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.

The Kindness of Strangers by Hephaistos and Linda S. Maclaren (Mackie)


Act II

Chesterfield was located almost in the exact center of the Cascade River Valley. Originally a farm town, the local harvest had been brought there for decades to be loaded for distant markets aboard the Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad was gone and trucks picked up the harvest now, but the interstate had brought new growth to the community. Although it still served as a social gathering place for the locals, the feed store now shared the block with Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and Pep Boys. Its proximity to the interstate had made it a thriving community of restaurants, motels, and gas stations for the thousands of travelers who rocketed past each day. With a modern connection to the coastal cities, several residential neighborhoods had sprung up practically overnight.

Its abrupt transition from sleepy country town to bustling bedroom community had created a host of problems the local government showed little interest in correcting. First among them was the tendency for the valley's farm roads to flood during heavy rain.

Simon stood beneath the awning over the entrance to the local sheriff's station and contemplated the river flowing along a flood channel more commonly known as Main Street during dry weather. Beside him, the deputy sheriff in charge repeated a complaint he'd undoubtedly voiced on numerous other occasions. "Damn builders put everything up so fast, they blocked a lot of the natural run-off paths. Interstate cuts off drainage to the west, homes do the same to the north and west. Leaves us with a river whenever we get a big storm like this."

Simon nodded, barely listening. Instead, he watched Rafe trying to negotiate the parking lot without soaking his shoes or the cuffs of his neatly pressed trousers. Serves him right, he thought with some satisfaction. He shoulda brought boots.

Drenched from the ankles down but otherwise snug in his trenchcoat, Rafe finally reached the shelter of the awning.

"You're late."

Rafe didn't look offended by the sharp accusation. He understood the worry his captain felt for the safety of his missing men. He held up a briefcase. "Sorry, Captain. I took a few minutes to print out a hard copy of everything we had on Corelli in case --"

Abruptly, the town went completely dark.

He tried to keep the satisfaction out of his tone as he finished but didn't quite succeed. "In case the power went out like the phones, sir."

Simon snorted softly, a sound that was both amused and contrite, then clapped Rafe on the shoulder and urged him inside, where battery-powered emergency lighting cast a faint glow throughout the office.

The sheriff turned on a powerful flashlight to further illuminate the counter space Rafe commandeered for his briefcase.

"Detective Rafe, Sheriff Resendez." Simon made the introductions as Rafe pulled out his stacks of paper.

The two men exchanged greetings, then got right down to business.

"This Corelli character is bad news," Rafe outlined quickly. "A real psycho. When he was sixteen, he chased down a driver who cut him off in traffic and ran him off the road. He beat the guy with a tire iron, damn near killing him. He spent a year in jail for that little escapade."

Simon already knew the bastard was vindictive. "Any idea how many men he might have with him?"

Rafe spread arrest records across the countertop. "He's had eight known associates, but four of them are in prison."

They examined the rap sheets on the remaining four. "So Ellison and Sandburg could have five men, including Corelli, after them."

Rafe looked as if he wished he'd been able to provide more positive news. "Did Forensics come up with anything at the Long Pine station or the cafe?"

"Tons of prints at both scenes." Simon shook his head in frustration and walked over to the coffeepot to pour a cup before the contents of the carafe cooled too much. "I called the National Guard armory just down the road, but the only guy on duty is some green kid who doesn't have keys to anything but the offices."

"You were thinking about some sort of all-terrain vehicle that could navigate the roads?" the sheriff said.

Rafe looked confused. "What's wrong with our 4x4s?"

Resendez shook his head. "The low spots in the roads are under four feet of water. I've already lost one Explorer stalled out and buried by the floods."

Simon nodded his head in agreement. "We'd never make it. The kid at the armory is calling his CO in Seattle, who'll probably have to call the Lieutenant Governor. The red tape will sink us, never mind the weather."

Left on the counter, his cell phone rang. Rafe automatically picked it up.

"Detective Rafe." He listened for a long, grim moment, then said, "Thank you." He disconnected the call and looked at his captain. "Search and Rescue found a body on the mountain."

Deputy Sheriff Aaron Madden burrowed deeper into his parka and crossed his arms in a futile effort to keep warm. Dreaming of his warm, dry bed in his studio apartment above Kris' Krafty Korner did nothing to improve his mood. He'd been a deputy for four years, and in that time he'd never seen a dead body. Now he'd seen four in the span of two days. It was enough to seriously make him reconsider his choice of profession.

The most recent body lay sprawled inelegantly, head downward, on the steep mountain slope. Sightless eyes stared with unnerving disregard for the rain pelting into them. The body was that of a young man, perhaps no more than twenty-five. A broken rifle lying just a few yards away attested to his intent.

A Search and Rescue ranger slid sure-footedly down the hillside behind him and halted by his side. "Like I figured, Ellison probably killed this guy."

Madden sighed, irritated with his own ignorance at being unable to see what seemed so obvious to the ranger. "How's that?"

"There's a shallow cave a bit up the hill." The ranger gestured vaguely in the direction he meant. "It's dry and filled with pine needles. We found traces of blood and some fresh crumbs of trail mix. Looks like they hunkered down there so Ellison could tend to whichever one of them is wounded and try to keep them warm enough to survive the night."

"Why do you keep saying it was Ellison? Why not the other guy, Sandburg?"

"Didn't Captain Banks say Ellison was Army Special Forces?"

Madden couldn't remember. "He might have."

"Stands to reason then." The ranger nodded toward the body. "Ellison circled around behind the cave and stalked this guy for more than a quarter-mile, until he got too close to the cave for comfort. Then Ellison jumped him."

"Probably hoped to get the guy's gun, too." Madden felt he had to contribute something to the conversation, however obvious.

"Yeah, but I guess it got busted in the struggle."

"Quarter-mile." It sounded like a far distance for Ellison to have figured out someone was following him and his partner.

The ranger knew exactly what the deputy meant. "Yeah, don't ask me how he did it. Maybe he was cautious and checked his back trail."

It was time to think about getting back. Madden nodded toward the body. "What are we gonna do about him?"

"I got a couple of guys bringing down a light-weight metal casket. We'll stuff him inside."

Madden chuffed, his breath condensing immediately in the frigid air. "I don't look forward to hauling him out of here."

"We won't. At least not tonight. The casket's just to keep scavengers from getting to the body. We'll fetch it when the weather breaks, probably haul it downhill to a clearing where a chopper can pick it up. Or drive it out if we can get it to the service road."

"Good." Madden heard the grunts and curses of more rangers manhandling the casket down the slope from the dirt road where they had set up a makeshift base camp. When he looked, he could see the bright pools of bobbing light from their flashlights. He turned back again and peered into the impenetrable blackness below. "Do you think they'll make it?"

The ranger didn't have to ask what Madden meant. "They made it this far. I'm betting they got to the valley."

"All of them?"

"Unfortunately, yeah. Hey, Madden, look on the bright side: at least it's no longer your jurisdiction."

Madden smiled slightly, without humor. "Yeah."

It was definitely time to head for the warmth of his apartment and start looking for another job. As soon as this current case was resolved, whichever way it went, he was buying a newspaper and checking the employment ads.

"What are you gonna do?" the ranger asked.

He didn't know where the answer came from, but Madden was certain of it as soon as he spoke. "I'm going down the mountain."

"So at least we know they probably made it to the valley," Simon said with satisfaction after he'd heard Rafe's report. "Jim didn't manage to get a weapon, and Blair's been injured, but they're still alive."

"How do you figure Blair's the one who got shot?"

"Simple. Sandburg may have been able to take out the guy in a moment of surprise, but the ranger said someone had been stalking the man and didn't make his move until he got too close to the cave. That sounds more like Ellison to me."

Rafe had to admit it sounded logical. "So they've made it to the valley. Where would they go?"

Resendez shined his flashlight on a large geological survey map pinned to the wall, and traced a line from Benny's cafe down to where the body had been found. "There's a rock escarpment running near here. An experienced climber might tackle it, but not someone in this weather and with a wounded man to look after." His finger followed the closely packed contour lines indicating a steep change in altitude until their interval widened. "If he kept angling in the direction he was going, this is the first place safe enough to climb down." From the point he'd indicated on the map, he dragged his finger straight down to the valley. "Your man has a good sense of direction. How well does he know the area?"

Again, Simon thought about Jim's ability to see through the darkness. "Let's assume he knows it well."

"Okay, then the closest house he could reach would be Doc Deerfield's place, back near the foothills."

The two detectives studied the map. Jim would seek shelter for Blair, a telephone, and transportation, probably in that order. "Is Deerfield a medical doctor?"

"Retired vet." Resendez tapped the map in irritation. "Damn weather. The roads are too flooded to drive back into the valley, and we sure as hell can't launch an air search."

Rafe apparently shared the sheriff's pessimism. "We'll need a tank to get into those foothills."

Resendez frowned thoughtfully. "How about a Hummer?"

True to her word, Minnie returned with a bowl of hot soup and a huge glass of orange juice for Jim, and a cup of tea for Ezra. The soup wasn't exactly bad, just extremely bland, even for Sentinel taste buds. But it was hot, and it was filling, and for that Jim was grateful.

He paused every few minutes to scan the outside area for sounds of other humans. It took him a while to filter out the wind and pelting rain, Minnie singing "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" in a loud, boisterous voice from the kitchen, the ticking of the grandfather clock in the front hall, Ezra's occasional comments that were more for comfort than anything else, and all the other sounds that defined the old farm house, but he managed. The rest of the time he concentrated on Blair's breathing, his thready but strong heartbeat, and the fever that seemed to have gone down perhaps half a degree.

Ezra handled Blair as if he were his own son, with a gentleness and compassion that melted Jim's usual reserves. In the space of just a few hours, he'd grown to like and trust this old man, and he found himself uncharacteristically wondering what it would have been like to have such a man for a father. It must have been the exhaustion, and his worry for Blair. He'd seldom felt his emotions this close to the surface before, and he hated himself for his lack of control. Twice now he'd actually felt tears well up in his eyes, and a profound sense of frustration that actually took his breath away. Jim wanted nothing more than to collapse on the couch, comfort his injured partner, and relinquish control to Ezra, letting him take care of everything. It was so tempting--".

Damn, what was wrong with him? Losing it now was not an option. He was in danger, Blair was in danger from two separate sources, and now he'd put an innocent family at risk. He had to remain alert and focused and deal with the emotional crap later. Later, when Blair was out of danger and Corelli was rotting painfully in the bowels of hell.

Ezra was giving Blair another antibiotic pill. This time, Blair woke up to some extent, blinking his eyes in confusion as he obediently swallowed the pill with the water. He looked at Ezra and managed a small smile.

"Professor Helms," he said and closed his eyes. "Can you take my class today?"

Ezra raised his eyebrows, and Jim smiled slightly and nodded. "Sure, son," the veterinarian answered. "I've got my notes right here."

But Blair was already sleeping again.

Jim felt the need to explain. "He was a grad student until recently. Working toward his doctorate in Anthropology."

"Oh. When you said 'partner' I assumed...."

"You assumed right the first time, sir. He's a detective now. It's, well, it's kind of a long story."

Ezra chuckled and started wiping Blair's face and throat with a cool, wet washcloth. The large room had warmed up nicely, and he'd long since removed the heavy sweatshirt. "Well, Jim, I'm learning that nothing's really simple with the two of you, is it?"

The pines gave way to leafless, deciduous tress and the slope flattened considerably, so Buster figured they'd reached the foothills of the Cascade River Valley. If anything, the going was tougher because of the dense brush blocking their chosen path. It was still almost impossible to see anything. In a sudden flash of uncharacteristic wisdom, he had made everyone turn off all the flashlights except one so they wouldn't kill all the batteries at the same time. The anemic beam was hardly sufficient to guide four men; mishaps and curses abounded.

They were lost, but Buster wouldn't admit it. A leader didn't admit such a weakness to his men. They'd blundered around on the mountain for hours and damn near killed themselves getting down the cliff. Reaching the foothills at last didn't lessen their struggle. An almost impenetrable wall of thick, prickly brush blocked their way, and they had to pick their way carefully through the barrier.

Buster trudged on with single-minded determination. He would have the blood of his enemies on his hands before this night was over or his name wasn't Brewster Luigi Corelli.

"Here you go!"

Jim cursed once again as he jumped at the sound of Minnie's voice. For such a big, loud woman she sure could sneak up on him. He wondered if Sandburg would have an explanation for that. Probably just exhaustion.

Minnie handed him Blair's jacket. "I didn't have much else to do so I fixed up your jacket once it'd dried by the fire. I'm not much for hand stitching, but my sewing machine won't work without electricity. Is there anything else I can do for you? Need more soup? No, you haven't finished what you've got there. At least you downed the orange juice. Well, I suppose I could go do those dishes now. Not fond of washing dishes much, but I hate eatin' off dirty ones even more. Now there's an image!" Minnie took off once again for the haven of her kitchen before Jim could get a word in edgewise.

"I'd tell her to quiet down, but believe it or not, that is quiet for my Minnie." Ezra stood up and went to stoke the fire that Jim couldn't remember him starting. The dog near the woodpile yawned hugely and rolled to his other side, thumping his tail a couple of times.

Jim fingered the jacket he'd placed on his lap. It had ripped when Blair's sleeve caught solidly on a tree branch during their escape. Blair had yanked his arm viciously in order to keep moving. Minnie really wasn't much for sewing, any more than she was for cooking. The patch was a gaudy green flowered print with haphazard stitches crossing over the tear. Blair would probably think it was cool.

"You take the jacket." Blair's voice suddenly echoed in his memory.

"I don't want your jacket, Sandburg, I'm just fine," he had answered. And so began another classic Ellison-Sandburg argument. Blair had reasonably argued that Jim needed to stay warm, because now it was up to him to save both of them. Jim had reasonably countered that with a bullet wound, it was more important for Blair to stay warm.

"Jim, I don't need to be a Sentinel to see that you're shivering, and if you get hypothermic on me, man, we'll both die." Blair had begun to shrug painfully out of the parka.

Jim had all but yelled. "Sandburg! Put that back on or so help me I'll wait until you pass out again and find a way to weld the damn zipper shut."

God help him, the look of defeat and shame that had crossed Blair's face... Jim swallowed another spoonful of now-cold soup and bent his head. One by one the tears slipped out and dropped into the bowl, creating little ripples around the carrots and barley. He didn't even lift his head when he felt the gentle touch on his shoulder.

"That's the way to eat Minnie's soup, son. She never does put enough salt in it."

Jim choked out a laugh -- one of those emotional, exhausted, unexpected laughs that allow release. He looked up and caught a hint of amusement on Ezra's face.

The old man took the unfinished soup from Jim's hand and pushed him back into the armchair.

"Sleep," he said gently.

Jim opened his mouth, fifty arguments on the tip of his tongue.

"I'll be watching." Ezra countered all the arguments with three words and then delivered the clincher. "You're going to need your strength for when we operate on your friend here, on Blair. Blair's going to need you to be strong."

Jim looked at his partner again, sleeping restlessly in his pain.

"Sleep, just a little while," Ezra commanded again softly. Jim folded Blair's jacket beneath his head and leaned back, relaxing into the recess of the chair's wing, his feet resting comfortably on the coffee table. He stretched his left arm over the arm of the couch and rested it on Blair's shoulder.

Giving Ezra control, Jim slept.

Simon and Rafe hurried through the downpour and huddled together under the broad front porch of a modern, sprawling ranch-style home situated on several acres of landscaped pastureland.

They sounded like a couple of teenagers trying to get a date.

"You knock," Simon said, shoving the young detective toward the front door.

Rafe backpedaled quickly. "Captain, shouldn't you --?"

Simon shoved him again, his words whispered but no less intimidating than his normal bark. "Would you open the door to a tall, black man at two o'clock in the morning during a power outage?"

Rafe scowled. "Maybe." He straightened his tie and held his shield toward the peephole before knocking on the heavy oak planks of the rustic-style door. His knuckles barely made a sound through the thick wood, so he made a fist and pounded with more vigor, wincing at the shockwaves that rocketed up his arm.

Simon switched on his flashlight and helpfully shined it on the detective and his badge.

Two minutes later a no-nonsense voice came through the door. "What do you want?"

Rafe's eyebrows shot up. The speaker was a woman. "Ma'am, I'm Detective Rafe with the Cascade Police Department. I'm here with Captain Banks. Sheriff Resendez said you might be able to help us."

The door opened abruptly, and he found himself staring down the barrel of a pump-action shotgun held by four-feet-ten-inches of waif-thin determination. He took a quick step back and held up his hands.

Simon also raised his hands, but kept the flashlight turned on in case a sudden return to darkness startled her into shooting. "Whoa there, Mrs. Cade." He kept his expression calm, but couldn't imagine how his looming presence could appear less than threatening to the diminutive young woman. "I'm Captain Simon Banks. We need to speak with your husband."

She looked critically at both of them, but it was the mud-spattered PD logo on the door of Rafe's 4x4 at the edge of the flashlight's illumination that convinced her to lower the shotgun. "Come in out of the rain."

They stepped into a tiled foyer, and Mrs. Cade closed the door behind them. The cuffs of thick flannel pajamas peeked from beneath a heavy velour bathrobe, and huge, fluffy slippers with toe-ends shaped like beagle faces complete with floppy ears adorned her feet. To her credit, she didn't seem to care that they were dripping all over her expensive floor. In the faint light of candles flickering atop a small, ornately carved table, Simon realized she was of Japanese decent, although obviously American born and bred. "My husband's in Chicago at a convention. Why do you want to see him?"

Simon sighed. He'd really hoped they were going to get a break. "We need a doctor, and we heard he also owns a Hummer that just might get us where we need to go."

One corner of her mouth twitched in a wry smile as she put the shotgun in a mount beside the front door's hinges, where it was concealed by a tall, potted plant. She shed the bathrobe and reached for a full-length, all-weather coat hanging from a nearby rack, her feet kicking off the slippers and disappearing with practiced ease into rubber Wellington's. "I'm Doctor Cade, and the Hummer belongs to me." She grabbed a medical bag sitting beside the coat rack, picked up a candle from the side table, and blew out the rest. "Where are we going?"

Simon cringed inwardly at his male chauvinist faux pas. He'd always thought of a Hummer as an expensive toy for men with more dollars than sense. When Resendez had told him it belonged to Doctor Cade, he'd made the erroneous assumption that the doctor was a man. But he adjusted smoothly to the new developments. "My apologies, Doctor Cade. We need to get into the foothills -- Doc Deerfield's place."

"Is someone sick up there?" she asked, leading them through a side door into a huge, four-car garage. "Stand still a moment." As they obeyed, she disappeared into the blackness with only the low, flickering flame of the candle to light her way. She opened a car door, and bright interior lights illuminated the sleek black lines of the Hummer. She blew out the candle and climbed behind the wheel. "One of you will have to get the door, since the power's out."

Simon gestured for Rafe to perform that chore and quickly climbed into the passenger seat. "I have two officers in trouble. One of them has been wounded, I don't know how badly. It's possible they made it to Deerfield's farm to find shelter."

"You're not certain?" The engine on the all-terrain vehicle started with a throaty roar. She turned on the headlights to aid Rafe in his search for the the garage door's manual release . He had the door up in moments and hurried to climb into the back seat.

"No, we're not," Simon admitted reluctantly. "They're on the run from killers who've been chasing them all the way from Benny's, up on the crestline."

She put the powerful vehicle in gear and pulled out into the heavy rain. "That's a long way to travel in this weather, especially for an injured man. You're sure they made it off the mountain?"

"Jim Ellison is an ex-Army Ranger. Search and Rescue tracked him to the lower elevations and figured he and his partner made it to the foothills." Simon decided not to mention the body that had convinced him of Jim's progress out of the forest. "We need to grab some weapons out of our truck."

She stopped beside the Cascade PD Explorer, and Rafe once again braved the rain to grab their riot guns. Quickly, he climbed back inside the Hummer. The door had barely closed before she had the all-terrain vehicle in motion again.

Simon grabbed for the dash when she made an unexpected turn. "Where are we going? Isn't the road the other way?"

"According to the weather reports, the roads are buried under more than four feet of water. We'd never make it. The back horse trails will be muddy, but I think we'll have a better chance of getting through."

"Horse trails?" Rafe said, flailing for a handhold as he was jostled around in the back seat. "Captain, our own 4x4s could probably make it."

Doctor Cade shook her head and gripped the steering wheel more tightly. "There are cement drainage culverts bisecting the trails. No regular 4x4 will get over them."

"Will we?" Simon asked skeptically.

She grinned recklessly. "The manufacturer says so. Let's find out together, shall we?"

Simon felt as if he'd been stuffed inside a barrel and was tumbling down a very long staircase. He clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from rattling and prayed that Doctor Cade knew what she was doing.

Ezra paused in the doorway to the living room and quietly observed his two unexpected late-night visitors. Both were sleeping at the moment, but their exhaustion and pain were still quite evident. Ellison sat slumped in the armchair next to the couch, as still as if he were carved from stone, seemingly oblivious to what was happening around him. Sandburg, on the other hand, was in constant motion: tremors from the fever racked his body, while drops of sweat slid down his face to the pillow. Mumbling softly, his head moved from side to side as he excised fever-induced demons.

Ellison had related a skeletal version of what had happened to them, but Ezra was determined that he would flesh out the story before the night was over. At one time he would have conceded that it was probably none of his business, but with Isla and Maggie lying in the freezer down at the county morgue, well, that he took kind of personal. He and Minnie had enjoyed many pre-church Sunday breakfasts up at Benny's, and they were good people. Besides, he was becoming damned curious about these two city detectives.

"No... Jim...." The mumbles became louder and more coherent. "Don't fall through the floor."

Before Ezra could take a single step, the sleeping statue of Detective Ellison became a blur, the colors catching up with the person once he'd settled at his friend's side.

"Chief?" Ellison said, resting his palm on the younger man's forehead. He looked up at Ezra. "His fever's down, but not enough."

Ezra raised an eyebrow but didn't comment. He didn't doubt for a moment that it was true.

Sandburg opened his eyes and desperately grabbed one of Ellison's sleeves. "Jim, you got out of the cave!"

Jim frowned. "Do you remember the cave? Do you remember what happened?"

"I got shot... my leg. Um, we burned the money, and you got out of the cave. No...." This time it was Blair's turn to frown as he tried to force his memories into some kind of coherent order. "You came down the steps and fell through the floor. But...." The young man began to panic, then suddenly gasped. "Oh, God, Jim, my leg is killing me."

"I know, Chief. We're... we're working on that right now." Jim looked up at Ezra, who nodded.

"Everything's all set," Ezra confirmed, answering the unspoken question. "Whenever you're ready."

Jim returned to his attention to his partner. "Blair? Come on, Sandburg, I need you with me here for a minute."

Sandburg opened his eyes and blinked, making every effort to concentrate. "Jim?"

"Blair, do you trust me?"

"Trust you...." Sandburg echoed quietly, his eyes starting to close. Ellison shook his arm gently, and the eyes opened again.

"Come on, stay with me here." Ellison tried again. "Your leg is infected and we have to take the bullet out. I need to know you're okay with this, Chief."

Ezra had quietly moved into the living room and sat on the coffee table. Sandburg gazed steadily into his partner's eyes. For a brief moment, he seemed completely lucid.

"Yeah, Jim." His voice was no more than a whisper. "You do what you have to, man." The eyes slid shut, and Ellison sighed. He re-wet the cloth in the bowl of cool water Ezra held out and wiped off the younger man's face and throat, then slid his hand beneath the T-shirt to wipe down his shoulders and chest.

"You sure you're ready for this, Jim?" Ezra asked gently.

Ellison nodded, but didn't turn to look at him. "Can I see what you've done?"

"If that'll help you, son." Ezra didn't take it as a lack of trust on the detective's part, but more like a stalling tactic. Ellison left the wet cloth on Sandburg's forehead and followed him into the kitchen.

The kitchen was huge and spacious, and under most circumstances, quite homey. A large wood stove filled one corner, a fire snapping hungrily inside. Three Coleman lanterns of various sizes were placed on elevated surfaces around a huge butcher block table that he and Minnie had moved to the center of the room. With most of the kids gone, they had no need for such a big table and it took up much less space shoved back against the wall. It was now covered with three layers of crisp, white sheets. A Black and Decker snake light hung on a hook from the ceiling, ready to be reshaped into the best position for the surgery.

Ellison frowned and sniffed. "Whiskey?"

"Yup. Me and Minnie wiped the table down with whiskey first, then covered it with the clean sheets. The instruments I'll need are in the pot on the stove right now, gettin' sterilized."

Ellison walked to the stove and looked in. He looked away in a hurry, his face a shade paler. "Pliers?"

Ezra nodded calmly. There was a large pair of Craftsman pliers in the pot. "Have to be prepared, son. We don't know how embedded into the bone that bullet is."

Ellison swallowed and looked around the kitchen, diverting his mind from the tools. "What about chloroform? Or pentothal?"

Ezra handed the detective a can of starter fluid. "Unfortunately, I have no 'official' anesthetic in stock, but I always have a can of this handy for the old Ford in the barn. Minnie keeps telling me to get rid of it, but I love that old truck. Someday Danny and I'll finish restoring it, and I'll take the wife out for a nice Sunday drive. She'll change her tune."

Ellison actually cracked a small smile. "Compressed ether. Very clever, sir." He shook the can and his smile disappeared. "Not much here."

"I know." Ezra sighed. That was the one thing he didn't want to think about. Cutting into an infected wound was going to hurt like three kinds of hell. Yanking the bullet out of the bone would be ten times worse. He wasn't sure if the young man was up to handling that kind of pain. "Well, we'll just have to work fast. Careful, but fast."


The two men were startled at the sudden yell from the living room. Ellison was off in a flash, Ezra following close behind. Sandburg was sitting up halfway on the couch, propped on his elbow. He shook violently, his face damp and flushed. He looked up at his partner, fear and desperation in his eyes.

"Jim, I can't find Simon."

"It's okay, Blair." Ellison tried to push him back down onto the couch. "Simon's fine."

"No, no, he's gone. He's in the well! Jim, we've got to get Simon out of the well." Blair tried to sit up again, but Jim kept his hand firmly planted on his chest.

"Simon's probably at home in a nice, warm, dry bed."

"But Quinn...."

"Quinn is in jail, remember?"

Sandburg looked confused at that, but he nodded. "Quinn shot me and we burned his money. Didn't we? Did we get Simon out of the well?"

"Yeah, Sandburg. We did."

Sandburg moved a sluggish hand across his eyes. "God, Jim, my leg hurts. And I'm so tired."

"Then sleep. When you wake up, you'll feel a lot better."

"Just don't fall through the floor. Okay, Jim?"

"I promise." Sandburg closed his eyes and drifted off into a restless sleep. Ellison stood up and rubbed his hands across his face in a gesture that Ezra had come to recognize as one of frustration.

"Burning money? Friends falling down wells? Seems like there's a lot to your story you've left out."

Ellison shook his head. "No, that was a long time ago. His memories are kind of jumbled at the moment. Quinn was another time when --" He stopped, seeming shocked at how he was going to finish the sentence.

Ezra finished it for him. "Another time when your partner got shot and spent time in a cave while being chased by bad guys."

Ellison opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Finally, he just nodded.

"I hope when this is all over, you and Blair will stay around for a cup of coffee and some story telling. I have a feeling you've got some doozies."

"Our lives are not boring," Ellison admitted. He sat back down on the couch and removed the afghan from his sleeping partner. "Okay, let's get this over with."

Blair tried to concentrate on what Jim was saying, he really did.

"... this will probably hurt like hell, Chief, I'm sorry. Are you ready?"

Blair had no idea what his partner was talking about, but it seemed important to him, so he nodded. Jim disappeared from view and almost immediately he felt himself being raised into a sitting position, strong arms reaching beneath his armpits and crossing over his chest. What was Jim doing? Was he going to carry him? He didn't need to be carried, he could walk. Blair grabbed a wrist and tried to pry it loose.

"Don't, Chief. It's okay. Trust me," a voice whispered in his ear.

Blair did trust him, but he didn't see why he had to be carried. It was too hot to argue, though, so he let his hand drop.

"Good. That's good." Jim's voice wasn't near his ear anymore. "Okay, we're ready at this end."

Ready for what? "Oh God!" Blair yelled out as something jarred his injured leg. It felt like a burning spike was being slowly twisted through his thigh. He grabbed frantically at the wrists encircling his chest, trying to make the arms let go, to set him back down where the pain wasn't so bad. He succeeded at getting one of the arms off but the other was like steel.

"It's okay, it's okay," came Jim's voice over and over. But it wasn't okay; it hurt like hell, like nothing he'd ever felt before. "Bite on this, Chief, it's a piece of leather. Bite hard and scream if you have to." Something thick and pliable was shoved between his teeth, and Blair bit down instinctively. The second arm returned again and he felt himself being lifted, front and back. He gasped and bit down harder on the leather in his mouth as hot pain seared through the back of his leg again. After a few minutes of awkward motion, tears were streaming down his face and tiny tremors coursed through his muscles as he fought the pain.

"Almost there, hang on, buddy, it's okay," Jim's soft voice kept whispering in his ear.

Finally he was placed ever so gently on his stomach on a flat, hard surface. The material beneath his cheek felt nice and cool, but the bed was just too hard. What had happened to his bed? Why couldn't Jim have just left him on the couch? It was much more comfortable.

Hands lifted him up so that he was lying slightly on his left side, and a pillow was stuffed under his left breastbone and armpit. Another pillow was placed on his backside, behind and a bit under his left hip and thigh. His muscles were relaxing now, and the tremors and tears were subsiding. He let the piece of leather in his mouth drop out. The pillows were comfortable, and the surface he was on smooth and cool.

"Thanks, Jim," he mumbled, his voice raspy.

"It's okay, Chief." Jim's voice sounded funny, too. "Just try and relax."

A door opened and he heard a woman's voice. Was Naomi here? He tried to listen, to remember, but everything was just too damn difficult. Metal pinged somewhere behind him, and he wished that they'd just turn off the lights and leave him alone to get some sleep.

"Blair, I'm going to put something over your mouth and nose, and I want you to relax and breathe deeply." That was Jim's voice again. Blair heard something like spraying and then a hand gently cupped the back of his head. Maybe Jim was going to let him drink some water. That would be nice. He was terribly thirsty.

The foul, sweet-smelling cloth that pressed tightly against his face was completely unexpected. He tried desperately to turn from it, but the hand on the back of his head wouldn't let him. His muffled protests died without ever escaping his mouth as wave after wave of dizziness and nausea crashed over him.

"It's okay, relax," Jim was saying in a distant, funny voice. "Just take one more deep breath. Please, Blair, one big deep breath for me."

Everything was all muddled and confused, but Jim's voice reached through the fog, sounding warm and comfortable. There was a vivid moment of deja vu as his mind transported him back to Sierra Verde. He remembered the vision of his future where Jim had smothered him, apologizing for frightening him. Startled as the revelation became reality, he took a deep, shuddering breath and remembered nothing more.

Simon felt as if he'd dropped off the face of the earth and was journeying through some wet, monochromatic netherworld. From the moment they'd left the Cade ranch, he'd never seen signs of a paved road. They were presently traveling along a dirt road between barren, muddy fields that would teem with orderly rows of cultivated onions in the spring. The soil had absorbed all the rain it could handle; the surface of the fields now looked thick and viscous, not like soil at all. The world was little more than muted shades of gray deepening to near-black at the ground.

He had no idea where he was or how they'd get help if they became impossibly mired in the muck, a fate he considered more likely by the moment. There was only one thing he was certain of.

"We're going the wrong way."

The Hummer bounced through another mud-filled pothole, and his final word came out as two syllables as his jaws snapped together. The potholes were a good thing, he reminded himself; they meant the road was hard-packed enough to support the heavy vehicle.

Doctor Cade concentrated on her driving and looked as if she hadn't heard him. After a moment, however, she said, "You have two choices, Captain. Getting there -- and not."

He sighed, almost grateful for her competent brusqueness. His confidence lasted until they reached the end of the farm road and turned onto a narrow, muddy track paralleling the brush-covered foothills. The Hummer was too wide for the path and began slewing as its passenger-side tires sank into the soft mud.

"Straddle the path if you can," Rafe advised tensely from the rear seat. "Then you'll have all the wheels pulling evenly."

Doctor Cade quickly regained control of the powerful vehicle. "Thanks. I've never tried to drive in anything this bad." She braked suddenly and stopped.

The trail ahead had washed out, and a river of mud flowed across their path.

"I don't think it's too deep," she said, her voice tinged with uncertainty for the first time since they'd started their journey.

"How deep is too deep?" Simon asked.

"Anything over thirty-two, thirty-three inches."

He surveyed the collapsed banks and surrounding vegetation. "I'm guessing it's no more than two feet deep, but I'm not exactly experienced in this sort of thing."

Doctor Cade put the Hummer in gear. "Two feet. Piece of cake."

The all-terrain vehicle plunged confidently down the banks and forged the impromptu stream with impunity. Clawing its way up the other side proved more daunting, but they made it.

Cade whooped with triumph, startling her traveling companions. She glanced sheepishly at Simon. "Sorry. I just suddenly feel really good about buying something I'd previously thought of as a very expensive toy."

With renewed confidence, she drove ahead, only to stop again a few minutes later.

This time, it was Simon who sounded doubtful. "How the hell are we going to get over that?"

"That" was a cement culvert bisecting their path. A wooden bridge spanned the quickly flowing current, but it was far too narrow for the Hummer to cross.

"We'll never fit on that bridge."

"No, that's for horseback riders," Cade agreed confidently, angling off the trail to avoid the bridge.

Simon tensed. "The culvert has vertical sides. You're gonna get hung up."

"If I do, then I'm suing the manufacturer." Cade drove slowly and carefully, but there was no disguising the excitement she felt at testing the Hummer's abilities.

The expensive all-terrain vehicle didn't let them down. The undercarriage dragged for a moment as the front end dipped into the culvert. The swift current tugged at them, churning around the fenders as the powerful vehicle inched forward. The Hummer's front wheels were mounted farther forward than on a standard sport-utility or truck so it was the tires, not the front fender, that touched the far side first. With a burst of power, the wheels climbed the cement wall and pulled the Hummer safely across, dragging the undercarriage again before returning to level ground.

Simon released a tensely held breath and heard Rafe do the same behind him. "How many more of these culverts?"

Cade was breathing hard with the adrenaline rush. "Two more. But they're identical to the one we just crossed. The Hummer's designed to climb vertical walls up to almost two feet in height. The only thing I was worried about was the narrowness of the channel."

Simon nodded, confident now that the vehicle was everything it was cracked up to be. "How long do you estimate until we reach the Deerfield farm?"

"It's still a long way," she confessed, pressing down on the accelerator. "We're traveling around the perimeter of the valley to avoid the worst of the flooding. I doubt we'll reach Doc's place before dawn, but we'll get there as quickly as we can."

Continue on to Act III...

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This page last updated 2/2/01.