Session #6 Assignment – Putting It All Together – 2500 words

This assignment was to submit 2500 words of my short story or novel. This can be from the beginning, from the middle, or from the end, but be sure to specify which you’ve chosen. OR submit a complete short story of 2500 words or less.

BTW, on my planet, 2500 words = 4200 words.  

I submitted two versions to the instructor — the 4200-word complete, or nearly so, chapter, and the last half of it to meet the word limit.

I think this piece will be the prologue or Chapter 1 of the book.

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Original submission:  (4200 words — the excerpt I submitted for the 2500 word limit is in Orange.

Summer’s last, scorching gasp had been lingering for weeks on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.  Into mid-October, the wildfire hazard threat in the foothills remained Very High, as spelled out in large, bright orange lettering on the sign in front of the Cold Ridge ranger station.

Azalia had seen the sign–U.S. Forest Service, Cold Ridge, California–upon reaching the station almost two hours into her ride.   Cold Ridge my ass, she thought, wiping the noonday heat from her sweaty brow.  She slowed Loki’s pace as they passed the small cabin that served as the rangers’ office and quarters.  She didn’t want to appear as if she was a hurry, or do anything else to call attention to herself, for that matter. 

No law in sight, to her relief. If the ranger was around, surely there would have been questions-she was in the wilderness, on horseback, alone.  And she was not a convincing liar.   She urged Loki into a more energetic walk, and then, once the ranger station was out of sight behind her, into a brisk trot. 

Later, with a comfortable distance between her and the ranger station, Azalia allowed herself to relax.  She geared Loki down to a restful, lazy walk, his footfalls smooth and cadenced, hindquarters relaxed and swinging.    She felt herself being lulled into a half-doze by the hazy, Indian summer sun baking her cheeks and arms, her saddle rocking hypnotically in rhythm with Loki’s motion.  She had been riding for two and a half hours, and her butt had melted into the buttery, well-worn seat of her saddle. 

The trail began to slope upward as they moved onto the ridge, and the horse quickened his step slightly to meet the challenge of the grade.  Roused by Loki’s voluntary acceleration, Azalia reached for the plastic water bottle hanging from her saddle horn and took a long swig.  We’re getting close, she thought. She needed to wake up. She sat up straight and twisted at her waist from side to side, then kicked her feet out of the stirrups and wiggled her ankles.

Leaning slightly over Loki’s neck, she patted him and spoke softly, an encouraging lilt in her voice. “Almost there, boy. Keep your fingers crossed.” The mustang responded with a head shake and a sputtering blow through his lips. Fingers–funny, he seemed to giggle. Azalia patted him again and laughed, silently thanking The Great Whoever for sending her a horse with a sense of humor.

The nervous anticipation that woke her early that morning had been temporarily blanketed by the long ride.  Now, as her destination neared, Azalia was feeling it again.  Giant butterfly wings were flapping her insides into near-nausea, and countless what-ifs were bouncing around inside her head like tennis balls on crack. To calm her stomach, she pulled out a tortilla from a ziploc in her saddlebag, tore off a half and stuffed it into her mouth.  Chewing slowly, she made a mental list of everything she hoped to accomplish before nightfall, then mulled over the events of the past week to assure herself she hadn’t forgotten anything. 

 

Six days ago, Azalia had taken Loki out for an all-day conditioning ride in preparation for an upcoming 50-mile race.  His speed over long distances wasn’t great-yet.  But, with her care and riding skills, supported by the mentorship of an experienced endurance rider, he had developed nicely in general trail ability and stamina.  He was sound, sane, and healthy.  In keeping with the mantra of the long distance rider-to finish is to win-the young mustang was nearly ready for his first race.

Typical for the time of year, the temperature had risen to the low 90s by the mid-afternoon end of that training session.  Remembering a small creek she had spotted during a similar ride a few months back, Azalia had decided to take Loki over the ridge to see if the creek was still there.   Her little mustang loved a good splash-fest, and she was dying to cool off herself.

They had scrambled up a steep incline to the top of the ridge.  Azalia saw the stream flowing weakly below, about 100 yards west of her vantage point.  “Woo-hoo!  Wanna go swimming, Loki?”  The horse reacted to the encouragement in her voice by launching himself over the edge of the ridge.   Azalia leaned back, fingers barely touching the very end of her reins, to give Loki the freedom and balance he needed to negotiate the steep downhill slope.  The ride was bouncy, twisty, and fast-she imagined the motion to be something like riding the shoulders of a snow skier careening down a Black Diamond mogul trail.

As they reached the base of the hill, Azalia steered Loki west toward the stream.  He volunteered an easy lope, clearly looking forward to reaching the water.  As they neared the creek’s edge, Azalia jumped down, removed Loki’s saddle and put it on the ground.  She then took off his bridle and replaced it with a halter and lead rope.  She led him down the edge of the stream to a patch of grass, and then let the rope fall freely. She had trained her horse to ground tie, so she knew Loki would stay put near the shallow water as long as the grass lasted.  Or, he would venture in, smacking the water hard with his front hooves to splash himself. 

Satisfied that Loki was enjoying his break, Azalia headed upstream, looking for deeper spot in the creek to douse herself.  Ahead, she saw a slender waterfall, the creek’s obvious source, flowing from high up the granite face of the ridge, out of an opening that indicated a natural spring.  A large granite boulder, about ten feet high and at least as wide, sat a few feet to the left of the waterfall.  She walked through the shallow water toward the boulder, splashing her face, neck and arms as she went.  When she was next to the boulder, she saw that it was positioned a few feet in front of the rock face of the hillside.  Looking behind it, she saw that it was partially obstructing a large, single door-sized opening in the rock.   An entrance?  To a cave?  Cool!

She ventured a few feet inside the opening, but with the afternoon sun dropping and no flashlight handy, she knew she had only enough time to take a quick look around.  Sufficient time though, as it turned out, to stumble over something half-buried in the stagnant muck that covered the cave floor. She squatted over the something, peering through the dimming light to make out what it was. 

Not a forensic anthropologist by any stretch, Azalia was nevertheless able to identify the object.  She had taken human physiology during her senior year in high school.  She had watched plenty of CSI episodes.  She was looking at the bony remains of a human pelvis. 

At first, the bone creeped her out, but soon her curiosity took over.  After a few moments of troweling the mud with her fingers, she had freed the thing from the slimy muck.  She poked around the spot a bit more, and discovered a length of gold chain and a handful of silver coins. 

Leave them?  Take them?   Easy call.  She hurried out to the spot where she had dropped Loki’s tack, grabbed her saddlebag, and then ran into the dark space.  No light to examine the items more carefully, so she placed them, muck and all, in a large pocket of the saddlebag and zippered it shut.

She and Loki had made it back to the D-Bar-K a couple hours after sundown.  She quickly but carefully hid her discoveries near Loki’s stall and hightailed it back to the group home just in time to make curfew.

Since that day, Azalia had been waiting for her next full day off from work—today–to go back to the cavern and take another, longer look.  She had spent most of her non-working time during those six days studying maps and reading Gold Rush history.   Then, yesterday, on the way to her morning shift at the casino, she had stopped by to see her great-uncle Charlie.  She told him what she had found on her first venture into the cave, but not exactly where it was.  He shared with her his breakfast of Cocoa Puffs floating in fat-free milk.  When he had finished eating, he sat silently, his eyes closed.  After a few moments, he opened his eyes and began to speak. 

Chan Li Shun was a young man who emigrated from China to San Francisco in the mid-1840s.  By 1850, he had begun to make a decent living in the Sierra gold fields as a laborer and water witcher. 

On one occasion, Chan was hired by a homesteader to find water.  His willow sticks crossed at a certain spot, and that is where the digging of the well began.    When the depth of hole had reached about 15 feet, the diggers’ spades hit solid rock.  A large slab of quartz had halted the digging. The homesteader became angry and threatening toward Chan, because the diggers could not break through the rock with their shovels.  They would have to locate water in a different spot and try again.

The homesteader’s anger was short-lived, however.  A wide vein of gold was seen running through the quartz.  The homesteader was able to extract much gold just from the exposed face of the rock, and gave Chan an ounce of it as payment for the witching.  Soon after, Chan was hired by a miner to find gold at the site of the miner’s claim.  Chan witched the claim, and found several large nuggets.  Again he was paid in gold for his work. 

Chan’s services quickly came into great demand-so great that he was able to raise his price.  By 1852, he had amassed a small fortune by the standards of the day – almost $5000 worth of pure gold.  That amount would be worth over $300,000 in present day money.  

Chan took as his wife a beautiful local Miwok woman named Liluye.  Liluye gave birth to a sweet baby daughter.  Chan was very happy—he had a family, a home, wealth.  But one day, he came home from his work to find his wood cabin burned halfway to the ground, the charred bodies of his wife and baby inside.  The strong boxes containing his gold were gone.  He was consumed with grief and rage, but he knew better than to seek help from local officials of the law—they were weak and solicitous men, known to accept bribes and turn a blind eye to various misdoings.  True law enforcement was virtually non-existent, particularly for the non-white communities in the gold region.    Chan vowed to find and kill the person responsible for the brutal crimes committed against him and his family.

Chan spent several days moving clandestinely from one camp to the next, blending in with the other Chinese whenever possible, watching and listening. Fortunately, his name was much more well-known than his face and he was able to move around freely without being recognized.  At last he came across a rumor-a drunk miner had been bragging about a great fortune, $5000 in gold that he had come upon “by accident of good luck.”  Chan found the miner and followed him to his home claim.  He waited in hiding there until the miner left the claim the next morning.  Looking inside the man’s tent, he first saw his strong boxes.  Then he saw Liluye, sleeping peacefully under a pile of quilts.    He left without action at that point, and followed the miner’s trail.  He came upon the man just outside of the main camp, and killed him. 

It is said that Chan rushed back to the miner’s home claim, grabbed Liluye and his gold, and disappeared.  After a few days, some miners came upon Chan’s homestead.  They found the bodies of a woman and child in the charred remains of the cabin. Chan and the gold had vanished. 

Several weeks later, Chan’s corpse was discovered at the base of a waterfall near Cold Ridge, several miles from his homestead.  Two severed hands, right and left, delicate and small like a woman’s, were found in a pocket of his jacket.  No other remains of the woman, who was presumed to be his wife Liluye, were ever found.

Nor was the gold.

Charlie had fallen silent after he finished.  Azalia was sincerely moved by the tragic story, but even more enthralled by the prospect of $300,000 in pure gold hidden somewhere near “her” cavern.  She asked him to give her a special medicine bag.  She told him she wanted to use it to heal the spirits of the Chan family and send them to their rest.

She had another reason that she kept to herself, naturally.  If I help the spirits, maybe they will lead me to the gold.  She hoped that wise old Charlie wasn’t able to read her.  But he did as she asked, producing a small beaded pouch like the one he had given her awhile back. He also told her the instructions she had to follow when filling and placing the bag.  She guessed that the colors of red and green used in the pouch’s beadwork had meaning, but she didn’t ask what it was.   Charlie looked sad, weary of speaking. 

Azalia didn’t believe in much of the old Native crap, except for the healing and protective power of the medicine bag.  She had listened intently to Charlie’s instructions and taken notes.  Then, last night after work, she had collected the items Charlie had listed.  They were now safely tucked inside a zippered compartment in the large main pocket of her saddlebag.

 

Finally, Azalia was back at the waterfall. 

She left Loki on the opposite side of the stream in roughly the same spot as before, ground tied and contentedly grazing.  She had kept him tacked up, but loosened the cinch around his belly.  She didn’t expect to need more than a couple of hours in the cave.  And if he needed her, he would call for her.

She pulled the saddlebag off the horn of her saddle and trotted to the entrance of the cave.  Before going inside, she bent down and looked around on the ground for a totem.  She picked up a piece of quartz the size of a kidney bean.

Next, she took out of the saddlebag the items she needed for the smudging ceremony—a small clay bowl, sage leaves tied in a bundle, and a box of matches.   She crumbled the leaves into the bowl, struck a match, and touched the flame to the leaves.  She let them burn for a moment and then gently blew out the flame.  Smoke from the smoldering pile of leaves wafted over her, spinning upward in the tail of a breeze. 

She moved her hands through the smoke as a ceremonial washing, and then fanned the smoke toward her face and ears, then over her heart and head.  Next, she pulled the headlamp onto her forehead, turned it on and, carrying the clay bowl, entered the cavern. 

As she turned her head, the light of the headlamp filled the dark space, which was smaller than the impression she had taken with her after her first visit.  Solid granite walls, green muck in stagnant puddles forming the floor.    She walked in farther and smudged the entire cave, then placed the clay bowl, the sage still smoldering, on a large flat slab of granite.  The smell of the smoke was comforting to Azalia, a scent of living nature.  She sat next to the bowl, pleased with herself.   I did a smudging ceremony.  All by myself.

She looked down, the lamplight directed by the movement of her head.  She stopped when she saw a glint of metal several feet away.  She tiptoed through the sludge, keeping the light trained on the shiny object.  As she neared it, her knees buckled under her and she landed hard on her butt.

A face.  Or what was left of a face.  A toothy grin, empty eye sockets, a hole where a nose had been.  A skull, partially buried in the mud, glowing green and yellow in the beam from Azalia’s headlamp.  A lost Halloween decoration in search of a front porch.

Immobilized, Azalia could do nothing at first except stare.  Then after a few moments, her shock was replaced by something else–an intense combination of fascination, fear, giddiness, excitement.    She started to giggle, then clamped a mucky hand over her mouth.  Am I getting hysterical?

Azalia had learned deep breathing from one of her therapists, and had practiced it so diligently that it had become a reflex response whenever she felt the onset of panic.  She took a deep breath through her nose into her belly, held it there for a few counts, then exhaled slowly out through her mouth.  A few repetitions later, she felt her senses begin to return. She stood and stepped tentatively toward the smiling face in the mud.  She walked all the way around it, moving her head slowly, up and down and side to side, maintaining the headlamp’s bead on it as she scanned.

Then Azalia’s light reflected brightly back to her, and she remembered the metal object that had caught her eye just before she met the Face.  The object looked to be made of silver, a small cylinder of some sort.  With the smiling skull looking on, she picked up the object and turned it over in her hand.  There was a heavy chain attached.  Jewelry?  There was nothing about silver jewelry in Charlie’s story.  Then she remember the coins she had found on her first trip to the cavern.  No mention of silver coins, either.

Azalia turned her attention back to the skull.  She had found Liluye, she was certain.  She tugged the hem of her T-shirt out of her jeans and used it to wipe the skull as clean as she could get it.  As her hands moved gently over the skull, she was suddenly overcome by sorrow—for Chan, Liluye, the baby girl.   Even for the mystery woman—the body in Chan’s burnt home that he had initially thought was his wife’s. 

What really happened, Liluye?  Azalia stared into the empty orbital sockets.

The answer came to her, but not in words.  In an overpowering, bad feeling.   Sometime terrible was about to happen.  Fighting a sudden, strong impulse to get the hell out of there, Azalia quickly untied the knot of the purple bandanna she wore as a sweatband, and wrapped the bandanna around the skull.  She then tucked her shirt back into her jeans and stuffed the purple-wrapped thing down the front of her shirt.  Her saddlebag would not be large enough to carry it.

Then an odd idea popped into Azalia’s somewhat rattled brain.  It had come from something that Charlie had once told her–that an individual’s medicine bag was sacred to that person and its powers intended only for that person’s use. She felt strongly there was some sort of bad medicine at work here in the darkening cavern.  A curse maybe?  Perhaps it had originated with Chan himself.  In any event, the medicine bag she had acquired to give rest to the Chan family, with its standard, generic totems for healing and protection, didn’t seem powerful enough to her now.  

But Azalia knew her own, sacred medicine bag was sufficiently powerful.  It had protected and healed her many times over.  She had personally selected its totems and knew their specific magic.   Perhaps she should …

From outside, she heard Loki nicker, a soft ha-ha-ha sound coming from deep within his throat.  Come on.  Time to go.  He was right, as usual. The sun had dropped below the ridge and it would be dusk within a couple of hours. 

Azalia made her decision, and acted quickly.    She removed her medicine bag from her neck and touched it to her heart.  Then, sending a silent prayer to the sky, she hung her pouch on the highest branch she could reach on a digger pine growing next to the creek near the cave entrance. 

She ran back into the cavern and quickly grabbed the silver cylinder with the chain.  She placed it carefully into the Chan medicine bag, and then jammed the beaded pouch inside her bra.  

Just then, Loki nickered again, more energetically this time.   

Azalia emerged from behind the boulder and started to run toward him, then halted in her tracks.  She saw that he wasn’t looking in her direction.  He was looking downstream, in the opposite direction from where she was standing, into the forest on the west end of the ridge.  Her blood turned to ice.  He hadn’t been calling to her at all.  He had been nickering in greeting to someone, or something else.  A someone or something now heading in their direction.

Azalia knew that she mustn’t be seen there.  She still hadn’t found Chan’s gold.  She wanted, needed, to find that gold.  The place had to remain her secret until she did.

Loki, still staring downstream, called out again, this time a loud whinny.  Hi there!  it shouted.

Shit, Loki, quiet!  Azalia stayed at the base of the fall, and, using flat rocks as stepping stones, crossed to the other side of the creek as quickly and quietly as she could.  She didn’t want to splash through the water and create more noise than Loki had already made with his calling.  When she reached the other side of the stream a few seconds later, she let out a low whistle.  Loki trotted up to her like an obedient puppy.  In one fluid movement, she grabbed his lead rope from the ground with her left hand, reached for the horn, and swung herself into the saddle.  Without putting her feet in stirrups, she kissed twice and then gigged him, hard.  He took off.

They galloped straight east, away from the stream, then headed south, bobbing and weaving through the dense growth of pines and cedars.  For a moment Azalia wished Loki was half Arabian.  Or all Arabian. But just for the speed, buddy.  She patted his neck apologetically, and then asked him for more gallop.

 Within a few moments, Azalia could hear the pounding of hooves behind her.  She was growing the distance between from the waterfall but couldn’t be sure that whoever was following hadn’t seen her there.  She wondered if she needed to keep running.  The person pursuing her should be someone she knew, shouldn’t they, since they were coming from the general direction of the D-Bar-K? 

A pop, something like a firecracker going off, followed by an invisible something whizzing past them.  Gunfire?  Panicked, she gigged Loki again, and hunkered low on the saddle as he launched into his fastest gallop just as they broke through the trees and into the open valley.

Azalia knew from her training rides that it took about three minutes at a fast trot to cross the valley and reach the thick forest on the east side.  If she could get them into those trees, it would not be hard to lose their pursuer about a quarter mile in, where there was a deep ravine banked on the near edge by large granite boulders.  Only someone with extensive trail experience, riding a veteran boonie-crasher of a horse, would brave those slippery boulders, much less be able to immediately switch gears to manage the rough sit-slide down into the ravine on the other side. Azalia and Loki were well-equipped for both challenges-repeated practice had seen to that.  She knew if she could get Loki over the boulders and into the ravine, they would be quickly swallowed up in the dense undergrowth of manzanita and brush beyond.  They would be safe from whoever, whatever, was after them.

But first, Azalia had to get Loki through the bounce course just west of the dense forest and its safe cover.   For Loki’s conditioning work, she had set up a course of low jumps, made from long, relatively straight branches set on rocks a foot or so high.  There were four jumps in a row, seven feet between each.  The short space between the jumps required Loki to land on his hind legs before immediately thrusting off with his front–a no-stride jump, or “bounce.” Although he was not destined for a career as a jumper, Loki benefited greatly from the exercise.  It was good for building strength in the horse’s hindquarters and improving his overall balance and coordination.

Loki flew through the bounces easily, as Azalia knew he would.   Free of obstacles, they raced into the east forest.   Azalia felt a rush of relief.  They would make it to the boulders in a few minutes.  She turned around, finally, to try and get a look at her pursuer. 

She did get a good look.  She turned back around, facing forward again, feeling the blood draining from her face.  She stopped thinking, stopped panicking.  She patted Loki on the neck again, knowing this time would be the last.  God, how I love this boy.  Please take care of him for me.

Azalia allowed Loki to continue racing forward toward the boulders.  He knew his job and loved it.  And she had taught him. 

Azalia knew that Loki would make it to the boulders.  Just as surely as she knew that she wouldn’t. 

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Instructor’s feedback:

Carol,

 

Quite nice writing. Very nice material and at a competitive level. That is, you have a chance in this exceedingly difficult marketplace. You have the basic skills. You can refine the writing a little–and easily. Use contractions, avoid repeats, don’t create fragments, and get rid of vague sentence and clause openers such as ‘there were’ and `it was.’ That’s basically what you need to do to raise the level of your writing. If you can do that on your own, you don’t really need a class unless you like the discipline or are concerned about plot points. (I do consulting.)

 

I did open your whole file, and the start looks good. This material though is terrific. You hit a lot of the markers–exotic background (but set in the U.S.), good characterizations, suspense, great stories within your story, spirituality, gold…

 

Let me know if you need a quote for a cover letter, or whatever.

 

Very best with this. miki

 

 

Azalia had been waiting for her next full day off from work—today–to go back to the cavern and take another, longer look.  She had SHE’D spent most of her non-working time during those six days studying maps and reading Gold Rush history.   Then, yesterday, on the way to her morning shift at the casino, she had SHE’D stopped by to see her great-uncle Charlie.  She told him what she had found on her first venture into the cave, but not exactly where it was.  He shared with her his breakfast of Cocoa Puffs floating in fat-free milk.  When he had HE’D finished eating, he sat silently, his eyes closed.  After a few moments, he opened his eyes and began to speak.

 

Chan Li Shun was a young man who emigrated from China to San Francisco in the mid-1840s.  By 1850, he had begun to make a decent living in the Sierra gold fields as a laborer and water witcher. 

On one occasion, Chan was hired by a homesteader to find water.  His willow sticks crossed at a certain spot, and that WHICH is where the digging of the well began. ONE SPACE BETWEEN SENTENCES    When the depth of hole had reached about 15 feet, the diggers’ spades hit solid rock.  A large slab of quartz had halted the digging. The homesteader became angry and threatening toward Chan, because the diggers could not COULDN’T break through the rock with their shovels.  They would have to locate water in a different spot and try again. THESE DAYS EVEN A LARGE QUARTZ CRYSTAL WOULD BE A BIG FIND

The homesteader’s anger was short-lived NO HYPHEN WITH A COMPOUND ADJEECTIVE NOT IN FRONT OF A NOUN OR PRONOUN, however.  A wide vein of gold was seen running through the quartz.  The homesteader was able to extract much SEVERAL OUNCES OF? `MUCH’ IS A LITTLE AWKWARD  gold just from the exposed face of the rock, and gave Chan an ounce of it as payment for the witching.  Soon after, Chan was hired by a miner to find gold at the site of the miner’s claim.  Chan witched the claim, and found several large nuggets.  Again COMMA he was paid in gold for his work. 

Chan’s services quickly came into great demand- A DASH IS AN INSERT SYMBOL `EM’ DASH OR TWO HYPHENS—NO SPACE ON EITHER SIDE so great that he was able to raise his price.  By 1852, he had amassed a small fortune by the standards of the day – almost $5 COMMA 000 worth of pure gold.  That amount would be worth over $300,000 in present HYPHEN day money.  

Chan took as his wife a beautiful local Miwok woman named Liluye.  Liluye gave birth to a sweet baby daughter.  Chan was very happy—YES, GOOD DASH he had a family, a home, wealth.  But one day, he came home from his work to find his wood cabin burned halfway to the ground, the charred bodies of his wife and baby inside.  The strong boxes containing his gold were gone.  He was consumed with grief and rage, but he knew better than to seek help from local LAW officials [of the law]—they were weak and solicitous WRONG WORD men, known to accept bribes and turn a blind eye to various misdoings.  True law enforcement was virtually non-existent, particularly for the non-white communities in the gold region.    Chan vowed to find and kill the person responsible for the brutal crimes committed against him and his family.

Chan spent several days moving clandestinely from one camp to the next, blending in with the other Chinese whenever possible, watching and listening. Fortunately, his name was much more well-known than his face and he was able to move around freely without being recognized.  At last he came across a rumor-a drunk miner had been bragging about a great fortune, $5 COMMA 000 in gold that he had come upon “by accident of good luck.”  Chan found the miner and followed him to his home claim.  He waited in hiding there until the miner left the claim the next morning.  Looking inside the man’s tent, he first saw his strong boxes.  Then he saw HIS WIFE COMMA Liluye, sleeping peacefully under a pile of quilts.    He left without action at that point, and followed the miner’s trail.  He came upon the man just outside of the main camp, and killed him. 

It is said that Chan rushed back to the miner’s home claim, grabbed Liluye and his gold, and disappeared.  After a few days, some miners came upon Chan’s homestead.  They found the bodies of a woman and child in the charred remains of the cabin. Chan and the gold had vanished.

Several weeks later, Chan’s corpse was discovered at the base of a waterfall near Cold Ridge, several miles from his homestead.  Two severed hands, right and left, delicate and small like a woman’s, were found in a pocket of his jacket.  No other remains of the woman, who was presumed to be his wife Liluye, were ever found.

Nor was the gold.

Charlie had fallen silent after he finished.  Azalia was sincerely moved by the tragic story, but even more enthralled by the prospect of $300,000 in pure gold hidden somewhere near “her” cavern.  She asked him to give her a special medicine bag.  She told him she wanted to use it to heal the spirits of the Chan family and send them to their rest.

 

She had another reason that she kept to herself, naturally.  If I help the spirits, maybe they will lead me to the gold.  She hoped that wise old Charlie wasn’t able to read her.  But he did as she asked, producing a small beaded pouch like the one he had given her awhile back. He also told her the instructions she had to follow when filling and placing the bag.  She guessed that the colors of red and green used in the pouch’s beadwork had meaning, but she didn’t ask what it was.   Charlie looked sad, weary of speaking.

 

Azalia didn’t believe in much of the old Native crap, except for the healing and protective power of the medicine bag.  She had listened intently to Charlie’s instructions and taken notes.  Then, last THE PREVIOUS –IT’S NOT REALLY `LAST’ NIGHT WHEN YOU’RE IN PAST TENSE night after work, she [had] collected the items Charlie had listed.  They were now safely tucked inside a zippered compartment in the large main pocket of her saddlebag.

 

Finally, Azalia was back at the waterfall.

 

She left Loki TACKED UP BUT WITH THE CINCH AROUND HIS BELLY LOOSENED on the opposite side of the stream in roughly the same spot as before[,] DASH ground tied and contentedly grazing.  [She had kept him tacked up, but loosened the cinch around his belly. ] She didn’t expect to need more than a couple of hours in the cave.  And if he needed her, he would call for her.

 

She AZALIA pulled the saddlebag off the horn of her saddle and trotted to the entrance of the cave.  Before going inside, she bent down and looked around on the ground for a totem.  YET, SHE’S NOT MUCH INTO NATIVE CRAP? She picked up a piece of quartz the size of a kidney bean.

 

Next, she AZALIA –KEEP HER NAME IN FRONT OF US –YOU CAN’T GO FOREVER ON THE PRONOUN took out of the saddlebag the items she needed for the smudging ceremony—a small clay bowl, sage leaves tied in a bundle, and a box of matches.   She crumbled the leaves into the bowl, struck a match, and touched the flame to the leaves.  She let them burn for a moment and then gently blew out the flame.  Smoke from the smoldering pile of leaves wafted over her, spinning upward in the tail of a breeze.

 

She moved her hands through the smoke as a ceremonial washing, and then fanned the smoke toward her face and ears, then over her heart and head. VERY INDIAN AS IN THE SUBCONTINENT IN A PUJA CEREMONY  Next, she pulled the headlamp onto her forehead, turned it on and, carrying the clay bowl, entered the cavern.

 

As she turned her head, the light of the headlamp filled the dark space, which was smaller than SHE’D RECALLED [the impression she had taken with her] after her first visit–JUST NOT QUITE .  Solid granite walls, green muck in  stagnant puddles forming the floor.  WHY FRAGMENTS? –FULL SENTENCES ARE GOOD    She walked in farther and smudged the entire cave, then placed the clay bowl, the sage still smoldering, on a large flat slab of granite. The smell of the smoke was comforting to Azalia, a scent of living nature.  She sat next to the bowl, pleased with herself.   I did a smudging ceremony.  All by myself.

 

She looked down, the lamplight directed by the movement of her head.  SEEING A GLINT OF METAL ETC COMMA She stopped [when she saw a glint of metal several feet away] –VARY YOUR SENTENCE FORMAT .  She tiptoed through the sludge, keeping the light trained on the shiny object.  As she neared it, her knees buckled under her and she landed hard on her butt.

A face.  Or what was left of a face.  A toothy grin, empty eye sockets, a hole where a nose had been.  A skull, partially buried in the mud, glowing GLOWED  green and yellow in the beam from Azalia’s headlamp.  COMMA LOWER CASE A lost Halloween decoration in search of a front porch.

Immobilized, Azalia could do nothing at first except stare.  Then after a few moments, her shock was replaced by something else–an intense combination of fascination, fear, giddiness, excitement.    She started to giggle, then clamped a mucky hand over her mouth.  Am I getting hysterical?

 

Azalia had learned deep breathing from one of her therapists, and had practiced it so diligently that it had become a reflex response whenever she felt the onset of panic.  She took a deep breath through her nose into her belly, held it there for a few counts, then exhaled slowly out through her mouth.  A few repetitions later, she felt her senses begin to return. She stood and stepped tentatively toward the smiling face in the mud.  She walked all the way around it, moving her head slowly, up and down and side to side, maintaining the headlamp’s bead on it THE SKULL as she scanned.

 

Then Azalia’s light reflected brightly back to her, and she remembered the metal object that had caught her eye just before she’D  met the Face.  The object looked APPEARED to be made of silver, a small cylinder of some sort.  With the smiling skull looking on, she picked up the object and turned it over in her hand.  [There was] a heavy chain WAS attached.  Jewelry?  CHARLIE HAD SAID [There was] nothing about silver jewelry in Charlie’s HIS story.  Then she remember the coins she had SHE’D  found DISCOVERED–GET AWAY FROM THE `FOUND’ REPEAT  on her first trip to the cavern.  No mention of silver coins, either.

 

Azalia turned her attention back to the skull.  She had found Liluye, she was certain.  She tugged the hem of her T-shirt out of her jeans and used it to wipe the skull as clean as she could [get it].  As her hands moved gently over the skull, she was suddenly overcome by sorrow—for Chan, Liluye, the baby girl.   Even for the mystery woman—the body in Chan’s burnt home that he had initially thought was his wife’s.

 

What really happened, Liluye?  Azalia stared into the empty orbital sockets.

 

The answer came to her, but not in words.  COMMA BUT LOWER CASE In an overpowering, bad feeling.   Sometime terrible was about to happen.  Fighting a sudden, strong impulse to get the hell out of there, Azalia quickly untied the knot of the purple bandanna she wore as a sweatband, and wrapped the bandanna around the skull.  She then tucked her shirt back into her jeans and stuffed the purple-wrapped thing down the front of her shirt.  Her saddlebag would not WOULDN’T be large enough to carry it.

 

Then an odd idea popped into Azalia’s somewhat rattled brain.  It had come from something that Charlie had once told her–that an individual’s medicine bag was sacred to that person and its powers intended only for that person’s use. She felt strongly [there was] some sort of bad medicine WAS at work here in the darkening cavern.  A curse maybe?  Perhaps it had originated with Chan himself.  In any event, the medicine bag she had acquired to give rest to the Chan family, with its standard, generic totems for healing and protection, didn’t seem powerful enough to her now.

 

But Azalia knew her own, sacred medicine bag was sufficiently powerful.  It had protected and healed her many times over.  She had personally selected its totems and knew their specific magic.   Perhaps she should …

 

From outside, she heard Loki nicker, a soft ha-ha-ha sound coming from deep within his throat.  Come on.  Time to go.  He was right, as usual. The sun had dropped below the ridge and it would be dusk within a couple of hours.
Azalia made her decision, and acted quickly.    She removed her medicine bag from her neck and touched it to her heart.  Then, sending a silent prayer to the sky, she hung her pouch on the highest branch she could reach on a digger pine growing next to the creek near the cave entrance.

She ran back into the cavern and quickly grabbed the silver cylinder with the chain.  She placed it carefully into the Chan medicine bag, and then jammed the beaded pouch inside her bra.

 

Just then, Loki nickered again, more energetically this time.

Azalia emerged from behind the boulder and started to run toward him, then halted in her tracks.  She saw that he wasn’t looking in her direction.  He was looking downstream, in the opposite direction from where she was standing, into the forest on the west end of the ridge.  Her blood turned to ice.  He hadn’t been calling to her at all.  He had been nickering in greeting to someone, or something else.  A someone or something now heading in their direction.

 

Azalia knew that she mustn’t be seen there.  She still hadn’t found Chan’s gold.  She wanted, needed, to find that  gold.  The place had to remain her secret until she did.

Loki, still staring downstream, called out again, this time a loud whinny.  Hi there!  it shouted.

 

Shit, Loki, quiet!  Azalia stayed at the base of the fall, and, using flat rocks as stepping stones, crossed to the other side of the creek as quickly and quietly as she could.  She didn’t want to splash through the water and create more noise than Loki had already made with his calling.  When she reached the other side of the stream a few seconds later, she let out a low whistle.  Loki trotted up to her like an obedient puppy.  In one fluid movement, she grabbed his lead rope from the ground with her left hand, reached for the horn, and swung herself into the saddle.  Without putting her feet in stirrups, she kissed twice and then gigged him, hard.  He took off.

They galloped straight east, away from the stream, then headed south, bobbing and weaving through the dense growth of pines and cedars.  For a moment Azalia wished Loki was WERE half Arabian.  Or all Arabian. But just for the speed, buddy.  She patted his neck apologetically, and then asked him for more A FASTER–JUST FOR THE RHYTHM gallop.

 

Within a few moments, Azalia could hear the pounding of hooves behind her.  She was growing the distance between THEM from the waterfall but couldn’t be sure that whoever was following hadn’t seen her there.  She wondered if she needed to keep ON running.  The person pursuing her should be someone she knew, shouldn’t they HE , since they HE WAS–I JUST PERSONALLY DON’T LIKE `THE PERSON…THEY’ were coming from the general direction of the D-Bar-K?

 

A pop, something SOUNDING –AVOID THE `SOMETHING’ REPEAT  like a firecracker going off, followed by an invisible something whizzing past them.  Gunfire?  Panicked, she gigged Loki again, and hunkered low on the saddle as he launched into his fastest gallop just as they broke through the trees and into the open valley.

 

Azalia knew from her training rides that it took THEY NEEDED  about three minutes at a fast trot to cross the valley and reach the thick forest on the east side.  If she could get them into those trees, it WHAT’S THE SUBJECT? `LOSING’ IS THE SUBJECT would not be hard to lose their pursuer about a quarter mile in, where [there was] a deep ravine banked on the near edge by large granite boulders.  Only someone with extensive trail experience, riding a veteran boonie-crasher of a horse, would brave those slippery boulders, much less be able to immediately switch gears to manage the rough sit-slide down into the ravine on the other side. A LITTLE TOO LONG–THIN OR BREAK IN TWO Azalia and Loki were well-equipped for both challenges- FIX YOUR DASHES repeated practice had seen to that.  She knew if she could get Loki over the boulders and into the ravine, they would be quickly swallowed up in the dense undergrowth of manzanita and brush beyond.  They would be safe from whoever, whatever, was after them.

 

But first, Azalia had to get Loki through the bounce course just west of the dense forest and its safe cover.   For Loki’s conditioning work, she had set up CONSTRUCTED a course of low jumps, made from long, relatively straight branches set on rocks a foot or so high.  [There were] SHE’D  SET UP four jumps in a row, seven feet between each ONE.  The short space between the jumps required Loki to land on his hind legs before immediately thrusting off with his front–a no-stride jump, or “bounce.” Although he was not WASN’T destined for a career as a jumper, Loki benefited greatly from the exercise.  It THE TRAINING was good for building strength in the horse’s hindquarters and improving his overall balance and coordination.

 

Loki flew through the bounces easily, as Azalia knew he would.   Free of obstacles, they raced into the east forest.   Azalia felt a rush of relief.  They would make it to the boulders in JUST a few minutes.  She turned around, finally, to try and get a look at her pursuer.

She did get a good look.  She turned back around, facing forward again, feeling the blood draining from her face.  She stopped thinking, stopped panicking.  She patted Loki on the neck again, knowing this time would be the last.  God, how I love this boy.  Please take care of him for me.

Azalia allowed Loki to continue racing forward toward the boulders.  He knew his job and loved it.  And she had taught him.

Azalia knew that Loki would make it to the boulders.  Just as surely as she knew that she wouldn’t.  GOOD –VERY NICE

 

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