“Cameron!” Elidor MacKenzie screamed. The excruciating crunch of bones and flesh meeting rock vibrated in her ears. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” she chanted as she slid and clawed her way off the mountain to the flatland below where her archeologist partner, Cameron Wright, lay sprawled, arms and legs flung outward as if he’d just made a snow angel in the dirt.
Dropping to her knees, she bent close to his face. “Can you hear me? Please, please. Cam.”
His eyelids fluttered but didn’t fully open. “Elidor,” he rasped. “You…were right…should…use r-ropes.”
“Hush. It doesn’t matter now.” They’d made the climb before, not overly difficult, or she’d have insisted on equipment. The ancient Indian trail was rugged but not impassible. “Oh, thank the universe, you’re alive.” She touched his face. “I’ve got to get help.”
“Wait,” he whispered, the words coming as if with great difficulty. “Get…me back…to camp…”
“No, Cam, I have to call for help.” They were more than two miles from where they’d pitched tents, in the shade of trees on the other side of a shallow stream.
“Not here. Can’t…find us…here. Secret.” He rolled a few inches to his side, struggling to rise. His face contorted.
His pain shot anguish through her gut.
They’d agreed to keep the sacred ground they’d discovered in the mountain bordering the Mescalero Apache reservation a secret, and today should’ve been their last foray into the cave. One last look. But keeping the discovery from the probability of plunder at Cam’s expense wasn’t a consideration. “No—”
He shoved at her shoulder with more force than she imagined he could muster. “Old…lady afraid…to try.” Ever since she’d turned forty, two months ago, he’d taken to calling her that. She’d laughed, but not today.
“Okay. I’ll try.” She positioned herself above his head and shoulders, grabbed him under the arms, and helped him to sit. “This is stupid, so stupid.” His agony jabbed at her back and limbs—his determination cracked the wall of her empathic shell and rocked her breathless.
“Don’t…feel. Just…help. B-breathe.” Her best friend knew as an empath, if she didn’t block out the stress of his pain, she’d become overwhelmed, and her ability to act would falter.
Don’t feel. Concentrate on the physical. Shut out his intensity. Sweat trickled between her breasts. She struggled to get him to his feet. With a grunt and a locked jaw, she dug her boot heels into the rocky earth. Her thighs burned in the crouch as she levered, knees protesting, and brought him to standing. I can’t do this.
He draped one arm across the back of her neck and clutched at a shoulder while his other held to the front of her waist. “Go.”
Although not a big man at 5’8”, he towered five inches over her and outweighed her by seventy-five pounds. His weight suffocated her in the heat. She dragged him a few yards. His attempt at walking didn’t give much help. Her shirt, drenched in sweat, clung uncomfortably to her chest and back. The muscles in her neck twisted, sending a throb to meld with her clenched jaw as she strained to stay upright. Dodging fist-sized rocks, her boots skidded on uneven gravel mixed with loose dirt.
Not far now. Zoning in on their tents beneath the trees on the far side of the creek ahead, she visualized making it that distance. We can do it. We can do it. She chanted a thought, narrowing her gaze, trying to keep her breaths even… Then his foot snagged a rock, and they stumbled. Hope plummeted. Filling her lungs with air, she struggled forward several more yards. She couldn’t help but absorb his driving desire to get as far from the mountain as possible. But her strength waned. Her shoulders ached. Her lower back smarted as if punched. Forcing one foot in front of the other, her legs trembled.
The ground now sloped away toward the stream, the dusty, rocky earth transitioning to sand and fine gravel. Enchanting purple and yellow wildflowers in her peripheral vision didn’t lighten her load. He suddenly weighed heavier on her shoulders. “Cam?” His body went limp. The residual anguish twisting her heart from his physical torture faded. “Oh, no…” She sagged under the added weight.
Wrenching sideways to look into his face, she lost her footing on loose gravel, and her left ankle buckled, sending a hot sting up her leg. She went down, falling onto her knees, Cam draped over her. Sliding forward on her stomach, her vision narrowed while he seemed to engulf and smother her. When at last their momentum slowed, then stopped, her chest and legs stung from rocky scrapes. With his body lying across her back, her lungs burned with the effort of breathing.
“Cameron?” His lack of response sent waves of nauseating dread through her gut. Yet the anguish, now welcomed, seeped to her core. He was at least conscious. She stilled. Don’t die. The sudden rise and fall of his chest flooded her with relief, dizziness, as if she’d come off an adrenalin rush. Rocks jabbed new gashes into her knees as she squirmed until she freed herself, thrusting a hand under his head before his face scraped the ground. The sting of her legs couldn’t match the urgency coursing through her to find help.
With her free hand, she unbuttoned a pocket on the leg of her shorts and dug out her cell phone. When the ringing stopped, she screamed without hearing the greeting. “Marty! Marty, oh God, Marty. Cameron is hurt. Come. You’ve got to come.”
“Elidor, slow down. Hurt how?”
“He fell. The mountain. We weren’t very high…thirty feet maybe. But the boulders. Oh God, Marty…”
“Okay, I’ll leave now.” A drawer slammed shut. “I’ll call the medical center in Alamogordo.” A chair scraped the floor. “Hey! Boyd. Come with me.” His clipped speech grew louder. “Elidor, where the hell are you? I figured you’d be in a cushy lodge room on your day off.”
She should’ve been. They shouldn’t have taken one last look. “We went camping.”
“You got coordinates?”
After giving him the location, she did a swift summation of the distance. Forty minutes for her boss. “You’ll beat medical rescue, Marty. Maybe there’s a hospital on the rez. If we can get him loaded into—”
“For chrissake, Elidor, don’t move him. We’re coming.”
The connection went dead.
Tears streamed down her face. “Don’t move him? No, I shouldn’t have. But…but—”
“El-Elidor.” Cam’s cheek moved against her hand.
She tucked her phone into a pocket. Sweeping his blond ponytail from his face, she curled over him. “Cam? Oh, Cam. I’ve got help coming.”
His eyes opened, and his gaze darted wildly. “Wh-where…are we? Camp?”
“Not quite. You passed out, and I couldn’t hold you any longer.”
“No.” She gasped as his panicked urgency twisted her core with anxiety. “We’re far enough away from the mountain.” She choked on tears. A trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth. A gash oozing blood on the side of his head matted his hair. “Shush. Don’t talk. Okay?” His eyes lost focus, then closed. “Okay?” Her internal reactions to his spirit quieted. His peace released her. “No, no, no.” She put her cheek against his nose. Warm moisture dampened her skin.
Breathing. He’s still breathing. He only passed out.
Blood from his mouth pooled on her hand. She shivered in the heat. “He talked. Sort of walked. It can’t be that bad.” Swiping at her tears with the back of her hand muddied her fingers. “It can’t be that bad. Can’t.” Losing her best friend, maybe the only one who understood her, would take a piece of life from her.
She took off her button-down shirt. The sun immediately attacked her bare arms and back where the sports bra didn’t cover. Folding her shirt in fourths, she made a pillow for his head, coming away with a bloody palm. “Oh, Cam.” She stood on shaky legs and tested her ankle. Scraped, sore, but not injured. She wiped her hands down her shorts and scanned the earth for her hat she’d lost when they fell. Once she tugged it back on her head, she trotted the remaining distance to their camp. Inside her tent, she grabbed a spare backpack and stuffed it with water bottles and hand towels.
She loped back to where she’d left him. As she drew near, she shuddered. He’d regained consciousness or she wouldn’t be absorbing his fear. More shudders. As if moving through quicksand, her legs grew heavy, her heart ramped up, and she struggled to reach him. Could she help him if she became crippled by his emotions? No. The time arrived to shut off the clear feelings. She needed to keep her boundaries intact; his emotions separate from her own.
Okay, okay. She closed her eyes. Calming yoga breath. In through the nose. One. Two. Three. Four.Out through the nose. A faint whistling noise. Don’t feel. Just help. She repeated his instructions. Opening her eyes, she closed the final few steps between them.
She squatted and pulled a water bottle and a towel from the pack. After soaking the towel in water, she draped it over his neck. With another wet towel, she dabbed at the scrapes on his cheek and forehead she could reach without moving him. She wiped the blood from his mouth. Her stomach clenched when new blood appeared within seconds.
“Someone, help me, please. Save him.” She bowed her head and recited the Lord’s Prayer three times. Moving to a sitting position, she crossed her legs and squared her shoulders. His unconscious state settled the roiling of her emotions. Guilt prickled her neck at the relief. A palm on his back confirmed his shallow breath. With eyes closed, she chanted in her mind, over and over. Peace be with me, stay within, peace be with me, stay within…
She jerked at the sound of a car engine. How long had she been meditating? Twenty minutes, maybe. She pushed her palm firmer on Cameron’s back confirming the slight rise and fall of his ribcage. The engine roared. Her head whipped around. She grabbed the brim of her hat to help shade her eyes. Marty’s dented, red Land Rover threw up gravel when he ground to a halt next to their tents. Doors flew open before the dust settled.
She stood, waved her hands in the air, and shouted, “Over here. Marty. Here.”
Dig Director Martin Egan and a dark-haired man she recognized from another of Marty’s dig teams scrambled from the vehicle, splashed through the stream, and covered the short distance.
Marty fell to his knees next to Cameron. On the other side, Elidor did the same.
“I thought you said he fell off a mountain.” Marty surveyed the desert around them, gray eyes shaded by the green khaki hat. “The closest mountain is more than a mile away.”
“Yes, I moved him.” She pointed toward another mountain they hadn’t climbed to help throw him off their real destination. “We were over there.”
“Hell, Elidor, you shouldn’t have done—”
“I know. I know, but he was awake.” She choked back renewed tears. “He wanted to get back to camp. With my help we made it this far. But we fell, and now he’s unconscious and…and…” She choked a quiet sob.
Her boss reached across the prone figure and patted her arm. “Okay. It’s okay. The ambulance should be here in another half hour or so. They said they’d call when—” He patted his pocket. “Shit. Left my phone on the dash.” He took off his hat, rubbed a hand across the bald spot that topped the white halo of hair around his head.
“Let’s load him in your truck. It’ll be faster if we don’t wait. There have to be doctors on the rez. We’ve got to get him help,” she pleaded. “We’ve got to.”
“No, Elidor. We’re not moving him again. He could have internal injuries.” Marty glanced over his shoulder. “Boyd. Take a look at him.” He stood. “Do you know Boyd Chang? He has some medic training. You look like you could use some attention too.”
The man took a step forward, his six-foot, muscular frame towering above her.
She waved him off. “I’m fine.”
He squatted and bent over Cameron. A sudden wave of revulsion slammed her. She didn’t like this man. Shiny black hair shimmered forward over his ears. His hands roamed over her partner’s legs, arms, and back. “I can’t detect anything outwardly broken. Looks like his head took a nasty hit. Don’t like the blood coming from his mouth, but it’s possible he bit his tongue or knocked teeth loose.”
“We’ll wait for the ambulance,” Marty decided. “I’ll get my phone and check how close they are.” He pivoted and strode away.
She added water to the wet towel around Cameron’s neck and touched his cheek.
His lips moved ever so slightly. A surge of anxiety rippled her gut. Her toes curled inside her boots. The meditation hadn’t built strong enough energetic boundaries to keep out her best friend’s agony.
Yet… An opaque veil fluttered across her mind… “Cam! Can you hear me?”
His lids opened a slit. “Elidor.”
“Yes, I’m right here.”
“Get…phone.” His eyes shut again; his brow furrowed.
“What? My phone?”
“No…my…” He inched his hand under his chest, hefted his shoulder off the ground, and twisted to turn over.
She jerked back. “Cam. Don’t move.”
When he ignored her warning, she reluctantly enlisted Boyd. “Help me.”
He braced Cameron’s neck and head, helping him to resettle onto his back.
“You’re going to be okay.” She bent close to Cam’s face.
He slid a hand to the right side of his shorts. His index finger tapped, pointing to his thigh. “My phone.”
Once she’d plucked it from the zippered pocket, she clutched it in her palm.
Across from her, Boyd, on his knees, shifted. A wave of nausea hit her stomach, and she hunched her shoulders against the negative vibes the man exuded.
Cam grimaced with a labored breath. “Mescalero… Keep. Hide. Un-understand?” He spoke in barely a whisper. “P-pro…tect…the sacred…”
“Shush, Cam. Save your energy. We’ll talk later, when you’re okay.”
Last night, they’d made the vow. To protect the Mescalero Apache sacred ground, their find had to remain a secret. They discovered the site shared land with the national park. If the pre-Columbian burial ground, with its treasure trove of relics, gold and silver, and centuries old artifacts, became public, the Mescalero Myth became fact. They feared the government would redraw the reservation boundaries in New Mexico. All their research, findings, and the complicated tunnel system within the mountain were recorded on his phone. They hadn’t fully reached a decision on how to keep the secret.
“Cam…” She shook her head, tears blurring her vision.
“I mean it…old lady.” His hand made a slow ascent searching for her.
She grasped his fingers and held his palm to her cheek.
“Go…home.” His hand fell from hers, then clutched at her arm. “Trust…no…one.” He released the grip on her, and his face relaxed.
The energy changed. Tears filled her eyes. She doubled over, exhausted and empty.
Julien Landry slowed his car and eased beside the curb in Copperdale, Arizona. Only an hour more to his destination, but he needed lunch and to stretch his legs. On the sidewalk, he bent side to side, relieving his stiff back. After three and a half days sitting on his butt, driving from New Orleans, taking a hike topped his list of things to do tomorrow, or maybe this afternoon. His destination, Uncle Jeff’s house, was in The Ravine, a section of Joshua. Walking around the old mining town hanging on the side of a mountain could qualify as a city hike with more challenges than an average city
Inside the deli, he ordered a pita sandwich and potato salad. He carried it to a seat by the window that looked out on the town square across the street. Copperdale had expanded their city limits since his last drive through here. Eating his sandwich, he surveyed what he could see of the town and his mind wandered. The area around the town square looked revitalized—new paint, awnings, a few more trees. He could count on Joshua looking as it had when he’d first lived there with Jeff over two decades ago. The city council and residents kept the mining town-turned-ghost-town—revitalized by the hippie community in the sixties, and now tourist haven—as it looked in the 1920s. Good for business.
“Now I know where I’ve seen you.” The heavyset, gray-haired man who’d made his sandwich called over the glass top of the deli counter. “I couldn’t place your face when you ordered, but I just knew I’d seen you somewhere.”
Being the only one in the room, Julien looked up and met the smile of the older gentleman.
“I used to see you on the news some nights a few years ago. You’re Julien Landry, right?”
He swallowed his bite and nodded. “Yes, sir, I am.”
“You did some damn good reporting. The real thing. I remember that one week you reported from Afghanistan. Man, that was some heavy stuff.”
“That’s kind of you to say.” There was more than one week over several years, but it didn’t matter which one. They all turned out to be “heavy stuff.”
“Then I heard you retired. Hell, man, you’re too young to retire.”
“Maybe not.” He laughed.
“You going to be in Copperdale for a while?”
“Nope. I’m going to Joshua to visit a relative.”
The man lifted two giant chocolate chip cookies from a plastic display case, wrapped them, and moved from behind the counter. “Have some dessert for the trip.” He set them on the table.
Julien wiped his hand on the napkin and offered to shake. “What’s your name, sir?”
“Joseph Donlop. Really pleased to meet you, Mr. Landry.”
“Call me Julien, please. I’m honored to be remembered by you.”
“First name basis.” His round face beamed. “This is my place, Julien. You bring your relative down to Copperdale while you’re visiting, and lunch for both of you will be on me.”
“That’s so nice of you.”
“I’m sorry to take up so much of your time. I’ll let you get back to eating.”
“Thank you again, Joseph.”
He lifted his sandwich and took a bite. Joseph pulled a cell phone from his pocket and made a call, talking and glancing in Julien’s direction. He smiled inwardly. Only a handful of people had made the connection in the last few years. He admitted to himself, the recognition complimented him. He shifted his gaze to the scene out the window.
As he chewed, he worried about his uncle who would celebrate his eighty-seventh trip around the sun in a couple of months. In the last six months, he’d sounded weaker each time they’d spoken during his weekly phone calls. There were vague references to his health. Setting aside his current book project—he couldn’t concentrate and worry at the same time—he packed his bags. He’d stay with Jeff a while and judge his state of mind and health for himself. He sipped his lemonade. Thinking about his uncle naturally intermingled with visions of Joshua and always led him to someone he couldn’t forget.
Would Ellie be there this time?
The question niggled at his mind, or maybe his heart, every time he’d visited his uncle in Joshua over the last twenty years. Yet he never found her there. He imagined what he’d say, how she’d react. He’d greet her with a simple “Hello, Ellie,” and she’d fall into his arms. He didn’t write romance, but the scene that played out in his head sounded like a damn good story.
A fiction story his foolish brain conjured.
He wadded the sandwich wrapping, stuffed it in the plastic salad cup, then dumped them through the swinging door on the trashcan. Outside on the sidewalk, he sipped his drink and absorbed the heat of a gentle sun. In one of his uncle’s more lucid moments, he’d mentioned the upcoming wedding of Ellie’s sister. Would a wedding bring her home? Any holiday he’d spent with Jeff in the past, she’d not been in Joshua with her family. He tried hard to always be there for his uncle on special occasions. Climbing back into the BMW, a number of holidays he’d missed with his only relative outside his sister came to mind. But being bunkered at an airport under rebel fire or in a hurricane with all travel grounded could be a valid excuse.
Leaving the outskirts of Copperdale, he nosed his car toward the mountain road for the climb to Joshua, once the wickedest town in the west. Nowadays, the town proffered the reputation to increase tourist trade. Wicked-sad memories possessed him, like the unseen ghosts in the historic hotels, when he’d visit. How long can a man be haunted?