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"Just sit there and let me play doctor, Colonel."

 

          Paul Ironhorse leaned back in the chair, fingers drumming on the padded-leather arm rests.

          "Colonel, I've read the file, but I need to hear you describe what's going on."

          Ironhorse drew in a long breath, held it, then let it rush out like a bellows too tired to continue.  He folded his arms over his chest, praying silently that he'd done the right thing, asking for help.

          "I guess I really noticed it starting about four days after I left the hospital," he explained.  "I was finally getting back on my feet, but no one wanted to believe it…"

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Ironhorse stepped out onto the Cottage's back patio and stretched.  It was a beautiful, clear morning.  Cool, with just enough of a breeze to be invigorating.  Perfect for a run.

          "Colonel?"

          "Good morning, Doctor," Paul replied, beginning his warm-up exercises.

          Harrison's chair scraped along the patio concrete as he stood.  "What are you doing?"

          "I'm getting ready for a run.  Just like I usually do—"

          "You just got out of the hospital," the scientist interrupted, stalking over to hover next to the soldier.

          The colonel glanced up at Blackwood.  Something was wrong, but he found no clues in the man's closed expression to explain it.  Not that it should surprise him.  Harrison had been growing more distant since they'd come back from the Cottage.  At first Ironhorse had chalked it up to the aftermath of a good scare, but it wasn't getting better.

          "Harrison, it's been four days," Paul said calmly, trying to reason with the man.  "And I had five days lying around the hospital before that."  He leaned over one thigh, letting the muscles stretch, a slight prickling letting him know he'd been away from regular exercise too long.  "Major Galloway said I was fine and that I should get back to my normal routine.  I'm just following doctor's orders, Doctor."

          Blackwood leaned in closer, folding his arms across his chest.  "I'm sure Mark didn't mean that you should go out and run a damned marathon," he snapped.

          Ironhorse felt himself bristle, and shifted his weight over the other leg, moving a little further away from Blackwood's brooding presence.  He forced a deep breath before he replied.  "I'm not running a marathon, just a short jog down to the beach and back.  It's less than two miles."

          Harrison leaned in close again.  "You're not Superman, you know."

          "Yes, Doctor," the colonel said, his eyes narrowing, "I know."

          In fact, his mortality had been made painfully obvious when he'd nearly died from exposure to an alien-engineered bacteria.  Did die, he corrected.  But he'd been given a second chance for some reason, and he intended to make the best use of it he could – seeing to it the Mortaxans did not get control of the planet.

          "Then why do you continually act like you are?" Blackwood pressed.  "I'd think you'd finally wise up."

          The colonel's jaw tightened.  "That's out of line, Harrison," he growled, anger bubbling to the surface.  If he wasn't careful, he knew he was going to say something he'd regret.

          "No, Colonel, you're out of line.  Why can't you just admit that you're human, just like the rest of us?"

          Ironhorse straightened.  "Now, just a damned minute—"

          Before he could get started, Blackwood shoved past the colonel and marched into the living room, slamming the French door shut behind him.  It opened immediately, Suzanne stepping outside, her forehead furrowed in concern.

          "What was that?" she asked.

          Ironhorse shook his head.  "I don't know, Suzanne.  I honestly don't know."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Dr. Pamela Christopher-Wells, "Chris" to everyone who knew her longer than five minutes, leaned back in her swivel recliner and rocked slightly as she considered the incident.  Rubbing distractedly at an itch on her small, dimpled chin, she chewed her lower lip.  "Given his history, I'm not surprised.  In fact, I'd say that no matter what you did, it would've been wrong in his opinion."  She ran her fingers through shoulder-length strawberry-blond hair and asked, "What did you do?"

          Ironhorse pressed back into his chair and folded his arms across his chest.  "I went for my run," he stated matter-of-factly, challenging her to respond.

          Chris took a deep breath and fought back a grin.  He really didn't have to get defensive.  She wasn't into taking sides, just mediating conflicts.  Her blue eyes twinkled.  Besides, she already liked this man, even if he was a little stiff at times.  "I could have guessed that, Colonel, all by myself.  What was Harrison's response?"

          The black eyes flickered up to meet hers, then returned to an intense scrutiny of the carpet patterns.  "He wasn't too happy about it."

          That must be an understatement, she thought.

          "Colonel," Chris prodded, "I need something more than that.  Give me the details.  I need to get a feeling for the overall dynamics of the situation if I'm going to really understand it.  Something I'm sure you understand as a field commander."

          He nodded.

          "So, what happened next?"

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Ironhorse pounded to a stop on the Cottage porch.  Bending over, he rested his hands on his thighs and sucked in a deep breath.  The move made his chest pinch, but at least he wasn't light-headed.  Still, he'd definitely lost his edge after the illness and recuperation.  It was going to take a few weeks of intensive work to get it back.  Painful work.

          He let his eyes drop closed.  It wasn't like he hadn't done it in the past, several times, but with each one he'd hoped it would be the last.  The life of a career soldier, he told himself.  But I'm getting too old for this—

          "Paul. how do you feel?"

          Old, damn it.  I feel old.  The black eyebrows arched, plucking his eyes open, and he lifted his chin just far enough to meet Suzanne's worried eyes.  The expression shifted from concern to amusement and she fought back a smile.

          Paul felt the short hairs on the back of his neck bristle.  "Fine, Doctor.  I feel fine.  In fact, I feel better than fine."  He forced himself to stand up straight and pinned a smile onto his face.  It did not impress her.

          The microbiologist folded her arms over her chest, her head tilting in the same way it did when Debi told her something she didn't believe.  "Oh?  Then that explains why you're standing there, trying to catch your breath after a…"  She glanced down at her watch.  "…fifteen minute run?"

          "Fifteen?" Ironhorse echoed, straightening further.  He looked skeptical.  "Really?  Fifteen?"  Well, shit.  It's worse than I thought…

          Suzanne smiled and shook her head.  "Paul, you're impossible."

          The colonel let his shoulders sag slightly as he made his way to the chair opposite her and dropped into it.  "No, just a little out of shape.  But I can take care of that."

          "I wish I was…" Suzanne said softly, trailing off as she reached for her glass of orange juice and took a sip.

          "Was?" he asked.

          "As out of shape as you are, Paul," she said, lifting the glass in a salute and bestowing a wry smile on the man.

          The colonel snorted and pushed himself up.  "I'm going to get a shower and some breakfast."

          He headed inside, side-stepping to avoid Norton as he rolled toward the open French doors.

          "Mornin'.  How ya feelin', big guy?" Drake asked as the soldier passed.

          Ironhorse stopped dead and then turned, his hands coming up to rest defensively on his hips.  "What is with you people?  Haven't you heard?  I'm fine.  The major's satisfied, I'm satisfied.  I'm clear.  Cured.  Couldn't be better.  Fine, I'm fine."

          Norton's eyes widened slightly, then he grinned.  "No problem, Colonel-mon. You're okay, I'm okay," he said, then added, "Or I will be once I have a cup of coffee.  Caffeine, Gertrude, now."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "So they were… overprotective of you?" Chris asked.  "That's to be expected, Colonel.  They care about you, and you died on them."

          Paul paused for a moment.  He hadn't quite summed it up that way before.  "I realize that," he acknowledged.  "And I understand it.  The whole situation has been getting better with Suzanne and Norton.  Once they came around, I think Harrison would have fallen into line and it would've died down on its own, eventually, but we had activity, and…"

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Colonel, there's at least nine scattered around the building perimeter.  I can't get an accurate count on the number in the interior, but it looks like at least another twelve," Stravrakos reported as he crouched behind the Sierra shale outcropping with his commander.

          Ironhorse scanned the hilly terrain.  The aliens had picked the old California sawmill carefully to avoid any surprises.  There wasn't a single approach to the weather-beaten structure that didn't cross an open area.  Their only hope of taking the aliens by surprise would be to wait until after dark to move in, but the Mortaxans' night vision was better than their human adversaries', even with night-goggles.

          The other option, creating a diversion, or rather several, and then hitting the aliens from all sides at once, in daylight, would hopefully spread them too thin to be a serious threat to the better trained soldiers.

          He turned to the two waiting sergeants.  "Okay," Ironhorse said, making up his mind, "we go with the diversion.  On my signal, blow the Jeep and the van."  He nodded gravely at a small shed close to the tree line.  "Might as well take that out, too.  Then we move in, together.  Coleman, you and B and C team will clear the building.  Stravrakos, you and D team will secure the perimeter.  Goodson and the A unit will provide security for doctors Blackwood and McCullough."

          "And you, sir?" Coleman asked as nonchalantly as she could.

          The colonel's black eyebrows climbed toward his red beret.  Even his own people were doing it!

          "I'll be going in with B-team, Sergeant."  He looked down at his watch.  "In five, people."

          "Yes, sir," Coleman and Stravrakos said in unison, easing back into the trees to inform the others.

          Ironhorse started after them, but stopped short when a hand snared his jacket sleeve.

          "Colonel, you can't," Blackwood hissed into the soldier's ear.

          The black eyes narrowed.  "Not now, Doctor.  I've—"

          "Colonel," the astrophysicist persisted, his fingers curling tighter into the OD material.

          Paul turned, his free hand coming up, a stiff index finger jabbing the civilian's chest.  "Damn it, Blackwood.  That's enough.  I've got a job to do, and I can't do it from here."  He jerked free.  "Stay with Suzanne and Goodson until you get an all-clear."

          "Paul—" Blackwood broke off, then turned away.  "Fine, get yourself killed," he growled.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Chris leaned forward, and Ironhorse noticed how slight she was for the first time.

          "And did anything out of the ordinary happen?" she asked.

          The colonel shook his head.  "Not really.  It was a smooth operation overall.  We neutralized the guards, infiltrated the building and cleaned it out with no substantial injuries on our side."

          "Harrison should have relaxed after that," she said, leaning back in her chair, and resting her moccasin-clad feet on the edge of her desk.  "But, from what you've already told me, he hasn't.  Why do you think that is?"

          Paul looked up, his black eyes troubled.  "I'm not sure.  I thought he'd let it go once we were back to regular activity.  There was one small problem on that mission.  Well, two, and that might have something to do with it."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Damn it," the colonel hissed, sliding up against the side of the sawmill as a series of shots perforated the air behind him.  The weather-cracked wood creaked and splintered under the assault of his collision, a fragment snapping free and grazing Ironhorse's forehead.  Reaching up, the soldier pushed the blood away and scrambled to his feet, dodging behind the far wall as a second volley of shots plowed through the wooden wall.

          Inching along the building, Paul missed the flash of blue that shadowed his earlier path – Blackwood.  Twin explosions marked Omega's breach of the mill, rattling the structure to its foundation, and covering the gunfire that chased Harrison across the open space.

          Ironhorse dropped into a crouch, preparing to enter the building through the paneless window.

          "My God, Paul, you're bleeding."

          The colonel swung, only his highly trained reflexes keeping him from shooting Blackwood on the spot.  "Not now, Doctor," he snarled.

          Goodson slid in to join them, looking angry.  "I'm sorry, sir, he—"

          "Keep him here, Corporal."

          "Yes, sir."

          That taken care of, Ironhorse disappeared through the window, joining Omega B and C in the semi-darkness.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "So he saw a little blood and overreacted, coming to the… rescue, shall we say?"

          Ironhorse nodded.  "I understand that he was concerned.  To be honest, the fact that he followed me wasn't a big surprise.  Blackwood has a history of doing that.  But usually it's because he wants to get in and see what the aliens are doing. I don't think that was what motivated him.  Blackwood was treating me like I was made outta bone china, and that just won't work.  The unit cannot operate like that. We each have a job to do, and we can't get in each other's way.  That's why I called General Wilson.  This has to be resolved."

          Standing, Chris walked over to the window of her borrowed Ft. Streeter office.  "And he called me."  Taking a deep breath, she blew it out.  "I've read Harrison's file – several times – and I think I can help you, but it's not going to be easy.  He's built up his defenses since childhood."

          "Nothing that concerns Blackwood's ever easy."  The colonel sighed, his mouth tilting into a lopsided grin.  "But that's not the end of it.  After we cleared the building…"

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Omega C exited the saw-mill, their weapons still ready, but more casual.  Whatever the aliens had been up to, they'd put a stop to it, once and for all.

          Goodson led Blackwood and Suzanne to the door and escorted them in to examine the various pieces of equipment that had survived the encounter.  Omega B was still sweeping the various nooks and crannies in the mill, peeling back the shadows to ensure that all of the invaders had been destroyed.

          The medic trailed the scientists as they headed for the nearest tangle of metal and crystal, until the brush of shuffling feet froze him, along with the other soldiers in the open area.

          A brief, weird hum echoed through the building, followed by a burst of Uzi fire.  The soldiers sprang for cover, or surged forward to aid whoever was in trouble.  A moment later Stravrakos emerged from the shadows, a pale Ironhorse moving painfully slow just behind him.

          "Sir," Goodson said, taking the three steps to meet the colonel.  "Do you need—?"

          Ironhorse sucked in a deep breath and closed his eyes.  "No, I'll be fine in a minute, Corporal."

          "Yes, sir," Goodson said, stepping back to join the astrophysicist, who pointedly ignored the colonel.

          Suzanne watched Ironhorse carefully, but decided against pressing the issue. The colonel walked over and leaned against a wall while the soldiers finished their cleanup and the two civilians checked the remainder of the alien equipment.  When they were done, Blackwood and Suzanne rejoined Paul.

          "I can't make heads or tails of this stuff.  Pack it up, and we'll take a look at it back at the Cottage," Harrison told Stravrakos as the sergeant walked up to join the threesome.

          "I guess we can head back, Colonel," Blackwood said, still oblivious to the shocky man who swayed slightly in front of him.  Turning, Harrison marched out, leaving Suzanne and Stravrakos to catch the colonel as he collapsed.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "What was it?" Chris asked.

          "A delayed reaction to a glancing hit I took from an alien weapon.  Some kind of stun device.  It throws out a green beam of light with a helluva wallop," he explained.  "It wore off in about an hour, but I know it gave them all a scare…"  He trailed off, then looked at the woman and gave her a wry grin.  "Me, too, to be honest."

          She leaned back against her desk.  "But you weren't seriously hurt."

          Ironhorse paced across the small office.  "No.  But it was certainly more threatening than that splinter raking me."

          Chris clicked her tongue.  "True enough.  And, let me guess, afterwards, when he had time to really think about it, Harrison felt guilty for ignoring you prior to your collapse."

          The colonel nodded.

          "This is going to be tricky."

          Ironhorse sat.  "Whatever it takes, Doctor.  As it stands, we're no longer capable of carrying out our mission.  I have to be able to act, without worrying that Blackwood's going to get himself killed just because he thinks I might be hurt, or I get killed because he won't act when I need him to."

          She nodded.  "Okay.  I'll set something up.  Can Debi spend some time with all of you gone?"

          "I'll talk to Suzanne.  I'm sure she can arrange for Debi to spend some time with relatives."

          "Good."  Walking over to Ironhorse, she extended her hand.  "We will get this worked out, Colonel."

          He shook her hand, saying softly, "I hope so.  For good or bad, I've come to think of this station as home.  I'd hate to lose that, but as it stands, things have to change or I'll be forced to leave."

          She smiled thinly.  "And the people are family, too, aren't they," she said, watching his reaction closely.  It was plain that it was true.

          He nodded curtly and marched stiffly to the door.  Stopping, he turned to face her.  "But I have a job to do, Dr. Wells.  Nothing can interfere with that, not even family."

          "I understand, Colonel."  She watched the door close.  It wouldn't be easy on Ironhorse if she couldn't get through to Harrison.  Not easy at all.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "A vacation?" Suzanne repeated, trying to read the innocent expression on her uncle's face.  His unexpected arrival at the Cottage had them all expecting the worst, certainly not this.

          General Wilson's smile widened as he leaned back in the comfortable wing-backed chair, casually stretching out his legs and crossing his ankles.  "Yes, a vacation.  You all deserve it, and the government is springing for it.  So, pack your bags, and…"  He reached into his pocket, pulling out four airplane tickets and waving them.  "…you'll be leaving tomorrow afternoon."

          Suzanne pushed herself off the couch and retrieved the tickets, reading the destination.  "Flagstaff, Arizona?" she questioned.

          "It's beautiful up there this time of year – crisp, cool.  Take your sweaters, it gets nippy at night.  And I'll take Debi back to D.C. with me.  I'm sure Helen and I can find something to keep her busy for a few days."

          Norton rolled slightly closer to the general.  "And what will we be doing in Arizona in April?  I remember the last time Uncle Sam footed the bill for a vacation. New Jersey's never been the same for me."

          "White water rafting, Mr. Drake," the general said, then added wistfully.  "I almost wish I was going along."

          Norton's eyes widened.  "Rafting?"

          "Down the Grand Canyon on the Colorado.  And I've already talked to the guide.  The trip should pose no problems for you," he reassured Drake.

          A sour expression passed quickly over the Jamaican's face.  He wasn't worried about that.  "Glad to hear it."

          Blackwood, who had remained silently withdrawn at the far end of the sofa since the general's arrival, leaned forward, his blue eyes narrowing suspiciously.  "And just whose idea was this?"  His icy gaze flickered toward Ironhorse.

          The colonel ignored Harrison, continuing with the fire, banking it just right before adding another log.  Hopefully it would be warmer in Arizona than it was at the Cottage – both weather-wise and general atmosphere.

          Wilson saved Paul having to comment when he cleared his throat, saying, "Mine, Doctor.  I tried to come up with something that all of you would enjoy.  It's outdoors, the scenery is magnificent, and it will be challenging, exciting, and it's relatively close by."

          "We've got plenty of work here to keep us busy," Blackwood argued half-heatedly.

          "I think it sounds wonderful," Suzanne countered.

          "Me, too," Norton seconded.  "We could use the time off."

          "I agree," Ironhorse agreed quietly, making it a unanimous front united against Blackwood.

          "You're going, Doctor," Wilson said, his voice friendly, but stern.  "You need the time off to make sure you stay fresh.  Otherwise you'll miss details."

          "Uncle Hank's right, Harrison," Suzanne said, walking back over and sitting down next to the astrophysicist.  She handed him the tickets.

          Blackwood stared at them for a moment, then looked up.  "Yes," he admitted grudgingly.  "He is."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

There is an owl, flying from the south,

Heading north from the Superstition Mountains.

Like the shadow of a life, fading in the dark surroundings.

 

          The Blackwood Project members exited the elevator and headed for the lobby of the resort hotel to meet their rafting guide.  Wilson had been right, Flagstaff was cool, crisp, and clean, the air pure and lightly scented with pine.  The sun, climbing into the early morning sky, was just strong enough to warm things up, but it didn't reach the point of getting hot, even in the late afternoon.

          The two days the Project members had spent lounging around the hotel had been relaxing, but they were all ready to get on with the rest of their vacation – each for different reasons.

          Suzanne was just glad to be away from the day to day toll the covert war extracted from her.  It was nice to be able to sleep in, spend the evenings in the Jacuzzi, enjoy the various restaurants, and even do a little shopping.  But, once the raft trip was over, she would be meeting Major Mark "sensitive-tall-dark-and-very-handsome" Galloway for an additional five days in Las Vegas.

          Suzanne smiled to herself.  Mark was definitely a plus for the Army in her book.  The trip would be her first to the gambling mecca for pleasure rather than a scientific conference, and she wondered just how much of the city she'd experience. Not too much, she decided with a predatory grin.

          In contrast, Norton was looking forward to the challenge of actually white-water rafting for the first time.  He'd be forced to leave Gertrude behind at the hotel, relying on a custom-made chair better equipped to deal with the rough terrain they'd be camping on along the way.  The whole concept was a little frightening, but he'd always enjoyed pushing the envelope, and flying in the face of his apparent disability.

          Once the raft trip was over he'd be flying to Santa Barbara to visit with his sister for a few days.  He was looking forward to seeing how she was settling into academia as the newest professor in the University's math department.  He was also anticipating spending some time in the California sunshine.  Not that he needed a tan, he mused, but he wanted to see if his beach-date track record would hold.  After all, he was still perfectly irresistible.

          Ironhorse hoped that the trip would mend the fences between himself and Blackwood.  If they could go home afterwards and have things return to normal, he'd be happy.  Thus far, it wasn't looking too good for such a simple and positive outcome.  Blackwood had remained distant and cold, even cruel at times.  But at the same time that he pushed Paul away, he tried to ensure that the colonel did nothing that was even remotely dangerous or exhausting.  And when Ironhorse resisted, Harrison exploded, accusing him of trying to "play Superman" and acting like a "fairy-tale hero."  Something had to give.  And soon, before the solder was pushed too far, and said something that would make it impossible to rebuild at least a working relationship.

          Harrison, on the other hand, just wanted to get through the raft trip and back to the Cottage.  He had a feeling that the whole thing had been staged, and he wasn't interested in playing any games the military or Ironhorse might have dreamed up.

          The four entered the lobby, drawing looks from the staff behind the desk.  Seeing them, Pamela pushed herself out of the comfortable plush chair and made her way over to join the foursome.

          "Hi," she said, extending her hand, first to Norton, and then the others in turn.  "My name's Pamela Christopher-Wells, but, please, call me Chris.  I'll be your guide for your trip downriver."

          Ironhorse looked surprised, but didn't say anything.  After all, there was no reason why a counselor couldn't be a whitewater raft guide, too.

          "This trip is looking up," Norton said, wagging his eyebrows slightly at the colonel.  Ironhorse shook his head.

          Chris grinned.  "Come on, why don't we grab breakfast and I'll tell you what you can expect for the next seven days."  She motioned them back toward the hotel's Country Corner restaurant, and they headed off, everyone asking questions except Harrison.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "This is incredible," Suzanne breathed quietly, her voice reverberating quietly.

          The others were equally impressed with the rugged canyon walls that towered above them, narrowing the sky to a strip of bright blue overhead, and here and there, clinging to the cliff walls, along the short ledges, and in the sandy sections of riverbank, cacti and various plants defied expectations, making the canyon rich with flora.

          "I'll say," Norton agreed.  He pointed to a hawk as it winged its way down the canyon, ignoring the five humans.  "Look at that," he said quietly, his voice still carrying clearly in the natural amphitheater.

          "You'll see a lot of wildlife down here, if you pay attention," Chris said softly, her voice revealing the affection she had for the river and the canyon.

          Just away from their launch location, the Colorado River rolled along slowly, cutting a wide and relatively shallow path through the multiple layers of earth that towered above them.  Rich reds and browns chased each other up the sides of the canyon, mingling in artistic patterns and ancient dance.  The Project members each craned their necks, trying to take in as much as they could, completely ignoring the direction the raft was taking.

          "Hey, people, I need a couple of you paddling," Chris said from her position at the rear of the large inflatable raft.  She would steer, making sure they didn't get hung up on the rocks, or sucked into the faster flowing currents until the four Project members grew acquainted with paddling and the motion of the river.  "Just watch down river and you'll see all this lady has to offer."

          "Lady?" Norton asked, checking the strap that held him into the specially constructed seat along the edge of the raft.

          Chris chuckled.  "Don't ask me why, but the canyon's always struck me as a wise old woman.  So, Paul, Norton, since you're in the front, if you'd set a slow, even pace, we'll get this show on the rapids."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          The day passed in quiet peacefulness, each of the four Project members mastering the various paddling styles Chris showed them.  Once that was accomplished, she graduated them with a test, guiding the raft into faster moving water and introducing them to the roller-coaster-like feel of whitewater rafting.

          The faster rapids required that they all act in concert to ensure that the raft remained right-side up, and un-swamped.  At first Harrison had been sluggish and reluctant, but by the end of the day the grandeur and the excitement of the ride brought even the reluctant scientist into the fold.

          That was the easy part, Chris thought to herself as she and the others – minus Norton – climbed out of the raft, dragging it up onto the sandy river edge for their first night camping adventure.  Now comes the harder part.

          Blackwood and Ironhorse unloaded the modified wheelchair, the astrophysicist bracing it while the colonel lifted Norton out and settled him in the padded seat.

          "Thanks," he said, reaching down to grab the rims of the extra-thick, knobby wheels and pushing himself further inland.  "Now, what's for supper?"

          "First the tents, then the food," Chris instructed.  "It'll get dark down here early.  Then we'll have some fun."

          She waited until the camp was set up, including a fire blazing in a well-used rock-ringed shallow pit.  Norton, having pulled the first kitchen duty, worked to nestle foil-wrapped potatoes into the embers while Ironhorse helped, prepping the meat that the others, excluding Blackwood, would enjoy.  The astrophysicist had a bucket of iced veggies.

          While they waited for the food, Chris spent some time with Harrison, pointing out and asking about various stars and constellations they could make out in the clean, clear sky.

          Blackwood finished explaining how she could track down Arcturas, then paused, adding, "You're more than just a guide, aren't you.  What exactly are you?"

          Chris grinned.  "You realize you've left yourself open to any number of possible responses to that question," she warned gently.  "But, since I know what you mean, I'm a counselor and a whitewater raft guide.  And, in a way, I guess you can think of me as your boss, or your spiritual adviser, for the next six days."

          Blackwood looked surprised, but turned away, snorting softly.  "I knew it."

          "Knew what?"

          "That Ironhorse was up to something."

          Chris walked around to stand in front of the man.  "No.  Paul is not up to something.  Colonel Ironhorse wasn't responsible for this trip."

          "Oh?" Harrison asked, his hands coming up to rest defiantly on his hips.  "And just who was, then?  Wilson?  But why did he take it upon himself to send us out here?  It was Ironhorse."

          Chris drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.  "Harrison, are you and Paul having a problem?"

          Blackwood hesitated.  He paced off several feet, and stood, staring out at the river.  "No."  It was flat and unconvincing.  He amended, "We don't have a problem. He does."

          "And what is his problem?" Chris asked, opting to stay where she was behind the man.

          "He thinks he's Superman."

          She sat down on the still warm sand.  "Explain that to me, would you?"

          Harrison turned back to face her.  "I can't.  That's the problem.  I can't understand why he refuses to act like he's— he's a… normal man, a member of the human race, for God's sake."

          Chris leaned back on her elbows.  "And how does a normal man act?"

          Blackwood wandered down the river a few yards, then returned and sat down near the woman.  "First, he could admit he's hurting, and that he's not indestructible.  And he doesn't have to go shoving his way through every situation like he's a one-man Army.  There are other people who can do some of that.  He doesn't have to take all the risks."

          Sitting up, she wrapped her arms around her legs.  Turning her head so she could watch him, she rested a cheek on her knees.  "Do you think he feels like he has to be out in front because he commands those other men, and he doesn't want them to get killed, or is it a glory thing?" she added.

          Harrison thought, his lips tugging down in a small frown.  "No…  No, it's not a glory thing," he admitted reluctantly.  "I know he cares about his troops"  Harrison's head came up, his blue eyes flashing.  "But that's no excuse for putting himself on the line every time we go out."

          Chris paused, hoping that she wasn't pushing too far, too fast.  "But, isn't that what he's supposed to do; I mean, he's a soldier, and soldiers fight, right?"

          Harrison's head snapped around and he glared at her.  "He's not expendable, no matter what stupid idea of 'mission' he lives with.  He thinks he's Superman," he reiterated.

          "I see," Chris said, standing.  "Let's go get some supper, and we'll just have to work on that Superman complex this trip."

          Harrison pushed himself up.  "Well, I hope you can do something with him," he said.  "He's going to get himself killed if he keeps this up."

          Chris watched Blackwood as he made his way through the semi-darkness toward the fire.  You are hurting, Harrison, she thought, and you're blaming Paul, but it's not his fault.  Now, how do I get you to see that, and tell Paul the real reason…?

          She shook her head, deciding that she'd stick to the plans she'd made before they'd left the hotel.  First, establish some trust between the four, and then guide them through a re-hashing of the grieving process.  It wasn't just Paul they were worried about.  Their brush with death had forced each of them to face their own mortality.

          And I have to do it without getting caught, she thought.  Her eyes dropped closed for a moment.  I've gotta ask for a raise, she concluded, brushing the sand off the seat of her pants and following after Harrison.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

While we who travel on the rim, seeking love and finding understanding

Go safely on our way, like the river running in the canyon.

 

          Chris watched the four Project members.  Suzanne and Paul leaned over the front of the raft, their paddles dipping rhythmically into the frothy water.  Harrison and Norton sat at the center, holding their paddles in the water, creating a drag that helped slow their headlong rush down river.  Each called out warnings when they spotted rocks or suspicious swirls, the others responding immediately to guide the raft away from danger.

          It had taken three days, but the four were now a perfectly honed rafting unit. They were, Chris knew, "in sync" – anticipating each other, moving automatically to compensate for individual weakness, and relying on each person's strengths.  Having to do that on the river washed over into the nightly exercises she put them through, and subtle things that they tended to overlook in their day to day battle against the aliens suddenly became clearer and more important:  Norton's humor and quick thinking; Ironhorse's calmness, fast reflexes and self-assuredness; Suzanne's determination and precision; and Harrison's ability to anticipate trouble, as well his uncanny ability to spot pockets of remarkable beauty along the way.

          The last seventy-two hours hadn't been nonstop thrills and heavy psychological work, though.  They'd spent plenty of time just playing, too.  Chris grinned, the memory of Paul tossing Suzanne off the raft and into a deep pool flooding her thoughts.  Things were definitely going the way she wanted them to – for everyone but Harrison; at least the water fight had cracked even his rapidly rusting armor…

          They had maneuvered into the quiet water about noon to rest, the buzz from the rapids they'd just shot still fresh. It was inevitable that something would happen, in fact, Chris was counting on it.  She wasn't disappointed.

          Suzanne stood, carefully making her way to the front of the raft, where she straddled the tubular lip, one foot dangling into the cool water.  She wiggled her toes.

          "That was something," she said, reaching down to dip a handful of the cool water into her palm, and pressed it to the front of her tank top.  "Ahhh," she sighed.  "Really amazing."

          Norton glanced at Paul, two pairs of black eyebrows exchanging arching messages.

          Ironhorse stood, stepped forward nonchalantly, and scooped Suzanne up, tossing her over the side before the microbiologist realized she was in danger.

          Suzanne squealed as she hit the water, and came up splashing.  Ironhorse dove for cover, colliding with the side of the raft and upsetting Norton, who was in the process of maneuvering himself into the rear seat and away from the coming battle.

          Drake grabbed frantically for one of the nylon straps along the slick rubber sides, but he was already off-balance and slipped headlong into the water.  He bobbed up nearby, a huge smile on his face.  "This is war, soldier-mon!"

          The colonel poked his head over the edge of the raft, unaware of Chris, who rummaged casually through some of her gear.

          "Hey, that was a joint maneuver, Mister," Ironhorse argued.  "You're just a casualty of battle."

          "It doesn't matter," Suzanne bubbled.  "You're both dead meat."  She swam around for a clear shot and shoved a wave toward Paul, who ducked down in time to avoid being soaked.  Norton was not so fortunate.

          Across the raft, Blackwood fought hard to keep from smiling.

          Chris noticed the crack in the astrophysicist's usually distant manner and grinned.  Finally, they were really getting somewhere with the man.

          Norton reached the edge of the raft and wrapped his fingers tightly around one of the straps, then began scooping handfuls of cold water over the edge, raining them down on Paul.

          "Hey, that's cold!" Ironhorse bellowed, rising to his knees and glaring down at the black man.

          Chris paused for just a moment to admire the colonel.  Clad in black shorts, white T-shirt, and a red baseball cap, he was decidedly, undeniably, cute, she decided.  He was also about to get very, very wet.

          She silently sucked in a deep breath and charged the soldier, catching him in the back with her shoulder.  The force was just enough to send him flying past Norton and into the river.  He came up splashing, but Suzanne and Norton, seeing that the colonel's advantage had been undercut, began a rain of waves back, drenching him.  Ironhorse dipped under the water's surface, his legs kicking out to rapidly propel him out of range before he surfaced again.

          Chris took the opportunity to lower the object of her earlier search into the water, and when Paul surfaced, she directed the powerful stream from the five foot long water-tube in his direction, catching Ironhorse square in the chest.

          He sputtered.  "That's not fair!  You didn't tell us to come armed!"

          "All's fair, Paul," she called out, lowering the tube to fill it for a second assault.  The others applauded.

          The water war raged for several minutes, Chris defending the raft and the three Project members trying to drag her out.  Harrison, no longer able to resist the play, lowered one of the buckets into the water and poured the contents over Drake's head when the black man reached out for Chris' ankle.

          Norton looked up in surprise.  His black eyes narrowed and a devilish smile spread across his face.  "New fodder," he announced.

          Blackwood laughed, but stopped when he realized that all four were staring at him.  The toothy grin faded.  Ironhorse and Suzanne swam steadily toward the raft, like sharks circling in for the kill.  Chris leveled the full water-tube in his direction.

          "No."  He shook his head softly, his voice climbing rapidly in pitch and volume.  "No…  No…  No!"

          Splash!

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          The war lasted another hour before the combatants retired to the rocky edge of the pool to eat lunch.  The playfulness remained, and the meal was accompanied by an on-going repartee of one-liners.

          Chris glanced up, silently imploring what powers there were to deliver her after a particularly bad pun from Norton, and noted the building thunderheads.  "Oh oh, looks like we'd better get moving.  We're going to get wet this afternoon if we don't."

          The four Project members looked up at the dark clouds that had put a damper on their fun.  "You're sure?" Norton asked skeptically.

          "Yep," Chris said, reaching for her small cooler.  "Those are rain clouds, and we need to get downriver to a cave that'll keep us out of the wet they're just aching to drop on us.  The river gets real nasty after an early monsoon, too."

          Ironhorse stood, the serious colonel once more.  "You heard the lady, people, let's move."

          "Yes, sir," Suzanne said, snapping up a sloppy salute.  She grinned and Paul shook his head.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Into this world, everything is born,

All colors come together.

On the sacred hoop we take our place

And when we go, we fly forever.

 

          Large but scattered raindrops pelted the group as they reached a wide sandy strip of river bank.  Chris slid out of the raft, jogging through the shallow water and up the sand, disappearing into a large pocket that had been carved out of the canyon wall.

          "That's some cave," Norton said.

          "Drag the raft right on in," Chris called back.  "Looks like we have the place to ourselves."

          Harrison, Suzanne and Ironhorse half-carried, half-dragged the inflatable into the shelter, their necks craning when they realized it was a near-perfect sphere, bigger than they first thought, with the top still several feet above their heads.  It was like a huge bubble had formed inside the rock, and the river, shearing off a section, had opened it to the air.

          A flash of lightning and the immediate crack of thunder accompanied Norton's aided move to the all-terrain wheelchair.

          "Wow," he said.  "That was close!"

          "I didn't think you'd get lightning in the canyon," Suzanne said, watching a fierce downpour start beyond the mouth of the shelter.

          "Oh, yeah," Chris said.  "But this is one of my favorite spots for waiting out storms – there's an even better cave further down.  We'll stop over there, too.  Oh, there should be some wood piled up along the back.  The State Park rangers leave it for folks caught in the rain."

          "I'll check," Paul said, walking into the shadows.  "Plenty," he called back, returning a few moments later with an armload of wood.  Chris pointed to a waiting fire-pit near the wall of the cave and the colonel dumped the wood and began building a fire.

          The rain chilled the air enough to force them to unpack their jackets.  And Harrison and Suzanne continued unpacking, laying out the bedrolls, while Norton and Chris started digging through the coolers for supper.  In half an hour they were bundled up, sitting around the large fire, watching the storm while they sipped on some of Norton's coffee brewed over the flames.  Their suppers cooked slowly, filling the cave with mixed aromas.

          Chris tugged out a small dulcimer she'd wrapped securely in oil cloth and started playing.  The melodic music integrated well with the rain, and while she moved through several songs she covertly watched the four.  They wore easy smiles, and their camaraderie filled the cave with another kind of warmth, making it more comfortable.

          Even when they were forced to return to their covert war, Chris was sure that things would be back to normal.  Except for Paul and Harrison…  Although much of the earlier tension was now gone, there was still an invisible barrier between the two.

          She moved into a merrier tune.

          Suzanne and Norton had quickly realized that Ironhorse was fine.  He was healthy, and more than capable of taking care of himself.  His brush with death hadn't left him feeble, or in need of their extra protection.  Death was now a fact in all of their lives, and they'd accepted it.  But Harrison hadn't.

          He wasn't protecting Paul, Chris knew.  Harrison was protecting himself, just like he had after his parents had died.  Watching Paul die had triggered the same responses that had helped the five-year-old survive.  But Harrison wasn't five anymore.

          Maybe if they took a couple of days and stayed here she could work on breaking through those protective barriers.  Harrison's necessary defense mechanisms needed to be brought down a notch or two.

          "Food's ready," Norton said, interrupting Chris' thoughts about how, exactly, she could lower Blackwood's walls.

          "Sounds good," she said, setting the instrument aside.

          "So did that," Harrison said, nodding to her dulcimer.

          "Thank you," she said with a smile.  "My sanity maintenance."  Suzanne passed her a plate, and Chris accepted it with a grateful smile.  "The storm should pass before midnight."

          "Great.  We can sit around the campfire and tell ghost stories," Norton suggested.  Suzanne groaned.

          "It's not nice to tease the spirits, Mr. Drake," Ironhorse said seriously.  "You never know what they might decide to do for revenge."

          Norton's mouth opened, but the response stalled on his tongue.  His forehead wrinkled.  "You jiving' me, big guy?"

          Twinkling black eyes gave away the ruse.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

While we who travel on the rim, seeking love and finding understanding

Go safely on our way, like the river, running in the canyon.

 

          Chris stretched and yawned in her sleeping bag, then stuck her head out to confirm what she already knew.  It was still raining.

          She'd listened to the storm start and stop in riotous tumult all night long.  It wasn't a good sign.

          Blinking owlishly she watched the heavy downpour beyond the mouth of the cave.  Not a good sign at all.  The river would pick up, the rapids becoming more and more dangerous as the run-off drained into the Colorado.  Not that she thought they could handle it.  They could.  But it wouldn't be the restful experience she'd hoped for.

          Pulling on her outer layer of clothes within the warmth of the closed sleeping bag, Chris crawled out and joined the others, who were also emerging from their nightly cocoons.

          "Can we raft in this?" Harrison asked, when she reached the low-burning fire and sat down, waiting for coffee.

          "It'll be a little more challenging, but we'll be fine.  Just listen to everyone and don't ask questions if someone yells for an immediate course correction.  We'll get some floating debris, too.  It'll be bumpy, so we'll need to tie everything down.  And make sure you're wearing your life preservers."

          "It's not a vacation…" Norton said and grinned, pouring a cup of coffee for Chris and handing it to her, "…it's an adventure."

          "No," Suzanne corrected, looking out at the writhing river, "it's one very wet roller-coaster ride."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Coming up behind!" Chris yelled over the roar of the swift moving water.

          Ironhorse, who sat at the front of the raft with Blackwood couldn't look away to see what was bearing down on them.  He was too busy trying to make sure they stayed in deep water, away from stationary rocks, and large pieces of floating debris.  None of the activities were easy with the frothing surface obscuring the majority of the obstacles.

          "Hi!  Hi!"

          The shouted welcome distracted the soldier for a moment and his gaze flickered up as two smaller rafts passed by them at a heady clip.  The greeting had come from a young girl, dwarfed by the neon orange life preserver she wore.

          The six year-old waved enthusiastically as she passed and Paul heard Norton calling a greeting back.

          "To the right," Blackwood yelled, and the rest responded, maneuvering the raft slightly that direction to avoid an outcropping of jagged rocks to their left.

          "They're moving awfully fast," Suzanne commented.

          "Too fast," Chris acknowledged.  "They can't see trouble like that."

          "How long are we going to be out here?" Blackwood asked, his arms and shoulders already aching after only a few hours of fighting the storm-angry waters.

          "'Bout two more hours.  There's another cave farther down," Chris told him.  "We'll need it.  It'll rain again tonight."

          Harrison nodded, wondering if he'd be able to hold out that long, and what the river would be like after two nights of heavy rain.  Their relaxing vacation was quickly becoming something more.  He glanced over, catching Ironhorse's eye, the echoing expression on the soldier's face telling Harrison that Paul was thinking similar thoughts.

          "To the left," Ironhorse called, and the others complied.

          "Hi!"

          The soldier smiled at the girl as they passed the child's raft and its companion, the two having been swept into a slower moving part of the wide river.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Like the shadow of a life we are formed by the rising sun.

And with the owl our spirit flies, to say goodbye when our day is done.

 

          The five weary rafters sat close to the snapping campfire, waiting for the chill that clung to their shoulders like cowls to lift.

          "Brrr," Suzanne said, chaffing her hands over her jean-covered thighs.

          "No kidding," Norton said, checking the pot to see if the coffee was ready.  It wasn't.  "You think we'll get some company tonight?"

          Chris shrugged.  "Most people familiar with the river know about these caves. And they'll certainly be a lot more comfortable if they make it here."

          Suzanne fought back a smile as she added, "And I think that little girl would enjoy a story or two from the Colonel."

          Paul's head came up, his eyebrows peaked.

          "Oh, Paul, don't look so surprised," the microbiologist told him.  "It's not a crime to like children, you know."

          Ironhorse's brows pitched forward.  "I don't like children," he argued, then amended.  "Just some children."

          "Coffee's ready," Drake said, interrupting the debate before it started.

          "Is it dangerous, running rafts as fast as they were?" Blackwood asked, accepting his steaming cup and cradling it in his hands to warm them up.

          Chris nodded.  "Yeah.  You can't see what you're heading into, but it looked like they got it back under control, or they would've passed us up again."

          "Well, I don't know about you," Suzanne said, scooting closer to the fire.  "But all I want is something to eat, a heavier jacket, and a long date with my sleeping bag.  I'm exhausted."

          Blackwood chuckled.  "Maybe we should swap backrubs," he asked, massaging his shoulder.

          Suzanne watched the demonstration of agony Blackwood treated them all to. "Can I rub something t' make it feel better?" she asked when his eyes squeezed shut and he grimaced.

          There was a slight pause before everyone burst out laughing.

          "That, Doctor," Ironhorse told her, "was a loaded question."

          Again the pause struck before a wave of hysteria.

          "I didn't mean it that way!" the colonel grouched, still smiling.

          "Well, neither did I!" Suzanne exclaimed.

          "But it's not a bad idea," Chris said.  "You two get started and Paul, Norton, and I'll get supper ready.  Then we'll rub each other while you two clean up."

          Norton's black eyebrows waggled.  "Rub on!"

          "You're incorrigible," Harrison said playfully, then reached out and grabbed Suzanne's hand, pulling her to her feet.  "Let's go get started.  I wouldn't want to waste any time."

          Chris grinned.  There.  She'd seen it.  Something in Blackwood had cracked.  The wall was breached and she hadn't really done anything specific – the mind was an amazing thing, especially when it was so closely tied to the heart.  It was going to be an interesting evening, and she wondered if the colonel was going to be ready for it.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Harrison and Paul sat slightly off from the others.  Supper had passed with witty repartee and Chris had them doing "therapeutic" shoulder rubs before they turned in for the night, although Ironhorse was sure it was another ploy to try and open Blackwood up.  Regardless, his aching shoulders and upper arms appreciated the attention.  Even his training left out a few muscle groups.

          "Paul?"

          "Hmm?" Ironhorse responded, leaning forward slightly and rolling his neck in circles.

          Harrison, sitting behind him, continued to work on the tight muscles in the colonel's shoulders.  "I…"

          Ironhorse's head came up.  "Yes?"

          "I think we need to talk."

          Now he had a dilemma.  Should he turn around and face the man or stay the way he was?  He didn't want to do anything to discourage Harrison.  "About?"

          "You.  Me.  Us."

          The colonel chuckled.

          "What?"

          "Nothing," Paul said, shaking his head.  "It just sounded like something out of an old B-film."

          Blackwood laughed.  "I suppose it did.  Just before the guy told the girl he was leaving her."

          "For his horse," Paul added, both of them dissolving into laughter.  When that passed, he turned slightly, glancing over his shoulder to meet Blackwood's eyes.  "What's wrong?"

          Harrison's head dropped.  "I don't know."  It sprang up again.  "But I do know I've been acting like an ass."

          "I'd like to disagree, Doctor, but I can't."

          "I was afraid you'd say that."

          Ironhorse edged around to face the astrophysicist.  "Harrison, I know this situation isn't easy – on any of us – but I swear to you, I don't do anything I don't absolutely have to in order to win this war."

          The curly head bobbed once.  "I know.  I really do know that, but lately… it's been harder to accept."  The blue eyes met black.  "Paul, I know you don't think you're indestructible, but, damn it, sometimes it looks like you do."

          "I know.  Sometimes I have to pretend I am to get the job done, but I've never believed it.  It's just necessary, in my line of work."

          Blackwood drew his knees up, and wrapped his arms around his legs.  "When you died—" he started, then tried again.  "When I took you out of the hospital—"  He took a deep breath.  "I guess I did believe it, Colonel.  I thought you were Superman, indestructible, just like I thought my parents were.  When you made me promise to take you out… to die… I wanted to be the perfect friend.  I wanted to honor your last request, but to do it, I had to turn away from all the… lies I'd been living.  I had to admit that you were human, just like the rest of us.  Just like my parents.  And I was mad at you, just like I was mad at them."

          "It's not your fault," Paul said softly.

          "Then whose is it?"

          "Theirs, Harrison."

          "But I've put you through hell, and don't tell me I haven't, Colonel, otherwise we wouldn't be here."

          Ironhorse shrugged noncommittally.

          "The whole situation was flawed from the beginning.  And taking you out of the hospital was the last straw, and then when you…"

          "Had the audacity to come back from the dead?"

          Blackwood smiled thinly.  "Something like that," he admitted.  "I realized that my hero was just a man.  I didn't know what to hold on to."

          "And now?"

          Harrison met Paul's intense gaze.  "Being here, watching…  I think our strength is in ourselves.  Our… group-ness."

          Paul smiled, a lopsided grin splitting his usually serious expression.  Harrison was going to be okay.  Their relationship was going to be okay.  He was going to be okay.

          "We're all brothers-in-arms," he said softly.  "And Harrison?"

          "Yeah?"

          "I'd rather have an imperfect brother than a perfect friend."

          Blackwood smiled.  "I'll hold you to that, Paul.  Believe it."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

While we who travel on the rim, seeking love and finding understanding

Go safely on our way, like the river running in the canyon.

 

          "Ready?" Chris asked as she and the other Project members prepared to carry the raft – with Norton already seated onboard – out to the river.

          "Yeah," Norton replied, getting a good grip on one of the safety ropes.  "Mush you husky people."

          "On three," she said around a grin.  "One, ruff-ruff … two, yap-yap-yap… three, a'hrouuu!"

          The four lifted and shuffled to the water, giggling, then set the raft down, the bow just edging into the current.

          "Very good, an extra biscuit for all of you," Drake proclaimed.

          "Thanks," Suzanne said.

          "Better be careful," Chris cautioned, "one of these guys might decide to, uh…"

          "Raise a leg?" Norton asked.

          "Mr. Drake, I—"

          "It's going to be just about like yesterday," Chris said, handing out the life jackets and avoiding the incipient argument.  "Maybe a little worse, so put these on, and add a safety rope, too."

          The four shrugged into the neon orange vests, pausing when a call echoed down from upriver.

          "Look out!"

          "Watch it!"

          They turned.  It was one of the two rafts from the day before, barreling headlong toward them.  The little girl squealed when they hit a particularly rough section of water or rocks, the raft bouncing free of the rapids, then diving back down.

          "Kari!"

          Chris and the Project members watched numbly as the little girl bounced out with a squeal, disappearing beneath the frothing water.

          Snapping the catch shut on his life-preserver, Ironhorse took three running strides to the river edge and plunged in.

          "Paul!" Harrison bellowed, starting after the colonel.

          "Harrison!  No!" Chris said, intercepting the scientist.  "We'll take the raft."

          "But—"

          "There's no way to follow him and the water's too fast."

          "Come on," Suzanne added, her hand coming up to rest on the astrophysicist's shoulder.

          "Let's go, Doc!"

          Blackwood cursed softly and followed the two women as they pushed the raft into the current, then climbed in.  Norton, with a paddle already in hand, shoved it toward Harrison.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Ironhorse swam toward the bobbing flash of orange that appeared sporadically through the spray that broke free from the river surface.  The current was stronger than he'd anticipated, and that, coupled with the necessity of watching for floating debris, made it difficult to reach the girl quickly.

          He ducked under the froth as a large tree branch swept by, one jagged protrusion digging a furrow along the back of his neck.  Surfacing, he tried to swim to catch up to the girl, but it was nearly impossible in the roiling froth.  Rolling over onto his back, he pointed his feet toward his target and used his arms like fins to direct his course, closing the gap.

          "Kari!"

          The raft was gaining on them, but Ironhorse couldn't chance looking back to see how close.  He was almost to the girl, close enough to see the fear in her eyes, and hear her choking on the water.

          "Look out!" someone yelled.

          "Rocks!" a woman screamed.

          Ironhorse heard the inflatable lift out of the water, a great sucking sound drowning out the rapid's roar for a moment.  The splash that followed was like a giant hand slapping the rough surface of the river.

          "Dad-dy!"

          Ironhorse felt a sharp flash of pain as something hit him, a fine red mist immediately stinging his eyes.  He was bleeding, but the girl was almost in reach.  Ignoring the rush in his ears and the bright spots exploding around his peripheral vision, he shifted position, reaching out, his fingers brushing the girl's life-jacket, until a sudden rise in the water drew her away.  He kicked, and tried again, this time his fingers curling into the nylon.

          The girl squealed, and coughed.

          "Easy, honey," Ironhorse said.  "It's okay."

          He pulled her closer, holding her tight to his chest while she struggled for a moment, then quickly tired, her fear of the river overriding her fear of the bleeding stranger.  Together they were swept along further away from the raft.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Look!" Suzanne yelled as the raft they were rapidly gaining on shot free of the rapids, fell back, and nearly capsized.

          The four adults grabbed for the safety ropes and leaned away from the fall, keeping the raft from turning over.  Several of their paddles were swept away and the inflatable swung into a quiet eddy.

          "They're okay!" Chris called out.  "Watch for rocks, that's what they hit!"

          "To the right!" Norton yelled and they others responded, edging them around the obstruction.

          "The river widens out around the next turn and then narrows into some nasty white water.  We have to catch them before they get to that!" Chris called.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Daddy!"

          "Shhh," Ironhorse calmed the girl.  He could feel the current slowing, but the water was still too deep and fast to stand up.  "You'll be just fine; your daddy, too."

          "I'm cold," she said, her teeth chattering.  "I wanna go home."

          Ironhorse was cold, too.  The water was rapidly chilling them both, and he needed to get the girl out as soon as he could.

          Kari squealed, and Paul back-peddled, trying to see what had scared her.  A sudden wave of blackness swept over his vision as another thick branch rose up out of the water and slammed into his shoulder and head.

          The girl screamed as he slipped under the water, then he forced himself to kick, propelling them to the surface again.

          Something felt different.  The water was definitely slowing down.

          "Look-it!" Kari cried.

          Ironhorse followed the child's pointing finger to a large outcrop of rocks.  The river split around the formation, rushing past and then rejoining into a narrow turn that churned with whitecaps.

          "Hang on," Paul told her.  They had plenty of room to maneuver in, if he could just keep them lined up with the rocks…

          "Okay," she replied, her trembling fingers digging into his shirt sleeves.  "Is that 'n island?"

          "Something like that, sweetheart," Ironhorse said, swallowing several time to settle his churning stomach.  He was drifting.  "Honey, I want you to wrap your legs around me, and hold on.  I'm going to roll over on my back and swim for the island, okay?"

          "Uh-huh."

          With his throbbing shoulder, the swim to the formation was agonizing, but he was able to reach the rocks and grab hold of the slippery surface.

          "Quick, climb up to the top of the island, sweetheart," he directed as calmly as he could.  The current was slowly eroding his grip.

          Kari scrambled onto the rocks, hugging a sharp spire near the top while Ironhorse tried to pull himself up.

          "Hang on tight," the colonel told her.  "Help's on the way.  What's your name?"

          "K-Kari," she stammered through chattering teeth.

          "You're a brave young lady, Kari," he told her.  Sucking in a deep breath, he reached out and fitted his hand into a narrow crevice, then pulled.  His shoulder flared and he moaned.

          "You okay?" she asked, starting to move closer.

          "No, Kari, stay there," he told her firmly.  He saw her grip tighten again.  "Good girl.  Okay, here we go…"

          "Hang on, Paul!"

          Harrison.  Ironhorse's eyes dropped closed for a moment.  The cavalry had arrived; just like in the movies.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "There!" Blackwood yelled, spotting Paul and the girl on the rock formation.   He lowered his paddle.

          "No, Harrison," Chris called.  "We can't do anything for them on the water.  To the right.  We'll beach it."

          He glanced in the indicated direction.  A narrow stretch of sand and rocks rested along a steep cliff-face.

          "Hurry," Chris told them, watching Paul try to pull himself up out of the water.  It looked like he was favoring his right shoulder.  Leaning heavily against the rudder paddle, she helped steer the boat to the edge of the river.

          The other three paddled furiously, moving the raft at an almost straight right angle to the current.

          "Hang on, Paul!" Harrison called.

          Chris timed the landing perfectly, and as the raft bumped the river bottom along the edge, Harrison and Suzanne leaped out, dragging the inflatable up onto the sand.

          The psychologist cast one glance at Norton, but he waved her on with a, "Go! Go!"

          Lunging out, she secured the raft and joined the two Project members on the sand.

          "Paul, we're going to try and toss you a line!" Blackwood called.

          "Right!" he called back.  "Hurry!"

          "No way," Chris said.  "He's got a bum shoulder.  If he reaches for the rope, he could lose his grip and we'll lose him in the rapids."

          "Then what do we do?" Suzanne demanded, her gaze locked on the colonel and the girl.

          "Norton, throw me two of the safety lines," Chris said, jogging back to the raft.

          Drake hefted out the nylon ropes.  "What's up?"

          Chris fashioned a quick loop and fitted it around her back and under her arms.  "I'm going upriver, then I'll swim out and let the current carry me to them.  First we move Paul over, then the girl and me."

          Harrison and Suzanne nodded.  Chris handed them the end of the now joined lines and started up the short shoreline at a fast jog.  When she reached the end, she waded out as far as she could, then sank into the cold water, the current immediately sucking her along.

          Kicking powerfully, she was able to maneuver to the middle of the river, and hold herself there until she reached the formation.

          "Watch!" she yelled, but couldn't keep from slamming into Ironhorse.  He cried out sharply, but didn't let go.

          Chris inched around the rocks and then climbed out, perching above the soldier.  Slipped the rope off, she maneuvered to tie it around Paul's chest.

          "No, get Kari out of here first."

          "Negative, Colonel," Chris said, working the rope around him and tying it off. "You're hurt, she's not.  Besides, we'll be fine right here."  Moving farther up on the rocks, she smiled at the girl and patted her shoulder.  "Right, kiddo?"

          Kari nodded.

          "Okay, Paul, you just let go, they'll pull you in."  She waved.  "Reel 'im in!"

          Ironhorse forced his fingers to uncurl, and felt the current try to sweep him around the formation, but the tension on the rope stopped his forward movement, and after a moment, he could feel the slow tug toward the edge of the river.  He kicked, helping to drive him closer to Harrison and Suzanne, but the pain in his shoulder flared with each additional movement, so he satisfied himself with fluttering his feet just enough to keep his head above water and let Harrison and Suzanne pull him to the rocky lip of land.

          "Paul?" Harrison demanded, wading out to slip his hands under the colonel's arms.

          "Harrison, no—"

          Before Ironhorse could stop him, Blackwood lifted.  The soldier gasped and heaved.

          "Paul?" Blackwood asked, his voice sounding more panicked as Ironhorse's stomach emptied of breakfast and river water.

          "Around… my waist," the colonel gasped.

          Suzanne had joined the pair and quickly wrapped an arm around Paul's midsection and helped him stand.  Together the threesome made their way back to the beach, where they lowered the colonel down next to the raft, leaning him back against it where Norton could watch him.

          "Get, Kari and Chris," Paul breathed airily.

          "Stay there," Harrison commanded before he joined Suzanne on the beach with the rope.

          "How do we do this?" Suzanne yelled.

          "Roll up the rope at one end to weight it and throw it out to her," Paul called.

          Blackwood nodded and started wrapping up one end.  Moving out into the water as far as he could, Harrison hurled the line toward the outcropping.  Chris grabbed it as it hit and bounced.

          "Okay," she told the girl.  "Here's what we're going to do, we're going to play pony, okay?"

          "Pony?" Kari asked, big blue eyes still frightened.

          "Yep.  You're going to get on my back, just like I was a pony, and then I'm going to swim over to my friends.  And they're going to help us by pulling on my rope, okay?"

          Kari nodded.

          Chris squatted down, letting the girl climb onto her back before she fastened the rope around both of them.  Once she was sure Kari was secure, Chris edged back down to the river and lowered them in.

          "Okay, here we go," Chris said, pushing off with her legs and swimming toward the shore.  The constant pull on the rope made it easier to fight the current and when her belly brushed the river bed, she stood up.

          "Here," Suzanne said, reaching for the knot, "I'll get that."

          Chris stood while the microbiologist untied the rope and Harrison lifted Kari from her back.  "That was some ride, huh?" she asked the girl.

          Kari nodded, wrapping her arms around Harrison's neck.  "'M cold."

          "Okay," Suzanne said, "let's get everyone into some dry clothes."

          "There's some driftwood over there," Norton said, pointing to the edge of the cliff.  "We can make a fire."

          "Good idea," Chris agreed, her teeth chattering.  Walking over to a blanket-draped Ironhorse, she dropped down to the ground, accepting another blanket from Norton.  "How are you?"

          Paul nodded.  "Not bad – dislocated shoulder, few scratches."

          "Ouch," Chris said, her forehead wrinkling in concern.  "I don't know how to fix that."

          "I do," the colonel said with a tired, lopsided grin.  "But it's not my idea of a good time."

          "Paul, are you okay?" Harrison asked, dropping down alongside the soldier.

          "Fine, Doctor," he said automatically, then amended, "More or less."

          "You're bleeding," Blackwood said, reaching out to accept the first aid kit from Norton.  "In several places, I'll have you know.  Damn it, Paul, that was a stupid stunt," he snapped.

          Black eyes locked on blue, and Ironhorse wondered if anything Harrison had said the night before was true.  Tempt fate and she'll test you, he thought silently.  I hope you pass, Harrison.

          Blackwood looked away, took a deep breath, then turned back with a serious expression on his face.  "But, it had to be done," he finished.  "I'm just glad you got to her in time."

          Ironhorse felt himself relax.  "Me, too, Harrison."  An A-plus I'd say, Doctor.

          "Now, let's get you cleaned up."

          The black eyebrows rose slightly.  "It's just a scratch."

          "It could get infected."

          Make that a B-minus.  "My shoulder's dislocated."

          "Then we'll locate it," Blackwood said matter-of-factly, digging into the kit for the betadine and a gaze pad.

          "Ouch!  Damn it, that's stings!"

          "Yes, Colonel, I know."

          You're pushing a C, mister.

          Harrison added another soaked pad.

          "The hell you do!  Damn it—"

          "Paul, don't forget our guest."

          "Then leave me alone, I can—"

          "Just sit there and let me play doctor, Colonel," Blackwood finished.

          Paul glared.  F, Blackwood.  Definitely an F.  He sighed heavily and suppressed a grin.  Thank you, Grandfather.

          Chris grinned at the colonel over Blackwood's back, giving the soldier a thumbs-up.  Paul nodded.  They were back to normal.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

There is an owl, flying from the south

As the shadows lengthen in the canyon.

 

          The five rafters and Kari sat huddled around the blazing fire, sipping on hot tea.  They were dry, warm, and giddy.  Suzanne worked over the colonel, massaging his shoulder, which Blackwood had popped back into place with Paul's coaching.

          "Are you a real Indian?" Kari asked, blue eyes wide.

          "Yes, he certainly is," Harrison told the girl.

          "Wow," she breathed, twisting the hem of Chris' extra T-shirt she now wore like a dress.  "Do you ride horses?"

          The colonel's ears reddened slightly.  "Uh…"

          "Yes, he does, very well in fact.  He even rides bareback," Suzanne said with a smile.

          "And he's got a tomahawk and a big knife, too," Norton added, earning a "stop-'em-in-their-tracks" glare from the colonel.

          "A scalping knife?" she whispered, her fingers coming up to tuck her long red hair behind her ears.

          "No, Kari," Paul explained before anyone could 'help' him, "it's not a scalping knife.  It's a hunting knife."

          "Oh," the six-year-old said.  "What do you hunt with it?"

          Before Ironhorse was forced to lie his way out of that question a hail from the river interrupted.

          "Kari!"

          The girl jumped up.  "Mommy!  Daddy!"  She waved furiously while the four adults eased the raft over and beached it.  Running to the raft, she launched herself into her father's arms.

          "Kari, are you okay?"

          "Uh-huh, I'm okay.  A real Indian saved me!"

          The four Project members and Chris joined the new arrivals, exchanging introductions and thank-yous.

          "We're still new to this," Kari's mother explained.  "We didn't realize it would get so bad."

          "Sit down with an experienced guide before a trip and let them tell you about the idiosyncrasies of the river you're going to travel," Chris suggested.  "It'll take about an hour, but it'll save you a lot of time and scares later on."

          "We will," her father said, reaching out to shake Paul's hand for the fourth time.  "And thank you, again, Colonel Ironhorse, I don't know what we would've done if anything had happened to Kari."

          Ironhorse nodded.  "Just glad it all worked out."  He squatted down to Kari's eye-level.  "You have a safe ride, now, young lady," he told her, shaking hands.  "And be careful."

          She wrapped her arms around him, giving him a big hug and kiss on the cheek.  "Okay.  You, too."

          "I will," he said softly.

          They watched while Kari and her family eased back into the river.  Chris and the others smiled as they all attached their safety lines and waved before paddling off towards the next section of white water.

          "Bye!  Bye!"

          "Bye!" Paul called back, waving.

          Harrison rested his hand on Ironhorse's good shoulder, smiling broadly.  "That's my colonel, strong, determined… and a sensitive real Indian.  You're still my hero, Colonel."

          Paul's gaze met the twinkling blue of the astrophysicist's, "And you're still just weird, Blackwood."

 

 

While we who travel on the rim, seeking love and finding understanding

Go safely on our way, like the river running in the canyon…[1]

 



[1]  "Shadow of a Life," music and words by Kate Wolf.  Written for Apache spiritual leader, Philip Cassador.  Performed by Pamela Ballingham on Voyage for Dreamers, c. 1988.