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The journal was nearly two centuries old by the time it came into Jonas Clark's hands, having been in his family since his ancestor had returned from his historic exploration of the Pacific Northwest. It was bound in dark leather, but its stiff pages had fallen victim to time, so he carried copies of a transcript he had typed of their contents. This way the precious book was secure in a safety deposit box in Florida while he followed its directions to their ultimate goal on the Pacific Ocean.
When he had brought the book to the attention of his history professor at TSU, the response was not what he had anticipated. In fact, historians knew Sacagawea to be illiterate, so as far as his professor was concerned the book was a very nice forgery. Even as a forgery it would have held some historic value, but Jonas couldn't let it pass as anything other than genuine, so he had spent the last nine weeks in an old VW Vanagon conversion retracing the path laid out in its print looking for something that might prove that it had originated from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Most of the landmarks mentioned were easy to verify, but they were all common enough knowledge after the expedition had returned that their inclusion had only supported his professor's assertion that he held an artful counterfeit. Soon, however, he would reach an area where a single curious line had been penned all those years ago.
"(The scout party) was too near (the cave or site), (took them) back to (the river or landing)." was the best translation he could manage of her rough script. She wrote in a mixture of French and English, substituting pictograms for words and ideas she couldn't manage otherwise. She was hired as a translator to the natives, but also served as a guide on the journey. If he could find whatever it was that she had avoided and add that to the rest of the sites he had surveyed, he was certain the book would be validated. As near as he could tell, the entry had been made in early November 1805, which put the expedition on the Columbia River some thirty-five to forty miles East of Vancouver. Tomorrow's hike would put him at the beginning of that range if he didn't take the time to explore the shore too much as the expedition would have.
It was approaching half past seven when the sun finally crested the mountains though the sky had turned azure an hour before that. He had gotten used to the strange daybreak of the steep valleys on his journey, and as the first rays began to hit his broad shoulders directly he began the day's trek. Nine weeks on the trail had melted away two years of the physique dorm life had given him with its pizza and takeout and replaced it with a soft muscular build that he decided to try to maintain once he was back on campus. With his new trim form and the stout jaw that he had always been proud of he should be able to more than make up for his dull brown tangle of curly hair and broad nose that he had never liked. He thought it made his hazel eyes look too small and strangely spaced. With the change in his looks and the publicity from the paper he would write during the fall semester, he imagined he would have his pick among the co-eds. These thoughts lightened his step under his heavy pack and he was within his estimated range of the cave or site before noon.
Camping was not allowed along the river, but there were little towns that dotted the highway along its banks where he was able to resupply and spend a night or two in a comfortable bed. Still he would speed most of the weeks under his backpack and sleeping under the stars or in his little pup tent. The nights were warm and he had a backpacking stove, so there would be no need of a fire. Breaking camp he made a light lunch before heading out to survey the countryside for the afternoon.
He was on a small creek that fed a larger stream which in turn fed the Columbia River. Thus far he had seen many noted historical sites, but nothing that might have been described as both a cave and a site, which is what he had decided would fulfill his requirements. By three in the afternoon he still had had no luck and decided to sit and eat his sandwich before looking for a suitable camping site. Finding a nice rock with a nearly flat top in the middle of a little clearing that offered a view of his creek on one side and the river on the other, he had his lunch. He was just starting the second half of the sandwich when he noticed the little game trail that ran from the creek and practically under his perch before continuing into some brush at the base of a low bluff.
It looked like a rabbit trail, and finishing his lunch he confirmed his thoughts with the discovery of rabbit spoor. Following the trail into the scrub, he found that it had not turned to run along the base of the bluff as he had guessed, but terminated at the base of three small improbably placed boulders where a slight depression had been dug under the crevice where two of them rested together. The stones themselves had been worn smooth and looked more like river rocks than large stones. Realization of how out of place they looked started a small thrill in the pit of Jonas's stomach, and he leapt back to the platform where he had eaten to get a better look at the area.
The Columbia was about two hours away on foot, and though farms swarmed its larger tributaries, there wasn't so much as a service road along the stream he had come up yesterday. It was well within range of a survey team if they had landed at the sandbar at the stream's confluence, but there wasn't much that he could see that might have been of interest to draw them up here. Unless it was this clearing itself. Perhaps it was a hunting party stalking game and not a research party that had worried Sacagawea. Dropping his pack on the friendly flat rock, he found a stout fallen branch and returned to the three curious boulders. Prying the front most from where it lay against the rear two, he was rewarded with a blast of dank musty air from a triangular opening he could probably squeeze through. A moment later he returned with his flashlight and a hip pack containing his keys, wallet, and some basic survival and first aid essentials, just in case.
The two other boulders were held solidly in place in the side of the hill, but with some work he managed to pull himself through and into a space he could comfortably crawl in before it opened up to a cavern so large the beam from his little mini-mag knock off couldn't reach the far side. The floor was a rough grey stone that had a noticeable slant towards the back of the cave, and the moisture in the air made the floor feel slicker than it really was. The walls were a darker gray stone that was very slick from the moisture. They leaned in towards the roof and had relatively large symbols chipped into their otherwise smooth surface. On the floor under each symbol were what appeared to be small stone lamps. He could hardly contain his excitement at having found the place that would finally testify to the journal having been written by Sacagawea.
The area had a rough oval shape to it that was maybe twenty feet across the short way and thirty the long way with a ceiling high enough that his meager flash light didn't seem to reach it. The far side of the cave had a passage that dropped away steeply on its left side, and on the right was a deep depression that was black from ancient fires, but now held the bedding of the rabbit that had claimed the cavern. This place definitely held some significance at one point in time, but it was obviously no longer used. He was aching to get a better look at his discovery, so he picked up some of the dry grass and twisted it into a serviceable wick. From his hip pack he pulled his fire starting kit made up of a one ounce plastic bottle of lamp oil and a box of weatherproof matches, then he picked one of the stone lamps roughly in the center of the longer wall. It had a concave plate to hold the oil and a small nick in the rim to let the wick sit under a pebble then rest on a special flat spot. Once he was satisfied that the wick was no longer dry, he struck a match and in a moment had a small but strong flame.
Its dim light cast a warm glow on both walls, almost reaching the ends of the room affording him a better overall view of the place. With its added illumination he found that the ceiling wasn't very high after all, but it was black from the soot of those same ancient fires. His disappointing flash light did still serve to brighten different individual things around the room for closer inspection, but without the lamp's light he wouldn't have noticed that the other lamps had animals carved into their base. He was marveling at the detail of the rabbit on the lamp next to his when his lungs began to ache and his hands started cramping.
"The air must be more stale than I expected," was his first thought. Dowsing the oil lamp with another small stone from the floor, he decided to let the cave breathe overnight while he went back to town to get a couple lanterns. As he rose, however, he became dizzy and the room seemed to stretch before him, the entrance retreating from his advance. His flashlight fell to the floor, its beam rolling back around to shed its light on the recently extinguished lamp and the symbol on the wall behind it. He soon followed the flashlight with a thud and sat bewildered rubbing his aching hands.
They felt strange, somehow smaller than they should be, and the nails seemed to have a higher dome than they should. In fact, as his mind clouded further his whole body felt like it didn't fit properly, then he felt the webbing coming up between his fingers. Some part of his befuddled mind knew what he was feeling couldn't be possible, and was more likely some form of hallucination brought on by the bad air in the cave. He dearly wished that he had prepared better for actually finding what he was looking for. Suddenly the air seemed to thicken and it was even harder to breathe. He felt very hot sitting on the clammy floor with his legs splayed before him, and flopped to his side to rest his head on the cool floor. The impact of the motion seemed to stab his cheek in several places near his nose, and he wondered at this for a moment, but it didn't seem so important. At the same time the motion pulled his feet through the air, flinging one of his shoes off of his shrunken foot. His entire body seemed to be screaming at him in pain, but he couldn't manage to focus on any of it. As he sunk further into euphoria, he completely lost track of himself.
His hands had become smaller even before he dowsed his oil lamp, and by the time he fell to his rear they were well on their way to their final shape. By that time as well, his arms and legs had lost a lot of their length. His feet had also become much shorter and rounder, all of his limbs began sprouting a dense slick brown fur before he dropped to his side. By that time as well the changes had taken most of the human traits out of his face, and a fine set of whiskers graced his short muzzle. As he lay on the ground, his tail grew to a little more than twice the length of his stubby legs revealing his naked form from the waist down including a radically different crotch. At least physically he was no longer male, and in his delirious state he vocalized little chirps and murrs as his body contorted and twisted into a more streamlined form. His arms and head had been lost in his t-shirt for a moment before he twisted out of it, and soon he bore a striking resemblance to the river otter holding up the lamp he had lit earlier.
As his senses returned to him, there was more otter than Jonas Clark in his mind. He was stunned at the extent of the changes as the creature bounded for the entrance, and what little was left of him struggled to gain control over the joyful entity that was sharing his body. She was feeding him information on his new form while they ran for the creek that would eventually lead them to the river. It was an awkward communication at first, but with her guidance he could feel a part of his mind locked away, carrying most of what he had lost, he hoped. Her method of speaking to him was more like a barrage of sensory data that he might have had an easier time of comprehending if he hadn't grown up living in a city or if he was a little more than just a self-aware shell of what he had been. As direct as it was, it confused him more than another language might have, and this seemed to delight her. He did get a sense that she had been more or less confined in whatever it was that lamp connected to, and now that she was in the corporeal world again she was going to have some fun.
He did marvel at how the simple act of running in her bounding lope seemed to fill them both with a simple pleasure he had never experience before. This was doubled, at least, once they started their easy glide down the creek to join the stream. Faster than he could believe they were in the Columbia River, playing along its shores and searching for any tasty morsel that might swim by. Swimming as an otter in her element was possible the best thing he would ever experience, even better than sex, though at the moment he didn't want to consider that prospect. When that thought had crossed his mind, she stopped for a chilling moment and seemed to contemplate finding a partner to help really broaden his horizons. Ultimately they wound up spending the afternoon fishing before finding a place to sleep shortly after sunset. His companion of the afternoon seemed to fall asleep first, and he was alarmed to lose her presence and finally regain control over his altered form.
After missing his weekly phone call home for a second time, a search was called for the wayward backpacker. The red nylon of his backpack was easily spotted in the clearing during a flyover, and the forest service almost lost a ranger to the same magics that were assumed to have taken Jonas. She had lit the lamp he had prepared two weeks earlier, but her companions had managed to subdue her before she got out of the cave. With the timely intervention of a nearby tribe, she managed to tell the story of her meeting with the playful spirit. The veracity of Sacagawea's Journal was proven as Jonas had hoped, but he wasn't found for another twenty years, by which time he was ancient by otter standards. Given the choice, she elected to stay in the wild that had become her home by that time. She made a remarkable otter, outliving several generations of her own offspring.