Warren Marsh slammed his fist down on the table, the vibration causing his coffee to spill over the newsprint on the third page of the morning paper. It snaked its way down the article about a spate of arson attacks on local businesses, and pooled to stain on the story below. As the liquid tainted the black and white photo, he wiped it roughly with his hand, smearing the caption below. 'Cop of the Year comes to Las Vegas.' The next line carried all the information that the former Lieutenant needed to know. 'Detective James Ellison of the Cascade PD, along with several other interstate and overseas police officers, has been invited to be a guest speaker at the International Law Enforcement conference, scheduled from July 23rd to 26th. Several sessions are open to the public; contact the Chamber of Commerce for a list of session titles, times and dates.'
"Well, well, Captain Ellison," he said, his fingers digging into the newsprint, tearing the soggy paper. "Isn't this a nice surprise?" Reaching for the phone, Marsh stabbed at the buttons on the handset, impatiently waiting for a connection.
"Tracks, you seen this morning's paper? Yeah, I know; unexpected to say the least. What do you think the good Captain would say to a visit from a few of his men?" A feral smile spread across Marsh's face. "You ring Wylie; I'll make the arrangements."
Marsh hung up the phone and ran his fingers through his shoulder-length hair, thinking now was an appropriate time for a haircut. A buzz cut, he thought. Just like the good old days.
Wiping the perspiration from the back of his neck, Simon Banks neatly folded his handkerchief and tucked it back in his pocket. Summer had hit with a vengeance, and the city nestled in the shadow of the desert was sweltering. Tired, hot and irritable, his patience was becoming very limited, and that patience didn't extend to a certain police observer he now had in his sights. "Sandburg, you are unbelievable. I swear to God that you must be a walking hormone. Can't you keep your mind out of your pants for more than ten minutes?"
Jim smiled at Blair, who was now giving him the 'What did I do now?' look. Picking up the last of the luggage, he handed it to the concierge. "So Romeo, what did she say?"
"What did you expect her to say?" Blair's smile was broad. "I mean this is me you're talking about. What woman could possibly resist my charming manners, boyish smile and incredible good looks? Not to mention the hair, man. Did I ever tell you how much the chicks dig my hair? Let's face it buddy, in this universe, there are magnets and babe magnets and I'm sure I don't have to tell you which one I am." Flashing another brilliant smile Jim's way, Blair slapped the detective on the back. "I'm gonna go and check out the tourist stand."
"Whoa, hold up a minute there, Stud Muffin," Jim said, grabbing Blair by the shirttails. "We're here to work, remember?"
"Jim, the conference doesn't start until tomorrow afternoon and you're not speaking until the day after that, so the way I see it, there's plenty of time for a bit of relaxation and to partake of life's little pleasures, so to speak." Blair pulled his shirt from the detective's grip. "Besides, if I'm gonna get lucky, I need to start scoping out some decent restaurants."
"Hear that?" Banks said, watching Blair disappear into the foyer.
"Absolutely nothing. Not a theory, not a conjecture, not a hypothesis, not one single, long-winded explanation. Sheer and blissful silence." Bending down to grab his bag, Simon shook his head. "How do you keep your sanity around him, Jim? Doesn't he drive you nuts?"
"Oh come on, Simon, he's not that bad... a little verbose on occasion, maybe, but..."
"Jim, he hasn't shut up since we boarded the plane this morning."
A furtive smile spread across Ellison's face and a look of realisation appeared on Simon's. "You haven't been listening to him, have you? You did whatever you do with your senses and you shut off your hearing."
Jim's smile grew wider. "You wanted to know how I kept my sanity; well, now you do."
"Hey," Simon said, setting off after Jim as he made his way through the hotel's front doors. "You think you could teach me how to do it? I mean if you can do it, it can't be that hard..."
With good food, good company and a couple of good beers under his belt, Jim felt himself winding down and remembering what it was actually like to take time out and relax. While Sandburg had been off wining and dining a stewardess he'd wooed on the plane, he and Simon had caught up with a couple of buddies from the New York PD who were also in town for the conference. Although slightly intoxicated, his senses were still astute enough to realise that Blair was now in the bar. "Hey, Chief," he called out. "Over here." Sliding over so Blair could take a seat in the booth, Jim stretched out his arm along the back of the seat. "You're back early. Don't tell me you struck out?"
"Jim, I don't strike out and besides it's going on two-thirty. I wouldn't exactly call that early." Blair glanced at the empty beer bottles lined up on the table. "Looks like you two have had a good night."
"Speaking of which," Simon said, "You guys want one for the road?"
"Yeah, thanks, Simon," Jim replied, answering for them both.
"So," Blair said as soon as Simon was out of earshot. "How much exactly have you had to drink?"
"Enough to get pleasantly drunk. Is there a problem with that?"
"No man, no problem. I was just wondering if you're okay. You know; if you're having any problems with your senses or anything?"
Jim tapped Blair playfully on the forehead. "Well, you can stop worrying, my little guardian angel, because I'm fine. Granted, my senses feel a little dull, but to be honest, I'm enjoying the break."
"Dull? Dull, how?"
"Chief," Jim sighed. "Look, I've had a great night, caught up with some old friends, had a good meal, and indulged in a little alcohol. Don't spoil it, okay?"
Blair picked up one of the empty bottles and started to pick at the label. "You're right, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be an overbearing nag."
"What are you nagging him about this time, Sandburg?" Placing the beers on the table, Simon slid one over to Jim. "Not that he's probably even listening to you anyway."
"He's not nagging me about anything, Simon," Jim replied, lightly tapping Blair on the shoulder. "We were actually taking about whether he got laid tonight or not."
"And did you?" Simon asked.
"Twice actually," Blair replied without missing a beat. "But it's a subject I'd prefer not to discuss, especially around the elderly." Giving Simon a mischievous wink, Blair lifted his hand and tapped Jim on his chest. "Too much excitement doesn't bode well for the old ticker."
From his position at the bar, Marsh had been discretely watching the camaraderie between Jim and Simon. His interest was piqued, not only with the arrival of Sandburg, but the casual and open manner in which Ellison seemed to treat the kid. "Any idea who he is?" Marsh asked, turning toward Tracks.
"Partner, maybe," Tracks shrugged. Slightly shorter, and leaner than Marsh, Tracks MacDonald had always had a boyish look about him, which hadn't appeared to advance at the same rate as his age. "Although last I heard, Ellison worked alone."
"Maybe he's doin' the kid," Wylie drained the last of his beer. "Or better still, maybe they're both doing him."
Laughing at Wylie's comment, Marsh threw a twenty down on the bar. "Time to get this operation underway, gentlemen. Everyone know what they're supposed to do?"
"Yes sir," they both replied, slipping automatically back into a role they'd played years before.
"Good, let's move out."
Carried out with military precision, Marsh's plan went off without a hitch. A gun to the small of the back, a measured amount of drugs and a van waiting in dark of the alleyway, brought with it the realisation of how very, very sweet revenge could be. Ellison was unconscious and bound, as was his captain and the kid with no name.
As the van sped off into the night, a familiar sense of importance and power settled over Marsh. "Let the games begin," he said.
"Jim," Blair hissed, nudging the sentinel with his knee. "Come on, man, now is so not the time to do this." He struggled once again with the bindings that immobilized his hands behind his back, but to no avail; they were simply too tight. He could already feel the burning of raw skin where the binding dug into his flesh. Barely able to make out Simon's face in the van's bleak interior, Blair whispered roughly. "Simon, something's wrong. He should be awake by now."
"Give it time, Sandburg. It's just taking him a bit longer to shake off the effects of the drug."
The van jolted to a stop and Blair winced as his head connected with the hard metal interior. The sound of doors opening and slamming shut followed, and then the back door flung open, flooding their prison with light. "Get out," was the only thing said, the guns leveled at their heads speaking volumes of their own.
Dragged from the back, Simon righted himself as soon as his feet hit the ground. He immediately scanned the area, taking a mental note of their surroundings. Dawn was breaking over the desert, giving the landscape an eerie feel. Shades of mauve and pink danced across the sky as the sun readied itself for the long, hot day ahead. A fat 'horny toad' ducked out from under a small, stubby plant and intently studied the scene.
Rough hands grabbed Simon from behind and he felt the cold metal blade of a hunting knife sever his restraints. "Get him out." The voice was harsh and guttural, leaving no room for negotiation. Although he'd been afforded a small amount of freedom, Simon was fully aware of the dangerous situation they were in. Now was not the right time to try anything; Blair had been pushed down on his knees with the barrel of a gun hovering in the middle of his forehead.
Making his way slowly to the back of the van, Simon took hold of Jim's legs and dragged him toward the lip of the doorway. "Now would be a really good time to join the party, Jim," he muttered, pulling Ellison into a sitting position. Taking in a deep breath when Jim showed no obvious signs of regaining consciousness, Simon shouldered Ellison's chest and secured him in a fireman's carry.
"Dump him there," Marsh ordered.
Lowering Jim to the ground, Simon aided Jim's head with his hand to minimize the impact.
"Oh, ain't that sweet," Tracks chuckled. He nudged Blair with his rifle. "Maybe Wylie was right after all."
Marsh chuckled, and waved his gun at Simon. "Move," he snapped, as Simon hesitated.
Marsh was tall, heavyset, and his well-toned, muscular body cast a long shadow as he towered over Jim. "You do know that you're spoiling all my fun, Ellison," he said, toeing Jim's body with his boot. "I didn't drag your sorry carcass all the way out here for you to sleep through the whole adventure. It's your moment to shine, Captain." A swift kicked connected with Jim's side. "Now wake the fuck up and shine, you asshole!"
"Hey," Simon yelled, surging forward. "Lay off." Without warning, the rifle Tracks had trained at Blair left its target and slammed, butt first, into the back of Simon's head, sending him slumping to the ground.
Blair's reaction was immediate. "What the hell did you do that for?" Tracks' gun shifted to Blair's chest, but he ignored the threat and attempted to move toward Simon.
"Wylie, watch him," Marsh snapped, leaving the smaller, wiry man to guard Ellison's body. In one quick, fluid movement he grabbed Blair by the back of the neck and entwined his fingers in the mass of hair. "Not advisable to play hero, Sweet Cheeks." He tightened his grip. "You see, most heroes end up dead, and I'm sure Captain Ellison would be very upset if something happened to his sweet little cheeks." The palm of his hand connected with the side of Blair's face. "And these aren't the cheeks I'm talking about, baby boy."
"What do you want?" Blair hissed through gritted teeth, ignoring Marsh's innuendo.
"I just want to play a little game, Sweet Cheeks. A little test to see if the legendary Captain Ellison still has his fine soldiering skills. I mean, now that he seems to be settled down with such a sweet little piece of ass, I'd hate to see him become soft and all domestic- like." Marsh draped his arm over Blair's shoulder. "You see, Sweet Cheeks, daddy boy over here was once a fine officer. The perfect role model and I'd even go so far as to say one of the most honorable men around. Shame, really, that he couldn't bring himself to look the other way every once in a while. If he had, maybe he wouldn't be finding himself in such a sticky predicament." Pulling Blair closer, Marsh's hot breath blew across Sandburg's ear. "You wanna play a game, Sweet Cheeks?" he asked. "I had been planning to play this game with Captain Ellison, but since he's being a spoilsport, I guess it's up to you."
"What kind of game?" Blair asked cautiously.
Sweeping his legs across Blair's shins, Marsh sent Blair crashing to the ground. "Tracks, watch him," he ordered. Moving over to the van, Marsh yanked open the door and pulled a knapsack off the front seat. Back at Blair's side, he tipped the contents onto the ground. A broad smile flashed across his sun-hardened face. "The rules of this game are simple, Sweet Cheeks, and being a sporting man myself, I'm all about odds." Squatting down, Marsh balanced on his haunches. "Now the odds would obviously be pretty bad if I left you gentlemen all alone in the desert heat without any provisions. Having no supplies at all would drastically reduce the odds of you getting out of here alive. However, if I was gracious enough to let you have the contents of this knapsack, that, combined with our Captain Ellison's exceptional survival skills, would raise the odds quite considerably. But you see, Sweet Cheeks, therein lies my predicament. I'm going from very low odds, to very high odds and I'm thinking that we're gonna need a handicap to even out these odds. Make this little competition a bit more interesting and fair to all the participants."
Blair's eyes drifted from Simon to Jim. "What do you have in mind?" he asked, positive he really didn't want to know the answer.
Grabbing Blair by his collar, Marsh dragged him to his feet. "I'm figurin' on making you the handicap, Sweet Cheeks. To my way of thinking, the good Captain would find it harder going if he had your pretty little ass to worry about."
"What if you're wrong?" Blair asked, hoping to stall Marsh and buy some time. "What if Jim and Simon left me here and went to get help? You said it yourself, Jim's an expert on survival and he would also have to weigh his odds. If I'm hurt, the chances are I wouldn't make it anyway so Jim's first priority would be getting Simon out of here and then coming after you."
"Oh, you're a smart one, Sweet Cheeks," Marsh smiled, "But unfortunately for you, I know the Captain and his honor system just a little too well. Never leave a man behind, I think, is the standing motto." Once again, Marsh hooked his fingers around Blair's neck. "Or in your case, never give up a sweet ass -- at least not without a fight."
Blair didn't see the first punch coming, but feeling it was unavoidable. It connected heavily with his midriff, leaving him doubled over and gasping for air. The second punch was just as swift and just as powerful, as it landed on his jaw, sending him sprawling back into the red, arid dirt. With pain still searing through his belly and his vision unfocused, he tried awkwardly to get to his knees, only to be brought down again when a fist found its mark on the small of his back. He collapsed to the ground and hands were replaced with a boot as four well-aimed, vicious kicks found their target on his body. The last kick, directed to the side of his head, rendered him deeply unconscious.
Bending down, Marsh brushed the hair from Blair's face. "You took that like a real man, Sweet Cheeks. Ellison will be proud."
"What if he's right?" Tracks asked, scrubbing a hand across the fashionable stubble on his jaw. "It's not gonna be impossible for Ellison and the other guy to make it out of here, especially if we leave them supplies."
"Tracks, my boy. How quickly we forget," Marsh wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt. "You know what kind of man Ellison is. He's not going to leave his friends to save his own butt, and he's not going to leave his partner, or whatever the hell this kid is to him, to die out in the desert." Wiping the dust from his jeans, Marsh got to his feet. "With the kid slowing him down, it's a good two days' walk to any kind of civilization and besides, after we've indulged in a little R 'n' R, I intend to come back out here and do a little hunting." He slapped Tracks on the back and looked over at Wylie. "What d'ya reckon, Wylie? Think Tracks still has the touch?"
A grin split Wylie's face from ear to ear. It had been a long time since he'd been hunting. "A piece of cake, Lieutenant, a piece of damn, fucking cake!"
A small groan escaped from Blair's lips but, despite Simon's gentle encouragement, his eyes remained closed. "Sandburg, come on, kid." With as much force as he dared, Simon tapped Blair's cheek once again. "Come on Sandburg, work with me here."
Blair groaned again and clumsily lifted his hand toward his face. "Easy, Blair." Taking hold of Blair's hand, Simon lowered it back down to his side.
"It's Simon, Blair. Jim's still out to it."
It took a few moments for Blair to decipher Simon's words and a few more minutes to link a meaning to them. "It's been too long," he finally mumbled. Struggling to sit, a searing cramp ripped through Blair's abdomen, forcing him back down to the ground.
"God damn it, Sandburg, would you be still!" Simon snapped. "You're pretty banged up, here."
"...fine," Blair muttered, latching on to Simon's arm. "But Jim won't be if I don't do something."
Giving in, Simon supported most of Blair's body weight, as he levered Blair into a sitting position. "At least let me check you over, first," he insisted.
"No time." Blair batted away Simon's probing hand. "Help me stand."
"Okay, okay," Banks relented. "But take it slow. I think you've got a couple of busted ribs."
Now on his feet, Blair swayed unsteadily. "Whoa, head spin," he breathed.
"Just take it slow," Simon encouraged, tightening his grip.
Reaching Jim's side, Blair grunted in pain as he lowered himself onto his knees. He placed a hand on Jim's forehead. "Simon, he's too hot. He needs water." Struggling to think past his pounding headache, Blair finally pointed toward the knapsack lying on the ground a few feet away. "There's a canteen of water in the bag."
Leaving Blair's side, Simon picked up the bag from the dirt and riffled through it. "You sure this is safe?"
"Pretty sure." Blair took the canteen from Simon's hand. "I don't think poisoning the water is part of their game plan."
"What game plan?"
"I'll explain later. You got a handkerchief or anything?"
"Yeah." Simon slipped his hand into his pocket and handed it over. "You think he's in a zone, or whatever you call it?"
Blair nodded, immediately regretting the action.
"How can you be so sure? It could be the drugs."
"It's probably a combination of both, but I think at the moment the zone has got more of a hold on him than the drugs." Tipping a small amount of water onto the handkerchief, Blair dabbed Jim's face. "Sorry Jim, but this is all we can spare."
Twenty minutes later, Simon found himself with a whole new level of respect for Blair. Despite struggling with his own pain, Sandburg hadn't missed a beat. Jim was his focus and remained that way until Ellison's eyes fluttered open and he uttered his first, intelligible words.
"Whoa, some trip." With Simon supporting his back, Jim slowly sat up and rubbed his neck. "You guys okay?"
"We're fine," Blair cut in before Simon had a chance to answer. "Well, as fine as we can be, considering we're stuck out here in the middle of the desert with only one canteen of water and a couple of measly health bars."
Simon caught Blair's eye. He would let the kid get away with it, for now, but as soon as Jim was up and on his feet, Blair's dirty little secret was going to get a public airing. "Any idea who these guys are?" Simon asked, hooking Jim's elbow.
"Oh yeah, I know exactly who they are. They were part of a unit I once commanded."
"So, why the grudge?"
"I'm assuming it's because I had their asses court-martialed and thrown in the stockade," Jim replied dryly.
"Why, what did they do?"
Struggling to his feet with Simon's help, Jim surveyed the surrounding area. "We were on a recon mission on a remote island of Indonesia and part of our mission plan was to get to know the locals and enlist their help. Unfortunately, Marsh and the other two took our orders a little too literally and became a bit too friendly."
"And?" Simon prompted.
"They raped the chief's daughter. She was only fourteen."
Blair pulled himself gingerly to his feet, sucking in a few deep breaths to try and ease the pain. "Oh man!" he exclaimed.
"'Oh man' is right and if I had had any sense I would have left them there and let the chief deal with them."
"So why didn't you?" Blair asked, figuring that it would have been a just punishment.
"Because they were my men and my responsibility. I got them out of there and as soon as they hit stateside, they were arrested and ended up spending the next seven years in a military prison." Noticing for the first time the bruises forming on Blair's jaw, Jim reached out. "What happened?" he asked.
Blair pulled his head back. "Nothing happened."
"Concussion and busted ribs is what happened." Simon folded his arms across his chest. "Care to add any more to the laundry list, Sandburg?"
"I don't have a concussion and my ribs are just bruised, not broken." Already on the defensive, Blair backed away from Jim, knowing the sentinel's hands would be up and under his shirt in a matter of seconds. "Jim, just leave it, okay? Besides, there's nothing you can do about it out here."
"Nothing I can do about what, Chief?" Jim narrowed his gaze and eyed Blair suspiciously "What aren't you telling me?" he asked.
"Nothing," Blair replied.
"Not the answer I wanted to hear, Sandburg," Jim moved closer. "Apart from what your bruises have already told me, what else did Marsh do to you?"
"Stop!" Blair snapped. "I'm not some fragile flower that needs tending. Simon was knocked unconscious as well. Why don't you ask him how he's doing?"
Jim's eyes remained fixed on Blair. "Hey Simon," he called over his shoulder. "You okay? Want me to check you over?"
"No thanks, Jim. I think I'm okay. But thank you for asking."
"No problem. After all, it is what one friend would do for another... I mean if that friend thought that the other friend was hurt."
"I agree totally and I, for one, appreciate your concern."
"If you two are quite finished, don't you think we oughtta concentrate our efforts on getting out of here? Shouldn't we be trying to find a road or something?"
Scooping the knapsack from the ground, Simon shouldered the bag. "You're the expert in survival, Ellison. What next?"
Jim scanned the horizon, stretching his vision as far out as his senses would allow. "This way," he finally said.
"Jim don't you think we should follow the tyre tracks?" Blair cut in. "I mean, they've gotta lead to a road eventually."
"Trust me, Chief, we want to put as much distance as we can between those tyre tracks and us."
"We do," Jim confirmed, giving Blair a gentle push to get him moving.
"So, not the last we'll be seeing of our friends, I gather?" Simon asked, slipping into step beside Jim.
"Not by a long shot."
Purposely slowing his steps, Simon hooked Jim by the elbow, giving Blair the chance to get further in front. "Do you think the kid's gonna be okay?"
Jim pulled up. "Did you get a chance to take a look at him at all before he regained consciousness?"
"Not really. He came to not long after me, but by the way he's been guarding his ribs, I'm sure a couple of them are busted."
"Yeah," Jim agreed, studying Blair's uneasy gait. "But I guess he's right about one thing. There's not much we can do about it out here and knowing Sandburg, sheer stubbornness should keep him on his feet for a while." Jim pointed to a small blot on the landscape in the distance. "I know you can't see much from here, but there's an outcrop of rocks on the horizon and that's where we need to be."
Realising he was walking by himself, Blair stopped and turned around, making a conscious effort to keep his arms from wrapping around his ribs.
"So Jim, just how good are these guys?" he asked, squinting into the rising sun.
"Good enough to be Rangers, Chief." Catching up and falling back in beside Blair, Jim casually draped his arm across the younger man's shoulder. "But don't worry, Sandburg, I was better."
"I really hope that was better means that you're still better," Blair muttered.
"Jim?" Simon's eyebrows raised with a slight quirk.
Ellison didn't need any further clarification. The look on Simon's face said it all. If they were going to survive, they needed to know their enemy. "I'll fill you in later," he said, knowing that Simon would take his cue. "Right now, we need to reach that outcrop before nightfall. It's not much, but at least it will give us some shelter and a strategic advantage."
The temperature had been growing steadily as the morning slipped away and the sun rose high in the midday sky; it was already 104 degrees, and still climbing. Jim knew that, in order for them to survive, they were going to have to stop, rest and drink at least every hour. Since Marsh and his cohorts had confiscated every possible tool, including Blair's Swiss Army knife, Jim devised a way to split open the flesh of the cactus plants by wrapping his leather belt around his hands for protection and cutting open the flesh with any sharp pieces of shale he could find on the ground. While he wasn't able to extract a lot of juice, the liquid from the plants was a lifesaving addition to their dwindling supply of water. "Hey guys," Jim said, conscious of Blair's steadily deteriorating condition. "Why don't we break for ten?" He placed a hand on Blair's back and steered him toward a large mesquite bush, which would at least offer them some relief from the soaring heat of the day.
"Amen to that," Simon responded, dropping the knapsack at the base of the bush and following it to the ground. "Here," he said handing the canteen over to Jim.
Still on his feet, Jim distinctly noticed Blair's reluctance to sit. Taking the canteen from Simon, he passed it to Blair, only to have Sandburg hold up his hand, refusing to take it. Although reluctant to admit it, Jim knew the reason behind the refusal. Water was a precious resource and Blair had no intention of wasting it by bringing it right back up. "Chief," he said, gently, "don't you think it's time you let me have a look?"
Blair's eyes were pleading, willing Jim to understand. "Jim, there's nothing you can do. Just leave it be."
"No." Jim shook his head in defiance. "I can't leave it be." Not caring that Simon was watching their every move, he cupped Blair's check. "Please, Blair."
Giving in, Blair let his arms fall to his side, his heart regretting the pain he was about to cause. He suspected that he was bleeding into his stomach and, if that were the case, there was nothing Jim could do to stop it. "Like I said," Blair whispered as Jim's fingers dusted against his skin. "There's nothing you can do. Let's just get as far as we can while I can still stand."
Jim's expression was grim. "How much pain?"
"Tolerable." He lightly touched Jim's arm. "And you know me. Made of rubber. I always bounce back."
The bleak expression on Jim's face softened, erasing the deep furrows in his brow. He cupped the back of Blair's neck. "You better, because I'll kick your ass if you don't."
To Blair, the colour of Jim's eyes appeared to change right before his own. Pale blue became the shade of electric neon -- a flashing sign leaving no doubt about just how scared Jim was. Calling upon his own strength, Blair bundled up his courage, hoping and praying that it, at least, would last the distance. "Come on," he said, latching on to Jim's arm. "Let's get moving."
With each step, the outcrop of rocks, small and insignificant in the distance, loomed larger and larger, enticing them into the safety and security of her bosom. The miles, which had once seemed like an impossible obstacle to overcome, slowly gave way, the harshness of the desert yielding as they tracked across her barren path. Jim, monitoring each and every one of Blair's vital signs, felt his own defeat press down upon his every step. Blair was deteriorating rapidly and, despite the front the kid was putting up, he knew that Blair was on his last legs.
As Jim's inner thoughts resonated, Blair hit the wall. The half mile to their destination could have been two steps or two thousand. It made no difference; he could go no further. Sinking to his knees, he was unable to ignore the razor blades that cut deep into his stomach. He collapsed sideways but, before he hit the ground, Jim's arms were around him. At least, he thought, his descent to the rocky desert floor would be painless. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice resounding in his ears like a whinny child.
"Don't," Jim cut back, his voice rough as sandpaper. "Just don't."
The hand that rested against the distended muscles of Blair's stomach told Jim what was coming next. Bracing himself and ignoring the small rocks digging into his knees, he wound one arm around Blair's torso, while his free hand gathered back the strands of Blair's hair. There was no comfort in the words he offered as Blair violently vomited and there was no comfort in his touch. The kid was in pain, horrible pain, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.
When the contraction of stomach muscles stopped and the only sound left was the harsh, grating inhale and exhale of breath, Jim worked to move Blair away from the brown-tinged bile that tainted the red earth. A shadow towered over them. "What's the safest way to carry him?"
Jim looked up into Simon's face. Sweat poured down the side of his captain's face, settling for a moment in the indentation of his collarbone before dislodging, aided by every deep, exhausted breath Simon took. Banks was tough, no doubt about that, but the past few years of playing desk jockey had Jim wondering just how fit his captain really was. "You sure you're up to it?" he finally asked.
The look on Simon's face grew dark. "You know, Ellison, in all the years I've known you and all the dumb-ass questions I've had to contend with, that was just about your dumbest." Simon's arms crossed against his chest, the movement seeming to increase the size of the shadow he cast. "I'll ask again. What's the safest way to carry him?"
If we can lift him between us and carry him so he's more or less sitting in a chair, it should limit the strain on his injuries."
"Which are?" Simon asked, his voice now gentler.
"Internal bleeding and broken ribs."
Simon didn't need to respond with words; his face said it all. Bending down, he placed a hand on Blair's back. "Just let me know when you're ready."
"Chief." Jim added a touch of his own to Blair's back. "This is gonna hurt like Hades, buddy, but it's the only way we can get you to shelter."
Blair nodded and Jim leaned in, resting his cheek against the back of Blair's head. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
Blair simply nodded again and waited for the pain. As they placed his arms around their shoulders and lifted him off the ground, it sliced through his gut, leaving him feeling as if he'd just danced the dance with Jack the Ripper. With each step forward, the knife in his stomach slashed with reckless abandon, butchering him from the inside out. As it moved upward, toward his lung, his brain finally took sympathy and slowly stole away his consciousness.
Only darkness remained.
The rocky outcrop they had been heading for was not much, but at least it offered a modicum of shade. Taller than it was wide, it sat awkwardly in the desert like a blemish tainting the landscape, waiting for the passage of time to erase its existence completely from the land. As the distance closed and they finally stepped into its shadow, Jim scanned the area for the best place to lay Blair down. "Over this way," he finally said, his own harsh breathing keeping a perfect time with Simon's. Reaching the spot where wind and weather had turned rock to sand, they lay Blair down. Simon sank onto his haunches before falling back to sit. He wiped the sweat from his brow, watching intently as Jim sprang into action.
Snapping open the buttons on Blair shirt, Jim thought ruefully that desert heat had at least had one positive result -- it had prevented Sandburg from dressing in layers. His hand dusted over Blair's skin, coming to rest upon a belly swollen with blood. Blair roused slightly, letting out a small groan. "I'm sorry, Chief," Jim apologised. Removing his hand, he settled back for a moment, his face an unreadable mask. He now had a definitive answer to one of his questions. Moving forward, his hands made their way to Blair's chest. "Chief, I need to check your ribs," he said, sensing that with every passing minute Blair was returning to consciousness. "I'm not gonna tell you it's not going to hurt, but I'll be as gentle as I can." With his only answer coming in the form of eyes which were now slightly less hooded, Jim probed Blair's ribcage. As far as he could tell, three ribs on Blair's right side were broken. The swelling on the left side indicated that at least another four were badly bruised. Concentrating, he worked on his sense of touch and hearing. What he heard filled him with fear. Not only was Blair bleeding into his stomach, but the sounds emanating from the kid's chest cavity led to the very grave likelihood that there was a small tear in Blair's lung.
"Jim?" Blair's gasping wheeze made Jim feel sick to his stomach.
Jim rested his hand on Blair's forehead. "Hey, welcome back."
"Think I'd rather be unconscious," Blair replied.
A small smile pulled at Jim's lips. "I'll bet," he said.
"So, what next, Ranger Jim?" Blair asked, weakly.
Jim's smile broadened, his expression warm. "Next you rest while I go take a look around." He glanced over at Simon. "And don't you go giving Simon a hard time while I'm gone."
"That's an impossible task," Simon replied getting to his feet. "'Pain over every single square inch of my butt' is Sandburg's middle name."
Blair licked at his cracked lips. "Keeps you on your toes," he said in a broken voice.
"You're not wrong there, kid." Simon squatted down and squeezed Blair's shoulder. "But even an ever vigilant Police Captain needs a break occasionally. Think you can keep that in mind for when we get back to Cascade?"
"Cascade?" Blair responded.
"Yeah, Cascade," Simon replied with absolute certainty in his voice. Turning his attention away from Blair, Simon studied his detective. Jim appeared to be holding up pretty well, given the circumstances, but reading Jim Ellison was not an exact science. Whatever was going on in Ellison's head often stayed there, without anyone being any the wiser. "Jim," he finally said. "How long will you be?"
Jim's eyes didn't stray from Blair's face. "Not long."
Reaching back for the pack, Simon pulled out the canteen. "Take a drink before you go." Now reading the look on Ellison's face perfectly, Simon pulled ranked. "Not a request, Ellison." Following Jim to his feet, he pushed the canteen into the detective's hand. "Drink," he ordered.
Taking a small swig, Jim recapped the canteen and moved toward the entrance of the rock formation, fully aware that Simon was following. "We need to get him to a hospital, Simon." Making his way back out into the desert heat, he surveyed the rock formation. "I'm going to try and find a way up and see if I can get any indication of where we are." He glanced back toward Blair. "Keep an eye on him and shout if you need me. I'll hear you."
"I'm sure you will," Simon replied. He brushed his hand across Jim's shoulder. "Be careful, okay?"
Simon watched Jim's ascent up the rock wall, losing sight of the detective when his climb took him around the other side. He walked back under the shady overhang and sat down next to Blair. Sandburg's eyes were closed once again and his skin now had a ghostly sheen. "Hang in there, kid," he whispered, picking up Blair's hand and folding it within his own. "I, for one, have no intention of losing you."
Simon's pacing became more frantic as the minutes ticked on. Jim had been gone close to an hour and, despite the promise of 'shout and I'll hear you', Jim had given no indication that he'd heard him at all. A small groan brought his attention instantly back to the reason he hadn't gone in search of Ellison. "Blair, don't move," he said, his hand bracing Blair's shoulder, stilling his movements. "You need to lay still, kid."
"...Simon... where's Jim?"
"He's gone to take a look around. He should be back any minute."
"How long... been gone?"
Simon scrubbed his hand roughly over his face. "Nearly an hour."
"An hour," Blair repeated, his brow furrowing in thought. "Too long. You need to go find him."
"Blair, I'm not going to leave you." Simon squeezed Blair's shoulder a little tighter. "Aside from the fact that Ellison would kill me, someone has to stay here to keep you outta trouble."
"No," Blair shook his head weakly from side to side. "Too hot out there. If he's zoned... heat will kill him." Blair tried to swallow, but the attempt was futile. There was no moisture left in his mouth to help alleviate his dry, parched throat. "Please, Simon... please."
Simon was torn. His concern for Ellison's safety had been growing steadily as time passed, but it had, up until this stage, been contained by his concern for Blair. But if the kid was right and Jim had zoned, he wouldn't last long in this heat. The reality of the situation was that if Sandburg's condition did worsen, then Blair's best hope, even if only for emotional comfort, was to have Jim by his side.
"Please," Blair begged again. "You have to find him."
With a small measure of reluctance still lingering, Simon finally nodded his head. "Okay, but don't you move, okay? You stay put, no matter what."
"...try and hold off starting the marathon till you get back."
Simon cuffed Blair lightly across the head, the familiar action bringing a sense of normality and light to the grave situation they were in. "Smart ass," he chided.
It took Simon fifteen minutes to reach the top of the rock formation. The climb in itself wasn't terribly difficult, but the heat that bounced off the rock face made the climb an exhausting effort. Panting as he pulled himself over the last boulder, he spotted Jim immediately. Sandburg was right; Ellison was out of it.
Moving quickly, Simon dropped to his knees beside Jim. Ellison's eyes were open and focused intently on the desert to the west. "Jim," he said, giving the detective a shake. "You in there?" Getting no response, his thoughts went back to what he'd witnessed earlier in the day. Mimicking Blair's actions, his hands traced a path from Jim's face, down to his neck and across his chest. He tried to recall the words Sandburg had used, but gave up, thinking they were more of a stage prop than the real deal. After five minutes of repeating the same action over and over, Simon's frustration rose sharply. He didn't have time for this. Blair didn't have time for this. Deciding to resort to a more rudimentary method, Simon flexed his fingers before forming a fist. Pulling back once, he tested the distance, trying to work out how much punch to pack. Deciding that hard was his best shot, he pulled back and with a quick, short, but hard jab, punched Jim square in the jaw.
Jim fell backward, his fall guided somewhat by the hold Simon had on his shirt. He blinked once and then rubbed his jaw. "What the hell did you do that for?" he asked, taking note that Simon's hand was still balled in a fist.
"Mad dogs and Englishmen, Ellison -- and you, my friend are neither one. Besides," he said, unclenching his fist, "you were pissing me off. I honestly don't know how Sandburg puts up with you."
Jim scrambled to his feet. "Sandburg... how is he?"
"No worse, no better." Simon trained his gaze on where the sentinel's had been moments before. "Did you see anything?"
"I think so. Over to the west."
"What did you see?"
"Houses or structures of some kind. I can also hear what seems to be the hum of a generator. There's a smell; I think it's a campfire."
"How far away?"
"I'm not sure. Half a days' walk, maybe more. I can't be certain."
"Well, it's a start," Simon replied, unhooking the canteen from around his neck and handing it to Jim. "I'll get moving as soon as we're down off this rock."
"Simon." Jim grabbed Banks by the arm as he started to move away. "It's not a walk in the park. It'll be rough going."
"I know, but there's no option. The kid'll be lucky to make it through the night if someone doesn't go for help."
"Then I'll go."
"Not an option, Ellison. He needs you and you know that." Simon slapped Jim on the back. "Come on, let's get out of this heat."
Blair's eyes were closed and his head lolled to the side. His breathing sounded a little harsher, and Jim adjusted his body to try and alleviate pressure on his injured lung. With only one canteen between them, it was decided that Simon was the one who would need it most. Although it was nearing evening, the temperature remained high and would stay that way until several hours after dark. Their morning walk had been a crash course in desert survival, teaching Simon how to extract moisture from the cactus plants that scattered the desert landscape, but Jim took time to remind him of the most useful varieties. With the full moon now shining brightly, Jim plotted Simon's course with the aid of the night sky. "Just remember to keep that constellation to your right," he said. "And Simon, be careful."
"My middle name, Ellison," Simon replied. "You just make sure you take care of our boy and I'll be back with help as soon as I can."
Jim watched Simon's figure disappear into the night before returning to sit with Blair. He curled his hand around Blair's forearm. Blair's skin was hot and dry to the touch. Concerned, he pinched the skin between his finger and thumb. "Damn," he hissed, when Blair's skin didn't rebound. Dehydration had moved to the top of the injury list. Scrambling to his feet, Jim moved back out into the desert. He scanned the landscape, giving a prayer of thanks to any deity who may have been listening when he spotted a cactus not too far from the overhang. Moving quickly, he used his boot to kick a large pad from the stem of the succulent and picked it up carefully by one of the larger spines protruding from the plant. Once back by Blair's side he unfastened his belt and pulled it through the loops of his jeans. Using the buckle, he split the pad in half and, bending down, he rubbed Blair's dry and bleeding lips with the flesh, allowing a small amount of juice to dribble into Blair's mouth. While fully aware that anything in Blair's stomach could be dangerous, the risk of succumbing to dehydration was just as deadly.
Blair's eyelids fluttered open as the liquid oozed into his mouth.
"Yeah Chief, It's me. How you feelin'?"
Blair was silent for a few minutes as he tried to muster up the concentration to not only decipher Jim's question, but to answer it.
"Blair?" Jim pushed.
"Chest hurts," he finally said. "Heavy... hard to breath."
"How 'bout we try and sit you up for a bit? Think you can manage that?"
When Blair nodded, Jim scooted around to Blair's head and, placing a hand beneath each of Blair's armpits, he lifted slowly. Shuffling back, dragging Blair with him, his back hit the rock wall. Blair bit down on his lip, drawing blood as his dry lip cracked under the pressure. "Sorry, Chief," Jim apologised, leaning Blair's body back to rest against his chest. "Try and keep your breathing as shallow as you can."
Blair didn't answer. His eyes were clenched shut and his hand was fisted against his thigh. "Where's it hurting the worst?" Jim asked.
"Stomach," Blair rasped. Sitting in between Jim's legs, with his own angled directly straight out in front of him may have helped alleviate some of the pressure on his lung, but it wasn't doing much for the muscles in his lower abdomen.
"Think you can move one more time?" Jim asked, sensing the predicament. "It'll help take some of the pressure off your stomach."
Blair nodded in agreement and, in slow, easy movements, Jim eased Blair's legs upward. Then, taking a firm hold on Blair's thigh, he shuffled him sideways tucking Blair's shoulder in beneath his armpit, using his own arm and one knee as a back support. "Just one more move, Chief," Jim said as he positioned Blair's legs over his own and then slowly drew up his leg.
Blair was now in a v-shape with his back supported by Jim's left arm and knee while his legs hung across Jim's right thigh. Settling completely against the wall, Jim cupped Blair's head and settled it under his chin. "Give it a few minutes to settle, buddy," he said.
When Blair finally got the pain to a manageable level, he cracked open his eyes. "Where's Simon?"
"He's gone to get help. I think I saw a village or camp over to the west. He's trying to reach it."
"Native Americans," Blair wheezed.
"Indian settlement... saw a book in the information stand... settlement on the outskirts of the desert... Moapa Indian Reservation."
Jim's heart lifted. If Blair was right, and Simon didn't stray from the path he'd set for him, then their chances of getting out of this alive had just increased. Shifting his thoughts, Jim weaved his hand inside the folds of Blair's shirt and placed it on his stomach. "How's your stomach feeling now?"
Jim dialed up his sense of touch. "Where?" he asked.
"Lower," Blair answered.
Without a second thought, Jim snapped open the buttons on Blair's jeans, moving his hand to the waistband of Blair's boxers. He didn't need the aid of his sentinel senses to feel the spasm beneath his palm. With a light touch, he began to massage the cramping muscle.
Blair let out a sound that sounded something between a murmur and laugh. "What's so funny?" Jim asked
Blair drew in a short, shallow breath. "Just thinking."
"About what Marsh would say if he saw us like this... thinks you're my sugar daddy. Said I was your little piece of ass."
Jim let out a chuckle of his own. "While you might have a cute butt, kid, somehow I don't think I'm cut out to be your sugar daddy. Firstly, I don't have the finances to keep you in the style I'm sure you'd expect, and secondly... I don't mean to be rude, Chief, but there's no way in hell that I'd be brave enough to go anywhere near that rear end of yours. I only have one word for you, buddy and that word is SPRAY!"
"Hey, I think I've just been insulted." Blair lifted up his hand and thumped it, once, against Jim's chest. Letting it rest there, he breathed in again. "If you'd just let me use pine chips, Ellison, then there wouldn't be a problem. You'll thank me one day when I save the ozone layer."
Lifting his hand from Blair's stomach, he took Blair's hand within his own and entwined their fingers. "Chief, with the smell that comes from the bathroom after you've been in there, I'm sure you're more likely to blow the ozone apart, not save it!"
Blair groaned slightly as another cramp hit and Jim tightened his grip. "No more talking, okay? Time to rest."
Willing his body to relax, just a little, Blair nodded his head and what seemed like hours of silence passed before he spoke again. "Too quiet," he said. "Talk."
"About what?" Jim asked. "Think I'm all out of jokes."
"Then tell me a story."
Jim thought for a moment about his life, his history, and unfortunately, the only stories that came to mind were not full of butterflies and fairy dust. "Not much good on the stories either, Chief," he said.
Blair let out another moan of pain. "Please Jim," he said. "Just talk... don't care what about."
"Okay," Jim soothed. "Just take it easy." He moved the knee that was supporting Blair's leg, bringing it up ever so slightly. "Hey, think I might have the perfect story for you."
"Knew you would," Blair answered.
"Alright, here we go," Jim replied, fully aware that, as the hours passed, Blair was becoming weaker and weaker. "Once upon a time..." he began, interrupted when another small laugh came from Blair. "What are you laughing at this time?" he asked.
"...never figured you for a fairytale kinda guy."
"You wanna hear this story or not, Chuckles?"
With his body now feeling as if it had been weighted down with bricks, Blair let it slump even further into Jim's.
"Okay, as I was saying," Jim began, adjusting his grip to compensate. "Once upon a time there was a Police Detective who suddenly started having problems with all of his senses."
"What'd he look like?" Blair's voice sounded soft and raspy.
"...detective... what'd he look like?"
"Well, I guess you'd describe him as tall, ruggedly good-looking. You know the type -- chiseled jaw, exceptionally well-defined, muscular body with one of those real tight asses that women love." Jim smiled briefly. "Basically, an all-around, good-looking, athletic type of guy." He squeezed Blair's hand once again. "Now if I may continue," he said, waiting for the nod against his chest. "Anyway, doing what one does when one gets sick, he dutifully took himself off to the doctors to have this little problem checked out."
Blair chucked again. "Simon made you go, huh?"
Jim ignored the comment and continued the story. "As I was saying, during this brave detective's rather lengthy examination, he was tricked into divulging personal information to a university grad student who was trying to pass himself off as a medical doctor."
"...what'd he look like?"
"The grad student? Well I guess you would describe him as a nerdy-looking kinda guy. You know the type -- glasses, geeky clothes. Not much to look at, really." Jim paused, letting his senses roam over Blair. "Did I mention that he was also a little vertically challenged?"
Blair's hand weakly thumped against Jim's chest once more. "Hey, no hurting the sentinel," Jim said, now holding Blair's hand tightly against his chest.
Letting out a cough, Blair winced as Jim drew his legs up further. "...bet he was a real looker... detective just jealous."
"If you say so, Chief," Jim said quietly. "Anyway, this nerdy anthropologist finally convinced the fine-looking detective that he was a sentinel. Being the science geek that he was, he devised all of these horrible tests to torture this poor, innocent detective. Mindless of the pain he suffered at the hands of the anthropologist, the detective's kind nature and natural compassion for his fellow man let this evil grad student continue his tests. In the meantime, the nerd's apartment blew up because he wasn't cautious enough to get to know his neighbours, and once again the noble detective came to the rescue. He took in the sorry, down-on-his-luck anthropologist and gave him a home. And, true to the detective's noble traits, he's been looking after him ever since."
"Abridged version, I think," Blair said, wheezing once again. "...how'd end?"
"Well, as it turns out, this geeky anthropologist was apparently what he referred to as a guide to the sentinel. And as for the ending? That part's easy. It ended like most good fairytales. The sentinel and guide lived happily ever after."
"You sure 'bout that?" Blair asked, barely above a whisper now.
Jim tightened his grip. "Never been surer of anything in my life." He laid his cheek on the top of Blair's head. "'nough yapping. You need rest."
For once, Blair did as he was told and, within minutes, his body grew even heavier. Extending his sense of hearing outward, Jim listened for any sign of a vehicle or approaching footsteps. He heard nothing except the sounds of nature living life under the night sky.
Despite the fact that Blair was asleep, it wasn't a peaceful slumber. His breathing was harsh and, at times, impossibly heavy. Although Jim did everything he could think of to take away the pain, Blair still cried out as his belly swelled further and his muscles cramped. The only thing Jim could do was to hold on tight and hope and pray that Simon had made it successfully to the camp.
Following the moon as it tracked its way across the velvet sky, a noise in the distance had Jim's senses on alert. It was a car, of that he was certain, but he wasn't certain which direction it was coming from. If it was from the west, it brought the promise of help; any other direction signaled possible danger. Moving out from beneath Blair, he apologised. "Sorry Chief, but I have to move you. There's a car headed this way."
Blair didn't open his eyes. "Simon?"
"I hope so." With his arm still supporting Blair, Jim eased him back until Blair was propped and sitting against the rock wall. "I'll be back in a minute," he said, lightly squeezing Blair's shoulder.
"Be careful, man."
"My middle name," Jim muttered as he moved toward the edge of their shelter and scanned the landscape. The car was easy to spot and he watched in silence as it pulled to a stop at least half a mile from the rocky outcrop. The hackles rose on his neck and his military instinct automatically kicked into gear. If it were Simon, he wouldn't have stopped so far away.
With the aid of the moon, now high in the sky, Jim could easily make out the silhouetted figures of three men. "Shit," he swore. Without wasting a moment, he headed back to Blair's side.
"Simon?" Blair mumbled.
There was no answer.
Still no answer and Blair forced himself to concentrate. He opened his eyes and although he couldn't get them to clearly focus, he could still decipher the look on the sentinel's face. "Marsh?"
"We have to move you, Chief," Jim said, refusing to meet Blair's eyes. Knowing that there was no way Blair could climb the formation, their best bet was to try and conceal Sandburg's presence. At the very back of the shallow concave lay a large boulder. If he could hide Blair behind it, at the very least it would buy them some time. "I'm sorry," Jim apologised for what seemed to be the umpteenth time, "this is gonna hurt." Moving to the left, Jim squeezed his hand between the rock and Blair's back and began to slide him sideways.
"No," Blair said.
"Blair, we don't have a choice."
"Yes, we do. You can get out of here."
"I'm not leaving you, Sandburg."
Blair dug his heels into the dirt, the movement sending a wave of nausea racing through his gut. "Yes, you are," he said through gritted teeth. "It's you they're after Jim, and if they catch you, they'll kill you."
"Yeah, well, they'll have to catch me first." Hooking his arms under Blair's armpits, Jim began to drag him backward.
"No!" Blair cried out. He tried to dig his heels into the dirt again, but the intensity of the pain he was now feeling, made him drop his legs to the ground.
Jim stopped, scooted around to face Blair and roughly hooked his hands on each side of his neck. "Don't you dare stop fighting, Sandburg," he said, with anger tainting his voice. "I'm not giving up on you, so don't you dare give up on me." He stared Blair directly in the eyes and, by the look he was receiving back, knew that he at least had Blair's attention. "I'll get us out of this," he said, more softly this time. "I need you to have some faith in me."
"I do have faith," Blair answered, a single tear trickling down his cheek. "But I'm not doing so good here, Jim and chances are..."
"No," Ellison snapped, refusing to listen. He dropped his hands from Blair's neck, scrambled to his feet and re-positioned his hands once again and began to pull.
The internal butcher was back, wielding his knife with excruciating accuracy. He sliced his way through Blair's stomach and stole away his consciousness. Once more Blair's world turned to black and there was no more pain.
Relief flooded over Jim as Blair slumped in his arms -- at least Blair was now pain free. Maneuvering his limp body into position behind the boulder, Jim lowered Blair completely to the ground and checked for a pulse. His hand then shot to Blair's chest, feeling the faint rise and fall. Blair was managing to hang on -- but just barely. He lifted his hand to Blair's forehead. "I promise I'll get you out of this, Chief." With one last stroke against Blair's dry skin, he got to his feet and turned to leave. "Or I'll die trying."
If 'Tracks' MacDonald had any claim to fame, it was his uncanny ability to find a needle in a haystack. He had joined the military at eighteen, and his exceptional talent quickly earned him the respect of his unit and the attention of his commanding officer. When a chance to join the elite army rangers presented itself, he jumped at the offer. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, the chance to establish himself and build a worthy career within the ranks. That chance, however, was taken away when, for just a few short moments, he'd thought with his dick instead of his head. As the repercussions of his mistake unfolded, his commanding officer had had the opportunity to look the other way, to ignore what had happened. The pressures and stress of the situation they were in allowed for some leeway -- at least in his mind. Unfortunately for him and the other men involved, Captain James Ellison seemed to have no concept of the word 'leeway'. Because of Ellison's decision, his career and seven years of his life had been destroyed.
Standing to his full height, Tracks wiped the palms of his hands on his jeans and looked toward the sky. He didn't need the moon's guiding light to tell him which way Ellison had gone. Even after all these years, he was still an expert at the game.
Jim's focus was sharp and directed pointblank at the three men at the rear of the jeep. Concealing their presence was not a high priority. They had the advantage, both tactically and in weaponry. Just as he expected, Marsh and his group split up. Tracks headed to the left and Wylie to the right. Marsh, the most experienced of the three, was holding back, taking his time and weighing the situation. Jim took his eyes off Marsh. As long as he didn't pose any immediate threat to Sandburg, he would deal with the others first. Moving with a stealth that surprised even him, Jim easily located the first of his enemies. Wylie was the smallest of the group, but his sly, cunning nature compensated for what he lacked in physical prowess. Like the other two, Wylie was a very dangerous man and, while he remained alive, he posed a very real threat. Moving into position, Ellison slipped silently behind Wylie. His arm shot out, snaking around Wylie's neck and with one, short, sharp snap the threat was eradicated.
As the dead man slumped to the desert floor, Jim felt no crisis of conscience; that might come on his own deathbed. Right now Wylie's soul would join those of the other men who had died by his hand, and he would face judgment day when his own time on this earth came to an end.
Marsh was fully aware that Ellison knew the game plan and if he were playing the game correctly, the good captain would know that two men would take flank, while one would hold ground and cover the front. Marsh, however, had no intention of holding ground. He'd take his chance, putting his faith in the variables of the game.
Fast-paced and silently, Marsh moved in on the rock formation, the fully loaded and primed weapon nestled in the crook of his arm adding to his confidence. Taking on Ellison in hand-to-hand combat was not a situation he cared to be in. He was good, but Ellison was better and he had no intention of letting arrogance get him killed. He scouted the area quickly. The only viable cover came in the form of a large boulder toward the back of the formation. With his weapon now trained, he cautiously tracked a path forward. The closer he got, the louder the sounds of a man struggling to breathe became. He rounded the left side of the rock, leaving enough distance to fend off any surprises. Ellison was nowhere to be seen, but his partner was lying like a fish, belly up and ready to be gutted. "Ah, Sweet Cheeks," he drawled. "Figured you'd be buzzard feed by now. Looks like I didn't give you enough credit." He toed Blair's body before bending down and grabbing him roughly by the collar of his shirt. "Come on kid," he said. "Time to bait the trap."
Adjusting his hold and making sure he had a firm grip, Marsh began to drag Blair's unconscious body back out into the open. "You're heavier than you look, Sweet Cheeks," he said, straining slightly. As soon as he had Blair positioned where he wanted him, he released his grip and let Blair slump back down to the ground. Placing a foot on the younger man's chest, he trained his weapon over Blair's heart. "Oh Ellison!" he called. "Think Baby Boy might need some of daddy's attention. He's not looking so good." He waited and listened. Hearing no reply, he raised the volume of his voice. "Don't keep me waiting, Ellison. You know how nervous my trigger finger gets when I'm left to wait."
The tracker had made a fatal mistake; he'd lost track of his target. As Marsh's voice cut through the night, Tracks MacDonald's lifeless body slumped to the ground, his spirit becoming one with the ancient landscape which had just become his final resting place. Jim removed the hunting knife from Tracks' boot and snatched his rifle from the desert floor. Despite the chill in the air, Jim wiped the sweat from his brow. "Number three coming up," he whispered, his voice implacable and deadly.
"That's it, over there!" Simon shouted, pointing directly ahead. "I'm sure of it."
"Looks like someone's already found them," Dylan Beyyet shouted over the roar of the engine as the old pickup sped across the rough terrain. "Do you think the truck belongs to the guys who left you out here?" There was a tinge of excitement in the teenager's voice. Nothing exciting ever happened around here; that was until the Police Captain had come stumbling into their camp. Now he was smack bang in the middle of a real police drama.
"Dylan, stop here." Time-weathered lines furrowed, forming deep cavernous valleys in a face marked by a life long-lived. If Simon had to guess by facial features alone, the old man sitting between him and the teenager must have been well into his seventies. If left to rely on observations of the body, however, it may have been a different story. The back and arm that leaned into his chest as the old man reached over to the glove compartment was surprisingly well-toned. "Here," the old man said, removing a pair of binoculars and thrusting them into Simon's hand. "My eyes are not what they used to be. Tell me what you see."
Taking the binoculars from leathered hands, Simon pushed open the door, his boots scuffing up a cloud of red dust as they hit the ground. Scanning the jeep and finding it empty, Simon turned his attention toward what still looked like nothing more than an awkward blemish on the landscape. The sun had now peeked over the horizon, providing him with enough light to make out the fascia quite clearly. A body was slumped over a boulder at the base of the rock, its size too small to be Ellison's. He turned his attention to the shallow overhang where they had sheltered yesterday, and his breath raced from his lungs and hitched in his throat. They were too late.
Words were not necessary to a man such as White Wolf. He took his cues from the gifts Mother Nature had bestowed upon him from the moment he drew his first breath. Calmly he rounded the back of the pickup, removed his rifle and then moved once again to stand by Simon. "You will have only one chance," he said to Simon, passing him the gun. "You will need to shoot to kill. Aim for the heart."
Jim's movements were calm, masking and containing the anger and turmoil erupting inside. Leaving the rifle just outside the entrance, he walked into the overhang, his hands held away from his body. Without an ounce of emotion, he spoke. "Move away from him."
A short, sharp burst of laughter shot from between Marsh's thin lips. Ellison may have been a dangerous man, but he'd lived most of his life in the company of dangerous men. "I can see you haven't changed for the better, Ellison." Marsh adjusted his solid, six-foot-two frame, squaring his shoulders and facing Jim head on. "Still the self-righteous, demanding son of a bitch you always were." Marsh's lips curled, reminding Jim of a rabid dog. "Well, unfortunately for Sweet Cheeks, Captain, I don't follow your orders any longer."
Jim's eyes didn't leave Marsh's face. He didn't need to see Blair to know that Sandburg was now about at the end of his rope, hanging on to life by a few raveled threads. "If he dies, you die." Jim's statement was as cold and as deadly as a polar wind.
Marsh showed no fear. "I don't think so, Ellison. I'm the one holding all the aces. All you've got is jokers." Asserting more authority, Marsh applied more pressure with his foot to Blair's chest, making him groan. "It's a distressing site to see a man drown in his own blood. Guess we should thank our lucky stars that baby boy is unconscious. You feel like waging a bet as to how long he's got? My bet is he'll be meeting his maker in around fifteen." He added a touch more pressure with his boot. "I am, however, willing to up the odds if you're feeling in an amiable mood."
"Such as?" Jim asked.
"Begging I think." Marsh nodded his head, his smile turning into unsightly sneer. "Yep, begging should do it," he confirmed. "What do ya say, Ellison, feel like dropping to your knees?"
Marsh's words rang clear in the sentinel's ears, as did Simon's. "Jim, drop to your knees."
The sneer on Marsh's face turned back to a smile, then changed to a look of confusion. Ellison had dropped to his knees, about to beg before him like the star orphan from Oliver Twist. Life couldn't have been any more perfect -- perfect except for the gaping hole billowing in his chest and Ellison's words echoing in his ears. "See you in hell, Marsh."
Marsh dropped to his knees, with no time left to beg for his own life. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Like a lifeless rag doll, Marsh was flung to the side, tossed as far away from Blair as Jim's strength would allow. He pulled Blair up into his arms, hoping and praying that the change in position would buy some more time. "Come on, Chief, don't do this to me." Blair's lips were blue, his complexion the colour of sallow wood. "Breathe," he ordered. "You fucking breathe."
Blair's eyes opened as he struggled to hold the reaper at bay for a few, final precious moments. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "Please don't hate me."
"Oh, god," Jim gathered Blair to his chest. He buried his face in Blair's hair. "Not even possible, Sandburg."
The sound of Simon skidding to a halt at the front of the overhang didn't penetrate Jim's grief. "Jim!" he shouted, but there was no answer; the tears streaming unabashed down Ellison's cheeks spoke for themselves.
White Wolf pushed past Simon and, ignoring the pull of arthritis in his joints, he dropped to his knees. "Sentinel, your shaman is dying. Give me your hand."
Shock, grief, sorrow -- all the emotions that Jim normally staved off until he could build a safety net around them -- flooded his world. He was beyond comprehension, beyond thought... beyond wanting to live.
"Sentinel, your hand." White Wolf yanked at Jim's arm with a strength that defied this age and took Jim's hand firmly in his own and held it to Blair's chest. He pulled Blair's body away from Jim's and, before running into any resistance, he engulfed Blair's hand in his own.
Awareness came back to Jim's world, his eyes flicking up and locking with the old man's. Before he could protest, the aged stranger spoke, his voice remarkably clear and concise, spoke. "Do you believe in your Guide, Sentinel?"
The voice, softer now. "Do you love him?"
Jim's voice broke. "Yes," he rasped.
"Then that is all you need."
The next thing Jim knew, the buttons on his shirt where ripped off and Blair's hand touched his skin, centering his heart, held in place by the leathery fingers of the old man's hand. The connection was complete and the shock incredible. To Jim, it felt like holding a lightning bolt in his hands and harnessing every single kilowatt of its raw power within the confines of his own body. He began to sway, but the old man's shoulder nudging against him own steadied him. "Feel him breathe!" White Wolf ordered. "Feel the beat of his heart through your own." Jim didn't question the order. Whatever was happening awakened a feeling so primal that it left him struggling to believe that, after all the years of evolution, it could still exist within modern man. But it did and it was and he was feeling it at its optimum strength. Jim Ellison finally understood with every fibre of his being that he was a sentinel, had always been a sentinel and would always be a sentinel.
And similarly, Blair Sandburg was, and had always been, his guide.
As quickly as the feeling had surged, it faded, retreating back to its hiding place deep within his spirit.
"Can you feel it?" The words were a mere whisper in Jim's ear and the feeling now a mere tingle in his soul, but he could feel it. Blair's failing heart tapped out a beat which was growing stronger by the minute.
Jim's eyes locked with the old man's. "How?" he whispered.
"Don't question, Sentinel. Just believe."
Blair's chest rose and fell and, for once in his life, Jim believed.
"The chopper's here!" The shout from outside the shelter shattered the remains of reverie, but didn't shatter Jim's belief that Blair was going to make it. His skin, which moments before had been pale and lifeless, was now bathed in distinct hues of pink. His chest still rattled and his eyes remained closed, but he was drawing breath at steady, regular intervals. Blair was going to live.
Billy Diamond grabbed his gear and kept a quick pace behind Dylan as the teenager moved into the rocky shelter. A man was lying in the middle, with two others at his side. He recognized White Wolf immediately and knew better than to ask the tribal elder to move aside. Although a qualified doctor, he did not dismiss native medicine. Having grown up on the reservation, Billy Diamond was just as accustomed to the spiritual side of medicine as he was to the textbook explanations of the practice. Keeping an open mind had given him an advantage over his colleagues and, when the opportunity presented itself to practice medicine in his homelands, he grasped it with both hands. While the city had a lot to offer his career, this was his home and these were his people.
Lowering his medical kit to the ground, Doctor Diamond nodded to the old man. "White Wolf," he acknowledged, without expecting an explanation. Experience had taught him he would receive no information on the patient's condition other than a return nod from the elder.
With calm, practiced movements, he assessed Blair's condition quickly, taking the time to ask Jim a few basic questions. Pressing down on the radio button attached to his shirt, he spoke to the pilot. "Max, radio ahead and let them know that we're bringing in a twenty-six- year-old Caucasian male with no known allergies. His symptoms indicate that he's suffering from internal bleeding to the abdominal region and has a possible pneumo-thorax. I'm going to intubate on scene and insert a chest tube and IV. We'll move as soon as I stabilize him." Billy Diamond looked over at Jim. "Sir, I'm going to insert a chest tube into your friend. You're going to have to let him go."
Before Jim could utter a word, White Wolf removed Blair's hand from his chest and, slipping his own hand from Jim's, he placed the guide's hand within the sentinel's. "Do not let go," he ordered. White Wolf then turned to the young doctor. "Billy Diamond, we will be coming with you." With that said, the old man got to his feet and headed toward the helicopter, passing the teenager on his way. "Dylan, you will make sure that the police captain makes it safely back to town."
"Yes, Great Uncle." Sheer respect was palpable in the teenager's voice.
Simon stood silent, unable yet to come to terms with what he'd just witnessed. He had no idea how, but Blair was alive and he was going to live. In the grand scheme of things, that was all that mattered.
The whir of activity on the helipad matched the whir of the chopper blades as they cut through the air before slowly winding down. "Sir, you're going to have to let go." A triage nurse touched Jim's hand the very moment Blair was unloaded. "He's in good hands."
Wordlessly Jim looked toward White Wolf, whose eyes did the talking. Jim hesitated slightly before giving Blair's hand one final squeeze. "I'll be there when you wake up, Chief. You just keep on fighting for me, okay kiddo?"
"He will fight," White Wolfe stated. "In his heart, your young guide now knows what he's fighting for."
"Which is?" Jim dared to ask.
White Wolf didn't answer. "When the young guide is well enough to travel, you will both come and see me." The old man's words where not spoken as a request.
Blair was wheeled toward the hospital doors, and Jim was about to take off after him, until a touch on his arm stopped him in his tracks. "Detective, I'd like to check you over as well."
Ellison was back. He shook off Billy Diamond's hand. "I'm fine," he grated. Acknowledging how defensive and hostile his voice had just sounded, he backtracked, holding out his hand. "I appreciate everything you've done for my partner. He might not have made it without your help."
Billy Diamond took Jim's hand in a firm grip, locking eyes briefly with White Wolf. "Somehow I get the feeling that my help was supplementary." He raised his other hand and gripped Jim's arm. "Keep believing in miracles, Detective, because occasionally they just do happen."
White Wolf spoke. "You are a fine young doctor, Billy Diamond and when I teach you all that there is to be learned, you will be even finer."
Billy smiled. "I'm sure I will be." His eyes twinkled with mischief. "And when will these lessons begin again? I think I must keep missing the date."
While the expression on White Wolf's face grew stern, his eyes belied that, revealing a look of open fondness toward the young doctor. "When you truly become a man." He hooked Jim's arm, moving him toward the hospital doors. "Young men whose desires are still racing do not make for good students." His hand swept downward, indicating his groin. "Too much time spent thinking with this."
For the first time in over twenty-four hours, Jim laughed -- truly laughed. "A table leg after Sandburg's heart," he chuckled.
With a paper bag from a gift shop on the Strip in his hand, Jim pushed open the door to Blair's hospital room. Broken ribs, a punctured lung, abdominal bleeding and a bruised kidney had meant that Blair had spent several very long days and nights in ICU. As the road to recovery finally appeared on the horizon, he'd been moved first to a semi-private room then, at Simon's doing, into a private room. "Hey, Chief. What's happening on The Bold and the Beautiful today?"
"Same old, same old," Blair sighed. "Adultery, sex, partner, mother, father, sister and brother betrayal." He tossed the remote onto the bedside table. "Just the normal, everyday stuff."
Jim moved into the room and, as he did every day when he visited, he studied Sandburg. His chest and abdomen were swathed in bandages and a variety of tubes and monitors were still attached to his arms and chest. Through a thin sheet draped over Blair's lower body, Jim could make out the tubing from the Foley catheter as it snaked its way down to a bottle on the floor. Artfully he gave it a quick glance, noting with relief that it no longer ran red.
"Saw that," Blair said. "Observer, remember?"
"How could I forget?" Jim answered dryly. "How you feeling?"
"Bored, and I wish they'd take this damn tube out of my nose. It itches like hell." He lifted his hand to fiddle once more with the oxygen line, only to have his hand gently slapped away.
"Leave it alone. It's there for a reason. Besides, in my way of thinking, the tube attached to your nether regions should be giving you more hell than this one."
Blair's hand automatically shot downward, scratching through the thin layer of blanket. "Thanks, Jim. I'd just managed to forget about that one."
"Cheer up," Ellison smiled. "I bought you a present." He tossed the bag down on the table and pulled it open. "You're gonna love this, Chief," he said, unfolding the T-Shirt and holding it up. Printed in bold, black letters on the white material were the words, 'I got laid in Las Vegas -- twice'.
Blair's smile was wide. "Man, that is so cool. Thank you." He reached for the bag. "Don't suppose you've also got one that said I was beaten to a pulp in the desert and left for buzzard food."
Jim flipped the shirt around, revealing the back.? Blair burst out laughing -- a sound Jim had been certain at one point he'd never hear again.
"Hey, I spoke to the doctor. He said you're making good progress. If you continue like this, you might even get your marching orders by the middle of next week."
"The middle of next week! Man that's a lifetime away. Can't you give them the old Ellison charm and speed things up?"
Jim's response was succinct. "No."
"Jim..." Blair whined.
"Sandburg, your body's been to hell and back." I've been to hell and back. "You need to give it time to rest, and heal." Perching himself on the side of the mattress, Jim patted Blair's thigh. "Don't rush this -- please."
Jim's eyes had lost their sparkle and the tension lines creasing his face gave the appearance of a man who was older than his actual years. "Will you at least bring me something to read?" Blair relented.
Jim let his hand rest on Blair's leg. "Sure. Any preferences?"
"Well, since you asked, see if you can find any reference books on the Moapa band of Paiute Indians. History, culture, legends, that sort of thing."
"Why?" Jim asked, not sure he wanted Blair to head in the direction he appeared to be going -- not just yet, anyway.
Blair shrugged his shoulders. "I dunno, just thought it might be interesting."
"I'll see what I can do."
Silence settled between them for a short while. "Jim, did I die?"
The question took Jim aback. "No," he stated emphatically. "You did not die. Why would you even think that?"
Blair shrugged his shoulders once more. "I dunno. It's just that I had this weird feeling that I did. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen to my brain, but I kinda had this real trippy experience." Blair paused to gather his thoughts. "You know how I'm kinda ambivalent about the whole God issue."
"I'm pretty familiar with the wait and see stance myself, Chief."
"Yeah, but I'm not so sure anymore."
"I'm not sure exactly why, and I know this is gonna sound totally off the rails, but I felt something out there, Jim."
Jim tightened his grip on Blair's leg. "Felt what?"
"Love." Blair stopped again and Jim could virtually see the wheels clattering around in his brain. "And yes, I know it sounds stupid, but I can't think of any other way to describe it. It's got me thinking. Did I actually feel what people refer to as 'God's love'?"
Jim's answer was spoken quietly. "I think what you felt was a lot stronger than that, Chief."
Blair raised his eyebrows and felt Jim's hand once again pat his thigh. "I'll make you a deal, Blair. You hang in here and do everything the doctors tell you to do and once you're up on your feet, we'll take a little trip."
"A trip to where?"
"To find some answers, Chief. To find some answers."
Strumming his fingers against his thigh, Jim waited patiently in the corridor. Six days had now passed and Blair's recovery was going according to plan. Finally the door to Blair's room swung open and the doctor popped out his head. "Detective Ellison, there are a couple of things I'd like to go through with you, if you don't mind coming in for a few moments."
Jim pushed himself off the wall. "Everything okay?" he asked.
"Everything is as it should be," the doctored answered. "But Blair said that you'd be his primary caregiver until he's completely back on his feet, and I wanted to go over a few procedures with you."
"Hey," Jim said, tapping Blair on the head when he neared the bed. "I gather you passed muster, Junior?"
"As if you don't know," Blair answered, not buying for one moment Jim's look of feigned innocence.
"As I was telling Blair," the doctor began, "he's been given a full list of do's and don'ts, along with several prescriptions that need to be filled. I've also prescribed an inhaler, which needs to be administered twice a day for the next week and then as needed after that. The medication contains a steroid which will help strengthen Blair's lungs. If at all possible, I'd also feel safer if you'd pick up a nebulizer from the pharmacy. I know it's an added expense, but it will clear the airways a lot quicker if Blair's breathing is compromised. I've given him a prescription for twelve doses, which should be more than enough."
"Consider it done, Doc." Jim took hold of all Blair's paperwork, giving Sandburg a satisfied smile.
"As for the rest of the prescriptions, there is also a mild painkiller and a variety of antibiotics, which will clear up any lingering infections. In regard to the physical care, just make sure he keeps his ribs strapped for the next few weeks." The doctor paused, turning his attention toward Blair. "I know I've already been over this, but my gut tells me that I need to reiterate. It's very important, Blair, that you watch for any signs of blood in your urine or any out of the ordinary back pain. If any of these problems arise, I want you back in here as soon as possible."
"Will do, doc," Blair answered, sliding off the examination table.
Sandburg's voice was just a little too casual, making the doctor look over at Jim. "Don't worry, doc. He'll toe the line or he'll be back in here faster than he can throw a craps dice."
The doctor smiled. "That's what I like to hear." He extended his hand toward Blair. "Well, Mr. Sandburg, I think that's about it. We'll see you back here for a final appointment on the seventeenth."
"Um, I'm not sure if we're going to be around then." Blair replied. Ever since he'd been given a release date, his thoughts had been firmly fixed on Jim's promised trip.
"He'll be here." Jim hooked Blair by the elbow and guided him toward the door. "That's a promise."
"Jim," Blair protested the moment they were in the hall. Simon must be screaming by now and we still need to fit in the trip you were talking about."
"We're in no rush, Chief. Simon's been in a very amicable mood of late. In fact, so amicable that he has insisted that we take all the time we need. 'Make sure the kid is one hundred percent before you bring him home', I think were his exact words."
"Simon amicable? Now there's two words that don't normally go together. What gives?"
"Well, my little Stud Muffin, it just so happens that our Captain happened to run into that cute little flight attendant of yours on the trip home."
"Oh no." Blair paled. "Jim, tell me he didn't. Tell me he isn't?"
"Oh yeah, Chief. He did and he is."
"Oh man, that's just gross." Blair shuddered at the mental image. "What the hell could she possibly see in him? There's gotta be at least a fifteen-year age difference."
"Experience counts, Junior," Jim chuckled. "And some people really appreciate experience."
"Blair, I think I should call the doctor."
"I'll be fine. Just give me a few minutes."
Jim couldn't relax. If he wasn't pacing or his hand hovering over the phone, he was fiddling with buttons and adjusting the flow on the nebulizer.
"Jim, stop," Blair finally ordered, pulling the mask from his face. The tension lines on the sentinel's face may have faded, but his eyes still told a tale of a man who'd seen too much -- who'd been put through too much. "Jim, I need you to come and lie down." Blair patted the mattress. "Please, Jim. You're exhausted and I'm tired and we both need to rest. I can't do that if you're pacing."
Reluctantly, Jim headed toward the other double bed in the room.
"No, Jim." Blair patted the mattress again. "I need you here. Next to me."
Curious, but not enough to challenge Blair's request, Jim kicked off his shoes and lay down on the bed, bunching the pillow under his head. "Happy now?"
"Ecstatic," Blair replied. "Except for one thing. I need you to unbutton your shirt."
This time, curiosity got the better of him. "Why?"
"Because I've been waiting for days for you to tell me what happened out there." Knowing that his health issues would allow him to push the boundaries farther than usual, Blair took the liberty and unbuttoned Jim's shirt. "I don't remember much, but what I do remember is that my hand was placed over your heart -- like this -- and from that moment on, I felt it."
The palm of Blair's hand was warm against Jim's skin and, while Ellison's brain was nowhere near ready to relax, his body wasn't obeying the master. He turned his head, looking directly into Blair's eyes. "What did you feel?" he asked.
"Love," Blair replied. "But it wasn't God's love."
"No, it wasn't," Jim replied, quietly.
"What happened out there, Jim?"
"Chief, I honestly don't know, but I'm hoping that tomorrow we'll have some answers."
"Then here's to tomorrow," Blair said quietly.
"To tomorrow," Jim replied.
The Moapa Indian Reservation was situated about fifty-five miles northeast of Las Vegas and covered around seventy thousand acres. The reservation was a community in its own right. It had its own council, law enforcement, medical facilities, and two school buildings -- one for the elementary grades, and one for the older students. As Jim and Blair approached the centre of town, Blair's eyes darted in every direction in an effort to absorb every single sight that they passed. Pulling into a parking space outside the local police station, Jim shut down the engine. "We need to check in with the Sheriff before we go any further."
"Why?" Blair asked, pushing open the door.
"Because it's their tribal law."
"Oh." Gingerly shifting his legs to the side, Blair stepped down from their hired truck, unable to suppress a small hiss as the muscles in his stomach pulled.
"Yeah, just tender." Blair slammed the door shut. "Is that the sheriff?" He knew he'd met the man before, but had been so doped up on drugs his memory was a little fuzzy.
Sheriff 'Tall Tom' Walker, in Blair's estimate, must have been at least six-foot six and the man's long legs had no problem bounding down three steps at a time. He extended his hand toward Jim. "Detective, I assume you've come bearing no dead bodies this time?"
"Fresh out," Jim replied dryly, taking the sheriff's hand. He'd already been acquainted with the sheriff, as the incident at the overhang had taken place on Moapa Paiute Land and was under Tom Walker's jurisdiction.
Glancing over at Blair, Walker nodded. "Well, you're looking a lot better than the last time I saw you."
"Fighting fit and rarin' to go." Blair smiled. "Sheriff, this place is fantastic. Not at all what I visualized."
"What were you expecting?" Walker laughed in reply. "Buffalo running amuck in the main street... bows and arrows? The odd tepee maybe?"
"Well, I was kinda hoping for at least one tepee," Blair quipped, slowly moving to stand by Jim.
"Then it's a good thing you've come to see White Wolf. He has several of them constructed around his camp."
"Not everyone on the reservation chooses to live in town. Many of our tribe, especially the elders, still prefer to live in the traditional way. We have many smaller communities scattered throughout our land. White Wolf's camp is situated about an hour's drive that way." Walker's hand swept over the vast open plains that surrounded them.
"So he really does live in a tepee?"
"If he had his way he probably would, but many years back his wife convinced him to move into more comfortable accommodation. Since her death, he divides his time between both." The Sheriff patted down his pockets, his long fingers delving deep into his pants pockets, withdrawing a set of keys. "If you two are ready, we best make tracks." He flashed a smile in Blair's direction. "I've heard on the drums that White Wolf's daughter-in-law is preparing a feast that you don't want to miss. The girl's not much to look at, but boy can she cook!"
Jim's focus settled on the terrain they'd been travelling over. "Just how rough is the road?" he asked.
Knowing exactly what was coming next, Blair butted in before Walker could answer. "We're going," he stated emphatically. "If it gets too rough, I'll take a pain pill."
Jim quirked his eyebrow. "You must be desperate to get out there."
"You bet'cha." Just as slowly and just as gingerly as a few moments before, Blair hoisted himself back into the cab and pulled the door shut. "Ready when you are," he said.
Walker jingled his keys before moving toward his own vehicle. "I'll take it slow," he said. "Shouldn't take us any longer than an hour."
Pulling himself back into the truck, Jim looked over at Blair. "Chief, you sure about this? It's gonna be a bitch on your ribs."
"Jim, we need to know. Besides," he smiled. "You heard what the Sheriff said. Tepees, an Indian feast. There's no way I'm gonna miss that."
Without a word, Jim leaned over, pulled open the glove compartment and pulled out a packet of pills. He placed them in the console between them, before gunning the engine. "The first hiss or bite of a lip and one of these go straight down your throat."
"Boy, talk about tough love." Deciding to ignore Jim's threat, Blair turned his attention back toward the sights outside the window, only to feel the tap of Jim's hand against his knee.
"You better believe it, Junior."
The dust, kicked up by the tyres of the Sheriff's patrol car, thinned as Jim pulled the truck to a stop. A few remaining particles hung in the air, waiting to be picked up by the wind and carried out to the plains. The heat shimmered against the ground, rising higher into the sky the closer it got to the horizon. The air-conditioner in the cab hummed in the background until Jim cut the engine. The temperature rose almost immediately and Ellison snatched his baseball cap from the dash. Blair had barely said a word during their trip and Jim figured it was both a mixture of pain management and Blair's insatiable appetite to absorb as much as humanly possible in regard to the world around him. Pushing open the door, Jim's boots kicked up another billow of dust as they hit the ground. The community which White Wolf called home was made up of a variety of different-sized mobile homes, as well as a few permanent structures, such as a communal kitchen and what looked like a recreation or school building.
Blair rounded the cab and came to stand beside Jim, nudging him with his elbow. "I read that in camps like this, a sense of community was very important. At least three nights a week, families apparently shared meals and listened to stories of the past. The tribal elders recited legends in their traditional native tongue, keeping and passing their language and the traditions of the tribe on to the younger generations."
"You are correct, young guide." White Wolf's hair was pulled back in a ponytail, a wide- brimmed hat and a pair of sunglasses hiding most of his face. "The young are our future and it is our responsibility to share our wisdom and knowledge." He extended his hand and, when Blair returned the gesture, he brought up his other hand, completely encasing Blair's. "You are in pain." He shot a look toward Jim. "How did you not know this?"
"He's stubborn," was Jim's only answer.
"Then you must be more so."
"Um," Blair began in an effort to divert the attention away from his health, "I believe I owe you my life."
White Wolf released Blair's hand. "That honour belongs to your Sentinel, Blair. Not to his teacher."
Blair's curiosity was piqued; he couldn't resist asking, "What exactly is it that you taught him?"
White Wolf's smile was warm and, to Jim, looked oddly strange on the old man. He'd seen only seriousness and gruffness up to this point. Not surprisingly, the smile disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. "The wife of my eldest son is not beautiful, but the woman cooks delicious meals." White Wolf finally acknowledged the Sheriff's presence with a nod. "Tall Walker, you will eat with us come dusk."
This time Walker nudged Jim's elbow. "His way of an invitation."
"Doesn't come with many airs and graces, does he?" Jim muttered back.
"I guess respect has earned him that privilege," Walker replied.
It was a comment that Jim couldn't deny. He'd only known the old man for such a short period of time, but what White Wolf had given him had earned the tribal elder more than his respect.
"Come," White Wolf said. "I will show you to where you'll be sleeping." He placed a hand on Blair's shoulder. "I suggest you get some rest before the festivities start." Removing his hand, White Wolf headed in the direction of a small mobile home.
Blair turned to Jim. "I gather I have no choice in the matter?"
"You gathered right, Chief." Releasing the tailgate, he pulled their bags from the back and shouldered both.
Not even bothering to try and take his bag, Blair fell in step beside Jim. "How did he know I was in pain?" Immediately realizing his mistake, he shut his mouth before he swallowed his foot any further. "That, by the way, was a rhetorical question," he backtracked.
"Right," Jim drawled. "Then I guess it's a good thing that my answer's not going to be."
Blair rolled his eyes and followed in silence. It looked like an afternoon nap was on the schedule, whether he liked it or not.
There had been no exaggeration when it came to White Wolf's daughter-in-law. She might not win a beauty contest, but she was indeed an excellent cook. Even Blair's deft hand in the kitchen paled in comparison. With an extremely full stomach, Jim had been content to let the music, the song, and the legends of the Moapa Paiute people wash over him. Blair, on the other hand had been as anxious and as jumpy as a grasshopper. Jim gave the back of Blair's hair a quick pull to get the younger man's attention. "Chief, why don't you just relax and enjoy the festivities? Whatever White Wolf has to tell us isn't going to happen tonight."
Blair's head snapped around. "It isn't? How do you know?"
"Because we've had a pretty big day as it is, and he knows that you're tired."
"I am not," Blair lied. "My two-hour, forced nana-nap made certain of that."
Jim held up fingers, folding them down, one by one. "One, I'm a sentinel; two I'm a detective; and three, even when I'm not paying much attention to you, I can read you like a book." He lowered his hand. "And believe me, Chief, right at this moment, I'm paying you a lot of attention."
Normally, Blair would have been pissed at Jim's last comment and annoyed at the invasion upon his privacy, but this time was different. Truthfully, he'd been paying Jim just as much attention as he suspected was being paid to him. Jim would be reluctant to admit it, but Blair was certain the incident in the desert was having a lingering effect. He'd nearly died in Jim's arms and, as tough as Ellison purported to be, there was a soft spot reserved in his heart; Blair knew full well that his name was written all over it. "Okay, so I'm a little tired," he finally relented. "Maybe if I turn in at a reasonable hour and get a good night's sleep, White Wolf may be more inclined to talk to us tomorrow."
About to get to his feet, Jim was stopped by Blair's hand on his shoulder. "You should stay. Relax and enjoy the evening." Blair eased himself off the ground and his hand brushed across the top of Jim's hair. "You need to start paying some attention to yourself."
Jim's eyes didn't leave Blair's back, as Sandburg made his way across the camp and headed toward the mobile home. "Not an option, Chief," he replied quietly.
Blair lay on his stomach on the far side of the double bed. The festivities were winding down and all that could be heard now was the sound of talking. Loud voices and soft drifted to his ears, occasionally drowned out by the distant harmony of a coyote chorus. Moving restlessly on the bed, Blair tried, without success, to find a position that would alleviate the dull ache low on his back. Stilling as quiet footsteps hit the bottom step, he closed his eyes, despite knowing that any attempt to make the sentinel believe he was asleep was probably going to be futile. Turning his attention away from the sounds outside, he listened as Jim opened the door and moved into the mobile home. He steadied his breathing as he heard Jim getting ready for bed. A belt buckle thudded against the chair, followed by the slight swish of a pair of jeans brushing the floor as Jim stepped out of their confines, then lifted them to shake out and fold them over a chair. Then a softer swish as a shirt was lifted up and over Jim's head and folded in what he suspected would be the same fashion as the jeans. And finally, just when he thought he was home free, Jim's voice sounded in the small room. "It can't be doing your ribs any good to lay like that, Chief."
Although Blair knew the game was up, he remained silent, hoping that, at the very least, Jim wouldn't notice that his back was giving him more trouble at the moment than his ribs. As the mattress dipped and the covers were pulled down, Blair slowly let out the breath he'd been holding. Maybe he'd hit home a home run after all. As Jim's hand came to rest upon his back, 'you're out!' sang inside his head, shattering his illusion.
"Have you taken something for the pain?"
"Yeah," Blair replied. The moment the word left his mouth, Jim's hand was gone and there was more rustling; this time through a bag. He drew his leg up slightly and, by the time his knee found a more comfortable position, his t-shirt had been lifted and a cold, gel-like substance hit his back. The sensation didn't remain cold for long, as Jim's hand worked it into his muscles. Immediately he felt himself relax, not only against the growing warmth, but the sensation of the gentle massage. "Thanks," he murmured.
"You should have called out earlier," Jim replied.
"I was managing."
"Pain's not something you need to manage by yourself, Blair."
"I know." As if taking Jim's words as gospel, Blair began to roll to his side. "You're right, you know. This position isn't doing much good for my ribs." Immediately Jim's hand left his back and he heard Ellison slide under the covers. He continued to roll, only to be stopped when he collided with Jim's chest. "Sorry." Moving again, he began to shuffle toward his side of the mattress, but was stopped by Jim's arm loosely wrapping around his chest and keeping him still.
"Just relax, Chief."
Blair opened his mouth, about to speak, but closed it again as his thoughts took him off on a new tangent. He contemplated him and Jim, and how diverse their relationship could be. It wasn't the first time they'd shared a bed but, under normal circumstances, it always came with an invisible line, which kept Jim on one side and him on the other. At times, when his sleep had been restless and he'd crossed the boundary, a shove and a gruff 'Sandburg' would soon reestablish the natural order of sleeping arrangements. But that was under normal circumstances. When circumstances become abnormal, their relationship took on a whole new meaning, and the boundaries became as wide and as far-spread as the African plains.
Closing his eyes, Blair settled back against Jim's chest, content and happy to let the vastness of the African plains sweep him away.
Blair lazily opened his eyes, unsure if it was the twinge in his bladder that had awakened him, or the faint early morning light peeking through the window. Jim's hand was still on his chest, as it had been when he fell asleep, with one slight difference. At some stage it had snaked up under his shirt and had come to rest against his bare skin. His thoughts immediately travelled back to where they'd left off the night before, settling on the subject of how intimate his relationship with Jim could be at times. Jim had always touched him; that was nothing new. He was used to an arm being slung over his shoulder, a tap on the forehead or a hand messing with his hair. It was part of the picture and, right from the start, he'd figured it was simply part of the Ellison persona. It wasn't until he started hanging out at the station that he'd realised Jim wasn't, in general, particularly 'touchy-feely'. The guys in the bullpen would get the occasional slap on the back, but any other form of touch was a rare occurrence. Jim's touch seemed pretty much reserved for him. At first, he categorised it as a ritual of male bonding between friends. But, as time wore on, he concluded that 'male bonding' was only one layer. Jim's touch increased tenfold during times when he was sick, even more so when he was injured. Blair's academic mind knew it was a phenomena that should be investigated more thoroughly, but when he'd considered the pros and cons, he'd decided that he had too much to lose. All he needed to know was that, during times of stress, the giving of touch brought Jim comfort. And, when he considered his own reactions, he realised that the receipt of that same touch brought him the very same comfort.
Jim murmured something in his sleep and a smile drifted across Blair's face as he wondered if Jim could sense the buzzing of his brain as his thoughts went whizzing around. Closing his eyes, he abandoned the half-formed idea of heading toward the bathroom, and relaxed back against Jim's chest, once more letting the vast African plains sweep him away.
The next day started out to be pretty much the same as the previous. Blair spent most of the morning settled in a worn but comfortable easy chair in the 'reading corner' of the community building, listening to the children recount their traditional stories, and sharing his own experiences of his time spent in ancient and mysterious lands. Jim spent most of his time in the communal kitchen, drinking coffee and talking shop with Tom Walker. During breakfast, the sheriff had been invited, with an air of command, to spend another night at the camp. He was also instructed that, come morning, their guests would need to be safely escorted back to town. Overhearing that had brought a glimmer of hope to Blair. If they were leaving tomorrow, it stood to reason that White Wolf would speak to them before then. At least, that's what he hoped.
Eventually, the children drifted away to attend to their own affairs, and Blair was alone. He couldn't resist perusing the shelves, trying to find books that spoke specifically to the Native American experience. He settled again into the easy chair, opened the first of the half- dozen he had selected, and was soon completely absorbed.
A tap on the doorframe pulled Blair's attention away from one the children's stories he was reading. "Hey, Jim. What's up?"
Jim moved into the empty room, briefly studying the colourful artwork that adorned the wall. "The king requests an audience," he replied with an attempt at humour.
"White Wolf? When?"
"Since his words were, 'Sentinel, you will bring the young guide to see me right now', I'm gathering he means post haste."
Blair's arm guarded his ribs as he got to his feet. "Why does he keep calling me that?" he asked.
Jim shrugged. "I don't know. I thought you worked that out ages ago... when we first started working on my senses."
"I did, but I always figured that it was just another word to describe a teacher, of sorts."
The expression on Jim's face grew serious as he thought back to what had happened out in the desert. "Apparently it's a lot deeper than just a word, Darwin."
"Apparently so," Blair muttered.
No announcement was necessary. White Wolf knew they were there the moment they neared the tepee. "Enter." It wasn't a request.
Pulling the flap aside, Jim entered first, holding the heavy canvas material open as Blair followed. The inside of the tepee was dim and surprisingly cool, given the smoldering embers in the very centre. "Please sit." White Wolf's voice was low and monotone.
Jim nudged Blair's arm with his elbow as if to say, 'I knew the old man had manners in him somewhere'. With his eyes adjusting quickly to the dull light, Jim easily saw and took heed of the look he got in reply. Silently he sat, his hand supporting Blair's arm, guiding him as painlessly as possible to the ground.
White Wolf prodded the embers, causing small billows of smoke to rise toward the hole at the very top of the tepee. Finally the old man looked up, his deep-set charcoal eyes meeting theirs. "I have seen many things in my lifetime and experienced many things that to this very day I am unable to explain with the use of the spoken word. The power that exists between a sentinel and guide is one of those."
Okay, Jim thought, more rhetoric. This is going to go nowhere fast. Despite what had happened in the desert -- or maybe because of it -- he really didn't want to delve into some esoteric mumbo-jumbo. Maybe they could keep this simple and finish it quickly. Deciding to go with a tried and trusted method of getting fast answers, he began the interrogation. "This power you're talking about is the same power you gave me to save Blair's life?"
"I did not give you that power, Sentinel."
"Then were did it come from?"
"From within what?"
"Perhaps if you took the time to look within, you'd discover the answer for yourself."
Sensing the old man's frustration with Jim's line of questioning, Blair butted in before Jim could fire off another round. "White Wolf, how did you know that Jim was a sentinel?"
White Wolf responded to the respect projected in Sandburg's voice. "Because, just like you Blair, I too am a guide."
"And your sentinel... if I'm allowed to ask?"
"My wife." Grief was alive in the old man's eyes. "She has now left this earth."
"I'm sorry," Blair said.
White Wolf hesitated. "Her presence is always with me, young Guide, and will be until the day I join her."
"Don't," Blair warned. His voice was low, causing Jim to swallow the question on the tip of his tongue.
"White Wolf, you keep referring to me as a guide. While I understand the basic concept behind the word, that's all I know. Over the years, I've searched extensively, studied numerous documents, and I haven't yet come across anything as incredible or as powerful as what happened out in the desert." Blair's animated hands came to rest, clasping together on his knee. "How do I learn about this power?"
"What you need to learn and what your sentinel needs to learn," White Wolf told him, "is not written in books, Blair, and what you need to learn is also not found here. While it is true that some teachings are passed down from shaman to shaman -- and this knowledge I will gladly share with you -- the most important knowledge that a shaman has is instinct. That cannot be taught or learned."
"A shaman?" Blair asked.
White Wolf nodded. "You have a long way to go, but it is a step you will take as you move into your future."
Knowing that he'd have a few minutes grace while Blair wrestled with White Wolf's answer, Jim spoke up. "You said that what needs to be learned won't be learned here."
"That is correct."
"Any idea where?" His latest question earned him a thump on the leg from Blair.
"Peru." It was Blair that spoke, not White Wolf. "Jim's senses were awakened in Peru, so it stands to reason that the answers we need to find are in Peru."
White Wolf smiled. "Very perceptive, young Guide."
"And there's no point in us chasing these answers, is there? When the time is right, they'll seek us out."
"Again, very perceptive."
"Why Peru?" Jim asked, a part of him wondering how Blair seemed to know the answers and he didn't.
White Wolf's voice was harsher than it had been when speaking to Blair. "A sentinel is as varied and diverse as the many lands of this earth. My wife, my sentinel, was a sentinel of nature. She was a gentle soul whose gift was tied closely with the land around us. She would sense the bloom of flower, the germination of a seed, or the rumble of the earth, deep with its centre. She was one with the river and land, knowing when we could feast and when we should prepare for famine." White Wolf closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, leaving Blair wondering if he was somehow connecting with the spirit of his wife. He opened his eyes. "You, sentinel, are not a gentle soul. You are a warrior. You were born a warrior, remain a warrior and will always be a warrior."
Jim's look was skeptical. "I wouldn't exactly class a detective of the Cascade PD in the same rank as a warrior."
"You killed to save the life of your guide." Once again, White Wolf's words were not a question. "That was not the act of a detective."
Blair was now on the offensive, his voice losing the respect that it had held. "I hope you're not implying that Jim's a murderer?"
White Wolf held up his hands in a placating gesture, the first time either of them had seen the old man take a backward step. "No, not a murderer; a protector of what needs to be protected. He did what any warrior and what any sentinel would do when the life of his guide is threatened." He looked at Jim. "The power that surged through your veins did not happen only for the first time that day, Sentinel. While your connection with your guide in this life is still young, its roots are cemented in time." He turned his attention back toward Blair. "And if you look deep into your heart, Blair, you know that you would do exactly the same for your sentinel."
Blair's eyes locked with White Wolf's. He didn't need to look deep into his heart to know the older man was right. If Jim's life were in danger, he already knew he wouldn't hesitate to kill to save it.
"Jim Ellison." White Wolf poked at the embers once more. "I'd like to speak to Blair alone, and what I have to say to him travels from my lips to his ears only."
When Blair shot Jim a reassuring look, he got to his feet. With one final look at Blair, he headed toward the entrance.
"Sentinel, we live in a skeptical world and beliefs are often swallowed by the rationale of modern-day thinking. You know what you felt that day, and you know what you saw. If you open your heart and explore these mysteries, your answers won't be so hard coming."
Jim nodded, confirming that he'd understood. He pushed the flap aside and walked out into the night. The air was cold, but he didn't feel the chill. There was a warmth glowing inside that he couldn't quite put his finger on. Whether it was something to do with the old man's mojo, or whether it was part of the sentinel-guide connection, he wasn't sure. All he knew for certain was that he liked the feeling, and didn't want to lose it.
Some distance away, a small group of men sat around a fire, sharing coffee and talking in low tones. 'Local boys' night out,' Jim thought with amusement; some customs seemed universal. But the fire reminded him that the air was growing cold. He headed toward their trailer to retrieve his jacket and have one ready for Blair when the conversation with White Wolf finally came to an end.
It was late; most of the men had headed toward their own homes, leaving Jim to watch the fire, when Blair finally emerged from White Wolf's teepee. Jim met Blair as he headed toward the fire. "So," he said, handing Blair his jacket, "what did you two talk about -- or is it strictly guide business?"
Blair shrugged his shoulders. "No great secrets. Just stuff that you probably don't want to know about."
"Past lives, destinies, that kind of stuff." Blair moved closer to the fire and warmed his hands. "But there is something I think you should know."
"What's that?" Jim asked, moving to stand behind Blair.
"I'm not sure you're gonna like it."
"This connection that White Wolf said we have... apparently one day it will need to be..." Blair paused, stopping short of the word 'consummated'.
"Our connection will need to be sealed." Blair turned around and faced Jim. "And don't ask me how or when, because he didn't elaborate. All I know is that when the time is right, we'll go back to Peru and our instincts will do the rest." Blair dropped his hands to his side, which to Jim very much looked like an action of defeat. "He also said that if it doesn't happen, our journey together will end." Blair shrugged his shoulders. "But, hey, I know you don't put any stock in the past life theory and think the whole thing's just a lot of mumbo jumbo. So in reality, if we don't go through with this sealing, or whatever it is, it'll make no difference. You can't lose what you don't have in the first place, right?"
"Wrong." Jim lifted his hands to Blair's shoulders. "We live in a skeptical world, young Guide. But if you open your heart up to the mysterious, then answers won't be so hard coming."
"You really believe that?" Blair asked quietly.
"With all my heart, Chief."
"But what happens if this sealing is something we're both not ready for? What happens if it changes who we are?"
"We're already who we are, Chief. Nothing's gonna change that."
As Blair turned back around to face the fire, Jim wrapped a single arm around Blair's chest and pulled him in to lean against him. "What d'ya say we leave this one up to fate? It seems to be working out pretty well for us so far, so I vote we run with it."
Blair had spent a lifetime studying the world around him, using his powers of observation and reason to try and evaluate and make sense of different rituals and different cultures from the far corners of the earth. But maybe this time he was too close. Maybe this time he needed to stop observing and start participating. He lifted his hand and latched onto Jim's forearm. And maybe Jim was right; whatever was going to happen was bigger than the both of them and a force not to be meddled with. He was a guide to a sentinel and, for now, that was all he needed to know. The rest of their journey would take place when the fates decreed.
Relaxing back into Jim's chest, Blair looked up at the night sky, simply content, for now to let the vastness of the African plains sweep him away.
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