“Damn,” muttered Blair Sandburg tiredly. “Damn, damn, damn!” His hands hurt, his knees hurt, his back and shoulders hurt, his head still hurt (though it was hurting a little less now) and his ankle -- well, that was beyond hurting, having passed into dead, leaden numbness a couple hours ago, which scared him more than the pain had. He lowered his head onto his forearms, wincing as the large, bruised bump on his forehead and cheek made contact with his shaking limbs. Oh, great... now he was shivering almost constantly again as well. He felt his eyes sting with tears, which he wiped onto the sleeves of his -- well, make that Jim’s -- rain-sodden jacket... tears of frustration, of anger, of pain, and of gnawing, jittering fear.
The fear was mostly for his partner and lover, Detective Jim Ellison, who still mumbled incoherently a couple of feet behind him. Every time he thought Jim was getting better, becoming less confused and mentally overwhelmed by his out-of-control Sentinel abilities, he’d sink back down under the waves of sensory overload and curl up, shaking from head to foot. He’d get better when Blair lay down beside him and held him, as if his touch provided the focus, the anchor usually provided by his physical presence alone. But Blair couldn’t stay with him, couldn’t be in two places at once... the travois he’d rigged to transport Jim on wasn’t going to pull itself back to Cascade; that was his job, as partner, as Guide, as friend... as lover.
He raised his head slowly and turned his hands over, examining his palms. They were both raw, flecked with blood blisters and rock bruises and more than a few scratches, as were his knees, which had long ago worn through the faded denim of his jeans. His palms and knees burned... god, how they burned... which was weird, as the rest of him was freezing.
“Hooking me up to a transformer wouldn’t do you much good now, Jim,” he said, remembering part of a conversation he’d had with his partner a few hours earlier. He listened carefully, hoping for a reply from the man he loved with every fiber of his being... and heard nothing but fretful muttering.
“The road is long,” he croaked, giggling as his eyes rose up to follow the undulating rural highway lit by the first soft rays of sunrise, “with many a winding turn.” He giggled again and bit the tittering laughter off before it could escalate into hysteria. He shrugged his shoulders to try loosen them up a bit and leaned forward, taking up the slack on the ropes which tethered him to Jim’s makeshift travois. Slowly, doggedly, he began crawling along the roadside again, pulling Jim along behind him. He thought he heard, far off in the distance, the sound of a big engine rumbling towards them, but he didn’t look up for it... his mind had played that heartbreaking trick on him more than once already. If only he’d known yesterday afternoon where this morning would find them...
“Simon’s got an errand for us to run,” said Jim, closing his cell-phone with a snap. They had just finished a quick lunch after an even quicker trip to a nearby record store, where Blair had picked up the latest Angie Ferris CD. Jim hadn’t come away empty-handed either; he’d hit the ‘greatest hits’ racks while Blair scoured the newer releases and found one of the few groups from his teenage years who managed to slide under his Santana yard-stick -- England Dan and John Ford Coley. Though his big Expedition lacked a CD player, it did have a tape deck, and he’d recently bought an adapter to make use of Blair’s portable CD player. He’d planned on playing the disc while they rode around and Simon had just handed him the perfect opportunity.
The sunshine made his blue eyes glitter and threw the strong, chiseled lines of his face and jaw into sharp relief. He opened his old baseball jacket to reveal a very muscular, very trim torso which even the bulky sweater he wore couldn’t hide and slid the compact phone into an inside pocket. “Feel like a nice, quiet ride in the woods, Chief?”
“Sure,” said Blair, his slightly darker blue eyes sparking as he climbed, grinning, into his lover’s blue Ford Expedition SUV. Any excuse to spend time alone with Jim was fine with him! As usual, he was so full of restless energy he almost vibrated, bouncing and squirming around in the seat as he fastened his seatbelt. Jim, eight years his senior, almost envied him that seemingly limitless energy and smiled to himself, unable to keep from thinking of how well that energy served them when they fell into each other’s arms every night.
“Chief, if I could hook you up to a transformer, I’d be a rich man!” said Jim teasingly, his brilliant blue eyes shining as he grinned at his lover and reached over to tickle his ribs. God, he loved how Blair’s trim, toned body felt under his hand, even through his sweater and shirt!
“Yeah, but -- hey, man, no fair!-- it’d be the last thing you’d hook Naomi Sandburg’s little boy up to!” giggled Blair, squirming away from Jim’s dancing fingers. “Besides, I need every bit of that energy just to keep up with you!” Blair laughed as he snagged Jim’s big hand and hauled it away from his extremely ticklish flank and up to his lips. It was his turn now to tickle Jim, and he did so by lightly brushing his lips against the intensely sensitive hairs on the back of Jim’s hand, only stopping when Jim’s arm began trembling. Blair’s compact body was surprisingly strong and he kept Jim from pulling back the shivering hand until he was good and ready to let go.
“Never underestimate the powers of your Guide,” said Blair with a grin, releasing Jim’s hand. Jim shook and scratched at the back of his hand with almost manic intensity until the shivers stopped coursing up and down his spine, which made Blair grin again.
“Ohhh, you’ll get yours, Sandburg!” said Jim, trying to be very serious and failing utterly as he reached for the ignition, shaking his head and grinning back at Blair.
“I’m counting on it, big guy!” Blair replied, settling back into his seat. “So, where’s Simon sending us?”
“Camp Wingapo,” said Jim, glancing over at Blair.
“That’s it? Jim, you’re killin’ me, here! Wanna tell me a bit more?” asked Blair, spreading his hands and shrugging his shoulders to further emphasize the intense curiosity which was flowing across his face like quicksilver. “‘Camp Wingapo’ isn’t exactly the most enlightening thing to say, man!” Blair wasn’t, by nature, a devious person, nor could he have been... his face was transparent where his feelings and thoughts were concerned. He could prevaricate with the best of them, equivocate at the drop of a hat, obfuscate as a matter of course and temporize if necessary, but always his eyes and face could give him away to those who knew him well. Jim could literally spend hours watching emotions and ideas play their way across his lover’s open, expressive face, loving every minute of it.
“It’s an old summer camp up in the woods, about an hour out of town. Stephen and I used to go there when we were kids,” said Jim, his voice taking on a far-away quality for a few seconds. He shrugged and continued. “Place has been closed down for years now. When the old dam gave way and drained most of the lake, the camp drained away with it.”
Which was kind of sad, Jim thought, as he’d spent a good many of his childhood summers at the camp. The hour-long drive up to the remote camp-grounds brought back a flood of happy childhood memories, of friendships made and adventures shared.
“Quarter for your thoughts,” said Blair, noticing Jim’s mental distance. “Far away as you look, I figure a penny won’t cover it...”
“Huh? Yeah... sorry about that, Chief,” said Jim, smiling at his best friend. “Just thinking about the summers I spent up at the camp. It was a pretty cool place for a bunch of twelve year olds. We even had a stupid nickname for the lake... what was it? Yeah, Lake Hold’ercloser!”
“Dare I ask what the real name was?” asked Blair, turning in his seat to face Jim and raising an eyebrow inquiringly. Everything was grist for his mental mill, especially where his Sentinel was concerned.
“Overholser,” said Jim with a slightly embarrassed smile. “Trust twelve year olds to come up with a dirty name for a lake!”
“That’s a dirty name? Man, Jim, you need to get out more!” laughed Blair, trying to picture the gorgeously built, drop-dead handsome man sitting next to him as a gangly kid just entering puberty.
“It was a more innocent time,” said Jim, trying on the stilted tones of some moldy old college professor before breaking out into a big smile of his own
“The early seventies? Innocent? Oooookaay, big guy -- suuuure it was!” said Blair, pretending to take a toke on a roach-clipped joint with one hand while flashing a peace sign at Jim with the other.
“Keep it up, Sandburg,” said Jim, trying to look peeved but unable to maintain the scowl for long.
“For you, always,” said Blair suggestively, reaching down to cup and squeeze his own crotch. “Want me to show you?”
“You are so going to get it when we get home,” said Jim, appropriating one of Blair’s usual expressions to emphasize his own. He was unable to hide his own grin for very long.
“Peace, baybeh,” said Blair in response, slouching languidly in the big bucket seat and blowing out an imaginary wreath of smoke. “Loooove...”
Both men cracked up as if on cue, howling with laughter until their sides ached.
“So why are we going up to Camp Cumonawanalaya or whatever the place was called?” asked Blair when he’d caught his breath and the stitch in his side had died down.
“Simon got a tip that some drug-runner was back in town trying to set up a Golden pipeline again, and Camp Wingapo...” -- which Jim emphasized with a finger in Blair’s ribs -- “is where he’s supposed to be holed up.” Jim was now completely serious as his eyes took on the burning intensity Blair had come to recognize as a characteristic of Sentinel abilities. “We get to check the place out without being too obvious about it.”
“Sounds like fun,” said Blair, grimacing and rolling his eyes. Why couldn’t Simon just once send them to pick up dry-cleaning or something? Golden. Ugh... of all the drugs in the world, it had to be that one, accidental exposure to which had left Jim temporarily blind and himself laid up in the hospital. The though of the stunt he’d pulled after eating Golden-laced pizza -- shooting up the precinct parking garage -- made him shudder.
While Jim concentrated on the winding, mostly deserted road, Blair looked around with almost cat-like intensity, mentally spotting, noting, and cataloguing things as they wound up into the foot-hills. The one thing he really didn’t want to see was the wall of heavy gray clouds rolling in across the tree-tops. Those clouds were low and fast-moving and heavily pregnant with rain which began pouring in torrents after a jagged lightning-bolt ripped the sky asunder.
“What a surprise,” said Blair dryly, folding his arms across his chest as sudden gusts of wind buffeted the big truck. For no apparent reason the rotten weather made him feel apprehensive, which he didn’t like one bit.
“You okay, Chief?” asked Jim, glancing over at Blair with a mildly concerned look on his face. He’d picked up on the changes in Blair’s breathing, pulse and body temperature and wondered what had disturbed him so suddenly.
“Yeah, man... I’m fine, really,” said Blair, shaking himself, which tossed his unruly mop of brown curls into his face. “The weather’s just weirding me out a bit.” He closed his eyes and pushed his hair back out of the way, taking a couple deep breaths to help clear his head. “Who knows? Maybe a storm scared me real bad when I was little, or something.”
“They’ll do that,” said Jim, smiling softly at his lover. “Okay... yeah... we’ll be there in about fifteen minutes, Chief,” said Jim, picking out familiar landmarks which still dotted the roadside.
Camp Wingapo, when they rolled through the rotted, tilting gateposts fifteen minutes later, was even more of a wreck than either man had imagined. Many of the buildings had been leveled or simply fallen in under their own decaying weight and small trees and bushes were growing willy-nilly where kids had once played and exercised. Only the old hunting lodge which had served as the administrative building still looked sound enough to occupy and Jim let the big SUV roll to a stop in front of the weatherbeaten porch.
Both men climbed slowly out of the truck and closed the doors, squinting as the fine drops of drizzly, blowing rain beat against their faces. Blair zipped his Polarfleece-lined jacket all the way up and shoved his hands into the pockets, shivering slightly, before catching up with his Sentinel at the foot of the porch steps. Blair kept quiet and still, letting Jim’s preternaturally heightened senses reach out towards the seemingly abandoned building.
The first thing Jim heard was the strong, steady beat of his Guide’s heart and his soft breathing. He found comfort in the constancy and nearness of those sounds and then turned his attention away from them, letting his ears search for sounds which did not belong in the long-abandoned camp. Bird-song... rain hitting the ground... wind through pine-needles... water dripping off old wooden structures... everything he’d expect and nothing more. When his ears turned up nothing unusual, Jim shifted his focus to his sense of smell. Again, Blair was the first thing to impinge upon his consciousness, his scent slightly spicy and warm and as welcoming and comfortable as a well-loved flannel shirt. Once more Jim let his awareness drift past Blair and out into the desolate building.
At first he was struck by an overpowering melange of rank, bitter olfactory byproducts of decay and reeled back as if slapped, which brought Blair up to his side. The feel of his lover’s hand wrapping around his upper arm helped anchor him, helped prevent him from zoning out. This was, after all, what a Guide was supposed to do-- aid his Sentinel when he fell prey to the overwhelming minutiae his heightened senses threw at him.
“You okay, Jim?” said Blair softly, leaning in a bit against the taller man. “Tell me what you smell...”
“Too many smells, all at once... too many foul, rotting things...” said Jim, his face screwed up with distaste.
“Remember... sort, identify, catalog, and move on...” said Blair authoritatively, gently kneading Jim’s tensed biceps with his fingers. “Back off a bit, take ‘em one at a time, and then let them go...”
“Ugh,” said Jim, grimacing as first one and then another strong odor washed over him. “Mold... mildew... termites... roaches... stagnant water... rotten food... ashes... cigarette ashes! Not very fresh, though... newsprint... lamp oil... wet human! Someone’s been here!”
Both men moved as one, quiet as ghosts, up the age-split steps and over to the closed, barred door. Up close, it was obvious that the wooden planks nailed across the door had been recently pried loose and tacked back. Blair lowered the planks out of the doorway while Jim drew his service pistol and reached for the doorknob. Another quick aural inspection found no unusual sounds coming from within, so Jim carefully turned the knob and pushed the heavy wooden door open. It swung on creaking hinges and revealed a dark but fairly dry and livable room, still furnished with a set of ancient sofas, chairs, and low tables. Once the door was open, it was obvious someone had been there recently; fast-food wrappers littered one corner of the room and a stack of newspapers and magazines was propped against the sagging sofa. While Jim scanned the room with his enhanced senses, Blair used his own ordinary ones to help him shuffle around the dingy, dirty room. He stooped down and picked up the topmost newspaper, looking for the date.
“This paper’s from three days ago, Jim,” said Blair, apprehension creeping into his voice once more. “Looks like Simon’s contact may have been right, huh?”
“Possibly,” said the detective, mind working in investigative mode. “Someone’s been here, but there’s nothing to say it was a drug dealer, and there’s no sign of that damned Golden crap.”
“Thank God for that,” said Blair, moving over to stand at Jim’s side. “One taste of that shit was way more than enough for me, man...”
Both men made another careful circuit of the room, looking behind and under the ancient chairs and pulling the cushions out as well. The old kitchen proved to be empty of anything other than a few rusted old utensils and some dried-out tuna cans and the rest of the rooms were equally empty. About the only thing to be seen in abundance were roaches, the smell and sound of which chewed and gnawed at Jim’s brain like nails on a blackboard.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” said Jim suddenly, satisfied that he’d found everything there was to find in the forlorn old building. They walked out onto the porch and made a slow circuit of it as Jim let his senses move ahead of and around him. Still nothing more recent than the traces inside the lodge, barring a set of tire-tracks spun into the soft bed of pine-needles layering the entire campground. Jim walked over and knelt to examine the tracks but could tell little more than their width, as three days’ worth of rain had erased any traces of mud or tread-marks in the tire-scuffed soil beneath the pine-needles. Beyond the fact that their mystery tenant had driven in and out of the grounds and parked behind the building, there was nothing to be learned from examining the slight depressions. Standing back up, Jim stopped and closed his eyes briefly before looking over at Blair and reaching out to take his hand. They climbed the steps back onto the porch and walked around to where the truck was parked.
Jim led Blair over to the lichen-blotched porch-rail and let his fingers entwine with his lover’s while his thumb gently stroked the back of Blair’s. He inhaled quickly and let the breath out in a rush, gazing sadly across the once-grassy campgrounds towards the shore of the lake.
“This was all so beautiful, once. I wish you could have seen it, Blair,” he said softly, turning to smile wistfully at his partner. Another sigh escaped his lips. “I’m glad old Mr. Ericsson didn’t live to see this; it would’ve killed him.”
“I wish you hadn’t had to see it like this,” said Blair, his expressive blue eyes full of concern and understanding and, above all, love.
“It’s okay,” said Jim, moving to pull Blair into a tight embrace. “It’s just an old summer camp, with a lot of happy memories attached to it.”
Blair, unable to come up with any helpful words, let his body speak for him instead, wrapping his arms around Jim’s broad back and holding him tightly, his face pressed against Jim’s big shoulder. “Hey, man, there’s nothing wrong with happy memories,” he said quietly, his voice a bit muffled by Jim’s jacket, “or with feeling sad when they’re all you have left of a part of your life.”
Jim closed his eyes and pressed his face into Blair’s soft brown curls, kissing his head and inhaling the scent of skin and hair and shampoo. He silently said goodbye to the old place and shed a quiet tear for all the good times that were, and the good times that were never to be. Funny, he thought, it definitely wasn’t like him to get all emotional about a place. Oh well... there were lots of things he was learning about himself through Blair’s Sentinel Project which would have surprised him a few years ago.
Jim pulled his face away from Blair’s head and lowered his lips in search of his lover’s mouth, planting a steady stream of gentle kisses on the soft and welcoming lips. Blair’s mouth opened beneath his, making room for their tongues to press against each other and explore and taste. Jim gave Blair one more powerful hug before breaking the loving, soulful kiss and softly said “I love you so much, Blair,” before loosening his grip.
“I love you too, Jim,” said Blair, smiling up at his lover as his hand reached up to caress Jim’s cheek. He shivered slightly as the first prickly signs of Jim’s five o’clock shadow tickled his palm. Jim turned his face into Blair’s hand and kissed his palm before reaching up to take the hand into his own.
“Ready to go home, Chief?” asked Jim, draping an arm across the shorter man’s shoulders and turning their bodies towards the waiting truck.
“Man, I am so ready to go home!” said Blair, sliding an arm around Jim’s waist and hugging him lovingly. They walked through the blowing drizzle and climbed back into the big Ford, chucking their dripping jackets onto the back seat before starting their return trip.
Blair’s mind kept playing the next fifteen minutes over and over like a stuck record, accusing him. He’d talked Jim into taking the more scenic route along the old Riverside Highway and Jim had agreed, figuring an extra twenty minutes or so wouldn’t hurt. After all, Simon’s lead had been three days too late... twenty minutes wouldn’t make any difference in the investigation. Oh man, if he’d only kept his big mouth shut and his curiosity in check...
So they’d driven along the winding road, enjoying the views of rushing water and the distant mountains while trying to ignore the gloomy gray clouds which hung over them like a damp shroud. Until, possibly triggered by rain-softened earth and a hellishly loud thunderclap, an avalanche of boulders and mud had come surging down onto the road and into their path. Jim had tried to steer around the tumbling boulders but his reflexes-- superb as they were -- had been no match for the random courses the rocks took. The truck had slammed against a large boulder and been sent careening across the asphalt where it slid off the road and into the soft shoulder. The right front wheel had dug into the mud and started a rollover which seemed to take place in slow motion. Jim, firmly in Blessed Protector mode, had flung his right arm across Blair in an instinctive and largely pointless effort to hold him in his seat. Blair had remained conscious long enough to tell they had rolled right side up once more and to see the stand of young evergreen trees seemingly hurtling towards them, blacking out when a sudden jarring bump send his head caroming off the door-post beside him.
Blair awoke some indeterminate time later, aware that his whole body felt bruised and sore and his head pounded abominably. By some miracle they’d remained right side up, plowing through the trees until they came to an abrupt halt against a stout old pine. The airbags had deployed, probably saving their lives. Blair pushed the passenger-side bag off his legs and looked over towards Jim, feeling his blood turn to ice-water when he got a good look at him.
Jim’s side of the truck had obviously taken the brunt of the damaging impacts, and his bigger body had placed his head much closer to beams and pillars and door-frames. Jim was slumped down in his seat and the left side of his face was wet with blood, as was the red imprint of his face in the deflated airbag. Blair reached out to feel for a pulse while his stomach dropped out from beneath him, leaving him in what felt like free-fall. It slammed back into place when his fingers found Jim’s pulse, slow but steady.
Blair unbuckled his seatbelt and carefully moved closer to Jim, trying to examine him without disturbing him. Other than the bloody gash on his head, and another laceration near his knee, Jim looked alright, though his face was blanched and sweaty. Blair gasped when he got a good look at Jim’s right arm, which was hanging at an odd angle. Something about his shoulder seemed wrong as well. Blair’s stomach churned as he realized Jim’s shoulder had somehow been dislocated during their roller-coaster ride from hell and needed to be reset in its socket, right now, before the muscles and tissues of his shoulder began to swell and tighten up.
“Jim, can you hear me?” he asked, repeating himself several times and getting progressively louder before Jim rolled his head towards him and mumbled something, cracking his eyes open and looking very much like a sick, frightened, confused little boy. Blair followed Jim’s eyes closely and was relieved to see that both pupils seemed to be the same size and working properly. However, Jim was obviously having a lot of trouble keeping his eyes working in tandem and the only words Blair had been able to make out after a lengthy and disjointed period of rambling were “sick” and “hurts,” which meant a concussion, and probably a bad one.
“Jim... I’ve gotta get you out of here and fix your shoulder, and ... ohh man, Jim, I’m sorry... it’s gonna hurt like hell,” said Blair, his voice trembling along with his body. Jim mumbled in response but nothing made any sense to Blair. He was suddenly overwhelmingly grateful to the professor who’d suggested Red Cross training as an elective his junior year in college; that training was what he was now relying on to get Jim out of the mangled truck and onto level ground where he could reseat the dislocated shoulder.
“I’m gonna pull you out now, big guy,” said Blair as he reached under Jim’s armpits to grasp his forearms, using them as a hand-hold to pull against. His progress was slow and painful for both of them, but Blair had enough adrenaline surging through his system to boost his strength considerably. When Jim’s feet fell clear of the twisted running-board below the front passenger door, Blair moved to sit alongside his right leg and quickly pulled his boot off and grabbed the dislocated arm firmly, pushing his own right foot up into Jim’s armpit and using it to guide the dislocated ball back into its socket. He’d had to pull frighteningly hard to get Jim’s arm to move and he’d been scared as hell until he felt, through his lover’s muscular forearm and his own sock-clad foot, the dull pop of the shoulder ball slipping back into place. He’d carefully tested its range of motion next, hoping the limited flexibility of Jim’s shoulder was as it should be, considering the degree of swelling and trauma.
Throughout the procedure Jim had moaned and cried out in pain a couple of times, sounds which cut through Blair’s heart like a rusty saw. He’d felt himself on the verge of tears and had fought them down with the frightening observation that fixing Jim’s arm had been but the first in an increasingly difficult chain of steps between the river gorge they were now in and the hospital Jim needed.
Blair stood up, head pounding as a wave of nausea swept over him, and staggered towards the ruined Ford, beginning a frantic inventory of the vehicle’s contents. He manhandled the big plastic storage bin out of the tailgate and pulled it open, rummaging around for the first aid kit he knew Jim kept in it somewhere. His hand closed on the red handle of the rectangular box and he breathed a quick prayer of thanks, pulling it free of the other odds and ends in the bin and lugging it over to Jim’s side.
First objective had to be cleaning up the head wound and bandaging it properly. Blair ripped open an antiseptic wet-wipe and carefully swabbed away the rapidly drying blood, immensely relieved to see that its source was a fairly small cut on the side of Jim’s head. Apparently Jim had been thrown against a door pillar the same as he had, only with more damaging results. Blair gently squeezed a bead of antiseptic ointment onto the wound and applied a gauze pad to it before strapping it in place with a series of adhesive bandages.
Blair then turned to Jim’s left knee, pulling out his Swiss Army knife to enlarge the slice in Jim’s jeans. He ripped the hole bigger until he could examine Jim’s knee closely and soon found the source of the blood soaking into his pants. Something under the dash-board had broken loose and cut into the fairly thin skin around Jim’s knee joint, splitting the skin open in a long seam. Blair cleaned the wound as best he could and slathered it with antibiotic before tacking the skin back in place with a series of butterfly bandages, covering the whole area with a big gauze pad and strapping it up with a further layer of gauze bandage. Though the wound was big and messy and surrounded with rapidly-forming bruises, it wasn’t deep; he didn’t have to worry about muscle or tendon damage, thank god.
That done, Blair proceeded to examine Jim thoroughly, feeling for broken bones and signs of internal injury. Again, Fate had smiled on them, as Jim’s injuries seemed confined to the concussion, gashed head and knee, and dislocated shoulder. Shock could still set in, though, if it hadn’t already, and there was nothing Blair could do for that besides try to keep Jim warm.
Okay... next objective had to be getting Jim out of this gorge and onto a road where someone could find them. That meant somehow hauling him either up the steep embankment or down the river towards civilization. Blair walked through the stand of trees towards the sound of rushing water and was appalled by what he saw; the river was a boiling brown witches’ brew of mud and debris and it was slowly rising. Judging from the dark marks above his head on some of the older trees, Blair could tell the river often jumped its banks and flooded the narrow valley and this looked like one of the times it would do just that. So heading down-river was out.
Blair turned too quickly to head back to the truck and was assailed by another wave of nausea which surged over him roughly, tying his insides in knots as he leaned against a tree-trunk and lost his lunch. He put two and two together and realized Jim wasn’t the only one with a concussion; headaches and nausea, especially vomiting, were sure signs of it, and he had them in abundance. That made it imperative to get out of the gorge and back up to the road as quickly as possible.
Blair wandered back to the plastic bin and drew out a big blanket, which he carefully wrapped around Jim. He quickly took stock of his resources and forced his aching head to concentrate on the problems at hand. He was fairly sure he could manage, with the aid of some rope he’d found in the bin, to secure Jim to his back and tote him up the embankment; a brief flirtation with rock-climbing had taught him a good bit about different harnesses as well as emergency procedures. Hard as that was liable to be, getting Jim to the top of the slope was the easy part... once they got to the roadside, Blair had to have some way of moving Jim along the road. Toting him on his back was definitely not a long-term option!
“You’re an anthropologist, Sandburg,” he told himself scoldingly, becoming frustrated at his inability to come up with a workable solution. “God knows you’ve studied enough primitive cultures, man... what would they do?”
The answer popped into his head like a daydream... build a Native American-style travois and pull Jim along on it! There were materials enough scattered around the truck and the hillside, what with all the evergreen saplings they’d mowed down and the contents of Jim’s carefully-stocked storage bin. He’d still need to carry Jim up the hill on his back, though, as the travois wasn’t something suited to dragging up a steep hill. Hell, it wasn’t even suited to dragging by a human, but this was a case of beggars not being choosers.
Blair quickly gathered every salvageable item from the truck and dumped it all back into the big bin, which he dragged up the hill on a rope tether. It took him about five minutes to scale the slippery, muddy embankment and he only stopped long enough to drop off the bin before starting back down the slope. Next trip brought several saplings and branches to the roadside verge, and the one after that saw the hard roof-liner -- which Blair had ripped loose with the truck’s tire iron -- thrown down on top of the other flotsam. Blair finally was ready to strap Jim to his back and scale the slope for the final time, this time with more than double his own body-weight trying to drag him back down the hill.
He propped Jim up against the side of the truck and rigged a variation of a climber’s harness out of the long rope he’d found in the bin around Jim’s sagging body before moving to sit between his outstretched legs. Any other time the position would have offered a wealth of erotic possibilities, but this time it was for keeps, and deadly serious. He used the remainder of the rope to tie Jim firmly to his shoulders and torso and fastened his forearms together across his own chest to keep them out of harm’s way. The blanket was the final fastening, wrapped around them both and tucked in under the loops and knots of rope.
It took Blair several puffing, panting, grunting attempts to get his radically altered center of gravity to pitch forward and then it threatened to push him face-first into the dirt. Jim’s head lolled over his right shoulder and he mumbled something unintelligible again before growing quiet. Blair raised himself up into a crab-like stance and scuttled over to the clearest path up the hillside. Jim’s legs were hanging down between his, a complication he’d obviously not thought through well enough. Little there was he could do about it now, though, so he’d just have to be extra careful of where he put his feet. He was starting up the steep slope when he felt something cold and wet seep across his ankle. He looked down and saw dirty brown river-water collecting in the hollow they’d just occupied; time was up -- for better or worse, he was committed to climbing the embankment with the implacable, voracious river nipping at his heels.
Surprisingly, Blair made good time up the first part of the slope, finding plenty of hand-holds to help pull him up the hillside with his precious cargo. He was cold and muddy but was finally above the river’s high-water mark and safe from its clutches and -- though the remainder of the hill was much less hospitable to a climber -- felt confident about safely reaching the top of the embankment. His limbs were fatigued beyond belief and shaking like leaves in a winter storm, but he only had another fifteen feet or so to go.
Blair was happy to find a large rock to plant his right foot against as he clawed his way up the last few feet of hillside. Pushing against it would help him lever his and Jim’s bodies up the rest of the slope. Fate, of course, turned capricious and saw fit to let his muddy boot suddenly slide off the rock, but not before their combined weight forced his foot to rotate almost ninety degrees out of line with the rest of his ankle. Blair was wracked with blinding pain so intense he could barely breathe, let alone cry out. Knives of searing agony ascended his right leg and wrapped around his insides, setting off a series of cramping dry heaves while his skin became cold and clammy and his vision began to fade out behind a reddish screen of technicolor special effects.
“Ohh God, no...” he whispered, his head now throbbing in time with his rapidly swelling ankle. “Please, please don’t let me pass out... not now, not this close!” He ground his teeth together and began clawing his way up the last stretch of hillside, screaming through his clenched teeth every time he put pressure on his injured ankle. Somehow the ankle held, despite what it’s damaged tissues were telling him, and he crested the hill and crawled forward onto more level ground. When he was well away from the treacherous slope, he sagged onto his side and untied the ropes fastening Jim to his back, stopping to unravel Jim from the rest of the rope and re-wrap him in the thick blanket.
Blair staggered to his feet and limped unsteadily over to the pile of wood and car parts before dropping heavily onto his uninjured left leg, folding it beneath him as he began to sketch out in his mind how the mess of random bits and pieces before him could be made into a serviceable travois. When what seemed like a workable solution had coalesced in his pain-battered mind, he set to work, lashing tree branches together and hacking others into cross-braces with the tire-iron and his trusty Swiss Army knife. The hard, fabric-covered shell of the roof-liner would have to serve as Jim’s back-board, which he’d have to pad with a second blanket and some bits of seat-cushion he’d ripped loose. When it was as finished -- and as sturdy -- as Blair could make it, he rigged a harness for himself and gave the travois a trial run across the grass to Jim’s side. It seemed to be okay, though he could tell the shoulder-straps would not be pleasant for him after a couple hours of pulling. Using the long arms of the travois would have made things a lot easier on his shoulders, but he couldn’t hold them and hold a walking staff... and with his ankle protesting every step, he’d need that staff!
Blair finished padding the backboard and gently rolled Jim onto it, wrapping him up in his own padded, insulated jacket and using two sections of seat-cushion to pillow and protect his head. The blankets and a sleeping-bag -- which Blair had found at the very bottom of the bin -- were wrapped and secured around Jim’s shivering body. Blair cris-crossed the last length of rope over Jim, hooking it on branch stubs and drawing it tight enough to, hopefully, keep Jim from slipping off the jerry-rigged travois. The whole contraption -- and Jim with it -- was then wrapped in the fluorescent orange plastic tarpaulin Blair had dug out of the bin. There was just enough tarp left to fashion into a rain hood for Jim which, when propped up with branches, would keep the drizzly rain from soaking and chilling him any worse. Blair crept on his knees until he could lean down over Jim’s head and called out to him, almost having to scream before Jim opened his eyes blearily.
“Jim... Jim, listen carefully, man,” said Blair, holding Jim’s face between his hands and staring into his eyes. “We were in an accident on the old Riverside Highway. We’re back on the road now, and I’m gonna get us out of here, okay? You hang in there, big guy! Don’t drift off on me, okay? I need you, and I love you, James Ellison... don’t forget it, you hear me?”
“Blair...” said Jim, fighting to focus his eyes on his lover. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get the two Blairs he saw to coalesce back into one. “Hurts, Blair... why’s it hurt?”
“We were in an accident, Jim,” said Blair slowly, carefully enunciating every word. “You hit your head and busted up your shoulder. We’re alone out here, so it’s just you and me. I’ll get you home, man, I promise...”
“‘Kay,” said Jim, unable to keep his eyes open and fight their tendency to roll in random directions. “Love you, Blair...” was the last thing Blair made out before Jim’s voice dropped away into garbled babbling once more.
Blair crawled back to the storage bin and scrabbled through it one more time, just to make sure he wasn’t leaving anything vital behind. There was still something he wasn’t remembering...
“Shit! The cell-phone!” he rasped, quickly feeling through the pockets of Jim’s big jacket. He turned up bits of paper and a stick of gum, but no phone. “I’m stupid, I’m stupid!” he said harshly, slapping his palm against his forehead out of habit and gasping as pain exploded between his eyes. God, his head hurt. Well, if the cell-phone wasn’t in the jacket, it was somewhere under several feet of surging river-water by now. “Let it go, Sandburg,” he told himself quietly.
Blair stood up and faced the road, pulling on Jim’s old baseball jacket before looping the makeshift harness over his shoulders and leaning on the walking staff he’d fashioned from yet another sapling. Even snapped closed, the jacket hung on him like a sail. It was a sobering realization, knowing the bigger, stronger of the two of them was the one hurt worst. His injured ankle made each step an exercise in pain management techniques, but it didn’t keep him from limping out onto the asphalt with the travois dragging behind. He’d be damned if he’d let a twisted ankle keep him from getting Jim to safety!
Jim didn’t know where he was, or what was going on; all he knew was that he hurt, and hurt bad, and that everything was screwed up, too loud or too bright or too smelly or too.. too feely. A maddening cacophony of sounds assailed him, driving red-hot nails of pain into his ears, and his nose was similarly attacked by smells so strong and pervasive they were better called stenches; he could hardly breathe for them. Every nerve in his body screamed at him as whatever he was riding on scraped and jounced its way across the road, sending gut-wrenching vibrations up into his body.
The only known quantity in this world gone mad was the familiar, comforting sound of Blair’s heartbeat and his labored breathing. Jim found that, as long as he could keep his focus on Blair, the other sounds, smells and sensations became submerged, muffled. As he let his awareness sink into Blair’s being, he became aware of Blair’s injuries -- the throbbing headache, the aching muscles, the badly-sprained ankle that even now was sending white-hot spears of pain up Blair’s right leg. Each injury, each kind of pain had unique effects on Blair’s blood pressure, pulse and temperature, all of which Jim was intimately familiar with. His own body ached in sympathy and somewhere far away, tears began to roll down his own cheeks. What had happened to them, and why was Blair dragging him along the road when he was so obviously hurt himself?
Blair began scrounging through his memory for songs to help distract him from the stabbing pains each step sent up his right leg. He’d finally learned how to lean into Jim’s weight and was making steady, if slow, progress down the deserted road.. The travois seemed to be holding up okay and Jim hadn’t rolled off the end of it, which was a blessing. He’d stopped a couple times to check on Jim and take a few sips of water from one of the bottles he’d found in that miraculous bin, managing to coax Jim into taking a few sips himself. Jim had felt warmer and been a bit more lucid when shaken awake, which made Blair feel better.
His own head still pounded and the nausea hovered in the back-ground like a mangy vulture, waiting to drop on him when he was most vulnerable. He’d gnawed on a granola bar during one of his short rest-stops and washed it down with some more water, only to find himself curled into a wretched, retching ball a few minutes later. Water his stomach would tolerate, but solids were apparently out of the question. There were a couple cans of Nutrament in their small hoard of food and he’d have to try one of them later on, taking the risk that fluids would stay down.
Blair turned his mind back to searching for traveling songs and, to his disgust, was suddenly faced with Willie Nelson’s seamed face and quavering voice as the mental apparition went into a warbling rendition of “On the road again”.
“Go away, man,” said Blair, shaking his head and instantly regretting it as pains like stabbing ice-picks flared behind his eyes.
“Just can’t wait to get on the road again,” continued Willie, oblivious to his protests. Now the twanging country guitars had joined in as well.
“Good for you. Fine. Great. So go, man, and get the hell away from me!” muttered Blair, softly adding, “you are so not what I want to hear right now!”
For once, his mind cooperated and the grizzled apparition faded away to be replaced with a more suitable melody.
Captain Simon Banks, Commander of the Cascade Major Crime Division, paced his office and worried about his officer and his partner. Ellison and Sandburg should have been back hours ago, yet he’d heard nothing from either one of them. Sandburg might have forgotten to call in when they got within cell-phone range of Cascade, but Jim wouldn’t; something was up, and with drugs -- especially that toxic Golden shit -- possibly involved, the scenarios his mind came up with were all dire. If he didn’t hear from them soon, he’d take a car out himself and go searching for them.
Blair felt like he’d been pulling Jim along the highway for an eternity, though his watch told him it had been only three hours. It had been dark for over an hour now, with only moonlight to reveal the road’s surface. Even that was only available in short flashes, as the rain-clouds still hung overhead in ragged clumps. His ankle still hurt like hell, though the pain had lessened in intensity and turned into a dull, hot throbbing which spiked whenever his foot touched the asphalt. His shoulders felt raw and were burning as well, mostly from fatigue and the dragging friction of the rope harness. Blair stopped, letting the head of the travois slowly sink to the ground before he unhitched himself and staggered back to Jim’s side. He dropped down onto his butt and winced, slowly pulling his foot around to where he could loosen the laces of his boot. He gasped when his fingers met flesh so swollen it had puffed up over the top of the boot, and he cried out in agony when he had to manhandle his foot to pry the boot off.
Blair fumbled in his pocket and found the tiny flashlight, which he’d been trying to keep in reserve until he really, really needed it. Well, that about described the current situation, he thought, turning the flashlight on and clamping it between his teeth while his hands gingerly rolled his sock down off his swollen foot. When the sock came off, the extent of the damage was revealed in all its gruesome glory.
“Oh man...” said Blair raggedly, looking down in dismay at the bloated object his foot had become. It was hot and tender to the touch and covered from ankle to toes in livid, angry purple bruises. He couldn’t flex it using his leg muscles, so he reached down and used his hands to move his foot through its normal range of motion. He screamed his way through the pain, biting down on the flashlight and denting its thin casing while trying to concentrate on how the joint felt. It didn’t grind or jam, so he was fairly sure nothing was broken, but there had to be a lot of tendon and tissue damage. Blair whimpered as he pulled the sock back over his toes, suddenly realizing there was no way to get his boot back on. Without a boot on his foot to help support his ankle, there was no way he could keep walking on it.
“Blair...” said Jim, his voice barely a whisper at first. “Blair... take my boot; iss bigger...”
“Then your foot’ll get cold,” said Blair, suddenly finding his attention focused wholly on the man beside him. His voice sounded stronger now, his words much clearer, which had to be a good sign.
“Don’ matter...” said Jim, feebly shaking his right foot to free it from the layers of blanket and tarp. “You can’t move, we can’t move... c’mon, Chief, take it...”
“Just to make you happy,” said Blair as he turned around to get to Jim’s swaddled feet. Jim was right, though... without a boot on his foot, he couldn’t walk, and Jim’s boot -- which was two and a half sizes bigger than his own -- might just fit over his swollen foot. He quickly pushed through the blankets and untied Jim’s laces, pulling the boot off of Jim’s big foot and squeezing his lover’s toes affectionately before bundling his feet back up in the layers of blanket. Shoving his foot into Jim’s boot was agony compounded by torment, but at least it went on and could lace up properly. Scary thing was, the big size-eleven boot now fit him like a glove.
“All done, big guy,” said Blair, crawling to Jim’s side once more. “How d’you feel?”
“Like hell,” said Jim, smiling weakly. “Can’t think straight; senses’re all screwed up... can’t damp ‘em down properly. Focusing on you helps, though...”
“Always glad to be of service,” said Blair lovingly, reaching out to caress the uninjured side of Jim’s face. “Just keep focusing on me, then... it’ll help keep you from zoning out. Want some more water before we get moving again?”
“Please,” said Jim, trying to lift his head towards the squirt-capped bottle. Blair helped prop him up until he’d had his fill and lowered him back gently onto the cushioning. “Blair... be careful...” said Jim, his voice thick with emotion.
“Don’t worry,” said Blair, trying to put some lightness back into his tone. “Where I go, you go, and vice versa. We’re in this together, man...” ‘God, we are so in this together,’ Blair added silently, pushing himself up off the ground and hobbling back to the head of the travois. He shrugged the harness back around his shoulders and picked up his staff, using it to lever himself upright and the travois off the ground. “Step by step,” he sung softly as a TV sitcom theme popped into his head, leaning against the harness and the weight which seemed to be slowly, steadily increasing. He started moving forward slowly, limping on the injured foot and flinching every time it struck the ground. “Step by step,” he said again, this time turning it into a mantra which he began to repeat over and over with every foot of ground covered.
When ten o’clock rolled around and he’d still heard from neither Ellison nor Sandburg, Simon began calling around town, checking with friends and hangouts to see if anyone had seen the pair tonight. No-one had, and that clinched it... something had happened up at Camp Wingapo. Simon grabbed his coat and charged through the door, stopping at the duty desk long enough to tell the night-watch officer what was going on and where he was heading. Full of foreboding, Simon asked him to call in and get a medevac team on alert and then strode into the waiting elevator.
Just over an hour later Simon was pulling up at the broken-down gates of Camp Wingapo. He’d taken one of the new 4x4 all-terrain patrol vehicles and rode the whole way with the huge array of alley-lights and spots burning bright, but had seen nothing out of the ordinary. Finally, at the muddy driveway, he found evidence of Jim’s passage -- the churned-up mud ruts from the big Ford’s heavy tires. He tried not to think about the fact that some other heavy vehicle could just as easily have left those tracks. There were two sets of ruts, so Jim and Blair had apparently driven in and left again; question was, where the hell had they gone?
Simon started back down the highway towards Cascade, driving slowly and looking for any skid-marks or other signs of an accident. He shivered at the realization that things were rapidly getting to look really bad for the missing pair. He used the powerful radio set to call the duty officer and was, sadly, not surprised to learn that there had still been no word from Ellison.
Blair felt like cursing when his watch chirped cheerfully, marking the passage of another seemingly endless hour. Midnight. Wasn’t the travois supposed to turn into a magical coach or something about now? No, no... it was the other way around... he’d turn into a team of mice. God, he was tired; tired, and cold, and soaking wet, and shivering. His body was beginning to feel numb as well, all except for his protesting ankle, which still fitfully shot pain up his leg like shards of glass.
“Just put one foot in front of the other,” he sung, giggling a bit as another strangely appropriate song crept out of the cellar of his childhood memories and rose to his lips. It was from some old cartoon-y movie, he was sure, but damned if he could put a name to it. Jim had been quiet for the last couple of hours; he was still drifting in and out of consciousness, though each time he woke up he seemed more lucid and less confused. Blair was still really worried about his partner; if his Sentinel-enhanced senses were still running in overdrive, the sensory overload would be wreaking havoc with Jim’s mind. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, struggling to calm himself as he leaned into the weight and shuffled forward once more.
Jim’s head was spinning violently. He felt like he was on a tumbling, churning roller-coaster running wild through a cheap carnival haunted house. Hellish noises and lurid colors and overpowering smells battered at him all at once and all he could do was hang on for dear life to the one recognizable constant in the whole mess... Blair. He was still close, though his heart was now pounding and his breath was coming in ragged gasps. His body temperature seemed to be at war with itself, the cold of his upper body fighting with the spiking heat of his lower leg for dominion while his core temperature slowly ebbed away. Blair was pushing himself to the brink of hypothermia and didn’t even seem to know it. Jim was suddenly very, very scared for his lover, his Guide, his friend, and the fear punched through the miasma of screeching sensory overload like a battering ram.
“Blair,” Jim called out weakly, increasing his volume when Blair didn’t answer him. “Blair! Get your butt over here now, Sandburg!” he yelled, wincing as the sound stabbed into his eardrums. His increasing lucidity brought with it an increasing sense of his own injuries, especially the throbbing pain of his right shoulder and the scrapes and bruises covering most of his left leg. His head ached abominably and he was sure he had a bandage wrapped around it. Slowly bits and pieces of the last few hours began to fall into place and he remembered the rockslide and the truck being thrown across the road.
Blair finally understood him and he felt his forward motion stop as the litter he was riding on was lowered to the ground. Blair shuffled slowly to his side and sank to the ground, shaking with exhaustion and cold. The clouds parted and the light of a full moon shone down on them, giving Jim a good, clear look at Blair’s face. There were dark circles under his eyes and a livid bruise darkened the right side of his forehead and cheek, partially covering the big lump which reached back under his hair. His face was a ghostly white, all except for the bluish tint his lips had taken on. He was exhausted and in pain, and he looked it.
“Blair, have you eaten anything?” asked Jim, worry evident in his voice. He tried to sit up and was struck by a wave of nausea so violent it brought bile to his throat. He fell back onto the litter, feeling the nausea subside.
“I tried, man, but I can’t keep anything down,” said Blair, his voice breaking as his body started shaking. “Anything solid comes right back up. I guess I could try a Nutrament or something...”
“Do it, Blair; either it’ll stay down, or it won’t,” said Jim, watching his partner intently. “Either way, it’s not doing you any good in the can. You need some food in you or you’re gonna kill yourself!”
“Okay, okay...” said Blair tiredly, leaning over to pull a can out of the remains of the air-bag he’d fashioned into a carryall and slung between the arms of the travois. He nearly fell over and sunk momentarily to his elbows, swaying slightly as he waited for his head to clear. He slowly sat back upright and fumbled with the can, finally getting it open, and slowly sipped on the cold, chocolatey fluid. His stomach twitched a bit, but it didn’t rebel on him and the drink stayed down.
“Now some water,” said Jim, realizing the rich formula might be a bit much on the stomach for someone obviously trying to function with a concussion. He was relieved when Blair took several careful sips of water and offered him some, which he accepted. Blair was still shivering in waves which now constantly racked his body and Jim knew that had to be dealt with damned quick.
“Blair... no arguments, Chief... get in here with me under these blankets,” said Jim urgently, locking his eyes on Blair’s.
“I can’t, man... we need to keep moving,” said Blair, his jaw trembling. “I gotta get you out of here!”
“Bullshit, Chief,” said Jim, suddenly angry with the younger man. “If you don’t warm up -- and soon -- you’ll go into hypothermia and fall down and be dead pretty soon afterwards, and I’ll still be here behind you! You can’t help me if you’re dead, Blair!” he yelled, fighting with the layers of blanket and tarpaulin. The anger quickly evaporated and was replaced by love and fear. “Please, Blair, don’t do this to yourself... don’t die on me, Chief. My life wouldn’t be worth living without you...”
“Ohhh god, Jim... I’m sorry, man... so, so sorry...” said Blair hoarsely as tears began to stream down his cheeks. “It’s my fault we’re here, it’s my fault you’re hurt...god, this is so not how I’d planned on us spending tonight!”
“What, you have some mystical ability to cause rockslides and thunderstorms?” asked Jim, finally working the blankets loose and throwing them open. “Now get your frozen little butt in here with me before we both freeze!”
Blair could tell Jim was determined to get him under those covers and finally gave in, knowing Jim would lie there with the blankets open, losing the carefully-banked body-heat he’d poured into them until Blair joined him. Jim folded the blankets back around them and pulled him in close to his body with his uninjured arm, holding him tightly as his body was racked again by shivers which bordered on convulsions. Gradually the shivering slowed and Blair’s body relaxed against Jim’s, first drawing warmth from the bigger man and, as his own metabolic furnace cranked back up, funneling some of his own back into his lover and the layers of blankets bundled up around them. Blair finally fell asleep and Jim found himself dozing too; somehow having Blair in his arms, pressed against him, helped to shunt the clamoring sensory input away from him.
Simon watched the hands on the big wall clock in his office slowly crawl around to one a.m., his stubbly chin resting on his dark hands. There was still no sign of -- or word from -- the two men he’d sent off into the foothills earlier that afternoon. He’d gone up and down that road twice and there had been no sign of either them or the truck; of that he was sure. But Jim had driven out of the gate and back onto the road...
Simon jumped up and went to his filing cabinets, rummaging around for a large-scale map of the camp area and the back-roads leading to and from it. What if Jim hadn’t taken the faster route home?
Sure enough, there was an older secondary road -- the Riverside Highway -- which followed the course of the river and had a lot of nice views of the Cascade Mountains off in the distance. Just up Sandburg’s alley and Jim wouldn’t have had any reason to say no, as the route only added about twenty minutes to the drive. That had to be where they were!
An hour later Simon was back at the rotten old camp gate, shining a powerful hand-held spotlight down at the water-filled tire ruts. Sure enough, when he stood directly behind them, Simon could tell the truck had headed off down the road in the general direction of the Riverside Highway. He jumped back into his car and moved off slowly, holding the spotlight out of the window and scanning the road and its grassy verges all the way out to the tree-line. When he came upon the rock slide, which had run out across the whole of the asphalt surface, his heart sank. One of the larger rocks had unmistakable traces of metallic blue paint scraped along its face and the black smears of skidding tires were faintly visible against the rain-soaked road.
Simon turned the car across the road and aimed the headlights in the general direction Jim’s Ford seemed to have gone in. He climbed out and used the portable spotlight to carefully examine the ground, discovering the gouges left when the heavy truck shot off the road and, apparently, rolled over on its way down the embankment. There was a clear-cut swath straight through a stand of evergreen saplings and Simon felt his stomach knot up inside him; beyond that stand of young trees was the steep slope down to the river.
Simon walked the path taken by Jim’s truck with a sick feeling, wiping rain off his face with his free hand and finding himself immensely grateful that his tightly curled, close-cropped hair couldn’t mat down in front of his eyes like Sandburg’s. He reached the edge of the slope and looked down, shining the high-intensity beam down the path the big SUV had bulldozed on its way to the river. Down in a stand of bigger trees, which were awash in churning brown water, Simon could just make out a crumpled, scratched expanse of shining blue metal.
“God, please don’t let them still be in there,” he whispered, turning the spotlight to examine the slope between himself and the river. There... off to the side... what were those gouges?
Simon walked about thirty feet downriver and spotted something red and black poking up out of a stand of tall grass on the embankment. He ran over to the big plastic bin and remembered seeing it in the back of Jim’s truck. It was just about empty, though there were still a few bits and pieces left in it. Several tree branches were piled up nearby, as was a tattered section of seat cushion and a chunk of roof-liner. They’d made it out of the wreck and up the slope somehow, then stopped to build something. He walked over to the approximate center of the circle of debris and found a pair of branch-sized trenches with deep human footprints between them. The tracks led off in a crooked, wandering line towards the road and started off onto the blacktop, headed towards far-off Cascade.
Simon looked back at the scattered junk and realized a litter made of saplings would have made the tracks he’d followed. One of them was injured badly enough to have to be dragged out on a litter... not a good sign at all. Wherever they were on the road, they were alone, injured, cold and probably soaking wet, and there wasn’t a thing Simon could do from this end of the road. He cursed himself, frustration eating at him as he realized the sedan he’d driven couldn’t get around the scattered rocks without going onto the rain-softened shoulder, where it would surely bog down. He stalked back to the car and jumped in, wrenching the wheel around and speeding off back towards the camp and the shorter route into Cascade. It was almost two-thirty now and it would take him at least another hour to get back into town; he’d be looking at close to four a.m. before he could be on the way up Riverside from the other end, and probably six a.m. before a SAR chopper could go up. He turned onto the Beeline Highway and floored it, picking up the radio handset to call in.
Blair woke with a start, feeling something sharp poking him in the back. He reached behind himself and found a piece of branch which had worked its way out from under the roof-liner. He snapped it off, cursing softly, and rolled carefully out of Jim’s embrace. His lover was finally sleeping peacefully, his breathing deep and regular and his pulse strong. Blair pressed a button on his watch and a burst of blue light shone in his face, dazzling him momentarily until his eyes adjusted. Almost four in the morning. Time to get going!
Blair carefully tucked the blankets in around Jim’s body and limped back to the head of the travois, pulling the rope harness around his shoulders and lifting the ungainly construct up off the ground. Though the sky had pretty much cleared off and a few stars were visible, adding their feeble light to that of the slowly sinking moon, the air was still cold and damp and Blair found his teeth chattering again in almost no time at all. At this time of morning even his body’s natural circadian rhythms were working against him.
“The road is long,” he began to sing softly, letting his mind fill in the instruments while he sought for the words to the old song he remembered from childhood. “With many a winding turn,” he added, humming through the words he just couldn’t dredge back up.
By half-past four he was shaking with fatigue again, quickly losing the ground he’d regained wrapped up in Jim’s arms. He was getting careless as well, not paying as much attention to his stumbling feet as he should’ve; it didn’t really come as a surprise, then, when his right foot slipped out from underneath him on some particularly slick spot of road and sent him crashing face-first onto the ground. The travois came crashing down onto his heels, further twisting his injured foot. His arms protected his head from hitting the asphalt, but nothing protected him from the searing, flaming pain shooting up his right leg. He’d wrenched his ankle yet again, this time from another direction, and he could tell there’d be no walking on it any more without medical intervention.
“Oh god, not now!” he cried, rolling onto his side and curling up as his legs shook in an involuntary attempt to get away from whatever was clawing and biting at his ankle. Both feet slid free of the travois and drew up against his body, still shaking. The wrenching, tearing pain seemed even more intense than the first time around and he couldn’t stop moaning, or holding onto his throbbing ankle. “Ohhh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuckfuckfuck.....” he moaned, slowly writhing on the ground as the unrelenting waves of pain kept surging over him. He breathed in short pants, sensing unconsciousness hovering over him like a big black crow and knowing instinctively that to give in to it was to court death.
He felt light-headed and dizzy as his blood pressure fluctuated. His autonomic nervous system was having a hard time coping with yet another injury heaped on top of the ones he’d already suffered. Blair felt himself slipping away and couldn’t manage to muster the resources to fight for consciousness until Jim’s sudden cry yanked him back to reality.
When Blair slipped out from under the blankets to take up the travois once more, Jim’s ability to shut out the smells and sounds yammering at him had slipped away too, leaving him overwhelmed once more by stimuli he couldn’t block out. When Blair had fallen, the scrunch of protesting bones and tendons had ripped through his head like a cannonade and the subsequent cries of agony and rapid, shocky breathing had terrified him, as had the sickening sense of free-fall which heralded the travois’ short fall to the ground. He felt, intimately, the effects of Blair’s latest injury on his body and cried out, unable to shield himself from the onslaught. Blair was his anchor and right now and that anchor was slipping away.
Blair rolled shakily to his hands and knees and crawled out of the jerry-rigged harness, making his way slowly back to Jim’s side. He dropped back onto the travois and clawed his way under the blankets, seeking the comforting warmth of Jim’s body. He wrapped his arms tightly around Jim and clung to him fiercely, tears rolling down his cheeks as his body continued to shake. Jim’s left arm fumbled across his back and took hold of him, pulling him into a comforting embrace. Blair snuggled his head into the crook of Jim’s neck and laid next to him for nearly thirty minutes, waiting for the pain from his ankle to subside. Finally it did, ebbing away to be replaced by a numbness which was, after the shrieking agony, a blessed relief.
Blair raised his head slightly and kissed Jim gently on his forehead, cheek, and finally lips before whispering “I love you,” in his ear. He carefully rolled out from under the blankets again and crawled around to the rope harness once more. At first, he wasn’t sure how the hell he’d move them any further without the use of his foot, but then it dawned on him that he was crawling okay and that his hands and knees were, so far, uninjured. He pulled the ropes back over his shoulders and started crawling forward, closing the distance to home inch by painful inch. “The road is long,” he said, letting the song play back in his mind once again. Blair suddenly found himself crying as the emotional impact of the song hit him like a ton of bricks. He kept on crawling, somehow finding the strength for one more push-off, and then another, and another, lost in a timeless, unending cycle of more and more painful ‘steps’. His awareness narrowed down further and further until the road and the weight of the travois were all-encompassing. He hardly noticed when, just over an hour later, the first faint shards of sunrise began to brighten the eastern sky.
As soon as he got back to Cascade, Simon got the duty officer to roust the paramedic assigned to their building from his bed. Lieutenant Hicks met a very antsy, worried-looking Captain Banks in the parking garage twenty minutes later and quickly loaded his gear into the back of the department’s new Ford Excursion. As the captain grabbed up a heap of blankets and exothermic chemical hot-packs, Hicks folded the two rear sets of seats down into their load-floor positions and installed the foldaway stretchers he’d brought with him. Before he could climb forwards into the front passenger seat, Captain Banks had the big vehicle rolling towards the garage exit.
By the time Hicks was buckled in, they were tearing down the deserted pre-dawn streets with the red police flasher whipping its light from side to side like a baleful eye. As the captain filled him in on what was going on, he began to understand why Captain Banks was so worried -- and why they were flying out of town on an older, seldom-used two-lane highway. He reached down and bumped the heater up a few notches, understanding all too well what they were likely to meet when they found the two men. He knew and liked both Detective Ellison and his goofy sidekick, Blair Sandburg, and was dismayed at the thought of them spending last night outside, unprotected from the weather, and probably injured.
The sun was coming up when Simon’s truck crested a rise in the winding road. Hicks, using a pair of powerful binoculars, was the first to spot the dark, huddled blob on the shoulder and the bright orange tarpaulin flapping behind it. As they got closer, he could make out a human figure on hands and knees, crawling forward and pulling something along the road behind it. He couldn’t see what was under the folds of the tarp, but it had to be Ellison and Sandburg there on the road.
“Captain!” he said excitedly, pointing down the long slope in the road.
“I see it,” said Simon, flicking the brights on and off in an attempt to get the crawling man’s attention. As they got closer, it became obvious that they’d found their two lost sheep.
“Damn...” said Hicks, finally recognizing the man slowly crawling along the road. “That’s Sandburg out in front, and if he’s crawling, god knows what state Ellison must be in!”
Simon let the heavy truck roll to a stop alongside Blair’s crawling form and jumped out, rushing to the young man’s side while Hicks went to check on Jim. Blair was still doggedly struggling forward and leaving blood-flecked hand-prints behind him, oblivious to everything but the road before him and the song he was humming and disjointedly singing.
“Blair... it’s Simon, man... you can stop pulling now,” said Simon, resting both hands on Sandburg’s trembling shoulders. “You’re safe now... we’re here.” Blair sank backwards onto his elbows and shins, his whole body convulsing with shivers of cold and the shakes of exhaustion.
“Jim...” he croaked, turning his head slightly. “Simon, help Jim...”
“Hicks is with him now,” said Simon, stopping to glance over at the paramedic. Hicks gave him a relieved thumbs up and went back to work on Ellison. “He says he’ll be okay,” said Simon, chafing Blair’s shoulders with his hands. “You did good, Blair; ready to go home?”
“He ain’t heavy... he’s my lover,” said Blair, giving the sentence just enough of the old song’s original cadence for Simon to recognize it. He then unceremoniously sank to the ground as if pole-axed, unconscious. Simon reached out for the kid’s neck to feel for his pulse and was shocked at how cold his skin was, and how weak his heartbeat felt. Blair had obviously pushed himself to the absolute limits of his endurance, not collapsing until there was nothing left to go on fighting with. The implications hit Simon square between the eyes and he gave Hicks a panicked look, frantically waving him over. He checked Blair’s breathing and was frightened by how shallow it seemed.
“We’ve got to get Sandburg into the truck and get him stabilized now!” said Simon, watching as Hicks checked the kid’s vital signs. Hicks looked up and nodded, quickly reaching into his bag for an assortment of injectable, rapid-effect drugs. One was to strengthen Blair’s heart-rate and the others were to combat the pain and exhaustion which were obviously afflicting him. Hicks ran to the truck and opened the back door, dragging one of the stretchers out and flipping it open beside Blair. He and Captain Banks rolled Sandburg onto the stretcher and loaded him into the truck as fast as they could, with Hicks taking the head of the stretcher so he could be inside the vehicle with Sandburg while the captain closed the door. He reached over and turned on the auxiliary heater vents, aiming their blasts of toasty-warm air down onto Blair’s ice-cold body. He rapidly and professionally got to work, stripping away Sandburg’s rain-soaked clothes and examining him for injuries while calling in to the hospital ER control center. He whistled softly as he pried the obviously outsize boot off Blair’s right foot and got a good look at the swollen, horribly bruised ankle.
Hicks quickly and expertly strapped the ankle with an elastic bandage and turned to tend to the bloody, dirt-encrusted wounds on his hands and knees. Hicks cleaned them up as best he could and coated them heavily with an antiseptic spray before wrapping gauze around each hand and knee.
While Hicks tended to Blair, Simon ran over to the tarp-covered litter and knelt beside Jim, gently shaking his shoulder to wake him up. Jim cried out in pain and opened his eyes, which were dazed-looking and disoriented. Simon could feel the heat and swelling in the shoulder beneath his hand and pulled away as if burned, angry with himself for causing Jim more pain.
“Simon?” said Jim, not quite believing his captain and friend was indeed hovering over him. “Where’s Blair, Simon? Is he okay? Tell me he’s okay, Simon!” Jim clawed at his captain’s arm with his good hand, struggling to sit up and failing, falling back against the blankets swaddling him. “Simon, I can’t hear him... why can’t I hear him?” asked Jim, his face screwing up as his body began shaking and tears started welling up in his eyes.
“Hicks is with him in the back of the truck, which is where you’ll be as soon as Hicks gets out here to help me drag your butt over there,” said Simon, avoiding the issue of Blair’s health. He knew the kid’s condition was touch and go right now and knew that telling Jim would only make matters worse. “You probably can’t hear him because of the engine,” he said, hoping it sounded good enough to calm Ellison down.
Right about then Hicks jumped out of the back of the truck, pulling the second stretcher out with him. He nodded at Simon, indicating that Blair’s condition was stabilized for the time being, and helped him roll Jim onto the stretcher. Again Hicks climbed in with the head of the stretcher while Banks closed the big door and ran around to the front, jumping in behind the wheel and turning the big vehicle around on the wet asphalt. Hicks steadied himself on his knees and quickly stripped the big detective, carefully examining the bandaged wounds at head and knee. Both had been carefully tended to in a fairly competent manner, which pushed Sandburg up a few notches in his books; looked like the kid wasn’t a total goof after all.
Hicks whistled again when he got a good look at Ellison’s right shoulder, which was swollen and bruised all around the joint. It had obviously been dislocated and Blair had kept his wits about him enough to realize he had to reseat it right away. Hicks smiled faintly, realizing Sandburg might not make a bad recruit for paramedic training. Satisfied that Jim’s injuries were all accounted for, Hicks wrapped him up in blankets and layered a few heat-packs on top of him.
He turned back to Blair and checked his temperature, squeezing and shaking a few more heat-packs to mix and activate the chemicals within before slipping them under the blankets covering him. He reached over and checked the IV he’d started as well, making sure the glucose-rich liquid was flowing properly into the unconscious man’s body.
“Like a couple of book-ends,” said Hicks, shaking his head as he realized the similar head-wounds both men sported were on opposite sides of their faces.
They were rolling at high speed towards Cascade before Hicks had finished tending Ellison and Simon made the trip to Cascade General in record time.
Jim slowly rose up out of unconsciousness and felt incredibly, awesomely relaxed and cozy. The pain he knew he should be feeling was muffled and swaddled away from him, probably by the medication which left him feeling so mellow. The faint antiseptic smell and the quiet beeping of a heart monitor told him where he was before he opened his eyes, and the familiar sound of Blair’s heartbeat -- which matched the beeping monitor note for note -- told him who was with him. He cracked his eyes open and squinted across the sunlit room, finding Blair asleep in the bed beside his.
The younger man was stretched out on his back with his right foot propped up on several pillows and both hands and knees swaddled in bandages. Blair’s right foot -- what Jim could see of it -- was splotched in a variety of purplish shades and slightly swollen. The heart monitor shared the side of Blair’s bed with an IV stand which was also beeping quietly to itself, dispensing medication of some kind into him. With the sunshine coming in behind him and creating a halo around his curly head, Blair looked positively angelic and heart-breakingly beautiful despite the bandages and hospital paraphernalia. He realized, again, how much he loved Blair, and how lost he’d be without him. He marveled at the fact that Blair had, in a very short time, become the most important person in his life and in his world.
“How do you feel, Jim?” asked Simon, pushing his head in through the door. He spoke quietly so as not to wake Blair and practically tiptoed across the room to the foot of Jim’s bed. Jim, too, was connected to an IV stand, though no heart monitor stood alongside it.
“Not too bad, considering,” said Jim, waving his hand to indicate the hospital room. He reached for the bed-rail and pressed the button which raised the mattress up behind him, allowing him to sit up comfortably. “Has anyone been able to put all the pieces together yet?”
“What, in the day and a half you guys have slept away in here?” asked Simon, smiling to take the bite out of his words. “Not much, beyond the fact that you went up against a rock-slide and lost, and that the kid dragged your sorry ass up out of a gorge and then proceeded to drag you down over several miles of highway on a litter he built from scratch. Funny thing is, by the time we found you two, he was in a much worse state than you were!”
“How is he, Simon?” asked Jim, his face suddenly turning ghost-white as the blood drained out of it. His eyes went apprehensively from Simon to Blair and then back again.
“Now? On the mend, same as you are,” said Simon with a smile. “When we found you two, he was borderline hypothermic and suffering from extreme exhaustion, along with the aftereffects of a concussion. He had a bump and a bruise on his head nearly as bad as yours, and he managed to sprain his right ankle not once, but twice, from two different angles. He’d also crawled with you dragging behind until his palms and knees were bleeding, Jim. Your partner’s quite a guy...”
“Yeah, I know...” said Jim, smiling lovingly at Blair’s sleeping face. “He’s got more strength, more determination, and more courage than anyone -- including me sometimes -- usually gives him credit for.” Jim looked down at his hands, ashamed by his admission.
“We’ve all underestimated the kid at times, Jim,” said Simon quietly. “If it hadn’t been for his determination to keep going against all odds, you’d both have died out there on that road.”
“I know,” said Jim softly, blinking back tears and then finally letting them flow. “God, I can’t tell you how much I love him, Simon... or how much I need him!”
“I know, Jim,” said Simon, smiling and reaching down to squeeze his friend’s foot over the end of the bed. “And I’m really happy for you both... if anyone deserves a happily ever after, it’s you two!”
“Thanks, Simon,” said Jim, smiling at his captain. “Sometimes, though, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing, if Blair might not be better off with someone closer to his own age...”
“Jim... give yourself a break,” said Simon sternly. “Blair is where he wants to be, with who he wants to be with... you! He wouldn’t be with you if he didn’t love you, and want to spend his life with you.”
“I know, but...” said Jim stopping when Simon shushed him with a wave of his hand.
“Let me tell you something,” said Simon, moving to sit on the corner of Jim’s bed. “When we found you two, he was still crawling forward, oblivious to everything else around... except you. Remember that old song, the “he ain’t heavy” one?”
“The one that starts with ‘the road is long, with many a winding turn’?” asked Jim, vaguely remembering the sound of those words weaving through his mind out on the highway.
“That’s the one,” said Simon, nodding. “Well, he was singing it, sort of, and he obviously had you in mind.”
“How d’you figure that?” asked Jim, mystified, and not quiet seeing the connection Simon was inferring.
“I guess that medication you’re on must be good stuff,” said Simon, smiling at Jim and then stopping to look over at Blair, who’d shifted in bed enough to bring one of his bandage-wrapped hands into plain view. “He’d changed the punchline of the chorus enough to let me know how he felt about you.”
“Changed it how?” asked Jim, still puzzled. Before Simon could answer, Blair replied for him.
“He ain’t heavy... he’s my lover,” said Blair, apparently talking in his sleep as a dream worked through his subconscious.
Simon let his arm sweep out in Blair’s general direction, turning to look at Jim with an eyebrow raised almost into his hairline and a slight grin on his face.
“You know,” said Jim, his face radiating love in waves so palpable Simon could almost reach out and touch them, “I think I like his version better!”
“Go to sleep, Ellison,” Simon said, smiling as he turned and walked towards the door.