by  Gail  R

She found him by the river, just where she knew he'd be.  The beautiful spot where he and Uncle Ray had put up the teepee some years ago.  She stood at the trailhead, watching him, wondering how to approach him.  It was dusk.  Shadows were muted by the rapidly dipping sun.  He'd started a fire and was sitting against a log, sleeping bag rolled up beside him, his outward appearance deceivingly peaceful.  But Alex knew that his thoughts were tumultuous, melancholy.  She stared at him for a few more moments, marveling at the rush of emotions that suddenly coursed through her by just seeing him.  It had only grown stronger since Christmas, buoyed by the promise of commitment, feelings no longer in hiding.

Except at times like this.  Her impulse was to hurry to him, smother him with concern, but that wasn't his way.  She'd had to learn that the hard way, even though she would never understand it.  But she'd accepted it.

It was part of the package that was Walker.

She took a tentative step forward, out of the cover of the trees.

Amigo, tethered nearby, whinnied at the same instant Walker caught the movement from the corner of his eye.  Momentarily startled, his face took on a look of surprise.

"Hi," Alex said hesitantly.

He got up, questioning with his eyes.  Alex stepped closer.

"I don't want to intrude. I just thought --- hoped --- you'd feel like company."

His expression was unreadable and for a fearful moment she thought she'd made a terrible mistake by coming.  But suddenly he was smiling slightly and held his arms out to her.  She embraced him tightly, wishing she could chase away his sorrow with just a hug.   Walker held her tenderly.  He should have known she'd figure it out and come looking for him.

"How'd you get here?" he asked.

"I drove your truck down from the ranch.  I left it about a half mile back where the trail narrows."

A pang of guilt shot through him.  What if he hadn't been here?  What if she'd searched for him, gotten lost or stuck out here in the middle of nowhere?  Stupid move, Walker.  You've got to start thinking in terms of two. "I'm sorry, Alex.  I should have........."

She silenced him with fingers to his lips.  "You don't need to explain.

You don't have to talk at all.  If you'd rather be alone I can........."

Now it was his turn to silence her --- two fingers to her lips, the thumb lightly tracing the outline of her mouth.  He gazed at her, drawn into the soft, enchanting blue eyes, feeling the power between them.  Pulling her close, he kissed her tenderly.

"I don't want to be alone," he whispered, surprising himself at the statement.

Before, he relished solitary time.  It was a haven, his retreat, a time for reflection and a time to sort things out.   But now, since they'd finally come together, the need to be alone wasn't such a need after all.  It was just ------ lonely.

Walker took her hand and they sat beside the fire.  Placing more wood on the flames, he knelt on his haunches and looked at her.

"You know what today is?"

She nodded. "I was in court all day, but when I finally got out and went looking for you, Jimmy said you'd taken the day off.  I figured I'd find you here....." she gestured toward the teepee,  ".....since he loved it so."

Walker gazed around the area --- the teepee, the fire ring, the rocks, the forest and the river --- all elements of the spirits of the earth, which Uncle Ray greatly revered and respected.

"A whole year since he died," Walker said quietly, shaking his head.

"Sometimes it seems like yesterday, sometimes a hundred years."

Alex rubbed his back.  "He wouldn't want you to grieve."

"I'm not, really,"  he began. "I just.......miss him."

She tugged on his arm, pulling him beside her.  "The memories are strong here, aren't they?"

Walker nodded. "This is where he first told me he was sick.  It's where we planned the vision quest."

"Is that why you left?  To go on a vision quest?"

Walker didn't answer.  He hadn't told anyone about the three day quest he and Uncle Ray had embarked on a year ago.  It had been an emotional journey, enlightening for them both, and immensely satisfying to Uncle Ray. 

When it came time for him to cross the river, he was ready, contented.  And although he implored his nephew to be accepting too, Walker wasn't ready to let his uncle go.  But he kept his selfish feelings to himself, he had let Uncle Ray go in peace.

Walker nodded with a sigh.  It was time to talk about it.  A year was too long to keep it bottled up.

"I took him to Morgan Mountain.  He wanted to speak with a spirit, one from a childhood dream."

"What kind of spirit?"

Walker looked skyward, then pointed.  "See Andromeda?"

She nodded.  He had taught her most of the major constellations.

"Now look to the right, the big square of stars there.  That's Pegasus, the winged horse.  Uncle Ray saw him in a dream once and from then on figured Pegasus was his guiding spirit.  When he knew he was dying, he asked me to take him to the top of the mountain, a very spiritual place.  He wanted to talk with Pegasus before he died."

They stared at the sparkling points of light in the night sky, then Walker turned his gaze to Alex. "Want to hear about it?"

Alex took in a startled breath.  Did he just offer to open up?  She nodded quickly, too stunned to speak.

Walker picked up a stick and idly poked at the fire as he began.  "We went on horseback, even though Uncle Ray was weak.  But he wouldn't hear of taking the truck.........."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They started out from the reservation on a bright cool morning.  They had packed enough supplies for several days, even though Walker had plans on returning that night if Ray seemed too ill to continue.

"Are you sure you won't go see another specialist, Uncle Ray?  Dallas has the best, all the newest treatments and research."

Ray shook his head.  "Nephew, I've been told I have very little time.

Even White Eagle knows this to be true.  Please accept it.  Make this last journey together a special one."

Walker swallowed hard, forcing down the lump that threatened to surge out. 

Ray was the last of his family, a cherished Uncle who had raised him and shaped him into the man he was now.  To let him go without a fight seemed like betrayal. But he kept his misgivings to himself, until mid-afternoon when Ray seemed to tire and Walker deemed a clearing near a conifer grove to be their first campsite.  After they'd eaten and stretched out in sleeping bags by a fire, Ray smiled at his nephew.

"You're very quiet, Washo. Even for you."

"Are you sure this is how you want to do this, Uncle Ray?"

"If I went to Dallas with you, went to the specialists, prolonged my life for another few months, what would my death be like?  Drugs to numb the pain, tubes to feed me, people cleaning up after my bodily functions, and worse still, my mind a blob of jello.  Even my hair would be gone."  He tugged on his braids.  "If that's gonna happen, I'd rather it be from a fierce battle, my scalp hung on someone's teepee."  He chuckled at his humor, but Walker only managed a small smile. "Washo, this way, I can go with dignity.  I need to see my spirit, to ask a few questions before I go.  What better way to die than to be with a loved one, surrounded by the earth spirits?  Which way would you choose?"

He had him there, and that was the point when Walker put his heart into the quest.  Tomorrow they would reach the top of the mountain, they'd make a medicine wheel with stones, and they'd stare into a fire until, entranced, the spirit of Pegasus came.

"Okay, Uncle Ray."  Walker gazed at his uncle, who had pulled the sleeping bag up to his shoulders to ward off the chill.  He seemed very frail as he closed his eyes.  Walker turned to the fire to battle the emotions pulling inside of him.  Ray's quiet voice startled him.

"You're everything in a son a man could want, Washo."

Walker felt tears welling up.  He wanted to answer, to tell Ray how he felt too, but the words caught as his throat tightened.  When he finally forced a deep breath and felt like he could speak without faltering, Ray's eyes had closed again, his breathing dropping into a regular pattern of sleep.

Walker stayed awake most of the night, watching over his Uncle, wishing to the stars that the time to say goodbye wasn't just hours away.  He picked out Pegasus from the splash of constellations above, hoping and praying this quest wasn't in vain.

They fasted the next day, even though Walker knew it would weaken Ray further.  But it was necessary for the body to be cleansed of earthly compounds before the spirits could enter the soul.   As they reached the mountaintop in the afternoon, Ray rested as Walker constructed the medicine wheel, then built a fire.  They took their positions by the warm flames and let their minds go, turning inward, beseeching a spirit to come.

It didn't take long.  Walker was aware of a giant winged horse hovering near them, but the vision was murky, uninterpretable to him.  He realized that what he was experiencing was the fringe of Ray's vision, that this wasn't meant for him to understand. But even the periphery of Ray's vision was mesmerizing.  Walker could hear Ray's voice, could see his face, a smile brightening up the dark eyes.

Time went by, but Walker had no clue how much.  He couldn't pull himself away from the sight of the white wings spread out against the sky, the immense power that the beautiful equine possessed acutely palpable.  A swirl of color and movement enveloped him, and as he viewed Ray's face once more, he knew his Uncle was receiving his last wish in full.  Ray was beaming and nodding, reaching out to stroke the resplendent feathered wings.

But then the vision suddenly came into sharp focus for Walker.  Another spirit had arrived, this one also powerful and strong --- a lone eagle.

There were no words spoken, but the sense of love, warmth and security prevailed.  The eagle peered at him, beckoning. Without hesitation, Walker let himself go, was suddenly inside the eagle, watching the ground race below him, banking on a warm updraft of wind, his heart beating rapidly with the freedom and ease of his abilities.  Pegasus and the lone eagle flew together, side by side, connected by an invisible bond stronger than earthly ties.

And then the third spirit entered the vision.  She was unconditionally accepted by Pegasus and the lone eagle, and for some time the three soared together, until suddenly Pegasus turned to them and nodded his goodbye, his steady eyes fixed on the eagle, imparting in a second's time all that had passed between them in life, and Walker felt his heart begin to ache, his wings flapping harder to keep up with the winged horse as he turned and flew to his destiny.  But the smaller eagle was no match for the winged horse, and in seconds the steed was a blur in the clouds.

Walker snapped out of the vision, realizing tears were streaming down his face.  He tried to still his breathing, tried to focus his eyes on his surroundings.  It was night, and Ray was slumped over beside him.

Walker gently pulled his uncle into his arms.  The older man weakly opened his eyes and gazed up at his nephew.

"Washo, it was magnificent,"  he whispered, and Walker knew by the meager voice and glassy eyes that the end was at hand.

"Yes, Uncle Ray, it was."  He fought back a sob.

"You saw the third spirit, saw what she showed us?"

Walker nodded, not trusting his voice now.

Ray glanced around at the mountainous landscape, the fire and the stars.

Then he fixed his eyes on Walker again.  "I know many things now, and I am very happy."  With a smile, he reached up and touched Walker's face, and then he was gone.

Walker held his Uncle tightly, hugging him to his body, no longer trying to stop the tears.  Squeezing his eyes closed, he wept, but more for joy than sorrow.  Ray had crossed the river in peace, in the way of the Native American, with dignity and enlightenment. His last wish had been granted.  Hours later, after Walker had lovingly tucked Ray's body into the sleeping bag and placed him near the warmth of the fire, Washo lay back and gazed into the endless wash of stars and galaxies and creamy clusters of star groups.  He picked out the starred form of the great winged horse.

"Thanks, Pegasus," he whispered, and he was sure he saw the starry head nod in reply.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Alex wiped the tears off her cheeks, her heart swelling with emotion.

"Oh Walker," she said, her voice barely a whisper.

She put her arm around him, resting her head on his shoulder.  For a long while they said nothing, the stillness enriched by the gentle purls of the river, the crackling fire, and the occasional call of an owl. Walker pulled her closer, kissing the top of her head, then nuzzling his chin into her hair.  He didn't tell her the rest of the vision, of the third spirit.

It was a Kestrel, the sparrow hawk, smaller and more beautifully colored, but just as intelligent and powerful in her own way.  He had known right away the kestrel was Alex, had seen in the vision that she was meant to be by his side and would remain there till the end of time.  And in the vision, soaring behind them, a few downy-feathered fledglings tested their wings on the shifting air currents.  Uncle Ray's fondest wish would eventually come true.

Alex knew what it had taken for him to tell her something so private, so emotional.  She hugged him tighter.  "Thank you."

He stroked her face, then glanced up at Pegasus, the wings forever stretched out and pinned by stars.  She followed his gaze.

"It's magical here, isn't it?" she whispered.

He took her face between his hands and kissed her, then nodded his forehead against hers. "You're the magic, Alex."

He pulled her to him, into a long deep kiss, as the stars above twinkled with approval.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Alex awoke at dawn, her head --- the only part of her sticking out of the sleeping bag --- damp from the fallen dew.  The chill of the night had been kept at bay by the warm body beside her, his arms still enveloping her, holding her against his chest.  She remained still, not wanting to wake him, content to feel his breath on her shoulder.  A slight movement on a nearby branch caught her eye.  A bird, small and beautiful, basked in the first rays of the sun.  A kestrel, she knew, because she'd had a dream about it last night.  Funny, she'd never seen one before, and now here it was, and the dream was so realistic, yet ethereal......

Are you my guiding spirit, little bird?

Far above, gliding gracefully on the first warm winds of the day, a lone eagle called.  Walker shifted, his arm wrapping tighter around Alex as he sighed with contentment. The kestrel flicked her head to the sky, then, pausing for a second to give Alex a look, took off to meet the eagle on the updrafts.

Alex, luxuriating in the quiet bliss of being held in her own lone eagle's arms, smiled. She had her answer.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~