ONE YEAR LATER
Outside Leadville, Colorado
Little flurries of snow swirled past the kitchen window. It was a cold Colorado morning, the Rocky Mountains refusing to surrender their white caps to the green of spring just yet. The sky was cloudy with patches of pale blue peeking through. The warm interior space with its adjoining dining area was sized just right for a cozy atmosphere. The aroma of sizzling bacon wafted through the room as I sat on an oak dining chair at the table. On the counter, a small TV broadcast the morning's news.
A blonde woman dressed in a conservative blue pant suit read the top story. "Today marked a new low in the dramatic fall from grace for former Congressman Jack Archer. The sixty-six-year-old representative from Michigan resigned last year amid accusations of serious ethics violations that left him an outcast among his peers and the subject of a no-confidence vote in the House of Representatives. He was caught on tape attempting to silence two individuals who knew of his misuse of federal funds for personal gain and a startling story of animal abuse. The year-long trial in which Archer was charged with hiding millions of dollars in unreported income finally reached a verdict this morning. A Washington, D.C. judge sentenced the defendant to thirty years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary on two counts of attempted murder and thirty counts of tax evasion, one for each year Archer used his public office to illegally funnel money into his biotech and pharmaceutical company, BioCon. The case has also sparked an internal inquiry at the Federal Bureau of Investigation after a handful of agents were found to have been secretly on Archer's payroll."
A feminine hand with shiny pink fingernails slid a ceramic plate heaped with toast, steaming scrambled eggs and several strips of crispy bacon in front of me. "Eat up, sweetie," said Diana, still dressed in the flannel pajamas she had worn to bed the night before.
"Thank you," I smiled, my tail swishing through the open-backed chair as I kissed her cheek lightly.
It was a huge weight off our shoulders, hearing that Archer was in prison. I always feared and expected that some crony of his would bail him out, that the charges wouldn't stick. But Farley had come through, and the damning tape he recorded in that campaign bus was crucial. When faced with mounting evidence of his many years of misdeeds, Archer's friends in government quickly abandoned him.
I ate my breakfast thoughtfully, munching the delicious bacon between my teeth. Our new home was a blessing beyond my wildest dreams. The small ranch was nestled in a valley that offered an amazing view of the Rockies. On one side was a wooded area with a stream running through it. Diana's father, Bill, and I had worked together over the past summer to create a little haven away from the hustle and bustle of urban life. The single-story ranch house was modest, but had enough room for Bill, Jean, Diana and myself to live comfortably. Our ordeal had brought us all closer together. Diana had left the San Francisco office of the SPCA, and transferred to a local animal shelter in a small town a few miles from our ranch. Her parents sold their home in Denver and moved in with us. Outside the house was a carport large enough for two vehicles. Bill's Lexus sat beside Diana's old Toyota Corolla. A little ways past the carport was a moderately-sized barn that I had painted red with white trim the previous autumn before the snow came.
Diana scooted a chair up beside me and we cuddled as we ate our food. It still amazed me every day that someone could ever love a creature such as myself, but she did. She had given me a chance at life and been my guardian angel. Now it was my turn to keep her safe.
Things had been quiet for the past year. The people of the nearby town gradually came to know about the strange fellow who lived just outside the city limits. Most of them were at least cordial, and I did my best not to impose. I was something of a local secret, and I was fine with that. Generally I preferred to stay at home and work on the little ranch, walk in the woods or take a casual drive on the narrow roads. My body bore a few lasting scars, but once the fur grew in they became less noticeable. I still considered myself lucky.
I glanced up at a small color photo in a frame on the wall. It was a group picture taken with Wolf and Shep during a free moment when we weren't training. It was the only memento I retained from the dossier Farley had given me; the rest had been turned over to the authorities as evidence in the case against Archer. Who knew if the documents would ever be returned. "Hon, I'm going to take a little walk," I said, standing up from the chair.
I padded out of the kitchen and down the hallway. Hung above the sofa on the living room wall was a black and white zigzag-patterned Amish quilt. I pulled open the hall closet and selected a newish leather jacket Diana had given me for Christmas. George Beauregarde's old jacket, the one that survived my harrowing journey to Washington, hung beside it. I slipped on some custom-made leg warmers and a pair of special insulated booties made to protect my footpaws in winter. A red wool scarf Jean had crocheted for me completed the ensemble.
The world outside the house was calm, with sound coming only from a few chirping birds and the sound of the trickling stream in the woods. Occasionally a vehicle passed by on the two-lane road that ran past our property. I trudged through the snow to the barn. The rooster-shaped weathervane on the peak of the roof pivoted lazily in the light breeze. I lifted the latch and swung open the wide wooden door, then walked inside. The barn was old, but solidly built and large enough for my needs. Bill and I had installed electric lighting and a concrete floor in place of the original hard-packed dirt. It was my own personal space. On the left in the corner was my green Subaru, recently repaired and repainted. Beside it was another vehicle under a fabric car cover. I pulled back one corner to reveal the shiny yellow fender of my El Camino. It had been a while since I last drove it. Perhaps today was the day. I tugged the cover the rest of the way off of the canary pickup. The keys for both cars were hidden inside a small locked cabinet on the back wall, where there sat a workbench and tool chest. Atop the workbench was a sealed cardboard box that hadn't been there the last time I was in the barn.
As I unlocked the cabinet and retrieved the keys to the El Camino I glanced at the shipping label on the box.
SHIP TO: F. TAYLE
2927 HWY 91
LEADVILLE, CO 80461
There was no return address. Skeptical, I took a box cutter out of the tool chest and opened the lid. Inside were two metal canisters packed in shipping foam and a printed piece of paper. I removed the paper and began to read.
My final act at BioCon was to prepare this package for you. I am now retired. It seems more fitting that you have these.
Best of luck to you, my friend.
What was this? I carefully picked up the pair of canisters. A small label on the lid of the first one read "WOLF". I unscrewed the lid, unsure what to expect. Inside was a gray powdery dust. I sighed and looked at the other canister. It was labeled "SHEP". Suddenly it became clear.
Without a word I walked over toward the El Camino. Diana was standing by the barn doorway, now dressed in a hooded parka, snow boots and insulated gloves. "What was in the box?" she asked.
"Memories," I answered, fighting back the urge to cry.
She looked me over, saw the two canisters under my arm and the keys in my other handpaw. "Maybe I better drive," she said softly.
"Please do," I said, a salty tear rolling down into my cheek fur.
Diana took the keys and started the El Camino's V8 engine. I sat in the passenger seat, holding the ashes of my friends. She pulled out of the barn and drove out onto the highway away from town. The snow had just stopped falling and the sky was brightening. Diana drove the El Camino up a road into the mountains near the Breckenridge ski resort. It was a familiar road, one I had traveled many times. It ended at a scenic overlook on a high cliff that offered an expansive view of the entire valley, the town and the forests and lake that surrounded it. This was my favorite place to stop and think, to contemplate and be at peace. It was like she had read my mind.
Diana parked the car and shut the engine off. I looked at her with wet eyes and gave a hint of a nod as if to say, yes, this is the place. We both climbed out and walked to the wooden fence made of old railroad ties at the edge of the cliff. Diana wrapped her arm around me as I solemnly unscrewed the lids of the canisters. Moments later, the sun emerged from behind a cloud, casting shafts of light that made the snow on the ground sparkle like crystal. Everything was bathed in a warm glow. I smiled slighly, gazed into Diana's eyes, and let the ashes be carried off by the breeze.