Disclaimer: The usual. All The Sentinel regulars belong to Pet Fly and Paramount. Since all the rest of these folk are figments of odd mental aberrations on my part, they belong to me. No money earned, many sleepless nights involved.
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and language)
Thanks to all who have written about my stories over the past months. Real life has kept me hopping with very little time to write. I do have several new stories in the works. None are quite ready for posting, however I do have an 'old' story to offer in the meantime. <g>
The following story, Judgments, was previously published in Sentry Post #3. Linda has graciously released the story back into my hands for 'net' consumption. It has been minorly edited since the zine version was released. Per the show's timeframe, this story would take place after Warriors. I hope you enjoy it.
Judgments started out as a short story about a journey and ended up as another monster-length piece. Don't blame meblame my Muse. She obviously had a firm direction that she wanted me to takeand specific points she wanted me to make. I've learned not to argue with her. <g>
My thanks to my beta reader Carolyn, for pointing out a few 'gaping' holes and supplying virtual pats on the back; to Chris and Wendy for their encouragement and proofreading assistance; and, to Linda, for doing me the honor of including this story in her superb zine.
"What do you mean there's no bus?" Blair Sandburg asked in surprise.
"I mean there's no bus," the station attendant answered brusquely, not even raising his eyes. "The bridge to Arendo is out."
"I understand that, but I only need to go as far as the Integra Reservation," Blair explained patiently. "I'm meeting some friends to work on the new dig site. That's this side of the bridge."
"No bridge, no bus," the man snapped, his attention shifting back to the magazine in his hands.
Struggling to control his rising irritation, Blair glanced around the bus station. His eyes caught for a moment on the bright Nevada sunlight streaming in through the doors, and he felt a shiver crawl up his spine. He'd known that there was something wrong the second he'd stepped inside and found the place nearly deserted. The last time he'd been here it had been full of laughing children, people laden with suitcases, and solemn retirees. Now it was just him, an old man who was stretched out on one of the benches with a newspaper draped across his chest, and the less than cooperative attendant behind the counter. This can't be happening. Not now.
"Until when?" he pressed.
The clerk raised his head and gave Blair a scathing glare; eyeing his earrings, his long hair and his threadbare jeans in disgust. "Until they fix the bridge. Is that simple enough? Or do you want me to write it out so that you can read it over a few times? Assuming you can read, that is," the man added contemptuously.
"Now wait a minute." Blair's temper was close to erupting. Tired of being ignored, he reached over the counter to grab the man by the arm, determined to make one more attempt to get around his stonewalling.
The man pulled away as if he'd been stung by Blair's touch and practically lunged for his phone. "Get your hands off of me you Indian-loving, hippie freak!"
Blair stepped back, startled by the hatred in the man's voice. "I'm just trying to"
"You're all scum!" the attendant hissed, cutting off his protest. "I'm calling the cops. They're gonna throw your lazy ass in jail."
Blair's frustration and irritation abruptly crystallized into full blown anger. "Why you"
"Hey, partner, I'm sorry I kept you waiting." Jim Ellison was suddenly at his side, the big man's hand closing firmly on Blair's left shoulder, stopping him in his tracks.
Blair glanced up and saw the flash of icy fire in his partner's eyes, the tightening of his jaw muscles. Recognizing the warning signs of his friend's temper, Blair's mouth snapped shut on the tirade he was about to let loose.
Ellison's gaze shifted to the attendant, flicking from the man's ID tag to his face. "Good morning... Mr. Weston, is it?" Jim pulled his own identification from his pocket. "I'm Detective Ellison, Cascade, Washington PD. I see you've already met my partner."
With a silent groan, Blair realized that Jim must have heard every word of his 'discussion' with the man behind the counter. Jim's gold shield flashed in the man's face, his voice betraying none of the anger that Blair knew was boiling under the surface.
"I heard you talking about calling the police," Jim continued. "We're a little out of our jurisdiction, but perhaps we can help."
"Your... p-partner?" The attendant had gone pale and he barely managed to stutter out his question, his eyes flickering to Blair and then back to Jim, uncertainly.
"Blair Sandburg," Jim said, nodding toward the anthropologist. "Mr. Sandburg and I were scheduled to be on the next bus. Is there some problem?"
Blair had to drop his own gaze to hide the burst of laughter and satisfaction that bubbled up inside as the man stammered out a response to Jim's question. The attendant was talking rapidly, suddenly realizing that the 'freak' wasn't going to be such an easy target. Blair composed himself and looked up, enjoying the clerk's discomfort.
"... so you see, until the bridge is restored there's no way of crossing the river. The bus line has suspended service until that happens," Weston babbled, anxiously eyeing Ellison's towering form.
"I see," Jim said softly, his face going hard and still. His gaze locked on the clerk for what seemed like an eternity.
Blair forced himself not to laugh. He'd seen his friend do this trick before, but it never failed to amaze him how menacing and deadly Jim Ellison could appear if he wanted to.
"I... I'm sorry..." the man stammered, turning even whiter.
"I'm sure you are," Jim murmured quietly, a dangerous edge to his voice, his body tensed as if ready to spring. He held that pose for a moment, then turned casually to Blair, handing him his backpack. "Looks like we'll just have to find another way out to the reservation, partner." Jim's tone was light as he focused his smiling attention on Blair, completely dismissing the man behind the counter.
Blair didn't trust himself to speak. Nodding in agreement, he allowed Jim's firm grip on his shoulder to turn him in the direction of the door. Before stepping out into the sunlight, he paused, glancing over his shoulder. The clerk still hadn't moved and he looked like a good candidate for a stress-relief seminar. Barely smothering a chuckle at the man's discomfort, Blair let the door swing shut behind him.
Once outside, however, his feeling of smug satisfaction quickly shifted to stinging disappointment. Blair had been excited about the opportunity to see the new dig site and visit with his old friends on the reservation. More importantly, he'd been looking forward to showing Jim around, sharing a part of his life for a change. Now, that wasn't going to happen.
With a disheartened shake of his head, Blair stuffed his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and started across the street. His shuffling feet kicked up small clouds of dust as he glumly followed his partner to the small park adjacent to the bus station.
Jim dropped his travel bag on an old-fashioned iron bench. As he stretched and rolled his shoulders to work the kinks out of his back, he stole a quick look at the anthropologist, observing the range of emotions that flickered across Blair's expressive face. Troubled, Jim glanced away, scanning the small city square in frustration, struggling to control the anger he still felt at the bus station attendant's treatment of his friend.
He pretended to study their surroundings while he focused his Sentinel senses on his partner, hoping to get a clue as to what to do next. He'd caught the soft chuckle from Blair when they'd left the station and hoped that the expression currently darkening the younger man's face was due to the unexpected set back, not Jim's interference.
He hadn't expected to find trouble waiting for them in this sleepy little Nevada town, but it had been evident the moment Jim had stepped into the bus station that something was wrong. He had sent Blair ahead to check on the bus while he'd collected their bags and paid off the driver who had brought them from the airport. Without conscious effort, the Sentinel had tuned into his Guide's distress and frustration, his enhanced hearing easily picking up the attendant's snide remarks. Jim had frowned, irritated, but he'd held back, confident that Blair could handle the situation, expecting the patented Sandburg charm to smooth things over as it usually did. The sudden increase in Blair's heartbeat had pushed the alarm button on his 'Blessed Protector' instincts and he had found himself in the middle of the confrontation almost before he realized it.
It was Blair's anger which surprised him. Over the course of their rather unconventional partnership, he'd seen or felt his friend's temper only a handful of times. Blair's normal response to a tense situation was to turn the uncomfortable into a joke. Or simply ignore it. If it was bad enough, the response was flight, not confrontation. But just moments ago, the younger man had been ready to leap over the counter and take on the bigoted clerk physically. His behavior was distinctly out of character.
Blair dropped heavily onto the bench, lowering his backpack to the ground with only a little more care. His eyes were fixed on the ground; his face a closed, silent mask.
"I'm sorry if I stepped into the middle of something I shouldn't have," Jim apologized.
Blair's head snapped up, eyes wide with surprise. "What? Oh, no man, your timing was great. The look on his face when you did that 'Ellison thing' was just priceless."
"That 'Ellison thing?'"
"Yeah, you know. The stone face look. Gets 'em every time." Blair contorted his face mimicking Jim's stern expression.
Jim glared at the younger man, then let his face relax into a smile. He knew the look Blair meantthe one that he'd been accused of practicing in front of the mirrorand he felt no guilt as he remembered the pale, frantic look on the attendant's face. Serves him right for screwing with my partner.
Blair grinned back at him and then glanced around. The smile faded after a moment and he rubbed his eyes wearily. "Sorry man. Looks like we hit a major dead end here. Guess we might as well head back to the airport and find the next flight home."
Jim remained silent, studying his friend closely. The blue eyes which normally sparkled with excitement were dull and the signs of fatigue were clearly evidentthe result of too many days stretched between working with Jim, while still carrying a full load of teaching responsibilities. Not to mention the time he put in on his own research and studies.
Ellison realized abruptly that it was the station attendant's 'lazy ass' remark that had propelled him into their confrontation. While Jim might tease Blair about sleeping 'til noon or having a 'soft' teaching job, he didn't take it well when someone else tried it. Sandburg was one of the hardest working, most responsible people he'd ever met.
Blair had been pushing harder than usual over the last few weeks. Making time to sleep had been at the bottom of a very long list of priorities. When he hadn't been sitting on overnight stakeouts with Jim, the anthropologist had been frenetically grading papers and writing lesson plans for the TA who was taking over his classes for the few days that he planned to be gone. Jim had heard him moving quietly around the loft at all hours, the scratching of his pen or the soft tapping of his fingers on the keyboard carrying upstairs as the Sentinel automatically monitored his Guide's presence throughout the long nights.
And Sandburg looked thinner, especially since the searing heat of the Nevada morning had forced him out of the oversized jacket and layers of shirts he usually favored. He looked smaller and somehow vulnerable, sitting dejectedly on the park bench, dressed in a tie-dyed t-shirt and a pair of his favorite worn jeans. Jim was struck suddenly by how young his friend looked. And how disappointed.
It just wasn't fair. They'd gotten this far. Surely there was another way to get out to the reservation. "What about calling your friends?" Jim offered. "Someone at the reservation must have a car. Maybe they'd drive in to get us. Must be a woman there who'd be susceptible to the Sandburg charm."
"Unfortunately they're wise to that angle," Blair said ruefully, a small smile flickering across his face. "My friend Nate's got a car, but it's in worse shape than mine. I've got too much respect for that desert to risk the drive in his bomb."
"Why don't we just rent a car ourselves?" Jim suggested, an idea forming in his head.
"Look around you, Jim," Blair said slowly. "Unless you're picking up something with that Sentinel sight of yours, I don't see any Hertz signs. That's why we were taking the bus, remember?"
"No, I mean, why don't we try to rent a car from someone in town?" Jim responded, ignoring the jibe. "There's got to be someone who wouldn't mind a little extra cash."
Blair brightened, considering the idea. But only for a moment. "Sounds good in theory, Jim, but I think we'd be better off just heading home."
Jim stared at his friend in confusion. "I don't get this, Sandburg. You've been talking about nothing else but this trip for the past three weeks. I was ready to have them sedate you to keep you in your seat on the plane. Now you're ready to just give up and head home?"
"You're usually like an immovable object once you get an idea fixed in your head," Jim continued, his eyes fixed on the younger man's face. "Giving up's not your style. What's going on?"
"Just facing reality, man," Blair answered, meeting Jim's gaze almost angrily, gesturing with a quick jerk of his head toward the bus station. "I've been here before, remember? That guy's attitude is pretty consistent with the rest of the local perspective. They might rent a car to you, Joe Friday, but they're sure as hell not going to rent one to an 'Indian-loving, hippie freak.'"
Jim grimaced at the anger and hurt in his friend's voice. Considering his words carefully, he sank down onto the bench next to Blair. "Is that how you see yourself?"
"Hey, man, this isn't about my self-image," Blair responded flippantly, reaching for his backpack. The Sentinel immediately sensed the increase in his friend's heart rate and caught his arm.
"Answer the question, Sandburg," Jim growled, vowing that for once, he was going to get a straight answer out of his friend.
Ellison felt the rigid tension in Blair's muscles; watched a flood of raw emotions flicker in the expressive blue eyes. The stress seemed so great that he was sure that the younger man was going to bolt. He was surprised, and relieved, when Blair took a deep calming breath and settled onto the bench once more.
Sandburg stared out across the park, his eyes half focused, his voice a bare whisper when he finally answered. "I learned a long time ago not to worry about what other people think about me."
The undercurrent of pain in Blair's voice merged with the loud pounding of his heartbeat and Jim 'heard' the truth that his friend was trying to obscure. He wondered again at the strange upbringing the young man had experienced as a child. Jim liked and respected Naomi, but he sensed that her Bohemian wanderings and new age philosophies would have made it very hard for Blair to be accepted by his peers.
"Jim, just let it go, okay?" Blair pleaded, still not meeting Jim's eyes.
"Do you think that's how I see you?" Ellison pressed, voicing the disconcerting question which had arisen in his own mind.
Blair's heartbeat surged again, old insecurities suddenly laid bare to the Sentinel's probing senses. Jim was hard pressed not to grab his partner and shake some sense into him. Somehow he forced himself to remain still.
"You did once," Blair finally whispered, turning his head to meet Jim's unwavering gaze. Ellison flinched and Sandburg immediately shifted gears, forcing a lightness into his tone. "But that was a first impression thing, right? We're past that. I'm not always sure about Simon and some of the other guys at the station, but you and me, we're past that now."
Despite Blair's assertion, an unspoken "Aren't we?" hung in the air between them. Jim nodded. He'd been ready to make a sarcastic, teasing retort, but the pain and uncertainty that tinged his friend's voice and filled his eyes stopped him. As did a memory. Ellison remembered guiltily that he had used some of those same insulting terms one of the first times they'd met.
"Long past it, partner," Jim said truthfully. His eyes never flinched from Blair's searching gaze and he gave his friend's arm a gentle squeeze before releasing his hold.
Blair glanced away, but the immediate lessening of the tension in the set of his shoulders reflected the relief Jim's words had provided. He finally sighed, scrubbing his face tiredly. "We'd better see about exchanging those plane tickets."
Unwilling to upset the fragile balance of understanding they'd just achieved, Jim took a deep breath of his own, weighing his next words carefully. "Look, I know that sometimes you think I get a little out of line with my 'big brother' protectiveness, but I know how much you were looking forward to this. So I'm going to ask you to keep quiet for a minute and consider something, okay?"
Blair made a gesture that could only be interpreted as 'zipping his lips', then sat back, eyeing Jim suspiciously.
"I'd like to go ahead and try to find us a car." Blair immediately opened his mouth to object, but Jim waved him off. "You can sit here and relax, enjoy the sunshine. I'll pick you up as soon as I find us some wheels and we'll head out to the reservation. It's what, a four-hour drive?"
"More like five," Blair responded, shaking his head. "Jim you don't have to do this. I'm really"
"Okay with this," Jim interrupted him. "Yeah, I know. Think of how much more 'okay' you're going to feel when the local red-necks see you driving out of town with 'Joe Friday'."
Blair stared at him for a moment, astonished. Then a grin split his face and he laughed delightedly. "Simon's right, Jim," he commented, leaning back into the park bench and relaxing. "You have been spending too much time with me. You're getting devious."
"I was devious long before you met me," Jim replied, rising to his feet and slapping his hand gently against Blair's knee. "Just sit here, and try not to get arrested for anything while I'm gone, okay, Chief?"
"Sure, Big Brother... anything you say, Big Brother," Blair teased, taking his glasses from his pocket and drawing a book from his pack.
Jim glared down at the younger man in mock irritation, then cracked a smile and headed off in pursuit of their transportation.
Peering over the top of his glasses, Blair watched Jim cross the street and enter one of the stores. Oddly enough, he found himself worried about his tall friend and sent a silent 'Watch your back' thought speeding in the Sentinel's direction. Then he shook himself, laughing at the irony of the situation. Jim wasn't the one out of place here; he was. The staggering wave of hate the clerk in the bus station had sent his way wasn't the first one of its kind that he'd ever received. He'd had a lot of experience with being the odd man out'the freak'all of his life.
It hasn't been a big deal for a long time, so why now? Blair asked himself uneasily. Why does it matter now?
He flashed back to the moment his anger had almost erupted at the attendant and realized it was not as foreign an emotion as it had seemed at the time. Suddenly he remembered a lot of black eyes and aching heads, the results of coming up against someone bigger or faster than he was.
But that was a long time ago. You were much younger and a lot dumber back then. Why let this guy get to you now?
He slipped off his glasses, tucking them back into his shirt pocket and closed his eyes, rubbing them against the fatigue that rolled through him. The station attendant's words rippled through his memory again, accompanied by older memories of other curses; other words voiced in hatred. Other taunting nicknames.
He opened his eyes again and glanced toward the stores just in time to see Jim exit a second one. The older man glanced in his direction with a thumb's up signal as he moved easily down the street and ducked into another doorway.
"Atta boy, Joe Friday," Blair snickered, using the nickname that he'd pegged for the detective on their first meeting.
He wondered whether Jim realized it was a joke. He'd always hated nicknames himself. He'd had his own share of them as he was growing up and most of them brought back less than positive memories. His own given name didn't immediately suggest one, but that hadn't stopped the kids from coming up with their own ideas. 'Flower-child.' 'Hippie.' 'Freak.' 'Bastard.' He'd fought a lot of battles over that one until his mother had stepped in and convinced him that he didn't need to fight to protect her honor, or his own.
And now he had at least a dozen more, thanks to Jim; 'Darwin,' 'Einstein,' and the ever popular, 'Chief'. Absently he wondered why those names didn't carry the same sickening rush of anxiety and the answer came to him abruptly, sitting him straight up in his seat.
It was because they came from his 'Blessed Protector.' His Sentinel. For Jim they were only words of friendly familiarity; a verbal acknowledgment of the sense of closeness and trust that he shared with very few people besides Blair. When Jim spoke those names there was no hatred, no taunting.
After years of pretending he didn't need or want it, Blair suddenly found himself immersed in a friendship that demanded complete honesty, respect and trust. He found it almost overwhelming sometimes, fearing he would let his friend down, knowing that his lack of true knowledge as to how to guide and protect the Sentinel might someday have drastic consequences.
"It's not your style," Jim had said. But there were some days when Blair wasn't sure what his style was anymore. Raised to be a wanderer by Naomito treat life as something that was to be sampled, then abandoned for the next experiencehe'd spent a lifetime not connecting with anything permanent, only to suddenly find himself sharing a loft and a life with a man who had entirely different ideals; strong ideals about stability, commitment and friendship. Without much resistance, Blair found himself adapting to his partner's perspectivesalthough sometimes it was a scramble trying to live up to them.
And that was what had set him off earlier. Jim had offered a friendship that he had never before experienced. Jim had shared a part of his life with Blairhad made him a part of his life. It was a commitment that went far beyond even the Sentinel and Guide connection. When the news about the site discoveries had reached him, Blair had jumped at the chance to offer a glimpse into his own life in return.
He'd been frantic to make sure all the basis were coveredhis classes, Jim's paperwork, everything. He'd even managed to pay for their plane tickets by wheedling a travel stipend out of the anthropology department. Everything had been going fine. No last minute case, no raging lunatics from their past showing up at the gate of the airport. The plane had even been on time and the seat next to Jim's had been empty so he'd been able to sit through the long ride in relative comfort, his long legs stretched out instead of cramped into the seat in front of him. And now, a few hours from their destination, they'd hit a major road block. It was the frustration of a plan gone awry, combined with a few choice comments from a bigot, that had blown his cork.
"Hey, you're not from around here."
Blair looked up abruptly into the face of a young woman.
"No, I'm not," agreed Blair, smiling tentatively.
She smiled back, touched the book in his hands and grimaced when she saw the title. "You actually like to read this old stuff?" The expression on her face and the tone of her voice reflected her disbelief as she curled up on the bench next to him.
"Yeah, I do. I'm an anthropologist," Blair admitted, chuckling and offering his hand. "My name's Blair Sandburg."
"Connie Phillips." She took his hand and shook it, but didn't let go. "An anthropologist? Does that mean you only study dead people?" she asked, leaning forward suggestively.
"Actually, my current subject is alive and well, thank you," Blair answered, grinning at her obvious flirtations.
"Where are you from?"
"Cascade... Washington. A friend of mine and I came down to check out the new dig site at the reservation." Blair eyed her warily for a moment before adding, "... and to see some old friends there."
"So, you got a car?" she asked with studied innocence, snuggling closer. "Maybe we could go out there, together. Would your friends mind if I tagged along?"
"No... no I'm sure they wouldn't," Blair stammered.
Caught off guard by her aggressive advances, he eyed the attractive woman sitting next to him uncertainly. Blonde, blue-eyed, with a figure not diminished by the shapeless waitress uniform she wore, she looked to be in her early twenties. Normally, he'd be more than willing to pursue this and see where it went, but today... He cleared his throat and nervously pushed his hair back, weighing his words carefully. He didn't want to hurt her feelings, after all.
"The problem is we don't have a car. We were going to take the bus, but with the bridge out we're kind of stuck. My friend's trying to see if anyone has something we could rent."
"Jake's got a car he'd probably let you have," she offered, squeezing his hand gently.
"Jake?" Blair brightened immediately. Come on, Sandburg, where's that charm Jim's always kidding you about?
"Yeah, he runs the only garage in town. Just a block off the main street," she added, pointing out the direction. "His name's Jake. Jake Sanders. He's usually got an extra car that he lends out when he's fixing one for somebody."
"You really think he'd let me rent it?" Blair asked dubiously.
"Sure. He's a nice guy. Not like some of the other jerks in this town. Offer him a good price and he won't care who you are, or what you're wearing."
Blair's grin widened even further at her comments and he was almost ready to bounce off the bench in his excitement.
"We could walk over there now, if you want. I could tell him you're a good friend. It might even help lower the price." Connie leaned toward him and Blair realized that she was planning to kiss him.
The sudden screech of brakes and the roar of an angry voice caused him to shift backward in alarm.
"Hey, what are you doing?"
Startled, Blair realized that Connie had moved away from him. She was standing a few feet from the bench, staring at the beatup convertible that had just pulled up with an anxious, almost fearful expression on her face. Blair grimaced as the driver launched himself out of the vehicle, heading straight toward them, his face contorted with anger.
Great... the angry boyfriend.
The other two occupants in the car were also climbing out, not bothering to open the doors. Why is it the tough guys always do that? Blair wondered cynically. He watched them closely and decided that the best course of action was to sit still and see how things played out. The three men were all in their mid twenties, all at least six feet tall and each outweighed him by a good thirty pounds.
"Ben let go! You're hurting me!"
Connie's fearful exclamation snapped Blair's attention back to the driver. The young man she'd identified as 'Ben' had grabbed her by the arm and was shaking her angrily.
"You were supposed to wait for me at the diner," Ben snarled. "Instead I find you here practically climbing down this guy's throat."
"Nothing happened!" Connie protested. "I was just"
"Shut up you lying little slut!" Ben snarled, shaking her again.
Instinctively, Blair reacted, rising from the bench and taking a step forward. "Hey man, ease off. She's telling you the truth."
His words had an immediate effect. Ben's attention abruptly shifted to Blair and he found himself halted in mid-stride by the force of the young man's hatred.
"You talkin' to me, freak?"
Jeez, that was a mistake, Blair reprimanded himself, but he held his ground, meeting the younger man's angry gaze as calmly as he could. "I'm just asking you to cool down, man," Blair responded in the most reasonable tones he could manage, aware of Connie's frightened expression. "You're making a mistake. Nothing happened here."
"He was just looking for a car to rent," Connie interjected. "I was telling him about Jake"
"A mistake?" Ben asked softly, ignoring her comments, his eyes narrowing dangerously.
The other two young men closed up ranks behind their leader and Blair groaned silently. This was going from bad to worse. He could almost hear Simon's voice in his head'What's with you Sandburg? You attract trouble like a dog attracts fleas!'
He felt himself tensing under their scrutiny and wondered whether he remembered enough of his self-defense lessons to keep himself from getting pulverized. Jim where are you? Now would be a good time for the 'big brother' routine.
Face dark with rage, Ben took a menacing step forward. Blair took a deep breath, preparing himself for the worst. Help suddenly arrived from an unexpected source.
"Ben, come on, honey," Connie murmured soothingly, no longer struggling to get away from her boyfriend, but clinging to him suggestively. "You promised me a ride."
Ben paused, his attention still on Blair. Connie snuggled up to him, whispering into his ear. Blair didn't need his partner's enhanced hearing to know what she was saying; not by the way Ben's face looked, his expression changing from rage to lustful interest almost immediately.
"A ride, Ben, remember?" Connie said persuasively, pulling at his arm.
Ben's gaze shifted to her for a moment and then immediately focused on Blair again. "I'll deal with you later," he snarled, planting his hand in the anthropologist's chest and shoving him backward.
"Yeah, sure... later," Blair muttered as he regained his balance. He watched Connie pull her boyfriend away while keeping tabs on the other two young men who seemed reluctant to leave him standing in one piece.
"Jens, Harvey, come on."
Responding to their leader's voice, the two thugs-in-training gave Blair a sneering glare before returning to the car.
Ben gunned the engine and the car roared away with a screech of tires. Blair kept an eye on them until the convertible wheeled around a corner. Once they were out of sight, he took a deep breath and sank down on the bench.
"That went well," he murmured aloud, shaking his head and running his fingers through his hair nervously. That does it. No more kissing strange girls in parks until you have Jim run a complete background check on themname, address, status of boyfriends, size of boyfriends, mental health of boyfriends... He could feel his heart pounding and he wondered why he wasn't shaking all over. Blair closed his eyes and took a deep breath and then another, trying to calm his frayed nerves with some of his mediation techniques.
After a few minutes the breathing exercises helped, and he found himself chuckling at his run of luck. Things hadn't turned out so badly after all. He'd managed to escape the confrontation without any bruises, although this did seem to be his day to have people saving him from himselffirst Jim and now Connie. But the good news was that she'd given him a lead to a car and a way to get out of town. One thing was certain, he didn't intend to run into Ben and his buddies again. Not even with Jim around.
"What went well?"
Startled, Blair spun around in surprise. Thinking that they'd snuck up on him and expecting to be attacked at any minute, he almost gibbered in relief when he saw that it was Jim.
"Easy, Chief," Jim cautioned. "What's up?"
"Nothing." Blair rose to his feet and shook his head. "You startled me, that's all," he explained, embarrassed to admit what had actually happened. "Any luck?" he asked brightly, hoping to redirect the conversation.
Jim's face grew tight and his eyes glittered angrily. "No. I even stopped into the local cop shop. The sheriff's out of town somewhere and his deputy wasn't particularly helpful. Guess they've never heard of Joe Friday."
"Guilt by association." Catching his partner's odd, questioning glance Blair added, "News travels fast in a town this size. Sorry, man."
"Well, I'm not finished yet," Jim said determinedly, his jaw clenching even tighter. His expression suddenly changed and he glanced at Blair curiously. "What 'went well'?"
Blair stared at him in confusion.
"I heard you from the other end of the park," Jim explained. "You said, 'That went well.'"
"Oh." Blair felt himself starting to blush in embarrassment and reached down to pick up his book and stuff it into his backpack, hoping that the Sentinel wasn't 'listening' closely enough to pick up his thundering pulse. "I was talking to one of the local kids," he responded, finally raising his head to meet Jim's gaze. "She gave me a possible lead on a car."
"She?" Jim flashed an amused, knowing smile. "I should have known. And how old was 'she'?"
"Old enough to give me directions," Blair answered, grinning. "Come on."
An hour later they were on the highway, headed out of town. Blair closed his eyes, settling himself deeper into the comfortable seat. Things had gone better than he'd hoped. Connie had been right: Jake had turned out to be a nice guy. Better than niceonce they'd gotten him out from under the hood of the car he was working on and explained what they were after. He'd given them a long, hard look before he'd agreed, but then he'd made them a surprisingly good dealone that even Blair's meager budget could afford. And he'd rented them his own car, not the beater that he usually lent out.
The result was that they were now driving a three-year-old, dark green Chevy, complete with air conditioning, tape deck and cruise control. When he'd learned of their destination, Jake had thrown in two ten-gallon cans filled with gas and an extra water jug, explaining that it was standard procedure for anyone heading across the desert.
Jim had wanted to stop for something to eat, but Blair had convinced him that a quick run through the local grocery store for some on-the-road supplies would be enough. Jim had agreed without too much argument and while he'd gone in to get the groceries Blair had called out to the reservation, leaving a message on Nate's answering machine to let his friend know they were coming.
Blair shifted in his seat, relaxing for the first time in weeks. As his mind drifted toward sleep, two nagging problems emerged: Connie was one of them. While he really had appreciated her rescuing him from her boyfriend, he couldn't help but feel a little guilty and worried about her safety. He promised himself that he'd talk to Jim about her and see if maybe they could check into that situation when they came back. Of course, that brought up problem number two; he really should have told Jim what had happened at the park. The threat from Connie's boyfriend echoed loudly in Blair's head. "I'll deal with you later..." Maybe it was just all air, and then again, maybe not. The safest thing to do was to get out of town and let it blow over. I'll talk to Jim about it later.
Problems resolved for the moment, he settled more deeply into the seat.
Jim heard his friend's heartbeat slow to the even, measured pattern of sleep. He smiled in satisfaction as he adjusted his sunglasses and fixed his gaze on the road. His sensitive nose picked out the freon discharge of the air conditioner at work, but he didn't turn it off. It was already hot out there and it was going to get hotter.
Two hours later, Jim was shifting uncomfortably in his seat, trying to ward off a growing headache. The blazing sun made his eyes hurt, even behind the polarized lenses. The heat, rising off the pavement in endless shimmering waves, made it hard to focus on anything and he blinked again, tiredly.
Ellison glanced over at his sleeping partner and sighed. He'd hoped to let Blair rest for a while longer, but he needed a break. Easing the car over to the side of the road, he pulled to a stop.
"What's up?" Blair questioned sleepily, the brief lurch of the braking car waking him from his 'dead-to-the-world' slumber.
"Nothing's wrong, Chief. I just need a break. Your turn to drive."
"Break... drive... oh, yeah, right..." Blair stammered groggily, squirming to sit upright. He rubbed his eyes, blinked, and then winced. "Man, that sun is bright!" he yelped, digging in his pack and dragging out a pair of sunglasses. "You got it dialed down, man?" he asked, shooting a concerned glance at Jim.
"Any further and I'd be driving with my eyes closed," Jim answered wryly, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes.
"Headache?" Blair asked softly, his voice modulating to a soothing pitch.
"Just a small one," Jim admitted, putting his glasses back on.
"You should have stopped sooner," Blair admonished. He dug in his pack again and pulled out a small bottle, handing it to Jim. "These should help."
"I don't know if I'm up to one of your voodoo remedies," Ellison cautioned, viewing the unlabeled bottle warily. Blair shifted to kneel on the seat, reaching into the back and digging through the bags of groceries that they'd purchased.
"Aspirin, Ellison." Blair pulled out a bottle of water and plunked it in Jim's hand. "Straight over-the-counter pharmaceuticals."
Jim gave him a suspicious stare, then nodded his thanks. He pulled out two caplets and swallowed them with a gulp of water.
"You hungry? Want something else to drink?" Blair's voice was muffled as he leaned even further over the seat.
Jim thought longingly of how good a cold beer would taste at that moment, but shook his head. "This is fine. I grabbed my sandwich while you were sleeping. You should eat something though."
"I will," Blair assured him, still digging. "Where... oh, here... great."
"I had something more substantial in mind with that suggestion, Chief," Jim commented, noting the bag of granola and bottle of water that Blair dropped onto the seat next to him. "There's still a sandwich left."
"No way, man. That's processed mystery meat. You have any idea what's in that stuff? Scary!"
"No scarier than some of the stuff I've found in your side of the refrigerator."
Blair grinned at the familiar jibe and pushed down on the handle to open the door. "Ugh..."
Ellison forced back a smile as Blair scrambled out and then climbed out himself. Even with his Sentinel ability to lower his own tactile awareness, the heat was still intense. The difference in temperature hit him immediately, intensified by the coolness of the air-conditioned car.
"God, I'd forgotten how hot it can get out here!" Blair exclaimed. "It's like walking into a oven."
"Oh, I don't know... doesn't feel that bad to me," Jim teased, schooling himself to an expression of innocence as he stretched. Blair flashed him a glare, and pulled his hair back into a loose ponytail as he stomped around to the driver's side.
Ellison grinned and moved to the passenger's side, reaching down to shift the seat back before sliding in. Blair settled into the driver's seat and then paused, an odd expression on his face as he realized that his feet didn't even reach the pedals. Jim hid another smile as he heard the younger man fumble with the seat lever and mumble something about "living with a giraffe," and "thank God for bucket seats." Stretching his legs as far as he could, Jim closed his eyes, sighing in relief.
"So, where are we?" Blair asked, as he started the car and eased it out onto the road.
"Just past the half-way point," Jim answered, not bothering to open his eyes. "We're making good time. Think I'll take a nap and see if I can shake the rest of this headache."
"This has got to be a first," Blair mused quietly, amusement coloring his voice. "You never sleep while I'm driving. Not that you let me drive that often, but"
"I haven't seen another car for an hour and a half," Ellison responded, cutting off Blair's ramblings. "And it's a straight shot to the reservation. Not even you can get lost out here."
Jim heard Blair's soft chuckle and knew that his partner's good humor had returned in full force. He shifted once more to ease a kink in his left leg and took a deep breath, relaxing into sleep.
Blair was fidgeting before he'd driven more than 30 minutes. He didn't do 'still' well. Not ever. And especially not when he was excited. The nap had re-energized him and he was impatient to get to the reservation. A fragment of music teased at the edge of his mind and he caught himself tapping the steering wheel in time to the beat. He glanced anxiously at Jim to see if he'd awakenedhis drumming fingers would have sounded like pounding hammers to his partner's enhanced hearingbut his friend hadn't budged.
Letting out a sigh of relief, he turned his attention to the road, taking a few deep breaths in an attempt to settle his energy level. Moments later, he was practically bouncing in his seat again. He contemplated switching off the cruise control, but he decided against it, realizing that in his current state he'd probably end up varying his speed so much that he'd make Jim crazy.
He gripped the wheel firmly and then found himself almost laughing out loud at the number of adjustments he was making for Jim's benefit. If anyone had told him two years ago that he'd be changing his own patterns to accommodate someone else he would have laughed them out of the room. Of course, that was before he'd met Jim Ellison. Now he was constantly adapting his behavior to suit the older man's rules. Some of those rules made sensemost of them having to do with the proper procedures of police work. But some of them were just anal. Like the house rulesno flushing after 10 o'clock, no drinking out of the orange juice carton, no shoes on the couch.
Blair found himself smiling again, recognizing that he was, in Jim's terms, finally getting 'housebroken'. Oddly enough, adapting to his partner's patterns was easier and more natural than he would ever have thoughtalthough he still protested vehemently whenever Jim brought up some new rule. It was particularly easy to adjust when it came to his partner's Sentinel abilities. Blair had seen the discomfort and pain in his friend's eyes often enough to know that having enhanced senses wasn't always a comfortable thing.
That was what it was all aboutfriendship. You did things for friends that you didn't do for co-workers or acquaintances or even college deans. You made adjustments for friends. You made accommodations for them. Of course, Blair had never had a friend like Jim. He carried the whole concept to an entirely different level, with a commitment that sometimes left Blair wondering about his own.
With Jim Ellison, friendship was a very direct, straightforward thing and once given, it carried over into everything. Blair's own approach was a little more complicated. He was used to categorizing people based on the responsibilities or feelings that he had for them. With Jim that was getting harder to do. As Jim's Guide, he was teacher and protector. As his partner, he acted as a sounding board while he offered advice and watched the detective's back. As a friend, he adjusted. And then there was the whole Shaman issue which he was still trying to come to grips with. But the more time Blair spent with Jim, the more things kept getting mixed up; he could no longer tell just where the differences lay between Guide, Shaman, partner and friend.
Blair was so absorbed with his thoughts that he didn't even see the car that was barreling down the road toward them until it was only a few hundred feet away. With a startled jerk, he gripped the wheel and made sure that his daydreaming hadn't caused him to drift into the wrong lane.
He glanced to his left as the car flashed by and as his mind registered on the details of car and occupants, his stomach suddenly lurched. Frantically, he glanced up into the rear-view mirror, holding his breath as the car pulled away. He was about to relax and breathe again when he caught a flash of red tail lights.
Oh great, he groaned silently, shifting his eyes between the road ahead of him and the reflected image of the other car. Beatup convertible, angry driver, two no-necks and a pretty girl show up on your tail in the middle of nowhere. Wonder who that could be and what they want? he asked himself sarcastically, pressing his foot down on the gas.
Blair glanced anxiously at his partner, who, wonder of wonders, was still sleeping soundly. He must be as exhausted as I was. He started to reach out to shake his friend awake, genuinely regretting that he hadn't told Jim about Ben and his friends earlier. The sudden blare of a horn made him clutch the wheel and the car swerved a bit before he got it straightened out.
Blair heard Jim's groggy question, but his teeth were clenched together as he concentrated on driving and he couldn't answer. He risked a glance at the rearview mirror again and realized that the they were no longer behind him. They were pulling up alongside.
"Sandburg," he heard Jim growl as he pressed his foot on the gas once more and swerved to the right to avoid the other car.
"Sorry, Jim. I'm a little busy right now," Blair muttered as he struggled to keep the car on the road.
Jim caught the panic in his friend's voice and snapped fully awake, jerking upright in his seat. "Hit the brakes," he ordered as he caught a flash of the convertible swerving toward them.
Blair reacted immediately, jamming his foot down on the brake pedal. The Chevy started to nose-dive and he gripped the wheel, fighting to keep control of the car. Jim grabbed onto the shoulder belt with one hand, his other cushioning his collision with the dash. There was a moment when they both thought that the convertible would hit them, then it swerved and tore off down the road.
The Chevy screeched to a stop, fish-tailing to end perpendicular to the highway. Assailed by the smell of burning rubber and abused brake linings, Jim winced, but he kept his gaze on the horizon, the convertible now out of even his enhanced sight.
Jim turned to look at Blair, registering the shakiness in his partner's voice, picking up on the pounding heartbeat and the rapid breathing. "You okay?" he asked softly, reaching out to touch the younger man on the arm.
"Did you get a good look at them?" Blair asked tersely, his voice oddly flat.
"Older model convertible, three men, mid twenties and a young woman," Jim responded after a moment's search of his memory. "Probably some local kids with too much to drink, out for a joyride."
"They'll be back..." Blair whispered dully, his hands still clenching the wheel.
"I doubt it," Jim answered, eyeing the horizon again. "Pop the trunk, will you, Chief? I want to make sure nothing got shifted around back there."
Blair's gaze shifted to him and Jim could see the confusion in his friend's eyes. Suddenly understanding clicked in and the color drained from the younger man's face.
"Hey, easy, buddy. Are you all right?"
Blair took a shuddering breath and shook his head. He slumped back in the seat and closed his eyes. Jim watched him closely, monitoring his vital signs, but he could find no sign of an injury. Reaching beyond Blair, Jim popped the trunk latch. He did a quick tour around the car, checking for damage. Finding nothing, he opened the trunk, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw the two gas cans still strapped in their places. Satisfied, he returned to the passenger side and eased onto the seat.
"Everything's fine back there," he said encouragingly. "We should get moving. You okay to drive?"
"Yeah... yeah, I'm fine... just dealing with the aftermath of another one of my screw-ups that could have gotten us killed, but I'm fine..."
The bitterness in Blair's voice made Jim frown. "Sandburg, I know that line that Simon's always giving you about attracting trouble, and the truth is you do have a way of finding it. But trust me, you are not responsible for every crazy thing that happens. Besides, we haven't been here long enough for someone to want to kill you." Jim added the last part lightly, hoping to ease his partner over the worst of his scare.
The eyes that Blair turned on him were tortured and filled with doubt.
Blair's mind reeled with the possibilities of what could have happened.
I should have told him... I made the mistake of not taking them seriously and they nearly killed us... if I'd told Jim about it... he would have been ready... the gas cans... what if they'd tipped?... they could have exploded... Jim... Jim could have been killed...
Just tell him... you owe it to him to tell him... What kind of partner are you?... What kind of Guide... What kind of friend?
"Blair, talk to me..."
What if they come back?
With a panicked gasp, Blair cranked the car to life and put his foot on the gas, wrenching the wheel around. Jim felt his door swing open at the movement. Seeing his Guide's eyes wide with terror, he grabbed for the wheel to keep the car on the road, and to keep himself from being thrown out.
Suddenly, Blair hit the brakes again, snubbing the car to a stop. His hands jerked away from the wheel and he pressed himself into the seat, shuddering.
Jim released his own hold on the wheel and placed his hand on the back of the younger man's neck, gently massaging the tight muscles. He remained silent, monitoring Blair's racing heartbeat. Slowly, he felt the tension ease and 'heard' the pounding pulse slow to a more normal rate.
"I'm sorry, Jim... I almost did it again..." the whisper was so soft, that even with his Sentinel hearing, he almost missed the words.
"Tell me what happened at the park."
Blair flashed him a shocked glance. "How did you?"
"I'm a detective, remember?" Jim responded, mentally kicking himself for not picking up on Blair's odd behavior earlier. "I'm supposed to be good at putting together clues. Just tell me what happened."
Haltingly, Blair told him about his confrontation with Ben at the park. As he talked, Jim heard not just the words, but also the embarrassment and regret in his young friend's voice. While the lines of fatigue were evident on his face and in the posture of his body, it was more than just physical tiredness that the Sentinel felt emanating from his Guide. It was a tiredness of the spirit. A spirit that Jim cherished and felt compelled to protect.
"You did the right thing," Jim assured him, when Blair had finished.
"You did the right thing. Three against one are not good odds."
"Never stops you."
"Sure it has. Lots of times. More often since you've been with me."
Blair shook his head, still refusing to meet Jim's eyes.
"Blair, I used to be a maverick. Used to drive Simon crazy. I'd go off for days at a time, never calling in, just handling whatever needed to be handled. Almost got myself killed a dozen times. It wasn't that I didn't care what happened. I didn't have a death wish or anything like that, but I think I had less appreciation for life before I met you."
Jim waited until Blair raised his head and met his gaze before continuing. "You've made a difference in my life, Chief. Not just with these senses, but with my perceptions. I do think about the odds now. Not just because you're with me, but because I value my life a great deal more than I did before. You did the right thing back there. You kept your head and got out of a bad situation, without anybody getting hurt."
"I should have told you," Blair whispered. "You would have been ready in case they did show up. Face it man, my ego got in the way and almost got you killed. You deserve better"
"I'm satisfied with what I've got."
Blair looked away, his gaze focused on the horizon where the convertible had disappeared.
"This hasn't been a good day for you, has it?" Jim asked softly.
Blair gave Jim a halfhearted smile. "Actually it's had some high points. Right now they're outnumbering the low ones."
"Good. Then let's get going. I'd like to make it to the reservation before midnight. You drive and I'll ride shotgun," Ellison added, catching the look of uncertainty in Blair's face. "I don't think they'll be back for another shot, Chief, but if they do, we'll be ready."
Blair took a deep breath and nodded, starting the engine and shifting into gear carefully as he eased the Chevy out onto the road.
"So, tell me again about your friend Nate. Where'd you two meet?" Jim tried to keep his tone light, hoping that the casual question would help divert his friend's mind from what they'd just gone through.
Blair shot him a wry smile, communicating the fact that he recognized what Jim was trying to do. Turning his gaze to the highway, he began to talk, slipping into his storytelling mode. Jim saw his hands relax on the steering wheel, the tension beginning to ease as what were obviously good memories started to take the sting out of the day's experiences.
The Sentinel, however, was anything but relaxed. In his mind he replayed the scene at the bus station and then used the details Blair had supplied to flesh out what had happened at the park. A rush of anger swept through him and he turned his head so that the younger man wouldn't see his reaction.
How dangerous are these guys? Jim found himself wondering, his gaze flickering back to the highway again. Were they just some local bullies filled with hot air, or was there more? From Blair's reaction to the one called Ben, Jim guessed that there was a definite threat there. His partner was a good judge of character, whether he wanted to give himself credit for it or not. It was entirely possible that his Guide's instinct for self-preservation had kept him out of something very nasty. Maybe the game of tag on the highway had been just an attempt to frighten them, and maybe it was something more serious.
"Slow down," Ellison ordered abruptly, catching sight of a familiar shape in the distance.
Blair's foot eased off on the accelerator and glanced at Jim nervously. "What is it?"
"There's something up ahead. On the side of the road."
Blair scanned the highway anxiously. All he could see was a black spot shimmering in the heat. "What do you want to do?" The thought of meeting up with Ben and his buddies sent a shiver down his spine.
"Just keep going. Take it slow," Jim answered. Reaching into the back seat, the detective pulled his gun out of his bag.
Blair swallowed hard and kept driving, his eyes glued to the road, straining to see what Jim had already seen. Finally, he recognized the distinctive shape of the convertible, sitting at an odd angle just off the side of the road. The front end was pitched down, out of sight, as if it had been driven into a ditch. There were no signs of life. He glanced over at the older man questioningly. The detective shook his head, his concentration on the car ahead of them.
"Pull up another twenty feet and stop."
Jim opened the door as Blair cut the engine. Listening intently, the Sentinel could hear the music blaring from the radio, and underneath that, what he thought were muffled heartbeats. Climbing cautiously out of the car, he saw the skid marks that tracked tight 's' curves across the road.
"Looks like they lost control and ended up in the ditch," he reported. He focused again, but all he heard were the same sounds. Tucking his gun into the back of his belt, he glanced at Blair.
"I'm not getting much. Someone's in the car, but they're not moving around. If they lost it at the speed they were traveling, they might be hurt. Stay here, I'm going to check it out."
"Jim, I don't think that's such a good idea," Blair objected, the shiver he'd felt earlier pricking at the hairs on the back of his neck.
"Just stay here."
Blair's hands gripped the steering wheel tightly as he watched Jim walk toward the car. "Be careful, man." A slight nod told him that the Sentinel had heard the whispered warning.
Blair watched nervously as Jim stopped at the driver's door, leaning forward, as if to check something. The breath caught in his throat when he saw someone move from the back seat, rising up to tower over his partner. There was a flash in the sunlight and he saw Jim stagger backward, collapsing to the ground.
The agonized cry tore out of Blair's throat and he was out of the car, running toward his fallen partner. "Get away from him!" he screamed as he saw Ben leap from the convertible and reach down toward Jim's motionless body.
Ben straightened and raised Jim's gun. Desperate to reach his friend, Blair simply opted to ignore it. That worked until the explosive discharge of the .38 caliber handgun pummeled his ears and a burning sensation knifed through his leg. Stunned, he went sprawling, thrusting out his arms to break his fall. He hit the pavement with enough force to drive most of the air from his lungs, but he forced himself to his knees. Blinding pain shot through him as something hard hit his stomach, dropping him to the burning asphalt again. He rolled to his back and tried to focus his blurred vision on the figure that wavered above him.
"I told you we'd meet again," Ben sneered.
Blair willed aching stomach muscles to function and tried to sit up. Ben kicked him in the shoulder, dropping him to his back. Frantically, Blair tried to turn so that he could look behind him, to where he'd seen Jim fall. Ben kicked him again and he doubled up in agony.
"Ben, stop it!"
Blearily, Blair recognized Connie's voice and blinked his eyes open. Ben loomed over him. Jim's gun was pointed at his head. Blair stared up at the dark muzzle of the revolver, only vaguely aware of Connie struggling with the other two. Anger washed through him. He wanted nothing more than to wipe the smirk off Ben's face, but a stronger voice was screaming in his head, reminding him that his Sentinel needed him. Jim was hurt. Blair might be angry enough to lose his own life in an unsuccessful attempt to strike back at Ben, but then what would happen to Jim?
"Don't do it, man," Blair gasped, forcing his eyes to focus on Ben's face, instead of the gun.
Something inside of him rebelled and he clenched his teeth, refusing to answer. Ben's face hardened and Blair heard the gun cock, ready to fire.
"Say it," Ben demanded, the hate and intent naked in his eyes.
Anger warred with caution and for the space of two heartbeats Blair refused to listen, but Jim's need outweighed his pride.
"Please," he whispered. "Don't shoot."
Ben held the gun on him for what seemed to be a lifetime, then suddenly raised it, firing into the air. Blair flinched at the sound and Ben laughed. Blind anger flared to life again and Blair started to raise himself from the pavement, his only thought to put his hands around his tormentor's throat. Ben was quicker. The angry youth delivered another kick to Blair's already bruised stomach, flattening him once more.
Blair lay on his side, struggling to draw air into his tortured lungs. He heard Connie's shrill protests, the scuffle of feet and then the sound of car doors slamming. An engine revved and he forced himself to raise his head. The Chevy leapt forward. In desperation, he rolled to the side. The car streaked past, missing him by less than a foot. He heard the squeal of the tires as the car swerved around and headed back toward him. Lurching awkwardly to his feet, Blair scrambled out of the way once more. Gasping for breath, he kept his eyes glued to the car, certain that they'd be back for another try. The Chevy's wheels spun, burned rubber and showered him with loose gravel as it sped away.
Blair sank to the ground, watching in disbelief until the car was out of sight. He closed his eyes and a tremor racked his aching muscles. He felt numb inside. All he wanted to do was go to sleepto escape from this nightmare. He wanted to get away from the screaming voice inside his head, too. He screwed his eyes shut even tighter, hoping the spinning blackness would send it into oblivion, but it just shrieked louder.
Jim is hurt... he needs your help.
Blair tried to turn and locate his friend. Bruised muscles protested and nearly doubled him over again. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to his knees. When he attempted to get to his feet, a burning pain in his left leg stopped him. He looked down at the ugly inch-deep furrow that the bullet had plowed across his upper thigh. It was bleeding freely.
At least the bullet's not still in there. Just think of it as a 'scratch'. It may hurt like hell, but you're still alive. You can stick a band aid on it latera BIG band aid. Get your butt in gear and see to your partner.
Stubbornly, he lifted his head, focusing on the motionless detective. Settling for an awkward half-crawl, half-drag combination, Blair worked his way to his friend's side.
"Jim... wake up," he pleaded, horrified by the blood that was streaming down his partner's face. He slipped out of his t-shirt and held it against the ugly gash at Jim's left temple, hoping to at least slow the bleeding. "Come on, man... don't do this... don't die on me..."
He lost track of how long he sat there, cradling his injured partner's head in his hands, repeating the urgent mantra. Finally there was a responsea low moan. With a sign that Jim was still alive, Blair's mind began to work again.
Help. Jim needed help.
"An ambulance with about a dozen EMTs and all sorts of fancy gear would be just the thing right now, don't you think so, Jim? I mean, I know I'm usually against all that techno-crap, but I really think I could be persuaded in this case." Blair winced at the panicked edge to his voice and knew he was close to losing it.
That's the last thing Jim needs right now.
Easing the older man's head back to the pavement, he pushed himself to his feet. He needed to deal with Jim's head wound. Stop the bleeding. Clean it first. He needed water for that. In the trunk...
He took an unsteady step toward the Chevy before he remembered it was gone. The impact of that loss almost dropped him back to his knees. They'd taken everything. The water, the food, his precious backpack... Blair almost sobbed in despair and reeled backward into the convertible. His eyes drifted to Jim's motionless form and he struggled to regain control over his emotions.
He felt the pounding heat of the sun. Water... they needed water. He thought longingly of the jug that Jake had loaded in the trunk of the Chevy, wishing he had just a cup of it.
The trunk... Jake had put it in the trunk... standard procedure...
Lurching to the rear of the convertible, Blair hammered at the trunk in frustration, then staggered back to the driver's door. Flinging it open he searched frantically for the release, nearly breaking it off when he yanked it upward. Returning to the back end of the car he jerked the trunk open, a mad giggle of relief burbling out when he saw the water jug.
Blair settled Jim on the ground against the right rear tire of the convertible, careful to avoid the searing hot metal of the car's frame. The way the vehicle listed to the right in its nose-dive position made him nervous, but it was the only patch of shade available, and getting his partner out of the burning sun was high on Blair's list of priorities.
With a grimace of pain, he sank down next to Jim. Wrapping his fingers around the older man's wrist he closed his eyes, concentrating on the steady pulse that throbbed beneath his touch.
Grateful for at least that much reassurance, he opened his eyes and stared listlessly at their surroundings. Rippled waves of heat rose from the pavement, distorting everything in their sickening dance. Beyond the highway, the flat, monotone landscape seemed to mock him with its total absence of movement. Memories of his first trip to the reservation came back unbidden, reminding him of the fragile line between life and death in the unforgiving desert.
He shuddered and shifted his gaze to the older man once more, scanning his partner for any sign of returning consciousness. He knew that Jim's chances for survival dropped the longer he was out.
"Come on, man... where's that hard head when I need it working for me instead of against me?" he murmured, barely restraining himself from giving Jim a desperate shake.
He reached out and pulled the water bottle closer. Carefully pouring only a few drops into the cap, he tipped it to Jim's partly open lips, hoping the precious fluid might revive his friend. But there was no response. Grimly, he poured another capful and drank it himself before screwing the lid back on the jug.
He shifted slightly and hissed through clenched teeth as pain shot through his left leg. With both hands he grabbed the fabric of his jeans and levered the limb into a more comfortable position. He'd managed to rig a crude bandage from an old, relatively clean shirt that he'd found in the back seat of the convertible. His own t-shirt had been reduced to little more than scraps after he'd dealt with Jim's head injury. There was barely enough left to cover his shoulders, but even that scant protection was welcome against the sun's burning rays.
His leg throbbed again and he grimaced at the sight of fresh blood staining the wrappings. It's just all the moving around. It'll be fine if you just sit still for a few minutes, he told himself.
But the silent assurance that he tried to feed his whirling mind wasn't working. The problem was that he couldn't sit still. He'd managed to get Jim's head wound cleaned and bandaged and had taken care of his own injury to the best of his ability, but that was only the first step in a long line of many. He had to figure a way out of the mess he'd gotten them into. Blair couldn't ignore the fact that if the run in with Ben and his buddies at the park had never happened, then they wouldn't have been attacked on the road and Jim wouldn't have been hurt.
God, what if he doesn't wake up... What if there's some kind of internal hemorrhaging?
The horrifying thought of losing his Sentinel ate at the slim control he'd managed over his emotions. With a groan, Blair wrapped his arms around his aching stomach and rocked slowly, struggling to take one breath at a time, fighting to push away the despair-filled thoughts.
Get a grip... Jim needs you thinking... not falling apart... he's depending on you, damn it!
Gathering every ounce of willpower he could find, he forced himself to sit still and concentrate on breathing. After a few minutes, the trembling that had gripped his body eased. A quick glance at his partner showed him that nothing had changed. He could see the even rise and fall of the Sentinel's chest. The small patch of blood spotting the bandage on his head hadn't grown any larger.
Swallowing hard, Blair grabbed onto the car and pulled himself to his feet, ignoring the blistering feel of the sun-fired metal. With their injuries addressed, the next order of business was transportation and the only thing available was the convertible. Wishing he'd spent at least one session in auto shop instead of opting for all the extra science classes, Blair made a slow circuit of the vehicle. To his uneducated eye, there appeared to be nothing wrong with the car, other than the fact that it was half in the ditch. The suspicion that Ben had faked the accident in order to draw them into a trap dawned quickly. Anger flared and Blair used it as fuel to feed his burning need to keep moving.
Opening the passenger-side door, he peered inside and found that the keys were still in the ignition. A delighted smile filled his face and he turned to look down at his partner.
"Hey, man... maybe our luck's changing here. All we need to do is get this baby started and then I'll get you to a doctor."
Buoyed by that positive thought, Blair made his way around the front end, doing another quick check underneath to make sure that there was no visible damage. He glanced down the highway toward the reservation and then back toward town, already trying to decide which might be the best choice once they got moving. He froze when he caught sight of a tiny black shape wavering in the distance, like a fly struggling in a spider's web. The shape seemed to increase in size before his eyes, and he realized with a lurch that it had to be an oncoming car or truck.
Seized by the hope that help might be only moments away, Blair stepped away from the car, onto the highway, waving his arms in an attempt to flag down the vehicle. He started yelling and gesturing frantically as the car drew closer and still showed no sign of slowing, much less stopping. Disbelief over what was happening turned to horror when he suddenly recognized the dark green Chevy.
A bullet exploded in the pavement near his feet sending stinging shards of asphalt flying up into his face. Blair dove to the left, tumbling into the ditch. Pain shot through his body and black spots danced in front of his eyes, but he scrambled, crab-like, around the front end of the convertible, hoping it would shield him from the gunfire. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Jim, still propped by the back tire. He lunged toward the older man, dragging him toward the passenger door in an attempt to keep him out of the line of fire.
A rain of bullets pummeled the driver's side of the convertible. Blair leaned over his partner, covering Jim with his own body, determined to protect his Sentinel even if it meant his own life. As the Chevy flashed by, Blair heard a burst of raucous laughter. A snarl of anger escaped his throat and he loosed a string of curses, wishing Ben and his buddies into every kind of hell he'd ever heard of or imagined.
The smell of gasoline cut off his tirade. Eyes wide with fear, he looked under the convertible and saw something dripping from the undercarriage. The roar of an engine caused him to swivel his head to the right and his heart skipped in terror. The Chevy was making a screaming turn and it would be only moments before it was headed back toward them.
He locked his hands in Jim's shirt and jerked backward, frantic to get him away from the death trap that the convertible had become. Leaving the slim shelter that it afforded would put them out in the open, making them easy targets if Ben pursued them, but it was either that, or risk being caught in the explosion if the car blew.
Pain screamed through him as he dragged Jim's unconscious body along the ground. When he'd managed what he hoped was a safe distance, he glanced back at the convertible and caught sight of the water jug, still sitting near the rear tire. Knowing that if they made it through this attack, that they'd still die if they didn't have water, Blair stumbled back toward the car. Gasping for breath he snagged the jug. The Chevy was just pulling up even with the convertible and he could hear the jarring laughter from its occupants over the roar of the engine. He lurched away, struggling to get back to his partner. Shots rang out behind him and then the world exploded into a blinding wave of sound.
Searing heat and a painful throbbing in his skull were Jim's first sensations as he regained consciousness. With a groan he rolled to his side, forcing his eyes open. Blackness, at odds with the white-hot feel of the sun, greeted him, freezing the Sentinel in place. Cautiously, he blinked. And blinked again. There was no change to the darkness.
Only years of training helped him hold the surge of fear at bay. Jaw muscles clenching, he pushed himself into a sitting position. Leaning forward to catch his breath, he held his pounding head in his hands.
Sight was gone and his remaining senses were running amok. The rank smells of burning oil and plastic swamped his nostrils, coating his tongue and making him want to retch; scorching heat enveloped him with a pounding force that threatened to drive him to the ground again; and a thunderous crackling assailed his eardrums.
What the hell happened?
Three vivid images flashed through his mind, instantly answering the questionBlair's face filled with terror, a convertible sitting in a ditch beside the highway, and a shapeless figure towering over him.
The kids in the car... it was a trap... Blair... Where's Blair?
His head snapped up and he stared sightlessly around him, the fear he'd fought off earlier only a shadow of what he was feeling now.
He held his breath, fighting to listen over the pounding of his own pulse. When there was no answer he shouted again.
"BLAIR... WHERE ARE YOU?... ANSWER ME!"
Only the disturbing crackling noise reached his ears. Jim pushed himself to his feet, swaying dizzily at the abrupt movement and at the demands of his overloaded senses. Gritting his teeth he fought to bring them under control, mentally wrenching at the dials that his Guide had suggested he envision.
Control... I need... to control this... I have to... I have to find him...
Far too slowly, the confusing sensations diminishedleaving him trembling, but with at least a modicum of control. His sight was still affected and he closed his eyes, refusing to be distracted by what he couldn't, for the moment, do anything about. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, hoping that it would help him focus. He reached up to touch the throbbing point on his temple and felt the soft sensation of cotton.
Gently exploring the bandage, he felt a curious wash of relief. Someone had tended to his injury. The most likely candidate for that was his partner. It was a leap of faith, but Jim was eager to believe that scenario, because it meant Blair had survived the ambush. But if he had, where was he?
Jim rubbed his eyes and blinked them several times, wishing that the damage to his vision might miraculously be healed by that simple action. But the darkness persisted. It was like being blinded by the Golden all over again. The same feelings of fear and frustration. It had been Blair's gentle, supportive and inventive presence that had gotten him through that incident. Now he found himself in the same situation, but without his Guide.
Venting his frustration with a audible snarl, Jim concentrated on the senses that were operative. If Blair were within range, he would be able to pick up the younger man's heartbeat. All too aware of the danger of focusing on only one sense, the Sentinel reached down and scrabbled in the dirt, finally finding a small sharp rock that fit in the palm of his hand. Closing his fingers around it, he squeezed his fist until he felt a trickle of blood. Straightening, he kept up the pressure, using the pain to keep him grounded as he focused his hearing.
At first, all he could hear was the crackling sound. Unable to identify it, he filtered it out. The familiar throb of his Guide's heartbeat suddenly filled his ears. Turning slightly to his left he inched his way across the rocky ground until the rhythmic pounding roared in his head. He stumbled and went to his knees, his fingers catching on something smooth and silky.
It took Jim's dazed mind a few seconds to understand what he'd found. Using the long curly strands of his partner's hair as a guide, Jim reached out to place a hand on the younger man's head. Blair was lying face down, he discovered quickly. Tracing the curve of Blair's jawline with Sentinel-sensitive fingers, he worked his way to the pulse point on the anthropologist's neck, breathing a sigh of immense relief at the steady throbbing that confirmed what he'd heardhis Guide was alive.
Alive, but unconscious. Jim shook his head in frustration ignoring the dizzying twinges that accompanied the movement. Compelled by the need to hear his friend's voice, the Sentinel eased the younger man to his back.
"Chief... Blair... wake up buddy..."
Blair grimaced against the stab of pain in his leg as gentle hands rolled him over. It was a major production just to open his eyes, but the sight of his partner hovering over him was well worth the effort. Ignoring the annoying ringing in his ears, he smiled, a crooked grin filling his face as he sank back onto the rocky ground.
"Hey, Jim... you're awake. That's great, man."
The smile shifted into a frown as the words reverberated in distorted waves of chaotic noise. He struggled to focus on Jim, who was still holding him tightly. He could see his partner's lips moving, but there was no sound. At least none that Blair could interpret as actual words. And there was an odd look to the older man's eyes.
"You can cut the lip syncing routine, Jim," Blair muttered in annoyance, thinking his partner had decided to shift into one of his 'give Sandburg grief' modes. "It's not nice to take advantage of someone who's brain damaged." He flinched as the words warped into weird echoes again, pounding painfully against the inside of his skull.
Blair's words weren't making any sense to him, but they increased the panic of his Sentinel to a new level. What lip syncing routine? Brain damaged? What's he talking about? The smell of blood abruptly flooded the Sentinel's nostrils and he jerked back in surprise.
Even with his blurry vision, Blair caught the subtle signs of an impending zone-out.
"Hey, man... hold on. Now's not the time to lose it," Blair demanded, struggling to sit up.
The ringing in his ears was like a hundred telephones going off all at onceshrill, piercing clamors at far too high a decibel range. He grabbed at his head in agony and felt strong fingers encircle his wrists, pulling his hands away. Blair looked up into Jim's strained face and saw his own pain reflected in the older man's pale blue eyes. Seeing the Sentinel's mouth working, he suddenly realized that Jim wasn't joking with him.
"Jim... I can't... I can't hear you!"
The horrified declaration exploded from his lips taking all the air from his lungs in one gasping cry. He tried to fill them again, but it felt like a giant was sitting on his chest. He inhaled noisily feeling the dry, hot air burning his throat. It still wasn't enough.
He tried to push away the giant and found himself gripping Jim's wrist. He met the Sentinel's gaze and shook his head desperately.
"Come on, Chief... just breathe," Jim demanded. He didn't need his sight at that moment. The anguish in his Guide's voice gave him a clear picture of the younger man's distress. He knew he needed to find a way to cut through the panic and reach Blair somehow, but this time he couldn't use words.
Grabbing the younger man's hand he drew it forward to rest on his own chest. "Breathe, just breathe..." he ordered, inhaling and exhaling in exaggerated movements. Then he placed his hand against Blair's chest again, mouthing the words slowly.
Over and over he repeated the gestures and the words, until finally he heard a change in the younger man's breathing and the hammering of his heart.
Okay... Okay... Okay... Okay...
Blair concentrated on the mantra of silently repeating that one word until the space between them was even and matched each drawn and exhaled breath. When he felt he had himself under control, he looked up gratefully into his partner's face.
"Thanks..." Wincing at the garbled noise that should have been recognizable words, he missed the strange vacant look in his partner's eyes. "Sorry... it's so weird... all I can hear is this ringing... I can't even hear the words I think I'm saying... can you understand me at all?"
"You're coming across loud and clear, Chief," Jim assured him, nodding. He released the hold he still had on Blair's wrist and settled back on his knees, hesitant to tell his Guide about his own injury until he had a better picture of what they were facing. "What happened? The last thing I remember is someone moving in the back seat of the convertible."
"Jim... wait... I can't understand you..."
Blair pressed his fingers to his ears and massaged them gently. Grimacing at the painful throbbing, his gaze shifted to Jim once more. He stared at the older man, certain that something was wrong. The lines of tension around the pale blue eyes drew his attention, teasing his memory with a disconcerting sense of familiarity. It took another moment to identify just exactly where and when he'd seen that lookand what it meant. His own eyes widened suddenly in shocked comprehension.
"Oh, man... You can't see, can you? That blow you took to the head"
"Easy..." Jim reached out to grab him by the shoulder, hoping to head off another panic attack, but he missed his hold and found himself being held instead.
"Forget about me, man. Can you see anything at all?" Blair demanded. Fingers clenched in Jim's shirt he peered desperately into the older man's eyes.
"Blair, settle down..."
"Damn it... how am I supposed to... if I can't hear you... I can't understand..."
"Breathe!" Jim ordered, placing his hand on the younger man's chest again.
The gesture stopped Blair cold.
"Okay... Okay, we can do this, right?" Blair muttered, reining in his panic and grabbing on to what little control he had left. Losing it was not a choice here. Taking a deep breath, he kept talking, hoping his words were making sense to Jim. "You can hear me, I just can't hear you... gotta find a way for us to communicate... just give me a minute to think..."
He glanced back at the remains of the burning car and scanned the highway. There was no sign of Ben, but Blair didn't want to discount the possibility that he could come back to finish them off. Third time might just be the 'charm' in this little adventure. He bit back a groan when he saw the broken water jug, swallowing convulsively against the fear that surged in his heart.
The increase of pressure on his wrist brought his gaze back to meet Jim's worried expression. "I'm working on it, man... I'll get this figured out... I promise..."
Communication... cell phones... modems... sign language... smoke signals... yeah, right... go for cave paintings while you're at it, Sandburg!
"Not cave paintings... sand paintings..." he whispered suddenly. Grabbing a stick he used it to smooth the ground in front of Jim's knees. Wrapping the Sentinel's fingers around the crude writing instrument, he maneuvered the older man's hand toward the ground. "Sand writing to be exact... I'll talk, you write. Got it, Jim?"
The perplexed look vanished from the Sentinel's face immediately. Awkwardly, he scratched out a single word in the sandy soil.
"Report?... oh... tell you what happened..." Blair ran his fingers through his hair, pushing the tangled locks out of the way. "The short, unadulterated version is that Ben and his buddies laid a trap for us. One of them clobbered you and made a prize idiot out of me. Then they took Jake's car and left us here."
Jim's head snapped up and he tapped Blair on the arm. Holding one hand up like a stop sign, he used the other to smooth the sand and printed three more words.
TOOK THE CAR?
Blair cringed at the disbelief in his partner's expression. "I know I should have done more to try to stop them, it's just that... Look I'm sorry man, I was a little busy dodging bullets at the time... and trying to keep you alive... After they took off I managed to find some water in the trunk of the convertible and get that gash on your head cleaned up and I..."
His words faltered as he glanced down at his own wound, and then back up at the older man's face. Jim couldn't see it... didn't realize that he'd been shot... and Blair suddenly was determined to keep it that way for as long as he could.
"I guess I tried to hold it together, hoping you'd wake up," he rushed on. "But they came back. They took a few shots at the convertible on the first pass. There was gas leaking out from either the fuel tank or the cans in the back... I don't know which... I got you away from the car and then realized I'd left the water behind. I went back for it, thinking I could get it and get out of range before they made another pass... I had the jug in my hand, man... I thought I was gonna make it... there was an explosion... next thing I know you're waking me up and I can't hear a thing."
Jim had begun to write something new and Blair craned his neck to read it.
"SHOCK... yeah, well I'd say that's probably a pretty safe bet, Jim."
A hand on his arm stopped his rambling. Jim gently tapped Blair's left ear with the stick and then gestured with his hands. He brought them together quickly, palms smacking solidly and then shook them as if they stung.
"Sound... no, shock... explosive... oh... the explosion... of course... it was like getting hit by a solid wall of noise... no wonder I can't hear anything... concussive shock or something like that..."
Blair's gaze shifted back to the darkened patch under the broken water jug. Putting into words what had actually happened made it all too real. The desperateness of their situation hit him like a blow. The heat of the sun pounding down on his aching head and the dryness of his mouth were vivid reminders of just what lay ahead. Without realizing it, he moaned aloud.
Strong fingers suddenly cupped his chin and he turned to find his partner's face creased with concern. The Sentinel's gaze held a penetrating intensity that even the blindness couldn't erase. With a ragged breath that was almost a sob, Blair looked away, swallowing convulsively. Teetering on the brink of losing it entirely, he gritted his teeth to keep from either laughing like a madman or bursting into tears.
Jim touched his cheek and Blair jerked back, shaking his head.
Responding to his Guide's anguish, the Sentinel grabbed Blair by the shoulders, forcing the younger man to look directly at him.
"We're still alive," he said firmly, hoping that his expression would convey what Blair couldn't hear in his words. " We'll get out of this, Chief. It's going to be okay."
He released his hold and quickly scratched the word OKAY in the dirt.
"Okay?" Blair's voice cracked on the near scream. "Nothing's okay! We're stuck in the middle of nowhere with no wheels, no food and no water because I blew it. Not to mention the fact that you practically had your head split open before I did anything to back you up..."
Jim tried to interrupt him, but Blair was on a roll. Hearing the rising panic in his partner's voice and the rapid pounding of his heart as he raged on, Jim knew he needed to do something to stop it. Reaching out blindly, he grabbed one of his friend's flailing arms and pulled the younger man toward him until Blair's hand was resting on his chest.
"Breathe," Jim ordered, holding Blair's hand in place as he took several deep breaths of his own, hoping that what had calmed his friend earlier would work again.
Blair started to pull away, but the look on Jim's face stopped him. He forced himself to inhale and exhale, slowly and evenly, shuddering at the distorted pounding of his own hammering heart.
If it sounds this loud to me, what's it sound like to Jim? he wondered. The expression on the older man's face told him that the Sentinel was close to zoning.
That possibility shook Blair out of his panic. "Jim! Come out of it," he urged, reaching out to grip the detective's arm.
The Sentinel shuddered and drew a deep breath.
"Okay," Blair nodded, taking a few more moments to quiet his own racing heart. "I've had my panic attack and wigged out, you've zoned out. Now we're even. Guess we should concentrate on getting ourselves out of this. What's the next move?"
Jim sat quietly, intensely aware of the heat of the sun on his back and head. It was hot already and it was only late morning. With no water, that would be a problem unless they found a place to hold out for a while. He fumbled for the stick and scratched a word into the dirt.
"SHELTER?" Blair murmured, reading what Jim had written. He scanned the horizon again, wishing for his friend's eyesight. Nothing except flat desert and pavement, stretching for miles. "No rooms at the inn here. Guess we'll have to take a walk and look for other accommodations. Question is, which way? Forward or back?"
Blair looked back the way they had come and then shifted his gaze to study the road that stretched toward the reservation.
"I haven't been out here in years," he admitted. "But there was an old guy that lived next to the highway, about an hour's drive this side of the reservation. Kept some gas on hand just for those people who thought that they could ignore reality and make the trip on less than a full tank."
"Used to charge an arm and a leg just to get a few gallons off of him," Blair added, a wry smile crossing his face as he remembered running out of gas himself and what it had taken to get the old man to sell him some. He glanced at Jim who was listening intently to his ramblings and quickly got to the point.
"He might not be therehe was ancient even thenbut it's the only shelter I remember, unless you saw something while I was sleeping. Something closer?"
Jim's expression hardened as he concentrated on remembering what he'd seen while driving, then he shook his head negatively.
"Guess it's forward then," Blair muttered, struggling to his feet.
He winced and uttered a muffled curse as he put weight on his left leg. He quickly glanced over to his partner who had also risen. Seeing Jim sway dizzily on his feet, Blair reached out, catching the Sentinel's arm. The strange look on his friend's face made him swallow the wisecrack he'd been about to make.
"Hey, it's okay," Blair whispered, tightening his grip. "We can do this. We've done it before, remember? And this time it'll be even easier. We're going to be walking a straight line down the road. No desks and chairs to navigate around."
Blair watched closely, but the look on his partner's face didn't change. He's not worried about being blind, he's worried about being out of control. And being in control was everything to a man like Jim Ellison.
"I know this is hard for you, man. Trust me. I won't let you down. Just put your hand on my shoulder. I'll lead and you follow. This'll work. After all, I'm your Guide, remember?"
For a moment, Blair was sure that Jim hadn't heard him, or else that he didn't trust him enough to let him help. But then the Sentinel's face lost its odd expression, filling instead with a slight smile as he nodded.
"Okay," Blair breathed in relief, reaching out to guide the older man's hand to his shoulder. "You ready?" Jim's grip tightened in answer and Blair eyed the long stretch of road ahead of them grimly.
"At least we're traveling light."
It was awkward at first. With Jim positioned almost directly behind him, Blair found himself constantly trying to adjust his shorter stride to the Sentinel's longer one. After a few minutes, he felt the pressure on his shoulder shift as the older man moved alongside. Blair still had to push his own pace to match his partner's, but Jim was moving easier, with more confidence.
Blair knew he wouldn't be able to keep up the pace for long. He could feel the throbbing in his leg as the bleeding started again. That sensation was almost as bad as the stab of pain that accompanied each step. No, he wasn't going to last long at this rate, but he wasn't about to ask the detective to slow down. Jim would want to know why, and Blair was determined to delay telling him about the gunshot wound for as long as possible. If Jim knew, then he'd want to hold up, take it easy; he'd ignore his own injury to make things easier for his partner.
And they couldn't risk that. Neither of them could. Blair's past experiences had given him a healthy respect for, and fear of, the dangers of the desert. Lack of water wasn't their only problemheat or sunstroke could be just as deadly. If they were going to have any chance of surviving, they had to keep moving while they still had the energy to do so.
Taking a deep breath, Blair pushed away his concerns and concentrated on matching his partner's rhythm. They fell into sync within moments. After a while, Blair felt a curious, disjointed sensation sweeping over him as his body shifted into an automatic response to keep his feet moving forward. The feeling worried him, and he cast a quick look at Jim, watching the older man intently for any sign of a zone-out. From the tense expression on the Sentinel's face, Blair guessed that even though his sight was off-line, his other senses were probably working overtime.
Blair started talking, hoping to give Jim something to focus on. He kept his voice pitched in what he jokingly thought of as his 'Guide Mode'although the ringing in his ears distorted every sound and left him wondering whether he was actually saying the words his mind was forming. It was eerie not being able to hear his own voice. He could feel the vibration in his skull, the movement of his jaw, but that was all. Still, he kept talking.
He spoke of things that were unimportant, filling the silence with references to their life in Cascade. He joked about the leftover's that he'd forgotten to take out of the refrigerator before they'd left; about how he'd had problems with his car again and that he'd have to find a way to get it fixed when they got back; insisted that they had to check out the new Oriental grocery store that had opened just around the corner from the loft; raved about plays from the last basketball game they'd watched together.
Jim's hand clutched convulsively on his shoulder and Blair felt their pace falter when his partner pulled to an abrupt stop. He wheeled around and saw the look of intense pain and confusion on the older man's face. He reached out and grabbed Jim's arms just as the older man swayed unsteadily. A shudder rippled through the Sentinel and with a gentle push, Blair eased him to the ground.
"Easy, Jim... you're on overload." He murmured soothingly to his distressed friend, hoping the panic that he was feeling wasn't evident in his voice.
"Blood... I can smell blood," Jim rasped, shaking his head as his senses zoomed in and out of control.
"Jim... I can't hear you... remember? We've got to get your senses dialed back." The Sentinel shook his head in confusion, and Blair squeezed his arm gently. "One at a time, all right? Start with smell. Take it down to zero if you can."
Jim had a brief flicker of rational thought and found himself wondering how his Guide had known which sense was troubling him the most. The smell of blood filled his nostrils again and he shivered, forcing himself to concentrate on Blair's voice and the soothing directions that he was giving. Slowly, the nauseating odor retreated to a vague sensation and Jim nodded in relief. Taking the rest of his senses down to a more comfortable level was easier and he finally drew in a deep breath, his control reestablished.
"Great Jim... that was just great." The Sentinel could hear the relief in the younger man's voice even without his senses being enhanced. "We just had an overload there. Kind of like a zone-out, but with all senses misfiring at once," his Guide continued in quiet explanation. Jim nodded and felt Blair's grip on his arms release, then sensed a small stone being placed in his hand.
"Can you tell me what happened? Was there something that set it off or did it just all hit at once?" Blair's voice was quiet, with the familiar, questioning edge that the Sentinel always identified as his 'Guide searching for answers' tone. Awkwardly, Jim scratched out the letters of a single word on the pavement.
Blair was glad that his partner couldn't see the stricken look that he was sure was plastered on his face. The gash on Jim's head was bleeding again, but Blair was certain that the small amount wouldn't have been enough to set off the overload. His partner had to have picked up the gunshot wound. For a split second, Blair considered telling Jim about the injury, but his words caught in his throat and a strangled gasp was all that came out. He saw the older man's head jerk up, the sightless gaze fixing on him in concern. He reached forward once more to grip the Sentinel's arm.
"It's no wonder you're picking that up, man," he managed to murmur, his mind racing to come up with an explanation that Jim might accept. "That blow you took to the head bled a lot. Your shirt's covered with it. When your senses kicked into hyper-drive you must have zoned on the smell."
He watched Jim anxiously, wondering if the older man would buy into the misdirection. Blair knew that what he'd said could be the truth, and he hoped he had put enough conviction into his tone to carry off the lie. When Jim finally nodded in confused acceptance, he breathed a small sigh of relief.
"Look, it's bleeding a little again. I'd better put another bandage on it. In the meantime, I think you'd better keep everything dialed back to the minimum." Pulling the remains of his t-shirt over his head, Blair quickly tore the fabric into strips and bound another layer of bandaging around the Sentinel's head.
As he worked, Blair could feel the heat pounding down on his bare shoulders, making him lightheaded. He took a deep breath and helped Jim to his feet, certain that he'd made the right decision in not telling his partner about his own injury. There wasn't anything that could be done about it until they found help, anyway. The overload had frightened Blair and made him even more determined to get Jim to a doctor, or, at least, to a place of shelter.
"Just keep everything off-line, Big Guy. Let me lead the way."
As the afternoon sun grew hotter, Blair's incessant, rambling conversation faltered. They moved automatically; Jim's pace now matched to his partner's, Blair keeping his eyes fixed on the wavering horizon ahead of them.
With his senses dialed down to the minimum, Jim slipped into old Ranger habits, moderating his breathing and his movements to maximize his body's strength. He felt the dullness in his mind only at the fringe of his consciousness and he was unaware of his Guide's increasing fatigue and distress.
Jim felt Blair stumble and heard him swear softly. Both the movement and the whispered comment jarred him out of the fuzzy mental state he'd fallen into. He realized with a lurch that they'd been walking without a break for far too long, and he cursed himself for losing his concentration. Cautiously, he released some of the hold on his senses and nearly cried out as he felt the sun and heat beat down like a physical blow.
He cursed again as he felt the heat radiating off Blair's bare shoulder where his hand rested. The grad student's ragged breathing and pounding heart hammered in his ears and he squeezed his Guide's shoulder briefly, urging him to turn around.
"Jim... what is it?" Blair asked blearily, struggling to shift out of his own dazed mindset and respond to the needs of his friend.
"We've got to stop. Rest," Jim gasped, suddenly aware of his own parched throat.
"Jim... I'm sorry... I still can't..." Blair whispered in response, the confusion and weariness obvious in his voice.
Angry at himself for forgetting Blair's inability to hear him, Jim shook his head and put his hands together forming a 'T'.
"Time out?" Blair whispered uncertainly, his brain working hard to understand what Jim was trying to tell him. "Oh, yeah... time out... a break... good idea..." He glanced around, looking for any place that they might find some relief from the pounding sun. "There's a spot about twenty yards ahead, just off the road to our left. Looks like just a pile of boulders, but there might be some shade there."
Jim barely heard him as he struggled to regain control under the onslaught of his unleashed senses.
"Jim, did you hear me?" Blair asked urgently, his own difficulties forgotten as he saw the look of confusion on his friend's face. "Concentrate... dial it back, man."
The Sentinel struggled for a moment, catching the nauseating smell of blood again in his nostrils. He shook his head sharply, hoping that the movement would help clear it. He managed to clamp down on his senses, finally nodding to his Guide that he was ready.
"About fifteen feet, then we'll leave the pavement... watch your step... the ground's pretty uneven," Blair murmured, anxiously guiding Jim across the broken terrain.
As they approached the tumble of rocks, Blair eyed them hopefully. Moving to the east side of the pile he found a small crevice that would provide some shelter and eased his partner to the rocky ground. Even with his senses shut down, Jim felt an immediate sense of relief from the heat and smiled gratefully.
"I'll be right back... I think I saw something..." The Sentinel heard the younger man move away and then, a few moments later, caught the soft scuff of footsteps that announced his return.
"These are Argula pods," Blair explained in a soft rasping voice, dropping something leathery into his friend's hands. "They're fibrous... store a lot of moisture... but they taste awful, so be prepared..."
Jim nodded and turned the pods over in his hands curiously before snapping one and touching it to his dry lips. Even dialed down, his taste buds recoiled at the sour taste, but he placed it in his mouth and sucked on it, knowing that his body needed the precious moisture it contained.
Blair grinned briefly at Jim's dismayed reaction, then gritted his teeth and eased himself to the ground, holding back the moan of pain that threatened to escape. He pressed his left hand against the bullet wound in his leg and felt the wetness of new blood. Grimacing, he leaned back into the rock. Wincing at the contact of rough stone against sunburned skin, he closed his eyes, struggling to keep his distress to himself.
Just sit here for a minute... It'll get better.
But it didn't. The ringing in his ears was turning into a painful buzzing that seemed to increase in volume now that he was sitting still. And his leg throbbed. He knew that he should rebandage it; that the precious moisture of his own body was leaking out onto the sand, but he'd already used up the last of his t-shirt on his partner's head wound, and he wasn't about to ask Jim for his shirt. Not yet.
He found himself wondering how long they'd been walkinghow many miles they'd traveledbut he had no idea. He'd lost all track of time, focused as he had been on just moving them forward. The attack had occurred half-way into the trip. That put the old man's store at least another hundred miles ahead of them. Assuming it was still there. A hundred miles. Just an hour and a half of driving. But on foot? Blair began to doubt his own judgment, as the desperateness of their situation hit him. In the shape they were in, it would take them days to make it that far. But they wouldn't. Not without food and water. They needed help. Jim needed medical attention for that head injury.
Where could help come from? Not from the town they'd left hours ago. Not from the kids that had attacked themBlair had spent the first hour or more of their trek glancing over his shoulder, afraid that Ben and his friends would come after them and try to finish the job they'd started.
That left Nate. Nate was expecting them. At least he should be. Grimly, Blair remembered his friend's tendency to get more than a little wrapped up in the excitement of his work. The two of them together had once spent a full three weeks on a round-the clock dig, ignoring the rest of the world in their enthusiasm over what they'd found. If Nate did get the message Blair had left on his answering machine, then he'd come looking for them in the morning. If not...
A sudden shaft of pain shot through his leg and he cried out, his eyes flying open in shock. Stunned, it took him a moment to get past the pain and focus on what had happened. Jim was shaking, his hands pressed against his ears, his body almost curled into itself in pain, pressing against Blair's injured leg.
"Jim... listen to me! You're on overload again!"
Instinctively, he reached out toward his friend. Jim's hand flashed out, knocking Blair's away, then suddenly grabbing for it, imprisoning his Guide's wrist in a vice-like grip.
"Easy, man... easy," Blair whispered, trying to keep his voice as soft as possible. "Focus... take 'em one at a time."
He saw Jim shudder as though his whispered words had been shouted directly into the older man's ears. The iron grip on his wrist tightened even further. Blair imagined that he could feel the bones grinding together, but he set his jaw and held his breath, refusing to make a sound. He saw Jim's jaw muscles clench as his friend struggled for control. Blair closed his eyes and focused on his own heartbeat, willing it to slow, striving to find a way to send his own strength and support through their physical link.
"You can do this, Jim." Through his own clenched teeth he managed to repeat the encouraging words over and over, like a healing mantra.
Finally, just when he thought he would cry out from the pain in his wrist, he felt the pressure lessen. His eyes flashed open and he focused on Jim's face, relieved to see the lines of pain smoothing away, replaced by a look of confusion and utter weariness.
"You got it. What happened? Did you forget to concentrate?"
Jim's answer was a quick shake of the head and his eyes flickered shut.
"It's just like before, Jim. Something must have tripped one or more of your senses out of whack when you relaxed."
Anxiously, Blair struggled to focus his own fatigue laden thoughts. What had happened? What stimulus would have been strong enough to shift Jim into overload again? He glanced down at his own bleeding leg and shuddered. Was it his blood that Jim was sensing again or was it something else? His gaze caught suddenly on the broken remnants of the Argula pod that he'd given Jim. Was that it?
"Jim... listen to me," Blair murmured urgently. "I need to know what you remember just before it hit. You were sucking on one of those pods. Was it the taste of that? They're pretty strong. Maybe it just caught you off guard and that's all it took."
Still struggling to keep his senses from running wild, Jim considered Blair's words and then shook his head again.
"Then what was it?"
What had happened? Jim asked himself. He forced his mind to go back through the sensory chaos he'd just experienced. He realized that he was still gripping Blair's wrist and he used that physical contact to ground himself, searching his memory for the answer.
He had been sucking on the pod, and it had tasted awful, but he'd managed to control his reaction to that. No, it hadn't been something he'd tasted. Think! he ordered himself. Drawing in a deep breath he could almost hear Blair's voice in his headPut yourself there, Jim. See it like a picture, then freeze it, walk around it.
... sucking on the pod, getting past the taste and letting the moisture ease down his dry throat... feeling the comfort from the small portion of shade that his Guide had found for them... the relief of stopping for a while... relaxing... allowing his other senses to open up just a bit... smelling something... something that frightened him... something that Blair had told him...
Suddenly Jim tensed, caught in the memory of fear that had thrust him into the overload. "Blood! I smelled blood again," he gasped, the memory of it so vivid that he squeezed Blair's wrist without even realizing it.
"Ow! Jim take it easy!"
Jim was so focused on the overwhelming feeling of terror and the scent of the blood that he barely heard Blair's pain filled exclamation. Instinctively, he loosened the control on his sense of smell and drew in a deep breath, recoiling physically as the raw odor filled his nostrils.
"Jim... listen to me, man!"
Blood... he could smell it now. Where was it coming from? He touched the wound on his head. Nothing but a damp spot. That couldn't be it. Even with his senses working overtime, that small amount wouldn't have set this off. A quick inventory of the rest of his body confirmed that other than a few scrapes and bruises, the blow to his head was the only injury he'd taken. And if it wasn't his blood, then it had to be...
Jim's eyes widened, a look of anguish crossing his face. Suddenly he was aware of the grip he had on Blair's wrist, the thundering of his friend's pulse as the blood surged beneath his sensitive fingertips. Blood... on his hands? On his Guide's hands?
Blair stiffened as the expression on Jim's face changed to one of anger. He winced and cried out again as the pressure on his wrist became almost unbearable.
"Blood," said Jim out loud, his sightless gaze focused on Blair's hand, seeing in his mind what he couldn't see with his eyes.
"What?" Blair started to ask what Jim had said. His breath caught as he realized what the Sentinel was focused on, felt his own heart lurch as he saw the blood on his hand.
Oh my god! That "is" what he's reacting to!
Blair tried to pull his hand away, hoping to break the contact. Jim's grip tightened even further and the look he turned on his Guide was pure blazing anger.
"Damn it Sandburg, what's going on?" Jim roared.
"There's blood on your hands!"
"Jim... I can't..." Blair gasped, the throbbing in his wrist echoing in his pounding head.
His Guide's racing heartbeat reached the Sentinel and he forced himself to struggle for some kind of control. With his left hand he pried open the younger man's clenched fist , touched the blood there and held out his stained fingers accusingly. Blair struggled to swallow against the icy blue anger he saw directed toward him.
"Let it go man... it's... it's not... that bad..." he finally whispered.
"Where? Where are you hurt?" Jim asked grimly, his senses reaching out to probe his friend's body, searching for the wound that he knew Blair had been hiding from him.
"WHERE?" Jim shouted, the expression on his face telling Blair what his ears couldn't hear.
"My left leg," Blair mumbled miserably.
Jim dropped his Guide's wrist and reached out to where he thought his partner's leg would be, extending his tactile senses. His fingers touched the rough denim of Blair's jeans and kept searching. He paused for a moment when he felt a stiffness that could only be dried blood. Panic started to fill him, but he pushed it back in anger.
"Jim... it's all right," he heard Blair insist, but his fingers kept moving, following the path of the dried blood up the pant leg. He hissed when he felt fresh wetness and the soaked bandage.
The anger on the Sentinel's face nearly held Blair speechless. He'd made a mistake. He should have told Jim. "It's just a graze, man." He winced, hearing the feebleness of the excuse in his own head. "The bullet's not in there. It's just bleeding again because of all the walking..."
Jim's hand froze over the wound, his mind absorbing the younger man's words. Bullet? This was caused by a bullet? When...? Suddenly he recalled Blair's sarcastic response when Jim had started to give him a hard time about not keeping their assailants from taking the car. "Sorry man, I was a little busy dodging bullets at the time... and trying to keep you alive..."
An image of his young partnerhis Guidedead, his blood leaking out onto the rocky ground filled his mind and he stiffened, horrified at what might have happened. He could be dead right now and where would that have left me? What would I have done if he hadn't been alive... What would I do if...?
The panic that he'd been holding back broke over him like a wave. Terror that made him reach out, desperate to touch his partner, to assure himself that his friend was all right. He felt Blair flinch away from his grasp, and his fingers tangled in something soft. Convulsively, his left hand closed around a handful of the younger man's hair and twisted it, pinning Blair in place while his right hand sought the beating pulse at his Guide's throat.
Gasping in pain as his head was wrenched backward, Blair tried to pull away, but one glimpse of the intensity in the pale blue eyes made him stop struggling. As Jim's hand locked around his throat, he closed his eyes in submission. There was no way he was going to win a battle of strength with Jim Ellison. Even on a good day, the Sentinel could break him in two with his bare hands if he wanted. And this was far from a good day. If Jim, in his overloaded state, killed him, it would be his own fault. It was his mistakes that had gotten them into this mess. His mistakes and his failure as a Guide.
Blair felt a physical wrenching, as if his very soul was being torn apart. He'd done this. He'd damaged the trust between them; the essence of the bond between Guide and Sentinel. He'd thought he was protecting Jim, but all he'd done was drive him to the point of another overload.
Unaware of the thoughts going through his partner's head, Jim rejoiced at the pulse under his fingertips. Blair is alive. He's not dead, he told himself, forcing the earlier image from his mind. But his Guide was hurt. How badly? What else was wrong besides the gunshot wound? Was the hearing loss only from the concussive effect of the explosion, or was there more that Blair hadn't told him?
Still gripping the silky, tangled hair with his left hand, Jim reached out with his right, running his fingers across Blair's facea face that was burned into his memory and as familiar to him as his own. With a feather-like touch he searched, his fingers pausing momentarily at a cut on his Guide's left cheek. Jaw clenching he moved on, feeling the warmth of a bruise forming on his friend's jaw. He felt Blair wince slightly as he touched the area below the younger man's left ear. Jim made his touch even lighter, gently tracing the path of dried blood that had trickled down onto the anthropologist's neck.
The thought of more blood made Jim reach out to touch the pulsing artery at Blair's neck once again, reassured by the strong beat that throbbed there. He began to lose himself in that rhythmic pounding until a soft whisper reached him, shaking him out of another zone-out.
"Jim... please... let me go..."
Realizing that he was still holding the younger man pinned, Jim released him abruptly. Sinking back into a kneeling position, he struggled to concentrate, struggling to get his overloaded senses and emotions in check. Get a grip, Ellison. Blair needs you. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to remember his Guide's directions. Directions that had always saved him from this loss of control in the pastTurn down the dials, Jim. One at a time...
Blair's eyes flickered open when Jim released him. He sat dazed, barely able to look at the man in front of him, much less meet his eyes. He could see the knotted clenching of the Sentinel's jaw, and shivered at the anger he could sense there.
You blew it big time, Sandburg, he told himself.
"I'm sorry man," he whispered, closing his eyes against the tears of regret that burned there. "I didn't mean to let you down... I should have handled things better... should have let Ben's buddies beat the shit out of me at the park... maybe they wouldn't have come after us if I had... I should have told you... I never should have let them take the car..."
Blair realized that he was babbling, but the words poured out and he was too exhausted to stop them.
Focused on his own internal struggle, Jim didn't hear the words, he only heard the sound of his Guide's voice. A voice that was lending him the support he needed. Four of his senses were under control now. That left one to go. Keep talking Blair, a part of Jim's mind pleaded. Keep talking, I can still hear you. The Sentinel dialed down his hearing to a point where his partner's words were no longer recognizable, the sound of his voice more a vibration than anything else.
Establishing even a partial sense of control freed Jim's mind to seek an answer to his loss of sight. Remake the connection. He'd done it before when he'd lost his vision. Could he do it again? That loss hadn't been the result of a head injury. It had happened when he'd gotten the Golden in his eyes. His resolve wavered in the face of doubt until he heard Blair's voice in his mind again, urging him to try it.
Remake the connection. Jim concentrated every ounce of his energy on a vague memory of what he'd done once before. He opened his eyes and stared toward where he knew Blair was sitting, building a picture in his mind of his friend's face.
For a moment his sight seemed to clear, but what he saw was no match to the mental image he'd created. In his mind, he'd seen Blair's face grinning back at him as if he'd just managed to talk Jim into something questionablehis expressive eyes flashing mischievously. What he saw now was his Guide's exhausted, bruised face, the blue eyes closed tightly, a trace of moisture on his cheeks. Jim recoiled in shock and the flash of vision ended abruptly, leaving him in darkness once more. He became aware of Blair's voice again, and he instinctively turned up the 'volume', focusing on his partner's words.
"... screwed up once more... Simon's right, man... you need a real partner... you need a real Guide... someone you can trust... I know you're angry... I know you're disappointed... I promise you... if we get out of this... I'll be gone..."
Blair's words jolted Jim into the present, clearing away the daze that had been with him since he'd been attacked. He heard the anguish in his friend's voice, understood the mistaken guilt that his partner was trying to shoulder. He sensed the fear and doubts that threatened to overwhelm his Guide. He did the only thing he could do.
Blair found himself suddenly enveloped in Jim's embrace. A surge of uncertainty flashed through him and he almost pulled away. Instead he leaned into Jim's hold, burying his face against the bigger man's chest, trying to absorb the strength and safety that was emanating from the Sentinel.
Tears were running down his face, but he made no move to stop them. He felt Jim gently stroke his hair, comforting him as he hadn't been comforted since he'd been a child. He felt the vibration in Jim's chest as the older man spoke, and although he couldn't understand the words, he grew oddly peaceful.
Jim held him until he felt the tension in Blair's muscles ease, the racing of his heart start to slow. Then he gently shifted the younger man back to rest against the boulder.
Blair opened his eyes and saw Jim staring at him intently. He started to apologize once more, but before the words were even out of his mouth, the Sentinel reached forward and placed a finger on his lips, silencing him. He watched curiously as his partner smoothed the ground in front of him, scribbling out a message in the dirt.
"Scared? Jim, I've never seen you scared of anything. You're a rock, man."
Jim shook his head, smoothing the ground and writing once more.
YOU SCARED ME
"Me? How could I..."
I NEED YOU
Blair read the words and raised his eyes to his friend's face in amazement. He shook his head slowly.
"Jim, you need someone you can count on..."
Jim drew a line under the words for emphasis and then hurriedly wrote out two more.
Blair's breath caught in his throat . He felt the sting of tears in his eyes again. "Man, are you sure?" he managed to whisper. "This won't be my last screw-up, you know?"
In answer, Jim smoothed the ground once more. Blair leaned forward, his heart racing as he read what Jim had written. Four words, each linked together with arced lines forming a circle. No beginning. No end. Continuity.
Blair looked up into the face of his Sentinel, his friend, and reached out to him. His hand wrapped easily around his partner's wrist and he felt Jim's close around his own. Time seemed to stand still for both of them then, their unspoken words and emotions surging across the physical link, settling into a deeper connection of commitment.
The throbbing of Blair's pulse under his fingertips brought Jim back to the present and with a smile he released his hold. "We'd better get a new bandage on that," he said, gesturing toward Blair's leg before pulling off his own overshirt and ripping bandages from it.
Blair nodded and settled back into the rock, grimacing as he bent his knee and shifted his leg so that Jim could reach it more easily. He pulled out his pocket knife and started to saw through the blood soaked bandage, but Jim reached out and stopped him, taking the knife from his hands.
"Rest," the Sentinel ordered, placing his hand on his Guide's shoulder and gently, but firmly, pressing him back.
"Okay, I got it," Blair murmured, falling back into his pattern of light-hearted joking. "I just want you to know that there's a big element of trust going on here. I mean, I don't let just any blind guy take a knife to my leg, you know."
He saw Jim's face crease in a quick grin, then he winced as the tightness of the bandage released. Black spots danced in his vision, and the buzzing in his ears turned to a roaring thunder. A firm hand on his shoulder grounded him again, and he sighed, leaning back into the rock. Jim quickly put pressure on the wound and applied the new bandage.
He watched as Jim tied it off, then helped him straighten the leg once more. The detective scrubbed his hands in the coarse sandy dirt. Grabbing a large flat rock, he eased it under Blair's left ankle to elevate the injury.
It took a moment for Blair to realize what his friend was doing. "Jim... can you see?"
"I'm working on it." Jim made a small pinching motion with his fingers. He picked up the tattered remnants of the shirt he'd been wearing and helped Blair slide into it before settling himself to the ground and into the small patch of shade.
"Flashes? Like before?" Blair asked hopefully, still anxious about his friend's impaired vision.
"So, so," Jim answered, motioning with his hand.
"Man, that's great!" Blair exclaimed, the relief evident in his voice.
Jim wanted to reassure his friend that all was fine, but he realized that he had to be honest with his Guide, if he expected Blair to be honest with him.
COMES AND GOES, he scratched out in the dirt.
"So don't depend on it yet, right?" Blair nodded in understanding. "Okay. We'll wait it out. It'll get better."
Blair saw Jim nod in tentative agreement. Feeling the sun on his face he glanced up, trying to assess the time of day. "It's late afternoon," he said thoughtfully, glancing over at the older man. "This is probably the best shelter we're going to find. Do you want to sit it out for a while and get moving again when it gets cooler? We'll probably feel some temperature change in a few hours. Sun should go down around eight."
The Sentinel considered his Guide's words and then nodded. He reached down and tossed one of the Argula pods into Blair's hands, then touched his fingers to his eyelids making a motion as if drawing them closed.
"Got it. Have a drink and take a nap." Blair nodded. Snapping open the pod he made a face at the sour taste. He saw Jim do the same, sucking on one of the pods for some time before putting it down and shifting to find a more comfortable position. "You know, this would be a lot easier if one of us knew more sign language," Blair murmured. He felt a nudge at his right boot and glanced up to see Jim glaring at him.
"I know... I know... house rules apply even out here. No noise while the detective is sleeping." Blair closed his eyes, a smile flickering across his face as he drifted off.
Jim lay still, monitoring his partner's heartbeat and breathing. When he was certain that Blair was completely asleep, he eased himself to his feet and moved to stand over the still form. He strained for a return of his vision and was rewarded with a brief flash of an image before blackness reformed in front of his open eyes. It was less than what he'd hoped for, but it was enough to reassure him that Blair was resting easily. Satisfied for the moment that his Guide was safe, he turned and faced out onto the barren landscape.
Concentrating on opening his senses slowly, so that he wouldn't be overwhelmed, he counted to ten, allowing himself to absorb as much as he could in that time, then he dialed back his controls. He felt exhaustion creeping through his tired body and quietly lowered himself back into the position he'd occupied before. He reached out lightly with his senses, shifting his leg so that it rested gently alongside Blair's uninjured one. Satisfied that he would sense any change in his partner through even that light physical contact, the Sentinel settled back, his mind turning over the grim possibilities of getting the two of them out of this mess alive.
There was nothing but darkness...
And heat... burning with an intensity that threatened to consume him... evaporating each drop of moisture on his skin until it felt like it would simply flake off if he moved... choking his lungs each time he inhaled...
And there was a constant, thundering throbbing that reverberated in his head ... a familiar rhythm... his Guide's heartbeat...
The Sentinel's eyes flickered open and he winced at the assault of light.
Blinking cautiously, Jim slowly levered himself off the ground into a sitting position, leaning heavily against the rock. There was light, where earlier there had been nothing but darkness. Had that been real or was he confusing it with the black emptiness of his dream? Uncertain, he reached up and felt the cloth bandage encircling his head.
No, it was definitely real... just moving from one nightmare to another, that's all.
Concentrating on the connection he'd found earlier, he struggled to make the images in his vision clearer. There was a fuzziness at the edges, and a stomach rolling distortion that ebbed and flowed each time he blinked, but his sight was returning. Just not fast enough to suit him.
With his Guide's voice ringing in his ears, he glanced at the younger man, startled to see that he was still asleep. He grinned suddenly, delighted that his vision had cleared enough to allow him to actually see his partner. The pleased expression slipped as he studied Blair, noting the bruises, the flush of his skin, the dried blood staining the bandage on his leg. As if aware of the scrutiny, Blair moaned, shifting slightly. His forehead creased in a frown and his breathing became more rapid.
He's caught in a nightmare of his own, Jim realized abruptly. Two guesses as to what it's about.
Easing forward, Jim extended his other senses. Blair's heartbeat and respiration were accelerating and he was spiking a temperature.
That's probably where the heat in your own nightmare came from, Ellison. He's running a feverprobably an infection from that damn bullet wound.
"Chief, wake up... you're dreaming," Jim murmured softly. Grasping the younger man by the shoulders, he shook him gently.
Dazed blue eyes met his questioningly. "Jim... what...?"
"You left a request for a wake up call at the main desk, but they're a little busy right now, so I offered to handle it," Jim answered, forcing a smile.
A puzzled expression filled Blair's face for a moment. Then the eyes widened.
"Wake up call... you said 'wake up call'..."
"You heard me?" Jim rocked back on his heels in surprise.
Blair's frown was back for a second, and he shook his head in annoyance. "I'm just getting fragments. Say something else."
"If you really did forget to empty the garbage before we left, you're going to be scrubbing the loft from top to bottom until the smell's gone, Sandburg," Jim growled in mock irritation.
"I got enough of that to know that there's a threat in there somewhere... something about garbage and cleaning, right?" Blair asked anxiously.
Jim's smile was genuine this time. It stretched from ear to ear and filled his eyes as he nodded.
"God, that's a relief," Blair whispered, closing his eyes and leaning back against the boulder. "It is only temporary..."
The Sentinel gripped his Guide's shoulder and gave it a light squeeze. He hadn't realized until that moment how frightening the possible permanent loss of his hearing had been to his friend. True to form, Blair had sublimated his own fears and focused on helping Jim through his.
As if on cue, Blair's eyes flashed open and he fixed the Sentinel with a hard, searching stare of his own. "How's your vision, man? Still improving?"
"I can see light now, and some images. It's still pretty fuzzy, but it's better when I focus on something. I'm still working on holding the connection. It takes a lot of concentration."
"Don't push it too hard, Jim," his Guide admonished. "What about everything else?"
"Staying pretty much in balance," Jim assured him.
"Good." Blair shifted to ease a cramp in his side and hissed at the stab of pain that the small movement had caused.
"Let's take a look at that leg," Jim said quietly. He pulled Blair's knife out of his pocket and quickly slit through the wrappings, salvaging those strips that weren't tainted with blood.
"I take it the desk was too busy to send up room service, huh?" Blair muttered through clenched teeth.
"Not a four-star choice, I guess," Jim responded, keeping his tone light while he examined the wound. "We'll have to find the manager and register a complaint."
"Too bad they didn't leave some extra towels," Blair said softly, starting to pull off the shirt that Jim had given him.
"Keep that on, Chief," Jim ordered. "You're going to need it when the temperature starts to drop. Slipping out of his tank, he began to tear the undershirt into strips.
"What about you?" Blair argued.
"I can dial down my sensitivity to the cold. You can't. And it's distracting when your teeth chatter, Sandburg."
Jim flashed a quick grin at his partner to take the sting out of the teasing jibe. Blair reciprocated with a grimace of annoyance, although his eyes glittered with a smile of their own.
Rebandaging the injury took only a few more moments. Jim grabbed the remaining Argula pods and tossed two to Blair, who nodded in thanks. "We should harvest as many of these as we can find before we get moving," the anthropologist noted.
"Just tell me what to look for, Chief."
"Jim, I can"
They both grinned over the familiar standoff. Blair shrugged and quickly described the type of plant that Jim needed to look for. Giving his Guide a playful pat on the top of his head, the Sentinel rose to his feet and moved away from the rocks, searching for more of the pods.
Watching his partner's almost painfully slow progress, Blair realized that Jim's vision was still far below normal. Sucking on one of the pods, he took a quick look around. He could see the flat band of highway only a few yards away and breathed a sigh of relief. They hadn't come far from the road, so they would have no problem getting back to it.
Glancing upward, he saw the sky deepening in hue and there were hints of color starting to form on the horizonthe first signs of approaching sunset. They'd slept longer than he'd thought, but the results seemed to have been worth the lost time.
Looking toward the east he could see the faint silhouette of a half moon, and the first faint glimmer of stars. He was thankful that they'd have at least some light for their evening trek. Without Jim's Sentinel vision to guide them, they'd have to rely on whatever natural light they had. Fortunately, they'd be traveling on the flat highway.
And I'm going to make SURE we don't stray from it!
There was a touch on his shoulder. He looked up to see the Sentinel standing over him, his face creased with concern. "You okay?"
"Yeah, just thinking," Blair answered, pushing away the fears which threatened to unearth themselves from deep within his memories. "Give me a hand, will you?"
Jim pulled him to his feet, steadying him until he regained his balance. Tentatively he stepped forward on the injured leg. He felt the familiar stab of pain, and the wound began to throb again. He felt Jim's arm encircle his waist and pull him closer. With a quick nod to hide the grimace of pain, Blair worked his arm under Jim's, reaching up to clutch the older man's shoulder for support.
"Back to the highway, man. It's time to find new accommodations. Preferably some place with lots of running water and a huge buffet," he said lightly, hoping his voice sounded more confident than he felt.
They started out fairly strong, quickly making the necessary adjustments to their new pattern of combined movement. Concerned that Jim was pushing his control over his eyesight too fast, Blair convinced him to ease off for a while and let him continue to lead. Jim grudgingly agreed, but he left his other senses dialed up to normal, and kept close tabs on his partner's vital signs.
They walked for thirty minutes and then took a short break. Blair had objected to stopping, claiming that he could go farther, but Jim knew that the renewed burst of energy they both felt was destined to be short-lived. He intended to set a pace they could both meet and was determined not to let them get overextended again.
That set the pattern for the next several hourswalk, rest, walk, rest. Occasionally one of them would pull out one of the pods and suck on the sour, refreshing moisture. Conversation was kept to a minimummostly short anxious questions from Blair, testing both the Sentinel's condition and his own hearing. Jim understood that his partner had his own set of protective instinctsinstincts which needed verbal reassurance the older man was quick to provide.
The desert slid from blistering day to soft twilight, shedding the oppressive heat in exchange for a significantly cooler wardrobe. Wide bands of color stretched from the horizon as the setting sun burned its way into the far hillsthe vivid pinks, oranges and purples an intense contrast to the flat, faded blue which had filled the sky earlier.
Night came on in a rush, hurrying to push twilight from the sky in its eagerness to begin its own cycle anew. The ethereal glow of the moon and the twinkle of stars overhead bathed the landscape in gentle rays of light, smoothing shadows and softening the knife-sharp edges of the harsh terrain. Life began to appear where there had been no trace beforesmall creatures on individual life-quests of their own, scurried and crawled out of their holes and crevices.
To the Sentinel's sensitive hearing, it was like listening to a symphony tuning up for a performance. Not quite a cacophony of sounds, but definitely a prelude as nature nudged her chorus into line. His Guide's harsh, ragged breathing was even more noticeable as the desert voices came into sync and sang one long pure note that formed the opening of the evening's overture.
Jim eased Blair to the asphalt. "Rest, Sandburg. That means your mouth, too."
"You know, I think I'm having a relapse," Blair murmured, shaking his head. "I'm sure I didn't hear that last thing you said. I know you wouldn't be insulting me. Not in my condition."
"Relapse, huh? I suppose now you'll be using this as an excuse every time I tell you to stay in the truck."
"Not to worry, man. You've said that line so often I'm sure I could read your lips if I had to. Now your yelling at me about the optimal state of cleanliness for the loft... that just might trigger a another hearing loss."
"Guess I'll be signing us up for sign language classes when we get home," Jim muttered, smiling.
"Sign language," Jim repeated, wiggling his fingers in front of Blair's face.
"Only if the department pays for it."
"I'm sure Simon would jump at the chance, if it meant keeping you out of the line of fire once in a while."
Blair eyed Jim uncertainly for a moment, and shook his head, his expression growing anxious again. It reminded the older man that his partner's hearing, while improved, was still spotty. He laid a hand on the younger man's shoulder and gave it a quick, reassuring squeeze. His Guide gave him a shaky smile and then stretched out on the rapidly cooling pavement.
"Ummmm, this actually feels good. I'd forgotten how beautiful it is out here at night. Last time I walked this stretch I wasn't in the mood to appreciate the scenery."
"Yeah... I made my first trip out here between my freshman and sophomore years. I'd planned to spend the summer on a dig in Mexico, but at the last minute the guy heading the expedition decided to fill my slot with his own kid."
"A little rampant nepotism?"
"Sounds unfair," Jim amended.
"Happens," Blair replied with a shrug. "Anyway, I had to shift gears pretty fast. I crashed with a couple of other friends for a month or so and ended up doing some house-sitting for one of the visiting professors. Nate got wind of my dilemma, and invited me down. I managed to scrape up enough money to make the trip, and headed out here at the beginning of August. I got stupidhey, I was sixteen, you knowand didn't pay attention to the gas gauge. Ran out of fuel about twenty miles from the old man's place. Course I didn't know it was there at the time."
"You made this trip in the Corvair?"
"Nah, worse. I had an old beater of a Fiat then. Great car except in cold weather when you had to spend ten minutes massaging the stick to free it up. It had a tendency to freeze in the winter"
"I get the picture, Chief," Jim growled, forestalling another of Blair's off-topic rambles. "Stay with summer for a minute and finish that story first."
"Finish? Oh... yeah... well, I figured I'd just brought my usual run of luck south with me. I pushed the car off to the side of the road, grabbed my pack and started hiking. When I hit the old man's placeHarold, that's what his name was, I knew I'd remember it sooner or laterwhen I got to Harold's I had to do some fast talking. He reamed me from head to toe, man. He finally sold me enough gas to get me out to Nate's. Gave me a lift back to the car and threatened me with seven deadly forms of physical abuse if I ever found myself in that situation again."
"Blessed Protector number one?" Jim grinned down at his Guide.
"I didn't think so at the time," Blair said softly. "I learned differently, later... in fact, I learned a lot on that trip..."
Jim heard the slight catch in the younger man's breathing and focused in on his friend. Blair's face had taken on an odd, distant expression.
"We should get moving," Blair announced abruptly, pushing himself to his knees. Jim grabbed his arm and helped him to his feet. He was about to make a sarcastic comment about headstrong Guides when he felt the heat radiating off of the younger man.
"Your fever's up again," he said tersely. Turning his partner to face him, Jim placed the back of his hand against Blair's forehead to make sure he understood. "We can rest a while longer."
"No. We can't. We need to keep moving," the younger man objected, shaking his head.
"Damn it, Jim. This is why I didn't tell you about the gunshot wound in the first place," Blair hissed angrily. "You don't know this desert like I do. We can't afford to be stuck out here another day. We don't have any water. Those pods are only a short term fix. We need to keep moving. We need to find a doctor. You were out for a hell of a long time, man. I thought for a while you were never going to wake up. Your vision's getting better, but what if there's something else wrong? I'm not going to be the one holding us back, I"
"Blair, stop it," Jim ordered , gripping the younger man tightly. "Stop beating yourself up over this."
"We need to keep moving, Jim. Please..." Blair's anger had evaporated, but the urgent plea in his voice and his eyes was just as intense.
"Okay... we'll go... but we'll stop whenever I say, and no arguments."
"Just as long as we get moving now," Blair agreed glibly.
Recognizing the futility of arguing against what they both knew they had to do, the Sentinel shifted his hold on his Guide and they walked on into the night.
It was still dark when Dave Heller pulled his squad into the parking space next to the station. The headlights illuminated the small sign at the front of the stall and he smiled. After 36 years with the departmentthe last 20 of them as Sheriffhe never failed to appreciate coming 'home'. He turned off the engine and crawled out of the car, wincing slightly at the stiffness in his limbs. Even after a night in his own bed, he still felt the effects of three long days on the road.
Good to be home and in one piece, he grinned, grabbing his hat. He took a moment to look around, drinking in the quiet familiarity of the predawn streets of his hometown.
Fergis, Nevada, population 2365with three more on the way before the end of the yearwas far from a hot bed of crime. They'd helped the big city boys out a time or twoonce in apprehending a trio of bank robbers who had seriously underestimated the dedication of the sleepy little town's law enforcement community. Although not one bullet had been fired, that episode had given the town gossips enough ammunition for a year's worth of stories. He'd been more than pleased to have gotten out of it with all of their skins intact. Dave Heller was not a man who pursued danger and excitement in the job. He never turned away from his duty, but he preferred quiet and uneventful.
And that was pretty much what he'd gotten during his terms as Sheriff. Mostly it was local troubles; hot-tempered neighbors nursing disagreements that had existed for years; doing his 'bad cop' routine for the local kids whousually out of boredom or on a daregot into mischief and needed a firm warning to settle them down; and adding a few dollars to the local coffers when someone decided to stretch the speed limit further than the law allowed.
The town was his base of operations, but his responsibilities included the entire county. Once a week either he or his deputy would tour the highways and half-paved roads. The three-day round trip he'd just made was, as usual, uneventful. He'd visited with some old friends, checked on a couple of the area's more colorful 'hermits' and done his typical thorough sweep. He missed the time away from the town and his family, but as his wife Jean so aptly reminded him, as long as the job of Sheriff was an elected position, he needed to keep his face well known to the local populace.
Only a third of the territory under his watchful eye was inhabited, and even that small segment was sparsely populated. The rest was desert. And that was more than trouble enough. The locals understood it. So did the tribe on the reservation. Technically, his authority extended there as well, although the tribal council policed its own people with efficiency. The few times he'd had any trouble, it usually manifested itself in towna brawl at the bar between a couple of hot-shots who'd had a few too many beers and some of the reservation kids out to prove something to themselves.
No, it was mostly the out-of-towners who kept tempting the desert's fickle sense of mortality. The sandy oven had claimed more than a few lives over the yearshe still had occasional nightmares from one case that had happened not long after he'd taken over as Sheriff. Over the past few years he'd added five more missing persons cases to his 'unsolved' files. Three young men and two women. Five lives that the desert had simply swallowedonly their vehicles, abandoned on the highway, left any tangible trace that they'd been there at all.
He stretched again, rolling his shoulders. At 56, Heller was still a man winning the battle against aging. His back was ramrod straighta carryover from his time in the Marinesand although he knew that all the driving and desk work were making him a bit flabby, his extra 'inch' around the middle came from enjoying his wife's cooking a little too much, not from knocking back too many brews at the local bar. His hair, graying at the temples in the last two years, was still full and carried the auburn tint that Jean had always admired. The hazel eyes were still sharp and his easy going manner belied a quick and intelligent mind.
He walked to the front of the building and stood for a moment before the entrance, a slight smile playing at the corners of his mouth. He held his breath as he tried the door, a full grin filling his face as the knob turned easily in his hand. Shaking his head in amusement, he let himself inside, hanging his hat on a rack near the entry. Turning on lights as he made his way through the office, he nudged open the door to the break room and peeked inside, already certain of what he'd find.
"Molly, you never cease to amaze me," he said, greeting the woman who sat bent over the small table, thumbing idly through an out-of-date magazine.
Warm brown eyes rose to meet his, flickering with mischief. Molly Brown was a tiny handful of woman. Nearly his own age, she looked barely thirty-five. Her cropped, sandy blonde hair and lithe figure added to that illusion.
"Why, Dave, compliments so early in the morning? How thoughtful."
Heller was drawn to the aroma of freshly brewed coffeeit was always waiting, no matter what time he arrived. He slid past her to the counter and poured himself a cup, eyeing the plastic wrapped plate of muffins.
"'Course, it's probably just to get on my good side," Molly murmured. Rising from her chair, she slipped the plastic wrap off of the homemade goodies. Picking up the plate, she waved it under his nose. "Blueberry... that's your favorite, isn't it?"
"I thought maybe I had you this time," Dave grinned.
"In your dreams, Dave. You forget how long I've known you. You're like an open book. You always come in early the day after a road trip."
"And you're always here ahead of me. How do you do it?"
"Trade secret, Sheriff," Molly grinned back, giving him a quick squeeze on the arm. "Only one muffin until you finish the paperwork I've got ready for you."
"Yes, Molly. Anything you say, Molly."
With an easy laugh, she left him to claim his prize and made her way to her own desk. Heller chuckled himself. He'd known Molly since they'd both been scrawny kids. They'd gone head to head growing up, competing in almost everythingbaseball, spelling contests, science fairs. He'd even competed for her, once he'd opened his eyes and seen what a lovely young woman his tow-headed companion of youth had become. His best friend had beaten him to the punch. Molly had married Tom Brown just a year out of high school and he'd been the best mana favor Tom had returned several years later when Dave had married Jean. The four of them had been inseparable. Until Tom had died seven years ago.
The smile on his face faltered. His best friend's death had been a blow. Tom had been his deputy, a man he trusted with his life and the safety of his town. Killed when his squad car crashed into a ravine, the loss had been a bitter one. It still rankled because the cause of death had never been completely explained. From the remains of the vehicle, they'd determined that Tom had been on a high speed pursuit when he lost control. But who or what he'd been chasingthat they'd never resolved.
Molly had dealt with her husband's absence with the perseverance and determination that made her so much like her Broadway musical namesake. She'd been working a few days a week at the station all along, handling the paperwork and dispatch duties for a meager hourly wage. After Tom's death, Dave had stretched the budget to bring her to work full timenot only for her own sanity, but also, selfishly, for his own. Her warmth and generous spirit had made walking in and seeing his friend's empty chair that much easier to take.
Not that the seat had remained empty for long. He'd brought on a new deputy a few months after Tom's death. Bob Holland had been no match for his friend, but he was from the area, knew the basics of law enforcement, and he did have an eye for detecting trouble. Privately, Dave thought that was because wherever Bob's son Ben turned up, problems soon followed.
"Only one, Dave!" Molly called out, shaking him out of his reverie. Snatching one of the blueberry muffinsstill warm from the ovenoff of the plate, he grabbed his coffee and walked to his office.
True to form, Molly had three stacks of paperwork waiting. Settling down to the onerous task, Heller chuckled again. Personality wasn't the only reason he liked having Molly around. She was damn good at her job.
Heller wondered if Molly was part psychic too, as she appeared almost magically at his desk just as he was finishing the last of the files. She winked at him, grinned knowinglythe gentle camaraderie of their friendship was as reassuring to her as it was to himand placed another muffin on his desk.
"Thanks," he said, sizing up the new confection appreciatively. "As usual, it looks like everything's well in hand. I take it it's been pretty quiet."
"It has, although you wouldn't know it from the pile of messages I've got for you," she answered, handing him a stack of pink slips.
"Damn, I'll be stuck on the phone all day," he grumbled, fanning the sheets of paper with a thumb. "Want to give me the highlights?"
"Brad Jenson's ranting about the kid's driving their ATVs across his property again. At least six of those are from him. Bottom of the stack. First one's from Bob. He left a message on the machine that he needed to run some personal errands this morning. Said he'd check in later."
Heller nodded, shifting the top sheet off the pile. "This looks like a number from out at the Integra reservation. Who's Nathaniel Spiritwalker?" he asked, staring at the second slip uncertainly.
"I don't know... I left the message on the machine. He asked specifically for you. Called in the middle of the night."
"Wonder if he's related to Joseph?" Dave murmured. "The old man's got a whole slew of kids and grandkids..."
The phone rang and Molly went back to her desk to answer it. Heller glanced at his watch and decided to hold off returning the call until a more reasonable hour. The surprise in Molly's voice made him look over to her curiously.
"Jake?... I don't think I've ever... yes... he's in... no... not this morning, he's... no... sure... I'll tell him..."
With a puzzled expression, Molly hung up the phone and walked back to Dave's office. "That was Jake Sanders. He's on his way over to see you."
"Can't be. That man never rises before the sun. What's he want?"
"He didn't say. Just asked if you and Bob were in."
"Well, we'll know when he gets here. Somebody probably tried to stiff him on a repair or something." He turned his attention back to the messages. "Anything else vitally important in this mess?"
"Third one's from Sherry Phillips," Molly answered with a frown. "Seems Connie didn't come home again last night."
Heller's eyes flickered to his deputy's empty desk, then back to Molly. They were both obviously thinking the same thingBob needed personal time, Connie's mother was looking for her and Ben was the common link between it all.
"Hope Ben didn't do something foolish again," Molly muttered with a shake of her head. "And Connie... you'd think that girl would have more sense" She broke off her comments as the outside door opened and Jake Sanders stepped inside. "Morning Jake," she greeted the new arrival pleasantly. "Want some coffee to wash the sleep dust out of your head?"
"Thanks, Molly, but I'll pass," Jake answered tersely, glancing past her to meet Heller's eyes.
"Go right ahead, then. Dave's expecting you." Connie ushered him into the Sheriff's office. Catching a small nod from Heller, she pulled the door shut and returned to her own desk.
Dave took a moment to study Jake carefully. The man was definitely uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot almost like an errant school boy.
"Have a seat, Jake," Heller offered, smiling in welcome. "What brings you here so early?"
Jake settled into a chair, his gaze meeting Heller's for a second, then dancing away. "We've got a problem, Dave."
"We have, or you have?" Heller asked curiously.
"We have. The town has."
"So tell me," Dave prodded.
"Yesterday morning I rented my car to a couple of guys from out of town."
"The Chevy?" Heller asked in surprise. Jake loved that car.
"They said they were headed out to the reservation. You know I wouldn't trust that old beater I use for a loaner for a trip like that."
Dave's gaze had strayed to the pink message slip at the side of his desk at the mention of the reservation, but it immediately slid back to meet Jake's encouragingly.
"They pay cash?"
"Nah, traveler's cheques."
"You worried that the cheques were stolen?"
"No... it's not that..." Jake broke off for a moment and cleared his throat nervously. He took a deep breath and met Dave's stare evenly. "I didn't have any concerns about renting them the car. The older guy was a cop, Dave. Detective. Gold shield and all. Claimed the younger man was his partner..."
"But you're not sure?"
"Pretty odd pairing on the surface," Jake answered, shaking his head. "But they seemed pretty tight."
"So what's the deal, then, Jake? You having regrets about loaning out your 'baby'?"
"I don't think they're still driving it."
Heller sat back in his chair, eyeing the other man speculatively. "What makes you think that?"
"I worked late last night. Finally finished that overhaul on Jim Peter's truck."
"Congratulations. I know he'll appreciate the fast turnaround."
"Yeah... anyway, I stopped at Sid's for a beer to celebrate. Tim Rudolph was there."
"His home away from home," Heller sighed. Rudolph was a regular in his 'cooling off' cell on practically a weekly basis.
"He'd had a few, like always," Jake continued. "Funny thing was, he came up to me, all pissed off. Said he didn't understand why I'd let Ben Holland drive my car when I wouldn't let him borrow it. I told him he'd better check his alcohol levelsthat I had rented the Chevy out, but not to Ben. But he insisted. Said he'd caught sight of it headed out of town only an hour earlier. Claimed Ben was behind the wheel. And that his buddies were in the back."
The hairs on the back of Heller's neck had begun to prickle as soon as Jake had mentioned Ben Holland's name. He reached for a notebook and pen.
"I need a description on the two men you rented the car to," he said, suddenly all business. He jotted down the descriptions that Jake offered, keeping his own thoughts and comments in reserve. "The detective... you catch his name?"
"Ellison... can't remember his first name, but he said he was from Washington. Cascade, Washington."
"And the younger man?"
Jake reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "Blair Sandburg. He's the one who paid for the car. Signature's on this." He handed Heller the traveler's cheque.
"Molly!" She was standing in the doorway seconds later. "See if you can find that National Police Association directory. I need you to check out a couple names and get me a number if you can." He scribbled on the bottom of a piece of notebook paper and tore it off, handing it to her.
"Right away, Dave."
Heller waited until the door had closed behind her again before turning his attention back to Jake. "You say these two were headed out to the reservation?"
"Yeah, something about the dig site there. The younger man... Sandburg. He seemed pretty excited about it."
"What time did they take off?" Dave fingered the message from Nathaniel Spiritwalker absently.
"Late morning. The car was completely gassed up and loaded with an emergency kit in the back. Look, Dave, I'm not sure about this Sandburg kid, but the older guy was ex-military. Looked like he could handle just about anything. Something serious must have happened"
"Don't go jumping to any conclusions here, Jake. All we've got is Rudolph's word that someone besides Ellison and Sandburg were driving your car. You've got to admit he's not the most reliable of witnesses. There's nothing that ties these two men to Ben Holland."
"Rumor has it Sandburg had a run in at the bus station with Zeke Weston about an hour before they came to see me," Jake said softly.
Heller snorted in disgust. "From the description you gave me, I could almost expect it. Zeke can be a real asshole. They were at the bus station? Must not have known about the bridge repairs. How'd they know to come looking for you?"
"Sandburg mentioned Connie Phillips when they introduced themselves. Said he'd met her at the park."
"Still doesn't tie Ben to them," Heller cautioned, eyeing another pink slip worriedly.
"You know what Ben's like around Connie. He acts like he owns her. If he caught her and Sandburg together... well the kid's just the type that Ben would take a shot at anyway, just for his version of fun. Open your eyes, Dave. Something's wrong here and you know it. Ben's been seen driving a car he had no business in and Bob's conveniently not here?"
"Jake, I know Ben's been in and out of trouble, but it's always been pretty petty stuff."
"You know something I don't?" Heller asked quietly.
"No... it's just a feeling. The kid's bad news, Dave. The only reason things haven't gotten out of hand up until now is Bob's intervention. You know that."
"I only know what I can prove, Jake. That's how the law works."
"Just hold on... all right?" Heller held up a hand and Jake subsided in his chair.
Picking up the phone, Dave punched in the number for the reservation. After only two rings a still sleepy voice answered. Identifying himself, he asked for Nathaniel Spiritwalker. A few moments later, a young man picked up the phone.
"This is Sheriff Heller, you called me last night. What can I do for you?" Dave listened to the caller for a minute. "Pardon me, Nate, is it? Can you hold on for a moment?" Heller put his hand over the mouthpiece and glanced at Jake. "Give me a few minutes here, will you?" He waited just long enough for Jake to exit the office, then returned to the call, his face growing grimmer by the second.
Heller's explosion drew both Jake and Molly back to his office. "Nathaniel Spiritwalker is Joseph's grandson," he explained, staring up at Jake. "Seems he was expecting a Blair Sandburg and his friendJim Ellisonlast night. Sandburg called yesterday, late morning, to let them know that they'd be arriving around nightfall. They never made it. Joseph's concerned enough that he's ready to send out a search party from their end. Apparently he knows the younger man pretty well. He's confident that Sandburg wouldn't have done anything stupid out there. Says he understands the desert." Dave shifted his attention to Molly. "Any luck tracking down that directory?"
"Right here," she murmured, flattening the booklet on the desk. "There's a James Ellison listed. Detective, Major Crime, Cascade PD, Central Precinct. No Sandburg listed among the rest of the officers, but his name does show up as a Civilian Observer. Ellison's also listed with a whole series of commendationsIncluding Officer of the Year."
"Guess that settles any questions about their identities," Jake said softly. "Nice to know I was a good judge of character."
"There's a Captain Simon Banks listed as head of Major Crime"
"Already placed the call, Dave," Molly interrupted him. "He's due in the office about 9:00. They're going to try to track him down before that."
Heller glanced at his watch. It was 7:15. He rose to his feet and slid open the desk drawer, pulling out his backup weapon. Giving it a quick 'once-over' he slid it across the desk to Jake, along with a deputy's badge.
"You're being drafted, Jake," he told the stunned man. "I need you to stay here and keep a lid on things. I told the Spiritwalkers that we'd keep them informed with any news that we had. Molly, I want you to try to reach Bob. Tell him I want him in my office. Now."
"You want him to bring Ben in as well?"
"Don't even mention the kid's name," Dave warned. "Just tell Bob I want to see him. If he tries to stall you, call me right away. Once he gets here, Jake, I want you to take his car and head out west on the highway. See if you can find anything. If Bob gives you any trouble, lock him in one of the cells. Just keep him here. I don't want him in the middle of this."
Heller slipped around the desk and stalked past them, stopping at the door to retrieve his hat. "I'm going to have a few words with Tim Rudolph and Sherry Phillips. If this Simon Banks calls before I get back, patch him through to the unit. If Ellison's as important a detective as he seems to be, I have a feeling I'm not going to enjoy that conversation one bit."
Jim's head snapped up and he blinked, groggily. Despite his resolve, he'd dozed off. He glanced down at his sleeping partner, gratified that he hadn't woken the younger man. Shaking his head cautiously to clear the last dregs of haziness from his mind, he took a quick look around. His first glimpse of the brightening sky was heartening. His vision was still fuzzy, and he was still a far cry from being back to Sentinel-normal, but any improvement was a relief.
The night trek had turned into a new version of the same nightmare. Walking had become stumbling. Jim's own growing exhaustion had worked against his ability to focus his concentration, and his vision had faded in and out. More worrisome to the Sentinel, however, his Guide's fever had continued to climb, draining him of the strength to keep going for more than a few minutes at a time. The rest breaks had become longer and longer, until finally they'd collapsed where they were now. With Blair's head pillowed on his leg, the Sentinel had sheltered his Guide, wrapping long arms around the shivering body. The day's heat would almost be a welcome relief from the chilling cold of the last four hours.
Carefully resting one hand on Blair's sunburned shoulder to ground himself, he began to dial up his other senses. When he had them 'balanced', he extended his hearing, letting it range outward across the awakening landscape. At any other time he would have appreciated the natural harmonies that washed across his consciousness: the furtive movements of a myriad of small animals scrabbling into their holes; the triumphant cry of an airborne hunter as it captured its prey and beat strong wings into the pale blue morning sky; the soft drip of dewprecious moisture formed by the drastic temperature shift from cold night to rapidly warming dayfalling to irrigate the arid ground in a kiss of benediction; the scrape of metal on metal...
With a quick shift he eased Blair aside and rose to his feet. Stretching his hearing to the limit, he sought to pinpoint the obviously man-made sounds.
"Jim...?" Blair murmured blearily, struggling to raise himself into a sitting position. The rude awakening had left him feeling dazed and the shift from horizontal to vertical immediately aggravated his pounding head.
When the Sentinel didn't answer, Blair scrubbed at his eyes, trying to force the fuzziness away. His first thought was that Jim was caught in a zone-out, but studying the older man closely, he realized that his partner had more than one sense active. Jim's head was cocked slightly to the side and his nostrils were flaring as he piggybacked his sense of smell to his hearing.
"Take it easy..." Blair warned softly. There was a barely perceptible nod from the Sentinel and his Guide fell silent, waiting and watching anxiously. Finally, after several minutes, a slow smile crept across the older man's face. "Jim... what is it?"
"Breakfast?" Blair stared at Jim in disbelief, certain he hadn't heard correctly.
"Bacon and eggs... and coffee," the Sentinel answered, still scanning the horizon.
The mention of food made Blair's tight, queasy stomach do a slow roll. "Oh, man. That is not a good joke right now. You may have gotten lunch before all this started, but my last real meal goes back a few days before that. Not that I'm really interested in eating right now, but still..."
The roughness in his Guide's voice made the Sentinel turn. Looking down at Blair, Jim could see the younger man's flushed face and caught the slightly feverish glaze in the intense blue eyes.
"I'm not joking," Jim said quietly, crouching down next to his friend and helping him shift into a slightly more comfortable position. He could feel the shiver of chills running through the younger man's body.
"You gotta be. There's no way we're close enough to Harold's place. We couldn't have made more than fifteen miles last night," Blair protested through chattering teeth. He hugged himself tightly, both to ease stiff and aching muscles as well as to hold in as much body heat as he could.
Jim gently rubbed Blair's arms. "You'll be warm again, soon."
"Yeah... that's what I'm worried about," Blair whispered. "Save an iced version of that coffee for later, okay?"
"Blair, I'm not kidding about this," Jim responded firmly. "I heard the rattle of metal pans and I can smell the food. Gas, too. Someone's cooking breakfast over a portable stove. And it's close."
Blair turned his head and gazed out across the broken terrain, staring in the direction that the Sentinel had been focused earlier. There was a flicker of hope in his eyes for a moment, but then his face contorted in a grimace of despair.
"There's nothing out there, Jim. It's a hallucination. It's this damn desert, man... it plays tricks on your mind."
Blair shuddered almost violently and shook his head. "It's not real. Nothing's real out here but sand and wind and death."
Jim tightened his grip on the younger man's arms and gave him a gentle shake. "Listen to me, Chief. It's real. I can't tell if they're camping or if there's some kind of permanent shelter, but there's someone not too far away. All we need to do is find them."
"Jim, I'm telling you there's nothing there!" Blair argued hoarsely.
"Sandburg, who's the Sentinel here? You or me?"
Blair opened his mouth to respond and then shook his head. His animated expression shifted from anger to fear.
"It doesn't matter," he whispered. "We can't go out there."
"Blair, it's not far"
"We can't leave the road."
Jim was stunned by the flat, lifeless tone in his Guide's voice. Still holding Blair with one hand, he cupped the younger man's chin and lifted his head. The feverishly dull eyes that stared back at him were wide and filled with an old terror.
"Why not?" he asked softly.
"If you leave the road, you die."
Startled by the conviction in those simple words, Jim's vision blurred. He took a deep breath, fighting to hold on to the connection he'd been nurturing, while his mind searched for some way to understand what had upset his Guide so badly. A fragment of something Blair had said during the night teased at him.
"Blair, what else happened on your first trip out here?" Jim asked abruptly.
The younger man shifted in his hold and turned his face to the desert again.
"Everything... I was feeling pretty cocky by the time I got to the reservation," Blair whispered after a moment's silence. "Nate and I... we were laughing about my little adventure on the road... All the sudden Nate just stopped. He was staring over my shoulder... When I turned around I saw one of the tribal elders watching us... me... it was Nate's grandfather... the look he gave me... his face was blank... unreadable... but his eyes... I felt like I'd been dissected... that he knew everything about me... there was this sense... of disappointment there... like I'd been tested and found wanting... I figured I was going to get another lecture, like Harold had given me... but Grandfather just stared until I thought I was going to break apart... his words were soft when he finally spoke... he said , 'Respect is the line between life and death. You are destined to walk the edge. No one is invulnerable. You must learn this if you are to maintain your balance and survive.' Part of me thought it was a joke... and the rest of me was scared shitless..."
Blair's voice trailed off and his eyes took on an even more haunted look. Jim felt the tremors running through the slight frame and almost flinched back from the heat pouring off the younger man's body. Sandburg's fever was spiking again. It would be easy to write off his ramblings as delirium, but the Sentinel instinctively knew that it wasn't. What had happened when he was sixteen that had so terrified his Guide that he still carried it with him, clutched tightly to his soul? And what was the comment about Blair's destiny all aboutjust who was Nate's grandfather?
"A couple day's later, the Sheriff came out to the reservation looking for trackers," Blair suddenly continued. "There was a search on for two missing teenagers... their car had been found on the highway. They'd run out of gas, just like I had. Nate and I went out with his grandfather. After about four hours we found the first body. He was... he was about my age... my build... even had longer hair like me. He was laying on his back, just staring up into the sun. His eyes... he didn't really have them. It was like the sun had burned them away... and his mouth was stuffed with sand... he'd been trying to drink it..."
Jim's hold tightened as a shudder consumed Blair, but his words continued to pour forth in short, choking gasps.
"We found the second one only a mile from the first. What was left... what the animals and the desert hadn't... eaten. We found his tracks. He'd been walking in circles... endless circles... going nowhere..."
"Grandfather wouldn't touch the corpses. He left them for the Sheriff... but he looked at me at each death scene and asked me if I'd learned yet..."
My God, he saw his first dead bodies when he was just sixteen, Jim realized. And the victims had been almost his age. It's amazing he didn't flip out then and even more incredible that he doesn't run for the hills every time he has to accompany me to a crime scene now. You, my friend are much braver than you give yourself credit for. Just be strong a little while longer...
"And I had learned. They'd crossed the line. They believed that nothing could touch them... and they paid for it with their lives... just as I could have. The desert is unforgiving... beautiful and deadly at the same time... life and death always in the balance... and one wrong step..."
Blair turned his gaze back to Jim, blinking once as if to shift from the past to the present. "We can't leave the road, Jim. That's the line out here. If we leave the road we'll die, just like those teenagers did."
"Blair, there's someone out there, someone that can help us. The deaths of those two kids were tragic, but that's not going to happen to us."
"Hear me out, Chief," Jim ordered firmly. "We'll be together"
"So were they... in the beginning..."
"We'll stay together. Remember what the guys at the station are always saying? That we're joined at the hip? Besides, until both of us are back to full strength, you're still my eyes and I'm still your ears."
Jim was grateful for the slight nod of agreement that came from his Guide, and pressed the issue further.
"I know what I heard, Chief. I know what I smelled. You trust me, right?"
"You know I do, man. It's just"
"If we had any other choice, I wouldn't push you on this, Blair, believe me. But neither one of us is in very good shape. Every time your temperature spikes it's higher. And I know you've got one hell of a headache. It probably matches mine. The old man's place that you talked about is at least another seventy miles awayand we don't know what we'll find when we get there." 'If' we get there. "This is our best shot. We've got to take it."
Blair's anxious gaze flickered between the desert and Jim's face. Finally, he responded with a quick nod of his head, doubt still evident in his eyes.
Struggling up a slight rise, Blair's fever-enhanced terrorwhich had been increasing with each wobbly stride since they'd left the paved roadway fifteen minutes earliersurged to a level beyond his control. With a choked sob, he jerked out of Jim's hold.
"Gotta go back... can't leave the road..." he gasped. Frantically seeking the black ribbon of safety, he whirled and began staggering back down the slope.
Blair's sudden movement caught the Sentinel off guard. He'd had his sense of hearing tuned to the limit, seeking to identify a new, low-level grinding sound that was coming from the direction that they were headed. Jim reached for his Guide, but his fingers closed on empty space.
Jim struggled to bring the blurry figure of his partner into focus. He took a step, losing both his balance and his hold on his vision as his feet slipped in the shifting sand. His own pulse pounded in his ears, blocking out everything else. For what seemed like eternity, he stood in absolute darkness. Shaking his head angrily, he fought to restore the fragile connection once more. Abruptly, his sight returnedin a raging flood of sensory input. Blinded now by the light, the Sentinel swayed, savagely wrenching at his mental dials.
"Gotta go back... can't leave the road..." His Guide's terrified chant filled the Sentinel's ears. It was the catalyst he needed to bring his senses under control.
Jim broke into a run, desperately trying to close the distance that had grown between them. He saw Blair stumble and fall to the ground, the anthropologist's momentum carrying him in a rolling jumble of flailing arms and legs the rest of the way down the incline.
Before Jim could reach him, the younger man was on his feet again. Weaving drunkenly, Blair was, amazingly, still targeted on his goal of reaching the highway. Lengthening his stride, the Sentinel reached out and grabbed at his friend, his fingers closing on the tattered shirt. His Guide lurched sideways, directly into his path.
They both went to the ground hard, Jim rolling away at the last minute. Gasping for breath, the Sentinel was on his knees immediately, crawling to his Guide's side. Blair was clawing frantically at his sand covered face, his eyes wide with panic. Jim grabbed both wrists and pinned the younger man's arms to the ground to keep him from hurting himself.
"Easy. Easy, Chief," he murmured, his voice cracking on the soothing words.
"Can't... swallow... sand... can't..." Blair writhed in Jim's grasp, but the older man held him firmly pinned.
"Breathe... come on, buddy... take a deep"
The deafening roar of a ragged engine cut the air. Reeling under the auditory assault, Jim doubled over, swamped once again in darkness. The Sentinel fought the urge to cover his ears and hurl his own scream of anguish against the wall of sound. Blair had gone limp in his grasp, but Jim instinctively held onto the younger man, fearful of what might happen if he let go.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Jim raised his head, staring blindly toward the source of the angry shout, his dazed mind trying to process the chaotic input his senses were feeding him.
Rough engine... the scrape of rubber on sand and rock... motorcycle...
"Help us..." Jim's whisper was so soft that even he could hardly hear it. He winced again as the engine roared and seemed to come closer.
"I don't know who you are, mister, but you'd better let go of him now," the new voice demanded.
Jim pushed for the visual connection again. He was rewarded with a faint glow of light and the vague image of a young black man astride a small trail bike.
"Detective... Ellison..." Jim managed to choke out the words, hoping that they made sense.
There was a moment of silence, and then the man erupted in rage. "A pig? A God damn pig? Take your hands off of him!"
"You don't" Jim's protest was cut off abruptly as the man drew a battered handgun from a pouch on the side of the bike and pointed it at the detective's chest.
"I said let him go, asshole, or so help me, I'll kill you."
Convinced that the threat was genuine, Jim released his hold on Blair. Struggling to his feet, he raised his hands slowly in a surrendering gesture. "Don't ... my friend and I..."
"Pigs don't have friends," the man snarled. "Not friends like that!" He gestured toward Blair's motionless form.
Jim shook his head, confused by the man's words. "He is... my friend... we were attacked... on the road..."
"Attacked? Yeah, right. More likely he's your prisoner. What'd he do? Try to escape? Or maybe you just decided to save the taxpayers the cost of a trial?"
"What?" Ignoring the risk to his own safety, Jim stepped over Blair to place himself between his fallen Guide and the malevolent man on the bike.
"I saw you chasing him, pig. I saw him tryin' to get away from you."
"It's not what you think"
"You pigs are all alike, aren't you? You do whatever you want, abuse the power you've got and then you try to hide the evidence and pass the blame. I've seen it all before!"
"You're wrong about this," Jim retorted, his jaw clenching with his own anger. "I don't know why you hate cops"
"I've got my reasons, pig. A lifetime supply of them! Now move away from him or I'll shoot you right where you're standing."
Jim tensed, readying himself for a desperate grab at the gun. A soft moan and a whisper of movement from his partner had him crouching at the younger man's side instead.
"Easy, Chief." Deftly, Jim ran sensitive fingertips across Blair's forehead, reading the fluctuating vital signs. Eyes that were dull with pain and fever stared up at him with no trace of recognition. Gently brushing the damp, matted strands of curling hair off the younger man's sunburned face, the Sentinel stared down at his Guide and made one of the most difficult decisions of his life.
"Look, you don't want to help me, that's your choice," Jim said quietly, raising his eyes to plead with the man who could mean the difference between life or death to his partner. "But at least help him. He's not a cop. He's never done anything to hurt you... or anyone else. You take him. Get him to a doctor. I won't interfere."
"I'm supposed to believe that?"
"I give you my word," Jim answered the skepticism solemnly. "That may not mean much to you, but it does to me."
The black man's eyes narrowed as he weighed Jim's promise. "Help him to his feet," he finally ordered.
"Hey, Chief, you still with me? It's time to move," Jim murmured softly, focusing his attention on his Guide. "Help's here. Just gotta take a little ride, okay?"
Jim raised the still dazed anthropologist to his feet. Gathering the trembling body into a firm embrace, he hugged Blair to his chest and locked gazes with the other man.
"If anything happens to him... if I find out you didn't help him... I promise you, I'll hunt you down, even if it means coming back from the grave," the Sentinel threatened, his eyes glinting with a feral, ancient fire.
There was a flicker of somethingdoubt, fear, surprisein the dark brown eyes, and then, with a shake of the head, it was gone, replaced by the all too familiar burning hatred. "Back away from him," the young man ordered, gesturing with the gun to emphasize his command.
"It's going to be all right, Blair," Jim whispered, resting his cheek against the top of his friend's head. "You go with him. I'll follow as soon as I can. I promise."
The Sentinel gave his Guide one more gentle hug, then released him. He moved backward two steps, then three more. Blair wavered on unsteady legs and sought Jim's gaze. He blinked owlishly, and started to take a step forward, as if instinctively drawn to the older man's side.
The black man's hand on his arm stopped him. Blair gave the stranger a bewildered glance and then turned to stare at Jim once more.
"Go with him, Blair," Jim said quietly.
The almost childlike confusion and uncertainty in his Guide's expression tested the Sentinel's control. Entrusting his young friend to this belligerent, possibly irrational stranger went against every instinct that he possessed. Yet it was the only choice he could make. Jim would have made a deal with the devil himself at that moment, if it meant that Blair would have a chance to survive.
If only his stubborn Guide would cooperate. Even in his muddled mental state, Blair was fighting the separation. His brow furrowed, a deep frown filled his face, and he shook his head slowly.
"That's an order, Sandburg," Jim growled and made a quick, 'shooing' gesture.
He forced himself to remain motionless as the man pulled his reluctant Guide to the dirt bike. Settling Blair in front of him, the stranger wrapped one arm around the anthropologist's stomach and kicked the motorcycle to life. Only then did the man lower the gun, tucking it into the saddlebag with a quick, fluid motion.
The stranger wheeled the bike expertly and shot forward, aiming toward the top of the rise. The Sentinel hissed in anger when he saw his Guide's head snap backward at the unexpected movement. Before Jim could take a step, the cycle had disappeared over the crest.
Jolted into action, Jim scrambled up the slope. By the time he made it to the top, there was no sign of the cycle or its riders. The Sentinel reached out with his hearing, but the ragged sounds of the bike's engine were already fading. He dropped to his knees, shaking in fatigue and the world plunged into darkness once more. This time he didn't fight itthe emptiness matched his despair.
He lost track of how long he'd knelt there. A part of his mind craved the peace of that blackness, whispering that the way was easyall he had to do was focus on one of his senses and release himself into a zone-out.
But his soul and his honor denied it. He'd promised Blair he would follow. He'd never lied to his Guide before, and he refused to start now.
Somehow he made it to his feet. Reaching deep inside himself, he found the connection to his sight once more. Gazing over the ravaged landscape, he felt the heat of the sun pounding on his sunburned shoulders and neck. Only one option remained open. If he tried to follow Blair, he would almost certainly end up dead. His vision was still unreliable, and without his Guide at his side, trying to push the limits on his senses was more than just riskyit could be fatal.
Outside of the limitations of his own physical condition, he knew that even with the proper equipment and supplies, locating his Guide would be no easy task. While the range on the trail bike's tank was only about fifty miles, that still left an incredible amount of ground to cover. Tracking the motorcycle on foot through the sandy terrain would be nearly impossible and the faint scents he'd been following earlier had already begun to fade.
In order to keep his promise, he would need help. He needed to stay alive himself to find it. Resolutely, the Sentinel turned and started down the slope. Blurring vision fixed on the black, endless line in the distance, Jim began the trek back to the highway, praying that the man who had taken Blair was more stable than he'd appeared.
"Do you have any idea what you've done, Ben?"
Bob Holland turned away from the charred remains of the convertible and stared at his son.
"Come on, Dad. I told you. It's not my fault. It was that freak. He was hitting on Connie at the park. You've always told me that we've gotta protect what's ours from the crap that's out there. That's all I was doing. When I saw 'em on the road... well, we were just gonna have some fun. Guess it just got a little out of control."
"Fun?" Holland hissed angrily. "You ambushed two people, threatened them with a gun and stole their car. The charges on that alone would be enough to put you in prison for years. But to top it off, you tried to kill them. And one of them's a cop. Don't you realize how serious this is? We're talking attempted murder, son."
"I didn't know he was a cop until we went through their stuff," Ben retorted.
"Ben, it doesn't matter" The shrill warble of the squad's radio cut off Holland's tirade.
"Unit F-2 respond, please. Bob, this is Molly. Dave wants you to come into the office. He says it's urgent. Please respond..."
Holland shot an angry glare at the radio and stalked away from the vehicle, pacing worriedly alongside his son's ruined car. This was the third time in the last hour that Molly had tried to reach him and her persistence was sending off warning bells in his head. The request sounded innocent enough, but the deputy was certain that it was connected to the mess his son had created.
"Did anyone else see you driving Jake's car?" he asked abruptly. "Anyone else know what went on here besides your two brainless buddies and Connie?"
"No way, Dad. I was careful. You're just overreacting. You'd think you've got a guilty conscience or something."
Holland flinched at that comment. "And if I do have, who's to blame, Ben? Huh? I've pulled your ass out of the fire far too many times in the last few years. What's wrong with you? What's happened to your conscience?"
"Just calm down, Dad. It'll all be cool. You called in this morning, right? Told them you had personal business to take care of, so you're covered. You just need to come up with an excuse that has you out of the car for a while. Heller's the only one you've got to fool and he's a chump anyway. You should have his job. You're smarter than he is and you're a hell of a better cop."
"I was a better cop, when your mother was alive," Holland whispered.
"Hey, that's it!" Ben said excitedly. "You could always say that you were at the cemetery visiting mom's grave. They'd buy that. "
Holland turned and looked at his son in horror. "You'd use your mother's memory... as an excuse for this?"
"Dad., come on. I need your help here. You said you'd always be there for me. You promised me that when she died." Ben eyed his father carefully, pitching his voice softer as he piled on the guilt. "I know this is a bigger mess than usual, Dad. But I know you'll take care of it. Just like you always do."
"Maybe I've taken care of things once too often," Holland murmured.
"So what, you gonna turn me in? Your own son?" Ben caught the uncertainty in his father's voice and pushed the guilt trip harder. "You said it yourself, Dad. If anyone finds out about this, I'll go to prison. You don't really want that, do you?"
Holland turned away from his son. The thought of losing his only remaining connection to his late wife and the joy that he'd had with her was too much to bear. He had to protect himthe cop and his friend were strangers after all. No matter what Ben had done, he was blood.
"All we can do now is try to keep a lid on things. Damage control," Holland said tersely. "We'll have to eliminate the witnesses and destroy the evidence. The cop and the other one... you said they were hurt. How badly?"
Ben hid a sneering smile and tried to keep his voice from revealing his satisfaction over manipulating his father once more. "Jens banged the cop over the head with the tire iron. He dropped like a stone. Had to be dragged from the car before it blewwasn't movin' on his own. The hippie wasn't doing much better. He took a bullet in the leg." At his father's questioning stare, Ben hurried on with an explanation. "Hey, I had to shoot him, Dad. The crazy freak came after me. I didn't have any choice. I was protecting myself."
Holland shook his head at the glib excuses. "Well, there's no sign of them. Injured or not, looks like they tried to walk out of here. We didn't see any sign of them on the road from town, so they probably headed west. Where are Jens and Harvey? They still have Jake's car?"
"Yeah, they've got it. I told them to wait for us at Harold's old shack. Figured no one would bother to look there. Since the old bastard died last year, the place has pretty much gone to hell. Not much more than a few boards bein' held together by some rusty nails."
"We'll have to get rid of the car. This wreck too," Holland said, gesturing at the convertible.
"It was a piece of shit anyway," Ben shrugged. "But man, I'd like to hold onto the Chevy. That's one nice ride."
"Ben, are you crazy?" Holland swung around and glared at his son. "Jake can testify that he rented the car to those two. You turn up in it, and they'll have a direct link to you and the missing cop. It's evidence. It's got to go."
"Okay... okay, Dad. The car goes," Ben agreed reluctantly.
Holland took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his face. Just the heat, he told himself, silencing his screaming conscience. "Maybe we'll get lucky. If those two left the road, the desert will take care of them for us. We'll still have to find them, just to be sure."
"They looked stupid enough to try a cross country trek," Ben agreed quickly. "We could leave the Chevy on the side of the road. Siphon out the gas, put a small hole in the tank, and everyone'll think that they had car problems. That'll put the heat on Jake, won't it?"
The deputy felt a shiver run down his spine. He glanced at his son, suddenly thinking of the similarity of the 'problem' that his son was proposing and the other missing person cases over the past few years.
"What about Connie," he asked brusquely, pushing away the sickening thoughts.
"She's with the boys. Don't worry about her, Dad. I'll talk to her. I'm sure I can persuade her to keep her mouth shut."
Unconvinced, Holland nodded anyway. Eliminating two strangers was one thing. Killing a local girl he'd known for years was something else again. But if it came down to it...
With a jerk of his head, he gestured for his son to climb back into the squad car. Sliding behind the wheel, he began to put together his own plans. Finding the cop and his friend was his first priority. He'd drive out toward the shack and see if he could find them on the road. He could check on his son's accomplices that way, too. If they weren't any more concerned about this than his son was, well, the desert might just have two more bodies to hide. He just had to remind himself he was doing this for love.
Jim allowed himself a small sigh of relief when he finally reached the blacktopped road. Gathering several handfuls of rock, he built a small pile at the edge of the highway. It would serve as his marker when he returned.
First leg's done, buddy. Next stop, your friend Harold's place.
He stared east for a moment, searching the empty road. With a shake of his head, he turned and headed west, toward their original destination.
On the move again, Chief. Just hang in there. I'll walk all the way to the reservation if I have to, but I'll find help and then I'll come after you. Just like I promised.
In his heart, Jim knew it was a long shotfar too many miles, extreme conditions, no wateronly the handful of Argula pods in his pocket and no food. He had to make contact with someone today or it would be over.
Exhausted, he still moved easily across the paved surface. To his surprise, his control over his sight was holding.
Something to be grateful for, right, Chief?
The running commentary in his headdirected toward Blairwas the only thing that kept him from turning around. Even though he knew he'd made the only decision he possibly could, he had to fight the urge to go back and seek out his Guide every step of the way.
God, Chief, I hope I made the right choice. Once you realize what happened, you're going to be pissed. I know you. I know you didn't want to leave my side. Whoever that guy is, he wouldn't have been my first choice, believe me buddy, but your 'Blessed Protector' was out of options and you needed help. Just remember what I said. Hang on until I get there.
He walked on. Soon, even the attempt to keep up the one-sided conversation with his Guide was beyond him. The sun rose higher, filling the air with searing heat. Every inhalation was like breathing fire. He sucked the last drops of moisture from the final pod and cast it aside absently, his eyes fixed on the wavering horizon.
Instinct told him he had to conserve whatever energy he could. Without even realizing it, the Sentinel dialed his senses back to only what he absolutely needed. The focus of his world shrunk until it reached a point where all he was aware of was the connection to his sight and the burning determination that kept his feet moving. Everything else fell away. His stride lengthened out a bit, shifting into a ground-eating pace that he hoped would carry him to help before it was too late for either of them.
Dave Heller stalked into the station, his stormy face reflecting the barely controlled anger that was seething just under the surface.
"No word from Bob?"
Molly answered the snarled question with a worried shake of her head.
"Try him again. And keep trying."
Dave headed to his office and slammed his hat on his desk in frustration. From behind the desk, Jake peered up at the Sheriff, surprised at the normally even-tempered man's loss of control. "You want to sit down?"
"Tim's sure it was your car. And he's positive it was Ben driving it," Heller snapped, thrusting a chair aside to clear the small space for pacing. "And no, I don't want to sit down. I just spent the last fifteen minutes getting my ass chewed by a very angry police captain. Banks was not at all pleased to hear from us. Seems not only is Ellison his best man, but they're good friends. And the riot act he read me over this Sandburg kid... shit!"
"We got a call a few minutes ago from Joseph Spiritwalker," Jake offered quietly. "They've sent out a search party from their end."
"At least we'll have some qualified eyes looking," Dave grumbled. "Damn, where is Bob? So help me, if he's helping his son cover up something again, I'll"
"You'll do what you have to do." Heller turned to see Molly standing in the doorway. "And you'll do it by the book, just like always," she said softly. "You want me to start gathering in some help from this end?"
Seeing the calm confidence in her eyes, Dave took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Yeah, Molly. Go ahead. I'll lay out a search plan with Jake. Have everyone here as soon as possible. And call Evansville. See if you can get Doc Myers out here. I have a nasty feeling we're going to need him."
"Hey, Dad. Look up ahead," Ben's voice was filled with eager surprise. "That's him. The cop."
"About time," Holland grumbled, staring at the figure that was coming toward them. "We've already been up and down this stretch twice. They must have left the road for a while. Damn, he's alone. Where's his partner?"
"Maybe he's already dead."
Holland shuddered at the satisfaction underlining his son's words. He pulled the car to a stop. "Dead or alive we've got to find him. We can't afford to leave any evidence for the authorities. That means getting this guy to talk. Stay here."
"You wanted me to deal with this, so shut up and stay put. He sees you and we're gonna have more trouble than we do already."
Holland heard his son mumble something under his breath, but he ignored it. He checked his gun and slid it into the holster. Grabbing a water bottle from the cooler in the rear he climbed out of the car and started walking toward the staggering detective.
"Hey, Mister,... you all right?" Holland grabbed Jim's arm as the Sentinel lurched to a stop.
Jim blinked at the man who had materialized in front of him, wavering slightly in the firm grasp. Taking in the details of the man's clothing, he suddenly realized that the help he was looking for had miraculously found him.
"My partner..." Jim's words came out as a choked gasp, barely working their way around his thick tongue and dry, cracked lips.
"Hold on a minute," Holland snapped the top off the water bottle and wrapped Jim's hands around it. "This will help. Just take it a few sips at a time to start."
The sensation and taste of the water on his lips and inside of his mouth almost sent the Sentinel into overload. He was tempted to gulp the life-giving moisture down in one swallow, but his medic training kicked in. With a nod of understanding, he managed to follow the deputy's directions. After several small sips he lowered the bottle and met the older man's curious gaze with a thankful one of his own.
"Bob Holland," the deputy responded, answering Jim's unvoiced question. "You've obviously had some trouble. Can you tell me your name?"
"Jim Ellison... my friend... my partner and I... we were attacked on the highway yesterday... some kids, probably local. They took our car. We've been trying to find some help since then."
"You mentioned a partner. Where is he?"
"He was with me until a few hours ago..." Jim whispered, closing his eyes for a moment against the remembered pain and helplessness of that separation.
"What happened? Is he still alive?" Holland pressed.
"Someone... took him... black man... late 20's... had a dirt bike..."
"Sounds like Bowden," Holland said quietly, his gaze flickering out across the landscape worriedly.
"You know him?" Jim asked eagerly.
"One of the local crazies," Holland explained. "Lives about thirty miles south of here in an old ramshackle trailer. You say he took your friend with him?"
Jim cringed at the word 'crazies' and took another sip from the bottle. The water was quickly soothing his dry throat, making it easier to speak. "Yeah... this guy... Bowden... he said he'd help him. Blair's hurt. He was shot when we were attacked. He's been running a fever since last night. We need to go after them. He needs a doctor."
"Looks like you could use one yourself," Holland murmured in sympathy. "Let's get you back to the car and I'll call it in."
Jim didn't protest the steadying hand on his back as Holland guided him to the driver's side of the waiting vehicle. He took another long drink and felt the immediate effects of the water on his moisture starved tissues. The pounding in his head began to ease and he drew in a deep breath, feeling some of the tightness leave his chest and muscles. As he regained control over his senses, he suddenly became aware of a third heartbeat.
The front passenger door opened and a vaguely familiar figure stepped out of the car. In the few seconds it took the surprised Sentinel to recognize the younger man, he found himself flattened against the side of the vehicle. Filled with a rush of anger, Jim pushed himself away from the squad only to be shoved forward again.
"Stay put, Detective." Holland's warning coincided with the distinctive click of a cocking gun.
Mind screaming 'betrayal', Jim started to turn to face the older man. The cold, blunt barrel of a gun was jammed against the Sentinel's spine, freezing him place.
"I said don't move!" Holland ordered, efficiently patting the detective down to make sure he wasn't armed.
"Hey, cop. Surprised to see me again? I bet you are," Ben sneered.
Spread-eagled against the car, Jim ground his teeth in frustration, mentally kicking himself for his stupidity. Good job, Ellison. Way to use those super senses of yours. If you'd looked past the uniform, maybe you would have seen the danger lurking in his eyes. But no, you saw 'cop' and you let down your guard. Not only did you put yourself in a deadly situation, but you managed to place your partner in further jeopardy.
"Ben, be quiet," Holland ordered.
"Where's that freak buddy of yours, eh?" Ben continued, in the same baiting tone. "He bleed to death already?"
Sensing the detective's building rage, Holland shoved the gun against Jim's back so hard that it made the Sentinel gasp. "Don't even try it, Ellison, or I'll drop you right here."
"That's not going to convince him, Dad. He's a tough guy... aren't you cop?"
Jim glared across the roof of the car at Ben. "You're a dead man," he snarled, his eyes snapping sparks of blue fire.
The almost physical force of the Sentinel's stare caused the younger man to step back a pace, fear flickering in his eyes. But that retreat lasted only a moment. Fear was replaced by hatred and a burning arrogance.
"Bring it on, cop," he taunted.
"That's enough, Ben! He said the other one's still alive. Bowden's got him."
"He doesn't scare me, Dad. I took him out before and I could take him again. So the little hippie's still alive, huh? Good. We've got some unfinished business."
At the blatant threat to his Guide, blind fury swept through the Sentinel. Forgetting the man behind him, Jim lunged to the right, intent on wiping the sneer off Ben's grinning face. Holland's fist rammed into his kidney, dropping him to his knees. The blow that landed on the back of his head pushed the Sentinel the final step into a yawning pit of blackness.
There were stars.
Shining, winking; dancing erratically every time he drew a breath.
There were stars when the soothing voice murmured soft words of comfort.
The sky was alive; Hunters, unicorns, the serpentine windings of a dragon, all moving in time to some elemental rhythm.
There were stars when a cool cloth dripped moisture against his fever-parched skin and chapped lips.
The shapes shifted, forming into a huge black panther who leaped, morphing into an ancient Indian Shaman; and Blair nearly laughed aloud in delight.
White specs against a background of blue-black shimmered and danced in his blurred vision. Tracing the pattern of their design his eyes followed the trail of one of the sparkling lights as it shot off to the left, merging finally with the cord of a broken mini-blind.
The incongruity made him blink. He stared at the star-field again, his foggy brain searching for an answer to the puzzle before him. The word ceiling slipped into his thoughts and he held onto it, turning the concept over in his mind.
He'd had a lot of experience staring at ceilings. Especially in waking up to them filling his first conscious thoughts. He was intimately familiar with the colors and textures of the ceilings in the exam rooms at the hospital; the smooth dome of the inside of an ambulance; the jointed seams of the wooden panels in his office; the sculpted surface above his bed. He could even tell the difference between a pre-fab metal storage shed and a full-fledged warehouse, just by looking at the main support beams. But nothing in his memory provided a clue to this one.
There were stars, but they weren't real.
Looking beyond the paint splatters he could see the pattern of interlocked ceiling tiles, stained from years of smoke and grease. His eyes tracked back to the broken blinds and registered the sunlight streaming in from outside. That meant he was insidea concept that matched nicely to what his sight was telling him as he let his gaze wander around the small room. Being inside fit with the fact that he was laying on his back on a small cot as well.
But it felt wrong.
Frowning, he let his eyes roam over the furnishings in the room, looking for other clues. Nothing struck a chord of recognition. The accommodations were spartan; a small table and two chairsone held together with a fair quantity of duct tapea well worn sofa with stuffing bursting through nearly every seam, and the cot that he reclined upon. Along one wall he could see what appeared to be a small kitchen. There was an apartment-sized refrigerator, a compact stove and sink, and a tarnished coffee pot possessively occupying the tiny counter. Sharing the opposite wall with the window, was a metal framed screen door.
The word trailer joined the rest of the disconnected concepts in a mad dash around his mind. Irritated, he shook his head. The rush of nausea that flooded through him at that small movement made him groan and he shut his eyes as the small room spun wildly.
Pressing himself back into the bedding, he tried to wait out the overwhelming sensations. He thought about taking a deep breath, but he had a vague idea that it would be a bad choice. Instead, he concentrated on breathing shallowly, inhaling and exhaling through his nose.
A persistent, low-level buzzing in his ears clamored for attention. He tried to raise his hands to his head and was surprised at how much effort it took. A shiver rippled through his body, giving him new insights to how much everything hurt, especially his left leg. Keeping his eyes screwed shut, he concentrated on breathing again in an attempt to control the pain, and missed the faint sound of the screen door opening and softly latching shut.
"Hey, buddy, glad to see you're finally awake. I was pretty worried about you for a while."
Blair almost smiled at the familiar words. He felt the cot shift as something heavy settled next to him.
"You were really out of it, man, but I think the fever's pretty much under control now."
Suddenly the words seemed like the stars. Not quite right.
His voice sounded strained and distorted to his own ears. With a soft moan, he opened his eyes and tried to raise his head, searching for his partner.
"Take it easy, buddy. You're safe here."
The soothing phrase and the reassurance of the gentle hands on his shoulders gave him a giddy sense of deja vu, but the dark face that hovered over him was that of a stranger. Not Jim. Not his Sentinel. Where was he?
Blue eyes widened as the events of the last 24 hours came back in painful clarity. All but the most recent onesthose were dim and confusing. And, because of that, terrifying.
Jim... I was with Jim... we left the road... hunting something... shouldn't have left the road... go back... go... away?
His breath caught. He could vaguely remember Jim holding him upright, whispering something to him. A promise. Then the Sentinel... stepping away, telling him to go with
"You... you were on the bike... you found us..." he stammered, staring up into the alien face.
"Yeah. Lucky for you I did."
"Jim... he was with me. What happened to him? Where is he?" Panic gave Blair the strength to push against the hands that were holding him down.
"Just take it easy," the man urged, easily keeping Blair pinned to the cot. "I told you, you're safe here. That pig's not going to bother you again."
"What are you talking about?" Blair demanded.
"Don't worry, man. I left him out on the desert. He'll have enough trouble fending for himself, much less coming after you."
The man released his hold, patted him on the shoulder and crossed to the sink.
The image of his Sentinel, still half-blind, left alone in the desert suddenly merged with his memories of the corpses that he'd seen so long ago. It was Jim's eyeless face staring up at him from the sand. It was his partner's body...
The choked gasp went unheard by the stranger who was busy filling a small basin with water.
"Your name is Blair, right?"
Numb, Blair nodded.
"I'm Bowden," he introduced himself. Moving back to the cot, he placed the bowl on the table, within easy reach. "This is my place. Just a trailer, but it's been home for a few years. Nobody comes out here to bother me and I like that. You're welcome to stay until you're on your feet again."
Panicked mind trying to find reason in the man's words, Blair simply stared at him.
Nightmare... that's what this is... just a bad dream... all of it... Jim can't be...
"Should take another look at that gunshot wound," Bowden murmured, sitting down on the side of the cot again and reaching for the bandage on Blair's leg. "That pig shoot you when you tried to escape?"
"NO!" Blair slapped at Bowden's hand, knocking it away.
"Hey, buddy, I'm just trying to help."
"You left him. You left him in the desert. How could you do that?" the Guide's anguished cry tore from his heart.
"What the hell are you talking about? That pig was trying to"
"Don't call him that!" Blue eyes sparked in fury. "Don't you ever call him that again."
"What's your problem, man?" Bowden backed off, his expression angry and confused.
"What's yours? You left him to die!" Blair demanded. His anger gave him the energy to push himself to the edge of the cot.
"So what? He's a pig. He deserves whatever he gets!"
"Damn it, I said don't call him that!" Blair lurched to his feet, swaying unsteadily. "His name is Jim Ellison. He's my friend and my roommate. And he's my partner."
Bowden took a step backward, staring at Blair as if he'd suddenly grown horns and a tail. "You're not a cop. You can't be."
"You're right. I'm not. I'm an anthropologist." Blair took a deep breath, trying to control his anger. Shouting at the top of his lungs wasn't going to help here. "But I'm also a Civilian Observer with the Cascade PD. Jim's a detective with Major Crimes. He's"
"Shit!" The expletive exploded from the black man's mouth at the same time the basin of water went flying across the room. "I thought you were... I can't believe this... I went out of my way to help a"
"You went out of your way to help another human being," Blair said softly. The young Shaman's gentle words halted the angry harangue. "Look, man. I don't remember much of what happened out there. I don't understand why you decided to help me and not Jim, but you've got to listen to me. We've got to go back for him. He was hurt, man. He could hardly see"
"I don't care!"
"You've got to care!" Blair reached out to grab Bowden's arm, but the other man shirked away.
"Why? Why should I care whether some lousy pig lives or dies?"
"Because if you don't, you're no better that the rest of the bigots. No better than the ones who tried to kill us."
Bowden took an enraged step forward and Blair was suddenly aware of how big the man was. They were practically the same age, but the black man was nearly as tall as Simon and almost as well built as Jim. Swallowing hard, he made himself stand his ground.
"How dare you call me that!" Bowden hissed. "You don't know me."
"And you don't know Jim," Blair retorted. "Jim Ellison is the most incredible person. He's got this amazing sense of loyalty and honor. I swear to you, man, he never lies. Never. He's my friend. My best friend. I can't begin to tell you what he's done for me. He gave me a home when I didn't have any place to stay. He's the kind of friend you can call in the middle of the night when your car breaks down. The kind that lends you a twenty when you're short of cash at the end of the month and never bothers to ask for it back. He's pulled my ass out of the fire more times than I can count. He'd give his life for me"
Blair broke off when he saw a flicker of surprise cross Bowden's face. His own eyes widened when he realized that was exactly what Jim had done. When Bowden had refused to help them both, his Sentinel had somehow found a way to try to save his Guide's life.
Blair closed his eyes against the tears of frustration that threatened to break free. "He asked you to take me with you, didn't he? He knew it would mean being left out there to die, and he did it anyway."
"If I'd known you were a cop-lover, I would have left you out there too," Bowden snarled.
Rage flowed off the other man like a tidal wave of black filth. Blair instinctively stepped back, biting back a cry of pain when he put his full weight on his injured leg.
"Why, man? Why do you have so much hate inside?" the frightened Guide asked, fighting back the urge to flee the emotions that were pounding at him. "What happened with you and the cops that you'd condemn everyone that wears a badge?"
Bowden glared down at Blair, his face livid with rage. "You talk about the pig and call him your best friend. I had a best friend once. That's what the cops took away. They killed him. They pulled him in just because he matched the description of some nickel and dime dealer. He went into lockup and he never came out. Some drunk stabbed him and he bled to death in the holding cell."
"Jason was only eighteen years old." Bowden's voice and face had abruptly softened, lost in the memories of his friend. "He'd just earned a scholarship to Harvard. Harvard, do you believe it? A project kid, going to Harvard with the high and mighty. God, we laughed about that..."
"I'm sorry," Blair said softly.
"Yeah, that's what the cops said," Bowden said bitterly, his face hardening again. "'We're sorry.' Didn't make any difference then and it doesn't make any difference now. Jason's still dead."
"The cops didn't kill him, man. From what you said, it was an accident. You can't hold them responsible. You can't judge them all by what happened to your friend."
"The minute they picked him up they were responsible! There's no way someone like Jason should have been in there with those bastards. He didn't deserve to die like that!"
"And Jim doesn't deserve to die out there in the desert!" Blair argued. "Please, Bowden. I understand your pain, man. Believe me. You didn't have a chance to help your friend. Help me save mine."
Bowden grabbed Blair by the arm and dragged him out of the trailer, half carrying the anthropologist down the three short steps. Once outside, he planted his hand in the middle of Blair's back and gave him a hard push that sent him sprawling to the ground.
"You want to help that pig, do it yourself!" he shouted.
Forcing limbs that screamed with pain and exhaustion to move, Blair slowly got to his feet. He stared at Bowden, trying to make his pounding head work properly.
"Bowden, I can't do this without your help. I don't even know which way to go," he pleaded.
"That way," Bowden jerked his head to indicate a direction.
Blair turned slightly and felt his heart skip a beat. All that met his gaze was dead, endless desert. He turned wide, desperate eyes to the other man.
"At least let me take your bike, man. Give me that much of a chance."
"Get your ass out of here, now!" Bowden roared.
Ignoring the rage in the man's voice, Blair took a determined step toward the motorcycle. Bowden was faster and moved between the anthropologist and the bike, glowering threateningly.
"GET OUT, DAMN YOU!"
The curse beat at Blair like a physical force, sending him stumbling backward. Once more he took a step forward and again, he was confronted with Bowden's towering form. Shuddering, Blair retreated, raising his hands in surrender. Without another word, he turned and headed into the desert, the man's hatred adding to the weight of fear that grew heavier with each painful step.
Dialing down the pain against the throbbing at the back of his skull was barely helping and Jim wondered whether even his legendary hard head was meant to deal with two major blows in as many days.
Rolling to his side, he managed to suppress a groan. Spitting dirt out of his mouth, he opened his eyes to a bizarre world of harsh contrasts. Stark beams of sunlight streamed through cracks in rough wooden boards, forming blazing white zebra stripes against the darkness of the small room.
He closed his eyes against the disturbing sight. Feeling the cold steel of handcuffs binding his wrists behind him, he clenched his jaw and tugged experimentally, not surprised when there was no give to the restraints. Taking a deep breath, he shifted his weight and managed to rise to a sitting position. Leaning back against the wall behind him, he remained motionless for a few moments, letting the nauseating sensations pass.
When he had most of his control back, he let his senses range outward. Within minutes, they fed him the information that he needed. The building he was in was old and decrepit, but still holding together. If this was Harold's shack, it had been abandoned for some time. He and Blair might have made it here together and still come up empty. The thought gave him a slight sense of reassurance that he had done the right thing sending his Guide with Bowden. The feeling was short lived when he remembered Holland's description of the man as a 'crazy'.
Shaking those fears away, he refocused on his surroundings. A closed door led to another room beyond the one he was in. There were two heartbeats there. Holland and his son? Or two other accomplices?
The Sentinel's body was still, but his mind was racing. He remembered every detail of what had happened. The sneering face of the deputy's son was burned into his memoriesalong with the threat to his Guide.
Cold blue eyes that burned with icy fire flashed open. Scanning his small prison quickly, he suddenly realized that he wasn't alone. For a fraction of a second, he had a flicker of hope, but that spark died when he realized that the rapid heartbeat coming from the corner of the darkness was not Blair's.
He adjusted the mental dial to his vision, pleased to find that there was greater definition than he'd had before.
Maybe two taps is what you needed, Ellison, he thought ruefully. Sandburg will just love that little piece of information.
The thought of his Guide made him intensify his scrutiny of the room's other occupant. Eyes adjusting quickly to the darkness, he studied the huddled shape curiously. Another prisoner. Someone else these crackpots had attacked? A stifled whimper reached his ears and he leaned forward, pitching his voice into what he hoped was a mimic of his young partner's soothing tones.
"It's going to be all right. We'll get out of this."
A tearful snuffle was the only response.
"My name is Jim. What's yours?" he prodded gently.
There was a quick sniff and the sound of cloth dragging against skin. A whisper of denim sliding across wood warned him that the other figurea young woman, the scent of her perfume vaguely familiarwas moving. Slowly she came forward, pausing in one of the beams of light as if trapped there by its brilliance.
"I won't hurt you," Jim assured her.
"I know..." She crawled over, kneeling in front of him uncertainly. "I'm... my name is Connie. You're Blair's friend, aren't you."
The jumbled clues that had been cartwheeling in his head fell into place. "You're the woman he met at the park in town. The one that told him about the car. Ben's girlfriend."
Connie gave a gasping sob and covered her face with her hands. "I'm so sorry. I never meant anything to happen. I knew Ben could get crazy jealous, but I never thought he'd go this far..."
"Connie. Connie, look at me," Jim said quietly. "It's not your fault. You didn't do anything wrong."
"If I hadn't... you know, come on to your friend..."
"Trust me, Sandburg's like a magnet when it comes to pretty young women. If you hadn't found him, he probably would have found you."
She managed a crooked grin that matched his own and wiped at her tear streaked face.
"Who are the two in the outer room?" Jim asked.
"Ben's buddies. Jens Wood and Harvey Britts."
"Where's the deputy... Holland, and his son?"
"I don't know. They left right after they brought you in here," Connie whispered, her eyes growing wide and frightened again. "Jim, they're planning to kill you. And me too, I think. Ben's father said they had to do it 'cuz you're a cop."
"Ben picked the wrong targets to play games with," Jim murmured darkly. "In order to protect his son, Holland has to get rid of the witnesses and the evidence. How long ago did they leave?"
"An hour ago, maybe longer. I kinda lost track of time in here."
"Easy to do," he reassured her. "I need you to think, Connie. Did they say anything else? Anything about where they were going?"
"I heard something about Bowden. He's a guy that lives a couple hours southeast of here. I didn't understand why they were talking about going to his trailer. I mean, I know that Bowden's not one of Ben's favorite people, but"
Jim's jaw clenched and his eyes hooded dangerously. Connie's sharp intake of breath told him that he'd frightened her and he forced himself to shake off the feral edge of his rage.
"They've gone after Blair," he explained quietly. "We need to stop them."
"But how? Jens and Harvey are out there and they've got your gun."
In his pocket, Jim could feel the weight of Blair's pocket knife. A pleased gleam filled his eyes and he gestured with a lift of his chin for Connie to come closer.
"Actually, I've got some ideas about that. I could use your help."
Sheriff Dave Heller's eyes searched the highway and the surrounding desert anxiously. Startled by the chirp of his radio, he fumbled for the handset.
"Unit F-1 please respond. Dave, this is Molly. Pick up please."
"Yeah, Molly, go ahead."
"Jake just called in. Wanted you to know that they've started the grid search around the wreck you found. He says he's sure that it's Ben's convertible. Or was."
"Copy that. I'm headed west, about an hour's drive past that. Haven't seen any signs of our missing cop and his partner. I hope Joseph was right about the kid knowing the desert. If they decided to try to go cross country, we'll never find them."
"Dave, there's been no word from Bob yet. You want me to keep trying?"
"Save your voice for coordinating the search teams, Molly. If Bob hasn't come in by now, he's not going to."
"Understood. There was a message from Joseph Spiritwalker. He's got his people headed east. Says he can handle that area."
"Good. I'm going to check out that old shack of Harold's. If, by some miracle they managed to make it that far, they've at least got shelter. I'll check in when I get there. Should be about 30 minutes."
"Roger that. I have you headed west, one hour past search coordinate zero. Good luck, Dave."
Pressing his foot down on the gas, Heller pushed the cruiser for all it was worth.
Blair had already left fear far behind. Pain and determination were the only things that remained constant. Those two things: and the never changing line of the horizon. Even the fever which had returned with a blazing intensity to match the pounding sun was pushed from his awareness.
He stumbled. Fell. Rose to his feet. Walked on.
Sweat dripped in rivulets down his body, gluing his hair to his neck and face. Sand clung like thousands of itching fingers. But it was all ignored. Finding Jim was all that mattered.
A faint buzzing sound began to intrude, growing louder with each step he took, like an annoying fly that kept circling closer. The tiny corner of his mind that still held rational thought pegged it as a return of his hearing problems and quickly discarded the unimportant information. It had nothing to do with moving his feet. He didn't need to hear to do that.
It was only when the sound became matched with a physical presence blocking his path that he took note of it again. Without blinking he adjusted his route to go around it, his mind brushing it aside.
It took up residence beside him, pacing his movement. Still he ignored it.
"Man, you are stubborn."
The fly now had a voice, but it didn't matter. He'd already attempted that battle. He had no energy left for words. Only walking. He had to find his Sentinel. Before the desert claimed them both.
"You're gonna kill yourself. And for what? Some stupid cop?"
Eyes fixed on the horizon. Limbs moving through quicksand. Flies buzzing around decaying corpses...
With a shudder, Blair dropped heavily to the ground, his entire body shaking in fatigue.
"No one's worth this, man."
Stubbornly, the exhausted Guide raised his head.
"Jim is..." he whispered.
The image of his friend was fixed clearly in his mind. Drawing strength from that vision he pushed himself to his feet. He took one step and then another.
And fell again.
Sand filled his mouth and he spat it out, angrily shaking his head. Black spots blossomed in front of his eyes and a choked sob of terror broke free. Straining to see the horizon between the dancing motes, he felt his mind tremble with the knowledge that his body had finally betrayed him.
Sliding into the waiting abyss, he felt himself drawn backward to lean into the support of Bowden's strong arms. The awareness of that strength held him poised on the brink.
"Easy, buddy. I've got you."
"Jim..." Blair poured all the intensity he had left into that single word.
"Yeah. I know. Don't worry. I'll help you find him."
"Harvey! Jens! Come in here, quick!"
The two young men looked at each other in surprise at the sound of Connie's cry. Jens walked over to the closed door that led to their prisoners.
"I told you to be quiet, Connie," he called out. "Soon as Ben's back, he'll take care of everything."
"But something's wrong with the cop! I don't think he's breathing," Connie insisted.
"So what? He's just savin' us the trouble if he's dying," Jens answered, glancing over at his buddy.
"Maybe we'd better check," Harvey suggested. "Ben's gonna be pissed if he's dead. He was lookin' forward to doin' the cop himself."
"Shit." Jens nervously wiped his face with his shirt sleeve and paced over to the upended wooden crate that was serving as a makeshift table. Grabbing Jim's gun, he returned to the door. "I'm comin' in. And I've got a gun, so just stay back, Connie."
With a jerk of his head, he gestured for Harvey to open the door. Hinges screeched as the slatted panel swung inward, revealing the darkness within. Hesitantly, Jens took a step forward. Harvey fell in behind him.
And they both flew backward, landing on the floor in a tangled pile as Jim launched himself through the open doorway. Using his greater size and weight to his advantage, the detective threw himself on top of the dazed pair. Pain flashed behind his eyeballs and he struggled to deal with the shift from almost absolute darkness to the brightness of the outer room. That momentary delay almost cost him his life. The click of the trigger was his only warning that Jens had managed to raise the gun. Twisting to the right, Jim rolled away, wincing at the explosive discharge.
He dove back into them immediately, grabbing for the weapon. His momentum carried both he and Jens across the floor. Jim's fingers closed around the barrel and he wrenched the gun out of the younger man's hand. He started to scramble away, trying to get to his feet, when he was tackled by Harvey.
Driven back against the wall of the shack, Jim managed to turn sideways. With a quick shift in balance, he brought a knee up into the younger man's stomach. The whooshing grunt as air was forced from his attacker's lungs and the heavy thud when he collapsed to the ground were sweet sounds to the Sentinel's ears.
A noise to his left reminded him of Jens presence and he spun in that directiononly to take a step back when he was blinded by a shaft of sunlight streaming through the cracked boards of the outer wall. Blinking furiously, he dodged right, hoping to place some distance between himself and the other man.
Strong hands gripped his shoulders and thrust him to his left. He careened against the outer wall again and heard the distinct thud of fists connecting with soft flesh. Raising the gun automatically, he turned to face what he assumed was a new attacker.
Surprise washed across his face when he found a man he'd never seen before standing over Jens' motionless body. The stranger looked up and Jim's gaze locked with his. Images of sand, wind and stars flashed through the Sentinel's mind. The eyes that held his were agelessfilled with peace and violence at the same time.
Without looking away from the old man, Jim held out a hand in warning. Connie stood trembling in the doorway, watching the frozen tableau uncertainly.
"I am not your enemy, Warrior," the old man said softly.
Frowning at the odd way the man addressed him, the Sentinel studied the old Indian carefully. Dressed casually, in a khaki short-sleeved shirt and pants, the newcomer radiated a feeling of power and authority. The sun-darkened face told the story of his life in each line and wrinkle. The intense brown eyes and long black hair were vaguely familiar, reminding him of someone he had known... someone he had once trusted.
But he wouldn't trust easily now. Not with Blair in danger. Mistakes in judgment had led him into this disaster. He was determined not to make any more.
"It is not a simple thing, to see the truth," the old man said evenly.
"Deception wears many faces," Jim whispered. "I can't afford to make the wrong choice. Another life is at stake."
"Your young companion walks the edge. More than your strength is required. Do not let your fears blind you to help when it is offered."
The words sank in, reaching the core of the Sentinel's awareness. He felt them strengthen his resolve and ease the panic he felt raging inside.
"How did you ...?" Jim asked softly, lowering the gun.
"The spirit of a great cat told me that there was a need. So I came."
The Sentinel stiffened in surprise and he eyed the old man uncertainly.
There was movement at the door and Jim's attention shifted to the four Indian men who entered and stood flanking the older man like an honor guard. There was a quick flurry of conversation in a language that the Sentinel didn't understand, and then five sets of eyes swiveled in his direction. Four heads inclined in quick, but respectful nods.
"The time grows short, Warrior. We will guard these while you hunt," the old man said softly.
Confused, Jim took a step forward. He stopped abruptly as the sound of an approaching vehicle reached his ears.
"Help comes," the old man said.
"Who are you?" Jim whispered.
"My name is Joseph."
Jim shook his head. "No, I mean..."
"If the spirits are willing, we will meet again, soon. There will be time for answers then."
Any further questions were cut off when Dave Heller skidded into the room. Gaze flashing over the occupants and the two still figures on the floor, he gave an audible gasp when he caught sight of Jim.
"You must be Detective Ellison. I'm Dave Heller, the local Sheriff," he said, walking forward, his hand extended.
Jim eyed the man warily. If this man was the Sheriff, he was Holland's boss. Could he be trusted?
Seeing the indecision in Jim's eyes, Heller paused. "I understand your reservations, Detective, but I am here to help. I've spoken to your Captain. Banks told me to tell you he's never letting you and your partner out of Cascade again. Says he can't stand the long-distance worrying."
A faint smile crossed Jim's face. "Sounds like something Simon would say," he murmured softly. Sliding the gun into the waistband at the back of his jeans, he reached forward and shook the outstretched hand, finishing the introduction. "Jim Ellison."
"I can see you've been busy in my jurisdiction," Heller said, glancing over at the two unconscious men. "I appreciate that. Just sorry it was necessary." He shifted his gaze to Connie and smiled. "Your mom's going to be happy to see you, honey."
"If it weren't for Jim, I'd be dead," Connie said tremulously. "Ben's crazy, Sheriff. And his father... they were going to kill us when they got back."
"Got back from where?" Heller was pure business at the flip of a switch. He glanced around the room again and his eyes met Jim's questioningly. "Where's your partner... Sandburg, right? He's here, isn't he? He's okay?"
"No, Sheriff, he's not okay. We got separated. Holland and his son went after him," Jim replied grimly.
"Do you know where he is?" Heller's face reflected both anger and worry.
"They ran into Bowden, Sheriff," Connie interjected breathlessly. "Blair was hurt and Jim convinced Bowden to help him."
"Hurt? How badly?" Concerned hazel eyes met worried blue ones.
"Badly enough that even Sandburg won't fight a trip to the hospital this time," Jim said tersely. "He took a bullet in the leg. Holland's son shot him when they attacked us on the road. By the time we met up with this Bowden character, he was running a fever. We need to find him. Before your Deputy and his son do."
"My squad's out front."
Heller turned back to Joseph and gave him some quick instructions. Connie grabbed Jim's arm and stared up at him anxiously.
"Ben's killed before, Jim. I can't prove it, but I'm sure of it. Be careful."
The Sentinel patted her hand and gave her a brief smile. Catching Heller's nod, Jim followed the Sheriff out to his car and slid into the passenger seat. Dave cranked the cruiser to life and headed out onto the highway.
"When you ran into Bowden, did he have his bike or his jeep?" he asked, handing Jim a bottle of water.
"A trail bike. Looked like it had a range of about fifty miles."
"More like thirty in the shape it's in," Heller mumbled. "He was probably out camping. He does that a lot. He probably took your partner back to his place. Any chance you'd recognize the spot you met him? We can cut cross country from there. Save some time. "
"I'll recognize it," Jim said firmly. He sat quietly for a few minutes, sipping at the water, letting the soft streams of cooled air flow over him as the air conditioner in the car hummed to life. When he spoke again, his voice was soft, and filled with apprehension. "How well do you know this guy Bowden, Sheriff?"
"Bowden's a good kid," Dave said quietly. "Keeps mostly to himself. He's been out here about four years. Grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood in New York City."
"That where he learned to hate cops?"
Heller shot a quick look at Jim and then focused his attention back on the road.
"Could be..." Dave admitted. "Look, if you're worried that he'd do something to your partner, you can relax. Bowden never would have gotten involved if he didn't intend to help him."
"I hope you're right," the worried Sentinel whispered, turning his attention to the passing landscape.
The throbbing in Blair's leg had become a leaden pounding that coursed through his body and left an echo in his skull. It was an annoying counterpoint to the faint buzzing which still filled his ears. They'd found the spot where they had left Jim, but there had been no sign of the older man. Bowden had ordered the anthropologist to rest while he hunted for tracks. Sipping from a water bottle, Blair leaned heavily against the side of the bike, scanning the horizon anxiously.
"I can't find any kind of trail leading away from here, Blair. He must have headed back to the road." Bowden rose to his feet and wiped the palms of his hands on his pants.
"The road?" Blair turned to look at the other man, his concern clearly written on his face. "Are you certain? I mean, not to malign your tracking skills, but I'm not sure even Jim could pick up a trail through this stuff."
"You mean there's something that 'supercop' can't do? I'm amazed."
Blair frowned, concentrating hard to make sure he understood the words, and then shook his head in annoyance.
"I didn't say he couldn't do it, Bowden, I just"
"Give it a rest, Blair. I was just kidding. Mostly, at any rate. Guess old habits, and prejudices, die hard. It just surprised me to hear you admit that maybe there was something your friend couldn't do. Not giving up are you?"
"No way, man. I'd never give up on Jim, just like he'd never give up on me," Blair declared adamantly. "He is the best, Bowden. Being a cop is only part of who he is. There's a lot more..."
"I know, I know," Bowden grinned, raising his hands in surrender. "You've managed to convince me, all right?"
"Too bad I was so out of it before," the young Guide muttered, the pain of his failure to protect his Sentinel stabbing like a knife into his heart.
"Wouldn't have mattered, Blair. You could have talked a blue streak and it wouldn't have done any good. I wasn't ready to listen," Bowden admitted quietly.
The anthropologist nodded absently, recognizing the truth of the other man's words. His gaze swung toward the highway.
"When you ... when we left him... he could see, couldn't he? I mean, his vision must have been back on-line if he walked out of here, right?"
"He looked right at me, Blair. How else could he have done that if he couldn't see?"
Blair closed his eyes and shook his head tiredly. How else? Man, he's a Sentinel. He could have smelled you a mile away, heard your breathing from twice that distance...
Blair's eyes snapped open and he looked at Bowden in surprise. There was a definite expression of fear on the man's face.
"Get on the bike, Blair. NOW!" Not waiting to see if he understood, Bowden suited actions to words and pulled the startled anthropologist up behind him, kicking the cycle to life.
"Bowden, what the hell... is going on?" Grimacing at the shaft of pure fire that shot through his leg at the unexpected movement, Blair fumbled for a tighter grip on the other man's shirt. The trail bike swayed unsteadily, and he gulped back another gasp of pain.
"We've got company!" Bowden yelled back.
Blair risked a quick glance over his shoulder. Behind them he could see the familiar shape of what had to be a patrol cruiserbubble lights and all. He pounded on Bowden's back urgently, screaming at the top of his lungs.
"Bowden, that's a squad car! You hear me? That's help, man! You gotta turn us around."
In answer, the man pumped the gas, increasing their speed, still headed in the opposite direction from where Blair wanted to go.
"What are you doing?" the frantic Guide shrieked into his ear.
"Getting our butts... yours in particular... outta here," Bowden snarled back.
"Damn it, you promised me"
"Just shut up a minute, Blair! And hang on!"
The words were distorted, but it was the same tone that Jim used whenever he reached the point of no-return in arguing with his headstrong partner. It was typically a signal that things were about to go from bad to worse. Blair hung on tight as Bowden drove the cycle down a steep incline, cutting across to the base and heading toward an even rougher stretch of ground.
"They won't be able... to follow through here... so easily..."
What he understood of Bowden's breathless explanation left Blair even more confused.
"I don't understand! Why are we running from them when they can help?"
"That's not... the Sheriff... it's the Deputy's squad..."
"So? Like it makes a difference here? Come on, man, turn around. I'm not playing this game with Jim's life in the balance," Blair howled angrily.
"The deputy's name... is Bob Holland... He's got a son... named Ben..."
Eyes going wide in shocked comprehension, Blair stared back over his shoulder. For a moment, the dust trail behind them cleared and he got a good look at the driver, and, more importantly, the young man in the passenger seat.
Raising his voice, Blair tried to make himself heard over the roar of the engine. "If the deputy's half the loony tune his son is, we're in deep trouble... can't you go... uhhhh... any faster, man?"
"We're about... topped out..." the other man called back. "I'm gonna try... to lose them... in here..."
Blair took a look ahead and saw what looked like the obstacle course from hell. Before he could debate the advisability of the choice, they were already in the middle of it. All Blair could do was cling to the back of Bowden's shirt. He gripped the seat with his right leg and tried to shift his weight with each swerve of the bike. His left leg was useless, the muscles abused beyond the point where he had any strength remaining in them.
"They're headed around the far side," Bowden yelled. "That'll gain us a few minutes."
Unable to speak, Blair tied to squeeze the other man's arms to communicate his understanding, but his strength was failing rapidly. He closed his eyes and focused all his energy into just staying on the bike as Bowden guided it through a series of eroded stream-beds. Stones skittered away from the churning tires, and sand slewed in all directions.
Suddenly the bike seemed to hang in midair, and then it hit the ground with a bone jarring impact. The sheer, blinding force of the pain exploded through Blair's body and everything went numb. He was falling...
Dazed, Blair struggled to raise his head. He was laying on his side on the sun-baked ground. A dozen feet away, he could hear Bowden cursing at the bike, frantically trying to start it. Blair managed a quick look over his shoulder and swallowed hard when he saw the cruiser gaining on them.
"Get out of here, man. I'm the one they want," Blair called out. "Go find Jim."
"They'll kill you if I leave you here," Bowden answered, dragging the bike around and pounding on the seat in frustration.
"And the desert will kill Jim if you don't find him," Blair replied desperately. "Go! You're the only chance either one of us have, man. Tell Jim what happened. He'll know what to do."
Cursing, Bowden finally kicked the bike to life. He took one look at the deputy's car racing toward them and then his gaze flashed back to meet Blair's for just an instant. With a terse nod, he gave the bike a shove and tore off.
Searching for anything he could use as a weapon, Blair scrabbled in the sand. His fingers closed on a fist-sized rock and he clutched it desperately. Determined to meet his attackers on his feet, he pushed himself upright just as the squad skidded to a halt in front of him.
Holland was out of the car before the dust settled, his weapon trained on the anthropologist.
Blair's fingers tightened around the rock, feeling for the balance of it as he considered his options. He had a pretty fair armhe'd managed to strike out a dozen batters the last time he and Jim had played on the department softball teambut would it be good enough against a trained marksman?
"Bullet's faster, kid," Holland warned, as if reading his mind.
Seeing the determination in the deputy's eyes, Blair released the rock and let it fall to the ground at his feet.
Ben slid out of the squad, pointing frantically in the direction that the bike had disappeared.
"Bowden's getting away, Dad. We've got to stop him."
Holland kept his eyes and gun targeted on Blair as he moved around the front of the car. "He's not going to get far. Not on that bike. We'll take care of him later."
Not quite satisfied with that answer, Ben swiveled around and stalked toward Blair, his face a mask of barely contained fury.
"This is all your fault, freak!"
Blair's eyes flickered from the deputy to the enraged young man and back again, wondering how far the older man would let his son go. It didn't take long to find out. Three long strides brought the younger men face to face.
"I'm talkin' to you, punk!"
Anger flashed through the anthropologistthe hot, blood-red emotion he'd felt in the bus station. Tired of being pushed around, Blair refused to flinch. His lack of reaction drove the other man over the edge. With a snarl, Ben gave the exhausted Guide a vicious shove. The force of it broke Blair's precariously achieved balance and he fell to the ground, landing on his back.
The gasp of pain that escaped his lips made his attacker grin with delight. With a well-placed kick, Ben struck again. His heavily booted foot connected with Blair's injured leg near the bullet wound. An agonized cry burst from the anthropologist and his body curled into a ball.
"Ben, that's enough!"
Blair barely heard the startled cry from the older man before another kick landed in the same spot. Fighting blackness and pain, the miserable anthropologist was only vaguely aware of the deputy manhandling his son away.
"I said, that's enough!" Holland barked, giving Ben a push toward the car. "We agreed to let the desert finish him, remember? Dark Springs should do just fine. Take out some of your anger on the trunk. Clear everything out of there and put a blanket down. You've already left me a mess to take care of. I don't want to have to clean up blood stains as well."
A shadow fell across him, and Blair managed to raise his head. Holland crouched down next to him. The injured Guide hissed and flinched away when the deputy reached out to check the freely bleeding wound. A flicker of regret flashed across the older man's eyes and Blair drew in a sharp breath.
Maybe... maybe there was a chance...
Glaring at his father and the downed anthropologist, Ben jerked several boxes from the trunk of the squad and slammed them into the back seat. The impact jolted one of the cartons open and the younger man's eyes caught the dull gleam of flat black gunmetal. A slow grin filled his face. He plucked the backup pistol from its holster and slid it alongside the frame of the front passenger seat. Assured by a quick glance over his shoulder that neither of the other men had seen his furtive movements, he returned to the back of the car, finishing the task his 'daddy' had assigned him.
"Killing me isn't going to solve anything," Blair whispered, fighting to stay focused. He managed to shift enough that he was resting his weight on his right elbow. He met the deputy's eyes and held them. Words were the only weapons he had now. "You know that. My partner's out there. He'll find help and they'll come looking. And I've gotta tell you, Jim Ellison's the kind of cop that doesn't quit until he finds what he's hunting."
"Your partner's already found help," Holland said softly, a faint tinge of sadness in his tone. "Just not quite was he was expecting."
Blair's eyes widened as the meaning in the older man's words became clear.
"Damn you!" he hissed through clenched teeth, anger sweeping away caution. "Is he still alive? Is he?"
"He's alive," Holland answered. "You're the last loose end."
Blair released a soft sigh of relief. The fear that he'd been carrying with him since he'd been unable to find his partner was replaced with a grim hope. His faith in Jim was unshakable, but he'd been afraid that the deadly, unpredictable desert would prove too much for even his Sentinel. Now, faced with only mortal enemies, his friend would have a chance.
Raising his determined gaze to meet Holland's, Blair's mind whirled, trying to come up with a way to buy his partner some time.
"Don't do this, man," Blair pleaded softly. "No one's done anything yet that can't be dealt with."
Holland shook his head regretfully. "You don't understand."
"I know he's your son, but he's a grown man. He's responsible for his choices and actions, not you. How can you live with yourself?" Blair asked angrily. "You took an oath, man. This isn't some kind of kid's prank. This is murder. Cold-blooded, premeditated murder."
Holland glanced toward the car. Blair followed the direction of his gaze. His breath caught in his throat and he swallowed convulsively when he saw Ben unfold a blanket and lay it open inside the trunk.
"I can't live with myself if I don't."
Blair stiffened and shifted his gaze to the deputy at the whispered reply. Seeing the resolve in the set face, the younger man knew that he'd run out of arguments. He drew in a ragged, trembling breath at the sight of the handcuffs in Holland's hands.
"Put your hands behind your back," the older man ordered quietly.
Blair's stubborn streak kicked in and he shook his head in a quick, defiant gesture. The deputy's eyebrows raised in surprise, then lowered into a scowl.
"I can just as easily finish it here, kid. It's your choice," Holland murmured, fingers tightening on his gun.
The anthropologist's eyes widened slightly, his body tensing for a moment as fear found its way back into his heart. As certain as he was that he was going to die, he found himself unwilling to face it just yet. With a soft exhalation of breath he let himself slump to the ground, turning slightly so that he lay on his stomach. Face pressed to the hot sandy surface, he did as he was ordered. Wincing as the burning metal locked around first one wrist and then the other, he closed his eyes, gathering the shreds of control that he had left. He managed to hold back all but a short choked cry of pain when Holland hauled him to his feet.
Another set of hands closed cruelly around his left arm. Blair didn't need to open his eyes to know that Ben had rejoined the party. Together, they dragged him to the rear of the car and backed him against it. Pain flared through him when his injured leg was lifted and he was pushed inside.
"Time for a little trip, freak," he heard Ben murmur as the trunk was slammed shut.
Eyes screwed shut to ward off the darkness that he was sure was blacker than the inside of his eyelids, Blair allowed the pain free reign and slipped into unconsciousness.
Settling back in the seat, the Sentinel's eyes swept the countryside. Once again, he was forced to wait as the miles rolled beneath them.
Two hoursa life can end in a split second and they've got a two hour head start. If we don't catch them before they find Blair...
He forced himself to take a deep breath. It was hard for him to admit that there were things beyond even a Sentinel's control. The only thing he could do right now was conserve his strength and work on managing his senses. He couldn't alter time, as much as he wanted to, nor could he change what had already happened. Visualizing his friend's face in his mind, he held onto the picture he wanted to seehis Guide, safe and alive.
Blair was always teasing him about being 'a control freak'a comment which was usually followed by the anthropologist innocently suggesting some tests to determine whether it was 'learned' Blessed Protector behavior or 'genetically inherited' Sentinel behavior. Privately, Jim thought it was some of both.
It wasn't so much that he had the desire to control everything or that he needed to be 'right' all the timealthough he knew that his young friend would have disagreed vigorously with that statement.
It was just safer to be the juggler instead of one of the balls.
Loss of control meant an increase in risk. And it was usually a disproportionate increase. Once something got out of hand it usually went to hell in a hurry. He'd learned that in Covert Ops, and it had been proven time and time again during his years as a cop. The less control you had over a situation, particularly a dangerous one, the harder it was to influence the outcome, and the greater the chance that someoneyourself, your partner or one of your teamwas going to end up hurt or dead.
Controlling a situation was one thingwith enough time, resources and planning, it could be done. But controlling people and their emotions, that was something else. That was like swimming against the tide.
Misunderstandings or arbitrary judgments engendered fear. Fear bred hatred. Hatred led to prejudice. Prejudice and bigotry created an atmosphere where violence flourished. Jim had seen the damage that a 'different is wrong' mind-set could produceirrationally held truths were often more harmful than reasoned errors.
Being perceived as 'different' was what had endangered his partner from the very beginning of this mess. First at the bus station, where angry words had stabbed at the younger man's self-image. Then he'd barely escaped becoming a punching bag for an arrogant bully's bigotry. Blair's calm, unruffled response to their threats had led to their need to prove their 'superiority.' The line had been crossed the moment Ben and his buddies had attacked them on the road. Violence begat more violence as their anger and hatred took them the final step to attempted murder.
It was ironic that the same prejudice had probably saved both of their lives when they'd been ambushed. With Jim down, Ben had probably expected the anthropologist to fall apartto put his head in his hands and lay down and die. Instead, Blair had drawn from his seemingly unending well of determination and pig-headed stubbornness, refusing to give up. He'd kept both of them alive. His Guide had put his Sentinel's safety and sanity above his own pain and fears.
A perverse twist of fate had put his young friend at risk again. Bowden's hatred and prejudice had been aimed at Jim, but Blair was still catching the fall-out. If Bowden had been willing to help them both, he would be at his Guide's side, protecting him, instead of sitting here helplessly, watching the miles stream past.
Closing his eyes, Jim rubbed his forehead absently, trying to soothe the throbbing pain away.
"I've got some aspirin in the first aid kit," Heller offered. "From the size of the lump on your skull, that's got to be one nasty headache."
"Thanks, but I've got my own way of dealing with it," Jim answered softly, reaching for the mental dial and turning it down a notch. The annoying pounding eased a bit and after a few minutes he was able to open his eyes again. He glanced at the Sheriff and found the man watching him curiously. Jim answered the stare with a quizzical one of his own.
"What is it you want to know, Sheriff?"
Heller shot a quick, surprised look at his passenger before turning his attention back to the road once more. "You and your captain must be pretty tight," he said after a few moments of silence.
"Simon's a good friend." Jim glanced out at the desert and shook his head ruefully. "I don't imagine he was too pleased to hear from you."
"He wasn't. He didn't seem too surprised though. I take it from his comments that you and your partner have a history of finding trouble?"
"Or it finds us," Jim admitted softly. "But that's not what you wanted to know."
"No, not exactly... Your partner... I know he's not a cop..."
"Sandburg's been paired with me for a couple of years as a Civilian Observer. It's part of his research. He's actually an anthropologist. A teaching fellow at Rainier University."
"Strange. Banks called him one of 'his' men. That's a little unusual for a civilian. Your captain seemed as concerned about him as he was about you. Maybe more so."
"Blair's proven to be a real asset to the department. He has a different slant on the world and on people. He's made us old 'set-in-our-ways' cops sit up and take notice," Jim said proudly.
"I'm looking forward to meeting him," Heller murmured.
"You still haven't asked your question," Jim prodded.
Heller drew a deep breath and tightened his grip on the wheel. "Your captain suggestedrather forcefully, I might addthat when I found you, that I give you my complete cooperation. He said that you tend to be somewhat 'protective' of your partner, and that if I knew what was good for me, I wouldn't get in your way if he was in trouble. Banks also mentioned that there might be some things that would happen that would be hard to believe. That you have some special 'skills' that I shouldn't question. That I should just trust you."
"And you're not sure you can do that?"
"I just want to be sure that we're not going to have a problem, here, Detective. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to find your missing friend, but I want your assurance that you're going to stay within the law. I want both Hollands brought in to stand trial. I appreciate how you must feel about your partner, but I don't condone vigilante justice."
"Neither do I, Sheriff. But what Simon said is trueBlair is my responsibility. He's my partner in more than just the conventional sense. And he's my best friend. I won't stand by and let anything happen to him if I can prevent it. It's in our contract."
Jim shook his head and a grim smile crossed his face. "Just an inside joke, Sheriff. Between Sandburg and myself."
"One of those things I'd be better off not knowing or questioning?"
Ten minutes later, Jim stiffened and shifted to full attention, his eyes locked on the highway in front of them.
"Get ready to stop, Sheriff."
"You think we're near where you met up with Bowden?" Heller asked.
"No. There's someone about a mile ahead."
Dave stared into the distance. "I don't see..."
"He's on foot... pushing a small cycle. It's Bowden," Jim announced grimly.
Heller finally saw a small black speck shimmering in the haze of the heat-drenched highway. As they drew closer, he could see that it was indeed Bowden. How the hell did Ellison see and recognize him from over a mile away? Heller opened his mouth, saw the look of barely controlled rage on the detective's face, and shut it with a snap, deciding that if this was one of Ellison's special 'skills', he was indeed better off not questioning the man. At least not now.
He pulled the cruiser to a stop about twenty feet from the young man. Ellison was out of the car before it stopped. He'd crossed the distance to Bowden and had his fists buried in the youth's shirt before Heller could call out a warning.
"Where's Sandburg!" Jim demanded, shaking the younger man angrily.
Wide frightened eyes met the Sentinel's. Bowden gasped for breath, trying to find the words to answer the enraged man.
"Ellison, back off!" Heller barked.
Jim ignored him and fixed the black youth with an icy blue stare. "I made you a promise when you took him. If anything's happened to Blair"
"That's enough, Detective. Let him go!" Heller thrust himself into the middle of the confrontation. After a few frantic tries, he managed to pry Jim's grip free, pushing the Sentinel away.
"Take it easy, Ellison," Heller cautioned. "You and I had an understanding, remember?"
Jim's jaw clenched and Dave could see the effort he was making to control his emotions. Hands balled into fists at his sides and he stood ramrod straight. It took a few moments, but finally the Sentinel met his eyes and gave him a terse nod. Satisfied that the detective had himself under control, Heller turned his attention back to the younger man.
"Talk to me, Bowden," he said quietly.
"They took him," Bowden said softly, eyeing Jim anxiously when the detective stepped forward at his words.
"Bob Holland and his son?" Heller asked, moving between the two men to keep them apart.
Bowden swallowed hard and nodded, his eyes flickering to the Sheriff and then back to Jim. "We were looking for you. Blair... he... he convinced me to go back and get you."
Haltingly, Bowden told them what had happened. Jim listened intently, closing his eyes to hide the anguish he was sure was visible as the younger man described the sequence of events.
"When I lost control of the bike, we both went down. The Hollands were almost on top of us. Blair told me to go... told me that I had to find you, Detective. That you'd know what to do. I didn't want to leave him," Bowden whispered, shaking his head.
"You'd probably be dead if you hadn't," Dave said softly, patting the younger man on the arm. "Well, we know that they've got him. Question is, what's their next move?"
"Dark Springs," Bowden said quickly. "They were going to take him to Dark Springs and leave him there."
"How do you know that?" Jim asked sharply.
"I told you. I didn't want to leave him," Bowden said defensively. "I managed to hide the bike in one of the washes and crawled back to where they were. I wanted to help, but Deputy Holland had his gun out. I thought if I listened in maybe I could find out something. Holland talked to Blair for a few minutes. I overheard him say that they'd captured you. I stuck around until they put him in the trunk of the squad car and took off. I hightailed it back to the bike and got to the highway. Ran out of gas a ways back."
"Joseph Spiritwalker and his people found Ellison at Harold's old place. They had everything well in hand by the time I got there," Heller explained. "Jens and Harvey had Connie Phillips a prisoner there, too. Dark Springs, huh? Still gives us a lot of miles to cover, but it narrows the search area down considerably. I'll call this in and we'll get you gassed up before we take off after them."
The Sheriff jogged back to the car, leaving Jim and Bowden eyeing each other warily.
"He was alive when you saw him last?" Jim asked softly, breaking the uneasy silence.
"Yeah. Look, I'm sorry for what I said earlier, man. For what I did. I've carried a lot of hate inside of me for years. Blair... Blair made me see that what I was doing... well, he just made me see, you know?"
"One of his many talents," Jim murmured. "Thank you for doing what you did. If the Hollands had found both of us on the road, we'd probably be dead right now."
"I'd like to come with you," Bowden announced abruptly. "I want to help find him."
Jim looked at the younger man in surprise. "I thought you didn't get involved with cops."
"I want to help Blair. He's... special, man. I can't explain it. I just know that he is."
"You've done enough, Bowden," Heller interrupted, moving toward them with the extra gas can in his hands. "I want you to head out to Harold's and stay there until this is over. Your life is at risk, too. Once we get Bob and his son in custody, I'm going to need a full statement from you."
Jim stepped forward. "The Sheriff's right. You've done enough. Now that I know that Blair's still alive, I'll find him."
Bowden looked up at Jim with a mixture of curiosity and awe. "Guess Blair was right about you, after all. I didn't understand at first... how he could have such faith in you... how he could risk his own life for you. You're lucky. Friendships like that only come around once in a lifetime. Treasure it, man. Find him."
"I do, and I will," Jim affirmed quietly.
Consciousness returned in a rush of overwhelming sensations. Absolute darkness gave way abruptly to excruciatingly painful brightness that made Blair blink furiously, his eyes tearing. Hoping to lose the smothering closeness of the trunk he gasped for air. He coughed, nearly choking as searing heat burned his airways. Two blurry figures reached for him. They dragged him from his confinement and dumped him unceremoniously on the hard ground.
Feverish and disoriented, Blair struggled to get his muddled mind to send the right messages to his aching body, but just breathing was taking every ounce of control he had left. Every time he inhaled, he could smell the noxious fumes that had been trapped in the trunk. The sickening taste coated the inside of his mouth and he was certain that even one small movement would cause his stomach to revolt. The very top of his head felt like it was about to explode from the pounding headache and his body shook with exhaustion.
He was only vaguely aware of movement and sound around him. The part of his mind that was still working knew that this was the end of his journey. If what Holland had said earlier was true, they planned to leave him to the desert. A fate Blair's memories helped him envision all too well.
Pain reentered his world suddenly. Not content to just let him lie there, Ben booted Blair in the ribs. A choked cry broke from the suffering anthropologist, but he didn't have the strength to attempt any kind of resistance. Lying on his back, he stared up into the eyes of his tormentor and waited.
"Ben, back off!" Holland's slightly garbled voice came from Blair's right, but he didn't turn his head. "There's no need for that. He's finished, son. We've got to get back and take care of Ellison. I don't trust those two brainless friends of yours and we've still got Connie and the cars to deal with."
Ben ignored his father and continued to glare down at Blair. A grin spread slowly across his face as he drew the pistol that he'd concealed earlier from under his shirt.
"What's the rush Dad? I haven't had my fun yet."
"Ben, what are you doing? Where'd you get that gun?"
"Don't you recognize it, Dad? It's your backup piece. I'm going to put it to good use and exterminate some vermin. Isn't that one of the things you always said guns were good for?"
"Ben, put it down. You don't want to kill him, son. Taking someone's life... it will haunt you forever. Leave him to the desert. It's better this way. It'll be easier to put behind you. Believe me."
The harsh barking sound of Ben's laughter shattered the clear desert air. "But I don't want to put it behind me, Dad. I want to enjoy it."
In the stunned silence emanating from the older man, Blair grasped at what he knew was his last chance. If he could play father against son...
"You're wasting your time, man," Blair managed to croak out through his parched throat. "Your son's no stranger to killing. Look in his eyes... he's done it before."
Holland took a step forward, halting in horrified certainty at Blair's words. The sneer on his son's face reflected the reality the deputy had ignored for so long.
"Ben... what he's saying... it's not true... tell me that, please..."
"I could tell you anything and you'd believe it, Dad. Wouldn't you?" Ben laughed again, an evil smile of delight filling his face. "You're so blind it's pathetic. Even now, with me standing here ready to blow this punk's head off, you're asking me to tell you that what you're seeing with your own eyes is a lie. You're still wrapped up in that fantasy of yours. Of me as that sickly sweet little boy who could do no wrong. Welcome to the real world, Dad. This isn't the first time I've tasted the rush of excitement that comes from killing. Let's just say that by the time we're done today, I'll be very close to double digits."
"This is what you've been protecting, man," Blair said quietly. His words were meant for the deputy, but his eyes never left Ben's face. "This is what you're risking your own life and career for."
"Shut up, freak!" Ben leaned down and shoved the tip of the gun barrel into the soft skin under Blair's chin.
"Ben, stop it."
Blair heard the soul wrenching anguish in the deputy's voice. There was so much love thereand so much betrayal that it made his own heart ache in sympathy. This father had tried to protect his sona living reminder of the hopes and dreams that every child represented. But with Ben's sneering confessionthe obvious gloating pleasure that he'd taken in murderthat innocent little boy was gone, replaced by this animal that wore only the trappings of humanity. A being who was filled with only hate.
Love and hate, life and destructionthe line between them was so fine. Practically invisible. Blair closed his eyes and felt the burn of hot tears against the lids, as his world balanced on that edge. He felt the hot metal of the gun slide down to rest at the hollow of his throat and shuddered.
"Open your eyes, freak. I want you to see this. I want you to know what's coming," Ben snarled. "I want to see your fear and hear you beg for your life again."
Prodded by the force of the gun pressing into his throat, Blair opened his eyes. Ben's angry face was so close to his, that he had to look beyond his torturer for a second to focus. That moment was all it took for the blue sky to remind him of his Sentinel's eyes. He felt a flash of sadness and then a powerful sense of peace washed through him.
Taking a deep breath, Blair filled his lungs. Time seemed to reduce to a split-frame crawl, as if someone had taken control of a remote and was letting the scene play out in deadly slow-motion clarity. Face contorted with rage, Ben straightened and pointed the gun into the anthropologist's face, his finger taking ages to tighten on the trigger. The color of the sky surrounding the towering figure intensified to azure brilliance, filling Blair's sight and his heart. And for a moment, the throaty purr of what he imagined was a huge jungle cat vibrated through his aching ears and resonated bone deep.
The explosion jolted him, pushing the air from his lungs in a whooshing gasp. He sought to replace the breath, expecting it to be his last. He waited for the pain that should surely come from the killing wound, dimly surprised at the lack of it. Blair blinked and saw Ben's figure waver, then turn to his left as he raised his gun. Another ear-shattering burst of sound shook the air and this time a high pitched scream followed it.
Dazed, Blair saw a rapidly blossoming patch of red staining Ben's shirt. An expression of stunned surprise crossed the younger man's face, changing to one of horror as he clutched at his chest. With a scream that was rage and terror combined, Ben lurched away from Blair's side.
Blair struggled to grasp the fact that he was still alive. Holland had finally acted: he had shot his own son. Eyes widening in disbelief, Blair watched his would-be murderer stagger to the squad, never even glancing at his father's motionless body. Ben slid behind the wheel and cranked the car to life. Before the shell-shocked Guide could even form a word of objection, Ben shifted the car jerkily into gear and was roaring away, his screams of pain echoing in Blair's still ringing ears.
Not convinced that it was over, Blair tried to focus on the elder Holland's motionless form, watching anxiously for some sign of life. He stared until his vision began to blur and he had to blink, but there was no sign of movement. The shooting pain of sand scraping under his eyelids brought Blair back to reality. Ben was gonesurely bleeding to death as he drove awayand his father was dead.
More bodies for the desert to claim, Blair thought bitterly. His throat was tight with grief, but he pushed it away. There would be time for that later. He had his miracle. If he didn't keep fighting, the desert would take him as well.
With a groan he rolled to his side. He needed to get to the deputy and find the keys to the handcuffs. He fought for control of his shaking muscles, but his body wouldn't respond. He settled onto his back again, breathing hard. Catching sight of the sky, he was once more reminded of his partner. The feeling of peace he'd felt earlier returned. No matter what happened now, Jim should be safe. They wouldn't be coming back for him. Closing his eyes to hold the vision close to his mind, the young Shaman told himself he'd try again in just a minute.
When Ellison touched him on the arm in warning, Heller immediately slowed the car.
"You got something?" he asked, no longer questioning the detective's amazing eyesight. Ellison had already made him a believer. The reason they had a specific trail to follow now was a result of the man's skills. He'd taken less than a minute to pick out the tracks of Holland's squad out of the rocky ground where they had captured his partner. He'd given them the direction and kept them on track over the course of the last hour's search.
"I think we've found the missing cruiser," Jim said softly, a slight edge of uncertainty in his voice. "But it's not moving. Bear to your left a bit."
Heller nodded his understanding. He guided the car around boulders and sandtraps cautiously. Driving cross-country, even in his specially equipped vehicle was always risky and he didn't want to break an axle now.
Within a few moments, he caught sight of the familiar silhouette of his deputy's squad. He glanced at Ellison and saw the detective sitting in frozen concentration in the passenger seat, his head cocked slightly to one side, his nostrils flaring as if he were scenting the air.
You don't want to know, Dave, he warned himself.
Heller slowed even further and studied the other car intently as they approached. There was a body slumped over the wheel, but no sign of anyone else in the vehicle.
"Go ahead," Jim suggested. "It's clear. Whoever's in there isn't going to cause us any trouble."
"It's not your partner, is it?"
Letting out a small sigh of relief, Heller pulled within a few feet of Holland's squad and stopped. Ellison slipped out of the Sheriff's car, moving quickly to the second vehicle. Dave was right behind him, drawing his gun and approaching more cautiously.
Jim had gone directly to the driver's door. Reaching through the open window, he shifted the body to rest against the seat. The lack of a pulse and the amount of blood covering the younger man's shirt and pooling on the floor of the car proved what he already knew.
"This is the kid that attacked us," Jim said tersely.
"Ben Holland," Heller confirmed. He placed his hand on the hood of the squad and felt the vibration from the idling motor. "Still running."
"He hasn't been here long," Jim agreed. He scanned the body and the car quickly, noting the boxes in the backseat. "Pop the trunk," he said grimly, moving to the rear of the vehicle.
With his senses dialed up, the click of the latch releasing made him jerk nervously backward. He started to open the trunk and froze. Reaching out with his senses, he was dimly aware of Heller moving to his side. The stench of blood filled his nostrils. The metallic smell carried the familiar tang of his partner. Switching his focus to hearing, he strained for some hint of the young man's heartbeat. Nothing. Visions of his Guide, lying dead inside the dark space flashed forcefully through his mind. Jaw clenched, the Sentinel pushed away the rising panic and steeled himself before raising the lid.
The trunk was empty, save for a bunched-up blanket. Jim's hands were trembling as he withdrew the bloodstained fabric. Rage at the thought that his partner had been imprisoned there vied with relief that there was no body.
"I'll call this in and redirect the search teams," Heller murmured.
Jim nodded absently. Lots of questions, few answers. Ben Holland was accounted for, although who had shot him was a mystery. Where was the elder Holland? Had there been some falling out between father and son? Or was there another party to this madness?
Don't go looking for more problems, Ellison berated himself. Finding Blair is the important thing. Focus on that.
From Bowden's comments, Sandburg had been in no shape to take them on, although it was possible that his resourceful Guide had surprised everyone once again.
"How close are we to this Dark Springs?" Jim asked grimly, tossing the blanket back into the trunk.
"About three miles from the edge of the area, but the Springs stretch out and cover nearly twelve square miles," Heller answered. Moving back to the squad and opening the driver's door, he squatted down to study Ben's body before answering. "They could have headed anywhere inside of that. About all we can do now is backtrack the squad's tracks."
"As badly injured as he was," Jim gestured with a jerk of his chin toward the younger Holland's corpse, "the trail's going to be erratic as hell. Following that could take hours and from the amount of blood on that blanket, my partner's running out of time."
"If he's still alive..."
"You don't know Sandburg," Jim said darkly, hoping he was right. "As much talent as he has for finding trouble, he has more for getting out of it by the skin of his teeth. The kid's like a cat. Nine lives and all."
At the mention of the word 'cat', a familiar rumble caught the Sentinel's attention. He whirled, scanning the landscape eagerly and froze as the yellow-white terrain suddenly took on a strange bluish cast, tinted like the dreamscape of his sentinel visions. At the top of a faraway dune, he saw a flicker of black. Ignoring the possibility of a zone-out, the Sentinel focused all his energy into extending his sight. The familiar ebony silhouette outlined against the eerie blue-black sky stood motionless for a moment, and then, with a flick of its tail, it dropped below the crest of the hill. Jim blinked, and the furnace-light heat and intense light of the desert asserted itself once more.
"Let's go," Jim demanded, stalking back to the Sheriff's squad.
Still kneeling beside the body, Heller looked up, startled. "What? Where are we going?"
"I know where he is."
"I just know, all right?" Jim leaned against the side of the car, but his gaze was fixed on the ridge where his Spirit Guide had disappeared.
Heller stood and moved to the driver's side, eyeing Jim closely. "Does this 'knowledge' have anything to do with what your captain warned me about?"
Jim's gaze swiveled back to the Sheriff. Heller shivered at the intensity he saw there. And the desperation.
"Never, mind," Dave said quickly. "I don't think I want to know."
Heller slid behind the wheel and started the engine. Jim dropped into the passenger seat and pointed the way.
Heller might have quit questioning Jim's abilities, but over the next thirty minutes, the Sentinel began to have serious doubts of his own. The strain of maintaining the connection to his still erratic sight was sorely tested as bright reality and blue-hued dreamscape flickered before his eyes. The need to follow the phantom-like trail of his Spirit Guide was bringing him closer and closer to the brink of a zone-out. In desperation, Jim resorted to digging his fingernails into his palms and using the pain as a secondary point of concentration.
The pace of their pursuit was maddeningly slow. Natural formations like dry washes and eroded embankments were no obstacle to the unearthly panther. For the men in the cruiser, however, they were another matter entirely. Jim ground his teeth his frustration every time Heller had to divert from their course.
The car lurched abruptly and jolted Jim into the dash. His concentration broken, the Sentinel was thrust into darkness for a moment. Resolutely pushing away the despair that threatened to bury him under its weight, Jim wrenched up the dial on his hearing, no longer caring whether he zoned or not. Assailed by Heller's muttered curses which rang like shouts, the horrific grinding of the engine and the screeching spin of rubber tires against sand, the Sentinel mentally shoved everything aside and let his senses spin outward, seeking the one sound that he needed to find. . He was out of the car as soon as he heard it. Ignoring Heller's surprised outcry, he scrambled blindly up a small rise, pausing at the top. The weak, thready heartbeat of his Guide thundered in his ears and gave him back the control he needed to seek the connection to his sight once more.
Vision returned in a whirling onslaught of color and intensity. Unwilling to wait until he had it completely under his command, he stumbled down the slight incline, depending on the throbbing sound of life to guide him to his partner's side.
Dropping to his knees beside Blair's prone form, he reached out to touch the younger man's shoulder, needing to physically reassure himself that this was no illusion. As soon as his fingers made contact, his vision cleared.
Blair lay on his side, his tangled and matted hair half covering his face. Gently, the Sentinel brushed the curls aside and placed his fingers on the pulse point at his Guide's throat. To his enhanced sense of touch, the beat thrummed explosively. Jim allowed himself one quick sigh of relief and then his medic training took over.
Barely touching the younger man, the Sentinel's examination of his partner took only a few moments. He winced at the fevered heat radiating from the younger man's body, but smiled in grim relief when he found nothing broken. Jim hissed angrily as he checked the freely bleeding bullet wound. The physical contact began to draw Blair back to consciousness and the older man placed a hand on his shoulder to both reassure and restrain him.
The clatter of disturbed stones rolling down the hill announced Heller's arrival. The Sheriff moved to Jim's side and laid a first aid kit, blanket and two bottles of water on the ground before crossing over to check on his deputy. The Sentinel's focus remained on his Guide. He already knew that Holland was dead. The only heartbeat in the midst of this carnage had been Blair's.
With one hand keeping the pressure on the wound, Jim flipped open the first aid kit, quickly scanning its inventory. The supplies were less than he'd hoped for, but there were bandages, a small bottle of an antiseptic solution and an antibiotic salve. He could at least clean and dress the injury until they could get Blair to medical help. Jim pulled off his own belt and wrapped it around the existing bandage as a temporary tourniquet.
Heller was back at his side pressing the keys to the cuffs into Jim's hand before he moved away again to deal with Holland's corpse. The Sentinel nodded gratefully and unlocked the restraints around his partner's wrists, tossing them aside. As gently as he could, he rolled Blair to his back and eased his arms out from under his body, placing the folded blanket under the younger man's head as a pillow. There was a soft groan and the familiar blue eyes flickered open, staring upward in dazed confusion.
"Hey, partner. It's good to see you still in one piece." The Sentinel's smile was genuine, lighting his entire face.
Blair's eyes fluttered shut, the dark lashes trembling against sunburned skin for a moment before they raised again. The gaze that his Guide focused on the Sentinel was filled with peace, but edged with pain. Cracked lips moved finally, but no sound accompanied the effort.
"Hold on a second, Chief," Jim cautioned. Grabbing one of the smaller cloth bandages from the kit, he moistened it from one of the water bottles and held it to his Guide's lips. "Suck on this first and then we'll get you a real drink. You hearing me okay?"
Blair managed a nod. His eyes closed again when the cool, moist cloth was placed in his mouth. Jim kept a reassuring hand on the younger man's shoulder. After a few moments, he gently pulled the cloth away and dampened it again. Blair made no effort to move, seemingly content to let Jim take control.
"Let's try that drink now, Chief," Jim urged softly after a few more repetitions with the moistened bandage. He slid his hand under Blair's head to support it and raised the younger man slightly while bringing the bottle to the anthropologist's lips. "Small sips," the Sentinel cautioned. "Just take it slow."
Another brief, almost imperceptible nod acknowledged Jim's directions. Sensitized as he was to his Guide, the Sentinel felt the immediate relaxing of the younger man's body as the precious moisture eased his dry mouth and throat. He let Blair drink sparingly for a few moments, then pulled the bottle away and settled him back onto the make-shift pillow.
Blair's eyes opened again and fixed on his Sentinel's face.
The word was a whisper, Sentinel-soft, but the recognition and emotions that it contained washed away the last vestiges of panic in Jim's heart.
"I know this will be a problem for you, Sandburg, but don't try to talk right now." His mock growl was answered with a slight grin from the younger man.
"How's he doing?"
Blair's gaze shifted to find the new voice. His eyes widened and he flinched toward Jim instinctively when he saw the man's uniform. The Sentinel's grip tightened on his shoulder, holding him in place.
"Easy, Chief," Jim said soothingly. "This is Sheriff Heller."
His Guide's anxious gaze sought his immediately, seeking confirmation that this was help, not more trouble.
"It's okay, Blair. The Sheriff's on our side. Deputy Holland is dead."
"And we found his son a few miles back," Heller said softly, meeting the uncertain stare that Blair turned toward him. "He's dead too."
Blair drew a shuddering breath.
"Bowden found us on the road and told us what happened. After you sent him off he circled back and overheard their plans. That's how we found you," Jim explained.
"They said... they had you..." Blair whispered. "How...?"
"I had some help," Jim answered cryptically. "I'll fill you in on all the details later, buddy. Right now we need to get you patched up and out of here."
Jim glanced up and met Heller's gaze. "Any chance we can get a chopper out here? Or at least get some medical help to meet us half way?"
"Closest med-flight capabilities are based out of the airport you flew into. I've got Doc Myers coming in from Evansville. My dispatcher managed to track him down earlier, but he was out on rounds on the other side of the county. He should be in town by the time we get back."
Jim forced himself to stay calm, knowing that Blair would take his cue from his behavior. He patted his Guide's shoulder reassuringly and smiled down at him.
"Looks like you're stuck with my medic skills for now, Chief."
"Great... now I get... to be... a practice... dummy..."
"It'll be like old times, partner," Jim grinned, plucking the items he'd need out of the kit.
"Just remember... there's already... a hole... in my... anatomy, man... I don't need... any more..." The trust that glowed from the younger man's eyes belied the slightly caustic comments.
"Relax, Sandburg, and practice some of that meditation you're always pushing on me," Jim murmured, pulling Blair's Swiss army knife from his pocket. "I'm going to release the pressure on this," he explained quietly, barely touching the tourniquet. "It's going to hurt like hell for a few seconds. Just breathe through it."
The Sentinel waited until Blair's eyes were closed and he felt a little of the tension ease from his partner's body.
"How can I help?" Heller asked quietly.
"Hold his leg still. I want to clean the wound out first and then apply a new bandage," Jim answered.
Loosening the belt he slid it higher onto the thigh and quickly tightened it again. Blair winced at the pressure of the tourniquet, but he remained quiet. Monitoring his Guide's heartbeat and respiration automatically, Jim carefully removed the remains of his shirt and the old bandage.
The Sentinel bit back a snarl of anger when he cut the seam on Blair's jeans and peeled back the fabric. There were heavily purpled bruises around the site of the injury. His fingers traced the well defined marks and his jaw clenched. He knew what had caused them. Shaking off the rage that was building, he forced himself to concentrate on the wound itself.
"I'm going to flush this out, Blair," he explained softly, motioning for Heller to be ready. With a deft twist he opened the antiseptic solution and poured it over the bullet wound.
Blair's body arched and his head jerked backward. Heller tightened his hold and Jim flushed the injury again. A choked cry of agony forced itself through the younger man's clenched teeth and his whole body shuddered. There was an abrupt change to his breathing which the Sentinel caught immediately.
"Is he all right?" Heller asked anxiously.
"Just passed out," Jim mumbled tersely. "Let's get this done before he wakes back up."
Jim worked as quickly as he could, making certain that the wound was free from sand and dirt before applying the salve and the new bandage. There were some signs of infection already present, but until they could get Blair to a hospital, this was the best he could do.
As Jim finished, Heller disappeared over the hill to bring the car closer. Placing his hand on his Guide's forehead, the Sentinel monitored the younger man, breathing easier himself as Blair began to regain consciousness.
Pain and utter exhaustion clouded the normally bright eyes when they opened.
"It's all over, Blair. You did fine."
"I passed out..." came the whispered reply.
"Is that what happened? And here I thought you'd found a new relaxation technique," Jim teased.
"Sorry... to be... such... a... wimp, man..."
The Sentinel gently wiped the traces of tears from his Guide's face with another moistened cloth. "You'd better be careful what you say about my partner," Jim snarled softly. "I have it on good authority that his 'Blessed Protector' thinks differently."
"And... his... Sentinel...?"
"His Sentinel knows better. You don't want to mess with him. Believe me."
"I... retract... the statement..."
Jim shifted his hand to grip Blair's shoulder, squeezing it affectionately. The crunch of tires and the rev of an engine announced Heller's arrival before the cruiser came around the hill.
"Express ride to town's here, Chief."
The Sentinel slid an arm under Blair's shoulder and eased him into a sitting position. Blair grabbed at the older man and shook his head almost violently.
"No... I don't ... want to... go there..." he protested.
"Jim... the reservation... please..."
The Sentinel looked up at Heller questioningly. "Do they have medical facilities?"
"Nate's... Grandfather..." Blair gasped, drawing the Sentinel's gaze back to his Guide. "He's the tribe's... medicine man..."
"Sandburg, I appreciate your aversion to Western medicine and anything that smacks of the manufactured pharmaceutical, but this isn't the time to try out some native cure," Jim objected.
"Please, Jim... he can help..."
"What about it?" Jim asked Heller.
"He's probably talking about Joseph," the Sheriff answered.
"The old man I met earlier?" The image of intense brown eyes flashed through the Sentinel's mind.
"Yes. He's one of the Tribal Elders, but he also doubles as their doctor..."
"But?" Jim pressed, noting the hesitation in the man's voice.
"Jim... I don't... want to... go back... to that town... too much... negative... energy there, man..."
The rough, pleading whisper tore at the Sentinel's heart. "Is Joseph capable of dealing with this injury or not, Sheriff?" Jim demanded impatiently.
"Yes, he can. And the reservation is closer. Let's get him into the car," Heller answered abruptly, all trace of uncertainly gone in the blink of an eye.
With the Sheriff's help they got Blair positioned sideways in the back seat. Jim slid in next to him, pulling his partner closer so he could support the younger man with his own body. Moments later they were on the move. Wrapping one long arm around Blair's slim shoulders, the Sentinel felt his Guide's weight settle against him trustingly.
"Don't think this means you're going to get around me every time, Sandburg," Jim muttered, hugging the younger man closer.
"Don't... worry... I know... who's in charge... of this... partnership..."
Yeah, I bet you do, Chief. I bet you do.
The Sentinel felt every bump and jolt of the 45 minute trip back to the main road. He knew his Guide felt them, too. When he sensed the contact of rubber against blacktop, he gave Blair a gentle squeeze. "Just a little while longer, Chief," he whispered across the top of the curly head that rested under his chin.
There was no response from the younger man. Blair's fever had spiked again and he'd lost consciousness several miles back. All Jim could do now was hold him and wait. But that didn't mean that he would wait patiently. Or silently. Keeping up a soft thread of reassuring words, the Sentinel closed his eyes and focused on the weakening life signs of his Guide, tightening his hold as if by touch alone he could will his own strength into the failing body.
Heller caught the faint one-sided conversation and glanced up into the rear-view mirror, studying his passengers. There was more than just comfort in the grip that Ellison maintained on the younger man. There was a fierce protectiveness. Dave recalled the comments their captain had made and shook his head. No one in their right mind would attempt coming between the detective and his partner. Curiously, Heller got the sense that the reverse would be true as well.
Flipping on the cruiser's lights, the Sheriff pushed the pedal to the floor. One hand gripping the wheel tightly to keep the racing car in control, Dave grabbed the handset for the radio and contacted his office. He still had search teams that had to be notified. Molly would coordinate the retrieval of Bob's body and that of his son's. He'd fill her in on the younger man's condition and have Doc Myers get in touch with the reservation. Time was of the essence now and they still had a long drive ahead of them. At least he could set things in motion before their arrival.
Jim was sweating in response to the heat pouring off his partner. Holding the younger man was like gripping a live coal. Blair was fading in and out, his body shaking with stress and exhaustion. And pain.
"How much farther?" Jim asked the Sheriff, catching the man's gaze in the mirror.
"About ten more minutes. We're already on Reservation property."
"Jim..." Blair's whisper pulled the Sentinel's attention back to the younger man immediately.
"What is it, Chief?"
"You have to... promise me..."
"Promise you what"
"To stay... safe..."
The odd tone of his Guide's voice made the Sentinel stiffen in fear. He forced a lightness that he didn't feel into his answer. "Hey, watching my back is your job, buddy."
Blair's hands came up, clutching Jim's arm with surprising strength. "Promise me... if something happens"
"Blair, nothing's going to"
"All right. I'll make a deal with you. You promise me that you're going to keep fighting and I'll promise to stay safe."
"Take it or leave it, Chief," Jim said firmly.
He waited for an answer, but there was nothing beyond the unhealthy rasp of his Guide's uneven breathing. Alarmed, the Sentinel shook the younger man sharply. "Blair? Damn it, Sandburg, answer me."
"Don't leave the road, Jim," came Blair's delirious whisper.
"Heller, we need to make time now!" Jim called out frantically.
The Sentinel felt the surge as the car accelerated. Pulling his Guide even closer, he whispered fiercely into the younger man's ear. "Answer or not, I'm holding you to our deal, Chief."
Focused on his Guide's every breath and heartbeat, the Sentinel never felt the car slide to a stop, didn't register on the urgent cries that filled the air around them. It was only a sudden awareness of hands trying to pull the younger man from his grasp that brought him back to reality.
He struggled against them, gripping Blair even tighter until a sun-browned hand clasped his arm. Looking up into vaguely familiar dark eyes that promised help and begged for trust, Jim abruptly released his hold. Other hands pulled his Guide from him, easing the younger man out of the car.
Jim fumbled with the door handle and climbed out shakily. A firm hand on his arm caught and held him. Angrily, he spun toward the obstacle that was keeping him from his Guide, and met Dave Heller's worried stare.
"Take it easy, Detective. You've had a busy day yourself," the Sheriff murmured.
Jim shirked out of the older man's grip and took a quick glance in the direction that the men had taken his partner. The nearest building was a modest, wood and stucco house that blended seamlessly into the natural surroundings. Bunches of drying herbs hung from the wooden rafters of the covered porch. It looked like what it wasa home, not a medical facility.
"You said they could help him!" The Sentinel hissed, dismayed at the sight before him. Why had he agreed to this? Blair needed a hospital and doctors, not some mystical herbal cure.
"They can," Heller responded. The Sheriff's gaze shifted beyond Jim and he spoke rapidly in a language that the Sentinel didn't understand. Ellison turned and found Joseph at his side.
"What did he say?" the Sentinel demanded.
"He apologizes for you," Joseph answered. "Come. We will see to your companion's needs, and then your own." With a nod to Heller, he added, "All will be well, Sheriff. Thank you for bringing him so quickly."
Dazed, Jim glanced at Heller who gave him a reassuring pat on the arm and a gentle shove. "Go on. Your partner needs you."
With his own head pounding and the exhaustion that he'd been holding back for so long finally claiming it's due, Jim stumbled toward the house. Joseph had already disappeared inside.
Stepping into the dwelling, he felt some of the fatigue drop away. The air was cool and rich with moisture that refreshed his parched skin. Warm smells of home, hearth and earth filled his nostrils. He breathed deeply, absorbing their healing properties. A soft sound made him aware of a young Native American man at his side. Roughly the same age as Blair, he had the same penetrating eyes as the elder Medicine Man.
"I'm Nate," the young man explained. "Grandfather is with Blair. I'll take you to him."
The Sentinel followed the younger man to the back of the house and stopped at the doorway to a large bedroom. Blair lay on the bed, his body draped in wet towels. To Jim's surprise, two IV bottles hung from a rack, feeding through long tubes already secured to his partner's arm. In contrast to the obviously 'Western' medicine, there was a strong odor of sage and other herbs permeating the room. The Sentinel fought to stifle a sneeze. Turning down his sense of smell he moved forward to stand at his partner's side.
"The fever is high, but the infection has not completely taken hold yet," Joseph said without glancing up. His hands were busy, moving rapidly to apply some kind of poultice to the wound.
Blair moaned and Jim reached out, placing his hand on the younger man's forehead and murmuring soft reassurances. After a moment, his Guide quieted. A touch on his arm guided Jim to a chair next to the bed and he sank into it gratefully. He encircled Blair's wrist with his own trembling fingers, listening intently to the throb of the anthropologist's heartbeat.
Joseph covered the wound with a light bandage and rearranged the wet cloths, replacing several with fresh towels that he lifted from a basin of ice water. He placed his own hand against Blair's brow and Jim glanced up at the soft, sing-song melody that the old man began murmuring. He watched in amazement as his Guide seemed to relax even more, his breathing shifting into the pattern of normal sleep.
"Now we must wait," Joseph said softly.
Speechless with his own weariness and fear, the Sentinel simply nodded. Hoping that his presence might lend the younger man strength, he settled more deeply into the chair. Dimly aware that his own injuries were being attended to, he tightened his grip around the slim wrist, prepared to sit sentry over his Guide for however long it took.
Jim woke from a light doze. The soft, musical noises of the desert night brought him fully alert. Hours had passed. He reached out automatically and found the familiar heartbeat of his Guide. Relieved at the steady sound, it took him a moment to realize that someone else was in the room. Joseph. The old man placed a hand on Blair's forehead.
"The fever has broken. He will be well," the old man murmured, confirming Jim's own assessment. Joseph seated himself in a chair on the other side of Blair's bed and took the younger man's hand in his. "Now he will rest and draw upon our strength."
Jim glanced down at his own hand, long fingers entwined with Blair's. He found it somewhat unnerving to realize that Joseph had read him so easily, and shifted uncomfortably.
"Earlier, what I said, how I acted... I meant no disrespect..." he stammered.
"None taken," Joseph replied softly. "Your concern was for your companion. I saw it for what it was, Warrior."
The Sentinel looked up and met the serene dark eyes curiously. "Why do you call me that?"
"It is what and who you are."
"I was a soldier once, long ago. I'm a cop, now. Not a warrior."
"You are the sum of many things, some of this lifetime, some of the past. As is Blair. I am pleased that he has found someone to help him balance his destiny."
"His destiny?" Jim blinked in startled surprise. "You... you're Nate's Grandfather."
"You knew that," Joseph teased softly.
"Yes, but I didn't realize... Blair told me about you. About his first trip here. About what happened... what you said..." Anger flared inside the Sentinel, and his eyes flashed cold fire. "How could you do that to him? Don't you know how it affected him, seeing those bodies?"
"He had to learn," the old Indian answered.
"Oh, he learned all right. He's carried the horror of that lesson with him ever since, " Jim snarled.
Joseph sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, the intensity of the stare was nearly enough to make the Sentinel flinch.
"Would you have had me leave him to face the world as he was?" The older man's voice was a bare whisper, filled with its own fire. "When he came to us he was filled with the arrogance and blind innocence of a child. He had no teacher, no protector, then. No one to guide him on his journey. For one with his gifts, it was a path that could easily have ended in tragedy. The lesson I taught was hard. I took no pleasure in it, Warrior. But had I not intervened, he would not have survived to find you."
The Medicine Man's words sent a chill through the Sentinel, washing away his anger. "What do you know... about Blair... about me?"
Joseph glanced down at Blair. He reached out and smoothed a stray curl and a smile crept over his face. "I see the child grown to a man. A young Shaman who has become wiser in the ways of the spirits. I feel a heart that beats with love and loyalty. I hear a teacher who has learned to listen." He looked up at the Sentinel and the smile became a rueful grin. "Well, most of the time, anyway."
Jim's own answering grin and the shake of his head made the older man chuckle.
"And you, Warrior," Joseph became serious again as he stared into the Sentinel's eyes. "I have seen you in my dreams."
"Among my people there are stories of men who were chosen to be protectors. Strong of body and mind, gifted with special abilities to guard the tribe. They speak of a Warrior who's strength is not just of the flesh, but of the heart. Who is guided by the spirits, but who lives in this world. A man of courage and integrity. These stories have been handed down in word, in our songs, and, to those so honored, in our dreams. They are a part of us. A reminder so that we do not forget, even if such a being should not appear among us for generations."
Jim was quiet for a moment, comparing the older man's version of the Sentinel myth to the legends and stories that Blair had tracked down. With a rueful smile of his own, he shook his head.
"And you believe me to be this... Warrior?"
"A title of respect," Joseph murmured, inclining his head in a quick bow. "It is the best translation from our tongue to yours. Perhaps you prefer another?"
"I am a Sentinel," Jim said quietly, meeting the brown eyes with a surprising peace within his own. "But I would be honored to accept your designation, Elder."
"And Blair? He is your Shaman. Among my people that too is a word of honor, but"
"He is my Guide. And more. The way of the Shaman was passed to him by another."
"He has always been a Shaman," Joseph said firmly. "The signs were there when he came to us."
"'Balanced on the edge of two worlds,'" Jim murmured, glancing down at his sleeping friend. He studied his Guide as if seeing him for the first time.
"The Warrior's strength comes in part from his companion," Joseph continued, his voice gentle, but sure. "In our tribe, this has always been a Shaman. One who touches the world as we see it, yet who also walks the ways of the spirits. It is a great responsibility. To protect and guide the Warrior is only one aspect of his charge. He is also meant to bring change. To enlighten. To bring hope. To see to the needs of the whole tribe."
"That's who he is," Jim acknowledged, thinking of ways Blair had changed not just one lost and lonely cop's life, but those around him as well. "I just wish..."
"That it was not so dangerous?"
Jim looked up and nodded. "He's so young for this. I know he's a man, not a child, but sometimes he seems like one. He's so innocent and trusting. In my world, that can be deadly."
"You cannot keep him from what he must do," the Medicine Man cautioned. "To do that would be to ask him to deny himself. His body may be young, but his spirit and his heart are filled with wisdom."
"I'd be happier if some of that wisdom could keep him out of trouble," Jim muttered. "Some instincts for self-preservation would be good, too."
"Yeah, but then... my 'Blessed Protector'... would get... lazy..."
The whispered comment from his Guide brought a smile to the Sentinel's face. Jim squeezed Blair's hand gently and stared into the sleepy blue eyes.
"Even 'Blessed Protectors' need some time off, Chief," he answered, pleased to see the gleam of amusement in Blair's gaze. "Which is what I'm going to get, because you're not moving from this bed for the next three days."
"But Jim... I should be fine... with a good night's rest... and the dig..."
"Has been there for many years and will be there when you are well," Joseph interrupted firmly.
Blair's gaze shifted back and forth between the two older men. Seeing the look of determination in Joseph's eyes and the satisfied grin on his partner's face, he groaned. "Great... Two of you... hovering. How'd I get... so lucky."
"Destiny," Joseph answered. He patted Blair on the arm and rose to his feet.
Before the older man could move away, Blair reached out and grabbed at his sleeve. "Grandfather... thank you," he whispered, eyes blazing with emotion.
The Medicine Man nodded and took the younger man's hand in his. A shadow of regret flickered across the older man's face. "I was hard on you once, Young One. I knew no other way."
"I know," Blair reassured him. "You taught me well. And I am in your debt once more."
"There are no debts between one Shaman and another," Joseph murmured, eyes lighting with pride as he released Blair's hand. "Only honor."
Blair nodded and leaned back into the pillow, the exchange draining him of his strength.
"I'll leave him in your care, Warrior," the old man murmured.
"My thanks as well, Elder," Jim answered.
Blair's curious gaze flickered to his partner, but he waited until the older man left the room before asking one of the hundred questions that were whirling in his mind.
"A title of respect," Jim responded quietly. He turned his attention to Blair and shot him a glare. "It's a pleasant change from the disrespect I get from you, Darwin."
"Me?" Blair's high pitched squeak of surprise and dismay made Jim grin. Seeing the twinkle in his partner's eyes, Blair fought to hide the answering smile that threatened to split his face. His Sentinel was teasing him, which meant that all was going to be right with his world. "I'm not the one with the book full of inane nicknames, Detective," he muttered in disgust, closing his eyes and settling back into the bed. "Respect, huh? Well I'll be much more respectful if you let me get some sleep. And get some yourself. Otherwise I'll be the one hovering over you."
"Sleep well, Blair," Jim said softly, meeting the quick squeeze that Blair had given his hand with one of his own.
The soft warmth of the morning sun filtered into the bedroom, accompanied by a fitful breeze that swirled the unique scents of the reservation around the two sleeping figures. The caress of those sensations carried Blair from uneasy dreams to groggy awareness. Prodded by instinct, his gaze shifted immediately to the Sentinel. A maelstrom of anxious thoughts brought him fully awake.
Fresh bandage on his head, but no new blood, and just a few bruises... that's good, right? I mean, he's here in the chair next to me, not in a bed, so he must be fine... not that his sitting there actually means that he's not hurt... he'd do that... stay here and wait 'til he was sure I was okay before he took care of himself... but Grandfather probably wouldn't stand for that... so that means that he IS okay... Wonder how his vision's doing?... Gotta remind him to take it easy for a while... Shit, look at that sunburn... need to dial those pain receptors down, definitely... hmm... Don't recognize that shirt... someone must have been keeping an eye on him... probably Grandfather or maybe Nate... Looks like he's working on at least a two day, five o'clock shadow... matches the dark circles under his eyes... stress lines around those baby blues, too... man, he must be exhausted... hope somebody's been feeding him, otherwise he's gonna wake up like a grouchy bear with a growling stomach and an incredibly stiff neck...
A slight smile teased at the corner's of his mouth. He'd shifted from Guide to Mother Hen mode.
Jeez, I'm as bad as Jim with this hovering stuff.
The smile broadened into a grin when he realized that the Sentinel's strong fingers were still entwined with his. The heat of the contact soothed the Guide, enfolding him in a blanket of safety and security.
You're always here for me, aren't you Jim? he thought fondly.
Reality crashed down without warning. The ice cold hand of terror gripped him, reaching deep inside to freeze his heart and the grin abruptly disappeared. His throat constricted and he couldn't breathe, couldn't move, couldn't feel anything beyond an overwhelming sense of loss. Somehow he managed to close his eyes, holding back the flood of tears that threatened to break free from his soul.
God, I almost lost you!
For long, black moments he stood at the gateway to despair, feeling the pull of that gut-wrenching tide. A shudder rippled through his body and suddenly he felt the increased pressure from the hand that gripped his. Even with that silent support, it took an extreme effort of will to close the doors on those devastating emotions.
Jim isn't dead. He isn't blind. He's all right. Open your eyes and see it!
His Sentinel's voice released him from the last vestiges of the terror and he opened his eyes to meet the older man's concerned stare.
"I didn't... I didn't mean to wake you," Blair whispered, forcing the words through a throat that was still too tight. "I'm all right, but you look like hell. Go back to sleep. It's still early."
"I'll sleep when you do," Jim answered quietly.
Blair saw the resolve in the gaze that the Sentinel leveled at him and he knew that arguingeven if he had the strength for itwas pointless. With a soft sigh, he turned his head and stared out the window. He tried to focus on the yellow-brown desert hills, but his gaze kept drifting to the skythe pale blue that matched...
I' don't want to remember that... I knew I was going to die. I saw the look in Ben's eyes... but the deputy... Oh god, he shot his own son for me. Jim said he was dead, didn't he? Oh god, oh god, oh god, NO!
With a stifled groan Blair returned his gaze to the room and stared down at his feet, two oddly shaped lumps hiding under the light blanket. He wished he could pull the fabric up over his head and never come outthat he could somehow avoid the concerned stare that bored into him, searching for his secrets. He couldn't meet those eyes right now. They reminded him things that were too painful to remember and impossible to forget.
"Chief, look at me."
Blair screwed his eyes shut and shook his head. There was no escape behind those tight shutters either. The blackness reached for him immediately, thrusting him back into the endless oppressive night within the trunk of Holland's car. He could smell the gas fumes, feel every jarring jolt, found himself counting the seconds as they ticked away his life... waiting...
Waiting for death...
A strong hand cupped his chin, gently forcing him to raise his head.
Too much anger... too much senseless violence... too much death...
"Blair, open your eyes... please..."
The distress in his Sentinel's voice was more than he could resist. Steeling himself to look death in the eye, long lashes swept upward...
And met life instead.
The same powerful feeling of peace that he'd felt in the face of Ben's rage lived in the Sentinel's eyes. The tug of that ocean current was stronger than the tides of despair, towing him toward safety, giving him back his ability to speak.
"Holland shot his own son..."
"We guessed as much," Jim murmured encouragingly.
"Ben was going to kill me. I looked into his eyes and there was nothing there. No spark of humanity. Nothing. But I keep wondering, you know? His father... it was like he could still see something inside... something worth preserving at any price... he loved him so much... I heard it in his voice... I saw it in his eyes..."
"Maybe Holland only saw what he wanted to see, Chief."
"Love is blind? But then why did he save me? Why choose me over his own son?"
"I don't know, Blair," Jim answered, releasing his hold on the younger man's chin and settling back into the chair. "Maybe he decided that the only way to save his son was to act against himto stop him from becoming any more of a monster than he already was. Others have made stranger choices in the name of salvation."
"But it wasn't necessary. It didn't have to happen. None of it did. " Blair drew a deep, shaky breath. "I don't understand the anger, Jim. Or the hate. It's there, waiting inside of peopleeven me. It just erupts without warning. Sometimes it's so strong that it doesn't seem like there's any way to fight it. It's like a mindless animal. You can't reason with it, you can't hold it back, you can't protect anyone from it, no matter how hard you try."
The Sentinel stared at his anguished Guide, wishing his own ability with words matched his young partner's. He felt Joseph's presence, waiting, watching from the hallway. For a moment, Jim had a vision of Blair, teetering dangerously on the edge of a bottomless abyss.
"You think you're somehow responsible, don't you?" he asked quietly.
"All I know is that two people are dead, Jim. And it could have been worse. You could have died as well. And Connie. And Bowden. If we'd never taken this damn trip"
"Our coming here doesn't alter the fact that Ben Holland was a murderer, Chief, " Jim interrupted forcefully. "He'd killed before and he would have continued to take more lives until he was stopped."
"But his father"
"Made his own choices."
"He killed his own son, Jim! No father should have to face that. The only good thing I can see coming out of this horror show is that Holland's not around to feel the pain of that action. But I am."
"Damn, it Blair, this was not your fault."
"Believe me, man. I'm not taking the blame for all of it. But I do have to live with the fact that my actions, my decisionshell my very presence hereput people in danger and ultimately two men died. How do I deal with that? I really wish you could tell me, because right now, I don't have any answers and I don't even know where to start looking for them."
"Maybe instead of tearing yourself apart, you should take a good look around, Sandburg." Jim's sharp words made Blair look up in surprise. "I know you, Blair," the Sentinel's tone was softer as he continued. "Right now you're hurting because you couldn't stop this tragedy. You couldn't, Chief. No one could have. But for all the pain and grief, there's hope, too. Think about Bowden. Your words, your actions reached him. Not mine. Not countless others before you. He was buried under the weight of years of anger. Your being here made a difference. He'll never be the same. Nor will anyone else whose life you touch."
Seeing a flicker of light in the blue eyes that had earlier reflected only darkness, the Sentinel opened his soul, hoping it would be enough.
"You are my Guide, my Shaman, my partner and my friend. I draw strength from your presence. I draw hope from your heart. That's the only answer I can give you."
Blair's eyes closed and he took a deep, cleansing breath. Jim's words had soothed the rough edges of his pain, opening the way for healing to begin. "It's enough," he whispered finally. "More than enough."
Jim basked in the morning sunshine, relaxing in a chair on the porch of Joseph's home. He patted his still full stomach, the result of another wonderful breakfast and let his senses roam outward lazily. The sounds and smells of the small community were already imprinted on his awareness and he found himself chuckling at his self-imposed guard duty.
Guess a Sentinel's never really on vacation.
He pulled his attention back, focusing inside of the house and monitored his sleeping partner for a few moments. Blair was still dealing with his inner demons, but the attacks of doubt and grief were becoming less frequent. There was a light in his eyes again, one that the Sentinel had feared might be gone forever. Physically, he was healing quickly. The damage to his hearing had, thankfully, been only temporary, and although his strength was easily exhausted, there were no other aftereffects of the infection and fever that had nearly overpowered the slim body. The bullet wound and bruises would take more recovery time, but the danger of losing him was past. A point Blair himself had emphasized only the night before, reminding Jim that he had promised that today he'd be allowed up and around for more than just a quick walk around the house to stretch his muscles.
The Sentinel sighed and shook his head in bemused admiration for the energy of youth. Keeping Blair in bed for three days had tried everyone's patience. Fortunately, the younger man's awe and respect for Nate's grandfather had kept the anthropologist in line, especially when Joseph had threatened to withhold the stories that he'd promised. Once Jim had explained about the Warrior myth, Blair had pestered the Medicine Man for every detail. He'd whined about the loss of his computer and notebooks until Nate had produced a battered recorder and an abundant stack of tapes.
Jim stretched, rolling stiff shoulder muscles. The lack of activity was starting to get to him as well and he welcomed the day's trip down to the dig site. He'd been subjected to one of Joseph's thorough exams the previous afternoon and passed with flying colors. His vision was back to Sentinel-normal, even though the lumps on his head were still slightly tender.
A group of small children raced by, tossing greetings at him. The Sentinel smiled and waved in return. He was still uncomfortable with the deference accorded him by the older members of the community, and wondered how much Joseph had said about him and his abilities. Not that he felt any fear about these people knowing who, or what he wasit was disconcerting to know that he was being compared to a legend.
A gust of wind brought with it the smell of dust and engine oil. Glancing toward the main entrance, Jim sat back and waited. Within a few minutes, Dave Heller's cruiser pulled up in front of the house. The older man waved in greeting and popped the trunk of the car.
"Got some things that I thought you might want," Heller explained, climbing out of the squad and making his way to the rear of the vehicle.
Jim's curiosity was satisfied when he recognized Blair's backpack and his own bag among the things that the Sheriff brought to the porch.
"Sandburg will be glad to have this back," Jim murmured, flipping open the pack and checking the contents quickly. "He's been dying without his computer."
Heller grinned and settled himself on the chair next to Jim's. "How's he feeling?"
"Based on the moaning and groaning he's doing over having to stay put in bed, I'd say he's fine," Jim answered with a laugh. His expression turned suddenly serious and he extended his hand toward the older man. "I wanted to thank you. Your quick actions saved his life. I owe you."
"Seems to me, you were the one doing all the work," Dave answered, taking the offered hand and giving it a firm shake. "Just put in a good word for me with your captain. And you don't owe me. If anything, I'm beholding to you." At Jim's confused expression, the older man shook his head, his face grim, but at the same time, strangely at peace.
"It appears that Bob Holland's involvement was limited to what happened with you and your partner. He and I were never that tight, but he was a good man once, and in the end he remembered that. Ben's another story. His two buddies were eager to talk once we got them rolling. We've managed to find the remains of several bodies. I'm still waiting for confirmations, but it looks like we're going to be able to close most of the missing person cases that have been on the books."
"I'm sure that will be of some comfort to the families," Jim offered quietly. The loss of their loved ones would never be erased, but the uncertainty of 'not knowing' would be over.
"It is," Dave answered, shifting his gaze to study to quiet desert landscape. "From what we've been able to piece together, we're pretty sure that it was Ben that my partner was chasing when he died. The explanation doesn't alter the grief that we felt then or change how much we miss him, but it does make it easier to move on."
Jim nodded, remaining silent. He'd heard the story of Heller's loss. He was more than grateful that he wasn't grieving over the death of his own partner. Once was more than enough for any man.
Heller stood abruptly and gestured to the items that he'd brought. "Tell your partner I said 'hello' and that I'm sorry I couldn't get these out sooner."
"I appreciate your bringing them. And for filling me in," Jim rose to his feet and followed the Sheriff down to the squad.
"Give me a call when you're ready to head back," Dave offered. "I'll send a car out for you."
"Thanks. We're going to be here a little longer than we originally planned," Jim answered. "If you run into Bowden, would you tell him that Blair would like to see him?"
"I'll stop at his place on the way back. Bowden came into town a couple days ago. He was asking about Blair, and about you, too. Seems your partner's brought about a real change in that young man."
Jim smiled, remembering Joseph's words.
"That's what he does, Sheriff. That's who he is."
~ End ~
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Page last updated 8/15/03.