Lassie Web: Lassie: "Relic"

The characters of Corey Stuart and Hank Whitfield are copyright the Lassie folks,
whatever name they're going under these days; Billie Sanderson belongs to Steve Frazee.
Any others are my creations along with the story itself.
This is a post-series story

Corey's face

••• December 22, 1982 •••

"Well, I think it stinks!"

The words, delivered between teeth and hissed, was still perfectly audible on the other side of the hollow steel door that separated his inner office from the outside one, and, glancing up from where he was cleaning out his desk, he grinned in spite of himself.

The response was delivered in a low, unintelligible rumble, presumably the voice of Senior District Ranger Alan Cochrane. The female voice was not heard again.

He continued with his work, methodically filling the photocopy paper box with the salvageable remainder of his desktop and center drawer. He kept his desk pin neat and the job was not difficult, only packing away the various memories was: fitting the testimonial mantel clock, the engraved retirement plaque, the hand-carved wood duck Hank had given him so long ago, and the White House pen-and-pencil set that had been presented to him several Presidents ago into the brown recesses of the box.

His name plaque, the brass-and-oak affair that said "Corey Stuart, Special Liaison," he chucked in the wastebasket.

"Special liaison," he murmured. Just a title for a has-been, the position they'd made up for him after the fire.

He turned his head warily at the oak-framed mirror behind his desk; after fourteen years he was still reluctant to look at himself. Not that they hadn't done right by him: fine medical care, long weeks of hospital care and skin grafts, then more long weeks of therapy. At least his face had escaped most of the ravages of the fire, except for his left ear, which was discolored and smaller than the right. It didn't make shaving as much of a trial in the morning. But when he dressed and undressed it was still difficult to look at his scarred arms and legs.

It was the ravages of the past years that bothered him most, pushing back his hairline, adding flesh to him despite daily workouts and horseback riding on the weekend. Years that had taken him inevitably to today. Retirement day.

He looked back at the office. The walls were clear of his certificates and plaques, and his secretary had already had the big oil painting from the wall of the sitting area boxed and shipped to his home this afternoon. It would have a place of honor over the mantelpiece in the snug cabin he'd had built in the heart of the Blue Ridge.

He could hear the thump of filing cabinet doors opening and closing on the other side of the door. Presumably Cochrane had left.

He opened the door, observing the woman through the gap. What, he wondered, did I ever do to deserve someone as indispensable as Billie Sanderson? He was meticulous enough with his work, but he'd preferred life outdoors to one deskbound so that during his field years the interminable paperwork was at risk of stacking up. In those days it was Billie who had kept it tamed and his professional life organized, and she had continued to do so later on, even as her personal life unraveled, especially the previous year when her husband had passed away. She had retreated to her home for two weeks to spend time with her sons and daughter, then returned, coolly swathed in black, and returned to efficiency. He knew it was how she managed her grief.

She hadn't changed as much as he had, he thought admiringly. Still slim, still quick, as competent and caring as always, the only changes some loss of deftness in her fingers from arthritis, silver shot through her dark hair. He was sure her face had aged, but it was hard to tell; she took pains with her skin and still had the blooming rose complexion he'd first admired twenty years earlier.

"Billie," he said gently, emerging from the office, and she turned away from the filing cabinet. To his surprise, she looked as if she had been crying.

"You don't have to defend me," he pointed out. "It's not as if they haven't given me time to finish my projects and collect my things. I should have left here in October."

"It's nonsense," she said angrily. "There's no need for you to retire. These days sixty-five is only a formality. You retire when you want to and have the time in."

"I want to."

She faced him squarely, chin tilting up a bit as her dark eyes met his blue ones. "Do you really?"

Was he being totally honest? "Yes," he said nevertheless.

They sized each other up for a few more seconds, then she sighed and shut the filing cabinet door behind her. "If you say so."

Corey then noticed something he had missed in his earlier preoccupation with his departure preparation: her desk was as clean as his. A plastic Rubbermaid storage tub was seated across the room, filled to the brim, bits of a flower arrangement in blue and white peeking out the top. "Going somewhere?"

"No reason for me to stick around any longer, now is there?" she said tartly.

He was baffled. "You stayed on because of me?"

Her expression reminded him of someone, the exasperated glance of an old friend whose look accused him of being deliberately obtuse. "I don't suppose I need to explain myself, when you can't, since I still don't understand why you're leaving. No one required it. Alan was still assigning projects to you."

"Makework projects," Corey said gently. "Looking over files others had looked at before. 'Ambassadorial duties' to Forest Service guests. Billie—I knew I couldn't work in the field any longer. They did their best by me, but when I finally recovered I wasn't strong enough for it. This has all been makework. And for a while it kept me satisfied. But it's time to let go."

He waved his hand out the window. "Look at it out there. The entire world changed while I was recovering. From rock to disco, proud citizens to hippies, figures to computers. Let's face it, Billie. All I am is a relic."

"That's not true!" she gasped, stung. "You never had your mind stuck in the past like those overfed suits in Interior. You've kept up with the times. No one expects you to dance to 'Stayin' Alive,' but you're not back there doing a minuet, either!"

He touched her shoulder, for she was shaking with rage. "It's all right."

"It's not," she snapped back, but she let it go.

He went back into his office. There was one last thing left on his desk, a framed 8x10 color photograph of the big sable-and- white collie dog that had sat before him for over fifteen years, the same dog who was the subject of the oil painting recently shipped home. The photo was beginning to yellow with age, but the shot itself had been so well taken that he could almost touch the wisps of ruff lifted by the wind, the silky smoothness of the back, the aristocratic head with its perfect tulip ears. He lifted it from the desktop, staring into the dog's deepset brown eyes, lost in thought. He could no longer recall how long had it been since he'd last heard from Scott Turner, the first a tense note telling him that Lassie had disappeared, then finally another, more matter-of-fact missive almost a year later, saying she had been adopted by a family near Solvang, California. A orphan boys' ranch? Just the place for her, living in a wilderness of children and animals. But it was so long ago. By now she probably slept under a cottonwood tree with a smooth wooden plaque with her name carved upon it mounted above—or she would be if these people had been what Scott said they were.

"Your mail's here," Billie said, entering after a tap on the door. She gave a wistful glance at the photo. "Speak of the devil. Here, he never forgets."

She handed Corey an oversized yellow envelope with an Australian postmark; it was full, he knew, as it always was at Christmastime, with an appropriate card, a long letter, and the latest photos of Tim and his family. How many kids was it now— three, he remembered, the youngest already starting school; that was young Paul, and the others were Charlotte and Jeff.

Christmas cards comprised the bulk of the remainder of the mail. He still missed ones from departed friends and family— Hank's always humorous choices, Andy Crenshaw's hand-sketched offerings, the homey epistles from his mother—but Jed Bingham still sent a card, and Hank's sister Julia, and Lassie's special friend, Johnny Conrad, who'd followed his father in a military career. The largest envelope, he knew, would be from David Russell—"Briss" Corey still called him, in memory of the runaway at the Inyo National Forest so long ago. Now he helped run his father's company and both young man and older one still loved camping in the summer.

"I don't suppose you've reconsidered my invitation?" Billie asked coaxingly.

Corey turned over Briss' envelope to avoid looking at her. "I hadn't really, Billie."

"I was hoping you'd at least come by Christmas Day."

It wouldn't be that difficult, he knew. He would pass right by Billie's home on the way to his own, could return with a little over an hour's drive. But all he wanted to do was retreat to the mountain cabin, to be alone with the woods and face his future. The thought of having to be sociable with friends from work and Billie's family made him uncomfortable.

"It's just that this will be our last Christmas in the house," she said hastily. "I wanted to make the last party special—have everyone over for a last hurrah."

"Last Christmas?" he asked, curiosity overcoming his studied detachment as he placed the photo of Lassie on top of the other things in his box.

"With Jay moving out to Oregon next month, Maureen in her own home, and Bobby in New York—he is staying, he decided last month—there's no reason for me to keep that huge house," she said practically. "I'm rattling around in it as it is now. Jay's taking most of the furniture and I thought I'd move into one of those one-bedroom jobs off the Beltway, maybe take temp work." She looked challengingly at him. "You're not the only one looking for a change."

"I can't believe you'd give up that house," he said thoughtfully. "I remember when you and Bob moved in—that whopper of a cookout you threw."

She smiled and the glow in her eyes made her look ten years younger. "Oh, that was a party, wasn't it? Half the Forest Service in our pool for an after-hours swim, too. Remember Bob's cannonball?"

He laughed at the memory. Billie's outgoing husband had been a star quarterback, an expansive, always-laughing extrovert. In the midst of everyone's quiet swim he had come loping out of the pool house in bright purple trunks and had done a sprawling leap off the diving board and splashing everyone in and out of the pool with water. Several women had been there in elegant dress and had not been amused when Bob had splashed chlorine-soaked water on their dry-clean-only gowns.

His mood betrayed him. Over Bob's laughing face all he could see was an overlay of the skeleton-like visage that had been star quarterback Robert Sanderson in his final days, eaten alive by cancer.


He realized he had closed his eyes. "Just thinking of that splash," he answered with a forced smile.

He turned to the coat rack, donning his thick leather coat and his hat. Billie had left without another word. Now, hefting the box, he returned to the outer office just as Billie was reaching for her own outerwear. He had collected himself by this time and wished her a happy holiday, asking to be remembered to the children.

She said she would, then stepped forward to lay something on top of the box, a vacuum bottle. He started to speak.

"You didn't come to the solstice party," she reminded him, "so I saved you some of the wassail. It's the stuff Jenny Webster makes that you like so much."

"Thanks," he said, his voice dry.

She placed her slim hands over his roughened right one, wearing the same unruffled smile as he was. "You'll keep in touch at least?"

"I'll have nothing to do soon but fish, read, and make occasional phone calls," he said lightly.

"Well, this 'old widow lady' would certainly appreciate that occasional phone call," she responded. Her tone was bantering enough, but he read something into it that made him uneasy.

Surely he ought to do something else. She'd been here for him before and after the fire, especially afterwards when she'd fielded unpleasantries. Surely that called for a little more affection than the mask he was offering her now.

In an instant he recalled the literature class he had taken soon after he had been released from the hospital. It was an evening course for adults and he'd wanted out of closed rooms reeking of disinfectant that he'd spent time in for too many months. It had been a bad idea: a few of the students stared openly at his scars and the instructor had a penchant for modern poetry rather than the Mark Twain or Stephen Crane he'd hoped they'd read. Most of the verse was incomprehensible, but those now-relevant lines from a T.S. Eliot poem immediately sprang into his mind.

"There will be time, there will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;"

This was his face for Billie, the one that told her he would do just fine on his own.

"I'll remember," he promised, and departed.

He left the building he'd spent the past ten years in without a backward glance. Despite having to carry the box, instead of descending immediately into the Metro station he strolled out to where he could see the city of Washington, DC, spread before him. The sun was hanging low in the sky, a ball of burnished scarlet hemmed in by growing whitish-grey clouds—a snow sky. It was arctic cold and his breath made puffs of white smoke beside his face.

Automatic lights had been triggered everywhere by the early dusk, and the landscape was dotted with illumination, from small streetlights to the floodlights all along the Mall and the Ellipse, in front of the Smithsonian buildings and before the monuments. There had been a light snowfall just yesterday, enough to cover the grass and the sidewalks, and in the twilight the city was at its most beautiful. He could just make out the National Christmas Tree twinkling from its setting near the White House. He cocked his head at the sky, swollen with snow. With even a flurry falling, he knew, it would look just like a Christmas card.

He was still proud of the city, but at one time he had loved it for its beauty and what it represented. Now he was conscious that he hated it as well, the scene of the closing of his career- -and, to him, it seemed also like the closing of his life. "Relic," he'd said to Billie. Just like an old untended monument.

His right leg, never quite comfortable since the fire, was beginning to stiffen. He turned away from the imminent postcard scene and made his way to the nearest Metro station to board a southbound train. He sat quietly in his seat during the trip, avoiding looking at the box, dismissing the starts and stops with a faraway expression

At long last the train reached at the parking complex at the terminus of the line. He rose from his seat awkwardly, hampered by his game leg, and hefted the cardboard box from the seat.

"Can I help you, sir?" a fresh-faced young man in jeans and a fur jacket asked as he stumbled, wanting to reach the doors before they closed.

"No!" he wanted to protest rudely, but caught himself. Instead he responded in the same courteous tones he had used for thirty- five years in the Forest Service. "No, thanks—it's all right. I can make it. Just rushing too much."

There must have been a residue curtness in his voice, for the young man turned away a bit impatiently. But that couldn't be helped.

His pickup truck—his faithful own copper-colored pickup, not the seemingly endless series of trucks he had driven over mountain roads and overlooks years earlier—was parked on a lower level of the garage. He eased the box of memorabilia into the bed of the truck, which was filled with other gear he had accumulated during his career. The overhead lights glinted on the glass of the framed photo on top.

"Heck of a way for it to end, eh, Lassie?" he said, running a thumb over the glass. Then he tugged a tarp over the load and secured it, for the promise of the sky earlier had been fulfilled and it was snowing.

There were two routes for him to use on his homeward trip, south on the freeway, direct and tedious in its uniformity, past stark motels and brilliantly-lighted restaurants and shopping centers, full of people looking forward to celebrating the holidays, until he reached the proper exit, or by way of the old road, the one that passed through the Virginia suburbs and woods. He chose the latter, and as he passed through the suburban neighborhoods, he marked the homes on his route, with Christmas trees glittering in windows and lights strung around dormers and bushes. In earlier years it would have filled him with delight.

He passed the side street on which he knew sat the Sandersons' trim ranch house. Billie was a dedicated Christmas addict, filling every corner of the home with holiday decorations. It was one of the reasons he had not accepted her invitation; the other was more complicated, and not something he wanted to get into, or think about. Not now.

Finally he turned on to a smaller state road, going deeper into the forest just as he withdrew deeper into himself. He'd chosen his refuge well, a small, neat mountain cabin snug at the end of a deserted road in the Appalachian highlands where he would be safe from disturbances, if not from memory. Good hiking, good fishing, not many things otherwise to remind him that they had once been something more than hobbies.

The earlier fine flakes of snow were now thicker and a little larger, clotting the air and being swept steadily away by the monotonous tempo of the windshield wipers. Corey turned up the heater up a notch, but the warmth of the cab was already growing too close for him. He cranked the window down a few inches for air. These days he liked to keep his feet warm, like the old man he was.

He touched the brake, then let the truck slow on its own as it fishtailed a little on the slippery road. His route now was a narrow, two-lane road, asphalt patched and re-patched, disheveled at the roadside with overgrown paths taken by hikers now stark, stick-lined pointers into the thick woods.

As he was about to pass the old logging trail on his left, he heard the bark.

He tapped the brakes so not to skid, slowing to a crawl, peering into the snow-swirled darkness. Swearing to himself, he then fumbled for his glasses, but even those did little to improve his vision.

The sound was faint, but unmistakable, coming from the depths of the logging road, a large dog's bark, not greeting or challenging, but a trouble call. Corey knew the insistent sound well. Had he not known better, he would have thought it sounded familiar.

"All dogs sound alike," he told himself crankily, preparing to drive on cautiously, but the barking became louder if not closer, a panicked note in it now. He stopped again, debated with himself, then cut the truck around sharply and headed down the logging road.

It was paved with gravel—or had been, some time in its history. The snow covered innumerable sins. Corey let out an oath as the tires jounced in one particularly deep rut; the vehicle continued jerking over ruts and bounced over rocks as he proceeded. His headlights flashed up and down, catching brief glimpses of trees and bushes becoming coated in snow. Once he had to swing the wheel sharply to the left to pull out of a skid.

The bark was growing louder still.

Just as he wondered if he would strike the dog, the road made a sharp bend to the right and his headlights illuminated a familiar shape: the soft-focus frame of a green Forest Service truck sagging at the left side of the road. As he slowed and then stopped next to it, the barking abruptly ceased as well.

"Oh, for Christ's sake," he exploded. "I'm following invisible trails and it's just some field officer doing his rounds with a dog. Or someone's dog loose in the woods."

He cut the wheel tightly to the right, intending to back and fill his truck to turn around when a shadowy figure bounded in his path. Despite his high beams, the dog was blurry, indistinct, a flash of brown and white darting back and forth. Corey struck the brakes hard, hoping to see the animal more clearly, but it leaped out of the range of the lights as the truck swung around, barking sharply and insistently again, heading away from the Forest Service truck, into the woods.

Corey struck the steering wheel with his fist, uttering a silent "Damn!", then shut off the engine, set the emergency brake, and emerged into a world of snowy coldness, his breath forming a white wreath in the darkness. The shortest day of the year, he was reminded, six o'clock and already pitch dark with the added handicap of falling snow.

He had paid attention to the weather forecast the night before and was prepared. Now he reached into the cab of the truck to set down his Stetson and pull out a fur-lined leather cap with earmuffs that flipped down. He flipped them now, and also extricated his gloves from the glove compartment. Somewhere in the back of the truck he still had his boots, but he didn't feel like pulling them on. He wasn't that far from home; if he got his feet wet, he'd just dry them by the fire.

He had left the headlights on, so now he examined the canted body of the Forest Service truck, running the rough tips of his bare fingers over the hood before tugging on his gloves. It was cold; the entire body was rimed with frost, and the ropes and hay bales in the truck bed were stiff, and now they were all being slowly covered with snow. He could still make out a faint track of bootprints in the greying old slush of the previous snowfall heading into the forest.

Was it possible? Was a Forest Service employee for some reason out in the unseasonable cold, out in the woods at night, perhaps on a search and rescue, and his or her dog had simply wandered away? Or was the animal actually looking for help? If there were a search mission mounted, wouldn't there be more people in the woods, law enforcement personnel, trackers, volunteers?

"Halloooooooo!" he called out, putting all his effort into it.

The echoes of the thick trees tossed the sound back at him. Hallooooooo, halloooooo, halloooo. Then only silence responded, the muffled hushed sound of falling snow. He tried again, bellowing as loudly as possible. "HALLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

More echoes. Silence.

And then, faintly, hoarse, "Hey!"

Corey, startled, nevertheless focused instantly. He shouted again, "Hello? Hello? Are you all right?"

A pause. "No!" was the faint response.

It was all the answer he needed. Quickly he turned on his heel and limped back to his own truck for the boots he had eschewed a few minutes earlier. He tugged them on with angry grunts. Then he pulled back the tarp covering the truck bed. From the tool chest behind the cab he extracted the battery-powered lantern and a coil of smooth, thin, reinforced nylon rope. From another box, he withdrew a thick plaid woolen throw blanket that had once draped the corner of the sofa in his office. He tossed this over his shoulder along with the rope.

He switched on the lantern, flashing it into the woods. Its reflector threw a harsh, bright path between the tree trunks and bare twigs of brush. He called out loudly, "I'm shining a light toward the direction of your voice. Can you see it?"

Another pause. The faint voice, trembling, responded "N-n-no. Maybe—no." A pause. "I'm not in a position where I can see it."

"You've fallen?"


Corey was puzzled, but despite the distance he could make out the exhaustion in the voice, which sounded female. "I have some gear that might help you. Lead me to you. Call out to me if you can. I'm following your footprints but the snow is starting to obliterate them."

Breathlessly, the voice—a woman's voice, he was certain now, despite its throatiness—began repeating "I'm here! Right here! This way!"

Corey strode toward it, or tried to stride, for the path was littered with leafless vines that caught his ankles and errant branches that threatened to trip him, despite the vivid beam of the lantern, due to the covering snow. He began to pick his way instead, lifting his boots clear of the encumbering tangle in exaggerating steps. His swaying lantern threw grotesque, icy blue-black shadows from trees and bushes as he made his way awkwardly over the fast-disappearing track.

After ten minutes of hard walking, the steady calling abruptly stopped. Corey's throat constricted. "Hey! What happened? Are you still there?"

"I can see light," the voice said, hope making it stronger. "You must be close. Watch out in front of you. It's where I fell."

Corey swung his lantern high over his head, seeing only more tangled branches, then a dark void ahead. His heart began to hammer as he took one, two, three steps forward, testing the ground with an extended foot at each step. At the fourth step he felt the ground start to slope downward and he retreated two steps, swinging the lantern up again. Now he could see what he had just avoided by his deliberate retreat; the ground had suddenly vanished, descending abruptly into a long, vertical incline. The darkness beyond was a gorge, its vertical slopes falling eighty meters into the stony bed of a tributary of the Shenandoah River.

"You fell over the edge?"

"Y-y-yes. I'm on a spit of rock about twenty meters down. It's stable, but I'm freezing down here. I've been here at least two hours."

The woman would die of hypothermia if he didn't do something quickly. He shuffled forward gingerly until he could grab one of the thick branches of a substantial wild blueberry bush in one hand and swing the lantern over the edge. The brilliant light briefly illuminated a white face, a fur-lined hat, and what looked like a Forest Service jacket.

"I have a thirty meter rope from my truck," he called loudly. "I'll tie it off and throw it down to you."

She shouted back. "Thank God! Tie a loop in the end for me, okay? My fingers are so stiff I doubt if I can tie it off myself."

Corey turned to the nearest tree, a thick-trunked oak. His hands, out of practice from years away from field work, fumbled with the rope as he cast around the trunk. He tied it off with a strong knot and secured the knot with his handkerchief. Then he made the loop. He set the knots as tightly as he could, until his fingers ached with the effort.

Now he once more he approached the edge. "Coming down!"

It was the first time he'd prayed in a long time. "Please God, let her catch it on the first toss."

He'd always been good with a rope, even from his childhood in Montana. His wrist flicked as his dad had shown him so long ago, and the noose and then the rope went spinning over the edge, unreeling from the coil on the ground. Then he waited.

"Have you thrown the rope?" the woman asked hopefully.

Damn. "Yes, but it must have gone wide. Hold on," and with familiar movements that became more deft as he settled down into old routine, he pulled back the rope, then tossed it again.

This time her response was triumphant. "Got it!" she cried.

He breathed a sigh of relief, then waited.

"I'm ready!" she called out a few minutes later.

Now came the real test. Was he still strong enough? Had all those daily trips to the gym been enough?

"You're still there, right?" The voice had an edge of panic in it.

She was depending on him; it was no time to be afraid. Corey braced himself on the rope. "I'm ready!" he shouted. "Let's go."

Hand over hand, inch by inch, the effort tearing at the muscles of his shoulders and arms, he began laboriously hauling her to safety. Below, although he didn't know it at the time, the woman had worked the kinks out of her stiffening body. Soon she began helping him by pushing herself upwards with booted feet against the side of the cliff. Even in the muffled atmosphere caused by the snow, he could clearly hear clods of earth and rocks falling below her, and, as she grew closer, her determined panting. He gritted his teeth again the pain of his joints as he continued pulling, slowly, methodically. The cold was already burning deep into him.

"I'm almost there!" she cried, and in the beam from the lantern at his feet he could see a gloved hand come over the edge. A second later he felt the rope loosen, then jerk, and she let out a startled cry. Her full weight was on the rope then and Corey leaned back. supporting her until she got her purchase once more.

"I'm sorry!" she finally gasped. "I can barely feel my hands and I slipped."

After what seemed like hours, the pressure on his shoulders lessened; she was climbing again. He slitted his eyes toward the edge and was rewarded with the appearance of her head, then her arms and shoulders. Her hands clutched at the tangle of blackberry branches and there she collapsed; Corey tied the rope off swiftly and moved to grab her shoulders to drag her the remainder of the way up.

Once she had caught her breath, she rolled over, panting. She was a young woman, probably still in her twenties, with a heart- shaped face and tendrils of reddish hair escaping from under her hood. Corey pulled her into a sitting position and wrapped the blanket around her shoulders. Then he chafed his own hands, wincing at the burn of returning circulation.

While she huddled in the blanket, he swiftly untied the rope and coiled it up, tossing it over his shoulder. Then, with the lantern in one hand to show them the way, he helped her to her feet with the other. They plodded back to his truck, where he started the engine and kicked the heater up to high. She shivered in the cab as he fished around in the footwell and found the vacuum bottle full of hot wassail that Billie had given him.

The woman he had rescued was grateful to swallow the hot drink. Once she had sipped a good portion of it, she pressed his hand. "Thank you. I thought I was done for."

She almost had been. But he had been good enough. He might be retired, but he wasn't yet a relic. "What happened?"

She explained. Her name was Sally Morgenthau, and she was the assistant district ranger of the area. Late that afternoon she had received a report about drunken deer hunters in that part of the woods. When she'd heard a gunshot, she had rushed toward the sound, put a foot wrong, and slid down the embankment. Luckily she had hit the ledge.

"You know what makes pisses me off the most?" she added savagely, offering him the remainder of the wassail. "Those bastards saw me fall. I know they did. I heard them laugh and keep hunting. They didn't even bother to make an anonymous call to the sheriff or the ranger station. If you hadn't come along, I might have frozen to death."

Corey confessed, as he tucked the bottle back down in the footwell, "I almost didn't stop. It's a good thing your dog was barking."

"My dog? I don't have a dog."

"Well, maybe not your dog, but the dog who led me here."

She gave him an odd look, as if she considered him a bit dotty.

"Look, you must have heard it," he said reasonably. "I could hear it clearly from the road. It led me here with its barking, straight down the logging road to your truck. In fact, I was almost about to turn around and leave, but it jumped in front of my truck."

She looked dazed. "I didn't hear any dog. Maybe I'm hurt worse than I thought. So you saw it? What kind of dog?"

He started to answer. "To be honest, I couldn't make it out with the snow and it moving so quickly. But-" He thought for a moment, remembering the flash of brown and white, perhaps a bit of black, perhaps deep eyes that caught his for a moment and spoke more eloquently than words.

"I don't know," he repeated. "I really didn't see it all that well. I haven't seen it since, so it probably ran off home. You stay here while I put up the rope and the lantern. I'll take you back to your office or back home, whatever you like. You need to get into something warm, and I'd advise calling a doctor to check you out. You may be frostbitten. Someone can come back for your truck in the morning."

He emerged from the warmth of the cab into the icy night. The snow had stopped. Above him, through the tops of the trees, he could see the edges of clouds and the bright stars they had uncovered, like illuminated diamonds against black velvet. He breathed in the cold, clear air.

It struck him that the anger and frustration that had built inside him for weeks was already fading away. The last hour had been an affirmation of himself; he was free again.

Perhaps he could even toss away the false faces.

It wouldn't hurt, he knew, to give Billie a call when he got home. He owed her an apology–she'd been right. The only one who'd branded him a relic was himself.

And perhaps that invitation—both spoken and unspoken—was still open...

He lifted the lantern one more time, searching the woods for the elusive dog, although he knew now he wouldn't find it. Then he replaced the rope in the back of the truck. Before he switched it off, lantern light flashed on the photocopy paper box and the framed photo of the collie that sat on top of it.

"I'd almost forgotten," he said softly. "Thanks for reminding me, girl. Merry Christmas."

- 30 -

"Relic" is ©2004 by Linda M. Young

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