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Canyon of Death, Faith in the Parks, Book 2

By J. Carol Nemeth

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Wow, this trail is treacherous.” The tall hiker planted his foot against a large rock to steady himself and surveyed the canyon wall along his left side. “Did you see which way the mountain goat went? I lost sight of him just over there.”
“Yeah. He slipped behind that huge boulder.” His shorter hiking partner pointed to a large, craggy formation, nearly twice the height of an average man, just below their position. He scratched his goatee-covered chin before yanking off his ball cap and wiping his arm across his forehead. “I wanted to snap his picture but he disappeared. Want to check it out and see if we can catch him back there?”
“Why not? We’ve gotten some amazing pictures out here. Let’s go for it.”
Both men edged carefully down to the “boulder” that turned out to be part of the canyon wall. The trail led to the right and away from the wall just before this point creating a divide between the wall and the trail. Scrub vegetation covered the side of the formation.
“Hey, long legs. You jump first then you can catch me,” chuckled the shorter of the two hikers.
The taller hiker rolled his eyes and easily jumped across the divide, grabbing hold of the side of the rock formation. Pushing the vegetation aside, he pulled out a flashlight and glanced around the opening before turning back to his hiking partner.
“I don’t see any snakes. Go ahead and jump. You’ll make it. I’ll give you a hand.”
When the second hiker was safely inside the opening of the formation with his partner, they turned to take stock of the situation.
“Are you sure he went this way? Looks like a dead end to me.”
“I’m positive he came back here. It has to go somewhere.” The short man slid his hands further behind the vegetation, feeling for a fissure in the cliff face.
“Are you sure you want to be doing that? I mean, there still might be snakes and stuff out here, man. Don’t get yourself bit. I can’t carry your sorry carcass back up that trail.” He nodded in the direction they had descended.
His hiking partner turned with a victorious smile as he tugged a clump of vegetation away. Behind it an opening in the rock was large enough for a man to walk through without ducking his head or having to enter sideways.
“Looks almost like it was put there. Intentionally.”
“Yeah. Like it was chiseled out. Let’s see where it goes.” The taller man slipped through as his partner held the vegetation back.
As the hikers slipped into the opening, they realized they were in a small tunnel that ran approximately twenty feet before curving inward along the canyon wall. Light streamed from around the bend lighting the tunnel without the use of their flashlights.
The tunnel walls were dry and smooth, and the floor was scattered with fine rocks and sand. Around the bend, the tunnel opened into an enormous room that hugged the side of the Grand Canyon.
“Oh, my…are you seeing this, man?” The tall hiker gaped at the sight before him.
“I’m seeing it, but I’m not sure what I’m seeing. Do you think the park service knows about this?” His partner’s chin dropped in awe. “There’s no signs or postings on the rim or anything.”
“Or on the trail map.”
The mountain goat long forgotten, the hikers carefully explored the brightly lit cavernous room. Cliff dwellings built into the back wall extended several hundred feet in length. Various sized round holes in the floor indicated rooms were likely positioned beneath as well. A large overhang in front of the massive room allowed light in but would hide it from the outside. Lower views of the canyon could be seen but nothing above the overhang. Whoever had lived here hadn’t intended to be seen by the outside world.
“I think we better tell someone about this, man. If they already know about it, that’s one thing, but if not…”
“Let’s snap some pictures. Stand over there by that low wall. That’s it.”
With pose after pose on their digital camera, the hikers decided to get back and report their find. Who knows? One day they just might be famous.

Chapter One

“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee”

The faint melodic words floated on the morning breeze as Kate Fleming made her way toward Mather Point. She was about to catch her first glimpse of the Grand Canyon and her heart ticked an upbeat in anticipation. She’d waited a long time for this moment.

“Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,”

The closer Kate got to the south rim of the canyon, the stronger the words grew. Definitely feminine in tone, there was a slight crackle as though she was elderly. It held a quality that indicated the a cappella soloist sang straight from her heart.
People dressed in heavy winter clothing meandered about as they snapped pictures and took selfies with the canyon behind them.

“Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.”

As the Grand Canyon came into view, Kate sucked in the cold morning air in awe, chilling her throat and lungs. Placing her gloved hands over her nose and mouth, she warmed them up again. The Grand Canyon was the most amazing thing she’d ever seen. Gorgeous earth tones blended with blues, pinks and shadowy purples. With the morning sun still in the eastern sky, long shadows were cast on the western side of ridges and peaks. As a strong, cold breeze blew up from the canyon, Kate zipped up her olive-drab uniform parka and jammed her “Smokey-Bear” hat further down on her head.

“Could my tears forever flow….”

“Shut up, old woman! I don’t want to hear you singing.”
The angry voice came from Kate’s left, drawing her attention from the spectacular view. An elderly woman stood by the chain-link fence which protects visitors from going over the edge of the canyon at the overlook. Her rheumy eyes were focused on the horizon between earth and sky, her thin, arthritic hands raised toward heaven as tears streamed down her wrinkled cheeks. Two young men stood beside her, anger marring their faces.
“Shut up, old woman,” one of them yelled. “Stop your screeching!”
Kate quickly approached them to see what the commotion was about. The woman certainly didn’t seem to be bothering anyone.
“Excuse me.” Kate put as much authority in her voice as she could muster. “What are you two doing here? This lady isn’t bothering anyone.”
The guys spotted her uniform, belligerence oozing from their expressions. “Well, she’s bothering us. I don’t want to hear her singing about…God.” The last word was spat out with disgust. “She’s gotta stop.”
Kate laid a kind hand on the woman’s arm. “Ma’am, I hate to interrupt you but can I hear your side of this situation?”
The woman’s faded blue eyes turned to Kate, tears still wet on her cheeks. “Of course, my dear. I’m eighty-six years old. All my life I’ve seen pictures of the Grand Canyon, but I’ve never been here before. Well, now that I’m here, I can’t help but be in awe at the wonder of God’s creation. He did this.” She waved a hand in the direction of the natural wonder spread before them. “It didn’t just happen. All I wanted was to praise Him for how marvelous and mighty He is. One look at that view and anyone with half a brain knows God made it.”
The two young men sputtered in anger at the pointed remark.
Kate held up her hand. “Fellows, this is a really big canyon. I mean, really big. There’s plenty of room for you to see it and for this lady to sing as she desires. Why don’t you just move along to another location and enjoy the view. Leave her in peace to enjoy it in her own way.”
They cast angry glares in the woman’s direction as they shifted their day packs higher on their backs and left the canyon rim, hopefully to find a spot elsewhere.
“Thank you, miss.” The old woman settled a gnarled, arthritic hand on Kate’s arm. Gloveless, it felt cold even through Kate’s parka sleeve. “I just don’t understand how folks can look at that view and not give credit where credit is due. God made it, and He made it for us to enjoy. I just don’t think some people want to believe He exists. It’s sad really.”
“Yes, I think you’re right, ma’am.” Kate patted the woman’s thin shoulder. “And thank you for the reminder. You might want to go inside and warm up though. It’s pretty chilly out here. Are you here alone?”
The woman smiled. “No, my son and daughter-in-law are here with me. They went to get coffee, so they’ll be back shortly with a cup for me. I just didn’t want to leave this view. I want to drink in as much as I can as long as I can.”
“I understand,” Kate nodded with a smile. “You have a wonderful day, ma’am.”
Before Kate realize what she was doing, the woman reached out thin arms and wrapped them around her. Then she stepped back and smiled, contentment written across her wrinkled face.
“Thank you, my dear. These weary eyes have seen a lot of things during my lifetime, but this was the last thing I truly wanted to see before the Lord calls me home. I don’t know if that’ll be tomorrow or next year or the next, but I’m happy that I got to see this marvel of His handiwork.”
Kate started to walked away, then stripping the gloves from her hands, pressed them into the woman’s hands and hurried away before she could protest.
As Kate strolled along the canyon rim, she could hear the woman’s voice once again lift in praise. She reflected on her words. Kate hadn’t given God much credit lately. She believed in Him, had even put her trust in Him, but He’d let her down. Pain sliced through her heart as memories flooded her mind. Nope. She wasn’t going to think about all that right now. Whether God put this view here for her to enjoy or not, she could still appreciate the beauty before her. And she wanted to forget. Oh, how she wanted to forget.
Pushing the memories from her mind, she glanced at her watch. She needed to get to the visitor center to meet with Tasha Johnson. Kate had arrived yesterday afternoon. Just long enough to be assigned living quarters and to begin to learn her way around Grand Canyon Village and some of the government offices, but she hadn’t yet met Tasha.
With a last long appreciative glance at the canyon, she left it behind and made her way to the visitor center near Mather Point. In spite of the cold wind that swept across the south rim, bundled-up visitors scurried from one overlook to the next, searching for that subtle difference in the scenery. Kate could appreciate that. She was sure she wouldn’t get tired of the view any time soon.
Kate slipped inside the visitor center where it was much warmer. Straight ahead was a long information desk with a few park staff members answering questions and passing out park maps. To the right was the entrance to a theater where a video played every few minutes telling about the Grand Canyon National Park and its natural splendor. Exhibits of small wildlife and historical information were arranged to the left. Park visitors meandered about looking at these exhibits and taking in the video in the theater. So, where would she find Tasha Johnson?
“Kate Fleming?”
Kate turned at the soft feminine voice that spoke her name. A young African-American woman met her questioning gaze with a smile. Her flawless ebony skin, black eyes surrounded by long lashes and beautiful white teeth between full lips was striking. Her short, curly black hair set off her beautiful features.
“Yes, I’m Kate Fleming.”
The young woman held out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you at last, Kate. I’m Tasha Johnson. We’ve been expecting you.”
Kate shook her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tasha.”
“Have you been out to see the canyon yet? That’s usually where everyone makes a bee-line to as soon as they arrive.” Tasha chuckled. “And no wonder. I’ve been here three years and still can’t get over the view.”
“Yes. I just came from Mather Point. It’s amazing. I’ll be spending a lot of time soaking in the sights.” Kate had wanted to work at the Grand Canyon for a long time, and she’d finally made it. But she hadn’t planned to come alone. Shoving those painful memories away, she concentrated on Tasha’s words.
“Well, I hate to rush you into your job, but I’m going to take you out to the sight and introduce you to the archeologists.” Tugging on her parka and her uniform ball cap, Tasha eyed Kate’s “Smokey-Bear” hat critically. “If you’ve got your ball cap, I think you’d better wear it. Much better suited to where we’re heading. Good. You’re wearing hiking boots. You’ll need them.”
With a quick trip to Kate’s car to exchange hats, the women climbed into Tasha’s park SUV.
“As my assistant, your help will be invaluable in keeping an eye on the archaeological team,” Tasha explained.
“You’re the park liaison, right?” Kate wanted to make sure she had her supervisor’s title correct.
“That’s right.” Tasha flashed a smile. “I have a few projects I’m overseeing, so I need you to keep me informed. You’ll be my liaison to the archeological team. My eyes and ears, so to speak. If they have questions you can’t answer, bring them to me and we’ll get them answered. There are regulations they must follow. I need you to ensure they follow them. If they don’t, tell me and I’ll deal with it.”
“So, what is the team looking for? Anything in particular or just digging until they find something?”
“Oh, no. It’s something in particular. A couple of hikers stumbled on a lost Anasazi city a month ago. The park invited the archeological team to investigate.”
“What about the hikers? How did they find the site?”
“They were hiking on the Hermit’s Trail and followed a mountain goat. It disappeared behind a rock formation and when they went to investigate, they found the city. They snapped a lot of pictures, too, but we confiscated them. No way could we let that out to the public.”
“Won’t they talk?”
“Probably, although they signed an agreement not to.” Tasha stopped the SUV next to a gate with an electronic keypad. She entered a four-digit code and the gate swung upward, allowing them to proceed. “This is Hermit’s Road and it’s closed to the public except during the winter months. They just closed it last week, so we don’t have to worry about competing with tourists anymore. Only park personnel and shuttle buses as well as the Hermit’s Rest Gift Shop employees drive out here now. And of course, the archeologists. I’ll give you the combination so you’ll have access. You’ll be driving out here all the time.”
They followed the road along the south rim of the canyon to the Hermit’s Rest Gift Shop and overlook. Tasha drove a half mile further down a dirt road behind the gift shop and parked beside a building comprised of two mobile construction trailers placed side by side.
“This is the archeologists’ office.” Tasha climbed out of the SUV. “You might find one or more of the archeologists here but usually they’re on-site so it’s harder to find them.”
“Ok. Good to know.” Kate exited the SUV and followed Tasha toward the trailhead. “So, they’re not here now?”
Tasha glanced at the dark windows. “Probably not.”
Kate’s eyes were glued to the view before her. A completely different and amazingly colorful configuration of ridges, peaks and plateaus met her gaze. Tasha’s chuckle beside her drew her attention back to her companion.
“Sorry. I’m just in awe of…well…this.” Her hand moved in an all-encompassing arc. “It’s… gorgeous.”
“Yes, it is,” Tasha sighed. “I just love it here. But,” she pointed at the trailhead, “this is a very treacherous trail to descend. It’s not maintained by the park as much as the other trails. So take your time and watch your step. It’s going to take some getting used to.”
Kate and Craig had hiked a lot of trails in the three years since they’d started dating, and she was confident she was in shape and could tackle it. This did look daunting. What would Craig have said to this bit of adventure? A pang sliced through her heart as it always did when she thought of Craig.
She swallowed hard. Don’t go there. It hurt too much.
Tasha eyed Kate closely and laid a hand on her jacketed arm. “Are you ok, girlfriend? Your face is mighty pale. Want to take a minute before we head down? It’s not that bad, really.”
Kate met Tasha’s concerned dark gaze and was touched. The young woman hardly knew her but had read Kate’s expression like she’d known her a long time.
Kate flashed a smile in spite of the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes. “No, I’m fine. Really, I am. I just…remembered something…someone. It’s okay. I’m ready when you are.” She pulled her sunglasses from her jacket pocket and tugged her ball cap lower over her eyes. It probably wouldn’t help hide the pain at the memories of Craig, but it was worth a try.
Tasha considered her a moment longer before nodding. “Okay. If you say so. But if you have a problem, just tell me.”
Kate understood that she wasn’t just talking about the difficulty of the trail. Did she mean she could talk to her about other things too? Would Tasha be a friend she could trust? Time would tell. But some things were just off limits. Totally.
The path down the Hermit’s Trail was indeed difficult. In some areas they had to crawl over rocks and boulders while in other places the trail smoothed out for a few feet. Kate concentrated on following Tasha and pushed personal thoughts from her mind.
At a particularly steep and precarious spot on the trail, Tasha stopped and pointed at a large formation on the left of the trail.
“That’s the huge boulder the notorious mountain goat disappeared behind. Funny how that goat lost his one claim to fame. We’ll never really know what happened to him. But he led the hikers to one very spectacular archeological find.” She laughed between gasps for breath. “Come on, girl. We’re almost there.”
A wide, wooden board had been placed across the divide from the trail to the entrance to the formation, and Kate followed Tasha across to it, waiting for her to disappear behind it. Taking another look at the colorful scenery as she waited, Kate reached up to grab hold of the rock. Her foot slipped and before she knew what was happening, she slid toward the cliff edge several feet below were the trail turned to the right and the canyon wall remained on the left. Her fingers grasped for anything that would hold her, but she continued to slide.
Tasha’s voice rang out in fear. “Kate! Grab onto something!”
Kate’s heart lodged in her throat even as she slid toward the edge of the cliff. While she scrabbled for a handhold, her mind screamed the words: Lord, help me!

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