Starsky awoke with a start, his eyes traveling frantically around the inside of the tent as he struggled to remember where he was. Raw images came rushing back with a jolt, bringing him fully awake as he remembered bits and pieces of the wolf attack the night before.
Looking toward Hutch's sleeping bag, he found it empty. Rolling over, Starsky grabbed the tent flap and peeked outside to see Hutch and Collins were sitting next to the fire. Feeling relieved, Starsky rolled onto his back and paused to gather his wits. He was thankful for the daylight - a definite virtue in this land of seemingly unending surprises.
The ache in his right arm reminded him of the grisly encounter with the wolf. Lifting it for a closer inspection, he saw the clean, white gauze that Collins had wrapped neatly around his latest wound.
Holy shit, Starsky thought. I guess it really did happen.
With a mighty effort, Starsky pulled himself to his feet and crawled out of the tent.
"Hey," Hutch said, looking up as Starsky approached. "I was just about to check on you. How are you feeling this morning?"
"I feel..." Starsk hesitated as if searching for the right word. "Like I've been in a fight," Starsky finished, wincing as he approached. "And maybe I lost the last round."
Hutch watched with concern as Starsky moved around carefully, accepting a cup of coffee from Collins before sitting down. He could see that Starsky was working through a lot of stiffness and assumedly, some pain as well. Between the fall into the creek yesterday morning and the wolf attack that evening, the man had to be feeling both calamities.
Starsky glanced around for the remains of the wolves.
"Collins and I dragged them upstream a hundred yards or so," Hutch said, assuming what Starsky was looking for. "There's no need to look at them any longer than necessary."
"I'll talk to a friend of mine at Fish & Game when we get home," Collins said. "It'll be necessary to report a wolf sighting not to mention having killed two of them. The department might want to pick up the carcasses. If so, they'll need me to show them where they are."
"I might like to have a look at them in the daylight myself," Starsky admitted. "But you're right," he added quickly. "No use keeping them in camp with us."
"I'll walk over there with you if you want to see them," Hutch offered.
"Yeah, I think I would. Maybe after I get enough coffee on board."
"I want another look at your arm first," Collins said. "I think the antibiotics you're on will help a lot. I just want to make sure the bite still looks ok."
Starsky nodded, accepting Collins' instructions.
"Where's Benson?" Starsky asked suddenly.
"Fishing," Hutch answered. "He left not too long ago. According to Collins, it won't take him long to catch what he wants."
"Don't worry, he's armed," Collins explained, sensing Starsky's concern. "Benson knows how to use a gun. He'll be fine."
With the third cup of coffee cradled in his hands, Starsky walked with Hutch in the direction of the dead wolves. The entire, wicked incident felt surreal - from the wolves' initial appearance to the moment Hutch pulled the trigger. When and how had everything spun so far out of control that he was seemingly more at risk than Hutch? Starsky was suspicious of the circumstances, yet he couldn't sort out why.
"Right here," Hutch said, leading Starsky to an area just off the beaten game trail. "No doubt, the carcasses might draw a few other predators, but hopefully not until after we've gone."
Starsky stared at the two dead wolves at his feet, the black one that had attacked him was by far the largest of the two. It was interesting how the animal did not look quite so deadly in the full light of day. The fangs were exposed in its skull - frozen in a kind of macabre and permanent snarl. The eyes were hollow and lifeless after one well-placed and fatal shot from Hutch's gun.
Starsky looked at Hutch, a litany of unanswerable questions lingering in his eyes. Hutch shoved both hands into the front pockets of his jeans and waited. It was the first time he had seen the wolves in full daylight himself. If Starsky hadn't wanted a second look, Hutch would have preferred not to see them again either. Since they were both here, Hutch steeled himself against the circumstances so Starsky could gain a better handle on what had happened.
"I don't even know what to think, Hutch," Starsky said, glancing again at the wolves. "What the hell is going on lately?"
"Damned if I know," Hutch answered, his own voice tapering to a near whisper. "I didn't see any of this coming. I'm sorry."
"Don't you dare go apologizing for anything! Without you, I would have been a goner for sure."
"I never dreamed something like this could happen out here, much less to you," Hutch added, his shoulders slumping slightly. "It may have been a bad idea for me to bring you back out here."
"Rubbish," Starsky argued, looking earnestly at Hutch. "Some unexpected stuff may have happened, but you've proven yourself more than capable of dealing with it. That's at least part of the reason we're both here. I'm not sorry I came, so don't you be either."
From a secluded, discrete distance away, Lila watched as all four men moved around camp. Obviously, Starsky was functioning just fine. The realization caused Lila's anger to spark and her heart to pound with abandon.
"How can that be?" Lila asked out loud. "How could the spirits have abandoned me so completely?"
As she watched Starsky and Hutch walk together to inspect the dead wolves, Lila tried unsuccessfully to contain her emotions. She had seen Hutch and Collins drag their bodies away earlier that morning. How the tables of fate could have turned on her so completely, Lila could not understand. She had been so confident in the power of her own potion - a tactic she had used many times before with excellent results. Yet Hutch had remained beyond her grasp, and Starsky's presence would ensure that he stayed there.
Retrieving a set of binoculars, Lila used them for a closer look at Hutch. Locating him through the lens, she sharpened the focus to enable her to see his face more clearly. Despite the limitations of the scope, Lila thought Hutch looked more handsome than ever. When he smiled and wrapped an arm around Starsky's shoulders, a new wave of anger exploded inside of her.
"Alright then," Lila thought, watching as the men returned to camp. "Since we're running out of time, it looks like I'll have to take care of things myself."
"Hey, give that back," Hutch said, holding out a hand.
"No," Collins replied, snatching away the card. "You gave it up. It's too late to change your mind, pardner."
Starsky snickered from across the makeshift table. While the cards in his hand looked promising, it was almost unfair of him to join a poker game that involved Hutch. Starsky could read the man too easily. The slight furrow between Hutch's eyebrows told him that Hutch was not happy with his cards. The almost plaintive glance Hutch threw in his direction indicated that he was calculating some sort of odds.
"I'm afraid things are too rich for me, gentlemen. I have to fold," Benson said, laying down his cards.
Starsky looked expectantly at Collins.
"Wanna put that new card to use and show us what you've got?"
"Alright then," Collins replied, displaying a perfect flush of diamonds.
"Not bad, not bad," Starsky commented, looking next at Hutch. "And you, Detective Hutchinson? What's ya got?"
Hutch looked annoyed as he laid down a five-card straight composed of mixed suits.
"Not bad either," Starsky commented, smiling at Hutch over the cards.
"Ok, Starsky, let's see your hand then," Collins insisted.
Without additional comment, Starsky fanned out a flush of hearts for everyone to see.
"Sorry, folks, but when you've got it, you've got it," Starsky said, gathering the small pile of chips in his direction.
"Ok, that's it for me," Hutch said. "I'm all pokered out for the evening."
"Me, too," Collins added, pushing away from the flimsy, makeshift table.
"I'd like all of you to know that I'm willing to extend credit. Except for you, Hutch. Dinner will work in lieu of cash."
Hutch rolled his eyes at Starsky's proposition.
"Hey, you're not a bad cook, and I get to have something other than takeout once in a while," Starsky explained. "I see it as a win/win situation all the way around."
"My partner can't cook," Collins said almost wistfully. "So I totally get it, Starsky. And after what I saw last night, you might think seriously about making him dinner instead."
Starsky looked at Hutch knowing the other man would not be entirely comfortable with the compliment. While Starsky was empathetic to Hutch's humility, he was happy to hear someone other than himself give Hutch the kind of honest praise he so rightly deserved.
"What you saw last night is the level of integrity that Hutch brings to everything he does. He'll never admit to that, but I don't mind doing it for him."
"Well, I'm happy you guys are wearing badges. If you weren't on my side of the law, the deck would definitely be stacked."
After gathering so much wood the day before, there was no need to worry about finding more before nightfall. The afternoon had been spent playing cards, telling stories, and exploring some of the surrounding areas they had not seen the day before. Hutch was thrilled to discover a small waterfall at the far end of the creek downstream. Although the water was too cold for swimming this time of year, Hutch thought the depth at the base of the falls was probably ideal for taking a dip during the warmer months. Best of all, there was no further sign of wolves anywhere around.
"So tonight's our last night with Mother Nature," Starsky said, following Hutch up a trail. 'It feels like we ought to celebrate or something."
"Why's that, Starsk? Are you happy to finally be getting out of here?" Hutch asked, glancing over his shoulder.
"Maybe a little," Starsky admitted, working to keep up with Hutch.
The pace they were going had left him a little short of breath after trying to work through a few sore spots from his recent injuries. Hutch noticed the effort on Starsky's face and stopped to allow him to catch up.
"I'm more concerned about your mood though," Starsky said. "If you're asking me, and I know you haven't, but I think you're more like the partner I had before Diana-from-Hell showed up again. I recognize you again, Hutch, and I'm proud of you for that. Whatever part of your mind still needs to heal, I say you're going to make it."
Hutch listened intently as Starsky talked while he tried to properly absorb the content of what he was saying. Dr. Henderson had encouraged him to pay attention to Starsky's point of view. As the person who knew Hutch best, Starsky had a unique and genuine perspective to offer.
No one else in the world would be out here with me, Hutch thought fondly. Not even my family.
Although the awareness in itself was nothing new, Hutch's understanding had been deepened by the realization. He had been so worried about getting well that he had overlooked some of his closest support in the process. Starsky and Huggy had made that crystal clear back in town. Much of what Hutch really needed was standing right in front of him, particularly now that he had shared with Starsky the extent of what he'd endured at the hand of Diana and her accomplices.
"Come one, let's finish this hike and spend the evening relaxing around the fire. I refuse to believe there are any more wolves hanging around."
"I've gotta admit I don't want any more visitors," Starsky replied. "But hey, you said the moon is supposed to be full tonight. That always means something could happen, right?"
"Ummm... Depends on who you ask, I guess. Most Indian legends I've ever heard would indicate yes. A lot of unusual things happen when a full moon is in the sky, never mind a harvest moon which is exactly what we'll have tonight."
"Oh man, that was a good meal. We certainly haven't gone hungry this trip."
"Yeah, I've gotta agree, Hutch," Collins chimed in. "I could live on fresh-caught trout."
"I guess I'd get by," Starsky chimed in, a slight smile forming on his lips. "I've liked everything we've had out here, but as soon as we get home I'm getting a cheeseburger at Huggy's."
"You need to take me to Huggy's," Collins said.
"I can do that - no worries," Starsky confirmed, winking at Hutch. "He'll be wanting to see us anyway after our little camping adventure."
Starsky kicked back, leaning against a log and stretching his arms high above his head.
"Sleeping on the ground is all well and good, but I miss my own bed," Starsky added. "But that doesn't matter - we're heading home tomorrow."
"If there's anything else you want to do before dark, I'd do it now," Collins suggested. "I want to grab a little more of that hardwood Hutch and I found."
"Would you like some help?" Hutch asked.
"That's ok. I'll make Benson come with me this time. He wanted to see where we found it anyway. The two of you can take it easy, and we'll be back shortly."
"Works for me. And hey, don't worry about firewood while you're out there," Hutch teased. "We have plenty for once."
Collins grinned and began to gather his used dishes with the intent of going to the creek to wash them out.
"Oh, don't worry about those," Starsky said. "I'll take care of them in a minute when I do mine. Go ahead and find what you want before it gets much later."
"Thanks, Starsky," Collins replied, turning to Benson and punching him in the arm. "Let's go then."
Starsky watched as the two medics gathered their backpacks and soon disappeared into the woods.
"Those two are good people. I'm glad we got to meet them."
"Me, too," Hutched agreed. "Actually, I'd say we're both lucky to have made their acquaintance."
Starsky couldn't argue that point.
Realizing it was a good time for a private discussion, Starsky dug into the front pocket of his jeans and pulled out the piece of metal he'd recovered from the ashes.
"Have you had any more thoughts about this?" Starsky asked, allowing Hutch to see what he was holding.
"Yeah, a few," Hutch admitted.
Starsky waited, not wanting to push too hard or lead with an additional question.
"I remembered where I've seen that emblem before," Hutch confessed. "Diana was wearing a charm bracelet the night I took her to dinner. I'm sure one of the charms looked exactly like that thing in your hand."
Starsky raised an eyebrow as he listened. They both knew the symbol was connected to Diana in some way. It was the fact that it had shown up out here in the woods that was making them both uneasy.
"Well then, I guess we both noticed the symbology was something that she liked. Do you have any idea if she was practicing Wicca?"
Hutch looked uncomfortable when he tried to answer.
"No, not that I know of. But obviously, I didn't know her as well as I should have, did I? It's entirely possible she could have been up to a lot of things without my knowledge."
Starsky suspected that Hutch was on the verge of saying something additionally derogatory about himself.
"Na ah," Starsky interceded. "Don't you dare go down that road of regret, Hutchinson. Diana was a woman who had everyone fooled for a while - you, me, and even the hospital she worked for. You were actually the first to recognize that something was seriously wrong."
Starsky knew that Hutch had heard him.
"How do you think that kind of symbol got into our camp?" Hutch asked instead. "Do you think it's related to Diana, or is it just the wildest coincidence you've ever heard of?"
"I wish I knew for sure. Yes, I think it's related to Diana in some way. No, I don't believe that Diana is the one who left it here. What do you think?"
"Yeah, much the same. There's a missing link somewhere. I just can't figure out where."
A heavy shadow passed overhead starling them both. They looked up in time to see a great horned owl settle nearby on a low-hanging branch.
"Wow," Starsky gasped. "That might be the biggest frickin' owl I've ever seen."
"Agreed. That thing is huge."
The owl stared back at them through enormous yellow eyes from the safety of the tree.
"There ya go," Hutch teased, poking Starsky in the ribs. "That's some of the stuff we came out here to see."
"Yeah, it sure is. And hey, look up. Just like you said, the moon is gonna be full tonight."
Starsky sat up suddenly and began gathering the used dishes. "I need to get these rinsed before it's too dark to see what I'm doing."
"Want any help?" Hutch asked.
"Nah, stay put. I'll be right back."
Starsky headed for the creek with an armload of dishes while Hutch ducked into the tent to grab his harmonica. Starsky had reached the creek bank and was looking for the best spot to rinse off the dishes when the sound of a stranger's voice caught his attention instead.
"Hello, Mr. Starsky," the voice said.
Startled, Starsky looked up to see a petite, dark-haired stranger facing him on the opposite side of the creek. Equally surprising was the pair of large, gray wolves, one on each side, that accompanied her.
"Your loyalty to Hutch is admirable, Starsky, but I'm afraid you're in my way," the woman explained calmly. "You need to go."
Without breaking her gaze, the woman slowly drew a gun from behind her skirt and leveled it at Starsky.
Back in camp, Hutch had just emerged from the tent when he looked up to see Starsky confronting a woman at creekside. His heart leaped in his chest when he noticed the weapon in her hand.
"Starsky! Get down!" Hutch yelled, diving for his magnum.
Dropping the dishes, Starsky fell to the ground and rolled toward the nearest thicket of brush. The sound of gunfire blasting past his shoulder left a burning trail where a bullet grazed his arm.
Hutch yanked his gun from its holster and took aim at the stranger on the opposite side of the creek. He didn't waste time wondering who she was. It didn't matter. She was a deadly threat who had fired a weapon at Starsky.
The bullet exploded from Hutch's magnum, finding its target, and spinning Lila around a hundred and eighty degrees. Despite the impact knocking her backward, she managed to stay on her feet. Bent in half from the waist, the gun nearly slipping from her hand, Lila gathered her strength and struggled to turn around.
One of the wolves launched itself into the creek just before Hutch pulled the trigger. Running toward Starsky, Hutch watched as the animal thrashed its way through the water. Reaching the other side, the enraged wolf was climbing onto the grass when Hutch skidded to a stop, took aim, and shot it in the chest. The animal collapsed instead - half in, half out of the water, a few feet in front of Hutch. The remaining wolf had disappeared altogether.
Searching frantically for Starsky, Hutch spotted him just as Lila managed to straighten and turn around. The woman's eyes had grown dark and accusatory as she stared at Hutch.
"Why, Hutch?" she screamed. "Why couldn't you just cooperate and love me instead?"
Hutch stared back at a woman he didn't recognize, horrified, and confused by the scenario unfolding in front of him. Startled that she had called him by name, her long, black skirt swirling around her ankles, he hesitated for just an instant. It was then that the woman's eyes shifted from anguish to rage, and she leveled her gun in his direction. Indecision yielded to reflex when Hutch reacted by firing first. The mysterious woman fell to the ground and was instantly still.
Hutch turned, searching frantically for Starsky before spotting a patch of his blue shirt through a break in the brush.
"Starsky!" Hutch yelled, rushing toward him.
"I'm ok! I'm ok!" Starsky shouted, rolling over. "I think I got dinged, but I'm ok."
With Starsky flat on his back, Hutch was able to see him more easily. There was a large, bloody rip in his shirt near one shoulder where a bullet had obviously grazed him. Beyond that, Starsky did not appear to be seriously harmed.
His heart thumping wildly in his chest, Hutch dropped the handgun and fell to his knees, reaching for Starsky to steady himself as much as anything else. Had she been real? Or had she been nothing more than an elaborate apparition from the depths of his own mind? Hutch wasn't sure, and he was trembling too hard to care.
"I'm ok! Starsky repeated, newly alarmed by the detached and heartbroken look in Hutch's eyes.
When he didn't respond, Starsky sat up and pulled Hutch into his arms.
"Stay with me! Stay with me, Hutch," Starsky soothed. "Whoever she was, she's gone!"
Hutch collapsed in relief against Starsky, his eyes tightly shut against the sudden onslaught of repressed memories that had taunted him for weeks. As the dam of emotions finally broke, remembrances of his time in captivity floated to the forefront of his mind - hours spent at the mercy of unkind strangers wearing layers of black clothing and strands of silver jewelry, all hovering, chanting, touching, and coercing his body with their unwanted madness.
In a final, cleansing effort, Hutch conquered the remainder of his fear and crumpled in his partner's arms. Sobbing with relief, he allowed the security that only Starsky could provide to surround, enfold, and protect him. Like a rock in a storm, Starsky waited - holding him until Hutch had the strength to pull away. When he did, Starsky recognized the man he had always known, peering back at him through troubled eyes.
"It's over," Starsky whispered, cradling Hutch's face with his hand. "Whatever the hell just happened, we made it, partner."