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Blackwolf Canyon, Montana, 5:34 a.m., one hour before the summer solstice, June 21, 2010
The moon had set almost five hours ago. Still, night clung tenaciously to the land.
The high, rocky walls of the canyon seemed determined to hold to the chill of darkness; a razor-sharp wind swept down from the surrounding peaks and whipped through the scrub, its eerie sigh all that disturbed the silence.
Sienna Cummings shivered.
There was a wildness to this place, but in these last moments before the dawn light pierced the bottom of the canyon, she could almost sense the land's ancient, often bloody history.
A heavy arm wrapped around her shoulders.
"Here," Jack Burden said, "let me warm you up."
Sienna forced a smile and stepped free of the expedition leader's embrace.
"I'm fine," she said politely. "Just excited. About the solstice," she added quickly, before Burden could pull his usual trick of turning whatever she said into a suggestive remark.
No such luck.
"I'm excited, too," he said, managing to do it, anyway. "Lucky me. Alone with you, in the dark."
They were hardly alone. There were four others with them: two graduate students, an associate professor from the Anthropology Department and a girl Burden had described as his secretary. From the way she looked at him, Sienna doubted if that was her real job, but that was fine with her; for the most part, it kept her obnoxious boss from sniffing after her.
Except at certain moments.
Like right now.
Never mind that they were about to view something remarkable. That soon, the sun's light would be visible between the huge slabs of rock a third of the way up Black-wolf Mountain. That a shaft of that light would stream down and illuminate a circle some holy man had inscribed on a sacred stone thousands of years ago. Never mind that this would be the first summer solstice in decades that outsiders had been allowed in the canyon at all, or that everything here was about to change because the land was about to be sold to a developer.
All Jack Burden could think of was seducing her.
Yes, there were laws against sexual harassment. All she had to do was file a complaint with the university—and then live with the knowledge that her career would stall. It was the twenty-first century, women were the legal equals of men….
But in some of the ways that counted most, nothing had changed.
Some men still thought it was their right to take what they wanted, especially when it came to women.
"It's almost time," one of the grad students said breathlessly.
Sienna drew her thoughts together and focused on the jagged peak ahead of them. Half an hour, was more like it, but the waiting was part of the experience. She'd been on lots of ancient sites; she'd seen the summer sun rise at Chaco Canyon, traced the glyphs on the great temple at Chichén Itz . One magical night, she'd been permitted to walk among the monoliths at Stonehenge.
And yet, there was something special about this place.
She could feel it. In her bones. In her heart. She would never say such a thing to anyone—she was a scientist, and science scoffed at what people claimed to feel in their bones. Still, there was something special here. About this night. About being here.
She must have made a little sound. A whisper. An indrawn breath, because Jack Burden leaned toward her.
"Aren't you glad I brought you with me?" he said.
He made it sound like a gift, but it wasn't. Sienna was months away from her doctorate; she had studied Blackwolf Canyon for two years. She had earned her place on this expedition. She knew everything about the canyon, from the ancients who had settled it, to the Comanche and Sioux warriors who had fought for it, to its mysterious last-known owner, Jesse Blackwolf, though what had become of him was uncertain.
He, too, had been a warrior. He'd fought in Vietnam a decade before she was born, returned home in what should have been triumph—and virtually disappeared.
She'd tried to find out what had become of him, telling herself it had to do with her studies, her thesis, but it wasn't true. The man had captured her imagination. Ridiculous, of course. Cultural anthropologists studied cultures, not individuals. But there was something about Jesse Blackwolf….
"Here it comes," one of the grad students yelled. "Just another couple of minutes!"
Sienna nodded, wrapped her arms around herself and waited.
Blackwolf Canyon, Montana, 5:34 a.m., one hour before the summer solstice, June 22, 1975
Jesse Blackwolf s horse shifted impatiently beneath him.
"Soon," Jesse said softly, stroking a calloused hand along the animal's satiny neck.
Eyes narrowed, Jesse looked at the jagged peak ahead of him.
Half an hour, and he could ride out of this place and never look back.
His ancestors had come here to celebrate their gods. He had come to say goodbye to them. There was no room in his life for nonsense.
He hadn't planned on this final visit. What for? A summer solstice was a summer solstice. The earth reached the top of its northernmost tilt and that was that.
His ancestors had figured it out and they'd venerated the process. They'd made a big thing out of these final minutes that marked the start of the longest stretch of daylight in the year.
It wasn't belief in superstition that had brought Jesse here. On the contrary. It was disbelief. Looking at this foolishness as it happened seemed vital. He'd accepted it as a boy but he was a long way from boyhood. He was a man, older and wiser than the first time he'd ridden out to view the solstice.
The big gray stallion snorted softly. Jesse's hard, chiseled mouth turned up in what might almost have been a smile.
"Okay," he said, "maybe you're right. Older? Absolutely. Wiser? Who knows."
The horse snorted again and tossed his massive head as if to say, What are we doing out here when we both should be sleeping? Jesse couldn't fault the animal for that. Trouble was that an hour ago, he'd awakened from a fitful sleep, taken Cloud from the warmth of his stall, slipped a bridle over his head and obeyed the sudden impulse to ride out to the canyon and watch the sunrise.
Damn it, Jesse told himself coldly, be honest!
He was here by plan, by design, by the need to sever, once and for all, whatever ties remained between him and the old ways.
Impulse had nothing to do with it.
He'd known that the solstice was coming. You didn't have to be part Comanche and Sioux for that. His mother's Anglo blood was more than sufficient. So were the three wasted years he'd spent at university. The sun reached a certain declination, a certain height and angle in the sky, and twice a year, you had a solstice.
Solstices were real.
It was the god myths that were bull.
The stuff about the renewal of the earth, of the spirit. The nonsense about what it meant to a warrior to be on this very spot at the moment the sun rose behind the jagged peaks of Blackwolf Mountain, shone its light between the two enormous stony slabs on the rocky shelf some forty feet above the ground, then centered on the spiral the Old Ones had etched into the horizontal stone between them.
The idiocy about how viewing this particular rising sun could change a man's life forever.
Jesse gave a bitter laugh.
His father had believed in all of it, as had his grandfather, his great-grandfather and, most probably, every Blackwolf warrior whose DNA he'd inherited.
For most of his thirty years, he'd believed in it, too. Not all of it—a twentieth-century man with the better part of a university degree under his belt wasn't about to buy into mythology.
What he had believed in was respecting the old ways. Respecting the continuity of tradition. And, yes, he'd even believed in honoring, if only a little, events like the solstices.
What harm could there be, even if a man knew the scientific reasons for why such things occurred?
His father had brought him to this place when he was twelve.
"Soon the sun will rise," he had said, "and the light of time past and time yet to come will fall on the sacred circle. The vows a man takes at the summer solstice will determine his true path forever. Are you ready to make a vow, my son?"
At that age, Jesse's head and heart had brimmed with stories of his warrior ancestors. His father had told those tales to him all his life; his mother—born in the East, to parents who had never met an Indian until they met their new son-in-law—had read them to him from the children's books she wrote and illustrated.
And so, of course, Jesse had been ready.
As soon as the sun began its slow rise into the heavens, he'd tilted his face to its light, arms outstretched, hands open and cupped to receive its gift of brilliance and warmth, and he'd offered himself, everything he was, to the spirit of the warriors who had gone before him.
His father had smiled with pride. His mother, told of his vow when he and his father rode home, had hugged him. Even as he grew older and slowly began to understand that the old stories were just stories and nothing more, he'd been glad he'd made the vow, glad his father had included him in this ancient tradition.
But by the time Jesse was in college, everything seemed changed. There was a war taking place in a distant land. Boys he'd grown up with were dying in it. He would not be drafted; college kids were not going to be put in harm's way.
It seemed wrong. He was descended from warriors. What was he doing, hiding away in stuffy classrooms at a university where some had taken to ridiculing everything he believed?
At twenty, Jesse knew it was time to honor the vow he'd made when he was twelve.
He left college. Enlisted in the army. His father had been proud of him. His mother had wept. He went through basic training, was plucked from the others and offered the chance to become part of an elite group called Special Forces. He served with honorable men in what he thought was an honorable cause….
And watched everything he'd believed in turn to dust.
Cloud whinnied and pawed the ground. Jesse blinked, brought his thoughts back where they belonged, to this place where it had all begun, his descent into a way of life that had deceived him.
The solstice was starting.
The sky had taken on that faint purple light that marks the end of night as the sunlight began to fall on the mountain. Light filled the narrow space between the two great slabs of rocks placed there by his ancestors thousands of years ago.
The sun rose higher.
Jesse drew a deep breath.
The last time he'd sat a horse in this place, he'd been filled with childish idealism. Not anymore. He was a man, with a man's knowledge of the world. He had lost everything: his father to cancer, his mother to despair only months later, his own honor to a war that had been a sham.
So, yes. He would make another vow here as the sun rose. He would vow to rid the world of superstition. He would sell the canyon, sell his thousands of acres, and if some ambitious snake-oil salesman decided to charge admission to view the solstice or the equinox or the moon-rise, let him.
He had already put a stop to the age-old tradition of permitting his people to ride here to view what they considered a sacred rite. Men—boys, especially—should not be taught to put their faith in things that could someday make a mockery of their beliefs.
This was a place of lies and ignorance. It was time to put a stop to it.
The sale papers were already on his desk. He would sign them, courier them to his attorney, and all this nonsense would be—
Cloud whinnied. Jesse looked straight ahead at the beam of bright sunlight beginning to slip between the two slabs of stone.
He drew an unsteady breath. His pulse was racing; he felt light-headed. Damn it, superstition could be a powerful—
What in hell was that?
He'd expected the shaft of light to fall on the so-called sacred stone. One thing about science: once you understood it, you could count on it to perform the necessary parlor tricks.
But what was that other light? That sudden green zigzag overhead?
There it was again. An electric bolt of color that shattered the sky.
His horse danced backward, shying with fear. Jesse grasped the reins in his right hand more tightly, murmured words of assurance to the horse.
Lightning, in a clear dawn sky? Lightning without thunder? Lightning the color of emeralds? The weather could be unpredictable here. This was northern Montana, after all, a place of mountains and valleys and…
Another streak of lightning sizzled through the sky behind the jagged peak. The sun vanished; darkness covered the land. Cloud rose on his hind legs and pawed the air, crying out with fear. Jesse fought to calm the agitated animal.
The sky lit again. Green lightning flashed between the stone slabs and pulsed at the heart of the sacred circle.
The stallion went crazy, screaming, trying to throw Jesse to the ground.
The breath caught in Jessie's throat.
The lightning had stopped.
The darkness vanished.
The sun appeared, a bright yellow ball against a clear blue sky.
It lit the canyon, the peaks, the tenacious shrubs and lodge-pole pines that clung to the inhospitable slope before him, but Jesse had eyes for only one thing.
A figure. A human figure that lay, still as death, in the very center of the sacred stone.
The climb to the ledge was as tricky and dangerous as Jesse remembered, more like sixty feet instead of forty because of all the maneuvering necessary to find the right hand and footholds, and the rush of adrenaline pumping through him didn't help. He could feel his muscles tensing.
Jesse stopped, counted to ten, took half a dozen deep breaths as the sweat poured off his tanned skin. If he fell, then there'd be two of them for the vultures to pick over.
Two of what? his brain said. Had he actually seen somebody up there?
Hell. There was no time for that. He had to keep moving.
The ledge was right above him now. This was the trickiest part; he'd have to lean back with nothing behind him but air to get a decent handhold. Wouldn't it be a bitch if he'd gone through all this nonsense and the thing lying on the stone wasn't human at all? There was lots of wildlife here. Elk, deer, but neither of those could have scrambled up this high. A wolf? No, again. A bear, maybe. Or a mountain lion.
He might have made this climb just for a look at the carcass of a dead animal. Or an injured one. Hunters might have ignored his No Trespassing signs. Nobody from around here. They knew better. But an outsider…