DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Paramount Studios and Pet Fly Productions. These stories are offered for the enjoyment of the fans. No money has exchanged hands.

Rock and a Hard Place by Eddie


Act I

The shadow moved through the underbrush, clearly more sure of its footing than he was. No matter, he had to find it. Had to find the shadow. Stop the shadow. Motioning to the sleek panther next to him, he watched as the agile creature sniffed the air, catching the scent even HE recognized -- something rotten, something very, very foul... With an intense golden gaze, the sinuous cat nodded then took off after the shadow as it rustled through greenery. He couldn't let the panther go by itself. The need to follow was so overwhelming that before he had time to question his own safety, he was running after the beast.

As he ran, he could feel a strange energy within his chest. The sound of his own heart pounded into his ears, each beat louder than the one before, until there was no other sound. He could feel his perspective intensifying, his body growing slowly lower, until he was on the same level as the panther. Looking around as best he could, he realized his body was no long human... no longer upright. He was the wolf, the spirit of his dreams...

The beating sound of his heart was replaced with the sounds of the jungle around him. The rustling of leaves and a long, low rasping growl alerted him to the panther's presence on the other side of the bushes. Stalking forward, he could see the clearing, hear the growling. With little difficulty, his ears picked up the sound of the shadow, while instinct registered the horrible reality that it was not a mere shadow. The creature, Evil, was facing off against the panther.

Against his partner.

Habit drove him to the edge of the clearing, the need to be there, the desire to help, kept him close and watchful. The panther pawed the dirt in the, baring its fangs and claws as it faced the cornered shadow figure. Something in him knew the fight was not over, not yet. Very few cornered animals give up easily. The hair on the scruff of his neck was standing straight up, prickling at the evil presence. Twitching an ear in the direction of the fighting, he heard it. A rattle of danger, a stealthy shifting of branches and forest floor covering that the panther would not catch. With all its senses focused on the fight, his partner, the panther, was completely vulnerable to the slithering menace. He had to help, had to intercept...

Lunging into the open space behind the panther, he stood opposite to the deadly rattlesnake watching warily, but not moving. As it coiled to attack, he looked down at it, suddenly realizing he was once again human yet still on all fours... The rattle sounded just slightly faster, then stopped. In that instant, Blair felt the fangs dig into his neck, sinking deep as he fell to the ground. The poison burned in his throat, made his limbs heavy.

Once again his heart was pounding in his ears....

Thump. Thump. Thump.... Thump...... thump......thmp........... thm...........

... then it stopped.


Blair was brutally awake. Eyes open wide, hands gripping the armrests, the hand on his shoulder was the only thing keeping him in the seat. "Man!! Don't do that!" Closing his eyes, he tried to relax his suddenly tight chest by taking a couple of shallow breaths.

"Meditating again?" Ellison shook his head, then felt the cabin pressure dip and checked his seatbelt. "You started that after take-off and your chest is thumping like a tympani drum solo. What makes you think it'll calm you now?"

There was a dinging sound, light and slightly resonant, and a pleasant voice came over the speaker. "We'll be landing at Merced Air Terminal in a few minutes. Please fasten your seatbelts as we begin our descent. We hope you have enjoyed your flight...."

Blair took one last, long calming breath, exhaling rather noisily through clenched teeth.

Jim smiled, popping a piece of gum into his mouth and chewing vigorously. "We've got a reservation around here tonight, so we'll grab the rental car and head out fresh tomorrow morning." He stretched, easing the knots out of his back knowing the full day of paperwork, hurried trek to the airport, and end of the day commuter flight would soon be over. "Where are we supposed to go?"

Looking through the top of his book bag, the younger man mumbled something about an e-mail message and a reservation confirmation and information on some closed trails.

The pleasant voice came over the speaker once more. "Flight 922 from Cascade International to Merced Air Terminal is now on Final Approach."

Jim heard his partner's heart rate soar again, and he chuckled.

"WHY do they have to call it that?" Blair grimaced as his partner just laughed. "Yeah, yeah. Heh heh heh heh," he mocked.

Great captain and friend that he was, Simon Banks had given Ellison a week off in the guise of "mental preparation for your new partner." It had been a welcome gift. With everything that had happened and changed over the past few months, Jim felt he needed more than just one week to prepare for Sandburg's official start -- which was conveniently the very day he returned to work after vacation. Simon had confided to his friend that he wanted to give the pair a chance to clear their minds, get back to the nature of their partnership, and return to the job with a fresh perspective. Jim just figured the time was a good way to celebrate Blair's graduation.

It was Naomi, however, who had come up with the great idea to meet at her retreat in Yosemite. From the way she'd described the hiking and fishing and such, Jim felt it would be a great excursion and just the thing to clear the city air from his lungs. The atmosphere might actually inspire his partner to conduct some "Sentinel in the wild"-type nature experiments, something they'd both avoided for a while. At the very least, they'd have a few good days of outside exposure.

But he hadn't expected Blair to want exposure so early!

Their evening flight the night before had gotten them in late and they'd stayed in a small motel near the airport. Sandburg had gotten up EXTRA early -- pre-Ellison o'clock -- to leave for the park, but his anxious energy hadn't lasted more than a few minutes once they were inside their rental Jeep and on the road. In fact, he'd only spoken to remind Jim to turn on the vehicle's lights.

"Uh, Jim, buddy -- you might want to turn on the headlights."

"Why's that, Chief?"

"Cause it's dark, man, and you'll freak people. Most drivers aren't equipped with on-demand night vision like you Sentinels," Blair had said with a sleepy smile.

Then with a deep calming breath, the young man had turned his thoughts inward in an attempt to meditate the whole way there. It was still early in the morning, just before sunrise. Jim hadn't understood why his normally nocturnal partner wanted to get up and get going so early if all he was gonna do was meditate. They could've slept another hour, gotten a big breakfast or something, then headed toward the park. Whatever, Jim thought. Let him call the shots for a while. The drive was relatively short, the road free of traffic, and the scenery refreshing. Being almost May, the trees had begun to bud, even though the nighttime temperatures were still in the 40's. Some species of wild flowers had opened along the roadside as the sun warmed them. Jim put the window down in order to smell the damp air, and found himself relaxing. Those pleasantries aside, he still wouldn't have minded the situation so much if it hadn't been for the absence of conversation and the presence of snoring...

He noticed his partner's head drooping with sleep -- the kid hadn't lasted more than ten minutes from the motel. In general concern, he randomly checked Blair's heart rate and respiration. Compared to most other times, it was much lower, much more even and calm. Much like when the young man was meditating. Maybe he's finally getting things processed, Jim thought briefly, then turned his attention back to his partner. Or he's making up for all those early morning rousts at the Academy... Memories of his own academy days brought a smile to his face. With so much going on mentally, he didn't realize how fast the sixty-minute drive past until the first large, brown sign appeared. YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Use left lane. The several parks surrounding the southern entrance to Yosemite had passed by rather unobtrusively, but the Yosemite sign seemed to jump out at him. As he pulled into the lane for the park entrance, he nudged his partner twice with no response. He finally gave the younger man a quick shove, watching as Blair jumped the same as he had on the plane. He smiled at the startled look, turning his immediate attention to the line of cars in front of them. "I think it's time to get out that e-mail."

Rummaging through the sack at his feet, Blair came up with a packet of stuff, pulling out a crinkled sheet of paper with some hand written notes on it. "Okay. Mom included our passes." He picked them out of the batch and handed them to Jim before continuing. "She said to take Wawona Drive North about three-quarters of the way. Something about a rock-slide closing the road up near Glacier Point Road." Looking at the map, Blair realized that cut off the route straight up the western side of the park. "Man, I'll bet that's gotta be a pain. All those tourists have to go out and around to get down to see the Giant Sequoias here in Mariposa." Putting his window down, he stuck his head out and admired the mammoth trees. "Oh, smell that air!"

"Yeah, Chief," Jim replied, moving the truck up another few feet toward the park gates. "What else does it say?" Getting no answer, he hit the UP button on the driver's side door, getting a muffled "aack" from Blair as the electric window threatened to close on his hair. Ignoring the dirty look, Ellison pointed to the paper. "The paper? What else does it say?"

"Oh. We can leave the Jeep at the parking lot by Ranger Station 12 and pick up our map packet with directions to the retreat camp. Someone named Dan or something will be able to help us." Blair stopped, watching as his friend handed over the park passes to the ranger at the gate.

"Here's a list of current road closings, accurate to this morning, and camp site closings as well. Please enjoy your stay in Yosemite." The young man smiled, then waved them through.

Once again, Blair stared at the trees around him.

Jim couldn't blame him. The enormous Sequoia tapered off as they proceeded up the road, giving them a glimpse of amber meadows spotted with copses of pine trees and thick, lush ground growth. The road was lined with oak and pines, a telltale birch finding its way in once or twice. And every so often, the roadside would clear, a dirt pull-off marked by a "Scenic Spot" sign over the guardrail allowing for spectacular views of the lower park's scenery. The road went up and down as the terrain became more complex, and Jim found himself thankful that he'd remembered his chewing gum -- even if it was before breakfast. The pressure on his ears would have been maddening.

Blair was reading the legend of how Yosemite got its name when Jim spotted the first yellow detour signs. "Run that by me again, Chief."

Hoping his friend was as interested in the story as he was, Blair paraphrased the couple of paragraphs. "The Ah-wah-nee Chief was going fishing when he encountered a rather nasty grizzly bear on the path..."

"And he killed it?" Jim asked, a hint of mischief in his voice.

"Yeah, with a tree limbm" Blair repeated in awe. "He dragged the carcass back to his village and they named the Chief Yo Semitee, meaning Grizzly Bear, and he eventually the tribe took on the name in his honor. Kinda cool, huh?"

"So, maybe you're descended from this guy," Ellison began with a small chuckle.

Sandburg was wary of his friend's lead in, knowing the usual Ellison humor -- all bad. "How do you figure that?"

"First he's going fishing, probably with one of your Hiawatha sticks. Second, he just happens to walk into trouble." He spared a quick glance over at his amused friend. "And lastly, he conked the animal out with whatever he could get his hands on. Oak limbs or baseballs, Chief... you have got to be related somehow."

The laughter in the cab was cut short by the appearance of the sign for the Ranger Station. Jim parked the rental 4X4 in the front parking lot and hopped out, anxious to check-in and head into the park. His excitement was hardly contained now that he was actually inside the gates. He had camped a lot of places, but this was his first trip to Yosemite, and the sudden burst of childish enthusiasm bolstered his spirits. This is going to be a good week.

He turned to see Blair exiting the car and staring around, looking almost as happy as he was. "So, what are we doing here, Chief?" Jim asked quietly and with a slight smile. "What's the plan?"

"Well," Sandburg started, taking a chance to stretch, "we need to check-in with the Ranger Station, and get directions to the retreat area." As he spoke, he pointed toward the cabin.

Jim looked toward the building then back at his partner, who had donned his military-green boonie hat. The sight brought a smile to Ellison's face. "At least that one doesn't have fur or ear flaps. Or both."

"Very funny, man." Blair took another deep breath, closing his eyes as he concentrated on the pleasant feeling the aromas afforded. "The original aromatherapy..."

With a chuckle, Jim headed up the path. "All right, Davey Crockett let's get to it."

"Cool," the younger man said, suddenly full of his normal energy. "I wanta see how far we can get today."

His words would have been oblivious to anyone other than a Sentinel, but Jim had tuned him in as soon as he'd exited the truck. Blair had an aura about him. Something slightly static that Jim knew existed, but just couldn't immediately identify. In addition, there was something in the kid's eyes that didn't make a whole lot of sense. Probably just anxious to see Naomi. It's been a while, he thought, then steered his enthusiastic partner towards the cabin labeled Ranger Station 12: Office.

"Jim," Blair said as he spotted a rack on the far side of the cabin's small interior, "you get the information and I'll join you in a minute."

Before the detective could answer, though, Sandburg was off. Jim stepped up to the counter, clearing his throat to get the attention of the ranger there.

Glancing over her shoulder, she held up a single finger, silently asking for a moment more of his patience, then spoke into a mike in her other hand. "This is Station 12 reporting. All Pines camping sites closed for service. This includes Upper, Lower, and North Pines groups. Bridalveil Falls and camping areas closed as well due to no access. Still no passage to Glacier Point due to snow. Access to GP Road limited to park service vehicles only due to hazardous slide conditions. All passage to south end of park by way of Route 41 only." She placed the mike back on top of the radio case and turned around to face the large, handsome man. "Hi, welcome to Yosemite. Sorry for holding you up."

"Understandable," Jim replied. "Lots of stuff closed. Did we come at a bad time?"

The ranger shook her head and explained that part of the park was always shut down during the winter season due to either weather conditions or service work. It was actually a fine time to visit, since the number of tourists was less than In-Season, which satisfied most of the purist packers and rock climbers. "And you're a back-packer."

He grinned. "Yeah. Hi, Jim Ellison."

Taking the hand he held out to her, she responded. "I'm Ranger Danni Thompkins."

With a bit of a flirtatious smile, Jim inquired about her name. "Danni? That would be short for -- "

"Danielle. But all my friends call me Danni."

"So, Danni," he said calmly, deliberately using her nickname, "where do I start?"

"Well, Jim. It's called a registration form." Sliding the card across the table, she noticed he'd already reached for his wallet. The squawk of the radio took her attention momentarily, and as she turned back around from adjusting a dial, Danni was surprised to see the gun sitting on the counter. Her hand settled on her own weapon as she spoke. "You'll need to leave that here at the station during your stay, unless you're properly authorized to carry in federally protected lands."

He'd noticed her quick reaction, her hand on her gun hilt. As the ranger spoke, Jim turned his wallet around to show her the badge. He was pleased to see her hand move away from her gun. "I was just checking the serial numbers for accuracy. Wouldn't want to falsify government documents." His comment was interrupted by another squawk on the radio.

Turning around to get the mike, she mumbled under her breath. "Good thing I didn't have to shoot you."

Finishing the registration card, the detective ignored the Ranger's conversation after that comment, deciding to let things go for the moment. His card completed, Jim looked towards the back of the cabin, spotting his partner thumbing through a tour book.

Once inside, Blair had wandered toward the small rack of maps and miscellaneous guides at the back of the small cabin. The station housed a small menagerie of supplies as well as souvenirs, and the academic found himself picking over a number of books and examining each for anything interesting. Something in the back of his mind was forming a word or place, but he just couldn't latch onto it. Letting the thought go for then, he grabbed a few and then walked back to Jim, who was watching the ranger while she answered the radio call. Blair looked her over briefly, and noted Jim's eyes doing the same to the young blonde woman, which explained why Jim was taking his time. Deciding that what he wanted must be outside, he started towards the door. Just as he was walking away, he felt a large hand on his shoulder turning him around to face the young woman.

Ellison looked down into his partner's confused face. "You forgetting something?"

With a shrug, Blair silently answered his friend.

"Are you gonna register too, or are you heading back home early?"

In his haste to get outside, Blair had completely forgotten why they'd stopped at the ranger station. "My mind's somewhere else."

"Obviously," Danni quipped, setting out another registration card for the younger man.

Ellison decided to needle his partner a bit more. "See? Just like mine. BADGE number... Carry Permit..." and he pointed to the respective points on the card. "Better get used to it, Junior." With a small smile, Jim handed his partner a pen and pushed an empty registry card across the counter. "Relax, Chief. This is an easy one."

"Right. Right. I'll just -- uh -- fill this out. Why don't you get the packs from the truck while I --"

With a nod, Jim headed for the door. "Write, Chief. Don't talk. Write."

"Yeah, sure," he said to a closing screen door, then turned back to the paperwork. As silly as it was, Blair found himself stuck at the bottom of the card where he had to sign his name. Feeling for all the world like he was cheating, the new officer glanced at his partner's signature. "Det. James Ellison" was written in Jim's usual scrawl. Suddenly, Blair's mind was a complete blank...


"Huh?" Blair looked up at the woman, seeing the smile on her face. "I'm sorry. Did you ask me something?"

She pointed to the registry card and the empty section. "Did you bring your side arm with you, Detective? If so, you'll need to complete this section as well."

"Right. Side arm." Patting himself down rather briefly, Blair tried to remember where he'd stowed his gun for the trip. He'd been trying on holsters, feeling out the weights and placements. Jim had suggested several places that would have made it less conspicuous -- more natural feeling. Like that's ever gonna happen, he remembered thinking at the time. They'd tried the shoulder holster, which Blair had immediately nixed -- it dug into his ribs under his backpack strap. He checked the small of his back, but knew it wasn't there because the metal bar from the hiking pack pushed it into his spine, and even carrying the holster off center made the pack lopsided. His right hand went to his right side, while the left hand mirrored the action. With his eyes closed, he tried to remember the last place he'd had his weapon. Visions of his nylon hip holster fluttered through his mind and he suddenly smiled as the memory became clear. In the brand new lock box under my bed...Gees. Like I could forget where I put that?!?! he thought and chuckled. The sound of an answering chuckle made him open his eyes quickly. "Uh -- side arm. Found it."

"You'll need to register it."

He smiled. "Sorry, I didn't bring it. It is vacation, after all."

Danni looked rather suspiciously at him. "But you said you found it."

With a bright Sandburg smile, he explained. "I found it in the memory banks." Motioning to his frontal lobe, he tapped himself on the forehead, never losing his smile. "There's just too much clutter to sort through sometimes."

She studied him as he stood there writing, his hair back in a ponytail, sunglasses pushed up on his head. Not her idea of a typical cop. Detective, huh? Glancing down at the name on the card, she tried to control her surprise. Sandburg? Before she could say anything, Ellison walked through the cabin door, packs in hand. She couldn't help the smile that pulled at her lips as she watched the man walk toward her. If those eyes were any bluer, I'd swear they were drops of liquid sky, she thought, then looked away quickly as he stepped up directly in front of her.

"We're meeting with the Nettleson Research Group. They're on retreat here. We're supposed to pick up a member's packet here, directions to the camp and stuff."

Clearing her throat, she smiled up at the tall, cool detective. "That just happens to be my detail for the week."

As she turned to retrieve the envelope, Jim smiled at that all-too-interesting prospect.

"I didn't make up the packet, so just for good measure let me get you a copy of my map. Don't need you getting lost out there," she said eagerly. "Of course," she added the sound of the copier, "if you and your partner want to wait until tomorrow, I can give you a lift." As she handed the large sheet of paper to him, she reached for another couple of photocopies. "You should have gotten a list of road hazards and closures when you came through the gate. These are the trail warnings. Some are just for clearing and service, but others are restricted access only."

Jim was studying the map, knowing the group's camp wasn't too far into the park. The day-or-so-plus hike would put the pair in camp by afternoon tomorrow. It wouldn't all be easy, but the trails looked well marked and the terrain less intense than some places they'd been. Like Peru? Jim thought, and smiled to himself. Still, Danni was driving out the next day. His eyes brightened as he mulled over the idea of spending the evening in the woman's company. His placid thoughts were interrupted as his partner grabbed the map and his arm.

Nabbing the directions, Blair looked them over, his energy mounting already. "Jim, man, c'mon!" he exclaimed, then began dragging his friend out the door.

"What the -- ? Sandburg! Watch it..." Ellison muttered, trying to keep his balance. "Watch the steps."

She couldn't hold in her chuckle. "Be careful, 'kay? And don't forget the Bear Restrictions," the ranger called, smiling and giving a half wave. She sighed as she watched the men leave her station. Just before they cleared the doorjamb completely, she called a hopeful message to Detective Ellison. "I'll catch up with you two tomorrow."

"Right. Tomorrow," Jim repeated as his partner pulled once more and they cleared the door, then nearly stumbled down the steps. "All right, Chief... Which way?"

Surprise, surprise. We're not lost.

Jim watched Sandburg and the map from about 20 feet behind. To the older man's astonishment, Blair was taking all the right routes, following the map well enough that they were right on course -- and slightly ahead of schedule. No side trails, broken bridges, or confused directions at all. Musta gotten him straightened out at the academy, he thought, then chuckled to himself. I'm sure that'll come in handy more than just now.

Lucky for Blair, the trails were well walked and tended. The partners had both noticed the bundles of pruned branches sitting off trailside, awaiting pick-up. Freshly painted markers lined the paths and helped the "directionally-impaired" anthropologist -- as Jim had once called him -- to navigate.

There had been some talk on the hike, mostly commentary on the beautiful scenery. The morning had been slightly damp and misty, but had cleared up nicely as the sun had risen higher. Trees and flowers were heavy with buds, even more vivid within arm's reach than they were from the confines of the Jeep. With the relatively warm weather of the past few months and the excess rains, lots of wild flowers had begun to blossom. Blair had given Jim a friendly reminder to keep his sense of smell turned down. The discussion on senses that ensued led to a bunch of sight tests, and hearing tests, and an impromptu touch test when Blair found a large, fuzzy caterpillar and encouraged the Sentinel to see if he could feel the tips of the caterpillar's hairs without making the thing move. After a rather strange few minutes, Ellison had proven victorious, prompting Sandburg to declare his partner "more sensitive than a Wooly Bear." The laughter and good cheer had carried them through a couple of hours of tough hiking.

In between the laughter and testing, they decided on a place to stop for the night rather than push their limits to make the research group by the following morning. The two men talked as they'd hiked and came to the conclusion that they could have a leisurely evening, even sleep a little later in the morning and still make the retreat by mid-afternoon. When Blair made the original suggestion, Jim approved readily, wanting the opportunity to spend some personal time with his friend before meeting up with Naomi.

And, of course, before seeing Ranger Danielle Thompkins, Danni to her friends. And Jim was looking forward to being one of those.

He smiled to himself as he extended his sight over his partner's shoulder and checked the directions on the map once more. The paper jiggled up and down in Sandburg's hands, causing the Sentinel to pull back a bit. The sight of his partner's animated figure caused a full laugh. There was no disguising the kid's enthusiasm as he followed the trails that would lead them to a nice open spot just about a two-hour hike from the Nettleson Group's private camp. Gazing out from the trail, Jim adjusted his ball cap and surveyed the open landscape before him. Trees in various shades of gold, green, and russet were highlighted by the sun, which had already started it's western descent. Closing his eyes and keeping his dial turned down, he inhaled deeply. Even damped, the Sentinel's sense of smell was extremely sensitive. Concentrating for a moment, he briefly enjoyed the smells of the land around him. From the moist leaves and forest floor grasses to the musky scent of the animals, everything smelled so wonderful. His senses were so sharp they even separated the odor of the dew from the trail dirt beneath his feet. If he notched the dial up and concentrated hard enough, Ellison knew he could probably even find Danni's perfume -- in spite of the fact that they were a good five-hour hike away from the ranger station.

Normal focus came back as Jim opened his eyes slowly and scanned around for his friend. His partner was standing ahead of him on the trail. As Ellison walked up, he realized Sandburg was lost in his own thoughts. Grabbing Blair by the shoulder, he turned the smaller man towards him. The body moved, but the head remained in place, eyes incessantly focused on a point somewhere in the distance. He tried to find anything in the immediate area that could capture and hold Blair's attention, but he found nothing more interesting than a pair of birds mating in the tree about twenty yards below the trail. Jim stood directly in front of his friend, waving a hand in front of Sandburg's face as he tried to stop the connection between Sandburg and whatever held his rapt attention. It didn't work. The young man stood stark still, eyes wide and slightly glazed. And at that Jim laughed -- leave it to his partner to finally have a zone-out of his own. Calling out the younger man's name produced no change either. As a last result, Jim poured a handful of water from his canteen and splashed it in Blair's face, watching as his partner's eyes dilated then closed and refocused on the big man.

"Welcome back, Chief." And they exchanged smiles. "Did I miss something?"

Blair's smile turned to a sheepish grin and he actually might have been blushing. He couldn't explain what he'd seen. It wasn't secretive or private -- he just didn't know. Some sort of sound had caught his ear, a fluttering or rattling of some sort, and his eyes had just followed it but not been able to find it. The next thing he knew, he was wiping what he hoped was clean water from his face. "Sorry, man," he said, looking around him and brushing off knees and elbows. "I was listening to something and didn't realize I'd stopped."

"Stopped? Sandburg you were imitating a lawn statue." Jim smiled. "Next time you wanna take a nap, Chief, warn me. C'mon, we can rest up ahead. There's a picnic clearing on the map and it should be just over the next rise."

"Why don't you lead?" Blair asked, his eyes suddenly a bit blurry, and handed Jim the map. He didn't have to ask to know that his partner had been studying it over his shoulder, Sentinel senses open full. Blair had a pretty good feel for when and which sense Jim was using most times. Guess this Guide thing is getting just a little easier. About time. Now if I could only get a handle on this Shaman thing...

Less than 20 minutes later, the two men were enjoying their packed lunch and a great view of the upcoming terrain. Blair stood up on the picnic table and stared in all directions, binoculars in hand to help him understand Jim's perspective. He was turning slowly, trying to keep his balance, when he saw it. It was unlike anything else in sheer presence and it drew him to it. But as he focused in on the mountain, his synapses were suddenly assaulted by bits and pieces of his dream... The shadow figure, the panther, the snake...



"Huh?" he said as the view through the binoculars went black and he felt something grab his arm.

"I said, get off the table! You're getting dirty footprints all over it. Now, c'mon."

"Just can't seem to drop the rules, can ya?" Blair smiled at Jim. "I suppose if I wanted to stand on the table at home, I'd have to take the boots off..." His knees bent just right to cushion his landing as he jumped down from the table.

"Nah," Jim said with a last sip from his water bottle. "No feet on the tables, and that means any table. You'd think after this long, you'd be completely house-broken."

They laughed a bit and started back on the trail. Jim wondered if they should take it easy, thinking possibly that Blair's internal clock had just reminded him that they'd had an early start. He noted they were slightly ahead of schedule, so they could slow the pace a bit and still possibly get in a little fishing before dinner. But Blair was already ahead of him, threatening to find another caterpillar.

Camp that night was relaxing and enjoyable for the partners. Blair started a fire in a rock ring while Jim caught dinner. To Blair's surprise, Jim had snuck a pan of Jiffy Pop into the supplies. They reminisced over the campfire, Jim sharing memories of family excursions and Blair recalling his numerous travels with Naomi. It was a time for sharing and bonding, and in the end Jim felt glad he'd agreed to the trip. He also noticed that the static -- the fuzzy aura Blair had been showing earlier that day -- had diminished. As they sat there, eating popcorn and trading youthful memories, Ellison actually relaxed in earnest, deciding the two would definitely go camping more often, since his partner was more at ease and open in the wilds.

Sandburg stared into the fire, breathing in the warm scent of the smoke -- even if it was a store bought log, it was still warm. Warm is good. Warm is very, very good, he thought, then smiled. The long day's activities had really drained him in terms of body strength. But his mind was racing, his energy levels spiking for the first time in a long while. It felt wonderful to Blair. He sat listening to Jim recounting a Boy Scout trip, staring into the fire as he did. The flames were shrinking as the log was consumed, the glowing orange embers casting warm colors around the ring of rocks. As he stared, he found himself watching each individual flame as it danced around the log. Each flaring, yellow flare twisted and flicked wildly around the crumbling piece of wood, taking a piece here and a piece there until the log was merely two ashen pieces held together by a thin, charred bridge. Still, the flames danced around it, and he could swear they were getting more wild. A couple of thin flares had flicked towards his feet. But instead of scooting his toes back, he pushed the boot tips closer to the fire ring. The taunt did not go unnoticed. A second after moving his feet closer, Blair was horrified to see a fiery, golden hand reach out from the rock ring, its charred fingers reaching for his foot. He moved his foot back, but it still came after him, a second fiery arm reaching out and pulling a golden body behind it. In sheer horror of the Golden Fire person, Blair attempted to get to his feet before it got him, but he felt himself trip over his sleeping bag and fall with a painful thud to his backside. He looked over at his partner, but Jim was still talking about his Boy Scout troop. "JIM!" he yelled and grabbed for his partner just as the fiery hand latched onto his boot.

Jim looked over at his partner, seeing the younger man staring intently into the flames. Doing a quick check, he found Blair's heartbeat slower, the breathing more relaxed. MUST be the area. Kid's so relaxed he's probably asleep with his eyes open. It was a nice night, clear and breezy, yet a bit damp, making the fire extra enjoyable. Jim followed a tendril of smoke up as it dissipated into the night sky, sighing and closing his eyes briefly. A muffled sound from his partner, made Ellison reach out and place a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Sandburg? You okay?"

"Huh? What?" Blair whipped his head around quickly, looking towards his boots and seeing them still attached to feet that were still attached to the bottoms of his legs. Oh, MAN! That sucks! he thought, then took a deep breath, shoving the hair out of his face. He had imagined the whole horrible thing. While his body had felt itself moving, his eyes had seen the golden fire person coming out of the rock ring to get him, his feet had felt the pull of those spiny fingers. But none of it had happened. Forcing a hard breath through clenched teeth, he shook his head and wrapped his arms about his body. "I'm going to bed, Jim. I can't sit out here any longer."

Jim narrowed his gaze at his partner, examining the suddenly wide eyes. "You okay? You seemed a little startled."

"I, uh, I think I was falling asleep with my eyes open. Right now, I just wanna turn in early..."

"With you, Chief, that's usually any time before dawn!"

"Funny, man. Really funny. G'night."

Watching Blair slip into the pop-up tent, Jim shook his head and smiled, then looked at his watch and shook his head again. It hadn't surprised him when Sandburg had said he was turning in "early." What surprised Jim was that according to his watch, they'd been talking for over four hours and it was nearly 11:00 PM. His partner's internal clock was really messed up, and Jim just laughedm then yawned, suddenly feeling the entire day close over him. He packed it in himself, trying to keep quiet in the small tent. he didn't need to worry, though. Even when he knocked over his mess kit, Blair was sleeping so soundly he didn't even startle.

Once again, he was running after the shadow beast.

As he ran, he could feel a strange energy within his chest. The sound of his own heart pounded into his ears, each beat louder than the one before, until there was no other sound. He could feel his perspective intensifying, his body growing slowly lower, until he was on the same level as the panther. Looking around as best he could, he realized his body was no long human... no longer upright. He was the wolf, the spirit of his dreams...

The beating sound of his heart was replaced with the sounds of the jungle around him. The rustling of leaves and a long, low rasping growl alerted him to the panther's presence on the other side of the bushes. Stalking forward, he could see the clearing, hear the growling. With little difficulty, his ears picked up the sound of the shadow, while instinct registered the horrible reality that it was not a mere shadow. The creature, Evil, was facing off against the panther.

Against his partner.

Habit drove him to the edge of the clearing, the need to be there, the desire to help, kept him close, watchful. The panther pawed the dirt, facing the cornered shadow figure. Something in him knew the fight was not over, not yet. Very few cornered animals give up easily. The hair on the nape of his neck was standing straight up, prickling at the evil presence. Twitching an ear in the direction of the fighting, he heard it. A rattle of danger, a stealthy shifting of branches and forest floor covering that the panther would not catch. With all its senses focused on the fight, his partner, the panther, was completely vulnerable to the slithering menace. He had to help, had to intercept....

He couldn't move...

The deadly rattlesnake slithered into the open space behind the panther, watching warily but not moving. As it coiled to attack, Blair looked down at it his feet, suddenly realizing he was once again human. The rattle sounded just slightly faster then stopped. In that instant, Blair saw the fangs dig into the panther's neck. The beast howled, then stumbled sideways.

Finally able to move, he lunged into the clearing and tore the snake away by its tail. His unfortunate hold allowed the snake to turn on him, and Blair felt the fangs catch in his wrist, bloody streaks appearing from under the rattler's head. The poison deadened his limbs and he fell to his knees, then sank completely to the ground, rolling over and over, and not knowing which direction he went until his side connected with something solid. It fell hard and fast, landing on top of him, whining in pain as it did. Shifting his body slightly, the weight sloughed off to one side allowing Blair to see it finally. It was the panther, a thick black rope cinched around its neck. Mustering what was left of his fading energy, he rolled it over, hoping to remove the rope. But the panther lay still and cold, a solid weight that he fought hard to turn to face him. Finally getting hold of a limb, Blair gave one quick jerk, falling beside the animal. Knowing his heart was slowing, his fight ending, he turned his head for one last look at his partner. The open eyes startled him, but he couldn't move. Dull, blue eyes stared straight ahead. Dusky blue lips and ashen skin, each cold to his touch, confirmed his failure.

JIM! Oh, man.... NO!

Morning in the woods was beautiful, and Jim woke to find his partner dressed and meditating on a large rock next to the water. The sun cast a shadow over his side, and Jim thought it unusual that Blair wasn't faced to the sun. Still, it was a glorious morning, and Jim stretched out just to inhibit any kinks that might be forming.

"Morning, big guy."

"Hey, Chief. Recharging your batteries?" He laughed and grabbed for a shirt as Blair walked past him, pulling his stuff together and packing up.

"You might say that," Blair replied, then hesitated. He couldn't tell Jim. Couldn't let him know the vision still haunted him, as it had since he'd awakened at dawn after the nightmare. Haunted him so badly, he couldn't even face the Sun for fear the Golden Fire people would rain down on him. He was just lucky that his screaming hadn't awakened the normally light-sleeping Ellison. Grasping at the only straw of reality he could, he spun it into a small Sandburgian explanation. "I was... uh, I was hoping to reset my internal clock. I think I forgot to wind it a couple months ago."

Jim just stared at his partner, a smile on his face. We're starting to think alike. What is it they say about people who live together? That they end up acting alike? Grabbing the fishing line, he headed for the banks, but was stopped on his way.

"No time for fishing, Jim. Here." And Blair handed him a bagel, then re-sealed the metal Bear-proof container.

Jim looked at his watch. 10:00AM. "I slept late?" And all Blair could do was nod and laugh as he handed Jim a cup, then poured him some coffee from the pot.

"I didn't have the heart to wake you. I must have pushed really hard yesterday. Coffee okay?"

Jim smiled. Maybe they had both pushed hard on the trail, and maybe the two were in need of more R&R than they knew. "Great. Nothing like camp brew to get your heart started." He sat on the same rock Blair had just vacated and watched as the younger man packed up the entire camp in a matter of minutes. After that, he doused the fire, cleaned the ring, and even attempted to sweep the area clean with a branch of leaves he'd found.

"I hope this means your room will get a good going over when we get home."

Blair looked around, then put the branch back at the edge of the campsite. He hadn't even realized what he'd done. "Maybe." And he smiled, as only he could, with the humor reaching his eyes.

"Tell you what," Jim started, and grabbed his pack, handing Blair his cup. "Since you did such a great job here, I'll go along with some more testing on the hike. Sound good?"

It sounded great. After the previous day's results, Blair was anxious to try some more tests along the same lines, but with some variables and controls he'd developed in his "meditative" hours before Jim had awakened. It had been a long time since they'd actually done real tests. And although he missed having a lab to call his own, Blair realized that field testing was all the more important. With everything that had happened, everything the past so many months had thrown at them, it was comforting to get back to basics. Like they were starting over... Blair had hoped the idea of Yosemite would lighten Ellison's mind, but volunteering for tests was almost a spiritual revelation.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, Chief. I'm sure." He cuffed Blair on the back as they prepared to leave the camp. "So what's first? We played some sight games yesterday, we'll keep the smell turned down again -- I think I can already follow you by that cologne you're wearing..."

They laughed and walked out of the area, a lightness in their steps.

My cologne? Blair thought to himself and laughed.

They worked through some easy things, identifying trees, animals, fungus and the like. Then Blair had him sight in on the smallest thing possible as far away as possible. With all the walking on the trail, it was a little difficult to do, so Blair had Jim pair his hearing and sight, using each of the senses to not only regulate but also to amplify the other.

Jim focused in on a shifting tree limb about a mile or so away...then smiled.

Recognizing the look of achievement on his partner's face, Blair grabbed his binoculars, intending for Jim to describe the area so he could find it as well. "How far out are you?"

"About a mile, maybe a bit more. Halfway down the slope -- there's a tree with a large bare spot on one side. You can't miss the squirrel's nest at the top. And there's a beetle digging away at the one side. Kinda sounds like H and his Scratch and Win lottery tickets."


Jim smiled, then shook his head a bit. Something closer caught his ear and he divided the senses again to listen more intently.

"Your senses are much more productive in natural settings," Blair whispered in an offhand comment, then thought about it. "There has to be some sort of genetic password that allows your brain to work on an augmented level, like a secret programmer's code to a video game. We'll have to work on you naturalizing yourself to the city, sort of trick your subconscious into thinking you're in your natural habitat, which you really are, since Cascade is your territory." He listened for a response, and turned to his partner just in time to see the man heading straight for a tree. A quick grab of his partner's elbow, and Jim was coming back.

"Hey, man! You okay? You locked onto something, didn't you? Something far enough out that you over-extended, huh?"

"No. I caught something closer, Chief," and he listened for it again, leaving Blair staring in wonder.


Jim shook his head. It was trouble. What had initially caught his ear was the single shift of a gun being readied to fire. A slide locking into place. And not any slide, an automatic weapon -- he'd heard that sound often enough that he'd catalogued it. The sound had come from just over the rise in the path and Jim had tried to look ahead, but he had gotten lost in the sound of feet.

"Stay here, Sandburg, out of sight! And don't say a word." In seconds, Jim was at the top of the path, crouched behind a few large trees and staring some distance ahead at a campground. He scaled back to a clearing just to the left where a group of men in masks were preparing their weapons. A total of six, and Jim knew he couldn't take them all at once. They seemed overly prepared for hunting wild animals, but being that close to the campground, he knew their prey was something more domestic. Several noises reached his ears as he tried to focus in on their conversation. Bits and pieces of several things.

"They're in the cabin on the far side, back bedroom..." "Don't get too cocky, Teddy...I don't want anyone hurt unnecessarily..." "Then why all the firepower?" "In case it's necessary...We get in, get the package, and get out...." "Then we get paid?" "Then we deliver it and get paid..."

The sound of a bird much too close, then some other small animal, and finally a truck engine stepped on the voices, making them inaudible. Jim looked at his watch, then towards the rough road where the engine sound originated. It was almost 11:30, and Jim could only stare in horror as a park ranger's vehicle made its way to the camp. He knew it was Danni. He watched as she parked her Jeep then beeped the horn. A woman came running onto the porch at the sound, yelling Danni's name and embracing the ranger familiarly.

"It's been ages, young lady! Look at you! You look beautiful!"

He knew that voice.

"I tried to get here earlier, but I had to finish stuff at the station. And talk about beautiful! You haven't changed a bit!" the ranger responded happily. "Mom sent you some pottery, all the way from Arizona. It's in the back, come help me with it."

As the two women walked around the vehicle, Jim heard the crunch of footsteps. Pulling his gun, he turned and found Blair on the other end of his 9mm. He motioned to his partner to keep quiet, then led him away from the spot.

"I told you to stay there, Sandburg! Didn't the academy teach you to listen?"

"Jim, man, what is going on? And don't try to play it off, cause I know the camp is just below us, less than a football field length from here." Blair read Jim's dismay as it played across his face. "You pulled your gun, man. What's going on?"

Jim put a hand over his partner's mouth and listened intently for a minute. He no longer heard the two women. Instead, he heard two vehicles coming in from the east end of the camp and parking. Wanting to get closer, to find Danni and Naomi, Jim turned his hearing up all the way, unsurprised when he located the women in the cabin, talking happily with a third woman. But then things went fuzzy.

The sudden lack of response from his partner caused Blair to grab Jim by the shirt and force him back up the rise. "Jim! C'mon, man. Now is so not the time to zone." Sitting his partner down next to a tree, Blair removed his pack and his bottle of water, promptly squirting it in Ellison's blank face. Worked for you...

The dousing startled him, but it stopped the fuzziness. Looking around, Jim shook his head and searched the surrounding area. "Damn! I don't know where that one came from."

"Must be the fresh air, man," Blair said, then fell sideways as Jim jettisoned to his feet. Standing in the man's way, Sandburg put a hand on his partner's chest. "Or maybe it was the fact that you tried to do it without involving me. Now, stand still and focus."

Jim focused his hearing just in time to recognize the flank attack on the camp. It was too late for them to do much now. Interrupting the attack was too risky. The terrorists might hurt anyone -- including the two of them, which would effectively quell any chance of rescue later. Jim tuned in the sounds, deciding not to risk finding Danielle and Naomi.

"Good morning, campers. I'm just looking for Dr. Mesgar," a man said.

"In the cabin," she replied. "I'll show you -- "

"No, we know where we're going, thank you. Why don't you stay here with him." Another bolt slid into place. "And no funny stuff."

Several pairs of footsteps, then the creak of the door, and shouting.

Blair heard the shots, a couple of singles that seemed to hit metal, and ran towards the hill. Jim held him back, then pushed him further away.

"Hold on, Chief! Blair! Sandburg! It's too late to stop it!" Jim said and stared into his face, locking gazes with the younger man. "They're taking the camp," he explained quickly and stepped back, his hand going to the back of his neck. "And Naomi and Danni are there."

Continue on to Act II...

Back to the FPP Home Page

E-mail Faux Paws Productions.

If you experience any problems with this page, please contact The Pagemaster.
This page last updated 2/2/01.