Ben’s lips parted. “You mean-the world’s largest cedar tree?”

“Yes! I’m almost certain of it. It’s huge-over a hundred and seventy feet tall and twenty feet in circumference. And over seven hundred years old. Older than the Declaration of Independence. Hell, older than Columbus. This tree was huge when Henry the Eighth took his first wife. It was old by the time Lincoln was writing the Emancipation Proclamation!”

“Can you show me?”

“Can I? Come on!”

Ben rushed downstairs, following in Deirdre’s wake. He wondered if all dendrochronologists were this excitable. Certainly at the moment, she was not the traditional image of the cool, logical scientist. More like a high school senior who’d just been asked to the prom.

Ben climbed into the back of the Jeep, squeezing in next to Maureen. “So,” he said, “is she excited?”

Maureen winked. “I think you could say she’s excited.”

Deirdre slid into the drivers seat and pushed the Jeep into first gear. “You have to understand,” she said as she zoomed down Main Street, taking the quickest route out of town and into the forest, “these trees have individuality. They’re like people-friends-and each one of them is different.”

“So this one is like your great-great-grandfather?” Ben asked.

Deirdre laughed. “More like my great great great great great great great great great grandfather. But he’s magnificent. I’ve never found anything like this before. Not in my entire career.”

“How did you locate it?”

“I’ve been searching systematically since I arrived. Several campers had made reports of huge old-growth trees, but their directions were never very precise. I had to do a lot of wandering around, following hunches, analyzing the growth patterns. It’s taken months.” Her grin spread from ear to ear. “But I found it! Last night, long past midnight, I found it. I could barely sleep! It’s huge-bigger than the recordholder in Forks.”

They continued driving, taking the northbound path into the forest, then moving onto a northwest trail, plunging deep into the dense foliage, past the site of the murder, even past the site of the recent fire. Deirdre was taking them all the way, deep inside the forest.

Ben had to wonder once more at the marvelous and beautiful diversity of the ancient forest. There was so much life here, he thought. So much variety. Even a city boy like himself could share in Deirdre’s excitement.

Finally, when they were considerably deeper in than Ben had been before, Deirdre stopped the Jeep. “This is as far as we can go on wheels,” she explained. “From here on out, we walk.”

Except with Deirdre in the lead, it was more like a run. Ben did his best to keep up, tripping over bramble, letting branches sweep across his face. They yelled for Deirdre to stop, slow down, but she wasn’t listening. She was unrestrained, uncontrollable. She was going to meet a new old friend and there was no holding her back.

Until at last they arrived.

“No,” Deirdre said, almost under her breath.

Ben was well behind her. He kept running, huffing and puffing, holding the stitch in his side, till he finally arrived at the point where Deirdre had frozen in her tracks.

“No,” he echoed, when he saw what she saw.

“Oh, God,” Maureen said, pulling up behind them. “Oh, please God, no.”

The tree was gone. That tree and all its companion trees-gone.

The clear-cutters had moved in, just that morning, from all appearances. But they had been busy As usual, they started work with the largest and therefore most profitable trees, then moved outward in concentric circles, taking all the rest. There were four tree cutters working the area, systematically using their huge mechanical arms to grip and slice one enormous trunk after another.

In the space of a few hours, more than two hundred trees had been leveled.

No!” Deirdre screamed. She ran forward, weaving between the cutting machines and fallen branches. Like a pigeon homing in on an old companion, she led them directly to the spot.

The tree was now nothing but a stump, flattened, less than a foot off the ground.

“My God!” Deirdre cried. Her face was wet with tears. “He’s been here since before Columbus.” There was a catch in her throat, like something was being ripped out of her insides. “Before Columbus!”

Ben didn’t know what to say. There were no words to express what he was feeling, much less anything that would be of any comfort to Deirdre. Instead, he simply stared at the flattened remains of that once-great cedar, and the remains of all the other immense cedars surrounding it, on and on, around and around, as far as he could see-the remnants of hundreds of lives that had survived for hundreds upon hundreds of years, only to be destroyed in a single morning.

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