Disclaimers: Not many, actually. These characters really don't belong to anyone but themselves, but since they tell their stories to me, let's just say I have the rights to them, okay? You may recognize these ladies from the story, Midnight Oil.
The area is real - The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are in New Mexico, and this story takes place in a fictional bed and breakfast, based near the mountains around Santa Fe. Everything else is a figment of my overactive imagination.
There's nothing naughty here. If you can't stand the thought of two women who love each other, then that's your problem, not mine. Find something else to read, like the Yellow Pages.
Comments, good or bad, can be directed to - firstname.lastname@example.org
His lungs burned. Lieutenant Hershel Conaway ran as if his life depended on it, which it did. The heavy brush whipped his boots and tore through his Army - issued pants. His sky blue wool was darkly stained and barely recognizable. The only consolation being it helped him blend in more easily in his surroundings. The heavy woods protected him somewhat, and the dense ground cover hid his tracks fairly well.
They were getting closer. Hershel was still able to duck out of their sight every now and then. He only hoped he could disappear from them long enough to survive. A rifle shot and ricochet off a tree next to him rained splinters into his face, temporarily blinding him. He wiped at his eyes and kept stumbling along, knowing if he stopped he would be dead. Another shot was fired and he felt a burning pain in his lower back. Gasping, he covered the area with his palm. Bringing his hand to his face, he saw blood covering it.
Hershel fell to his knees and crawled into a heavy bush. He held his breath as his pursuers ran by. A loud clap of thunder startled him. Then the most miraculous thing happened - it began to rain. It might be possible to hide long enough for them to lose his tracks completely.
He never knew when he passed out from the exhaustion and pain, but woke to find the night upon him. Hershel grew weaker, and realized he would need to find more permanent shelter if he wanted to live.
Crawling from his hiding place, he got to his feet slowly and peered around in the gloom. He could barely make out a high hill in the distance. Hershel stumbled toward his goal, hoping there was an overhang to protect him from the rain that continued to fall.
His luck held, as he found a small cave. Once inside, it was barely tall enough for him to stand. He dropped to the floor, thankful to be out of the elements at last. Suddenly, a bright flash blinded him, as lightning struck right outside the mouth of the cave. It dislodged a massage amount of mud and debris, turning his sanctuary into a tomb.
The crackling fire nearby almost made the room too warm, but the woman sitting in the low slung chair wasn't disturbed by the heat. She seemed hypnotized by the flames, until her concentration was broken by a woman falling into her lap. "Hey."
"You looked like you were falling asleep there," Monica Bradford teased, placing one arm around her lover's neck. "Is all of this rest wearing you out?" She had talked Geri into spending a long weekend in New Mexico, to celebrate their third anniversary. Monica had found an inn that had everything she wanted. They were in a family - owned bed and breakfast, located in the Pecos Wilderness, just outside of Santa Fe. The lower elevations of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains boasted juniper, pinon, and ponderosa pine forest. Monica was determined to get her partner out on a day hike, while the weather was still decent.
Geri Huffman looked into her lover's green eyes, which sparkled in the firelight. "Nope. I've been enjoying the peace and quiet. What have you been up to?"
"Just looking around." Monica held up a colorful pamphlet. "Did you know that the woods around here are supposedly haunted?"
Shifting in the chair to make them more comfortable, Geri wrapped both arms around Monica and snorted in disbelief. "Yeah, right. What are they trying to sell you?"
Monica lightly slapped Geri's knee with the folded paper, before opening the brochure. "Nothing, goofus. But according to this, over a hundred and fifty years ago a U.S. Cavalry officer had deserted from his company. It also says he was an 'Indian sympathizer', and he was chased through this area by a band of bounty hunters. He disappeared around here, unable to get back to his family. Isn't that sad?"
"It would be, if it were true," Geri admitted. "What's the catch? Are they trying to sell a tour, or something?"
Before Monica could answer her, a woman stepped out from the shadows, wearing a heavy denim skirt and red flannelled shirt. "The story is quite true." Brown eyes glittered in the firelight. Her hair was brought up into a tight bun at the base of her neck, its once dark color giving way to strands of gray. Deep wrinkles lined her face to show she was no stranger to the sun. She sat across from the couple, her hands folded neatly in her lap. "Our family settled here shortly after he vanished, in hopes of finding some trace or explanation for his disappearance. That was in late eighteen sixty - eight, and since then, no men have been born into our household. It is said because he is lost, and without a proper burial, our family was cursed to bear no more male children."
Geri shook her head. "That could just be a coincidence." She studied the woman across from them and frowned. "Why are you telling us this, anyway?"
"Because your companion mentioned to me earlier that she wanted to hike the trails around here." The woman's voice was low. "Normally I wouldn't say anything, but it was around this time, at the end of October, that he was lost to us. It's said you can hear him being chased if you explore too deeply. It might be better to stay in today." She stood and stared unblinkingly at the couple. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you. Please enjoy the rest of your stay." The owner of the inn disappeared as quickly as she came.
"Well, that was enlightening," Monica sighed. "Do you think it's really true?"
"I think she thinks it's true. Do you still want to go for a hike today?" Geri didn't care one way or the other. But this was Monica's trip, and she'd do whatever her partner wanted.
Monica thought quietly for a moment. "Well, it's still early enough in the day, and I really did want to walk at least one of the trails while we were here."
"Good enough for me. Let's go back to our room and change, and I'll squeeze my feet into those torture devices you call hiking boots." Geri had allowed herself to be talked into buying the unfamiliar gear. She knew realistically it was better to wear proper foot attire, but having to give up her regular sneakers rankled her. "But after we get back, you're going to owe me."
"I'm sure I can think of something." Monica stood and helped Geri to her feet. "If I can't, I know you can."
"I thought this was supposed to be a gentle incline, not damned mountains," Geri huffed. "Tell me again why I agreed to this?"
Monica used their linked hands to pull her companion up the trail. "Because you promised me we could get away for a long weekend, anywhere I wanted. And I wanted to come up here." She waved her free hand around. "Isn't it beautiful? I love the different types of trees."
The overall effect was beautiful, but Geri was too stubborn to admit it out loud. "Yeah. Great." Even though the temperature was only around sixty five degrees, she wiped the sweat from her brow, disgusted with herself for being so out of shape.
"Are you okay? We can stop and rest for a while, if you want." The slight slope they had started on had gradually increased, and even she was finding it harder to catch her breath in the mountain air.
Geri shook her head. "Nope, I'm fine. Just taking a second to look at the scenery, like you said." Her blue eyes never left Monica's, though. "You're right. It's absolutely beautiful."
A loud rumble of thunder halted Monica's retort. The sky had become dark and ominous while they had been hiking. "Oops. I didn't even notice the clouds come up." She looked back behind them at the empty trail. "Do you think we can make it back to the inn before the rain gets too serious?" The heavy rains were supposed to have ceased for the year and the sudden storm came up out of nowhere.
"The only way we'll know is if we try." Geri turned, and waited for her lover to lead.
While they moved quickly down the trail, the thunder sounded louder and closer. As a few fat raindrops began to fall, Monica picked up speed. "I don't think we're going to make it," she yelled to Geri, trying to be heard over the gusty wind. She turned her head to see if Geri was close by, and suddenly lost her footing.
"Monica!" Geri saw her lover's foot slide on the wet foliage, and lurched forward to catch her before she fell. Just as she got a good grip on Monica's arm, a loud crack of lightning crashed nearby, startling them. They slid off the edge of the trail, slipping through the increasingly wet and muddy foliage.
Geri ended up flat of her back with Monica draped across her. She could feel the mud they had landed in soak through her dark hair and grimaced at the feeling. Her only concern was for Monica, who hadn't moved. "Sweetheart? Can you hear me?"
"Ugh." Monica lifted herself into a sitting position across Geri's hips and looked down into her face. "That was fun." With one hand, she pulled a few leaves from Geri's hair. "You look like a drowned rat."
"Gee, thanks." The rain had turned heavy, and Geri blinked to get the water from her eyes. She waited until Monica climbed off her. Allowing herself to be pulled to her feet, Geri put her hands on her hips and looked around. "Now what?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. Do you have any idea where we are?"
The hill they had tumbled down was too steep to negotiate by foot. Where they stood didn't appear to have any trails. Geri raked her hands through her long hair, dislodging as much of the mud as possible. "You're asking me? I thought you were the one who had the map."
Monica checked her pockets and came up empty. "I must have lost it when we fell. Do you have your phone?"
"And call who? I don't have the inn's number." When Monica glared at her, Geri sighed and took the cell phone from her hip. It was covered in mud. She wiped the device on the front of her shirt and checked the screen, which was dark. "So much for that." She put it back on her belt. "Next idea?"
"I guess we start walking." The light jacket Monica wore was soaked through. Chilled, she could just imagine how Geri felt, since all she wore was a flannel shirt. She clasped her lover's hand and pulled. "Come on. Maybe we can find a way back to the trail."
As they trudged through the dense trees, the rain tapered off. The thick clouds still hung in the air and the wind turned colder. Through their linked hands, Monica could feel Geri shivering. Her own legs felt like blocks of ice, and she knew they would need to find some shelter from the damp wind, soon. They had been following an animal path along the edge of the mountain. She stopped suddenly, causing Geri to run into her back.
"Are you all right?" Geri looked over Monica's head. Being half a foot taller had its advantages. She could see a large pile of dirt and debris in front of them. "Damn."
"Yeah. We're going to have to find a way around this mess." Monica jumped when a clap of thunder rumbled overhead. The rain began to fall again, colder than before. "I'm sorry. Guess I'm not much of a hiking guide."
Geri put her arms around Monica and rested her chin on her shoulder. "You're doing great. At least you're not as directionally challenged as I am." She studied up the mountain, where the slide had come from. She pointed halfway up the hill. "What's that?"
"Hmm?" Monica vision followed Geri's outstretched hand. "I can't tell. It looks like an overhang, or something."
Geri immediately took off to investigate. "Maybe it's enough to block some of this rain. Be right back." She used her long legs to step carefully amid the fallen limbs and branches. Almost there, she slipped and fell to one knee.
"Be careful!" Monica started after her. "One day on a trail, and you think you're Daniel Boone, or something," she grumbled.
"Cool! Check this out." Geri disappeared into the side of the mountain.
Monica climbed faster. "Geri, wait! You don't know what's in there." She stood at the mouth of the dark cave. "Where - "
"It's fine." Geri appeared from the darkness.
"Aaaah!" Monica took a step back. "Damn it, you scared me." She slapped her lover on the arm.
Looking around, Monica could see that the cave wasn't very large at all. Even in the fading light, she could see the back wall. The floor was clear of anything that indicated animal habitation. It was obvious the mudslide had uncovered it. "Well, at least we're out of the wind and rain."
Geri found a spot next to the wall and sat. She patted the area next to her. "Might as well get comfortable. We'll have to snuggle together to keep warm."
"Like that's a hardship." Monica joined her and was instantly enveloped in her arms. "Even though we're cold, dirty, and hungry, there's no place I'd rather be."
"You say the sweetest things." Geri kissed her temple. "It's a shame there's no wood in here, we could build a nice, cozy fire."
"And light it how? Rub two sticks together?"
Geri held her closer. "I dunno. I never learned to do that."
"You weren't a Girl Scout?"
"Nope. Got kicked out my first year."
Monica wasn't sure if it was true or not, but she had to ask. "What did you do?"
"Got caught in the kitchen with Lisa Preston."
"Lisa Preston." Geri flinched when she was slapped on the stomach. "I couldn't help it. I was an early bloomer."
"How old were you?"
Geri thought for a moment. "Eleven or twelve, I think. We were just fooling around, but Lisa's mom wasn't amused." She shrugged her shoulders. "Didn't bother me any. I wanted to play softball, instead."
Laughing, Monica put her arms around Geri and squeezed. "Oh, yeah. That was so much safer for you. Those girls never stood a chance." Finally warming up, she yawned. "Sorry. It's not the company, I promise."
"Don't worry about it. I'm a little tired, too." Geri pulled her onto her lap. "Let's try and get some rest, until the storm passes."
"Good idea." Monica turned and kissed Geri's chilled lips. "I love you."
"Love you too, baby." Geri lowered her head and closed her eyes. Moments later, they were both sound asleep.
Monica wasn't certain what caused her to wake. She looked around their cave, but could see nothing amiss. Geri was still sound asleep. Suddenly, a mist appeared at the rear of the cave. She shook her lover's shoulder. "Geri, wake up!" she whispered, but was unable to rouse her.
Out of the mist, a shape formed. Not far away, squatted a man clothed in unfamiliar garb. He wore boots that stopped just below his knees, a long - sleeved white shirt, and light blue pants. He never moved, just stared at them.
Again, Monica roughly jiggled Geri's arm. "Honey, you're not going to believe this." She became concerned when Geri continued to sleep. The man stood and gestured to her. She noticed he wasn't much taller than herself. "Um, hi. I'm sorry if we're trespassing on your property. But it was raining and cold, and - "
He sliced his hand through the air, as if to silence her.
When he took a step forward, Monica jumped to her feet and got between him and Geri. "Leave her alone."
He stopped, then waved to her to follow him.
Not believing him to be an immediate threat, Monica took a few steps away from her sleeping partner. "What is it?"
He led her to the back of the cave. Squatting again by a corner of the room, he pointed to a pile of dirt.
Monica looked over his shoulder. Although it was the dead of night, she could see clearly as if a light burned nearby. Beneath the dirt, she could make out several bones. She couldn't tell what kind they were, though. "I don't understand."
He pointed again, this time more forcefully.
"Okay. Yes, I see them." Monica watched as the apparition faded into the night. "Hey, wait!" The cave turned dark, once again.
"Monnie? Wake up."
Monica's eyes popped open and she gasped. She was still lying next to Geri. "Where did he go?"
"What? Who?" Geri brushed the hair away from Monica's eyes. "Are you okay?"
Light burst through the opening to the cave. Monica couldn't believe they slept the entire night. "There was a guy, dressed like he was from the civil war, or something." She pointed to the back of the room. "He was over there, and showed me - " She got up and walked to where he led her the night before. "Come here."
Geri groaned and got stiffly to her feet. "What's up with you? Did you have a bad dream, or something?"
"Just come here. You've got to see this."
"All right, all right. Hold on." Geri stretched, and walked slowly to where Monica stood. "Show me."
Monica grabbed her hand and pointed. "Look."
Doing as she was told, all Geri could see was a pile of dirt. "Gee, mud. How exciting."
"Okay, so mud and some old animal bones." She paused. "Wait a minute. This wasn't here when I looked around last night."
"Exactly." Monica crossed her arms over her chest. "He showed them to me."
Rolling her eyes, Monica sighed. "The guy. He woke me up last night and showed me." She poked Geri in the stomach. "I tried to get you up, but you slept like the dead."
"I'm a light sleeper, you know that. As far as I know, you never moved all night."
"Well, I didn't make him up. How else can you explain this?" Monica pointed to the dirt and bones.
Geri shrugged. "I dunno. But it's just some old animal bones. Maybe I just missed them last night."
"I guess you're right." Monica looked outside at the bright sunlight of morning. "Let's get out of here. This place is giving me the creeps."
They had been walking for almost two hours when a shout alerted them to someone else's presence. Monica pointed ahead. "I think the cavalry has finally arrived." She had no idea how prophetic her guess was.
"Thank god." Geri didn't go to the gym like her lover, who was a fitness fanatic. Every muscle in her body ached, and she was certain her stomach was gnawing on her backbone. "I hope they have breakfast with them."
"Is that all you think about? Food?"
Geri wrapped her arm around her lover's shoulders. "Actually, it's the second thing I always think about. You're the first. Of course, they are related."
"Hush." Monica blushed at the innuendo.
The three women searchers stopped in from of them. The oldest, at least ten years their senior, explained, "Hi. I'm Susan, and these are my sisters, Tanya and Bonnie. Our mother has been worried sick, and sent us out to look for you. She was afraid you ran into trouble." She motioned to Tanya, who removed a backpack and brought out two wool blankets.
Monica handed Geri one and draped the other across her own shoulders. "Thank you. We got off the path, and ended up spending the night in a cave."
The three sisters exchanged looks. Susan shook her head. "There are no caves around here. Are you sure it wasn't just a shelter of rocks?"
"No, it was a cave." Geri pointed back behind her and Monica. "I think a mudslide uncovered it. If you go back a couple of miles that way, you can't miss it."
Tanya handed each woman an apple. "All right. But you must be starving. This should hold you until we get back." After both women thanked her, she slung her pack over her shoulder.
"Don't forget about the bones," Monica reminded Geri. She turned to Susan. "In the cave, there were a pile of bones in one corner, partially covered by dirt."
Bonnie stopped. "What kind of bones?"
"Human." Monica answered.
"Animal." Geri corrected.
Intrigued, Susan nodded to her sisters. "Go ahead and check it out. I'll show our guests back to the inn."
"I believe you." The innkeeper poured them both another cup of tea. They had been comfortably ensconced in front of the fireplace most of the day.
Monica smirked at Geri, before turning her attention back to their hostess. "So you don't think it was a dream?" She had spent the better part of the afternoon telling her incredible story.
The old woman nodded wisely. "Oh, it was a dream. But you were visited by a specter, I'm certain."
Geri thought it was possible the woman was just a little senile, but kept her opinion to herself. "Did you hear from your daughters? I think they were going to look for the cave."
"Yes. Tanya was quite excited by the find. She called her uncle, who will be out tomorrow to verify what you discovered."
Monica was confused. Maybe she didn't hear the woman correctly. "Uncle? I thought - "
"Her father's brother. Daniel is a history professor. He was very intrigued." The woman stood. "It's getting late, and I know you have a long trip ahead of you tomorrow. Since your visit here was marred by misfortune, I would be honored if you'd join us again, free of charge."
"That's not necessary." Geri placed her cup on the hearth. She looked at Monica, who smiled and nodded. "We'd love to come back, but we'll be more than happy to pay. It wasn't your fault we got off the trail, and caught in a rain storm."
"She's right. I think this would be a wonderful place to spend our anniversary every year." Monica got to her feet and stretched. "Thank you for your hospitality. This has been the most amazing vacation."
Geri followed her example. "It has. We'll definitely tell our friends." She laughed. "Although I think we'll keep our 'hiking' trip a secret."
A year later . . .
"I'm really glad we decided to come back," Monica said, taking a deep breath of the cool mountain air. She waited until Geri removed both bags from their rental car and closed the trunk. "Are you sure I can't help?"
Geri gave her a glare. "It's only two bags. I think I can handle it." She followed her partner into the relaxed atmosphere of the inn. "I've missed this place."
"Me, too." Monica noticed someone sitting near the fire. "Isn't that Tanya?"
The middle daughter of the inn owner held something in her arms. She used one hand to wave the couple over. "Hello. I'm glad you could make it. My mother will be thrilled to see you."
"Hi." Monica sat next to her and peered over Tanya's shoulder. "What do we have here?"
Tanya moved the edge of the blanket to show a tiny, wrinkled face. "Meet our newest member of the family."
"Oooh, how adorable." Monica grinned at the small bundle. "And what's your name, cutie?"
"Meet my son, Charles," Tanya announced proudly. She looked at the surprised faces of her guests. "Thanks to you, he arrived three weeks ago."
Tanya's mother stepped into the room. "Yes. Thanks to the two of you, the curse of our family has been lifted. My grandson is proof of that."
Geri shook her head. "What do you mean?"
"Please, sit." The old woman waited until Geri was seated next to her partner. She nodded to Monica. "Your discovery of the bones in the hidden cave brought Hershel Conaway to come back to us. It was his spirit that guided you. Now that he is interred with the rest of our family, his soul is finally at peace."
Not certain how to take the news, Geri traded glances with Monica. "It could have been a coincidence."
The old woman smiled knowingly. "Believe what you want. But you will always have a place at our table, and our home." She stood and touched each woman lightly on the head before leaving the room.