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by Suzanne Lankford

Chapter 1

"The Last Summer"

My legs were shaking so hard against Suzy's sides she kept turning to look at me, ears twitching, eyes full of understanding. Stop shaking: my body remembering what my mind was desperate to forget.

Dust from the horse's hooves ahead of me getting into my face, kerchief over my nose, too late, seeping into my mind, dust devils galloping, echoing the sound of hooves on the slate trail, turning it into a maddening song stuck in my head like a broken carousel.

"It's over!", "It's over!" the devil clouds mocked and sang to me. "Everything's gone." I couldn't let them get to me. I had a job to do today and I was the only one who could do it. Chub and his dog Poco were back at the barn loading up the gear, shutting down the pack station. I was 3,000 feet up the mountain taking a young couple to a meadow just below Lake Mildred, a perfect place to spend the last day of their honeymoon.

They had turned down the road leading to our pack station this morning, on a whim. Ordinarily Chub wouldn't have booked their ride, but this wasn't an ordinary day. This was a gut wrenching, heartbreaking day. Maybe he thought it would help to get through it better if we gave the honeymooners their ride. It wouldn't hurt to have the extra money either. So here I was in my usual place on the trail, a bride ahead of me, a groom in the lead, riding in silence, lost in my thoughts, fighting to focus on them and their horses, my job and my commitment to Chub.

The sun was shining, warming my cheeks and shoulders, but my insides were ice. How unfair that I should be spending my last day, the last ride of my life, behind a couple so full of firsts. They had everything I was losing. They had life before them, I had death. I wanted to run away, somewhere, anywhere to escape the twin terrors, abandonment and loneliness, that had been chasing me all my life, but they were here! They had caught up with me. That's why my knees were shaking!

Let me get through this job. Focus on Suzy, reassure her, pet her neck, ruffle and rub the base of her mane, focus on the rumps of the horses ahead, Bridger and Smokey, don't look around at what I am leaving, no don't think of leaving, think of collecting, taking it all with me. See it in my mind's eye. Hear Chub's soft Texan voice in my mind's ear, telling the flat landers the story of how Convict Lake got its name.

A little way up the trail, before the noisy stream, he'd stop his horse, Grey Dog, turn back to the tourists and their horses, point his big hand to the mountain, give a little cough and say "Look there folks, right in those mountains in the year 1871, six killers totin' two Henry Rifles, the best repeating rifles of that time, hid out after they'd escaped the prison in Carson City, Nevada. They hid out for days without nothin' to eat but those rose hip berries right under your horse's feet. A local posse found ‘em. The killers gunned down Sheriff Bob Morrison and Mono Jim and escaped – never found ‘em. The town folk changed the name of the lake from Monte Diablo to Convict Lake."

Then he'd turn Grey Dog around, wave to his party to follow him and head for the stream.

But I had another story of the lake, the beauty of its star reflected, diamond glinted, waters sparkling in the moonlight, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, rippling through my mind…… a stolen kiss.

I tasted bittersweet tears but I couldn't give in, not now. The climb was getting steeper, the wind picking up. All my attention had to be on this ride, our safety, their dreams delivered.

The bride startled me. She'd stopped Bridger, shifted her weight in her saddle to turn to me, cupped her hand to the side of her mouth and hollered,"Hello!".

"Are you all right?" I hollered back. The husband stopped Smokey to look at us.

"Yes, I'm getting strong feelings from you that you're a writer!"

"A rider?" The wind was whipping our voices around. I stood in my stirrups, grabbed my saddle horn and leaned forward as far as I could towards Suzy's head to hear her better.

"No a writer", she pronounced the word more carefully. "I'm a psychic! Your destiny is in your writing". Her words carried to me on the wind.

Destiny? I couldn't believe what I'd heard. Confused, I sat back down in my saddle with a thud. Suzy looked at me. The sun was climbing in the sky, the horses were getting restless. This wasn't the time to try to make sense out of the psychic bride's words. We had to move out. We were about an hour before the meadow, two hours before Lake Mildred. I shut my eyes remembering the first time Suzy had taken me across that brilliant blue lake, the first in the chain of lakes that reminded me of a broken sapphire necklace clinging to the necks of the mountains.

What was I doing? I had to stop thinking this way. The past is gone and the present is passing as fast as the shadow on a sundial. Pet Suzy, shake my head, cough – but memories kept tumbling like a kaleidoscope – the canyon where the morning sun turns the orange and pink layers of rock into flaming ruby and gold candles. The canyon where huge expanses of glittering granite and rock astound your eyes – the sun playing along the mountain peaks of purple, brown, black against a sky full of clouds, huge and white, sharp edged against the blue sky, gold edged near the sun as if someone had run a pen around them in gold ink. I will leave these mountains but they will never leave me.

And Chub – he fell in love with these mountains years ago, like a man falls in love with a woman – until death do us part.

The meadow was beautiful, beyond their wildest dreams the couple told me as we said goodbye. Cowboy Bob would be picking them up a few hours from now for their return.

"Remember your destiny", the bride called out as I turned Suzy back toward the trail.

I looked back to nod and smile at her and my breath caught in my throat. I squeezed and grabbed myself trying to keep my spirit from draining out through the soles of my boots. She had turned into me! She was me thirteen summers ago, standing in this same meadow, so in love, so happy, so blissfully ignorant of the future!

A trail of tears. I sobbed in time to the rhythm of Suzy's downhill gait, front legs walking, back legs sliding over the shale. Our last dance mirrored by the afternoon sun casting our moving shadows ahead of us on the trail. Was my destiny, like our shadows, also ahead of me on the trail or was it possible that my destiny was curled up inside me, a tiny spark waiting to be fanned into flame? Could it be that there is a time when you believe everything is finished that will be the beginning?

Suzy whinnied and turned to me. Had she had felt something flicker?