Drango Gap by RangerLiz

Drango Gap
by Elizabeth Carroll AKA RangerLiz

Prelude
Colorado, 1971

His father called it The Learning Place. It was the place where he made his only child sit to contemplate his most recent punishment, a chance to understand the importance of such harsh lessons a father imparted to his son.

The boy sat inside the dark crawl space beneath the stairs of the log house, his tiny hands bloody and torn from the hazel switch his father had applied to his hands and buttocks. Each time the muscular, hazel-eyed man brought the switch down, he told his son how much he loved him. He was trying to teach his son good, Christian values in a world gone mad.

Ten lashes were given to each hand and each cheek, the prescribed number of blows his father’s father had used. Once he had been disciplined, his father had guided his son into the crawl space.

Outside the Learning Place he could hear his father’s voice telling his Momma that boys do not play with girl’s toys. Especially, his father said in the flat, cold tones delivered with the cadence of a machine-gun, dolls were girl toys, not boy toys. The boy heard his Momma stammer that she was sorry that she had broken another RULE.

It seemed even Momma after ten years did not know all the RULES that his father enforced upon his small family out of pure love and concern. He heard Momma promising she would never let him play with her childhood dolls again, imploring her husband not to teach her baby anymore lessons today.

There was the sudden, hard sound of the impact of an open hand hitting flesh, and the boy heard his Momma cry out in pain. The boy bit his lower lip, containing the urge to cry out for his Momma’s sake. It would only make his father more determined to teach his errant wife a proper lesson.

The boy blamed himself for Momma having to learn his lesson. Momma loved him so much, sometimes she forgot that father was never one to miss things. The boy wanted nothing more than to run to his Momma’s side, to tell his father it was his fault, not Momma’s. But he knew if he opened the door and stepped outside, his father would only have to teach Momma more lessons.

Father was telling Momma he did not want his son becoming one of those longhaired, girlie men that had not done their duty. Father had done his duty In-Country, in a strange, distant land where people named Gooks and Slant Eyes lived. It had been a perilous thing his father had done, serving alongside colored folks that had forgotten their place in the world.

But he knew if he opened the door and stepped out, his father would only have to teach Momma more. He squared his small jaw, resolving that she would not suffer because he had made a mistake. And his father did love him.

He did not want his boy becoming a long haired, man-girl like so many boys were wont to become these days. He squared his shoulders, determined he would prove to his father that he could be a man.

He studied the object that had gotten him and Momma taught their lesson. Momma had let him play with it, since he been stuck inside during the long, cold winter with a bad cough. The porcelain face of the girl doll had been cracked when his father had found him laying the baby doll inside the small, toy crib his Momma had let him take to his tiny room.

He could remember looking up from the crib, where he had been talking about how much he wanted to be outside playing with his friends. He had been humming a song, pretending he was finishing feeding and changing the baby. His father’s huge, calloused hands had clamped hard around his son’s small, narrow shoulders and squeezed hard.

It hurt when he tried to raise his arms over his shoulders, and he could clearly see the finger marks his father’s grip had left. He wiped his snub nose free of the snot that had been running freely for days. The small shaft of light, illuminating the reason for his punishment, came from the crack in the door.

His father had told him he would teach him how to hunt once he was better. Hunting, playing football and being a Trooper where things that men and boys did. Dolls and baby raising were things women and girls did, not boys. He told his son that he wanted him to be able to handle himself no matter what happened in his life.

The boy felt along the ground with his hands, finding a small box which rattled. It was a box of matches. He held them in his raw, bloody hands, and glanced at the doll. He would make things right. His father said fire burned away sin and filth, and the world needed to be purified so white men and women could take their rightful place above all others.

His father was teaching him how race mixing, the women’s movement to become men, and shadowy creatures he called Fags and Dykes were trying to kill America. He wanted his son able to defend the nation his father had fought for during the Vietnam War. His father still had his sniper rifle from his days as a Marine Sniper.

He let his son help him oil and tend the weapon that men used. His father loved him and his Momma. He just was trying real hard to keep them on the Path of Righteousness. The Learning Place and beatings were part of what he had to do.

It was his duty as a Man and Father. He did not like what he had to do, but he did it all out of love. Like his own father had done.

The boy promised himself he would become the same man his father was. He would carry on the tradition of being a man.
Chapter One:
Persian Gulf, July 20 1995
There was a certain clarity to the moment: a sense of what her entire life had been geared towards as the alarm rose. Seven bandits, coming in hot and fast, and definitely not friendly. Lt. Dianthe “Breakneck” Xavier listened to the steady flow of information being fed to her by her Radio Intercept Officer, or RIO.

But the rules of engagement bound them to hold their fire until given justification. Dianthe drew a deep breath, centering herself.

Michael “Dusty” Rhoades had been her RIO since she had come aboard the carrier. He never missed a beat, no matter how bad things got. Dusty had volunteered to be the back seat officer for the freshly trained fighter pilot. Dianthe had flown electronic warfare training planes for the Navy most of her career, until Les Aspin gave women aviators the right to join combat wings.

She had been assigned to the best duty a female aviator could pull: a composite squadron based on land to help train Navy and Marine pilots in mock engagements. Dianthe had been fast tracked: she had been one of the first women given fighter pilot training because of recommendations from her commanding officers. She had aced her training. She was a natural fighter jock.

She had served almost a full year as a F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot on board the carrier and on land. Her wing man Kendra “Tinker” Bell asked what she should do. Dianthe told her to stay close, and braced herself. Seven MiG-29s drove down toward the four Tomcats, intent on proving themselves. Lt. CDR. Thomas “Tommyboy” O’Connell radioed the USS Abraham Lincoln about the MiG-29s. after ordering evasive maneuvers.

“Break right, break right, Tommyboy,” Lieutenant Bud “Bull” Durham warned his wing man. Dianthe saw a MiG sliding up behind Bull’s Tomcat even as she shook one trying to get tone lock on her.

“Bull, watch your six!” Dianthe shouted, rolling over and diving hard. She was out of position to help him. He tried breaking free, but there was no escape.

Lieutenant Bud “Bull” Durham and Lieutenant Sally “Killer Cartington’s Tomcat became a fireball in the space of a heartbeat.

Dianthe cursed, and Michael “Dusty” Rhoades hissed, “Shit, they are gone.”

“Get it together,” Dianthe snapped, cobalt blue eyes diamond hard. Bull may have been an arrogant SOB, but he had been a fellow fighter pilot. Sally had been scheduled for shore rotation, since she was being sent to the War College.

Tinker whispered something: a prayer. Dianthe split her attention between the MiGs streaking around her plane like angry wasps, and her wingman. She saw “Tommyboy” trying to shake the MiG that been stalking him.

“I’m in a world of hurt here, Breakneck. Lost one engine; debris got sucked into it.”

“Hang on, Tommyboy. I’m coming,” Dianthe made one of those seemingly impossible moves that had earned her call sign. Call signs were either earned by something stupid a nugget pilot had done, or were based on a play of words. They were used to prevent confusion during the frantic moments of an engagement, and part of the tradition and lore of naval aviation. Dusty gave out a whoop of delight. He purely loved the way she could make a Tomcat do things that most considered impossible.

Dusty continued supplying important information on the position of the other Bandits, and her wingman’s current position. Dianthe grinned. She dropped directly behind the MiG that had been hunting Tommyboy. She snarled, “Tommyboy, break hard left.now!”

“We have tone lock! Your shot,” Dusty commanded his pilot.

Tommyboy trusted her. He had no choice: he was shit out of luck. Dianthe acquired tone lock, and thumbed the firing button. The Tomcat lurched, and watched the sidewinder missile spring forward. The hunter had become the prey.

The MiG broke apart like a cheap child’s toy.

“We’ve got trouble,” Dusty warned, the alarms sounding. One of the MiGs was trying to get a solid lock on her. She heeled over sharply, and dove. The MiG tried copying her moves, and found himself drawn right into the sights of Tommyboy.

Scratch another MiG. Two down, five left. Tinker evaded being shot down with some impressive stick work of her own. The kid had talent. Dianthe hurtled upwards, targeting the surprised Iraqi before he knew what was happening. She went to guns, firing at the midsection of the plane since she was too close for a missile launch.

His plane tumbled out of the sky, broken in half. No chute. Another kill. The remaining four MiGs did not like their odds, especially when two Marine F/A-18 Hornets streaked out of the sun. The Hornets commander told them they would make sure the MiGs did not decide to come back.

Tommyboy thanked them. Dianthe and Tinker slid alongside their commander’s plane. The damaged engine was worse then he had indicated. The housing was torn up, and Dianthe knew the engine was beyond repair.

“Can you make it, Tommyboy?” Dianthe inquired.

“Hell, this is nothing. Remind me to tell you about the time I really got my nuts kicked,” Tommyboy quipped.

Halston “Cowboy” Dallas chuckled, and said, “Breakneck, you are shit-hot! Two kills.” Tommyboy’s Radio Intercept Officer saluted her, then turned his full attention back to keeping his bird alive.

“I see medals in your future, guys,” Tommyboy pronounced, then sobered. “Thanks, Breakneck. Those medals apply to you, too, Dusty.”

“Ditto,” Dianthe relaxed marginally. “Good flying, Tinker.”

“Yeah..but we lost Bull and Killer,” the young woman whispered, the reality hitting her suddenly.

“It’s part of the game. A bad part, but part of it,” Sammy “Hawkeye” Bryce told his pilot. The RIO had kept his nugget on track, but her flying had kept them alive. “If it helps, they most likely never felt it.”

Dianthe listened absently to the banter between the others. She recalled a time when Tommyboy had been dead set against women becoming fighter pilots. She had come out of Annapolis with an aerospace engineering degree, gotten into the flight training, and had been given strike-fighter-training. But she could not use it in a real world situation.

Women were not permitted in combat situations, so during Desert Storm she watched from her California based composite squadron. She had desperately wanted to fly the fast, pointy, lethal fighters that were the reserved domain of male pilots aboard the boats and do what the boys did.

Dianthe Xavier had naval aviation in her blood. Her father and grandfather had been naval aviators, fighter pilots, during the wars of their generations. Her father had been a sierra-hotel Tomcat fighter pilot in Vietnam, and had spent ten years in the Navy. Tired of uprooting his family, he joined NYPD as an aviation officer. Some of his old Navy buddies were distressed to learn Greg “Tiger” Xavier had become a helo jockey.

During reunions, he would merely smile and remind them he could still kick their asses. He bought a very sweet two engine Cessna that he used to fly his family around the country. He taught his ten-year-old daughter how to fly, though she did not get her official license until years later.

He had taught his daughter to dream, too. Greg knew his daughter’s talents would eventually outstrip his own. Rather than be upset by it, he loved it. Jessie and Dianthe were his world. He had almost lost his beloved wife when she had been carrying their son.

She had lost the baby, and her uterus due to the damage done. Greg Xavier had bargained with God. Dianthe remembered him saying all he needed was his wife and daughter.

God must have listened, or so her father insisted. When Dianthe secured a slot in the Navy Academy, her father had been proud. In her third year when she was a second-class midshipmen, her world came apart when a drunken trucker killed her parents.

They had been coming down to visit their daughter for a long weekend, intending to visit the Maryland shore and spend the Thanksgiving holiday together. They had rented a beach house for the weekend.

Dianthe had been waiting for them in her room in Bancroft Hall. Her roomies had gone for the weekend, and Dianthe had been studying following a vigorous workout in the gym. A knock on the door, and solemn midshipmen first class informed her the Superintendent needed to speak with her.

Fearing she had done something to destroy her future career, Dianthe had mustered herself and flanked the man once she got dressed in class A uniform. The Superintendent had signaled her to sit down, his eyes full of compassion as a chaplain came forward. They told her the New Jersey Highway patrol had called them. Told him that the Xavier’s’ had been hit by a drunk eighteen-wheeler approaching the state line.

Greg Xavier had his shield and credentials on his person. Calls had been made. The Commissioner’s deputy had contacted the Academy. The Superintendent had been sent word, and left his family celebration to handle the matter. He had known Greg Xavier in Nam.

They had been squadron mates. Friends. They exchanged Christmas cards, and met at occasional reunions of the Squadron. The Superintendent told the daughter of the man that had saved his ass more than once in Nam that her parents were dead. He watched the words penetrate, saw the agony that would diminish, but never leave her soul.

He had broken all military protocol, and simply held her as wept. The Superintendent had been the one that had kept her on-track, reminding her what her goal was. She had used the deaths of her parents to become the best midshipmen she could. She had aced her tests, had pushed herself harder than the Academy ever could have.

Her graduation ceremony lacked family to witness her becoming an active member of the naval aviation community. She had been proud. She had promised her dead parents she would make them proud of her.

It had taken her level best to complete that year’s studies, struggling to maintain her grade point average and meet the rigors of academy life. Since her father was known to some of the instructors, she had sounding boards. Greg Xavier had been an academy man, as his father had been.

Dianthe touched her chest, where a delicate and simple small gold cross rested. It lay safely tucked under her flight-suit, the cross reminding her of their love for her. Greg had given the precious symbol of love to his daughter when Dianthe entered the Academy. He had claimed it had kept him safe over the years, and reminded him how much he was loved by his wife.

His passing on to her symbolized the bonds of love the small family shared, and Dianthe had wept when he had placed it around her neck. Her parents had been so proud of her, no matter what.

She never removed the cross. Nothing would make her take it off. She missed them with all her heart and soul. Several of the Academy instructors had been Greg Xavier’s Vietnam buddies, and they had pushed Dianthe. They had been hard on her out of love for their lost friend and his wife, knowing it was what the couple would want and expect. Driving her to achieve the potential they knew the daughter of Greg Xavier possessed.

It had been the same in both flight training schools. What she could do with a Tomcat had made her instructors grant her grudging respect. She might be a female, but she was one hell of a fighter pilot. Dianthe ignored those negative voices opposed to women in combat air wings, forging her way ahead.

Dianthe knew the men were worried about how women fighter pilots would affect their changes in an insanely competitive field. They were not against women for being women, but against the narrowing of an already narrow field. There were some men who believed women simply could not fly like they could, let alone kill. And some of the male pilots had very low opinion of women as anything other than sexual playthings to be used and abused; they were few in number, but hard to miss.

Others had said different standards would be applied to women then men. When Kara Hultgreen died trying to bring in her Tomcat, some said it was because women could not fly. Her tragic death had been used by both sides, forgetting that a fine, brave officer had died, leaving behind grieving friends and family.

Dianthe had met the woman once. She had been almost as tall as Dianthe’s lofty six foot one inch frame, golden haired rather than Dianthe’s dark brown hair. She had been a warm, fierce woman whose love of life had been obvious. Kara’s death had become a flash point in the Naval Aviation community, and the women who were her contemporaries found their path that much harder.

It was ironic that she and Tinker ended up in the same carrier, the same Air Wing and squadron that the woman had flown briefly with. Kara had been slated for the first historic Wespac deployment of female naval aviators, but her death had resulted in reshuffling the Airing 11 ratio. Three more female naval aviators had been added, including Dianthe and Kendra joining the Black Lions. Terri “Hellcat” Pierce had joined the VFA-94 Mighty Shrikes F/A-18 squadron when one of the male pilots broke both his legs two days before deployment, the Navy deciding adding several more women might put out the firestorm Kara’s death had caused.

Air wing 11 and the Blacklions had been put under a microscope by the media and public, so Washington and the Navy opted for showing a post-Tailhook Navy. Dianthe could not help but feel so many forgot the death of a fine officer and good aviator because of the politics, nor how sad it was. Kara had fought for the chance to be on the cruise that Dianthe was on. She had taken hits for so many of her sister pilots, laying it all on the line to set her hair on fire flying a jet in the real world.

Numerous opinions, some mean spirited at best, suggested what had happened to bring down the Tomcat. In the end, what mattered was the loss of a vibrant woman’s life. She and Tinker were slowly winning over their male companions that had believed the entire thing had been overblown by the media.

Dianthe held her own opinion. Kara had been flying the earliest model of the famed fighter, the F-14A. The original planes were well known for engine failures, and only really experienced fighter pilots could handle engine failure under the condition Kara may have encountered: power loss on approach to trap. A few of pilots had told Dianthe they were not sure if they could have handled the problem during those vulnerable moments.

The F-14 Tomcats were unforgiving planes that not every Navy pilot could fly. An otherwise good pilot could be a poor Tomcatter, and poor Tomcat pilots had a bad habit of dying.

Dianthe believed it was a tragic combination of a solid pilot whose relative newness to the moody plane, and engine failure that resulted in a fatal outcome. The only fault she could see was that Kara had ejected a few nanoseconds later than she should have.

Dianthe and the other female pilots and specialized weapons systems operators were the first women onboard a Pacific fleet carrier with twenty-two women in Air Wing 11. She and Sally had drawn one of the rare two person berths, and had become solid friends during the following months.

“Hey, Breakneck…”

“Hey, Dusty,” Dianthe blinked, quirking a grin. She had become used to dividing her attention between multiple tasks.

“You did really good,” Dusty said softly. Dianthe laughed. Dusty had been very open to the concept of women fighter jocks, having grown up in a very large family with lots of girls. He knew women were stronger than most men thought. And being a rear seater naval flight officer in the Tomcat made some of the male pilots think they were better than their back-seaters. Good pilots, male or female, knew the their RIOs kept them both alive monitoring the complex weapons system.

“Wouldn’t have been able to do it without you, Dusty,” Dianthe responded honestly. “We did it, together.”

“Well, Mom will be happy you got her little baby boy home alive!”

Dusty loved his mother and four sisters. His father had died two years after Dusty had been born, killed when he slipped and fell off the high steel construction site. His mother had raised her family on a nurse’s salary, working hard.

“Wouldn’t want to disappoint Agatha…” Dianthe had never met the august women in person, but she had written Dianthe when she learned the woman was an orphan. She had adopted her son’s current pilot, and Dianthe wrote Agatha whenever she could. She had taught her kids to dream. Dusty loved and respected the women in his life.

Dusty chuckled. Dianthe turned her attention back the Landing Signal Officer’s landing instructions. She would be the last one to land. She watched Tommyboy bring his wounded bird home safely, then Tinker brought hers home.

Once she was given clearance, she glided in and aligned her fast, pointy fighter with cold precision. The tail hook snagged the number three arresting wire even as Dianthe jammed the throttle to full power. Should the arresting wire not hold firm, she would have enough power to take off.

The arresting wire snagged, jerking the Tomcat to an abrupt halt. Dianthe’s waited for the tail hook to be released, then taxied to the location that had been indicated. Rainbow clad forms scuttled around the flat top performing hazardous duties that made it possible for fighter jocks to shine. It amazed her to think most of those rainbow-clad forms were really kids, kids responsible for multimillion-dollar war birds that projected America’s military presence where it was needed.

They were her heroes, especially her plane captain. He let her borrow his bird, keeping it fit and trim for prolonged patrols she loved. Granted, the only down side was women pilots learned to limit their intake of fluids against medical advices, since full bladders could not be voided in midair. It was still a system the Navy and Marines were puzzling out. How could female pilots address this most basic of bodily functions without wetting their flight suits and speed jeans?

Dianthe fortunately had great bladder control, and could go for hours if need be without peeing. But she did limit her water intake, avoided caffeine before flying, and hit the head before leaving the deck. Not all the women could make the same claim, and the women’s head proved to be too far away on several occasions for some the women. If anyone found it amusing, they did not voice it.

The canopy opened, and fresh air tinged with salt and jet fuel fumes filled her nostrils. She inhaled deeply, grateful to be alive another day. This was the third real sortie she had flown since she had become a fighter pilot. The last two had ended without violence.

Not this one. She stretched her leanly muscled form and threw an arm around her RIO. Dusty returned the embrace. He stood four inches shorter than her towering height, but had the build of a body builder. His dark brown eyes were fixed on the distance, where two brave souls had died.

He was a handsome man, his light cocoa brown skin and lush black hair bespeaking of his mixed African American, Cherokee, and Celtic bloodlines.

“CAG wants to see you in the Ready Room,” the Landing Signal Officer or LSO shouted above the din. Dianthe nodded. Tommyboy, Cowboy, Hawkeye and Tinker were already bound for the mission debriefing. Dianthe sighed.

They made their way through the narrow passageways, enlisted and junior officers touching metal as they passed. Twice they touched metal for higher-ranking officers.

The CAG paced inside the Blacklions squadron Ready Room, awaiting their arrival. He was chomping the hell of his ever-present cigar, looking both exhausted and angry. Captain Bennett “Burner” Thompson gestured towards the seats. The Commander of the Abe Lincoln air wing studied the six men and women under his command, visibly upset that he did not have all eight. Losing planes and aircrew was one part of the job no CAG took lightly, and he wanted answers.” What the hell happened up there?” he growled.

For the next four hours they related the details, the film from their on-board cameras showed what had transpired. They answered repeated questions concerning the last moments of Bull and Killer’s lives. They filed reports, and answered more questions. The CAG released them, ordering them to relax. “Xavier…”

“Yes, sir?” Dianthe met the man’s eye.

“Damned good flying and fighting. Your father would be proud of you. I’m putting you and Dusty in for the Air Medal and combat ribbons. And I’m sorry about Killer. She was your bunkmate, wasn’t she?”

“Yes, sir. She was…” Dianthe cleared her throat. She had not permitted herself to feel the loss of her friend. They had been tight. They had kept each other sane. “Thank you, sir.”

“You’re excused, Xavier. You’re off duty for the next forty-eight. The whole Squadron is. At six hundred hours tomorrow morning there will be a memorial service.”

Dianthe nodded. She saluted the CAG. He returned it. Dianthe left. Dusty was waiting outside. He fell into step behind her. They wove their way back to the staterooms where the Air Wing 11’s quarters were located.

Other Air Wing members murmured words of comfort mingled with congratulations. Tommyboy stood outside her stateroom. He had six glasses, and what seemed to be a bottle of very good Irish whiskey. “Share some Irish whiskey with us?”

Dianthe studied her Squadron mates. She smiled. “Where?”

“The ‘Dirty Shirt’ wardroom, where else?” Tommyboy inclined his head. “Consider it an order, if you need to.”

Dianthe snagged one of the glasses, and flanked Tommyboy. The Air Wing 11 members not on patrol where gathered inside the place that they ruled. Here, flight suits and grousing were permitted by the command staff. It was an outlet, a place where fighters could vent; share war stories, and just be.

Silence descended when the survivors entered the room where heated debates where being held. There were many that still held the opinion women were not suited to be fighter pilots. Chairs scrapped along the deck, and those gathered, rose.

Applause rose, and some of those that had been the most vocal opponents chanted Dianthe’s call sign. It seemed she had proven herself. Tommyboy inclined his head, and lead his remaining team toward a table. They sat; he poured a good amount in each glass, saying “To Bull and Killer! May they rest in peace.”

Murmurs of agreement rose. The six downed the fine Irish Whisky with a single swallow. Tinker lowered her glass, trying to look like she was used to drinking hard liquor. She began coughing, despite her best efforts, and the men hooted.

Tommyboy slapped her on the back, “Good flying today, kiddo.”

“Thanks….sir,” Tinker managed a weak smile. Those gathered laughed, teasing the Black Lion’s newest nugget. Tinker endured the good nature ribbing with ease. She had three older brothers, so she was used to male behavior, and knew how to zap them back.

At one table a lone figure sat watching the celebration, and pushed himself to his feet. Hound Dog strode forward, his hazel eyes narrowed with menace. Brandon “Hound Dog” Franklin came from a long, distinguished line of Navy men, and carried himself with self-importance.

“So, while you were busy showboating, you left Bull and Killer wide open?” Hound Dog drawled in his southern accent, arms folded across his chest.

Dianthe met his cold eyes, and felt her jaw muscles bunching. She began to make a comment, but Tommyboy stepped between them. He fixed the Hornet pilot with hard eyes. “Hound Dog, you are a horse’s ass. Bull was my wingman, not hers. Breakneck did what she could: she warned them, and kept the rest of us alive.”

Hound Dog found the eyes of his fellow aviators locked on him, none of them friendly. He squared his shoulders, and gave his patented smile. “Hey, I’m playing the Devil’s Advocate…”

“Go play it elsewhere,” Tommyboy growled. Hound Dog shrugged his shoulders, and left the gathering. The unpleasant moment forgotten, the flyers began asking questions again.

She had nursed her second whisky, listening to Tommyboy relating what had happened, how the Migs flew. What they had observed might keep the other fighter pilots alive.

Dianthe remained for an hour, then rose and headed back to her stateroom. She had to start packing Sally’s belongings, but first she really needed to hit the head. Again, the voices dropped off, and Dianthe knew they were all thinking about the loss of their comrades.
**************

Dianthe entered her stateroom. She squared her powerful shoulders and began the painful task of packing up Killer’s gear. She kept a photograph of herself, Killer, Hellcat and Tinker taken on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. It had been taken following another patrol, the idea of one of the Landing Signal Officers. Reggie “Mad Dog” Goldman, the short, burly man resembled a bulldog, and had a spicy sense of humor.

He got a kick out of women aviators, since one of his grandmother’s dear friends had been a W.A.S.P. in World War II. Bred on a farm in the Midwest, the red haired, freckled man had a love of life that made him fun to be around. But he was strictly business when on duty, and a real hard ass on ratings.

He snapped the photograph, daring anyone to say these women were not good pilots. No one dared removed, or deface the photo. Mad dog had temper when it came to certain things, though his wife claimed he was a real pussycat with her and his two daughters.

He wanted to show that the Lincoln had women that could, and did, do the job. He had given them all copies, and placed them in the Dirty Shirt Wardroom and Galley on a photo board. Terri “Hellcat” Pierce, a member of the Mighty Shrikes VFA-94, had let him take a candid shot of her beside her plane. A flame haired, green-eyed beauty whose very soft-spoken and sweet nature belied the fierce fighter pilot lurking inside; she was as lethal as any of her male counterparts when she climbed into the cockpit of an F/A-18 Hornet.

When Terri “Hellcat” Price climbed inside a F/A-18 Hornet, she became an ice cold killer. Sally had been part of the elite group of women that called the USS Abraham Lincoln home.

Dianthe wondered if her husband and daughter had been told what had happened. Sally’s husband was instructor at Miramar. They had met through mutual friends. He had been very proud of his wife. When she became an RIO, he had backed her one hundred percent on her new career path. Their daughter wanted to be a Marine Biologist, not a fighter pilot.

Dale and Sally were happy their child wanted to be something other than a fighter pilot or RIO. They both knew how very dangerous their lives could be.

She had half of Sally’s gear packed when there was a soft rap on the hatch. Dianthe laid aside the duffel bag and answered the door, thinking it might be Tinker. A very beautiful, tall blonde, cornflower blue-eyed woman wearing the tan uniform with nurse insignia met her eyes.

Dianthe swallowed hard. She motioned the willowy woman inside, and closed the hatch. For a moment neither of them moved or spoke, then the nurse stepped forward and hugged Dianthe. Dianthe shut her eyes, fighting her body’s response to the embrace, “Ellie–we have to be careful.”

“I heard that a Black Lion had been shot down. They said a pilot and RIO had been killed. God, Dianthe, I thought it was you,” Ellie Lunden sobbed, shaking inside the sheltering arms of her towering lover.

Dianthe soothed the trembling woman. “I’m fine, Ellie. It was Sal and Bull,” Dianthe voice cracked as the reality of her friend’s death hit her. Sal was a damned fine woman, and she had figured out Dianthe half way through the cruise. She could have turned in her roommate for being a lesbian, but Sal had a very open mind and big heart.

They had talked about it. Sal had a very close cousin that was a lesbian, more like a sister, and she hoped someday the ban would be lifted entirely. In her opinion the DoD arguments had been proven time and time again wrong-headed and ignorant, since it supported some men’s fears about gays in their ranks. “You should go back to your quarters, Ellie…”

Ellie raised tear filled eyes, “I love you so damned much. Don’t send me away, Dianthe. Not if you really love me. I need you.”

Dianthe quirked a smile to reassure her lover she would not send her away. She leaned down and claimed her lover’s lips for a brief, hot kiss. Ellie returned it, demanding more than a stolen kiss. An alarm sounded inside Dianthe’s mind, but it had been weeks since they had made love. The combination of adrenaline, alcohol and stress made her disregard the caution that was second nature to gays and lesbians in the military.

Ellie pulled her lover to the lower berth that Sally had used. Garments were loosened and shed, flesh touched, explored with reverent fingers. Dianthe arched over her lover, claiming what was hers. She held Ellie’s gaze as she reached down, gliding her hands down the length of her lover’s lush body.

Ellie was biting the back of her hand, containing her cries of mounting urgency as Dianthe drew out the moment. Ellie had the softest skin, firm muscles and endless legs that made Dianthe’s mouth water. Dianthe thanked God for having found this love.

Her desire would have to wait…she had work to do.

******************

October 8, 1995 Approaching the West Coast of California
The USS Abraham Lincoln battle group was homeward bound. They had remained in the region longer than anticipated, since the Iraqis were acting up. A planned stop in Australia had been laid aside because of those tensions.

Dianthe strode towards the CAG’s office, uncertain why she had been summoned. She had just landed following a hard night patrol, and was told the CAG wanted to see her ASAP. Dusty and she made their way across the pitching deck of the rain swept carrier.

She had not yet received a new bunkmate, so she wondered if they had decided to give her one. Though they would be hitting the States soon, the CAG might want to assign her a temporary bunkmate to relieve a stressful situation. It had dismayed some women that not all the women had bonded like they thought they should. Dianthe had not expected them, too. She made her way through the narrow companionways until she stood outside of the CAG’s office. She knocked on the door.

“Enter.”

Dianthe opened the door and stepped inside the walnut paneled office, helmet tucked beneath her right arm. Captain Bennett “Burner” Thompson looked like a man that wished someone would shoot him. In the last few months Dianthe had come to recognize this man’s moods.

“Lieutenant Xavier…” Captain Thompson inclined his head. His hazel eyes were somber, and there were two other officers seated in the office, and a civilian. The CAG motioned for her to take a seat.

Dianthe slowly lowered herself into the indicated chair, her heartbeat and pulse spiking. She did not permit herself to display the growing panic she felt. “CAG.”

“These are Lieutenant Commander Richard Murphy, and Lieutenant Arian McCormick of J.A.G.,” the CAG said softly, mauling the hell out his cigar. In the time Dianthe had known the man, he never lit the damned the thing. He just chomped it. His wife, a lovely, delicate woman who taught kindergarten told him she wanted him around. War and flying fighters’ jets were dangerous enough, and smoking was a slow form of suicide.” And this is Wade Jackson of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

The CAG loved his wife, so he chomped, rather than smoked, cigars. There were two chewed up cigars already in the ash trash on his desk. Dianthe met the cool eyes of the bland man who she had seen on the boat dressed a seaman, and remembered he came onboard a few weeks ago. His pale blue eyes gave away nothing, but there were files in front of the man with names written on them.

A cold wash of dread churned her gut, and Dianthe fought not to show what she felt. Witch-hunt, Dianthe thought, knowing the Navy and military hunted lesbians and gays with a vengeance. She knew how these things took on a life force of their own, shattering the lives of all the Witch-hunters marked.

Dianthe felt like she was pulling an inverted 10 Gs dive beyond the tolerance of her Tomcat. She met the eyes of the Lieutenant Commander to glimpse genuine regret behind those dark gray eyes. He was a very handsome man, in a Brad Pitt/Robert Redford kind of way, part of her mind observed with an odd sense of detachment.

The Lieutenant had cold brown eyes the color of rich coffee and dark blonde hair streaked with golden highlights. Her features were regular enough, but the pinched expression made her unattractive. Whatever business brought them here, and it clearly sickened her. Dianthe noticed that none of the men seemed very pleased with the female J.A.G. officer at the moment. Her cheeks bore hints of color, indicating she had engaged in a heated exchange, and was now trying to get her bearings again. Men vented, women threw fits, Dianthe thought humorlessly, recalling how expressions of anger were perceived so differently.

“Lieutenant Xavier, the reason we are here is due to allegations regarding yourself and a certain Lieutenant Eleanor Luden,” Lieutenant Commander Murphy stated without rancor. “The charges were brought forth by a Lieutenant Brandon Franklin, and investigated by Agent Jackson.”

Dianthe closed her eyes. Hound Dog. He had promised her he would teach her a lesson. He harassed his female shipmates whenever possible. His call sign was “Hound Dog” for his views on women, and most other minorities that he deemed unworthy of living in his world. They had a bad run in recently.

She and Brandon had a very heated exchange several weeks ago that had been witnessed by more than a few pilots. Hound Dog had been harassing the shit out of Kendra. Tinker told him to take a hike off the flight deck, to the hooted approval of some of the male pilots. Hound Dog had been furious, since the shoot down happened in the ‘Dirty Shirt’ Galley. Kendra found the man’s company utterly disagreeable, as did most women on the Abe Lincoln.

Actually, the majority of the male pilots did not have much use for him, since he was not the best pilot that could get his wingman killed. He had a bad habit of doing stupid things, not enough to loose his wings of gold, but he had been before the board twice in his short career. His father was a highly respected Admiral, so action against him was deemed career suicide by the board members.

None of them were the suicidal type, so Brandon walked both times.

Dianthe had entered the Dirty Shirt Gallery as Brandon’s dark side showed itself when he grabbed Kendra. She had broken free, but only for an instant before he shoved her backwards towards a table. Other male pilots rose, ready to end the exchange, but Dianthe reached him first. He had a fist cocked back as he held the front of Tinker’s flight suit, ready to teach her a good lesson.

Dianthe had grabbed his fist, and spun him away from his would-be target. “Want to try that shit with me, little man?” Dianthe had snarled, using her slight height advantage to make the man reconsider his position. For a brief moment it looked like he would love to pound the shit out the towering female Tomcatter, but Tommyboy and Dusty intervened.

Dusty stood in front of his pilot, and Tommyboy shoved Hound Dog hard against the bulkhead. “Back off, you piece of shit. You do not hit women, ever. Especially women in my Squadron, dick weed,” Tommyboy snarled in soft menace. “Or I will see your ass fry, even if it means my wings.”

Several other masculine voices joined in Tommyboy’s promise, and Hound Dog knew he had gone too far. There was being wild, and then there was being wrong. Some of the other female aviators had witnessed the mini-drama, and closed ranks around Kendra and Dianthe. Brandon raised his hands, trying to make light of the situation, but no one bought his act.

Hound Dog had beat a hasty retreat, and the charged atmosphere of the Dirty Shirt Gallery made most of the participants twitchy. Then Lieutenant Commander Thomas “Tommyboy” O’Connell turned towards Dianthe, “Breakneck, next time let me know when you want to beat the snot of the that turd, since we can place bets on how long it will take him to cry for his Mommy.”

The tension broke as the remaining pilots, male and female alike, laughed at the image Tommyboy had conjured. Dianthe had grinned, thinking Tommyboy’s anger had a lot to do with the fact he had become very fond of a certain junior officer. From what Dianthe could gauge, Kendra had become very fond of older pilot, especially when the younger woman smiled at Tommyboy. The wattage of the smile light up both pilots’ faces, and Dianthe had left them to sort it out.
Dusty flanked his pilot, teasing her about how he thought Hound Dog most likely needed to change his shorts. Dianthe had laughed so hard, she had been forced to dash for the head.

It had ended. Dianthe thought nothing of it. Hound Dog created more trouble than his worthless hide was worth in the opinion of most of Air Wing 11. CAG had limited patience for the man, as did the Captain of the Abraham Lincoln. He would be rotated out of their Air Wing 11 upon reaching San Diego, and none of his squadron would miss him.

Hound Dog had been in three Air Wings in as many years. Soon, he would be out of carriers and Air Wings. Hound Dog knew he would never rise above the rank he currently held. His evaluations were too low. His father would be retiring in another few years, and Dianthe knew the moment he did, Brandon “Hound Dog” Franklin would be following his father in short order.

Brandon’s father was a good man. His youngest son was not. Admiral Adam “Thumper” Franklin had another son, but he was sub man whose reputation was golden in the Navy. Hank and his father were cut from the same bolt of cloth; both were good officers and fine leaders in their chosen fields. Commander Hank Franklin was highly regarded within the silent service of the submariners, having earned the trust of his men and his fellow officers.

Dianthe had met Brandon’s older brother years ago at a mixer, and found him a very interesting person with good insights on military matters. They had discussed their respective career paths at a banquet the Admiral was hosting, and Dianthe had been surprised by the sub commander’s support of women fighter pilots.

The commander and his brother were clearly very different men, and Dianthe wondered what the admiral thought about his youngest son sorry reputation. Dianthe had met the Admiral. She sensed he had begun to come around on the issue of women in air wings, though they had discussed the subject with careful military decorum.

“Lieutenant Xavier, you are not compelled to answer the questions of this inquiry, but the issue has been raised. Lieutenant Luden has been interviewed, and her answers were very frank,” Wade Jackson interjected with a cool smile. The man enjoyed hunting lesbians and gays; it showed in his pale eyes.

Dianthe snapped back into the present, shivering inwardly at the man’s words. Ellie had been acting odd these last few weeks. Nervous, Ellie had been avoiding Dianthe in the few venues where they could mix without raising undue suspicion about their relationship. Ellie had been the one that had turned their relationship sexual. Dianthe had met the nurse soon after coming on board the Boat for treatment of a nasty gash gotten when her forehead collided with a low section of bulkhead.

Ellie had been the nurse on duty, and had tended the gash that required seven stitches, and took Dianthe off flight status for two weeks at the order of the Flight Surgeon. During those weeks she and the nurse saw each other for checkups, and in the quarters for female officers. They found they had mutual interests, and Dianthe had heard that the beautiful woman had recently lost her fiancé, Lieutenant Teddy “Harley” Davison. He had been the Mighty Shrikes F/A-18 pilot replaced by the pilot Terri had replaced when the first replacement broke both his legs.

It happened during the critical seconds before the pilot could regain control of his plane. His Hornet rose twenty feet above the deck, rolled over and plunged deep into the ocean. He and his plane were never found. There had been dark rumors about what caused the inexplicable failure of the power plant that led to loss of both the pilot and the bird. The investigation had declared the loss mechanical when records revealed the bird had been undergoing overhaul for power problems, but had somehow ended up on the line.

The blame had been placed on the Plane Captain, and he had been removed from duty. He had hung himself awaiting court-martial proceedings, and the matter had been dropped. With the death of her fiancée, Eleanor replaced one the nurses that had become very ill before the cruise on the Boat Teddy called home. The pilots of his Squadron made sure she was not harassed, out of respect for their dead buddy.

When Ellie had told Dianthe she was a lesbian, Dianthe had been blown away, especially when Ellie told her she had feelings for the tall pilot. Dianthe knew she had developed a deep attachment for the beautiful woman, but she had kept their relations strictly on the level. Sally had told Dianthe to watch her six with Ellie Luden. Sal sensed Ellie had a really strong sense of self preservation that made her dangerous to the towering pilot.

Ellie had the touch of an angel. She would not betray her lover.

“And what did Lieutenant Luden state?” Dianthe asked softly.

“She says you compelled her to become her lover,” Lieutenant McCormick snapped, clearly sickened by the concept.

Dianthe felt like she had been punched in the solar plexus. She gasped. Her vision blurred. For the first time in her life, she thought she would pass out. She closed her eyes, trying to wrap her mind around the concept of Ellie’s betrayal.

Dianthe opened her eyes. She had had other lovers. She had had discreet affairs when ashore, and away from her naval air station. Ellie had gotten to her. She had really loved Ellie. Had dreamed of having a home, a life with the woman.

“She has also named some others…” Wade Jackson smiled, reminding her of a house cat tormenting a trapped mouse.

Dianthe listens in mounting horror. It was bad enough Ellie had betrayed her, but their friends? Terri Pierce, two other nurses, a young female Plane Captain Dianthe had spotted, and one of the fuel handlers whose broad sense of humor made him popular with his mates. Michael had come out to Dianthe after they had been flying together for six weeks, having recognized fellow Tribe member.

“Till the investigation is concluded, you will be grounded,” the CAG said sadly. “And your slot at Miramar will be going to Lieutenant Franklin.”

Dianthe’s stomach clenched. Hound Dog was being given a shot his flying did not warrant. Tommyboy had recommended Dianthe for Miramar. Having gone through the course himself, he and the CAG thought she was best candidate for the program. There were a host of other very good pilots that should have been given the slot. Burner Thompson’s face told her he had been forced to reward Franklin’s efforts.

Hound Dog had been given his thirty gold pieces for his part in this horror show. Dianthe knew once the witch-hunt began, it would ensnare her friends and other innocents. Terri, Michael and the others would just be the beginning, if this got out of hand.

If Bud “Bull” Durham had been alive, this thing would not be happening. Bull had confronted the “Admiral’s Brat” about something he had done, something bad enough it could cost him his wings, his career and his freedom. Whatever he had, it had kept Hound Dog on a short leash until Bull got himself killed.

Bud’s death made Hound Dog a free operator, and his behavior had become worse following the death of Tomcat pilot and his RIO. Dianthe knew how far the military would go to rid itself of homosexuals, real and imagined. She shut her eyes. Her career had been fragged, no doubt about that. Once you were marked, men like Agent Wade Jackson became your shadow if you beat the first charge. Her odds of promotion were nil, meaning her career was dead when she did not reach the next tier of rank.

She could deny the charges, but she knew the odds were against her. Honor, duty, country, they had meant something to her. Soul deep. She had hoped Clinton would lift the ban, had kept beneath the radar out of instinct that had been developed during her years in the Academy. The policy against homosexuals made gays and lesbians criminals for loving their country enough to
serve it.

She knew there was no way out for her, but maybe she could save the others if she acted now. Dianthe cleared her throat, squaring her shoulders and said softly, “I waive the right to legal counsel, and wish to give my statement now.”

The CAG bit through his cigar, knowing what she was about to do. His hazel eyes held her shimmering blue ones with compassion and respect. Dianthe began speaking, telling how her and Ellie’s relationship had changed during the course of the cruise. She told the truth about herself and Ellie, leaving the others out of it. She would not take them down with her. She denied knowledge of the others, hating the lie she was forced to construct for good reasons.

She did not spare herself or Ellie. Ellie had started this firestorm that would impact homosexuals and heterosexuals unfortunate enough to be the in the cross hairs of this nightmare. It would be the Norton Sound all over again.

Maybe, she prayed, the others would not lose everything. Lieutenant Commander Murphy listened, recording the painful details of a life shattered. Burner Thompson looked like he wanted beat the tar out the smug N.C.I.S. agent. Dianthe realized he suspected she was a lesbian, but he had never hinted that he believed it. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue did not explain it.

Agent Jackson grinned as she told her story, entertained by her visible distress and anguish. Captain Thompson shot the bastard a murderous look that made the agent stop grinning and gulp hard. Not all Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents took such delight in hunting down homosexuals, but this man clearly believed it was a holy cause. Thompson’s icy gaze had the agent shifting uncomfortably, and Dianthe knew she had powerful ally in the CAG.

“Agent Jackson, I see no reason for your obvious enjoyment of this tragic loss to the Navy and my command. Lieutenant Xavier is one of the best fighter pilots I have had the honor of passing through my command, and it is only because of the current policy this farce is occurring. If you were really interested in serving your nation, you would best focus on the dubious actions of Lieutenant Brandon Franklin

I want it clearly understood his receiving a shot at Miramar goes against my recommendations and that of the Captain of the Abraham Lincoln. How you managed to contrive his obtaining the slot, I will make my personal business. And if I find a hint of professional misconduct on your part, I will contact your superiors and make sure they know it. Do you read me, Agent Jackson?”

“Yes, but then you really can not do anything to me,” Jackson stammered with false bravado.

Dianthe felt a stirring of pride for the way the CAG had defended her. He was putting his ass on the line for her, in front of two officers of the J.A.G. corp. Burner Thompson had a reputation for fighting hard for his people; especially what he deemed fine fighter pilots and good officers. He was one of those rare commanders that did not give a rat’s ass about how someone slept with, if they were good officers and pilots.

The CAG had been almost glowing five days ago when he informed her she and Dusty were up for some really impressive medals, especially her. He and Tommyboy had recommended her the Aid Medal, combat ribbons, and several senior senators wanted her to get the Navy Cross.

They had heard about the female fighter that saved two of her companions, risking her own life. Dianthe had been amazed. She had said Tommyboy and Cowboy deserved medals, too. Captain Thompson informed her she was right, and they would get some medals for their role in the dogfight. But she had done something no other female fighter pilot had done.

She had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt women could be fighter pilots in the truest sense. Captain Thompson had beamed like a proud father when he told her the news. And the Captain of the Abe Lincoln had been squarely behind his CAG’s efforts.

History had been made. Now, it would be swept under the carpet. The Navy would not want this matter becoming public. No doubt there was a lot of maneuvering occurring back in Washington, D.C.. It was done.

Gone. Vapor. Dianthe continued her statement, watching how Lieutenant McCormick’s demeanor altered. She recognized the truth when she heard it, and the input of the CAG had won her over. Dianthe sensed the woman had an issue with sexual harassment and coercion, not with gays and lesbians. She would have a field day with Hound Dog, if there ever would be a case against him.

“Lieutenant Xavier, thank you for your cooperation in this investigation,” Lieutenant Commander Richard Murphy said, rising when she finished her two hour-long statement. He snapped her a smart salute that she immediately returned. The CAG had mauled his seventh cigar beyond recognition. “Agent Jackson, your services are not longer required, so you will be leaving the Lincoln tomorrow morning. And the files will be surrendered to us to finish this matter,” Captain Thompson snapped out.

“But–” Jackson protest was cut off with a curt gesture from the CAG. Lieutenant Commander Murphy had passed a piece of paper to him. The agent scanned the document with clear annoyance. No doubt his superiors had sent it. His involvement in the matter had been officially ended, and Jackson resented it. He slid the files towards Lieutenant McCormick, then smiled towards Dianthe. “Have a good life, Lieutenant Xavier.”

“Xavier, you are excused. Jackson, you stow the attitude now,” Captain Thompson said softly, and indication of how very angry the CAG was with the agent.

Dianthe exited the CAG’s office, feeling unreal and utterly disoriented. She made her way through the winding passages of the super carrier. She kept her head up, her shoulders squared, but made it clear she was in no mood for questions. Tommyboy, Tinker, Cowboy and other Squadron members lined the passage as she approached her quarters,

Without a word, they gave her a smart salute that she returned with glinting eyes. Tommyboy fought back tears as he hissed, “Blacklions, dismissed.” Dianthe blearily registered the back thumps and awkward hugs some of the male pilots gave her as they filed past her. Tinker hugged her hard, then stepped back. Tommyboy met her eyes, “We got you six, Breakneck.”

Dianthe nodded, not trusting her voice as she moved passed Tommyboy and Tinker. Tinker was openly weeping, and Tommyboy laid a comforting hand upon Kendra’s shoulder. Dianthe wrenched open the hatch to her stateroom, stepped through it, shutting it behind her before she slid to her knees and hugged her midsection. She reached out, snagging the waste paper basket, and promptly emptied the contents of her twisted belly into it.

Sliding the waste paper basket aside, she hauled her exhausted frame up onto Sally’s berth, and began weeping silently. She rolled onto her belly, quaking with each breath. “Why. why did you do this, Ellie? I loved you so much..” she sobbed, anger and grief swirling inside her mind. She barely cleared the berth as she vomited again.

She never heard the hatch open. Kendra silently stepped past the foul mess, and sat on the edge of the berth. Heedless of the insane risk she was taking, Tinker gathered the woman she proudly called a friend and rocked her like a mother would a sick child.

Dianthe clung to the other woman’s warmth like a drowning man would a life preserver until sleep claimed her.

**************

4 November 1995, San Diego, California
“It is the recommendation of the CAG, the Captain of the Abraham Lincoln and the J.A.G. corps that Lieutenant Dianthe Xavier be given an honorable discharge with full benefits,” Lieutenant Commander Richard Murphy submitted to the grim faced officers comprising the Board of Special Inquiry.

The officers conferred for several minutes while the subject of their inquest stood before them in her dress whites. The last three weeks had been sheer hell, and Dianthe had lost twelve pounds during those terrible days . She waited another forty minutes before the assembly made their decision.

“Lieutenant Xavier, it is the finding of this court that you have engaged in illegal acts of a sexual nature in a manner unbecoming an officer. This is clear reason for dismissal according to the Military Uniform Code of Justice. But your record has been one of the finest ones that has ever come before this court.

It is a great tragedy that we are forced to release such a fine officer and fighter pilot as yourself. Not to mention you are the first female naval aviator that engaged in real combat with enemy pilots, scoring two kills in the history of the United States Navy. These achievements cannot be ignored despite the nature of the charges that has brought you to point in your career. It is the finding of this court that your behavior is diametrically opposed to the very nature of this organization.

Let the record reflect on this day, 4 November 1995 that Lieutenant Dianthe Xavier has been relieved of her commission and rank. You will receive an honorable discharge with full benefits, though you will not receive the medals your actions warranted. This, we regret, but this matter has the potential do damage to the Navy and female fighter pilots, so the records have been amended to prevent the chance of public disclosure of this proceeding.”

Dianthe did not hear the rest of the formal pronouncement. She saw Lieutenant Commander Thomas O’Connell and Lieutenant Kendra Bell murmuring in protest, but the CAG signaled them to remain quiet. Kendra would be joining another Squadron, since she and Tommyboy had informed the CAG they were formally engaged.

So were some other interesting couples. Dianthe understood why. Not everyone had the chance to take such cover. She snapped a final, smart salute when she was dismissed for the last time, then pivoted on her heel and strode past the gallery. Outside were other victims of Hurricane Ellie, most would not fair as well as she had.

Michael and Terri had been cleared, but seven others were not as fortunate. Wearing engagement rings, they saluted Dianthe as she strode past them. They could not risk more than that right now. Agent Wade Jackson had been a very effective weapon in the hands of his star witness, Lieutenant Brandon Franklin. Hound Dog had escaped the entire mess unscathed once again.

Lieutenant Eleanor Mary Luden had not lost her commission or rank because she had convinced the powers that be she had lost her way when Teddy died. And since she had admitted she had turned to Brandon Franklin for help, she admitted she had released she had been misguided. She stated she regretted what had happened between herself and Dianthe, noting it was not something she would have ever thought herself capable of. Ellie had been convincing, making even Dianthe question what they had shared.

Hound Dog had hinted he had shown Ellie the error of her ways, though he never admitted they were now lovers. In his testimony in the proceedings he had made his role sound as though he had comforted a distraught nurse, and convinced her to come forward. He had made sure word got back to Dianthe that he had shown the beautiful nurse what a real man he was.

If Ellie’s betrayal had not been enough, Dianthe had been devastated to learn the woman she had loved was sleeping with Brandon Franklin.

Dianthe strode out of the building where her fate had been decreed, emerging into the golden sunshine of the Southern California. Wondering what she would do with the rest of her life, Dianthe kept her head up and her shoulders square as she headed for the parking lot. A solitary figure stood outside the building, watching her departure from beneath the shade of a majestic oak tree.

Ellie. Dianthe had not spoken with the woman since the nightmare began. Ellie had begun walking towards her former lover, her lush lips forming the woman’s name. Dianthe strode past the woman as if she did not exist, donning her sunglasses as she continued towards her red sports car that held three large duffle bags, her music collection and a high-end stereo unit. She had said her farewells to those that counted. She drove off the naval air station property, and into whatever life held for her now.
Chapter Two:
December 15, 1998
The crunch of fresh snow beneath her backcountry snowshoes was the only other sound than the occasional, mournful howl of wolves. She cocked her head, listening to gauge where the howls where coming from. Keeping close to the timberline, she moved with the ease and grace of one long accustomed to such exertions.

It was bone chillingly cold outside, but the woman had selected her gear for such weather conditions. Snow shoeing kept her very warm, too. She adjusted the straps of the raging red REI Talus 30 pack she carried whenever venturing into the field. Its design permitted her to carry her snowshoes and poles should she not require them, though that had yet to happen.

Despite its weight, she covered the rough terrain easily. The poles she used helped her keep her balance, and distribute her body weight. She dug the adjustable poles deep into the snow, and continued on.

A roguish grin etched across her thin lips when she reflected on how much she loved this. The research cabin lay four miles behind her, snuggled in a groove of trees that abutted Spirit Lake. The mountain lake’s pristine waters were frozen and snow covered, making the scene resemble a Christmas card. Meredith Murphy raised the pair of binoculars to her eyes, scanning the area for the wolves she was tracking.

She had been studying the behavior of the two main wolf packs for four and a half winters now. She had spent the last three months living up in the remote wilderness cabin. She had kept low, using a snow shrouded boulder and trees for a blind.

Meredith was thankful she was downwind of the pair of female wolves. Most likely littermates, the two female wolves had arrived during the past summer, and neither pack had chased them out. She lowered herself onto her belly, fishing inside her backpack to bring out her Nikon camera. She focused on the black wolves. She snapped a photograph of the beautiful animals, then the elk they were approaching.

She frowned. How had the two wolves brought down such a big animal? No doubt the animal was a winterkill. She snapped another photo. If it were not for the depth of winter, the wolves might find their claim to the elk challenged.

A young male Grizzly bear called this area part of his home range. But Ironclaw and an aging sow with what would most likely be her last cubs she had identified were denning. She had seen Ironclaw outside of his den during a brief thaw last month. He had been sluggish, almost comical laying outside his den.

She had been very careful to keep a very good distance, and barrier of trees and boulders between them. She had been on the opposite side of the valley where he had made his den, and uphill. She had been prepared to scale the towering tree behind should he become agitated.

Ironclaw was a young, powerful male just approaching his prime. She called him Ironclaw for the apparent ease of his rolling impressive boulders and trees out of his way when digging for marmots and rabbits. She had not dared to take his photo, fearing the whirling noise would annoy him. An annoyed Grizzly bear was something she did not want to encounter.

She had gotten some good distance between them, then observed his behavior for two solid hours. He had investigated the area directly around his den, not eating or passing waste. Denning bears did not eat, urinate or defecate during the harsh winter months.

If it were not winter and denning season for bears, the pair of wolves would most likely have Ironclaw seeking the rich meat. Meredith had witnessed such encounters before. Depending on the mood of the pack and bear, it could go either way.

Two lone females wolves would loose to the young Grizzly bear, if he had been out and about. Where, Meredith wondered, was the Spirit Lake pack? They should have been here, investigating the elk’s remains, and chasing away the two females.

She had witnessed an encounter between the ten-member pack and two females five days ago. It had involved lots of posturing and snarling, and the two females had shown proper respect. The Alpha male and female were quick to assert their dominance, and the pair had crept off.

They had lain down a good distance from the elk the pack had brought down. Their whines and postures assured the pack they understood their situation. Meredith sensed the Spirit Lake pack might adopt the two females within the next few weeks.

The Spirit Lake pack had lost two members this past summer, and the Fire Mountain pack had lost a member. She had found none of the remains; no hint at what had happened to the three animals. What happened had been a mystery. True, Ironclaw was active in the Spirit Lake pack’s home range, but she doubted he had done it.

She shook her head, and focused her full attention on the feasting pair of black wolves. Meredith used her teeth to pull off her gloves and fished inside the slash pocket of her royal blue fleece jacket. The Gortex shell she wore above the warm jacket, combined with her black turtleneck and expedition weight thermals kept her warm and dry.

But reaching her field notebook could be daunting. She glanced at the men’s Swiss Army watch she wore, jotting down the time, weather conditions and other important information. Having jotted down the necessary notes, she slipped her field journal back inside the zip lock lunch bag and slid back into her jacket pocket.

She focused her binoculars on the feasting pair of wolves and settled down to observe them. The sharp crack of a high-powered rifle shattered the serenity of the moment, and Meredith watched the smaller of two female wolves drop.

For a brief moment the surviving female whined and nudged her lifeless companion, uncertain what had happened. A bullet whizzed past her, exploding into the carcass she had been feeding on. The female raced towards the low laying glen Meredith had chosen for her observation point. Snow erupted around the running wolf, and Meredith hoped the animal would not bolt backwards when she caught wind of her.

The female wolf passed within two arm lengths of the wildlife biologist’s position, and vanished into the woods. Meredith had felt one bullet pass mere inches above her own head to hit a tree directly behind her.

Meredith prayed the poachers would not pursue the path taken by the fleeing wolf. She slid back down, gaining more cover behind the boulder and fallen tree. She said another pray that she would not be spotted.

If they saw her, she was dead.

She cautiously peered through her binoculars and watched the timberline. Her heart began hammering when three figures wearing military issued white camouflage emerged from the woods. Each man carried high-powered, expensive rifles, and the two of men were laughing and talking loudly.

Snatches of conversation drifted towards her. German. They were speaking German. Meredith scanned the surrounding area for other white clad forms. Had they spotted her? She swallowed hard. She had her Leather man, a sharp, folding skinning knife, a Petzel headlamp and her avalanche beacon. Her bear mace canisters were inside the research cabin, since it was denning season she felt they were not needed.

Jason and Annie Hendricks, the Chief Ranger and Chief of Visitor Services respectively, believed having a powerful base station and bear mace were good measures any time of the year. National Park Service policy forbade anyone but law enforcement rangers using rifle, shotguns or pistols within park boundaries, except under very special circumstances, otherwise she would have had the bolt action rifle Jason had considered giving her.

The dual career couple had debated about altering the rule, but Meredith had never seen a need for a rifle until this moment. But she would only get off maybe two shots before they spotted her position, and that would definitely be a bad thing.

In terms of accidents in the field, Meredith never worried herself too much about such things. She carried enough survival gear to last three days if needed, kept a concise log of her field activities that included her planned route and travel times, not to mention checking in via radio whenever weather conditions permitted. She did what she could to mitigate certain risks, and accepted that things could happen even with good planning.

It was part of life.

But the radio had very limited range in the mountains, unlike the small substation inside the research cabin. If she lived, she would report the incident to Annie and Jason. Right now, she doubted she would be around to make that call.

Poachers were notorious for killing witnesses, especially feds, and these were high-end poachers. This was a professional operation, not someone hunting out of sheer need.

The Burntmountain District of Drango Gap National Wildlife Corridor was a sprawling park created six years ago. It combined National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Forest Service, state and local lands into a unique biosphere park that wound through several states, and bordered Canadian wilderness. The nearest town was seventy miles away, and park headquarters a ten-day hike out under good conditions.

The only way help could reach her was via plane or helicopter. She lowered her binoculars and raised her Nikon camera. She focused the telephoto lens on three poachers. The third man she recognized instantly: William Dawson, owner/ operator of Eco-Adventures International based out of Hayden Lake, Idaho.

He had a warehouse outside of the resort town of Burntmountain. His hazel eyes scanned the frozen expanse for possible trouble while his clients celebrated their good fortune.

Meredith snapped three photographs of the men standing beside their kills. She made sure she got another two clear photos of the guide. The Germans were posing for pictures, slapping each other on the back and talking loudly.

Sweat beaded Meredith’s brow. They could not hear the whirl of camera’s automatic re-winder above the wind and their own voices. She heard the telltale thudding of a helicopter’s blades approaching from behind her. She stiffened. Would they spot her position?

She rolled onto her back, and waited. The large helicopter passed over position, and she snapped a picture of its numbers. It hovered for a moment, and Meredith tensed. The helicopter continued forward.

Her stomach lurched. They may not have spotted her, but her snowshoe tracks were fresh, and lead to the glen. Meredith pondered her limited options. Breaking cover was certain death. But remaining meant discovery and death.

Strangely, she heard no sounds indicating that they were headed her way. She peered around the boulder. The helicopter had settled down, and another figure jumped out of the large helicopter. It looked like an old military helicopter converted to private use.

The pilot was still inside the helicopter. He was busy powering down the helicopter. The white clad new comer did not remove his white ski mask as he gestured towards Meredith’s position. He was rubbing his lower back through his thick winter garments, obviously in pain. The Germans became excited, shouting and no doubt demanding something be done.

Whatever Dawson said made the men relax. Meredith ventured another look. They were busy hauling the wolf up into the helicopter. Her stomach lurched. Both sliding doors were open, and inside the center of the helicopter was the familiar bulk of Ironclaw.

She lowered her binoculars, blinking back tears of remorse and helpless rage. In all of Washington state there were estimated to be no more than fourteen to twenty odd Grizzly bears, ten within the boundaries of the Burntmountain District. Most of the bears were inside the combination of several National Forests and Drango Gap’s National Wildlife Corridor ecosystem, though the number was not deemed solid by many wildlife biologists.

Ironclaw had finally reached sexual maturity this past season. His death was a tragedy of immense magnitude to the Grizzly bear population. He had mated with the sow, but whether or not she would be able to keep her cubs alive depended on numerous variables. She steeled herself and risked a few more photographs.

Dawson stared in her direction, but made no effort to eliminate her. He waved, a gesture utterly out of place under the circumstances. Meredith swallowed hard. Something was very wrong with this picture. She leaned back against the boulder, shrugging out of her backpack. She fished inside the upper portion of her pack, removing a clean plastic Tupperware container she used for gathering frozen urine and scat specimens of the game animals.

Yanking off her gloves, she carefully made sure the film was rewound. She removed the film and slipped it back inside its round canister. She sealed the film canister inside the small Tupperware container with a hastily scrawled note about the photos.

She used another large zip lock bag and placed the Tupperware container inside it. Digging a hole beneath the boulder she placed the package underneath it. She carefully buried the package, snapping off an evergreen branch that she used to sweep away evidence of a disturbance.

Next, she put another roll inside the camera and took two more photographs. The helicopter lifted off, passing over her position and hovering. Dawson leaned out and waved again. He seemed to be very content with the situation. Meredith tensed, waiting for a bullet to end her life.

Instead, the helicopter made a circle and flew back in the direction of Burntmountain. Meredith kept her position for another thirty minutes, then ventured forth. She scanned the horizon.

Dark smoke billowed high above the rugged terrain, and Meredith knew why Dawson had not shot her. He had set the research cabin on fire, leaving her without shelter. There was the smell of snow in the air, and she recalled the weather report she had heard this morning. It had said a big blizzard was expected in two days.

Meredith cursed. The blizzard apparently had not heard the report. She studied the sky. She estimated she had maybe sixteen hours before the storm hit. She hunkered low, checking the contents of her backpack.

She removed the six small containers of frozen urine from the elk and other game animals, placing them far away from the boulder. She had three military issue ready to eat meal pouches, six Cliff bars, a water bottle with filtering system, a large, light weight mylar tarp, a Northface mummy sleeping bag rated for below zero, two pairs of clean wool hiking socks in a plastic bag, a folding military shovel, solid medical kit, two dozen water proof matches inside a water tight plastic container, a avalanche beacon, and a combination digital watch/ altimeter/barometer/ thermometer/compass that had a carabineer like clip.

Meredith wrote down the location of the buried film inside her journal. Drew a picture of the location, with reference points, then put the journal back inside her jacket. She squared her shoulders.

She knew something Dawson did not know. There was a USGS research cabin on the other side of the mountain, bigger than the one she used for the winter months. The cabin was used during the summer by graduate students working for the USGS, studying the uplifting of the crust through the state. It had seismic sensors, GPS stations, and an emergency generator. And the USGS cabin had a powerful substation radio setup that could reach further than her lost research cabin had.

She had helped them set it up, since they were working inside the park studying the evidence of magma build up in the Cascade Mountain chain. Walking there would take her close sixteen to twenty hours, if she left now.

It would be a race. Meredith shook her head. She might not like Dawson, but he was a smart, cold cocked bastard. Why bother shooting her? Let her freeze to death. No wonder he had been waving to her. She would be a victim of a tragic accident, left without shelter as a major, full-blown blizzard raged in the high country. No doubt Dawson would express his remorse publicly, reminding folks that city folk ought not be allowed in real backcountry.

Never mind that Meredith had spent much of her life outdoors, and could track humans and animals alike with ease. She had hiked thousands of miles of backcountry, and could live off the land if need be. Meredith grinned. She would not let the bastard win, not if she could help it.

She began the arduous trek, determined she would survive.

If all else failed, she could make herself a snow cave, and hunker down there for the duration. But the cabin had a fireplace where she could keep herself warm and dry. She coughed, and grimaced. She had been fighting a cold for the last week, and this journey would not help it.

A twinge of guilt assailed her. She had promised Annie that she would let them know if her cold had not improved, since Annie had not liked the sound of her friend’s voice.

Meredith had not called, since Annie would hear how the cold had not lifted. She would grounded Meredith to the cabin, if need be she would have the wildlife biologist picked up by helicopter. She was the unit’s full time resource management ranger and wildlife biologist, meaning her time here was limited enough by her regular duties, not to mention her collateral ones, and she had been resolute not lose a day of her winter study time.

********************

Tracy Spencer had sat beside the base station for hours, keeping a solemn vigil. It had been four days since Meredith Murphy had last checked in. Radio transmissions were never great between the main Ranger Station and the remote research cabin where the woman was spending the entire winter.

The lanky woman could not comprehend the shorter woman’s eagerness for the project. But Meredith loved being outdoors. Tracy enjoyed the great outdoors, too, but to a point. She did back country horse patrols like some of the other law enforcement rangers, but she also enjoyed civilization.

The National Forest Service maintained the horses for the backcountry patrol duties the two agencies shared. Horse patrols were interesting, but done only during the warmer months. Winter meant air patrols and snowmobiles.

Civilization meant hot baths, warm, clean sheets, clean clothes and strong, handsome men. Especially strong, handsome, well-endowed men not threatened by strong, independent women, she mused.

Besides, months alone collecting frozen urine samples of the game animals to study the health of the herds did nothing for her. Meredith had explained how she monitored the health of an elk, deer or moose by its urine, and how it correlated to the health of the predators that consumed said game animals.

Tracy shook her head. Wintertime was great in civilization. There were lots of things to do, especially around the towns of Blackstone and Burntmountain. Burntmountain was the next Jackson’s Hole and Telluride. She loved the very handsome men that spent their winter months up here teaching skiing and leading helicopter ski and boarding trips to pristine areas beyond the reach of the huddled masses yearning for untouched, wild powder.

She sighed, wishing she were out with one of them right now. If she were, it would mean everything was okay. It would mean Meredith was safely snuggled down inside the rustic cabin where she had spent the last few months.

She willed Meredith to call. Willed her to be all right. She bargained in her mind with whatever force had created everything for the woman, her friend, to be fine.

Dottie Hagen, their usual dispatcher, was visiting her sister in Florida. Dottie knew how these things went. No one would dare disappoint Dottie; she would not tolerate it.

“Come on, Meri, call us,” Tracy rose from the chair she had been sitting slouched in for the last five hours. She stretched her lower back with a grimace. She had used the small gym for over two hours this morning, using the stair climber and weights until she was exhausted.

She dashed to the toilet, hand held ready. She came out moment’s later, thinking about the reports that had come in a few days ago. Four separate pilots, two commercial, two private, had reported seeing smoke.

Smoke where the research cabin was located. One of the private pilots had said it was a cabin burning. He had dropped low, estimated the location, and then radioed it in.

Tracy shut her eyes. There were several cabins up in the area, all old hunting cabins or substations for the park. What if it had been the research cabin? Meredith could not survive the blizzard that been raging for the past three days without shelter.

Ryan Smith, the park’s pilot, had said he would not be able to take off for another day or two. The storm winds were still too dangerous for flying.

Help could not reach Meredith for another two or three days, if they were lucky. Tracy used the counter to do some push-ups, trying to keep her mind focused. Jason Hendricks strode into main office.

He was a tall, powerfully knit man with warm dark brown eyes, a ready smile and soft-spoken manner. He had grown his winter whiskers, an annual event that began with the first deep frost.

Tracy raised her pale blue eyes and shook her head. Jason exhaled, cursing under his breath. His dark brown eyes showed the stress of the last 96 hours. He hitched a thumb towards the bunkroom door. “Go sack out, Tracy.”

“But…”

“Tomorrow morning have your winter SAR gear packed and ready. I have an Air National Guard Huey on standby. We just got confirmation of the coordinators by thermal imaging satellites taken the day of the fire. It was the research cabin.”

Tracy shut her eyes, blinking back tears. Jason’s eyes met hers. There were unshed tears behind his expressive eyes. Jason and Annie Hendricks had handpicked each of their employees, save for Charlie Fenton. Charlie Fenton had been recommended by of good friend of the couple’s, so they had trusted his word. A former Colorado state trooper, the man worked for the park as a career seasonal.

A very private man, he lived outside the park in the town of Broken Rock. He spent the winter months running the Ski Patrol for the town of Burntmountain, and the rest of the year working for the park.

She had tried contacting him to let him know about Meredith, but his message machine said he was out leading a prolonged boarding trip in the mountains. Charlie would be very upset if anything had happened to the woman he carried a not-so-secret torch for.

Meredith had never felt the same about the man, though, and was not as close to him as she was other staff members.

“Where’s Annie?” Tracy whispered thickly.

“She went home, but she’ll be back later. She’ll stay here to run the recovery operation, and make the necessary arrangements,” Jason said wearily. “I need to contact Meredith’s parents about the situation.”

The man’s choice of words left no doubt: they thought Meredith was dead. Meredith could not survive seven or more days without shelter and food. There were not many that could endure it. Jason lowered himself into the oak, slated backed office chair and reached for the phone. He looked far older than his youthful forty-six years, the stress having taken a toll on the normally vigorous man.

Tracy leaned her hip against the waist high counter, tugging a hand through her wild chestnut mane. She watched her boss dial the number Meredith had left in case of such dire circumstances: it was her father’s personal line in the family law firm. “This Jason Hendricks, I must speak directly with Dennis Murphy. It’s an urgent matter, and I would rather speak directly to him,” Jason informed the person answering the man’s personal line, no doubt used to screening calls even on this line. “Dennis? It’s Jason Hendricks. I have some bad news about Meredith..”

Tears blurring her vision, Tracy silently left the office and pushed her way into the small office turned bunkroom during emergency conditions such as blizzards. She removed her hiking boots, remembering when she bought them last fall. She, Annie and Meredith had gone down to Seattle for a weekend, and Tracy had decided she needed to replace her old boots.

They had so much fun during that weekend that the men called a Hen’s weekend. Of course, they had wanted to come along, but Meredith pointed out it was girls only weekend. Tracy remembered how they had tried their level best to get Meredith to chuck the battered L.L. Bean backpack she used for running around town.

Meredith would never get rid of the backpack that had seen better eons because of sentimental reasons. Annie had playfully kidnapped the backpack, teasing Meredith she had tossed it in bay. Meredith had looked like she was going to dive right into the bay to find the missing bag.

Poor Annie had swiftly produced the bag, and Meredith had snatched the once navy blue and tan backpack back. She had hugged it like a teddy bear, and the other women had cracked up. The rest of the ferry ride had been spent simply enjoying each other’s company, knowing in a few hours they would drive back home.

Tracy dropped back on the folding cot, drawing the wool blanket over herself as she began letting the tears fall. Turning onto her belly, she silently wept for the woman she was proud to call a good friend.

It was the first time she had lost a good friend and coworker on the job. And it sucked, she thought angrily, wishing she had taken up Meredith’s offer to spend part of the winter really learning about what made her love her job so much. Maybe, if she had been there, things would have been different.

**************

“There’s the cabin,” the helicopter pilot shouted above the rotors of the huge helicopter. She glanced towards the solemn members of the Search and Rescue, or SAR, team.

It must have been a terrible fire. She flinched when she thought about what they might find. Fire was a nasty way to die. The woman may not have gotten clear of the collapsing cabin, and might be inside the snow-covered ruins. The four SAR workers wore bright orange jackets, each bore a backpack with emergency medical and survival equipment as well as snowshoes.

There were two men, and two women. One of the women was not a National Park Service Ranger, but a National Forest Service Ranger who worked closely with the others. She had dark hair, intense, dark gray eyes and bore a striking resemblance to the lean, handsome man whose eye patch gave him a roguish air.

He was a retired Forest Service Ranger, but active in training wildland fire fighting and search and rescue techniques to the feds and locals. He had taught advanced fire fighting on her base.

The other two were National Park Service Rangers. One was the superintendent of the park, the other one his law enforcement rangers. The young female law enforcement ranger looked pale and drained.

They all did.

The park’s fixed wing pilot/law enforcement ranger was flying a grid pattern over the area, searching for clues. The Guard’s woman hoped they would find the woman alive, but the blizzard had been severe.

She had been on enough search and rescue missions to know the odds were set against human survival. She and her aircrew would assist in the recovery effort.

“Sam, you and Morgan take this sector. Tracy and I will cover the northeastern quadrant. Captain, if you and your air crew will cover the remaining sections,” Jason tapped the map. “If her remains are not in the cabin, then most likely she was either out doing her field work, or got out during the fire. Depending on the winds, and her condition, she may within a few yards of the cabin. Especially if she was burned, she most likely would not get very far. ”

The female Forest Ranger flinched. All of them fought wildland fires, and most of them recalled the tragic events of Stormking Mountain. So many of their brothers and sisters lost in the flames of a wildfire.

“SAR One, SAR Four…” Ryan Smith’s voice crackled over the handheld the team members wore. The man was shouting.

Jason keyed his mike, braced for bad news. “Go, Ryan.”

“I just got a weak transmission,” Ryan Smith’s excitement was obvious. “But it’s Meredith!”

Shock rippled through the assembled team members, then joy. Jason blinked, then grinned. “Where?”

“At the USGS research station on the other side of the mountain. She say’s she’s a bit cold and hungry, but otherwise fine. She sounds like she has one hell of a cold, but she is alive!”

Cheers rose, and hugs were exchanged. Jason waved for the others to quiet down when Ryan said, “Said she needs you to pick something up. Here’s the coordinates.”

Jason used the pilot’s pen, writing down the location. Whatever it was, it was important enough Meredith wanted it retrieved. Why she had hidden it told him the fire was no mere accident, and there were dark looks exchanged while they absorbed that information, Even with the jolt of joy he felt knowing the woman was alive, a cold anger filled him when he knew the fire had been no accident, and he would make sure whoever had a hand in the matter paid big time.

Jason glanced at the map. Meredith had tromped this country for the last few years, and he tapped the map. He glanced at the smiling pilot. “Can we get a lift?”

“You got it. I assume we will making two stops?”

Jason beamed, and gave the usually reserved helicopter pilot a bear hug that left her winded and wide eyed. Her aircrew laughed, relishing the sight of the dazed officer’s bewildered expression and loss of words at the impulsive action of the big man.

They piled back into the helicopter and headed for the map location. Meredith radioed further instructions once they had landed. Morgan found the area, and dug. She handed Jason a carefully wrapped bundle.

“Meredith says, ‘Merry Christmas…'”, Ryan announced, and the crew froze. They exchanged looks. It was December 25.

Jason tucked the precious film inside his parka’s deep pocket, securing it there. He churned his way back through the deep snowdrifts. “Let’s go get her.”

It took twenty-five minutes to fly around the mountain, and another twenty minutes to find a safe landing spot. A figure came out of the research cabin, waving its arms. The four SAR team members bounded out of the helicopter’s belly with shouts of unfettered joy as they charged through the deep snow.

The Air National Guard team watched the short, tawny haired woman being hugged and kissed by the others. Twice, the Chief Ranger hugged the wildlife biologist close, hefting her off the ground. The pilot sniffed, claiming it was the remains of a head cold, daring her crew to say otherwise as she observed the joyous reunion. To be honest, some of them found their eyes were mysteriously misty, too.

Jason held Meredith inside the circle of his arms, dismayed how worn and thin she looked. She coughed violently, and he pressed a hand against her forehead. “Dammit! You’re running a high temperature, Meri.”

Meredith coughed, trying to say something. Morgan handed her a clean cloth. Meredith coughed, wiping her mouth with mild distaste. Morgan opened the wadded up cloth, and studied the thick, green mucous. Morgan and Jason crossed glances. “Pneumonia would be my guess. First stop for you, kiddo, is the hospital.”

“I’m fine…” Meredith insisted, coughing violently again. She was trembling and barely able to stand upright.

“Yeah; right,” Morgan hugged the woman close. She mussed her friend’s hair affectionately. “You have to see a doctor. Period, end, exclamation point.”

Meredith frowned. “Did you find the film?”

“Yes; what’s so important about it, Meri?” Jason inclined his head when Tracy reappeared with Meredith’s meager gear.

“You know how you and Morgan have been wanting to nail Dawson for poaching?”

Jason and Morgan stared intently at their friend. Meredith inclined her head, shivering despite the warm layers of clothing she wore. “Got ten pictures showing him and his hunting party bagging a female wolf, and they killed Ironclaw, too.”

Jason squeezed Meredith’s shoulder, knowing how painful the loss of the animals was to her. “Meredith, it will take time, but this should be what we need to get him.”

Meredith nodded, watching Tracy and Sam secure the cabin. Jason glanced down at the short woman he was supporting. “Kelly was worried sick about her favorite Ranger.”

Meredith smiled. Sam Griffin’s daughter Kelly was seventeen. Meredith had met her when Kelly had been twelve, and curious about nature and wildlife. She had been a ‘junior ranger’ that worked alongside the young wildlife biologist after school.

Born into a family of Forest Service Rangers and outdoor lovers’, Kelly had found a friend in the newest member of the Drango Gap team. It was through Sam and Kelly that Meredith had become very close friends with Morgan and life partner, Karen Winslow, a Forest Service wildlife biologist.

“I was worried for a little bit, too,” Meredith accepted help up onto the helicopter. A very young Guardsman slipped a warm blanket around her shoulders, then rejoined his crew.

Meredith leaned back against the interior of the helicopter, eyes sliding shut despite her best efforts. She awoke about forty-five minutes later outside the Blackstone General Hospital. She found herself being greeted by a group of very serious looking Federal Agents working several agencies, and saw Jason hand the package to one of the men.

It seemed the clock was ticking. Meredith found herself being hustled inside the hospital, being bombarded with questions and giving a statement. The doctor protested the treatment his patient was receiving, but Meredith assured him she was fine.

He insisted she was not, as she began shivering and sweating. The alphabet soup of federal agencies became jumbled in Meredith’s mind as she got colder. But she gave her statement three times until the doctor ordered the agents to leave.

Meredith heard one of the men murmuring an apology to the beautiful, golden haired woman with keen gray eyes who strode into the treatment room. Her father was fast on her mother’s heels, his deep voice telling the federal law enforcement agents to leave his daughter alone for the time being. Her mother took her pulse, then listened to the rasping, crackling breathing of her youngest child with worried eyes with a stethoscope.

“Mom?” Meredith asked, not believing her eyes. Her mother smiled, and swept back a greasy curl from her damp forehead. “Easy, sweetie. Your father and I are here, and you need to rest now. You will be very sick for awhile, so we are going to stay here to help you regain your strength.”

“Jason called us. We came immediately. Richard is in Japan, and Katherine is in New Zealand. We will call them once you are settled in. Granddad and Grandma will come as soon as they can,” Dennis Murphy murmured, leaning down to kiss his daughter’s temple. “Jessie will be a winter break soon, so she will be coming out once she is done with her finals at NYU.”

Meredith noticed how anxious the other doctors were around her mother, and Meredith managed a painful chuckle. Christine Murphy was one of the best heart surgeons in the United States, and had a formidable reputation. But right now, she was just a mother happy to be reunited with her youngest child. “But you both have so many responsibilities….” Meredith stammered, knowing how much juggling they must have done to be here.

One of the doctors showed the august woman x-rays Meredith did not recall having taken, and her mother’s lips compressed into a thin line. She and the ER doctors conferred, and Meredith heard mention of a private room being prepared.

“Hush, Meri . Nothing is more important right now than you to us, and you will need help for sometime. You have a bad case of pneumonia, both lungs are involved,” her mother told her softly. “Considering what you have been through, you are were lucky. Annie told us you had a bad cold, but it was not a regular cold, Rest now. We’ll be here.”

Her father’s light green eyes held hers as she fought her sluggish mind to focus on the events she had been swept up in. Her body ached now that she had let herself rest, and she shivered violently. Her father suddenly appeared with another blanket someone must have given him, and he tucked it around her while humming softly. Meredith recognized the Irish lullaby he had sang and hummed to her since she could remember.

It made her feel safe, though she found herself becoming more confused about where she was. A silver haired nurse leaned over her, giving her several injections while she heard her mother conferring with the ER doctors. She felt her father’s strong hand soothing her feverish brow as the world began fading.

Meredith surrendered herself to the gathering darkness, and would not awaken for many hours. If she dreamed, she did not recall.

*********************

William Dawson had been celebrating a successful hunt when the combined team of federal and local law enforcement officers descended on his warehouse. His German clients had left an hour ago, trusting he would send them the properly treated hides.

It had been a very good hunt: one young adult male Grizzly bear, two elks and the black female wolf. The fire he had had set burned down the research cabin utilized by the wildlife biologist. He sipped his Dewar’s Scotch with a sigh of appreciation. Inside the huge warehouse styled structure where he stored his guide company’s legitimate gear, not to mention other merchandise.

He sat inside his oak paneled office, checking on the stock market investments he had made when there was commotion downstairs. Rising, he figured it was an argument between his underlings, not an uncommon thing.

Laying aside his drink, he strode towards the office door that flew open. AFT agents piled inside, flanked by two local law enforcement officers. He found himself being spun against the wall by the dark haired, green-eyed sheriffs deputy wearing tailored dark brown pants and a tan shirt.

“Get this fag’s hands off me…” Dawson grumbled, trying to break free of the muscular man.

“Now, is that anyway to speak to a law enforcement officer arresting you for attempted murder, poaching, gun running and drug trafficking,” the officer asked sweetly as he cuffed Dawson’s wrists. His partner was reading the man his Miranda rights while one of the AFT agents showed him the search warrant.

“Dawson, you are going down…” the deputy hissed.

“I haven’t done anything wrong; I am an honest businessman being harassed by the Zionist led government that permits faggots and people of color human rights,” Dawson replied.

“Jon, why don’t you take this upstanding citizen down to the station with his other upstanding citizens,” Sheriff William Gunnerson murmured, disgusted. He was a lean, grizzled man whose tolerance for this type of stuff was limited.

Jason Hendricks entered the office before Jon could lead him outside. The normally soft-spoken superintendent of the Burntmountain District planted himself in front of Dawson.

“Just thought I let you know Meredith says you take really good photographs. So does the Federal government.”

Dawson’s eyes widened.

“Yup; she survived, you piece of shit. The photographs gave us the right to search all your warehouses. Fish and Wildlife found your trophies…”

Dawson heard agents below announcing they had found the shipment of Kalashnikov AK47s bound for Idaho. Dawson saw DEA agents, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Forest Service Special Agents and local authorities.

Several of his employees began chanting antigovernment slogans as they received their Miranda rights. Dawson found himself being hustled to the waiting school bus that would take them to the station. On the corner stood a throng of onlookers including one dark haired man whose eyes met Dawson.

“Is there a problem, mister?” one of the AFT agents demanded of a man glaring darkly towards the gathered law enforcement officers.

“Sorry; Charles Fenton, sir,” he flashed his credentials bearing his law enforcement ranger badge. “Heard we caught the prick that tried to kill one of my friends.”

“Your boss is inside,” the agent said in a less hostile tone, realizing the glare had been directed towards Dawson. “Glad to know your friend made it.”

“Thanks. I’m going to check in with my boss,” Charlie Fenton smiled, heading for the warehouse. Dawson met the Arctic cold glare of the newcomer whose fists clenched down by his side. “If she had died, you would be dead, Dawson.”

“Fuck off, fed… You haven’t got the guts to get your hands dirty. Real men do hard things when necessary,” Dawson hissed, glancing around the gathering crowd. “Wake up, America, before the Zionist controlled media and government take away your basic rights.”

Dawson smiled when some of the crowd began chanting antigovernment slogans. He held his head high and headed for the van. Things were looking up.

********************

Jason Hendricks pager went off inside the waiting lounge where he and Annie were busy talking with Dennis Murphy. The last few hours had been hectic ones for the man, but his youngest child was alive. His hazel green eyes showed the strain he had endured since the phone call about the research cabin burning down, and reputed death of his youngest child.

He and his wife had flown out in one of the family law firm’s private Lear jets. Sipping a tepid coffee, wearing faded Lee jeans and a comfortable, teal canvass shirt, he did not look like one of the best international corporate lawyers in the country. He had finished speaking with his parents, assuring them Meredith would be fine with rest and care.

They would come once Meredith was out of the hospital, and planned to spend the next few weeks with her. Jessie, the daughter of Dennis’s younger brother and his wife, had been living with them since she was teenager because Edward and Grace had spent several years in Saudi Arabia, working for the Embassy. Jessie had remained with Dennis and Christine even when her parents returned, since she was in school and happy.

His soft Boston accent had faded over the years he had lived in New York City. Annie perched on the armrest of the couch in which Jason was sitting. Jason pulled the pager off his belt, and glanced at the small screen. A frown knit together his brows, and Annie’s forest-green eyes met her husband’s with concern.

“Excuse me for a sec,” Jason rose and headed towards the nurse’s desk. A brief exchange, and he was using the phone. Whoever was on the other end of the line must have told him something upsetting.

“Annie and I will be there in an hour. No. if the fire’s as bad as you are saying, do not try getting into the evidence shed. Try to contain it with the Blackstone volunteer department.”

Annie rose, meeting her husband’s eyes with grim determination.

“Dennis, we have to go. Several of the housing units somehow caught fire..”

Dennis Murphy’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Like Meredith’s research cabin?”

“I do not know..” Jason answered honestly. He and Annie left the man pondering the odds of such incidents, and they all sensed it was something dangerous happening around them.

*******************

“William Dawson, you stand accused of endangered species poaching, transport of said species across state and country lines, drug running, and a host of other crimes,” the steel gray haired judge’s dark brown eyes focused on the smiling man. “Not to mention being linked to the murder of seven game wardens in Africa, and the murder of a wildlife biologist in Glacier National Park.”

William Dawson’s light hazel eyes showed nothing of his thoughts about the case being built against him. He wore an expensive, tailored charcoal gray suit, and his sandy hair had been recently trimmed. On his right wrist he wore a gold Rolex wristwatch glinting with diamonds. He glanced toward his team of high-priced lawyers and refrained from commenting.

“Bail will be set at six hundred thousand dollars,” the judge announced, scowling toward the polished lawyers representing the man.

“Our client wishes to return to his home where is his wife is expecting their firstborn, once his bail has been posted,” the lead lawyer announced, no doubt appealing to the judge’s well known sense of family values.

“Where is this compound?”

“Outside of Hayden Lake, Idaho. Mister Dawson wishes to see this terrible misunderstanding cleared up as soon as possible,” the lead lawyer said smoothly.

The judge’s jaw muscles worked, but other than the photographic evidence of Dawson helping two German men poach protected wildlife, there was nothing directly connecting him to the host of other crimes. Even the evidence seized in his main warehouse, including to radio collars off the missing Spirit Lake pack members, could not be directly tied to him.

He ran a massive business with six offices in the United States, and two overseas. The drugs were found in an employee’s locker, and the young skinhead was not talking. The ominous connection between the man and the Aryan Nation had not been brought up in this hearing. The judge glanced toward the cluster of men and women representing the United States government and local authorities.

He smiled toward the young wildlife biologist whose photographs would hopefully connect the dots. She stood between an older married couple, obvious friends, as well as, coworkers. He thought of the man that had been killed in Glacier National Park. He had witnessed Dawson leading a poaching party, but had nothing other than his eyewitness testimony.

Six weeks before he was to testify he had been shot dead outside his house. There were no witnesses, but the law enforcement rangers and other investigators believed his murder was at Dawson’s orders.

But he could not send Dawson to the black pit he deserved. The judge hated the law when it did not serve justice. He cleared his throat, “You may return to your home until the trial date is set in the next few months. But let me make this clear: should anything happen to Ms. Murphy, you will be held responsible. I will not have another death on my hands.”

The lawyers inclined their heads respectfully, and Dawson turned with his polished team of defenders. The judge had risen, and was gathering his papers when Dawson met the eyes of the woman responsible for this trial.

Smiling, he playfully formed a gun with his right hand and pretended to shoot the young woman. The judge and the rest of the court froze. The young woman stiffened, and the tall, brown haired, brown eyed Chief Ranger of Burntmountain snarled, “Enjoy your last months of freedom, asshole.”

“Is that anyway for a civil servant to address a citizen of the United States?” Dawson laughed, grinning at the purple-faced judge. “I was just kidding. Take care, Meredith Murphy.”

Meredith stood her ground between Annie and Jason, feeling their anger and frustration that matched her own. She knew her life was about be altered, but how deeply remained to be seen.

******************

April 18, 1999
Meredith Murphy puffed out her cheeks, and scanned the computer screen with narrowed eyes. It was her annual report on the return of the Gray Wolves to the Burntmountain District of Drango Gap National Wildlife Corridor. There were two separate packs she had identified over the course of the four-year study. They shared some territorial overlaps, and there two other packs living in National Forest lands adjacent to the pack.

Both packs had migrated out of the Canadian wilderness six years ago, following the migratory routes of the big game animals. It had validated the theories behind the foundation of the unique biosphere park. Drango Gap was named for the man that had been the inspiration for the creation of the park.

Mike Drango had been a logger turned naturalist, murdered for his efforts to preserve the remaining Old Growth forests he and his family had harvested for generations. His killers had never been found, though speculations pointed to certain folks. A statue of him had been erected in his hometown of Blackstone, Washington. He had been an unassuming, affable man, a family man that had wanted his children’s great grandchildren to enjoy the wilderness of his youth.

Meredith wished she could have met the man. It had been his murder that had convinced his friends and family things needed to change. If it had not been for his murder, Meredith could not help but wonder if the park would’ve existed.

A grassroots effort blossomed, and soon local to federal branches of government began taking note. Of course, the fact that the enjoyment of the outdoors and a variety sports in tourism made more economic sense than harvesting the forests played into the creation of the park.

Drango Gap covered several states, connecting the migratory corridors of wildlife, and preserved critical habitat for those animals. There were sections of the sprawling park closed entirely to the general public and outdoor fanatics, deemed too critical of a habitat area to risk.

But much of the mammoth park had recreational areas where people could connect with nature. Eco-tourism, outdoors adventure companies, and a host of other activities were permitted in established zones within the park.

Locals were finding better money catering to the folks that places like Burntmountain attracted. The resort town of Burntmountain was well on its way to becoming the one of the best resort towns in America.

It enjoyed year round visitation, skiing, snow boarding and limited snowmobiling mixed with hiking, mountain biking, horse back riding, wilderness camping and climbing. So did the rest of the Burntmountain District.

It was a challenge, meshing together the different activities without impacting the resource. Meredith, Hank Burnside, Shannon Mac Bride and the other resource management team members worked hard to maintain a balance. The others worked out of the headquarters in Seattle, though they were available should she require assistance.

Meredith saved the twenty-eight-page document, ran the spell and grammar checks, then hit the print command. A glance at the wall mounted clock told her she had an hour before Annie and Jason Hendricks brought by the new Law Enforcement ranger and part-time pilot. The woman would be using the guest cabin behind Meredith’s house, an arrangement that suited Meredith.

There had been a recent rash of break-ins and minor arson cases, something that concerned Meredith. Having a commissioned law enforcement officer living on her property should discourage most troublemakers. The report she would be submitting would most likely be the last one she making, since her main duties as the lead district resource management ranger had grown. USGS biological team members would soon take up the task, something she knew was necessary for the time being. And it did not help her that she was on Dawson’s list.

Meredith stretched, sighed as she watched the first two pages print out. Time for a shower, she mused. It had been a very busy day. She had started her morning with a six-mile jog, then finished cleaning up the log cabin behind her house. She had sat down to complete her report, losing track of time.

She risked a sniff. Her nose wrinkled. Yup. She smelled pretty ripe. She dashed out of her office and up the stairs to the third floor of the sprawling house. She had thirty minutes to shower and dress, and another thirty minutes to lay out the hors d’oeuvers she had bought last night in Blackstone.

She trotted past the two guest bedrooms and bathroom to the master suite. She began shedding her garments as she headed for the master bath. She considered herself in the mirrors that ran the length of the oak and green marble vanity that took up the entire north wall of the master bath.

At five feet four inches, she was sleekly built, years of hiking, mountain biking, running and climbing had made her muscles compact and strong. Her breasts were small and firm enough that she did not have wear a bra every day, though they were not too small. She wore her dirty blonde hair short for ease of wear and comfort. Her grandfather said her eyes were the color of sunlit seawater off the coast of Ireland during a fine spring day. Meredith called them gray-green, but she liked her grandfather’s lyrical description.

He had supported her when she went against the course her family had set for her. She had not selected one her family’s traditional occupations, an action many had debated and questioned. Instead, she had followed her heart and interests despite the protests of several family elders.

Meredith stepped inside the separate shower stall and turned on the water. She sighed with gratitude when the hot water washed over her lithe frame. She used the herbal shower gel on the rough natural sponge to wash herself, thinking about the past five years. She loved what she did, and she loved Drango Gap. She still had faith in the National Park Service overall mission, but she was realistic enough to know politics played too strong a role in many management decisions.

Five years ago Jason and Annie took a gamble on a young graduate student fresh out of the University of Idaho, betting she had what it took. Meredith had spent her summers working in Olympic, Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, getting the necessary skills and experience to match her intense studies.

Between her high grade point average, extensive field experience and excellent recommendations, Jason had selected her out of a list of two hundred candidates. Several of those not selected had hinted that her family ties were the reason for her selection, since her family was very, very wealthy and socially prominent.

Meredith had known the only way to disprove her detractors was to work hard. To prove her abilities beyond a shadow of a doubt, she had worked harder than most others would have, and ignored those negative voices. She had been a rich, city bred, twenty-three year old grad student with a passionate love for nature and the outdoors. She had proven that Jason and Annie’s instincts had been accurate.

Those that had opposed her selection had either come to accept her, or found themselves being ignored by their fellows. Meredith had come into her own. Her family, too, had come to accept her career choice. Building the main house had been the final gesture that told the world she had decided her own fate. She had bought forty-acre piece of property with the lovely two-bedroom log cabin when an elderly couple decided to move closer to their out-of-state children.

Meredith had designed the main house with a young architect to meet her needs. Three stories, the elegant timber frame house reflected modern touches. The lower level held her spacious office, the large eat in kitchen, formal dining area, a good gym, a half bath and large storage area that lead into the finished basement. The second floor held the great room, two guest bedrooms, a full bath, and a cozy den. The third floor had another two guest bedrooms, another full bath and the master suite.

A full, wrap around verandah encircled the first floor level, and there was a balcony area right off the master suite. She loved her life. Between her salary and trust funds, she was very, very comfortable. Truth be told, she really did not have to work. She could live very comfortably on her trust funds, but neither she nor her family believed in the idle rich concept.

Life was good. Dawson’s case was still making it’s way through the overburdened legal system, and Meredith knew it could be months before the trial date would be set. She did not permit the possibility of foul play to haunt her days or nights. Should anything happen to her, there was enough information to make sure the man spent the rest of his natural life in prison.

She reluctantly stepped out of the corner shower stall built out of wood, lovely Mediterranean styled tile and frosted glass etched with a wildlife motif. She grabbed a towel, drying her hair as she entered the bedroom where she tossed a pair of comfortable blue jeans and cream-colored shirt onto the bed. A dark brown leather belt, socks and a pair dark brown and evergreen walking shoes completed the outfit.

Running her fingers through her short hair, she finished drying off and dressed. In another twenty minutes Jason and Annie would be bringing by the newest edition to the ranger staff. Meredith dashed back downstairs to get the food ready. She swiftly placed the hors d’oeuvre’s that required heating on a tray, and slipped it inside the oven. Next, she carried up a small tray of raw veggies, cheese, fruit and crackers. Annie would bring whatever was left over to the Ranger Station.

The four law enforcement rangers, the dispatcher and joint facility maintenance folks working between the two agencies loved when she hosted parties. It meant those unable to attend would find some really good food in the Headquarters Building/Ranger Station. The maintenance members were shared between Okanogan National Forest and the Burntmountain District of the Drango Gap National Wildlife Corridor, and were locals’ men and women whose diverse skills kept the numerous existing physical plants up and running.

Well-fed maintenance folks that felt appreciated meant things got done correctly and quickly. Something staff and visitors benefited from, in Meredith’s opinion. The carpenters had done a great job on rebuilding the interior of the emergency and fire cache that had needed more wracks for hanging gear. Built-in heavy-duty draws for the numerous carabineers, descenders, anchors, and such the park used for rescue missions made her life easier, since she kept the gear list updated.

Meredith had roasted a huge turkey with all the trimmings for the guys, as thanks for a job well done. Morgan had teased her the carpenters were ready to build her own building, since they loved her cooking. Most were only part-timers on call when needed for projects and repairs, but they were included in the end of season party she always hosted whenever possible. And since most of them were local contractors, she hired whenever she needed work done on the house and cabin.

Thankful that she had had the foresight to straightened up the Great Room, kitchen and second floor bathroom last night, she heard the sound of vehicles driving down the dirt road. Meredith immediately spotted Jason’s fire engine red Dodge truck, then the dark blue Jeep Cherokee following his truck.

She chuckled. Right on time. She jogged down the stairs to the first floor and cut through the large eat-in kitchen to the back door. She stepped outside onto the wrap around verandah in time to see the two vehicles come to a halt behind the house.

Meredith immediately noticed that Jason had shaved off his winter whiskers, and had had a recent hair cut. Annie stepped out of the passenger side, a slender woman three inches taller than Meredith with forest green eyes and silver frosted, shoulder blade length chestnut hair.

Annie was the Chief of Visitor Services and Interpretation for the District, and the head of the Law Enforcement program for the district. A quick-witted, direct woman, she balanced Jason well.

Jason and Annie had been married for twenty-three years, since Annie had proposed to the soft-spoken man. They never had looked back. Jason beamed when he spotted Meredith standing on the verandah.

Drango Gap National Wildlife Corridor would be their final park, they had decided. They had decided to retire here when they felt it was time. Annie had a very shrewd business mind, and had invested their earnings wisely. They had never had children, though they had tried, and accepted it was not meant to be. But they had several nieces and nephews, so they did have kids they loved and helped spoil whenever possible. Annie and Jason loved and liked each other, and Meredith knew the couple did not take their relationship for granted,.

Neither did her parents or grandparents, and her older brother Richard and his wife Carolyn seemed destined to have the same type of relationship. Meredith hoped someday she would find that same kind of lasting love and affection, too,

“Hi, kiddo…” Jason called out affectionately when he spotted Meredith. Jason slid an arm around his wife’s waist as the jeep pulled up alongside Jason’s fire truck red pickup truck.

Meredith started down the back porch steps and ambled towards the Jeep Grand Cherokee. She tried recalling the details that the couple had given her. Dianthe Xavier, a former fighter pilot off the USS Abraham Lincoln, honorably discharged, joined the National Park Service several months following her leaving the military, worked the Everglades for two years.

She had gotten her status down there, doing air, water and land patrols. She went to FLETC, and applied to several openings, including Burntmountain. Jason had made some calls, heard damned fine things about the woman, and had been able to reach her since she was a vet.

Ryan Smith had put his two cents in, too. He had been a pilot for the Air Force Reserves, and heard through the grapevine she was a sierra-hotel pilot. A damned good officer, too, according to his connections. She had left behind a lot of friends, and a lot of questions.

What they had not told her was the woman was an Amazon. Meredith blinked when the towering woman unfolded her six foot one frame out of the vehicle, shaking her dark brown mane of hair out of piercing blue eyes. Meredith felt her heart skip a beat, and her palms became sweaty.

She shook her head, attributing her reaction to the fact she had been an incredibly busy the last two weeks. Jason’s eyes narrowed, and Annie paused. They had noticed her reaction. Meredith knew they would be asking her questions. Her single status had been a point of debate for years within the tightly knit group.

She had dated a couple of nice fellows, but never felt the burning passion her friends had talked about. Tracy had dragged Meredith to dozens of social functions. Meredith reasoned it was just that she had not met the right person yet, not to mention she had been focused on her career goals.

Dianthe Xavier’s attention had been focused on something in the back seat, sparing Meredith an awkward moment. Meredith had been deemed very attractive, and even very cute, but this woman was a true classic beauty. Tall and lithely muscular, she radiated good health and silent strength. Her high swept cheekbones bore no makeup other than Mother Nature’s hand, balancing out the fine nose, full lips and intense cobalt blue eyes that missed nothing. Her olive skin hinted towards Mediterranean bloodlines, and years of working under the sun had made her natural skin tone more bronze.

Natural streaks of chestnut and dark gold highlighted the woman’s glossy mane of shoulder blade length brown hair that she wore loose.

“Dianthe Xavier, Meredith Murphy,” Annie took charge of the introductions, pondering the reaction of the smaller woman.

Meredith extended her right hand, and smiled. “Hi, Dianthe.” Dianthe’s bigger hand encompassed Meredith’s in a warm, firm handshake. “Thanks for letting me rent your cabin,” the woman’s husky tones completed the image of the mythic warrior woman.

The tall woman wore a dark brown G-1 leather flight jacket with real squadron patches and a pair of military issue aviator sunglasses hanging on the jackets right shoulder epaulet. Meredith had to crane her neck to meet the woman’s eyes, and beamed. “You’re welcome. It helps knowing someone is keeping an eye on the property while I am out in the field. Please, come on inside.”

“There’s something I have to do first,” Dianthe opened the back passenger door and gently hefted a hard body carry case. Inside the case a silvery-gray-black cat meowed, stretching his long, muscular body with feline contentment. “Furball’s been inside the cage since dawn.”

“Hi, big guy…” Meredith murmured, handing Dianthe two sets of keys to the cabin on mini-carabiners.

Furball purred, and pressed against the gate. Meredith raised a questioning eyebrow, and Dianthe nodded her consent. Meredith offered her fingertips, and the cat sniffed them. She touched the soft fur, rubbing his head through the gate.

Furball rumbled his approval with deep purrs of pleasure. Meredith laughed softly. “The door will be open once you are settled in. Just come inside.”

“Thanks,” Dianthe grabbed a huge duffel bag and shouldered it with ease. She started down the gravel path leading to the large two bedroom cabin that had been Meredith’s first home.

Jason and Annie had watched the two women introducing themselves, looking very pleased indeed. Meredith dashed back up the steps, Annie and Jason following her.

“So?” Jason asked, walking over to the refrigerator to help himself to a bottle of Sam Adams. Meredith rarely drank alcoholic beverages, but she kept some on hand for when her friends and family members visited.

“So what…” Meredith poured herself and Annie tall glasses of sun brewed ice tea.

“What do you think?”

“She seems nice enough…” Meredith replied, pulling the tray of hors d’oeuvres out of the oven. Jason studied her with a calculating eye, no doubt noting her refusal to meet their eyes. Meredith sat the hot tray down atop the ceramic trays when she felt the familiar warning tickle and tightness. She coughed violently for several minutes, her lungs protesting her first prolonged run outside since her prolonged illness.

“Meri…” Annie spotted the inhaler the wildlife biologist had been given since her slow recuperation this winter and swiftly snared it. She handed to the coughing woman. Meredith shook the inhaler, then took two controlled hits that would help ease the decreasing episodes.

It had been hard getting her wind back following her bout with double pneumonia, but she had been determined not to lose her lungpower. Annie and Jason seemingly forgot the interesting moment outside, worried that she had overdone her increasingly demanding exercise regimen approved by her doctors.

Jason guided her towards a stool while she let the medicine do its work. Annie got her a glass of water while Jason gently rubbed Meredith’s back to ease her breathing. The wheezing episodes could be bad, and they had twice rushed her to the hospital for treatments when she had overdone it. Those episodes had been during the weeks following the hearing, and the couple had kept an eye of their friend and coworker.

“How far did you run today?” Annie inquired, arms folded across her chest as she watched Meredith’s breathing leveling out. “Six miles…”

“Ambitious, aren’t we,” Jason chuckled, knowing how stubborn the wildlife biologist was about not giving into her temporary asthma like condition. Annie shook her head, “You need to ease back into your workout routine, Meredith. Your mother told us what to expect, and you have to accept your limitations, or I will call your mother.”

“I promise not to overdo it,” Meredith promised, knowing Annie meant it. Jason laughed, and picked up his ale again. Meredith was a fiercely independent soul, and the restrictions of her recuperation had made her climb the walls.

In the back of her mind Meredith was grateful the couple had forgotten her reaction to their newest staff member, for now, she knew.

*****************

Dianthe Xavier unlocked the log cabin’s heavy oak front door and stepped inside what would be her and Furball’s home. She whistled. This was no hovel. It was a very spacious, well made cabin with two large bedrooms, a full sized kitchen with a round, pine table that could seat six comfortably, a large bathroom containing both a tub and shower, a impressive great room with a very modern soapstone fireplace that could heat the entire cabin and food, and a loft where there was an office and small den.

Dianthe chuckled, shaking her head in mild amazement. The cabin had been built long before the sprawling timber frame house, but it had been well kept. She laid down Furball’s carry case, and released the meowing cat. Furball stepped out, purring loudly as he rubbed against his owner’s legs.

Grinning, she stooped down and picked up the grayish black cat that she had found as a small kitten in the Everglades. Furball’s mother had been a family cat abandoned when she became heavy with kittens, left to fend for herself. Dianthe had found her emaciated and half dead, all the kittens stillborn but one. She had taken the stricken animal and mewing kitten to a local vet.

The mother cat died hours later, but Dianthe had refused to let the kitten die. She had bought supplies, risked her park housing by bringing the tiny kitten home with her. She had hand fed the tiny creature, using an eyedropper and formula the vet recommended.

Her coworkers, including the housing officer, were willing accomplices in hand raising the surviving kitten. It seemed the housing officer had a very soft spot for animals, especially cats.

Furball had grown into a very fine cat. Long of limb and very strong, he was openly affectionate fellow, and very playful. He was her family, as he was hers. She felt a brief twinge as she pondered how they had both been orphaned

Furball rubbed his cheek against her cheek, then draped himself across her broad shoulders. She checked the kitchen, opening the refrigerator. It was stocked with all the staples she would need for awhile. The fruit and vegetable bins were brimming over with fresh produce, and the freezer had an amazing assortment of fresh meat and fish in marked zip lock bags.

She laughed, delighted. Jason had mentioned that Annie and Meredith had gone grocery shopping for the newest member of their staff. She found the large pantry well stocked, too. There was enough food to last four weeks, if need be.

Furball had vaulted off her shoulders and was busy eating the dried cat food left out for him. A water bowl sat on the red and green plate mat containing his food bowl and water. A mudroom lay off the kitchen, leading to the rear door of the cabin. Furball’s litter box and a washer dryer unit occupied the northern corner of the utility area.

Dianthe returned to the combination kitchen and dining room, finding a neatly written note about handling trash. Dianthe read the clear instructions, understanding the reasons behind it. This was bear country. Mainly black bear, but there were Grizzly bears in this section of the state.

Special containers held the dry cat food, and other dry foods. The pantry sat inside the heart of the cabin, and Dianthe found more containers inside the large pantry. The heavy wooden doors and window frames had been re-enforced to resist curious bears.

There were several folders containing orientation materials that included very clear directions to the closest towns, emergency contact numbers of the Burntmountain staff, and the Standard Operation Procedures of the District. Another folder had the history of the park’s formation, it’s legislation, and the different unit’s contact phone numbers and other vital information.

Annie had mentioned that Meredith had set up the orientation packages for seasonal and full time staff members, and Dianthe was impressed. She scanned the information with interest. It was well written, and provided the type of information that newcomers would need. It listed local doctors and the two hospitals in the area: the small one in Blackstone, and the large one in Burntmountain. There were three veterinarian offices listed, too.

The center portion of the large cabin was the great room with comfortable stuffed armchairs, two couches, a glass and wood coffee table, built-in bookcases, and an entertainment center that hid an impressive TV and stereo unit.

Dianthe estimated that about a quarter of a mile separated the cabin and the main house, the evergreens and other trees granting privacy to both structures. Meredith had a separate garage capable of holding four vehicles, freestanding of both houses. The garage was stoutly built, with heavy metal doors to protect the vehicles inside from bears and fire.

A squat, cinder brick and steel shed was located in an open space where most of the household garbage was held until pick up. A steel link fence encased the entire large shed where a commercial hauler pickup the trash twice a week. And there were two large steel barrels with handles where some of the food would be turned into mulch. Dianthe had noticed the carefully planned firebreaks surrounding all four structures.

The firebreaks prevented bears from concealing themselves, too. The landscaping had been designed to provide a sense of privacy without creating areas for bears to conceal themselves.

Who was Meredith Murphy, and how could she afford this type of life-style on a ranger’s salary? Evidently, she had money. A lot of money from the look of things, Dianthe mused. She had the bearing of someone raised in one of the Old Money families of the Northeast. But she had a very down to earth personality, which told Dianthe she was not a snob.

Annie had told her that Meredith had been on-board the last five years, and Dianthe guessed the woman had no desire to work elsewhere. Dianthe had recalled reading about the woman’s involvement in the Dawson affair several months ago, in the National Park Service’s daily listing of incidents nationwide, the Morning Report. The Morning Report had been skimpy on the details of the incident, other than the woman had gotten photographs of the man poaching.

Dianthe headed back to the main house, observing the elegant lines of the fine house. It was beautiful. There were floor to ceiling windows in several sections of the house, permitting light to flood the great room and formal dining area. She mounted the steps that led to the back door and knocked before opening the stout oak door.

“Come on in,” Meredith called out. Dianthe entered to see the short, slender woman slapping away the hand of the Chief Ranger of Burntmountain. Jason yelped and withdrew the offending hand trying to raid the oven heated hors d’oeuvre tray.

Annie laughed at her husband’s woebegone expression, and sipped her sun-brewed tea. She stood, leaning her right hip against the large butcher-block island. Jason sighed, picked up his bottle of Sam Adams and sipped it.

“There’s drinks in the refrigerator: lemonade, two bottles of chilled California chardonnay, sun brewed ice tea, fresh squeezed orange juice, seltzer and water. Glasses are in the cupboard to your right. Meet you upstairs.”

Dianthe snagged a tall glass, and decided on the sun brewed ice tea. Jason straightened, resuming his most professional demeanor when he met the eyes of his newest employee. “I take it you like your new quarters?”

Dianthe studied the body language of the husband and wife team, realizing they balanced each other perfectly. She had heard good things about Burntmountain, especially the Hendricks. Jason and Annie Hendrick had come up through the ranks, knew their chosen profession well, and always hand selected their staff from the list of candidates approved by the Office of Personnel Management.

It was obvious they considered Meredith Murphy more than merely a coworker: she was family. Dianthe poured herself a tall glass of sun brewed ice tea, and carefully replied, “It’s very nice…not typical government quarters.”

“No; definitely not. If the fire eight weeks ago had not destroyed the evidence shed and several housing units, you would be living in government quarters. You would be living in government housing, albeit nice housing. Not a log cabin, but decent housing.”

“What happened?”

“Bad wiring, or so the fire department inspector claims. Damned lucky we did not loose anyone. We lost three houses, and the evidence shed. High winds spread the fire rapidly. It took the volunteer fire department and us four hours to get the blaze under control.

It will be a couple of years before we can rebuild all the housing units, though we might get one in another year for full timers.”

Dianthe’s eyes narrowed, “Wasn’t that in the same week that you folks busted William Dawson.”

“Yes,” Jason’s dark brown eyes were flint hard. Dianthe sensed there was more to the story than she was being told. But she knew this was not the time to ask certain questions. She was still new, and they would be watching her for a while.

Annie inclined her head, and said, “Come on; Meredith will be disappointed if you don’t have some of the stuff she bought last night.”

Dianthe flanked the couple up the stairs to the great room where Meredith had lit a fire and turned on a hidden stereo system. It took her a moment to spot the speakers cunningly concealed on the rafters above the room.

She picked up a napkin, and selected one of the crab cakes that Jason favored. It was delicious. She savored it with a slow grin. Watching the others settle themselves in the comfortable leather armchairs that sat set before the fireplace. Meredith sat inside a very cozy looking love seat opposite the couch Dianthe occupied.

For the next hour the conversation flowed about the nature of her duties, the couple answering any of Dianthe’s questions and concerns. Meredith would interject information and comments when she deemed it necessary.

Dianthe nibbled on another crab cake, and popped an occasional piece of fresh fruit or cheese. She noticed that Meredith favored the raw veggies, fruit and cheese, though she did eat a couple of the crab cakes.”

“Once you’re settled in, you will become one of the on call SAR team members. Jason’s the primary, Meredith’s the secondary. Meredith will get you up to speed,” Annie said. “Also, the Forest Service has a special agreement relative to Drango Gap National Wildlife Corridor to assist in SAR operations.”

Dianthe nodded, “Normally Forest Service lets the local authorities do SAR operations in their lands?”

Annie nodded, “But part of the agreement between us means we share resources, including trained SAR personnel. And we do work with the local authorities and some SAR volunteer groups, too.”

“Speaking of SAR, we need to replace twelve of the rescue ropes, get four new harnesses, and a general laundry list of ‘bineers and anchors. I cc-mailed you and Jason the complete lists of equipment needing replacement, and the list of equipment needing to be destroyed.”

Jason nodded, “I read it. Sent Stephen Kensington the list; he say’s Brett’s working on shaking loose more funding, though Alex’s not happy where it will be coming from.”

Meredith flinched. Alex Larson was the Chief of Interpretation, and a very close friend of Meredith’s. If Stephen had made that comment, she knew the money would be coming out of the woman’s budget.

It was the classic balancing act of determining priorities, but there could be no price placed on human lives. Alex would understand the reasoning, but not like the results. “Does it mean we will lose some of the seasonals?”

“Nope; we need the message the Interps get out. Alex won’t be getting their new computers until the next fiscal year. Brett’s also trying to secure the moneys necessary for rebuilding the new houses as soon as possible, but it may another two years before that happens. Its a good thing Morgan has some extra housing open, so we have a backup for the seasonal crew.”

Meredith nodded. “Ryan can’t wait to teach you the ropes: he claims Denali keeps calling his name.”

“No..that would be Sandi. Sandra Brynes was the full time interpretive ranger for the district. She and Ryan got dual career positions up in Alaska. She’s the new Chief of Interpretation, and he’s the new Chief Ranger.

They’re getting married this coming fall,” Annie interjected, knowing Dianthe might find the conversation difficult to follow.

“When’s Sandi’s replacement coming?” Meredith asked, sipping her ice tea.

“Not till the end of summer. He and his wife have some personal business that must be settled first, but there is no avoiding it So, Alex has asked you to cover the last school programs and orient the seasonals. Annie will over see everything else,” Jason replied, studying Dianthe out of the corner of his eye.

Sandi’s leaving meant she would be pressed into service as an Interp ranger. Meredith chuckled, knowing that she would find a Ccmail about her doing Alex a favor.

“When will Irene and Craig be free?” Meredith asked. Both were interment staff members who taught in local schools, and were vital to the interpretive operation of the unit.

“Not for another six weeks, just a few days after the other seasonals arrive,” Annie answered, having already checked their schedules before asking Meredith.

“How many programs?” Meredith asked, hoping there were not too many left.

“Ten remaining Operation Wilderness programs over the next two weeks. It will be a program a day, three hours for each program,” Jason ventured. Meredith sighed, thinking how she could fit it all in. Her duties could be rearranged, but it would mean pulling long hours for the next few weeks. But she would get tons of comp time she could use, she mused, though when she could take it would be up to park operations. “Annie and I will cover some of your other duties, Meri. We do not want you overdoing, okay?”

“Operation Wilderness?” Dianthe interjected, recalling the environmental programs she had seen over the years. And she wondered why the couple was concerned about the tawny haired wildlife biologist overdoing it.

“It’s a program for local grade school and high schools based on a year long study of forest ecology. Meredith’s been the back-up interpretive ranger for the district. She’s got a talent for it,” Jason responded.

“Talent? Heck, I am the one that didn’t outrun these two when Alex Larson decided there should be a backup! Alex is the Chief of Interpretation for the whole of Drango Gap, and she was in cahoots with these two.”

Annie and Jason had the good grace to look mildly abashed. Annie cleared her throat, and said, “Have you ever done Interpretation?”

Dianthe shivered, and shook her head. “No. I am strictly law enforcement, flying EMS, and SAR. Public speaking is not my thing. I have gone on tours with some Interps; never sure how they do it.”

“Well, despite her comments, Meri’s incredibly good at it. She gets the kids really into it,” Annie smiled. “We appreciate it, Meri. Alex appreciates it.”

“Ahuh, and why do I feel like I’ve just been hustled?” Meredith laughed.

“Would we hustle you?” Annie grinned, assuming an air of innocence. “Not to mention Alex will owe us, sort of.”

“And Sam’s willing to pitch in,” Jason interjected.

“Sam?” Dianthe inquired, trying to get to know the players she would be dealing with.

“Sam Griffith. Retired Forest Ranger, and the best damned Smoke Jumper I’ve ever known. He still helps out when he can. He’s the owner a very popular grill, though he has a manager working for him during the fire season. He trains the ground pounders and smoke jumpers for the National Park Service and Forest Service, depending on the season’s conditions.”

“Why did he stop jumping?”

“Four years ago he lost his left eye when a tree came down, and debris hit him full in the face. Then his wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer two years following that. He and Beth have a teenage daughter, and Sam did not want her to lose both of them,” Annie answered, the pain behind her eyes mirrored by the others. “In fact, we are having dinner there tonight. Would you two like to join us?”

“I’m in,” Meredith beamed.

“Sounds good to me. What time?”

“Say seven? That gives you time to settle in, and rest up. I have the midnight to morning shift, since Tracy banged out sick. That leaves me and Charlie for the late shift.”

“Charlie?”

“Charles Fenton. One of the career seasonal law enforcement rangers that works seven months of the year with us. The rest he spends as the coordinator of the Ski patrol for Burntmountain’s resort.”

Dianthe nodded, “Three hours. Sounds doable. But dinner’s my treat. It’s the least I can do, considering you and Annie did my shopping for the month!”

Jason chuckled. “Welcome to Burntmountain.”

Annie paused, meeting the eyes of the young woman, “Dianthe, I know you are off the next two days, but tomorrow I would like to get you set up. Issue you your gun and ammo, gear belt, vest, keys, radio, batteries and charger. How about two in the afternoon?”

“No problem; I would like to get the lay of the land. When can Ryan and I meet?”

“He’s off the next two days, getting some final details settled, but he and you will spend the next three weeks working together. When you are not working on the aerial patrol routes and plane, you will ride along with Tracy and I.

Meredith will orient you to the backcountry areas, though you will be kept mainly on road patrol and aerial support patrols during fire season, occasional ground search and rescue and downed aircraft searches. In the winter, you will fly patrols to make sure the back country is clear of users before big storms, if weather permits. I am glad to see you took the recommended Mountain Flying course down in Georgia, since mountain flying is very different than what you are used to. Ryan will work with you on applying your new skills to flying our plane.”

“Any other questions or concerns, Dianthe?” Jason asked.

“Not right now; if any come up, I’ll come to you. If you don’t mind, I would like to finish unpacking and stowing away my gear. Meredith, thank you.”

“No worries; having you here is a definite benefit. There have been some recent break-ins around the area, so having you here will most like deter whoever’s doing it. Or so I hope.”

“Somehow I think Furball and I are getting the better deal, to be honest,” Dianthe smiled and carried her things downstairs. Meredith had told her to leave them on the kitchen island, turning her attention to the details of the programs she would be covering.

She inhaled the fresh mountain air, and made her way back through the neatly kept trail. An inner voice told her she had found the home she had been seeking all her life. The tempo here was more like the military life she had loved so much. The Everglades had been very busy, but here there were fewer law enforcement personnel, so she would see more action.

Here, she could utilize all her skills and intellect, and enjoy the magnificent wilderness of Washington state. Seattle was only a few hours drive away, so she could visit the gay places there for recreation.

She made her way back to her log cabin where Furball had found another thoughtful gift: a bark covered scratching post with catnip. Meredith knew her animals. Furball was having a grand time, and the numerous windows would offer him things to watch. The windows all had wide sills where a kitty could perch and observe the world outside. Furball had never been allowed outside, and he did not seem to mind too much.

Shaking her head, she went back to get her duffel bags and footlocker. She did not have a lot of personal stuff, since she had lived in government quarters most of her adult life. She shook her head, thinking about the Abe Lincoln did not hurt as badly as it three years ago.

Eleanor Luden. The name no longer made her feel as though someone was crushing her heart inside her chest. The lovely face of Ellie filled her mind’s eye, but it did not bring tears to her eyes anymore.

Dianthe tossed down the bags, firmly clamping down on the bittersweet memories about that ill-advised affair. It had cost her wings, her career and hopes of making commander within six years.

This a fresh start, she firmly told herself. The Glades had been a healing place, but this would be her home. She had sensed it driving through this mist-shrouded landscape. Seattle had a thriving gay community, and it would only take a few hours to reach. Blackstone and Burntmountain had good-sized gay communities that were well established, too. Bellingham had less open community, but there was a definite homophobic undertone there, and Eastern areas of the state. With the four ten shift, she would have time to become part of the communities once she settled in.

Annie and Jason had given her good vibes, and she found she really like Meredith Murphy. She would be a good friend. And a very cute one, she admitted. But they could only be friends, nothing more, despite what her inner sense was telling her. She had been more focused on the woman than the conversation towards the end of the informal introduction.

She heard a vehicle drive away, and the house door shut. Meredith no doubt had work she needed to get done. Dianthe began unpacking, humming a favorite childhood song under her breath. Furball was beyond happy. He was exploring, occasionally making appearances to voice his approval of their new quarters.
Chapter Three:
Dianthe had decided to wear a pair of her best black jeans, a crisp white Gap shirt, black boots, and a gold chain. She studied her image in the bedroom mirror, and Furball purred his approval. He was settling down for a nice catnap on the foot of the queen sized, cherry four poster bed.

Having been fed, brushed, and hugged, he was content. Meredith had hidden kitty toys in the cabin, and he had found them. He had his head propped on a red and white knit sock, and other toys hidden under her bed where they were safe and available for play.

She permitted herself a moment of envy, but she was really hungry. Not to mention she wanted to explore a bit. They had spent the night in a motel only four hours away, so she was not too tired.

She snagged her leather flight jacket off the wooden pegs beside the front door, and stepped out. The air had the chill of mountain air, and there was fog. She locked the door, thankful the woman had placed the keys on carabineers that could be clipped to belt loops or bags.

She made her way towards the main house, cobalt blue eyes taking in the lines of the structure. She whistled. The house had been custom built, there could be no doubt about that. She noticed Meredith jogging down the steps inside the house, thinking how its openness could be a problem.

But the chance of prying eyes was nil. The houses had trees sheltering them, though there was not a lot of growth permitted near the house and cabin. Firebreaks had been carefully planned. Yet, what greenery surrounded the structure gave it sense of serenity and privacy on the large parcel of private property.

Dianthe mounted the rear steps and rang the bell. She heard a muffled, “Be right there, Dianthe.” A few moments later Meredith stepped out, wearing a pair of comfortable jeans, a sea green silk blouse that made her eyes stand out, and delicately wrought silver wolf pendant on a silver necklace. Small silver earrings depicting a Native American motif twinkled in the subdued porch light.

“Hi…” Meredith beamed, pulling on a plush, teal green Columbia polar fleece jacket that would ward off the chill. “How are you settling in?”

“It’s a wonderful place. And thanks for the entertainment center, my old stereo system gave up the ghost before I moved, and I traded in my old convertible for my new Jeep.”

“Part of the package. We have a dish, so there’s a lot of channels to find nothing on,” Meredith laughed, flipping her car alarm at the new model sports utility vehicle. “I’ll drive. Figure you have to be tired after driving across the country.”

“Thanks. It was beautiful, but tiring. Have you ever done it?”

“Twice…” Meredith opened the driver’s side and climbed into the spacious leather interior of the Eddie Bauer Expedition. Dianthe slid into the comfortable passenger seat, inhaling the scent of fresh pine and wildflowers. She noticed a sachet hanging off the rear view mirror, and grinned.

The engine hummed to life, and Meredith placed a CD in the stereo system. Enya’s voice rose, filling the passenger cabin with her haunting lyrics. Dianthe settled back, listening to the music, and watching the scenery slid by.

A gentle hand shook her back to awareness outside a very large log and river stone structure with a wooden sign. that read, The Smokechaser Bar and Grill A glance at her wristwatch told her she had fallen asleep for almost forty minutes. With a sheepish grin, she met her companion’s twinkling eyes, “Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay. You looked too peaceful to disturb till now. Jason and Annie are already in the grill.”

Laughing, Dianthe flanked the shorter woman, feeling refreshed. There was no doubt in her mind why Meredith Murphy had played the soothing CD. About forty vehicles were parked outside the large establishment set two hundred feet back of the road.

The Smokechaser’s Bar and Grill sat on a large, clear plot of land that had a great view of the town and valley below it. There was a large log cabin set further back on the property, surrounded by a stout log fence and gate. Wood smoke rose out the four chimneys of the restaurant that looked very busy.

They entered through the main entrance of the establishment, and found an English style pub interior with three pool tables, a couple of dartboards, and comfortable wooden booths. The bar itself had been hewn out of redwood tree that had almost taken Sam’s life four years ago. Meredith told the full story of how he had lost his left eye when debris hit him, resulting in the loss of his eye, and his ultimate decision to retire from his beloved Forest Service when Beth had fallen ill two years later. They had been busy planning the Smokechaser when their world began falling apart, and Sam admitted if it were not for his family and friends he might not have endured the dual body blows so well.

His coworkers and cousin Morgan purchased the remains of the tree that almost taken his life, and Sam had the part-time carpenters he knew from his former job make it into the beautifully burnished bar he now leaned against. Only his friends and family knew that some of Beth’s ashes and her wedding band were concealed within the bar, Sam’s way of letting his lost love share their dream. Jason, Annie and a tall, attractive silver haired man wearing blue jeans and smoky gray denim shirt emblazoned with The Smokechasers’ Bar and Grill embroidered on the right breast. A dark brown leather patch covered the man’s left eye where fading scars told of the brutal impact that had taken the man’s eye.

Jason called out their names, waving them over to where he and his wife where standing. Thirty-two years of vigorous living had made the owner of the tavern a vital man. He had the tanned visage of one used to spending hours outside, and a very firm handshake. “You must be Ryan’s replacement. I’m Sam Griffin, welcome to the Smokechaser Bar and Grill. Good evening, Meri.”

“Sam..” Meredith gave the beaming man a brief hug. Sam returned the hug with gusto.

Dianthe returned the firm shake, and said, “I’m Dianthe Xavier.” Dianthe knew this kind of man. Dianthe recognized this type of man: strong, soft-spoken and good-natured, though not the type to be crossed easily. He had the air of a man comfortable with living with himself.

He had been taking his measure of her while she had been doing the same. He gave her a small nod, and knew she had passed his inspection.

He focused his attention on Meredith once again. He affectionately swept a stray curl back into place. “So, how’s my kid’s favorite ranger doing?”

“Fine; where’s Kelly?”

“In back, dealing with the tourist slumming it,” Sam chuckled. “Rich folks out of Burntmountain consider any place not with five stars and fancy servers slumming it. Of course, most of them are return customers, once they realize what a good, old fashioned meal’s like.”

Meredith laughed, recalling how her family had fallen in love with the place. They loved the atmosphere and good food, not to mention the privacy it afforded them. They were simply Meri’s family, not the Murphy’s’ and Stanhopes of Boston and New York.

“There’s a couple of booths still free, or you can eat in the restaurant area..”

“Booth,” Jason stated, making his way towards the very comfortable booths. Along the way he exchanged greetings and hand shakes with the locals, a good portion of them wearing the uniforms of National Forest and National Park Service employees. Two were female Forest Rangers, one a clearly Butch woman with very attractive red head.

They were playing pool with two local men, bantering about the joys of fed service while the men’s dates looked on. The muscular, dark haired, gray-eyed woman inclined her head in acknowledgment of Dianthe.

“Pretty much we respect each others differences out here. Not so many of us judge someone, just based on who they love,” Sam murmured, meeting Dianthe’s eyes. “Especially since you’re looking at my cousin, Morgan, and her lady, Karen Winslow.”

Dianthe glanced toward the others. They were a good distance ahead of herself and the owner of the Smokechaser. Dianthe returned the woman’s nod. Morgan smiled, one arm around the waist of the woman she was with.

It did not upset the two men they were competing against, or the other locals. Morgan glanced toward Meredith, then back toward Dianthe with a meaningful nod. Sam paused, did a double take that made Morgan chuckled, and she nodded again.

Sam gave Dianthe another measuring look that placed her in a different category. It was the category father’s held perspective beaus of their daughters in. Morgan hid a smile behind her ale, and looked innocent.

“If you excuse me, there’s some business I got to attend to,” Sam cleared his throat, making his way towards his cousin. No doubt he was going to ask some very pointed questions.

The others had claimed a roomy corner booth, and were busy studying the menus they had snagged somewhere along the way. Jason and Annie sat opposite each other, sharing a menu with grins. Meredith raised her eyes, handing her menu to the towering woman.

“Think I’ll get the Chef’s Salad,” Meredith announced, sipping a huge glass of ice water. She waved toward Morgan, Karen and Sam, then turned her attention to three young men. They had wandered over to the booth, asking about her current study. She gave them an answer that had them high fiving each other.

They nodded towards the others, then rejoined Morgan and Karen at the pool table. Dianthe arched an eyebrow in question. Jason and Annie seemed obvious to their immediate surroundings, the intimacy of their bond apparent. Meredith grinned, no doubt used to the way the couple acted when together. “They are Forest Service seasonals that will be working with me on the new bear population study. Karen and I share our research info, and combine our resources.”

A slender young woman with long, curly brown hair and keen gray eyes approached the table. She wore blue jeans, the long sleeve smoky gray denim shirt that had the emblem of a burning tree and a silhouetted Smokejumper embroidered on it. “Hi, guys.”

“Hey, Kelly,” Meredith, Annie and Jason chimed together. The young woman grinned, and stared directly at the stranger with them. “You must be the new pilot and law enforcement ranger; I’m Kelly Griffin.”

“Dianthe Xavier,” Dianthe shook the young woman’s strong, dry hand. Her hands were calloused in the way of someone that did outdoors work and activities, like everyone else she had met here. So were Dianthe’s.

“Welcome to the Drango Gap and Burntmountain. Now, what would you folks like to eat?”

Dianthe had scanned the surprisingly diverse menu, and chose the fresh salmon steak. Annie ordered a half of a Cajun chicken, and Jason an impressive hunk of steak. Meredith ordered a Chef’s salad. Kelly wrote down the order, including their drinks.

They shared stories about their lives and jobs, Annie and Meredith didn’t drink since they were the drivers. Jason and Dianthe shared a pitcher of Sam Adams Summer ale. The food was really good, the company better.

Dianthe found herself frequently watching the short, blonde woman during the course of the meal. Her mind began flashing warning signals, but her heart ignored it.

**************

Dianthe pulled up alongside Meredith’s parked Eddie Bauer Ford Expedition in the employee parking lot of the north side of the district headquarters and main ranger station. She had twenty minutes before she and Annie were scheduled to meet.

Last night had been fun. Meredith had shown her Blackstone for few hours, then driven them home. Meredith had left before six in the morning, since Dianthe had heard her driving away when she got up to use the bathroom. They had walked, talked, and ended the night with a slice of cake at Decadent Delights. It was Meredith’s favorite bakery, coffee and desert place in the area.

She spotted Meredith concluding one of the Operation Wilderness Programs. The students and teacher were surrounding the wildlife biologist, clearly fascinated with the what she was saying. Meredith was laughing, nodding her head at the questions of the youngsters.

“May I help you, ma’am?” a masculine voice inquired with a hint of annoyance.

Dianthe turned to find herself being appraised by a six-foot tall man with suspicious blue eyes. He was wearing blue jeans and faded red shirt, his credentials case clipped onto plain brown leather belt. His dark brown hair was neatly cut, and his muscular arms were folded across his broad chest.

“I’m the new pilot and law enforcement ranger..” Dianthe extended her right hand, thinking she must have caught the man at a bad moment. “Dianthe Xavier.”

The man took her hand, shaking it without much warmth. “Charlie Fenton.”

Charlie’s eyes flickered back to the short, tawny haired woman, and a look of longing flashed across his face. The fine hairs of the nape of her neck stood up when she saw Charlie watching Meredith . For a brief instant she had the distinct sense the man had forgotten her presence, as the man watched Meredith walking alongside the fifth graders.

The group clambered aboard their bus, the children leaning out the windows and waving back to the woman. Meredith waved back, then turned towards the headquarters building and striding towards Dianthe and Charlie. “Hi, guys.”

Dianthe beamed, noticing that Charlie angled himself so he was standing slightly in front of her. “Meri, those kids love you! Sandi may be really good, but you are great with them,” Charlie enthused, a genuine smile lighting up his face.

“Thanks, Charlie. It’s hard not to get jazzed about sharing what I love so much with eager minds. Dianthe, how did you sleep last night?”

“Good; so did Furball. What time did you leave for work?”

“Five thirty. Did my morning exercises and headed out to do some paperwork, then did a bit of trail repairs before doing the Operation Wilderness program,” Meredith ran a hand through her short hair. “That reminds me: I have a full gym that you can use, too. And there are running trails on the property.”

Dianthe nodded. “Thanks; it will help me keep fit and trim.”

Charlie watched the two women for a moment, and Dianthe held her ground under the man’s intense gaze. The man drew a deep breath when he spotted Annie pulling in. “Well, ladies, have a nice day. I just finished a night patrol, and I am headed home for bed.”

“Bye, Charlie. Sweet dreams,” Meredith waved to the man who headed for his old Ford truck that had seen better days. He paused, smiling with open affection for the woman.

His eyes said they would be sweet, if she was part of them. His step became jaunty. Dianthe glanced at the woman whose attention had shifted to the arriving patrol vehicle. It was clear Charlie liked Meredith as more than a coworker and friend, but Meredith’s bearing gave no indication of her feelings.

Annie slid out of the patrol vehicle, a brand new Range Rover painted white with a green stripe and bore bold green letters that read “Park Ranger”. She was grinning ear to ear as Jason pulled up in an old Suburban. There were three other suburbans, two patrol vehicles, one without sirens that had trail equipment piled in back.

“Hi, Dianthe, Meredith,” Annie slipped her Ray ban sunglasses off with a grin. She removed her thin leather driving gloves as Jason pulled in along side the new park vehicle.

Jason parked, mugging a woebegone expression towards the two other women. “You cheated on the coin flip, Annie.”

“He’s still mad I got to drive the Range Rover first,” Annie laughed.

“Nice vehicle,” Dianthe commented.

“A donation to the park from a couple that owns five dealerships in the state; they love wildlife, and Meredith gave several talks on the wolves of Spirit Lake to their nature club. He’s a nature nut, so is his wife and kids. They attend a lot of the park programs and help on volunteer projects, too. He decided we could use another patrol vehicle, since some of our others are getting a bit worn down. It took four months for the proper paperwork approvals via Region, but we finally got her!”

Dianthe knew it would be sometime before she, the Newbie, had a shot at driving the new patrol vehicle. She watched Jason dusting off the fenders. “Annie…”

“Yes, Jason?”

“Can I have the keys? I think I’ll do a quick patrol of a section of the inner roads..” Jason announced. “And give the new patrol vehicle a good shake down.”

Annie tossed her husband the keys. Jason snagged them out of the air with a boyish grin. He studied the new vehicle with twinkling eyes. “Hey, Meri, want to come for a patrol?” he asked, winking at the wildlife biologist. “We can see how she performs on the old fire roads.”

“Sure; give me five minutes,” Meredith laughed, dashing inside.

Annie shook her head, “Once you and Meri have finished checking out our new toy, how about heading home for dinner? And remember to log the trip from Bellingham to here, and the inspection of the old fire roads.”

Jason nodded, watching Meredith come trotting out of the headquarters. She had on forest-green National Park Service fleece jacket and said, “Thanks, Jason. Had to get my jacket and make a quick pit stop.”

Jason inclined his head, climbing into the driver’s side, and adjusting the seat to his long legs. “See you ladies in about two hours.”

He and Meredith drove off. Annie watched affectionately. “Come on, we have some paperwork to do.”

Dianthe flanked the woman, listening as Annie began telling her about the park. Two hours later Meredith and Jason came in, discussing the work that lay ahead on several trails. They had patrolled the inner network of old fire roads in the western most section of sprawling park, stating they had met up with Forest Service techs doing a patrol of their bordering lands.

A cooperative agreement between the Forest Service and National Park Service shared patrols of the park site, since some of the lands where old Forest Service lands. Dianthe had been intrigued by the cooperation between the two entities that had a love/hate relationship.

Many parks shared joint lands and patrols in the western states, and Drango Gap Wildlife Corridor was no exception. The Forest Service also maintained the horses that some of the National Park Service Rangers used for prolonged patrols of the interior.

Tracy Spencer, the other full time law enforcement ranger Dianthe had not yet met, was one of the horse and vehicle patrol rangers, as were two of the career seasonals that lived in the area. Dianthe’s duties would be in the areas where most visitors tended to go, rather than the deep backcountry covered by the others. Annie and Jason also did patrols, despite their positions as Chief Ranger and Chief of Visitor Services. Dottie did much of the paperwork for them when shortfalls required their presence in the field.

It was a common gripe amidst the ranks of law enforcement rangers, full timers and seasonals, that too many higher ups were too divorced from the field demands and challenges. The Hendricks were well known for keeping themselves in the mix, and respected for it.

Dianthe had her gear secured in the locker she had been assigned, and had her park issued Sig 9 mm clipped on her belt. She wore her law enforcement badge on her belt, too. She and Annie had filled out all the necessary paperwork, and she had ordered more uniform parts from R&R.

Meredith glanced at the boots the tall woman wore, and cocked her head sideways. “You need some better boots for up here, Dianthe. Those uniform work boots are okay if you are strictly road and air patrol, but you find them rough for Search and Rescue work. The Sundowners are only good if you know the exact size you would need, and trying them out on a slope and walking around in them for a half hour And only for limited hauls, not prolonged ones we can encounter in SAR operations.”

Dianthe nodded. She noticed none of them wore the official Park Service boots. Blue jeans, too, were worn with the uniform shirts, whenever necessary. Meredith wore a pair of Lee jeans with her long sleeve winter uniform shirt and black turtleneck. It seemed she had been waiting several months of her uniform jeans and brush pants to be sent out due to typical R&R snafu. If you were deemed a special size, it could be months before your uniform elements could be sent. Not to mention issues with vendors, or so R&R claimed whenever they could not meet the needs of the agency. Meredith had apparently been deemed a special size, and she had told Dianthe about having to use jeans since she had worn out her park ones. And her dress uniforms would not last a day doing the type of work she did when she was in the field, Definitely a western park.

“What would you recommend?”

“Ryan and I have to go to Seattle. He’s got to finalize his transfer paperwork, and I have Resource Management Team meeting. It should take about five hours, since we are reviewing our Fire Program for the entire park, and each district. Think it’s gonna be an interesting fire season, depending on the current weather pattern. We will be spending the night in the housing unit, and I have to purchase the new gear for the SAR cache.”

Dianthe nodded. She could check out the lesbian spots, though it lacked a certain appeal when she thought about Meredith. “I have never been in Seattle.”

“You like good Italian seafood?”

“Yes,” Dianthe felt her pulse rate increasing as she lost herself in the woman’s eyes.

“How about I make reservations at my favorite spot? It’s not too far from the R.E.I. outlet, and the best place in Seattle. Luciana’s is an incredible place.’

Dianthe glanced towards Jason. He had been watching the exchange with interest. Meredith turned her attention towards the husband and wife team. Annie elbowed her husband.

“Sounds good to me,” Jason interjected. “It will give you time to learn the ropes. Unfortunately, the senior management team and division chiefs will be in San Francisco for a meeting, so you will not be able to met Brett Ferris. He really wants to meet you.”

Dianthe nodded. “Annie, do you think you could feed Furball?”

Annie grinned, “No worries. I love cats. Jason and I had Lord Henry for sixteen years; he died last winter. Someday, we will get another cat. Leave me a set of keys, and it’s done.”

Dianthe nodded, glad she had carried her spare set of keys with her.

****************

At five a.m. the two women drove to the small airport outside of Blackstone where the park had it’s four passengers Cessna P210. Dianthe had left Annie a set of keys in Meredith’s house, since Annie and Jason had keys to the main house. Fog draped the valley, and hid the mountains as a light drizzle fell.

Dianthe studied the woman driving down the winding roads, enjoying the soft music playing on the CD player. Meredith drove down the dirt road that entered the old fashioned field that had been built before the outbreak of War World II. There two hangers, a combination terminal and flight control towers near the parking lot where Meredith parked her vehicle.

“Ryan should be here…” Meredith reached behind her seat, and pulled out a steel security club. Securing the device, she noticed Dianthe’s raised eyebrow. “Hey..you grew up in New York, too. Besides, there have been some vehicle thefts in the last year. Not a lot, but enough to make me want to secure my SUV..”

They gathered their gear, and headed across the field towards the first hanger. A tall, leanly built man with reddish-blonde hair and twinkling hazel eyes waved with gusto. “Good morning, Meri. You must be Dianthe Xavier.”

Dianthe shook hands with the man, noticing how the man studied her with keen interest. “So, you wanna check out Betsy?”

“Betsy, eh?” Dianthe pulled off her aviator sunglasses, and entered the cavernous hanger. There were ten planes, nine bearing the name Remington Air. Four were large cargo planes, old war birds that had been refitted. The other five were passenger planes, including one Lear Jet. Dianthe whistled, studying the old military cargo planes.

“Martha Remington and her family own those planes,” the two pilots began an animated discussion about the old planes that been kept up. Meredith sighed. Pilot talk. She stowed her gear, and said, “Ryan, Dianthe, I’ll be back. I have to go use the bathroom.”

“Sure; Betsy’s ready to go. Just got to get her out on the tarmac. Figure we’ll be airborne in about forty-five minutes.”

“Good; gives me time to do some paperwork. I’ll be in the cafe.”

Dianthe and Ryan continued their talk, inspecting the Cessna together. Dianthe caught several “mistakes” that made Ryan beam. He followed her directions as she checked the fuel for water or other contamination as well as quality. Ryan watched her do a full inspection, doubling checking the mechanical parts of the plane and scanning the cockpit.

He showed his flight plan, pleased that she had worked one out last night. They got the plane out on the tarmac, and did the walk away inspection twice, then went to make pit stops and fetch Meredith.

They found her reviewing her paperwork with the same attention to detail they used for the plane. They filed their flight plan and did another final inspection. Ryan tossed Dianthe the keys. “She’s your bird.”

Dianthe snagged the keys, pleased that she would be flying today. She settled her tall frame inside the comfortable pilot’s seat, glancing back at Meredith. She had settled herself down for a catnap, trusting the two pilots had everything under control. Dianthe taxied down the long runway, requesting tower clearance. It was granted, and ten minutes later they were airborne.

She and Ryan discussed their mutual love of flying, and his impending transfer to his dream park. Meredith utilized the time to catch up on limited sleep, and Dianthe found herself missing the woman’s sense of humor and genuine warmth. Despite the gray skies and slight, the flight was uneventful. Having planned for IFR conditions, Dianthe noticed how Ryan kept a keen eye on how she handled the small plane during the flight through the Cascades.

They were tenth in line to land at a small airport just outside of Seattle. “Once we have landed and secured the plane, there should be someone waiting for us. Give us a ride into town,” Ryan told Dianthe, twisting around to gently shake Meredith awake. “Wake up, sleepy head.”

Meredith’s sea green eyes flickered open, and she smiled. “Sorry, guys. Been a busy last few days.”

“Tell me about it. Hey, I’m crashing at Frank Williams’ house tonight. We’re going to hang out and shoot the shit.”

Meredith nodded. Frank and Ryan were college buddies that had a love for adventure and the great outdoors. Not to mention having other types of fun, many times resulting in both men sleeping on couches when they had too much fun. “Okay; what time do you want to meet tomorrow?”

“Say two o’clock. I’m picking up a special present for Sandi,” Ryan grinned broadly. He loved his future wife dearly, and Sandi returned that love and affection. “A cameo she saw when we were last here. It was the day I asked her to marry me.”

Dianthe found herself liking Ryan. He was a good man. She had yet to meet Tracy Spencer, Dottie Hagen, and Hank Tyson, another career seasonal that worked whenever the park needed him. She had not mentioned her meeting with Charlie Fenton, or her gut reaction to the man. She attributed it to his having a bad day.

She and Ryan pulled on their Gortex jackets, and began preparing to secure the plane. Meredith gathered her gear, pulling on her gear and ball cap. They made their way to the terminal where a very bored young man in a Park Service uniform lounged. He rose, inclining his head towards them. “Van’s out this way.”

He did not make conversation with them, though he did mutter something about having better things to do than shuttle folks all day long. None of them commented on the young man’s dour mood, knowing he would take it wrong. He dropped them off at the headquarters close to the vibrant city’s famous Seattle Center, sighing about having to fetch some other folks.

The six-story building had been built in the turn of the century, and housed the combined agency teams of experts responsible for running the Washington State, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming sections of sprawling park. The visitor center was one of the nicest Dianthe had visited, and Meredith explained that members of the certain computer companies had been intrigued with the unique park.

There were twelve terminals with different interactive software programs that held very visual images of the park’s biological diversity, and touted its cutting edge philosophy. Spanish, Japanese, German, Russian, French and the two main Chinese dialects translations were part of the system, allowing the diverse visitor population to enjoy the center. There were three-D-displays of the habitats with models of the animals inhabiting the highlighted areas.

A map showed the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife, National Forest Service, state, and local lands that had been combined into the sprawling biosphere park. Another map showed the different federal agencies’ holdings nation wide, the display panels having text and audio histories of the agencies and the mission statement about the agency.

The entire lower level was devoted to the history of park site, interactive displays, and the Eastern National bookstore was staffed by bright, cheerful young women. Easter National Bookstores were run by the National Park Service, though the once wide spread shops were being replaced by concessionaires and partner groups, Dianthe got the sense the young man had been intent of engaging the young women that were staffing the bookstore. Several posters of wolves caught her eye, and she wandered over to study the images.

Three were of the Spirit Lake pack taken by Meredith during her winter research stints up in the deep backcountry research area. Dianthe felt majestic power of the mountains and nobility of the Spirit Lake pack members, and marveled at the talents her new friend possessed. She glanced towards her companions. Meredith was talking with an earnest, slightly over weight young man with a shy smile and shaggy blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. He was tall, good-natured, and laughed a lot.

“Dianthe, this is Garth Urhart. He’s one of Alex’s best Interp Rangers, and he gives a great program. Not to mention a damned fine ground pounder and EMT. If you want, you can join him on a walking tour of the city that discusses the natural history of the area.”

Dianthe nodded. “Sure; can I stow my gear somewhere?”

“Yup; we have secure rooms where we can lock up your stuff. The tour takes about two hours, and includes some the best areas where there’s food and drink. If you want, you can join me for lunch. There’s a really great New York style deli that I think you would love.”

Dianthe watched Meredith head up the stairs, bound for her meeting. She found herself listening to the jovial man with keen interest. Another Easterner transplanted to the West, he spoke about his love of nature, music and history while they waited for other visitor to gather.

He mentioned working several North East parks, including the famous, and infamous, Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island. Dianthe shuddered. She had heard tales of the Statue for years, but found the man did match the sad sack image of the ranger staff that supposedly manned the site.

None of the staff she had met over the years matched the image many National Park Service folks had of the staff of the busy islands. Most were bright, well-spoken professionals that dealt with impressive amounts of visitors from around the world on a daily basis. You had to be pretty strong to survive the park site, since the daily contact could make weaker souls quake.

She found herself laughing and enjoying the man’s wit and humorous tales about service there. She had been a typical New Yorker: she had never visited the Statue of Liberty. But his tales made her decide she would like to visit Ellis Island, since so many current day Americans could trace their family’s American experience begin there. Her great grandfather Alexandros Demertrius Xavier had passed through the fabled Island of Hope, Island of Tears as the immigrants called the island.

But she would only visit the Statue of Liberty if she could make arrangements to see it off-season. She did not like huge crowds. Garth was an astute man, with keen insights. He gave an engaging tour, laughed often, and had his tour of sixty visitors enthralled. Drizzle and gray skies was no match for the man’s love of life, and his job.

************

It was four p.m. when she made her way back to the park headquarters, thankful for the guidebook Meredith had loaned her. She had enjoyed the formal walking tour, then spent hours bumping around the areas she could reach by foot. She dashed up the steps of the granite structure, starving and hoping Meredith was ready.

Downtown Seattle had much to offer. She would come back on her days off or lieu days, she had decided, whenever she could. Meredith and Garth were involved in an in-depth discussion regarding the formative stages of Drango Gap. Meredith beamed when she spotted Dianthe.

Garth unlocked the room containing their stowed gear, and had Meredith sign out the keys to the dorm building where they would be staying. Tossing Dianthe her keys, she and Garth high-fived each other before she shouldered her leather duffel bag, battered backpack, and L.L.. Bean briefcase.

Dianthe shook the man’s hand, promising she would look him and his wife up when she came back to town. It seemed he and his wife loved good smoky jazz and classic rock like she did. She had been directed to old, dusty music store had a wealth of great CDs. She had bought herself six, reasoning her soul needed the nourishment of good music.

Dianthe had noticed that Meredith had a very extensive music library. She had been impressed by the diverse collection. There was a distinct leaning towards the recent Celtic revival in music, though a goodly number of jazz, blues, rock and classical selections were represented. Not to mention New Age.

The two women made they way to the dormitory complex located three blocks from the headquarters building. It was red brick structure with four floors, and well kept. They were on the third floor of the large building were half a dozen rooms were kept for visiting staff members. Their rooms were right next to each other, and the dorm style restrooms were clean and neat.

Dianthe found linens folded at the foot of her metal frame bed, a small nightstand, a reading lamp, small closet and dresser fitted in the small, but nice room. She laid down her duffel bag, and her backpack. She fished out her purchases, laid them on the dresser, and then locked her room. She hit the head, then knocked on Meredith’s door.

Meredith opened it, ready to go. They headed out, Dianthe’s rumbling stomach making Meredith laugh. “I confirmed the reservation for Luciana’s during a break in the meeting today. It’s for six p.m. tonight.”

“How did the meeting go?”

“We laid out the fire plan, now it’s in the hands of region and the folks in Washington, D.C.,” Meredith said, ambling down the corridor.

Dianthe flanked her. “Can’t believe how well kept this dorm is.”

“Ah, the housing officer is a really incredible lady. She and her husband, the Facility Manager, live downstairs in a three-bedroom apartment. Kara makes sure this place is keep ship-shape.

She came from a long line of Marines, and was a Marine herself for seven years. A top kick or DI, I believe they are called. Tough as nails, fiery, but really fun and good hearted. Her husband Tom says she’s a fierce warrior woman. Her cleaning details are posted for the dorm residents, and you had best due your assigned shifts and duties! Or you will get to met the former DI she once was. I have heard about two times some seasonal decided to ignore that element of the housing agreement for dorm upkeep. They never did it again, according to Tom and Garth.”

“Was he a Marine, too?”

“Tom? Nope. He never served. He has a bum knee from a bad accident as child. But he had the guts to approach her during a party back in Washington, D.C.. According to Kara, he got her attention by challenging her views about the military complex. They had one hell of argument, but found they liked each other and the rest is history.”

Dianthe shook her head. A Marine Top Kick like Kara could make most folks quail, so she respected the man’s courage. It seemed the staff employed at Drango Gap were a cut above the average federal employees, drawn from different agencies and placed under the nominal control of the National Park Service.

Garth said the fireworks had been intense between the agencies, but the decision had been made to place it under the mantle of the National Park Service to protect the lands and resources. Even Drango Gap was not immune from outside interests wanting to exploit its resources, many of them within the very government that protected it.

The walk along the waterfront took a good thirty minutes at a decent clip, but finally they headed for a small, out of the way building. Dianthe frowned. It had a dubious appearance: the one story building hunkered down between richer looking restaurants and shops. Wooden, stained by years of wind whipped salt spray, the old lobster traps and buoys made her think of New England.

Rich red drapes framed a plate glass window with a view of the building across from it. They entered the homey restaurant, and Dianthe noticed there were fourteen people waiting to be seated. The dark wood interior had tastefully frame pictures, subdued lighting, and real wood tables with red-and-white checkered linen table clothes.

Luciana’s interior had booths, too, that permitted dinners a sense of privacy, and several alcoves. Meredith nodded to the silver haired woman whose strong, aquiline profile and dark eyes twinkled. “Ah, Meredith!”

“Hi, Mamma Anna. This is the newest ranger in the park, Dianthe Xavier.”

“Such a tall woman! You must have some Italian blood with that Greek blood, eh?”

“Yes; Irish, too.”

“Hmm, the Irish. They get into everything, you know?”

Meredith laughed. It was clearly an old joke between the two women. “Your table is waiting.”

“Thanks, Mamma Anna,” Meredith and the stately woman exchanged a brief hug before the older woman led the way to their table.

It occupied one of the intimate alcoves, a hand craved rose wood table with a grape vine motif. An old fashioned wine bottle held a single white candle that flickered warmly. Dianthe sat in the comfortable wooden chair with a smile.

Mamma Anna handed them leather-encased menus, then went to attend to her other customers. Dianthe scanned the diverse menu, impressed with the selection of Italian and Mediterranean dishes that were described with loving care. The prices were towards the high end, but she noticed all the tables were filled.

The patrons were savoring their meals, and she noticed the portions were very, very generous. More than a few were praising the food, and the waiters and waitresses were attentive. Dianthe ordered a fine dish of lobster, clams and squid over a bed of tricolor noodles. Meredith selected a shrimp and mussel dish over spinach pasta that sounded equally delicious.

Fresh baked bread and bread sticks were brought out, and crystal goblets for water were placed out. Meredith ordered a bottle of very expensive wine, saying, “My treat…you’ll love it. Anna’s cousin Vincent has a very wonderful vineyard in Napa Valley. It’s a delightful Zinfandel. It will be great with the dishes we ordered.”

Dianthe shook her head. “Nope; it’s my treat. You have done so much for me, it’s the least I can do.”

Meredith acquiesced, and they spent the course of the meal discussing their childhoods. Dianthe found herself listening with interest as Meredith discussed growing up in the family she had. She spoke more about the love she had for her grandparents, parents and siblings. She also spoke of several aunts and uncles, and several of her cousins with equal joy.

Dinner was wonderful.

****************

Dianthe and Meredith made their way back to the dormitory, enjoying the faint tang of the salt air and muted foghorns. Dianthe had purchased a good pair of backcountry hiking boots, and Meredith had gotten some personal gear for hiking. Dianthe had asked why she did not buy a new backpack, and toss out the old one.

Meredith had hugged the lovingly patched, faded L.L. Bean backpack to herself, and explained it had deep sentimental value to her. Dianthe smiled when Meredith told her the story of how her beloved Grandfather Murphy had given her the backpack for a Christmas present when she was attending the University of Idaho. I had been filled with all sorts of goodies from New England, and a long letter about the happenings out East.

It had been his way of showing his continuing support of her dreams, and she had kept the backpack since. She never abused it, but time and weather had done some damage. Whenever it needed repairs, she had it professionally mended, not caring how much it cost. Dianthe wondered how much of the original bag remained, as she smiled at the woman.

It seemed the R.E.I. sale’s clerks deemed it a great challenge to see if they could get her to give up the old, battered backpack, since they saw her on a somewhat regular basis. While she had a lot of gear from the store, she playfully told them she would never surrender the battered L.L. Bean backpack until it was mere scraps. Dianthe and the clerks understood she was really being honest, despite her teasing tone.

Besides, she bought enough gear for her numerous outdoors hobbies and duties to keep them all happy. Meredith helped Dianthe search for the right pair of backcountry hiking boots, and the staff let her help the towering woman who seemed very happy to have her assistance. It took twelve pair of boots, and a good hour and a half before they both agreed on a pair over two hundred and sixty dollar boots that would endure harsh conditions. Ten pairs of really high quality hiking socks and five liners completed Dianthe’s purchases for her job.

She also picked up two new pairs of trail running shoes and running socks, having tossed out her old ones before moving. Meredith had bought ten new pairs of Thorlos hiking socks, four polar fleece socks for her trekking sandals, two pairs Royal Robin hiking shorts and three new pairs of climbing pants. She had also placed an order for the rescue equipment they needed, arranging for Remington Air to ferry the impressive amount of equipment.

Carrying their assorted packages, the two women headed back to the dorm for the night. A commotion outside the dorm got their immediate attention. There were five burly, young white males with shaved heads, heavy black engineer boots, and dark clothing encircling a very young African American woman. She was trying to hold her ground, trying not to show fear to the chanting skinheads preventing her entering the safety of the building.

“Is there a problem here, gentlemen?” Dianthe pronounced, assuming a defensive posture directly behind one of the men. Meredith stood beside her.

The Skinheads turned to face the newcomers. “Fuck off, Bitch,” the lead male snapped, intent of his victim.

“No,” Dianthe said plainly.

The five youths seemed uncertain as they studied the towering woman watching them. The lead male sensed his companion’s uncertainty, and decided he would teach them a lesson. He produced a short wooden club, and rushed Dianthe.

Dianthe smoothly sidestepped his charge, and had him sprawled on the ground. She now held his club. The young man’s companions began circling the two women, abandoning their first victim.

The young woman ran inside the dorm, and moment’s later lights began flickering on as the fire alarm sounded. Seasonal and full time employees rushed outside, and the Skinheads turned to run. One of them froze. His eyes narrowed hatefully when he got a good look at Meredith.

“You busted Dawson and my cousin; he’s been in prison since you did,” the young man snarled.

Meredith met his eyes, keeping distance between herself and the enraged youth. Cursing, he leapt towards Meredith with lethal intent. And was promptly laid out by a very angry, very attractive older black woman whose diamond hard brown eyes glinted with fury.

The Skinheads had nowhere to run, and two patrol cars for the city, and one National Park Service patrol vehicle, pulled up. Restrained by the dorm residents, the five Skinheads were swiftly cuffed and patted down as they were read their rights.

“Meri, you okay?”

“Fine, Kara. How’s Paula?”

“Shaken, but fine. Pulling the Fire Alarm worked…” Kara shook her head mournfully. “If you two had not shown up, I’m not sure what would have happened to her.”

“Paula’s mute…” Meredith explained at Dianthe’s questioning glance. Kara nodded, “She has spoken since she was a little girl when she saw her father gunned down by some gang bangers in Philly. He was an undercover cop. It has been twelve years since she spoke. My sister died two months ago, so she’s visiting us to see if she would like to live here with us. Tom and I are looking for a house we can afford, if she does.”

Dianthe had wondered why she had not yelled for help. Most of the dorms and the three apartments were set back from the street, and the Skinheads had been careful not to make too much noise.

Kara tugged her fingers through her hair. “Even since the Dawson incident, we have been having an occasional run ins with these fools.”

The Seattle P.D. officers were busy placing their prisoners inside their units, while a patrol sergeant wrote down their statements. A grizzled veteran of twenty odd years, the burly man promised he’d step up the patrols around the dormitory.

It was well after midnight by the time their statements had been taken, and Dianthe was exhausted. Meredith had become silent, no doubt thinking about the way the one Skinhead had recognized her. Most of dorm residents were still up by the time they headed for their rooms.

Dianthe promised herself she would not let the bastards touch the woman. She would tell Jason and Annie about the incident, knowing they would need to know. She sensed Meredith would not really discuss the issue.

It seemed Kara shared her concern, saying that the encounter indicated how involved Dawson was in the continuing problem. She laid a comforting hand on Meredith’s shoulder. “Don’t let him get to you, honey.”

“I won’t,” Meredith promised, hugging Kara’s visiting niece Paula whose past had been haunted by horror. Paula hugged the smaller woman back, grinning when she made a point of how much taller she was. During the course of the evening Dianthe had learned that Meredith had met the girl several years ago when she had visited the Burntmountain District in hopes that a summer in the mountains would help her.

She had stayed at a special camping program hosted outside the park where she had gotten to known the Burntmountain staff. It had cemented a friendship between Meredith and the couple, too.

Kara’s husband Tom held the young girl close, a hulking bear of man with gentle blue eyes and a rumbling voice. He had watched the patrol units roll away, and Dianthe sensed the man would have loved to pound the Skinheads for frightening his niece.

Nodding to the two women, he led his family back inside their apartment, softly talking to the shaken girl. Sandwiched between the couple, the girl’s fear was diminishing.

Dianthe watched Meredith head into her room, concerned that what she had witnessed boded ill for them all.
Chapter Four:
Meredith lowered the checklist and glanced toward the brunette woman busy coiling up the last of the new ropes inside protective storage bags. The monthly inspection of the rescue and fire cache gear had been completed, and it was well after quitting time. Dianthe stepped back, wiping her right hand across her sweaty brow and gave her partner an expectant look.

The last six weeks had been a busy one, especially for their newest member. Dianthe had proven herself an incredible pilot, and a very solid law enforcement officer whose cool was not easily shaken. Ryan had left two weeks ago, deeming her ready for action, and she had flown four standard patrol her own.

She covered not only Burntmountain, but the National Forest and Park Service lands adjacent the park, plus special missions of their six sister units. Not to mention sharing road and backcountry patrols with the district’s six other law enforcement rangers. She and Tracy Spencer were the two full time law enforcement rangers, and the other four were career seasonals.

“Well, that’s it. We are ready for the season,” Meredith announced, lowering the clipboard with an impish grin. “Next week, the balance of our seasonal arrive. Some are locals, but a fair amount are not. Should take us about two weeks to them up to speed.”

Dianthe groaned, rolling her eyes. Training seasonal was one of the things she dreaded:. many were wonderful, talented folks, others were pure nightmares to deal with. In some parks it did not really matter how good the rangers and guides were in certain skills, but here it could mean the difference between life and death. All of the full time staff members were trained in Search and Rescue methods, drilled regularly, and fought wildland fires.

A good portion of the seasonals came with the necessary skills, though they would be trained here. Jason and Annie did not want to discover a seasonal misrepresented his or her skills when it counted. She, Annie, Sam and Meredith would be responsible for certifying the seasonals for SAR and fire fighting.

Meredith grinned when Dianthe jumped at the big wood spider that dashed along the beam she had been leaning against. The towering woman recoiled when the spider paused, and she raised her work glove clad hand to squash it. Meredith caught her friend’s hand, shaking her head, and scooped up the little guy. Holding the spider inside her leather gloved hands, Meredith bumped open the door with her hip and vanished outside.

She returned a few minutes later, beaming. “He’s gone. No more danger, Ranger.”

“Yuck..” Dianthe shivered, annoyed that she had been such a wimp about the spider. It had not been the first time a spider had caused her mortification.

She and Furball had a wonderful arrangement: she hated spiders, and he ate them. Since he had come into her life, she had not had any major spider scares.

“It’s okay. Jason hates spider, too. Annie and I take care of spiders for him.”

Dianthe scowled, tucking her gloves inside her the back pocket of her work jeans. “What are you afraid of?”

Meredith shrugged her shoulders, and considered the question seriously. “No animals. I like them all. I have a hell of a lot of respect for those that can do damage, but that happens mainly out of ignorance on our part. I guess what scares me the most, is whatever we humans are capable of. From destruction of our environment to wars and murder, not to mention all the shades of gray in between, and how we become used to the horrors of it all.

Two years ago there was a rancher who fell into debt from his gambling habit, and he knew he was going to lose the ranch that had been in family for four generations. In the middle of the night, he killed his wife and three kids rather than having them being made homeless. He set fire to the ranch house, and hung himself in the barn.

Thing is, I worked with him on several big fires: he was a ground pounder. He used to talk about his family and the ranch with such joy. He was a decent man with a problem, He just became so lost, and it broke my heart to know what he had done. He had been on my crew for a big fire in Montanan two weeks before he killed them and himself.

He seemed so happy..he gave a picture of his family, told me about them.. I think he wanted someone to remember them. I have the picture in my office, since I knew Vic for three years. He lived in Idaho, worked out of the Boise operations to supplement his income. His wife and boys did a lot of the daily ranch work. And his little girl was learning all about the ranch.”

Dianthe flinched. She had handled a similar case in the Everglades. A fellow law enforcement officer had a steady girlfriend with emotional problems. He thought he could help her. He thought loving her could cure it. Late one night she used his off-duty carry to kill him, then blew her own brains out.

“Why did you never become a law enforcement ranger?”

“Because of things like what Vic did. I would rather learn about nature’s secrets than the dark corners of the human heart. As it is, I’ve seen some of that darkness up close and personal,” Meredith hung the clipboard. Shadows of memory clouded the woman’s incredible gray-green eyes, echoes of pain and remorse. Dianthe touched the short woman’s shoulder gently.

Whatever it had been, it haunted Meredith. Dianthe cursed herself for having reopened a healing wound that Meredith preferred to forget. She could only wonder what it was that haunted the woman beyond the current situation with Dawson.

Meredith smiled softly. Dianthe returned the smile, glad that the shadows had vanished. She recalled how she and Meredith had watched the movie “Top Gun” together a few nights ago, lounging over a the remains of a fine meal Meredith had cooked.

Dianthe could cook, but Meredith made it an art form to be savored. The rosemary chicken with lightly sautéed vegetables with subtle herbs that had made Dianthe groan with delight. Meredith had cooked the meal in the cabin, filling it delicious aromas while they listened to Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang and other well-known female singers.

Sipping chilled California Chardonnay, and laughing, they had watched the movie, and Meredith had been intrigued with the concept of Dianthe had really done such things. Dianthe had been happy to tell her some stories, and Meredith had been fascinated.

Meredith had asked questions about the intense training programs Dianthe had undertaken, the realities of life in what had been an exclusive male club for so long. Dianthe found talking about her past life did not hurt as much as it once had, at least not with Meredith.

Dianthe had been hard pressed not to lean over and brush her lips across Meredith’s. It would have been so easy. Instead, she had made a lame excuse about being really tired. Meredith had headed back to the main house, unaware of how close Dianthe had been to asking her to spending the night.

“How about we get something to eat?”

Meredith’s gray-green eyes brightened, and she nodded. “How about my house? I made some lobster salad last night.”

“Lobster salad?”

“Yup; my grandfather and grandmother are back on Mount Desert for the summertime, and he sent me twelve pounds of fresh Maine lobster. You had night patrol last night. Annie, Jason and Tracy had their lobsters last night at my house; I made the salad last night, when they left.”

“Sounds great,” Dianthe ambled towards the district office, glad she was off duty now. She and Meredith had been working since early morning, a double shift for the law enforcement ranger. “How about I meet you back your house about seven thirty? The least I can do is get us wine and desert.”

“Hmm, surprise me. Decadent Delights doesn’t close until midnight.”

“You love that store,” Dianthe had been shown the best shop in the very lovely, very quaint town of Blackstone. It had the feel of Seattle, and the shops were great. Decadent Delights had incredible baked goods, fine, handcrafted chocolates, coffee, and teas that could be enjoyed there, or taken home.

“Yup; I do,” Meredith answered with a grin. “I gotta hit the road. Have to pick up a package at the post office. Another present from my grandparents, and maybe if you are lucky, its my grandmother’s famous blue berry and cinnamon oatmeal and Swiss milk and dark chocolate chip cookies.”

“Homemade cookies?” Dianthe licked her lips. Grandmother Murphy’s cookies were loved by the staff, and when she set a box, she sent enough to keep the cookie hounds happy. Meri always made sure she sent some to Morgan and Karen, too. Sam and Kelly knew when the delivers occurred, and made sure they got their cut, too.

Dianthe understood why everyone had been eager to know what package had arrived the other day. If there was one thing that seemed true, there were a lot of Burntmountain folks awaiting the first big box of summer cookies. Dottie had called Meredith to announce a large overnight package had arrived at the Blackstone post office. It had late hours today, and Meredith would just make the post office if she left now.

“If we are lucky, she’s doing her summer baking for us. She says the fresh air on Mount Desert inspires her, and she makes us a couple big batches every summer. I wonder what wines goes well with cookies?”

Dianthe laughed, though no doubt there was someone out there who would know what wine complimented cookies.

There was a good wine market right next door to Decadent Delights, and they also stayed open late. Blackstone was atypical of most American towns: it’s shops and venues stayed open late, since the tourists of Burntmountain enjoyed the nightlife.

Meredith secured the huge shed’s doors, then tossed Dianthe the keys. Dianthe snagged them out of the air, beaming. They both had the next few days off, and Dianthe was thinking of asking the woman to go mountain biking with her. The sprawling Burntmountain resort utilized its network of world-class ski trails and slopes for off-season mountain biking trails. Dianthe snapped the keys on the black carabineer she used to hold her keys when she was not wearing her gun belt.

A lobster diner, some good wine, and chocolate cake for desert. Meri’s weak spot was good chocolate. But it did not show. Meredith kept herself trim and fit, the description Annie had given her came to mind. “There’s no such thing as Meredith at rest: just different stages of motion,” it had been said when the woman had come back from five days hiking the edge of the park’s back country.

Meredith had been out tracking the elusive grizzly bears of the park, collecting things the ex-fighter jock did not care to think about. Since the loss of the young male bear, Meredith had been asked by the Resource Management team to determine how the other known bears in the park where doing.

She had come up signs of an old male bear that had come down out of the high backcountry, and had been concerned. Something had felt wrong about the signs left behind, and the scat indicated he had been eating poorly. And he had been favoring his left hind leg, indicating some type of wound or condition.

Meredith had contacted Morgan and Karen, since the bear would be cutting through their district. What had Meredith concerned was the animal seemed lame, and how close he was to the edge of the sprawling parks heavily used trails and campgrounds. The fringes of the park was where most visitors spent their time, sparing the backcountry heavier use, and the bear was headed for the more populated sections of the National Forest.

For a few days she could find no further sign of the huge animal, then reports began trickling in. Two campers had found their campsite trashed, the tent shredded because one of them had forgotten the most basic thing: no food in tents. A beef jerky left inside the tent had attracted the huge bear. A seasoned woodsman spotted the bear, and said it had been acting odd.

He also reported he had glimpsed a man wearing camouflage with a rifle in the same area. Not wanting to discover if the man was a poacher, he had gotten out of the area and called the Forest Service from his car.

Between the risk of a bear-human conflict and trail work scheduled on the long backcountry route shut four seasons ago, Meredith had requested a temporary closure of the short loop trail that was six miles long. She had identified it last season for restoration work slated for this season as part of the larger project to restore the backcountry trails of Witch Mountain area. Jason had agreed, and the Witch Mountain’s Wind Meadow Trail was closed due to the combination of necessary trail work and the bear issue.

Meredith had spent two days with Tracy posting “trail closed” signs, and checking for backcountry campers with and without permits. She notified the local sports vendors, and outfitters about the temporary closure, and had the district web page reflect it. If things went well, Meredith hoped the bear would return to the backcountry, and the trail workers could have the trail open by the end of June.

It meant that many of the summer tourists would not have access to the popular trail, but there were other trails in the park and bordering Okanogan National Forest. And dire hard hikers and campers were more interested in the more demanding trails that gave them access to places many visitors never saw.

The National Forest Service closed the access to the area where the bear had been sighted, and the Fish and Wildlife Service had sent some folks to help track the animal. No wanted the bear injured, nor a confrontation between hikers. Meri had helped lay three bear cages, under the guidance of an bear expert on loan from Glacier National Park.

They had viewed her information, agreeing the tracks showed the animal favoring his left hind leg. Hair samples indicated the animal was definitely a grizzly bear, and a big one from the tracks. A combination of tracks and the old woodsman’s spotting indicated it was an old male.

Everyone hoped the animal would return to his high country haunts, but they were all watching. Meredith had been too busy to check the area this last couple of days, but local game wardens, Fish and Wildlife, and Forest Service staff were covering the affected areas.

Meredith had disliked not being able to help the last four days, but the inventory needed to be done. Not to mention finalizing the trail work and maintenance program for the season, as well as implementing the district fire plan for the season. Meredith had pulled eight fourteen-hour days, but things were done.

The last few days had been hectic for the wildlife biologist between the inventory, the bear issue, trail work planning and the Operation Wilderness programs she had been giving. Meredith had handled in insane workload with grace and good humor, especially her role as an acting Interpretive ranger. Dianthe had attended one of the three-hour programs, helping haul some extra gear when one of the chaperons had twisted his knee the day before, and had found herself enthralled in the living classroom Meredith revealed.

Meredith loved what she did, and it showed. Her enthusiasm for nature and the wilderness could touch all but the most jaded of souls.

Dianthe had watched Meredith with the kids. She had a knack for reaching them, and had them totally engrossed in what she was teaching them. Many of them had been reluctant to leave, and Meredith had seemed equally saddened by their departure. Annie had snapped photographs of the programs Meredith and Sam had given.

Sam did a really good job, but he admitted Meredith had a true gift for interpretation. Dianthe could understand why Alex Larson had chosen Meredith to be the back up Interpretive Ranger. Meredith enjoyed helping out, but she admitted her true love was Natural Resource Management.

The wildlife biologist had explained reaching the next generation of park visitors was one of the most important thing field interpreters could do. Getting those future visitors involved in positive ways to preserve cultural and natural resources in a world where wilderness was vanishing.

Dianthe sauntered towards the ranger station where her vehicle was parked. Three days off. She grinned. On her right hip she wore her radio, having left her weapons belt and vest back in the station. Annie, Tracy, and a career seasonal had patrol duties, and Jason was off.

She had broken the promise she had made herself. But she had found herself drawn to the warm, exuberant woman whose sheer love of life was infectious. She had fallen in love with Meredith Murphy. She was halfway to the station when her radio crackled to life; “All SAR members, we have a report of missing campers from the Burntmountain Sheriffs Department inside the park. Location stated is the Witch Mountain Meadow Trail.”

Meredith’s vehicle reappeared, and the two women exchanged worried looks. The location was the remote area that had been shutdown. All routes leading to the trailhead had been clearly marked, and missing hikers there could only be trouble. Big trouble, Dianthe sensed. Meredith cursed softly. Dianthe informed Annie she and Meredith would be responding from base, once they figured out what gear they would require.

Dottie Hagen’s battered old truck chugged up to the station, and the silver haired woman slipped out of her old Dodge, waving to them. Dottie immediately began handling the transmissions as she headed for the base station, and Dianthe breathed a sigh of relief. Dottie was the best Dispatcher she had ever met. She was a tough old bird, unflappable and able to handle the worse scenarios with aplomb.

Dottie knew too well the hazards of poorly handled dispatching, especially incomplete or inaccurate information hastily given. She had been widowed young when her husband, a Seattle cop had gone to what was supposed to be a minor problem, but turned out to be drug deal gone bad. Both Walter and his partner Earl were killed in a hail of bullets because a new dispatcher had mixed up two calls. He had given the wrong codes to Walter and Earl, and the two officers never had a chance.

Earl had not been married, but Walter had a wife and two boys. Dottie had applied for a job as a dispatcher in the Department where her husband had been a patrol officer for five years. Between Walter’s veteran benefits, his small pension, and her job, she had managed to keep a roof above their heads and food on the table. She had also managed to send her boys to college while becoming one of the best dispatchers in the city. She had retired as the chief dispatcher twenty-three years later.

The Seattle cops she had watched over loved her like a mother, and she returned the love tenfold. She may have only born two sons, but she had dozens of sons and daughters by extension. One of them had been a captain by the time she was nearing retirement who contacted an old buddy, Sam Griffin. He had called Sam, telling him there was a great old gal retiring to her family’s house in Blackstone who might be really good for the new park. Sam had called Annie and Jason, and Dottie had been dispatching for the park every since. Her boys were Seattle cops like their old man, though both were high-ranking members of the force with boisterous, happy families. The other dispatcher was an intermittent one who worked mainly the busy seasons, and whenever there was a gap in coverage.

Bill Talbot taught in one of the two Blackstone high schools, and admitted his had big shoes to fill whenever Dottie was off-duty. Bill stood six-foot-four and had size twelve double E shoes, and Dottie stood five foot nothing and wore size six shoes. And he was right.

Dottie had been heading home, where she had a substation that she used to monitor the park operations. Brett Ferris had approved the substation placement in the lovely house Dottie’s mother had left her in Blackstone. The seasonal dispatcher had not yet come on board, since he was a schoolteacher. The sprightly, silver haired grandmother waved, monitoring her handheld radio. Dottie informed the hasty team members assembling that Dianthe and Meredith would bring ready packs and other necessary equipment warranted by the situation.

All patrol vehicles carried certain emergency gear, but there were some things they would need. Dianthe signaled she would get the door, and wished that two of their patrol vehicles were not in the repair shop for their seasonal overhauls. Meredith parked beside the shed, “We’ll use my Expedition; it has more space than yours. Jason is enroute..he will there before us.”

Dianthe nodded. Meredith flipped open the tail gate, then joined her in gathering the packs that they kept ready for such emergencies. Medical supplies, spare batteries for the headlamps, food, canteens that would be filled, foil space blankets, body bags, and a rescue litter.

Next, the SAR jackets that were bright orange with large, reflective letters reading “Burntmountain SAR”. Helmets with mounted headlamps were also added, freeing the hands of the SAR members. Meredith tossed a hard, rolled plastic sked into the basket, then met Dianthe’s eyes. “Better break out the rifles. If there’s trouble, bear mace may not work.”

Dianthe swallowed, understanding what she meant. She trotted to the station, letting Meredith get the last of the gear ready. Meredith appeared ten minutes later, and jogged into her small office. She emerged carrying one of her every present high end hiking sticks with “O” rings and carefully painted harsh marks, and a powerful handheld flashlight. Dottie already begun gathering information, jotting down notes even as she tossed Dianthe the keys to the gun rack and ammo kept inside a lock box she had keys for, “Jason said to bring three boxes of ammo and four rifles…”

Dianthe snatched the keys out the air, nodding as she headed to the weapons locker. She opened the heavy door, and stepped into the small room where the law enforcement staff kept rifles, shotguns, and handguns they were issued. Meredith Dianthe broke out the requested weapons and ammo, signing the paperwork Dottie had waiting for her. Meredith had stored away her gear, and dashed to use the restroom.

“I would recommend you do the same,” Dottie pronounced, and Dianthe decided it sounded like a good idea. She hit the head. When she came out, she recollected the rifle and ammo and joined Meredith outside. Meredith already had the engine running, and waited to Dianthe to lay the rifle down in behind the front seats. Dianthe laid the closed ammo boxes beside the rifles, then climbed into the loaded SUV.

It was a ninety-minute drive to the trailhead from the station. Meredith had placed the emergency blue light she carried atop her vehicle, driving fast. The last forty minutes were winding, narrow dirt roads that Meredith knew well. She pulled up outside the trailhead where two patrol cars, a familiar red truck, and two Forest Service trucks were parked beside the trailhead.

Ten figures turned, and Jason waved them over. Meredith jumped out, and joined the briefing for the hasty team. Hasty teams were used to begin searches as soon as possible, and should further personnel be needed it could be called out as the situation evolved. Dianthe tossed Jason, Annie and Tracy the rifles, lips compressed into a hard line. “How good of a shot are you, Dianthe?” Meredith asked softly.

“Very good; expert rating,” she knew the woman hated the idea of killing the bear. Meredith had put down a problem bear three years ago. A black bear, not a grizzly, that become very aggressive, and raiding campsites and tents.

The animal had been relocated twice, but kept returning to his old haunts. Meredith and Morgan had tracked down the habituated bear after one rather disturbing incident involving the sub-adult male bear stalking a young child.

Meredith had dropped the bear with one shot after tracking him for two days. Morgan said the woman had tears in her eyes when she had lowered her rifle, and Dianthe could understand why. It had been careless campers that had taught the bear to equate humans with food.

Dianthe handed out the ammo boxes, then turned her attention to the map Jason spread out on the hood of his truck. “Okay. This is the information we have: six hikers are overdue, a family gathering of fathers and sons type deal. They are three days late. But their families were not too worried, since they said they might spend an extra two days here.

Bad news is the two adults have limited backcountry experience, and did not file permits with the Forest Service or us. One of the men is a weekend warrior type with rock climbing experience and occasional overnight camping trips, the older brother is described as being very laid back, and not very athletic. It seems they thought the trail closed signs were mere suggestions, not actual closures. They were dropped off by a mini van driven by one of the wives.

They figured they would hike back to the main road…and use a public phone,” Jason’s tone indicated what he thought about the intelligence of the two men.

Charlie Fenton muttered an oath under his breath. “Yeah; alongside the wilderness McDonald’s and shopping malls.”

There was a murmur of agreement that fell silent at the curt gesture of Morgan Griffin. She was coordinating the rescue with Jason and Annie, “Not everyone here came fully versed in wilderness survival skills. I recall of couple of you tripping over your feet until you learned the ropes. Remember, there are four kids out there. Two teenagers, two young boys,” Morgan stated softly. “Focus, people.”

Jason nodded in agreement.

Chastened, the crew fell silent. Morgan indicated that Jason should continue. “Air National Guard has a Huey on standby, and Eagle Creek will be the landing zone, should we need a medevac. Charlie, you are remaining at Base Camp with Tracy as the IC, since you are having back problems. That will free up Morgan and me for the hasty team search. Radio Dottie with updates, and she will pass on the information to the Forest Service team on the other end of the trail.

Karen received a disturbing report by day hikers that they were stalked by a very big grizzly close to this area. They high tailed it back to the open section of the trailhead, and reported the bear charged their truck. When they drove away, the bear headed back to the forest. It seemed hurt. The hikers are considered very reliable in the identifying the animal, since they are members of Karen’s seasonal work force.”

“We have teams covering the back of Witch Mountain, in case our hikers are lost there. The local dog teams are in Seattle, helping with a landslide where several homeless campsites were buried. So we do not have air-scenting dogs available. We will be stretched pretty thin,” Morgan indicated where she had sent out four other Forest Service Rangers. County game wardens are sending out three teams to the east of here, so we will have the area pretty well covered. When they get here. We figure these areas are the most likely. Sam’s leading the other team, so we should be good to go once we gear up.”

“Meri, you are the only trained tracker here. You are our best hope of finding them quickly, if possible,” Jason said.

Meredith nodded, donning her helmet, but not turning on her headlamp. “I’ll let you know if I see a positive sign. Do we have any information on the type of foot gear being used?”

“Basic boots..”

“How old are the youngest?”

“Seven and nine.”

“Good, that helps,” Meredith scanned the area using her flashlight. Dozens of footprints, most made by the rescuers were in the parking lot. “Assuming this is the point last seen for this group, a lot of variables will come into play. Fitness level of the overall group, and how determined they were to get into the backcountry. Average hiker can cover a good amount of distance under the right conditions, though this group most likely would try to stay relatively close to the trail head.”

Jason agreed, and the teams began gearing up. The sun was beginning to descend by the time they were good to go. Charlie told Dot the teams were headed out, and began keeping a log of the rescue. Teams of two were sent out, one member carrying the heavy rescue packs, the other lighter packs and the rifles.

Each team was assigned a certain sector that they would check thoroughly. Based on the point last seen, the searchers began sweeping their assigned areas in two person teams.

****************

Meredith crouched low, studying the trail she had located. Using her flashlight at waist level, She used her trekking pole to measure the size of the foot and length of stride. Dianthe stood to her left, rifle cradled in her strong arms, ready to be brought into play. They had been searching for three hours, the crackle of their radios announcing no luck. Meredith triggered her radio, and said, ” Base, Team Two. Looks like we may have a hit. Got some recent boot prints, sizes indicating children and adults. A couple of days old, but fits profile. We are going lateral to the old south trail head.”

“Base copies. Do all teams copy?”

A chorus of copied directs sounded, breaking the strange silence of the night. Dianthe felt sweat trickle down her forehead as she shone her helmet lamp into the inky darkness of the forest. Hyper vigilant, she listened and scanned the depths of the surrounding forest with nervous eyes.

Meredith re-holstered her radio, primed her can of bear mace and led the way. She replaced the large can of bear mace inside the chest harness she wore. She paused occasionally, reading signs that the other woman did not recognize. Relying on Dianthe to keep her safe, Meredith continued following the old trail, marking off what she considered positive signs by circling the best prints. Others she had marked with a curving line that bent left or right and placing flagging tape along side the signs and prints, according to the foot. Meredith had learned how to track when she was a young teenager, and had increased her sills each year. She maintained her skills with frequent practice and dozens of call outs. It showed as she scanned the area with intense focus.

“Why flagging tape? And how did you learn to track so well?

“You can see it better under these forested conditions,” Meredith explained. “My Godfather, Ben Whitetree, taught me how to track when I was a child. I have been doing it ever since. Ben is part of the Navajo Nation, Ben’s Great Grandfather taught him. He taught me all I know about tracking and seeing what others miss.

Ben and my grandfather have been friends since World War II, and he is a partner in my family’s law firm. He and his wife are sort of my third set of grandparents, and they have a place on Mount Desert, too.”

The footing was treacherous, and Meredith pointed out hazards Dianthe might miss without rancor. Dianthe had done some hiking, but this was hard country under bad conditions. She did not take insult. Meredith rose, inclining her head towards the dense undergrowth they were about enter and ascend. “Ready?”

Dianthe nodded, trusting the smaller woman. Meredith managed a grim smile, then began cautiously following the trail she had found. Around her left wrist she wore a set of bead she called tally beads to keep count of something, never jumping ahead of the footprints she found. Dianthe did not question why she did so, understanding Meredith knew what she was doing. Meredith stopped every few feet and blew a whistle, then called out the names of the men.

It was a basic search method that could help locate conscious individuals close to the area they were searching. Both women strained to listen for responses, then began following the tracks and other clues Meredith had found.

They were entering the section of trail Meredith and the Resource Management team had slated for repair over the next two seasons, and had been shut for four years due to severe erosion created by illegal mountain biking, off trail hiking and storm damage. If Dianthe had worn her full grain leather general-purpose hikers from the uniform company, she would most likely end up with a badly twisted ankle or worse. She would never have been able to keep her footing in the park boots. The boots Meredith had helped her select, and told her to break in, had saved her neck more than once tonight.

Dianthe flanked the tawny haired woman, heart hammering inside her chest from more than mere exertion. She could not shake the feeling they were being stalked, and Meredith’s body language indicated she felt it, too. Meredith raised her right fist, then hunkered down to study something she had spotted. “Bear droppings and prints..” the woman used a stick to stir the massive pile of droppings, which contained undigested sections of a yellow material and torn food wrappers. It steamed when the air hit it. “Still warm. this doesn’t;t looks too old. maybe an hour or so. And it is the same bear we have been tracking and trying to capture.”

Meredith informed the others of her findings carefully phrased wording, then scanned the area further. Even Dianthe could see the bear prints lay over footprints, her nose wrinkling when she smelled something nasty. Meredith glanced back at her companion, “They used this area as outhouse, though they did not bury their waste, and most likely an access point. Keep really close, and keep your eyes open.”

Dianthe could now smell urine and rotting fecal matter. Meredith had been correct about not burying their waste. She spotted several impressive human piles, and toilet paper littered the ground. Dianthe grimaced in distaste, especially when her boot squished in something that was not mud.

The stench of the pile of human waste made Dianthe’s nose crinkle in distaste. She tried wiping the worst of the stuff off her boots, annoyed that these people had such obvious disregard for the environment and others. “Damnit…” Dianthe muttered when she slipped in another pile, landing on her right knee. “Oh shit…”

Meredith turned, a question in her eyes. Dianthe sighed, and rose with a grimace of distaste. She mutely indicated she was okay, noticing the hard look in the woman’s usually warm eyes. Meredith was worried. Very worried. A soft curse made Dianthe flinch. Meredith rarely cursed, and only on occasions warranting it. Dianthe knew it was bad news.

Meredith froze, raising her right fist to signal a halt, then used her powerful flashlight to illuminate the reason for the curse. Dianthe swallowed her bile, recognizing the object. It was a human right arm torn off below the elbow, dangling across a blood-splattered snag. What remained of the partially eaten limb was encased in a yellow micro fleece material: the same color as the material in the droppings.

Dianthe swallowed hard. Maggots were pouring out the rotting flesh, and the stench made her stomach churn. She breathed through her mouth, wondering how Meredith could endure the foul smell. Dianthe recalled reading a book by a woman that had been a homicide detective for many years that it was better to adjust to the stench of decay than to try and cover it up.

The woman was a grandmother, and far tougher than Dianthe. Dianthe kept swallowing hard. Meredith had lost some color, but seemed less affected by the stench. Being a wildlife biologist had given her more exposure to the less than pleasant aspects of nature.

“Base, Team Two. We have positive evidence of a problem bear. I repeat, we have a confirmed problem bear. Possible black tagger. Recommend all teams use extreme caution. Copy?”

The units responded, and base said he was contacting dispatch. Meredith had chosen the word used for a fatality in a triage situation: black tags were given to the dead. The helo would be a full alert, ready to fly in five minutes of notice. Meredith straightened, stepping cautiously over the fallen tree.

Dianthe saw the ravaged remains of several bodies behind the log in a ruined campsite. Meredith stepped forward cautiously, avoiding the large boulders as best she could. Neither she nor Dianthe spotted the form hunkered low in anticipation, concealed by the boulders and undergrowth.

Meredith spun when she heard the sharp crack of a breaking twig, and shouted out a warning. She instinctively faced the source of the sound. A glint of silver arched downwards, and Meredith threw up her right arm to block the hunting knife’s lethal descent. Hampered by the remains and the terrain, Dianthe rushed forward as quickly as she could.

Blood spurted, and Meredith fell backwards over the decaying corpse of a youth. Screaming, the man leapt forward, intent on finishing his attack. Meredith brought up her legs, hoping to push the man back. Dianthe hurtled forward, the butt of the rifle on the man’s jaw in a controlled blow. It landed with enough force to stun him, but not do serious harm. He crumbled, knife clattering down beside the sprawled, wounded woman.

Meredith held her useless right arm cradled against her chest, and shouted, “Dianthe, behind you!”

Dianthe twisted around, firing off a round at what she hoped would be chest level. The bullet hit the charging grizzly in the lower chest, but he barreled towards them, roaring. She adjusted, and fired again. This time the bullet hit him dead center of the chest, staggering the massive beast.

Another two shots rang out, to Dianthe’s immediate right. Morgan Griffin’s chest was heaving as she lowered her rifle. The bear’s skull had been blown wide open, dropping the big animal in its tracks.

The bear was less than three feet from where Dianthe stood, shaking and breathing hard. Dianthe kept her rifle ready, feeling how wet her park jeans were. Her mortification paled with the understanding of how close they had been to being mauled to death, and Meredith’s being hurt. Wetting her pants was trivial in comparison.

Morgan approached the animal with her rifle held at the ready. Years of experience told the woman the bear could still be alive. For safety, she took careful aim, and fired a final round into the animal’s head. She used the barrel to check the animal. Dianthe kept her rifle trained on the animal. “You okay?” Morgan growled, relaxing once she was certain the animal was dead.

“I’m fine, but Meredith’s not. She’s been slashed,” Dianthe kicked aside the knife, watching the groaning man. He was sitting up, rubbing his jaw with disbelief. “Do not move.”

“Shit! Paul, get over here,” she shouted, signaling the young, silent man forward. “Take care of him. Karen’s bringing the two boys down the mountainside to the base station. God knows how, but they are fine.

Okay, Meri, let’s see how bad is,” Morgan knelt beside the shivering woman. Morgan pulled on a pair of latex gloves she kept in a small fabric holder on her belt. She undid the straps of the backpack, Dianthe stooping to lend a hand. “Let us do it, Meri. Dianthe, gloves.”

Dianthe realized she had almost reached for Meredith without gloves. She pulled on a pair of heavy-duty latex gloves, hoping Meredith would be okay.

Meredith leaned against the fallen tree, trying not to look at the three bodies strewn around the campsite. They showed signs of having been mauled and consumed, and old food lay around the littered campground. She squeezed her eyes shut, lips compressed against a moan.

Morgan used her folding knife to expose the wounded arm, and pressed her lips together. She could glimpse bone beneath the beam of her headlamp, and the wound ran the length of the entire forearm. She exchanged worried glances with the towering woman that spoke volumes. Incisions of this kind were very dangerous wounds, and could lead to death due to blood loss. Already Meredith’s features were becoming very ashen and moist, a sign she was swiftly becoming shocky.

“Land evac?” Dianthe asked softly. Morgan shook her head as she considered the situation.

“Tell them we will need a medevac..” Morgan said, undoing the medical kit she carried to get the necessary supplies out. “Driving out will take too long, and my gut tells me she does not have that type of time. Too much blood loss.”

“Base, Team Two. Get the helo underway pronto. We have a team member down. Serve knife inflicted wound with heavy blood loss’. Patient is getting shocky,” Dianthe snapped, ripping out the necessary medical supplies.

Morgan began applying pressure bandages over the gaping wound. Her gloved hands glistened with blood. She kept wrapping the wounded limb, “Meri, what day is it?”

Dianthe had begun doing what she could to help tend the grisly injury. The knife had hit the top of the arm, not the underside. Meredith was beginning to shiver more obviously.

The trauma dressings were soaked with blood. Meredith watched the two women working on her wound with an odd detachment. Meredith shut her eyes, brow wrinkling in concentration. “Thursday…no, Friday, I think. Can I have some water?”

“Team Two, Team Leader,” Jason’s voice crackled over the radio. Paul pulled out his radio, keeping a leery eye on the blinking man. “Situation?”

“Bear’s dead; the surviving adult man will require medical treatment for a minor facial trauma. He slashed Murphy.”

“How bad?”

“It’s not good. Morgan wants a medevac helo pronto,” Paul Smith answered. “And we need three body bags for human remains.”

“Team Leader, Base. Dispatch advises medevac en route. Am readying L.Z. ETA will be less than 15 minutes; hospital has been alerted.”

“10-4; Team Leader clear.”

“Team Two, Team Four, we are closing on your position, and should be there shortly,” Annie called out.

“Base, Team Leader, sent up the rescue basket.”

“10-4; Team Five will bring it up. We have the juveniles at base.”

“10-4; Max speed.”

Karen’s disembodied voice announced she would be there in seven minutes. The campsite was not far off the closed trailhead, though well concealed by the overgrowth.

“Team One, help secure the landing zone and keep an eye on the survivors.”

Tracy responded she and Charlie were headed down toward the helicopter-landing zone. Jason and one of the Forest Service seasonals approached the campground, expressions grim. The illegal campground was littered with debris older than the attack. Food had been left out in the open, the debris older than the attack itself.

A fire pit had been built, the earth charred and debris strewn. Whatever wood had been lying on the ground had been collected to burn, and trash had been burned inside the fire pit. Branches had been cut off surrounding trees, and human waste encircled the illegal campsite. The tents had been located next to the fire, and trenches had been dug around the tent to divert water.

He surveyed the campsite with a combination of anger and pity. Part of him wanted to haul the weeping man off his knees and make him look at what his deliberate disregard had cost the boys, the other man and the old bear. The conditions of the campsite would be important in the lawsuits that the families would undoubtedly bring against the park.

The bear had been old, hurt and hungry, and the campsite a perfect lure. The park had done everything it could to prevent this needless tragedy, and his gut instinct told him it would get nasty. But the facts were straightforward: the sheriff that had called him told him the family chose to ignore the signage.

“Paul, secure the site. Disturb as little as possible. We are going to call the county coroner and document everything,” Jason flinched when he saw the state of the bodies. He strode across the campsite, squatting down beside the two women working frantically on Meredith. “Hang in there, Meri.”

“What about me?” the burly, dirty man lamented, sporting a very colorful bruise and cut. “That bitch attacked me. Hit me with her fucking rifle butt.”

Jason turned toward the man, brown eyes diamond hard, and said, “Don’t push it.”

The man stopped his complaining, realizing these people were not pleased with him. He fell silent, crying softly. Paul laid a blanket around his shoulders.

“I’m fine,” Meredith tried rising, annoyance evident in her tone. She tried pushing the women away, causing more blood to flow. “They were babies, Jason. They were only children. It’s my fault. I should not have let the game wardens handle it alone.”

“Easy, Meri,” Morgan soothed, monitoring the woman’s vitals with a solemn bearing. “You know the drill. Trust us.”

“Give me some water. please,” Meredith begged, licking her lips.

“We can’t give you water, sweetie,” Morgan wrote down Meredith’s third set of vitals on the now gore stained notepad she carried in her shirt pocket. “You have to conserve your energy.”

Dianthe gently restrained the injured woman, silently praying that she would not die. The bandages were soaked through, and Meredith’s eyes were becoming glassy. Karen Winslow and Annie appeared, hauling the folding plastic litter up the mountainside where the others were waiting.

Meredith was becoming increasingly restless despite their best efforts, insisting she was fine. Jason shot the surly man a cold look, especially when he saw the bloody knife. If Meredith had not blocked the descent of the blade, they would be hauling her down in body bag, too.

“Has he got any other wounds?” Jason asked Paul.

“None that I can see or feel. Other than a mild facial bruising and a small cut, he seems good to go. Pupils are good, equal and reactive. Nothing a few solid meals and a hot shower shouldn’t mend. Sir, you are going to have walk down the trail.”

“But I’m tired,” the man objected, watching the rescue basket being laid beside the aggravated woman. “Why can’t she walk down? She looks fit enough. And she said it was her fault; she should have killed the bear when she first realized it was here!

It’s her fault! She’s responsible for my brother’s and his sons’ deaths! Make her walk down the mountain. I should be the one being carried down, not her!”

Jason pivoted, brown eyes darkening dangerously, “Shut up! She has to be hauled down because you sliced open her entire forearm, bone deep. She’s bleeding out, badly,” Jason’s tone was flat, icy. “Wounds like this kill. She could die. And the one responsible for this horror show is you and your brother, Sanderson.”

Annie gave her husband a warning glance that made him regain his emotional distance. She met the man’s eyes, and said softly, “You must be Hank.”

The man nodded, relaxing when someone used his given name, “Yes. The bear killed my brother and his sons. We were asleep when it attacked. Jerry tried to save William and Bryce, but the bear had killed them.”

“Your sons said you kept them safe; that you came back here to find the map and compass.”

“We were so lost. The bear attacked us two nights ago. I figured if I found the map, we could find our way back. Jerry kept it on him. I should have helped fight the bear, but I had to get my sons out.”

Paul flinched, imagining what it must have been like. “Hank, we need you to help us. We know you didn’t mean to hurt Meredith. You will have to walk down the mountainside, behind the litter team.”

The man nodded, a guilty look crossing his face. “I thought it was the bear. Returning to feed.”

Jason helped the others strap Meredith down, promising himself he would never loose it again on a SAR mission. In all his years of working, this was the worse bear attack he had seen. No doubt there would be calls for hunting down the remaining grizzlies from those elements that wanted a pasteurized version of wilderness.

“Helo’s here. Charlie says they are getting IVs ready,” Karen called out, hitching a thumb in the direction of the base camp.

“Let’s haul out. Paul, you stay here. We’ll be back soon. Document everything. Okay, time to go,” Jason took the left top side of the litter, Dianthe the right. Annie and Karen the ends, while Morgan kept an eye of the woman’s vitals.

Using the heavy-duty straps to help distribute the weight of the litter across their shoulders as they picked their way down the rock-strewn path. More than once they had to halt to get a better purchase on the slick ground, wishing they had more staff immediately available.

The young female forest ranger that had accompanied Jason gently guided Hank Sanderson down the mountainside. A soft-spoken, pretty woman, she had the man following without further complaint. He and his boys would be going home.

The team emerged to find the young boys being helped on the Huey. Air National Guard Paramedics rushed forward with medical supplies, including IVs that they swiftly administered to the pallid woman. “Hospital in Burntmountain’s ready. Should take us fifteen minutes to reach it. We need some medical information.”

Morgan tossed Annie her notepad. Annie snatched it out of the air. “Annie can provide it. She can have Meredith’s medical information faxed en route to the hospital. Make sure you get Sanderson’s statement,” Jason said softly, helping slide the rescue litter in place. Hank Sanderson clambered on, embracing his sons. He kept them alive, despite the odds.

They hugged him, forming a tight knot inside the helicopter’s interior. Annie was the last on board as the county coroners van arrived with several police units, and three unmarked vehicles that meant the press had been monitoring the airwaves.

Jason established a perimeter, turning towards Dianthe and Morgan. “Morgan, you’re better at handling the press than I am. Stonewall them until we get this thing under control.”

“You got it, Jason. God, what a mess,” the woman turned, assuming her most diplomatic persona, and approached the local reporters seeking a winning story.

Sam and the other team members radioed in they would be joining the rest in the documentation, clean up and follow up investigation. Charlie pulled Jason aside, informing him Brett Ferris had been notified. Jason accepted the steaming cup of coffee offered by the seasonal ranger.

“Meri?” Charlie Fenton asked softly, worried. He watched the helicopter’s lights vanishing with a solemn air.

“Pretty bad. Lost a hell of a lot of blood,” Jason tried not to think about the blood covering Dianthe and Morgan. “Maybe too much.”

Charlie flinched, his dark blue eyes darkening, “Where the hell was Dianthe?”

“Behind Meri. She dropped the bastard before he could finish his attack,” Jason sighed. Charlie glanced towards the dark haired woman gathering herself for the grim task ahead. “It’s a real mess, Charlie. Christ.”

Charlie laid a comforting hand on Jason’s muscular shoulder in a rare gesture of affection. Charlie was a very, very private man not given to demonstrative gestures, and Jason managed a grim smile. There were times he thought he had come to understand Charlie Fenton, but he was always surprising him.

The coroner and the sheriff and his deputies silently made their way forward. Outdoorsmen, hunters and lovers of wildlife, they knew how easy it was for the untrained to get hurt. Jason warned them about the bodies, then the led the group up the mountainside.

They would be up on Witch Mountain for ten hours, documenting the worse grizzly attack in recent memory. It would be media frenzy. Still despite their best efforts, details leaked of the horror.
Chapter Five:
Meredith awoke inside the hospital bed, wondering if she had died. There were flowers surrounding her and filled the room. But she felt too rotten to have had the good luck to have died. She grimaced, her mouth tasting the bottom of a septic tank, and peered around the room. Her room was dimly lit, and cool.

She tried to sit up, but found herself too weak. No to mention nauseous. She heard the door open, and two figures entered the private room. One was a tall, leanly muscular form wearing the uniform of the dress whites of a United States Naval officer, the other still wearing the familiar gray and green of the National Park Service.

“Hey you,” Annie said, beaming. “Welcome back, honey.”

“Richard?” Meredith stammered, not believing her brother was here.

“In the flesh, kid. How you feeling?” Richard Murphy pressed a gentle kiss against his kid sister’s temple.

“Had better days,” Meredith admitted, accepting the cool water Annie offered her. Annie held the cup as Meredith sipped the water. “How long?”

“Almost eighteen hours. You were in pretty rough shape by the time you arrived,” Annie moved a gentle curl off Meredith’s forehead.

Richard Murphy’s smoky gray eyes showed the same lack of sleep that Annie’s did. He sat beside his sister, taking her left hand between his bigger ones. “Mom, Dad, and Kat have been told you are all right. They want you to come out east for a bit.”

Meredith shook her head, knowing if she went east they would try to keep her there. They were convinced that William Dawson and his thugs would harm her. “Tell them I’m fine. And I’m home.”

Richard smiled, understanding what she meant. Meredith loved her family with all her heart, but she had found her home out in the Cascade mountains. She had always be an adventurous and independent soul since he could remember. Meredith had a life out here, and she had friends who would be there for her.”All right. Carolyn sends her love. She couldn’t get free. I got a special forty-eight hour leave.”

Meredith did not want to ask what favors her brother must have called in. He had been in the middle of a very important case concerning a marine accused of murder in San Diego. It involved a fellow marine, and the dead marine’s wife.

“The survivors?”

“Physically, they are fine. Emotionally, that’s another thing entirely. The families are being to make noises about lawsuits regarding the deaths of their family members, but the odds of their winning are not good.

The media’s making the entire mess a circus. Especially the lurid details of the bear attack, and you’re being wounded during the rescue.”

Meredith groaned, not out of pain, but knowing the next few weeks would be difficult ones. Richard stroked her hair, jaw muscles working. “How’s the pain?”

“Not too bad,” she smiled thinly. Annie met her questioning eyes.

“The doctors say you’re incredibly lucky. Your arm will heal fully, but it’s going to take lots of work. It was bone deep, but there’s almost no major nerve damage. The worse thing was the blood loss and tissue damage. Good thing we kept blood stocked in the local hospitals.”

Annie and Jason insisted that all staff members kept several pints of their own blood in the local hospitals during the busy rescue season. The practice lessened the odds of blood borne diseases, should a staff member require blood.

“I don’t remember too much of it,” Meredith admitted, getting glimpses of the night. “I screwed up, Annie. I should have insisted on helping the state game wardens and Fish and Wildlife.”

“Bullshit; you did what you could, laid it out. Brett knows you did what you could, and Fish and Wildlife and the game wardens were monitoring the situation closely. The Sanderson’s deliberately ignored all the warnings, waited for the game wardens to leave before they entered the trailhead.

“Hank Sanderson said his brother had chatted up the game warden in a local bar. Knew the man’s schedule; they used that information to sneak in,” Annie’s forest-green eyes darkened with the memory of the man’s rambling testimony she had recorded. A nurse had loaned her a tape recorder, and Hank had told the entire story. “You came close to dying up there, Meredith. Dying because of their ignorance and arrogance.”

“Like I said, I really don’t remember too much after finding the bodies. It’s all a blur.”

Annie’s eyes said she remembered it. The woman had been shaken by what had happened. It had been the first time they had almost lost one of their own during a Search and Rescue operation. “We almost lost you, again. Jason and I have decided you are not permitted to die. We need you, honey.”

Richard’s lips assumed a hard line, and she knew he had been worried she might not have survived the ordeal. He and Meredith were very close, though seven years separated them. She had been the tag-along-little-sister that thought her brother was the best in the world.

“Your friend Kim Green has been researching the best physical therapist in the Seattle area,” Richard interjected. “If you want, you can stay with us. San Diego has lots of good physical therapists’. Not to mention a bunch of military folks that happen to like a certain kid sister.”

Meredith shook her head, smiling wearily. “I know someone here: Patrick Hearne. . But Kim does not know him. She’s one of the best orthopedic surgeons in Seattle, and Patrick’s even better than she is. And if I stay with Kim and Alex, Alex will no doubt kidnap me for Interpretation.”

Annie scowled, “No way…you are ours.” Richard laughed.

Richard mussed his sister’s soft curls, grinning. “Gotcha. We can’t help it; we love you, Meri. When you are feeling better, call Granddad and Grandma Murphy.”

Richard playfully tweaked his kid sister’s nose, chuckling at her woebegone expression. He reached down, and pulled up a familiar form and tucked it beneath her good arm. Meredith glanced down at the worn, but clean stuffed gray rabbit that had been her constant companion since she was seven. It had been an Easter gift from him. “Flopsy was getting lonely in that big house of yours, sis.”

Meredith grinned. She did not care how it looked. She would never give up Flopsy or her worn, battered daypack, both given to her by loved ones. There were two things she would keep as long as she could.

Annie sat on the other side of the bed, and began singing softly. She had a rich voice, and the soothing words began to take effect. Meredith fought to keep awake, but the combination of drugs and the damage she had endured began to take its toll. She found her eyes too heavy to keep open, and she drifted away.

In her dreams, a pair of startling blue eyes held hers’ and she felt safe, warm and loved. She had become used to the presence of Dianthe in her dreams, and she knew what the woman had come to mean to her.

****************

Dianthe entered the private hospital room, whistling softly under her breath when she read a couple of the cards affixed to the very impressive flora arrangements. She scrutinized her modest flowers, and thought momentarily about getting something nicer.

But Meredith’s eyes opened, and a smile touched her lips that reached her eyes, “Hi. How are you?”

“Exhausted, but good,” Dianthe perched on the edge of the bed, pleased that the color had returned to the woman’s cheeks. The last time she had seen Meredith, she had been frighteningly pale. “More importantly, how are you doing?”

“I get out tomorrow afternoon,” Meredith laughed, meeting Dianthe’s sapphire blue eyes with humor. “Thanks for the flowers. They are beautiful.”

Dianthe watched the woman sniff the flowers, and shrugged her broad, muscular shoulders. “I wish they could be better.”

“Nonsense. I love them.” Meredith watched Dianthe set the flowers on the nightstand beside her bed. Dianthe noticed a small, pink fabric nose peeking out from under the blankets. She arched an eyebrow and noticed the blush rising on her friend’s face. Meredith watched the towering woman peek beneath the covers and grin. “Ah, Dianthe, meet Flopsy. Flopsy, Dianthe…”

“Hello, Flopsy,” Dianthe laughed, studying the woman who never ceased to amaze her. “Looks like you have had Flopsy for a long time,” Dianthe let the blanket and sheet settled down over the stuffed bunny.

“Since I was seven, he was a Easter gift from my brother,” Meredith beamed when Dianthe reached down and playfully tickled the half buried toy’s nose. “My brother brought him over from the house where he lives in the master bedroom on my bed.”

The door opened, and Meredith’s eyes rose. Dianthe turned, stiffening when she recognized the sandy haired man. Bitter memories surfaced, and she rose to face the man that had been part of the nightmare. “Lieutenant Commander Murphy.”

Richard’s gray eyes rested on the flowers his sister held, then back to the towering woman. “Lieutenant…ah, Ranger Xavier.”

Meredith frowned, trying to figure out what was happening. Dianthe turned back to the confused woman. “I got patrol in another hour. I best be going. Feel better, Meri. I’ll visit again, later on. Promise.”

Richard stepped aside, allowing the proud woman to exit the room. He felt the weight of his sister’s stare, and turned to face her. “Richard, what the hell just happened?”

Richard sighed. He pinched the bridge of his nose, and said, “We know each other.”

Meredith awarded her brother a level look that made him squirm. She knew what his job was, what the military did to those they deemed unworthy. “No kidding, Richard.”

“Meri, she was accused of something that the military frowns on. She did nothing wrong. She was victim of less than enlightened thinking. She was one of the best pilots the Navy had. Better than a lot of her male counterparts: she was a natural. Her commanding officer fought tooth and nail for her. It’s the one of the reasons she got an honorable discharge.”

Meredith shut her eyes, the missing pieces of the puzzle having fallen into place. She had long ago figured out that Dianthe was a lesbian, having several close gay friends. Richard had been the J.A.G. officer pressing the archaically dim view about gays and lesbians in the military.

“Damnit! There are times I think the military you love so much is the most incredibly stupid organization in the world. You handled the victims of the Tailhook scandal of 1991. Tell me why most of those pilots were not hauled before J.A.G., and not given their walking papers. Hell, some of them should have been arrested, and imprisoned!

But it was okay. They were men just being men. Sexually harassing and assaulting women and young girls is fine, since they were blowing off steam!”

Richard did not argue the point. It was valid. He had been one of the few voices recommending the worse offenders be given dishonorable discharges. Meredith flinched, the sudden motion bringing on a wave of fiery pain. Her eyes screwed shut, and she fought a wave of disorientation.

“Easy…” Richard admonished, sitting on the bed. “Meri, I’m not proud about what happened to her. She just loved the wrong woman.”

Meredith met her brother’s remorseful eyes. “Then change it, Richard. Change it. Otherwise, good men and women will not be allowed to serve. All because of misconceptions and ignorance on the part of a few true bigots.”

Richard had never been one to decline a challenge, especially if he felt it was just. He hugged his kid sister, and spent twenty minutes more with her. Annie was giving him a lift to the small airport where he would get a connecting flight to San Diego.

Meredith studied the flowers she held. She hit the nurse’s station call button, then began planning what she needed to do. She never let the modest, but lovely bouquet out of her sight.

**********************

The patrol had been uneventful, despite the media’s ongoing coverage of the slaughter up on the mountain. The locals were getting weary of the entire mess, and more than one had said less than kind things about the victims. Most were used to sharing the landscape with wild animals, a lot made money on it, and they did not want their eco-tourism and adventure tourism industry damaged.

So called experts, and real ones, argued the point on numerous television stations, highlighting similar incidents. Jason, Annie and Morgan were almost constantly fielding questions, answering what they could without speculation. The victims’ families blamed everyone but themselves, refusing to acknowledge they were responsible for the horror.

Dianthe, Charlie, and Tracy had been doing patrols for the last forty-eight hours. Annie had called them in. Told them to take the next four days off. Brett had arranged for several law enforcement rangers to be temporarily assigned to Burntmountain.

The three rangers had not waited for further information. They scattered, leaving Annie watching with mild amusement. She and Jason had no such reprieve. They had to orient the rangers that would filling in, and filling out the dozens of reports necessary.

Dianthe drove up the dirt road that wound it’s way through the very secluded property Meredith had purchased. She hoped that Furball would forgive her for not being around for two days. She had stopped by twice to fed him, clean the litter box, take a quick shower and change her uniform, then continue her patrol.

During her last ten-hour patrol, she had thought about her encounter with Richard Murphy. He had not been like some of the military that had delighted in hunting down the gays and lesbians serving their nation. He had been professional, polite, and thoughtful. When he and Captain Bennett Thompson had sat down, the J.A.G. officer concurred that she should have an honorable discharge with full benefits.

He had not been very tolerant of Ellie. Ellie had done her best to hook up with male aviator, showing the brass which side of the fence she fell on. It seemed the man soon grew weary of her company following the discharge of Lt. Xavier.

Ellie had been transferred off the Abe Lincoln, and sent to an overseas station where she was ostracized. “Dusty” Rhoades had told Dianthe that Ellie had quit the navy several months after her transfer. The last her former RIO heard was Ellie Luden had settled in San Diego, and was working for a major hospital.

Ellie had not won the support of a man like Burner Thompson, and had barely gotten her honorable discharge from the Navy. Dianthe could not help but feel sorry for the woman. Had the system not been against gays and lesbians, their story may well have had a different ending, though Dianthe doubted it.

Ellie had been self-centered. Even when she had been with her fiancé, a young hotshot male with stars in his eyes. His engines Hornet’s engines lost power for some unknown reason during the seconds after being catapulted off the carrier deck. Neither the man nor his plane was found. His last transmission had been that he had lost all engine power. Having been friends with the man, Dianthe had befriended the grieving young woman.

It had been Ellie that had altered their relationship, had made it sexual. Dianthe had thought she had found the love of her life, and been naive enough to think no one would say anything. Ellis had decided she wanted to survive, so she had given up her lover and several other women.

Two were not lesbians, but women that just did not sleep around. The rejected males were quick to point fingers, and two fine nurses found their careers and lives shattered. Witch-hunts for lesbians had been part of Dianthe’s life since the Academy, so she had learned to keep a low profile. Ellie had been her weak spot, the price had been a dream that seemed so distant now.

Hurricane Ellie had claimed seven victims, and ultimately, herself. One of Dianthe’s fellow pilots had given the nurse the nickname, and it had stuck.

Dianthe’s attention returned to the present when she spotted another vehicle parked beside Meredith’s. Dianthe had brought Meredith’s sports utility vehicle back when they came off the mountain. She did not recognize the custom black suburban that dwarfed Meredith’s Eddie Bauer Expedition.

She pulled in alongside the big truck, parked and turned off the engine. She walked around the vehicle, then headed for the rear steps of the house. There was no sign of a forced entry, and the lights were on.

Twice, the local Blackstone deputies had driven off curious reporters intent on learning more about Meredith. Part of their fascination was that Meredith was part of the Murphy and Stanhope family. Dianthe had never paid much attention to such matters, but she had learned that Meredith’s family was very, very important.

Meredith spoke of her family in terms of affection, not power and prestige. Dianthe had watched a new program that had the lurid details of the bear attacks while on a break at the Ranger station. When they mentioned Meredith, a biosketch of her family came on.

There were several high government officials in the woman’s family, including the Intel Community, several US ambassadors, five federal judges, a host of high profile lawyers, well known doctors, wealthy business men and women. She had resented the inference that Meredith may have lacked the family’s talent for such high-pressure fields.

Jason had shaken his head, cast her sideways glance, and changed channels when a ‘disgruntled federal employee’ stated he had been passed over for her. The man proclaimed on national television he had been denied the job out of political considerations.

He insisted he had more expertise, but had been held back due to Meredith’s family connections. He implied the bear attack had been her fault, that she had not handled the situation correctly. The reporter covering the man’s ‘professional assessment’, Janice Portman of station K.I.B., began asking leading questions that the man answered. The pretty, delicate red headed woman’s hazel eyes were diamond hard, and Arctic cold.

“The man’s a total asshole…and a damned drunk, too,” Jason had muttered, rising. “He had been passed park to park for years. He’s bad news. And knows jack shit about his job, but he manages to exploit the system. Plays the victim all the time.”

Cal Trent kept elaborating on how he would have handled the situation, savoring his fifteen minutes of fame. A heavy set, ill kept looking man with watery blue eyes and thinning blonde hair, his nasal voice pronounced that Meredith Murphy might as well have killed the boys and man herself. The gathered staff members of Burntmountain listened to the dripping venom of the man’s words, and Jason picked a phone.

He dialed a number, the program being recorded by Dot Hagen. “Brett, this Jason. Turn on to the local news..”

Dianthe had shared his opinion. She had wished she had been there to tell the woman and her news crew that Meredith was a fine Ranger. Show the photographs of taken during rescues, show the honors she received over the last five years of service as both a wildlife biologist and SAR leader.

She mounted the rear steps, and rang the doorbell. Meredith was not supposed to be back until tomorrow afternoon. She wanted to make sure everything was all right.

A couple of minutes later Meredith appeared wearing an ash-gray, oversized hooded sweat jacket that read, “Burntmountain District”, and matching sweat pants. She had recently showered, smelling of expensive scented soaps (which she never used when she doing wildlife studies, or working in the back country), her dark blonde hair damp and tousled.

“Hi,” Meredith said brightly.

“Meri! What are you doing out of the hospital?” Dianthe asked, smiling. Her weariness lifted.

“Hospitals are for sick people; I’m not sick. Just a bit beat up,” Meredith motioned for the towering woman to enter. “Karen and Morgan sprang me about three hours ago.”

She entered the house, savoring the delightful scent of really good pizza heating up as her stomach rumbled. Meredith chuckled. “We have three great pies warming up. We picked them up before coming home. New York Brick Oven Pizza.”

Dianthe had heard about the Burntmountain pizza restaurant. Its owner had come from a long line of New York City pizza shop owners, and had moved out west. His pies combined the best of the east and west coast traditions, and Dianthe had tasted his creations twice.

The pies were on the expensive side, but they were worth it. She sniffed the air. Meredith laughed. “One’s a traditional pepperoni and cheese, the others a veggies and cheese, and the last is a California Quake: chicken, steak, veggies and three cheeses. There’s more than enough for six, let alone four. Join us?”

A willowy, red haired woman with emerald green eyes came into the kitchen, sorting through several CDs. She smiled when she saw Dianthe. She was a definite beauty. “It occurs to me we never exchanged formal greetings; I’m Karen Winslow.”

“Dianthe Xavier,” Dianthe gripped the slender woman’s hand in a firm shake.

Morgan Griffin came down to find out why she had been abandoned. Her smoky gray eyes flickered between Meredith and Dianthe with apparent satisfaction. “Dianthe.”

“Morgan.”

Dianthe noticed the silver treading the woman’s close-cropped curly black hair, and realized the woman was older than she had thought. Both she and Karen were a good ten to twelve years older than she was.

“Meri called us. Said she wanted out, not that I can blame her. Annie and Jason were tied up with legal matters, not to mention the incoming seasonals arrive next week. Sam’s taking care of personal matters in Seattle, and we need to be closer to Blackstone for the next week or so.

We were going to pick her up tomorrow, but things changed. Karen and I have been scheduled for deposition with the US Attorney’s Office regarding the incident. Jason and Annie have bee, too. And several long-winded meetings related to this entire mess.

Meredith’s house is closer, so we here we are,” Morgan gave Meredith an affectionate nudge. “Did you tell her about our sinful feast?”

“Almost everything…” Meredith blushed slightly, raising her eyes towards Dianthe. “Besides the standard beverages, we have Chocolate Orgasm cake.”

Dianthe chuckled and grinned, seeing the impressively large box sitting on the island. “Decadent Delight’s most lethal chocolate creation, I if recall the description.”

“Join us?”

“Sounds like fun. Let me go feed Furball, and I’ll be right back.”

“Great.”

Dianthe noticed that her flowers were sitting on the green and black granite stone island in an elegant crystal vase. None of the other floral arrangements were present.

Her eyes met Meredith’s. She felt her heart skip a beat at what she beheld. It was her turn to blush. Morgan whispered a comment. Karen drove an elbow into her lover’s stomach, and Morgan managed to look contrite.

Dianthe dashed out of the house, fumbling for her keys to open the cabin door. Furball meowed, demanding food and attention as he weaved between her legs. Scooping up the long cat she entered the kitchen, whistling under her breathe in contentment. Furball jumped down the floor, yowling when she picked his food bowl to clean it out.

Once she cleaned it out, she opened a fresh can of cat food and spooned out a generous amount. Furball purred, rubbing his cheek on her right leg. She set down the bowl, then refilled his water bowl. Furball pounced, nipping at the food like he had been hunting a mouse.

She watched him play with his food for several minutes before Furball began eating it. Dianthe knew she and Meredith would have to discuss how she and Richard Murphy knew each other. There was no denying what she felt for the younger woman: she had fallen in love. But she would not act on it.

She did not want to damage the wonderful friendship that had blossomed between her and the woman. Confessing her feelings would only destroy their friendship. Not to mention render her a persona-non-grata with the others.

Morgan and Karen added an element she had not anticipated. How much, if anything, had the women told or discuss with Meredith?

Dianthe returned to the main house. She entered as Morgan laid out the last of the three pizzas, yelping about the hot pie pans. It seemed Morgan had opted for a kitchen towel instead of the oven mitts hanging near the state-of-the-art professional twin ovens and stove top range.

No doubt it was because the mitts were cute deer. Morgan preferred seared fingertips to using cute mitts. Dianthe would have used the mitts. Meredith inclined her head towards the cabinets, “Glasses in cabinet, wine, beer, soda and sun brewed tea in the refrigerator. Merlot’s breathing on the counter.”

Karen had been watching her lover with exasperation and affection. She began cutting the pies, watching her lover rinse her fingers underneath the cold water. Meredith favored her right arm and hand, using her left whenever possible.

“What can I do?”

“Eat, drink, and make merry,” Morgan quipped, earning another elbow in the ribs. “What would you like, Meri?”

“A slice of pep and a slice of California, please,” Meredith responded eagerly, sitting down at the island. There were four grapevine and leaf designed oak captain’s chairs arranged around the spacious green and black granite island that contained the ovens and stove top range. The chairs had been arranged so they could eat and chat.

The soft jazz music played in the background. Karen passed Meredith a plate, then served Dianthe, Morgan and herself. The pies were placed within easy reach, and the women settled down.

“I love pizza…” Dianthe admitted, folding a slice of the California Quake pie.

“This reminds of my college days,” Meredith laughed, glancing around the island. “It reminds of the feasts we had following finals, or having finished writing your thesis.”

Murmurs of agreement rose, and the women enjoyed their pizza. Meredith sighed when she took her first bite of pepperoni pizza. She swallowed, saying, “Why is it hospital food tastes like cardboard?”

“Because it is,” Karen surmised. “How’s the pain?”

“It’s not too bad,” Meredith murmured, ducking her eyes.

“Yeah; right. Did you take the painkillers?” Morgan asked softly.

“Nope.”

“Why?”

“Don’t like them. Never have, never will. Aspirin is better,” Meredith answered, swallowing another bite piece of pie. “Besides, I have done worse to myself.”

Morgan sighed, awarding her younger friend a stern look. “It’s your choice, Meri. But it’s going to hurt. Badly. You may have twisted, sprained and broken things, but this wound’s different. You got slashed, bone deep, for the entire length of your lower arm.”

“Pain’s better than becoming dependent on painkillers. I’ve seen it happen. Better to endure the pain,” Meredith’s eyes searched Morgan and Karen’s in silent communion with her friends.

Dianthe sensed it had been a very personal experience, no doubt someone the woman loved. Morgan lowered her eyes. Karen pursed her lips. Her comment had struck home. “Beth.”

“Sam’s wife. She had ovarian cancer. It was pretty terrible to watch such a vital woman fade away; she became very addicted to the painkillers,” Karen informed Dianthe. “It was brutal to see happening to such a good person.”

A solemn silence descended over the women.

“Hey…” Morgan cleared her throat. “Enough maudlin chatter. Meredith’s alive, well, and out of the hospital.”

“And we have Chocolate Orgasm!” Karen crowed.

Having dispelled the sense of gloom, the conversation flowed about professional and personal matters. Morgan sipped her wine, shaking her head. “Believe it or not, the lawyer for the family called me yesterday. Seems Hank wanted to sue you for disarming him so roughly. I told the lawyer he could speak with the US Attorney’s Office regarding the matter.”

“I know,” Dianthe shook her head. She had used reasonable force, so she was not worried. The fact that he had stated that he had heard the rescuers calling his name had been picked up. He had said in a national interview, stating he not answered out of fear the bear would find him.

But he had heard Meredith calling his name. He had spotted a form coming around the boulder he was hiding behind. His panic had made him attack. It was a natural response to the fear that had been haunting him. His lawsuit, though, had become weaker with each passing moment.

The facts were clear: he and his brother had ignored posted trail and campground closure signs. There had been bulletins warning about a bear problem. The hotel staff stated they had mentioned the camping trip, and had recommending alternative sites. They had told the men why the trail had been closed, handing them flyers furnished by the National Park Service and Forest Service.

Flyers concerning the closure of the trail and campgrounds had been posted in the visitor information center, and a recreational specialist had given the men a copy of the local press notice. The men had stated they would camp elsewhere.

“Bad enough he and his brother broke every single rule of wilderness camping, ignoring both the permit policies stated at the entrance of parking lots, and the signage. The kids have stated the bear had been seen lurking around the mess they called a campsite.

We found out why the bear was acting so violently: it had been shot. The wound was enough to make it lame, and it seems the poacher must have pursued it.”

“Or driven it,” Meredith said darkly. “Washington’s current Grizzly population’s estimate had been between sixteen to twenty-four animals. It’s not a firm number, and the population has increased since Drango Gap was created.”

Dianthe saw the infinite sadness flicker across the faces of Meredith and Karen. Both women were wildlife biologists, and the loss of the old bear had been hard. But the simple truth was, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Morgan squeezed her lover’s hand.

“Any sign of the poacher?”

“No; whoever he is, he’s damned good at concealing his tracks. The only reason we think he had followed the bear is the eyewitness statement. Fish and Wildlife is investigating it. We have been having poaching problems the last two years.”

The fine hairs on the nape of Dianthe’s neck prickled. When she had been a fighter pilot, it had been a signal of imminent danger. It had kept her alive. She had learned to listen to it. Her sixth sense had been on a low level alert the last few weeks. Now, it was in overdrive.

On the surface there were a series of events that viewed by themselves seemed trivial. But her gut instinct told her they were somehow connected. The fire, the recent rash of break-ins, the low level vandalism, the poacher shooting the bear, somehow it fit together.

Dianthe mentally chastised herself. Jason and Annie were very astute individuals, and damned good law enforcement rangers. They busted up several poaching rings, handled drug cases, a couple of murders, suicides and rape cases in their years of service.

Tracy and Charlie were no slouches either. Charlie had been a deputy in Colorado six years ago; he had mentioned it once, during a shared patrol. Colorado was getting too crowded, he said. He uprooted himself, became a seasonal law enforcement ranger during six months of the year and a ski patrol member the rest of the year.

He said he didn’t need a lot of money to live, since he liked the simple life. He had a log cabin up in the mountains, on land that he owned, building it himself with his bare hands.

A hunter, he kept a smoke house on his property, and spoke about the joys of living off the land. He bow hunted. Dianthe gathered he did not have much company, nor did he encourage it. He was friendly enough, but he kept his private life very private.

“Dianthe?”

Dianthe blinked, realizing that she had lost track of the conversation. She shook her head, apologizing. “Sorry; just thinking about the poacher.”

“Want another slice of pizza?”

“Sure.” Dianthe had finished her first two pieces, and was still ravenous. “Think I’ll try the veggies.”

“Good choice,” Karen gave her slice, acting as the official server. “Broken Rock has a decent pizza joint, but nothing this good.”

“Good thing; I’d be too fat to move,” Morgan laughed, having downed her fourth piece.

“Yeah; right. The Griffin family is blessed with slim genes,” Karen nudged her lover. “But I have to watch myself. The next few days, I’ll have to jog a couple of extra miles and find other ways to burn off tonight’s feast.”

Morgan’s eyes sparkled with delight. Dianthe had no doubt how the woman would help her beloved burn off the extra calories. Dianthe could not help but envy them.

“Been a hell of last few days…” Morgan rumbled, sipping her wine.

“Well, we can be thankful that we had three survivors, lawsuits and poacher aside,” Meredith interjected, savoring another slice of California Quake.

“Four,” Morgan corrected. Her gray eyes rested on the blonde woman, and she shook her head. “Do you have any idea how much you scared us? I’ve seen people die of blood loss. It was too close for comfort, honey. Hell, Sam and Jason were ready to skin the bastard. Truth be told, so were most of us.”

Meredith lowered her eyes, blinking back tears. She had always known she had found herself a home, and a family of her own making. Karen sniffled, too. Morgan and Dianthe were becoming equally misty, though not so obviously.

“Hey; why don’t you and Karen go upstairs and get a fire going. Dianthe and I will clean up, and join you. Later on, we’ll have the cake and a some tea.”

Meredith began protesting, but Morgan held up her right hand. “Look; you just got out of the hospital. Go. It won’t take us very long.”

Karen gave Morgan a quick peck on the cheek, then patted Dianthe on the shoulder. She urged Meredith up the stairs, saying, “Come on; you are supposed to take it easy for the next couple of days.”

“Five days, no more,” Meredith groused.

“The doctor said twelve would be best.”

“Well, I can go back to work sooner.”

“Jason and Annie said the doctors said two weeks would be best, and light duty only for a few weeks,” Karen’s disembodied voice pronounced.

Meredith groaned. “But there’s so much work that needs to be done for the busy season!”

“She’s a good lady,” Morgan said, placing the pizza inside a long glass container. “Stubborn, but really good. She has a big heart.”

Dianthe looked up from clearing off the plates. “Yes; she does.”

“There have been a couple of fellas that hearts broke when she would not date them. Heck, Charlie’s had a crush on her for years. But she’s never seen him that way.”

Dianthe’s eyes narrowed, “Charlie dated Meredith?”

“No; but not for his lack of trying. Meri was not interested in him that way. He’s a coworker, nothing more. Meredith has never really found a man that she could love, not the way love is supposed to be. Thing is, Meredith’s not a naive woman.”

“Morgan, if this is headed where I think it is, don’t go there,” Dianthe held the other woman’s eyes. “I like you and Karen a hell of lot, but there are some things that are not open to discussion.”

Morgan weighed her words. “Fair enough. Friends?”

“Friends,” Dianthe and Morgan exchanged a firm handshake. The two women finished the chore of cleaning up, then went upstairs.

Karen and Meredith were in the very cozy den that had occupied the east wing of the house. Meredith used the great hall for more formal occasions, and large gatherings of friends and family. The den was a space for relaxing by herself, or with a few good friends.

It had four comfortable arms chairs with footrests, and plush couch intended for reclining on. Subtle turquoise-blue western fabric, one colorful Navajo rug, and a rough-hewn pine table gave the room character. A specially designed fireplace occupied the outer wall of the den.

A warm fire had begun burning merrily, and Meredith lay on the rug. She was propped up on a pillow, enjoying the simple pleasures of life. There were four snifters and a large bottle of expensive cognac laid out.

“There’s brandy, too, if you like. It’s left over from when my family visited last fall. Just before I went up to Spirit Lake. Figure since I’m not on anything, a glass of cognac would be nice.”

Dianthe chuckled. Annie and Jason had referred to the fact that Meredith kept a good stock of alcoholic beverages for her friends and family. But the woman herself drank infrequently, preferring nonalcoholic drinks.

But tonight, she would indulge in a snifter of fiery liquid. She had shed her heavy Champion sweat jacket, and wore only a muscle tee shirt that hugged her lithe frame. A fresh bandage encased the entire length of her forearm where the hunting knife had sliced open the muscle and skin.

Being relatively small breasted, Meredith did not wear a bra unless she was running or climbing. Stretching, Meredith rolled on her back and accepted a snifter of cognac poured by Karen. Karen poured her own, then settled herself on the floor beside Meredith.

Morgan sat in the armchair that Karen used to prop her back against. Having poured herself a brandy, Morgan ran her fingers through Karen’s long hair. Dianthe chose the cognac, nestling down in one of the chairs. She propped her long legs up on the hassock, and sipped the potent drink.

“Hmm, I haven’t had a good cognac in years.” Dianthe murmured, watching the other women. “After the last fifty hours, I needed this.”

Morgan raised her glass in silent salute. She and Karen had been equally busy, writing up reports and answering hard questions asked both by the government and the media. Thus far, the answers had been well received.

But the women knew political pressures could shift the blame squarely on them. They had seen it happen. It was why they had documented the campsite so thoroughly, why the deputies and they had worked together to get statements.

Meredith reached for the snifter, grimacing when she raised her right arm. “Shit.”

“Meri?” Karen reached out, and touched the younger woman.

“Muscle cramp..big time,” Meredith held her right arm close against herself. “Shoulder and neck.”

“Morgan, get a body towel and my massage oil.”

Morgan rose, and headed for the bedroom they would be using on this level. It would grant them privacy, and prevent them from disturbing Meredith during intimate moments. She reappeared with a plush body towel and massage oil.

Karen laid out one of the towels, and placed the smaller pillow down on the floor. “Okay, Meredith. Shirt’s got to go. Your muscles are way too tight.”

Meredith removed the muscle tee shirt, displaying the woman’s beautiful, firm breasts tipped with pale pink nipples. Dianthe closed her eyes at the sweetness of the image, fighting down the urge to reach out and caress that smooth skin. Her palms itched, and her mouth was watering for a taste.

Dianthe licked her lips, fighting for self-control. She envied Karen sitting astride the woman’s shapely bottom, kneading and caressing the woman’s flesh. She drew in a steadying, breath, and watched.

She tried not to squirm as other parts of her body let her know how much she wanted to be the one rubbing Meredith’s well muscled back. She took a healthy sip of her drink, hoping it would douse the flames burning inside her.

Morgan had not missed the woman’s reaction, but she held her tongue. Karen was sitting astride Meredith’s rump, warming the juniper-scented oil between her hands before she began kneading the tense muscles. Starting at the small of the woman’s lower back, Karen’s fingers worked the corded muscle expertly.

After several minutes Meredith let out a little noises of pleasure, and Karen chuckled. “No wonder Morgan loves you. You have great hands, Karen.”

Dianthe almost choked on her drink, and Morgan laughed wickedly. With her best slow grin, the Forest Ranger declared, “Best fingers in the West for all kinds of massages.”

Meredith purred with contentment, relaxing under the massage. Karen smiled, gently mussing Meredith’s short hair. Morgan and Dianthe were silent, each lost in her own thoughts. Twenty minutes later she gave Meredith a swat on the bottom, and Meredith yelped.

“Better?”

“Yup; thanks, Karen,” Meredith sat up, and pulled on the white muscle shirt. Karen tossed her hooded sweat jacket, and Meredith donned it.

“Cake time?”

“Morgan and I will go get it. Why don’t you and Dianthe relax,” Karen suggested, wiping her hands on the towel.

Meredith leaned back into the armchair, and sipped her drink thoughtfully. Dianthe cleared her throat, “Do you need anything from town tomorrow?”

Meredith shook her head, and managed a slight smile. “I might go to Blackstone tomorrow afternoon.”

“How are you going to get there? You won’t be able to drive for another week or so, not with that arm.”

Meredith shrugged her shoulders, and said, “I can hike back and forth.”

“Six miles each way, along winding country roads, still weak from blood loss and having your arm laid open? Hauling stuff in a backpack? How about we go tomorrow. I need to go get some food and other things.”

Meredith brightened. “Only if I can buy us lunch.”

“Hey, you fed me tonight. By my count, that means I owe you a meal.”

Meredith knew there would be no arguing the point; she accepted. “I know you must be incredibly tired, what time’s good for you?”

“How about around noon, or a bit after. Maybe we can go explore a bit..”

Meredith grinned, inclining her head. She would have to start the physical therapy in another two weeks, so she would enjoy her free time. Walking around town was not stressful stuff.

Karen and Morgan rejoined them twenty minutes later, Morgan bearing a tray with very generous slices of cake. Karen had a tray with mugs of herbal tea. The two women seemed breathless, and their cheeks were flushed.

The next two hours they laughed, shared stories about growing up and other such matters. It was almost midnight when Dianthe headed back home; she felt wondrously alive. She found herself enjoying the company of the older couple.

Dianthe spotted a figure standing in the woods, watching the house. The figure spotted her, and bolted. Dianthe shouted out Morgan’s name, and the woman appeared in the space of a heartbeat.

“Prowler…” Dianthe called out, knowing that both had consumed a decent amount of alcohol earlier. But neither of them was drunk, or badly impaired.

“Shit! Okay, get me some flashlights. Karen, call the Blackstone Deputies office, tell him we have a prowler. There was a break in four night ago, four miles away from here.”

Morgan came out holding two good flashlights, and had her service pistol clipped her belt. “You armed?”

“My gun’s back in the cabin.”

“Let’s get it. We stick close, no straying. Karen, Meri, keep the door locked unless you know it’s us. Most likely it’s some damned reporter,” Morgan groused.

Karen pulled Meredith back inside the main house, telling the woman she was in no condition to take on trouble.

Dianthe nodded, the adrenaline kicking through her veins as she and Morgan headed to the cabin. There were no signs of forced entry. She unlocked the cabin, and found Furball sound asleep in her bedroom. She went to the closet, and hunkered down beside the small safe she kept for holding her Sig, clips, and ammo.

She slid on her pancake holster and slid home an extra round of ammo. If it was not a reporter, it could be something far more dangerous. Meredith’s death would serve Dawson well.

Once she was ready, they stepped back outside and secured the cabin. Together, they headed in the direction the figure had run. They found no evidence of cigarette butts or food wrappers laying around the boulder the figure had been standing on.

It had a perfect view of the kitchen and living room area where an observer could monitor the house. Dianthe and Morgan cautiously approached the woods, hearing the sound of movement ahead. Moving forward cautiously, the two women entered the trailhead. It was one of the two running trails Meredith kept on her property.

They were a quarter of the way into the narrow, winding trail when a twig snapped directly to their right. A figure burst out of a hiding place, and both women shouted, “Freeze!”

The figure considered running until he realized the two women were serious. Wearing a jeans and a sweat jacket, the young male blinked nervously, and glanced behind him.

“Tell your friends to come out. Hands held up high,” Dianthe warned, hand resting on the grip of her gun. “Now!”

Morgan had struck a similar pose, and the frightened boy stammered, “Come on out, Sara.”

A young teenaged girl, no more than sixteen, rose, arms folded across her bare bosom. Sara rushed to the side of her boyfriend, snuffling his name, “Bobby.”

“Anyone else?” Morgan demanded, hearing the sirens announce the arrival of the Blackstone deputies.

“No, ma’am,” Bobby answered.

“Come on…” Dianthe waved the lovebirds forward, glancing towards their love nest. A well-concealed tent and small, well designed campfire that had not yet been lit. She tossed the girl her discarded bra and turtleneck, “Here, you will want to get dressed.”

Murmuring her thanks, the girl hastily donned her bra and shirt, blushing while Dianthe watched. Her attention was focused on the girl’s hands, making sure she did not have the intent of reaching for a concealed weapon. Morgan had kept a sharp eye on Bobby. Karen had watched where the two women had gone, and the deputies called out their names.

“Down here…” Morgan called out.

The two officers came into the small clearing, one of the two men turned beet red. He had the fair, sandy hair color and gray blue eyes of the girl. “Sara?”

“Hi, daddy.”

Morgan and Dianthe exchanged level looks. Bobby looked like he wished they would shoot him. The older of the two deputies cleared his throat, gesturing for the gangly youth to step forward, “Bobby, come with me.”

“Yes, sir,” the boy dashed past the Sara’s stunned father, flanking the other officer. Morgan and Dianthe decided they would take Bobby’s example. When they emerged from the woods, Karen and Meredith were outside, Meredith talking with the deputy named T.A. Baker.

She seemed to know the man, and the youth, too. Meredith said something, and the officer nodded. Bobby’s head kept moving up and down like one of those odds car toys favored by some drivers. It made Dianthe dizzy.

“Thanks, Meredith. We’ll make sure the kids understand the meaning of private property.”

“Ah..Ranger Murphy…” Bobby ventured nervously. “Are you gonna run the trail program this summer?”

“Yes, my arm may not permit me to build and repair trails right away, but I will be running it.”

“Ah, does that mean I’m off the crew?”

Meredith shook her head, and met the youth’s eyes. “Make you a deal: no more using my property for romantic hiding places, and you stay on.”

“You got it,” Bobby enthused until he saw his ladylove being led out by her father. The deputy glowered at the youth, then hitched his thumb toward his daughter, “Sara, what have you got to say to Ranger Murphy?”

“We’re sorry about everything,” Sara whispered.

“Apologies accepted; tomorrow, you two can come by in the morning with one of your folks to collect your gear.”

“I’ll make sure everything’s squared away,” Sara’s father promised, shaking his head mournfully. “I think it’s time we had a talk, honey. And Bobby, I will be talking with your parents, too.”

“Yes, daddy.”

Bobby swallowed hard, eyes wide with alarm, but he stammered, “Yes, sir.”

“I’m sorry if the kids caused you ladies any concern. Especially considering the recent rash of break-ins that have been happening,” Deputy Hal Collins inclined his head, and gently led his daughter away.

*******************

None of them saw the camouflaged form watching them from the other side of the woods. His position had almost been given away by the youth investigating a strange noise. A thin, cold smile touched the man’s lips as he leveled his high-powered rifle with night scope towards the women.

He focused on Meredith, his finger caressing the trigger. It would be easy. No one had ever caught him. He knew the game better than those county clowns; he had been a soldier, once. He had been a Marine Corps sniper. Now, he belonged to a different army.

One day they would bring America back. It meant getting rid of certain groups of people; especially women like Griffin, Winslow and Xavier. Murphy had not yet been corrupted, he thought, but given time she would be.

It would be kinder to put her down, out of harm’s way. Her soul would reach heaven untainted. She had survived the cabin fire he had set, survived a brutal blizzard, proof that she was destined to be his mate.

He shook his head. His friends were not happy that Murphy was still alive. She could ruin everything. But he could not kill her. Maybe he could convince her not to testify. Love could make people do amazing things; it could move mountains, and he knew he could win her heart if he tried hard enough. And he would be saving her from the obscene love Dianthe Xavier offered.

Natural love, not unnatural love. He smiled, envisioning himself holding the small woman inside the shelter of his arms. Dawson would understand. He would try one more time to win the woman’s heart and soul. Her soul, he needed to protect her soul. It was what God would want for such a woman like Meredith.

Besides, she had shown she was a survivor. She had courage, strength and a keen intellect. He had wanted to kill the man for harming Meredith up on Witch Mountain. He blamed Dianthe for not watching over her.

He trained his rifle on the tall woman and debated blowing her away. It was tempting. Take out the woman, solve the issue of Meredith’s being tainted. He smiled. Killing homosexuals was doing them a favor, really, he thought. It prevented them from further destroying their eternal soul, and maybe God could purge them of the vileness that they embraced.

He smiled. He could be her savior, just like Christ,

It was tempting. So very tempting. But he would tip his hand. It would put Jason and Annie on alert, and raise questions he could ill afford. There were other ways to get rid of Dianthe Xavier. Ones less obvious than blowing her brains out in front of witnesses. It was a question of timing, and opportunity.

He made his way silently back through the woods, using a deer trail. Once he reached the road, he uncovered his truck and drove away. They were others that needed to be punished first.

He understood punishment well enough. His father had used it to teach his small family the way things should be. More than once his father’s heavy leather belt had landed hard, stinging blows that had taught him respect.

His father had mourned the untimely death of his wife so many years ago, praying each day he would be reunited with the woman in death. He got his wish eight years ago when he suffered a stroke. His father had been concerned that his son could not find himself a fit woman, capable of her learning her true role in the world.

He had hoped he could find himself such a fine woman who he could guide and protect.

He had vowed to help restore America. If it meant certain people had to die, it was a fair price to be paid. Fire, his father had taught him, was a cleansing element that restore the true balance of nature.

He loved fire. Fire was power without constraint, it was a purifier, it cured the world of its ills. A good bullet could do the job, too, but fire was much better.

Fire was the tool of God and his guardians. He would wield it like the sword of redemption. It would cut away the corruption of the three women.
Chapter Six:
Dianthe found Meredith dressed and ready to go. Wearing a pair of comfortable blue jeans, a crisp white shirt, a black velvet and satin vest with golden-red vines and flowers, Meredith looked great. She wore a highly polished ankle high brown boots, and had her battered green and black Jansport backpack slung over one shoulder.

“Hi…” Meredith said, grinning.

Dianthe returned the grin, noticing that Meredith’s eyes were taking in what she was wearing. Dianthe had chosen khaki trousers, pale green hiking shirt, and light hiking boots.

“How’s the arm?”

“Hurts, but not too bad,” Meredith replied, sliding into Dianthe’s vehicle.

“Where to first?”

“How about Burntmountain? There are tons of neat old shops there, then we can go shopping in Blackstone.”

“Sounds good to me. I haven’t had time to really check out Burntmountain,” Dianthe admitted, driving down the private road.

They drove for an hour and a half, chatting about life and joking about last night. Dianthe knew how the kids had gotten in. Meredith had constructed two running trails on her property, and Dianthe had used them. She also had permitted a local hiking club to build a public hiking trail on the edge of her property. It connected the properties of several different private owners to public lands, and owners got insurance to cover themselves should an accident occur.

Meredith had kept her section of the trail pristine, and posted signs regarding possible hazards and the official route. It clearly stated only the marked section of the trail was public, and there was no camping or fires permitted. The kids had found the well-concealed running paths, then the small glen that they had used.

Bobby had been very skilled in keeping their little love nest hidden. Dianthe had run by it a couple of times, never seeing it. The kids kept the area spotless, and did not have fires. Other things kept them warm.

But there had been a few times she had sensed she had not been alone out there. It had been disconcerting. But she had found no sign of being followed. She had taken an hour’s run in the morning, loving the interior trail system Meredith had designed.

Burntmountain was easily three times the size of Blackstone, which was not a small town. Tasteful buildings dotted the landscape, the building styles varied according to the taste of the owners. Victorians, Cape Cods, townhouses, Tudor’s and log houses were the main choices, though there were some very impressive French style chateaux, too.

It was a picturesque town with a dramatic backdrop of towering, snow capped mountains. There were dozens of stores lining the business and lower residential areas, and Meredith flashed her companion a grin. “Ready?”

“Yes…” Dianthe laughed flanked the smaller woman. Annie was right. There was no such thing as Meredith at rest, just different stages of motion. Laughing, they strolled along the shady streets, taking in the sights of the mountain town.

There was a lovely shop with assorted candles, scented oils, bath salts, crystals and other New Age stuff that Meredith loved. She urged Dianthe inside the store, then headed for the bath and body oils section. In old fashion glass bottles with cork stoppers were different bath oils intended to refresh, relax tired muscles, energize a person’s spirit or arouse the passion of lovers’.

Meredith placed several different kinds inside the basket Dianthe bore. Dianthe studied the table for one of the Aromatherapy soaks: Eucalyptus, Peppermint and Lemon grass. Meredith grinned, “It feels wonderful. Takes the aches out of muscles that have been worked hard.”

Dianthe recalled there were two bottles of each back in the cabin, one a muscle relaxer like the one she held, the other a refreshener. There were scented candles, too. She decided tonight she would try it.

If Meredith liked it, there must be something to it. She made her way through the aisles, selecting specialty soaps, moisturizes and hair products. Dianthe would have been dubious of the value of such products, but Meredith radiated good health.

Meredith loved both the oils and bath salts, and told her how each product worked. Dianthe found herself grinning. Meredith swore by the stuff.

Dianthe found herself exploring the large store, stumbling across the section devoted to sensual pleasures for lovers. It was separated from the main shop by a curtain of incredibly tiny, golden bells that sounded unlike anything she had ever heard. A tasteful wooden placard announced the section was meant for adults only, calling it the Garden of Delights. Her eyes touched upon the tastefully displayed items that were in the back section of the store. For a brief instant she had visions of herself and Meredith together, and Dianthe shivered.

An older woman with wildly curly blonde hair, beautiful skin and twinkling periwinkle blue eyes met her eyes. “The bliss of sexual union is one of the greatest gifts the mother grants us, but I suspect you know that. Welcome to the Mother’s Bounty Shoppe. I am Cara Daniels, one of the owners.”

“Dianthe Xavier,” Dianthe extended her hand, realizing what she had thought to be a fur boa was really a pure white, long haired cat with blue eyes. The cat lay draped across his mistress’ shoulders, totally content.

“This is Salem. He was born in Salem, Massachusetts,” Cara informed Dianthe. “My husband Winston found him inside a bag of kittens set out beside a jetty. He gave the rest to good friends, and brought Salem home to me.”

A short, slightly overweight man bearing a good resemblance to Santa Claus came out of the rear section of the store, carrying boxes. He beamed when his wife turned towards him, and said, “Meri has brought us a new customer.”

“Well, good day, young lady! Hope my love has not made you think we are totally daft!”

Winston bristled with great energy and happiness. He laid aside the boxes of herbal creams and offered a warm hand. Dianthe shifted the basket, and accepted his handshake. Meredith came down the aisle, beaming when she met the eyes of the couple.

“Hi, Cara, Winston,” Meredith reached up and stroked Salem. Salem purred contentment. Dianthe touched the sleek animal, thinking how jealous Furball would be when he smelled another kitty on her hands.

“How are you doing, Meri? We heard you had gotten hurt,” Winston said, studying the blonde woman with paternal concern. It was clear Meredith was more than a valued customer. “We stopped by the hospital yesterday afternoon, but you were already gone. No doubt you tunneled under the fence, eh?”

“I got cut on my right arm. It will be fine,” Meredith indicated her wounded forearm. “Hospitals are for sick people. I was only a bit beat up.”

“No doubt,” Cara gave Meredith’s right shoulder a gentle squeeze. “But watch yourselves. Those creatures from the media are still lurking about. The reputable ones are not so bad, but there are some very nasty ones seeking to make themselves a name at your expense!”

Meredith sighed, shaking her head. “This year we lost two Grizzly bears because of human stupidity and greed. I feel awful about the two teenagers and man, but the fact remains they disregarded warnings.”

Winston made a noise of agreement, then excused himself when he heard the door opening. Carrying his boxes, he exchanged greetings with another man. Cara’s shrewd eyes narrowed, then brightened when she observed Meredith and Dianthe.

A hint of smile touched her lips, and she said, “Ah, finally!”

Meredith cocked her head sideways, and met Cara’s twinkling regard in bemusement. Dianthe swallowed hard as Cara excused herself. “Wonder what that was about,” Meredith murmured, shrugging she shoulders.

Dianthe held her breathe. The urge to touch the smaller woman was becoming harder to resist. For a brief instant she felt the urge to bolt, but fought it down. She made herself breathe, said nothing.

“Meredith?” Charlie Fenton came down the aisle, stiffening slightly when he beheld Dianthe. Dianthe did not miss the unconscious reaction.

He was a handsome enough man, soft spoken and clean-shaven, but there was something not quite right about the man. Dianthe had felt at ease around all the other staff members, but there was something she did not like about Charlie Fenton. Almost her height, he had a muscular build and intense dark blue eyes. His dark hair was neatly cut, and his features well balanced.

But there had been something cold about his eyes when he saw them together. He straightened. “Imagine running into each other.”

Meredith seemed puzzled. This was not the type of place you expected a man like him to frequent. But she smiled graciously, “Hi, Charlie.”

“How are you feeling? Thought you were supposed to be resting, not playing tour guide,” Charlie stepped close to Meredith, laying a huge hand on her good shoulder. Meredith shifted uncomfortably, an unconscious gesture that spoke volumes of how the woman felt.

Charlie removed his hand, though Dianthe got the distinct sense he wanted to be holding Meredith inside the shelter of his arms. Her eyes and Charlie’s locked in a silent test of wills. “Does your doctor know that you are out and about? I would think he would rather see you relaxing, rather than entertaining your renter.”

Dianthe bridled at the deliberate dig, but did not give him the satisfaction. Meredith, though, frowned. “Dianthe was kind enough to bring me in to town. I needed some things. What brings you to Burntmountain? Thought you said you disliked it.”

Charlie shifted, jaw muscles working, “Hey, a man can change his mind, can’t he?”

No one commented on the statement. He noticed where they were standing, and a look of disgust flickered across his visage. “You know, if you go with the real thing, you don’t need such things. You know, the way nature and God intended it to be. Unless you are someone that wishes they had one.”

Meredith’s eyes narrowed in mounting annoyance. It was clear she was not pleased with the direction the conversation had taken. Dianthe straightened to her full height, and fixed the man with cool eyes.

Sensing he had stepped across an invisible line, the man tried to make it a joke. “Ah, come on, folks! I was kidding. Sorry if I offended anyone, but this is a free country. Or it used to be.

Take care, Meredith. Glad to you are feeling better. See you in a few, Dianthe. Hope you find what you are looking for here. Guess I am too Norman Rockwell, huh?”

Dianthe colored when the man’s eyes swept across the sensual toys in the display case. He shook his head, “Nope; nothing like the real thing. Have a good day.”

Charlie turned, and walked out of the store. Meredith watched him with worried eyes. Dianthe let out her breath, realizing she had been holding it. She knew what had inspired the man’s comments.

Dianthe reached out and touched gently squeezed Meredith’s good shoulder. “Hey, come on. We have a whole day to have fun.”

“Yes; don’t let that awful man ruin your day,” Cara declared, hugging Meredith.

A hint of a smile touched the woman’s lips and eyes. Dianthe fought the urge to touch her lips to Meredith’s. She saw the storeowners exchanging pleased grins. “True enough. I have never heard Charlie talk like that. Must be the stress.”

Dianthe did not inform the woman that they had just glimpsed the real Charlie Fenton. She carried the basket to the cash register, Meredith and Cara followed. Winston merrily tallied up the impressive bill, chatting with them. Meredith handed over her credit card, not blinking at eyelid at the hefty price tag. “Want me to hold your stuff until you two are done exploring?”

“That would be great, Winston,” Meredith beamed, watching him place her large, recycled paper shopping bags beneath the counter. “See you later.”

“Where next?”

“There’s a great book store I think you might enjoy on Cobblestone Lane, and two gentlemen you will enjoy meeting, too.” Meredith suggested, slipping on her glacier sunglasses.

Dianthe raised an eyebrow, tantalized about the bookstore that Meredith had recommended. They walked for a good twenty minutes, winding through the well-groomed streets of the resort town. Cobblestone Lane had old-fashioned cobblestones, and was styled after a quaint New England village.

Majestic maples lined the picturesque lane where small shops were mixed with grand Victorian styled houses. Dianthe noticed two men working together in a garden, laughing about the trial and tribulations of keeping out marauding bunnies.

It seemed the bunnies were winning the war of wits.

Meredith beamed, and folded her arms across her chest. Dianthe frowned. Both men were sun bronzed and very athletic looking, one dark haired, the other had dirty blonde hair. Dianthe guessed they were in their late twenties, or early thirties, and definitely gay.

The dark haired male wore a white muscle tee-shirt reading, “Burntmountain Sheriff’s Department”. He paused when he spotted Meredith. “Hell, Meredith, you going to introduce us or what?”

“Jon Brandice, Patrick Hearne, Dianthe Xavier. Thought you would be out on patrol, Jon.”

“Hey, even deputies are allowed to have days off. You must be the new law enforcement range and pilot. I’ve heard about. You should let Patrick check out your arm, Meredith. We were out of town when that jackass attacked you.”

Meredith shook her head, “It’s fine, Jon.”

“Humor us,” Jon pressed, extending his right hand.

Dianthe offered her hand, noticing the matching bands the men wore on their ring fingers. Patrick grinned, inclining his head, “Yes; we are a couple, if that’s what you are wondering.”

“Speaking of surgeons, Kim called Patrick. You will be doing Physical Therapy with his group, so you can stay here if you need. We have tons of room,” Jon’s aquamarine blue eyes rested on his friend with affection. “Maybe we can get together with Karen and Morgan, too. It’s been months since we had a chance to get together.”

Dianthe had recalled hearing the two men’s names brought up last night. It seemed Meredith had lots of friends in the close knit gay community.

“Sounds good..”

“Wonderful! You will come, too, won’t you, Dianthe?” Jon’s eyes rested on the towering woman with a speculative gleam. “You are part of the family now.”

Dianthe nodded. Having a connection to the gay community would be a good thing for her. Patrick stiffened, a look of disapproval passing over his features. Dianthe turned and followed his gaze. Charlie Fenton’s battered truck drove past the house, the man’s eyes concealed behind mirrored shades.

“You know him?”

“Charlie? Yeah. He’s not exactly one of the enlightened straights around here. Can’t say why, but he gives me the creeps,” Patrick muttered, shaking his head. “Meri, come on inside. I would like to check out that arm. I spoke to the surgeon, so please do not place down the extent of the injury.”

Dianthe nudged Meredith forward. “Go on. It can’t hurt. Jon and I will wait here.”

Meredith knew there would be no winning. Patrick led her inside the combined house and private doctor’s office. Dianthe focused her attention on the silent deputy whose eyes were contemplative. “What do you think of Fenton?”

Dianthe met the man’s eyes, and weighed her words with care, “I’m not sure I trust him, to be honest.”

“Good. Neither do I. Nor do I like the attention he keeps pushing on Meredith. He’s a creep.”

Dianthe straightened, eyes narrowing. “What do you mean?”

“Ever since she has been here, he’s been sniffing around her like a damned dog in heat. Meredith’s too kind hearted for her own good, sometimes. She’s never complained to Jason and Annie about him. If she did, he would be gone.”

Dianthe considered what the man was saying. “Why don’t you like him?”

“Instinct. Not to mention rumors about why he left Colorado. Some friends of mine said he was involved in several gay bashing incidents, but it’s word of mouth only. Whatever happened, he resigned rather suddenly and moved out of state,” Jon shrugged his shoulders. “Want a glass of iced tea?”

“I’d like that. How did you meet Meredith?”

“During a search for a child five months after she got here. The boy got separated during a family picnic outside of town. We had dogs searching, and Burntmountain sent over some of their folks. Meredith was one of them.

She was the one that found him.”

“Was he alive?”

“Yes; hidden under an ledge. She spotted tracks and other signs. Things we had missed. So much for a city bred green horn. Turned out one of her family’s oldest friends is a member of the Five Nations. He’s a member of their family law firm, one of their top guns. He trained Meredith to track when he learned how much she loved nature, especially wolves and bears.

He was too frightened to answer the calls of strangers, and other than being cold and frightened, he was fine. Dogs had picked up the wrong scent trail, and led most of the teams away. Meredith insisted that we were headed the wrong way.”

“What happened?”

“She told the Incident Commander the air scent dog handlers were wrong, and pleaded her case. He told her she was damned Green Horn, but told he gave her two hours to check it out. By herself, mind you, since he did not want to risk taking other searchers off the trial. Sam Griffin and the rest of us learned that she was a damned fine tracker that day.”

Dianthe could picture what it must have been like when the newcomer found the lost child. Meredith had helped on dozens of searches since that time. This last one almost cost her life. Dianthe removed her shades when they entered the lovely Victorian styled house, feeling the warmth of the two men inside the house. Jon led them down the corridor that led to the spacious kitchen where he poured them both tall glasses of ice tea.

“Heard you are renting the cabin behind Meredith’s house.”

Dianthe nodded. “The housing units burnt down during the winter.”

“Just like the research cabin,” Jon muttered. “Too many damned fires the last few years.”

Dianthe leaned her hip against the turquoise tiled counter and said, “What happened?”

“Meredith was spending the winter up by Spirit Lake, observing the Spirit Lake pack. William Dawson brought some very rich German hunters into the research area for poaching. He knew she was up there, so the bastard burned down her cabin.”

Dianthe had heard snatches of the story. Meredith and the other staff members never spoke about the incident. She could not imagine what it must have been like. “But she managed to make it to the USGS cabin.”

Jon nodded. “She’s tougher and braver than she looks; I’ve seen her haul men bigger than me down mountainsides. If you had not been there, she might have died up on Witch Mountain.”

“It was too close for comfort. She nearly bled out,” Dianthe’s jaw muscles bunched at the painful memory.

“You are in love with her, aren’t you?” Jon asked without preamble.

Dianthe met his eyes, knowing he knew her secret. She inclined her head. Jon smiled softly. “I was the same way when I met Patrick. Wondered what this incredibly handsome, talented older surgeon saw in a country bred sheriffs deputy. I almost let the best thing in my life slip away because I was afraid.”

Dianthe swallowed hard, pondering his words when Meredith and Patrick joined them. Patrick snagged Jon’s glass, taking a sip before he could protest. They shared a brief kiss before he removed two more glasses from the cupboard.

“Well?” Jon demanded.

“Her arm’s healing, but not to my satisfaction. I want to monitor it the next few days to make sure she does not have an infection beginning. You, young lady, need to take it easy.”

Patrick handed Meredith a glass of iced tea and slid an arm around the waist of his lover. Meredith rolled her eyes, insisting she was fine. Dianthe noticed that she seemed totally comfortable around the two men.

“Would you two like to come with us?” Dianthe ventured.

“Sure; just let us get cleaned up an we shall show you Burntmountain.”

“How about meeting us at the bookstore?” Meredith suggested, sipping her ice tea.

“Good; it will give us enough time to get decent,” Jon laughed.

“Not sure there’s hope there for that,” Meredith teased. Patrick and Jon laughed.

“You know us too well, Meri,” Patrick returned with twinkling eyes. “I’ll get the shower ready, honey.”

Jon saw them to the door, giving Meredith a warm hug and shaking Dianthe’s hand. “We’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

Meredith beamed, slipping on her glacier glasses and dashed down the steps. Jon grinned, “Think about it.”

Dianthe quirked a smile, then joined the woman. She donned her dark aviator sunglasses, and fell into step alongside the enigma that was Meredith Murphy. “Meredith, there’s something I need to tell you.”

Meredith stopped and faced the towering woman. “Tell me what?”

“Why I left the navy,” Dianthe said softly. She sat down on the stoop of Jon and Patrick’s house. Meredith settled herself beside the woman. “I was forced out because I fell in love with the wrong person. Her name was Ellie Luden. Word leaked out about us being lovers’. She panicked and gave up several others up as well me.

It cost me my wings, my career as a naval aviator and as an officer.”

Meredith had removed her sunglasses, so Dianthe could see her eyes. She cleared her throat, “I know. My brother told me.”

Dianthe swallowed hard, digesting what Meredith had just said. Meredith reached out with her right and touched the law enforcement ranger’s left knee gently. “What happened to you was wrong. But the military is not always the most enlightened branch of the government.”

Dianthe chuckled, “That’s the understatement of the century. Thank you for understanding.”

“Thank you for feeling you wanted to tell me; it means you trust me. I’m honored,” Meredith said softly.

Mere inches separated them. It would be easy to lean forward and kiss Meredith. Dianthe gazed into the woman’s gray-green eyes, and began leaning forward. Meredith did not pull away. She could feel the warmth of the woman’s breath on her lips.

Dianthe did not care that they were outside. Did not care that the world could see them. She was focused only on the unfolding moment.

“Excuse me, are you Meredith Murphy?”

Meredith blinked, confused as she turned to see an attractive, athletic woman standing at the bottom of the stairs. Meredith stood up and stepped towards the chestnut haired woman, “Yes. May I help you?”

Without warning the woman lashed out with a violent back handed blow that snapped Meredith’s head back. Dianthe launched herself forward, tackling the woman down. Jon and Patrick came charging outside, demanding to know what had happened. Meredith had been staggered enough to knock down a heavy planter on the steps, and it had shattered with a loud crashing sound.

Both were wearing gym shorts and nothing else.

“You killed my family…” the woman sobbed. “My husband and my babies. You could have prevented it if you killed the bear before it reached them.”

Dianthe rose, hauling the woman up none too gently. Blood trickled out of the corner of Meredith’s mouth. The entire left side of Meredith’s face was swelling, and the lower lip had split.

“I’ll call for a unit,” Patrick stated coolly.

“No; let her go. Mrs. Sanderson, I wish we could have changed things. But we can’t. If it means anything, I am sorry.”

The woman met Meredith’s eyes, then said, “Not as sorry as I am that you came off that mountain alive. I wish you were dead. You should have died up their on that damned mountain!”

Dianthe’s cobalt blue eyes narrowed dangerously and Patrick said, “And if your family had paid attention to the signage and notices, they would not be dead. Meredith did all she could to prevent a needless tragedy, did you?”

The woman’s lower lip quivered. She had been the one that had driven her husband and sons up the mountain. She ran away. The small crowd that had gathered dispersed when Jon and Dianthe ordered them away.

“Let’s get you cleaned up, Meri,” Patrick led the woman inside his house again. Dianthe and Jon were not far behind them.

Patrick’s office was on the ground level that he had accessed through a stairway from the first floor. He had donned latex gloves and was busily cleaning the split lip. “You will need three small stitches, Meri.”

Meredith nodded her consent, and the man threaded a thin, small needle with expertise. He met Dianthe’s anxious eyes, and smiled his reassurance. Meredith refused to let him numb the area, and endured the painful process without complaint.

“Jon, make an ice pack for me, hon. Meredith, sweetie, you need to learn how to duck.”

“Ouch..don’t make me laugh, Patrick,” Meredith sighed, touching her lip.

“Sorry; I’ll be right back, ladies. You need a shirt; it will be big, but cute.”

Blood had stained the vest and the crisp white shirt that Meredith wore. “We can wash your shirt, but the vest needs to be taken to a dry cleaner’s, Meri.”

Dianthe searched Meredith’s eyes, seeing the guilt and anguish the woman’s words had engendered. She closed the distance separating them, tenderly raising the woman’s chin. “Meredith, you are not responsible for their deaths.”

“Maybe, maybe not. I wonder if there is more I could have done to prevent what happened. What if I had been more aggressive? Those people might be alive right now, and the bear, too.”

“Hey; you did everything you could. I don’t want to here you blaming yourself again for it, okay? You tried finding the bear, you had traps laid out, and the state game wardens and Morgan’s folks were monitoring the area. You all did your jobs. They ignored all the warnings you had out.

You are not the one to blame. Understand me?”

Meredith sniffled, raising her eyes. “Okay.”

“Good,” Dianthe touched the swelling cheek with gentle fingers. “Hurt much?”

“Just a bit,” Meredith pressed her injured cheek against the warmth of Dianthe’s hand. “You always seem to be coming to my rescue.”

“It’s been my pleasure, ma’am,” Dianthe said her best western style drawl. She drew her hand back, knowing how much it must hurt. “How are you feeling?”

“I’ll be fine. This is the first time we have had to explore together.”

Dianthe mentally chastened herself for thinking about what she would like to be exploring. Last night the woman’s dreams had been haunted by erotic images of herself and Meredith. Truth be told, she had having morning, day and night dreams about them being together.

Had Mrs. Sanderson not interrupted them, she would have kissed Meredith. If she had kissed her, she did not think she could ever let her go.

“Here, this should bring the swelling down,” Patrick announced, entering the examining room with an ice pack, a small towel and a pastel green shirt. “Keep that on for fifteen minutes. Jon and I will be dressed and ready by then. You might be able to get the blood out of your vest with cold water.”

Meredith pressed the ice pack against her cheek. Dianthe sat opposite the tawny haired woman, thinking about how her life was changing. The wall that had been built around her heart was slowly being taken apart brick by brick.

Much of the reason for the wall coming down was Meredith, and the new life she had begun here. She did not really miss the sun as much as she thought she might, and found it did not rain as much as many folks thought.

She and Meredith sat in companionable silence, each lost in deep thought. Jon and Patrick came downstairs, wearing casual clothing, and flushed from more than a mere shower.

“Let the doctor have a look,” Patrick teased, gently removing the ice pack. “The swelling gone down a bit. Tonight, ice it again. But, first, change out of that bloody shirt.”

“We’ll wait out in the waiting room,” Jon said, winking towards Dianthe. Dianthe followed them, not sure she could resist seeing Meredith half naked again.

Meredith watched her retreat, a hint of mischief behind those stormy sea green eyes.

Meredith emerged, tucking her shirt inside her jeans, holding the vest and shirt folded over her right arm. Jon took the shirt and dashed upstairs, and returned several minutes later. “It’s in the wash with our whites. Next time you are in town you can pick it up. Leave the vest, too. I’ll drop it off with my uniforms at Martin’s.”

Meredith smiled “Thanks, Jon. Does this look okay?”

Dianthe wanted to tell her how cute she looked in the oversized shirt with the sleeves rolled up. But she merely nodded, not trusting herself.

“You look good enough to eat, Meri,” Patrick teased, knowing she felt awkward with the mended lip and bruised cheek. “Come on, let’s go have some fun!”

“Sounds good to me,” Jon laughed, leading the way.

Outside, they began a leisurely stroll towards the bookstore. Patrick’s gray eyes studied Dianthe with interest, “How long did you serve?”

“Seven years, not including my four in Indianapolis,” Dianthe answered.

“What did you do?”

“Fighter pilot. I flew a F-14D with the Blacklions,” she replied smoothly. “You?”

“Four years to pay off my debt for medical school. I worked mainly in the United States, San Diego for the most part. They wanted to keep me on, but I did not want to stay. You?”

“I wanted to stay, but word got out about myself and my former lover,” Dianthe found the pain lessened with each telling. “My CO went to the mat for me. What I miss most is the speed and thrill of flying fighters.”

“Did you see any action?” Jon asked, clearly fascinated.

“None the government would admit to, but, yes. It got me elected for the Top Gun training program and several medals.”

“Hmm, any Tom Cruises types?” Patrick teased, winking at his lover.

“Don’t know. I got elected, but I never got to go,” Dianthe said softly, lips compressed into a hard line. “I had to face charges brought by J.A.G., because of my former lover. A lesbian love affair tends to disqualify Top Gun candidates and selectees.”

Meredith touched Dianthe’s side with gentle fingers, and the woman’s dark mood dispelled. She met Meredith’s eyes, and smiled. They kept walking, none of them talking.

The bookstore, In The Family, occupied the corner of the long, winding lane, and had lovely arched windows that permitted natural light to illuminate the interior of the store. The front section of store had several tables where patrons could enjoy a good cup of coffee or tea, and watch the scenery pass-by.

Dianthe heard two women murmuring about her when she strode past them. Both were assessing their chances with the towering woman until they caught sight of Meredith. Meredith and Jon came in behind Patrick and Dianthe, discussing lunch plans.

They saw how Meredith looked at Dianthe, and how she returned the look. Dianthe knew she had just broken two hearts, since they also were checking out Meredith.

“Hi, Jon, Patrick,” a tall, silver haired man wearing Docker pants and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt waved at the couple. “Who are your friends?”

“Dianthe Xavier, Meredith Murphy, meet Sean Nielson, owner of this commendable establishment,” Jon said.

Sean shook the women’s hands, his eyes narrowing, “I know you two. You’re the rangers that were involved in that terrible incident. Such a shame. But, there is only so much you can do to keep people out of harm’s way.

What happened?”

“Mrs. Sanderson,” Meredith answered.

“Ah, yes. She has not left. She has been very vocal about blaming everyone, but herself and the brothers Sanderson. She was seeking supporters here; she found none.”

Meredith ducked her eyes, shifting uncomfortably. Sean became contrite, “I’m sorry; I won’t mention it again. Please, look around.”

Meredith seemed momentarily uncertain, then shrugged her shoulders and ventured towards the fiction section. Sean, it seemed, believed that the bookstore should be divided into categories, not genders.

Dianthe joined her, noticing she headed for the romance section. Meredith surveyed the variety of titles, head cocked slightly to side as she reached out and pulled down a book. She read the back of the Naiad cover, glancing over her shoulder.

“What do you read, Dianthe?”

“Mysteries and science fiction, though I do enjoy a well-written romance novel,” she indicated several books she had read over the years.

“I like science fiction and a good mystery, too. But most of my reading tends to be natural history and ancient civilizations. So, what do you think?”

“The store’s great. How does the community handle it?”

“You mean the non-gay folks? Most have a “live and let live” attitude up here. This is not Hayden Lake, Idaho. Burntmountain has a very diverse tourist trade, and lots of gays and lesbians enjoy it year round. Blackstone is good, too. Other areas of the state can be hard.”

Dianthe pulled down one of the classics of lesbian literature and handed it to Meredith. Meredith raised her eyes, then said,
“A Curious Wine. Sounds interesting.”

Dianthe slid her hands inside her khaki pants, resisting the urge to touch the smaller woman. Meredith lowered her eyes, sensing the towering woman’s uncertainty. She held the book Dianthe had given her, and scanned the other titles.

Dianthe selected a few titles, then headed to the register. The men were still chatting about the upcoming summer season, and the mountain biking group they belonged to. Meredith wandered up a few minutes later, carrying six books that had caught her eye. Jon grinned, “Hmm, buying some books, Meredith?”

“Yes. They look interesting,” Meredith answered sweetly, sticking out her tongue at the man. Dianthe did a double take, seeing yet another side of the woman she’d fallen in love with. Fallen in love with, but she would never risk losing Meredith’s friendship by pushing the issue.

Sean listened to the banter with a sage expression, and said, “They are very interesting, and very inspiring, Meredith. I have seen you around town, usually in the company of these scoundrels.”

“Guilty as charged,” Meredith handed over the books to the young woman working the register. She took the Platinum Visa card, watching Meredith with intense scrutiny. “I remember you! You’re the ranger that brought the wolf to my school four years ago. He was so cool. And you rocked,” the cashier declared.

“Lobo. That was in Broken Rock, I remember you. You were the tomboy that kept asking me about Search and Rescue missions. Casey, right?”

“Cool, you remembered my name!”

Meredith laughed, enjoying the young girl’s enthusiasm. She moved her dark brown and red hair out of her hazel green eyes. “I got to tell my folks you were here. Dad totally loves wolves, and mom thinks you’re a great example for young girls.”

“Casey’s father is my brother Bob, and his job as an engineer has taken him to Saudi Arabia for the next two years. He and his wife Robin did not want Casey to have deal with the backward notions of women there.

Robin went with him because she’s an engineer, too. If only the Saudis knew that Bob and Robin are a team! Now, young lady, back to work! Nose to the grindstone and that sort of thing.”

Casey sighed, “I know where I got my gay genes from.”

Meredith watched the exchange between the man and the girl, thinking how his eyes shone with pride. She was aware of Dianthe observing her, gauging her reactions. Casey handed Meredith a pen, and watched her sign the receipt.

The fresh bandage made her raise her eyebrows, “Does it hurt much?”

“It hurts, but it could have been worse. If it weren’t for the swift actions of a certain law enforcement ranger, I would have most likely been stabbed fatally,” Meredith met Dianthe’s eyes as she spoke.

Casey looked at the two older women and grinned, “Cool!”

Dianthe smiled at the teenage girl, paying in old-fashioned cash for the books she bought. Jon took the lead, insisting they had figured out what stores would be the best ones to hit. Patrick grinned, falling into step alongside his beloved.

She matched her longer stride to Meredith’s, “What books did you buy?”

“Hmm, curious?”

“Yes…” Dianthe almost said she was wondering why Meredith had purchased the lesbian books. She had gotten herself three good, solid mysteries and one science fiction novel.

“Curious Wine was one of them. The rest…” she smiled wickedly “you’ll have speculate about.”

Dianthe grinned, “Is that a challenge I hear?”

“Maybe,” Meredith slipped on her shades with a crooked grin.

Dianthe returned the grin, and determined she would find out. It would be dusk by the time they left Burntmountain; it had been a delightful day. The back of Dante’s Grand Jeep Cherokee had lots of packages and bags that showed the results of their day. Food shopping had been laid aside for the day. Dianthe would do it tomorrow.

She had enough food for the next couple of days, as did Furball. Meredith had purchased a fishing toy for the cat that would entertain both cat and humans alike. It was a real, tiny fly fishing rod with a mini-reel with a furry thing on the end of the line.

“What do you want for dinner?” Dianthe asked, glancing over towards Meredith.

Meredith’s head rested against the head restraint, eyes shut and her breathes slow and soft. Dianthe drank in the sight of the woman that had won her heart, mind and soul. Dianthe returned her attention to the road, knowing the woman must be exhausted. She turned the radio onto a soft music station, considering the day’s events.

When she pulled up beside the house Karen came jogging outside, a grim look on her face. Dianthe parked the vehicle and raised her eyebrow, “What’s wrong?”

“It seems your encounter with Mrs. Sanderson was caught on tape by some local reporter,” Karen informed her, eyes stormy with anger. “It’s not faltering.”

“Shit! Meredith does not need this crap,” Dianthe swore furiously. Meredith jerked awake, blinking and confused at the tension she heard in Dianthe’s voice.

“Meredith, you’d better come inside. Jason and Annie are waiting for you two,” Karen ducked her eyes.

Meredith frowned, sliding out of the vehicle she shut the door. She squared her shoulders and headed inside her house. Annie, Jason, and Morgan were awaiting them inside the den.

“What’s wrong?” Meredith asked.

“Meredith, Dianthe, you both better sit down,” Annie said softly. Her eyes narrowed when she saw the vivid bruise and stitches. “If I see that woman, she better not be breaking any laws.”

Jason pushed a tape inside the video player and stepped away from the TV. Images appeared of Dianthe and Meredith walking down Cobblestone Lane. It showed them together with Jon and Patrick, then continued with the two of them sitting outside on the stairs.

There could be no doubt what Dianthe had been prepared to do. Nor Meredith’s reaction to the gesture. The next scene showed Maggie Sanderson entering the yard, the blow that brought about Dianthe’s response.

It showed them inside the bookstore and later walking together as the reporter, an attractive red head narrated the clip. “When contacted about why she had felt compelled to confront the lesbian couple about their behavior up on the mountain, Maggie Sanderson said she just wanted to know why her sons and husband had to die. She says she struck out when the wildlife biologist responsible for the tragedy blamed her for their deaths.

This reporter believes that the violent response of the other ranger tells what happened up on that mountain. In these days of gay liberation and the gay agenda, what can a normal family hope to expect?

Perhaps, if these women were more interested in the serious nature of their jobs, and not each other, this tragedy would not have happened. Again, the gay agenda stains the American dream with its vile taint.

I am Janice Portman, station K.I.B., Hayden Lake, Idaho reporting on the tragedy on Witch Mountain.”

Meredith stared in total disbelief at the screen, while Dianthe rose with a volley of impressive oaths. Her cobalt blue eyes flashed ominously, “When did this broadcast?”

“Tonight. The five o’clock local news. It was nationally broadcasted on ABC when station K.I.B.’s owner contacted the network,” Jason phrased his next words with infinite care. “It seems that the network did some background investigations about you two. Other than speculations about Meredith’s reasons for being a wildlife biologist, they found out why Dianthe left the navy.”

Dianthe shut her eyes, fighting for self-control. She took a deep breath, “I assume Brett Ferris wants my badge and gun?”

“Nothing like that. Hell, Brett knows a setup when he sees one. And being lesbian is a non-issue with the National Park Service and us. Right now we have some quiet inquiries running, and we know we can clean this up. But we did not want you two being blind sided by this.”

“And what’s ABC saying?”

“They are questioning the motivations of the reporter and her crew, since the owner of the station is William Dawson,” Morgan declared. She shook her head. “Either way, the next few days you two will most likely be under a microscope. CNN became interested, too, considering your family’s history, Meredith.”

Dianthe sat down, head hung low. She felt suddenly very tired. An intimate moment that had not been fulfilled had been filmed and broadcast nationally. Meredith met Dianthe’s eyes.

“We did nothing wrong, Dianthe. And I will not let Dawson control me,” Meredith said. “I and Dianthe had nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed about.”

Jason and Annie studied the two women, and nodded. “Dianthe, I am sorry about this entire mess. We should have thought about the potential of Dawson’s involvement.”

“It’s not your fault. But I would appreciate it if Meredith and I could have a few minutes to talk alone.”

The two couples departed, Annie and Jason saying they would be by tomorrow, and Morgan and Karen walked them downstairs. Dianthe rose, closing the door behind the others than sat down beside Meredith.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, just very pissed off. But I am not going to regret today for any reason; I had a wonderful time with you. The best I’ve had in a very long time, to be honest.”

“So did I,” Dianthe’s voice took on a deeper timbre.

“There’s something I want to know,” Meredith asked softly.

“Anything…”

“Are you going to kiss me?”

Dianthe flushed at the directness of the question. She tried to formulate a response, but decided to answer the question. She closed the distance between them, brushing her lips across Meredith’s.

It was the briefest of contacts, but it made them both shiver.

“Does that answer your question, Meredith?” Dianthe drew back just a couple of inches. Speechless, Meredith nodded her head, breathing hard. “May I kiss you again?”

“Definitely,” Meredith sighed. Dianthe slid her arms around Meredith and pulled her close. The kiss became more urgent, and soon they were both moaning.

Dianthe drew back, cobalt blue eyes smoldering with desire. She traced Meredith’s wounded lip, concerned about the discomfort kissing might cause her. Meredith reached up and stroked the towering woman’s cheek.

“Are you sure about this?” Dianthe pressed her lips against the woman’s left palm. She brushed her thumb over the tender flesh of Meredith’s right wrist, touching the edge of the bandage encasing her forearm. She did never wanted to be responsible for causing Meredith any further pain.

“Very,” Meredith leaned back on the couch. Dianthe lowered herself carefully, kissing the woman again. “I love you, Dianthe Xavier.”

“And I love you, Meredith Murphy,” Dianthe nuzzled the woman’s throat. Hands learned what brought the other pleasure, and clothing was loosened. “I want you so much. I began falling for you when we first met. Do you know how many times I wanted to make love to you?”

“Then show me,” Meredith challenged, rolling her hips up. Dianthe did not need to be asked again. She reared up, hastily shedding her shirt and sports bra in record time.

Meredith’s eyes were fever bright as she beheld the full breasts with hardening rosy nipples. “I think the floor might be better for this,” Dianthe suggested, tossing the large Navajo blanket down onto the hardwood floor before the fireplace.

She helped Meredith up, kissing the shorter woman with hard won expertise. Meredith’s shy hands stroked and teased the woman’s breasts. “So soft,” Meredith whispered, tasting one of the swollen nubs with playful strokes of her tongue. “Tastes good, too.”

“Hmmm, something tells me I’m in trouble,” Dianthe groaned, fighting the temptation to rip the shirt off Meredith. She instead made herself unbutton the shirt, revealing the flesh she had been dreaming about.

Pushing the shirt off, she trailed her fingertips up and down Meredith’s sides, deliberately avoiding the woman’s breasts. Meredith whimpered, arching so Dianthe hands rested on her breasts.

Dianthe kissed Meredith, then worked her way down to the pink tips that made her mouth water. She felt Meredith shudder when she suckled and nipped her breasts. Dianthe’s hands slid down, cupping Meredith’s mound through the fabric of her jeans and underwear. Heat and moisture greeted her questing touch, and Meredith’s eyes screwed shut with raw pleasure. “Hmmm, feels like you need some attention, Meredith.”

Reduced to nonverbal communication, Meredith grunted and ground her hips in acknowledgment. Dianthe guided her lover down, keenly aware of the bandaged forearm and newest set of injuries. She unzipped the blue jeans and smoothed a hand across the woman’s toned, flat belly. Meredith’s abdominal muscles were not as defined as Dianthe’s own, but she could feel how they quaked beneath her touch.

“This works better without clothing,” Dianthe murmured, pulling off the woman’s boots, jeans and underwear. For each section of skin she revealed, she traced the heated flesh with the tip of her tongue and playful nips. She inhaled the musky scent of arousal, fingers lightly brushing the downy, dark blonde triangle. “A natural blonde, I see.”

“Please–” Meredith hissed, writhing beneath the feathery touches that promised so much more.

Dianthe tossed aside her lovers’ jeans, underwear and boots, then shed her own jeans, underwear and boots. She lowered herself down, pressing her breasts against Meredith’s as she kissed her deeply. Meredith’s tongue fenced with hers, giving and demanding at the same time. Dianthe broke the kiss, knowing Meredith would be an incredible lover from the way she kissed.

Dianthe let her hair cascade down around them to press hot kisses along the column of Meredith’s throat. Her right hand slid downwards to discover the molten heat awaiting her touch. Her fingers teased the hot, wet center of the smaller woman, driving Meredith half mad.

“More…” Meredith groaned, sea green eyes imploring for the torture to end. Dianthe parted the fleshy lips, ignoring the hardened bit of flesh to thrust two fingers deep inside Meredith.

Dianthe watched the play of emotions flash across the woman’s face, moaning herself when the surge of moisture dampened her hand. She withdrew her fingers and tasted the evidence of Meredith’s arousal. Reaching behind her, Dianthe snagged a large pillow that she placed beneath the woman’s rump. She slid down until she lay between Meredith’s muscular thighs, parting her nether lips and began feasting.

Lost in primal pleasure Meredith writhed, reaching down to guide Dianthe. Dianthe felt the tension building, watched it gathering behind those incredible eyes. Meredith’s back arched powerfully as she climaxed. Her scream of pleasure echoed inside the den, and tears dampened her flushed face.

Dianthe positioned herself, straddling Meredith’s muscular right thigh she ground herself against it. Meredith clutched Dianthe’s straining buttocks, guiding her as she whispered encouragement. Dianthe moaned deeply when release claimed her.

She slumped forward, resting her face against Meredith’s sweaty chest. Meredith held her close, sighing with pleasure. Dianthe gathered her strength, leaning down to kiss the woman. Meredith’s eyes widened when she tasted herself in the sensual kiss, “Like it? You taste so good, Meri.”

“Teach me how to make love to you,” Meredith requested, gray-green eyes glinting with desire and determination.

Dianthe did as she was asked.

****************************

Neither woman spotted Jason silently backing out of the den and shutting the door. Meredith scream had alarmed the two couples downstairs, and Jason had beaten Morgan to the door of the den. Red faced, he swallowed hard and ushered the others away.

“Jason?” Annie had never seen her husband seem so embarrassed.

“Ah, things are..fine. Nothing to worry about,” Jason stammered, blinking hard. “How about spending the night with us, Morgan, Karen?”

Morgan and Karen crossed looks, beaming as sounds of passion echoed behind the door. Jason managed a weak grin.”Sure; we’ll be right with you. Annie, could you leave the lovebirds a note.”

“No problem,” Annie chuckled, looking very pleased. She gave Jason a bear hug. “It’s seems Meredith has finally found love.”

“Ahuh” Jason had the look of a deer in headlights: dazed and confused. He shook his head, regaining his composure. “Annie, next time remind me to listen better, okay?”

Annie laughed, green eyes twinkling. She kissed her husband, whispering what she would like to be doing right now. He grinned. Their house had three bedrooms, and theirs occupied one end of the corridor by itself.

Karen and Morgan appeared several minutes later carrying just enough clothes for the next few days. Meredith would be hurt if they left entirely, and they knew she would want to talk with them.

******************

In the woods hard eyes watched the lovers’ discovering each with utter disregard for what God had intended. His mind clamored with the images he beheld through his rifle’s night scope of the towering woman feasting on nectar he had never tasted. He found himself spellbound, fascinated despite himself at the obscenity he was watching.

When Meredith did what had been done to her, he saw red. He would teach her the price of defiance and deviance. He would teach them all. He raised his high-powered rifle with night scope and focused on Meredith. A simple squeeze of the trigger would shatter her spine and destroy her lungs and heart as the bullet tore through the woman’s body.

She would be dead in seconds, leaving her lover holding a bloody corpse.

He began squeezing the trigger, but decided it would too easy. She needed to suffer first. Meredith must be punished for deceiving him, for deceiving God himself. Rising, he left his place of concealment, yanking off his gloves he did not see his Marine corps ring fall off into the leaf litter.

****************

Meredith sighed, wondering how she had ended up in her king sized bed. Last night had been one of heated moments and gentle passion that changed everything for her. She had begun questioning her own sexuality before Dianthe Xavier had entered her life, recalling a conversation she and Morgan had about being lesbian. Dianthe lay sound asleep next to her. Meredith’s body felt great, despite the recent damage it had taken.

She leaned her left elbow, watching the rise and fall of Dianthe’s chest. Never had she experienced the passion and urgency she had last night, and she mentally laughed at herself. No doubt Karen, Morgan, Alex, Patrick and Jon would be teasing her about being a late bloomer.

Her parents, siblings and grandparents would not be surprised, either. James Denis Murphy had told his favorite grandchild about his dead sister, Erin. It had saddened him that she committed suicide when her lover was placed in an insane asylum by her family. Glynis’ rape and murder by a male staff member, combined with own parents disproval of the illicit liaison the friends had shared without their knowledge.

She glanced towards the bay window. Dawn. Dianthe reached out in her sleep and draped an arm around Meredith. Vivid cobalt blue eyes opened and focused on her.

“Good morning,” Meredith said, stroking the woman’s side with reverent fingertips.

“Morning,” Dianthe grinned, pulling Meredith close. “Hmm, best way to wake up with someone you love, and loves you back.”

Meredith kissed Dianthe, and buried her face between her lover’s plush breasts. She inhaled the scent that was uniquely the woman’s: clean, with a hint of leather and something exotic. Last night, she had learned how powerful love making and sex could be.

She had tasted a woman for the first time, knowing this would be the woman she would love for the rest of her life. The missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle had fallen into place. Her left hand slipped beneath the covers, smoothing up and down the impressive length of her lover.

Dianthe had sculptured muscles that moved beneath her smooth skin. Nude, she resembled what Meredith thought an Amazon warrior should look like. Curves and hollows blended with well-defined muscles that years of exercise had built up. Meredith had very tight, compact muscles developed from years of sports and outdoors living, but Dianthe had very muscular shoulders, arms and legs.

Her abdomen was flat and carved. Dianthe had the type of six-pack belly muscles men coveted. Meredith’s own was flat and very tight, but lacking that type of obvious toning. She resolved to do more sit-ups and crunches.

She pushed back the covers, lips following the trail her fingers marked. She fluttered the tip of her tongue around and into the well of the woman’s naval in a suggestive manner. Her efforts were rewarded with a throaty groan of desire.

If there was one thing she was, Meredith was a very, very fast learner. She nibbled, kissed and teased her way steadily downward until Dianthe’s languid pose became one coiled of anticipation. She took a deep breath, savoring the scent of her lover’s heated center.

“Ohmigod–” Dianthe groaned, hands grasping the sheets as she watched Meredith descending with a wicked smile.

She called upon the lessons of last night, and soon had Dianthe trashing around the bed. Using her own imagination, and what felt good to her, she had Dianthe bellowing out her name. She pressed her face against Dianthe lower belly, thrilled to know she had been the one that made the woman come.

“Come here, you scamp,” Dianthe rumbled, her long fingers tangling inside the short, dark golden curls. Meredith raised her head, enjoying the feeling of those fingers playing with her hair. Dianthe quirked a smile at the contented grin her lover wore, thankful she had found this love.

She crawled back up and lay down atop the taller woman. It was becoming one of her favorite resting places. They kissed, Dianthe tasting herself in the lingering exchange.

“You learn fast…”

“I have a great teacher; very hands on,” Meredith said seriously.

“Speaking of hands on,” Dianthe rolled Meredith onto her back. “I owe you one.”

Meredith shut her eyes when those amazing hands that had once controlled powerful combat jets commanded her passion. It would be late afternoon when they would emerge from the master suit, seeking food and drink.

Save for a few minutes when Dianthe dashed over to feed Furball, they spent the remainder of the day discovering each other’s bodies.

************************

Dusk found the lovers lying inside the den, enjoying the cozy atmosphere of the room. Laying on the couch, the lovers’ knew their time alone was coming to an end. Tomorrow Dianthe would be working, helping check in the seasonals, and Meredith had a doctor’s appointment.

Morgan and Karen were due back soon, and they would go to dinner at Smokechaser’s Grill. Dianthe nuzzled the back of Meredith’s neck. “Penny for your thoughts,” Dianthe murmured.

“Hmmm, thinking how safe, warm and loved I feel. How lucky I am,” Meredith snuggled closer. Strong arms held her close, warm lips brushed her right ear, “No, I am.”

Meredith shivered with delight. She rolled over so they were nose tip to nose tip. Playfully, she rubbed her nose against the towering woman’s. “How about we are both lucky.”

“Sounds fair enough,” Dianthe concurred. “What time is it?”

“About six p.m.,” Meredith replied, glancing at the walnut and brass mantel clock.

“Meaning we have thirty minutes,” Dianthe cupped her lover’s lovely bottom. She began gently kneading the flesh, nuzzling Meredith’s throat with purpose. She began tracing her tongue tip along the slender throat in a light, fluttering pattern that she discovered made Meredith wild.

Meredith pushed herself up, flushed and out of breathe. “If we start, we won’t stop,” Meredith protested thickly,.

Dianthe pouted, but knew it was true. She contented herself with holding Meredith close, thinking about what their future would hold. They heard the crunch of tires coming up the driveway, and several minutes later the doorbell rang. Meredith reluctantly rose, flanked by Dianthe.

Karen and Morgan were waiting outside, wearing knowing smiles. Meredith managed a shy smile, instinctively seeking Dianthe’s big hand as she met her friends’ eyes.

“I’m just going to check on Furball, then we can go,” Dianthe gave Meredith a quick hug and kiss, then dashed off.

Karen and Morgan focused their full attention on the smaller woman. “Happy?” Morgan asked, gently squeezing Meredith’s left shoulder affectionately.

“Very, very happy,” Meredith answered, blushing. “I think I fell in love with her the first day she was here.”

Morgan hid a grin. She recalled how a certain ex-fighter pilot had been laser locked onto the wildlife biologist. Neither woman had been aware of the fact most of their friends had recognized what they had not admitted.

“Better put on a jacket, Meredith,” Karen teased gently, ruffling her friend’s hair.

Meredith grinned, dashed inside and came back with her royal blue Columbia fleece and Sea Shepherd’s ball cap of the same color. Dianthe returned five minutes later, inclining her head towards the back of her vehicle. “We have to remember to get the packages out tonight.”

“Do you want to ride with us, or in separate vehicles? Karen and I were thinking of doing Blackstone tonight.”

Meredith and Dianthe exchange glances, the intensity of the cobalt-blues made Meredith blush. Dianthe cleared her throat, “Meredith?”

“Sounds fun,” Meredith met the level blue eyes. “What do you want to do?”

Dianthe arched an eyebrow, letting her eyes take in her lover. Meredith’s blush deepened. Morgan and Karen were hard pressed to keep straight faces. “I think separate vehicles would be better. We’ll be able to leave when we want,” Dianthe announced. “How about using your vehicle? Mine looks like Santa’s workshop right now.”

“Good; let’s move it out,” Morgan slapped Dianthe on the back. She and Karen ambled to their vehicle. Dianthe took Meredith’s keys. “How’s the arm doing?”

“Hurts,” Meredith admitted. Dianthe frowned, mentally kicking herself for not thinking how much their recent activity level might affect the terrible wound. They had found creative ways around the problem, resulting in several humorous moments. “Tonight, I’ll give you a good, old fashioned back rub,” Dianthe promised, leaning down to kiss the top of her lover’s head.

“Just my back?” Meredith teased, watching Dianthe’s eyes flash with sweet memory.

Dianthe chuckled. Meredith was not a shy woman when it came to sexual matters. She was giving, and very expressive about what she liked. Dianthe admired that quality in a lover. So many other women were hesitant to express their carnal desires, but not Meredith.

Dianthe shared that frankness. She slid the driver’s seat back, and adjusted the rear view mirror and driver’s seat. Meredith reached over and laid her left hand on Dianthe’s right thigh. “Move that hand, young lady, or we may not be going out.”

Meredith’s sea-green eyes sparkled with mischief. “Let me get this: you were in several real dog fights where you could have died, and you are worried about my hand on your thigh?”

“Definitely; it’s more distracting,” Dianthe leaned over and kissed Meredith deeply. “I love you.”

“Ditto,” Meredith laughed as they pulled apart.

Morgan and Karen were patiently waiting for them, and soon two vehicles drove down the road. None of them noticed the figure moving like a ghost amidst the trees, a high-powered sniper’s rifle hitched over his shoulder.
Chapter Seven:
Jason Hendricks kept his eyes on the list of names, uncertain what he would say when Dianthe strode towards him. Tracy had the forms ready to sign in the new residents, sixteen seasonals in all. The regular seasonals, career seasonals like Charlie, were locals, giving Burntmountain a total of thirty-six seasonals split between three divisions.

Annie and Charlie were doing patrols. Charlie had been silent when he came in, and Jason worried about the man. Charlie had looked if someone had torn his heart out and stomped on it. Jason would try and talk with him when he came back in.

Tracy had noticed it, too. She had never dated Charlie, saying she preferred men that were more open-minded. Her comment had puzzled Jason. Tracy loved men. Tracy was bound and determined to sow her wild oats for another year or so before getting serious about settling down.

She was a smart, sassy woman whose sheer love of life was infectious. She had a bit of a wild streak, but she was a fine law enforcement ranger. Dianthe showed signs of being one of the best law enforcement rangers that he had ever worked with. And Meredith had been his personal favorite, since she had come on board. Annie cherished Meredith, too. She was family. Overall, he and Annie were damned lucky to have such fine staff members whose professionalism and dedication were very rare even within the National Park Service family.

“Morning, Tracy, Jason,” Dianthe beamed, accepting the clipboard Jason extended towards her.

“Hey, lady,” Tracy winked. Dianthe knew word was out that she and Meredith were now officially a couple. Karen and Morgan told her and Meredith that they had placed bets when the couple would finally act on their mutual attraction. It seemed Tracy had guessed the date closest to the event, and now was one hundred and sixty dollars richer.

“Good morning, Dianthe,” Jason felt himself blushing furiously when their eyes locked. Tracy began snickering Dianthe knew instantly what had happened, and found herself coloring, too. Jason swallowed, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Ah, the seasonals have begun arriving. Dianthe, you will check in the law enforcement seasonals and trail crews. We’re not expecting the two Interps until tomorrow, but Irene and Craig are locals and live in Blackstone.

Tracy has the room assignments, keys and paperwork. I’ll issue the badges and gear for the five law enforcement rangers. Meredith said she would come by after her doctor’s appointment to orient the entire group about backcountry rules and regs about.

She and you will give a three-day crash course on SAR methods and basic equipment. All the law enforcement rangers are first responders, three of the trail crewmembers are, too. Both Interps always have current certification, as well.”

“What about Sam’s ground pounding course?” Tracy asked.

“He’s working on getting the funding for it. If all goes well, he will be giving two courses this summer to those not already red carded.”

“Are the guys out of Boise, Idaho coming to help him?” Tracy asked with bright eyes.

Jason shook his head, “You need another hobby besides men, Tracy!”

“Hey, it’s a great hobby! Some are very collectable, ask Annie.”

Jason shook his head, watching the first car pull up outside the staff housing area. It had New York plates, though there were dozens of stickers indicating the old Ford had visited many states. A tall, impressively muscular young man with almost no neck slid out of the vehicle. Atop the car, a gleaming Hardrock Specialized mountain bike with a high-end suspension fork and a short white-water kayak indicated the driver loved physical sports.

He had the build of a bodybuilder, well-groomed hair and keen eyes. He stepped forward and offered his right hand, “Hi, I’m Danny Matthews.”

“Matthews? Ah, you are one of our seasonal law enforcement rangers. I’m Jason Hendricks, superintendent of the Burntmountain District. These are fellow law enforcement rangers, Tracy and Dianthe Xavier,” Jason returned the young’s man strong handshake, without flinching. The kid could give a boa-con stricter a run for its money.

“You’re the former fighter pilot the Navy kicked out?” Danny asked, eyes narrowing when he really looked at Dianthe.

Jason stiffened, not certain where the young man was going with the question he had asked. Dianthe nodded, watching the
hazel-eyed male with guarded eyes. “Yes.”

“Damn stupid policy. My cousin was forced out, too. He loved the navy, but he made the mistake of being honest about being in love with another guy. Pissed me off,” Danny extended his right hand. “Maybe, someday, folks will see past such things.”

Dianthe accepted it. Dianthe understood why Jason was shaking out his hand, behind his back. She flexed her fingers, thinking the kid did not know his own strength. Danny’s eyes focused on Tracy with interest. He grinned slowly as his eyes glazed over. Jason sighed. Not five minutes had gone by, and Tracy had the attention of yet another eligible male. “You like mountain biking, Tracy?”

“Yes,” Tracy responded with a grin. Danny was hooked, and Tracy was reeling him in.

“Good, so do I. Maybe we can get together?”

Tracy inclined her head, “Sounds good to me. Here’s your key and room number. You have one roomie. He’s a member of the grounds and trail crew.”

“Place looks better than the seasonal quarters I had in Boston.”

“Danny, we need to get you to fill out the following papers,” Dianthe interjected. Danny blinked, slowly regaining awareness. Jason had seen dozens of young men felled by the Tracy affect.

Annie told him he had done no better the first time he had meet the outgoing law enforcement ranger. Pheromones. It had to be pheromones. Meredith had ventured that Tracy had pheromones that bedazzled the male of the species. Jason and Annie concurred with the resource management ranger and wildlife assessment of the matter.

Meredith arrived three hours later, being dropped off by Annie. Meredith slipped carefully out of the Range Rover. Annie slid out of the white and green Suburban, stretched her lower back, and ambled towards the table where Jason, Tracy and Dianthe sat.

“Meredith, how’s the arm?”

“Hurts like hell, but it’s healing,” Meredith admitted.

Dianthe raised worried eyes. Meredith managed a tired smile that reassured her lover only so much. “But I can return to light duty this week.”

“You got the doctor’s note saying that, young lady?” Jason narrowed his eyes.

Meredith produced the note, a hint of a smile on her lips, “Usually supervisors are delighted when folks return early.”

“Light duty it is. And I mean light duty, no using that arm for anything over the weight of your ball cap. You will be given Administrative Leave for your PT sessions. Brett cleared it. Four times a week, so you will be working half a day for the two months once you start rehabilitation sessions.”

Meredith’s expression indicated she was not thrilled with the restrictions, but she knew Jason and Annie would not let her come back if she did not follow the doctor’s orders to the letter. She nodded agreement.

Dianthe pulled a chair over and patted it, “Sit down. You look tired.”

“Ah, but for all the right reasons,” Meredith laughed, nudging Dianthe affectionately with her hip. “I see Tracy got another one, huh?”

Annie and she had laughed about the young man’s posture, having seen it dozens of times. Annie slid up behind her husband, “If we could only bottle what she, we could all be rich.”

Jason felt Annie squeeze his right shoulder, and he smiled at his wife. He and Annie had found each other, now Dianthe and Meredith had found each other. He hoped Tracy would find her match, too.

Meredith sat beside Dianthe, watching the seasonals being processed. Annie and Jason spoke for several minutes before she climbed back inside the patrol Suburban , and drove away. Meredith answered questions of several ground and trail crew members, mainly issues concerning bear safety and awareness.

A couple darted speculative glances towards Meredith and Dianthe, but no one dared say anything. Besides, there were many gays and lesbians working within the agency, and the policy was very clear for those less enlightened staff members. By four o’clock everyone had arrived, and the necessary paperwork had been completed. Jason rose, clearing his throat.

“Let’s get everyone rounded up: Meredith, you can give your back country talk. Then, we will go have something to eat at Smokechaser’s,” Jason stated. Annie and Jason hosted the official welcome dinner out of their own money, since they wanted to see how the new staff members interacted in a social setting. Seasonal quarters meant living together in relatively close quarters, and they had learned over the years how to spot potential conflict before it became a real issue.

It took several minutes to round up the seasonal, most who would not venture into the field for another week. Meredith, Dianthe, Jason, and Annie would be giving orientation to the unique park site, gauging where there might be skills gaps and providing the proper training to augment existing skills. Meredith and Dianthe would handle the five-day refresher for basic SAR method, protocols and backcountry medical packaging and evacuation of injured persons.

Meredith was a certified NASAR instructor for Introduction to SAR, Fundamentals, Basic Ropes and Lost Person Behavior profiles. Dianthe would back Meredith up, since she was certified in the same skill set, and would teach land navigation skills to the entire group. Most of the seasonals had the skills on paper, but none of the full-time staff wanted to discover whether or not their seasonals had fudged their abilities when it counted.

A dual two week intensive course would be taught by Meredith and Morgan to the combined staffs of the National Park Service and National Forest Service for those that had limited skills, and several seasonals already had requested the training in the sign-in process. This allowed the different agencies responsible for protecting the Burntmountain District to forge bonds that could be the difference between life and death. The participants would receive NASAR certification and limited membership, skills that would help those intent on becoming full-timers get the eye of discerning Personnel Officers and hiring officials.

Dianthe would have to work her patrol schedule around the training, since she would be assisting to her friends. Tracy, Annie, Jason and Charlie would be pulling more patrol time to cover the gaps, but it was well worth it. Morgan and Jason had worked hard at forging unity between their staffs, and the Witch Mountain Incident underscored the value of such cohesion and training.

“Ok, folks, time to have our first official meeting. Everyone to the day room of house four,” Jason called out, herding his seasonals ahead of him. Most were college kids, but there were some twenty something’s and thirty something’s mixed in. It was a diverse group of men and women, united by a common love of the outdoors and nature.

House four was the largest of the seasonal houses, and had a large living room where twenty folks could be gathered somewhat comfortably. Dianthe and Tracy were handing out packets of information Meredith had put together for the incoming seasonals.

She had researched and written the package of information that Karen and Morgan had modified for their seasonal staff. Meredith stood up, smiling at the newcomers. “I know you folks are tired, but there are things you need to know to keep yourselves and others safe.”

With those words she launched into a twenty-minute talk that engaged the seasonals and full timers. Jason grinned. Alex was right. Meredith would make one hell of a good interpretive ranger, having a sense of humor and insight about her group. She popped in a video she and Karen had created.

The forty-minute video had been filmed by a specialist out of the Seattle office. It had a good sound track, using music groups Jason had never heard before when either Meredith or Karen were talking. They showed bear dens, bear droppings, markings that told of recent bear activities, and other important issues.

It was the first time Jason had viewed the video the two women had worked on with Alex Larson last summer and fall. Drawing on the collective experience of dozens of field researchers and their own, it taught and entertained as well. No wonder he had heard that Region wanted to use it all parks with Grizzly bears, wolves and other big predators.

“Now, if there are no questions, this session is over,” Meredith announced, “But tomorrow morning at seven thirty we will begin a refresher on SAR methods. Classes will begin next week for fire fighting and SAR for those that have not done this before. Your work details will be arranged around your classes. It’s a free class, and looks good on your 171.”

Meredith sat down, grinning when most of the seasonals clapped their hands. Jason stood up. “One last thing: tonight, we are having our first park wide gathering at Smokechaser’s Grill: good food, good folks and a chance to network. Directions how to get there are inside the packets Meredith gave you. Also, locations of different shops and stores.

We will be there starting around seven thirty. No pressure, just a chance to get familiar with your new home for the next six months.”

The residents of house four soon had their home to themselves. The other seasonals headed towards their quarters while Jason glanced at his watch. “You ladies going to come?”

“Danny said he’s going, so I will be going, too,” Tracy grinned.

“Count on us,” Dianthe said. “See you then.”

Jason watched the new lovers head for Dianthe’s Jeep Grand Cherokee. She helped Meredith slide up into the vehicle, using any excuse possible to touch her lover. Meredith did not seem to mind.

******************

A steady rain pelted the seasonals as they practiced the necessary techniques for carrying a rescue basket down the side of a steep incline. Meredith moved like a mountain goat along the rough terrain, pointing out better methods for carrying the litter.

She had watched the seasonals set up the ropes, pulleys, anchors, and arrange the ropes with keen eyes. She pointed out mistakes, demonstrating the proper methods without rancor. The seasonals were a smart bunch, and eager to learn.

It was the fourth time she had done this particular exercise in the last six hours, it was the final day of the refresher. She nodded approval, and gestured for the next crew to laid down the litter. “Good job.”

She gave them several pointers, then hitched a thumb towards the emergency cache shed. “Once we get this equipment away, you are free for the rest of the day.”

Cheers rose, and sixteen rain gear clad seasonals gathered up the ropes, slings, carabineers and basket and hauled it to the shed. Meredith glanced at her wristwatch: three p.m. Dianthe had been forced to cover Charlie Fenton’s shift when he banged out sick, so she had conducted the class by herself.

Sunlight broke through the cloud cover just when they were finishing. Good nature groans rose. “Welcome to Washington State, folks.”

She let the seasonals go once the equipment was in the shed. She removed her Gortex rain gear and began tending the lighter equipment that needed to be cleaned off. It took her an hour to square away most of the gear when she heard something moving outside the shed.

Thinking it was Dianthe she went to open the door and found it would not budge. Frowning, she pushed harder. The door did not move. She cocked her head, heard someone, or something, moving around the shed. “Hey, could you let me out? Door somehow jammed.”

No response. Meredith pounded on the side of the large shed, calling out again. She heard a splashing sound, then she smelled smoke. Her gut clenched. She backed away as flames began consuming the far side of the wooden shed.

The lone window was too small even for Meredith to squeeze out of. She hit her radio’s shoulder mike attachment, “Dispatch..emergency cache has been set on fire. Door’s been jammed shut. I’m trapped inside!”

Meredith grabbed up a fire ax and began attacking the door. Her arm screamed its protest as black smoke began filling the shed, and flames began engulfing the structure. She swung the ax hard, landing five blows before she heard wooden splintering. Another four blows and something metallic hit the wooden porch of the shed. Meredith rammed her shoulder hard against the smoldering door, and the door opened a bit.

She coughed, her vision was obscured by the noxious smoke that seared her throat and eyes. This would be it. The heat of the flames was becoming like a blast furnace. Dropping the ax, she backed up and threw her full weight against the burning doorframe. The door flew wide open as she hurtled out the blazing shed. She tumbled head first down the shed’s six stairs, gasping in lung full of fresh, cool air.

A section of burning doorframe landed across her legs, and Meredith yelped in agony. She twisted hard, dislodging the piece of lumber and rolled on the ground, extinguishing the small flames where the section of lumber had hit her. The sleeve of her long sleeve uniform shirt was blood soaked, the stitches having split open.

Dark blood washed down the length of her forearm, black specks of burnt material mixed with the blood. Pain became her entire world. The thumping of her heart sounded like a massive drum inside her head, the world fading to an indistinct blur of disconnected images.

Her legs would not respond, nor her arms. She could not move, though she could hear the support beams of the shed groaning under the weight of itself. She was too close. The shed would collapse upon her.

She tried to will her limbs to work, to regain control of her depleted resources and could not. Dianthe. She would not see her lover again, if she could not move. Meredith began inching her way along the ground, thinking she must resemble some strange inchworm.

Each millimeter gained drained her meager strength and threatened to obliterate consciousness. But she would not go down without a fight. She dug the fingers of her good hand into the earth, seeking purchase, and pulled herself along as her feet pushed.

Strong hands hauled her upright, and away from the collapsing shed. The front section hit the patch of earth she had been occupying mere moments before. Had the door not given way, and had her rescuer not snatched her up, it would have been her funeral pyre.

Her legs gave out, and she felt the person supporting her weight stagger. She was set on the ground. Someone kept repeating her name. It was a familiar voice, but her mind could not immediately place the owner.

Gentle fingers surrounded her chin, and a pair of anxious forest-green eyes searched her own gray-green ones. “Meredith? Are you okay? What happened?”

Annie. It had been Annie that had half carried, half dragged her out of harm’s way. Meredith blinked, trying to make her mind work. “Someone locked me inside..set a fire..” Meredith heard herself stammer.

Danny Matthews held up a tire iron with infinite care by the ends, with the tips of his gloved hand’s fingers. “Found this laying nearby, Annie,” he said softly.

“Be careful: there may be prints on it,” Annie cursed when she saw the blood running down Meredith’s limp right arm, not to mention the smell of burnt cloth and seared flesh. “Damnit. We have to get you to the hospital.”

“No more hospitals. I just want to sleep,” Meredith protested, trying to shake off Annie’s gentle grip.

“Easy, honey,” Annie murmured, stroking Meredith’s sweaty brow. “You are hurt; you need to go to the hospital.”

Meredith heard the screech of tires and the sound of a door being thrown open. Dianthe appeared, ashen faced and shaking, beside them. Her vivid blue eyes flickered from the burning emergency cache shed to Meredith. Anger replaced fear.

“Dianthe, get her to the hospital. Danny, secure this area. I want whoever did this,” Annie rose, forest-green eyes sweeping the area surrounding the shed. She spotted tire tracks of a car that had been brought up behind the shed.

Meredith found herself hard pressed to think clearly. She wanted nothing more than to seek the comfort of Dianthe’s strong arms, to sleep for a while. She tried rising, but her legs would not respond. Dianthe hunkered down, and carefully lifted Meredith off the ground. Her long stride covered the distance to the patrol vehicle with ease.

Dianthe settled Meredith down on the passenger seat with infinite care, but the back of the seat pressed against her burnt flesh. Meredith screamed, tears streaming down her pale visage as her lover strapped her in.

“Shit! Meredith, hang on,” Jason rumbled. “Whoever did this is going to be one sorry sonovabitch.”

Dianthe assured him she would get Meredith to the hospital. Felt Jason’s big hand touch her right cheek and heard him murmur something. Pain and disorientation began overwhelming her exhausted mind and body. Things began spinning wildly, and she fought a wave of nausea.

She lost the battle, and she bent over and vomited. A hand rested on the back of her neck, soothing her even as Dianthe drove. Meredith vomited twice more, then sat back up. Her vision dimmed, and she lost consciousness.

**************************

Laying on the ground was a wallet. Annie pulled on her thin leather driving gloves and picked up the wallet. She carefully opened it: Maggie Sanderson’s California driver’s license photo occupied the plastic window of the expensive leather wallet. Annie’s jaw muscles worked hard.

Jason and Tracy appeared as Dianthe was helping Meredith inside the National Park Service Suburban. Danny helped keep the area clear, making sure no evidence was lost. Annie and Jason began documenting the evidence, while their dispatcher called the Blackstone sheriffs department.

Annie and Jason did not have solid evident that the woman was directly involved, though two new hires stated they had spotted the woman observing their training. But other visitors had been watching the training, so they had dismissed it.

What worried Annie and Jason was that it was another fire. Arson had become the favorite method of criminals, or someone, of late. Questioning the suspect should get them the information they would need.

**************************

Dianthe entered the semiprivate hospital room where Meredith slept. The nurse had said the sedation would keep her under about another hour. This time she had not bled out that badly, but the torn stitches had been hard to repair. She would be kept at least overnight. Maybe longer, depending on what the doctors thought best.

When she was released, she would be off duty for the next two weeks minimum, and would be requiring very intense physical therapy. She had sustained a few minor cuts and abrasions, and two nasty, though minor burns on her legs where the fire had touched her. The smoke had not damaged her lungs.

The shed was a total loss. But Region had told them they would make sure the shed and equipment were replaced. It would be a priority. They would be getting the money released within two weeks. The shed itself would take only a few days to build. Local merchants, too, were already seeking ways to donate equipment, though it would take time to get the proper authorizations.

Dianthe sat beside the bed of the woman she loved. Someone had tried to murder Meredith Murphy. Tracy had been acting as the dispatcher when she called in. Told her about Maggie Sanderson’s wallet being found outside the shed.

Dianthe absorbed the information: Maggie Sanderson had told Meredith she wished her dead. She had attacked Meredith, uttered those hateful words, but Dianthe’s gut instinct told her there was something wrong here.

If she had wanted Meredith dead, she could have had a gun or knife the day she slapped the woman. Why now? Had she gone totally insane with grief? Dianthe heard Tracy’s voice tight with anger.

Blackstone sheriffs department had been alerted, and no doubt Jon himself would be looking for the woman. The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fit together, but important ones were missing. Dianthe settled herself down, reached out and covered Meredith’s smaller hand with her own larger one.

She vowed no one would hurt this precious woman again. She shut her eyes, and entered a light slumber.

**********

Jon Brandice signaled his fellow deputies that they could put away their weapons. He scanned the darkened hotel room that stank of death. The suite was very neat, clean and orderly. He studied the body hanging from the heavy wooden beams of the expensive lodge suite.

She had used a climbing rope to hang herself. Jason and he exchanged looks. It had taken them about a day to find the hotel where the woman had holed up. She had used another name, paid in cash. But the desk clerk recalled how distraught the woman had seemed when she had left during the morning.

It had been following a brief phone call.

She had asked about sporting good stores. Jon shook his head. He was the crime scene officer for the department, and he had his work cut out for him. He called for the special kit he would need, and prevented anyone else from entering the room.

There was no doubt the woman was dead. She had been for a bit. The shed had been set fire about sixteen hours ago. Maggie Sanderson’s limp body showed not signs of life. The coroner had been called.

Already, the smell of death hung in the air of the very expensive suite.

*************

Dianthe heard Meredith’s soft moans, and jerked awake. Meredith was in the throes of a nightmare, and began fighting the IV tubing feeding her antibiotics and painkillers. She was thrashing and whimpering. Dianthe jumped up and held her down. Frightened, dull gray-green eyes flickered open and focused on Dianthe’s face.

“Easy, honey,” Dianthe whispered, smoothing Meredith’s hair off her sweaty brow.

It took several minutes for the woman to realize she was not inside in the burning shed, and she relaxed. A voice made hoarse by smoke and fear said, “Shed?”

“Total loss. But you are fine. That’s the important thing. You will need to spend the rest of the night here. Your stitches tore open, so they had to do some repairs. Patrick stopped by while you were asleep.

He said you’re going to be off duty a few weeks, and you will need lots of PT. You also have two first degree burns to the backs of your legs, but those should heal well enough.”

“How come I don’t hurt?”

“Painkillers. Doctors, Patrick included, decided it was best. Tearing open your stitches did some more muscle damage,” Dianthe held up a sipping cup that had a built in straw. Meredith sipped the tepid water gratefully. “Meredith, Maggie Sanderson’s dead. Her wallet was found close to the shed. And some of the seasonals noticed her driving up.”

Meredith shut her eyes, fighting back tears. “Maybe now she’ll find peace…”

Dianthe did not hear anger in her lover’s voice, just remorse. She kissed Meredith. “I hope so.” She did not share her suspicions with the weary woman. “Morgan’s coming back in a few minutes. She and Karen will be here the rest of the night. I have to go back on patrol. Charlie’s is going to be out the next few days. Hurt his back lifting something heavy again.”

“Tell him I hope he feels better. He hurt his back last winter hauling some wood for his cabin.”

“I will; my shift ends tomorrow around eight a.m. Karen will bring you home; I’ll met you there,” Dianthe hated herself for leaving Meredith. She stroked her lover’s sweat matted hair, still shaken at how close she had come to losing the woman. Meredith and she shared one more kiss. “I love you, Meredith.”

“And I love you,” Meredith fought the drugs claiming her mind once again. Dianthe murmured soft words beneath her breath, soothing the smaller woman.

Meredith’s eyes drifted shut. Morgan and Karen had backed out of the room, granting the new lovers a few moments more of privacy.

Dianthe nodded her head towards the older couple, then headed out to finish her patrol. In the back of her mind, a pattern was being to emerge that made her stomach knot: there was an arsonist and murderer working within the staff of Drango Gap.

Every instinct she possessed screamed that Maggie Sanderson had been a victim, not the perpetrator of the most recent fire. She had some ideas, but dared not mention them until she had time to do some further checking.

Dianthe slipped on her shades and surveyed the parking lot of the hospital. News crews were arriving. She muttered a dire oath under her breath when she noticed that a certain female reporter was approaching her. Dianthe unlocked the suburban, ignoring the woman’s slightly nasal voice.

“You can’t hide from the press, Ranger Xavier,” the woman called out. Dianthe recognized the woman: she had been the one with the slanted report about herself and Meredith, not to mention interviewing Cal Trent. “A good woman was driven to suicide because your lover did not do her job. Maybe she was too busy doing something else to do the right thing.”

Dianthe stiffened. She removed her shades and met the woman’s eyes with a level stare. She said nothing, just studied the woman with cool eyes. The reporter shifted uncomfortably, and her news crew seemed equally uncomfortable. “If you will excuse me, I have a patrol to do.”

“You must not be very good at patrolling, if you did not see Maggie Sanderson enter or exit the park,” Janice Portman declared, smiling thinly. “If Mrs. Sanderson did set fire to the shed, which I personally doubt. I wonder who really set the fire? Or did Ranger Murphy accidentally set fire to the cache?”

Dianthe gripped the steering wheel tight, not wanting to give the other woman the satisfaction of seeing her upset. She started the engine and signaled for them to give way. After several moments, the news crew reluctantly did move.

Only when she was on the open road did she begin to relax and focus on the important issue of arson. She would have to access the National Crime Information Center to find out what she needed. But first thing she was going to do was go home and shower. Furball. He would not be a happy cat.

She radioed in she was going home for an hour. Blackstone’s deputies had doubled their patrols around Meredith’s property, since the media had again been spotted there. Dianthe drove past two news vans, ignoring the pleas of the reporters to answer questions.

America loved the drama and pathos of tragedy, and this newest twist in the Burntmountain Incident (as the media had dubbed it) had the media clamoring. No doubt tonight the major networks would have coverage about the suicide of the woman, the attempted murder, and speculation about relationship the relationship that she and Meredith had.

Dianthe opened the cabin door and found one very annoyed cat demanding her immediate attention. Gathering him up, she hugged him and headed to the kitchen. Fresh water, a big bowl brimming with dried cat food, and some very expensive wet food made him relax. She dumped out his litter, poured in fresh, then headed for the shower.

She laid her gun belt on the bed, closing the bedroom door firmly, and removed her clothes and vest. In the military she had learned how to shower well in five minutes, but civilian life made her appreciate the finer points of a prolonged soak. She dried off, found a fresh uniform, and dressed.

A quick meal and she was on the road again. She drove past the media again, and headed out. The next ten hours gave her time to consider her theory. Local law enforcement officers doing their level best to keep the media off the property

**************

The nurse entered the dimmed room where Meredith lay, being held for another few hours because of the doctor’s concerns regarding a fever. She had watched Karen Winslow and Morgan Griffin head for the cafeteria, since Meredith would not be awake for hours.

The young, seasonal deputy guarding the door opened the door for the pretty red headed nurse, winking. She winked back. He had a nice body, and kind eyes. Then she spotted the small, gold Star of David twinkling around his strong neck.

She hid her revulsion well, and push the cart before her. She shut the door, and pushed the cart containing bathing equipment beside. Reaching underneath the cart, she pulled out a small palm corder, and began recording the medical charts. Once she had recorded the sections of the chart she had deemed necessary, she pulled back the covers.

Using the medical scalpel, she cut open the light hospital gown, and studied the drugged woman. She held the scalpel for a moment, thinking how many of Dawson’s problems could be solved with a single slice. For an instant she lowered the scalpel next to the exposed flesh of the woman’s throat and considered the issue. A little pressure against the vital area, and Meredith Murphy would no longer be an issue But, she had her assignment, and they already had an executioner working for them.

Placing a framed photograph showing the Sanderson’s taken two years ago, she began narrating what she had written out. And four coroner’s graphic photographs of the remains of the man and his sons’ ravaged remains. She panned the small camcorder over select areas of the woman’s nude body, not seeing the door opening behind her. She yelped when powerful fingers dug deep into her shoulders, and she was spun around to meet furious gray eyes.

Karen Winslow snatched the camcorder out of her hands, and the young deputy began reading her rights while a real nurse checked Meredith’s vitals and drips. Morgan Griffin spun Janice Portman hard against the wall, and her wrists were swiftly cuffed.

“Get her the hell out of here..” Morgan snarled.

“My camcorder and tape,” Janice Portman protested.

“Will be turned over to the proper authorities of the United States government,” Sam Griffin promised. He stood beside his cousin, his lone gray eye blazing with pure loathing. “You are a real piece of work, lady.”

Janice Portman found herself the center of the news crew when the Blackstone Sheriffs Department hauled her past her colleagues. A female deputy told the reporters that they could contact the Public Information Officer for any information, stating they could not answer any further questions. Every camera turned on the flushed woman being led out past their ranks, protesting she was a good American.

********************

Morgan did not like the way Meredith looked. She had become increasingly distant during the drive home. Not even Karen could get the woman talking. Morgan wished she could have taken that bitch Janice Portman and shoved her off the side of a mountain. The tape had shown love bits left by Dianthe, and avoided the damage Meredith had sustained during that bloody night on the mountain.

After viewing the sickening tape, she had called Jason and Annie. They were in Seattle, discussing the situation with Brett Ferris and Region. Jason had put the call on conference, and the solemn gathering heard what had happened. Jason and Annie would be back tonight, and Ferris vowed he would be speaking personally with the folks in Washington, D.C.

Word would be sent to the Murphy’s and Stanhopes about this most recent incident involving Meredith. Morgan knew this time the family would not remain in the background, waiting for the authorities to handle the matter.

No doubt Katherine Murphy would become directly involved; she would make sure Janice Portman understood that she had chosen the wrong victim.

“You’re home, Meri,” Karen said. The Blackstone deputies kept the media crews across the road from the edge of Meredith’s property line.

Meredith glanced towards the throng of reporters with weary eyes, then shut them. Tears slid silently down her cheeks. They had told her what happened, knowing the arrest of Janice Portman would be televised. Karen and Morgan exchanged worried glances. In the five years they had known the younger woman, she had never acted like this.

Morgan cleared her throat, “Meri, talk to us.”

Meredith ignored the plea, remaining silent and detached. Morgan pulled up behind the house, parking beside Meredith’s Eddie Bauer Ford Expedition. She climbed out of the front seat, then helped Meredith out the rear passenger side. Karen gathered the duffel bag and went to unlock the house.

Meredith walked up beside Morgan. Morgan kept a steadying arm out, ready to catch the unsteady woman. She got Meredith settled down in her bedroom, saying that she would be back. Meredith shut her eyes, and drifted to sleep. Between the drugs and emotional drain of the last two days, the woman would most likely sleep for hours.

“How is she?” Karen asked, preparing a light lunch for salad and chicken for them.

“Exhausted, frightened and guilt ridden. Three near fatal incidents in the last few months has shaken her confidence. I’ve seen it before. Remember Jared?”

Karen nodded. Jared Morningstar had been easy going, soft spoken man whose life had been affected by several dramatic events. On a rescue he had been helpless to stop the fatal fall of a coworker when the man’s harness broke. A month later he lost his own life when he was hit by a watermelon-sized rock. His neck had been snapped.

Jared had blamed himself for the death of his coworker, and the during next mountain rescue he had lost his focus. It cost him his own life. Meredith and Jared had similar gentle souls, and Jared had become withdrawn and silent like Meredith was becoming.

But Jared had been between relationships. Meredith had Dianthe. Dianthe might be the anchor that would keep the woman safe and sane. Morgan hoped Dianthe would be home soon.

**********************

Dianthe perched on the edge of the king-sized bed, and watched her sleeping lover. Even in the sleep the strain of the last few days showed clearly on her face. Dianthe reached out, and brushed her fingertips across her lover’s left cheek. It was wet with tears, as was the pillow.

She hung her head, feeling utterly powerless after having viewed the tape, and she had wept. All she wanted was to love Meredith, to have a life with her. Morgan had laid a comforting arm around her shoulders while Sam and Karen cooked dinner. She had regained emotional control, and gone upstairs to awaken Meredith.

Breathing deeply, she leaned down and kissed Meredith’s temple. Meredith’s eyes fluttered open, and she let out a strangled noise of joy. Dianthe offered her arms, and Meredith burrowed against her warmth and strength.

Neither woman spoke. They held each other close, and soon Meredith began crying. Crying for Maggie Sanderson, for her dead husband and sons, and for herself. Dianthe let her weep. If she did not release the tension she felt, it would build inside her soul and break with terrible results.

Finally, Meredith stopped weeping and rested inside the shelter of lover’s arms. Dianthe reached over and yanked out a handful of tissues from the nightstand beside the bed. Meredith accepted them, wiping her eyes and blowing her nose. “Better?”

“I think so,” Meredith sighed. “Hold me?”

“I am, Meri. I am,” Dianthe squeezed her lover close, pressing her lips against the woman’s. “How about a shower, then some dinner? Karen and Sam are downstairs cooking up some really fine chili. Jason and Annie will be stopping by later on.”

Meredith raised her eyes, nodding. “Join me?”

Dianthe smiled, “Of course. Let me get the plastic wraps for your arm.”

She shed her uniform, tossing aside her bulletproof vest, and removing her tee shirt. She already secured her gun downstairs in the office. She helped Meredith out of her clothing, pressing gentle kisses against the bruised shoulder and throat.

Dianthe offered her right hand to the suddenly shy woman, leading her inside the master bath. Neither woman noticed the figure standing on the hill opposite the master bedroom.

************************

He had come back looking for his ring, but not been able to find it. It was dangerous, being out during daylight hours, especially with the activities happening in the household. Not to mention the Blackstone Sheriffs deputies patrolling the area, and the news crews. But he discovered he liked the thrill of fear he felt.

If he was found here, he could say he had spotted someone in the woods and decided to follow them. He had not been caught. Ever. He recalled his discharge from the marine corps ten years ago. His love of fire had gotten him in trouble.

Bored, one night he had lit up an old shed. It had been empty, but the military review board had considered the mental evaluation he had been given. He had chosen a general discharge rather than face a possible court marshal.

He had become tired of the Corps, of the way those not his equal were given power and authority. It had been there he had first met some of those he deemed brothers in arms. The Aryan Nation and its offshoots made him understand what was wrong with America.

He had moved back west, applying for a State Trooper slot that he held for several years. He had thought America was back on course when he saw the legislation against gays coming into being. He had joined others in teaching gays and lesbians that their crimes against God and Nature would not be tolerated.

No one had ever proven he had burnt down the house of a long time gay couple. Dawson had made sure of it. He and Dawson were good friends. Dawson was the brother his mother could not give him.

Hunkering down, he watched the two women undress. How could he have spent all these years feeling love for Meredith? He cursed himself for a fool. No wonder she had not responded to his presence.

She had been tainted. Tainted by long association with gays and lesbians. She did come from the East Coast. He decided he would have her once. He would teach her what it meant to be loved by a man of God. He would show her how real love was made, the way God had meant it to be.

Then he would kill her. He smiled. She had a strong survival instinct. It should be fun playing with her mind. He watched Jason’s truck pull in. He shook his head. It was a shame Jason and Annie were so brain washed by the ZOG controlled media. Jason had been good to him. So had Annie.

But he would kill them, if they interfered with his work. Rising, he slipped ghostlike out of the woods. He had spoken with Dawson. He had a favor he needed to attend to. One he would use others to do.

*******************

Morgan and Jason rose when Meredith came downstairs to the Great Hall. She and Dianthe had spent the last hour and a half upstairs, and their pink glow hinted more than showering had gone on. Wearing her Burntmountain sweats, she snuggled close against Dianthe’s right side.

“Hi, kiddo,” Jason gently ruffled Meredith’s damp curls, relieved. “Better?”

“Yes,” Meredith smiled, giving him a hug Jason hugged her back, lifting her up off the floor in a bear hug. She embraced Morgan, too. Morgan returned the hug, claiming it was dust in her eyes that made them tear.

Morgan gave Dianthe’s right shoulder an affectionate thump. Dianthe grinned back. Annie came up stairs, carrying trays laden with food and drink. “Meredith,” Annie laid aside the tray, and drew the smaller woman close. Meredith returned the hug, knowing her friends had been very worried about her.

“Katherine called while you were asleep. She has decided to come here to attend to the matter of a certain reporter. She will be here tomorrow afternoon. Dianthe, Ferris wants you fly down and pick her up. He will fly up here for a few days, too.

He wants to make sure that Dawson and his reporter understand the National Park Service is not amused. Not to mention that he will be attending the Burntmountain Cooperation meeting regarding expanding the Nordic skiing trails bordering the park.”

Dianthe inclined her head. She had known about Ferris. Katherine was a surprise. Meredith smiled. Katherine was fourteen years older than her sister, and the next in line to control the family law firm.

A striking, coolly beautiful woman whose photograph was on the mantel of the Great Hall fireplace. It was a family portrait taken three years ago. Meredith’s beloved Grandfather was a handsome, silver haired, blue-eyed man whose eighty years had not lessened his presence.

Her parents were vital and healthy. It seemed both the Murphy and Stanhopes’ were blessed with great vigor and longevity. Meredith had the stamina and steely determination that marked her family.

She was a strong woman. Dianthe reached over and took Meredith’s hand. Karen and Morgan would be leaving in the morning. They had attended to the matters that had required their presence, and both missed their home.

“Will you come back this weekend? I would like you to met Katherine…there’s more than enough room.”

Morgan and Karen exchanged looks, then Morgan said, “Sounds good. Besides, Annie and Jason are having a poker game this weekend.”

“Poker?” Dianthe listened with interest.

“Yup. Whenever Brett’s up, we play poker. We all came up through the ranks together. Should be a fun weekend.”

“Yeah. Want to hold it here?” Meredith asked.

Dianthe glanced at her lover. Meredith had not struck her as the type to play poker. “You play poker?”

“Sure; my grandfather taught me when I was five.”

“Watch yourself, Xavier. Behind those innocent eyes lies a true card shark,” Jason warned.

“What are the stakes?”

“Usually dinner out, though in your case, I could think of a better game,” Meredith murmured, sea green eyes sparkling. Relieved laughter greeted the quip. They had been worried about Meredith’s state of mind, since the arson incident.

Dianthe narrowed her eyes, studying her mate with intense interest. “Sounds like it could be dangerous.”

“I think I am too young for this,” Jason said, snaking his arm around Annie’s waist.

“Or too old,” Annie teased, soundly kissing her husband.

“Come, there’s food to be eaten,” Karen chasten, filling up a bowl of ground meat and beans chili with all the fixings. She handed it to Meredith. “Eat woman.”

Meredith sniffed the contents with appreciation, and took a bit as Karen served everyone else. Meredith ate the hot chili, sipping her iced tea between bites.

No one spoke of the fire, the suicide of the brokenhearted woman and compounding mystery surrounding their lives. Instead, they celebrated the joy of being together and being safe.

*************************

The flight down had been uneventful. Dianthe had gotten to the small airport outside of Blackstone two hours before she had to leave. She inspected the twin-engine, pressurized cabin plane twice, checking everything including the fuel for contamination and amount, and spoke with the airport mechanics about some changes he had done.

She rechecked her route, monitored the flight conditions and entered the necessary information inside the log. She hit the head, then did a final check of the plane. Assured all systems were working, she climbed inside and taxied to the runway. She had two planes ahead of her.

Thirty minutes later she was airborne, and twenty minutes ahead of her anticipated flight time. The plane performed well, but she missed the raw power of supersonic flight. But she was flying more frequently than she did in the glades.

One day she wanted to own her own plane. Maybe a restored Mustang or another old warbird she could restore. It would be an expensive hobby, but she loved working with her hands. She studied her instrument panel, monitoring the information on it. Knowing how to fly by instruments alone could determine whether or not a person survived bad weather conditions, and mountain flying meant lots of weather.

She permitted a portion of mind to wander to the tender moments she had shared last night with Meredith. She shivered, recalling how they had made love. Last night had been about tender touches and gentle love making Meredith. Dianthe felt her lips curl into a smile. She had never thought she would fall so deeply in love.

Her heart thumped when she remembered the frantic radio message about Meredith being trapped inside a burning shed. Dianthe had been finishing up her patrol. She had driven like a madwoman, lights flashing and siren blaring. When she had seen Meredith being hauled away from the collapsing structure she had held her breath till she saw Meredith was breathing.

It had been a frantic drive to the Blackstone hospital, Meredith unconscious but breathing. Dianthe had carried Meredith inside the hospital, bellowing for help. The ER nurses and doctors were quick to respond, having heard about the fire. They had taken the limp form out of her arms, and placed her on a gurney. A gray haired ER nurse had blocked Dianthe’s path, telling her the doctors and nurses would take of Meredith.

Dianthe had dropped heavily into one of the chairs lining the lounge for those that waited.

No one had approached the brooding woman wearing a bloodstained uniform whose eyes were fixed on the doors where they had taken her lover. She paced the corridor, craned her neck whenever a nurse or doctor emerged from ER. Four hours later Meredith had been moved to a private room after the Orthopedic surgeon had finished repairing the damaged limb.

The same steel-gray haired nurse had personally escorted the towering woman to the private room where Meredith lay. It seemed Doctor Christine Hastings-Murphy had arranged the room, and granted access to her daughter’s lover. Meredith had no secrets from her family. She had told her parents and sibling about herself and Dianthe, telling them she had found the one.

During that time Dianthe had sat, touching her lover’s good hand to make sure she was alive. There had been something in the back of her mind. Something that she had been unable to bring forward, and it had been haunting Dianthe since.

It hit her. No one had seen Maggie Sanderson beside the unmarked storage shed that most visitors passed without notice. Maggie Sanderson had been seen near the park concession stand and gift shop area a quarter mile away from the shed and Ranger Station/ District Headquarters. She had been inquiring about an overlook area, and checking her watch as she got the directions. One of the store clerks, a local kid, had wondered about her wearing heels if she was headed for the scenic overlook which had a trailhead.

She had come from the memorial service for her family. No one had said she had been drunk. Dianthe frowned. Jon did not found a suicide note, and the suite had been very neat. Maggie Sanderson had been a rock climber, a good one.

Purchasing a good climbing rope and other equipment did not hint towards suicide. Dianthe felt her blood run cold. She grabbed up the park radio and tried contacting Jason and Annie. But the distance was too great. Turning around would not be an option. She would tell Brett Ferris when she landed.

If she was right, Maggie Sanderson had been a victim of murder, not suicide. How had they missed it? She cursed herself and the others. They had a killer running loose, and the woman she loved was the target.

************

Jon Brandice studied the crime scene information, frowning when he read the coroner’s report. He studied the black and white photographs of remains of Maggie Sanderson. His heart began thumping wildly.

The report had been written by the under coroner, a young, inexperienced man new to being a doctor. He reached for the phone next to him. He was off duty, getting ready to go visit Meredith. He was seated on the verandah of the Victorian house. The squeal of tires racing down the street diverted his attention. A battered old Chevy Impala roared down the street, the windows tinted.

For a brief moment his mind registered what was happening even as the window dropped and the slug hit him in the chest. There was a vivid explosion of color in his mind, and the sheer power of the impact threw him backwards into the exterior wall of the house.

The car sped away. Distantly, Jon heard Patrick screaming his name, then a frantic shout for his secretary to call an ambulance. Jon met his lover’s tear filled eyes, trying to tell him what he had realized when the world fell away.

***********

Brett Ferris was not a tall or imposing man. He was five foot eight, leanly built and moved like a dancer . He radiated power and self-confidence despite his slight frame, and Dianthe smiled Here was a man used to taking control when things were spiraling out of control. For twenty-six years he had been a law enforcement ranger, SAR coordinator, river ranger and administrator.

He still wore his hair Marine Corps short. He had been a Marine Corps officer once he completed his college education as an ROTC student He hailed out of Harlem, New York City. His mother and father had worked hard to make sure their children would have a better life then they had. His father had been an NYPD cop and his mother a public school teacher who taught English and History to tough inner city kids too many sold short, but not her.

Brett grinned when Dianthe met him. His dark brown eyes were keen, and he liked what he saw. He extended his hand, and said, “Good to finally met you, Xavier.”

“Sir,” Dianthe accepted the firm, warm grasp. Brett Ferris was a mixture of Native American and African American bloodlines, she guessed.

“Call me, Brett,” Brett insisted, beaming. “Ms. Murphy should be landing in twenty more minutes. Her flight was delayed, so how about a cup of coffee?”

“Sounds good to me, but you have to call me Dianthe,” she stipulated.

“Good, I learned a lot from the Corps, including a vice for coffee.”

“Thought that was a law enforcement trait…”

“Nope; coffee and donuts would be the ticket there,” Brett chuckled. “How’s Meredith doing?”

“Better.”

“Great. She’s good people, and my wife would be very upset if she were not well. My wife’s a professional photojournalist, and shares Meredith’s love of wolves. Meredith’s pretty good with a camera herself; we have some great photos of the Spirit Lake pack she took.”

They made their way through the milling crowds of the small commuter plane section of the airport where Dianthe had landed. Two sets of beepers went off simultaneously. Both received the same message: call dispatch.

Brett pulled out phone and dialed the number, “Ferris here. What’s happening?”

Dianthe watched Ferris’ golden brown eyes narrow in anger. He met her eyes. “Once we have Ms. Murphy we will be underway. I will tell her what happened.”

Dianthe stiffened. “Meredith?”

“She’s fine, but a local Burntmountain deputy was gunned down. His name is Jon Brandice; he’s in ICU. Seems that a group of skinheads decided they would do the world a favor.” Brett slid the phone back inside his gray flannel suit’s inner pocket. He hitched his leather flight bag onto his shoulder. “Jason says they are part of Dawson’s old warehouse crew. Seems they have not been able to find work since their boss shut down the warehouse there.”

Dianthe recalled that his company had decided to relocate the Burntmountain operation to another section of the state. Business had not been good since word got out about the poaching, drug and gun running operations Dawson had run.

In the court of public opinion, he had been convicted. Besides, Burntmountain and Blackstone had thriving gay communities that worked hard to keep good relations within their towns. Ferris’s eyes were glinting, “My father’s grandfather was hung by a bunch of KKK members for just looking at a white girl down south. He heard her cry out, and he looked at her. He was a married man with three kids working three jobs to keep his family alive and together.

They dragged him from his house, and hung him in his own front yard that night. My grandfather never forgot that night of terror. You would think people would learn hate groups like the Aryan Nation , the KKK and all their ilk are destructive, not constructive, things.”

Dianthe sensed the man had run headfirst into such prejudices himself. He shook his head. “Not much we can do about it, but I don’t like it.”

Dianthe risked telling him what she suspected. He listened, head cocked to one side as he listened with an intensity rarely encountered. She watched him. He nodded. “Annie and Jason think the same thing: too many fires, too many circumstances that don’t add up.”

“Sanderson could have taken Meredith out the first time they met. Why fire? She could have used her car, even. First the fire that burnt Meredith’s research cabin down, then these last two fires.”

“Somebody likes fire.”

“Somebody who works with us, or knows us too well,” Dianthe stated.

Ferris weighed her words, the pieces of the puzzle beginning to fall into place. He made a few discreet phone calls. He had friends in several federal law enforcement agencies, and they would shake some closets to see what skeletons would fall out. Ferris advised her to keep her ideas to herself for the meanwhile, not wanting to tip their hand.

Twenty-five minutes later Dianthe heard her name being called over the airport intercom. Both she and Brett Ferris headed to the location given and found a tall, slender woman waiting. Katherine Murphy’s spotted them instantly, and lifted the garment bag and carryon with ease.

“Brett, nice to see you again. You must be Dianthe Xavier,” Katherine Murphy grayish blue eyes studied Dianthe with interest. Dianthe met the woman’s eyes, and found acceptance there. They shook hands, and Brett and Katherine exchanged a felt-felt hug. “I’m ready to go when you two are.”

“Then let’s go,” Bret said, falling into step beside the lovely blonde woman. Dianthe had offered to carry her bags, but Katherine had graciously declined.

********************

Patrick sat beside his unconscious lover, watching the machines that monitored his condition. Outside the private room stood one of the six deputies of the Burntmountain Sheriffs Department. No one was allowed in without clearance, by order of the sheriff.

The skinheads had been caught because their car blew out a tire on the edge of town. When the deputies and state troopers surrounded them, they opted to stand their ground. Two were killed in the gunfire exchange, and the remaining two surrendered. They were being held inside the small holding cell of the Sheriffs building, awaiting transport to Seattle.

Dawson had posted their bail several months ago when they were arrested with him. Since they were connected with the crimes that Dawson had been accused of, the feds wanted them. This shooting incident gave the power they needed to keep them locked up.

No doubt a bit of squeezing would encourage the two survivors to reconsider their loyalty to Dawson and Aryan Nation. Seeing two of their companions blown away made the reality of their situation all too obvious.

Patrick raised his weary eyes when the deputy permitted someone to enter. Meredith came forward, hugging her friend hard and sat beside him. Together, they sat beside Jon. Patrick knew she would come. He been crying, and Meredith offered her good arm and her heart.

*******************

“Meredith?” Katherine called out her sister’s name when she entered the main house. No answer.

She spotted something on the counter top. It was a hastily written note stating that Meredith had gone to Burntmountain Memorial Hospital.

“Dianthe, could I ask one more favor?”

“Sure,” Dianthe replied, frowning when she saw the note. ” Could you drive me to Burntmountain Memorial Hospital?”

Dianthe nodded. She had already noticed Meredith’s Eddie Bauer Ford Expedition missing. She had called Annie. No one had picked up Meredith. Meredith had driven. Considering her own condition, it was a damned dangerous and foolish thing to do.

“Give me five minutes,” Dianthe dashed back to the cabin. Furball meowed his displeasure. The last few days he had been feeling distinctly ignored.

Dianthe picked up her cat, pressing kisses into his fur before setting him down. She filled his water bowl with fresh water, spooned out fresh wet food and replenished his dry. With that done, she dashed down the hallway, and got out of her uniform and into civilian clothes.

A quick stop at the restroom soon had her ready for the drive. Katherine had gotten out of her dress and donned L. L. Bean blue jeans colored white shirt and a stone colored L.L.. Bean barn coat. She had taken her hair out of the pins that kept it up, and wore it in a simple French braid.

“Tell me she did not drive herself,” Katherine asked softly.

“She did,” Dianthe answered, pulling out of the drive. She did not get far when Meredith’s SUV came down the road.

Meredith pulled up alongside Dianthe’s vehicle. She looked pale, tired and in pain, but happy. “Jon’s out of danger. He’s going to be fine.”

Dianthe said nothing. Instead, she shut down her engine, climbed out, and walked to the side of Meredith’s vehicle. “Meredith, you are under doctor’s orders to rest. You are in no condition to drive short distances, let alone long ones.”

Meredith stiffened. She narrowed her eyes as storm clouds gathered behind those expressive eyes. “Sorry, Dianthe. I can deal with a little discomfort. Patrick needed someone there. I went. End of story.”

Meredith drove past Dianthe. She parked, slid out of the vehicle, and stormed up the steps of her house. Dianthe cursed. Katherine watched the entire scene with knowing eyes. “Your first fight, I take it?”

“How can she be so stubborn?” Dianthe shouted.

“She has Murphy and Stanhope blood. It comes with the territory,” Katherine warned, a hint of a smile curling her lips. Dianthe’s jaw muscles worked.

Christine slid out of Dianthe’s SUV. “Give her a bit, and she’ll be fine.”

“Right,” Dianthe snapped, climbing into her vehicle to drive away.

Katherine Murphy watched the dark haired woman drive away. She turned, and headed back towards the house. Meredith was pacing inside the kitchen, eyes flashing with a combination of annoyance and guilt.

Kat shook her head, and approached her little sister. “Meri.”

“Kat,” Meredith sighed, sitting down wearily. Katherine raised her sister’s chin and stared into her eyes. “She loves you very much, doesn’t she?”

Meredith nodded, sniffling.

“And you love her. What you did was not smart, honey. You are supposed to be recuperating. You could have had someone take you to the hospital, but you drove. She was scared you could have been in an accident due to the combination of your injures and stress.”

Meredith lowered her head, holding her injured arm close. Katherine sighed. “It hurts pretty bad, huh?”

Meredith managed a thin grin. Katherine shook her head, the fatigue of her flight forgotten. “Upstairs. A hot bath, some hot soup and sleep will help you feel better. Dianthe will be back when she cools down.”

“But–”

“But nothing, Meri. You are exhausted, frightened and angry. No a good combination, considering your physical condition. If you don’t listen, I’ll call Mom.”

Meredith flinched. She loved her mother dearly, but Christine Murphy was a formidable opponent when aroused. A sick child, even one almost thirty years old, would get the same hard line treatment patients did if they did not follow sound medical advice.

Her mother had cleared her schedule, transferring her patient load to her partner, and stayed to take care of her youngest. Meredith had never had a bad flu or cold until this tough case of pneumonia.

She spent five days hospitalized, her mother insisting on monitoring the level of care she received. When she was released, Christine and Dennis had stayed with her another two weeks. Meredith had found her mother very, very tough to sneak around. She had spent most of those weeks inside her master bedroom or den, watched over by her mother’s eagle eye.

When Christine had been a very young girl, a beloved elder sister had gotten a similar case of pneumonia. She had been the picture of health and vitality, till this case of pneumonia ravaged her. She had died.

Meredith bore a strong resemblance to her lost namesake, and Christine Murphy had determined history would not repeat itself. For an independent soul like Meredith, it had proven challenging.

Her father had kept his distance, knowing his beloved wife would not be easily swayed. Instead, he did his work out of Meredith’s office, fetched groceries, stocked the firewood pile with Jason and Sam, and visited his daughter whenever possible. Her father had come to understand the allure of this place, and spoke of building a vacation place outside of Blackstone.

Her mother seemed to like the idea, especially noting that it meant they would see their youngest more often. Meredith had vowed not to be sick again.

“Okay, I’ll be good,” Meredith sighed.

“Good. If Mom were not in presenting in Sydney right now, she would be here. Dad, too, but he’s working on big merger deal for two drug companies. Granddad and Grand mom want you visit them. Soon.”

Meredith nodded. She missed her grandparents. She would take a week and fly out East. She would not be working the field until midsummer, if not late summer. It would be wonderful to introduce Dianthe to them.

“How did Dad and Mom take the news clip?”

“How do you think, hon?” Katherine shook her head. “They were fit to be tied. They love you so much, Meredith. So do Rich and I. Look, the simple truth is we all thought you might be gay.”

Meredith froze, blinking. She shot her sister a puzzled look. Katherine smiled softly. “Meredith, you are a passionate woman. You have Murphy and Stanhope blood. You are my sister! I have had lots of lovers, but never been fortunate enough to find my soul mate. You have. Don’t let her go.”

“But what about the news story?”

“Why do you think I am here? Dad was furious anyone would dare hurt his youngest daughter. Mom was livid. Not to mention the rest of the family.”

Meredith lowered her eyes, knowing there would be another family heated debated about Dennis and Christine’s youngest child again. She sighed. There were times she wished she had been born into a regular family, since there were distinct advantages to anonymity.

Katherine prepared the tub while Meredith got undressed, her gaze drifting towards the cabin concealed by evergreens. She blinked back tears, hoping she had not damaged the relationship between herself and Dianthe.

**********************

Dianthe pulled back into the driveway hours later, having blown off the steam she needed to. She had stopped by and checked up on Jon and Patrick, then driven for another hour. Lights were on in the main house.

She pulled up alongside Meredith’s SUV, mustering her courage. They needed to talk. Both of them had been through a great deal in the last few weeks, and the attempted murders of Meredith and Jon had unnerved them both.

Dianthe mounted the rear steps, and rang the bell. A few minutes later Katherine Murphy appeared wearing comfortable light blue sweats. Dianthe blinked.

Katherine laughed, “Look, even very rich, very powerful international lawyers like comfortable stuff. Come on inside. She’s upstairs in the den. I’ll be working out of the office. Go see her.”

“Ms. Murphy…”

“Kat. Call me Kat. Friends and family call me Kat,” Katherine smiled.

Dianthe nodded, “Kat. Thanks. Call me Dianthe.”

“Dianthe, go, she misses you.”

Dianthe smiled, straightened her shoulders and headed upstairs. Meredith sat gazing into the flames of the fireplace, a cup of tepid herbal tea forgotten. Dianthe cleared her throat, and Meredith looked up.

She had been crying. Dianthe mentally kicked herself for being such a jackass. Meredith may have said she was fine, but the woman had been through hell lately.

They met halfway. Dianthe held her lover close, murmuring words of comfort while Meredith stammered out an apology. She leaned down, kissing away the tears. “We need to talk, Meri.”

Meredith led her to the couch where they had become lovers and sat down. Dianthe started talking, and Meredith listened. When Dianthe had finished, it was her turn to listen.

**********************

Brett Ferris and Katherine Murphy had left three weeks ago, having spent a week clearing up the situations that brought them to Burntmountain. Meredith had sat in on the ski resort expansion meeting, since her input was vital.

Jon was slowly recuperating, the skinheads that shot him were being held a federal prison, and the emergency cache shed had been rebuilt. The Murphy-Stanhope Foundation had donated an impressive amount of money to replace the lost gear, and combined with federal moneys, the equipment was better than what they had had.

Not to mention the donated rescue equipment sent by local sporting goods stores. Meredith was still the secondary SAR coordinator for the park, so she was examining each piece of gear with a critical eye.

Charlie Fenton was helping her square away the gear, though he did not do heavy lifting. The seasonals were providing the grunt work. Charlie wore a back brace, moving with infinite care. He was on light duty. Since Dottie had gone back East to tend her ailing sister, he was acting as a Dispatcher.

“Well, fire sometimes helps clean things up, I guess,” Charlie observed, glancing over his equipment list.

Meredith frowned. She had almost been killed in the fire he was talking about. “I would have preferred we had our old shed and equipment, Charlie. And that Maggie Sanderson was alive.”

“Yeah, there are a lot of things I wished for to. But life unfolds how it wants, not how we would make it,” Charlie shook his head. He watched a pretty woman named Bethany Pierce working alongside Danny and Tracy.

She was a seasonal law enforcement ranger, and very sweet nature. She was about twenty-five years old, almost nine years younger than Charlie Fenton, but he liked her.

Meredith frowned. Bethany had made it clear she thought he was fine as coworker, but nothing more. She was engaged to be married this Fall to her longtime beau. He was another seasonal ranger working in Glacier National Park.

“Bethany, want to grab a burger after we finish stowing the gear?” Charlie asked, smiling.

Bethany hesitated, and Danny stepped forward. “Hey, how about we all go? It will fun. Charlie, you can teach me how to put some English in my pool game,” he enthused, beaming.

Charlie froze. Anger clouded his eyes, but turning down the man would not be smart. Tracy hid a grin behind her hand. Danny had saved Bethany again. She and Danny had become very, very close.

There was something about Danny that her feel warm and safe inside. Danny was the type of man she could really love. And he felt the same way about her. Jason and Annie both had made comments that this spring seemed to be affecting their staff more than usual.

Charlie knew he had been cornered, and managed a thin smile. “Yeah, kid, I’ll teach you how to play pool.”

Meredith found herself becoming aware of the fact she was uncomfortable around the man. Charlie never made direct comments about her and Dianthe, but it was clear he was upset. Dianthe and she were open about what they meant to each other.

A glance at her watch told her she needed to heading out for her physical therapy appointment in Burntmountain soon. She stretched her lower back, glad she had been given clearance to start working.

In three weeks she and Dianthe would be flying out East to spend a week with her family. It was a big step for them. Especially for Dianthe. This week she had finally moved into the main house, and Furball was in kitty heaven.

The main house was sprawling, so he could find all types of sleeping and hiding places. Not to mention beams that he could climb on. Dianthe had been less than pleased to learn her cat had a very wicked sense of humor.

He discovered he could jump beam to beam high above the Great Hall, reducing his stalwart mother to a nervous wreck. Meredith reminded her time and time again cats did, and always would climb high things, and that he should be fine.

Dianthe had begrudgingly accepted Meredith’s expert opinion, and let the cat explore. Tonight was the first night in two weeks that Dianthe had not pulled the night shift. Meredith had already planned a fine dinner for them.

“Meri, you gonna join us tonight?” Tracy asked, sliding her arm around Danny’s lean waist.

“Nope. Dianthe and I have plans for tonight,” Meredith answered. “And if I am going to make my physical therapy appointment, I have to leave now.”

Tossing Tracy the clipboard, she exited the larger shed that had been finished a week ago. She saw Dianthe parking outside the Ranger station. Dianthe beamed when she spotted Meredith.

“Hi,” Meredith said, appreciating the easy stride of her lover. They brushed lips quickly. “How’s the patrol going?”

“Nothing much to talk about…” Dianthe slid an arm around Meredith’s waist. “How’s the new shed?”

“Good, it’s almost twice the size of the old one. Better racking systems for the gear, too. And three fire extinguishers located inside and windows that Danny and Jason could climb out of,” Meredith felt Dianthe’s arm squeeze around her waist. “I’ll be home around six or six thirty. Do you want anything from Burntmountain?”

Dianthe glanced around, making sure they were basically alone. “You. I want you,” Dianthe leaned down, claiming Meredith’s lips. Her hands smoothed up and down Meredith’s sides. “I’ll pick up something nice at Decadent Delights.”

“Hmmm, sounds good,” Meredith reluctantly broke free. “See you tonight.”

Dianthe glimpsed Charlie watching Meredith climb into her Expedition. There was coldness behind his eyes that made Dianthe’s blood run cold. She turned to face him.

“Something wrong, Charlie?”

Charlie shook his head, “Nope. Just glad to see Meredith feeling better, that’s all.”

Dianthe did not trust the man. Charlie had been distant before, but now he had an edge she did not like. Jason, Annie and Tracy had noticed it, too. Charlie slipped past her, humming a strange tune beneath his breath.

Dianthe flanked him. She had another four hours left on her patrol, but she needed a quick restroom break and coffee. Tracy and Danny would be taking the night shift for the next few weeks, meaning Meredith and Dianthe would be working the same schedule. It worried her that Meredith drove herself, but the doctors said it was fine.

Besides, it gave Meredith a sense of control.

*****************

Jon Brandice would be released from the hospital in another few days. He had been fortunate that his lover was a surgeon, and the hospital not far from their home. His memory of the day was very vague, but he knew there was something had meant to tell Dianthe and Meredith.

He sighed, shook his head and watched the TV. No wonder Americans were so confused. TV left much to be desired. He clicked off the set, and picked up the book he had been reading. The door to his room opened, and Meredith entered. She flashed him a big grin, and handed him big paper bag containing his favorite deli sandwich and an iced tea.

“You are a life saver, Meri,” Jon said, attacking the ham, Swiss and mustard sandwich with pleasure.

“And I brought you some movies, honey,” Meredith stated.

“But there’s no DVD player,” he said, rummaging through the discs with appreciative eyes.

“They will be hooking it up this afternoon, Jon. Consider it an early birthday gift.”

Jon grinned. He would watch Mister Rogers and Operation Petticoat tonight. He beamed when he saw the other titles: Scream, Scream II, and the Halloween series.

“Thanks, Meri,” Jon opened his arms, and Meredith gave him a gentle hug. “How’s your arm?”

“Hurts, but it will for sometime to come. Your husband is a sadist, by the way.”

Jon smiled. Patrick and his partners knew how much Meredith missed her freedom. Physical therapy was never easy, especially when the limb in question had been damaged twice. “Yes, he can be when a patient is as stubborn as you can be, Meri. Give it time, and you will be clinging off mountainsides, mountain biking, and the like.”

Meredith laughed. She perched on the edge of her friend’s bed. “You had me scared, Jon. No more getting shot.”

“And you no more fires,” Jon said, offering up his right pinky. Meredith snared his pinky with her own. “Pinky promise.”

“What does Patrick say?”

“I’ll regain most of the function of the arm, but this time there was a little bit of nerve damage. Nothing that will hold me back, but damage none the less,” Meredith said, settling down for a brief visit.

Jon playfully inquired about Dianthe and herself, and Meredith’s bashful blush made him beam. Meredith spent forty minutes with him, telling stories and laughing. When she left, Jon could not shake the feeling of building dread.

******************

He watched Meredith’s Eddie Bauer Ford Expedition driving up the winding road that lead to her house. He tracked her progress with the scope of the M40A1 Marine Corps sniping rifle. A gentle squeeze of the trigger and Meredith’s head would explode like rotten fruit.

He grinned, envisioning what the reaction of Dianthe would be to finding the headless corpse of her lover. He felt himself getting hard. He thought about the sweet young woman that he decided he would woo. They had gone out. Played pool, drank some beers, embellished stories about themselves. There had been a point when Bethany had been leaning over the pool table that he had been hard pressed not to take her.

His lower back still ached. Maggie Sanderson had been a fighter. He had used her climbing rope to choke the life out of her when he met her outside the park. She had been walking around the park, wanting to confront Meredith and Dianthe again.

He had come up behind her, identified himself, and said he had some information she could use. They agreed to meet outside the park. Maggie had understood he could not risk being seen giving her vital information concerning how Meredith Murphy had gotten her family killed.

Maggie Sanderson had taken the bait. It had been easy, her guard had been down. He had given her copies of Meredith’s reports concerning the bear. She had read the concise notes with mounting disbelief: Meredith had done her job right.

It had been amusing, watching the false hope of someone else being wrong fade. He had gotten her climbing rope, and choked the life out of her. His back had gone out during the brief, but strong struggle.

He had still managed to hang her body from the beams of the hotel room where he met her. He had gotten in and out without being seen. Once he was away from the crime scene, he changed clothing, and buried his clothing deep in the woods. No fiber evidence. He had worn leather driving gloves when he had been inside her hotel room.

He felt himself become fully erect. He groaned, slinging his weapon, and released his engorged member. The cool, damp mountain air felt good on it. Dianthe and Meredith where kissing on the deck.

Dianthe had Meredith pinned against the side of the house, her right knee pressed firmly between Meredith’s legs. It seemed they could not wait to get inside. Dianthe had Meredith’s shirt open, and was busy suckling her lover’s nipples while her hand worked lower.

He timed his strokes with the action occurring on the deck. Meredith was beginning to writhe, her face contorted with pleasure, her hands clutching the towering woman’s sides. Dianthe was laser locked on what she was doing.

Meredith’s scream announced she had come. He bit his tongue, not permitting himself to cry out as he ejaculated. He dropped to his knees, quivering with release. He touched his organ affectionately, watching Dianthe soothing her lover. He hoped they would make love in the den. He could watch them.

Yeah, there was something about watching two beautiful women doing it that made a man hard. He would grant himself the release he had denied himself the last few times. He left his organ out, enjoying the sense of heightened danger.

Being caught, exposed and hard, added to the risk. He grinned. He liked this unfolding game. Dawson had been upset with him when they had spoken. He did not want him playing with the two women.

He wanted Meredith Murphy dead. Her testimony, combined with the photographic evidence would be damning. There was only so long lawyers could play their games, and keep Dawson out of prison. He was becoming very anxious.

I am the master of this game, he thought. His organ stiffened again, and he watched the unfolding scene in the den. They did not disappoint him.

**************

Dianthe stretched out, watching Meredith warming up for their morning run. Meredith was wearing one of Dianthe’s old Navy sweatshirts. It was a couple of sizes too large, but Meredith looked cute wearing it.

“Ready?” Dianthe asked as the woman straightened to her full height.

“Yup…” Meredith gave her a quick kiss on the lips and turned towards the innermost running trail she had designed. Since she could not work the trail, she had hired some of the grounds crew to maintain the property.

They began running. Dianthe took the lead, her longer stride carrying her further than Meredith’s. But Meredith kept up. She ran every day she was not in the field for prolonged periods, and it showed. In high school and college, Meredith ran cross-country and had continued it.

Dianthe let herself slip into the Zen-like state that accompanied running, savoring thoughts of last night. She remembered how she had been too impatient to wait, and had taken Meredith right on the porch.

Meredith had not fought her. Instead, she had surrendered, encouraging the other woman with soft moans and hot kisses. Later, it had Meredith’s turn to be the aggressor, something Dianthe discovered she rather enjoyed.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Meredith asked half way through their six mile run.

“Thinking about last night,” Dianthe answered honestly, cobalt blue eyes molten.

“Definitely one of the best nights I’ve ever had,” Meredith replied, cresting a ridge. The damp, chilled morning air made her breathe mist.

Dianthe laughed, nodding her head. “We never did get to eat your surprise from Decant Delights.”

“I thought you were my treat,” Meredith quipped back. swatting Dianthe playfully on the butt and beating feet.

For a heartbeat Dianthe froze, rubbing her bottom and watching the other woman running for her life. Dianthe grinned, and gave pursuit. Meredith veered off the path, following a game trail with incredible ease.

Dianthe made noise. Meredith did not. Meredith moved ghostlike through the trail, though when she risked a glance over her shoulder she let out a yelp. Dianthe closed the distance with ease, snagging Meredith by the collar of the sweatshirt.

“Gotcha, you imp,” Dianthe pushed the smaller woman up against the trunk of a tree and kissed her deeply. Meredith slid her arms up around Dianthe’s neck.

They kissed for several minutes. “Hmm…how much time before we have to go to work?”

Distracted, Dianthe glanced down at her wristwatch. “Two hours…”

“Good,” Meredith began sliding down Dianthe’s length, pressing kisses through the damp fabric of her running sweats.

Dianthe began leaning back against the ledge formed out of two boulders and surrounded by trees. Her blood chilled when she spotted the bullet laying atop the leaf litter. She noticed the heavy boot prints, then the whitish globs on the leaf litter. The positioning of the feet, relative to the location of the semen, told her what had happened.

Meredith felt the tension, and knew it was not the tension of passion, but alarm. She scanned the area, seeing what Dianthe had, and then glanced towards the house. “Oh god…”

“Come on…” Dianthe hauled Meredith up, noting the location of the sight. She cursed herself for not having something to pick up the bullet with. “We may not be alone.”

Meredith nodded. They left, trying not to disturb the sight when Dianthe spotted a figure wearing camouflage dash between the trees a few hundred yards ahead of them. The figure wore a knitted ski mask, making identification impossible, and the rifle slung across the prowler’s figure made their situation worse.

They ran back to the house, Dianthe thankful for the fact Meredith kept her key on a long fabric leash worn around her neck. Dianthe shoved Meredith inside, slamming the door behind them.

“Stay low. Our friend has a rifle,” Dianthe snapped, risking reaching up and grabbing the phone. She dialed the Blackstone sheriffs’ office, then Jason and Annie.

“Last night…”

“I know, Meri, I know,” Dianthe met her lover’s frightened eyes. Last night they had been watched. Most likely they had been watched for days, if not longer. “Look, I’m going for my gun. Stay here.”

Furball purred, rubbing himself between his favorite humans, not certain what had upset them. Meredith held the purring animal close, shivering despite her best efforts at not being afraid. Dianthe crawled across the floor, then rose and made a dash for the office where she kept her weapon secured.

Anger was replacing fear. Someone was playing with them. The bullet had been very, very deliberately laid out. Dianthe heard sirens announcing the arrival of Jason and Annie and the Blackstone sheriff department.

Meredith rose, holding Furball close. Dianthe wanted to kill the person responsible for stalking the woman she loved. She knew it was directed at Meredith, not her. Meredith seemed lost, her illusion of safety and sanctuary shattered.

Dianthe heard the clump of heavy male feet up the stairs, and the deputies were shouting out their names. Jason and Annie were outside, too. It had taken them twenty minutes to arrive.

In the time it had taken them to arrive, they could have been dead. It was a sobering realization. Dianthe left Meredith with Annie, and lead the way to the ledge. The bullet was gone. But the message, “Dykes” had been painted across the rock surface in orange spray paint.

Next to it, the symbol of Nazism and hatred: the swastika. Once a holy symbol in another religion, the swastika had been perverted by the Nazi’s and their offspring. Meredith’s name had been written too, then dashed out. The message was clear. Meredith Murphy was a marked woman. Dianthe turned and slammed her fist against a tree.

No one commented on the action, nor the blood that seeped out of the woman’s hand.

“We won’t let anything happen to her,” Jason murmured softly.

“This bastard has been watching us, Jas.”

“I know, I know,” Jason squeezed the upset woman’s shoulder’s. “Hal and his men will handle it for now. I’ll let Brett know what’s happened; he has friends that will make sure we get this sick son of a bitch.”

Dianthe’s jaw muscles worked hard. The men shifted, uncomfortable with the fact none of them had seen the stalker. The simple fact was the bastard might have a bead on any of them. And though they might not fully understand or accept the bond between the two women, they did not like the bastard behind this.

Jason kept his hand on her shoulder, and said, “Let’s get that hand cleaned up. Meredith needs you sane right now, not losing it.”

Dianthe inclined her head, and fell into step beside Jason. When they entered the house Meredith had completed her statement, looking tired and angry. Furball had taken himself up to the beams, watching the humans below with feline uncertainty.

Annie was sitting beside Meredith, one arm wrapped around the shivering woman. Dianthe knelt before her lover, and gently raised her chin. “You okay?”

“No, but I will be,” Meredith met her lover’s eyes with total trust. “Your hand!”

“A tree got in her way,” Jason answered.

Meredith rose, guiding her lover to the sink where she washed off the hand. Annie brought the small medical kit Meredith kept downstairs, and the deputies milled around. Annie motioned them outside, where she and Jason spent time discussing what needed to be done.

“You gonna be all right?”

Meredith had gotten the grit out of the wound, had applied the antiseptic ointment, and was busy bandaging the hurt. She raised her eyes, studying Dianthe, “Yes. I survived being left to die once before. Now I have a better reason to keep alive: you.”

Dianthe searched those amazing eyes, and saw the same steely determination that she had glimpsed behind the eyes of several female fighter pilots she had known. She slid her arms around Meredith, pulling her in close for a brief kiss. “I won’t let them hurt you.”

Meredith smiled, and settled into the embrace. Dianthe felt no need to release her, so they stood holding each other in the kitchen.

**************

Charlie Fenton watched Dianthe stride inside the Ranger Station, and smiled. Twelve days had passed, and no one had seen hide nor hair of the stalker. Deputies patrolled the woods, and Annie and Jason were staying in the cabin behind the main house. Meredith was forbidden to go anywhere alone, and the pressure was beginning to show.

Even Charlie stopped by to check up on her twice. He had brought flowers, and had checked the property with Jason. He and Jason had talked about what they would do to the bastard stalking Meredith.

Meredith was overseeing a grounds crew reopening the Witch Mountain hiking trail. Repairs were almost complete, and the media had lessened. Charlie hit the transmission button, and said, “330, Dispatch.”

“330,” Meredith answered. She sounded winded. Dianthe paused. Brett and Jason insisted the woman check in via radio ever two hours when she was out in the field. Meredith had reluctantly accepted the new conditions, since it was the only way she could be in the field.

“How much longer do you anticipate being up on Witch Mountain?”

“Another three hours,” Meredith’s disembodied voice responded, the sound of male voices exchanging playful insults in the background.

“10-4,” Charlie jotted down the date and time and location in the radio log. “Dispatch clear at 1100 hours.”

Charlie smiled and waved at Dianthe. “Good afternoon, Dianthe.”

“Good afternoon, Charlie,” Dianthe murmured. Charlie would be returning to regular duty in another week or so.

Dianthe headed for the locker room. She had the eleven to nine shift, the same as Annie and Tracy. The late and early shifts were covered by the seasonals, leaving the standard day shift to the permanent rangers.

Brett was working on sending up two full time law enforcement rangers out of headquarters in Seattle. The two rangers would be augmenting the existing law enforcement staff as a precaution. Brett did not want Meredith hurt. The Blackstone Sheriff’s was keeping an eye on the property, the deputies checking the house and cabin when Dianthe and Meredith were out.

Brett had called Meredith last night, checking up on her. They had spoken for an hour, and Meredith had been laughing when the conversation ended. He cared about his people, and he really liked Meredith. Dianthe realized how rare a man like Brett Ferris was. He had worked his way up through the ranks, and respected those that loved what they did. Brett had a talent for making his people feel good. Dianthe realized how rare such people were. Meredith inspired similar feelings in her coworkers and friends.

Dianthe found Annie and Tracy already inside the locker room, chatting. The three women exchanged greetings, Tracy ”

“This is serious, Annie,” Dianthe interjected, winking towards Tracy. “She has been with Danny a couple of weeks now.”

“Yup, Jason and I noticed that. Wish we had placed bets like some other folks did. I understand Sam won six hundred bucks on Danny keeping her attention. Understand the boys in Boise figured he would last only about two weeks, max, so they lost a ton of money on the pool Sam ran.”

Tracy heaved a sigh. “You two are rotten. And Sam is dead meat when I catch him.”

“Nope; just honest, ma’am,” Dianthe drawled. “Not to mention you won some money on myself and Meri getting together, if memory serves.”

Tracy laughed. “Okay; you got me dead to rights. But Danny’s really special. He knows me, and I know him, somehow. He’s really incredible.”

“So are you, sweetie,” Annie said affectionately. “But we’ve never seen you settle on one man before.”

Tracy grinned. “I think I found the one I’ve been looking for. Maybe I had to tryout a lot of would-be mates, but it was worth the wait.”

Annie smiled, pleased. “Good, we will be having another full time law enforcement position opening up soon. Danny and Jason have already spoken about it. We finally got the funding needed, and Charlie does not want a full-time slot. Neither does Hank nor Carl. Danny had great grades in college, outstanding scholar level, and he has a great track record with parks he worked.”

Tracy beamed. His odds were good. Jason and Annie were very, very selective, and barring a vet wanting the position Danny had a real shot at it. Charlie had settled down, backing off on Bethany. Jason had spoken with him.

From what the scuttlebutt said, it had been a very intense conversation concerning Charlie’s performance and behavior since he had come back from the wintertime furlough. Rumor had it he had been told his services would no longer be needed by the Burntmountain ski patrol due to an incident that had happened when he was on-duty. Jason speaking with the longtime seasonal law enforcement ranger must have been sobering for the man. Annie never said anything, but Dianthe sensed her tolerance for Charlie’s current behavior was very limited.

“Come, we got work to do..” Annie said, buttoning her uniform shirt over her protective vest. “Tracy, you and I are sharing a unit today. Jason had to take one of the vehicles down to Burntmountain today. He and Morgan are meeting about the new shared response training course we will be holding.”

Tracy nodded. “Sounds good to me. I’ll drive.”

Annie shrugged her shoulders, “Good, I can keep an eye out for our mysterious friend.”

Dianthe knew where she would patrol near. Witch Mountain. She dressed, hit the head, and headed out of the Ranger Station. Charlie seemed nervous. She frowned, watching him watching Annie and Tracy driving away.

“Something wrong, Charlie?”

Charlie met her eyes, and there was a look of pure loathing behind his eyes for a brief moment. He regained control of himself. “No. It’s nothing.”

He headed back towards the desk. Dianthe reached for the keys to the patrol unit. She frowned. She usually had the unit Annie and Tracy had taken. It was the oldest of the patrol vehicles, but still in good shape for all the action it had seen.

She got the newest one. Annie must have decided she earned the right to play with the donated Range Rover. Dianthe grinned, taking the keys and headed out. Today was shaping up to be a fine day.

*****************

Meredith frowned as she drove along the back roads with her three-man team. The suburban bounced along the rough roads that she rarely used, but the crew wanted to see Haunted Bear Rock. It added forty-five minutes to the drive, the long way back to the station, but these were good guys and worth it.

Bobby had turned out to be one hell of good worker, and Meredith discovered he really loved nature. He had good grades, and quick mind, and a good sense of humor. But his family could not afford college.

Meredith had been helping him study, and working on getting him ready for college by verbally quizzing him when they did trail work . The Murphy’s had a college scholarship fund, and she had already spoken with her family. Bobby would be attending college.

He wanted to be a wildlife biologist, and Meredith had connections. She had told him yesterday about the scholarship, and he had been grinning ever since. His parents had called and thanked her.

Meredith told them their son had done the real work, and how good of a kid he was.

“That rock was so cool,” Bobby enthused.

Meredith smiled, unable to shake a sense of dread that had been haunting for several hours. Her gray-green eyes narrowed when she spotted black smoke as she approached a dangerous turn in the old logging road. It was a road closed to visitor vehicles, and only used by park personnel for patrols and trail repairs. Meredith pulled over and parked the vehicle on the interior shoulder of the road.

She saw the torn soil, the shattered trees and knew a vehicle had lost control. She jogged towards the edge of the ravine and spotted a form laying on the grassy slope. She slid down the slippery slope, recognizing the form instantly: Annie.

With infinite care she checked for the woman’s vital signs and found a pulse. She shouted for help, and the seasonal crew came running. “Christopher, get the trauma bag. Bobby, call dispatch. Tell them there’s been an accident involving Annie and Tracy. We will need a medevac. Todd, get the backboard down here.”

Christopher came down the slope with the forty pound run bag slung over his shoulder, and hunkered beside Meredith,”Take over patient care. Tracy told me they were riding together today.”

They both gazed down at the twisted, smoldering wreckage of the flipped over patrol unit. He nodded, breaking the plastic seals on the international orange trauma bag that was part of the standard emergency cache kept in all the vehicles. Having the right gear could make the difference between life and death, especially in remote locations within the sprawling park.

They both stared down at the twisted, smoldering remains of the flipped over patrol unit. He nodded, unzipping the run bag and fishing out a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff. Todd skidded to a halt, placing the orange backboard down beside Annie and Christopher. He turned and ordered Todd Whitestar down to help Meredith find Tracy. The shaking youth came sliding down the slope, his brown eyes never leaving the woman that was laying on the ground.

Todd was a very shy young man whose mixed linage had given his father’s dark brown eyes and sienna brown complexion, and his mother’s long, silky dark hair. He was not very tall, but he had lithely muscular frame.

Meredith steeled herself against what she might find, and approached the smoldering truck. It had caught fire. If Tracy had been inside, there was no way she would be alive. She found Tracy’s body twenty feet beyond the smoldering wreckage. She must have either jumped or been thrown clear like Annie. Her body lay shattered and broken on the rocky ground. At some point, she had hit a very low branch, and the results had been instantly fatal.

She found herself fighting for control of her stomach’s contents, and waved back Todd coming to help out. “We can’t help her.”

“How do you know?” Todd asked.

“She was decapitated,” Meredith removed her twill uniform jacket and laid it over something roundish on the bloody ground. She would grieve later. She made her way back up the slope, ignoring the sound of Todd getting sick.

She knelt beside Christopher Davidson, the oldest of the seasonal staff members and a former Marine Corps medic. He had begun a full patient assessment, and Meredith knelt beside him. She pulled on latex gloves and began helping him.

“Tracy?” he asked, inclining his head towards the open bag, “Need a collar..” he said softly as he stabilized Annie’s head.. Meredith nodded, picking up the adjustable collar that was inside the run bag. He watched Meredith expertly measured the collar, then how she smoothly slipped underneath the unconscious woman. She had it secured within seconds, then she measured the proper oropharyngeal airway against the landmarks of edge of Annie’s lips to the tip bottom of her ear.

Meredith slid the hard plastic airway device down Annie’s throat to maintain an open airway. Christopher kept Annie’s head stable, and would until they had her the back board and tied down. Still focused on the task that needed to be completed Meredith setup the sheathed oxygen cylinder with practiced ease, hooking up the flexible tubing and testing the flow before fitting the non-rebreather mask over Annie’s face. A flutter valve had been removed to prevent suffocation, should the oxygen run out. “Tracy?”

Lips compressed, Meredith continued doing what needed to be done to stabilize Annie. Meredith never raised her eyes, intent on doing what she could for the woman they were working on. “She didn’t make…”

“Damnit…” Christopher shook his head. “Todd, Bobby, we need the backboard and ropes laid out for a steep slope,” Meredith barked out, applying pressure bandages over several nasty wounds with cold determination.

Neither youth questioned the tersely delivered order, nor the silence of the tawny haired woman working with grim determination on the pallid woman she was hunched over.

Christopher met her eyes, nodding. Todd struggled back up the slope, and followed Meredith’s directions. He and Bobby began getting the ropes, pulleys. slings and carabineers out, as well as the backboard. Soon they had Annie secured to the backboard, her head tied down and her body carefully secured along with the oxygen bottle. Meredith had rechecked her pupils: they were unequal, and blood was trickling out Annie’s ears and nose.

A test with a four-by-four gaze pad showed haloing, another bad sign of a major head injury.

She had hit her head hard against something during the accident. Somehow she had been thrown clear of the vehicle, and landed on relatively soft grass and wildflowers. Her vitals were better than Meredith would have expected, but Annie was still not out of the woods.

“Give a few minutes,” Meredith growled, hauling herself up the slope. It took her several minutes, but she had rechecked rescue ropes and pulley system with a nod of satisfaction. They secured the backboard with exquisite care, none of them wanting to make a mistake.

“Okay. We need to do this by the numbers,” Meredith told her crew as they prepared to carry their patient up the ravine. Bobby reappeared, looking winded. He had run up to give a status report before returning to help haul Annie up the slope. “Charlie says he’s contacted the Air National Guard,” he panted.

“Good, what’s the ETA?”

“He said we should have an answer soon, and more O2’s on the way…”

Meredith nodded. She made sure each of her team members had a good grip, and began hauling Annie up the slope. It took almost ten minutes, but soon they had her up on the road.

“Bobby, Todd, clear out the back of the truck. We need to get her to a clearing so the helicopter can land,” Meredith ordered, running another vitals check with Christopher recording the information on the run-sheet.

There were indications of broken ribs, too. Meredith heard the wail of a siren approaching them fast. Meredith noticed Annie’s vitals were declining, “Christopher, keep an eye on her.”

Meredith slid into the front bench seat. “Dispatch, what’s the ETA of the helicopter?”

“Air National Guard can be up your way in five minutes. They are rerouting from an SAR exercise,” Charlie sounded anxious. “Where do you want them to meet you?”

“Grover’s clearing up on the top of the mountain; it’s the best landing zone around here, and the wind should be good for a landing. Tell them she has multiple injuries, including signs of skull fracture, broken leg and ribs. We are stabilizing her as best as possible.”

“Tracy?”

“She didn’t make it,” Meredith answered softly. She saw Jason hurtle out of the patrol unit and run towards his wife. He glanced at his wife, then met Meredith’s eyes. Meredith watched Jason master his emotions, and said, “Give us a hand getting her inside the truck, Jason. And I need your bag’s oxygen bottle.”

Jason nodded, grasping the edge of the backboard. With infinite care they slid her inside the back of the cleared Suburban, settling her down for the brief ride. Bobby brought the run bag out Jason’s vehicle, pulling out the nylon encased oxygen bottle that would soon be used. The Range Rover pulled over and parked as Dianthe joined the rest of the group.

“Coroner’s been contacted,” Dianthe announced, lips pressed thin. She inclined her head. “Charlie’s contacting the others; we have everything covered, Jason.”

Jason nodded, and slid up into the back of the SUV to keep a vigil over his wife. He was an EMT, like Meredith and Christopher. Meredith and Christopher would return once Annie had been picked up. Dianthe watched the vehicle drive up the road that lead to the top of the mountain.

She turned towards the two stunned trail crewmembers remaining behind, cleared her throat and said, “Ok, I need statements. Todd, you first.”

Taking out the small, green flip cover memo pad, she began taking down the statements. They had not witnessed the accident, but it would document how things were handled during the critical first few minutes. There might also be something one of them observed that might explain why the vehicle had gone off the road.

One thing was obvious: the loss of control had been dramatic and sudden. The consequences had proven fatal for Tracy, and perhaps, Annie, too.

********************

Meredith stepped back as the Air National Guard helicopter rose smoothly and sped towards Burntmountain. The drive would have taken over three hours this far into the park, time Annie did not have. Her condition had become dicey.

The paramedics had been giving her necessary IVs, haven gotten the medical information that she and Christopher had meticulously written down. Jason would accompany his wife to the hospital. Meredith leaned against the bumper of the vehicle, and permitted herself a chance to cry for Tracy.

Christopher squeezed her shoulder and said, “I know it’s hard…real hard, losing someone you care about like you did Tracy. She was a good woman. Sorry, Meredith.”

Meredith met the young man’s eyes and saw painful experience mirrored there. Christopher had been in Bosnia. He never discussed what he had seen there, but it had been enough that he had left the military. He was roommates with Danny.

She swallowed hard. “Come, let’s see if we can help Dianthe out.”

They climbed back into the vehicle and drove back to the accident site. Several non-park vehicles were pulled alongside the road, and Danny was being restrained by Dianthe and Hank. He was shouting Tracy’s name, and cursing Dianthe and Hank. Hank was retired Seattle detective that had moved up the town of Blackstone when his wife of twenty-four years had died in a car accident, and kept himself busy with fly fishing and working as an intermittent law enforcement ranger. He stood six-four, and was still a powerfully built man, but he and Dianthe were having a hard time holding onto their screaming coworker.

Dianthe held fast, not permitting him to see the terrible sight. Bethany Pierce and Jack Talbot, the other two seasonal law enforcement rangers, were helping the coroner’s people haul Tracy’s remains up the slope. Meredith walked towards Dianthe, Hank and Danny.

“Meredith, tell them it’s not Tracy,” Danny insisted frantically.

“I’m sorry, Danny. I’m so sorry,” Meredith said softly. Her blood stained twill work jacket had been laid atop the body bag holding the remains. “I need back my name plate and badge from my twill work jacket, if possible.”

The coroner, a robust, raven-haired Hispanic man with kind hazel eyes named Sanchez nodded. “Hang on,” he snagged the blood soaked jacket, and deftly removed the items. He wore thick latex gloves, and had a field kit beside him.

He cleaned off the two items, using rubbing alcohol, and handed them back to the woman. He shook his head mournfully. He knew Tracy and the rest of the staff of Burntmountain. “We need to limit the amount of foot traffic here.”

Dianthe nodded, and told the seasonals to secure the area with tape. She had asked Charlie to inform Ferris of this most recent disaster, and began the painstaking work of trying to figure out what had happened.

They would be working with local authorities investigating the cause of the accident, and no doubt crime scene specialist attached to the regional office would come up. Protocol meant the Regional Law Enforcement Specialist for several states would become involved.

Dianthe locked eyes with Meredith. They shared a private moment before Meredith began giving her statement. Though shaken and grief-stricken, she gave the information in a calm, collected manner.

**************

Meredith entered the ICU silently. Jason sat holding Annie’s hand, murmuring words of encouragement and love to his wife. Her hair had been shaved off when the surgeons had opened the woman’s skull to relieve the pressure.

Annie’s condition was listed as critical.

“Jason…” Meredith touched the man’s shoulders gently.

Pain filled brown eyes rose, and Meredith’s own self-control began crumbling. She could not imagine Annie or Jason without each other. They had a rare kind of marriage, better than even Meredith’s parents and grandparents.

“She’s in a coma…” he stammered, eyes red rimmed from crying. “I can’t loss her, Meredith. I can’t.”

Meredith opened her arms, and Jason leaned against the solidness of her small body. She wrapped her arms around him, and began crying with him. She had spent the last ten hours helping Dianthe handle the most current crisis, speaking with Brett Ferris at length.

She had been given orders to help manage the park’s daily operations with Dianthe. Ferris trusted their judgment enough that he did not feel it necessary to send up one of his deputy superintendents, since he knew they could handle matters.

Meredith shut her eyes, thinking how this ritual was becoming commonplace in their lives. Beth. Herself. Jon. And now Annie. She held Jason close, giving and gaining strength. The ICU nurse had permitted Meredith inside the room only because Jason had asked for her.

Meredith had been told she could stay only for thirty minutes. She promised she would come back in the morning when they heard the nurse clearing her throat in warning. Jason would be spending the night, and however long it took, beside his wife’s side.

Meredith exited, finding the lounge brimming with fellow staff members and friends of Annie and Jason. In a clear voice, she related the information concerning Annie’s condition. Sam shook his head. He and Beth may have gone through hell the last two months of her life, but they had had time to say their good-byes.

If Annie never regained consciousness and slipped away, Jason would never have the opportunity to say farewell. Meredith noticed Charlie pacing the length of the corridor. He looked grief stricken, like the rest of them, but there was something off about his behavior.

Karen and Morgan were talking softly with Patrick and Jon. Jon was seated inside a wheel chair, having insisted he be permitted to join the others for awhile Meredith smiled softly. If love could move mountains, maybe the love of these people could bring Annie back to them. Dianthe came striding down the corridor, bearing solemn expression.

She had gone to the autopsy of Tracy’s remains. Meredith met her lover’s eyes, and knew that whatever had happened, it had not been drug related. Dianthe’s quiet presence gave a sense of order and hope to the solemn gathering.

She had laid out the patrols for the next week, noting that all park vehicles would be inspected for brake problems. The most rational explanation of the accident had been brake failure. Annie and Tracy had been coming down the very steep logging road, going into a hairpin turn.

“Charlie,” Dianthe approached the sullen looking man.

Charlie’s eyes rose, meeting hers with pure loathing. It was a fleeting instant, and he quickly regained his composure, but the entire group had glimpsed his hatred. He saw Dianthe’s eye darken, but she controlled her anger.

“You did a good job dispatching today. Thanks.”

Charlie seemed surprised by the praise, despite his reaction to her being in charge. Dianthe inclined her head, and turned back towards Meredith.

“Annie and Tracy were great gals,” he said softly. He wiped his eyes, a rare display of open emotion again. “Women any man would love. They were real women, you know.”

He made his way past the others, and out into the night. A steady, cold rain had begun, adding to the sense of loss that hung over the gathering. Meredith disliked the way he referred to Annie in the past tense.

“I’m gonna bunk out overnight,” Meredith told Dianthe. “I want to here for Jason…just in case.”

“Not alone; I’ll keep you company, love,” Dianthe hugged her lover as they shared a brief kiss. Danny sat silently in the lounge, surrounded by his coworkers and friends. He had barely spoken since learning about Tracy’s death.

“Christopher, Bethany, keep an eye on him tonight,” Meredith asked the two older seasonals.

“No worries,” Bethany said softly. She had become good friends with Tracy. “I can’t believe what happened.”

“None of us can,” Meredith murmured. She leaned against the solid warmth of her lover’s body. Dianthe slid her arms around Meredith, holding her close.

Patrick had gone to speak to the nursing staff, and returned several minutes later. “I’ve arranged for you two to have a room for the night. There are five open rooms on this floor. In the East wing; room 340.”

Meredith nodded her thanks. She had brought a change of clothing for the next day, as had Dianthe. The group began breaking up, since there was not much they could do.

Dianthe led Meredith to the room that Patrick had arranged for, carrying both duffels. If this had been the height of ski season, there would not have any available beds. It was a semiprivate room. There was a private shower and toilet, the room’s interior not the standard drab hospital colors.

Built twelve years ago, the hospital had pastel colors that helped keep the moods of the patients and visitors up. It smelled clean, not hospital like, since the builders wanted a nontraditional hospital. Not to mention most of the patients were very well known and rich; Meredith unlaced her hiking boots, and climbed into the hospital bed.

Dianthe smiled when her lover scooted over and patted the bed. It would be a tight squeeze, but they could fit inside the bed together. Dianthe removed her own boots, thankful she had decided to lock up her weapon before driving over to the hospital. Meredith snuggled against her warmth when she laid down, pulling the blanket up over them.

“I love you,” Meredith whispered, sounding weary.

Dianthe smiled, and kissed her lover’s head. “Get some sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be very busy.”

Meredith said something barely audible, and Dianthe knew her lover was already half asleep. She shut her eyes, and joined her in oblivion.

****************

Meredith counted mentally to ten, and met the eyes of the reporters. The most recent tragedy had brought back the media, and the twenty odd reporters were jostling for position.

It had been a very quiet news week, and the media had found the Burntmountain drama captivating. Meredith had donned her best class A dress uniform, and read a prepared statement concerning the current condition of Annie Hendrick. She had not yet regained consciousness. Three days had passed since the accident. It was not a good sign.

Meredith stated the investigation had not determined the cause of the motor vehicle accident. It might be another week or two before a determination was rendered.

“Were drugs involved? I understand the driver had a bit of a reputation for being on the wild side,” Janice Portman interjected with a cold smile.

“No drugs were involved,” Meredith answered smoothly, meeting the eyes of Janice Portman. Like the proverbial bad penny, the woman had returned despite the lawsuit pending against her and her station. “And Ranger Tracy Spencer’s record has been one of excellence and professionalism that reflects the best traditions of the National Park Service.”

Three days sitting inside a prison cell had made Janice Portman more angry than introspective. She cleared her throat, and said, “It seems that since the arrival of Dianthe Xavier, things have been going wrong for the personnel of the park. Do you believe there is a connection?”

Meredith felt the muscles of her shoulders and neck tense, but she kept a cool facade. She smiled softly, and said, “No more than when you show up at events that attract the attention of the genuine members of the media.”

Chuckles rose amidst the gathered reporters. Portman was not well regarded within her own community, especially following the stunt she had pulled. Her colleagues had played up the angle of the woman’s connection to the White Supremacist Movement, deeming her actions a violation of ethical conduct and condemning her actions.

“Not if you ladies and gentlemen will excuse me, I have a park to run,” Meredith announced. She turned back towards the Ranger Station.

“Ranger Murphy,” Janice Portman made the title sound trite as she closed on her favorite subject. “Why has Jason Hendricks given control to you?”

“Because he has a family crisis that demands his full attention.”

“I understand his concern, but considering the shadow you are under I do not comprehend leaving you in charge. It would seem to me better to leave a more experienced hand in charge,” Janice stated. “Besides, the Hendricks have no children, so it’s not really a family crisis. What happened to the Sanderson’s was a family crisis.”

Meredith narrowed her eyes, and swallowed her mounting anger. She held the other woman’s eyes, and said, “I would not comment on the nature of family when you yourself have never been married, Ms. Portman. The Hendricks have been married almost as many years as I have been alive.”

“Nor is she likely to be, Ranger Murphy,” quipped one of the other reporters. He had the random good looks that the camera loved, and he kept himself fit to make himself even more appealing.

Meredith smiled. Janice flushed an unflattering red, and shot the man a cross look. “I have high standards.”

“So do we,” the man laughed. “I breed within in my species.”

Meredith left. There were times the universe was just. Janice Portman might well find herself the center of this evening’s news, and not in a flattering way.

She entered the Ranger Station, unzipping the summer weight Ike jacket she wore as Dianthe spoke with the other law enforcement rangers. Meredith paused when the meeting began breaking up. Dianthe had things running smoothly in terms of law enforcement, and Meredith had been handling all other aspects of park operations.

“You survived the hounds of hell, I see,” Dianthe teased, eyes taking in her lover with pleasure. “You look so cute in your dress uniform.”

Meredith sighed, shaking her head. “I feel silly. Give me my field jeans, fleece and ball cap any day. How are things doing?”

“Good, only minor stuff. A couple of car clouting incidents at Willow Lake; I have Charlie and Carl checking it out. Most likely it’s teenagers. Five speeding tickets, three fines for illegal campsites, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

Meredith removed her form fitting Ike jacket and draped it over the chair as she unclipped the uniform tie. She laid aside her summer Stetson, sighing with relief. Whenever she could, she visited Annie and Jason. Sleep had become a rare thing. She stretched her lower back, flinching at the protest of muscles that had become tight with fatigue.

“Coffee, boss?” Bobby asked softly. Meredith met the eyes of the youth. She nodded, smiling in gratitude when the youth brought her an oversized mug. “You and Christopher are doing a great job on the Witch Mountain trail restoration.”

Bobby colored, but managed a shy smile. He told Meredith of the progress they had made since that terrible day of the accident. It was very impressive.

Danny had taken a few days off. Meredith had kept a respectful distance, concerned about the man. Tracy’s death had been devastating for the staff, but it may have shattered Danny Matthew’s soul. He had fallen hard for Tracy, and she for him. In the years Meredith had known the woman, she had never seen Tracy so focused, so content to be with one person.

Charlie had been acting odd again, and Meredith found her patience with the man wearing thin. He lounged against the office wall, dark blue eyes missing nothing. A sneer touched his lips whenever Dianthe and Meredith were near each other. Meredith had always been polite and nice to the man, but she had never really gotten close to him as she had other staff members. There was something that made her uneasy around him since she had known him.

“Anything you need to tell my folks?” Dianthe asked. Meredith shook her head and smiled, “Nothing other than the standard rules regarding media seeking comments, let me take the heat by sending them my way. Other than that, , thank you for working under very unusual circumstances, and the funds for Tracy’s memorial service had been generous. Her family wishes to thank everyone, and we shall be holding service within the park in a few weeks for those interested at the site of the accident.

For those on patrol, do what you do so well, and keep safe. Those of you off duty, get some rest and have some fun,” Meredith met the eyes of the law enforcement rangers with gratitude before ambling for her small office.

Charlie did not move. Dianthe locked eyes with the man, and Charlie slowly uncoiled his body. He readjusted his gear belt, and said, “Sure, boss.” When Bobby had said it, it had been playful and respectful. Charlie made it sound like an insult.

Meredith held her tongue and temper Charlie ignored Dianthe and approached Meredith.. Silence fell as the assembled staff watched the unfolding drama. Charlie had become the least liked person on the staff. Meredith held her ground and met the man’s stormy blue eyes. “Is there a problem, Charlie?”

“Yeah, but guess there are something that we can only hope will change. I wonder how Jason would like the way you are running the show. No offense, but running this park takes a real man, not a wanna be one with limited experience in real wilderness..”

Meredith stiffened, her eyes narrowing at the reference to Dianthe. Her sea-green eyes narrowed as they darkened with the storm building inside the woman’s soul. She began to phrase her response when a familiar form entered the fray.

“He likes them just fine,” Jason Hendricks growled. Meredith held her breath. Jason looked exhausted, but he still radiated power. He motioned for the others to clear the office area. “Meri, Dianthe, Charlie, my office, now.”

Charlie shifted his weight uncertainly, but he obeyed the man. Jason looked blasted. He settled down on the edge of his big wooden desk. “Annie’s still not regained consciousness; her mom is with her right now. Brett called me. Seems the Suburban brakes were tampered with.”

Shocked silence descended. Jason let the weight of the words settle in. He leaned forward. “Whoever did it is gonna regret the day they were born. Forensics lifted a good print, and is running it through the database of known offenders.

It’s just a matter of time.” Jason unlocked his desk drawer and removed a thin file. “And Charlie, do not give Meredith or Dianthe any grief. Whatever’s been bugging you better stay outside the office; am I clear?”

Charlie nodded.

“Good; Meri, you are doing a good job. You, too, Dianthe. Charlie, you have been with us a long time. Get it together; we need you. I need you out there doing the job I know you can do. Remember the conversation we had earlier, too.”

Charlie had a look of shame that made him lower his eyes. He nodded, “Okay, Jason. For you and Annie. You both have always been good to me.”

“Good man. Go on, make sure the park is safe, Charlie,” Jason said, watching the career seasonal leave.

Charlie headed out, never looking back. Meredith watched him with narrowed eyes. She waited until he was gone. She turned her attention back to Jason, “How are you?”

“How do you think?” Jason snapped, instantly regretting his harsh tone. Meredith did not flinch. ” Meredith, what if she does not wake up?”

Dianthe backed out into the dispatcher’s area, closing the office door as she exited. She watched Meredith stand up and slid her arms around the big man, giving what comfort she could. She did not make false promises, but said softly, “Then we do whatever we have to, Jason.”

Jason sobbed. It was a broken sound that made Dianthe’s blood run cold. Someone was hurting people she had come to love; she stepped outside, and let the misting rain anoint her face. She noticed Charlie Fenton. He sat inside the patrol vehicle, head down on the steering wheel.

His shoulders were jerking, and she thought for a moment he was crying. Then he raised his head, and she saw he was laughing. Their eyes locked, and Dianthe’s little voice was shouting. She watched him start the engine, and drive away. The most of the media had left, save for Janice Portman and her crew.

Dianthe pivoted, and went back inside the Ranger Station. She would monitor Charlie Fenton, and continue her discreet inquiries. Jason and Meredith were talking softly in the dispatch area. Jason gave Meredith the look a proud father would give a beloved child. He gave the woman a bone-crushing hug that left Meredith wheezing.

He left the Ranger Station. Meredith puffed out her cheeks, and shook her head. She rose, found her coffee cup, and took a deep swig. “Annie’s gotta come out of it…”

Dianthe brushed her fingers through Meredith’s tawny hair, and met her eyes. “She will, honey. Annie’s a fighter.”

Meredith smiled, and hugged her lover close. The world seemed bent on falling off its axis.

**************

Seven days had passed, and the print had not found a match in the base of known offenders. Brett had asked for the prints to be checked against other databases, but Dianthe doubted it would be found in the standard databases.

A steady rain had been falling the last two days, and the world had taken on a grayish cast matching the mood of the park. She and Meredith had spent less than four hours together since the accident. Between running the park’s daily operations and her ongoing physical therapy, Meredith had been running sixteen hour days. Dianthe had assumed night patrols with Danny and Bethany, and Val Dermot, a full time law enforcement ranger reassigned to the Burntmountain Mountain District out of the central office.

Charlie and the seasonals were covering the morning and afternoon shifts. What time Meredith did not devote to the daily operations and physical therapy, she spent with Annie and Jason. Meredith read to Annie and Jason. She was reading Watership Down, one of Annie’s favorite books, and the Velveteen Rabbit, which was Meredith’s. It soothed Jason, and Meredith insisted that keeping up a running conversation and reading would reach Annie.

Also, they played soft music to the woman. Meredith kept them all afloat. She would not permit herself, or the others, to mourn Annie. When she got home, she would work out for an hour, shower, then grab a quick bite and a bit of sleep.

Furball was not speaking to either of his humans. They made sure he had food, fresh water and clean litter, but they were neglecting his emotional well being. He sat on the beams, glaring down at the humans that made infrequent appearances and made his displeasure known.

Dianthe stepped out of the shower as Meredith came inside the bedroom. Meredith had lost weight. A very trim woman, the weight loss was noticeable. She dropped heavily into the bed Dianthe had left five minutes before, and was snuggling Dianthe’s pillow close. Dianthe padded over to the bed.

“Hi, love…”

“Hi, Dianthe,” Meredith managed a weary smile. She sat up, and they shared a brief kiss. “God, I miss you.”

Dianthe held Meredith closer, kissing her lover with tempered passion. “How’s Annie?”

“Her vitals are much better, but she’s still in a coma,” Meredith swept her fingers downwards, pushing off the plush body towel with deliberate intent.

Dianthe shivered in delight when those fingers found her nipples, and began a gentle teasing. Meredith had learned how much pressure to use, making the swollen nubs of sensitive flesh more so. “I don’t suppose you could play hooky?”

Dianthe closed her eyes when Meredith’s tongue, lips and teeth covered the nipple. It had been over a week since they had been together. Her body began responding to her lover’s sure touch.

Meredith’s hands roved, eliciting responses that made Dianthe moan. She loved this part of Meredith: the frank, sexual side capable of taking control. Dianthe had oftentimes been the one to initiate sexual contact in her other relationships. Meredith enjoyed receiving and giving pleasure, and she was most definitely not shy when it came to making love and sex.

Dianthe found her ability to speak rapidly dwindling as Meredith made love to her. Meredith smiled wickedly up at the writhing woman, and urged her to lay down. Dianthe found herself laying on her back, hands clutching the sheets as Meredith kissed her way down her lover’s impressive length.

Meredith used ever skill she had learned over the years, never letting her lover’s urgency dwindle. She was relentless in pursuing the pleasures of this love. Trashing on the bed, Dianthe’s hips undulated under the firm tongue strokes that laid bare her very soul.

She reached down, holding Meredith’s head close to the wellspring of her need. Her eyes focused on the woman giving her such pleasure, and thought how erotic the sight of a fully clothed lover could be. Sweat poured down her tense length, and she heard herself making animal sounds. Meredith never slackened her pace, and used several fingers to drive Dianthe over the edge.

Her cries echoed out inside the master bedroom. Meredith crawled up beside her panting lover, grinning. Her face was slick with the heated juices that had poured out of her quaking lover. Dianthe hugged Meredith close, trying to express what she felt. A soft buzzing sound made her groan for another reason. Meredith reached inside her jeans front pocket, and sighed.

She rolled away, and reached for the phone. She hit a speed dial number as Dianthe cuddled against her. Meredith laughed, saying, “I’ll there be as soon as possible, Jason. Tired; no, I’m fine.”

“Annie?”

“She woke up about twenty minutes ago. She’s confused, but the doctor says she will be fine. She’s back,” Meredith laughed, and threw her arms around Dianthe.

Dianthe pulled Meredith close, and claimed her lips. Dianthe could taste her own essence, igniting her desire to make love to the smaller woman. Meredith gently pulled back, gray-green eyes twinkling. Meredith nuzzled Dianthe’s throat, “Join me in the shower?”

“Hmm, guess I could use another one after what you did,” Dianthe teased. She helped Meredith shed her garments, caressing the flesh she exposed with gentle fingertips and lips. “Give me a minute. I’m going to let dispatch know that I will late. I want to see Annie, too.”

Meredith smiled, and went to get the shower ready.

***************

Jon smiled when Patrick kissed his forehead, then went to tend to the myriad of things he needed to do. It was almost eight p.m. when they received word about Annie having come out of her coma. They had promised they would visit in the morning, since this was Jon’s third day home.

He sighed, touching his sore chest. It would be another few weeks before he would be able to start doing things, and another month before he could return to light duty. He despaired his once hard body might become a soft body, but Patrick assured him that would not happen.

And if it did, it would not matter. Patrick was happy that his lover was alive. In time, he would regain his strength and vigor. Patrick was cooking a well-balanced meal of chicken breast, mushrooms, asparagus and herbs in white wine, laid over a bed of wild rice.

Jon gazed at the crackling fire inside the fireplace, thinking how blessed he was. He sat in one of two dark brown leather lounge chairs, his feet propped on the matching footrest. A snifter of brandy lay to his right on the cherry wood end table, and the soft strain of classical music rose inside the den. His eyes rested on the table. The drawer was half ajar, and he glimpsed a mantilla folder inside the deep drawer of the handcrafted piece of furniture.

He opened the draw, noticing the blood splattered file and felt his stomach clench. He pulled out the file, and flipped it open. The stark black and white photographs were mixed with color ones of Maggie Sanderson’s remains, as well the report.

Jon shut his eyes. He remembered holding the report of the coroner, and knowing something had caught his attention. He focused. Fought past the painful memories of pain and terror, and made himself think. His eyes flew open.

He remembered what had struck him: the bruising around Maggie Sanderson’s throat had been wrong. If she had hung herself, her throat would have had an upward V bruise, not the straight back one. Maggie Sanderson had been strangled from behind. She had been murdered.

“Patrick…” Jon called out, struggling to rise.

Patrick appeared in mere seconds wearing his favorite cow patterned apron that read, “Here’s the beef.” He settled his beloved down, and listened to what he was saying.

*******************

Annie was asking questions when Dianthe and Meredith joined Jason, Sam, Morgan and Karen inside the hospital room. She had been moved of the ICU, and now had a semiprivate room where an elderly woman was recovering from a bad fall that broke her right hip.

Birdlike and bright, she was smiling when the rowdy group included her in their celebration, savoring a piece of fine cake that Morgan and Karen had brought. Flowers surrounded both beds, and Martha had photographs of an amazing amount of children, grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. She beamed when Jason said something about her grandchildren being very handsome, which they were.

Annie was weak, but color was returning to her face and her eyes were becoming clearer. She gave a small noise of delight when Meredith came into view. “Meri…”

“Annie,” Meredith said with a quavering voice, tears streaking her face.

“Come here, kiddo,” Jason demanded, patting the edge of the bed he occupied. He and Annie both hugged the woman, and she hugged them back. “You know she remembers you reading her the Velveteen Rabbit.”

Meredith sniffled, enduring an affectionate mussing of her hair by Jason. Dianthe touched Annie’s right hand gently, her understated greeting making Annie beam. Annie squeezed the woman’s fingertips, and said, “Jason tells me you two have been running the show.”

“Not really much to do,” Meredith said, smiling when Dianthe stood close behind her.

“Yeah, right,” Annie sighed, looking tired. “God, I can’t believe Tracy’s dead.”

The mood shifted. Karen and Morgan exchanged worried looks, wondering if it had been wise to tell Annie the truth about Tracy. Jason had told her gently. He insisted his wife would do better with the truth, than having it hidden from her.

“If it means anything, it was most likely very quick,” Dianthe said.

Annie met her eyes, slowly nodding. She studied Meredith, a smile touching her lips. She reached up and swept her fingers across Meredith’s wet right cheek. “Jason tells me you saved me.”

“I helped rescue you, so did my grounds crew and the Air National Guard.”

“You rarely use that road, why that day?”

Meredith thought about the answer, and said, “Because I knew I had. too.”

Dianthe raised an eyebrow. It seemed she was not the only one in their family with a little voice. Martha interjected that bonds of love and friendship oftentimes transcended logic and rational things, when life and limb where involved.

“Especially when you learn to trust you partners,” Martha stated, smiling at a distant, but fond memory. “When I flew with the W.A.S.P.s you had to trust your companions.”

Dianthe turned towards the older woman with frank interest. She wore her leather bomber jacket with squadron patches, and the woman’s merry blue eyes met hers. “You were one of the W.A.S.P.s?”

“Yes, my husband was an Army Air force pilot, and before the war we ran mail routes and did stun-flying. Harry loved women that flew. Said it meant that the world was becoming a better place!”

“You own Remington Air, don’t you?” Meredith said, recognizing the woman.

“Yes; though I do not do anymore flying since my vision has gotten so bad. But my son and daughters run it now. My grand daughter Emily would love to met you, Ranger Xavier. She could not believe a former female naval aviator would be working up here.”

Dianthe promised she would talk to the young girl about naval aviation. Martha grinned, winking. Ryan Smith had worked whenever possible for the small family run airline. Mainly, they ran cargo flights, but had some passenger planes, too. It might be small, but the operation was doing very well.

It would give Dianthe the chance to fly larger planes, he had told her. Like the Hercules she had flown. She had flown the huge transport planes, as well as A-6’s and Tomcats. She turned her attention back to Annie.

Annie was getting sleepy, and the nurses had decided their charges had had enough excitement. Except for Jason, they herded the rest of the group out of the hospital rooms. Meredith sighed when her pager went off again.

“Be right back…” she told the others, and headed for the phones.

Morgan, Sam, Karen and Dianthe were discussing the memorial service planned for Tracy Spencer at the end of the summer. Meredith came jogging back. She looked worried.

“We have a report of two lost hikers up in the Fire Mountain area. They were supposed to have checked back four days ago with the Forest Service Ranger Station, but they have not done so. It’s two young college kids out of New York City, two women, both experienced, but they have not checked in.”

“They were in your section then?” Morgan asked.

Meredith nodded. Fire Mountain was inside the Spirit Lake section of the park, bordering the National Forest’s eastern edge. Morgan frowned. It was hard country for seasoned outdoors people, let alone newbie’s.

“It’s your call, Meri.”

“I say we go. Dianthe, you will fly patrols in the grid where they were last seen and make your way out. Morgan, can you spare me some bodies?”

“Count on it, Meri.”

“I’m in,” Sam said.

“Good, Karen, you will be our dispatcher. I’ll contact Air National Guard for a lift, and have them on standby for a medevac. I’ll lead one team. Morgan, you and Sam will lead the others. Only experienced hands can go on this one…” Meredith was already assembling a mental list of search and rescue members capable of the task.

“What about your arm?” Dianthe murmured.

“It’s strong enough to handle this,” Meredith replied, squaring her shoulders. “Let’s get moving.”

Dianthe could not shake a feeling of dread.

******************

Fire Mountain was a dormant volcano, one of numerous smaller, lesser known volcanoes within the Cascade’s chain. The area was beautiful, but very rugged. Only very experienced backpackers were given access to this remote area, and only twenty permits were given out annually.

Meredith studied the photos of the two missing hikers: two zoology majors that had worked in Yellowstone for the last two summers. Both young women came from families with extensive outdoors experience, and were considered fine outdoorswomen. The weather conditions had been good, but the weather patterns were indicating a large storm system would be coming inland soon off the Pacific.

Meredith briefed the SAR team on the women’s background and medical histories, studying the solemn faces of the men and women huddled inside the Huey’s belly. The first rays of dawn had not yet touched the mountain valley where they would be disembarking. There were three teams: Morgan and Sam lead two of the teams, Meredith the other.

Meredith drew in a steadying breath. She had been on dozens of SARs since she had been in the National Park Service, but she could not shake the feeling this would be different. Charlie sat silently, listening with quiet intensity to the whooping of the chopper blades.

He was on Meredith’s team. She, Danny and Charlie made up the first team. Sam, Bethany and Christopher the second team. Morgan, Paul and Sally the third. They would hump in enough gear for several days, including medical supplies and camping equipment. Karen would maintain a temporary base camp with two Forest Service seasonals, where the chopper would return to pick them up.

Meredith knew Jason would be monitoring the operation, since Annie was out of danger. He would be a standby with another team should something go wrong.

The Huey dropped downwards to the valley where they would begin the search. Meredith swallowed hard. She had lead teams before, but this was the first time since being stabbed that she was leading one. Annie’s rescue had been different; it had been in an area with old timber roads.

This was wilderness. Any mistakes out here could become very lethal very quickly. She found her hands shaking, and clasped them together. It had not gone unnoticed. Morgan held her eyes, and Meredith managed a weary smile.

“You folks know it might be a few days before we can come back? The weather’s going to be too heavy for flying,” pilot informed the clustered teams.

“That’s why we have a base camp supplied for over a week,” Meredith answered, indicating the supplies that Karen would oversee.

“Damned rough country for kids to be roaming without bad weather.”

No one said the obvious: they could be dead. All of them hoped to find the young women alive. Hope drove them, even when logic decreed the odds were not good. Meredith sighed. She had gotten about three hours of shuteye.

Bad weather meant Dianthe would also be grounded. She knew her lover would not like the idea of being rendered useless. Meredith studied the skies. Dark storm clouds were making their appearance. Jason would not allow Dianthe off the ground under such conditions.

The four teams hustled their gear out of the Huey and watched the helicopter depart twenty minutes later. Meredith shook her head, thankful Dianthe would be safe.

“Ok…let’s gear up and get moving while we have the weather with us,” Meredith said, pulling on her backpack with a grunt. She shook her head, annoyed at herself. She had maintained her cardiovascular health, but her pack felt heavier than normal.

“Sure you can carry all that weight?” Morgan asked softly.

Meredith met the older woman’s eyes, and managed her best roguish smile. Morgan did not look pleased, but she had to trust Meredith’s word. Maps were consulted, search patterns established, and agreed upon check-in times were established. Meredith pulled on her Park Service ball cap and began heading the direction her team had drawn.

Three trails, three chances at finding the missing women if they had not strayed too far from the trail system. Meredith and Danny walked side by side, Charlie bringing up the rear of the group. None of them spoke, their attention focused on the terrain and possible clues.

***********

Dianthe paced the length of the Ranger Station, cursing herself for a fool. She should have insisted that she accompany Meredith. Meredith’s doctors had been less than pleased with her decision, but they had cleared her for the search and rescue operation.

Meredith knew the hard backcountry better than most locals, having spent months at a time tramping it. She was the best hope for the lost women hikers.

Jason raised his dark brown eyes, watching his pilot having a nervous breakdown. Three days of searching, and no sign of the young women. The bad weather would last another day or two, and Dianthe’s impatience grew with each passing hour. Annie would be released in another few days, and Jason could not wait.

The phone rang. Jason reached over and picked it up. He listened, then asked several quick questions with relief. He hung up, beaming. “Our two lost hikers just reached Forest Service Ranger Station…tired, a bit worn for having gotten lost, but fine. They said they spent four days making a huge circle, and by the time they figured it out they were reported missing.

They had enough sense to ration their supplies, and did some old fashioned living off the land!”

“Thank god…we better contact the teams,” Dianthe said, shoulders relaxing. The teams would head back to their base camp, wait for the weather to clear, and would be back home in a few days.

“How about you do it?” Jason said, stretching her lower back. He reached for the phone on his desk to call Annie. He frowned when his phone rang. He sighed, and picked up the phone. It was Brett Ferris, and he sounded very worried. “What’s up, Brett?”

Brett told him they had matched the print to the military database. Jason felt his stomach flip when he was told the name of the owner of the print, and the less than stellar military record held by said man.

“Shit…Brett, he’s up with Meredith and the others on the SAR operation. No, the women are fine, they got lost, but reached the Forest Service Ranger Station. Damnit, how did he hide this from OPM?”

Dianthe faced Jason. Her blood ran cold. She had finished radioing Karen, and had decided to check her Ccmail. Her inquiry had hit pay dirt: Charles Wyatt Fenton had been released from the Marine Corps for being a firebug. How he had gotten his general discharge altered to an honorable one was being investigated.

The Colorado State Troopers had sent a response saying that Trooper Fenton had quit rather than be fired. Again, his personnel record had been amended.

“It’s Charlie. Charlie sabotaged the brakes,” Jason stammered. Dianthe remembered how upset he had been when she had been left the keys to the Ranger Rover.

“We have to warn Meredith and the others.”

“Right, but how?” Jason rumbled. Any thing they said might tip their hand.

********************

Meredith laughed when she heard the good news relayed by Karen. Charlie and Danny heard the transmission, and the two men had different reactions. Charlie had become increasing sullen and silent, and Danny had hugged Meredith.

“Guess we should head back to camp, then,” Danny ventured. Meredith nodded, returning his hug. “Wish Tracy was here. She loved happy endings.”

“Danny, I am so sorry,” Meredith whispered. It was the first time he had mentioned her name. Danny blinked back tears, recalling how much Tracy loved movies with happy endings. “Come on, let’s head home, fellas.”

Charlie observed his teammates with remote eyes, and smiled. It was a frightening smile. It was the smile of madness itself. Meredith’s brain did not register the reality of Charlie pulling his 9 mm pistol, taking aim and firing off two rounds. Danny tumbled backwards, hands clawing at the twin holes that had appeared in his chest.

Meredith dropped beside the stricken young man, desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood. Danny tried speaking, tried reaching for his own weapon, but his eyes began glazing over even as Meredith fought to save his life.

“No…” Meredith snarled, furious. Danny’s lifeless eyes stared up at the gray heavens. She heard the crunch of booted feet closing, and spun. She emptied the canister of bear mace into the face of Charlie Fenton.

He howled in a combination of rage and pain, dropping to his knees as he fired blindly ahead of him. Meredith felt a powerful jolt that sent her reeling, her right leg and side numb with the impact. She grunted when she hit the wet ground, and began sliding down the side of the foothill.

She tumbled down the side of the forested slope, her backpack absorbing much of the damage as roots and rocks impeded her progress. She hit bottom, her right leg numb, and every bone in her body screaming protest. She was alive.

She flinched when she flexed her limbs. Everything hurt like hell, but nothing was broken. She gingerly touched her right hip, and grimaced. Her right hip was not bleeding. Her radio had deflected the bullet.

She pulled the shattered radio off her hip and craned her neck to scan for Charlie. She could hear his faint cries of pain and anger. Without a radio she could not warn the others about Charlie.

She considered the idea of climbing back up, but dismissed it. He would be recovered by the time she hauled herself up the slope, and he had two guns. Meredith pushed herself up onto her feet, grunting.

Her right hip was stiff, and her leg felt numb. She gritted her teeth, and hobbled towards the rain-swollen creek. She studied it, then fished inside her backpack. She removed what few things she could carry inside her fanny pack, then wrote a hasty note that she slipped inside the pack with the damaged radio.

She tossed it into the swollen creek.

It would reach the area where the base camp was located, if she was lucky. It would tell Karen something had gone terribly wrong. Meredith ignored her protesting body, and began making her way towards the base camp.

She was a tracker. She knew how to hide herself, if need be. Charlie was a former Marine sniper; he was an expert outdoors man. It would be a game of wits, of skill, but stacked against her since he had his gun and Danny’s.

********

Karen told her base camp personnel the good news even as Sam and Morgan’s teams returned to the base camp. Having found no sign of the missing women, they had determined it was best to return to the camp. The news was greeted with good cheer, since they had been out in the field almost six days.

The weather pattern indicated the high winds and lower ceiling would clear off by nighttime. The helicopter would come tomorrow morning, provided Meredith’s team returned in time. Karen heard one of the seasonals repeat the message, but there was no response.

It was not unusual, since the mountains could block the signal. But they had agreed that all teams would be back in base camp the sixth morning, even if no sign had been found of the lost women. Meredith had checked in early in the morning, before word had come about the women.

It had frustrated Meredith and her team they could find no trace of the two women, but she had told Karen she and her team would be headed back to the base camp. That had been a few hours before word reached them that the two lost hikers had found a USFS station, and word had filtered out to the SAR teams. Sam had been right, guessing the two female hikers would make their own way out, since there were no indications they had been hurt.

Sam cupped a steaming mug of hot coffee between his work-roughed hands with a sigh of appreciation. “Karen, you make the best damned coffee.”

“Thanks, sweetie. When Meredith’s team gets back, we can celebrate one piece of good news! When we get back home, I want one of your porter steaks medium rare with a good glass of wine.”

“You got it, Karen,” Sam chuckled, scanning the surrounding terrain with a worried eye. “I for one, cannot wait ’til Meri gets back here.”

“Why?” Karen asked, hearing the concern in the man’s voice.

“Just got a bad feeling about her, is all. Hell, I guess I am worried she’ll hurt her arm again. I am glad those gals made it out safely, but I would love to know where they left the trail. Meri is one helluva a good tracker, and even she could not find tracks or other clues. They must have been lost further back then we assumed.”

Karen nodded. “Too bad we do not have some of Grandma Murphy’s cookies to go with the coffee, huh?”

Sam chuckled, “We finished our batch in just three days. You?”

Karen patted her belly, and they laughed. Morgan had settled down for a well-deserved nap inside the dome tent she and Karen would be sharing with Meredith. Bethany approached them, “Anyone need some water? I am going to get some for my bottle.”

“Sure,” Sam fished out his blue water bottle to the young woman with a grin. Karen did likewise, Bethany had a pump filter with her to fill the bottles she would recharge for them before she sacked out. Most everyone else had followed Morgan’s example, and were drifting off to sleep. Bethany made her way towards the rushing creek, and began filtering the water while enjoying the sounds of nature.

Being a backcountry ranger would never make her rich, but the rugged beauty of the mountains made up for it. Her summer had been filled with more adventure than she had encountered elsewhere, and she already was looking for her winter position. She had been learning so much from the full timers, and she had counted herself fortunate to be under the Hendricks. Both Annie and Jason were exceptions to most parks, remaining active and involved in the law enforcement aspects of the operation, and they respected their staff.

She had finished filling the bottles when something caught her eye. Placing the bottles and filter aside, she cautiously picked her way towards the object, and realized it was one of their SAR packs. She pulled it out of the water, and blanched when she realized it was blood splattered.

Heart pounding, she opened the front pouch and found a hastily scrawled note stained with gore, “Fuck…” She hauled the pack with her, shouting out to the others. In mere moments the entire camp knew what she did. She handed Sam the note. He met his cousin’s eyes with fear, and handed her the note.

Morgan staggered, jaw muscles bunching. Out there was a killer hunting someone they loved and there was nothing they could do until help arrived. “Hang on, Meri…” Sam murmured, vowing Charlie Fenton would not escape justice.

****************

Charlie had managed to flush out his eyes, cursing Meredith Murphy. He wiped his nose with disgust. He focused his eyes, and surveyed his surroundings. There was no sign of Meredith. He glanced at his wristwatch: forty-five minutes had passed.

He cursed again. The plan had been simple: shoot both Meredith and Danny, pinning the killing on the dead young man. Grief stricken, he had tried suicide, but Meredith interfered. A terrible accident resulting in Meredith’s death, then an exchange of fire between himself and Danny. End of story.

But he had not counted on Meredith’s response. There would be no way of convincing the others what had happened had been anything other than murder. He took Danny’s gun, his rounds of ammo, and shook his head. Poor bastard, he thought. If not for the insanity of the world, they may have been friends. He might have been there for the wedding of Danny and Tracy.

Charlie consoled himself with the thought that Danny and Tracy would be reunited in death. The more he thought about it, the less guilty he felt. In fact, it was really the fault of Meredith and Dianthe.

Damned queers and mud-people were ruining the country, and the world. Charlie envisioned himself an avenging angel, the flaming sword of retribution. He would kill Meredith, but not before he made her pay for her sins.

He opened his pack, fishing out several oblong objects carefully wrapped. He put together the sniper rifle Dawson had gotten him. He had learned how to assemble the M40A1 in field conditions in mere minutes.

It had been easy concealing the weapon inside his backpack; he had been told by Dawson that Meredith had to die. This search and rescue mission had been the perfect cover for killing the woman. Now, it was a question of his reaching her first.

He made his way down the slope, wondering if he would find the woman broken and bleeding on the ground below. He followed the trail made by the woman, shaking his head in mild amazement that she had walked away. She had hit roots, rocks and saplings on her downward plunge, leaving a path he could easily follow.

If not for being tainted with homosexuality, she would make a fine mate for a man like himself. She was wood wise, brave and resourceful. He would have her before he killed her. He would show her what the love of a real man was. He would fuck her like a man should a real woman.

Meredith would make a fun target. He noticed she was limping, and knew she was hurting. There was no blood trail, so the bullet had not hit her directly. He had found chips of dark plastic on the ground near Danny’s body: the radio had taken the brunt of the damage.

He followed her tracks. The tracks were hard to follow. This would be a fun game, he thought.

*****************

Morgan watched the helicopters descending, furious they had been ordered to remain inside the camp. But they did not have the right equipment, and a search of Charlie Fenton’s cabin had been frightening. He had an assortment of assault weapons, a rambling series of diaries that he had written over the last few years.

Morgan knew whatever it contained, it had sickened Jason and the FBI’s Special Agents.

Six very serious looking FBI agents wearing field gear accompanied Jason and Dianthe. They were armed with assault rifles. Jason handed out high-powered rifle with scopes to the team members. Sixteen hours had passed, and there was no sign of Meredith’s team.

Morgan could not meet Dianthe’s eyes. Odds were Meredith and Danny were already dead, and Charlie headed for the Canadian border.

*****************

Meredith hunkered low, listening for the sounds of being stalked, as she made herself eat half a Power bar. She had been forced to take the long way to the base camp, and had lost her bearings during the night.

She figured she had strayed six miles in the wrong direction, and her hip was killing her. She dared not rest for long. She hauled herself up, keeping to the trees as she followed the creek. The she listened to sounds that were not part of the forest, but heard nothing unusual. Had Charlie decided to bolt?

Were the others dead, too? She had her Leatherman, a good field knife, compass and map, waterproof matches and some dried foodstuff. She knew Spirit Lake better than she did this section of the park, but she could find her way.

What she needed was a weapon. She had pondered making a spear with a stout branch, her knife and the extra bootlaces she carried, but had decided against it. A thrusting spear against firearms was not a good bet.

A pit trap. She could create one, but it would take too long. Not to mention it might snare the wrong person. She could make other traps. Ben had taught her more than mere tracking. He and her grandfather had taught her some old trapper tricks. Not to mention the ones she had picked up.

She sipped her water, all senses engaged. She heard a slight crackling sound, and cocked her head. The Douglas fir she had paused next to exploded, spraying her with wood chips. She hit the ground, knowing the sound of rifle fire all too well. The ground around her erupted, and she scrambled for shelter.

“Run, you fucking dyke bitch,” Charlie’s voice echoed. This time the bullet hit the ground between her legs.

He was playing with her. Charlie had once mentioned he was a trained sniper for the Marine Corps; he was a hunter, too. Meredith knew he was having fun right now, taunting her, but soon he would become weary of the game. Each shot he took would let the others know where he was.

He knew he was a dead man, and dead men have nothing to loose. Meredith ran, ignoring the pain in her hip. She ran hard. She did not attempt concealing her trail; he had found her trail despite all the tricks she had used.

But she had run cross-country in prep school , college and since. She had been in state and national championships several times. She knew how to conserve energy. Most likely, she would die. But she would do her level best to take Charlie Fenton with her.

************

“Rifle…” the steel gray haired lead FBI agent said softly.

“Sounds like an M40A1, sir,” the youngest of the field agents said. He wore his hair Marine Corps style, and Dianthe sensed he knew what he was talking about.

Dianthe knew Meredith was out there alone, and unarmed. Morgan and Sam’s team had found Danny Mathews body. She and Jason were part of one of the other teams. There three armed Forest Service Special Agents and National Park Service Special Agents were holding the base camp, so there were three teams hunting down Charlie Fenton.

They had been looking for three hours, and so far they had found nothing. Dianthe glanced towards Karen. The two men readied their rifles and took point. Dianthe and Karen flanked the men, knowing Charlie could be anywhere.

The first shot hit the older agent right between the eyes, and the second shot sent the younger man tumbling backwards. Charlie had shot him below his vest. She and Karen hit the dirt, and rolled for cover behind moss encrusted boulders and snags.

“Shit.” Dianthe triggered her radio and snarled. “All units, we are under fire. Agent Martin is dead, and Agent Sheldon is down.”

“Location?” Jason demanded.

Karen gave their coordinates while Dianthe belly crawled to the writhing agent. There was the stench of nicked bowels which filled her nostrils. Dianthe grabbed the man’s jacket collar and hauled him backwards towards cover.

There was no time to debate the possibility of spinal cord damage; Charlie had nothing to lose. Karen helped her get the moaning young man behind the shelter of a boulder.

“Derek…” Dianthe used the young agent’s given name.

“Yes, ma’am,” the agent blinked, focusing his attention on the towering woman as Karen donned latex gloves. He seemed so damned young, she thought. He could be no more than twenty-five. The wound was bad. Really bad.

“Did you see where the shot came from?”

“Yes. About six hundred feet up the hillside,” the young man’s earnest hazel eyes met hers. “M40A1 holds 5 rounds. He’s fired two. My PSG1 holds 20 rounds. Extra clips are in my BDU pockets. Get him.”

“I will,” Dianthe promised. Karen had cut away the man’s gore stained trousers and had begun tending his wound. Dianthe met Karen’s eyes. “I’m going to draw him away.”

“It’s suicide,” Karen protested.

“It’s suicide to remain here. It’s me and Meredith he wants.”

Karen blinked back tears, but nodded. It was the truth. Charlie had been in love with the wildlife biologist. He blamed Dianthe Xavier for denying him the love of Meredith.

“Derek, hang on,” Dianthe told the young man. He smiled thinly, nodding his head. “Here goes nothing.”

Dianthe rose, scanning the area for signs of movement. She had taken the agent’s assault rifle clips, slid them inside the pockets of the BDU’s she wore. She made sure her 9 mm was secure, and dashed forward. She snatched the military sling of the Heckler and Koch rifle and threw herself behind the trunk of a towering Douglas fir.

She heard the thud of a bullet hit the spot where she had been. Charlie was playing cat and mouse with her. She had seen his file. He was one of the best snipers that the Corps had produced in years. If not for his extra curricular hobby of being a firebug, he would still be in the Corps.

Dianthe drew in a steadying breath, recalling her own military and law enforcement training. She had to out flank him. It was the only chance they had.

She saw Karen holding the rifle she given her. Karen knew how to use high-powered rifle, even though she was not law enforcement like Morgan. Dianthe drew a steadying breath, and began a series of timed dashes. Five rounds per magazine. Three rounds fired off. She ran uphill, zigzagging and dropping to a crouch whenever possible.

She spotted a form gliding downhill, and took careful aim. Her finger rested on the trigger of the agent’s high-powered assault rifle, stilling herself and focusing. She shut her left eye, using the sight. Her right finger began depressing the trigger when an inner sense told her not to.

Meredith broke cover, zigzagging as she ran. Dianthe felt her heart pounding: she had almost killed her lover. She raced towards the running woman, knowing Charlie had been herding Meredith this way.

She slung the rifle and pulled out her Sig 9 mm, and made her way towards Meredith. A shot rang out, and Meredith’s body jerked violently, her arms flung out. Dianthe roared the woman’s name as she fell.

“NO!” Dianthe burst out of cover as Charlie Fenton walked out of the undergrowth he had been using as a screen. He pivoted, firing off his last round. It was an off the hip shot, not the type he normally used.

Fire burned through Dianthe’s right leg, making it give out even as she fired her weapon. Charlie grunted, and she knew by some miracle one of her bullets had hit him. She was sprawled on her back.

Meredith lay motionless on the earth, her face turned away from Dianthe. Dianthe scanned the forest floor. She had lost her pistol, and the rifle lay trapped beneath her. Charlie’s right arm hung loosely by his side, and there was a dark stain spreading along his shoulder area.

Dianthe grimaced. The bullet had passed through the outer edge of her thigh, dark blood pooled around the hole. Charlie drew his pistol, shrugging his shoulders. “Not really a good shot with my left hand, you know. But I am sure that won’t stop me from killing you, dyke, like I did her.”

Charlie fired the his 9 mm, and the bullet hit three yards to Dianthe’s right side. Charlie smiled like it was a joke, walking forward. He was three feet from Meredith, but his attention was focused on Dianthe.

He began adjusting his aim when Meredith bellowed his name. Charlie turned, his smile fading when the woman drove her folding knife deep into his belly. Meredith thrust it deep, twisting the short bladed Buck knife for maximum damage. He let out a curse, stumbling backwards as Meredith regained her feet.

Charlie tore out the short bladed knife and threw it aside, his hand covered with blood. He glared at his attacker. “You fucking bitch,” he snarled, hand held over his hard, flat belly in disbelief as he raised his pistol. Meredith positioned herself between Charlie and Dianthe. “You’re dead.”

“Charlie, go to hell,” Meredith hissed, gray-green eyes blazing. “You’ll have to kill me first to hurt her again. This ends here, today.”

“Meredith, run.” Dianthe implored, rolling onto her side and struggling to free the rifle. She cursed, the top of rifle sling was tangled on a gnarled root that she was sprawled across.

The gnarled root had slipped between the heavy duty D-ring connecting the strap to rifle, effectively pinning Dianthe down. She felt like a bug pinned to a display board. She reached down to find the SOG tool she wore on her weapon’s belt, keeping her eyes focused on the drama unfolding before her eyes.

Charlie spat, saying, “I’m going to kill that fucking dyke. Let you see her die. Then you are going to pay for the years you made me think you were a normal woman, Meredith.”

Meredith said nothing, watching and waiting. She stood balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to strike and dodge.

Charlie moved, aiming for Dianthe. Meredith threw herself forward, ramming the man hard. She grappled his left hand, pushing his hand sideways. Even wounded, Charlie Fenton was a very strong man. He managed to keep his gun and his footing, but the bullet missed Dianthe.

The bullet thudded into the dirt several meters to the sprawled woman’s side. Cursing, Charlie caught Meredith with a vicious backhand that snapped the smaller woman’s head back. The blow dropped Meredith to her knees.

Charlie delivered a powerful roundhouse kick to the exhausted woman right side. Meredith yelped, flipped onto her back as she struggled to regain her breathe and feet. Another kick sent her rolling down the incline. Not one to let opportunity to escape him, Charlie followed his dazed victim. Meredith pushed herself up onto her knees and hands, determined not to go down without a fight.

“LEAVE HER ALONE,” Dianthe shouted, unfolding the utility tool’s knife blade. Charlie smiled at Dianthe as his final kick lifted Meredith off the ground.

It caught her in the midsection, and an explosive whoosh of air escaped Meredith’s lips before she collapsed. Meredith was down for the count.

Dianthe cursed Charlie, tears of helpless rage coursing down her face as she fought the entanglement holding her firm. All her training, all her skills, were rendered useless by a stupid tree root holding her down. Meredith and she were going to die here, today, despite her abilities.

“Say good-bye to your woman, Dianthe,” Charlie pronounced, enjoying the game he was playing. Another kick rolled Meredith onto her back so Dianthe could see her lover’s face. “So pretty…right now.”

He began raising his gun to finish Meredith when the sharp report of two high-powered rifles erupted behind him. Blood spurted out of his shattered chest, and blood wet his lips. He dropped his gun, his shaking hand touching torn flesh. For a brief instant disbelief registered on Charlie’s face, then his body crumpled beside Meredith. Jason and Morgan emerged from the woods, both winded from the run they had made.

Morgan kicked Charlie’s pistol away, then rolled the man over. Her high-powered rifle kept level on a killer deadlier than the poor bear she had helped put down. She only relaxed her defensive posture once she saw the damage the powerful bullets had done to his chest cavity. His heart and lungs had been destroyed by the bullets. Jason knelt beside Meredith.

“Meri?” Jason touched the limp form with infinite care, feeling for a pulse. Meredith moaned, no doubt regretting she had regained consciousness. “Can you hear me?”

Meredith slowly opened her eyes, groaning as she hugged her battered midsection. “Jon’s right: I gotta learn to duck.”

“You okay?” Jason asked, checking for broken bones and wounds with his big, gentle hands. Morgan knelt beside him, shaking her head in amazement that Meredith had survived being hunted by the sick bastard that they had deemed one of them.

“Other than seeing two of you, yeah,” Meredith tried rising, but fell back on her bottom. “Check Dianthe. I’ll live. She’s been shot.”

“Stay put, kiddo,” Jason insisted. “You took one hell of a beating. You most likely have broken ribs, or very bent ones. Keep an eye her, Morgan.”

Morgan hunkered beside the dazed wildlife biologist, smiling, laughing and crying all at once. She gently hugged her friend, planting kisses atop her head as she let tears slid down her face. They had seen Meredith go down, and thought she had been killed. “Goddess, Meredith, you got to stop scaring the crap outta me like this, okay?”

“Karen?”

“She’s with the young agent that bastard shot. He’s being medevaced as we speak. He’s strong and young, but he may never walk again. Think we will need another medevac. We thought you were hit, Meri.”

“Actually, I tripped,” Meredith laughed, shaking her head. “Ground squirrel nest. Got winded, so decided to play possum. And I was tired of running.”

Morgan affectionately mused her friend’s hair, and held her close with gruff affection. They heard Jason call for a medevac for Dianthe, once he informed the teams that Charles Brain Fenton was dead. He was busy tending to the sprawled woman whose attention was focused elsewhere. Karen appeared, bearing a heavy duty run bag with ease. She trotted towards Jason and Dianthe, knowing the woman had been shot.

“Dianthe…” Meredith simply murmured, struggling to regain her footing.

“Meri–” Morgan began, falling silent with the level look that ended the discussion. Morgan slipped a supporting arm around the bruised and bloody woman, helping her reach her lover’s side. Jason had untangled Dianthe, and helped her sit up while Karen cut away the bloody jeans.

Rinsing over the wound site, Karen swiftly bandaged the thigh wound with bulky dressings and gauze. Jason shook his head when he saw Morgan and Meredith. “Xavier, keep your ass down. You got a through and through hole in your thigh, and I do not want to learn if you got a nicked artery waiting to go.”

Morgan lowered Meredith beside her wounded partner, knowing the women would need to assure themselves the other was safe. Dianthe reached out and snared Meredith’s right hand, blinking back tears of joy. “I love you,” they said simultaneously to each other.

Jason shook his head, unable to stay annoyed at the stubborn wildlife biologist. “And you, young lady, better not move again, or I am telling Annie and your Mother.”

Meredith flinched, grinning at the man. “You do not play fair, Jason.”

“Too bad, kiddo,” Jason growled, watching the approach of the National Guard paramedics. Meredith and Dianthe linked hands, lost in each other’s eyes, heedless of what the paramedics would think.

They had survived. Dianthe leaned over and claimed Meredith’s lips in brief, sweet kiss. Then, the paramedics began preparing the two women for transport.

****************

Annie and Martha had roommates for the next six days and nights. Dianthe and Meredith were both being held by the doctors for various medical concerns. Dianthe had lucked out, the bullet had passed through her upper leg with out hitting major blood vessels or bone. She would be sideline for several very long weeks, but she would fully recuperate.

Meredith had sustained a mild concussion, badly bruised ribs, numerous other abrasions, bruises and cuts, not to mention extreme exhaustion and malnutrition that had her doctors fuming. Patrick came and personally read the riot act to Meredith about taking better care of herself, and letting Jason and Annie known neither woman would be fit for duty for seven weeks.

Annie laughed at least she would have some company for cards. Meredith grinned, leering at Dianthe. It was obvious what type of cards she wanted to play with her lover. Martha’s family came by for visits, and Dianthe met the coltish young girl with stars in her eyes.

When the women were released, they were fast friends with Martha and her rowdy clan. Martha told Dianthe and Meredith they would be able to get flights to Seattle whenever needed.

Jason and Annie dropped the lovers off. Morgan and Karen would spend the next few days with them. Furball, it seemed, had been spoiled rotten. Morgan explained Kelly had come by everyday to tend to the kitty, and had bonded with him.

Sleek, well groomed, and full of himself, Furball greeted his humans with feline disdain. It lasted about five minutes until he saw his humans were hurt. Annoyance forgotten, he spent the next few days proving what a loving fellow he could be.

Dianthe and Meredith spent those quiet days mending, simply enjoying being alive and in love. Gentle touches and soft kisses were shared often, though both wished they could express their love in a more physical manner.

But both were simply too battered for the time being. And having Karen and Morgan staying in the main house made sure neither woman overdid anything.

************

The house was hidden inside the forested area of a little known road of Southwest Harbor. Hidden from the rush and crush of the summer season where tourists taxed the patience of the island natives. Dianthe drove along the dirt road, nervous and pleased. She would finally be meeting Meredith’s beloved grandparents.

Two weeks had passed since the events up on Fire Mountain, and they were both well on the road to recovery. Kelly was housing and kitty sitting, no doubt enjoying the house she would have for the next three weeks.

Annie would be returning to light duty in another ten weeks, and they would be back on duty when they returned. Light duty, but duty nonetheless. Seasonal rangers were being held over, extended for six weeks beyond their usual end of business date, and several full timers had been temporarily brought up out of the Seattle office. Charlie Fenton had been buried, his rambling diaries turned over to law enforcement agencies. The murder of Mike Drango and the other wildlife biologist had been solved.

Charlie had been the assassin for both men. Drango, because he had learned about Dawson’s drug and gun running. It seemed Mike Drango had died because of his principles. The wildlife biologist had died because he could testify. There was a list of other victims, including Maggie Sanderson, and victims during his time as a State Trooper. Charlie had killed over twenty-nine men and women in the name of his America, granting closure for the families of his victims.

None of the staff had attended his funeral. With his diaries in hand, the federal authorities went to pick up Dawson. He had fled, abandoning his wife and daughter to avoid being imprisoned. He had gotten over the Canadian border, and had gotten on a plane bound for South America.

He was now a hunted man. His own henchman’s diaries were more damning than Meredith’s photographs. Charlie Fenton had become the worst enemy Dawson had.

“There…” Meredith inclined her head towards the beautiful seaside house that blended with the background. Rose brushes shrouded, it had a commanding view of the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Sitting on a porch swing were two silver haired figures, holding hands and chatting.

Dianthe drove down the sheltered road towards the sprawling house where Meredith’s grandparents were waiting. They rose, waving to the rented Jeep driving down the road.

Meredith slid out of the vehicle and rushed forward to embrace her beloved Grandparents. Dianthe watched how they held her lover close, pride and love obvious in their bearing. Meredith hugged her grandparents, laughing and kissing them with pure joy.

During the six-hour flight, and long drive she had told Dianthe stories about her grandparents. Meredith’s deep love for her family, especially her grandparents, was clear with each story she shared.

Dianthe watched, feeling momentarily awkward. Meredith turned, reaching out to her with proud eyes.

Dianthe walked forward, hating the cane she needed for the next few weeks. James Dennis Murphy inclined his head, offering a still strong hand as his hazel eyes shone with delight. “Welcome, Dianthe.”

“Thank you, Mister Murphy.”

“You can call us Granddad and Grandma,” Regina Murphy insisted, keeping an arm around her favorite grandchild. Her mere blue eyes twinkled with mirth. “We are glad Meredith has found someone that loves her as much as she loves them.”

Dianthe blinked back tears. Except for her parents, she was not very close to the rest of her family. They did not approve of her lesbianism. She beamed, and said, “Yes, Grandmother Murphy.”

Meredith smiled, and the four of them started to enter the enchanting house by the sea. Dianthe sent a silent prayer of gratitude to the benevolent god that granted her this woman. this life. She spotted the telltale contrails of military jets in the bright blue sky. Dianthe focused on the two jets, knowing they were Tomcats.

Dianthe sighed.

Meredith stood beside her, watching the jets disappear from view. She reached out and swept her fingertips across the other woman’s hand. Dianthe turned, gazing deeply into her lover’s sea green eyes and smiled. She leaned down and kissed Meredith, a tender kiss that made them both smile. She let Meredith lead her inside the beautiful home where her new family and life waited.

The End

Drango Gap: Solstice Miracle (A short story)

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