Chapter 1: The Road Ahead
"Damn it!" Hutch exclaimed, grabbing his hand as he hurried toward the sink.
"What? What happened?" Starsky asked, running into the kitchen from an adjoining room.
"Oh, I cut myself!" Hutch admitted, struggling to keep the blood from dripping on the floor.
Starsky rushed to intervene, turning on the tap water as he reached for Hutch's wrist.
"Here, let me help you," Starsky insisted, guiding his partner's hand to the running water.
Reluctantly, Hutch allowed Starsky to take control, watching in morbid fascination as the rivulets of blood began to pool on the bottom of the sink. For a brief moment, he almost forgot it was his until the cut began to sting and he tried to pull away. If Starsky had not had such a firm grip on his wrist, he might have been successful.
"Sorry," Starsky offered. "I'm afraid this is gonna smart. Hang on, will ya? I'm almost done."
Hutch scrunched his eyelids together and focussed on standing still. After shutting off the faucet, Starsky grabbed a handful of paper towels and wrapped them tightly around the end of Hutch's injured finger.
"Well, do you want to see a doctor?"Starsky asked. "At a minimum, this looks like a job for a strong butterfly bandage."
"No, no," Hutch argued, reclaiming his hand. "I don't need a doctor, Starsk. Just help me wrap it up and it'll be fine."
Anticipating Hutch's response, Starsky pulled a dinette chair away from the table and motioned for him to sit down. "In that case, have a seat before you bleed all over yourself and everything else."
Starsky next grabbed a kitchen towel and laid it on the table. After briefly disappearing down the hall, he reappeared a minute later with an assortment of first aid supplies in his hands.
"And how did you manage to do this again?" Starsky asked as he dumped the stuff on the table. "I thought you were just packing the drinks."
"I was," Hutch admitted, feeling instantly guilty. "I spotted a couple of apples at the back of the 'fridge and decided to slice them up for us to eat on the road. I should have stuck to the drinks."
"Yes, you should have," Starsky agreed. "But since you've taken the time to hurt yourself, we need to deal with it."
After helping Hutch position his hand, Starsky applied a generous amount of antibiotic ointment to the cut before pulling it together with a double butterfly dressing. Once he was satisfied with his handiwork, Starsky carefully added a finger guard he'd found in the bathroom cabinet. Securing the protective tip with several strips of white adhesive tape, Starsky took a step back to examine the final result.
"There! All done," Starsky announced proudly. "Except we'll need to grab some extra bandaids on our way out of town."
Hutch lifted his finger for a better look at the new bandage. "Thanks, Starsk." Unsure what else to say, he started toward the bloody mess he'd abandoned on the kitchen counter.
"Nope, go on out to the car," Starsky directed, stepping in front of Hutch. "Our gear's already loaded. I'll finish cleaning up and packing."
Ten minutes later...
"Is everything still ok out here?" Starsky asked, grinning as he slid behind the steering wheel.
"Funny," Hutch replied, presenting his best sarcastic smile from the passenger side of the Torino.
Starsky shrugged, chuckling as he reached for the ignition. "Well, it pays to ask, Hutch. After all, you were out here alone for a few minutes."
From his side of the Torino, Hutch thought of several choice responses but somehow refrained from using any of them. He was more irritated with himself for doing something so careless with a simple kitchen knife.
"Ah, cheer up Hutch," Starsky added. "It's nothing you should worry about - just a little bump in the road is all. I'm sorry you hurt yourself. I really am, but we're still gonna have a great time."
Not waiting for the counterargument, Starsky started the Torino and prepared to drive away. "Maps, check - compass, check," Starsky continued. "We've got a cooler full of food, enough basics to last at least a week, and nothing but time on our hands for a change. And for just a little while, Hutch, no one - not even Dobey - is gonna be able to find us. Sounds like a little slice of Heaven to me."
Starsky glanced at his partner, hoping his words had at least been helpful. Once the embarrassment of cutting himself began to dull, Starsky was confident that Hutch would be back in sync with their plans and eager for some time away from the city. All he needed was a reminder of better things to come.
"I'm glad you talked me into this," Starsky added.
"Oh yeah? You're completely sure about that, are you?" Hutch asked. "We didn't make it out of the house before I had problems."
"Absolutely, I'm sure! I know it's not the same brand of fun as Vegas, but I changed my mind about vacationing in Sin City this year, remember? Since my last date with Cindy went as well as it did, I'm not interested in hanging out in a casino just to watch the pretty ladies walk by. In fact, I don't much care if I see anyone else for at least a week."
Well, I tried to warn ya, buddy, Hutch thought privately. "But I forgot to pack my heels and pearls," he said out loud instead. "I'm afraid you're destined to be disappointed."
"Nah," Starsky replied, ignoring the obvious attempt at satire. "After my last experience, I don't really give a damn about the whole dating scene right now."
Coming from you, Starsk, that's a potentially dangerous statement.
Hutch decided it was better if he didn't share the whole naked truth - or at least the truth as he saw it - about Starsky's most recent, albeit short-lived, romance.
"Cindy didn't like me because she knew I was suspicious of her motives," Hutch offered instead. Pausing to glance at Starsky, Hutch wondered if even that had been too much to share.
"You're right," Starsky admitted, apparently unruffled by Hutch's unsolicited insight. "She was lookin' for excitement - or somethin'," Starsky added. "I guess the idea of dating a cop must have fit that description, at least for a while."
"Or something," Hutch agreed, looking directly at Starsky. The smile he offered was genuine this time.
"Hey, there's the store," Starsky said, changing the subject altogether. "Not only do we need to grab more bandaids, but it's our last chance to buy anything before we leave civilization behind."
Chapter 2: A Taste of Freedom
As the Torino rolled down the highway, Hutch submerged himself in the wild sensation of the wind blowing through his hair. It was such a simple joy, yet something he rarely took the time to experience in recent months. Easing closer to the partially open window, Hutch tilted his head to recapture the feeling if only for a short while. It was akin to getting a scalp massage from a hundred tiny, expert fingers.
"You have a really goofy look on your face," Starsky said, glancing at Hutch. "Obviously, we're getting out of town just in time."
Hutch allowed himself another moment of self-indulgence before rolling up the window to control the noise. "It reminds me of riding my bike, I guess," he confessed. "I haven't done that in a long, long time. You know as well as I do it's not the same experience if you're wearing a helmet."
"Your motorcycle?" Starsky asked.
"Yeah. I can't seem to find the time to ride my dirt bike much anymore. I've even thought about selling it."
"No, you can't sell it!" Starsky argued. "Hutch, you love that bike! You know I'm a city rider, but I'd be willing to tag along if you want to go riding in the hills sometime."
"Alright," Hutch said as if considering the idea for the first time. "Simmer down, Starsk. I haven't sold the bike yet."
While he could have guessed that Starsky would not want him to get rid of his bike, Hutch was a little surprised by the overall level of his resistance. "I know we didn't figure bikes into this outing, but maybe we should next time," Hutch suggested.
"Absolutely!" Starsky agreed. "In fact, we could make a whole weekend out of it. I always liked that idea, 'cause the bikes are right there when you wake up in the morning. No one has to waste time driving to the trails."
"We'd have to borrow a truck or rent a trailer to haul the bikes, or can the Torino handle a small trailer? And speaking of trails, aren't we getting close to our turn-off?"
"Yeah, the Torino can pull a small trailer. And yes, we're almost to the junction. But since we haven't decided exactly where we're goin' yet, I thought we'd pick a more precise direction once we see how busy the parking lot is."
"Ok, sounds good."
A few moments passed quietly as Hutch appeared to be considering something additional. "Ya know, Starsk," he said eventually. "If only for a little while, I really love the idea of not knowing exactly where we're going."
A comfortable silence ensued until a mile marker became visible in the distance. Taking the exit, Starsky began slowing down as another sign materialized at the intersection.
"Emerald Bay," Starsky read. "That's what we're lookin' for, eventually anyway."
"We're going that far today?" Hutch asked, openly surprised.
"Oh no, not today. I thought we'd pick east or west once we got this far. Besides, the lake is more likely to be crowded on a weekend."
"And as neither of us is feeling particularly friendly right now, I say we head west," Hutch said.
"I concur," Starsky decided, gazing in that direction. "The map says there's a small general campground not too far from here. We can park the Torino there overnight and hike in another mile or so. From there, we should have our pick of locations to pitch the tent."
"So west it is," Hutch decided.
It was a little past noon, a part of the day that would normally find them knee-deep in work if it had been a typical weekday. Once they had driven west another twenty miles or so, they located the campground featured on Starsky's map. Starsky pulled over to fill out the required registration form before slipping a five-dollar bill into the provided envelope. Once he was satisfied that he'd completed the form properly, he deposited the whole thing into the roadside payment canister.
"There! We're all checked in," Starsky announced. "No additional human interaction is required beyond this point."
Pulling forward through the main gate, Starsky selected a parking spot on the far side of the empty lot. Thankful the Torino had finally stopped moving, Hutch unfolded his limbs and climbed out, grateful for the opportunity to do so. Although they'd been on the road for less than three hours, a long car ride was never his idea of real fun. Filling his lungs with the fresh, clean air, Hutch immediately noticed the heavy scent of pine that permeated the entire area.
Starsky smiled knowingly as he glanced at Hutch. Getting completely out of the city limits always had a predictably positive effect on his partner. Once they were surrounded by the aura of the deep woods, Starsky was confident that Hutch would let go of the tension he had a tendency to cling to. While places like this could scare the hell out of Starsky after dark, nothing that lived in this type of environment ever seemed to concern Hutchinson. It was the primary reason Hutch could talk Starsky into camping with him a couple of times a year; that and the fact they were both always armed.
"Not bad, huh?" Starsky asked.
"Not bad at all," Hutch agreed. "Have you been here before?"
"Are you kidding? Nope, I've read about it though. I thought it would be a good jumping-off point to some of the areas we've talked about. It sounded like something you'd enjoy."
Opening the cooler, Starsky grabbed the sandwiches he'd left sitting on top of the other groceries. Handing one to Hutch, he reached for two cans of soda.
"Hey, we've still got plenty of ice," Starsky said, sounding impressed. "This old cooler of yours works like an absolute charm."
"Yes, it sure does," Hutch agreed, pulling off the light jacket he was wearing. "Which is the reason I dragged it all the way out here from Minnesota."
"Well, whatever you paid for it, it was an excellent investment."
"Yeah? Well, Vanessa sure didn't think so. She was all kinds of pissed when she saw me loading it onto the moving truck. I guess she assumed I was leaving it behind."
Should have left her there instead, Starsky caught himself thinking.
Knowing how deeply Hutch's divorce had wounded him, Starsky moved past his initial thought to a different comment. "Well, Vanessa was wrong about a lot of stuff, Hutch. It sounds like the cooler is just one more example."
Spreading out the map on the hood of the Torino, Starsky turned his attention to the access roads that traversed the campground. There were only two, one of which they had used to get there. "There are several hiking trails to choose from," Starsky noted.
"Uh-huh. And where does that one go?" Hutch asked, pointing to the trailhead closest to them. "It looks fairly well-groomed."
"Says here it leads to a place called Cedar Creek," Starsky said. "And judging from the map, it's less than two miles away."
"Cedar Creek, huh?" Hutch asked, looking thoughtful.
"Hutch, remember me telling you about the big cedar trees that grow out here? Some of them are in this area. They're literally hundreds of years old."
"No kidding," Hutch replied, further considering the idea of the groves as he munched on his sandwich. After a few additional moments, he seemed to come to a decision. "Yeah, I think I would like to see those, Starsk."
"Alright. Cedar Creek, it is then. "
Less than a hundred yards away, a young, mildly heavyset man scowled as he knelt for a closer look at his trapline. A modicum of bloody fur was all that remained of whatever had once been snagged by the jaws of the trap. Most likely, he was looking at the remnants of a good-sized rabbit.
"What the hell?" the man mumbled, glancing around suspiciously.
When Otis had ventured out to hunt that morning, it was important that he rustle up something substantial for dinner. Rabbits were usually a sure-fire, easy snare for a filling meal. Losing his catch to a rival hunter would be a substantial blow to Otis' self-esteem as well as his belly.
Otis had lived with his ma and three brothers in various parts of the California and Nevada woods for as long as he could remember. Rarely staying in one place for too long, they managed to survive on a mostly hand-to-mouth existence - getting by on what they could grow, harvest from the woods, or steal from unsuspecting townsfolk. Some months were simply more plentiful than others. Largely because current times were on the lean side, Otis didn't appreciate any sort of interference with his trapline.
Quickly scanning the immediate area, he saw no other sign of wildlife. There were no bear, coyote, or cougar prints to suggest what might have happened to his game. If some other predator had helped itself to an easy meal, Otis would expect to see something more indicative of what had happened. For the first time in a long while, he was forced to consider the possibility that the rabbit might have escaped on its own. There was no otherwise convincing evidence to draw from.
An unusual noise caught Otis' attention - laughter, and a voice that didn't belong in these surroundings. Standing, he walked to the edge of the hillside and looked down. There on the lower trail, Otis caught sight of two strangers as they hiked by. Despite being several yards away, Otis could distinguish the outline of two adult men - one was noticeably blonde while the other was contrastingly dark-haired. Otis was certain he had never seen either one of them before.
Instantly fascinated, he watched the strangers as they ambled down the trail, fully engaged in loud conversation, and totally unaware of his presence. They were obviously city folk of some variety. With his interest piqued, Otis considered if they might be responsible for his missing rabbit. Newly annoyed by the faintest possibility it could be so, he decided to trail them and find out.
Falling in line behind the strangers, Otis concentrated on working his way closer to the two men. As neither of them seemed to be in a hurry, it wasn't long before he was close enough to overhear part of their conversation.
"Oh, is that right?" the dark-haired one was asking, his voice heavy with sarcasm. "Well, Hutchinson, that's not at all the way I heard it."
Taking up the challenge, Hutch smirked at his partner. Judging by Starsky's reaction alone, Hutch was now confident in his assumptions.
"Look, Starsk - there were only three of us there that night, right?" Hutch asked, his eyes beginning to twinkle. "You and I were two of them, correct?" he prompted, holding up two fingers as an illustration. Starsky smiled in quiet acknowledgment.
"The third was that poor, unsuspecting, and exceptionally nice-looking lady whose phone number found its way to your wallet," Hutch explained, adding another finger for emphasis.
Hutch waited for Starsky to do the math. "That didn't happen by way of osmosis, buddy."
Hutch's comment was followed by an additional lopsided grin from Starsky. "Yeah? Well, Dobey never knew the difference, did he?" Starsky asked. "As for me, I admit to nothing."
"Undoubtedly, it's safer that way," Hutch warned. "I'm just sayin' it would behoove you to remember that I'm someone who will always know otherwise."
Hutch had turned to walk away when a fist-sized pine cone hit him squarely in the middle of the back. If not for the heavy pack he was wearing, it might have hurt. His intuition now confirmed, he chuckled instead and kept walking.
From a discreet distance away, Otis watched as the men chatted about something he didn't understand. While there was no sign of his missing rabbit, he had grown curious as to what they were up to. Otis knew the trail ended in less than a quarter-mile. It was an area few people frequented and weren't expected to - which was exactly why Otis and his brothers had chosen it. Otis sensed it was newly important to know precisely where the strangers were going.
Hutch arrived at the end of the groomed trail a few steps ahead of Starsky. It was surprising how the whole thing disappeared rather abruptly by t-boning into an otherwise open meadow.
"Nice," Starsky commented, catching up with Hutch. "So the hike was worth it, huh?"
"Yeah, I'd say it was worth it," Hutch agreed, his eyes sweeping back and forth across the open grasslands.
Hutch's attention was eventually drawn to the opposite side of the meadow where the grass looked particularly lush. Predictably, every spring the snowmelt filled the streams with icy runoff that turned the meadows green and caused the flowers to burst into bloom. Although the temperature was still freezing at night in the mountains, it was Hutch's favorite time of the year to be outdoors. He felt a ripple of exhilaration as he looked around. To Hutch, the entire area was ideal.
"Let's head over there," Hutch decided, pointing to the greener side of the meadow. "I'm guessing that's where the creek is."
Adventuring into the thigh-high grass, Starsky and Hutch took off side by side, still laughing intermittently about something. From his hiding place in the timber, Otis watched with trepidation as the two men advanced toward the far side of the meadow. His brothers had been so confident that no one would venture anywhere near this meadow before at least mid-summer, and maybe not even then. Who were these men who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere? Otis knew it was up to him to stop them.
Thinking furiously, Otis decided a gunshot would be the most effective way to sabotage the strangers' progress. Hopefully, it would also scare them into voluntarily going elsewhere. Feeling slightly more confident, Otis shouldered his rifle and aimed high over their heads.
Starsky was about to say something else when a rifle shot resonated from somewhere behind them. Reacting instinctively, Starsky and Hutch both dove for cover in the tall grass. Quickly shedding their backpacks, they simultaneously reached for the handguns they each wore strapped to one hip. With their guns drawn, and shoulder to shoulder in the high grass, Starsky and Hutch faced off with the wide-open meadow they had just crossed on foot.
"You ok?" Starsky whispered, focussing on the treeline as he spoke.
"Yeah, I'm good," Hutch answered.
It came from the trees," Starsky added, his dark blue eyes pinned on the evergreens that ringed the meadow's edge. "What the hell, Hutch? Hunters?"
"Maybe, but it's not exactly hunting season - not legally anyway. People might be out rustling up squirrels, rabbits - maybe a few birds. I'm not sure what else is in season around here. I'm certain there's no big game hunting this time of year."
"Isn't there such a thing as spring bear season?" Starsky asked, wishing he hadn't thought of it.
"Yes, but I don't think we're in the right zone for bears. I guess we should have thought of that before we came charging up here, huh?"
From his vantage point deep in the timber, Otis watched as the two men disappeared in the waves of grass. Initially, he feared he might have hit one of them although he knew that was profoundly unlikely. His aim had been too intentionally high to have flirted with that much error. Still, it puzzled him how they both could have vanished so quickly. Otis knew approximately where they had dropped out of sight although neither man was visible any longer. He'd expected an entirely different response from ordinary city folk.
Growing nervous, Otis began to worry the strangers might have somehow made it out of the meadow unseen and were now backtracking on him. Not wanting to be surprised, he abandoned his hiding place in favor of the deeper part of the woods. As he hurried toward the family cabin, Otis wondered how he could possibly explain what he'd seen to his family. One thing he knew for sure - his brothers were not going to be happy.
Chapter 3: The Unforseen
"Starsk," Hutch said, keeping his voice low. "Whoever they were, I'd say they're gone." Hutch rolled onto his back, peering intently at his partner as he did so. "And just maybe we're both a little jumpy?"
Starsky had independently drawn the same conclusion although Hutch had verbalized it first. As a result, Starsky could feel his partner studying him intently - awaiting the acknowledgment they now both suspected. When Starsky could no longer keep a straight face, he gave up and slowly lowered his gun.
"So what do you think of your vacation so far?" Starsky asked, smiling at his partner. "Nice scenery, right? And so relaxing."
Hutch had already dissolved into a fit of giggling, his gun arm draped limply across his forehead. After wrestling for composure, he was eventually able to form a few words.
"Do we have any beer?" Hutch asked between snorts of laughter.
"Of course we do. But after tossing our packs the way we just did, I'd highly recommend waiting before you open one."
"No, not now!" Hutch argued, still laughing. "We need to pick a campsite, pitch the tent, and commence having a splendid vacation. And frankly, it feels like we could both use a beer. I'm worried we're worse off than we thought."
The mid-day sun was warm where it caressed the side of Hutch's face. For a fleeting moment, he thought about pitching the tent right where they were.
"Hutch, you know as well as I do that shot came from a rifle."
"Yeah, and it was also high and wide," Hutch pointed out. I know you noticed that, too."
Starsky conceded that Hutch had a point. If someone had been aiming for either of them, they were an incredibly piss poor shot.
"Alright, pal," Starsky sighed. "Give me a minute, would ya? My heart rate is still about twice what it should be. I need a little breather before I try to get up."
When Otis entered the cabin, he was surprised to see he was the last one home. Ma was busy preparing a stew for the kettle while his brothers relaxed near the fireplace. Apparently, everyone had experienced a more productive day of hunting than he had. At least they would have something filling for dinner tonight. Relaxing a bit, Otis shed his coat and hung it near the front door. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
"Well, I see you came home with nothin' again," his oldest brother, Jonah, commented. "It's a good thing the rest of us were able to find some game."
"That's right, Jonah," Otis retorted, his temper flaring despite his best intentions to remain calm. "I had a rabbit in the trap, but somethin' else either got to it before I did, or it just flat got away. You ought to know better than anyone how that goes."
Only then did Otis remember he had completely forgotten to reset his trap. He'd been so caught up in following the strangers that he'd forgotten all about hunting.
"There are men in the woods," Otis said next, hoping to distract his brother by changing the subject. There wasn't any point in prolonging the bad news. "Out at Wildflower Meadow," he added carefully, watching the other man's reaction. He didn't have long to wait.
"Wildflower?" Jonah exclaimed, leaping to his feet. "Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure," Otis responded. "It's the reason I'm late. I tailed them to see exactly where they were going."
Jonah exchanged a worried look with his ma and other brothers before responding. "I don't believe it," he said.
"Well, believe it," Otis added, feeling slightly smug.
"What kind of men?" Jonah demanded next. "Young guys?"
"Yeah, city folk, of course," Otis explained, nodding. "There's no tellin' exactly who they were, but they looked like they were planning to stay awhile. They were both carrying decent-sized packs."
"Do you think they were armed?" Jonah added, looking more worried.
"I think so, but I was too far away to see that well. I think they were both wearing some kind of handgun."
Otis went on to explain how he'd followed the strangers to the edge of Wildflower Meadow. Once there, he'd fired a shot that had sent them running - or something. Otis never saw them again after that.
"We have to go back out there!" Jonah announced. "You have to show me exactly where they were!"
"Tonight? Jonah, that's not happenin'. I don't have any idea where they went, and we can't be stumbling around out there in the dark. You know that as well as I do."
"Sounds like you'd best be headin' out at first light then," Ma interjected, wiping her hands on her greasy apron. "You can't make any decisions until you know more about what's what."
Otis glanced at his other two brothers, Ben and Gideon, both of whom were listening in silence to his exchange with Jonah. Neither man was likely to cross their oldest brother.
"Jonah, calm down," Otis said. "They were both carrying packs like they were intendin' to keep goin'. For all we know, they've already left the area."
"And if they haven't?" Jonah asked.
Otis paused to consider his brother's question. "If they haven't, then we have a problem. And we'll deal with it accordingly in the morning."
"Hey, here's that beer you wanted," Starsky said, handing Hutch the can. "Maybe this will help you unwind."
Leaning against a massive, downed log, Hutch stretched out his legs and opened the beer. One sip and Hutch thought it was the best he had tasted in a long time.
Together they had picked out a flat piece of ground positioned halfway between a grove of cedars and the meadow's edge. The overhang from the massive branches would provide shelter in the event of rain, yet wouldn't block the view. The sound of gurgling water in the background signified the presence of nearby Cedar Creek - the small, delightful waterway that dissected the entire valley. They had built a comfortable fire and prepared a simple, early dinner. All Hutch wanted to do now was savor his beer, appreciate the surroundings, and enjoy his partner's company.
Starsky had wandered a short distance away to admire the wild crocus that dotted the edge of the creek bank.
"Hey!" Hutch called out, lifting his beer can high in the air.
Starsky turned, smiling as he lifted his own beer in a return salute.
"Here's to our vacation - however long it lasts," Hutch added. "Thanks for being my partner, Starsky."
"I'll drink to that. Thanks for puttin' up with me, Hutch."
Oh, I'd say it's entirely mutual, Hutch thought. Who else could possibly put up with me the way you do, Starsky?
Hutch was pondering that whole concept when he noticed Starsky had abruptly stopped walking. Staring at the ground near his feet, the other man looked openly startled.
"Hey! Come 'ere," Starsky said suddenly, looking back at Hutch. "You'll want to see this."
After pulling himself to his feet, Hutch walked to stand next to his partner. It took Hutch a few moments to follow Starsky's line of vision, and a little longer to react outwardly. When he finally spoke, exasperation was evident in his voice.
"Ah, damn it," Hutch mumbled.
Starsky waited, allowing the other man time to fully absorb what he'd seen.
"Well, I guess we know what our 'hunter' was worried about, huh?" Hutch commented.
Hutch stared at the variety of camouflaging plants mixed carefully with dozens of tiny, cannabis seedlings. Planted altogether in straight, well-cultivated rows, the assortment of greenery represented a significant future cash crop for someone come harvest time.
"Can we just pretend we didn't see it?" Hutch asked, half wishing he didn't know the answer.
"Sure, we can try," Starsky said. "Listen, Hutch - we're only gonna be here overnight - a few hours total overall. Whoever's responsible for this little investment knows they have a few weeks before it'll be ready for sale. There's no reason to get in a hurry and change our immediate plans based on what we've seen tonight. We'll be back at work in a few days and we can turn it over to the narcotics guys. None of it's goin' anywhere before then."
"Yeah, you're right," Hutch said, shaking his head in utter amazement. "Starsky! What are the odds we'd run across something like this out here in the middle of nowhere?"
"I dunno - probably astronomical. But find it we did which means we have to face it."
"You and your 'eagle eye'," Hutch teased, throwing Starsky a sideways look. "Most people wouldn't notice something like this - not way out here anyway."
"Well, that's one reason you keep me around, Hutch. I notice things - things that need to be noticed. And since I did see it, I vote we take a closer look so we can determine how big this whole operation really is. We'll need a few more details before we hand it over to the narcotics division."
Hutch nodded and followed Starsky along one side of the garden, taking care to step on the thicker underbrush wherever possible. Neither of them had realized initially how large the whole thing really was. As they paused to appreciate the sheer size of the garden, Hutch whistled softly over Starsky's shoulder.
"Any guess as to the eventual street value?" Hutch asked.
"No - maybe a hundred thousand or so?" Starsky proposed, his eyes roving across what he could see of the cultivated area. "Maybe more, Hutch - it all depends on several things. No matter what it sells for on the street, this has to be one of the largest grow sites I've ever come across."
"Yeah, me, too," Hutch admitted.
Both men were quiet as they considered the effort and planning that had likely accompanied such a project.
"Alright," Hutch said, sighing heavily. "I say we jot down some notes as to this location. Come morning, at least we can move on with a clear conscience."
An hour later, Hutch was stretched out on top of his sleeping bag, hands folded behind his head, and admiring the evening sky. The two-man tent was pitched and waiting for them should the weather turn inclement. As Starsky fed wood to the fire, Hutch's thoughts turned once again to the cash crop they had stumbled upon near the creek bank.
Although Hutch had considered breaking camp and moving away from the immediate area, he ultimately concluded it was a moot point overall. Starsky was right about several things. They were only going to be here a few more hours. Perhaps if he tried hard enough, Hutch could pretend they hadn't found a semi-sophisticated growing operation in the middle of the frickin' woods.
A single beer had left Hutch feeling not only drowsy but warm and fuzzy around the edges - a welcome start to his long-desired vacation. He wasn't in the mood to pack up and go anywhere tonight.
It'll be ok, Hutch told himself, his eyes tracing the overhead path of a small shooting star. No need to borrow trouble, he reminded himself - something his grandmother had always told him. There's already plenty to go around.
Although Hutch's grandmother was nowhere near, Hutch knew that Starsky was.
So why do I feel so unsettled? Hutch wondered, casting a look around for his partner.
Perhaps the vague sense of discomfort that had followed him for half the day would burn itself out by morning.
Chapter 4: Tensions Mount
"Well, it certainly looks like they hung around a while before moving on," Jonah said, scowling at Otis. "In fact, it looks like they made themselves downright comfortable overnight."
Otis had noticed the same thing. Someone had recently camped only a few yards away from their once-secret garden. Although the campfire ashes were cold, the rocks that ringed the firepit were still warm. Whoever was here hadn't been gone long.
Otis had experienced a deep sense of unease the first moment he'd laid eyes on the strangers. Apparently, his gut instinct had been correct. Those men were going to be trouble.
"Damn it," Otis muttered, taking in the recently used campsite.
"Hey, I've got somethin' over here," Gideon called out.
Otis and Jonah joined their brother near one edge of the garden. Sure enough, the remnant of a heel print was clearly visible in the mud.
"None of us are wearin' boots like that," Gideon added. "Someone else has been walkin' around out here."
Collectively, they all knew he was right.
"Ok," Jonah said, returning his attention to the surrounding woods. "Looks like we have to go after them. The last thing we need is someone from the outside interferin' in our business. We've worked too damn hard to let anyone bust it up now."
"Hey, Hutchinson," Starsky called out, bending over to pick something up. "What's this?"
Hutch backtracked a few steps to see what Starsky had found, his eyes widening in appreciation when he realized what it was.
"Ah, it's a tooth," Hutch explained.
"From what? A bear?" Starsky asked.
"My guess would be a cougar - also known as a panther - probably an incisor. The shape is a little different from bears."
Starsky accepted the tooth back, impressed that Hutch would have any idea what type of wild creature it had once belonged to. Then again, that's exactly why he'd bothered to ask him in the first place. Starsky suspected that Hutch would know.
"So what do ya think?" Starsky asked, tossing the tooth aside. "Wanna rent a boat once we get to the lake?"
Hutch appeared to consider the idea, at least temporarily. "We could, but truthfully, Starsk, I'm not sure I wanna do that much work. I think I'd rather hang out on the shore and watch other people work for a change."
"That doesn't sound half bad to me either," Starsky laughed. "Ok, just makin' sure. We can hike back to the car well before dinner time. From there, we can drive to the north shore and decide where we want to go."
"I've heard they have some decent restaurants up there," Hutch added, brightening a bit. "Actually, a good steak dinner might be all I'm up for tonight."
"You want a steak?" Starsky asked, feeling excited. "That certainly works for me! You can always talk me into my favorite dinner."
From a hunting blind twenty feet off the main trail, Otis and his brothers watched as Starsky and Hutch walked right past them. From a much closer vantage point, it was easy to see the strangers were not only younger men but were also in top physical condition. Both were carrying serious, high-caliber handguns which represented a level of self-defense that could easily complicate any decision they made. However they chose to proceed, Otis and his brothers would need to be extra careful.
Now that they'd seen the men at close range, Otis looked skeptically at Jonah. He knew whatever plan they came up with would first need to meet his brother's approval.
"So is that them?" Jonah asked.
"Yep, and I have to tell ya, Jonah - this seemed like a better idea from a distance."
Although Jonah did not react immediately, Otis was confident he understood the more subliminal meaning.
"We just have to separate them," Jonah concluded.
"Yeah? Well, that doesn't look like such a sure-fire thing either, bro'. The way they move around together, it's as if they're a team of some sort."
The same observation had not escaped Jonah. Obviously, the men were not your average weekend campers out for a stroll in the woods. There was something about them that suggested a much different level of authority.
"Jonah," are you absolutely sure about this?" Otis asked again. "It might be smarter to let them keep going. They haven't seen us yet."
"No, but they've seen our grow site," Jonah answered calmly. "It had to have been them. We can't just overlook that."
"So what do you suggest? We can't just shoot them in the back either."
"Why not?" Ben asked suddenly.
Jonah and Otis both turned in unison to stare at their youngest brother. It was rare that Ben spoke up at all, but when he did, it was usually memorable. In contrast, Gideon simply shrugged his shoulders, opting to say nothing at all.
"Because that's cold-blooded murder, Ben," Otis said. "It's not like I'm totally against it, but it's tough to convince a judge it was an accident when someone got shot walking away."
"And those two don't look like they could disappear without someone missing them," Jonah added thoughtfully. "They probably have families, jobs, and respectable lives to go back to, not to mention people who will look for them if they don't make it home on time."
Gideon was deeply intrigued by his brother's statement. The potential ramifications of deep, emotional involvement with other people were a mysterious, yet predominantly foreign concept. Gideon was reasonably sure he could disappear for days before it would occur to his family to look for him.
"We've gotta think of something," Jonah said, ignoring the others. "We'll just have to separate them somehow. Come on, we can't afford to lose them!"
The brothers watched Starsky and Hutch top the last knoll before leaving the blind and falling in line behind them. Jonah was thinking furiously as he walked, considering several ideas and rejecting them almost as fast. He was on the verge of making a bold suggestion when Hutch unwittingly provided him with the solution.
"Go ahead, Starsk. I'll catch up with you in a minute," Hutch announced. "Nature calls..."
"Ok," Starsky replied, acknowledging that he'd heard what Hutch had said, but kept walking. Starsky had noticed something that he wanted a better look at. Although he wasn't sure, Starsky thought he had seen the barest outline of a true cedar grove. As Hutch had yet to see a prime example of those ancient, fabled trees, Starsky was hoping he was right.
A few steps closer and Starsky broke into a wide, confident smile. "Yep, those are definitely cedars.".
Pleased with his discovery, Starsky paused with a hand on each hip as he waited for Hutch to catch up. Eventually, he became curious and looked behind him, expecting to see Hutch standing a few yards down the trail. Instead, he saw no one at all.
Starsky frowned, his eyes darting from one side of the empty trail to the other. Hutch wouldn't care about wandering out of sight just to take a leak. The two of them were not only alone but surrounded by miles of woods. The amenities out here were extremely primitive.
"Hutch?" Starsky called out, beginning to feel uneasy. "Hey, Hutch! Where'd you go?"
Starsky broke into a trot, backtracking to the spot where he'd last seen his partner.
"Hutch!" Starsky shouted again. His calls were met by a stony silence.
Pulling his handgun, Starsky was considering which way to go when a large, burly man stepped out from behind the trunk of an enormous tree. They locked eyes instantly, each sizing up the other in the span of a few heartbeats. The newcomer was also armed.
"I know who you're lookin' for," Otis said calmly. "Don't worry, he hasn't gone far. As long as you behave nicely, nothin' too bad is gonna happen to either one of you. Do somethin' stupid, and you're both gonna be dead men starting with your friend. Do we understand each other?"
"Where's my partner?" Starsky demanded, ignoring the question.
"I said, do we understand each other?" Otis repeated.
"And I said where is he?" Starsky shouted again, louder this time.
Otis quickly realized the two of them had not only reached a climactic stalemate, but they had done so in record time. Obviously, the only thing that would affect this man's determination was actually laying eyes on his companion.
"Gid!" Otis called out. "Show him!"
A giant of a man revealed himself from behind the same tree, Hutch entrapped firmly in his arms. One large, meaty hand was clamped over Hutch's mouth while an arm was wrapped securely around his middle. Hutch's body was noticeably semi-limp as if he was unable to stand on his own. One glance also told Starsky that Hutch was hurting - suggesting that someone had laid into him, likely with their fists. Although he was conscious, Hutch didn't appear alert. Someone had obviously done something to subdue him.
"What do you want from us?" Starsky challenged, tearing his eyes away from Hutch to face the aggressor. "Whatever it is, take it and leave us alone."
To Starsky's surprise, Otis looked mildly uncomfortable. "Well, therein lies the crux of the problem," Otis began. "I'm afraid we can't just let you walk out of here, fella."
"Why not?" Starsky demanded. "We haven't done anything to you!"
"For your friend's sake," Otis added, ignoring the question. "I suggest you put yourself in a cooperative state of mind."
Hutch cried out unexpectedly as the powerful arm tightened dramatically around his waist. Frantic for relief, Hutch grappled at the other man's hands, helpless and ineffective against his captor's greater strength.
"Let go of him!" Starsky demanded. Starsky could see the confusion in Hutch's eyes along with something uncomfortably close to desperation.
"As I said, he'll do better if you cooperate," Otis reiterated. "I suggest you hand me your gun if you give a damn about him."
Starsky lowered his gun and offered it to Otis who took it without further comment. Hutch cried out yet again as the man who held him tightened his grip even more.
"Let up, Gideon!" Otis shouted. "I said that's enough for now!"
Gideon released Hutch on Otis' order, allowing Hutch to fall to his knees. Starsky rushed forward to intercept him before he collapsed entirely. Toppling against Starsky, Hutch was gasping for the air he couldn't find when Gideon had squeezed him to near unconsciousness. Resting his forehead on Starsky's shoulder, Hutch struggled to fill his lungs by way of a series of deep, ragged breaths.
"No sense in letting him get too comfortable," Otis warned. "Both of you still have a long way to go."
Gideon had started to reach for Hutch but was stopped when Starsky viciously knocked his arm away.
"Don't touch him!" Starsky warned, locking eyes with the much larger man.
Unaccustomed to much opposition, Gideon was surprised by Starsky's defiance. Despite the disparity in their sizes, Starsky's resolve was obvious. Gideon could see that the man wasn't bluffing.
"Touch him again and I'll take your arm off," Starsky added coldly.
Gideon looked at his brothers, all equally taken aback by the stranger's resistance.
"So give the man a minute," Jonah said, shrugging his shoulders. "Unless you feel like carrying him, he needs to get on his feet."
Chapter 5: When Forces Collide
Starsky was sitting up straight, his back pressed firmly against a wall, uncertain if he'd heard something outside. Holding himself completely still, Starsky stared at the wooden door on the opposite side of the shack. Whatever he'd heard had originated from just beyond the door.
The tiny shack where he and Hutch were confined for the last several hours was shrouded in near-total darkness. A thin sliver of moonlight was all that penetrated the single-paned window - a tiny amount of relief in an otherwise shadowy surrounding. Glancing to his right, he saw that Hutch was still sleeping.
It's just as well, Starsky thought. No need to wake him yet.
Returning his attention to the door, Starsky waited, willing the noise to repeat itself. He was about to give up when he heard what he'd been waiting for. Moving to his hands and knees, Starsky crawled across the floor, stopping inches in front of the door. With his head bent low, he waited, listening intently as he attempted to isolate the noise that emanated from somewhere beyond the door. Moving closer, he found a crack in the wooden frame and tried to peer through. A loud snort erupted suddenly on the other side, followed by the shrill, piercing scream of a wild panther.
Hutch was jolted awake as Starsky scrambled backward, running into him in an effort to escape the unexpected noise.
"Holy shit!" Starsky gasped, grabbing Hutch with both hands and hauling them toward the opposite side of the shack. "What the hell was that?"
Although Hutch was understandably dazed, he'd managed to collect a few brain cells after Starsky grabbed ahold of him. Huddled together away from the door, they listened as another earsplitting scream cut its way through the cold, night air.
"That's a cougar," Hutch whispered. "And he doesn't sound happy."
"Why not? What the hell did we do to him?" Starsky asked.
"Nothing, but he knows we're in here, Starsk. He can smell us. As far as he's concerned, we're just another potential meal."
"Oh swell! Can he get in here?"
"Doubtful. If we can't get out - and God knows we tried - I'd say he can't get in either."
Hutch ran a hand over his face, still working to clear the remaining cobwebs. "Listen, I don't like knowing there's a big cat out there either, but try and calm down. We're safe in here."
After encountering Otis and his brothers out on the trail, Starsky and Hutch had been stripped of their weapons as well as their other belongings. Once subdued, they were taken on a forced march through the woods, thrown into an abandoned line shack, and left there. The door had been locked from the outside. Exactly how, neither Starsky nor Hutch had been able to see.
"Well, I guess we have no choice but to wait him out," Starsky commented. "I certainly hope he gets tired and moves on."
"That's probably exactly what will happen," Hutch answered. "Most big cats will cut their losses and move on once they figure out we're locked up good in here. This one probably just stopped by to investigate is all."
"What if we had been out there in a tent instead of in here?"
"We'd have our weapons for discouragement purposes," Hutch answered with confidence. "And it would have been enough."
Hutch turned to study Starsky's face more closely. Despite the near-total darkness, Hutch could see the wheels of analysis turning behind his partner's eyes. "You're sure about that, huh?" Starsky asked.
"Yep, Starsk, I'm sure."
Both men fell silent, listening for further evidence of the cougar. They could hear the animal growling intermittently as it circled the perimeter of the shack.
"It's behind us," Hutch whispered, grabbing Starsky by the sleeve and tugging him in the opposite direction.
Moving to the center of the room, they spun themselves in a tight, half-circle, keeping away from the back wall. A few seconds later their ears were met with another round of the panther's screams.
"Geez!" Starsky gasped, unable to keep himself from flinching. "Sounds just like a woman screaming."
"They can sound like people," Hutch agreed. "A lot of Indian legends tell of more than one warrior who was led to his death by the sound of a panther's screams. They were fooled into thinking the cat was a woman in need of help."
Starsky's eyes widened appreciatively right along with his imagination.
"Just remember it can't get in here," Hutch soothed, keeping his voice low. We're still ok."
Eventually, there was no further discernible commotion from the panther. While both men assumed the animal had moved on, neither of them wanted to find out by looking out the window. Other than a modest amount of moonlight, it was still completely dark outside. If he was going to have a look, Starsky wanted it to be daylight.
"What do you think they're doin'?" Starsky asked suddenly. "You know they've figured out we're cops by now. Our badges were in our packs."
"Yeah," Hutch said, sighing. "I don't know exactly what they're planning, but I suspect they don't either. This bunch didn't strike me as the most accomplished group of growers we've ever run across. They're probably trying to figure out what to do with us now that they've been discovered. I guess it's their move."
"Maybe they're planning to starve us to death," Starsky said flatly. "I'm hungry, Hutch."
"So am I, but starvation's messy. Not to mention it would take too long. We'd have time to make plenty of trouble before we starve to death."
Hutch quietly considered the true question behind Starsky's comment. He understood what Starsky was asking.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to catch them off guard somehow," Hutch added. If just one of us can get away, I think they'll panic. If we could escape together - well, that would be even better."
Gideon was careful as he negotiated the uneven trail, working his way one step at a time over the rocky terrain. Recent rainfall had left the ground loose and unstable in multiple places. It wouldn't do to suffer a bad fall this far out in the woods. He'd be hard-pressed enough to face his brothers much less explain what he was doing.
Gideon's shoulders were too broad to allow him to wear the strangers' backpacks. Consequently, he was forced to carry them instead, one in each hand, as he picked his way along the trail. He'd also thrown together a small bag of supplies, all stolen from the cabin's pantry. Ma would surely take a switch to him if she ever got the chance. And therein was at least part of the bottom line in a nutshell. He wasn't planning to give her another chance.
Gideon had experienced a distinct shift in his sensibilities after a single encounter with the cops from the city. All of his life he'd been taught to have a natural disdain for anyone connected to law enforcement. In contrast, the observations he'd made over the last few hours did not mesh with anything he'd previously experienced. It was impossible to overlook the loyalty and respect Starsky and Hutch had for each other. For the first time in his life, Gideon had been given a brief glimpse of something he wanted to know more about - a personal relationship that intrigued him beyond his own real-life experiences. He'd never known men like the cops they had locked up in the line shack. Gideon could see they represented an entirely different way of life than anything he had personally experienced. Tired of an eternal ragtag and day-to-day existence, Gideon had long hungered for a different lifestyle. A few short hours earlier, he'd experienced his first taste of something truly new. The bond he'd observed between Starsky and Hutch was profoundly compelling. And just like that, Gideon vowed to learn all he could about the men as individuals as well as the way other people lived in the city.
In a brazen, late-night decision, Gideon decided he would free the cops from the line shack and cope with the eventual fallout. After ensuring their safety, he would hope for the best for himself. It was an enormous gamble, but a chance he was finally willing to take. Gideon thought it was extremely short-sighted of his brothers to interfere with the cops in the first place. Despite the knowledge that he would be implicating himself along with the rest of his family, he wanted the chance to change his life.
Sneaking away while everyone else was asleep, Gideon knew he'd have a limited amount of time before his brothers would realize what he'd done. They wouldn't be prepared for such a rebellious move on his part. Still, he'd decided to take his chances with strangers - cops no less - than the family he was leaving behind. He couldn't imagine they would miss him. Unfortunately, he supposed it was entirely mutual.
The line shack would be visible in a few more steps. The simple realization caused Gideon to pause in the middle of the trail like a man perched on the edge of an entirely new life. After questioning his decision one last time, Gideon arrived at the same conclusion.
Approaching the shack with a sense of renewed determination, Gideon stopped ten feet from the door before dropping the packs on the ground.
"You in the shack! Can you hear me?" Gideon shouted.
After a short pause, Starsky shouted back. "We hear you!"
"I'm here to help you," Gideon shouted next, flinching as the words left his mouth. Even he could understand how patently ridiculous he sounded.
"You call this help?" Starsky shot back.
Inside the shack, Hutch tapped Starsky gently on the arm. "Maybe he is? Find out what he wants," Hutch suggested.
"Help us how?" Starsky shouted again. "Forgive me if I'm a little hard to impress right now."
Gideon approached the heavy, wooden door until he was standing only inches away.
"Look, I know this sounds crazy, but I'm here to get you out. I brought your stuff back, too. Just don't jump me when I open the door, ok? I want no part of this anymore."
As his partner was generally good at determining people's motives, Starsky looked at Hutch for a speedy interpretation of the man's motives. "I think we have to trust him," Hutch whispered.
"Ok, we're listening!" Starsky said. "Do whatever you're here to do."
Gideon knew it was now or never. Swallowing hard, he reached for the lock, unbolted the clasp, and allowed the door to swing open. Starsky and Hutch were standing together just inside the darkened doorway. Anxiously, Gideon steeled himself for things to turn sour, yet he was determined to stand his ground.
"Gideon, how nice to see you again," Starsky began. "Forgive me if I'm not overcome with warm and fuzzy feelings just yet."
Hutch's eyes were immediately drawn to the backpacks on the ground. What Gideon had promised was looking true so far. If so, their circumstances had just improved dramatically.
"Why?" Hutch asked bluntly, forcing Gideon to look him in the eye.
"I want out," Gideon answered simply, shrugging his shoulders. "Look, I don't expect you to believe me. I just need to get away from my family."
Slowly, Gideon reached for the packs, tossing them one at a time to their rightful owners.
"My brothers might have kept something I don't know about," Gideon speculated. "But I think most of your stuff is still there. I returned your guns."
Incredibly, he was right. Gideon had not only located both handguns but he'd retrieved them from his brothers' semi-secret stash. In some ways, it was an extra insurance policy that he couldn't change his own mind. In his experience, giving weapons back to cops would be akin to breaking the eleventh commandment.
"Once we're safely down the road, I'd appreciate it if you let me go my own way," Gideon said next. "I know you don't have to, and maybe it's not that simple, but it's what I'm asking."
With that, Gideon looked at his feet and awaited judgment while Starsky and Hutch searched for their weapons and found them. Apparently, Gideon was trustworthy after all.
"Ok, I'd say we have a deal," Hutch said, extending his hand. "We need to talk 'cause I need more information, but we can do that while we travel. First, Starsky and I need to get out of here. Is that agreeable to you?"
"Agreed," Gideon replied, accepting Hutch's handshake.
The first rays of daylight were beginning to break over the horizon. In less than an hour, the sun would be up.
Hutch grabbed his pack while Starsky did the same. Looking at Gideon, Hutch asked, "What's the closest community, Gideon? Anywhere that has a telephone... Emerald Bay?"
Gideon nodded affirmatively.
"And that's about what - thirty to thirty-five miles east or so?" Starsky asked.
Gideon nodded again.
"We won't make it that far in one day," Hutch pointed out. "Not on foot in this terrain anyway."
"No, not likely," Gideon agreed. "And if we're still in the woods when the sun goes down, we can consider ourselves stuck until morning. A man can't navigate this area in the dark. It's too dangerous for a number of reasons."
"We better get going then," Hutch added. "What Starsky and I need is the quickest, most direct way out of here."
"That would be a shortcut over some fairly rough trails, but it'll cut six or seven miles off the total distance," Gideon said.
"That's what we need to do then," Starsky chimed in. "Lead the way, Gideon."
Chapter 6: The Hard Road
Starsky paused to enjoy an extra-long drink from his canteen, thankful that Gideon had thought to bring it along. Their unlikely rescuer had obviously put a fair amount of thought into an escape plan.
Gideon pulled a day-old loaf of bread from his pack and began breaking it into several large pieces.
"Thanks," Hutch said, accepting a chunk of bread. The protein bars he'd hoped to find in his pack were missing. In lieu of those, at least they had bread. "You owe me a steak dinner," Hutch added, eyeing Starsky. "Once we get a few things wrapped up, I'm cashing in that debt, buddy."
Gideon listened to the easy banter between the two cops, unsure if Hutch was being sincere or not. The simplest exchanges between the two of them were often difficult for Gideon to interpret. At times, it was as if they were communicating in some sort of cryptic, personal code.
How could anyone owe someone else a whole steak dinner? Gideon wondered. The idea didn't make sense. Apparently, a lot of things happened in the city that he needed to learn more about.
"Did you have to mention steak?" Starsky asked. "Hutchinson, are you tryin' to kill me?"
"No, of course not! I'm trying to motivate you. Food usually works best," Hutch added.
"I'm already plenty motivated! I'd kill for an apple right now!"
Gideon perked up at Starsky's last comment. Reaching into his bag of supplies, he retrieved two small red apples and offered them to Starsky. "Will these do?" he asked.
"Gideon! You might be my new best friend!" Starsky exclaimed, reaching for one of the apples. "Of course, they'll do. They're perfect!"
Hutch lifted an eyebrow at Starsky's choice of words. Although he knew his partner was only joking, the sentiment had caught him off guard and it stung. Hutch chided himself for allowing such ridiculously petty thoughts to enter his mind, particularly when they had so much more to think about. Thanks to Gideon's help, they were well on their way to safety. It was pointless to weigh himself down with unnecessary and childish emotions.
Despite Hutch's attempt at a smooth recovery, Starsky was quick to recognize his own mistake. "But I'm afraid I have some bad news, Gideon," Starsky added quickly. "Hutch has that category covered."
"Yeah, I know that," Gideon said, sounding disinterested as he fished around in his sack for another apple.
Catching Hutch's eye, Starsky sent a wink and a smile in his direction knowing he'd restored a proper balance to the universe. Blushing mildly in spite of himself, Hutch turned away as he bit into one of the apples.
"Ok, is this our shortcut?" Starsky asked, indicating the split in the trail.
"Yep," Gideon replied. "We can follow the game trail down to the creek, then work our way north until it forks. The left fork is an older, lesser-used trail that loops back and joins up with the new portion of the trail. My brothers know it's there, but they won't know which path we took until they do some tracking. And sorting that out will take some time."
"And the right fork takes us back to where we came from?" Starsky asked.
"If you're talkin' about a parking lot at the entrance to the campground, then yes."
"We need to get to the closest phone, wherever that is," Hutch interjected. "Which means we need to take the shortest route to communication. We can pick up the car later."
"Gideon, are you worried about your brothers catching up with us?" Starsky asked.
"A little," Gideon admitted. "But if we don't dawdle, we can stay ahead of them with time to spare. They'll figure out what I've done soon enough when they realize your packs are gone. By that time, I may as well consider myself a fugitive, too."
Motivated by the thought of his brothers being hot on their trail, Gideon turned toward an area that was barely noticeable in the tall grass. A less experienced eye would surely have overlooked it. As Gideon began striding through the dense overgrowth, Starsky and Hutch looked at each other and shrugged before falling in line behind him.
They had been hiking for about an hour - far enough to put a respectable distance between themselves and the line shack, but not far enough to consider themselves truly safe. Gideon suspected his brothers would not only be furious, but eager for revenge once they realized he'd betrayed them.
As Hutch followed Starsky and Gideon down the trail, he considered yet again what little they actually knew about their companion's true motivation. His initial encounter with Gideon and his brothers had been brief and highly influenced by the pounding he'd endured at the hands of all four. It was hard to imagine what had changed within Gideon in the matter of a few short hours. Regardless, there would be time for reflection later. Kidnapping two city detectives for any reason was a serious crime that had changed the trajectory of the entire case. Starsky and Hutch were duty-bound to report what had happened as well as to explain why. Dobey would decide how to manage the particulars of the case from that point on.
Gideon continued to lead, pushing his way through the underbrush that covered most of the trail. There hadn't been enough activity this early in the spring to beat down much of the growth. As a result, the wild berry bushes were extremely thick followed closely by the brightly colored bottlebrush plants. Hutch recognized the eye-catching red and purple blossoms, prime examples of nature's beauty at its best, and well worth the time to appreciate more if they hadn't been in such a hurry.
Once the sun was high overhead, they stopped to rest in the shade of a tall stand of evergreens. Starsky marveled at the noticeable change in temperatures once they were underneath the boughs. It was at least ten degrees cooler under the trees than in full sunlight.
"Wow, those branches really do block the heat," Starsky commented.
"Yep, or the cold," Hutch added. "Remember that if you're ever in a place like this without me."
Starsky fixed Hutch with his best you-have-got-to-be kidding face. "No offense, Hutchinson, but I'm not doin' this for anyone else."
"You do just fine in places like this, Starsk. You're still learning how to appreciate it is all."
After resting for several minutes, Gideon began to look antsy. "We need to get goin'," he said curtly, climbing to his feet.
Not interested in disagreeing, Starsky and Hutch both stood and prepared to move on. Reaching for his pack, Hutch grimaced as the muscles in his lower back tightened and threatened to cramp. Despite being accustomed to a lot of physical activity on the job, there was normally enough time for a hot shower and a few hours of sleep between shifts. The last twenty-four hours were full of exceptions making it hard for his tired, overworked muscles to catch up. And according to Gideon, they would be lucky to make it out of the woods before morning. Hoisting the pack to his shoulders, Hutch adjusted to the extra weight and fell in line behind Starsky.
The three men persevered, covering several miles of rough trail in the afternoon. As the shadows began to lengthen, the area around them began to change noticeably. The underbrush was getting thicker and harder to penetrate with every step while the incline was growing steeper.
"We'd better find a place to hunker down for the night," Gideon explained, turning to face Starsky. "The crest of the mountain is right over there," he said, pointing to the northeast. "But we won't make it over the top before dark. It's far better to stop where we are and wait for dawn. We'll have a much shorter walk in the morning."
The muscles in Starsky's legs were beginning to scream at him. While he wasn't sure about Gideon, he suspected that Hutch was likely feeling much the same. Starsky paused to look where Gideon was pointing, amazed to see the top of the mountain was still covered by patches of snow. Wherever they decided to stop, they most likely had a long, cold night ahead of them.
"Ok," Starsky said, facing Gideon for advice. "Can we risk a fire?"
Gideon nodded as if he had been thinking the same thing. "I believe so, but not right here. There's a cave up ahead my brothers don't know about. We'll be safe in there."
Hutch had fallen a short distance behind after pausing to adjust his pack. Glancing up, he was able to overhear part of Starsky's conversation with Gideon. Shifting the pack one more time, Hutch rolled his shoulders which allowed the straps to resettle.
Starsky glanced in Hutch's direction, noting the moment his partner was ready to move again. Assured that Hutch was ok, Starsky turned and resumed following Gideon. He had taken only a few steps when the atmosphere around them exploded with activity.
Hutch watched in horror as a full-grown cougar sprang from the hillside, landing on top of Starsky and dragging him to the ground. Starsky cried out in surprise as he fell, confused and unaware of exactly what had happened. As the animal dug its claws into Starsky's pack and shoulder, it simultaneously sank its teeth into the canvas backpack, searching for its victim's neck. Starsky could feel the power in the cat's jaws accompanied by a deep, rumbling growl centered directly behind one ear. Fortunately, the overstuffed pack had slid as he fell, covering his head and neck. Terrified, Starsky experienced a burst of adrenalin incomparable to anything he'd ever known. Yanking his arms out of his pack, Starsky kicked his way out from under the heavy cat. Scrambling wildly for the first thing he could find, he wrapped his fingers around a fist-sized rock. Flipping halfway over, he slammed the cat directly between the eyes with the stone. Stunned, the animal lost its grip on the pack as the sound of a gunshot cut through the air. A second shot soon followed, and the cougar collapsed, dead on the ground next to Starsky.
The next thing Starsky remembered, Hutch was there, dragging him away from the attacker. Raw fear was evident in Hutch's eyes as he worked to assess the extent of his partner's injuries. Despite an alarming amount of blood that poured from Starsky's left shoulder, he seemed oddly unaware of the injury.
"Starsk!" Hutch said, reaching for the front of his partner's shirt. "Starsky, listen to me, please! You're hurt! Stop! Let me look at you!"
Starsky was still trying to escape a fight he hadn't seen coming. As his brain scrambled to catch up with reality, he kept trying to pull away from Hutch. To stop him, Hutch grabbed Starsky by the shirt with both hands, shaking him harder than he'd intended. "Starsky! Sit still!"
Getting in Starsky's face had not only been necessary, but immediately effective. As he locked eyes with Hutch, Starsky was at last able to understand what Hutch was saying. Once Starsky stopped resisting, Hutch grabbed the top of the bloody shirt and finished ripping it open. Pieces of shredded fabric were left hanging in tatters around his shoulder and upper arm. The cat's claws had certainly made short work of a simple cotton shirt.
As Hutch attended to Starsky, Gideon checked on the cougar to ensure it was no longer a threat. Indeed, the animal was dead. The first shot had passed through the upper chest cavity while the other had traveled laterally through the skull. Gideon knew it was Hutch's bullet that had been the kill shot, leaving a gaping, open hole in the animal's chest. Gideon had followed the first shot with an insurance bullet to the skull.
As Starsky's adrenaline level began to taper, the pain began to grow proportionally. Grimacing, he sucked in his breath and reached for his left shoulder. "Hutch, what the hell just happened?"
"It was a cat," Hutch answered curtly, intercepting Starsky's hand. "It's dead. Now listen to me."
Hutch knew there would be no sugar coating what had just happened. Although cougar attacks on people were uncommon, Hutch knew they happened occasionally. What had instigated this situation was unknown. He would worry about sorting that out later.
As a large shadow appeared overhead, Hutch looked up to see Gideon staring down at both of them.
"How is he?" Gideon asked.
"I'm still figuring that out," Hutch answered, returning his attention to the nasty puncture wounds in Starsky's left shoulder. "Have to calm him down first."
Although it was obvious that Starsky was frightened, he was also getting himself under control.
"Gideon, can you help him sit up?" Hutch asked. "I need to get a better look at his shoulder."
Gideon moved behind Starsky, supporting him with his girth as Hutch attempted to investigate the extent of the damage. Hutch frowned as he peeled away the layers of blood-soaked clothing, revealing two deep, jagged holes in Starsky's flesh. Gauging his partner's tolerance by the expression on his face, Hutch persevered by tugging on the last piece of fabric, pulling it away from the damaged skin.
"Well, it's actually not as bad as I feared," Hutch concluded out loud.
Starsky lifted his eyebrows in acknowledgment, but that was about all. He was still trying to get his respiratory rate under control.
"I have some whiskey in my pack," Gideon offered. "It should kill 'most any infection if we use it right away."
Hutch looked at Gideon in surprise, then nodded. "Ok, get it."
When Gideon returned, he was holding an unopened bottle of store-bought whiskey. After taking it from Gideon, Hutch paused to study the label. "Geez, this is nearly a hundred proof," Hutch remarked.
Gideon nodded, confirming what he already knew. "Yep. I always keep some around."
"Thank God," Hutch muttered, turning back to Starsky. "Starsk, I'm afraid this is gonna hurt, but I need to pour the alcohol on your shoulder, ok?"
"No, not ok," Starsky answered weakly, "but go ahead - let's just get it over it with."
Uncapping the bottle, Hutch hesitated briefly before allowing the whiskey to drip directly onto Starsky's wounded shoulder. Starsky gasped and sucked in his breath as the golden liquid penetrated the deepest level of the wounds. Although every muscle in his arm was screaming at him to pull away, Starsky gritted his teeth and forced himself to hold still.
"Damn it, Hutch, that hurts," Starsky muttered, squeezing his eyelids tightly together. "Jesus! Are you almost done?"
"Almost, just a little more. Keep your eyes closed for me, ok?"
Hutch chewed on his lower lip before he dowsed Starsky's shoulder a second time. Starsky gasped as the alcohol again took effect, working its way beneath the skin and deep into the wounded tissue.
When Hutch was satisfied he'd done all that he could, he handed the bottle back to Gideon.
"How far is it to that cave you mentioned?" Hutch asked.
"Not far, maybe a quarter of a mile or so. Once we get there, he can rest. I have a few things in the cave that will make it easier for all of us."
While Hutch thought that was odd, he was much more concerned about getting Starsky off the open trail. Hopefully, the cave would at least be dry. In some ways, he'd trade their present circumstances for the security of the old line shack where they had spent the previous night.
"Starsky? Do you think you can stand?" Hutch asked.
"Yeah, I think so - if you help me get on my feet."
Glancing again at Starsky's shoulder, Hutch would prefer to cover the wounds with a proper dressing before they went anywhere. As they didn't have much time before dark, he knew they shouldn't do that right now. If the first aid kit was still in his pack, he'd take care of it once they reached some type of shelter.
Gideon wandered over to the cat and pushed the body off the trail with one booted foot. The animal traveled a good thirty feet, rolling downhill until it snagged against the bulk of a downed tree. While the carcass wasn't entirely invisible from the upper trail, it was far less conspicuous in the underbrush. If anyone using the trail happened to see it, it would be a lot of work to investigate.
"Come on, buddy," Hutch said, wrapping a strong arm around Starsky's waist. "Here - put your other arm over my shoulders," he added, moving to Starsky's right side. "Now let's get out of here."
Pushing his way through the brush, Gideon was again carrying both of the backpacks along with his own gear. While it was tricky navigating the pathway side by side, Starsky and Hutch quickly established a workable rhythm.
Gideon soon found the landmarks he was looking for and veered off the trail toward an enormous granite formation. Following the outline of a giant chunk of rock, he located the mouth of a cave predominantly concealed by overgrown shrubbery. Once he was sure Hutch could see where he'd gone, Gideon worked his way through a gap in the rocks and into the cave. Pulling Starsky with him, Hutch followed Gideon around the jagged outcropping and into the safety of the cave's interior.
The cavern was far more spacious than Hutch had expected. To his surprise, the ceiling was also quite tall - at least ten or twelve feet over their heads. Gideon busied himself lighting a lantern in the corner. As the wick caught fire and began to glow, he resettled the chimney and turned to look at the other two men. It wasn't quite dark, but it would be in a few minutes. Hutch was grateful they had been able to locate the cave before the nighttime enveloped them yet again.
"Over here," Gideon said, turning to indicate an area near the middle of the space. Moving quickly, he dragged an old, beaten-up mattress away from the wall as Hutch gently lowered Starsky onto it.
"Thanks," Starsky said, blinking in disbelief. Whatever he was expecting, it certainly hadn't been a soft, cushioned place to sit never mind lamplight of any kind. Looking around, he saw several other signs of domesticity, right down to a pile of old blankets stacked halfway up a rock wall.
"What on earth is this place, Gideon?" Hutch asked, also looking around in surprise.
"You could call this my home away from home," Gideon answered. "Although I suppose it's probably all I've got from now on."
"But you've been living with your family?" Hutch asked.
"Yeah," I stay there most of the time, but now and then I'd rather be here. Sometimes it isn't easy, but it's peaceful here. No one bothers me."
"And no one else knows about this place?" Hutch asked.
"Nope, not until today anyway," Gideon confessed, looking mildly embarrassed. "And now it's just me and the two of you."
"No offense," Starsky piped up from the floor, "but I'm probably never coming back, Gideon. Your secret is safe with me."
Gideon did not appear to be offended. "That's ok, I sort of doubt I'll be back again either. But I guess most of that depends on the two of you. As I said earlier, we can finish making it out of here in the morning. What happens to me after that is probably in your hands. Either way, I'm tired of running."
All three men seemed to pause after Gideon's last remark, each man independently considering the depth of Gideon's situation. Hutch wasn't entirely sure how things would proceed once they were back in town. Despite the unforeseeable, it was his intention to help Gideon find his way to a different lifestyle.
"That's a hell of a nice fire pit," Hutch commented. "Did you make it?"
"Yeah, it gave me something to do while I was here. A good fire always makes everything better."
Hutch had also noticed the pile of firewood stacked neatly along one wall. A handful of chipped ceramic dishes and an old dutch oven were visible on a makeshift shelf - a homemade chair sat positioned to one side of the firepit.
"I found the dishes in the trash while I was in town," Gideon offered as if he wanted the other two men to know he hadn't stolen them. "People throw a lot of good stuff away. I just took them out of the trash, washed them up, and brought them here."
As if realizing the sunset had almost arrived, Gideon moved to the stack of firewood, grabbed a handful of pieces, and returned to the fire pit. "I'd better get a fire started. It'll be cold tonight at this elevation."
"Can I use some of the blankets?" Hutch asked.
"Sure, feel free to use whatever you find," Gideon answered. "Make yourself as comfortable as possible. Once I get a fire going, I might be able to find us something to eat."
Hutch selected two of the heaviest blankets from the stack while ensuring there were others left for Gideon to use. Returning to Starsky, he handed him a blanket before unfolding the other to its full size. "Don't try to wrestle with it," Hutch ordered. "I'll help you in a minute."
Starsky didn't bother to argue. Besides knowing he wouldn't have won anyway, his shoulder was once again hurting like hell. "Is there any chance I could have a shot of that whiskey?" Starsky asked.
Gideon retrieved the bottle from his pack and handed it to Hutch. "Unless he really wants to use a cup, just have him drink it straight from the bottle," Gideon suggested. "That's what I do most of the time."
Hutch knelt in front of Starsky, whiskey bottle in hand. "Ok, you heard the man. Take a few swigs off the bottle and give it back. I can't have you gettin' too happy tonight."
If Starsky had been up to it, he might have handed Hutch a dramatically sarcastic comment. But he wasn't up to the usual banter, and Hutch understood that. Instead, he was thankful for the cave that surrounded them, fundamental as that was, and grateful for Hutch who understood how unnerved he truly was. Starsky could handle the darkness, the unknown, and a mountain of physical pain. What rattled him to the core was the aspect of the wild things he could not control, such as a cougar. He leaned on Hutch to help him with those situations. And as long as it was available, a good shot or two of whiskey couldn't hurt either.
Gideon soon had a strong blaze going in the firepit which added warmth and a soft, golden glow to the inside of the cavern. Taking a swig off the whiskey bottle, Starsky gathered some comfort from the slight burn it left behind in his throat. With little to eat in the last day or so, it wasn't long before Starsky could feel the effect of the alcohol coursing through his veins. After a third swig (or was it his fourth?), Hutch pulled the bottle out of Starsky's hands.
"That's enough," Hutch said, looking annoyed. Recapping the whiskey, Hutch set it aside and grabbed the first aid kit. Laying it next to Starsky, he began sorting out supplies to cover the wound.
Gideon approached carrying a small pouch from which he retrieved several pieces of jerky. "Here, have him chew on this," Gideon said. "It's elk jerky. It's a little dry, but it's edible."
Starsky remained sitting up long enough to eat two pieces of jerky, but once it was gone and Hutch was finished with his shoulder, he was eager to lie down. Sighing as he rolled onto his back, he made a half-hearted effort to stretch out. Although the tenderness in his shoulder was still bothersome, the whiskey had helped a lot. A warm blanket settled gently over the top of him, prompting Starsky to open his eyes long enough to see Hutch kneeling beside the mattress. Soon afterward the combined effects of the whiskey, the extra warmth from the blanket, and the added sense of calm he always gleaned from Hutch's presence allowed Starsky to close his eyes and fall asleep.
Chapter 7: Hidden Dangers
The deep woods of the southern Sierras was a world unto itself after sunset. From the deer and the elk migrating toward the creek to the great horned owl that circled overhead, each nightly cycle provided a new and unique mix of characters. It was destiny that some would survive while others would not. And once in a while, humankind added itself to the equation in an endless and repetitive cycle.
Tucked away inside Gideon's cavern, three men slept in relative peace as the natural world rotated around them. A mother bear and her cubs padded through the grass directly overhead, unaware of the cavern beneath their feet. A king snake slithered past the entrance of the cave in an effort to stay out of the bear's way while frightened jackrabbits scattered in all directions. Somewhere in the distance, the coyotes began howling, signaling to each other as they gathered for the nightly hunt.
When Hutch first opened his eyes, he initially didn't recognize his surroundings. As a log in the firepit split and collapsed into ashes, only then did he remember where he was. Raising himself up on one elbow, he saw that Gideon had made a sleeping pad out of a pile of stacked blankets. Starsky was asleep alongside Hutch, facing the fire.
Hutch's eyes traveled to the cavern's entrance, simple instinct warning him that something in the atmosphere around him had changed. Listening intently, he waited - concentrating on the slightest sound. Just as he was half-convinced that he'd been dreaming, the same odd, muffled noise repeated itself. Although it was indistinct, Hutch was now certain that something new had entered their immediate surroundings.
"Starsky," Hutch whispered, touching him lightly between the shoulder blades.
Awakened instantly by Hutch's voice, Starsky nodded to indicate that he had heard.
"Do you have your gun?" Hutch asked. Starsky raised his left hand just enough to demonstrate that he was holding his Beretta. "Be ready to cover me," Hutch added, waiting until Starsky nodded for a second time.
With his own gun in hand, Hutch drew himself to his feet and stepped carefully around the end of the mattress. As he approached Gideon's bedroll, Hutch tapped him lightly with one foot. As Gideon awakened, Hutch pressed two fingers to his lips, indicating the need to be quiet - a signal the other man innately understood. Reacting quickly, Gideon reached for his weapon, climbed to his feet, and followed Hutch.
Glancing over his shoulder, Hutch saw that Starsky was standing also. Turning back toward the entrance, Hutch readied himself for whatever might happen next. He knew it was unwise to move too far away from the fire, at least not until he was sure what he was dealing with. Although the flames had burned down while they slept, their presence offered a modicum of protection. Moving carefully behind Hutch, Gideon reached for a large piece of firewood and added it to the top of the blaze. One by one, he gathered more until the dry wood caught fire and began to burn in earnest.
As if in response to the bigger blaze, a deep, rumbling snarl erupted from somewhere near the cave's entrance. Readying his weapon, Hutch waited, his index finger poised on the trigger until a set of large, yellow eyes materialized in the gloom.
Hutch fired three successive rounds at what he guessed was some sort of predator, the rebound echoing in waves off the walls of the cave. Prior to Hutch's shooting, Starsky had moved closer, alert for his partner's queue. Unable to risk a shot from anywhere behind Hutch, Starsky waited until after he started shooting before moving alongside him.
"What was it?" Starsky asked, keeping his eyes on the entrance of the cave.
"Probably a cougar," Hutch replied, hating to admit it.
"Another one?" Starsky hissed, his eyes growing wide.
"Yep, another one. They don't usually travel in pairs, but it's probably mating season which would explain why they're so damn aggressive right now."
"My guess is he's gone, Hutch," Gideon piped up. "Whatever that cat was expecting, I can guarantee you it wasn't gunfire. It'll be a while before he tries to get nosy again."
"So you're sayin' there are more of them out there?" Starsky asked, looking worried.
"Probably, but nature can only support a handful of cougars every few miles or so," Gideon added. "They have to spread out in order to survive. As Hutch said, he was probably lookin' for a mate and ran into us by mistake."
Pulling a burning branch from the firepit, Hutch carried it like a torch toward the entrance with Starsky and Gideon following closely behind. A quick scan of the area revealed no further sign of the cat other than the tell-tale prints and a few drops of fresh blood the animal had left behind.
"Yeah, that's a male alright," Gideon commented, kneeling to examine the imprints more closely. "Females don't get that large. And it looks like you wounded him, too, Hutch."
With the most immediate danger resolved, Hutch relaxed enough to scrutinize his partner more closely. On the outside, Starsky looked as he always did - alert under high pressure and capable of responding to anything. While the circumstances that went hand in hand with any wild environment were more foreign to him, Starsky was nothing if not adaptable. Hutch would trust him with his life in the middle of the woods just as much as in downtown Bay City.
"It'll be dawn soon," Hutch said. "The minute it's light enough to see where we're going, I want to take off."
"You've got my vote," Starsky said. "I'm certainly not goin' back to sleep."
"Yeah, mine, too," Gideon added, sighing heavily. "As I said, I'm not interested in hangin' around either."
"How's your shoulder?" Hutch asked Starsky.
"Hurts a bit," Starsky admitted. "But I don't think it'll slow me down too much - not like last night anyway."
As was so often the case, Starsky's attitude could make Hutch smile while simultaneously conveying what he needed to know. His partner's lingo told Hutch that he was coping with their situation as well as anyone else.
"Ok, let's gather our stuff and be ready to travel," Hutch said, looking directly at Starsky. "My plan is to get you out of here sooner than later."
Jonah knelt for a better look at the bootprints that lined the edge of the trail. While the impressions were incomplete, an overall conclusion was easy to formulate. At least three people had passed this way quite recently, most likely Gideon and the two missing cops.
"Damn it!" Jonah said, scowling at the scant amount of evidence they'd been able to find. "They were definitely here, but it's hard to be sure which way they went."
"Gideon would probably take the shortest route unless one of them couldn't hack it," Otis speculated.
"Do you think those cops can keep up with him?" Jonah asked.
"Yeah, they might, depending on what kind of shape the blonde is in. We did work him over pretty good the day before."
Jonah glanced toward the peak with a growing sense of trepidation. Tackling the summit via the lesser-known, more overgrown trail was a daunting task in the middle of a long summer day. Crossing it now would be profoundly more challenging.
"We have to take the shortcut if we stand any chance of catching them," Ben said, speaking up for the first time. "Even if they went the long way, they're too far ahead of us if we don't. Gideon and I took the shorter route a few times last summer. It's rough in places, but it cuts off a few miles. As it is, we'll have to walk all night just to catch them."
Knowing their brother was right, Jonah and Otis exchanged a look of exasperation. While none of them wanted to battle the harsh elements of the old trail, it was unquestionably the fastest route to the opposite side of the mountain.
"So what do we do if we catch them?" Otis asked, watching Jonah closely.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's open season on cops!" Jonah retorted angrily.
"And Gideon?" Ben asked calmly.
"I don't know yet!" Jonah admitted, looking uncomfortable. "First and foremost, we have to stop those cops! I'll decide what to do with Gideon once we find him."
Gideon continued to lead the way while Starsky and Hutch kept up as best they could. Although he was a formidable point man, the underbrush was equally brutal. After pulling a large hunting knife from its sheath, Gideon hacked his way through a particularly dense entanglement of berry branches. Without the extra help from the blade, the way forward would most certainly have remained blocked.
"Jesus, Gideon! Are you absolutely sure we're goin' the right way?" Starsky asked. "This stuff is incredible!"
"Yeah, I'm sure," Gideon answered, putting away the knife. "It's this bad because it's springtime. We're the first to walk through here since the snow melted."
Knowing Hutch was probably struggling to catch his breath as much as he was, Starsky requested a rest for both their sakes. "Hey, can you hold up a sec?" Starsky asked. "Hutch is carryin' double packs."
It had proven too painful for Starsky to wear his own pack with his injured shoulder. Although it hadn't stopped him from trying, the distress on his face had been obvious which motivated Hutch to force the issue and relieve him of the extra weight.
"Let me have it," Hutch had insisted, holding out a hand. Without another word, Starsky had given the pack to his partner.
"We could just leave it behind, ya know," Starsky suggested. "I've got my badge and my gun. There's nothing else in there I really need to keep."
"That's not necessary, Starsk," Hutch said. "Besides, it's not that heavy for me, especially once we clear the top of the mountain. Gideon, how much longer before we make the summit?"
"Soon. I wasn't completely sure until I cut through that last patch of brambles. I'd guess we're only about three hundred yards from the top."
"Hear that, Starsk? We're almost there. Once we're headed downhill, everything will get easier."
Starsky was winded and breathing heavily. A dull, throbbing pain had surrounded the wound in his shoulder while his thigh muscles burned from the strain of the uphill hike. For a brief moment, Starsky experienced a sense of vertigo on the heels of a bout of mild nausea. The worst of the discomfort gradually subsided as his heart rate began to slow down.
Gideon waited patiently as Starsky and Hutch both worked to catch their breath. All things considered, he'd grown to admire both men for their endurance and sheer determination. For a couple of city guys, they were handling the challenges of the wilderness far better than most. Even his brothers had a hard time keeping up with him on this particular piece of the trail.
After handing a canteen to Starsky, Gideon fished around in his bag for more apples, eventually handing one to each of them. "Here, eat these," Gideon urged. "It'll help some."
Delighted with the extra food, Starsky and Hutch devoured the fruit in a few, quick bites which helped to calm Starsky's nausea and replenish his shakiness. Tossing the core aside, Hutch waited while the others finished eating, anxious to get moving again. "Ready?" Hutch asked, eying Starsky closely.
"As ready as I can be," Starsky replied. Resting a hand on each hip, Starsky took advantage of the extra time to gather a few more deep breaths. "About three hundred yards, you say, huh?"
"Ok," Starsky said, bracing himself for the remainder of the climb. "Let's get goin' then."
Pressing onward, the top of the peak slowly came into view. When Gideon, at last, placed a foot on the top of the summit, he turned and extended a hand to Starsky. "My God," Starsky whispered, his eyes sweeping the width and breadth of the entire valley. "This is absolutely incredible."
Hutch soon followed Starsky, dropping the extra pack as he hauled himself to the highest point of the peak. Assuming his full height, he stood to admire the view. At the northern side of the valley sat Emerald Bay, the most western edge of South Lake Tahoe, glistening in the sun.
"You're a hell of a tour guide, Gideon," Hutch said. "We sure wouldn't have made it without you."
Gideon accepted the praise without further comment. While the most rugged part of the trail was behind them, they still had a few miles to go, albeit downhill instead of the grueling uphill climb they had recently endured. Briefly, Gideon wondered if his brothers had chosen to follow him, or had they panicked and run away entirely? As he was now deep in uncharted territory, Gideon was no longer so sure. Overall, he supposed it was a rather moot point as he and the detectives would make Emerald Bay by mid-afternoon. One way or the other, he would probably know by then.
Chapter 8: The Reckoning
Hutch knew he'd screwed up well before he hit the ground. The hunk of log he'd chosen as a stepping stone turned out to be rotten, disintegrating beneath his foot and knocking him off balance. Although he tried to brace himself for the impact, the fall was jarring nonetheless. Hutch landed with a heavy thud on his right side, the extra pack wedged awkwardly beneath his ribs.
"Hutch!" Starsky shouted, hurrying to kneel beside him. "Are you alright?"
Although Hutch wanted desperately to respond, he couldn't. The awkward fall had punched him in the diaphragm hard enough to knock the air out of his lungs. For several long moments, Hutch struggled to answer before giving up entirely. Curling each hand into a ball, he slammed both fists into the ground out of sheer frustration. It was then Starsky understood what had happened.
"He got the air knocked out of him," Starsky announced, glancing at Gideon. Working quickly, he pulled the pack off Hutch's shoulders and helped him turn over. "Easy there," Starsky soothed, rubbing Hutch's forearm. "Hang on, buddy. It's gonna get better."
Hutch had shut his eyes against the complete loss of control and the agonizing lack of air. As the muscles in his chest slowly began to relax, he was able to take a few shallow, replenishing breaths. Until then, Hutch was forced to wait until the air hunger lost its grip before he was able to breathe more normally. Once the burning sensation in his chest began to subside, Hutch opened his eyes to find Starsky hovering over him.
"That a boy," Starsky said, a flood of relief evident in his smile. "Welcome back. I was worried about you for a bit."
Hutch managed a weak smile but little else. As he waited for his strength to return, he fumbled for Starsky's hand and held on.
"That sucked big time, Starsk," Hutch whispered.
"Yeah, it did," Starsky quickly agreed. "And personally, I don't care to see that again."
Gideon watched anxiously from a short distance away. Although he was eager to help, he felt almost helpless in this type of situation. If the same thing happened to him, Gideon knew his brothers would most likely laugh and walk away. Starsky, however, behaved differently, revealing a loving kind of loyalty that was glaringly absent in Gideon's own life.
Once he felt partially recovered, Hutch was eager to get back on its feet. With Starsky's help, he pulled himself to a sitting position before trying to stand up.
"Just sit there a minute," Starsky suggested. "I was getting ready to ask for another breather before you fell."
Gideon passed the canteen to Starsky who in turn passed it to Hutch. "Take a good drink," Starsky added. "It'll help."
Once Hutch was feeling stronger, they were back on the trail with a renewed sense of urgency. With Emerald Bay now in full view, every step took them closer to help and safety. Hutch was trying to be more careful, placing one more foot deliberately in front of the other as he navigated the downhill side of the trail. To Gideon's credit, and despite a number of unusual and extreme obstacles, the man had gotten them to the outskirts of Emerald Bay by way of the most direct route.
"What's that green building over there?" Starsky asked, pointing to a structure on the edge of town. "It looks federal."
"It is," Gideon replied. "It's the Forest Service Center."
"Perfect!" Starsky said. "That's where we'll go first. We can make use of a telephone for official business. From there, we'll be able to arrange for a ride back to the Torino."
Once the original leg of the Cedar Creek Trail intersected with the newer section, the path had assumed a rather sharp descent toward town. Heavy pine needles covered an otherwise well-defined trail through the evergreens that lined the way forward. Both detectives found themselves wishing the route over the peak had been this easy to navigate.
Starsky had regained possession of his pack, insisting he could carry it in his right hand just as easily as Hutch at this point. Still reeling from the sting of his recent fall, Hutch hadn't been up for an argument. Starsky was busy following Gideon around a bend in the trail when the larger man came to an unexpected stop. Starsky narrowly avoided running right into him before his eyes were drawn to a point several yards down the trail. In the middle of the path stood Jonah, flanked on either side by his brothers, and each of them displaying a long-barrelled shotgun.
"Well, well, well," Jonah began, his eyes quickly roving over Gideon and the detectives. "Look what we have here."
Hutch froze at the sound of the other man's voice. "How in the hell did they get ahead of us?" Hutch wondered.
Gideon said nothing as he locked eyes with Jonah. He waited instead, allowing his brother the next move. Gideon wasn't sure if it was fear or fascination he saw on the faces of Otis and Ben.
Behind Gideon, Starsky waited also. He knew he could reach his handgun in an instant - he knew Hutch could do the same. Gideon's weapon was also clearly visible, slung low on his right hip. For an instant, Starsky felt as if he'd entered a scene straight out of the OK Corral. Once someone made the first move, all bloody hell was destined to break loose.
"You did a stupid thing, Gideon," Jonah began. "Throwin' in with these cops? What the hell's gotten into you?"
"I'm done livin' the way I have been," Gideon shouted back. "You can't force me to do it anymore. It's really that simple, Jonah. I don't expect you to understand it, but you will need to get out of my way."There it was - the ultimate, proverbial line that had been drawn in the sand. Hutch's eyes flitted nervously between Gideon, Starsky, and the other three men, his fingers close to twitching as he considered reaching for his handgun. A fiery encounter seemed unavoidable.
Hutch eventually fixed his eyes on Jonah thinking any fight they couldn't avoid would most likely start with him. He was steeling himself for that moment when something alongside the trail caught his attention instead. In a flurry of sudden movement, a tawny assailant launched itself from the underbrush toward Jonah, landing on his back and pulling him to the ground. Taken off guard, Otis and Ben panicked and scrambled backward in their joint attempt to get out of the way, dropping their weapons in the process.
"Gideon! Run!" Starsky yelled, throwing himself sideways off the trail and behind a small boulder. Hutch followed, landing close behind Starsky.
Surprisingly, Gideon stood his ground, shifting first left, then right, in an attempt to get a clear shot of his brother's attacker. As everyone watched in horror, the large cougar fastened its jaws around Jonah's neck, breaking the fragile bones underneath.
Throwing off his pack, Hutch leaped to his feet, charging after Gideon and straight into the center of the melee. On the sidelines, Starsky had also pulled his weapon. With one eye on Otis and Ben, Starsky watched as Gideon and Hutch fought to gain control of the attack. Gideon rushed toward the animal's blindside as Jonah was likely taking his last breath. Hutch and Gideon were forced to dance around each other in a quest for the best shooting position. When Gideon, at last, found a clear, albeit brief line of fire, he sent four rounds into the cat's body, killing it instantly.
As quickly as the brutal fight had begun, it was over.
Hutch rushed forward to attend to Jonah while Gideon remained rooted to one spot. Slowly, he lowered his gun as Hutch shoved the cat off Jonah, flinching internally as he did so. It was clear that Jonah was dead. For Gideon's sake, Hutch knelt and checked for a pulse anyway - all futile, as the man's neck was obviously broken. The cat's teeth had done the rest. Hutch gently closed Jonah's eyelids with his fingertips before turning his attention to everyone else.
While he looked a bit stunned, Gideon was still on his feet, his firearm now dangling at his side. Glancing at Gideon's brothers, Hutch saw they had not retrieved their rifles, but were both staring instead at their brother's lifeless body.
"That's probably the same cat you wounded last night, Hutch," Gideon said, moving closer for a better look. "That's why it hunted us down."
Hutch felt his gut twist at the prospect that Jonah's death might have been his responsibility if only indirectly.
"It's not your fault," Gideon added. "It could have been any one of us, Hutch. Trust me, that cat didn't know the difference."
"I'm sorry anyway, Gideon," Hutch said.
"I know you are," the other man answered softly.
Starsky moved to stand next to Hutch, slipping an arm around his partner's waist for added support.
"Shall one of us stay here with the body?" Starsky asked.
"I can do that," Gideon offered. "The Forest Service building is only another half mile or so down the trail. You can see it from here. It won't take you long to get there."
"And your brothers?" Hutch asked warily.
"Oh, I don't think they're interested in going anywhere," Gideon said. "I can keep them here if I have to, but I'm confident that won't be necessary. Just like me, I suspect they've had their fill of a lot of things."
Glancing again at Otis and Ben, Hutch had to agree with Gideon. Both men were sitting a short distance away on the side of the trail - Otis was staring blankly at the ground while Ben sat holding his head in his hands.
"Go ahead," Gideon said. "I give you my word we'll all be here when you get back."
Chapter 9: Full Circle
Two months later...
"You're taking me where?" Starsky asked, scrambling to catch up with Hutch.
"To a new dinner spot," Hutch called over his shoulder. "Trust me, Starsk, you're gonna love it."
After leaving the police garage in Hutch's LTD, they pushed through the evening traffic only slightly ahead of the rush. It was Friday, and Hutch was in the mood to celebrate. One by one, a bundle of cases had been finalized or transferred to a different division. And best of all, narcotics had formally confiscated the grow site at Cedar Creek leaving Starsky and Hutch to manage the remaining details.
Hutch was smiling as he pulled to a stop directly in front of the Community Center. "Hey, look at this," Hutch commented. "We even get front row parking tonight. That's got to be a good omen."
"Dinner at the Community Center?" Starsky asked, looking puzzled. "Hutch, they don't serve dinner here, do they?"
"They do now, Starsky. They have a new culinary program that I've heard great things about. Follow me and you'll see what I mean."
As instructed, Starsky followed Hutch through the main doors where they were greeted by an attractive young woman whose name tag identified her as Margaret. "Good evening, gentlemen," Margaret said cheerfully. "Are you here for dinner?"
"We are," Hutch answered.
"Wonderful. Just follow this hallway to a set of large, double doors near the end. Once you reach the doors, a host will be happy to seat you."
"Thank you so much."
Starsky was still feeling a little bewildered as he followed Hutch down the hallway. Like his partner, he'd been in the same building for a variety of events over the years - an occasional class, a lecture, or once in a while, for a food drive. Two years ago he'd helped volunteers put up Christmas decorations for a party the police department had sponsored for underprivileged kids. Although he knew there was a functional kitchen on the premises, he hadn't realized it had restaurant capabilities. Of all the places he might have guessed Hutch would take him for dinner, Starsky would never have thought of the Community Center.
"Detective Hutchinson," a tall, older man called out as they passed through the double doorway. "I'm so pleased you could make it."
"I wouldn't dream of missing it," Hutch replied, extending his hand.
"And this is Detective Starsky, I assume?" the man asked.
"Yes. Greg Winston, meet my partner, David Starsky."
"Mr. Starsky, it's an absolute pleasure to me you," Winston said. "I've heard so much about you."
"You have?" Starsky said, looking surprised. "From who? Hutch?"
"Well, yes, from Mr. Hutchinson, but mostly from Gideon," Winston added. "He admires both of you a great deal. And speaking of Gideon, if you don't mind following me, I'll take you to your table."
Starsky smiled in return at the kindly, older gentleman who seemed to know a great deal about him. As he followed the man to their table, a few scattered pieces of information began to fall in place. Starsky remembered Hutch mentioning someone by the name of Winston who was working with Gideon on his possible career options. Hutch hadn't said a great deal beyond that other than Gideon seemed happy to be working.
What Hutch had not told Starsky was that Gideon had done exceptionally well uncovering a new career path for himself. In a few short weeks, he had discovered a love for baking through a program to feed the homeless that was managed by the Center. As donations were often sporadic and unreliable, there was a constant need for fresh, simple baked goods to feed the program's participants as well as the homeless. After a few short lessons from a culinary professor who volunteered weekly at the Center, Gideon had been assigned to bake full time.
Every morning Gideon gladly entered the Community Center kitchen by 6:00 AM, put on a fresh, clean apron, and went to work making an assortment of rolls, bread, and a variety of simple sweet treats for the day's meals. The culinary instructor was so impressed with Gideon's aptitude in the kitchen that he arranged for other students to have the opportunity to learn basic kitchen skills. Tonight the students were showing off their knowledge with an emphasis on Gideon's newfound baking abilities.
"Here you go," Winston said, ushering Starsky and Hutch to a table near the front of the room. "I'll be back to chat after you've had a chance to enjoy your meal. In the interim, I'll let Gideon know that you're here."
"Thanks, Winston," Hutch said.
"Wow," Starsky commented, his eyes roving around the room. He loved the comfortable, home-style type of atmosphere. "This is really nice. It does feel like we're in a regular restaurant."
"It does," Hutch agreed, also looking around. "It has a kind of country Italian sense to it - something I thought you'd appreciate."
A middle-aged woman approached their table to politely distribute menus and fill their water glasses.
"Good evening, gentlemen," the woman said, smiling shyly. "My name is Anna. I'll be back to take your order once you've had a chance to study the menu. Please let me know if there's anything else I can get for you."
As Hutch began to read, he was immediately struck by a sense of simple elegance. There were four main entrees to choose from - a beef, chicken, fish, and even a vegetarian option. It was evident that a variety of taste preferences had been considered by whoever had prepared the menu. A short selection of side dishes was also available along with a variety of bread and roll options featuring Gideon as the chef. As the Community Center did not own a liquor license, drink selections were limited to coffee, tea, and a variety of soft drinks. It wasn't long before both Starsky and Hutch had selected something from the menu that suited their individual taste buds.
As Hutch laid the menu on the table, he looked up to see Gideon striding toward them. The man approaching their table did not resemble the man he and Starsky had first encountered that fateful day in the woods. The tall, confident individual he saw now was wearing a smile from ear to ear and dressed in a white chef's coat and trousers. Clean-shaven with his hair neatly cut and combed, Gideon looked entirely different from the scruffy, unkempt man he'd first met over two months earlier.
"Gideon!" Hutch exclaimed, standing to embrace the larger man. "It's so good to see you again!"
"It's good to see you again, too," Gideon replied. "And you," Gideon added, extending a hand to Starsky.
"I must say, everything here looks exceptional," Starsky said. "And that includes you, Gideon."
"Thank you. I'm very proud of what we've been able to do," Gideon beamed.
"Can you sit down, Gideon?" Hutch asked. "We want to hear more about what you're doing. Or do you need to be working in the kitchen?"
"No, my part in preparing dinner is done. I'll help with the clean-up later, but I'd probably just be in the way right now."
"Then have a seat. Starsky and I would love an update on everything you've been doing."
Gideon sat down with Starsky and Hutch just as Anna was bringing their drinks to their table. The detectives placed their orders as Gideon relaxed into his chair.
"I really enjoy the work," Gideon said eventually, referring to his interest in baking. "Before I came here, I'd never seen a kitchen with equipment like this before."
Hutch nodded as if he could relate to what the other man was saying. It sounded like Gideon had discovered an entirely new world behind the doors of a large, modern kitchen.
"There's so much you can do with some of this stuff," Gideon said, obviously excited by a number of things he had recently learned. "Giant electric mixers, endless amounts of clean counter space, and a lot of other specialized equipment make everything so much easier. I love making different kinds of bread."
"There's always a market for good, nutritious food," Starsky commented. "We need all of the people we can get producing it. If that's what you enjoy doing, you'll always have a steady job, Gideon."
Gideon looked pleased with Starsky's statement. "That's what Mr. Winston says, too. Next week he's taking me on a tour of the culinary department at the college. He thinks if I apply soon, I might be able to start classes as early as this fall. In just a couple of years, I could earn a real culinary degree."
"Gideon! That's great news!" Hutch said.
"Of course, a lot depends on how things go in court," Gideon added, looking slightly crestfallen. "But if not this year, Mr. Winston thinks it's something I can do eventually - work my way toward it if that's necessary. And I do want it, Hutch. I love working in the bakery."
Hutch felt like a father whose young son had just found his life's calling. He was proud of Gideon not only for choosing a new direction for his life but for doing it entirely on his own. It was a noble achievement for anyone.
"How are your brothers doing?" Starsky asked. "And your mother?"
"Otis is still angry with me," Gideon began. "If he's able to leave the area after our court date, I think that's what he'll do. Otherwise, I rarely talk to him. Ben has no idea what he wants to do. As for ma, she's living at a women's shelter right now. I tried to visit her once, but she didn't want to see me."
Gideon talked about his family with a noticeable air of detachment.
"I'm sorry, Gideon," Hutch said, not knowing what else to say. "I know that can't be easy for you."
"Thank you, but it's not as bad as you might assume. Remember, that's why I left in the first place, Hutch. There was nothing of value to keep me attached to my family. It's probably better for everyone, especially now that Jonah is dead if we all go our separate ways."
Starsky glanced at Hutch across the table, a sense of empathy and remorse clearly visible in his eyes. How had such a sensible, thoughtful man emerged from an otherwise thoroughly dysfunctional family?
"Well, I want you to stay in touch with me and Starsky, alright?" Hutch explained. "There are a lot of people in this world you can depend on, and many of them are working right here in the Center. Winston knows what he's doing, Gideon. He can be a great help to you."
"Oh, I know that. Mr. Winston has already done plenty for me," Gideon agreed. "I'm very grateful to have met him. However, I consider myself just as fortunate to have met you and Starsky. I don't see how any of this would be possible if I hadn't."
Hutch wasn't sure if that was true, but it was something Gideon obviously believed. Over the years, he had learned how police work could quickly evolve into something more akin to social work than law enforcement. Hutch had learned how to adjust to the flow of unexpected circumstances. Gideon's situation was a prime example of how one man could change his life with enough of the right kind of help.
"Starsky and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time - or maybe it was more like the wrong place at the right time," Hutch added, smiling. "You made all of your own decisions beyond a certain point, Gideon. It's only fair that you allow yourself a proper amount of recognition, too."
"You're gonna be fine," Starsky added. "Hutch and I have dealt with our share of irredeemable criminals in our time. And trust me, you miss the mark badly, Gideon. You aren't one of them."
A trace of a smile passed over Gideon's face at Starsky's last comment. It was pleasing to know that a man like Starsky, a highly respected detective no less, would consider him to be a good citizen.
As a server approached balancing two dinner plates on a tray, Gideon straightened in his seat and prepared to excuse himself. "Oh good, it looks like your dinner is here," Gideon said, pushing back his chair. "It's proper dining etiquette that I allow you to eat in peace, but I'd love to talk to you when it's time for dessert. I've prepared something special for everyone. Until then, I hope you enjoy your meal, and I want to hear your honest opinions when you're through. If you think something needs to be changed or improved, I'd like to know what it is."
Starsky and Hutch looked surprised but pleased.
"Bon appetit, gentlemen," Gideon said. "I'll meet you on the dessert side of your meal."
"Bon appetit, Gideon," Starsky and Hutch replied in tandem, laughing as they clinked their water glasses together.
"Good job, partner," Starsky said, winking at Hutch as they watched Gideon walk away. "With someone like you in his corner, that kid's gonna be just fine."
Finished - May 11, 2022