(See Page 1 for Disclaimer, Rating, and Author's Notes)
Judgments (Page 2 of 2)
by K. Ryn
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.