Thirteen-year-old Warren Wilkes lay in the tall, wet grass, peering out, hoping to witness catastrophe, and fearing it at the same time. His stomach burned. His heart thrummed. Sweat dripped from his brow.
He stared at the lake.
Any moment now, down there, just across the water, his nemesis would appear. Warren lowered his binoculars, glanced at his watch, then jammed them to his eyes again. It was 6:59 AM.
Warren knew the routine by heart: at precisely 7:00 AM-not 6:59, not 7:01-Todd Finley Jr., also age thirteen, would burst from his huge, ugly house followed by his father, Todd Finley Sr. They'd be wearing wetsuits and lifejackets over their big, fat frames. They'd cross their aircraft carrier-sized deck, descend to their ridiculously large dock, climb aboard their loud, exhaust-belching WaveRunners, and begin roaring around the ninety acre lake, scaring the ducks, eagles and hawks, sending the deer bounding up the hillsides, and generally shattering the early-morning tranquility Warren had always cherished.
This was the Finleys' morning ritual.
Today, however, Warren had a little surprise in store for them.
Two hours earlier, in the soft, pre-dawn light, when the last stars were winking goodbye and the first bird songs were tentatively breaking the stillness, Warren had done a little "monkey wrenching." That was a term he'd seen in a book, and it meant "the use of sabotage to protest environmentally damaging activity."
Warren's monkey wrenching happened like this: waking at 4:30 AM, he'd waited for his Uncle Dave to leave for work. He'd listened patiently as Dave's old truck clattered away down the dirt road connecting the lake with County Route 3. Sitting on the edge of his bed, he'd waited some more, until silence swallowed the cabin once again. Then he'd donned his own wetsuit, exited the cabin by the daylight-basement door, crossed his small, sloping yard, slipped into the still, platinum-colored lake, and begun swimming the 150 yards to the Finleys' dock.
The frigid water had jolted Warren wide awake. He saw swallows swerving and diving for bugs. He saw a fish jump near the opposite shore.
Warren loved the lake, and as he swam-carefully, quietly, trying hard not to cause a ripple-he reveled in the beauty of the water, of the surrounding hills, and of the snow-covered North Cascades away in the distance. Of course, he was gazing at the wild, unspoiled side of the lake.
These days, he hated to look at the other shore.
The view of the unspoiled side was so beautiful, tranquil and pristine in its pre-dawn halo that it made Warren's heart wild with joy.
Another fine summer day was beginning, and the hills, aspen groves and meadows glowed with soft, golden light. Warren wanted to stop then and there and just tread water and watch the entire sunrise; wanted to study the swallows, and observe the deer grazing on the ridge above the far shore; watch the plump gold and black bees buzz to life amid the meadow flowers and stare at the eagle on top of that big Ponderosa Pine.
But he was on a mission. And after a time, he turned his attention to the blighted, ruined side of the lake.
He swam quietly, stealthily; dark, icy water swirling around him. It wouldn't take long to carry out his plan.
Swimming under the Finleys' dock and keeping his head low-just in case someone was looking out the Finleys' kitchen window-Warren removed a flat spool of thin steel cable from the zipper pocket of his wetsuit. He'd found the cable in his uncle's workshop a few days earlier, and had attached small carabiners, from his own extensive supply of backpacking gear, to loops on either end.
Crossing carefully to Todd Jr.'s WaveRunner, he clipped one end of the cable to the steel tow ring embedded in the craft's sleek, white fiberglass bow. The WaveRunner was larger than Warren had imagined. It rose over him, orange flame decals reflecting in the still water. The stern of the craft bore the words "TODD'S ROD" in big, bold letters. Warren slid the cable under the WaveRunner and clipped the other end to the dock's arcing aluminum ladder. Then he carefully swam home.
It was that simple.
Back at the cabin, he'd changed out of his wetsuit, filled his small backpack with supplies, tugged his favorite baseball cap over his thick black hair, and headed back outside, making for the far shore of the lake. He had been gleeful. Giddy with excitement. Eager to watch his plan unfold. But now doubt seeped into his consciousness.
The Finleys' deck door burst open and Todd Jr., who always moved as if he had a bee in his pants, barreled out. Warren shoved his pack lower in the grass and held his breath as Junior descended the dock stairs.
A half-grown clone of his father, Junior was tall for his age, with a squarish head and a mouth twisted in a permanent sneer. He untied the tether holding his WaveRunner and climbed aboard.
Sudden dread seized Warren. His plan now seemed foolish and ill-conceived. What if Junior was injured? He hadn't considered that before. He didn't want to hurt anyone. Not really. What he wanted was revenge. Revenge for what the Finleys had done to his beloved Torch Lake. Revenge for the 9.2 acres of wetlands they'd destroyed. Revenge against Todd Jr., who bragged incessantly at school about his expensive toys and huge new house, and who teased Warren relentlessly after Warren stated in Current Events that he loved the Clement Valley the way it was and didn't think Finley Exclusive Gated Communities, or any other developer, should be allowed to put 275 homes on the ridge overlooking his little lake.
Basically, Warren had had it with the Finleys, and wanted to make them pay for all the grief they'd caused since storming into the peaceful community eighteen months ago.
Now though, he realized he'd hatched his plan without any real thought. Without any notion of what might happen after. He was seized with a desire to leap up and shout: "Wait! Don't! Stop! Danger!"
Junior was sitting on his machine. With a glance at his father, he pressed the ignition button and the WaveRunner roared to life.
Warren held his breath.
Todd Sr. set down his jumbo coffee mug and untied his own, even larger WaveRunner.
Warren stared through his binoculars, lowered them, then jerked them back up. The morning was cool, but he was sweating heavily. His mouth felt as dry as desert sand, and he could feel a sneeze building. Stupid grass.
Todd Jr. steered his WaveRunner from its snug cleft in the dock. Warren could see the silver cable uncoiling behind the machine, but Junior hadn't noticed it. Junior opened the throttle wide and the powerful craft practically stood up in the water. The roar echoed off the surrounding hills and the WaveRunner accelerated with breathtaking speed, covering the fifty-yard length of cable in a heartbeat. Then several things happened at once.
The WaveRunner slammed to a halt, stopping as suddenly as if it had hit a wall. The nose of the machine crashed down and Todd Jr. went flying; somersaulting over the bow in what seemed like slow motion. He landed with a stupendous splash. At the same instant there was a loud CRACK, like a rifle shot, and a section of the dock stairs-where Warren had clipped the other end of the cable-broke loose and skittered into the lake.
Warren gaped. As comical as Junior's midair flip had been, Warren wasn't laughing. Where was Junior now? Was he hurt? Was he paralyzed? Warren's heart thumped in his chest. What if he was dead?
Todd Jr. burst onto the surface of the lake spluttering and coughing, and Warren breathed, relieved.
Now Todd Sr. was zooming to his son's aid, shouting as he came. Warren watched, and shivered as he suppressed another sneeze.
With a flick of his throttle, Todd Sr. was back at the dock, examining the broken stairs. Now he saw the cable. More yelling.
And now Warren saw with alarm that Todd Jr., still treading water near the middle of the lake, was scanning the hillside. Warren lowered his binoculars with a gasp and flattened himself in the dirt.
He looked right at me, he thought. No. He couldn't have seen me through all the grass.
And then Warren sneezed. A momentous, thunderous sneeze-followed by three smaller ones. Then, instead of remaining flat on his stomach, Warren lifted his head to see if Todd Jr. had heard anything. Their eyes met.
"It's Wilkes!" Todd Jr. screamed-the top of his life jacket framing his block-shaped head. "Dad, it's Wilkes! Wilkes did it! He's right there!"
Warren flattened himself once more, then leapt up like a startled deer. He opened his mouth to say something, then shut it again. There was nothing to say. And anyway, Todd Sr. was screaming now, too, his face red and contorted in a mix of rage and surprise. He was a big man with a big, blustery voice.
"Wilkes! You broke my dock, you delinquent," he bellowed, evidently more concerned about his dock than his son. "You've had it, you little vandal. Little weirdo. Criminal!" His voice cracked. "You just better hope the police catch you before I do!"
Warren stood gaping, shoes bolted to the ground. Now a frightened-looking Mrs. Finley was on the deck, dishtowel in one hand. And over there, a hundred yards down the beach, old Mr. Adams stood in his bathrobe at the back door of his A-frame, trying to make sense of the commotion.
Todd Sr. was screaming at his wife now in a tone that suggested several dozen people had just been murdered. "Call the police, Margaret! Call the state trooper! Get the dogs! HURRY!"
Meanwhile, Todd Jr. had unclipped the cable and climbed back aboard his WaveRunner. He looked fine and apparently so was his machine. He gunned it and rocketed toward Warren's side of the lake.
Warren watched him come.
"You're DEAD, Wilkes!" Todd Jr. roared, as he turned his machine sharply and hugged the near shore. "You are SO dead!" His face bore a sneer that made Warren want to hit him in the nose. But then Warren heard dogs barking. Big dogs. Dogs the Finleys used for bear and cougar hunting. They were really going to turn their dogs on him.
Warren scooped up his backpack, and without another thought or backward glance, turned and ran up the steep hillside, toward the forest. Warren was a gifted runner, and he knew the surrounding countryside as well as he knew the layout of his own cabin. Now he leapt up the hill like a young mountain lion.
Of course, faced with hunting dogs and the enraged Finleys, Warren should have run home, locked the doors, called his uncle and confessed the whole incident. That would have been the smart thing to do. But it's not what he did.
He just ran. And as he ran, Warren pictured the Finleys firing up their knobby-tired, all-terrain vehicles, releasing their four black labs and calling the police and state trooper.
He fell into an even, steady stride, flying forward without any clear sense of where he was going or what he would do if the Finleys or the police caught him, or if he somehow managed to elude them all.
He just ran.
Through the tall grass and riotously abundant wildflowers, to where the ground leveled out, he ran.
He bounded across winding Nine Mile Creek Road, dodging rain-filled potholes. The early-morning air was fresh and fragrant, and Warren noted with irritation that his allergies had completely disappeared.
Why did I have to sneeze just then? he asked himself, but it was a useless point to ponder. He could still hear dogs barking and now thought he could hear ATVs growling to life.
He climbed through a grove of stately Ponderosa Pines toward Nine Mile Creek State Park. There were a few scattered cabins along the park boundary, mostly 1970s era A-frames. Beyond that there was nothing but the wild, forested hills of the park, adjacent Pipestone Canyon State Park, and a million acres of North Cascades wilderness, punctuated by jagged, snow-covered peaks.
Warren tugged on the shoulder straps of his small backpack to keep it from jostling as he ran. The pack contained a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, two apples, an REI water bottle, binoculars, a flashlight, a compass and a first-aid kit. The fact that Warren had the pack was not really the result of advance planning. It was summer, and he always carried a pack when he wandered his beloved hills and meadows. Sometimes his friend Sean was with him, sometimes he ambled alone. Warren's uncle often said that the Clement Valley was one of the last places in America where a kid could experience a real, old-fashioned childhood, and he allowed Warren to roam freely.
That'll stop after he finds out what I've done, Warren thought. His uncle, Dave Wilkes, was his sole guardian. Dave trusted him. Gave him lots of freedom. Praised him for being responsible. Now Warren had pulled an idiotic prank that would mean heartache and hassle, not just for him, but also for Dave.
Warren willed himself forward, brushing aside angry tears. He knew how people talked. He'd heard the whispers at local stores and restaurants all his life. Now there'd be new whispers. He'd be in the Clement Valley Herald Police Blotter. His teachers would read about his prank. It was a small community, and before the day was out, everyone in the valley would know what had transpired at Torch Lake.
Warren shoved the painful thoughts from his mind and kept running.
The ground climbed steadily and Warren slowed but didn't stop. He knew how to pace himself, and ran lightly over the soft earth, weaving between the pines.
A plan formed in Warren's mind. He would make for Pipestone Canyon, roughly two miles distant. He and his uncle had hiked, skied and snowshoed there dozens of times, and he knew it well. Perhaps he could hide among the canyon's crags, cliffs and massive boulders. Perhaps.
Warren topped a low ridge, entered a clearing, and heard the sudden rush of brawling Nine Mile Creek, two hundred yards ahead. Born in the snowy Cascades, the sparkling stream clattered across the meadow. It was roughly fifteen feet wide here, but shallow, gravel-bottomed and easy to cross.
Now that he was out of the trees, Warren heard other sounds, too: the unmistakable baying of dogs, surprisingly close, and the low, steady whine of ATVs. The Finleys were after him, all right, and they were getting closer.
For the first time, Warren felt truly afraid. He remembered the rage on Mr. Finley's face. Who could guess what the big brute might do? Or maybe Finley Sr. would simply turn a blind eye as Finley Jr. pulverized him. Junior was a good thirty pounds heavier than Warren, after all.
Wild thoughts flooded Warren's mind. Maybe the Finleys would tie him up and drag him behind their ATVs, or let their dogs tear him to pieces. He couldn't guess, and he didn't want to find out.
Warren had an idea. Instead of running straight across the creek, he would run in it for a while. His shoes and socks would get soaked, but perhaps the ploy would confuse the dogs-at least temporarily. It was a trick he'd read about in numerous adventure stories. Maybe it would help.
He leapt into the clear, frigid water. It was only about a foot deep here, where it crossed the flat, open meadow, but shockingly cold. He sprinted upstream.
Though June meant summer in other parts of the country, it was still early spring here in the higher elevations of the Clement Valley. It had snowed heavily all winter, and the meadows only recently had become snow-free. It had just rained, too, so everything had a fresh, new quality and the air was crisp and clean. Wildflowers carpeted the creek banks.
Warren splashed on-the gravel stream bottom giving a bit under each sloshing footfall. He saw now that the snowmelt and recent rain had caused the clay soil of the stream's banks to fracture. Here and there great slabs of creek edge had fallen into the water. In some spots, sections of bank teetered, like new islands breaking apart from the mainland after a catastrophic quake. Ahead, the creek jogged sharply to the right.
Warren scanned the meadow. In another hundred feet or so, he'd climb out of the water and run uphill, toward Pipestone Canyon. He sprinted, following the sharp bend in the stream.
That's when he saw the skeleton.
It was a human skeleton, no doubt about that, lying face up on the soft earth. Warren could see at once what had happened: the skeleton had been buried in the reddish-brown clay of the bank, but a section of creek edge had fractured and fallen away, freeing the skeleton from its tomb. It lay there in broad daylight, as neatly and cleanly as if it had just rolled out of a crypt. Warren stepped forward cautiously and gazed at the remains in silent wonder.
He would have forgotten about the Finleys, his prank and everything else-only now that he'd stopped moving he heard the dogs and whining ATVs once more. Even over the joyful clatter of the creek, the sounds were unmistakable. The Finleys were coming through the forest, within a minute or two of the meadow.
Warren stared at the skeleton. He'd been to enough museums and read enough books to know that it was very old. The bones were light brown and smooth, like aged ivory. It occurred to Warren they might even be fossilized.
The skull, arm and leg bones were large, and the hips narrow, so he guessed he was looking at the remains of a man. The lower jawbone was missing, as were the bones of the right foot. Otherwise, the skeleton appeared intact. Warren leaned closer to the skull, but the empty eye sockets gazing skyward gave him a queer feeling.
He took one last look and ...
There was something protruding from the dirt, near the skeleton's right hip. Warren peered closely.
The "something," whatever it was, was encrusted with soft clay. It blended with the surrounding soil, and was nearly invisible.
Warren gently traced the object with his fingers, pried some of the clay away, and understood. It was a pouch: leather, bound at the top with a fragment of cord.
Warren teased more soil from the object, marveling that the leather was still supple and intact. Even the design on the face of the pouch-a fine red spiral-had somehow been preserved inside the clay tomb of the creek bank.
Carefully, painstakingly, Warren lifted the pouch free from the soil, loosened the cord, and spilled the contents out.
The first artifact to tumble onto the creek bank-into the sunlight-was a stone spear point. It was about five inches long, brownish-yellow and lovingly crafted. It was still razor sharp, by the look of it.
The spear point made Warren gasp. But the object that thudded onto the bank after it stopped his heart.
It was a heavy, flat medallion of gleaming, hammered gold, inset with sparkling blue gems.
Dazzlingly beautiful, the medallion (medallion was the first word that came to Warren's mind) could easily have been the centerpiece of a great king's crown, or of a royal necklace. The object had seven equal sides.
A heptagon, Warren thought. It was a term he'd learned in last semester's math.
Warren's hand shook as he traced the perimeter of the heptagon with one finger. The object was about four inches across, and twice as thick as the old silver dollars in his uncle's coin collection.
In the center of the heptagon was set a perfect circle of highly polished obsidian. The dazzling blue gems-there were seven of them, as well-were embedded in the gold and placed evenly about the obsidian circle. Warren turned the medallion over and saw that the back consisted of gleaming, hammered gold only.
He lifted the object slowly, reverently. It fit neatly in the palm of his hand and was so bright that it flashed in the warm morning light. It was beautiful. It was mesmerizing. It was ...
Warren heard sudden, frenzied barking from the forest below and jumped to his feet. How had they scaled the hill so fast? How long had he been kneeling beside the skeleton? With a leap up the bank, he was off once more, bounding across the meadow and toward the sheltering forest beyond.
Warren had run perhaps fifteen feet when he realized he'd left the spear point with the skeleton. No time to retrieve it now. By the sound of it, the Finleys' dogs would burst into the clearing at any moment. He had to make it to the trees-had to disappear into the forest-if he was to have any hope of escaping.
The first trees were twenty feet ahead. Warren sprinted, diving recklessly between two massive pines. He caught his toe on a log, crashed down, rolled to his feet, and continued on.
The ground was rising again and Warren threw himself forward, deeper into the forest.
Just in time.
Wild, chaotic barking erupted in the meadow and Warren pressed on, careful not to tread on any branches.
The hill grew steeper and Warren switched from a jog to a steady, rhythmic climb. The barking below was sporadic, confused. Glancing back through the trees, Warren could see four dogs pacing along the creek edge, whining and yelping. His jog through the stream had worked. For the moment, anyway.
Warren heard the rumble of machines and with another backward glance saw the helmeted Finleys roar into the small meadow. Todd Sr. gunned his ATV straight into the shallow creek and up the opposite bank. It made Warren sick to see such machines in the beautiful meadow, tearing up the wet earth and frightening every living creature for miles.
He climbed on, approaching the top of the ridge where tree cover thinned again. He heard excited shouts from the meadow far below and guessed the Finleys had found the skeleton. And, since his tracks were all around it, his trail, as well.
Warren pictured Todd Jr. gloating over the ancient bones and greedily fondling the spear point. There was nothing he could do about it.
He topped the ridge, swung his backpack off his shoulder, and took a long drink from his water bottle. The sun was high now but it was still cool. He jogged on.
Twenty minutes later, drenched in sweat, Warren stood at the forested entrance to Pipestone Canyon State Park. He'd run cross country, making a shortcut over two rolling, sagebrush covered hills, directly to the canyon entrance.
It was a weekday, and the gravel parking lot was empty. Lonely picnic tables sat alongside bear-proof trash containers and beige cinderblock restrooms with green metal roofs.
Pipestone was a small, out-of-the-way state park, which was one reason Warren and his uncle liked it. Now, though, the tiny picnic area and adjacent three-acre Pipestone Lake seemed to the boy forlorn, lonely. Redwing blackbirds sang in the cattails and a meadowlark trilled as the gray-green surface of the lake rippled in the breeze.
Warren had been coming here with his uncle since he was a small boy, and had caught countless trout in the little lake, which was stocked in spring and summer.
Gazing at the rippling water now, another, more remote memory formed in Warren's mind: a memory of his mom and dad. He remembered his mother's warm wool sweater, and her smile as she helped him with his boots. He remembered his father, too. A huge man, he'd seemed, with strong hands and gentle, laughing eyes.
The memory had come to Warren out of the blue, and it made him feel warm and comforted, sad and lonely-all at the same time.
They'd died just before his third birthday, Warren's parents, and he missed them terribly. Sometimes feelings of longing and loneliness would hit him like a fist, leaving him weak and washed out. The feelings would tug at him awhile, and then he'd pull himself together. Life with school and friends and Uncle Dave would continue. But the bright memory of his parents-their faces, their smiles, their warm, reassuring voices-was always in the back of his mind.
Warren's daydream ended abruptly. ATVs were on Pipestone Road.
Warren turned and sprinted through the canyon entrance, losing himself amid the bitterbrush and pine trees.
Pipestone was a narrow, steep-walled canyon, roughly two and a half miles in length, end to end. But the middle section, where the canyon walls were steepest and closest together, was the most interesting. Here the walls were made of great hexagonal columns of black basalt, some as big around and as tall as redwood trees. Born of volcanic heat and pressure millions of years earlier, many of the columns had fractured, and great piles of shattered stone lay at the base of the towering cliffs. Of the columns that remained intact, some had pulled apart from the rest, tilting precariously, like Leaning Towers of Pisa.
Warren and his uncle had visited Pipestone in every season, and as he ran toward the heart of the canyon now, with the incessant drone of the ATVs behind him, Warren's hope was to somehow hide among the crags and recesses of the cliffs.
The trail was so narrow and boulder-strewn it would be difficult for the four wheelers to maneuver. The Finleys would have to follow on foot. Warren smiled at the thought of Junior and Senior huffing and puffing along the trail. They hated to walk. Then he remembered the dogs, and his smile vanished.
He ran on. He was near the middle of the canyon now, and basalt columns loomed overhead. A narrow side canyon came abruptly into view through the trees on Warren's left. He'd forgotten about it.
He slowed, studying the wooded entrance to the side passage. Two ancient Ponderosa Pines flanked the opening like enormous gateposts of some long-abandoned mountain stronghold. Warren checked his pocket for the medallion. It felt smooth and warm and comfortable in his hand.
Without looking at the relic, without removing it from his pocket, Warren placed his thumb on the black obsidian circle in the middle of the artifact. And then the strangest thing happened.
He felt a mild electric shock, like static electricity, jolt his thumb and hand. He heard music.
The chanting was eerie. Distant. Like whispers across a lake.
Then a picture burst, fully formed, into his mind. The picture was crisp and bright and appeared with such abruptness and clarity that it made him gasp.
Warren knew with certainty that the picture was not a memory but a new thought, a thought born of the medallion itself.
The "picture" was of two immense boulders, partially buried, sitting end-to-end against a canyon wall. Warren knew with equal confidence that the boulders were a few hundred yards up this very side canyon, and that the huge stones concealed a fantastic secret.
He wandered over the boulders in his mind's eye as the haunting, rhythmic chant continued. And then it came to him: the stones concealed a cave. A chamber of some kind, yes. Warren suddenly, inexplicably knew this, knew it with the same certainty that he knew his cabin was on the shore of Torch Lake.
His first impulse was to stop and ponder what had just happened. The image in his mind and the way it had appeared was so odd. But then he had another impulse: hide the medallion. If the Finleys or the police caught him, the medallion would be taken. He couldn't let that happen.
Warren knelt behind a tree, opened his daypack and removed his lunch bag. He unwrapped the aluminum foil containing his peanut butter sandwich, peeled back the top slice of bread and placed the medallion squarely in the middle. He gazed at the artifact for a long moment. The gold gleamed and the blue gems sparkled in the morning light. It made his heart pound. He had to keep it safe.
He replaced the top slice of bread, re-wrapped the sandwich and shoved the lunch bag back into his pack. Then he was moving again, bounding toward the side canyon, toward the cave entrance that he knew was there-the image of it still bright in his mind. He had to get to the cave.
As he ran, Warren pictured the Finleys hesitating at the mouth of Pipestone Canyon. Perhaps the thought of an arduous hike would make them give up. Maybe they'd simply go home, and he'd have time to explore the mystery presented by the medallion. He needed to find the cave. He was supposed to find the cave. He ...
"Warren Wilkes, that's far enough." The voice jarred Warren from his reverie. It was a man's voice: strong, firm, vaguely familiar. Warren slowed to a walk and turned.
"Warren, I know what happened. You'd better come with me."
A man rounded a bend in the path and Warren's shoulders sagged. It was Old Mr. McCorliss. McCorliss was a state park ranger and a friend of his uncle.
"Does my uncle know?" the boy asked, hating how fragile his voice sounded.
"I'm sure he does by now, son," McCorliss said. The ranger looked stern and official in his neatly pressed uniform; radio and revolver at his side, but his voice softened as he reached the boy.
"Warren, I got to take you in. Promise me you won't try to run, and I'll skip the handcuffs."
Tears welled in Warren's eyes, not because he'd been caught or because McCorliss was taking him to the police station, but because he'd let his uncle-his guardian and friend and provider-down. He wiped his eyes with one arm and lifted his head. There would be no blubbering in front of the ranger.
"This way," McCorliss said, gesturing for Warren to go ahead. "My Jeep's at the south end. You won't have to face the Finleys. Not yet, anyhow."
Warren felt sick. Then the entrance to the narrow side canyon caught his eye again, and wonder seized him once more.
Somewhere in there-around one of its many bends, behind one of the hundreds of truck-sized boulders littering the canyon floor-lay the entrance to a very special cave. Warren promised himself he'd return.
Judge Marianne Lee was a fair and deliberate juvenile judge, and after a brief hearing in the Clement County Courthouse one week after Warren's arrest, she rendered a verdict. The sentence seemed quite severe to Warren, but it was nowhere near as harsh as what the Finleys had demanded.
The Finleys' attorney-a whiny, big-city lawyer named Horace Tweedbaum-had declared Warren a menace, a hardened criminal who should be "punished to the fullest extent of the Clement County Penal Code."
While the Finleys and other courtroom spectators looked on, the portly Mr. Tweedbaum argued that Warren should be sent to juvenile detention in the city of Omak, sixty miles away, for the maximum sentence of three years, and undergo psychiatric treatment to address his "dangerous, antisocial tendencies."
Warren and his uncle had hoped to get through the hearing without an attorney. After all, Warren had readily admitted his prank and was eager to set things right. But after the Finleys hired Tweedbaum, Warren's uncle called an attorney, as well. Warren's lawyer was Walt Green, a soft-spoken, grandfatherly man and family friend. Walt was a small-town lawyer and always had been, but he was just as shrewd as the whiny Tweedbaum.
Walt argued that the WaveRunner incident was an immature prank, nothing more. Warren fled from Torch Lake, Walt said, only out of fear of the Finleys and their dogs, and had readily admitted the incident after he was caught.
Horace Tweedbaum ratcheted up the tension in the courtroom by loudly questioning Warren's mental stability and suggesting that he was a "blossoming eco-terrorist and a threat to the community."
"We're all sympathetic to this boy losing his parents and having to live with his uncle in low-income housing," Tweedbaum intoned. "Nevertheless ..."
"What?" Warren cried, leaping to his feet as Walt and Dave pulled him back down. "We do NOT live in low-income housing." No one had ever referred to their lakeside cabin in such a manner, and Warren's face was red. The cabin was small, yeah, but Warren wouldn't have traded it for the Finleys' mega-mansion for anything.
Tweedbaum droned smugly on. "The fact is, Your Honor, most normal boys are busy with sports or other wholesome activities when they're not in school. Young Mr. Wilkes, on the other hand, spends his free time loping around the countryside like a predacious wolf. An eco-terrorist in the making."
"Your Honor," Walt replied. "Branding this young boy a terrorist is way over the line. Let me remind the court that Warren Wilkes is not the first person to express dismay over the Finleys' activities at Torch Lake. Did Warren act without thinking? Yes. Was his stunt childish and ill-advised? Yes. Is Warren Wilkes a terrorist? The assertion is absurd."
Judge Lee called a short break to consider the arguments, and the tension in the hall outside the courtroom was palpable.
The Finleys, Tweedbaum and a few supporters-mostly Finley company employees who had been ordered by Todd Sr. to attend the hearing-conducted themselves with an offended, indignant air, as if Warren had personally assaulted each of them.
On the way back from the drinking fountain Warren passed Todd Jr., who was wearing a Finley company sweatshirt with the firm's slogan: "Substantial Homes for Substantial People," emblazoned across the back.
"You gonna cry when the judge sends you to the slammer, Wilkes?" Junior asked. Warren kept walking and Junior snickered at his back.
Warren, his uncle and a handful of friends and neighbors exited the courthouse and waited on the steps, talking quietly. Warren found it hard to concentrate. The possibility of three years or even three days of juvenile detention made him ill.
After the longest twenty minutes of Warren's life, the bailiff called everyone back into the courtroom and Judge Lee addressed the participants. She smiled at Warren as if she felt sorry for him, but her tone was firm as she delivered her verdict.
"Mr. Wilkes," she said, as Warren got to his feet.
"Based on what I've read and the testimony I've heard, I've decided that you are not a hardened criminal." She cast a sharp, silencing glance at Attorney Tweedbaum as she said this.
"Thank you," Warren replied. Todd Jr. snorted loudly several rows back.
"Do you know what an anomaly is, Mr. Wilkes?"
Warren stared at her, face blank. "Um, I'm not ..."
"An anomaly is an isolated incident or event, a one-time occurrence."
"I'm willing to bet that your prank was an anomaly."
"A stupid scheme that you regret and won't repeat. Am I right, Mr. Wilkes?"
"Yes, Your Honor, absolutely."
Warren was just beginning to feel hopeful, when the judge said, "Still, you damaged private property and might have caused serious physical harm." Both Finleys snorted this time.
"Yes, ma'am," said Warren.
"So I am not inclined to simply let you off the hook."
Warren wasn't sure how to reply to this, but the judge was continuing anyway.
"In lieu of juvenile detention, the court will require you to perform one hundred hours of community service, to be completed by the end of the summer."
Relief was Warren's first reaction. No detention. No Home for Wayward Boys. But then the reality of one hundred hours of community service sank in.
One hundred hours.
That could take weeks. Months. He could feel his summer evaporating.
"In addition, Mr. Wilkes," Judge Lee continued, "you will fully reimburse the Finleys for the damage to their dock and pay for an inspection and any necessary repairs on Todd Finley Jr.'s personal watercraft."
"Yes, ma'am," said Warren. His mouth was dry. Feelings of self-pity overtook him. One hundred hours of community service. One hundred hours.
The judge was talking again, staring right at him. "My only question now, Mr. Wilkes, is what type of community service to assign. Can you help me with that?"
Warren blinked. What type of community service? His brain seemed suddenly incapable of assembling a thought.
"Any ideas, Mr. Wilkes?" the judge asked, shuffling the papers before her.
Warren looked around. Everyone was staring at him. What type of community service?
The silence grew uncomfortable.
No one noticed a sturdy, dark-skinned woman seated at the back of the courtroom, staring at Warren. Black hair. Black eyes. She stared so intently she seemed almost in a trance.
Then, without the faintest idea why he did so, Warren blurted: "I'd like to help out at Ridgecrest Manor, that home for old people."
Todd Jr. snickered and Warren's uncle turned to him with raised eyebrows. But Judge Lee nodded slowly.
"Ridgecrest Manor. Really? Well. Hmmm ... they're always in need of volunteers, that's certainly true." She thumbed through some papers. "And they are on our list. Very well. If they're amenable, you will work at Ridgecrest Manor two hours per day, every weekday, for the next ten weeks, until your hundred hour sentence is served."
The dark-skinned woman near the back of the courtroom relaxed and smiled a faint, small smile.
Warren was stunned at the words that had come from his own mouth. Ridgecrest? he thought. Why did I say that? He didn't know anyone there. He'd never visited. He had no particular interest in healthcare or the elderly. What was I thinking? The judge had asked for his input. He could have requested something outdoors. Picking up trash in a city park would be better than being stuck inside all summer with a bunch of old people. But there it was. He had made his request, the judge had accepted it, and now she was banging her gavel.
"Court adjourned," she said forcefully.
Warren slowly gathered his belongings. His uncle thanked Walt Green. The courtroom was emptying fast but a local reporter was talking to the Finleys, a few rows back.
The Finleys, it seemed, had become sudden celebrities. Not because of Warren's vandalism, but because of the skeleton.
The bones were turning out to be a big deal; such a big deal that Warren's prank had actually received very little attention in the press. It was the only bright spot Warren could see in the entire mess.
Reporters and TV crews from around the state had covered the find, quickly dubbing the skeleton Nine Mile Man, for its proximity to Nine Mile Creek. Forensics experts, archaeologists and paleontologists from various universities had descended on the valley to examine the skeleton, the site and the beautiful stone spear point. Tribal leaders had gotten involved, claiming the skeleton as an ancestor whose remains had to be treated with dignity. Indeed, preliminary tests indicated that the bones were the remains of a Native American man, approximately forty-five years of age. Most likely a member of the local Denelai tribe, he had died sometime around 1590 A.D.
Warren loved Native American history. He'd read a lot about the local tribes and was awed to think the remains he'd discovered belonged to a man, a warrior perhaps, who had hunted and fished in the valley almost 500 years earlier. Of course, as Warren knew, 500 years wasn't that long. According to the oral history of the tribe and archeological evidence, the Denelai Indians had been visiting the Clement for at least 8000 years, journeying up the valley from the mighty Columbia River each spring, to hunt and fish.
In any case, the revelation made Warren want to learn more. It also made him want to protect the beautiful medallion, no matter what.
As it turned out, his decision to hide the medallion inside his peanut butter and jelly sandwich had paid off. He'd been frisked at the police station, and a deputy had peered inside his pack. But it wasn't much of a search. The Clement Valley was a rural community, and the police station didn't have a metal detector or an x-ray machine.
Warren's lunch, along with his other belongings, had been returned to him upon his release. Once home, he'd removed the relic from the sandwich, rinsed it carefully, wrapped it in a handkerchief and buried it under a sea of pennies in a tin box he kept in the bottom drawer of his dresser.
Warren had not told a soul about the medallion, not even his uncle. He felt a twinge of guilt about not turning the relic over to tribal leaders, or archaeologists investigating the find, but something compelled him to keep it secret. He felt that the medallion was his somehow-that he had been meant to find it, and meant to use it.
Warren and Uncle Dave exited the courthouse to find the sun shining and the birds singing. The hearing was over and Warren realized he was starving. And exhausted. He imagined his uncle was tired, too.
Dave Wilkes was silent as they walked toward the parking lot. He was a quiet man to begin with. Usually it was an easy, comfortable quiet they shared, but Warren sensed the tension between them now. He knew there'd be a "discussion" soon.
They were almost to Dave's truck when Todd Finley Sr. emerged from his jumbo SUV and sauntered toward them, smiling.
"I just had to thank you, Wilkes," he said to Warren's uncle. He wore a ball cap imprinted with the Finley company logo, and his cheek bulged with an enormous wad of tobacco.
"Thank me?" Dave replied.
"Darn right," said Finley, as he spit a stream of brown juice onto the sidewalk. "For practically ensuring the success of my Torch Lake Exclusive Gated Community."
Dave offered no reply.
"Up to now, community opinion's been on your side. I admit that. It looked like I might be mired in hearings for years. But now, thanks to your boy's stunt, opinion's changed." He grinned at Warren as he said this. "The town sees you folks for what you are. Extremists. Obstructionists. Impediments to the long-overdue development of this valley."
Dave turned, put his hand on Warren's shoulder and urged him toward the pickup. He clearly had no intention of engaging Finley.
The big man raised his voice and gloated to their backs. "Tide's turned, Wilkes," he called. "And when you step onto your little deck one day soon and marvel at the new neighborhood overlooking Torch Lake, you'll know it was partly your doing." With a chuckle he turned and walked back to his SUV, as Warren and Dave exited the lot.
"That guy has to be the biggest jerk I've ever met," said Dave, as he eased his old truck onto First Avenue.
It was three more days before Warren was able to return to Pipestone Canyon to look for the mysterious cave. The hearing happened on a Friday, and Warren and Dave spent the weekend at home, cleaning the cabin and splitting and stacking firewood. Warren wanted to call his friend Sean, but knew the idea would never fly with Uncle Dave.
"Let's take a break," said Dave. It was Saturday afternoon and they'd been splitting Ponderosa Pine rounds for three solid hours. Warren set down his maul (a Stihl brand with a hickory handle and 6.6 lb hardened steel head that he kept razor sharp) and Dave tossed him a soda from the cooler. Together they stepped to the edge of the deck.
Workers were busy repairing the Finleys' dock and the din of nail guns and power saws filled the air. Dave was an excellent carpenter and had called Todd Finley Sr. after the prank with an offer to repair the dock himself. His offer had been summarily dismissed.
"I can't just let this slide, Warren," said Dave, staring at the Finley compound. "Your dad was tough. Gentle, but tough. He'd expect consequences."
"I'm doing community service," said Warren softly.
"Consequences above and beyond what the judge assigned."
"It's not like anybody got hurt," said Warren, regretting the comment as soon as it was out of his mouth.
"No," said Dave sharply, "but someone could have been." He glared at the boy. "Are you gettin' the message here?"
"Yes, I just ..."
"Junior coulda wound up with a broken neck. Nephew-you trespassed. You vandalized private property. I can't just let it go."
"I know." Warren swallowed. "What about no TV for the summer? I mean, you know, on top of the community service."
Dave laughed. "You barely watch TV. It's hardly a punishment."
"I play video games with Sean sometimes," said the boy. "I could give up video games."
Uncle Dave looked Warren in the eye. "I was thinking no hiking. Or fishing. For the summer."
Warren's heart nearly stopped. He couldn't imagine a worse punishment.
"What if I split the whole cord of new wood myself?" he asked. "Then you'd have time to put up that fence around back. You didn't think you'd be able to get to that, remember?"
Dave considered it.
"No video games, either," Warren added.
"Willing to give up anything but the outdoor stuff, huh?" Dave shook his head. "Just like your old man."
The boy waited.
"Deal," said Dave at last, with a sigh.
They stood quietly, gazing at the lake. The air was warm. Fragrant. Bees buzzed around the cherry trees below the deck.
After a couple of minutes, Dave said, "Just learn from this, okay Warren? Learn from it. Think about it. And then move on."
"I will," said the boy.
"You're a good kid. I'm still proud of you-and I know your mom and dad would be, too."
"Thanks," said Warren. Tears welled in his eyes and he turned and began stacking the wood he'd just chopped.
* * *
Later, during an evening walk along the trail overlooking the lake, Warren told his uncle more about the flight from the Finleys and the fact that he had discovered the skeleton first. He left out the part about the medallion.
Walking back to the cabin, as the last traces of a fiery sunset faded behind the snowy cascades, they paused and stared down at Torch Lake. It was hard to ignore the Finley compound and illegally cleared acres. But even with those scars, the lake was beautiful.
"What do you think will happen?" asked Warren.
Dave shook his head. "A lot of people are upset with the Finleys' plans, Warren. A lot of people are fighting them. Not many locals want to see 275 new mini-mansions and golf courses covering these hills. People know a development like that will change everything-not just Torch Lake, but the entire valley."
"Can we win?" Warren asked. "Can we stop them?"
"I don't know," said Dave. "Finley has money, power, connections. The people fighting him have passion and ... passion." He laughed. "A fierce love for this place. We're sure as heck gonna try."
Later that night, Warren lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and listening to music on his iPod. He listened to a few songs, then scrolled to a different track. A special track. The "Frog Track," he called it. He pushed "play" and heard outdoor sounds: insects buzzing, birds singing. There were pops and hisses that gave the recording a homemade feel.
"Grrrruuuup. Grrrruuuup. Grrrruuuup," croaked the frog. Warren laughed. This recording had made him laugh since he was a toddler.
"This is Rana Cascadae, or Cascades Frog," whispered a man, as Warren mouthed the species name in sync with the speaker. The man sounded excited and a little out of breath. "Rana Cascadae lays its eggs in streams from March to June ..."
"... And prefers alpine meadows like this one," whispered Warren.
"And prefers alpine meadows like this one," said the man. The voice on the tape belonged to Eric Wilkes, Warren's father.
There was an edit in the recording and when the speaker resumed, he was talking at normal volume. "Okay, so, again, that was Rana Cascadae, which is an endangered species. Very cool sound. Very cool little critter. It is May 12th, and I'm here in Ross Meadow in the North Cascades along with my stunningly gorgeous assistant, Goddess of Forest and Mountain ..."
A woman giggled in the background.
"... Ms. Lisa Wilkes."
Lisa was Warren's mom. He heard her lean into the microphone, a smile in her voice. "That is not very scholarly."
"Guess I'll get an "F" then," Eric Wilkes replied.
The recording hissed. Lisa said, "Eric. Hey! The baby's kicking again."
There was a CLUNK. It sounded to Warren like his dad dropped the microphone.
"He's kicking!" said Lisa. "Put your hand here. Feel that. He's strong."
"Wait," said Eric, moving closer. "How do you know he's a he? Hey. Whoa! I felt it. Oh my gosh. I felt it!"
"Moms just know these things," said Lisa. "That's my guess, anyway."
Warren smiled. He was the baby they were talking about-still in the womb when the recording was made.
Warren's uncle had told him the story behind the recordings. His dad had taken a sound-design class in college and loved it. He bought a recorder and started recording birds and animals when he was in the field-for fun. As a national park ranger he was in the field a lot, and by the time he died, he'd amassed quite a collection of North Cascades sounds.
Warren liked the wildlife recordings, but it was the tapes featuring his parents' voices that he most treasured. By all accounts, Lisa Wilkes had enjoyed her husband's hobby as much as he did, and they could often be heard joking or whispering excitedly as they waited for a certain bird call, or for wolves to resume howling on a moonlit night.
Warren thought of the tapes as a link to his past. Nearly all the pictures of his family had been destroyed in the Lookout Fire. But his dad had kept the tapes in a storage locker in town. Warren's uncle retrieved them after the funerals, transferred them to a computer and gave the digital files to Warren when he was old enough to understand their significance.
Warren never told any of his friends about the recordings-not even Sean-and he didn't listen to them often. But sometimes he just needed to hear the youthful, happy voices on those tapes. Invariably they cheered him; left him with a sense of belonging, of roots and connection. Something he craved.
Warren once wished his dad had made videos instead of audio recordings, but then he decided he liked the audio better because the audio forced him to conjure scenes and situations in his mind, to picture his parents tracking animals in the field and imagine their faces and smiles.
His parents were laughing again on the tape.
"Okay," said Eric Wilkes. "I'm holding the microphone next to Lisa's tummy. Quiet please. This is your chance, Little Norman. Is there anything you'd like to say to the audience?"
"Norman?" laughed Lisa Wilkes. "You are not naming my son Norman."
"Why not? Perfectly respectable name. Norman was my great-great-grandfather's name."
Both of Warren's parents were howling with laughter now. "I'm so happy for your great-great-grandfather," said Lisa. "Don't even think about it."
Warren turned off the player, removed his headphones, and shut out his light. Smiling, he drifted off to sleep.
It was the last peace he would know for a very long time.
Monday morning dawned bright and clear. Warren's uncle talked as he moved about the kitchen, preparing to leave for work. "You need to be at Ridgecrest at two."
"You gonna ride your bike down there?"
"Also," his uncle continued, "you need to feed your chickens and take the garbage can to the road."
"Yep. I'll split a couple of rounds, too," said Warren.
"Wear your safety glasses."
"And hold the maul like I showed you."
"I know. I will."
Uncle Dave looked at him, waiting for more. He could tell Warren had plans.
"And then, if it's okay," said the boy rather quickly, "Sean and I are gonna ride bikes up to the creek, maybe build a fort or something."
Dave Wilkes nodded. "Looks like a good day for it. Just make sure you pay attention to the time. You have to be at Ridgecrest by two. Better yet, 1:45-since it's your first day." He gave Warren a hug, and left for work.
One hour later, chores finished, Warren donned his helmet, slung his backpack over his shoulder and left his house by bike.
Next door, Mrs. Finley stood at her massive kitchen window and watched him go. "I can't believe that young delinquent is being allowed out already," she said, "without supervision."
Todd Jr. leapt up from the breakfast table, dropping his butter knife and abandoning half a pan of cinnamon rolls. He stepped to the window and followed his mother's gaze.
"Wilkes," he growled, lips coated with frosting. In another moment he was donning a jacket and stepping into hiking boots.
"Where do you think you're going?" his mother sputtered, as Junior grabbed a water bottle and a daypack off a hook by the door. "Todd Junior!"
But he was gone. The deck door slammed behind him.
Sean Gibson was Warren's best friend and a natural-born athlete. Warren was the better long-distance runner, but Sean was good at baseball, soccer and basketball. They'd skied together since age three.
As they'd done hundreds of times before, Warren and Sean met at the junction of Nine Mile Creek Road and State Route 3. Sean lived with his parents and two older sisters in a remodeled farmhouse on ten acres below the ridge. He was waiting at the junction, grinning, when Warren rode up.
"Did Junior really do a flip in midair?" Sean asked, as he and Warren pedaled away from the junction and followed the gravel road toward Nine Mile Creek. Warren had been trying to put the whole WaveRunner episode out of his mind, but his friend's eyes were sparkling with glee. He clearly wanted to hear the story.
"Yeah. He looked like one of those breaching whales on the Nature Channel." Both boys laughed. Warren's tone changed. "I thought maybe your folks wouldn't let you come over, since, you know, since I got in trouble."
Sean answered as they rode forward, side by side. They could hear Nine Mile Creek now, rushing and roaring up ahead in the clearing beyond the trees. "My mom still loves you. My sisters still think you're an irritating twerp. My dad said your punishment sounded fair, even though he can't stand the Finleys either. What time do you have to be at the Old Farts' Home, anyway?"
"Two o'clock," Warren answered, as they dropped their bikes in a roadside pullout and jogged the short distance to Nine Mile Creek. They bounded into the meadow Warren had entered a week earlier to find the soft earth crisscrossed with vehicle tracks. Stakes and fluorescent orange ribbon formed a large rectangle in the grass on the far side of the stream.
"That must be where Todd Jr. discovered the skeleton," said Sean in a hushed, almost reverent tone.
Warren sighed. "Junior didn't find the skeleton. I did."
"You did? But, how ..."
"I'll tell you the whole thing on the way to Pipestone," said Warren.
"We're going to Pipestone Canyon?"
"Yeah, to explore a really cool cave."
"What cave?" said Sean. "Where is it?"
"I'm not exactly sure, but it's really cool."
Warren ran now-back toward the bikes-and Sean dashed after him, laughing for no reason, eager to keep pace.
It was 9:30 AM when the boys approached the mysterious side passage deep within Pipestone Canyon State Park on foot. Bikes weren't allowed in Pipestone, so they'd stashed them in the brush near the park entrance.
They'd passed two hikers on the way in, but no one was on the trail now.
Warren scanned the steep slopes around them. No one there.
He'd told Sean the entire WaveRunner story: about the monkey wrenching, and his flight into the hills; about how he'd discovered the skeleton, and how he was caught.
He'd left out the part about the medallion, but now felt it was time to reveal the secret to his friend.
"Sean. Come over here. Under the trees."
Sean followed him to the little grove where Ranger McCorliss had stood ten days earlier. Warren removed a small felt pouch from his pocket (he'd borrowed the pouch from his marble collection) and held it in his open hand, feeling the weight of the medallion inside. It was surprisingly heavy.
"What is it?" Sean asked.
"Sean, you have to swear not to tell anyone."
"I'll show you what's in the pouch, but you have to swear not to tell anyone what you see."
"Fine. I swear," said Sean irritably. "Is this a joke?"
Warren shook his head. "Huh uh. I found this with the skeleton."
Slowly, painstakingly, he removed the medallion from the pouch. The blue gems sparkled in the morning light. The gold looked freshly polished and the obsidian gleamed. Sean gasped.
"Whoa. Was-was this really with the skeleton?"
Warren nodded. "What do you think?"
Sean stared some more. "Can I hold it?"
"Sure. Just don't touch the black stone in the middle."
"Just don't. It's all ... polished."
Sean lifted the relic carefully and turned it this way and that, mesmerized. "The news," he said slowly, "said the skeleton is around 500 years old. The Indians who lived here then ... they didn't have metal."
"This one did," said Warren.
Sean laughed without taking his eyes off the medallion. "But where did he get it? What did he use this for?"
"I have no idea," said Warren. "Maybe he wore it. Maybe he was a powerful chief and got it in trade from the Incas. They had metal."
Sean frowned. "The Incas lived 6000 miles from here."
Warren shrugged and held out his hand. Sean handed the medallion back.
"You can probably sell that for a million dollars," Sean said quietly. "My mom used to own a jewelry store, you know. She could ..."
"You can't tell anyone about this, remember? Not even your mom."
"I know," said Sean. "I won't. I'm just saying ..."
Warren slung his pack over his shoulder and headed for the side canyon, questioning now his decision to show Sean the medallion. He placed the relic in his pocket without putting it back in its pouch and pressed his thumb firmly against the black stone. The stone he'd asked Sean not to touch. He had a feeling about that black, polished obsidian.
The medallion felt warm as he walked. Sean was talking again, but Warren didn't hear him. He pressed the black stone harder, and then the picture came into his mind once more; fully formed, like a crisp snapshot you've seen so many times you've committed it to memory. The picture was of a cleft between two massive boulders; the same image he'd received ten days earlier.
They entered the winding side canyon and Sean noticed a billowy cloud drifting slowly overhead. "Rain comin'," he said, as they jogged along the meandering, gradually ascending trail.
The canyon was littered with boulders the size of dump trucks. Warren's uncle had told him the boulders were souvenirs from the Ice Age. Glacial Erratics, he'd called them.
When the mile-thick Cordilleran Ice Sheet retreated from the area 16,000 years earlier, so the story went, the boulders (some of which had traveled hundreds of miles on or in the ice) tumbled from the receding sheet and nestled in the soil, becoming part of the landscape.
They jogged on, climbing steadily on the well-worn trail. And Warren began to despair. There were so many boulders. How would he find the ones that matched the picture in his mind? Also, he was viewing everything from the trail. What if the "picture" was from a different angle?
He stopped so abruptly Sean almost ran into him.
"What's wrong?" Sean asked. "What is it?"
Warren was staring at the north wall of the canyon, some 300 yards distant. There, tucked into the soil, rested two school bus-size boulders. Oblong and rounded at each end, they resembled blimps parked nose to nose.
"The cave. It's up there," said Warren.
Sean stared, then looked at his friend. "Up there? How do you know?"
Warren shrugged. "I just know." He studied the boulders. Differences existed between what he was actually seeing and the Technicolor picture in his mind. In reality, a small grove of aspen trees stood between the trail and the boulders. There weren't any trees in his mind's eye. And in real life the boulders looked slightly smaller, more worn, smoother and even more buried within the hill. But the discrepancies were minor. These were the boulders, and somewhere up there was the entrance to a cave. Warren's heart thumped.
The ground leading up to the massive stones was steep but hikeable. Indeed, Warren thought he could almost discern a path to the behemoths, though if it was a path, it was fainter than a game trail. The average hiker wouldn't have given it a second glance.
Warren shut his eyes. The snapshot in his mind contained a path and stairs to the cleft between the great stones. Smooth, level stairs, cut into the slope. But if the stairs had ever really existed, they were gone now; and not even a trace of them remained. Warren darted eagerly forward, then stopped and looked around. "Let's make sure there's no one else," he said.
Sean nodded. His friend's behavior was a little odd, but he was intrigued. Warren seemed so convinced of the cave's existence, Sean believed it was there, as well. Or perhaps he just wanted to believe. In any case, he was as eager as Warren to reach the boulders, and Warren's cloak-and-dagger tactics were only adding to the suspense.
Warren studied the upper canyon; the winding trail, the cliff walls and rim far above. He could see no one. He turned and joined Sean in scoping out the route they'd just hiked. Again, not a soul. Of course, there were hundreds of places someone could hide. Warren wasn't worried about that. It didn't occur to him that someone might be following. He was concerned that a casual hiker or runner might see them making for the boulders and become curious, and for reasons he couldn't articulate, he wanted to keep the route secret.
A towering thunderhead drifted over the canyon rim.
"Better get up there," said Sean. He turned and began climbing.
Warren followed, then stopped. A flicker of movement on the trail far below caught his eye.
The thunderhead drifted in front of the sun and the canyon fell into shadow. Warren stared at the distant path, winding among the stones and aspen groves like a great snake.
Perhaps he'd seen a deer or coyote. In any case, nothing was moving down there now.
Warren turned and followed his friend.
* * *
Five hundred yards below, near the entrance to the side canyon, an out-of-breath, scowling Todd Finley, Jr. crouched behind a bush and watched Warren and Sean through binoculars.
The Clement County Juvenile Court had settled on a punishment for Warren's WaveRunner vandalism, but Junior wasn't satisfied. He had every intention of making Warren pay again.
It took Warren and Sean fifteen minutes to reach the cleft between the boulders. The way was steep, and they paused twice to rest.
The parade of heavy clouds continued overhead, and the canyon went from bright to dim; bright to dim. Over and over-like a time-lapse nature film.
At the moment, the sun was blazing, and the boys stood in the shadow of the great stones. Warren stared in wonder. There was a curious symmetry about the place; as if the two great, rounded behemoths had been intentionally set end to end.
Warren reached the boulders first, placed his hand on the smooth, cool surface of the stone on the right, and stepped directly into the mysterious cleft. It took several seconds for his eyes to adjust.
Gazing up, Warren saw that the boulders did not quite touch. Two feet overhead they almost kissed, but not quite. The gap between the rounded ends of the dirigibles of stone was about three inches, he guessed.
As he looked at the cool shaded nooks backed by the steeply sloping canyon wall, it occurred to Warren that the boulders were like icebergs; only part of their mass was visible. A huge portion of each stone remained hidden under millions of tons of soil, of canyon wall.
The nooks under the boulders were pleasant, cool spaces-good place to wait out a thunderstorm, Warren thought. Indeed, the remains of a small wood fire could be seen in one of the recesses, and the smooth surface of the curving rock above it was black with soot, so black that Warren suspected many fires had occurred there over the decades, or centuries.
"Well, it's kind of a cave," said Sean, peering around. "Anyway, it's a great fort."
Warren stared at the opposite canyon wall and the trail they'd just hiked, then turned back to the rocks. He was puzzled. "I thought it would be a real cave, you know. This is just an overhang ..."
"View's great, though," said Sean, looking out. "Easy to defend. We can see our enemies coming for miles."
Warren smiled. He was disappointed because they hadn't found a cave, but Sean's eternally bright attitude cheered him up. He and Sean had played army together since kindergarten, and even now, at thirteen, a good fort always sparked their imaginations.
A drop of water landed on Warren's cheek, and he looked up, as another big thunderhead drifted into position over the canyon.
"It's not a cave at all," said Warren, more to himself than to Sean. "Just rocks with little nooks underneath, open to the sky."
Sean was quiet for a minute, then, as gently as he could, said, "Warren, think about it. A real cave, it woulda been discovered a long time ago. It'd be sealed, or if it was really big, they'd have guided tours and a ranger station and stuff."
"Yeah," said Warren, "you're probably right." He recalled the picture that had flashed in his mind-the crisp snapshot of the two boulders. There was not actually a cave entrance in his mental picture, just a feeling that an entrance lay hidden somewhere in the shadows. Just a feeling.
More raindrops. Warren and Sean crouched under the sloping, arching mass of one boulder. Looking up, Warren could see raindrops falling through the narrow gap between the two behemoths. Wonder seized him.
Rain and snow must have fallen through that gap for centuries, he thought. There was something hypnotic about the gap; that tiny, three-inch corridor of air and light and shadow, something powerful about the way it separated the identical twins of stone.
"It's like the force that keeps two magnets apart when you try to push them together," whispered Warren.
"Huh? What are you talking about?" said Sean, who was gulping trail mix from a Ziploc bag. He stared at his friend.
Warren removed the medallion from his pocket and raised it through the gently falling rain, into the narrow gap, then gasped as the relic leapt from his hand and clicked into position in midair-exactly halfway between the rounded ends of the great stones. He lowered his hand slowly, and the medallion stayed where it was, hovering, spinning steadily. A glittering golden wheel.
... continued ...
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