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
Hephaistos and Linda S. Maclaren (Mackie)


Act I

A loud, insistent banging woke Ezra Deerfield from a sound sleep.

Years of doctoring and answering late-night emergency calls had conditioned him to wake up quickly, but now that he'd retired, he wished the conditioning would fade quietly away, just as his youthful agility and thick dark hair had. Hell, the one thing that hadn't deserted him in old age was his hearing, and a lot of good that did him with a wife, God love her, who spoke with exuberance and volume.

Bam! Bam! Bam!

With reluctant acceptance, Ezra sat up and bounced a bit on the bed, hoping to wake his wife, but Minnie and her hard-of-hearing ears continued to sleep peacefully and soundly, emitting a rather unfeminine snort every so often.

Bam! Bam! Bam!Bam!Bam!Bam!Bam!

"Damnable shutters," Ezra grumbled. Outside, the wind and rain whipped together into a cadence worthy of Grieg, and he found himself humming 'Hall of the Mountain King' while he put on his robe and slippers. Now he had to figure out which of the many shutters on the old farm house had come loose. He paused in the hallway outside his bedroom door to determine where the sound was coming from: not the boys' old bedroom, nor either of the girls' rooms. More like the front hall. In fact, now he could hear another sound fighting with the wind for attention, a human sound, a vocal sound...

Well, hell. There was somebody at the front door.

Better safe than sorry, he thought, so he grabbed the rusty old shotgun leaning next to the fireplace and hefted it under his arm. Hobo, sprawled on the braided rug by the woodpile, opened one eye and gave a token wag of his tail before yawning and sinking even further into sleep. Like Minnie, the old hound mix was hard of hearing, but even in his younger days he hadn't been much of a watchdog.


"Hold your horses, I'm coming, I'm coming," he called. He was halfway to the door when the hall light, the only one he'd turned on to navigate through the rambling ranch-style house, went out. Knowing it was futile, he nonetheless flicked the switch for the outside porch light a few times. The view beyond the tiny, decorative window inset in the door remained stubbornly black. He muttered to himself about the loss of electrical power as he unhooked the security chain and pulled back the bolt. Hefting the shotgun like a baseball bat, he swung open the front door and stepped back.

"Good Lord." Ezra stared into the gloom at the two men dripping rain and mud onto his WELCOME mat. One was tall, athletically built with a no-nonsense expression that lost none of its determination despite his pale face and puffy, exhausted-looking eyes. Rain tracked rivulets down his cheeks, and his entire body was shaking so violently with chills it looked as if he were having a seizure. The other man was smaller, most of his face hidden by long, wet, dark hair. Unlike the taller man, he was wearing a parka, but the sodden, rain-soaked fabric probably did little to dispel the cold. They both looked as if they'd gone twelve rounds with Joe Frasier and six mean cousins.

"Please excuse the intrusion, sir," the taller of the two said. Not waiting for an invitation, he half-carried his companion across the threshold. Even in the near-darkness of the house, he headed unerringly toward the living room, not giving Ezra or his shotgun a second glance. He continued speaking as he eased the smaller man onto the couch. "I'm Jim Ellison with the Cascade Police Department, and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg. We --" He paused to look at Ezra for the first time. "We ran into a bit of trouble."

"I'd have to be blind and stupid not to see that, son." Ezra shut and bolted the door, grabbed a flashlight from the drawer of a small foyer table, then joined Ellison in the living room. He looked closer at the long-haired man slumped against the back of the couch. The poor kid looked exhausted and miserable. "Son," he said to Sandburg, "in all my years I have never seen a human being look wetter than you do right now."

The young man blinked and looked at Ezra, then around the living room, frowning as if just noticing his surroundings, but he didn't speak.

Ellison sat down on the sturdy pine coffee table in front of the sofa and leaned forward to unzip his partner's jacket. His shaking hands couldn't manage the simple task, and he slumped, his arms falling to his knees as he hung his head in defeat. "I can't do it." His voice was hardly a whisper, but Ezra heard it clearly despite the steady downpour beating against the roof. The old house was well built, and had sheltered those within its walls through eight decades of tempestuous weather. "My hands are numb."

Ezra snapped out of his slight stupor. "You stay right there while I get the fire started." Setting the shotgun aside, he went to the large, rock-faced fireplace that dominated the large room. Its interior was already laid with logs, so all he had to do was strike a match and light the kindling. "We don't use this much except when guests come to visit, but I reckon you qualify as company." Within seconds, flames licked hungrily at the small pine logs forming the base of the expertly stacked wood. When it had gained strength, the fire would begin work on the larger, much harder almond logs that would provide light and long-lasting heat for the room. "There. This will warm you up in no time."

He stepped back to the sofa and began to unfasten the snaps on the parka's wind flap so he could get at the zipper of Sandburg's jacket. "You just warm your hands by the fire, Mr. Ellison. I'll take care of your friend."

Ellison didn't move. He looked on the brink of total physical exhaustion. "He hasn't had the best couple of days...." He raised his head and looked at his companion. "Chief, you still with me?" The younger man looked back at him, then reached up rather sluggishly and tried to concentrate on removing his left arm from his jacket at Ezra's urging. His eyes traveled from Ellison to Ezra, but it was clear he didn't comprehend what was happening.

"Neither have you from the looks of it, Mr. Ellison." In the flickering light from the fire, Ezra peered closely at his unexpected guests. Ellison had a long bloody gash across his right bicep, and whatever had caused it had ripped through his thick flannel shirt. Small cuts and bruises marked his face where he'd likely been stumbling through the thick undergrowth common to the foothills. From the way he worked his arm, his right shoulder seemed to be giving him some trouble as well.

His friend looked even worse. The same cuts and bruises marked his face, but he also had a big lump on his forehead right at the hairline. His eyes were glazed and his skin was flushed a dark pink, and judging by the bloody bandana wrapped around his thigh just above the knee, Ezra assumed the poor kid had injured his leg pretty badly.

He realized he ought to be doing something more. "How are your hands?"

Ellison flexed his fingers. "A little better."

"Think you can work him out of the rest of these wet things while I get you both some dry clothes?"

Ellison looked him straight in the eyes for the first time, his expression one of gratitude. "Yes, sir, thank you. Sorry about the couch."

"Pfft, it's an old couch. The wife's been harping on me to get a new one she's taken a fancy to in the Sears store down in Chesterfield. Now you just worry about your friend there, and I'll be right back."

A uniformed deputy sheriff huddled in a heavy parka tried irritably to wave him by, but Simon Banks ignored him and gratefully pulled his sedan off the treacherous, rain-slick mountain highway. At this "wide spot in the road" were clustered a two-pump gas station, a tiny camp store, and a restaurant with a sign that simply read "Benny's." The area was cluttered with official vehicles -- two county sheriff cars, a forest service truck, and a 4x4 with Special Investigations Unit written over the county crest emblazoned on the doors. Rain falling out of the low, black sky reflected the flashing blue and red of their emergency lights and gave the place a sparkling yet forlorn, depressing feel.

Simon parked near the van and rolled down his side window as the irate deputy rushed up to him.

"What's the matter, fella? Didn't you see me?"

He held up his shield. "Captain Banks, Cascade PD. I'm here to see Deputy Sheriff Madden."

The deputy drew back and straightened to attention. "Sorry, Captain. He's inside."

Simon nodded, rolled up the window, and struggled into his heavy parka. His overcoat was fine for the normal rain in Cascade, but this frozen slush required a more vigorous defense. He added a Jags cap for his head, pulled the parka's hood over as far as the hat brim, then shoved open the door and climbed out into the freezing mountain air.

Although eager to be out of the weather, he paused to examine the scene. The rustic store and cafe were nestled in a sort of cul-de-sac. Behind them rose the impenetrable black of the forest. To either side, deep road cuts formed impassable barriers, meaning the buildings could only be approached from the front or rear. Simon knew there was a steep drop-off at the back that continued clear down to the valley floor. On the uphill side of the road were two intersections leading higher into the mountains toward the ski resorts and tourist towns. Heavy snowfall had closed the roads temporarily, but when the weather broke, the resorts would do a booming business.

Here at the 3200-foot level, the weather couldn't decide if it wanted to rain or snow, and the drops that spattered against his face felt so cold they stung his cheeks.

In the gloom just beyond the illumination of the rotating emergency beacons, he saw the blue-and-white Ford pickup that had brought him out on such an inhospitable night.

Finished with his examination of the area, he ducked through the door into Benny's.

The inside was stifling after the cold. Simon stomped his boots and threw back the hood of his parka.

A young man in a sheriff's uniform saw him and stepped away from a crime scene team that was gathering evidence behind the lunch counter stretching across the rear of the room. "Captain Banks? I'm Deputy Sheriff Aaron Madden."

Simon shook the man's hand and stopped himself from immediately demanding answers. From the expression on his face, the deputy had already berated himself sixteen different ways, and Simon's anger would only erode his confidence further. "What have you got?"

Madden gestured toward the red vinyl benches of the nearest booth. "Why don't you get settled? I'll grab us some coffee."

It was going to be a night for coffee, Simon knew. The deputy looked as if he'd been running on pure caffeine for hours. He shed his parka and sat down.

A moment later, the deputy returned with two steaming mugs. "It's a little strong," he apologized as he slid into the opposite side of the booth. "No one knows how to use the coffee maker."

Simon winced at the first bitter, potent sip. "It's fine. Tell me what happened from the beginning."

Madden sighed. "I guess that would be yesterday morning. The sheriff's office has jurisdiction over most of the ski resorts and small towns on the mountain, but we're based in Long Ping. Your two men were in town, visiting the old Indian cave near McDonald Peak. Have you heard of it?"

Simon nodded. Although the cave was something of a minor tourist attraction, he could still recall Sandburg's enthusiasm for the trip. He'd had little time to pursue his passion for anthropology since his dissertation debacle. Ellison had indulged him because it was a good excuse to get out of the city for a day, enjoy some fresh air, and allow Blair to regale him with his encyclopedic knowledge of the ancient hunters who had once trekked through these mountains.

Madden sipped his coffee before continuing. "The trail's well maintained and safe, even in winter, although it's a pretty strenuous hike. Anyway, they got back to town just before the weather broke -- guess they recognized the signs and turned back before they got stuck out there."

"Ellison knows that stuff," Simon agreed almost absently, picturing the day the two friends had spent together.

"Turned out to be a good thing for us. Sheriff Kazmaryk and I had our hands full trying to arrest a fugitive named Buster Corelli."

Simon recalled seeing the bulletin warning local law enforcement that the bank robber and murderer was thought to be somewhere in the Northwest. "You caught him?"

Madden laughed humorlessly. "With the help of your two guys. Man, that Corelli is a psychotic bastard."

"But he escaped later." Simon spoke calmly, wondering at the amount of sheer luck that kept cocky, violent killers like Buster Corelli from the justice they so richly deserved.

"Yeah." The memories were clearly painful. "We thanked your detectives and they left town sometime mid-afternoon. Not thirty minutes later, Corelli's buddies showed up and sprang him."

"What happened?"

"Sheriff Kazmaryk was alone at the jail. They stripped him to his undershorts, cuffed him to the bars, and gagged him. Then one of them stuck his feet in a bucket of mop water...." Madden stopped, unable to continue.

"They electrocuted him?" Simon asked gently. He'd read the police reports; he knew Corelli and the gang that ran with him were violent, sadistic killers.

Madden nodded, drawing a deep breath to steady his resolve.

"Then what?"

"Then we fucked it up." Madden's voice was heavy with bitterness.

No kidding. "Tell me."

"We connected a stolen car report to the gang, so we ended up converging at Summit Ski Area, where the car had been spotted." Madden pushed his coffee mug aside and leaned back in the booth, his eyes focused on the Formica tabletop. "Turned out that it had been stolen by a couple of joy-riding kids, locals. Instead, Corelli had stolen a different car, one the owner didn't realize was gone until this morning. The gang must have been coming down the mountain when they spotted Ellison's truck here at Benny's."

Simon knew it took a vengeful bastard to delay escape long enough to torture the sheriff to death and then divert to go after Ellison and Sandburg. "Everything you've told me still doesn't explain why all this happened yesterday and I'm only hearing about it now."

Madden flushed to the roots of his hair. "They took over the cafe and put up the 'closed' sign. In this weather, with the roads closed topside, the only traffic is local. It wouldn't be unusual for Isla to close up early."


"Isla Phillpot, the owner and cook."

"Go on."

"They killed Isla and Maggie, the waitress. I'm guessing your guys made it out the back and headed down the mountain with Corelli and his men hot on their trail. It wasn't until Todd, the morning cook, came to open up the place and found the bodies that we realized just how bad we screwed up."

"Okay, that gets us to sometime this morning." Simon's coffee was cold now, but he continued to sip the bitter brew anyway, just for something to do.

"The first thing I did was put out an APB on Isla's car, which wasn't in the parking lot. I figured the gang took it and left the one they'd stolen. Later, we found out Isla had come in with Maggie yesterday. Then I figured maybe they'd taken a customer's car."

"When did you figure out they were on foot?"

"We found some signs out back. I alerted the State Patrol and Sheriff's office that our suspects were going down the mountain on foot. By then, a crime team had come all the way from Banning to supervise removal of the bodies and start gathering the evidence."

"Where's the car Corelli was driving?"

"It was parked in front. Forensics had it towed back to their facility."

"Didn't you wonder why Corelli decided to go on foot from here?" Simon tried to keep the disgust from his voice, but it wasn't easy. "In this weather?"

"We figured something spooked him. Anyway, the pickup truck was parked way back under the trees where you saw it, and it was a while before we got around to running the plates. When we did, we realized it belonged to Ellison." Madden got up and grabbed his parka from a wall rack by the door. "Here, I'll show you something. Bring your coat."

Simon got up and followed the guilt-ridden young man across the small diner to a table against the far wall. He didn't need to be told what he was looking at: Jim Ellison's parka was still draped over the back of a chair that had toppled sideways onto the floor. Dread settled heavier than the lousy coffee in the pit of his stomach.

"At first we thought the coat belonged to one of the killers."

"It's Ellison's."

"Yeah, I figured that out after we ran the plates on the truck." Madden sounded frustrated with himself. "I remember seeing him wear it, damn it. There's a cell phone in the pocket. Does Sandburg have a cell?"

"It's probably in the truck." Simon scrubbed his face in worry. "Are you sure they're not dead?"

"They left here under their own steam, and quick, too," Madden assured him, leading him through the kitchen and out the back door. They paused long enough to put on their jackets, then Madden led the way across a narrow, dirt drive that would have been muddy except for a thick cushion of pine needles blanketing its surface. On the other side, the mountain dropped off steeply, a forest of pine trees marching down the slope.

In the beam of his flashlight, Madden showed him a churned path leading downward. It looked as if someone had taken the slope at breakneck speed, heels digging deeply into the soft humus.

"We've got armed officers and Search and Rescue trying to follow the trail. From the signs, Corelli and his buddies chased after your men, then probably got lost down there and couldn't make it back to the cafe to pick up their car."

Simon peered into the blackness, his view through the trees further obscured by rain and drifting ground fog, and thought about Jim's enhanced senses. "If it was daylight and clear, what would I see from here?"

"From here, you can see straight down the mountain into the Cascade River Valley."

He nodded, having suspected as much. The valley was a rich agricultural center. In his mind's eye, he could see the neat, checkerboard pattern of cultivated fields. Farms meant farm houses, with warmth, and shelter, and telephones, perhaps even a ride to the nearest town -- Chesterfield, he recalled. "How far?"

Madden gestured slightly toward the right of a straight path down the slope. "Six, seven miles to the foothills, another couple to the valley itself. Chesterfield is probably another ten miles farther on."

And Ellison doesn't even have his parka.

Flashlights strobed the slope several hundred feet below them. The beams bobbled and swung erratically as their bearers struggled up the hillside.

Two parka-clad figures finally reached level ground. One was a Forest Service employee wearing a jacket that read Search and Rescue, the other a deputy with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Both men looked exhausted.

"We lost the trail in the rocks about two miles down." The deputy who spoke had to pause to gasp for breath between words. "Either those guys are really lucky, or else one of them knows the terrain."

"You mean Corelli?" Madden asked.

Simon answered for the other deputy. "He means my men. Ellison is ex-Army Special Forces. He knows how to find cover and lose pursuers."

"You're right," the man agreed. "Near as we can tell, Corelli and his men are stumbling around out there in the dark. We saw signs of them everywhere, but we never managed to catch up. There are two more search parties still down there. We're back to pick up some supplies and set up a base camp on the old forest road."

Simon looked at Madden. "How far down is that?"

"About midway between here and the valley floor. We can get there in the four-by."

The S&R officer shook his head. "It's more important to get some deputies in from the valley end, probably from Chesterfield."

"Okay, I'll make some calls and get things rolling from that end." Simon thought briefly about the well-equipped searchers and his own less-than-adequate clothing. "I can probably do more good from town anyway."

The officer nodded. "If your guys are still alive, they've probably reached the valley by now." He held up an evidence bag. "Found this."

Simon took the package and stared at it grimly. It was Ellison's Sig Sauer 9mm. Smeared inside where the grip had rubbed was something that looked suspiciously like blood.

Ezra decided that Ellison was about Danny's size, so he started his scavenging in his youngest son's room. With the flashlight tucked under his arm to aid his search, he selected boxers, jeans, socks, a T-shirt, and a bulky V-neck sweater. Most of their kids had long since grown and moved away, but Danny had returned after college for what was to have been a temporary arrangement. The temporary arrangement had lasted now for nigh on three years, and both Ezra and Minnie enjoyed having him around.

The kids' rooms were cluttered with clothes and other things deemed unnecessary and left behind as they'd grown and left home one by one. Minnie adamantly refused to throw anything out, which proved handy when the grandkids came to visit. There were still lots of toys and clothing from all stages of growth for everyone to choose from.

For Sandburg, he moved on to Marty's room, grabbing a pair of thick sweatpants, a long-sleeved T-shirt, sweatshirt, and a pair of heavy wool socks. After stopping in the large hallway bathroom for several thick bath towels, he popped his head back into his own bedroom.

"Minnie!" he called loudly. No answer. "Damnation, Minnie, you're just not that deaf." He stalked over to the bed and planted a kiss right on her lips, the most available plan of action considering his arms were full.

Minnie sputtered awake. "What in the name of goodness and light do you think you're doing, Ezra Deerfield?"

"Can't a man kiss his wife in the middle of the night if he wants?"

Minnie sat up straight and looked with no small amount of concern at her husband. "Glory be, are you doing laundry?"

Ezra laughed at that. "No, dear. But we have a couple of guests in the living room who need our help. They're both hurting some and soaking wet."

"The poor dears!" Minnie was all action now, maternal instincts kicking into full gear. "Did you get them dry clothes to wear? Well of course you did, that's what you're carrying. I'll get dressed and whip up some soup and hot chocolate, and maybe you should start a fire, even if we do have electric heat -- oh, you have a flashlight, is the power out? Then you'd best get the fireplace started. Tell them I'll be right on out. Oh, and --"

Ezra handed her the flashlight and left the room. Whatever Minnie was still saying faded into the background. It would be a good twenty minutes before she'd finished her morning ablutions and gotten dressed, and he didn't want to be there to further distract her.

When he reached the living room, Ellison had his partner undressed to his boxers, his bad leg propped onto the coffee table with cushions, and an old afghan wrapped around him. The young man looked asleep. The fireplace cast a warm, golden glow around the entire room, giving the scene the appearance of cozy normalcy.

But everything was far from normal. Ellison nodded as Ezra set the stack of clothes at the end of the couch. Wordlessly, they each grabbed a towel and started drying off his partner's head and torso.

"Thank you again, sir," the detective said. "I need to use your telephone."

Ezra shook his head. "Sorry. Lines are down. Happened right in the middle of a talk with my youngest, Danny, who called to say the roads were flooded and he wouldn't make it home tonight."

Ellison frowned with the effort required to think. He looked tired enough to drop right where he was. "Do you have a car?"

"Sorry again, son. Even if you're fool enough to try to travel the roads in this weather, Danny's got my pickup 'cause his Chevy's in the shop. There's Minnie's old Opal, but it'd be stalled out before you hit the end of the lane. Besides, it's twelve miles to Chesterfield or the interstate, and all the valley roads are closed 'cause of the floods."

Ellison closed his eyes for a moment as if cursing their run of bad luck, then opened them and smiled tiredly at his host. He nodded toward the shotgun still propped against a chair. "I appreciate the trust."

"Ah, it's nothing," Ezra said. "I knew I could trust you."

Ellison nodded absently, concentrating on his partner's long mane of hair. "I suppose you're one of those people with a good instinct for human nature."

Ezra chuckled a bit and leaned back to reach the clothes. "Son, I wouldn't know Ma Barker from Mother Teresa. Now animals, they're a whole 'nother story. But I figured if you were here to do us harm, you wouldn't have wasted time knocking on the door -- probably woulda just broken the damn thing down."

"Actually, sir, I would have done just that, but I was too tired."

Ellison looked up and smiled, but Ezra knew he meant what he said. He handed over Marty's shirts and watched the tall detective lay his hand against Sandburg's cheek.

"Chief." The voice was as gentle as the hand. "Blair, you with me here? I need you to wake up for a bit so we can get you into some dry clothes.'

"Mmm," Sandburg said. He moved his head slightly and opened his eyes. "Jim?"

"Yeah. Come on, can you sit up?"

The younger man sat up with effort and shoved his arms awkwardly through the sleeves Ellison presented him with. "Jim, can I borrow some quarters?" The words were slurred, and his voice faded toward the end of the sentence.

"What do you want quarters for?" The T-shirt finally on, Ellison worked at getting him into the baggy sweatshirt.

"A soda, man. I'm really thirsty."

"I'll get you a soda," Ellison answered, patting him on the shoulder.

Ezra understood the look the detective sent him and went to get a glass of cold water. By the time he returned, Sandburg was dressed in the sweatshirt and had fallen asleep again. Ellison looked as if he were on the brink of nodding off himself.

"You get dressed now, Mr. Ellison, and I'll help your friend here." He sat down next to Sandburg as Ellison nodded and began undressing, taking the clothes that were handed to him. Several times Ezra could feel eyes boring into the back of his skull while he helped Sandburg drink the water, slow sips at a time. The young man stirred slightly. He could feel the heat of a fever pouring off him and wondered if he had any medication on hand that would help.

"Thanks, man," Sandburg said sleepily, not opening his eyes. "Next time, though, ginger ale, okay? This stuff is flat."

Ezra chuckled and looked up at Ellison, who simply looked lost trying to master the button-fly jeans. "Spit it out, son. You've been dying to ask me something for the last ten minutes."

Ellison hesitated. "I saw your name on the mailbox down by the road. Is it true you're a doctor?"

"Yes, I am, but not the kind I'm thinking you mean. I'm a vet. Well, was a vet. Been retired ever since the new animal clinic moved into Chesterfield. Still get an occasional customer now and then, if Danny's not available -- Danny's the new vet, did I mention that?" Ezra's voice filled with pride. "Takin' after the old man. He runs the clinic but still does farm rounds, just like I did back in the old days."

The detective's shoulders slumped and he closed his eyes. "Damn, I was hoping you were an MD."

Knowing why Ellison was asking, Ezra continued. "That's not to say I haven't doctored a few humans now and then. A long time ago, I was the only doctor of any kind for miles around. Besides, humans and animals aren't all that different. Why, the circulatory system of a pig is almost identical to...." He paused and nodded toward the part of Sandburg's body still wrapped in the afghan. "It's his leg, isn't it, son? If it needs stitching, I can do that. I might even have some medicine around that could help. A lot of animal prescriptions and people prescriptions are similar, just --"

"Can you take out a bullet?"

The question was direct and startled Ezra for a moment. "I don't know," he admitted. A bullet wound! "Depends on how deep, I suppose, and you should know that --"

"It's embedded in the bone. Don't ask me how I know, I just do. And it's become infected. That's why he has a fever, and it's getting worse. We need to get the bullet out soon and we need antibiotics." Ellison paused and ran a hand through his hair, looking at his sleeping partner. "I saw the mailbox and I hoped... I thought...." His voice caught in his throat and he turned away, hiding his emotions behind a great show of putting on the rest of Danny's clothes.

"I have arthritis, Mr. Ellison. It's not too bad, but it's there. And it's been a long time since I've done any surgical procedures on an animal, never mind a human being."

When Ellison turned back around, he was once again composed, stoic. "I'll help. I was a medic in the Army, and I've had some experience with this sort of thing, although it's been quite a while for me, too. I... I just... I'm not going to sit back and let him die."

"No, of course you're not. Neither will I. All right, let's take a look at the wound." The smile Ellison flashed him was small and tired but as sincere as they came, and Ezra only prayed that he wasn't offering false hope.

Ellison hesitated again. "There's one more thing you should know."

Ezra raised his eyebrows expectantly.

"The people who were after us... are after us...." He made a sweeping gesture vaguely towards the front yard. "I can't promise they won't follow us here. I tried to leave a false trail, and we traveled carefully, but... well, we were tired, and Sandburg was hurting. I can't promise they won't find us." He looked up apologetically.

"Well, then," said Ezra, unwrapping the afghan from Sandburg's leg. "We'll make sure we're ready for them when they get here."

Buster Corelli looked as if he'd come out of the mold too soon, before he'd set properly. His close-set eyes were small beneath a jutting brow ridge reminiscent of an artist's rendering of Neanderthal Man. His nose had been broken so many times in prison fights that it was a broad, knobby protuberance that sat crookedly between his wide, acne-pitted cheeks.

He was 27 years old and has spent the bulk of his formative years in foster care and juvenile detention. The state had released him at the age of 21, even though his previous crime had been to torch the car of the chief administrator for the detention center -- with the administrator inside. Fortunately, the man had survived with little more than a bad case of smoke inhalation. Had he died, however, Buster would now be spending the rest of his life in maximum-security lockup, which made one man's good luck the rest of society's misfortune.

Grateful at being given a second chance in life, Buster had immediately set out to better himself. Within two years, he'd made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List as a brazen bank robber and wanton killer. Thus far, he'd been very lucky, since an abundance of smarts had never been one of his character traits. Possessed of feral cunning and a short-sighted view of his future, he knew he was destined to die young and bloodily, but he found the thought exciting rather than frightening. He just didn't plan to go easily.

The licensed clinical social worker at the center had told him a lot of his anger stemmed from a sense of low self-esteem. Buster was just a sensitive guy who repressed and then redirected his anger by taking it out on others. It had sounded cool, this easy explanation for his vile deeds, so he'd nodded and smiled, then followed the social worker home on his first night of freedom to celebrate with a little rape. She'd done more for his sense of empowerment in that one night of terror than she'd ever done from the safe haven of her office. He was forever grateful, so grateful in fact that he'd almost succumbed to the urge to attend her funeral. He'd known the cops would be filming the service, looking for suspicious faces, so he'd regretfully passed on the event. He was daring, but he didn't consider himself stupid.

It was all bullshit to Buster. He just wanted to have fun before going out in a blaze of glory, with his saga immortalized in Time and Newsweek and maybe even in the movies with Tom Cruise in the leading role. He'd filmed the climactic scene a hundred times in his head -- always imagining that neat sepia-toned slow motion like when Butch and Sundance had blazed their way into history. Yeah, too bad Redford was too damned old to play him.

Of course, that asshole, Ellison, had delivered a severe blow to Buster's self-esteem when he'd jumped in to help those hick lawmen bring him down. Buster Corelli, Most Wanted, captured in some backwater town by a couple of Barney Fifes, a Dirty Harry wannabe, and some long-haired freak. Not good for the Legend... not good at all.

Well, one of the hicks was dead, and he had Ellison and that hippie punk on the run. It was only a matter of time before he found them and gave them a taste of Corelli justice.

Too bad the weather was so shitty, or he would have enjoyed the hunt more. He'd seen how close the two cops were... something hinky going on there, no doubt about that. Funny, but Ellison didn't look like someone who was 'light in the loafers.' And Sandburg was a cop? Buster would make Ellison beg for his partner's life first, then force him to watch while he killed the little faggot slowly, painfully....

Beside him, Bobby Delaney slipped in the mud and landed on his butt for the fourth time in an hour. "Shit, Buster, we oughta go back."

Stupid jerk. Buster glared at him from beneath the brim of his Jags cap, which he'd lifted from the cops' table after the two men had escaped out the back. He didn't like the rain or cold any more than Bobby, but no one heard him complaining, did they? "We can't go back. The cop's might've found the car we boosted. We get to the valley, we find a nice, remote farm house, get something to eat, have a little fun with the farmer's wife, and get ourselves some new transportation."

"What about them two cops?" Delaney sounded tired, as if he'd heard the same argument a lot since the jail break up in Long Pine. Well, Bobby had joined the gang for the excitement, and Buster knew he had delivered all any man could crave. The robbing and the killing were damn near more fun than sex, although he made sure they nabbed a woman on occasion to take care of the necessary manly needs.

Right now, however, it was obvious to him that Bobby would trade it all for a warm, dry bed in a five-star hotel. Hell, he'd probably trade it all for a room at the Budget Motel.

Buster glowered some more, which was pretty much his usual expression when he was caught up in the moment, his look encompassing the other two henchmen, Bubba and Curt, as well. "Much as I hate repeatin' myself," he said in a bored drawl worthy of Eastwood, "we don't leave Washington until Ellison and Sandburg are dead. If I ever thought about forgivin' 'em for bustin' me -- which I didn't -- they signed their death warrants when they kilt Bruce. No one kills kin of mine and lives to tell about it." He was proud of the little speech. Bruce hadn't really been kin, but they'd been at the juvenile detention center together, so that made him family, didn't it?

Curt looked like he wanted to say something, but stopped. Buster wasn't stupid. He knew what they were thinking. They probably figured it wasn't a good idea to point out that Bruce wouldn't be dead if Buster hadn't insisted they chase after the cops in the dark. They would have been well away and home free, except he'd spotted Ellison's truck at Benny's. Now, they were lost in the damn woods in the middle of the night and freezing to death to boot.

On the other hand, Buster knew he was good fun most of the time, so Curt and the others were always willing to cut him some slack when he needed to indulge in his little whims.

Corelli shoved Delaney down the slope. "The valley's that way. Now move out."

"A bullet wound!"

Jim jerked awake at the loud voice, his hand instinctively reaching for his gun. All he found were a couple of belt loops on his borrowed jeans.

"Damn it, Minnie! I said to be quiet. Now you've gone and woke him."

Slouched in a chair he couldn't remember sitting in, he pulled in a deep, steadying breath and looked around, acquainting himself once again with his surroundings. His eyes followed the male voice, and he found himself returning Ezra Deerfield's even gaze.

In the short time Jim had been asleep, Ezra had changed out of his robe and pajamas, although his socks didn't match. Dressing by the glow of a flashlight must have made it difficult for his old eyes to see colors. It wasn't all that important anyway. "It's okay, son. Your friend's fine for now, and I haven't heard any sign of more strangers. Not that I would've heard anything through this weather, mind you, but I've been keeping my ears and eyes open."

At the mention of the word "friend," Jim immediately turned his attention to Blair, who was now lying lengthwise on the couch. Ezra had finished dressing him in the dry clothes, and he'd cut off the left leg of the sweatpants just below the hip. A fresh bandage was wrapped around the bullet wound, but Jim could still see the angry red streaks of infection reaching from beneath it.

"He seems to be resting all right." Jim's voice was still a little husky from sleep. He shook his head, disgusted at himself. "I didn't mean to fall asleep." It hadn't been more than ten or fifteen minutes, according to his watch, but they could easily have been attacked in that short amount of time.

"Hell, son, you needed it. Need more, too, by the looks of you."

A hearty tap on his shoulder had Jim jumping up and around, reaching once again for his long-lost weapon.

"Gracious me, dear, you are a skittish one! Hi there, I'm Minerva Deerfield, but please call me Minnie." She gave him a huge smile and stuck out her hand.

Jim sighed. He must be in worse shape than he'd thought: in the space of one minute he'd already forgotten about Ezra's wife. And whatever he expected of a woman named "Minnie," it wasn't the large -- very large -- robust female standing before him. Jim's sluggish brain told him he should answer her. Hello? Hi? Sorry for barging in? He settled for a polite nod and shook her hand.

"Call me Jim," he added, including Ezra in the remark.

Minnie beamed at him some more. "Now, sweetie, would you like tea or coffee? I was going to make cocoa, but I wanted to give you a choice. Ezra says you need juice and something hot to eat, so I have the vegetable barley soup from the 'fridge heating up on the wood stove. Thank God for that old stove, else I'd have to send Ezra out to the barn for the Coleman camp stove. Ezra told me you needed something hot and hearty, and that's the best I got already prepared. So which sounds better to you, dear? Coffee, tea, or cocoa?"

She was bending over slightly, hands on her knees, staring at him expectantly. Jim felt like a five-year old who had just announced he had a tummy ache.

"Take the tea, Jim, trust me." Ezra placed an ice pack on Blair's forehead. Blair mumbled something incoherent and tried to turn his head away from the sudden cold. "Minnie's coffee is contracted out to NASA as rocket fuel."

"Ezra Deerfield, that's not true! What's wrong with my coffee?"

"What's wrong, dear, is that you never remember how many scoops to put in. One scoop to every three cups of water, I keep telling you. When you do remember the numbers, you switch 'em around and put three scoops for every one cup of water." He winked at Jim. "Now that's what the local stonemasons use for their mortar. Sticks and binds like nothing else on the planet."

Minnie actually laughed at that. "Complain all you want, Ezra, but you never turn down any of my meals."

Jim smiled politely. "Strong coffee and soup sound like exactly what I need."

Minnie nodded happily. "All right, hon. You just wait here and I'll start the coffee perking, then bring you a nice, big, steaming bowl of soup and a glass of OJ." She turned around, obviously in her element, and returned to the kitchen.

"Good choice, the soup." Ezra lifted Blair's head slightly and pushed something into his mouth, followed by a small sip of water. Blair didn't wake, but his mouth greedily drank down the liquid. Ezra checked Blair's mouth to make sure the pill had been swallowed, then laid him back down gently and adjusted the ice pack across his forehead. "Truth be known, though, her soup's pretty bad, too. Minnie has a lot of good qualities, God love her, but cooking isn't one of her talents."

"What'd you give him?" Jim asked, eyes on his partner.

"Erythromycin. I wasn't sure I had any, and I didn't want to get your hopes up, but thank the good Lord I have a healthy supply of it downstairs in the cellar. It's a pretty standard antibiotic, and we need to start combating this infection. Hopefully, we can get his fever down some if we have to go in and get the bullet."

Jim closed his eyes. Go in and get the bullet... Into Blair's leg. Take a knife and slice into Blair... into....

"Mr. Ellison!"

Startled for the third time, Jim shook off the start of his zone. "I'm fine."

"You need sleep, son." The tone was concerned, not accusatory.

"I'll sleep when Blair's out of danger. When Corelli has been caught."

Ezra nodded, but Jim could tell it wasn't necessarily in agreement. The older man's tone became serious. "Why don't you tell me what it was you and your partner got yourselves into?"

Trying to rub the exhaustion off his face, Jim knew Ezra deserved an answer. What could he say? That the local law enforcement was comprised of well-meaning but green kids who had never been properly trained? That he, an experienced detective and Sentinel, should have known to wait in Long Pine until the feds came to pick up Corelli? That two more people lay dead in that restaurant because he hadn't been paying attention?

"Sandburg and I helped the Long Pine cops capture Buster Corelli, a vicious criminal wanted by the FBI. He... escaped their custody and came after us at one of the local restaurants... Benny's? I'm not sure how they knew we were there. Maybe they spotted my truck. Sandburg and I barely escaped out the back."

"Any other people in the restaurant?" Ezra's face had a look that said the whole situation had suddenly become more personal for him.

"The cook and a waitress; I didn't catch their names. And... I'm sorry. I'm pretty sure they're both dead." Jim was more than pretty sure. No one survived that many shotgun blasts to the head and chest.

"Isla... Ah, shit." Ezra bowed his head.

Memories assaulted Jim, memories of their desperate flight out the back of the restaurant, slipping and sliding through the mud and the branches and the trees on a nearly vertical slope. Concentrating only on putting distance between them and the five men of the Corelli gang, he hadn't heard the bolt open and close on the rifle, wasn't even aware a shot had been fired until Blair grunted and grabbed the back of his leg, tumbling to the ground with Jim, their momentum rolling them several more yards downhill until they'd been stopped abruptly by a large tree. Jim had returned fire, but another bullet had sliced the edge of his arm, causing him to drop his gun. He hadn't taken the time to pick it up. He'd barely taken the time to give Blair's injury more than a cursory examination, just applied a quick bandage to control the bleeding and hauled him up in the hope they could find a place to hide and nurse their wounds.

Ezra was saying something. "You telling me that you and your partner here climbed down the slope behind Benny's? Damn, son, that's hard work even in good weather."

"Yeah," said Jim.

Continue on to Act II...

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This page last updated 2/2/01.