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Lucy waited until she knew her grandmother was asleep before she left the house and quietly wheeled her bike out of the shed. The afternoon's bitter quarrel had continued to torment her the whole time she had sorted through the few possessions she would need to take with hera bedroll, a few clothes, a heavy, sheepskin-lined jacket, a canteen of water, some food pilfered from the kitchen, her grandmother's .22 pistol, and, of course, the diskette. Her mother's precious diskette. The diskette that had meant more to Sandra Ridder than anything else. That diskette, Lucy Ridder knew, was the whole reason her father had died.
It was cold enough outside that she could see her breath. Across the Sulphur Springs Valley the full moon had risen high over the horizon, casting enough of an eerie yellow glow across the landscape that Lucy could see to ride. After pushing the bike for the better part of half a mile, Lucy stopped and once again sent that same wild and keening cry off across the night-still desert. She called and waited. Moments later, she was rewarded by the flap of Big Red's wings overhead. Once he settled gently onto her leather-thong-wrapped handlebar, Lucy no longer felt nearly as alone or as frightened.
"Will she come, do you think?" Lucy asked the bird.
Big Red didn't answer, but then he didn't need to. After all, Lucy knew the answer to that question herself, She had known it all along. Of course Sandra Ridder would come, just as she had eight years earlier -- in secret, in the middle of the night, and without Grandma Yates' knowledge.
Big Red had learned to ride on the handlebars of Lucy's bike long before he could fly. From the time he was little more than a ball of fluff, he had loved riding perched on the leatherwrapped handlebar with his wings half-spread and his hooked beak pointing into the wind. As he had grown, it seemed to Lucy that Big Red's partially unfurled wings always served to make them more aerodynamic.
They often took long weekend jaunts to the upper end of Cochise Stronghold. In the wild and protected reaches of the cliff-bound canyon where the noted Apache chieftain, Cochise, had often secluded his band, Lucy and her unlikely companion would while away the long weekend hours. This, however, was the first time that the two of them had made this pilgrimage together in the dark of night.
Three different times Lucy heard vehicles approaching from behind, and twice she met vehicles driving toward her. On each occasion, Lucy wheeled the sturdy mountain bike off the road. While Big Red hustled onto low-lying branches, Lucy disappeared into underbrush to wait until the danger of discovery was past.
Pumping along, Lucy felt physical warmth seeping back into her body right along with the anger she harbored toward her mother. And as she rode, the memory of that other nighttime trip to Cochise Stronghold -- one made from Tucson and in her mother's old Nissan -- was still vivid in Lucy's mind.
Sandra Ridder had come to the Lohse YMCA to collect herdaughter. Even though the ballet class had barely started, she had ordered Lucy to get dressed and come along. Her face had been bruised and bleeding and she seemed so agitated that at first Lucy had thought Sandra was drunk. That did happen at times, although it happened far less frequently now that Lucy's father had gone to treatment and quit drinking.
Once in the car, Lucy learned that her mother wasn't drunk. She was angry. Furious! As soon as the car doors closed, she had wrestled Lucy's backpack away from her daughter and dug through it, pawing all the way to the bottom.
"That son of a bitch!" she had exclaimed at last, pulling out the diskette Lucy's father had given her at lunchtime.
"I knew it had to be here!" Sandra continued. "They looked everywhere else, so I knew he must have given it to YOU."
Lucy didn't know who "they" were. But she did know that her father had placed the diskette in her backpack. She also knew that real physical danger lurked in her mother's anger, and right then fear overpowered everything else. She had shrunk into the far corner of the car seat and had tried not to listen as her mother ranted and raved about her father and about the terrible things he had done.
After they left the lights of Tucson behind them and all the time they were driving the familiar roads to Cochise County's Dragoon Mountains, Lucy had assumed they were going to see her two grandmothers. Grandma Yates, her mother's mother, and her great-grandmother, Christina Bagwell, lived just off Middlemarch Road in the foothills of the Dragoon Mountains. Instead, Sandra had driven her Nissan someplace else -- to a place that was nearby and almost as familiar as Grandma Yates' ranch -- Cochise Stronghold. The Ridders and Lucy's two grandmothers had often had family picnics in the campground there. This time, though, Sandra had pulled overand stopped right beside the entrance. As she put the car in park, Sandra had told Lucy to get in the backseat. "Go to sleep," she said. "And don't you make a sound."
Lucy hadn't made a sound, but she hadn't gone to sleep, either. Instead, peering out through the back window, Lucy had watched as her mother carefully removed a stack of fistsized rocks from beneath the rough-hewn FOREST SERVICE sign at the entrance to the park. Then, once the rocks had been moved aside, Sandra had hidden something deep in the earthen cavity created by the missing rocks. In the dark, Lucy had been unable to see the object her mother was so carefully and secretly burying, covering it over once again with the stack of rocks. Lucy assumed it had to be the diskette Sandra had retrieved from Lucy's backpack, but in the dark there was no way to tell for sure.