Sierra City

Chapter One

"How the hell should I know?"

Frustration was creeping into her voice and she pulled to the side of the dirt road, tossing her sunglasses on the now dusty dash of her open Jeep. She had half a mind to toss her cell phone there, as well. If there was one thing Chris McKenna hated, it was being lost.

"Goddamn, McKenna, how hard can it be? You're supposed to be an expert at this."

"Don't start with me, Roger. If you'd let me take the main road out of Reno, I would be there by now." She glanced around, her frustration preventing her from enjoying the beauty of the back roads Roger had suggested.

"If you could follow directions, you'd be here by now."

"If you could give directions," she shot back.

"Listen, I think you're on Forest Road seven-thirteen."

"You think?"

"If you continue on, you'll find Forest Road seven-forty. Take it to the left. That'll hook you up with the road you were supposed to be on in the first place, seven-oh-nine."

"You know, Roger," she started, her voice now low and threatening. "It will be very embarrassing if you have to send someone out to look for your new SAR. You're sure of your directions this time?"

"McKenna, one more thing. I think the sign for seven-forty is missing. You'll just have to keep your eye..."

"If you tell me to turn at the big pine on the corner one more time, I'm turning around and going back to fucking Yosemite!" she yelled before disconnecting. This time she did toss the phone on the dash.

She was hot, tired, and dusty. The pleasant drive through the mountains had turned into a fiasco. She should have been there two hours ago. Instead, Roger had her traipsing through the mountains on forest roads without a map.

"A cold beer," she said out loud. She turned off the engine and got out, stretching her arms overhead and popping her sore back. A loud meow brought her around and she stared into Dillon's cage. Her normally passive cat glared at her.

"I know, I know. I promised it would be a short trip." Then she grinned. "Probably gotta pee, huh?" She rummaged into the cooler for a beer, pulling the bottle from under the ice. "Well, you'll have to hold it a little longer."

Taking a long swallow, she sighed, finally allowing the beauty around her to register. By the time she had left the spectacular grandeur of Lake Tahoe behind and traveled into the foothills of the Gold Country, she had been too intent on remembering Roger's directions to pay attention to the scenery. But she had climbed out of the river valley and back into the high country, again surrounded by tall pines and spruce, but not tall enough to block the rugged mountains springing up around her. The Sierra Nevada Range.

She had worked in Yosemite for so long, she thought she had become immune to sights such as this. She realized that her indifference sprung from the constant crowds of people and the increasing crime in the park. There had been little time to enjoy the scenery. Search and Rescue had become a full-time job. That's why she jumped at the opportunity to come to Sierra City. That, and it offered her another chance to work with Roger. He had taken her under his wing in Yellowstone when she had been fresh out of college and had shown her the ins and outs of the Forest Service. She, like most first-timers, knew little about the politics of the Service. She soon grew tired of being a tourist guide and weary of the manual labor expected of the younger rangers. But no matter how hard they all struggled, in the end it all came down to politics and money. It hadn't taken but a few years for her to lose her enthusiasm for the job. That's about the time Search and Rescue was just coming into its own, with the local law enforcement agencies no longer able to handle the demand caused by the explosion of tourists in the parks and National Forests. Volunteer SAR teams had begun to organize, all with good intentions but little money and training. When the Park Service finally began training their own, Chris was one of the first to volunteer. Her training took her from the classroom deep into the backcountry and she finally found what she had been looking for when she joined the Forest Service.

Now, nearly all of the National Parks had full-time Search and Rescue teams, but National Forest Land was still mostly volunteers. Roger had finally persuaded his managers at Lake Tahoe that the Sierra ranger district warranted its own SAR and he had called Chris away from Yosemite, luring her with a promise of uncrowded trails and little or no crime. He didn't have to ask twice.

She finished her beer and tucked the empty bottle back inside the cooler. As she passed Dillon's cage, she stuck a finger inside to scratch his head, then withdrew quickly as he threatened to bite.

"Okay, let's see if we can find the elusive seven-forty so we can get this tiger out of his cage."

She brushed her fingers through her hair and shoved the sunglasses back on before heading along the bumpy road, her frustration over Roger's earlier directions fading.

Forty-five minutes later she pulled in front of the ranger station, a charming log building tucked neatly into the forest. She looked back over her shoulder, the dust just settling back on the dirt road and she watched a large white dog run along the edge toward town. She noticed only a handful of cabins along the road and she supposed the main part of Sierra City was at the other end of town, toward Sacramento.

Chris tried to straighten her wind-blown hair with her fingers, then gave up. She must look a sight and she bent down to look into the side mirror.

"Jesus," she murmured, but there was little she could do about her appearance at this point. She gave Dillon's cage a gentle shake. "Just a little longer, Tiger."

She walked into the ranger station and watched the different groups of tourists milling about. Only a few gave her curious glances and she went to the counter, impatiently tapping her fingers while she waited for the receptionist to finish restocking the brochures.

"May I help you?"

Chris offered her a quick smile then glanced around again, hoping Roger would show his face. Maps and pictures of the local wildlife lined the walls, and both were for sale on a rack in the corner. A topographical map was taped on the counter. It was faded from too many fingers running across its surface, looking for hiking trails and cross-country ski routes. Before Chris could answer, the radio scanner broke with static before a voice came on, calling the county sheriff to a minor traffic accident on Highway 89.

"I'm looking for Roger Hamilton," Chris finally replied.

"I'm sorry, he's out on the trails. Can I help you with something?"

"I'm McKenna... Chris," she said, sticking out her hand. "He's expecting me."

"Oh? The new Search and Rescue? You're the one that got lost," she stated, but gave Chris a firm handshake.

Chris smiled briefly. "His directions left a lot to be desired."

"Well, I'm glad you finally made it. We were all pretty excited to learn we were getting our own SAR. I'm Kay, by the way. I tend to die paperwork around here."

Chris nodded. "Any idea when Roger will be back?"

"No. A group of scouts came out on Monday and we're short-handed, what with Matt being sick. Mr. Hamilton went around to check on them."

"Great. He gets me lost for two hours then bails on me." But she softened her words with a quick smile. "Listen. I'd about kill for a shower. Any idea where I'll be staying?"

"Oh yes. Mr. Hamilton has a cabin rented for you. Pine Ridge Cabins, only about a mile out of town. I'll call for you and let them know you're on the way."

"Thanks. I'd appreciate it."

Kay went to her desk to call and Chris walked to the wall, studying the map tacked there. She had been in Yosemite the last five years and knew the trails like the back of her hand. She hated the thought of starting over, but at least she knew Roger. He would make it okay. She listened to Kay on the phone, thinking it would be different living in such a small town. She had only worked in National Parks before, where the only full-time residents were Forest Service and the summer concessionaires. Everyone generally went about their own business, all too busy to worry about their neighbors. But here, in this small town, everyone knew everyone else and no doubt they all kept tabs on each other.

"You're all set, Chris. Ruth has your cabin all cleaned and ready. Keep going towards town and turn right on Spruce. It's well before you get into town. The office is about a mile down that road. Ruth will give you directions from there."

"Thanks so much. I'll be back later to check in with Roger."

Following Kay's directions, Chris found Spruce Street easily, thinking it was aptly named as the boughs of the trees covered the road, blocking out the sun in places. She pulled in at the first road, a sign painted red telling her it was the office. Before she could get out, a tiny gray-haired woman opened the door and came out to meet her.

"You must be the new ranger," she stated, offering her hand.

"Search and Rescue, actually," Chris corrected. She was surprised at the firmness of the woman's handshake.

"Oh, well, same thing," the woman said in a singsong voice. "I'm Mary Ruth Henninger. Some call me just Ruth, though." She turned and headed back inside as fast as she had come out. "Come along," she added, motioning for Chris to follow as she glided up the steps.

Chris followed the old woman inside and found herself in the middle of a large kitchen. The smell of cookies baking hit her and there were already two dozen or so cooling on the table.