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Alex Harcourt poked her head inside the uncluttered office at Hearth and Home, the business her mother had established years earlier. "Bye, Mom. I've made those phones calls and now I'm off for an appointment with the tribal council."
Her mother's blond head lifted. "Maybe you'll be given good news this time."
"I hope so."
As she turned away, the last thing she always noticed was the large framed photograph of six imposing Zuni chiefs taken in 1882. It hung on the wall behind her mother's desk. When Alex was a little girl, she'd play in here and study the picture while her busy mom conducted business with Zuni leaders.
The photo was a print of the original. Her mother explained that these chiefs had gone to Boston to perform ceremonies by the Atlantic Ocean and replenish their supply of sacred seawater. As she grew older, Alex thought a lot about this and wondered why they hadn't traveled to the Pacific Ocean, which was a lot closer to New Mexico.
Over the years she'd received answers to that and hundreds of other questions. At twenty-six, Alex now realized her love for the Zuni people went as deep as her mother's.
An heiress at thirty through her Trent ancestry, Muriel Trent Harcourt helped orphaned Zuni children to be raised on Trent property in their own ranch houses. Zuni parents without children would become their parents for life. Together they'd have a hearth and home of their own that was paid for by the Trent Foundation.
Alex admired her mother more than anyone in the world and worked for her whenever she could. She felt incredible pride that her mom made it possible for hundreds of Zuni children to remain with their siblings and belong to a real family. At least for these children, there'd be no foster care.
Over the last year Alex had come up with an idea of her own to help the kids and was holding her breath that this meeting would be the first step in achieving that goal.
After leaving Albuquerque, she headed for the Zuni pueblo located one hundred and fifty miles west of the city. Two and a half hours later she parked around the back of the tribal office. Quickly she climbed out of the cream-colored minivan with its green Hearth and Home logo and walked the short distance before knocking on the door.
She stepped inside the council office where she'd sat many times over the years with her mother. Two of the women who made up part of the council smiled at her. One by one the room filled with board members, who ran programs and directed policy. Everyone gathered around the table.
Lonan, a childhood friend four years older than Alex, nodded to her. He had a lot of influence with the Lt. Governor of the Zuni tribe, who came in last and sat down.
"How are you, Alex?"
"I'm fine, Halian. And you?"
"I'm good. We've talked about your proposal. Some still have questions."
"Of course. Ask me anything you want." The council and board members had been asking questions for three months. If they didn't make up their minds soon, her proposal would miss the deadline. She wanted them to say yes so badly she could taste it. But this was only the first step.
When and if she got the go-ahead from the council, she then needed to obtain the approval of the Chief Ranger at Yosemite National Park in California. Alex had nothing but admiration for Chief Vance Rossiter, whose love for the Native Americans led her to believe he'd be totally open to her idea to bring a group of Zuni youth volunteers to the park.
Until his retirement from the U.S. Senate, her father, John Harcourt, had been the senate committee chairman over the federal parks. He'd made many visits to Yosemite during his seven terms of office, often taking Alex with him once she was old enough. It put him in contact with Bill Telford, the current superintendent of the park. Alex had talked with him on many occasions and knew Telford was pushing for more minority groups to be involved. But there were still a lot of ifs in the process.
Halian nodded to each member, allowing them to speak.
"The boys will need one of the tribe to accompany them."
"That's right," Alex agreed. "Do you have someone in mind?"
"I'll go," Lonan volunteered.
Bless you, Lonan. He'd grown up in a Hearth and Home family, one of her mother's favorites. At thirty years, he was a respected member of the council as well as Alex's good friend. If he were willing to accompany the kids, that would hold a lot of weight with the tribe. Lonan was a natural leader, and the boys would work well under him.
Another member spoke up. "What if the families want to talk to their children while they're gone?"
"All the boys and their families with be supplied with cell phones," Alex said. "I'll have a phone so they can call me if they have concerns."
"Eight weeks sounds like a long time," Mankanita commented. "Don't you think so, too?"
Alex heard a plaintive tone in her voice. She and Lonan planned to be married before the year was out. "Eight weeks is the normal period for all volunteers working at the park, but since this will be an experiment, we'll suggest four weeks to start, pending the chief ranger's approval. At that time the boys will talk to their families and vote whether they want to stay another four.
"Remember, this will be a vacation for them, too. Like all the other volunteers helping to restore the trails, they can spend their time off enjoying everything Yosemite has to offer."
When there were no more questions, she turned to Halian. "The money from the Trent trust fund will pay for clothing and necessities, including the boys' and Lonan's salaries," she assured him. Though they would be volunteers at the park, they still needed to be given a salary to compensate for the paying jobs they wouldn't be doing at the pueblo. "I'll be with them the entire time and will watch out for them as if they were my own brothers. I know all of them and care for them very much."
Halian studied everyone before looking at Alex with friendly eyes. "We'll allow the seventeen-year-olds to go."
Happiness welled up inside her, but she had to contain her joy. "That's wonderful, Halian. Now that I have your permission, I'll get in touch with the park for final approval. I'll let you know as soon as I have word. Thank you."
She left the pueblo and headed for her parents' ranch, located halfway between Albuquerque and the Zuni land that bordered it. When she reached home, she discovered her mom and dad hadn't returned from town yet. Too restless and excited to stay in the house, she saddled up her horse and rode Daisy to the top of Sunset Butte.
From here she could watch the sun fall behind the mountains. At this time of evening, the sharp play of light and shadow brought out the rich purple and orange colors, outlining the topography that first inspired someone to call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment.
Taking in a breath of sweetly scented sage, Alex dismounted and sank down on a slab of rock to savor this first triumph. The stretch of real estate from this vantage point and beyond included a pueblo, ruins, camps and Zuni petroglyphs and artifacts, some dating back three hundred to fifteen hundred years. This had been her playground growing up. Both she and her mother had Zuni friends and had learned to communicate in their Shiwi language.
On the east side of their vast property sat an old Spanish fort and mission. All of it made up part of the Orange Mesa Ranch. It was just one of the legacies from her mother's great-grandfather, Silas Trent, an entrepreneur who grew up on a ranch in California before buying land here. Thanks to him, Alex was able to use the money from his legacy for a worthy cause.
It was humbling to realize that she'd built up enough trust for the tribe to allow her to try something unprecedented. She hoped the experience would expand the boys' vision of the world, that is if the good Katchina gods were listening and decided to be kind.
Though a daring plan, in her heart she was sure Chief Rossiter wouldn't turn her idea down. Besides, as her mother had often reminded her, a Trent didn't fail. Alex couldn't allow her project to fail, not when she'd be responsible for so many precious lives. She'd met with the teenagers and knew every one of them was eager to experience a new adventure.
Jumping up from the rock, she mounted Daisy and headed back to the ranch house, ready to put the second part of her plan into action. After handing her mare over to Chico to take care of, she hurried inside the house, intent on finding her father. First however, she made a detour to her room for the eight-by-ten envelope sitting on her computer table.
"Dad?" She knocked on his study door.
"Come on in, honey." Now that he was no longer a senator, John Harcourt was compiling his memoirs for publication.
Alex slipped inside his office, which looked more like a library with books shelved from floor to ceiling. She coveted his collection on John Muir, the naturalist explorer who wrote about Yosemite.
But since her dad was a history buff, he had other enviable collections of books covering the civilizations of the world. She often found the graying blond father she loved poring over tomes dealing with the American Constitution.
She put her arm around his shoulders and placed the envelope on his desk. "When you fly to California in the morning, will you find out who's in charge of the volunteer program at the park and put this in his or her in-box as soon as you reach Yosemite? Will that be a problem when you're only going there in an advisory capacity this time?"
He pushed his chair back to squint up at her with fatherly concern. "I made a mistake to take you there the first time."
"Please don't say that. I love Yosemite! Whenever I tell the teens what it's like, they get excited to see it, too. You're the one who helped me appreciate how vital Yosemite is to our world."
"I did that?" He sounded surprised.
"You know you did when you introduced me to John Muir's writings. Once I got started reading, I couldn't stop. I'll never forget something you quoted from him about the giant Sequoias. That hit me hard."
"In what way?"
"I don't have the quote memorized, but the point was that God had cared for all those trees through the centuries, yet only man could destroy them with his sawmills and that was what man left to the American people."
"You remembered that?"
She nodded. "From then on, whenever we went to the park, I used to look at those trees and weep for the earlier devastation. I read more of Muir's writings and developed a love for the place. If tourists could visit Yosemite and see what he was talking about, it might make people around the planet more careful about how they treat our mountains and forests."
Her father reached for her hand and squeezed it. "I should have asked you to write my speeches."
She chuckled. "Think what it would do for the kids to see all the places Muir talked about, especially his journeys into the Hetch Hetchy Valley! I've dreamed of taking some of them there for quite a few years now."
"I have no doubt it would be a wonderful experience for them," her father said. "You've explored it so thoroughly, I think you would live there if you could."
"f being the operative word, right?" She tried to play it light. "I've just come from the tribal council meeting. They've finally given permission for me to take a group of boys to the park to be volunteers for the summer."
She could tell her father was surprised and pleased. "You've been working on that a long time. That's quite a coup, honey. A great honor in fact. I'm very proud of you."
"Thanks." She opened the envelope containing her proposal. On top of it was her resume, which she pulled out. "Take a look at it and tell me what you think. Will Chief Rossiter be impressed?"
He carefully perused the contents like he would a bill that had passed the house. She noticed how thorough he was being.
"Well," he finally said, sounding faraway. "It's as good as any I've seen. You've presented yourself as someone bright and interesting with all the potential in the world. Of course, he knows you well and is already aware of your unique qualities."
"But?" She'd heard the hesitation in his voice.
Her dad sat back in his swivel chair and removed his bifocals. "I know how involved you are with the Hearth and Home project for the tribe, but I also know you've had a serious crush on Cal Hollis for years."
"Cal was a ranger at the park. That's because he saved your life, Dad."
"The pain turned out to be indigestion, not a heart attack."
"At the time we didn't know that. I'm afraid I was like most girls with Cal, guilty of hero worship."
In fact it had been a lot more than that. A year ago March she'd sought him out and had made a fool of herself. When she'd gone back in May, she hadn't been able to find him and was afraid he'd stayed away from her on purpose. The whole experience was humiliating.
"Except you're almost twenty-seven now. It's long past time to let the fantasy go."
"Oh, I've let it go, Dad," she assured him. Cal had made certain of that. It had been over a year since she'd laid eyes on him. There was nothing more pathetic than the ex-senator's pesky daughter literally throwing herself at him. She'd been deluding herself for years that he was interested. If she had the chance to work at the park this summer, she would prove that she was over an infatuation he'd never wanted or encouraged.
"When I bring the kids back to Albuquerque in August, if not before, I plan to work for Hearth and Home full-time."
He studied her for a moment. "You sound like you mean that."
"I do," she said on a sober note. "Law school isn't for me."
"I think I've known that for a long time." One eyebrow lifted. "Lyle Richins will be back from the military by then."
"I know. We stay in touch through email." Lyle was one of the ranch hands and a rodeo champion who'd taught Alex how to ride. He was a great guy.
"Do you think something might happen there?"
"I suppose it's a possibility." She couldn't do any better than Lyle. Alex knew that.