O915, Monday June 10, 1997
Pink Cliffs, Grand Staircase
Escalante National Monument, Utah
Tory was halfway up the mountainside when the quiet of the forest was interrupted by the flutter of birds flying up toward the canopy of spruce and aspen. She stopped her ascent to listen to the sounds around her, trying to determine if man or animal had flushed out the birds. Then quiet once again settled around her like a soft blanket.
“It must have been a squirrel or badger that spooked them; I’m not up high enough yet for it to be a wolverine,” she thought.
By rote habit, Tory recalled the different animals inhabiting the various elevations from advanced biological studies classes. While this was nothing she ever considered important during school, she frequently found obscure facts such as this popping into her head during the solitude of the long wilderness hikes her job required.
She continued to climb to the first point on the grid the forestry department gave her when she first bid the survey job. One point was a spot on the map where the clear grid lines crossed when placed over the topographical display.
“It‘s amazing” she reflected, “how much detail you can see from this satellite picture.” She looked down at the map and used her compass to check her location.
She again heard a rustle in the brush. “Hello, is anyone there. I’m doing a survey of plants and trees.” She waited for a response, and then continued on.
Her pack was full of the new equipment she bought with the small advance given to her with the awarded contract. She thought of her bid and reminded herself, “I have to survey at least 6 points on the map every day to finish the work by the end of summer,” then quickened her steps.
Finally arriving at the designated point she sat on the spongy pine needles covering the ground. Then she searched through her pack and pulled out her increment boring tool. After a long drink from her water bottle, she pushed the tool against the bark and began to turn the small handle that twisted the mechanism into the tree to obtain a core of wood. She counted the rings, and noted that at year fifteen there had been a fire and no bark beetle larva were present. The GPS indicator blinked a reading to enter into the computer back at the office to verify she’d been at the required coordinates.
With her head down and writing on a clipboard she heard an out-of-place sound which penetrated her concentration. A snap, like someone stepping on a dry twig in the stillness, sounded as loud as the retort of the old .22 she used to target-shoot out on the Arizona strip with her Uncle Pete.
“I heard something, I know it, but it couldn’t, or shouldn’t be a gun shot.” she thought.
It was the beginning of the season, and hunters had nothing to hunt yet—plus it was too chilly for recreational camping. There weren’t any cars parked in the turnout where she left the truck as the sun came up that morning.
“Who would be up here? Most likely kids, school just got out, probably camped overnight.”
No one could have parked after her and beat her up the mountain—of that she was sure. For all four years at Arizona State, Victoria Hunt had been on a full scholarship for cross country and track. She ran cross country in the fall, and in the spring she ran the 4x4 mile relay, and competed in the pentathlon, a grueling affair that included five running and throwing events. Even though she was not in training, she was still in good shape and could think of no one around here who could beat her up to the ridge.
“Maybe who ever it is came up the back way.” She thought,
Her speed was why she was able to low-bid the job and get the contract. She wanted to keep the job on a strict timetable so she could get a good reputation and launch her own environmental research company.
“Helloooo”, she called out again into the stillness of the pungent air.
No answer came back to her, so feeling a bit silly, she neatly packed up her gear, took a quick look at the map for landmarks along the way and started off to the next survey point.
“Maybe I’m imagining things but now I wish I didn’t leave my gun in the truck. That was dumb, but all this survey gear is heavy and my gun’s not light.”
She thought back to the ridiculous class she had to take to get her concealed weapons permit and how she sat silently silent through the discussions and litany of war stories told by all the men in the class.
“Have you ever handled a gun young lady.” the firearm safety instructor, a retired sheriff, said after the written test and they were going outside to begin the target performance.
He acted surprised by her ease and accuracy with the gun. No one ever expected the pretty little blue-eyed blonde to be so handy with her double action Colt Python. In the class, she was the only student to get 100% accuracy on the shooting range. She was grateful her dad had sent his old revolver when he learned her forestry job allowed her to carry a weapon for protection, but it was heavy as guns go.
“All that practice out on the homestead, shooting up against Devil’s Claw Knoll with my brothers and uncle helped,” she contemplated during class.
By the end of the day, the instructor and other students looked at her with a bit of respect. “Why do I always have to prove myself? I guess I’ve never fit the mold but It’s starting to bug me after all these years.”
Climbing over piles of rocks to get higher up the slope, she crossed a boggy meadow to reach the next survey point. Along the way she kept looking for signs of the toad subject of her senior thesis project.
The buffo toad research was what had changed her mind about going into veterinary medicine. She found the mutated toad on the edge of a small stream one day while camping and was mystified by its size and markings. She mentioned it the next day to her Professor after class. That weekend he followed her up the mountain just an hour from campus and laughed so hard he cried when he saw the discovery. He was very excited about the find and was equally as encouraging about her idea of doing a species exploration. Before her junior year began, he helped her get grant money for the study.
Slightly out of breath, the elevation was now over 8,000 ft; she hurried along to the clearing she had seen in the satellite image. Surrounded by tall grasses and aspen, Tory knelt down to look at the florescent green algae in a shallow pool when she heard a rustle from the far side of the meadow
“I know I’m not hallucinating; there is someone out there…maybe even following me… I’m going to find out!”
Staying low, she crept behind a grouping of willows on the edge of the water. There was an odd silvery glint from the stagnant liquid that reflected and struck her eyes making it difficult to focus on the other side of the open space but she was sure she saw movement. Trying to look casual, she stood and hoisted up her backpack then clipped the waist belt tight.
As she raised her head to look toward where she heard the noise, a shot rang out from the low bushes up ahead. Simultaneously she heard the unmistakable thud of a projectile imbedding itself in a nearby tree.
“What the heck. Hey, there are people up here!” she yelled, assuming it was an early hunter who was unaware of her presence. Rapidly working her way along, she saw a deer path and began to jog quickly toward where she heard the noise.
“Stop, I want to talk to you.” Her action was immediately followed by the rhythmic pounding of another set of feet on the compacted dirt, so she increased her speed in pursuit. Whoever it was must have been familiar with the remote area as he managed to keep in front of her enough so she could only catch brief glimpses of a dark sweater, a pulled-down cap and a compact backpack high on the shoulders of a thin quickly moving body.
Tory knew if she dumped her heavy pack, she could easily narrow the gap to the runner. But her data and equipment were too precious to leave behind.
She quickly reviewed her options, then called out, “Stop, I know that was an accident. Don’t run, wait up.”
She couldn’t imagine the shot was meant for her, “I don’t even know anyone in town yet! And it can’t have been one of the creeps that arrogant dean— sent after me.”
There was a group of students who plagued her at school and made her life miserable. But no one had ever physically threatened her, just tried to stop or steal her research.
“No, I left that back in Arizona.”
It was no secret that Dr. Julie Philipi, Dean of the Biology Department, would have done just about anything to have written Tory’s research paper on toads. A few months ago there was no doubt one of the Deans’ devoted teaching assistants was scouting around to find out where she had located her unusual toad species. But Tory guarded her data and when she was invited to give a presentation at the Western States Environmental Symposium, she knew the Dean was furious.
Ever since the Symposium Dr. Philipi did whatever she could to prevent Tory from getting any recognition. It was no use. With her detailed findings on the toads and the support of her icon in herpetology, Dr. Swanson, several institutions wanted exclusive rights to her paper. Now she was even getting a stipend from a small department at NASA called the National Ecological Research Agency. Tory never missed a chance to expand her data and hunt the toads or check out one of the water ways for a hidden supply of incubating eggs.
“Now I’ve graduated, I don’t expect anymore sabotage attempts from Dr. Philipi. But then again, the woman is relentless.”
Several times the Dean tried to get her hands on Tory’s notes. At first Tory was dismayed when she realized what the Doctor was trying to pull off, but soon found out it was not unusual for students to let the Dean polish and publish student research as her own.
Tory’s laptop had even once suspiciously disappeared from the lab for several days but then just as strangely had reappeared. It was a good thing she never entered details on the specimen locations into the computer without using a fancy encryption password lock she knew no one could crack.
Her brother Mitch, who was the oldest of the Hunt siblings, was a computer whiz and kept the whole family security-wise and up to date with the latest protection software. He was so amazing one time when she panicked and thought her thesis was lost somewhere in cyberspace, he worked his magic over the phone and managed to find the lost file in some sectored-off spot of her hard drive. He could hack just about anything, so it was a good thing he had a legitimate job and loved what he did.
Tory jogged along the twisting downward trail for a minute more before it straightened out and she could clearly see the person in dark clothing ahead of her on the narrow path.
“So who is this guy, and where is he running?”
She wanted to talk to him, but he kept running when she called out for him to stop.
Tory slowed, looked into the distance and thought,
“Hmmm, how far…how far, if I can just get his attention.”
She judged the distance and picked up a baseball sized rounded hunk of stone from next to the trail. She couldn’t take the time to remove her equipment, so with her heavy backpack on, she leaned forward, got weight onto her left foot, rocked back on her right and rapidly forward again using all her strength, whipped her arm and let the stone fly using the old Olympic shot-put technique.
The stranger was almost through the clearing and into the thickness of the forest when the projectile hit him with an audible thud on the top of his back pack. The runner expelled a gasp of air, arched forward like a Halloween cat and rolled down the slope beyond the edge of the trees.
“Got ‘em!”, Tory celebrated as she straightened up. “Geeze, I only wanted to get close; I didn’t expect a direct hit! I hope whoever it is, was not hurt, too bad”
Tory smiled slightly as she ran over to where she had last seen the runner. As she got to the edge of the woods, she looked in wonder at the mark in the thick grass where the victim of her throw should be.
“I know I got ‘em!”.
Then she saw that the disturbance in the foliage continued to the left off the path. She rapidly followed the track down toward the edge of the ridge.
“Be careful”, she warned herself.
Earlier while studying the aerial image, she saw the trail ended in a deep gorge of red rock that appeared only a few feet beyond the trees.
She thought at the time, “I have to be alert or I won’t see the drop off and could easily fall right off the edge.”
But as usual, she didn’t listen to her own advice and increased her speed realizing she was narrowing the gap to the perpetrator. She persistently followed the trodden grass indicating the interloper had passed. The slippery dirt trail went steeply downward and her heavy pack pushed forward, sending her almost out of control.
Without warning, the trees stopped and the edge of the precipice materialized. “Oh no, I knew this was coming.” She pulled up quickly so her momentum wouldn’t carry her over the cliff and into the gorge. Tory stood teetering on the edge to get her balance, almost like trying to not fall over the line after a javelin throw, and at the same time she reached out and grabbed at a green sapling on the overhang. Watching rocks and sand waterfall off the lip of the trail and plummet to the valley below made her realize just how far down it was to the bottom of the canyon.
“Where did he go?”
She was more than shaken as she looked over the sheer drop and then along the rock face, but saw no one. Shading her eyes from the bright sun, she looked across the ravine and saw the answer. To her disbelief in the distance; the yellow and orange billow of a small sized base-jump parachute was drifting back and forth in the upward current of the narrow space between the sides of the rock formation. The now familiar dark clad figure was maneuvering the descending flight and appeared to look up at her as she stared in wonder at the downward journey. Tory clearly saw him raise his middle finger. “What a jerk! Did he try to set up this trap? Get me to follow, chase him and run right off the cliff, or was it an innocent event. Well, if I fell off everyone would think it was an accident. I’m sure every season there are several injured or lost.”
She couldn’t get herself to think of that possibility. “I probably surprised someone out for an early hunting trip and a thrill ride that didn’t want to be caught.”
She needed to look up the forestry regulations, fines and penalties on hunting, parachutes and base jumping, so if it happened again she’d know how to handle the situation. She was pretty sure it was illegal and would ensue a hefty fine.
“Geeze,” she exclaimed
Her imagination must be going out of control. After a semester of protecting her thesis, she had become a bit paranoid.
“At least I’m not hearing things.”
She turned back to the trail and began a slow walk back to the next survey point. “I have to get at least four more points today or I’ll be behind.”
She couldn’t stop thinking about the encounter, and wondered about it for the rest of her uneventful afternoon.
2030, Monday June 10,
USDF Offices, Main Street
The forestry parking lot was empty except for three trucks and the bull dozer used to scrape the fire roads. Tory pulled into the last open spot marked for forestry vehicles. The offices in the small government building were dark. Tory climbed up the back stairs to the second floor and went through the entryway to her sparse cubicle. Void of any personal belongings, the only things staring back at her were a desk, computer and file cabinet. She could see out the window—but only if she stood on tiptoe and looked out over the top of the half walls, and even then all she could see was the side of the convenience store next door. Next to the map room and director Green’s office was the cabinet holding the keys to all the equipment and government trucks. She hung the keys to the truck on the hook marked number four and dropped her clipboard on the desk.
Liking what he saw in Tory’s research, it was Lew Green, the Escalante Monument head ranger who recommended Tory be given a chance at the contract. He was a wide and substantial man with an easy grin who always looked formal, neat and pressed. This was something Tory rarely tried to emulate. Her mother frequently had a hard time getting her into a dress to go to church or special occasions while growing up. This was quite different from her sisters, Valerie, and Veronica, who loved to play dress-up and beauty queen. Tory was more comfortable riding bikes with the boys in the neighborhood and jumping the dirt mogul-hills down by the wash. As a very little girl, she protested her parents chosen nick name of Vicki for Victoria,
“Vicki and Victoria are prissy, I like Tory,” she told everyone when she was seven years old.
It was later than she expected when she got back to town because she was determined to keep to her schedule even though the incident on the mountain had slowed her progress. She glanced over at the paper tray under the fax machine and saw several communications had come through after everyone had left for the day.
“I’m not even looking at those”.
She turned off the lights, locked the door, and left down the stairs to climb wearily into her old battered truck, dubbed the Twinkie-mobile by her family, because it had originally been painted a bright yellow. Now it was so often covered with dust and mud the name hardly fit.
A figure dressed in dark tight fitting clothing eyed her as she drove down the quiet street. He came out from behind the bulldozer, and went up the stairs Tory had just come down. The prowler jimmied open the door to the office with no trouble and using a small maglight began to go through the eight desks scattered around the room between the dividers. He found the one he wanted and carefully went through the documents and notes that were placed there only moments before. Pulling out a small camera he snapped photos of the information Tory gathered during the day. On his way out, he thumbed through the pile of faxes. Without taking the time to read them, he found one addressed to Tory and quickly stuffed it into his backpack. Distracted by the blinking light, he tapped the memory on the machine and erased any record the last fax had been sent from NASA. Smiling to himself, he quietly secured the door once again, went down the stairs to the alley and over to his black 4X4 Jeep. He reached down and scratched the spot on his leg that had been itching ever since he came off the mountain, then yanked out a cell phone and dialed the secure number to his friend at Alpha-Sigma Pharmaceutical.
“Hey Chance, Eddie here, good thing you told me to get up there and stay overnight, I would’ve had a hard time keeping up with the brat. And you owe me for my new sleeping bag I had to leave up there and I’ll send you the bill for some hot packs for my back! I can’t believe that witch hit me with a good sized rock from over 50ft. away”
“I told you to watch out. I’ve heard she’s tough, and smart too. Which is why this may be harder than we thought, do you know if she found anything?”
“I’m not sure, but I went through all her stuff, got pictures of her field work records and everything else I could find. It doesn’t look like she’s identified my chemical drop distraction so far—I was watching when she saw one of the dump spots. The girl has amazing observation skills. She acted like she heard me. I didn’t even take a step, must have felt me breathe. I had to think quick, so first I fired a shot off, then got her to follow me. I was hoping she didn’t know about the drop off and fall into the gorge, but no luck. I had to bail off the ridge so she wouldn’t ask questions. I’m hoping she thought I was a joy-jumper. Good thing I had an exit strategy already thought out.” Eddie felt quite clever and was surprised by the admonition from Chance.
“You idiot, do you know who I had to pay off to find out where she was going to be and get that organism for the chemical distraction dump. But I don’t want anyone hurt! We needed her to find the sludge and get all caught up in an investigation, not have her killed. If you foul this up it’s bad for us both. We need to keep her focused on the stuff in the water and away from the growing plots. The last thing we need is the local authorities investigating an accident.”
“Yeah, yeah, you come out here if you think it’s so easy hotshot. I’ll be back in Phoenix late Wednesday, so make excuses for me. Right now I gotta find a drugstore to get something stronger than aspirin for my back.”
He flipped the phone shut, and rubbing his lower back climbed into his jeep.
“Dang Jerk! I liked that sleeping bag too!”
2145, Monday June 10,
300 N. 42 E. Young’s Farm
She drove down the main street and then around the corner to the converted garage which was so small you could hardly call it an apartment. Tory had planned to review her data but was more tired than expected so she quickly set those thoughts aside when she pulled onto the gravel next to the converted garage.
“Right now, all I want is a long hot bath.”
Tory realized that soon she’d have to spend several days in a row at the survey site because going back and forth would take too much time. She had all the camping stuff she needed and setting up a base camp would be easy. She could come into town every 4-5 days and get supplies. Except for missing the hot bath, it would be fun.
“I can invite some of my track friends, or some of my family to come for a visit for a camping trip and to keep me company,” she planned.
She opened the door, plopped her pack on the floor and reached over to flip on the light. Stopped in her tracks by what she saw, Tory looked around at the once neat room. Her books were pulled off the shelves, and papers had exploded across the room. The file cabinet in the corner holding her research and other documents was gaping open. Her camping equipment was dumped out of the duffel bag into a jumbled heap in the middle of the room. Someone had gone through her stuff and left a huge mess.
With shock and growing anger she thought, “What’s going on, what a joke of a day I’ve had, this really stinks, nothing better be gone.”
She was getting mad. And like someone had hit her in the stomach she began to feel sick.
“Oh no, what if he’s still here?”
Grabbing her keys, she ran back to her truck to get her pistol and flashlight, but instead decided to grab the old softball bat in the bed of her truck. She came cautiously back into the confusion of the room holding the bat above her shoulder, ready to swing away. The only place anyone could hide was behind the counter in front of the kitchen sink, or in the bathroom. She moved forward slowly, listening carefully for any indication someone was hiding. Seeing no one in the kitchen area, she silently went across to the bathroom. Throwing the door open she shined the beam into all the corners and found nothing but some towels on the floor that needed to see some detergent soon.
“I’m beginning to feel stupid.”
Tory went to the phone and stood there wondering what to do. She had only moved in a week ago and didn’t want to call the sheriff and be known as the new comer who complained. It was hard enough to fit in as an out-of-towner. Usually, unless you were born into a small town, you were always looked at with suspicion.
She thought, “Maybe it’s the same guy from the mountain snooping around to check out the latest move-in. Geeze, this is a pile to clean up, I don’t have time for this.”
After his extraordinary departure the shooter certainly could have beaten her back to town and still had time to ransack her room. She needed somehow to find out if any locals were into base-jumping.
So, “Who should I call?” she thought grimly.
Quickly looking through her scattered papers she concluded her research was accounted for.
“So maybe it was a prank, an initiation, or something dumb like that,”
But after the strange day up on the mountain, she was thinking there must be something else behind it. Continuing to look through the jumble, she thought of the only person she knew nearby and resolutely picked up the phone.
Talon Hawk was a friend from the track team and she knew after graduation he came to Southern Utah to work at a community clinic while waiting for his medical school entrance results to come back. She wondered if his cell number would still work, and decided to give it a try. As the phone rang, she looked at her watch and realized it was late. Talon answered on the first ring with his usual,
“Yup,” and brightened with recognition when her heard her voice, “Is that you Tory?”
After a few greetings, Tory got to the point,
“Are you anywhere near Alton? I can’t remember where you said you’d be working, and you were supposed to call me anyway” she accused. They had promised at graduation to keep in touch since they both had summer jobs in Southern Utah. She gave him the condensed version of her day.
“What would you do? I’m not scared or anything, but I’m not sure I should call the Sheriff over a prank and stir things up when I only want to get my job done and make enough money to get back to graduate school.”
“Hey, I know the town where you said you were renting, and I’m only one town over from Alton in Glendale. Just give me the directions to your place. I can be there in about ten minutes to check things out.”
“You don’t have to do that. I only wanted to get some advice. Considering you grew up around here. Would getting the sheriff involved give me a black ball with the locals? I don’t want to get some over-active teenager in trouble.”
Talon interrupted, “Well, guess what. I’m already in the car and heading your way, give me the street and how to get there. I won’t take no from you, Missy.”
“Okay, thanks, um, after you get into town, keep going east on main and then left on 300 North. The house is green with a barn and pasture out back, 42 West. The garage, my place, is behind the house. You’ll see my truck parked by a door on the side”.
“Ah, the old yellow junker. See you in a few.”
The duffel bag was almost re-packed with her small tent and camping gear by the time Talon got to the door. He gave a few staccato knocks and then walked right in.
“Darn, I forgot to lock the door, where do I think I am—the boonies?” Tory scolded herself.
With one step Talon was across the room, pulled Tory up off the floor and encircled her with his powerfully built arms. He looked around over the top of her head, then with his old habit, ran a hand through his thick black hair to get the wavy mop from his eyes, and gave a low whistle. The familiar gesture made Tory feel like she was back at school.
Then he stepped back and looked her in the eyes.
“Sorry, kiddo, but better you than me. Ya know how I am. This mess would pretty much stay where it is until I moved out.”
Talon’s 6’5” lean muscular body and broad shoulders filled the small living space and made Tory realize how small the room was, but heck she thought.
“What do you want for $250 a month, plus utilities?”
At least she didn’t have to share the bathroom with three other girls.
She watched the easy way he moved about the cramped space and remembered the first time they met when they were both freshmen.
During the first meeting for summer track, before training camp she held back. She was shy and watched to see how everyone interacted. The only person she knew was the field coach who came to the state championship when she was in shot-put finals and talked to her about a scholarship for ASU. There was a bit of a cold reception from the veterans, which she expected until she proved her ability, so the new members on the team stuck together. She and Talon quickly grew to be friends, and ended up lab partners in chemistry. The last few semesters they even lived in the same apartment complex. She was in number seven, and he was two doors down in number nine living with some of the other guys on the team. She was feeling a lot better as she watched him scrutinize the mess then she picked up all the papers and folders trying to get them into piles.
He went around the room carefully looking over everything, and studied the window sash, squinting closely at the latch.
“Whoever or whatever it was got in through the window. You should be more careful Tory.”
“Yeah, I know…so, what do you think, call the cops or let it go?”
“Well is anything missing, or vandalized?”
“From what I’ve been able to tell—no, nothing, only my stuff messed up.”
“If it was me, I’d let it go, and figure if it happened again I‘d try to set a trap. Ya know, city girl, with that window open it could’ve been a raccoon. Did you leave any food out? I‘ve had those cute looking little guys be really bold, climb right up my leg, try to take food out of my hand and this is the kind of mess they leave. But then again with what you told me about what happened today up on the mountain, I’m not so sure.”
“You’re right; I suppose it could have been a raccoon. I did leave before sunup, when those things prowl. I feel so…dumb. But it just doesn’t seem so cut and dry. I sure wish you were two doors down like you used to be.”
“For one thing, you’re not going to be alone tonight. If someone comes back at least they’ll know you’re not the lone stranger.”
“Yeah perfect! Around here, they’ll think I’m a wild woman with a guy in my room. But thanks. I don’t want to be alone tonight.”
Talon went back to his car, got out a worn sleeping bag and his thirty-aught-six rifle from the back seat under the floor mat. Before he came in, he walked beyond the garage behind the house and parking area into the pasture. There was a good sized barn and a chicken coop at the far end of the property. As he approached the cedar fence, a scruffy black and white spotted cow came up close and put her head down for him to scratch.
“Somebody’s pet,” he thought.
He reached out for the soft fluff between her horns and she leaned into the fence to get closer. He tracked back and forth across the pasture with his wary deep green eyes penetrating the darkness and saw nothing unusual under the star lit night.
He would not tell his friend he was worried and thought the events of the day were a bit bizarre. He didn’t want to scare her or keep her from getting this job done. He knew how much it meant to her because he was with her when she got her acceptance letter. She’d been dancing around and high-jumped over the couch into his arms—war whooping like a crazy girl.
All of his buddies had been jealous of their relationship. Most of the guys he hung out with were rough country boys, and this was a sophisticated city girl with curves and brains.
“Ha! Until you get to know her anyway, at least the sophisticated part.”
Somehow, she reminded him of his sisters back on the Kaibab-Paiute Reservation—fun loving and athletic. Because of that he had treated her with the easy familiarity of a brother. She was in lots of his classes. They were lab partners, and she was in his statistics study group. For some reason they had never dated or gotten along romantically. Not that the thought had not occurred to him. Maybe because he always got tongue tied around her. He made the excuse to himself that he didn’t want to wreck a good thing and she never gave any come-on signals like a lot of the other girls, so he was afraid to try. His friends thought he was nuts not to give it an effort because they knew he had a crush on her.
He turned and went back to the small garage looking around once again before he went inside and locked the door behind him.
“Got any ice-cream?”
Tory began to laugh, remembering the late night study group sessions and Talon’s addiction.
“I think so Kemo Sabe,” using her playful nick-name for him.
She went over to the old fridge clunking away in the corner, and located some ice cream toward the back of the freezer. She found two bowls, located clean spoons and put some chocolate syrup on the mounds of vanilla.
“Sorry no Strawberry, I know it’s your favorite.”
Talon was sitting on the lumpy gold couch, thumbing through the papers on the floor and without looking, reached up a waiting hand for the bowl.
“Hey Talon, great dinner, you always had a way with junk food to make me forget to eat right”. She savored a small bit of ice cream from her bowl and mumbled, “Well, so much about me and my problems.”
She pulled off her hiking boots and curled up in the recliner chair in the corner.
“Tell me about your job.”
He looked up as he responded,
“It’s okay. I’m working with kids at the clinic, but I can’t wait to get my test results back and get on with my life.”
“Do you know where you want to send your applications yet?”
“I have some ideas, but the scores will let me know if I should waste my time sending to the high power schools. But, I’ve been thinking about UCLA because of the guy I’m working with and I want to say in the west where I can keep up with my running without cold and snow.”
“You shouldn’t have any problems where ever you apply. You were at the top of our class and have the native thing going for you.”
“You know I’ve never wanted to play that game.”
“Yeah, I know. You wouldn’t even admit that you were an Indian for the first year at school. You had your hair cut like a marine, would only wear loafers and slacks, instead of boots and Levi’s like the other guys. Your Toyota didn’t fit the stereotype either. No big truck for you. Actually, I thought you were a tall Hispanic when we first met.
He grinned and responded sheepishly, “Don’t feel bad, I found out first impressions don’t count too. I thought you were a stuck up California surfer girl. Anyway, I’m way past that rebellious phase. I really don’t know what I was running from.”
“I think, running from yourself—and pretty darn fast. Most everyone on the track team figured out you were Indian right away, and I wondered why you joined the track team instead of the rodeo team like most of your native friends. I remember you coming with a bunch from the team after a track meet to the bull riding and roping finals and you making comments about the competition, saying you could do a lot better. I thought you were bragging but wondered about it later, especially when you were always throwing a rope at anything moving. So, ah, did you avoid the rodeo team so you wouldn’t have to deal with the stereotype?”
“No, just tired of breaking my butt, and by then decided I wanted to get something useful out of my education. Didn’t want to bust anything or knock my brains out and have an injury stop me from getting decent grades, or at least giving it a good try. I’ve already broken my arm twice working cattle on the reservation. I figured my head would be next.”
“Wish I could have seen you ride a bull or break a horse before you gave it up.”
“Um, haven’t really given it up. I still go back and help out on the reservation in the spring, roping calves, branding and giving immunizations to the herd. Cattle ranchin’s the only way my tribe can make money these days. There’s never enough water out there to farm the old way. That’s why all of us guys were pretty good at calf roping but I was the only one who ever competed. Anyway, little lady, I’m here for the night. I’ll go back to my place in the morning. Say, over the weekend let’s get together and hike to the spot where you think you were ambushed and I’ll check it out, if that’s ok with you. I haven’t had anything to do on the weekends and a mountain hike would be a change of pace from going on a long run or helping the Doc. And another thing, Miss Tory, I expect you to call me during the week if anything more happens. But I have a feeling this is the end of it,” he said yawning.
“You don’t know how much better I feel having you here.”
“Talon to the rescue!”
“And that trip to the mountain would be great. How about on Saturday you get back here really early and we go up to the cliffs. I’ll even pack a lunch for two since I don’t trust the penicillin bread I used to find in your refrigerator.”
“What do you mean you don’t like my green bread? Besides I haven’t been in this new place long enough for anything to go that bad, yet. But I’ll take you up on the offer. Speaking of offer, how ‘bout a trade? I’ve been wondering who I could ask to help me. I need some brainer, and I think you fit well enough.” He gave her a shy look.
“Brainer, huh, thanks, I think?” She popped out the foot of the recliner took her pillow from off the floor along with a blanket and leaned back, eyes getting heavy. “If you’re going to be my body guard you take the couch. At least I fit in this lounge chair.” She tipped back even further.
“Um, I guess I did hog the couch, sorry. But, you know, you did have the reputation of being the puzzle brainer in our study group and I do have a big mystery to unravel, something pretty important to my Pop. So if I come and help you out on the mountain, will you help me with this puzzle I’m supposed to solve.”
“Yeah, sure, I’ll help if I can.”
He reached over to grab his sleeping bag, spread it over himself, yawned again, stretched, dangled his long legs over the side arm and put his head back. Immediately his head hit the softball bat lying under the pillow and he sat back up.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me! Is this your weapon of choice?”
“I’m pretty good with that thing, believe it or not. You’re not the only one with hidden skills. Before I got devoted to track, I played center field on my high school softball team and set a record stealing bases, but got tired of always being told to bunt. I decided I could use my speed someplace else when some friends asked me to help out on the relay team.”
Talon put the bat on the floor and leaned back once again, putting his hands behind his head.
“I’ll remember to stay out of the way when you’re holding that thing,” his eyes closed. “I better get a few hours rest. The clinic opens at eight, it’s baby exam day and we have a full schedule. I’m not as good as I used to be functioning with lack of sleep. So…your…body…guard…will…” His voice trailed off and his breathing was even and deep.
They had just talked more openly than she ever remembered. He was always so solitary and usually responded in his deep bass one syllable words, even when she teased him. She was about to ask why the guys on the track team called his car P.O.S but then looked over at his sleeping body and wanted to laugh at the way he hung off both ends of the couch. She was too tired to ask, snuggled down and wrapped the soft quilt over her shoulders. Suddenly exhausted and seeing Talon willing to be her protector gave her enough confidence to give in to the fatigue she’d been fighting off. It was barely seconds before she joined him in sleep, and when Tory awoke early the next day Talon was gone.