* * *
"What the hell do you mean the plane is gone?"
Vivid red veins converted Lt. Colonel Ralph Johnson's sagging, pudgy face into a road map of his emotions. The lieutenant went two shades paler as he delivered the news.
Johnson barged through the open door of his quarters into the hallway still stuffing shirttails into his pants. The slightly-built lieutenant scampered after him.
"Sir, I don't know what happened to the aircraft. Security is looking into that. But what...," the lieutenant stopped speaking to catch his breath as he trotted behind the Colonel. "Sir, what do I tell the press? The press conference is in less than an hour."
The Colonel unexpectedly stopped, his hand on the doorknob. The lieutenant nearly rear-ended him in his haste.
"Lieutenant, I don't care what you tell them, but don't tell them we lost the damned airplane and everything in it. Tell them...tell them the whole fucking thing was a mistake. Shit, I don't know! You're the P.I.O. here. Use your goddamn imagination! You can tell them it was a goddamn balloon, for all I care."
* * *
Major Williams tugged at his necktie. Sweat glistened on his forehead even though a frigid blast thundered through the open side window. Eyes flickered nervously from the instrument panel to the black void outside. Earlier he had been sleepy. No longer. The uncertainty of not knowing where he was had taken care of that.
He scanned the darkness in all directions. There was nothing! Absolutely nothing! Even his headset was silent. The Satillo low frequency beacon should have been showering his ears with dots and dashes. The lights of Chihuahua should be clearly visible. But, there was nothing. His altimeter was steady at five thousand feet.
Then he saw it. A light broke the void ahead. It was small, but at least it was something. To a tired Air Force Major desperate to get oriented, it looked to be a light many miles away. He couldn't guess the distance. Or the size.
* * *
Charley Yee huddled closer to his campfire. Although only fourteen years old, he stood on the verge of Apache manhood and his eyes danced wildly from image to image. None of the images were real. Peyote made them seem real, however. He rocked gently back and forth as wonderful sights raced through his mind. Peyote was not the Apache way. This he knew. But perhaps it would show him the things he needed to know. A low moanful chant worked its way from deep inside his heart and floated out over the edge of the cliff a few feet away.
He shivered. Even the powerful spell of ground peyote buttons couldn't convince his teen-aged body it was warm. At that altitude, well over a mile high, the darkness pressing around him was only slightly above freezing.
His fire was perched on the very tip of a small, rocky finger projecting off Arizona's steep Mogollon Rim which stretched for hundreds of miles in either direction.
Charley Yee was totally unaware of his spectacular surroundings. After four days of fasting, chanting and peyote, he was aware only of the spiritual vacuum within his soul. He was confused by the new ways surrounding his people. He couldn't follow the traditional ways of the warrior. The path was no longer clear. He desperately needed a vision. It would be the window to his future.
* * *
For a fraction of a second, a surprised Major John Williams clearly saw Charley Yee outlined in front of his campfire. The light which he had judged to be many miles distant suddenly grew and flashed beneath him. In that last instant, he realized the light was a small fire and he was only a few yards above it.
His muscles were still receiving commands to pull when the C-45's wing tips touched both walls of the narrow, tapering canyon directly behind Charley Yee. The canyon instantly ripped away both outer wing panels. The trajectory of the carcass carrying Williams and his precious cargo wasn't altered a degree.
In the darkness, John Williams never saw the mouth of the shallow cave coming. He wasn't aware of parts being shorn from both sides of the fuselage by the rocks. The process converted the airplane into a projectile and robbed it of its energy, gradually slowing it down.
Major Williams would have survived, if it hadn't been for a single, ancient stalactite. It flashed out of the darkness, as the remains of the fuselage slowly ground to a halt on the cavern floor. William's mind was still trying to cope with the chaos around him, when the stone structure slammed through the windshield. It compressed his brain into a tiny space against the rear cockpit bulkhead.
He didn't hear the wing tanks explode at the mouth of the cavern behind him. Nor did he hear the thunder of the avalanche the explosions touched off. The silence which descended upon his lifeless body was as complete as the blackness of the sealed cavern which had become his tomb.
* * *
Charley Yee was speechless. His vision had been so strong! So dramatic! It had roared at him out of the darkness. Its breath had blown on him so hard it had threatened to extinguish his camp fire. Its voice had been so strong as to force his hands to his ears. And it had drawn his eyes to follow it where it had hidden itself in the mountain.
Those were his gods. Of that Charley Yee would always be certain. His life had just been revealed and forever changed.
His mind still numb and singing the song of the peyote, he turned and stumbled after his gods. He would have to worship at the shrine. And this would be his secret holy place forever.