman, in one fluid motion, opened the oven, snatched the pan and closed the oven door with one quick kick of her foot. Chris' grin turned into a laugh as the woman took all of ten seconds to add the fresh cookies to the pile already cooling. Chris admired this woman's energy, especially as she suspected the woman to be in her seventies.
"Mr. Hamilton says you'll be here for awhile and that you would probably like your privacy, so I've given you cabin number eight. It's stuck off by itself with no neighbors in sight. Of course, when the wind blows right, you can hear what's going on at number seven and vice versa," she said, her singsong voice making Chris smile.
"Number eight, huh? Right now, I just want a shower."
"Well, I wasn't going to say anything . . . nowadays, women are traipsing all over the mountains not giving a hoot about their appearance," she said, hands placed firmly on her tiny hips. "Why, in my day . . . well, never mind. I know you're in a hurry dear. Linens and towels are collected once a week, Saturday mornings. You're responsible for bringing your own trash to the dumpster. Don't leave it out at the cabin, bears will get it. Mr. Hamilton had your refrigerator stocked with essentials, he said, but I haven't checked on his meaning of that. You know men," she said with a wave. "He also had some firewood delivered for you, but it won't get you anywhere near to winter. Now sign here," she finished, pointing to the form she had been writing on.
Keys dangled before her and Chris took them from weather-worn fingers.
"It's a lovely cabin, Chris. I can call you Chris?"
"Good. I'm sure you'll feel right at home in no time at all."
Ruth Henninger whisked Chris out the door as quickly as she had pulled her inside, shoving a bag of cookies into her hand as she hurriedly rattled off directions to her cabin.
"Rent's due at the first of each month," she called as Chris started her Jeep.
Chris sat there for a moment, realizing that she had said all of two sentences and yet she felt exhausted. Mary Ruth was nowhere to be seen and for a moment, Chris wondered if she had imagined the whole thing. But the smell of freshly baked cookies said otherwise, so she shrugged and headed on down Spruce a little farther, taking the second left on Pine, then a right on Fir. The winding road simply disappeared into the forest and ended at the driveway of the cabin.
"Private and secluded. Thanks, Roger."
With Dillon's cage in one hand and her cooler in the other, Chris walked to her new home, pleased to find a couple of Incense Cedars close by. She stopped, stuck her nose into the bark, inhaling deeply, savoring their aromatic scent. She walked around the back, surprised at how cozy it was. A covered deck followed the length of the small cabin and there were two wooden chairs sitting side by side, just waiting for company.
"Okay, Tiger, let's get you out."
Dillon nearly burst from his cage, finding the nearest bare spot to dig and relieve himself.
Chris opened a beer and relaxed for a moment on the steps, watching Dillon as he sniffed his new surroundings. It only took a second for him to shimmy up the small Spruce at the corner of the deck. He gingerly climbed from limb to limb, occasionally looking back to make sure Chris hadn't left him.
"You're such a baby," she said. She called him down after a few minutes, though. She needed to unload the Jeep and she desperately wanted a shower. One trip to the Jeep brought in a duffel bag and the box from her bathroom.
The cabin was furnished comfortably, with a table and four chairs separating the kitchen from the living room. A quick inspection of the refrigerator found that Roger had left beer, a bag of chips and a half-full jar of salsa, nothing else.
There was an old sofa and one oversized chair, both facing the windows looking back towards the driveway. The large, functional fireplace was tucked neatly in the corner and two good-sized windows covered the other wall, offering a view of the deck and the forest beyond.
She was pleased to find a propane heater in the small bedroom. Crowded inside were a regular sized bed and an old, scuffed six-drawer dresser with an equally old mirror hanging over it. The only other furniture in the bedroom was a tall, skinny nightstand with two wicker shelves. The closet was larger than she would have expected and it would hold her limited wardrobe without a problem.
The bathroom had two doors, one off the kitchen and the other through her bedroom. She stuck her head inside and nodded with approval. It looked newly remodeled and where a tub once took up space, a shower was installed and extra shelves for storage lined the wall. Clean linens and towels were folded neatly on one shelf. The sink and mirror were nearly brand-new and she glanced at herself, her reflection again indicating her immediate need for a shower.
She stripped where she stood, sweaty T-shirt following dirty shorts and socks. Dillon sat patiently on the toilet seat while she let the warm water wash away nearly four hours of dust. Washing her hair reminded her that she was well past time for a cut. Maybe Roger could recommend someone in tiny Sierra City.
She didn't bother unpacking the few boxes she had squeezed into her Jeep. They lay scattered on the living room floor and she would tend to them this evening. There wasn't a lot anyway, a few personal items, her small, portable CD player and some books. She had never been one to collect things, anyway. She had lived in Forest Service housing for so long, moving frequently, it didn't make sense to acquire household items of her own. She brought her summer clothes with her. The winter items were being stored at a friend's place in Yosemite. Chris would either have them shipped or make the drive back to pick them up later on.
She put on clean hiking shorts and a T-shirt and went out on the deck, letting the breeze dry her hair. She leaned on the railing, listening to the bird sounds and the wind moving through the trees and she heard the faint sound of running water. With fluid grace, she hopped over the railing and landed neatly on the ground, long legs carrying her quickly into the forest, searching for the sound of water. She found a small stream, three or four feet across in most places, flowing past her on its way to meet the larger Gold Creek in town, then eventually dumping into one of the many rivers in the area. Probably the Bear River, she thought. A sound to her right brought her around and two chipmunks scurried past, unmindful of her as they chased around a large Spruce. She grinned. That will keep Dillon busy. He was the only cat she knew that had absolutely no hunting skills. The closest he had come to catching anything was when a Hummingbird had flown into a window and lay stunned on the ground. She had scooped the bird up just as Dillon was in mid-pounce, his look of disappointment enough to make her laugh out loud.
She smiled at the memory, not thinking it odd at all that Dillon remained her closest friend after eight years. She looked up at the trees and sighed. No sense getting all sentimental and emotional now. Still wouldn't change the outcome.
She turned and made the return trip to the cabin, pausing beside the deck for a second. It was charming. Nothing like the cabins in Yosemite, built right on top of each other in little clusters. This would be almost like a home, something she hadn't had in years.
Roger had his back to the door pointing to the large trail map tacked to the wall, two hikers listening intently. Chris nodded at Kay, then walked to the counter to listen.
"Once you come to the first fork, Ridge Trail veers to the left. It's very steep and I wouldn't recommend it this late in the day. Take the Lake Trail cutoff. It's only about two miles round trip, easy walking and you'll end up right back at the trailhead, provided you don't miss the turn."
Chris smiled. She hadn't seen Roger in nearly ten years and they had spoken only a handful of times over those years, but it was as if no time had passed at all. His hair was still sandy blonde, kept a little too long. His moustache still blended with a few days stubble and he was still shorter than she was.
As if sensing her presence, he turned, surprise evident in his eyes.
"Hello, Roger," she drawled, offering him her hand. He took it, then grabbed her in a bear hug.
"My God, McKenna, you look great!"
"Well, finally lost my baby fat," she said, patting her flat stomach. When she had known Roger, she had been at least fifteen pounds heavier. He, too, looked to be in great shape.
"What happened to your beer gut?"
"Took up jogging, if you can believe that," he said and they laughed. "Damn good to see you, McKenna. Glad I didn't have to call out the volunteer S.A.R. team to find you."
"Your directions sucked, Roger."
"Just testing your tracking skills, McKenna." He wrapped a strong arm around her shoulder and led her behind the counter. "Come on back. Let's catch up a bit. Kay told me you came by and she sent you to the cabin."
"I needed a shower. And Roger, the cabin is great. Thanks." She took the seat he motioned her to in front of his desk.
"Small, but private. I thought you'd like it." He leaned back in his chair and comfortably rested folded hands behind his head and studied her.
"Never thought you'd leave Yosemite."
"I never thought I would, either. But it got too crowded and busy for me. Every damn weekend was like Fourth of July in Yellowstone."
Roger leaned forward then, resting his arms on the cluttered desk before him. "Won't have that problem here, although we get more crowded every year. Tahoe is no longer a sleepy little village and folks wanting peace and quiet hear about Sierra City. They tell two friends and so on. I've been here six years, McKenna, and they've only allowed me one more position in that time. Wouldn't be getting S.A.R. now if those three skiers hadn't gotten lost and died this spring. Hell, we had two goddamned volunteers and me looking for them."
"Yeah. But it happens. What I'm saying is, don't think you're going to be strictly S.A.R. We all wear a lot of hats here. Although I remember your aversion to being a tour guide."
A comfortable silence followed while they looked each other over, then identical smiles touched their faces.
"I've missed you," she said.
"Hell, me too." Then he leaned forward. "Remember that old bar in Gardiner, just across the Wyoming border?"
"Oh, yeah," she nodded. "That's where you taught me to drink."
"My ass. You could drink me under the table. We've got the Rock House Café here. The Rock, as the locals call it, is the only bar in town. Let me buy you a cold beer. Maybe we'll stay long enough for dinner. They've got great steaks."
"You're on, but . . . I'll have to skip the steaks. I'm a vegetarian," she told him.
"McKenna? A vegetarian? What the hell is wrong with you?"
She laughed. "Some woman turned me on to it awhile back."
"No doubt. And was this woman someone special?" he asked with a grin.
"She was," Chris agreed.
"But not anymore?"
Chris didn't answer for a moment, not really wanting to bring up all that old baggage. It had been so long, anyway. But Roger was Roger and she remembered when he had helped her through her very first breakup, only a few months after she had met him. She looked up and met his eyes, knowing he was remembering that, too.
"It's been eight years," she finally said.
He raised his eyebrows. "Bad breakup?"
Chris laughed. "I made a total ass of myself," she said. "Damn near chased her to San Francisco."
Roger laughed, too. "If I remember, McKenna, you were always the one being chased."
"Yeah, well, I was in love," she said dramatically. She scratched a nonexistent itch on the back of her neck before continuing. "Actually, she decided she liked men better. Talk about a blow to your ego," she said.
She shrugged. "Well, this particular man was the only child of a millionaire father. Who could blame her?" she said sarcastically.
"Women are fickle," Roger murmured. "Who needs them."
Chris smiled. "That mean you're single?"
Roger grinned. "Hell, no. Got me a woman here in town. I was just trying to make you feel better."
"Thanks a lot. I think I'll take you up on that beer now."
"Sure. And we'll see if Dave can whip something up for you."
She rushed in, barely pausing at the receptionist's desk on her way past.
"Yes, Ms. Stone, she's been waiting."
Jessie knocked lightly on the door, then stuck her head inside, smiling apologetically at her therapist.
"Jessie. Come in." Dr. Davies' smile was brief. "You're late. Again," she added.
"Sorry, Doc. I couldn't break away."
Jessie tossed her purse on the opposite chair before sitting. After all these months, she was still nervous whenever she visited Dr. Davies. Whenever she managed to keep her appointment, that is. It was supposed to get easier, she was told, but there was just something about facing her week after week, knowing the good doctor knew all the intimate details of her life. Well, those she would share, anyway.
"You missed last week. Again." Dr. Davies leaned forward, resting her elbows on her desk. "I was worried. After our session the last time, you seemed upset."
"I always seem upset." Jessie sat back in her chair, her ankle resting casually on her knee and she absently twirled the string of her black Reeboks. "I'm just trying to wrap up the book. I get so involved, days just pass by. You know how it is."
"So you haven't given thought to what I suggested?"
Jessie swallowed nervously, her eyes moving quickly around the room, bouncing off the now familiar paintings and prints that adorned the walls, lighting everywhere except on her therapist.
"I can see you have," Dr. Davies said quietly.
"No. I just can't see myself going back to Sierra City after all this time. I might very well end up as a character in one of my books."
Dr. Davies laughed lightly. "You already are a character in one of your books. Several times over, I think." She paused before continuing. "You've been coming to me for nearly two years, Jessie. I hate to admit it, but we've made little progress. Perhaps confronting your mother . . .."
"She's not my mother," Jessie spat.
"I'm sorry. Annie. I think if you would go back, confront her, talk to her, get some sort of closure on that part of your life, then we can go forward from there."
Jessie stared at her, unblinking, then let her eyes slide away. Six therapists in the last five years and all but one had suggested she go back to see . . . her. Then Jessie wryly flicked her eyes to the ceiling. Of course, the lone dissenter had suggested Jessie see a psychiatrist, hinting at hospitalization, shortly after she had read Jessie's latest book and its graphic depiction of murder.
"Let's seriously give it some thought, Jessie. I'm not suggesting you go back to reconcile, I'm only suggesting you go see her and talk about what happened, tell her how you feel about her."
"Oh, believe me, she knows how I feel."
Dr. Davies nodded. Jessie could see frustration in the doctor's eyes for the first time and she suddenly understood why they all suggested the same thing. They made progress only to a certain point, then each session consisted of rehashing the old over and over again. Jessie suspected they got just as tired as she did discussing the same thing until they beat it to death, only to see it find life again the next week.
"It's been two weeks since we talked but I know you're finishing up your book. Have you gone out?"
Jessie nodded. "A couple of times."
"And?" she prodded.
"And what?" Jessie stood quickly, rustling the papers on Dr. Davies' desk as she walked past. "Nothing's changed, Doc. I didn't suddenly find a conscience and a set of morals in the last two weeks."
"Tell me what happened."
Jessie paced back and forth in the large office, remembering the two encounters. She shook her head. She hated this part. So she tried the casual approach.
"Just meeting new friends at the bar, you know. No big deal. One was even quite nice," Jessie added.
"And you took her to your place?"
Jessie stared. "Are you kidding? I didn't like her that much."
Dr. Davies leaned back in her chair and watched Jessie pace. "And why do you think you didn't invite her to your apartment?"
Jessie turned on her. "Why do you ask me that every week? I keep telling you, I don't like them that much. I don't want them at my home. It was just sex."
Dr. Davies pointed at the chair in front of her desk. "Sit down, Jessie, you're making me dizzy."
When Jessie finally settled in the chair, she continued. "Do you even remember their names?"
"I don't recall asking," Jessie replied.
Dr. Davies sighed wearily. "I don't need to tell you how destructive this is, not only to yourself but to these women as well."
"Oh, please. These women go willingly. They're not out looking for love, Doc, just a quick release and then it's right back out there."
"Are you sure? None of these women were actually attracted to you? None of them took a liking to you for what's inside?"
"What's to like? I'm not a nice person," Jessie admitted.
Dr. Davies paused, studying her and Jessie shifted nervously, only barely talking herself out of bolting from the room.
"Let's go back, Jessie," Dr. Davies suggested. "We've discussed your childhood and your adult life. We always seem to skip over your adolescence."
Jessie shrugged, her brain desperately trying to recall memories.
"Tell me about . . . ninth grade," Dr. Davies suggested.
"I don't remember anything special. Just starting high school."
"What about birthday parties?"
"Were you in any clubs?"
"Not that I recall."
"Well, what did you do in high school?"
"Do? I didn't do anything. I went to school."
"Jessie, you must have had some outside activities. What about at home? What did you do for entertainment?"
Jessie stared hard at her, trying to read behind the questions. "I don't remember doing anything."
"What about your father? You remember him when you were a child. How about later? Did you still go camping with him, fishing?"
Jessie shook her head. "No. He died."
"You were seventeen when he died. What about before?"
Jessie shrugged. "I'm sure he was there," she murmured. "I just don't have any memories of him then."
"What about your mother? Annie?"
"What about her?"
"Was she there when you came home from school?"
"She was there. That was all. She didn't concern herself with me."
"Why do you think she didn't concern herself with you?"
"She didn't care what happened to me," Jessie said loudly. "She just . . . she just didn't care."
"Did she not ask you about your grades?"
"What about your father? Was he concerned about you?"
Jessie pulled her eyes away, landing on a familiar painting behind the doctor's head.
"I don't remember. I guess."
Dr. Davies sighed and rested her elbows on her desk, slowly pulling her glasses off.
"Jessie, we can go over and over these questions . . . and we have. But your answers are always the same. You don't remember. Why don't you remember, Jessie?"
"Don't you think I ask myself that?"
Dr. Davies nodded. "I know you do. Why else would you be seeking my help? I'll suggest it again, Jessie. Go back. See her. Ask her."
"I don't know what I would say to her," Jessie murmured.
"Jessie, if you ever hope to find peace in your life, to find happiness, to find someone to build a life with, then you've got to deal with your past. And you're not dealing with it. You ran from it all those years ago and you're still running. That's why you must go back and face your fears. Then maybe you can start to have a real life here."
Jessie slumped back, her head hung back as she stared at the ceiling. Shit.
"I haven't spoken to her since I was seventeen. Over sixteen years, nearly seventeen. I don't even know if she's still there," she said weakly.
"McKenna, how did you get into this line of work, anyway?"
Bobby Daniels was panting and struggling to keep up with Chris as they hiked the steep part of Fire Lookout Trail.
"I started out working summers in Yellowstone during college. That's where I met Roger." She kept walking, smiling a little as Bobby slipped on a rock. "When I first got hired, Search and Rescue was still mostly volunteers or they were county or state people. Yellowstone finally hired a couple full-timers but Yosemite was one of the first to hire a regular S.A.R. team," she said, continuing up the hill.
"Hey, slow down, will you?"
Chris stopped and leaned against a tree, pausing to catch her breath. Three weeks of walking these trails and she already felt like she knew them better than Bobby, who had been living here two years now. He had graduated college in Sacramento and wanted to take a summer off so he'd come here to work at the Pine Creek Lodge for Bill and Peggy. He hadn't left yet.
But Chris had a knack for directions, always had. It was almost like she had a compass in her head. The first week she was here, a seventy-two year old Alzheimer's patient turned up missing. She, Bobby and the only other S.A.R. volunteer, Greg Manning, had combed the trails alone that first day, adding volunteers from town by the end of the afternoon. She figured she walked every trail there those first two days. She remembered every step. At noon on the second day, they started searching the forest off the main trails. She finally found him, only two miles off the trail. He had spent the time curled against a tree trunk and by the time she got to him, he was completely incoherent. He had to be sedated before they could walk him back to the lodge. Since then, she'd only had one other search, that involving a ten year old boy with epilepsy. She and Bobby found him the same afternoon. He was fine, just lost.
"You know, you spend an awful lot of time out here for a volunteer, Bobby. Why haven't you hooked up with the Forest Service yet?"
"We looked into it last year. Roger is so short-handed, he thought they might authorize another position up here, but they said there wasn't enough money. Not if Roger wanted to get S.A.R. up here, too. And, of course, they had just brought in Hatcher the year before." Bobby shrugged and looked off into the forest. "I mean, I could have gotten hired. When someone who's been in as long as Roger puts in a word for you, it's a lock, but I didn't want to relocate. Could've gone south to Sequoia or someplace up in Oregon, but this has become home. And I really wasn't interested in hiring on as maintenance. "
Chris nodded. "So, college educated and working in a lodge. Ain't that the life?"
Bobby grinned. "I make enough to pay my student loans and I've got free rent. And it beats the hell out of working in a high-rise, that's for sure."
"Can you imagine fighting traffic every damn day to get to your job, only to be locked inside some depressing building for eight hours?"
"Yeah. Then traffic all the way home again, too." Bobby playfully tossed a pinecone at her. "We've got it made up here, McKenna. You know it?"
Chris agreed. "Pay's not so great but look at this view."
She turned a complete circle, eyes following the jagged face of Sierra Buttes to the west, outlined perfectly against the blue, blue sky, then back down the trail which they had just hiked. Beautiful.
The radio broke static just seconds before Roger's voice disturbed the silence.
"Yeah," she said, taking the radio from its holster at her hip.
"What's your 10-20?"
"Fire Lookout Trail."
"How far? Have you passed the lake cutoff?"
"Yes. We're just past the steep part where it levels off," she said. "You need us to go back down?"
"No. Up. I've got a frantic mom here. Her two boys were going to hike to the tower. Were supposed to be back down by now."
Chris and Bobby exchanged glances.
"No one signed in at the trailhead," she told Roger.
"No. They would have started on the Lake Trail and cut across. I've got Matt covering that one." He paused only long enough for Chris to notice his frustration. "Besides, they probably wouldn't know to sign in."
"They're young, McKenna."
"Grade school? Jesus Christ! Who lets children hike up . . .."
Roger cleared his throat. "McKenna, she's already heard it from me."
"Ten-four. I'll radio from the top." She was already striding off while putting the radio back in its holster. "Come on, Bobby," she called over her shoulder.
Fifteen minutes later, they topped the ridge, the old fire tower in sight. They paused to catch their breath while Chris searched with her binoculars.
"They're under the tower," she said. "Shit. One is prone. Goddamned stupid mother letting them go off by themselves," she murmured as she ran towards them.
"They probably convinced her they were old enough," Bobby panted behind her. "You know how kids are nowadays."
"Actually, I think it's how parents are nowadays. They look all of eight years old."
She had her backpack off by the time she reached them, relieved to see both boys conscious.
"Hey guys," she said. The boy lying down had blood on his forehead and the other one had obviously been crying. She touched his arm gently. "What happened to him?"
"He fell," he said, wiping his nose on the sleeve of his T-shirt.
"From the tower?"
"Yes," he whispered, his voice trembling.
She shook her head, but held her tongue. They were eight and ten, she guessed. Jesus Christ! Up here alone. The mother is the one who needed a good ass whipping. She bent to the boy on the ground.
"Can you move your arms? Your legs?"
He could. She took the first aid kit from her backpack and cleaned the small gash on his head. He apparently hit a rock when he fell. Chris guessed he had been knocked out or else they would have attempted to hike back down. She turned back to the older one.
"How long was he out?" she asked quietly.
"A long time," he said before he started crying again. "I thought he was dead."
"And he could be. That was a damn stupid thing to do." She handed the radio to Bobby. "Let Roger know we found them."
She put antiseptic on the boy's gash and nodded when he jumped. At least his reflexes seemed to be normal. She put two butterfly bandages on before speaking.
"What's your name?"
"I'm Kyle. He's Kurt," the older one said, pointing to his brother who was now sitting up.
"Does he talk?"
"Kurt, how high up were you?"
"We crawled over the wire," he whispered
"Jesus Christ! You could have broken your neck. Do you know that? There's a reason for that sign, a reason those steps are closed off." She stared at them, trying to make them understand how lucky they were to be unhurt. "Hike up Ridge Trail. You can stand on a rock and see forever. Just like up there," she said, pointing to the tower. "But don't ever come up here again. You hear me?"
"Yes, ma'am," they said, lips trembling, eyes tearing again.
"McKenna, Matt's here," Bobby said, pointing to the lone figure walking towards them.
If there was one person Chris had taken an instant liking to, it was Matt Henderson. No matter what the circumstance or situation, Matt had a smile on his face. He had been in the Sierra District four years and he was well respected in town and depended on by Roger to handle even the most mundane chores.
He greeted them now with a wave and a smile, his long hair tied in a ponytail and bouncing on his neck as he walked.
"Found the little monsters, huh? Hi boys. How are we feeling?"
Chris smiled and stepped out of the way, bringing Kurt around for Matt to inspect.
"Got a nice gash here," she said. "Probably a headache, too."
"Gonna need a few," she said. At Kurt's horrified look, they laughed. "Be thankful it's only stitches, Kurt. We could be hauling you out of here by helicopter."
"Let's take them back down the way you came up," Matt suggested. "It'll be quickest and all downhill."
"You go ahead. Bobby's going to show me the shortcut to Ridge Trail."
She headed down the trail Matt had just come up and left Bobby still talking. He chased after her, catching up just as she disappeared into the trees.
"Hey, wait up, McKenna!"
"Well, come on, it's getting late."
"They're about the fourth ones this summer," he panted beside her.
"Then why in the hell is the thing still standing?"
"It's old, I guess. Built in 1906, Roger says. Some think we should just open it up, so people could just walk up the steps instead of climbing over the wire."
"That's great," she said dryly. "The tower is a hundred feet high. That'll be pretty."
"It was just a thought, McKenna. It's not like we've got the personnel to keep watch, anyway."
"No. And it's not like the wire is doing any damn good."
Bobby stopped her with a tug on her sleeve and pointed into the woods.
"What did I say to look for?"
"The rock with the face in it," she said, her eyes glancing over the rocks lining the trail. Then she laughed. "A face, my ass."
Bobby shoved her arm playfully. "But you found it."
She picked her way carefully across the rocks, finding the well-concealed trail between two Spruce trees.
"Clever," she said.
Bobby shrugged. "Well, I didn't make it," he admitted. "But it's about forty-five minutes shorter than taking Ridge Trail all the way around. If you don't mind climbing over a few boulders on the way down."
"But not coming up?" she asked.
"Oh, God no. It's all uphill. This is strictly a short cut on the way back down."
They reached the Lake Trail in no time and followed it around to the trailhead. Chris tossed her backpack into the Jeep and pulled out a full bottle of water from behind the seat. She took a mouthful, then handed the bottle to Bobby. He handed it back after his turn, then stared at Chris silently.
"What?" she finally asked.
"Matt. He likes you."
"Yeah? So? I like him, too."
"No. I mean, you know, he likes you."
Chris laughed. "You mean like boy-girl kind of like? Aren't we kind of old for this?"
"It's not like he's said anything to me or asked me to tell you. I can just tell, you know. Besides, I think you'd make a cute couple."
Chris laughed again. "Sorry to disappoint you, kid, but I'm really into the girl-girl kind of relationships."
Bobby stared, his eyes wide. "But, Roger said I should go ahead and tell you, he said you were as straight as they come."
"Get in, will you?" Chris started the Jeep and pulled away, letting the wind cool her hot face. "Roger was just having a little fun, Bobby. Apparently, it doesn't take much to amuse him," she said dryly.
"So, you and Matt, that's out, I guess?"
Chris grinned. "Does he have a sister?"
She was sitting on the sofa reading that night when Roger knocked on her door.
"Hey? Can I join you?" He held up a six pack of beer.
"Of course, come in." She took the beer and put them in the refrigerator, handing him a cold one of hers.
"Mrs. Patterson wanted me to thank you for finding her boys this afternoon." He sat down beside her. "They tell me you have a little temper and that you yelled at them."
"Me? Hardly. I hope you yelled at the mother, though."
"Oh, yeah. I don't think she'll do anything like that again."
"By the way, thanks for encouraging Bobby to play matchmaker. Straight as they come, huh?"
Roger's laugh shook the windowpanes and Chris joined in.
"Bobby was going on and on about you and Matt but he suspected you might be gay and it was such a shame and so on that I just wanted him to shut up about it. I told him to tell you because you were a little dense when it came to men."
"Thanks a lot. I think I broke his heart."
"He idolizes Matt. If I didn't know better, I'd think he had a crush on him."
"Maybe he does."
"Don't think so, McKenna. Bobby's got him a little gal in Reno." He picked up the book she was reading and smiled. "J. T. Stone. Have you read all six of hers?"
"No, this is just the third. Have you?"
"Yep. She's from around here, you know."
"Really?" Chris flipped over to the back and looked at the picture of the author for the hundredth time, looking briefly into the very dark eyes that stared back at her. "Says here, she's from New York."
"Well, she grew up around here. Her mother still lives here." He took the book from her and looked at the picture of J. T. Stone. "Jessie Stone. Still so beautiful. Tragic story, really."
"No, her life. Her mother's, too. Annie."
"The hermit lady, as Kay calls her?"
"She's not really a hermit, not like what they called them in the old days, anyway. She just prefers her own company and doesn't like to get out. I was friends with her and Jack when I worked here in the 70's, before I went to Tahoe. Jack Stone was the Regional Supervisor for this district."
Chris was intrigued. Ever since she had picked up one of her books and seen the picture on the back, she had been curious about J. T. Stone. Her books were dark, mysterious. Her picture on the back was mysterious, too and her nearly black eyes revealed little, perhaps adding to the mystique.
"Well, tell me the story," she said, drawing up her legs under her and pulling Dillon into her lap.
"Jessie was a teenager when I met her. Jack was older, already in his mid-fifties, but we became friends. He could party, that one. Very seldom was he seen in public with his wife. That would be Annie. I think that's why people call her a hermit. They assumed she didn't want to go out, when actually, Jack wouldn't allow it. He controlled her totally, right down to taking Jessie away from her."
"What do you mean, taking her away?"
"Well, he was already forty when she was born. That girl could do no wrong in his eyes. If Annie tried to discipline her, Jack was there to take her away with him, out on the trails, out fishing, anything to get away from Annie. So, naturally, Jessie grew up following him everywhere and had little to do with her mother. Jack wouldn't allow Annie to go along with them, you see. He said it was his quality time with his little girl. Now, a lot of this I've learned from Annie over the years. Jack would never have told me all that."
"Abuse?" Chris asked.
"Jack. Sexual abuse. With the kid," Chris suggested.
"Jack? Oh, no," Roger said. "He loved Jessie."
Chris raised an eyebrow. With what little Roger had just told her, she would bet a hundred dollars this Jack wasn't just simply fond of his little girl.
"You know what I mean. He wouldn't hurt her. He worshiped her."
"Okay," Chris said, still skeptical. "Then tell me the rest." Chris was enjoying the story. She had a ridiculous teenage crush on the author already, all from just a picture. Perhaps Roger could give her some insight on J. T. Stone's personality.
"Well, needless to say, Jack and Annie didn't exactly have an ideal marriage. Jack had girlfriends all over the place. Everyone knew about them. Even Annie. Of course, Jessie never knew. Well, Annie started going to San Francisco more and more and Jack found out she had a man there. They had a terrible screaming match, he called her a whore, unfit mother, you name it. Annie came right back at him about all the women he had on the side and how their marriage was a farce. Anyway, they thought Jessie was outside, but she heard the whole thing. She would have been sixteen, I think. Maybe older. Annie said Jessie only said one thing to her. She said, "So, this is all your fault." Well, Jack took Jessie away. Took her out hiking or something. Came home like nothing had happened. Next day, went to work like normal and didn't come home. We found him lying at the bottom of Milford Canyon. He had fallen off the ledge up on Ridge Trail."
"Jesus. Did he jump?"
Roger shrugged. "Who's to say? Annie thinks so. So do I."
"Why?" She got up to get them another beer, pouring out the rest of her now warm one.
"Annie thinks because he couldn't bear the thought of Jessie finding out about all the woman he had on the side. I think he couldn't stand the thought of his friends finding out that Annie had been cheating on him. That would have made him less a man, you see."
"So you kill yourself?"
"Well, I wouldn't, no. But you'd have to know Jack."
"So what happened to Jessie? She found out he was nothing but a liar?"
"After they found him, Jessie blamed Annie for his death, I guess. When she turned seventeen, she left and hasn't been back since. Sixteen, seventeen years now, I guess."
"She hasn't seen her mother?"
"Hasn't even spoken to her mother," Roger said.
"No wonder the mother is always the first to get murdered in her books. And not very pleasant deaths, either," Chris added.
"Yeah, I know. But Annie is okay now. I'm not sure how she survived the first few years, but she's one strong woman."
"I'd like to meet her, Roger. Kay says you take her groceries and stuff."
"Yeah. I go see her about once a week or so. Before I came back here, she would only go into town every other month and stock up, then no one would see her again until the next time. That's how the hermit thing stuck. We can go see her tomorrow, if you like. I don't think she'd mind."
Annie was sitting on the porch, a thick book lying in her lap, when they drove up. She waved twice, then got up to meet them.
"Why, Roger, what a surprise." She turned to Chris. "Hello. I'm Annie Stone."
Her voice was as strong as her handshake and Chris smiled politely.
"This is Chris McKenna, new Search and Rescue. And a friend," he added.
"Finally got your S.A.R., Roger? Good. Well, I'm pleased to meet you, Chris McKenna. Come inside. I have fresh brewed tea. It's so hot out, isn't it?"
Chris exchanged a glance with Roger as they followed her inside. What a pleasant woman, Chris thought. Absolutely nothing like she had been envisioning. Chris looked around the well-kept house, pausing in the living room before following Roger and Annie into the kitchen. The walls were cluttered with paintings and numerous others lay scattered about, some leaning against the wall. She looked closer and saw Annie's name scribbled at the bottom.
"Oh, don't look too closely, Chris. That's just my hobby. Some of the better ones I've hung, but the others . . . well, I'm out of room in my studio." She pointed to the stack leaning against the wall. "Those are on the way to the basement. I can't bring myself to paint over them yet."
"Well, they all look very good," Chris said sincerely. For the little she knew about painting, they at least looked like trees and mountains.
They took their iced tea to the back deck, shaded this time of day. Chris waited while Roger found another chair for her. She doubted Annie ever had need for three. They were silent for a long moment, all three looking out toward the mountain as the sun reflected off the western facing slopes.
"Well, Roger, it's unlike you to show up unexpectedly. Did you need something or are you just showing me off to the new S.A.R.?"
"Can't I just visit, Annie? Chris just happened to be along."
"Bullshit, Roger. We've been friends too long," she said, bringing a smile to Chris.
"I wanted to meet you," Chris admitted.
"Why? Have you heard the rumors about me and you wanted to see a real live hermit for yourself?" she asked with a laugh. "I'm not really a hermit, dear," she said quietly. "Just don't have a whole lot of use for people, is all."
Chris thought again what a delightful woman she was and she was glad that Roger brought her here.
"I was filling her in on the local history last night, Annie. Your name came up," Roger said.
"Oh, all that again?" She turned to Chris. "Do you know of my daughter, Chris?"
"I've read a couple of her books, yes."
Annie nodded. "Then you know about as much as I do." She looked away, eyes closed for a moment. "How old are you?"
"I'm thirty-three," she said, resisting the urge to fall back on her standard reply of twenty-nine.
"Jessie will be thirty-four this fall. She was a tall girl, although I don't think as tall as you are. You favor somewhat, with your dark complexion, but your hair is much lighter. And of course, she didn't have your pretty blue eyes. She had her father's eyes, dark as the night," Annie said quietly. Then she looked up, a smile returning. "Oh, well. Another life. Now, how long have you been here?"
"First of this month," Chris said.
"You probably haven't had a decent meal since you got here, then. Knowing Roger, he has you at the Rock every night."
Chris nodded, her eyes flicking to Roger.
"I'll expect you for dinner tomorrow night at six."
"Yes. You do eat?"
Chris nodded again. "I'll be here."
That evening, at the Rock House, Chris joined Roger and Ellen for dinner. Ellen Burdett owned the only grocery store in Sierra City. Widowed at a young age, she took the insurance money and bought the store from Mrs. Ramsey, who had wanted to move to Oregon to be closer to her daughter. She and Roger started seeing each other shortly after Ellen moved here. Chris would bet money that they had never spoken of marriage. Roger would run screaming into the night and Chris suspected Ellen knew that.
"Roger tells me you're having dinner with Annie Stone tomorrow," Ellen said.
"Yeah. Surprised the hell out of me." Chris raised her hand and waved at Martha. "Still waiting for that beer," she yelled.
"Keep your pants on, McKenna, I'm the only one here," Martha yelled back.
"Ah, small town politeness. Gotta love it," Chris murmured.
"If you're dying of thirst, have some of mine," Roger offered.
Chris took a sip, then pushed the mug back to him.
"I've been here five years and I have yet to meet her," Ellen said.
"Annie? You're kidding? Why haven't you gone with Roger?"
Ellen shrugged. "I didn't want to impose on her and it would be rude. I mean, I would be going mostly out of curiosity."
Chris turned to Roger. "Why do you allow these rumors to continue? She seemed a perfectly normal, healthy woman to me."
"And she is. I think Annie enjoys the rumors. It keeps people away, that's for sure. And it's not like she never leaves the house. She goes to San Francisco a couple of times a year and she's an avid hiker. She's been all over these mountains and rarely stays on the trails. Most of her paintings come from something she's seen on her hikes."
"Why would she feel comfortable going out in San Francisco and not here?" Chris asked.
"She never went out here, even when Jack was alive. She doesn't have any friends here. Not one." Then he shrugged. "Well, other than me."
"That's a very sad life," Ellen said.
"Of her choosing, let's don't forget," he said.
Martha finally came with Chris' beer, sloshing a little on the table when she sat it down.
"Dave's got some pasta concoction he's made up for you, McKenna."
"Thanks. Can't wait." Chris turned to Ellen. "I've really got to start cooking. These nightly surprises of Dave's are getting stranger by the day. The other night, he gave me a bowl of cottage cheese with pinto beans on top."
"I warned you to stick with the baked potato," Ellen said.