Disclaimer: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Pet Fly.
Note: This story was written almost a year ago and is pre-TSbyBS. Thank you Melanie for the speedy beta-read on the finished product. "Thank yous" also to Robin and Tonya who did the original beta work on this story many, many months ago.
Struggling frantically, Blair tried to free his feet from the mire into which he was slowly sinking. His fingernails bit into the stony face of the cliff as he desperately searched for a handhold. His fingers and the palms of his hands were raw and bloody from his failed attempts and they slid uselessly from any small fissure he could find. Training told him that struggling in the mud was only digging him in deeper, but blind panic had driven away all reason when he realized he was steadily sinking. A tree root, which poked through the face of the cliff, was just inches out of his reach. He knew it was his only hope and that one chance was all he would get. If he missed… Taking a minute to catch his breath, he leaned into the cold rock and closed his eyes. As he slowed his breathing he tried to visualize his fingers wrapping around the root. He knew he could do it. Leaping up, his eyes never left their target. He felt the rough wood brush against his fingertips and then bite into his fingers as they closed around it. Blair nearly sobbed with relief when his grip held and renewed hope gave him the strength he needed to hoist himself up. Progress was slow and painful, but it was progress and he was able to pull one foot from the clinging muck. Bracing that boot against the rock wall, Sandburg began a slow climb and, with some effort, his other foot was soon released with a sucking sound. He was finally free of the mud.
The anthropologist's triumphant shout masked the snap of the root and the sound of the rock as it gave way. A startled yell was ripped from him as he dropped to the ground below, landing spread eagle across the viscous ooze. Covering his face with his arms, he was helpless as earth and stone rained down, burying him in the mud once again. Finally the assault ended, leaving him trapped and sinking once more. With a grim realization, Blair knew this time there was no hope. His thoughts were as dark and cold as the wet earth that slowly crawled across his skin. He could feel himself being pulled down as he sank by mere inches. The cool wetness tickled an earlobe and he knew it wouldn't be much longer. He would soon suffocate in the thick bog.
A flash from something reflecting the sun's rays caught his attention, drawing his eyes to the top of the ledge. He felt a glimmer of hope when he saw a head peek over the precipice. Someone knew he was there. The person's face was obscured by the long, dark hair that fell around it and Blair couldn't tell if it was a man or woman. But it didn't matter. Someone knew he was there! He was saved! Gathering as much oxygen into his lungs, as the weight that was crushing him would allow, he tried to yell out to his saviour. The words died in his throat as he saw the person pull away from the edge of the cliff without so much as a wave or a call of encouragement.
No!! Sandburg's mind screamed its denial as the ooze seeped up past his chin and the gritty taste of dirt crossed his lips.
Reaching over to turn on the lamp that sat by his bed, Jim Ellison listened to the sounds coming from the bedroom below. Blair's shout for help had startled him out of a sound sleep and he automatically reached for his gun. Remaining very still, he extended his senses, trying to detect the sounds or smells that would tell him who was in the loft and where the threat was. The lingering smells of last night's dinner and a certain anthropologist's cold cup of coffee, that still sat in the sink after numerous assurances of "I'll clean it up later, Jim", were the only scents to tickle his nose. The loft was empty except for his partner in the downstairs bedroom. With a sigh of relief, he returned his weapon to the nightstand and sank back onto the pillow. Bad dream. An overtired, overstressed Sandburg subconscious was working overtime. He could hear his friend's frantic heart beat and his thrashing against the sheets and blankets. Throwing back the covers, the detective's feet hit the floor just as he heard Sandburg wake up. He stayed frozen in that position, listening, debating whether or not he was needed.
"Jim, if you're awake, it was just a nightmare." Blair's whisper easily reached the sentinel's ears.
"Sorry if I woke you. No more disaster flicks for me before bed, man." The last sentence was followed by a quiet laugh.
The detective heard the rustling of sheets and his partner's soft sigh. A few minutes later he could hear deep breathing. Smiling to himself, Jim shook his head and got back into bed. One thing he had to admit about Blair was that his imagination was an active one. Giving his friend one final check to be sure that nightmare was over, Ellison drifted back to sleep.
"So tell me again why you have to go?" Jim took two cans of corn from the shelf and put them into the shopping cart. "You kind of lost me with the Suquamish and the Snoqualmie." The two shoppers had the small grocery store to themselves. Cascade Convenience was one of the few stores that still remained open 24 hours, seven days a week. Ellison and Sandburg were often found roaming the empty aisles during late night hours.
Smiling patiently at the detective, Blair once again explained. "You know how they're doing all that excavating up there in Snoqualmie Pass? Putting in the roads and everything?" He saw his partner's nod and tossed him a box of crackers before moving further up the aisle. "They blasted a new area and turned up some tribal relics. The company contacted the Snoqualmie about it, but it turns out that the artifacts aren't theirs at all."
"Okay," Jim interrupted. "I understand all that. But isn't that archaeology not anthropology?" He pushed the cart down to where Sandburg had stopped. "I know that your paths cross but why here?" He cringed as Blair nonchalantly tossed a can of soup into the shopping buggy, where it bounced off the crackers. Shaking his head, the detective followed the younger man around the corner and into another aisle. "Are you sure you're taking enough food? How many days do you expect to be gone?"
"Hmm?" Sandburg looked up from the box he had been studying. "Oh, just a couple of days. The hike into the Pass and out again is what's going to take time. The kids from the Life Quest program are going to meet us there." He disgustedly threw the box in with the rest of the groceries. "Man, I can't believe what they put in cereal." He mentally checked the items off his shopping list. "I think I have almost everything I need. Just want to grab some juice."
"You didn't answer my question, Chief."
"Which question?" Blair stopped. "I thought I had?"
"Why is this a concern for the Anthropology Department? At this stage, at least?" Jim put another few tins of food into the cart. "And where do the Suquamish fit in?
"Oh," the anthropologist grinned. "I guess I didn't answer that. What they found were ceremonial artifacts of the Suquamish!" He saw that his friend didn't share his excitement. "The Suquamish live around Puget Sound and always have. So it's very strange to find these sitting in the foothills of the Cascades. It could add more detail to the history of both tribes. The Suquamish tribe elders and the Snoqualmie elders have no idea why ceremonial material would be found there. So this does have some great anthropological significance. I just lucked out and was asked to go."
"So you're sure it's just for a couple of days?" Ellison asked. "Couple meaning two?"
"Yeah. Two," Blair laughed. "What is up with you? You gonna miss me?" He chuckled good-naturedly. His friend's slightly overprotective nature was something he had long become used to. At first he had resented what he thought was Jim's need to control anything that he perceived to be a part of his life. With time though, Blair had come to realize that it was probably part of the same biology that made the man a sentinel. His job was to protect the tribe and deep buried instincts had identified Blair as part of that tribe. So resentment soon turned into understanding and acceptance. It had surprised Blair, though, a veritable loner with no desire to put down any stakes, when he realized that, like Jim, something within him had come to identify the sentinel as one of <I>his</I> tribe.
Ruffling the younger man's hair as he walked past him, Jim adopted a pained expression. "Two days of peace and quiet? I don't think so. I just get nervous when you're out of my sight for too long. Trouble seems to follow you around."
"You are so right, Jim," Blair nodded. "Seems to me, though, that you're always there when it happens so I wouldn't be too sure about who's following whom." His stomach grumbled. "Hanging around all this food...I'm starving. Is there anything you wanted to pick up?" Blair waited for an answer and turned to look at his friend when he didn't get one. "Jim?"
Ellison peered down the aisle to the entrance of the store. A young woman stood alone, staring at him and his partner. The sentinel's first reaction was to smile in greeting since she seemed so familiar. He just couldn't remember where or when they had been introduced. The smile faded as he realized he was mistaken; she wasn't anyone he knew. Maybe she was someone he had seen with Blair? She had been looking at his guide when he had noticed her. Their eyes met and held for a moment before she turned and walked away.
"Jim?" Sandburg sounded concerned. "Jim, you okay?"
Shaking himself, Ellison focused his attention on his friend. "Yeah, I'm fine. Blair, did you notice that woman standing at the front of the store? She seemed pretty interested in us."
"I didn't see anyone except the cashier, Carrie. What'd this other woman look like?"
"I only got a quick look. Young, maybe late twenties, early thirties. She looked about 5'9". Pretty. Blue eyes. Long, dark, curly hair." Ellison rhymed off the woman's features. "She..." He saw his partner's smirk and stopped.
"That's a fairly detailed description for a quick look," Blair laughed, enjoying the ribbing more as he saw his partner's complexion redden. "She doesn't sound familiar. Sorry I missed her." Still chuckling to himself and shaking his head, he went to find the juice packs.
"I am a detective, Sandburg," Jim growled as he yanked his baseball cap down lower, barely able to suppress a grin.
"I can't believe you agreed to go on this trip!" The woman's brown eyes smoldered with anger. "I was counting on you to be here. For me! You promised that you would be!" She threw the jacket at her companion and stormed from the room.
Tom Burrows followed his wife down the narrow hallway and into the kitchen. Their discussion had quickly deteriorated into an argument. "Jan, I will be there," he soothed, trying to pull her into his arms. "It's only going to be for two days at the most. Maybe even less if we make good time."
Shoving herself away from him, she laughed. "Too many broken promises, Tom. Why should I believe this one?" Suddenly tiring of the argument, she dropped into one of the kitchen chairs. "Fine, whatever you say. Two days." Swiveling in the chair, she turned her back to him, signalling that the argument was truly at an end.
Not exactly happy with the outcome of what he had hoped would be a calm discussion, but relieved that it was over, Burrows reached out to his wife, laying a hand on her shoulder. "I'll see..."
"Just go," Jan Burrows shot at him as she slapped his hand away. "I hope this trip was worth it, Tom."
Burrows rubbed at his hand as he tried to think of something he could say that would ease his wife's anger. Nothing he could come up with seemed right. "I'll see you when I get back," he said uncertainly, wondering if he should be rethinking his decision. Shaking his head, he knew he couldn't. Washington tribes were his passion. It wasn't something he could or wanted to pass up. Jan would cool down. She'd understand. She always did...eventually. "If you need to reach me I've left the number to the ranger's station..."
Eyes wide and unbelieving, she looked at him open-mouthed. "If I need to reach you?! I told you I need you now, but that doesn't seem to matter. So what else could I possibly need you for that would seem important enough?" Rising from the table, she took the car keys from their hook and tossed them to her husband. "Go have fun playing in the dirt." With that she left the room.
Grabbing his camping gear that sat next to the door, Burrows turned to call out to his wife. "Love you, Jan!" He waited for a response but was met with an empty silence. He slung his backpack across his shoulders and quietly closed the door behind him.
Watching from the second floor window, Jan Burrows saw her husband climb into the jeep. The slump of his shoulders broke her heart, but anger kept her silent. "Be careful, Tom," she whispered as he backed out of the driveway.
Blair looked at his watch in the early morning's sparse light, checking again. His friend was late. Almost an hour late. Nervous energy made him want to pace, but he managed to keep still. Tom had made such a big deal about them leaving on time, he couldn't believe that he'd been kept waiting that long. Mild annoyance was quickly becoming irritation as he realized he could have stayed in bed a little longer. No one should have to be up on a Saturday at the crack of dawn.
"Are you sure you got the time right, Chief?" Jim had come down to wait with him, toting two cups of freshly brewed coffee. Stifling a yawn with the back of his hand, he noticed the sun was just starting to rise.
"We wanted an early start this morning." Blair's voice dripped sarcasm. "Not like that's going to happen." Making a conscious effort to take some control over his anger, Sandburg took a sip of the still steaming liquid. "Thanks for the coffee, Jim. I think I'm finally starting to wake up." He looked at his watch again and sighed.
Chuckling, Jim could almost feel his partner's impatience radiating from him. "It's just coming on 7:00, Chief. Traffic's bound to be light. You'll be on schedule." He leaned back against the building and turned up his sense of touch. The rays of the sun as it crested the horizon felt like warm fingers as they played across his chest and shoulders. "So tell me about this Life Quest program," Ellison suggested, hoping to steer the younger man's mind from his friend's tardiness.
"It was set up by the Seattle Indian Center," Blair explained as he pulled the zipper up higher on his jacket and fought back a shiver. The weather felt bitterly cold, even for a spring morning. "I used to volunteer there summers when I first moved to Cascade. It teaches survival and daily living skills," he grinned. "With my recent history I think I should go back as a student this time. It's for high school kids. A lot of them are from the Suquamish tribe." He saw Tom's jeep turn onto Prospect. "The tribe elders thought it would be a good learning experience for them. So they headed out a day or so ago and are spending some time with the Snoqualmie." He bent down to pick up his pack and swung it to his shoulder. "There's Tom now."
The jeep had barely come to a full stop at the curb when Burrows jumped out. His face was flushed as he walked up to the two men. "Geez, Blair, I'm sorry I'm late." Giving Jim a curt nod, he took Sandburg's gear and started back to the Cherokee. "Jan and I had this big blowout just before I left. She's a little upset with me..." He swore at the rear door that refused to open and gave it a yank. "Stupid door."
Blair stood quietly listening to Tom's tirade, his eyebrows on the rise. Tom Burrows was usually one of those infuriating people who remained too calm regardless of the situation. A mutual friend had once suggested that they take the man's pulse just to see if he was still among the living. Burrow's mood not only surprised Blair, but worried him. "Look Tom, if it's a problem maybe you should just stay here. I can get myself up to the station."
"No!" The door came flying open, causing Burrows to almost lose his balance. "You know how important this find is for me, Blair!" He angrily tossed the pack into the rear of the vehicle. "Jan was just in a snit. It'll be okay once she cools off."
Standing quietly behind his partner, Jim had been monitoring Sandburg's friend. The flushed face was just one indication of the man's distress. His heart rate was up and his breathing a little too rapid. He put a restraining hand on his guide's arm. "I don't know, Chief. He's a little too agitated to be on the road," he warned. "Maybe you should wait a while until he cools off." He heard the slam of a car door as Burrows got into the driver's seat.
"C'mon Sandburg, let's hit the road." Tom's annoyance wasn't easy to dismiss. "We're already behind schedule."
Smiling up at his friend, Blair assured him that if Tom didn't start to calm down he would insist on doing the driving. "Don't sweat it, big guy. Once we get on the road and start talking about the artifacts, he'll be okay." He headed to the jeep. "I'll see you Monday morning, Jim. Don't worry." Jogging to the passenger's side he climbed in, giving his partner a quick wave.
The Cherokee roared to life and sped away down the street, leaving a concerned Jim Ellison standing on the curb. "Just be careful, Chief."
"So, you want to talk about it?" The two men had spent almost an hour in absolute silence. "I don't think I've ever seen you this upset about anything," Blair smiled. "I was beginning to wonder if you were human."
Tom Burrows glanced quickly at his friend; a grin poking out from beneath the full, caramel coloured beard. "Oh yeah, I'm human." Shifting his considerable bulk, he got more comfortable behind the wheel. He was at least as tall as Ellison and probably outweighed him by fifteen pounds. "It's Jan. She really got angry this morning. I know it was my fault, but Blair, how often do I get a chance like this?"
Saying nothing, Sandburg kept his eyes focused on the view outside the windshield. Tom's question was one he had asked himself many times in the past. He was well acquainted with the zeal of making a discovery somehow blocking out common sense. He'd been guilty of it a few times himself. Too many times, most likely. If he did some soul searching he knew he would have to admit that it had probably damaged some of his friendships along the way. Not everyone shared his enthusiasm or passion for the past or alien cultures and sometimes it had baffled even him. The brief mention of sentinels in the works of Sir Richard Burton had driven him to different corners of the world, hoping to prove them more fact than myth. It wasn't until that search had taken him back to Cascade that he had even realized his quest had been more than some exercise to satisfy academic curiosity. Wanderlust had masked an emptiness that had always existed for him just below the surface. He had always felt that there was something that he was missing. A quirk of fate had filled that void. He had met Jim Ellison and his dissertation had become his reality. With an embarrassed start, Sandburg realized that he had drifted off into his own thoughts while Tom had kept on talking.
"...this is the first time she's been given the nod to represent her company. Jan's got to make this presentation to some major investors. A lot is riding on it." Burrows kept his eyes glued to the road ahead of them. "It's on Monday."
"She must be really nervous about it," Blair offered, knowing that this was where the argument must have started. "Probably wanted you there to help her out."
Tom snorted, rolling his eyes. "Jan call you before I got there?" He laughed, but it was mirthless. "I had promised I'd be there to go over it with her, let her use me as a sounding board. She knows her stuff, Blair. Hell, she developed most of the concepts she's been asked to present. She doesn't need me to fine-tune it. I don't understand most of it, anyway."
"You wanna turn around, Tom?"
"I do and I don't." Burrows' face and voice mirrored his conflict. "I want to be there when they hand over those ceremonial artifacts. I want to see where they were found. This could be an important link between the Pacific Northwest tribes. You know that."
"But?" Blair asked quietly.
"But I want to be there for Jan, too," Tom sighed. "The way I see it, we can be in and out in less than the two or three days we planned." He looked over at his friend. "What do you think, Blair? Do you mind if we sort of hurry it up?"
Leaning back into the soft cushion of the jeep, Sandburg smiled. "I don't mind, Tom. You know how I feel about the cold outdoors," he chuckled.
Jim had aimlessly circled the loft for the fourth time when he realized what he was doing. The weekend was going to be his, to do with as he wished. There were no cases pending, no paperwork that needed immediate attention. Simon had promised him that he wouldn't be disturbed. Peace and quiet and a well-deserved rest were what the detective had told his friends he wanted. In fact, he had stressed it was more what he needed. He had assured Sandburg that he was going to enjoy his brief vacation. That he had the loft to himself was going to be an unexpected bonus. His partner had just laughed at him smugly, saying that he knew Jim well enough to know that he'd be suffering cabin fever before the day was out. Sighing and dropping into one of the dining room chairs, the detective discovered that his guide was right. He was bored and feeling a little uneasy.
It had been hours since Blair and his friend had left. Burrows' state of mind had him worried. He didn't think the man had been calm enough to be on the road, much less chauffeuring Blair around. If the kid would just call and let him know he made it there safely, maybe he could relax and enjoy the rest of the day. Moving to the couch, he stretched out, pulling the afghan down. A Saturday afternoon nap might be just what he needed to unwind. One by one he blocked out the sounds of the street outside his balcony and the movements of the family that lived in the apartment below. His eyelids had barely drifted closed when the ringing of the phone filled the loft. Snatching it from the small table next to the couch, Jim checked the display. Unknown number. Thumbing the talk button, he hoped that this was the call he had been waiting for. "Ellison." He relaxed as soon as he heard Blair's voice.
"Jim? You're going to have to speak up, man! Sorry I didn't call earlier, but Tom and I were making some pretty good time and decided to wait until we got to the second checkpoint."
The sentinel could barely hear his guide through the static. "The drive go okay?" He had to almost shout to make himself heard. Turning the dial up a couple of notches on his hearing, he could hear Blair without having to strain. The downside was that the crackling hiss of the interference was making him wince.
"It was fine. I know that this noise has got to be driving you crazy so I'm going to hang up. I just wanted you to know that we made it okay." The connection had started to break up. "I know you were a little worried. Thanks for caring, Jim, but we're okay. Stop playing mother hen and enjoy the weekend, man." The rest of what was said was lost even to sentinel ears.
"I'll see you in a couple of days, Chief," Ellison shouted into the phone just before the line went dead.
"Bad connection." Blair gazed at the receiver in his hand and shrugged his shoulders. At least Jim had heard that they had made it safely. He walked over to where Tom stood; his eyes focused on the darkening sky. "There's a storm moving in," he sighed. The clouds were thick and grey, looking heavy with snow. Pulling his jacket collar up to block out some of the wind, he raised an eyebrow at Burrows, silently asking if he was ready to go.
Nodding, Tom picked up his backpack. "I'm glad that the other group decided to take the gear for the camp. I think we're going to have a hard walk ahead of us, judging from those clouds," the big man groaned loudly. "This hasn't been my day."
Jim speared the last mushroom from the carton of Chinese food that had been a late lunch and early dinner. He hadn't been able to work up the energy to leave the loft and cooking hadn't interested him. Ordering out had been the natural choice. Not much had interested him and his mood seemed almost as bleak as the weather outside his door. The early morning sunshine had given way to afternoon rain. A cold April rain. Through his balcony window he could see the Cascade Mountains and the low clouds that hung over them completely obscuring the caps. Sighing, he realized that Sandburg probably wasn't having a pleasant afternoon either. Flopping down on the couch, he decided to resume the nap that had been interrupted by Blair's call. He switched the television on and found a rare afternoon hockey game. Almost muting the sound, leaving it just loud enough to block out the lonely silence of the loft, Jim was soon sleeping soundly.
"I don't know, man," Blair called, looking worriedly at the almost black sky. "Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to keep going." An errant curl hung down over his eyes, dripping water onto his already chilled face. Sandburg shook the water from his hair, the result of the first downpour that afternoon, and tried to dig deeper into his down jacket in search of some warmth. Burrows had seemed unaffected by the weather and had insisted that they keep moving. Knowing that Tom didn't want to delay the trip because of the argument he had had with his wife, Blair had relented and followed the bigger man into the woods. Moaning to himself, he saw the first of the large, wet snowflakes as the temperature dipped lower in the late afternoon. He hoped that if heavier snow was on the way that it would fall after they had made camp. Walking with his head down and chin tucked into the scarf he had wrapped around his neck, he almost walked into the back of his companion.
The larger man stood with his hands on his hips, ignoring the water that dripped from his cap to his face. "You're probably right, Blair," Tom sighed. "I guess I just wanted to get there and back a little bit sooner. Sorry." Pulling on a pair of mittens, he wiped the moisture from his beard. "But we're too far in to turn around. According to the map they sent us, we have to take the left fork on the path up into the mountain." He unfolded the map he had stuffed into a pocket, pointing out the route marked. "See, we're right about here. There's a construction cabin just at the top of the incline. We can wait out the weather there and meet up with the rest of them first thing in the morning." He fixed hazel eyes on his friend, knowing that he was responsible for them being out in unknown territory with snow following on their heels.
Tom Burrows was the epitome of gentle giants. Blair couldn't miss the silent plea for forgiveness on his friend's face. Smiling warmly, he patted his friend on the back. "Sounds like a good idea, man. But you take the lead and carry the flashlight. I'm sticking my hands in my pockets and they're staying there. But first," he said as he reached into his backpack. "A little sustenance?" Pulling out the thermos and an extra cup, he poured them both some soup. "I know lunch was only a couple of hours ago but I could use something to warm me up."
"Thanks, Blair." Tom gratefully accepted the steaming cup. "I was a jerk, wasn't I?" He shifted his weight from one foot to another and blew on the hot liquid.
"Which time, buddy?" Blair grinned evilly and cocked one eyebrow. "You mean about Jan? Not really my place to say, Tom, but yeah, I might have done it a bit differently." He saw his friend's pained expression. "We'll be back in plenty of time. And just think of all the fun she's gonna have making you pay."
Burrows' eyes widened and he laughed out loud. "Thanks, Sandburg! You really know how to cheer a guy up." He handed the now empty mug back and turned on the flashlight. "Well, come on. Daylight's a wastin'."
Chuckling, Blair stowed the thermos and cups into the bag and started after Tom. "It's already wasted if you ask me." The soup had warmed him enough, that and the knowledge that shelter from the cold and snow was just ahead. Picking up his pace, he moved alongside his friend only to be gently nudged back.
"Just stay behind me, Blair. The path's not too even here and the flashlight doesn't illuminate it enough to make it safe for us to walk side by side." Tom turned and gave Sandburg a "no nonsense" look. "No way I'm going to go back to Cascade and tell Ellison that you got hurt because of me. He's one mean looking guy. I think I could actually feel his stare this morning. No wonder he's as good as you say he is at being a cop. He'd have me surrendering without his ever having to say a word."
"You have to admit, Tom, that you were a bit of a wild man this morning," Blair huffed as he tried to keep pace with his friend's longer stride. "I don't think he knew what to make of you. Heck, I was wondering what was going on."
"Oh yeah," Burrows snorted and rolled his eyes when he saw that his companion was smiling. "Guess I didn't make a very good impression. Next time I'll have to..."
Blair saw the other man's eyes suddenly go wide with surprise. Tom's body seemed to lean at a frightening angle and his free hand made a wild grab at a nearby tree, trying to stop his fall.
It was then that Sandburg realized the pathway ahead of them had started to fall away, loosened by the heavy rains. Lunging forward, his fingers brushed the sleeve of his friend's jacket, making contact. The material was ripped from his grasp as Burrows' weight carried him over the edge and into the darkness.
The anthropologist lay there on the sodden ground, too stunned to move. Everything had happened too fast. One minute he and Tom had been joking, the next, his friend had dropped from sight. As his heartbeat slowed to near normal, he carefully slid as close to the edge of the ridge as he dared and peered over, dreading what he might see. At least the flashlight had survived the shock of the fall. Its weak and wavering light shone on the prone figure of Tom Burrows. Sandburg prayed for some movement or sign that his friend was all right or conscious, but before he could even call out the man's name, the light winked out. Startled by everything being plunged into sudden blackness, Blair finally found his voice and shouted his friend's name. Silence was his only answer.
Two hundred and fifty miles due west of the Snoqualmie Pass, James Ellison woke from a peaceful nap. His heart pounded and his breath was almost ragged. Instinct kicked in and he automatically scanned the loft for any odd noises or smells. Something must have woken him. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, he laid back down on the couch. Laughing softly to himself, he blamed it on the Chinese food and pulled the afghan up closer to his chin. It was now pitch black outside the loft windows and the winds whistled through the still bare trees. Cold rains that had battered the city all day, had become large, wet snowflakes that now clung to the glass before melting away. Looking at the clock on the VCR, he saw it was nearly 6:00. Blair and Tom would have reached their destination by now and probably sat huddled around a roaring fire. He almost envied his young guide his trip into the mountains. Nothing like the cold mountain air to bring things...
Alive. He's got to be alive. Sandburg had dug his flashlight from his backpack and shone it down and over the drop-off. It had been almost ten minutes and Tom hadn't moved. The snow had started to fall more steadily and was becoming more solid. It looked like they were going to get a heavy snow. He shifted his weight, trying to put some distance between him and the cold muck that was seeping into his clothing, chilling him to the bone. C'mon, Tom, please be all right! With shaking hands, he pulled out the rope he had carried with him. He didn't like the idea of going over the side of the newly formed precipice, but he didn't see any other choice. His friend would freeze to death if he left him there. Going for help was out of the question. The one map they had was tucked securely into Burrows' jacket. Blair hadn't seen it long enough to know which way to go and getting lost in the mountains wasn't an option. They'd both die of exposure before he could bring back help. Pushing himself off the cold ground, he looked around behind him for a tree that seemed strong enough to hold his weight and was far enough from the eroding bluff. It was then that a low moan reached his ears.
"Tom!" Blair's voice was raw from the cold. "Tom! Can you hear me, man?" He held his breath, praying that this time he would get an answer. It only took a few moments before his prayers were answered and he heard his friend's pain-filled and slightly bewildered voice.
"Sandburg? What the hell happened?"
Almost giddy with relief, Blair leaned over the edge to get a better look at the other anthropologist. "Looks like the path gave way. Anything broken? Can you stand?"
Burrows rolled over into a sitting position, holding a hand to his head. "Yeah, I think I can stand. Doesn't feel like anything's broken. My head hurts, though. I must have hit it on the way down." He rose gingerly to his feet and looked around. "What's the plan, Blair?"
Sandburg tossed the rope down to his friend. "I've got this tied to a tree, but I'll try to help you as much as I can. Think you can climb out of there?" The snow had begun to fall more steadily and Blair felt his hands starting to go stiff with the cold. He knew he wouldn't be able to pull Tom up; the man was too heavy for him to do it on his own. In the dim light of the flashlight, he saw Burrows wrap the rope around his waist and then search for a secure foothold on the face of the bluff. Finding one solid enough to hold his weight, he looked up at Blair and gave him the thumbs up. Blair sat back and dug his heels into the now near frozen mud. Yelling over the sound of the wind, he told the other man he was ready.
"Okay, Tom! Let's do it!" Feeling the weight at the end of the rope, Sandburg began the hand over hand task of pulling up the cord. Even with the breeze whistling in his ears, he could hear his friend's grunts with the effort of the climb. "Almost there, buddy, keep going!"
It seemed to take forever, but Blair finally saw the tip of the hood on Burrows' parka. In another minute or two, Tom would be back on solid ground. It wouldn't be too soon. Every muscle in his body was screaming in protest and the strain on his back and knees was becoming agony. He could only imagine how much worse it must be for his friend. He could see a little more of Tom's head and then saw him swing his arm up and over the edge. Leaning forward, Sandburg grabbed a wrist and surrendered his hold on the rope.
"I gotcha Tom, come on, you can do it." Blair's words were now gasps and he was sure the encouragement was as much for himself as his companion. He started to reach forward to take a handful of his friend's coat when he felt the earth shift beneath him. Before he could shout a warning or wrap his hand around the rope once more, the world dropped out from under him.
Sandburg fell the twenty feet in a landslide of mud and rock and landed hard on the ledge below.
Wet soil and stones pelted him as the ground continued to break apart above him. Turning onto his side, Blair covered his head with his arms, trying to find some protection from the rain of dirt and rocks. A large stone found an unprotected spot and glanced off the side of his head with a sickening thud. Bright lights burst into shooting stars behind his eyes, sending Blair into the uncertain world between awareness and unconsciousness. Before the last bit of reason faded away, he found himself calling out to the one person he knew he could count on. Knowing that even sentinel-enhanced hearing would never hear him.
The steady thwack of a hammer split the almost reverent quiet of Sunday morning. Pulling another nail from between his teeth, Jim lined it up with the points marked on the wide wooden beam. Sandburg needed another bookcase. Dusty texts and notebooks had been slowly creeping their way into the living room. Chuckling to himself, Ellison swore that if Blair could get at least ten dollars for every book he owned he could retire a millionaire. It was an observation that didn't seem so exaggerated when the detective found himself tripping over stacks of books and papers that hadn't been there the day before. Jim wasn't sure what frightened him more, the number of books the kid owned or the fair certainty that his partner had read them all.
He needs you.
The soft whisper had been right next to his ear, startling him. Missing the head of the nail with the hammer, the sentinel bounced it off a knuckle. Swearing softly, he angrily tossed the tool aside, massaging the bruised joint. With a frown he waited to hear the voice again. It had sounded feminine and he was certain it wasn't a voice he knew. He wondered if his hearing hadn't been playing tricks on him. Maybe he had heard someone's radio or a piece of a conversation somewhere else in the building. But he had had it dialed down because of the hammering. And the words had been so very clear. He needs you. Falling back from his crouched position to sit on the floor, Jim ran a hand through his hair and sighed. Bits and pieces of a disturbing dream had been trying to force their way to the surface all morning. Maybe this was just another part of it? What little he could remember had been about the cold and dark and someone calling his name.
"You're okay aren't you, Chief?" He spoke the question out loud, wishing that his guide would hear him and answer, as impossible as that seemed.
The thick clouds that had hung across the mountaintops the day before were still there, looking dark and grey. Ellison had travelled through the mountains often enough to know that those types of clouds would bring snow. His frown deepened as he thought about Sandburg being out there. His partner's survival skills were as good as any backpacker he had travelled with and he knew that Blair was more than capable of taking care of himself, but the sentinel couldn't help regretting that he had decided not to make the trek up the Pass with his partner. While the morning weather report had promised an unseasonably warm day for the city of Cascade, the northern communities were not going to fare as well. The cold rain that had fallen for most of the week was going to continue and, as temperatures dropped, snow was almost a certainty.
A warm breeze floated in through the open windows and doors, but it did nothing to stop the chilling dread that was starting to invade Ellison's thoughts. The detective suddenly wished that he had taken a little more interest in Sandburg's trip, getting more of the details. All notions of surprising his guide with a new home for his numerous books were driven out by the almost clairvoyant certainty that Blair was in trouble.
"C'mon, you're being really stupid about this." Forcing his breath through his teeth, Jim tried to fight down the panic. "One bad dream and a slip up with your hearing, and you've got Sandburg knee deep in trouble."
The reasoning didn't help to alleviate any fears and the detective began to hurriedly pack up the tools and wood that were spread across the loft floor. He would find out where Blair had gone. Someone had to know. Maybe he could convince a park ranger to check up on the two anthropologists, just to make sure. The slap of wood against wood as it was stacked in the corner of the room seemed to punctuate each thought, helping the sentinel to build a plan of action. He knew the teasing he would get when his partner returned home, but it was worth it, if only for his peace of mind. Somewhere in their relationship, Ellison realized he had developed an almost sixth sense where Sandburg was concerned. It always kicked in unexpectedly and when it did, it did so with a vengeance. So the rational side of his mind tried to convince him that he was overreacting and that Blair was perfectly safe and would be bewildered by the park authorities tracking him down. The other side, perhaps the same part of the brain that controlled his senses, was just as vehemently trying to convince him otherwise. Jim knew it would be a losing battle for the more rational side. Heart would win out over head whenever his guide was involved in the equation. The ringing of the phone interrupted his thoughts, making his stomach churn. He was sure, this time, that it wasn't his partner calling, and the fear of who and what the message might be had his heart pounding. His hesitant hello was met with a curt and annoyed, "Mr. Sandburg, please."
With his nerves already on edge, Jim forced himself to be polite. "I'm sorry, but he's out of town for the next day or so. Is there something I can help you with?"
The voice on the other end seemed to lose some of its fury. "Oh, I see. And with whom am I speaking?"
Swallowing a frustrated groan and looking heavenward, the detective managed to maintain his cool. "Jim Ellison. Is there a message for Blair? I'm in kind of a hurry."
"My name is William Lightheart, I'm with the group that is recovering the artifacts from Snoqualmie Pass. Mr. Sandburg and his colleague, Mr. Burrows, were supposed to have met us yesterday. They haven't arrived yet. We thought that perhaps they were delayed by the weather. But they still haven't made it here. We're starting to become concerned. The helicopter that is taking us to the area is ready to leave. We didn't know if we should still be waiting for them."
"They left early yesterday morning." The pounding of his heart doubled. "Blair called me in the afternoon to say that they had reached the second checkpoint." Jim's grip on the receiver tightened. "How far away would that have put them from meeting up with you?" He felt as if his heart had dropped into his stomach. The kid was missing.
"If the weather had been good, they should have made it in two or three hours. But we had heavy rain and some snow in the late afternoon. They may have decided to take shelter along the way." Lightheart's voice was tinged with worry. "I'll contact the authorities and have them start a search. Blair and his friend may have become disoriented and lost the path at some point. I'm sure they're all right."
Sighing, Jim was now certain that wasn't the case. "I wish I could believe that, Mr. Lightheart. I'm leaving now. I'll meet up with the rangers and help search for them."
Lightheart's voice was suddenly sharp. "I don't think that's a wise decision, Mr. Ellison. If you don't know this area, it is very easy to become lost. You'd just be adding to the problem if those two are missing."
"I can't sit here waiting." Jim wouldn't be swayed. "I'm a fairly experienced hiker. I'll be all right." He was getting ready to end the call when the other man interrupted.
"Do you have access to a fax machine? I can send you a copy of the map they were given."
"Yes, I do." He gave the man the number. "Thank you."
"Please be careful, Mr. Ellison. I don't want to regret helping you in this way." The sentinel could hear papers being shuffled. "Good luck. I'm sending it now so I have to hang up. Good-bye."
The detective went to the machine that stood by the front door. Blair had insisted that they needed one and had managed to convince him as well. Now all Jim could do was thank God that he had listened. With a map he would have a better chance of finding them. Park rangers might be familiar with the terrain, but they could never match the tracking ability of a sentinel. The beep to announce an incoming message sounded just as he reached it. Jim made sure that the map was being slowly delivered and then went to change. He would find Blair and Burrows; there was no other option.
"I'm coming, Sandburg. Just hang on."
Slowly coming awake, Blair felt the beginnings of a monster headache. Before trying to open his eyes, something he was sure he was going to regret, he tried to remember the party he had been at and just what he had been doing. He hoped that it was at least a party that had him feeling so rotten. Anything else wouldn't seem fair. Lying there a few minutes longer, the outside world began to creep in. His normally lumpy mattress still felt lumpy but more like rocks than the old springs. And whatever his cheek was lying against, he was certain it wasn't his pillow. It felt wet and almost spongy. And the birds. God! There should be some rule that didn't allow birds to sing that loud when you were hung over.
"Blair...Blair, honey, wake up." The voice was soft, but insistent, and it sounded suspiciously like his mother. He groaned inwardly, wondering if his mother had swooped down on them again. More than that, he wondered how his partner was taking it. Mumbling something that sounded incoherent even to him, he tried to open his eyes. He cracked them open a slit to take in his surroundings. Seeing nothing that looked familiar, he decided he was dreaming and let them slowly close. Cool fingers stroked his cheek as the woman spoke to him again.
"You can't go back to sleep, kiddo. You're gonna freeze out here if you don't start moving around." The fingers continued their soothing caress. "C'mon, baby, you've gotta wake up."
Groaning, he gave in. "Okay, okay. I'm awake, Mm...." His eyes widened as he looked at the woman who knelt over him. "Aunt Rachel?!" He tried to push himself up, but a weight on his back and legs held him firm. He sank back to lie on the cold ground, fighting against it only made his head ache more. He reached out his hand to his aunt. "Rachel?"
The young woman took his hand in hers and gave it a gentle kiss. "Hi baby, long time no see."
Long dark curls framed her face and the fear and concern in the deep blue eyes melted away as Blair looked at her. Grinning, she thought she could almost see the questions her nephew wanted to ask forming in his mind, but she shushed him. "You've got to get up. Come on, you can do it." She smiled at him encouragingly.
Blair tried to push against the weight that held him down. Where he was and why he was there suddenly occurred to him. He looked around wildly for Tom, hoping that he had landed near him. With renewed energy, he gave it another try. Mud and stones began to slide away and off of him with the effort, but it was slow going. His aunt still knelt beside him, watching, and somewhere in the back of his mind it bothered him that she wasn't helping. But then a lot about her being there bothered him. He was about to ask her about Tom when an agonizing pain in his knee made him cry out. The touch on his shoulder was feather light where Rachel rested her hand.
"Blair! What is it?"
"It's my knee," he gritted out through clenched teeth. "Feels like it did when I dislocated it." Biting down against the pain, he gave one final effort and rolled over onto his back, his angry screams echoing in the woods. Sprawled there on the ground, he knew it would take more energy than he had to sit up. He stayed where he was and looked into the still overcast sky. The throbbing in his head and knee were relentless and, squeezing his eyes shut, he felt a droplet of rain roll down his cheek. He couldn't remember ever being in so much agony. Taking in a shaky breath, he forced himself to relax the muscles in his leg, tensing them was only making the pain worse. He had to get up. He had to find Tom. But at that moment it was all he could do to stay awake.
"Hey, baby," Rachel reached out and wiped at the moisture that trekked its way down her nephew's cheek. "Still with me?"
"Still here," he managed to force out. "It just really hurts, Aunt Rachel." He looked up into a face that was so much like his mother's and remembered the last time he had seen her and the sorrow he had felt. "I...I don't get it. Why...how?"
"I just am," she whispered, taking his hand once again and holding it to her chest. She watched as his eyes closed. "I promised."
Two and a half hours later, Jim Ellison found himself at the same ranger station that had been the start of Blair and Burrows' journey. It was a low building made of logs that brought back memories of summers spent at Bud's cabin when he was a child. He hadn't seen one like it in a long time. He pulled up alongside the only other vehicle that stood in the parking lot, Burrows' Cherokee. He made a quick scan of the area but could detect no heartbeats or voices. Swallowing his disappointment, he realized that the station was deserted. The distant calls of birds and the rustling of small animals were all he could hear over the flapping of a flag as it was battered by the wind. He tried extending his sight, but his vision was limited by the thick expanse of trees that surrounded the station on three sides. Seeing a note taped to the outer glass doors of the building, he went closer to inspect it. What was written there didn't surprise him. He would have left the same note if some amateur had told him he was deciding to play detective. But that the note was still there could only mean one thing; they hadn't found Sandburg or Burrows yet. His friend had now been missing for more than a day. He didn't have any time to lose.
Angry clouds had once again moved into the mountains, and the wind whipped around him as he started for the trail that led to Snoqualmie Pass. Tall pines and spruce swayed and creaked overhead, blocking out the weak light that managed to get through the cloud cover. They cast deep shadows along the path and a premature night-like darkness in the forest. The trail wasn't really much more than a muddy, unmarked path that disappeared deep into the woods. Jim had expected it to be snow covered and was pleased to find that it wasn't. The temperatures must have risen during the day, melting what had fallen the night before. Hopefully they had risen enough to provide his friend with some warmth. He knew Blair would be cold and wet and how quickly hypothermia would set in. There was at least another hour of daylight and after that his guide's, and Burrows', chances of surviving another night in the elements would be drastically reduced. Shifting his pack to a more comfortable position and picking up his pace, he jogged up the more level part of the path, praying that the weather would hold out.
He had only gone a mile when the first drops of rain began to fall.
The anthropologist's first thought was that he had once again fallen asleep standing in the shower. Eyes still closed, he raised a hand to block the water that splashed his face, wondering how long he had been there. The hot water must have run out because the water that beat against his hand and face was cold and almost painful against his skin. He shivered, working at getting his eyes to open. Freezing to death in one's own shower was not a good idea. He almost laughed out loud as he thought about it.
"That's it, Blair, wake up. You've been sleeping a long time." Rachel's voice invaded his dreams. Or maybe she was the dream? She couldn't possibly be there with him. "I'll bring help. You're going to be all right." The cool fingers once again stroked his cheek and then the touch disappeared.
Eyes still closed, he reached out to that touch. "No, please, wait. Rachel!" His hand clutched at empty air.
Sighing, he refused to open his eyes, knowing that once he did she would really be gone. The earlier dream had been so vivid. Her touch had seemed so real. His heart almost ached; it had been so good to see her again. It had been so long since... No, he didn't want to travel that dark road. His aunt had been his anchor while he was growing up. Younger than her sister, Naomi, she hadn't inherited the same wanderlust. Rachel had been his rock, his only constant. Regardless of where he and his mother would move to, he knew, that come the summer months, Rachel would be there. And he would have a friend and a confidante. Memories of every one of those fourteen summers were held locked away in his heart.
Blair had always believed that Rachel had been there just for him. She had seemed to understand his need to have the only family he knew around him for those two months. She would listen to his fears and his secrets and keep them as if they were her own. He had trusted her with everything that was important to him. Rachel had never once betrayed that trust. It was so easy to picture her, sitting across from him and listening to every word he said. Her deep blue eyes would be focused on him, taking in everything he told her. He had loved the way she would nod or smile at him to continue, somehow knowing when he needed the added encouragement. Rachel had made him feel like the smartest kid in the world. The nights they had sat on a beach somewhere ...anywhere...a fire blazing and the smell of burnt sugar from forgotten marshmallows melting into it, he had told her his dreams of travelling to distant places and discovering new worlds. Those times had been magic. Rachel had been magic. And then she took it all away. She died the summer he turned fifteen.
"She died." The words were forced through chattering teeth, dissolving away the warm memories. Rachel was dead. The harsh reality was driven home as he once again felt the rain pelting down and the icy coldness seep into his weary body. Sighing, he opened his eyes to find himself alone. It had only been a dream.
With a groan, Blair forced himself into a sitting position, taking stock of his situation. The rope he had tied to the tree dangled just inches out of his reach. If he could stand, he might be able to reach it, but from the throbbing in his knee and his head, he knew he would never be able to pull himself up to the top of the ledge. A sudden gust of wind pulled at his sodden hair and he huddled back against the rock, trying to get out of the rain as much as possible. It felt as if the constant moisture had begun to penetrate even the waterproof material of his jacket, sending chills through him. The mild shivering from being wet and cold was becoming more pronounced. Hypothermia was fast becoming a real threat. To find a nice, warm place and lie down was all he wanted. His body ached with each shudder and his head wanted to explode. Every fact he had learned in first aid training raced through his mind in a jumbled mess. He knew there were things he should be doing to fight off the cold, but thinking was becoming too much of an effort.
And Tom. Blair fought back another sigh as he felt despair well up inside him. He had no idea what had happened to the other man. His friend's body probably lay broken on the rocks below, but he couldn't make himself look. Regret mingled with the grief he felt for Burrows as he realized he was truly alone for the first time in a very long time. There would be no last minute rescues. Jim didn't even know he was missing. By the time the detective discovered what had happened, it would be too late for both him and Tom. He knew it was a lousy thing to do to his partner...leaving this way. Jim would probably blame himself for not pulling the last minute rescue. He wished he could have left Jim a note letting him know that it was okay, but his backpack had gone over the side with Tom, leaving the anthropologist without pen and paper. Closing his eyes, Blair leaned his head back against the cold rock, trying to mentally shake himself from the hopelessness he felt. How could one short trek into the mountains have gone so wrong?
"Admit it, Sandburg," he sighed. "You are one sorry son of a bitch." Barely able to feel his coat with his numb fingers, he pulled it tighter around himself, trying to remember what it felt like to be warm. His thoughts immediately took him to the loft. He could almost feel the soft scratch of the afghan against his skin and see the soft glow of the flames that burned in the small fireplace. His memories taunted him with the comforting aroma of coffee that would fill the living area, and he played back in his mind the gentle teasing he always received from his friend about forever being cold. Living with Jim had been all that. Warmth and comfort. It was what he loved best about living at the loft. And if one was able to miss something when they passed from one life to the next, then he knew that these would be the things that he would miss most. Giving in to the icy rain and wind that had battered away at him, Blair sleepily resolved to accept whatever fate had in store. His strength to fight it was just about gone. Emptying his thoughts of any hope or regrets, he settled back to wait.
Breathing heavily, Jim stopped to check the map. He dropped his knapsack to the ground and listened in vain for sounds that might direct him. Scrutinizing every inch of the path, he hoped to find just one clue as to which way his partner could have gone. Rain and snow seemed to have washed away any telltale signs. It occurred to him that he hadn't met any of the search team and he started to wonder if they had given up for the day as sunset neared. He could almost understand it if they had. The complete darkness of the forest seemed to swallow up the meager light from his flashlight. But he couldn't help feeling some anger, thinking they might have stopped their search too soon. Blair was out there, either lost or hurt. He wouldn't stop hunting for him until he knew that his guide was safe. Quickly folding the map and returning it to a pocket, he resumed his hunt.
The thunder that had been distant rumblings had begun to gain some strength, forcing Jim to concentrate on timing the loud claps. He could safely extend his hearing between them. Cursing the weather, knowing it would slow him down, he realized that as he tired he would face the threat of zoning. It was something that neither he nor Sandburg could afford. His guide's time would be running out if he hadn't been able to find any shelter from the weather. Pushing that thought to the back of his mind, Jim started on the path Lightheart thought Blair and his friend might have taken. He piggybacked sight and smell, keeping his hearing guarded against the approaching storm. With a conscious effort, he slowed his pace, afraid that he might miss a telling scent. The strong down draft from the mountain made it almost impossible to sort the individual smells, as he knew Blair would ask him to do. All he could hope was that one scent would match the one he was desperately searching for.
The part of the path that forked, one to the campsite set up by the two tribes and the other to a construction site and a possible haven from the cold, was up ahead. It would be there that Ellison's enhanced senses would be needed most. Choosing the wrong trail could take him miles away in the wrong direction. Counting off the seconds, the detective thought it would be safe to try extending his sight and hearing. He directed them both ahead into the dense thicket of trees, threading them into the darkness. His frustration grew as he tried to see through the maze of shadowy tree trunks. Pushing a little bit further, Jim stopped dead in his tracks. He was sure he had heard it. A soft thumping. Too slow to be an animal's, surely. He held his breath as he listened for it again. The distant beating drew him forward and he followed it, entranced as if it were a siren's song, causing him to forget to count.
The clap of thunder caught him completely by surprise and he was knocked to his knees by the sonic blast. Writhing on the ground, he locked his hands over his tortured ears, trying to block out the noise that was already echoing inside his head. The night sounds of the forest died in his ears to be replaced by a piercing hum. Sight, smell, and touch seemed to wither along with his hearing, threatening to drag him into a zone out dominated by the high pitched sound. With an agony filled moan, the sentinel rolled onto his back. The trees around him swayed and spun as vertigo made his stomach churn. Focusing with all of his strength, Jim fought against the dizzying blackness to feel the rain on his face. With each deep breath, he began to feel the droplets of moisture as they ran down the sides of his face. The earthy smells of the leaves beneath him became stronger, as well, as the minutes passed. It was with a surprised grunt that he realized he had been able to pull himself from a zone out.
"And that, Sandburg, is something I don't ever want to try on my own again." Ellison winced against the sound of his own voice. His hearing had become hollow and distorted. Inhaling deeply, he tried to hear past the drone in his head with little success. By sentinel standards, he was deaf.
"Blair!" At first Sandburg thought he had imagined it, hoping to hear words in the low rumble of thunder that had begun to fill the mountains. Something to cling to, to fight against the loneliness and despair. He listened only half-heartedly to see if the sound would be repeated, certain the voice had been the product of his tired mind.
"Blair!" The hoarse shout sounded beautiful to the anthropologist's ears. Dragging himself to peer over the ledge, he saw Burrows. The other man was standing on an incline that was about forty feet below him. The flame of a cigarette lighter wavered in the wind but couldn't obscure the smile on his friend's face when Blair answered him.
"Tom!" Sandburg flicked on his flashlight and shone it on his friend. "You're okay! "
"Yeah, pretty much," Tom grinned. "How 'bout you, Sandburg? You okay?"
"Well, I've got a killer of a headache and I've been hallucinating about dead relatives off and on all day," Sandburg called down to his friend. "But I really cracked my knee when I fell. There's no way I'm going to be able to help you get up here." Blair played the light's beam around the distance that separated him from Burrows, hoping to find an easy way up. "Doesn't look like you're going to be able to climb up here either."
"I know, I studied the area around me when I came to. You've been out a long time, buddy. I've been calling you." Shoving his hands into his pockets, Tom continued, "I think I've got a plan.
I'm gonna see if I can circle around and find an easier way back up to the level we started at."
"You're going to wait until morning, right?!" The anthropologist didn't like the idea of his friend wandering the woods at night. "It'd be crazy to try it tonight." Laying the flashlight down on the ground beside him, Blair cradled his aching head. The adrenaline spike of discovering that Tom was alive had been short lived and the effort of shouting had driven the pain from annoying to blinding.
"Sandburg!" Tom's angry shout startled Blair awake. He didn't remember falling asleep.
"I'm here, Tom. Sorry, just drifted off for a minute."
"C'mon, Blair, try to stay awake a little bit longer, okay?" Burrow's voice was laced with concern.
"I'm going to get up there, Blair. Tonight. When we fell, the backpacks ended up with me. I'm going to toss you the bag with the blankets."
"Yeah, sure Tom," Sandburg laid his head back down on his arms and mumbled into his sleeve. He couldn't stop shivering and it was draining him of every ounce of energy he had.
Below him, Tom Burrows began to worry. It hadn't taken too long for him to determine that his friend was suffering from mild hypothermia. They had both spent more than a day cold and wet and out in the elements. He was starting to feel the effects of it even though he had managed to stay out of the wind and rain and carried more bulk than his smaller friend.
"Sandburg?" The burly anthropologist waited for an answer. "Blair!" He smiled in relief and sympathy at his friend's sleepy reply. "Heads up! I'm throwing the blankets up to you now." Swinging his arm back, he sent the pack sailing into the air and hopefully high enough to reach his companion. The beam of the flashlight was his target. He heard a thud as the pack landed and a surprised gasp from Blair.
"Great! Now I want you to throw down the flashlight, Blair. I'm going to need it." There was no sound or movement from above. "Blair, can you do that, buddy?"
"Yeah, just shine that lighter again so I know where to aim." Fatigue had robbed Sandburg's voice of any animation. "I'll leave it lit so you can see it coming."
Flicking the lighter, Tom watched the flashlight sail end over end to where he stood. He caught it easily and yelled up to his friend, "Okay, now I want you to wrap yourself up with those blankets and get out of the wind. I'll be there soon, Blair. You just hang on."
"I'm okay. Just be careful, Tom."
"Are you all right?" A soft feminine voice managed to make it through the droning hum in the sentinel's ears. "This is an odd place to take a nap."
Jim Ellison opened his eyes and looked into the face of the young woman he had seen at the grocery store only two days before. The beam from the flashlight that had fallen next to him was angled to shine on the woman's face. Long dark hair framed her slightly rounded features and the large blue eyes and full mouth smiled mischievously. The detective was still certain that they had met before. He rolled over onto his side with a grunt and carefully stood up.
"I'm fine," Jim laughed shakily and ran a hand over his hair. "Slipped, I guess, and it knocked the wind out of me." He noticed the insignia that was stitched onto her jacket. "Are you with the search party? Do you know if they've found my friends?"
"Your friends?" She had taken a step back to glare at him and stood with her hands on her hips. "You mean Blair Sandburg and Tom Burrows. You're out here looking for them on your own? That wasn't a very smart thing to do, Mister...." The smile had left her face.
"Ellison." He looked away from her and bit back his temper. "I'm a detective with the Cascade Police and trained to track. I know what I'm doing." He tried to listen to her heartbeat to judge her mood but could hear nothing. Her face was unreadable.
"Of course you do, and that's why I found you lying out here flat on your back." Her words stung, but the sentinel could hardly deny them by telling her the truth. He assumed she took his silence for embarrassment because her features suddenly softened. "Grab your stuff and let's get going. I just got a report of where they might be. It's about a half-hour's walk from here.
Retrieving his pack, he started after the ranger. Her seeming familiar was not the only thing that had started to puzzle him. He assumed his hearing was still suffering from the thunderclap, but he couldn't detect a scent from her either. Maybe his senses were more off line than he thought. It just seemed very odd since he could smell the forest around him, even if only slightly.
Blair managed to stand and hobbled over to the wall of the cliff and out of the wind. Dropping to the ground, he pulled the bag onto his lap. His fingers didn't want to cooperate as he tried to open the backpack and he swore to himself when the buckles that held down the flap seemed unyielding. Finally managing to open it, he yanked out one of the blankets. He stripped off his waterlogged jacket and wrapped himself in the heavily insulated blanket. Just the extra weight of the cloth was a comfort and he dug out the second blanket. Throwing the pack to the ground, he drew the covers tighter around him and flopped over onto his side. The rolled up pack made a good pillow.
"Okay, Blair, I won't be gone long." The words drifted through the sleepy fog of Sandburg's mind. "Just hang tight!"
Snuggling deeper into the blankets, the anthropologist murmured, "'kay, Jim. Later."
"So have you been friends with Sandburg and Burrows a long time?" The question surprised Ellison. They had been walking for over twenty minutes and the ranger had said very little.
Daily trips to the gym hadn't prepared the detective for the steep and slippery climb up the path and his breaths were more like pants. "I just met Burrows a couple of days ago. He's a friend of Blair's. I've known Blair for almost four years. He works with me."
The younger woman picked her way over a fallen tree and waited for Jim to catch up. "He's a cop?" She played her light over the path ahead of them.
Ellison shook his head no and wondered how many times, in the last few years, he had been asked that question about Sandburg. "Blair's an official observer with the police department. He's working on his doctoral thesis." The earlier headache had begun to ease and he cautiously tested extending his sight. "We've been walking awhile. How close are we?" All he could see, even using heightened senses, were trees and more trees.
She stopped walking and turned to face him. It flashed through his mind where he knew her from but the image eluded him just as quickly. "Almost there. It's at the top of the rise." Digging her hands into her pockets, she leaned against a tree. "Let's just stop a minute...catch our breaths." She looked up into the night sky and smiled. "Looks like the weather might hold out. It's stopped raining." A damp curl had fallen across her forehead and she brushed it back behind her ear. "So you must be really worried about this Blair to come trudging out here to look for him. Search and Rescue teams are better prepared for this kind of thing."
"Yeah, I'm worried about him." Jim's gaze followed the trail into the forest. "He's my friend...my best friend." And the thought of him lost somewhere out there is killing me. "You ready to start again?"
"Your best friend? Lucky kid." Her smile seemed genuine. "I'm ready. Let's go."
"What made you say 'kid'?" With a few short strides he was alongside the ranger. She just reached his chin. Walking easily beside him, she didn't seem as winded as he felt. "He is quite a few years younger than me, but he's probably about your age."
"I guess it was because you said he was a student." The woman shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. We're almost to the spot they think the two of them might have lost the trail." She pointed to a section of the path that rose sharply and began to climb the incline. "I hope..."
"Wait!" Jim's near shout brought the ranger to an abrupt halt. She looked at him questioningly. "I think I heard something." The sentinel cocked his head and listened again. The distant sounds were still fading in and out, but he was sure he had heard voices. "Up ahead." His face broke into a smile when he heard Blair's voice. "I think we've found them." Opening up his vision and panning the beam of the flashlight, he scoured the area ahead of him for signs of his partner and Burrows. "I think I see a rope tied to a tree up ahead." He aimed the beam of his flashlight in that direction.
The two started up the path with Ellison taking the lead. The slick mud made the going difficult, and they seemed to slide one step backward for every two taken. As they neared the tree, Jim could see that it was definitely a rope tied to it. The detective almost groaned. The cord led to a drop-off at the top of the trail. "It looks like maybe one of them might have fallen over the side and the other went to help." Gingerly stepping to the edge of the drop, he looked down, not sure if he was relieved or not to see neither of the two men lying at the bottom. "It's not too far a fall. Maybe fifteen or twenty feet." And I know you're down there, buddy. I can hear you. "I'm going down there." He had been expecting an argument and was greatly surprised when his companion just nodded. Testing the rope and the tree it was wrapped around, he backed up to the ledge. His knapsack slipped to the side and he stopped to shift it back for better balance.
"Be careful, Ellison," the young woman smiled as he started his climb down. "When I'm sure you've made it down safely, I'm going to call and let the others know what we've found. I'll tell them that we're going to need some help and set up a flare so they can find us."
He gave her a curt nod and, with a quick look backwards, eased over the side. Halfway down he thought he heard her whisper something that sounded like "look after him". Shaking his head to clear his still suffering ears, he listened to hear if she would say any more. When he heard nothing else, he glanced up to see if she was watching his progress, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. Deciding the ranger had gone to set up the signal flare, he focused his attention below. A few more feet and he would be almost to the bottom.
"Sandburg?" Silence was Ellison's only answer, even though he knew that his friend was directly below. He tried calling again. "Sandburg? Answer me, Chief." Straining to hear the quietest of sounds, his partner's grumble and sigh came through loud and clear. The sentinel wanted to laugh out loud. It sounded like the patented Sandburg "up too late" sigh that he heard most mornings. Dropping the last few feet to the ground, he spotted his partner just under a jagged outcrop of rock. Sandburg was curled up in a tight ball of blankets.
Crouching down, the detective made his way to his friend's side and gently shook the younger man's shoulder. "Blair? You awake, buddy?" Even though the overhang had protected Blair from the cold rain that had started to fall once again, Ellison could feel the dampness of his guide's clothing through the layers of blankets
"Jim?" The word was almost a moan. "Can you close the window, man? It's freezing." Grabbing a handful of the blankets, Blair tried to burrow into them more deeply. "Don't feel so good, Jim. My head hurts." The younger man's ramblings became softer and softer as he slipped closer to sleep. "Coming down with something, maybe. Gonna pass on the station today."
"C'mon, Sandburg," the detective kept his voice low. "Time to wake up and move to someplace warm." He could feel the chill and tremors wracking his friend's body. Blair was definitely hypothermic, but that wouldn't account for the headache. "Chief, I want you to open your eyes and look at me." He smiled into Sandburg's sleepy eyes. "Let me see if you did any damage to that thick skull of yours on the way down." The sentinel's fingers probed and found the slightly bloody bump that had formed on the side of his partner's head.
With a sigh, the younger man pushed the detective's hand away and made a move to roll over onto his back. "Hurts...hurts to move, Jim." Wincing against the pain radiating from his leg, he stayed on his side. "My knee. It really hurts." He searched for his partner's face in the darkness. "Don't know why it hurts." The fatigue in Blair's voice was being replaced by anxiousness. "Why's it so dark? Power out? Why can't I get warm?"
"Shhh...shhh." Resting his hand on his friend's forehead, Jim tried to calm him. "Everything's okay, Blair. I'm just going to take a quick look at your knee and then we're getting out of here. Okay?"
"Sure." Blair relaxed under his friend's warm touch. "Whatever you say, Jim. Just don't make me get out of bed. It's finally starting to feel warm."
Whatever else the anthropologist wanted to say was lost in an incoherent mumble. "Okay, kid." He let his hand stay on his guide's forehead a few seconds longer. "Just go back to sleep." Jim didn't think there would be any harm if he let Blair sleep. The confusion seemed to be the product of the hypothermia. "Just how do you manage to get into these situations, Sandburg?" He ran his hand over the injured joint and let out a satisfied sigh. "Everything seems to be in one piece, Chief. But it sure is swollen." Giving his friend an affectionate smile, he pulled the blankets up over Blair's shoulders and tucked them more securely around him. "Time to go home, kid." Slipping one arm under his friend's back and the other under his legs, he pulled the younger man into the open. Cradling Blair against him when he heard him moan, Jim could only apologize for the pain he knew he was inflicting. "I know," he whispered. "It hurts. I'm sorry, buddy. But I've got to get you out of here." Now the question of how had to be considered. As capable as the ranger seemed, Ellison didn't think she'd be strong enough to pull two men up. Extending his hearing, the sound of running footsteps could be heard. But maybe his problem would soon be solved. Help had arrived.
Jim Ellison stood quietly, and unnoticed, in the doorway of Blair's room. The emergency room doctors had assured him that Sandburg had come away from his small adventure with nothing more than a rather large goose egg and a bad case of the chills. While the sentinel had the utmost faith in the medical profession, he trusted his senses more. And so, once again, he found himself "just checking" as he had so very often in the last twenty-four hours. His intention had been to see if his partner was interested in some lunch, but his curiosity had gotten the better of him. His guide was finally awake. Sandburg had propped himself up with his pillows, but still had the covers pulled around him, shivering slightly. It was Blair's slightly wistful smile that had made the detective hesitate to interrupt. His friend sat surrounded by old photographs and pieces of memorabilia. Seashells, starfish, buttons and numerous other colourful bits of things that must have held some special meaning covered the bed. But it seemed that out of all of these treasured keepsakes, it was one photograph that won out against the rest. Ellison watched as his friend placed it into a box, paused and took it back out again, as if unwilling to let go of a memory.
Blair gently ran his fingers along a crease that marked the old picture. He had awoken with the urge to dig out his small stash of pictures and souvenirs that had travelled with him around the world. He felt as if his entire lifetime was chronicled by the items found in that box. The latest additions had been the observer's pass that he had told Simon he had lost and a Cascade PD crest he had snipped from one of Jim's worn jackets that had been bound for the garbage. Seeing them there had him grinning, but he had laid them gently aside, looking for one particular picture. It had been taken in Hawaii on a beach whose name he had long forgotten. But where the picture had been taken wasn't important. It could have been any beach. And finally he had found it. The colours had faded with time, but his mind filled them back in, making them more vibrant than any camera was capable of recording. The sun had made the sand sparkle like glass. Spiked leaves from a nearby palm had cast striped shade and shadows onto two figures that sat on a fallen tree trunk. A woman and a boy of about 12 smiled almost identical smiles into the camera. The young woman hugged the boy to her, arms tightly wrapped around him. Her cheek was pressed against the top of his head, causing her long dark curls to spill into his.
The remembrance of the floral scent of his aunt's shampoo and the soap she always used seemed to wrap itself around Blair. The memory bringing with it a tinge of sadness. It had been that day, on that beach, that Rachel had promised she'd always look out for him. No matter where she was, she'd be there for him. And she had been until the day she died. He still didn't understand why it was Rachel he had dreamt about when he had fallen from the cliff. Maybe, somewhere, buried deep inside him, he still held her to that promise and had hoped she would keep it. And maybe, in a sense, she had. He had felt as if she had been there. He'd have to call his mom and tell her about it.
"Hey, Chief." Jim smiled when Blair jumped at the sound of his voice. "Tom called while you were asleep. He was just checking up on you." When his friend only nodded and still seemed distracted, he couldn't hold back his curiosity any longer. He stepped nearer the bed, giving the picture clutched in the younger man's hand a glance. "What're you looking at, Sandburg?"
"Just some old pictures." Blair shrugged and handed him the one of his aunt. "Remember I told you that I had dreamt Rachel was there. This is Aunt Rachel." Shaking his head with a weary sigh, he started to put the rest of the photographs back into the box. "It's funny that I would dream about her after all these years. But you know, her being there made me feel not so alone. Guess she was my Blessed Protector until you could get there." His smile faded when he saw that his friend had paled. "Are you okay, Jim? What is it?"
Holding the picture out to his partner, Jim's voice shook slightly. "This is the woman...the ranger... This is the woman who led me to you."
Taking the photograph from the detective's outstretched hand, Blair remembered the words he thought he had only dreamt while he had been trapped on that cliff. "I promised," she had said. And his aunt had always kept her promises.
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