~ Drango Gap ~
by Elizabeth Carroll AKA RangerLiz


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's bit his lower lip, containing the urge to cry out of 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 forget that father was never one to miss things. The boy wanted nothing more than 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 not 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.


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 would teach her a lesson. He harassed his female shipmates whenever possible. His called 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 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 your 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 the 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 her 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 in 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 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."


"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."


"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.


Send feedback to: Rangstlnm@aol.com

RangerLiz's Scrolls
Main Page