Sunday, February 26, 2006

I hope you enjoy reading the prologue and first two chapters of "Skookum." Thanks for your comments.

“skookum” a Chinook word that was picked up by many tribes in the Pacific Northwest. The Rogue Indians used it in Southern Oregon, and locals still use it today, to describe something large and powerful or awesome and majestic. When describing a person, it usually means someone who is powerful, heroic, and full of courage.


Praying voices covered the quiet tread of Ghostdancer’s feet as he moved through the hospital as invisible as a spirit. It was easy for him to bypass the nurse’s station, because the entire community of Indian Creek filled every inch of the halls. Ranchers and their families had traveled over sixty miles, leaving the comfort of their homes to offer Lucas Hain their support. It was the least they could do for the legendary wrangler who had touched every one of their lives.

Long ago, Luke had given Ghostdancer a chance at life after everyone else had given up on him. Now, it was time for Ghostdancer to begin repaying his debt.

Reaching his destination, he slipped into a darkened room and melted into the shadows. Light from a single window outlined Luke’s hard-muscled body and bearded face as he stood over his wife. His enormous hands were folded in a death grip. Ghostdancer caught his breath when Luke’s startling pale eyes turned in his direction. Those eyes shimmered with an unspeakable pain as they stared, not at Ghostdancer, but at the small figure of a woman shrouded in white sheets. The sheets rose and fell with the even breathing of one in sleep. Ghostdancer had heard about Beth Anne and her courageous battle with cancer, how she had lost a leg and how she might yet lose her life. The news had reached him across several hundred miles to the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Such news was one of the few things that would bring him down to civilization. He seldom left the high country where the Nez Perce once roamed.

Ghostdancer cleared his throat.

Luke lifted his gaze from the bed and blinked. There were forces at work in those pale eyes—resignation, anger, unanswered questions—but there was also courage and determination. It was the face of an old warrior, battle weary yet struggling to lift the sword one last time. The man understood. He had walked a similar road many moons ago.

The clock continued to click as the murmur of voices drifted from the hallway. With a deep sigh, Luke finally spoke, “Ghostdancer …I knew you would come.”

Ghostdancer said nothing.

The knuckles of Luke’s clenched fingers turned white. His right shoulder leaned hard against the wall.

Ghostdancer raised his head and hands upward, quietly beginning a song in the tongue of his forefathers. But unlike his forefathers, he knew the name of The Great Spirit—Yahweh—The Living God. He called upon Yahweh through the music that was as much a part of him as the land, pulling the words from the hidden depths of his soul—words from David, the Hebrew Psalmist, music that reached beyond earthly dimensions, a tone more fitting for a forest than a hospital room. It was always like this when he sang. It was as if he had been transposed to another realm. Passion filled his music while his heart grasped for his Creator. He pled for the life of the woman in the bed before him. He continued until every ounce of his strength abandoned him, then he lowered his hands and looked at Luke.

Luke’s upper body was sprawled across the bed covering his wife with a smothering embrace. Beth Anne was fully awake now. The couple clung to one another as if letting go would be the end of them.

Ghostdancer knew his gift of prayer would be long lasting, but he had another gift that wouldn’t be as well received. In time, Luke would discover it for himself, and only time would tell the full worth of it. Ghostdancer pronounced a blessing and slipped back through the door as silently as he had come.

Chapter One

~Part I~

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Yahweh, and the Word was Yahweh. He was with Yahweh in the beginning. Through him all things were made, without him nothing was made that has been made.

In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

—from The Sacred Writings, John 1:1-5

I cannot survive in the darkness
unless the light lives in me!

—Ghostdancer, January 3, 1999

~Chaper One~

January, 1999

Often, the biggest battles a man must face are not on some foreign field—they are within the confines of his own soul—and no matter how many willing hands volunteer help, he must face the battle alone. Lucas Hain mulled over these thoughts as he broke the ice on the watering trough and headed for the creek. His horse, Rusty, followed behind lifting his hooves high and throwing snow in little blizzards beneath his tail. Luke listened to the sound of the gentle plop of hooves and thought of how horses were a constant in his life, as were the towering mountains, the herds of wapiti, and the high prairie where the seasons passed in spectacular wonder.

But they won’t mean a thing if I lose my wife.

His fingers tightened around the handle of an empty bucket as he lowered it into the creek. His father and grandfather had watered their animals in the same way. They were the first to settle in this wild Southern Oregon land still mostly untouched by humans. Luke had always believed that Skookum Ranch would stay with his family as long as the trees stretched to the heavens and the wapiti’s bugle awakened the morning. Now, heading into a new century and nearing his forty-ninth birthday, he wasn’t so sure. His plight was strangely similar to that of the farmers of Indian Creek who were in danger of losing their land to the plight of a suckerfish.

Perhaps the world no longer has use for our kind. The thought chilled him.

He lifted the bucket and stood, spilling water over his pant leg. He startled at the shock of it, staring at his leg as if it belonged to someone else. How would it feel to lose a leg? His thoughts flew back to the night before when he had sat in the chair beside Beth Anne’s hospital bed. Her pale face had made little contrast against the stark white sheets.

“Go home,” she had whispered.

Luke had grabbed her frail fingers between his massive hands and held them up to his thick beard. “I can’t leave you.”

Emerald eyes fixed on his face. “You’ve been here for three weeks, Luke. You’re driving everyone crazy.”

Her words, though softly spoken, had pierced his soul. Didn’t she need him as much as he needed to be there?

Rusty whinnied and nuzzled Luke’s pocket, bringing him back to the task at hand. “Okay, boy.” Luke said as he ran his fingers through the thick mane. “I’ve got your favorite today.” He turned and headed back to the trough, filling it with clear water, then he reached in his wool jacket and pulled out an apple.

The horse eyed the fruit suspiciously, expecting Luke to take a bite for himself first, but Luke had no taste for food this morning. He held the apple in his open palm until Rusty took the offered treat in two crunches.

The early morning ritual of taking care of the animals was usually a balm to Luke’s soul. As he wheeled a bale of hay to the corral, he imagined the love of his life lying in a hospital bed instead of brewing coffee in their country kitchen—a missed welcome that had always brightened his day. The house lay dark and empty now, smelling of cold must. He pitched flakes of hay to the waiting cows and thought of the words Beth Anne had left him with the night before. “Go to the mountains,” she had whispered. “Let me know how the herd’s doing.”

He suspected the request was more for him than for her. It wouldn’t be the same without Beth Anne beside him. He turned and looked out over the fields, seeing nothing, but thinking of the one question that plagued him most. What if the cancer takes her?

He threw the worn blanket over the back of Rusty, the blanket Beth Anne had made several Christmases ago. After the saddle and gear were arranged, the Paint straightened and looked expectantly toward a neighboring stall. Luke laid a hand on the saddlehorn just as a plaintive whinny echoed from the stall. He paused. Then, in an unlikely bout of impulsiveness, he turned and set his wife’s speckled Appaloosa free.

Freckles kicked her heels and ran straight for the low slung log cabin. Luke watched, well aware of his heart pulling against his chest. He half expected Beth Anne to appear on the porch. He grabbed a lead rope and headed toward the kitchen door where the confused horse stood waiting.

“No rider today,” he mumbled. He slipped the halter over the animal’s flickering ears. Maybe he was wrong to take the riderless horse along, but it just didn’t seem right to leave the mare behind. Nothing seemed right on this winter morning. He looked over the snow-covered fields sparkling beneath the intermittent clouded sky and wondered how his soul could feel so dark. Even the trees glistened with the sunlight catching diamonds off the frosted snow. But the glittering showcase did nothing to lift the heaviness he felt in his chest. He mounted Rusty and headed for the forest. He was a man of faith, lifting simple prayers for daily guidance as he rode the trails—another of the things he and his wife shared. Now the prayers lay heavy in his heart, too heavy for words. Nothing more than a sigh escaped to the heavens.

The trio made its way up the trail, crawling through drifts of powdered snow and snaking around thick groves of manzanita brush. It was almost as if Beth Anne were with him. The soft crunch of hooves upon snow was the same familiar sound he always heard on their winter treks. Neither he nor Beth Anne broke the silence with their voices. It was an unwritten rule and one that his wife insisted on—no talking on the trail. She felt it disturbed the wonder.

Today the wonder was lost on Luke. As the horses plodded along, he thought of the farm families of Indian Creek who had offered all the help they could muster, bringing over enough casseroles to last a year. But none of them could roll back time and change the botched biopsy and resulting infection that had taken Beth Anne’s leg, and still threatened her life.

Soon, he entered the sanctuary of the darkened forest of old growth ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Some of the trunks were as thick as the width of a car. Here the snow barely made it through the thick canopy of limbs formed high above. Luke often found refuge in the shadow of their shelter, but today the trees towered above him as if he were no more significant than a pebble on the face of Flounce Rock.

He searched for tracks. Freckles nickered. Both horses knew what to expect. Beth Anne had led the horses through countless days of following herds of elk that roamed high above their cabin. It was a passion she couldn’t explain.

“The elk are such beautiful creatures,” she would say, “and so free.”

She had written stories about following their tracks and being accepted as one with the herd. Readers thought the articles were fiction. They laughed when she insisted they were true. They wouldn’t have laughed if they had followed her through the woods as many times as Luke had.

Eight hooves splashed through Skookum Creek and skirted the high meadow where Luke picked out two sets of tracks in the piled snow—an elk cow and her calf. He crawled out of the saddle and leaned against the gnarled trunk of a giant cedar overlooking the prairie. The horses stayed behind in the forest, browsing for bits of grass beneath the trees. He folded his arms and waited. The prairie was high enough in elevation that clouds hung above and below treeline, creating stair steps through patches of blue sky. Luke’s eyes walked up the clouded staircase, searching for some kind of answer.


Even as the word formed in his mind, he pushed it aside. Who was he to question God? Yet the word refused to leave.


Perhaps he only fooled himself into believing he was a man of faith …but faith was all he had now. He brought his eyes back to the prairie and forced himself to live in the moment and leave the questioning behind.

First he heard nothing. Then a lifetime of patience tuned his ears to myriad songs of the forest and meadow—the twitter of black hooded juncos flitting in a nearby grove of young pine trees, the shuffle of horses rummaging over the hard ground behind him, the far-off gurgle of Skookum Creek, the swoosh of a crow’s wings in passing flight. These were the sounds Beth Anne now missed. The hum of the hospital obliterated any outside noise. Luke had nearly gone crazy from the constant murmur of voices. Weren’t hospitals supposed to be quiet? On the other hand the silence between him and his wife had nearly suffocated both of them. For the first time in their twenty-eight years of marriage he could do nothing to ease her pain, let alone find any words of comfort. If it had been an attack from a charging enemy, he would have fought it; if it had been a storm, he would have sheltered her; if it had been a stampeding horse, he would have protected her …but how could he fight cancer?

He heard the sound of hooves about the same time he smelled the musky aroma of wapiti floating across the hillside. “Elk,” Beth Anne would have pointed out. It was the same time an enormous cloud mantled the earth. His intense gaze bored through the fog while he willed his body to remain perfectly still. First the lead wapiti stepped from under cover of the forest followed closely behind by three more wapiti cows and a calf. Over fifty of the majestic animals stretched across Skookum Prairie while Luke watched in silence. Back in the hospital, before the leg was taken, Beth Anne had made Luke repeat his entire tale to the nurses.

“I call them elk,” Beth Anne had said, “but Luke refuses to call them anything but wapiti.” She had waved an arm at him, giving him center stage.

He took the cue. “Elk is a name born from a mistake. Although how anyone ever mistook those magnificent beasts for a moose, I’ll never know, but early settlers managed to do it.”

Beth Anne’s laughter and the nurse’s rapt attention had encouraged him to continue. “The Shawnees correctly named the animals “wapiti,” which was their word for pale deer or white rump. These animals are more closely related to deer than they are moose, only they’re about four times larger than a deer. You’ll never hear a European call a wapiti an elk.”

“Yes,” Beth Anne had laughingly agreed. “but most Americans call them elk as I do, and the herd on the high sanctuary of Skookum Ranch is different than most anywhere else in the world. Tell them Luke.”

He had obliged, relating how Skookum Wapiti were a cross between the huge Rocky Mountain variety and the coastal Roosevelt elk. “Fitting,” he said, “because the name ‘Skookum’ is another Native American term used to describe something large and awesome, or strong and courageous. Skookum Wapiti carry the best qualities of both species—a long graceful stride and thick, muscular necks supporting massive racks of ivory-colored antlers.

There were no full-grown bulls in the herd now grazing before Luke. It was no surprise, because mature bulls were seldom seen with the herd except during rutting season when a single bull could assemble a harem of up to sixty cows. The musky scent of wapiti blew across Luke’s face—the aroma of something akin to the scent of horses, only much stronger. Beth Anne loved the fragrance of them. She said it reminded her of everything wild and free. Luke tried to view the animals the way his wife would, attempting to imagine what she would see if she were standing with him beneath the protection of the cedar. As a calf bent down on its front legs to nurse from its mother, Luke knew that was one of the things Beth Anne would have noticed most.

“Isn’t it strange to see such a young calf this early in the year?” she would have asked in a whisper.

He would have agreed. It was strange. He would tell her about the calf and about the herd coming so close to him now, that he barely dared to breathe. They roamed across the face of Skookum Prairie like ghostly sentinels guarding the top of the mountain, moving with their rocking boat-like rhythm until they entered the forest on both sides of him. He could have reached out and touched the soft hide of a young bull. Instead, he fought to calm the hammering of his heart. They paid him no mind. Like most mountain folk, it was Luke’s way to connect with nature whenever he faced a difficult problem, but never before had he connected so completely. The smell of the animals mingled with his own until he could tell no difference between the scent of wapiti and human. The sound of their cracking joints and their hooves overturning rocks became a mountain melody in the snow-quietened forest. After they passed, he wondered if he had only imagined their presence.

When he finally moved from the tree and turned toward the horses, he was met with an unforgettable sight—the horses and wapiti grazed beneath the canopy in perfect unity. Clouds had parted just enough for shafts of brilliant sunlight to break their way through, flooding the animals in bright light. A gentle breeze shook crystals of ice from snow-laden treetops. They danced through the forest, throwing spinning prisms of color through the morning fog. A tinkling, magical music filled the air.

“The song of the sirens,” Luke whispered.

He remembered hearing the story of the sirens from his long-time friend, Carlton. The two of them had sat beside a crackling fire while the old man’s low voice rumbled with warning, “Watch yourself, Luke. It’s the heart-rending melodies that enchant grown men.”

Now Luke watched as the horses and wapiti lifted their heads toward the mesmerizing sound, all ears tuned to catch each note. How would Beth Anne describe it? Sparkling jewels against a silver-slated sky. The spinning crystals floated through the forest and across the prairie.

A sense of perfect peace washed over Luke’s soul, clearing away the heaviness of the dark months of hopeless waiting. For the moment he forgot the hospital. He forgot the pile of bills that threatened his existence on Skookum Ranch. He forgot the plight of the farmers. He simply closed his eyes and basked in the peace until he was aware of something much larger than himself—something outside time and pain.

The presence grew until it consumed him, until nothing else existed except this perfect, abiding peace. He felt both lighter and stronger. Hours could have passed or minutes. It was impossible to tell. He let the peace wash over him in cleansing waves until Rusty’s wet nose nuzzled against his ear.

He opened his eyes. The wapiti had disappeared.

He leaned his head into the warm neck of the waiting horse and sobbed. He wept for his inability to heal his wife, for the gift of sublime peace given in spite of his lack of faith, for the pain that threatened to crush the very soul of him. It was a release of passion he had never before allowed himself. Rusty stood still and patient, giving him total freedom.

When the tears were spent, Luke wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. It was a clumsy motion, reminiscent of childhood. The tears had emptied him, leaving not a void as he had expected, but a renewed strength from outside himself. Perhaps this was how old warriors received power for the final battle. If so, he was ready, not with gun and sword, but with a simple childlike faith. He had no answers for the questions, had no idea why a loving God would allow such pain. He simply understood that the Creator was still in control, still very much in touch with his creation, and for now that was enough.

He mounted Rusty and started back down the trail. Thoughts of freedom and hope filled his heart. If only he could share the hope with Beth Anne. But he was a man of few words. He could string them together like well-worn tracks within the confines of his mind, but his tongue could never do justice to his thoughts …besides, what words could describe the wonder revealed on Skookum? He wasn’t even sure what had really taken place there.

Rusty picked the trail through the manzanita grove as Luke rocked in the saddle with an ease born of long years of use. He listened to Freckle’s steady plodding beside him and thought, somehow, that he had already shared the morning with his wife, that a part of Beth Anne was with him even now on the trail.

Chapter Two

Beth Anne squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t want to wake up, didn’t want to leave the dream that made her feel close to Luke. I can almost feel the warmth of his skin, the brush of his beard against my cheek. Almost.

“Mrs. Hain,” a voice called.

She clenched her fist against the throb in her leg, careful not to reach too low. The pain made it easy to pretend the leg was still there as long as she didn’t touch the stump. Stump. Whoever thought of calling a part of the human body a stump? She envisioned the enormous trees above Huckleberry Campground that had been cut down in the prime of their lives. Oldtimers talked about folks dancing on the tops of them. They were that big. Trees should have stumps, not people.

The clatter of trays and smell of cooked food told her it was lunchtime. Silence, she thought. What I wouldn’t give for silence and the smell of ponderosa pine. And the feel of leather and horseflesh. She grabbed at the dream, trying to get it back.

“I know you’re awake.”

She recognized the voice. It held the sound of musical laughter as if coming from a person whose entire purpose in life was to discover a joke in every situation. But there’s no joke in losing a leg. And now the chemo.

“You could just tell me to go away. I can take a hint.”

Beth Anne sighed and opened her eyes. “Molly.”

“At your service.”

The girl’s face looked young and innocent with her pale blue eyes and blonde mass of impossibly curly hair, but Beth Anne wasn’t so sure her mission was so innocent. Molly was a good therapist and a great help, but trouble lurked behind those laughing eyes. “You don’t have to wait on me like this.”

“I know. But I’m grateful you’re letting me come home with you, and how else could I get the opportunity to live on an Oregon ranch and own a horse?”

“I’m sure you can find better ways.”

Molly lowered the serving table and started opening cartons and packages. First, the tiny packet of pepper, then the orange juice. Beth Anne placed her own hand over the girl’s. “Stop.”

Molly pulled back. “No problem, Mrs. Hain.”

“And stop calling me that.”


“Mrs. Hain.”

“But that’s your name.”

“You make me feel old. Call me Beth Anne.”

“On one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“You give me your ice cream.”

A strained chuckle stuck in Beth Anne’s throat. “Okay. You’ve got a deal.”

“And what about our other deal? Do I have that too?”

Beth Anne knew what she meant. The secret. Am I willing to keep the secret? She wanted to say no, to hold the satisfaction of watching the girl sweat just a bit more, but giving into such a response would only make matters worse for everyone involved, including Luke.

Luke …

The dream called to her. It would be so much easier to fall back into it than to face this black reality. Dear God …a leg. How was she supposed to face life with one leg? “You’ve got some nerve,” she snapped.

Molly inspected the writing on the ice cream cup, apparently finding the carton’s tiny print of great interest. Ah, well …The girl had appeared out of nowhere, disrupting Beth Anne’s life nearly as much as the loss of a leg, but Molly’s skills as a physical therapist had also given Beth Anne the will to live, the will to fight the horrible cancer. How could she deny Molly the one thing she most desired? Beth Anne shoved the tray away with the food untouched. Pain does terrible things to appetite. Then she pushed the button to raise the head of her bed until she could look Molly full in the face. “Have you considered Tadd?”

“Your son?”

“He’s an only child. He’s used to having things pretty much his way. He’s also very protective of Skookum Ranch.”

Molly raised one hand to her head in a salute. “No problem. Give me some time and I’ll win him over.”

Win him over? That’s all they needed. Then who would be on Beth Anne’s side? Where would the loyalties lie when the full truth was finally released? “Okay,” Beth Anne murmured. “Your secret is safe with me.”

Molly let out a long sigh.

“But . . .”

Molly stiffened, staring at Beth Anne as if her entire life depended on the next words. Perhaps it did.

“I don’t want to make this more difficult for you,” Beth Anne said. “But you have to promise that you will eventually tell Luke everything.”

Molly’s eyes widened. “Everything?”


“Let me get this straight. You want me to tell Luke?”


Molly’s gaze dropped to the floor as if she were looking into the future, seeing if she could meet the challenge. Then she abruptly straightened her shoulders. “When?”

“When the time is right.”

“But how will I know?”

“You’ll know.”

Molly groaned and rose to her feet, pacing the room like an expectant mountain lion.

Beth Anne swallowed the burn of nausea as she waited Molly’s answer. She hated the antiseptic smell of the hospital, hated the sounds even worse—the echo of clicking feet in the hall, the murmur of lowered voices and cries of pain, the constant hum of heaters and fans. She fought off a wave of panic. Perhaps she shouldn’t have insisted on Luke returning to Skookum Ranch. The room seemed empty without him, and Lord help her, but she felt vulnerable for the first time since her wedding day.

“Okay.” Molly’s voice was back to her usual chipper tone, but the word was said with the firmness of one who had thought the matter through.

Beth Anne closed her eyes. In spite of the secret, she felt very close to the young woman. But how would Luke react to the girl’s revelation? Beth Anne hadn’t really dealt with it herself. The loss of a leg was all she could manage at this point. Perhaps she was in denial, but how big a deal could that be in the bigger scheme of things? An overwhelming tiredness swept over her. She lowered the bed and gave herself to the painkiller. Molly’s hands felt warm as they adjusted the sheets. I should say something, give the girl some kind of apology. But no words came.

The dream was calling her away from the pain and fear. It was calling her back to Skookum, back to the man she could never get enough of, back to the place where she could sit in a saddle with two whole legs and ride beside her beloved husband across endless trails of high prairie and mountain forests. She could smell the warm scent of pine and the sweet aroma of wild lilacs. She could hear the plod of the horse’s hooves, the clear song of the warbler—

The rude wail of ambulance sirens jerked her from the dream. For a moment she considered the secret. Tomorrow. Tomorrow will be soon enough to think about the future.

Then she sank into a deep sleep, giving herself entirely to the dream.