Saturday afternoon, August 10, 4:55 PM

Everything had gone perfectly, smoothly, according to plan. He caught the 7:15 AM bus to Gunnison, got off at Fairplay, emerged from behind the old gas station a new person. Sometime around 10:45 he made his way to Alma, disposed of his extra baggage, and was a picture perfect back-packer heading into the trees off Highway 9. Four hours later, he was half way up the slope, having traversed Mt. Bross and cut over to the steeper slope of Mt. Democrat. An hour or two after that, he began to remember the more painful details about the rugged outdoors. Along with it came the first discomforts of his medication withdrawal. It was hard to sort out between the two types of discomforts. Both were becoming major distractions.

Jason plodded ahead with small steps and slow momentum. It was rough going. Each hand gripped a knee, adding just a little bit of extra push to each step. The realization that he had spent too much time behind a desk, too much time away from good exercise and fresh mountain air, was beginning to overwhelm him. This was much harder than he had expected. Shit, am I out of shape or what? God, I'm glad I don't do this for a living.

Along with the realization of being out of shape came the depressing thought of admitting he was less than he thought. That he had actually lost something very important to him - a precise knowledge of his own physical limitations. An accurate assessment of his own strengths and weaknesses. And from the relatively low self-esteem he started with, discovering he didn't even measure up that well was more degrading.

Very early on, he had dispensed with the concept that he was macho enough to take the mountain on his own terms, as he originally intended. There was no way he could even pretend about that one. He was now doing short traverses up a fairly steep grade. There was a lot of loose rock and gnarly scrub oak he had to contend with since he had come out of the thickly forested area. His original intention was to head straight up the slope. The mountain decreed otherwise. He now complied in full submission. Shit. I could have done that twenty years ago, piece of cake. He stopped every dozen or so steps for a brief but necessary rest.

Climbing at this altitude was much harder than he remembered. He already shed two layers of clothing, his shirt and light jacket. He was now down to a turtle neck, which was soaking wet both front and back. The sun felt warm, but the cool breeze on his wet shirt kept him from feeling like he was out to enjoy the hot summer day. After all, he was now above 12,000 feet. And he was having a hard time distinguishing physical fatigue from the symptoms of withdrawal as he noted his shaking leg muscles and aching joints.

His feet were developing a few blisters. There were two hot spots on the tops of his left toes and one on the outside ball of his right foot. At any other time in his life, Jason would have stopped immediately and shaped Moleskin for each hot spot as soon as he detected it. Moleskin pads occupied a permanent compartment in his backpack, along with other first aid and personal care items. Nobody goes anywhere in the back country with sore feet, Jason reminded himself. And if they do, they don't do it efficiently. And they regret it later. It's simply a law of survival.

But this trip was different. He let the guilty feeling of not tending to his feet pass over him. He wouldn't be needing them to bring him down off the mountain. As incidental as that was, it was an unusual perspective for Jason to accept. He had always maintained a great respect for his body. Even when it didn't treat him very well, which it hadn't done for the past 15 years. He finally reviewed his situation with no remorse. So no slack this time, fellas. Blister away.

He sat down in a spot that he figured was about three-quarters of the way to where ever he was going, where the rocks thinned and the grade leveled, wrapped his light jacket around himself, and leaned back. God, I'm tired. I'll just take five here, have a little snack and rest. He leaned back, laid the shirt over his face, and was out like a light.


The climb was getting harder. Each step required a specific summoning of the left thigh to lift and plant, the right foot to push off, the right thigh to lift and the knee to swing forward. Each hand braced each knee, pushing the weight of the upper body one more step ahead. With monotonous repetition, he pushed his body its absolute limits.

The climb was getting harder and the ground refused to cooperate. Loose scree was everywhere. Fingers of rock seemed to reach out at the last minute to grab the edge of Jason's boot, toppling his weight forward, throwing him off balance. Dead branches and fallen trees kept tripping him up through the last 100 yards of forest. More than once he pitched forward, unable to counter the sudden shift in balance that followed such an abrupt stop of his momentum. His hands and shins, his knees and forearms all throbbed with the ache of new bruises. This was no sure-footed mountain man. This was a pilgrim on his last journey.

This goddamned pack is getting heavier by the minute, I swear it! As he gained altitude, gravity pulled harder on his backpack. Normally well-padded straps cut into his shoulders, pulling on his collar bones. Large hooks penetrated his skin, looped over each clavicle. He dragged the weight of the pack up the slope. The discs in his lower back compressed like forgotten peanut butter sandwiches left in his back pocket. This had gone well past the point of a good healthy walk in the mountains. I may come out of this a cripple, he said to himself in exhaustion, the irony of the thought escaping him completely.

It had momentarily slipped his mind exactly where he was headed and why. But that wasn't something he was going to try to sort through now. He just knew he had to keep going. Things were too tough to do anything but concentrate on the immediate task.

The sun beat down unmercifully, burning skin through his clothes. Fusing the fabric and the flesh, melting his pant legs to his thighs, his collar and yoke to his neck and back, his sleeves to his arms, adding a surface burn to the internal burn of overworked muscles. On and on, forward and upward. God, I can't make it much further. Jeezus, this is the hardest work I think I've ever done.

And as he moved farther and farther up the hillside, his apprehension grew. There was nothing in particular to be apprehensive about. But the ominous feeling was there like a hooded poncho draped over his head. He sweat underneath it. As if he needed something more to sweat about! He had been climbing an open glacier run, with the treeline just below him and off to his right, running slightly uphill and wrapping itself around the side of the slope out of sight. Something kept calling his attention to the treeline, but there was nothing there. He stopped several times just to listen and watch. Jason was experiencing that damned spooky feeling of deja vu, like he was being stalked. He couldn't pin it down. And he couldn't shake it.

Jeezus, you out-of-shape son of a bitch. You're not going to make it. You're going to die right here on the hillside. He taunted himself just to keep going, but the personal haranguing was losing its effect. He was getting to the point where he just didn't care.

It can't be more than another half an hour to the top. Shit, that's what I said an hour ago. His destination was the bowl on the ragged face of Mt. Defiance, aptly named. This is really bullshit! This fucking pack has got cement in it! This sucks! His shoulders screamed at him like newly branded calves with their eerie, bestial squeals.

He suddenly caught a movement out of the corner of his eye at the edge of the trees. He briefly imagined that the movement was accompanied by the eerie tinkling sound of scores of little bells. There WAS something moving just inside the treeline, hidden by the shadows and the growth. Part of him just didn't give a shit anymore, hating the idea of stopping because he might never get moving again. Part of him required a thorough analysis of the personal danger implied by an unknown movement at treeline. Part of him pleaded for him to stop, to set the pack on the ground and rest, to sleep, to abandon the entire project. You're a pussy, came the response from the strong side, the macho masochistic side that didn't know when to quit. He was getting dizzy just trying to keep up with which part of him was which. He was getting dizzy anyway, from the altitude and the sheer exhaustion.

The climb itself certainly wasn't treacherous. It was just tedious and wearing. It seemed to go on and on like he was stuck in the Twilight Zone. It was like walking a treadmill. It was.......God, I've got to stop this! Just shut up and keep moving!

The distraction at the treeline pulled his focus off his erratic but steady climbing pattern. He slipped, tripped, or stumbled just about every time his legs moved. He had gone to his knees two out of the last five steps.

"Hey, there, young fella!" Jeezus, is that Gabby Hayes? What the hell!? "Hello, there," came the shout across the open hillside. A figure had stepped out from the trees while Jason glanced down to get a bearing on his immediate navigational problems.

Jason felt a sudden ambiguity at this new turn of events. He had been spotted while on a secret mission. He was intrigued and curious. Who else could be up here? It would give him a chance to stop. It would intrude on his solitude. The guy might know something about the ice-covered cave he had once seen around here, a long time ago.

As these thoughts coursed through Jason's sun-fried brain, he gave a cursory wave with his aching arm but kept on moving uphill. The new inhabitant of the hillside was a good 50 yards off, a little down slope, and was some crazy old man of the mountain. God, that's a great hallucination. I'm really losing it!

Jason ignored another hail from the old man and started thinking about what a bother other people were, always interrupting things and getting in his way. Always wanting something and never giving anything worthwhile in return. Always........... OOOPPHHHH! Shit! Jason went down again, his left foot, uphill, sliding downhill under him. He came to a bruised rest on his left buttock, left hand planted in a pile of spiked rock, facing down hill to where the old man was walking toward him. Angry at himself and self-conscious about how silly he must look, Jason rolled onto all fours and took a couple of deep breaths. The air was thin. His pack was tugging sideways, momentarily easing its downward pull on his shoulders. He set his resolve and started to rise.

The old man was at his side, asking if he needed help. His sudden appearance surprised Jason. He must be more tired that he thought. He must have been kneeling there a good ten minutes for the old man to have covered the distance between them. He was losing his edge to be surprised like that, to have so badly miscalculated the time and distance.

"Here, let me help you." Jason felt a hand slide under his armpit and felt the backpack being lifted away. He spun back to his sitting position, the fastest movement he had made for hours, and looked up at his visitor. The sun blinded him as it sat in the sky just next to the old man's head. The old man moved sideways, enough to block the sun so the face was outlined by what appeared to be a blazing halo. Jason was pinned to the hillside by cold blue eyes. "Looks like you ought to take that pack off and rest awhile.

"What are ya totin' up this hill, anyway? Looks like it's wearin' ya down a bit." Jeezus, I swear he sounds just like Gabby Hayes. What's a goddamned street bum doing up here?

Jason's initial reaction was defensive. The old man had crossed a line into his personal territory and that made Jason uncomfortable. He didn't like people asking him about the things he did, and he especially didn't like some crazy old man, out in the middle of nowhere, asking him about what was in his backpack. And he certainly didn't want to sit here all day talking to this weirdo.

"Uh, no, thanks. I'm alright. I'll be O.K. Thanks anyway." Jason began to coax his body into moving once again when the old man reached down, put a hand under Jason's right arm, and lifted him to a standing position as if he were light as a feather.

"My goodness. What are you carryin'? Rocks?" The broad grin on the old man's weathered face was intended to be disarming. His deep blue eyes were innocent as the sky. But bells and whistles and warning sirens went off in Jason's head. God, there go those weird, tinkling bells again!!

"Uh, look, thanks again. I really got to get going. I'm headed to the top." Jason wobbled, not yet on sure footing, and found himself putting more weight on the old man's supporting grip than he cared to.

"Well, I'd say it looks like you ought to take a sit-down or you'll be rolling down the hill instead of crawlin' up it like you been doin'. Here, let me help you off with that pack." The old man reached forward with his other hand and grasped the left shoulder strap. Jason tried to jump back but lost his footing and found himself once again held in place by the old man's sure grip under his right arm. Jason immediately shouted a "NO!" that echoed for a full minute across the hillside and vanished into emptiness along with Jason's will to resist.

The old man stood smiling slyly as the echo trailed away. "Maybe you're carryin' some secret weapon or somethin'. Don't matter none to me, though. Here, why don't you just sit back and have a sip of some cool water." He released his hold on the strap of Jason's secret cargo and held out a small canteen.

"Ah. Water. Yaaah, thanks." He casually moved his hand around to his side and found it empty. "Yah, I must have dropped my canteen somewhere." He felt sheepish again. It wasn't like him to lose equipment. When did he set it down? Or drop it? Maybe he put it inside the pack. He couldn't remember.

The water in the old man's canteen was unusually cold, especially for having been carried around out in the sun. Jason took a carefully measured sip and swished it around in his mouth. "God, that tastes good," he said as he handed the canteen back. "Thanks. I'm grateful." Actually, that has a damned fine taste to it. Must be from one of those 'pure, Rocky Mountain springs'.

The old man sat down on the hillside and leaned forward, locking his arms around his knees. He looked like he could make himself comfortable anywhere. "Well, you might at least get that pack off'en your shoulders and give your body a rest. This here mountain will still be here after you take five and get a breath in. Besides, I don't reckon whatever you got in that pack will get away with both of us here to keep an eye on it." His jovial tone pissed Jason off, but his seemingly honest attempt at totally disarming innocence kept Jason from saying or doing anything except silently gritting his teeth. He sank back slowly onto the rocks until he put his hand back to brace himself. His bruised palm jerked away as if the rocks were hot, and Jason dropped the final six inches onto the edged stones. The pack, as if on its own, began to slip off his shoulders as they drooped down from sheer exhaustion.

"So, what're ya totin' that's so danged important?" This guy has of way of really digging under my skin, thought Jason as he accepted the mixed blessing of finally giving himself a rest and being in the company of a gabby old fart.

"Oh, just some things I need," Jason responded nonchalantly, hoping to quickly change the subject. He was about to ask the old man about the ice cave both because he was slightly interested and because he wanted to get the man off his case about the pack. But the old man snickered, "Ain't nothing worth bustin' your hump over that you can't get along without. Here, let's take a look." The old man's hand lifted the pack cover that, to Jason's surprise, was not secured. Jason had not realized he had sat down that close to the old man. It was too late to pull away. He was too tired to make a big issue out of it.

"Let's see here. Feels like you've got a rock in here." Jason feebly made a motion to pull away. "Yup, here's a rock." The old man withdrew a fairly sizable rock from Jason's pack. "Now, what would you be doin' with this? There's plenty of rocks up where you're goin'." The disarming grin flashed in unison with the cold blue eyes.

"Uh, it's just something that I carry around. I need it."

"What? You don't like the rocks we got on this particular mountain? This is a good heavy one, isn't it? And look here. What's this marking on it.....FAMILY? Now, that's an odd rock if I ever saw one!"

This guy is really pissing me off. "Look, buddy, that's just something I need. There's no particular reason for it. Now, just let me rest and......"

"Oh, my. Take a look at these, will ya!" The old man lifted out a whole handful of dog tags, all wrapped up in a wad. It was evident from the way he handled them that they were heavy, and there were even more in the pack. Some chains from his handful were hanging into the bag, still snagged on something or other. "These here are made of lead!", said the old man with surprise. "I've never seen anything quite like these!"

I don't need to offer excuses for what I carry in my backpack, especially to some old man on a mountain. "Well, those are mine, too. They're just stuff I need. Just put them back in there, please." There was a definite edge to Jason's voice which transcended his exhaustion.

"Well, I bet they can't ALL be yours. Besides, they got other fella's names on them."

"Hey, look, they're just mine. I collect them, all right? Sometimes I bring them with me when I go camping. So just put em back in, O.K." Emotion welled up in his chest, growing with the frustration of having to deal with this whole event. Fuck. What am I doing here??

"Well, there's more stuff in here. Is it all that heavy? Looks like more rocks. Got any cannon balls?" The voice jingled like bells of laughter, grating on Jason's tired nerves. The old man pulled out a few more stones, each one neatly labeled. There was a heart-shaped rock, partly broken. There was a fetal shape of cast iron. "Yes, sir. This is pretty strange stuff to be carryin' up a hill!"

"God damn it! It doesn't matter what I carry around. All those things are mine and I can carry them if I damned well please. Now, help me get all this stuff back in. I've got to get going." A sudden sense of urgency breathed new energy into Jason as he twisted around to start putting everything back. He wanted to replace everything and secure the pack as fast as possible.

"But, sonny," the old man said gently. "Don't you realize that this stuff is what's makin' your climb so hard? You don't need to be totin' it around with you. Why don't you just throw it all out?"

Jason's mind froze in astonishment. The old man's words seemed to echo around him like in an empty barrel, reverberating with an strange, electronic sound. The idea was absurd. It didn't even warrant an appalling gasp. What a stupid idea. Things are getting too strange for comfort. I gotta get out of here.

"They're just my things, all right? You don't know anything about them. I have to carry them with me in case I need them. I really have to get going now." Jason had swiveled around on all fours to take hold of the pack, now re-loaded and tied shut. The old man got up slowly as Jason swung the pack around his left shoulder, back into position. God, it's even heavier now. Shit, that hurts. I knew I shouldn't have stopped. Damn, did that old fart slip a few more rocks in here or what??

"Jason," came the gentle voice. "You can get out from under all those things. All you have to do is take them out of your pack."

Jason felt frustrated over the whole ordeal. God, what a crazy old man. This guy is hopeless. "No, you don't understand."

"Oh, I think I do. If you're not willing to throw them away, you can just set them down somewhere for safekeeping. You could even build a little shrine for them. Just put the rocks back in their natural habitat. You can still respect them. You just don't have to lug them around." There's that tinkling bell sound again. This is too fuckin' weird for me.

The short rest had cleared his head somewhat. What was he doing, kneeling on the side of a mountain talking to this crazy old man? He had more climbing to do, and it was going to be harder now because he had lost some of his earlier momentum. "Look, I gotta get going. Thanks for the water."

"O.K. Jason. But you just remember what I said. Whenever you're ready, you can get rid of all those things."

"Yah, right. Thanks." Crazy old fart. Been up in the hills too long. Nosy old bastard. Jason pushed himself to his feet, facing uphill. He took a step or two, feeling the pull of his shoulder straps re-seating themselves into the raw grooves in his flesh. Imagine that guy going through my pack like that. Guys like that really piss me off. Fucking know-it-all's. What does he know about any of my shit?*

Hey, how did he know my name?? "Hey, how did you know my name?", he asked as he turned to where the old man was standing. The hillside was empty and Jason caught just a glimpse of movement at treeline, as something slid back into the shadows.


The brief rest had been good. He had actually fallen asleep, but was back on track after a 40 minute rest and making good time up the slope. After less than an hour, he arrived. He knew the spot as soon as he saw it.

Ahhh. Nice place you've got here, he thought as he saw the small ring of rocks. He undid his pack, then climbed up a bit higher, just to get another perspective on his spot. He settled in there for a moment, taking in the view.

Jason leaned back against the rocks and felt their stubborn reality refuse to give in to his own personal comfort. It was early evening, still relatively warm, with only a slight breeze, but the air itself was thin and cool. The Colorado sky was a solid blue that tapered to a haze just above the mountain tops to the west and north. A cloud bank slowly crept up from the south. The temperature was in the 50's but would be dropping soon as the early evening clouds rolled in over the tops of mountains and down the pass.

"What are you doing up here alone, faggot? You know you can't do that."

Jason ignored the sound of his demons waking. He had been able to suppress their constant chatter for the last few hours, but now that he had slowed down, it would be harder to do. His medication was wearing off quickly, as he rapidly approached the 24-hour point. But he vowed to stay centered and to ignore this last episode of anxiety that slowly marshaled forces against him in the background. His demons were making their presence known by loud comments, as usual. He would just have to ignore them for as long as possible.

The sun will be going down soon. He caught himself in mid-thought. What an odd perspective to persist. The sun's not going anywhere. I am. I'm on a little fucking mud ball that's spinning away from it at over 900 miles an hour. It'll stay. It'll be here long after I'm gone. Which won't be much longer.

Jason rose and looked around once again. Yup. This is the place. The slope on which he stood tapered off directly below him toward a natural ledge. It formed a slight shelf about 50 yards along the traverse and 30 yards from the upper slope to the next drop-off, like a little patio on the side of the hill. He walked up slope from where he set his gear and stood overlooking a boulder field with the natural clearing right in the center.

The demons worked hard to catch his attention. "Hey, fucker, we're back!" He shivered involuntarily as the skin on his back and neck crawled and a dizzy spell washed over him.

But Jason steeled himself with the knowledge that very soon he would be free of all that. The thought brought with it an unusual calm.

Below him, in the small clearing, his pack leaned against a rock. Atop the rock lay two sticks of beef jerky and the .380 automatic he had carried in his shoulder holster. Damn fine balance on that Beretta. A real solid handful. God, there were times when I could have used something like that. Fifteen rounds in the clip. Further downhill was the treeline, well in sight. To his back, uphill, were more rocks and rugged, open space, and then the edge of the sky started, going on for ever and ever. This was where he was supposed to be. God, what a perfect spot!

Jason bounced down the short distance to his gear, slaloming left and right to check his speed, springing over the rocks like a little kid on a playground. He consciously ignored his physical fatigue and blistered feet, and the unmistakable, uncomfortable sensations that reminded him he had stopped taking his medication last evening before leaving Denver. God, I'm glad I won't be taking that shit anymore! Ah, to be free once again!

He dropped over a rock into the natural collar, a ringed rock fortress. He knew he could stay right here and never be seen by anyone he didn't see first. His only exposure was to the air above. He slid his back down the rough rock and leaned against it, eyes on the treeline visible between two boulders. He couldn't have designed this spot better if he tried.

Jason was drawn into the stillness surrounding him. He cleared his mind of all the negativity coming alive in him as his medication wore off. He blocked out the voices of his demons and absorbed the uneasy tingling of his nerve endings. He listened as best he could to the total emptiness. There was no sound except the wind, but he was not quite sure of that. That left him with an uncomfortable feeling he had become used to over the years.

His hearing had grown steadily worse over the past twenty years. Sometimes, when things were as quiet as this, he heard a swishing noise, like wind gently stroking a field of wheat, or blowing through the tops of a hard wood forest. Or the hissing of the foam around a boat gliding through calm sea waters. Or something moving around behind him. I couldn't have survived twenty years ago with hearing this bad. Shit, if I wasn't doing what I was doing twenty years ago, my hearing would be just fine right now. Damned 5" guns blasting away for hours on end. Ratta-tat-tats and mortar shells going off in my ears. Lucky the poor fuckers lasted as long as they have. Now they can rest, too.

"You ain't going to rest, fucker. You've got to deal with us first."

Jason grinned to himself as he let the panic wave wash over him. I'll show you ass holes who you can mess with. I'm checkin' out. So fuck off!

He took a deep breath, relaxing his back and neck muscles, gently rolling his head around in a circle. It had been a long climb. His thighs burned. His shoulders were sore. He was light-headed and could definitely notice a shortness of breath signaling less oxygen at this altitude. The medication that had coursed through his veins for more than six year was seriously thinning out, signaling an immediate need for replenishment. It sent his body messages through random nerve endings, through stomach cramps, through adrenaline rushes that washed quickly through his system. And the demons were talking to him again.

As difficult as it was, he ignored all that. You're out of shape, my friend. You maybe should have done this long ago just for your health. The irony of the thought sent a wave of calm, warm relaxation through Jason and he moved closer to the relaxed Alpha state of total acceptance. He leaned back against the rocks and let every muscle drain itself of tension, to be gradually replaced with a tingling sensation of total calm.

He felt light enough to float away, as if each molecule, each individual atom, could just separate itself from his physical form and disperse into the surroundings. There it would intermingle with the other free particles and bond with whatever solid structure it felt a kinship towards, be it rock or dirt or animal, atmosphere or interstellar gas, or some planetary body. The further out he could imaging himself dispersing, the more centered he became, the more oneness he felt with the universe. He once again realized that growing outward was an inward process. He had known and practiced those things long ago, but had somehow lost touch with those universal truths. His self-confidence was strong, his personal identity as big as the cosmos. The essence of spirituality flowed through him now after a long unexcused absence.

The smell of the air is like the sound of the wind. It's crystal clear. Almost as if it doesn't exist. There's nothing up here to smell. It's unpolluted. There's a lot of power up here. God!! This is nice!

Jason felt exhilarated, but solemness still prevailed. Despite the discomfort of withdrawal, he was calm. Calmer than he had been for quite some time, despite the stirrings in the back of his mind. This is what being centered is all about, he mused as he absorbed the harmony of the rocks and wind and trees. Across from him lay his gear, the only unnatural objects in sight. His eyes rested momentarily on his pistol and he wondered how long the echo of its single shot would ring in the still mountain air. He had no feelings about it, just mild curiosity.

But now was the time to concentrate on the natural, to take it in, to absorb it, to become one with the world and beyond. He stopped all thoughts as he drifted into a deep, restful meditation. The last shards of direct sunlight faded behind the evening cloud banks that billowed up from the surrounding peaks, as if Nature itself were dimming the lights for him. Time stopped as if it had run face-first into the soft cushion of an overstuffed pillow as he floated into himself, drawing the solitude and serenity of his surroundings in with him. He was now ready to melt totally into the abyss, leaving his body behind.

A screech interrupted the silence. His eyes opened slowly as he moved them upward, trying to spot the bird that sounded its territorial siren. A slight smile pulled back his cheeks. No other muscle so much as twitched as he maintained his peaceful state. High above, circling slowly, was a lazy, drifting hawk, just a dot far above him.

Hello, old fella. How high can you fly? I'm on the ground, and I'm probably 13,000 feet above sea level. I'll bet it's cold up there where you are. Jason regretted not having brought his field glasses. Birds like that were so damned impressive. As he watched, the bird began a slow, spiraling descent, circling lower and lower above Jason. The huge bird glided on the unseen air currents as it came steadily downward.

You, my friend, are beautiful. Jeezus, you're big. The size of the bird became more evident as it came lower, still a hundred feet or more above the ground. Jason watched the gentle twitch and wobble of its body as it continuously and effortlessly compensated for slight changes in its delicate balance on the wind. He noticed it was hard for him to keep the head and tail outlined against the paling sky as it circled. It was as if they kept momentarily disappearing. Then the splayed, black wing tips caught Jason's attention as the feathered fingers adjusted for the descending flight pattern. This was no hawk. Shit, it's a fucking EAGLE! Wow! That's beautiful!

To his amazement, the eagle continued to circle and descend, passing overhead within a stone's throw above him. Then, from its down slope approach, it came straight in toward him, settling on the rock directly in front of the awed Jason. Its wing span exceeded five feet.

The eagle landed gracefully on the rock with its left talons gripping the barrel of the .380. Its glaring yellow and red eyes, with the quick turning of its head, moved from Jason to the beef jerky near its right talons, then back to Jason. As the magnificent wings pulled in and the head bent forward toward the jerky, Jason was suddenly struck with an old terror. It reminded him of a similar feeling he had experienced, but had kept deeply hidden for a long time. He half expected to be bitten on the neck by a snake. He was frozen in his crouch against the rock. The eagle bent to claim the jerky, and froze. Its head turned to stare directly at the cowering Jason.

He had seen those eyes before, not long ago, in a dream. They were fiercely intense and powerfully penetrating. He had seen the entire image before, from outline to detail.

With a shiver that rattled his spine, Jason felt a vertigo that took his serene light-headedness and threw him into a spinning, nauseating imbalance. Jason's image of the eagle began to shift, changing with abrupt flashes from a living being to a gold-plated casting to an outline of needlework. There could be no mistake about the authenticity of its precise pose. Jason was thrown into a surreal setting dominated by a living replica of an insignia he has seen many times, long ago.

The world twisted out from under him. He was dizzy. He was scared. He was quickly overcome with the surging feelings of panic. Here before him was the living original of an insignia that had been pinned above the left breast pockets of the SEAL Teams' dress uniforms. The War Eagle. It was a patch sewn on the greens of bodies he had pulled from the water. It was the eagle of his dreams, a figure of supreme authority from his past, come to life here before his very eyes.

His claws on my musket. His eyes in my soul!!! The shock of this recognition caused Jason to take in a sharp breath as a shudder ran down his spine. The eagle stared at Jason for 30 seconds without moving, talons on the gun, beak almost to the rock, eyes looking deeply into Jason. The familiar eyes dominated him as he recognized once again the iron gaze of his own death.

The bird looked into him, its gaze piercing right through him. Then it straightened up and screeched long and loud, opening and closing its wings in a show of domination. The pitch matched some secret frequency that resonated like an electric voltage through Jason's entire being. It was a reprimand. It was a harsh complaint. It was a stern warning. Jason had not breathed in nearly a minute, since he had sucked in the chilled air in an involuntary gasp.

Oh, my God! The eagle maintained eye contact with Jason. Its wings slowly unfolded, as if it were ready to mount itself onto the sky above that rock. It slowly tilted its head, still looking straight at Jason, and screeched again, louder, more shrill than before. The sound curdled Jason's blood. It stopped his heart cold. It reached into his soul like a slap in the face and left the message "We Take Care Of Our Own" burned into his functionless brain, translated from the eagle's voice. It transmitted a direct order for Jason to abandon his plans for self-destruction. The absolute authority of that order was unquestionable.

With that, the eagle snapped up the beef jerky in its beak and pushed itself off the rock, sending the gun sliding down the backside of the rock and out of sight. Magically, the huge body pulled itself into the air with a powerful movement of its massive wings. A second flap lifted it forward. It passed directly over Jason, so near that he felt its heat, smelled its musty odor.

Jason stayed suspended in the mystic experience. The gun had been pushed off the rock, far out of his reach. Its basic idea had been categorically rejected. Its pending use had been summarily dismissed. The jerky was taken as a peace offering. But not before sound frequencies scraped the flesh off Jason's bones, from the inside out.

As it passed overhead, the eagle tore something from Jason's aura, ripped something away from his shaking body. It stripped him of some blackness he had been carrying for so long he thought it was his own. The eagle somehow carried away an invisible shroud and set him free in a way Jason would never be able to articulate. Old doors on rusty hinges opened and closed in Jason's mind, letting out and shutting in a mixture of thoughts and feelings more than 20 years old. The impact was awesome. Adrenaline raced against fatigue, tearing through his body to see which would lay claim to him first.

Jason was devastated, drained, wrung out like a wash rag, unable to move a single muscle. He sank into a useless bundle of flesh and bone, drew into a fetal position, and cried. He cried harder than he ever remembered crying before. He cried harder than when he was crumbled in a useless pile beside a Quonset hut near Da Nang.

Jason cried so hard from so deep inside that he never distinguished the exact moment when he collapsed in exhaustion within his rocky fortress. He woke long after the sun had gone down, shivering from the cold, quietly arguing with his angry demons, still sobbing and shaking, and he climbed into his sleeping bag. He dreamed of floating away - of being free - of crying a river that didn't have boats on it or bodies in it. A clean, clear river flowing peacefully into a calm, green sea.

To be continued...

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