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.

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."


Ezra washed Blair's leg over and over, from ankle to upper thigh, with warm, slightly soapy water and a soft washcloth. Jim stood by impatiently, waiting to be useful, wanting to get going on the surgery before the ether could wear off.

Administering the ether had been tough, tougher than he would ever admit. First, there had been even less in the spray can than he'd thought. Then Blair had fought it, not understanding what was happening, knowing only that it was Jim doing this to him. For a brief, desperate moment, Jim even compared himself to Lash. Don't fall through the floor, Jim. He sighed.

"You okay, son?" Ezra asked as he wiped off his hands and took the clean, dry towel Minnie handed him.

No, he was not okay. He had forced a drug on his best friend, and was about to help cut open his body and cause him even more pain to remove a bullet that should never have been there to begin with. He felt guilty, helpless, frustrated. He felt afraid.

"I'm fine," he said.

Ezra nodded, not necessarily because he believed him, and lightly patted Blair's leg dry. Dropping the towel on the floor, he took a long strip of rubber from Minnie and tied a tourniquet just above the entrance wound. He looked up at the round kitchen clock over the sink, taking note of the time: 1:48 a.m.

Ezra directed Jim where to hold Blair's leg down, one hand just above the tourniquet, the other just below the knee. Grateful to finally have something to do, Jim held on just tight enough to keep any sudden spasms from moving the leg and disrupting the surgery.

"Okay." Satisfied, Ezra leaned over and Minnie placed a pair of round glasses over his nose and anchored them behind his ears. He looked over the specs at Jim. "You ready?"

Jim nodded once, his jaw set and his mouth one thin, straight line. Ezra reached for the thin, sharp knife sitting in a stainless steel tray filled with alcohol. He carefully made an incision directly over the bullet wound, about an inch-and-a-half long, while Minnie followed the path of the knife with a turkey baster, suctioning up the excess blood. She had been strangely quiet since they'd started, only offering Jim a motherly smile every now and then. Jim realized as he watched her that she wasn't just a loud, large, kindly woman who heated soup, but a woman who had found her place beside her husband long ago, assisting him with skill and confidence.

The incision complete, Ezra used a small pair of tweezers to hold the sides of the wound apart. Blair remained blissfully unaware.

"I'll have to cut through more of the tissue here," Ezra explained, though to Minnie or himself, Jim wasn't sure. Minnie suctioned more blood as Ezra passed the knife lightly through the first incision, two, three more times. Jim grimaced when he heard the scrape of the knife against the bullet, the sound unmistakable.

"There's the little sucker." With his left hand, Ezra used the small tweezers to keep the wound spread open. With his right hand, he took larger tweezers from Minnie and reached into the wound, grabbing the head of the bullet. He gave it a firm yank.

Blair's leg spasmed, but Jim's hands held it firmly in place. Unfortunately, the bullet was so firmly embedded that the large tweezers slipped off. Ezra's hand flew up and away, almost causing him to lose his balance.

"Shit," Ezra said. Until that moment, Jim didn't think anything could cause the older man to lose his composure. The vet shrugged and reached into the metal tray. "Pliers it is."

Beneath Jim's hands, Blair's pulse quickened ever so slightly. It took a full second for the significance of this to register with Jim's brain. "Oh, God." His voice was a horrified whisper. "The ether's wearing off. He's waking up!"

Ezra didn't question Jim's assessment. "Keep him still somehow or I'm liable to cut into the artery. Minnie, hold down his legs."

The woman promptly draped her ample weight over Blair's calves and feet, pinning him securely.

Jim tossed away the pillow beneath Blair's chest and replaced it with his own body. He slipped his right arm under Blair's left and leaned across to hold him close, his left arm wrapped tightly around his partner's back to keep him as motionless as possible.

Blair moaned, returning slowly from his drugged-induced sleep. Jim tightened his grip and began murmuring any words of reassurance that came to mind.

"Put the leather back in his mouth so he doesn't bite or swallow his tongue," Ezra said. Jim used his left hand to locate the leather and place it between Blair's teeth. Again, instinct caused the young man to bite down.

Ezra had the pliers positioned, firmly gripping the head of the bullet. "Get ready," he cautioned. Planting his left hand on Blair's leg for an additional leverage, he twisted and pulled the bullet with all the strength he could muster.

Blair returned to consciousness with a scream of agony that vibrated against Jim's shoulder. "Easy, partner, easy," Jim soothed, anxiety making his voice hoarse. He bit off his own cry of pain as Blair's hands closed around his right bicep and dug in with desperate strength, splitting open Jim's wound even through the layers of bandages.

Ezra swore softly and continued to tug and twist at the bullet, sweat beading up on his forehead.

Blair screamed again, the sound an anguished gurgle muffled by the leather as he struggled frantically to escape the pain.

The sound tore at Jim's heart, but he grimly held his partner down. He knew that neither of them could stand more than a few more seconds of this torment. "Please," he gasped, though he wasn't sure if he was talking to Blair, Ezra, or God. He could hear the sound of metal squeaking against bone as Ezra tried to twist the bullet free.

Just as he was about to demand that Ezra stop, the old vet's hand popped free. He held up the pliers triumphantly, an innocuous-looking bullet firmly gripped in their teeth.

With a final choked cry, Blair slumped in Jim's arms, his breathing so rapid it seemed doubtful he was even drawing air into his lungs. Jim straightened, his whole body stiff as if he'd held the same position for hours instead of minutes, and he eased his arm from beneath the unconscious form. Abruptly, the blood rushed from his head and he broke into a cold sweat. He had to get out of there.

He made the necessary few steps to the tiny half-bath just off the kitchen before nausea overcame him and he threw up into the toilet. Heaving the last of his scant meal, he sat down on the linoleum, welcoming its cold touch against his sweat-soaked body. For a moment, he was certain he would pass out, but the feeling gradually faded as he sat there, willing the nausea and weakness to go away.

"Are you all right?" Minnie filled the doorway, her motherly instincts rising to the fore.

Jim waved a hand weakly in her direction. It was the only movement he could manage for the moment, but she accepted it as assurance. Without a word, she wet a washcloth with cold water and handed it to him.

"We've taken Blair back to the sofa and made him comfortable. Ezra says there wasn't much bleeding. He's disinfected the wound and packed it tightly with gauze. We'll have to repack it every couple of hours, but he thinks Blair will be fine."

Jim managed little more than a whisper. "Thanks. Give me a minute, okay?"

"Of course."

Left alone, he sat still for another minute, then forced himself to his feet. The shock had passed, leaving him weak but functional. He flushed the toilet, then stepped to the sink to rinse his mouth and wash his face. Satisfied he was on the mend, he ignored the pale, fatigue-lined face staring back at him in the mirror and returned to the living room.

"Sorry about that," he said, embarrassed by his display of vulnerability.

"Nothin' to apologize for," Ezra said, hiding his sympathy beneath a gruff, no-nonsense tone. "Had to be hard on you, too. Take off that sweater and let me get a look at that arm."

Only then did Jim remember the re-opened wound, and he looked at the sweater. The arm was soaked with blood, but there wasn't much pain accompanying it. He pulled it off, grateful to be rid of it since the living room was almost uncomfortably warm. "I owe your son a new sweater."

"Don't worry about it. Minnie, bring me some more --" But Minnie was already there with the first-aid kit and fresh bandages.

Jim stared at the pale, sleeping figure of his partner. "Is he going to be okay?"

"I think so." Ezra refused to commit himself. "His breathing's steadied, and his heart rate is strong. I didn't nick the artery, and I don't think the bullet broke off any bone splinters. If we caught the infection in time, he should be all right."

Jim nodded, satisfied with the answer. "His fever's already going down." It was an incautious statement, and he didn't bother to elaborate when Ezra gave him an odd look.

The retired vet finished his fresh bandaging job, then placed his palm against Blair's forehead. "I think you're right." He looked back at Jim. "Now, you'd best get some rest in case these bad fellas you mentioned show up."

Wearily, Jim climbed to his feet and stumbled the few steps to the nearby chair. Collapsing gratefully into its thick cushions, he was asleep before his head even touched the backrest.

Blair floated heavily on the edge of consciousness, aware only of a soft, comfortable humming that had hovered around him for quite some time. He followed it, tracked it, clung to it like a lifeline to the conscious world, gradually becoming more aware as time passed. Even lying absolutely still, he felt extremely dizzy, certain he'd been stuffed with gin-soaked cotton while he slept. His upper leg burned and throbbed with a vicious pain, and the dizziness made it difficult to control. Blair opened his mouth to ask what was happening, but he could only manage a pathetic "enh."

The humming came closer and stopped. "Shh, it's okay. I know you're hurtin'." A soothing wetness brushed across his face and forehead and Blair turned his head slightly into the sensation. He cracked open his eyes as far as he could manage and saw a large, fuzzy apparition bouncing in front of him. Again he tried to ask a question, and again he could only manage a little bird-like chirp. Giving up, he closed his eyes and sighed in frustration.

"Here, hon, you swallow these and you'll feel a whole lot better. I wish I'd thought of it earlier, but I have an almost full bottle of Demerol from when I had my knees replaced a few years back, and Ezra says it okay to give you two of 'em every four hours. You'll forget you even have a hurt leg soon enough."

The voice returned to its humming and Blair concentrated again on the soothing sound. Something was placed past his lips and on his tongue; his head was lifted and a little water was poured carefully, slowly into his mouth. Obediently, he swallowed, but not without a gasp and a cough or two. The process was repeated, and he did better the second time around. The sips of water felt wonderful sliding down his throat. Exhausted from the effort, his head sank gratefully back onto the pillow.

The humming became softer and wavered from near to far and back again as parts of him were covered and uncovered, brushed and patted and cooled with a wet cloth. Lost in these pleasant sensations, Blair slid into a deep, dreamless sleep.

They literally stumbled onto the road. The soaked, mud-spattered, exhausted men who staggered out of the foothills were close to collapse, but the sight of the first pavement they'd seen in two days made them feel almost festive with relief.

Buster admitted to himself that chasing Ellison and Sandburg down the mountain probably hadn't been a good idea. They'd damn near frozen to death during the previous night, and finding Bruce's body this morning had pretty much drained the resolve out of everyone. Finding a safe path down the cliff had sapped them further, although by then they'd known they were being hunted from above and had no choice but to continue into the valley.

Finding a paved road, even one so narrow it didn't have a center stripe, boosted their morale considerably.

Buster acted as if he'd known all along where he was going. "Good, we're here. Now we just follow the road till we find a driveway. Hot coffee and dry clothes ain't far off, boys."

Bobby Delaney, the only one who didn't hold Buster in the exalted status to which he felt entitled, shined his flashlight up and down the deserted road. The sallow beam reflected off rivulets of muddy brown water sheeting off the pavement and gurgling into the neighboring underbrush. "Which way?"

Buster didn't have a clue, but he started confidently in the direction they'd been traveling when they'd found the road. His luck held out. Within minutes, he found a mailbox with a long, fence-lined dirt road leading from it.

"Doc and Minnie Deerfield," he read awkwardly, squinting at the letters stenciled on the box's front flap. He grinned with predatory approval. "Almost there, boys. Almost there."

Renewed in spirit, he started up the muddy drive, feeling confident that his hunt was almost over.

Ezra Deerfield stood at the foyer window, peering past the curtain into the impenetrable darkness beyond. He jumped when Ellison appeared beside him without warning. "Lord, son, you move like a cat."

Jim gazed into the night. "They're close. No more than a mile."

"Could be. It's black as pitch out there, but I thought I saw a faint glow a few minutes ago, like maybe from a flashlight. Hard to tell with these old eyes. I probably imagined it."

"Maybe you saw it." Jim turned back into the room and hefted the shotgun Ezra had left beside the chair. He broke it open and looked at the empty chambers. "You got any shells for this?"

The old man shook his head. "Thing's broke. Never got around to fixing it."

Disappointed, Jim lowered the weapon to the floor. "Then we'll have to find another way to stop them."

Minnie's voice interrupted his musing. "Just what do you think you're doing, young man?"

"Sitting up?" Blair said it as a question because he hadn't quite achieved the desired position, and didn't sound at all certain he could.

Jim moved quickly to the sofa. "Stay where you are, Chief." He tried to look angry, but he couldn't help the relief he felt seeing Blair awake and aware and back to his usual, stubborn, annoying self.

"They're coming, aren't they?" Blair asked. He didn't need to be specific.

Jim sighed and looked briefly at Minnie and Ezra. "Yeah, they're about a mile away. A little less by now. We've got maybe thirty, forty minutes."

Blair nodded tiredly. "Okay," he said, as if a decision had just been voted on and approved.

"No 'okay', Chief. If you're up to it now, you and Mrs., uh, Minnie can move to the cellar. I've checked it out, it's got a good strong lock and --"

Blair shook his head stubbornly. "Listen, Jim --" but he never got a chance to finish. Minnie moved up into Jim's personal space and poked him in the chest.

"Detective Ellison, I am well past the age of consent and perfectly capable of making my own decisions. I don't recall being asked if I wanted to huddle safely in the cellar while you and my husband are being tortured and murdered a thousand different ways from Sunday. Had I been asked, I would have put an end to that nonsense instantly."

Jim stepped back after the initial poke and blinked. Ezra looked amused and perhaps even a bit proud, so he couldn't expect backup from that quarter.

"Now," continued Minnie, her poking finger put away, "I won't presume to speak for your partner. It's his choice."

Blair looked up at the expectant faces. His own face paled and creased with the effort, but he managed to achieve an upright position without looking too much like an invalid. Waving a hand loosely in their general direction, he gave his inevitable answer. "What she said."

Outnumbered three to one, Jim stubbornly tried to maintain control of the situation, at least where his partner was concerned.

"Sandburg, you just had a bullet removed from your leg not four hours ago and --"

"No way, Jim. I'm not going to -- What was it? -- Huddle in comfort and wait for those guys to kill me." His voice was tight with pain, but he held up a hand to forestall Jim's objection. "I know, man, they've got to get through you first, but there are five of them --"

"Four," Jim said pointedly.

Blair frowned, distracted for a moment. "Four? I remember five."

"There were five. Now there are four."

Jim didn't elaborate, but from his tone Blair understood what must have happened. It was frustrating that he couldn't remember. "Okay, four, but still too many for you to tackle by yourself."

"You're in no condition to 'tackle' them either."

"I know." Blair spoke quietly in an effort to assuage his partner's growing anger. "But I have to do something. Besides, Jim, you know -- you know -- that if Corelli wanted to get into the cellar, he would."

Frustrated, Jim knew there was no point in arguing. Short of tying Blair up and leaving him helpless, he knew his partner would get up just as soon as he turned his back anyway. He sighed. "Okay. Let's hope it doesn't come to any of us having to tackle any of them."

Minnie appeared with a cane. "Used this when I got my knees replaced three years ago." It was one of those ugly metal canes with four rubber-tipped feet to add stability. Blair leaned on it and, pushing with his uninjured leg, managed to get to his feet. He lasted about five seconds before dizziness sent him toppling back toward the couch.

Jim caught him and eased him down carefully. "Please, Chief, let me handle this."

Sweating and panting slightly, Blair nodded. "You may have to. But I'm still not going into the cellar, Jim."

Ezra patted his shoulder sympathetically. "It's okay, son. Minnie and I have gathered up some odds 'n' ends in the kitchen. There's a lot of damage a fella can do sitting down." He looked at Jim. "Want to take a gander at 'em?"

"Yes." Jim finally tore his eyes away from his partner's and followed the Deerfields into the kitchen.

Odds and ends indeed. Assembled on the freshly cleaned dining room table was an assortment of some of the strangest weapons Jim had ever seen. "This is it?"

Ezra nodded. "I might have some more stuff in my workshop."

"Let's go, then. We don't have much time." He heard the shuffle of footsteps behind him and turned. Blair was hunched over the cane, holding onto it with both hands, his weight braced on his good leg. A cocky smile graced his face.

"See? Just needed a little practice, man."

A hundred angry admonitions died unspoken. Instead, Jim placed a hand on his shoulder. "Blair..."

Blair's smile became less cocky and he nodded. "Me, too."

Jim cuffed him on the head and turned back to Ezra. "Where's your workshop?"

When the two men had gone through the back door, Minnie locked and bolted it behind them. Blair hobbled awkwardly to the table and looked at the things she and Ezra had gathered. He touched the cool, metal surface of a large Tonka toy. "You got batteries and a remote control for this thing?"

"Of course." Minnie brought over a wooden chair. "You sit yourself down while I fetch and carry."

Blair wasn't certain he'd be able to get up again if he sat down, but he had no idea when Corelli and his gang would arrive, so it would be prudent to conserve what little strength he had. He lowered himself carefully into the chair. "And we should move the candles so they light the doorways and don't brighten the rooms so much."

"I'll take care of it," Minnie assured him. "You just rest and keep on thinking."

"How many doors to the outside do we have to worry about?"

Minnie considered. "Well, there's this one here. And there's another one leading out of the mud room right there --" she indicated a square room off the kitchen that contained the washer and dryer, and a series of hooks for coats and hats. "-- it's an addition and I fear that door won't be as strong as these old doors in the original part of the house. There's the front door of course, then the bulkhead from the cellar." The cellar door opened into the kitchen, and Blair could see that it was a heavy, sturdy door, and already locked. "Your Jim and Ezra got 'em all locked and bolted, of course, but I suppose someone hell-bent on getting in could manage. We just have to out-clever 'em."

"Well, from what I saw, Corelli has the IQ of a kumquat." Blair hefted a heavy bulky bag and his face lit up when he peeked inside. "Boy, do I have a great use for these!"

The large old barn had been converted into a four-car garage years ago. The second stall was open and empty, and Jim huddled in his borrowed parka as he and Ezra dashed across the yard against the driving rain and through the large open doorway. The stall to their right housed an old, bright yellow Buick Opal that would have been useless in this kind of weather, just as Ezra had warned him. Just beyond the Opal sat a beautiful dark green 1967 Ford F-250, sitting on its cinder blocks like a glorious trophy on a silver pedestal. Jim allowed himself a brief moment to admire the truck while they shook the water from their jackets and pushed back the hoods.

"This way." Ezra swung the lantern to the left, and Jim followed.

Ezra's workshop was well-maintained and fairly well equipped; it was obvious that the retired vet enjoyed "tinkering" in his golden years. Built into a corner of the barn, it had a space heater, workbench, table saw, and lathe. Pegboard covered one wall, where various smaller tools and items hung. Jim looked around at the various items available to him and tried to come up with ideas for weapons, but his mind just wouldn't work. He rubbed his hands together for warmth instead, and tried to hear his way past the sounds of nature, gauging how far Corelli and his men were.

"How far?" Ezra looked at him with a calm, even gaze as he placed a sizeable toolbox on the workbench.

Jim blinked. He hadn't exactly done a stellar job of hiding his senses from the older man, but still....

"They're about three-quarters of a mile away, making slow progress."

Ezra nodded. He handed Jim a long, thin, flat-head screwdriver, and kept one just a bit shorter for himself, sliding it through his belt. Jim held the tool in his hands and tried to figure out what he was supposed to do with it.

"Self-defense, Jim," Ezra explained patiently. "A little more easy to wield than a knife. Ah, this could come in handy!" He produced a large, shiny nail gun. "My oldest, Michael, bought this for me a couple Christmases ago, and I never knew what the hell to do with it. I prefer a regular hammer, myself. But this could make one of those fellows think twice." He removed another gun-shaped object from beneath the workbench. "Yup, still have the old flare gun. The phosphorous charge can kill a man. Doesn't need oxygen to ignite. This is more up my alley; here, you take this."

"It'll be light pretty soon," Jim said, taking the nail gun. It felt large and awkward in his hands, but it did fit into the large side pocket of the parka. He put the screwdriver in the other pocket.

"Look Jim, we have a few minutes before they get here, and I'm the one who knows where stuff is, so why don't you give me the long version of how you and your partner ended up on my doorstep while I get things together?"

Jim owed Ezra at least that much.

There hadn't been time to make a defensive stand against their attackers. Corelli and his men had come in shooting, and the only thing Jim and Blair could do was duck for cover. They'd made a low, desperate lunge for the kitchen, then bolted out the back door as footsteps pounded in pursuit. Outside, it was pouring rain. There wasn't any question about which way they should go. Left or right would force them back to the front of the cafe and the open expanse of parking lot. There wouldn't be time to make it to the truck, and a shootout against those odds was foolhardy. So they'd gone straight ahead, across a narrow driveway and down the tree-covered slope beyond.

The roar of a shotgun was followed quickly by the sharp crack of a high-powered rifle. Because of the abruptness of the drop, the bullets passed harmlessly overhead. But their pursuers quickly reached the rim of the slope and began firing blindly into the darkness. It was sheer bad luck that the bullets actually found their targets.

Jim heard the bullet strike Blair. He heard it rend flesh and crack bone, a heart-numbing sound followed immediately by a grunt of surprise and pain.

Blair lost his balance on the precarious slope and fell, his momentum carrying him head over heels. Jim dove for him and managed to halt their wild descent with the unwelcome help of a sturdy tree trunk.

Gasping as his breath was driven from him by the impact, Jim shifted around quickly. His cold fingers managed to wrap around the butt of his pistol and draw it from its holster. Breathing heavily, he peered back up the slope to locate their attackers. Shooting uphill was difficult in the best of times, and the deluge only made it worse. He fired anyway and was rewarded with shouts of alarm as the gang dove for cover. But the muzzle flash from his weapon had given away their position, and several bullets dug into the tree trunk. One grazed his arm with a white-hot flash of pain and he dropped his gun.

Blair's voice, hoarse with pain, distracted him. "Jim, I've been shot."

"I know." He checked the wound quickly and wrapped a pressure bandage around it, but the bleeding was extensive, and his partner was rapidly going into shock from blood loss. Jim could feel the heat being leeched from his body by the icy rain pelting down on them.

In those first frantic minutes after their flight from the cafe, he'd worked out a possible scenario. Figuring Corelli and his gang would follow the wisest course of action and flee the area in whatever vehicle had brought them to Benny's, Jim planned to hide in the darkness until he was certain they were gone and then go topside again and phone for help. Blair's wound made it even more urgent that they find help quickly.

He almost couldn't believe his ears when he overheard Corelli exhorting his men down the slope to continue the pursuit. "Damn."

Blair was growing weaker by the minute. "What is it?" he asked, his teeth chattering so hard his words were almost unintelligible.

"They're coming after us."

"You're kidding." Even from the depths of his pain, Blair understood the stupidity of that action.

"Wish I was," Jim said, wrapping an arm around his partner. "We gotta keep moving."

"Don't know if I can --" The rest of Blair's words were lost in a sharp gasp of pain as Jim lifted him to his feet.

The night worked in their favor, but that was the only advantage they had. Sliding downward through the thick humus, Blair little more than a dead weight held tightly against his side, Jim knew they were in trouble.

They staggered downhill for hours, the relentless rain pounding down on them, turning everything into a timeless blur of darkness and struggle. Jim angled their path in an effort to move farther away from their pursuers, and it seemed to be working. His hearing told him Corelli and his men had spread out, but they were continuing almost straight down the slope.

It was decision time. He could let them move past down the hill and attempt to carry Blair back up the slope in an effort to find help, but his senses had already told him no one had found the carnage at the cafe. There were no reassuring wails of sirens or flashes of emergency beacons to guide them to safety. Besides, he didn't know if he had the strength to carry his partner up that soft, yielding hillside.

Another choice was to continue angling downward to the Cascade River Valley and locate a farmhouse or other shelter. It was several miles distant, and they wouldn't be able to make the journey in one night. Daylight would bring new perils from their pursuers, although the weather promised to keep visibility to a minimum.

The third alternative was to go to ground. They could find shelter, perhaps even a little warmth in the desolating cold. It would give them a chance to rest; more importantly, it would give Jim time to tend to Blair's wound properly. It was their most attractive option.

His checked on their pursuers, but they were still blundering around higher up the slope and far to his left. Opening all of his senses, he scanned the surrounding forest. It was his nose that discovered the cave. Its dry, dusty smell told him shelter was nearby.

He tightened his grip on his partner. "Come on, Chief, just a little farther."

Blair resisted the arms urging him forward. "Can't, Jim. Wanna sleep."

"You'll be able to sleep soon."

The cave was just a few hundred feet away, slightly higher up the slope. A large, rocky outcrop formed a sheltered cul de sac that was reached through a narrow passage. The interior was shallow but protected from the weather. Most important, it was dry, its floor deep with pine needles and autumn leaves.

Jim eased Blair down on the makeshift bed, quickly checked the wound to make certain it hadn't begun bleeding again, then cast around for a suitable place to build a fire. The mouth of the little cave proved ideal. Smoke could escape upward through the narrow passage, while some heat would reflect back into the shelter. Furthermore, the weather would dampen the odor of wood smoke and make it difficult to locate its source.

Dried wood from a long-ago toppled tree clogged the passage, and he gathered some suitable logs to fuel his fire. As quickly as his numb, shivering arms would permit, he assembled kindling and logs, then fumbled for the small, waterproof container of matches he carried whenever he ventured into the woods.

The pine needles he piled beneath the kindling caught quickly. They smoked badly, but the resulting flame was enough to catch the small twigs. The fire flickered and shifted in the drafts wafting through the rocks. As the needles burned down and the larger wood ignited, the smoke lessened considerably.

Satisfied the fire was alight, he urged Blair up and shifted him closer to the warmth. Huddling with him, he wrapped his arms around the injured man. They were both soaked through, and Jim unzipped Blair's parka to allow some of the heat to reach the wet clothing beneath.

Blair's voice was hardly more than a whisper. "God, Jim, I'm so cold."

"I know. It'll warm up soon. When it does, our clothes will dry a bit and we'll be more comfortable. How's the leg?"

"Hurts. Hot."

Jim was monitoring how close their boots and clothing got to the flames -- there was nothing pleasant about overheating the Vibram soles of hiking boots -- so the fire was not responsible for the heat Blair was feeling. Carefully, he touched the skin around the wound. It was hot, just as Blair had said.

Infection was setting in. Shit. This put a whole new spin on their situation. He'd planned to stay here in the cave and wait out both the weather and their pursuers. He didn't know how long it would be before the authorities realized what had happened at Benny's, but surely they would be rescued sometime tomorrow. In the meantime, they would be dry and relatively comfortable.

All that had changed now. With infection invading Blair's wound, hours counted. He had to get help. Could he risk leaving Blair alone in the cave? The idea was discarded immediately. Blair was in no condition to keep the fire going; worse, if he fell unconscious he might kick the flames into the dry pine needles and set the cave ablaze. No, they had to stay together, no matter what.

He didn't know how much time had passed, but he jerked awake from a light doze certain someone else was close by. Carefully, he eased away from his sleeping partner and gently lowered him to the ground. He'd cleared the pine needles area around the fire so they wouldn't catch fire, and the hard-packed dirt was icy and damp. Blair mumbled something but didn't wake, and Jim added more wood to the fire before venturing out into the rock passage.

It was still raining, although it had mostly turned to snow -- big, slushy flakes that immediately soaked his almost-dry flannel shirt again. There was no lightening of the sky to indicate that the storm was breaking up, but he didn't have any trouble compensating for the darkness.

Someone was coming toward them, although a bit farther down the slope. Quickly, Jim circled higher and covered the distance until he was above the interloper. The man wasn't making any effort to be quiet; he muttered and cursed the weather, and his flashlight stabbed in all directions as he stumbled through the night. Tracking the man from above, Jim realized something he hadn't noticed before.

The slope ended at an escarpment of rocks that formed an almost sheer cliff. Jim's earlier path had paralleled this rock face. Had he tried to go straight down the mountain instead of angling to one side, he would have been thwarted by the abrupt drop off. Instinct or luck had caused him to avoid it. It meant only one thing now: the pursuers would also be forced to parallel the cliff, and sooner or later one of them would be close enough to smell the wood smoke from the campfire.

He tried to locate the others in the darkness, but they were beyond the reach of his senses. Surely they would have gone to ground for the night. The man stumbling around below Jim on the slope was lost and trying to find his companions. He had a parka, as thoroughly soaked as everything else, but a parka nonetheless, a flashlight, possibly some other survival tools. And he had a rifle.

Jim followed him, wondering if the man would pass unawares below the cave. But he really wanted that rifle. He was still debating with himself about ambushing the man when the decision was made for him. The man stopped and cast the flashlight beam around while he sniffed the air. "Buster? Buster, that you, man?"

Jim tackled him before his shouts could attract any attention, although he knew the others were a long way in the other direction. They went down in a tangle of arms and legs, Jim knocking the rifle aside. The man swung at him with the flashlight, connecting hard with his shoulder, and he felt a lance of pain down to his fingertips. It distracted him for a moment, and the man scrambled for his rifle, managing to grasp the barrel before Jim was on him again. Swinging the rifle like a club, he aimed for Jim's head. Jim ducked, and the rifle hit a nearby tree with enough force to shatter the gunstock and crack the firing mechanism. Jim hit him, and the man went down again, this time staying down.

Jim did a cursory examination and was surprised to realize the man was dead. A closer examination revealed a rock jutting from the ground beneath the man's head. It had fractured his skull. Jim didn't waste any time with regrets. This was one of the men who had shot the people in the cafe and had come after them with intent to kill. He would feel no remorse, despite the man's youth.

Quickly, he searched the dead man's pockets, retrieving spare cartridges and matches. The man even smaller than Blair, but Jim stripped off his parka and gloves anyway. Gathering up the flashlight, shivering so hard he could barely walk, he stumbled back up to the shelter of the cave.

Compared to outside, the cave felt warm. He added more dry logs to the flames, spread the parka over a nearby rock to dry as much as possible, and tried to warm up again. Blair hadn't moved except to twitch restlessly in his sleep, and Jim knew he had to get him up off the cold ground as soon as possible. He stripped off his flannel shirt and tank tee and sought the heat from the fire to warm and dry his skin. He wrung as much water as he could out of his tee, held it near the fire until it had warmed, then put it back on. He repeated the process with his shirt. Neither garment was dry, but the fire warmed the dampness briefly. Then he lifted Blair again and scooted around behind him to hold him as close to the warmth as possible.

Blair's hair was nearly dry, so Jim unzipped the collar of his parka to pull out the built-in hood and pull it up over his head. It would help retain body heat.

Then he reached for the parka he'd taken off the dead man. Pity the man had been too small for it to fit Jim, but at least it was another layer to blanket them. Or at least it would be when it had dried a bit. Jim searched the pockets. Two energy bars and a baggie with a small handful of trail mix. A veritable banquet.

Blair stirred and groaned as he regained a semblance of awareness.

"Sorry," Jim whispered. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"'s 'right."

"You feeling any warmer?"

Blair nodded against Jim's chest. "Yeah. Leg hurts."

"I know. We'll be getting help in a few hours." Jim unwrapped one of the energy bars and broke off a small piece. "You need to eat something. Think you can manage this?"

Blair took it and nibbled on a corner. "Thanks."

Jim held the parka near the heat, working to get it dry. He put the gloves as close to the flames as he dared.

"Where did you get all that?"

"One of Corelli's men almost found the cave."

"Oh." Blair didn't seem interested in knowing why the man no longer required his parka or gloves. He shivered, and Jim draped the damp but warm parka over his chest, wrapping his arms around to hold him close.

Blair's fever was growing. Jim could feel the heat through his sweater. Ironic that the fever racking his partner's body would serve to help keep Jim warm through the night.



"I'm thirsty."

He pondered the problem for a moment. "Think you can sit here by yourself for a minute?"

"Think so."

He spread the wrapper of the energy bar onto a level spot of ground, dumped the rest of the trail mix on top of it, shook the remaining crumbs out of the Zip-loc bag, and went back out into the passage. It was ridiculously easy to find a rivulet of rainwater streaming from the rocks, and he quickly filled the baggie. Sealing it until just a small drinking gap remained, he took it back inside and held it so Blair could drink.


Before settling down, Jim went outside to refill the baggie. He sealed it shut and put it aside for later, added more wood to the fire and put a stockpile within easy reach, then gathered his partner close. "Hope you don't mind getting cozy."

Blair nestled closer. "Shared bodily warmth, a proven survival technique," he murmured agreeably, drifting toward a restless sleep.

Jim stared into the dancing flames and tried to empty his mind of its turmoil of thoughts. He decided they'd remain in the cave until morning, or until Corelli or his men started getting too close, whichever came first. He'd scout a way off the escarpment, then take Blair down into the valley and find help. It would take them most of the day, perhaps into night again if the bad weather continued to plague them. However long it took, at least Blair would be with him. Together, there was always a chance.

Jim stopped his story suddenly and cocked his head.

"Oh, God," he said, instantly alert. He cut the light of the lantern and grabbed Ezra's arm. "They're here."

Act IV

As they neared the house, Corelli paused long enough to tell his men to turn off the flashlights, then he examined the buildings in the darkness.

"Come on, Buster," Bobby whined, wrapping his arms tightly around his middle and shifting from one foot to the next. "The house is right there. Let's kill the pigs and get some food and dry clothes."

"Shut up, Bobby, for the last time, or I swear I'll cut out your tongue," Corelli hissed. They had passed the front porch and were currently standing in the middle of a side yard. If he squinted, he could see the barest of light flickering in the windows toward the back. He crept forward, the others following, until he could see the back door to what was probably the kitchen. He glanced to his right; now that they were at a different angle to the barn, he could also see a bit of light coming from an open stall.

"Okay, men," he started, imagining himself a modern day Napoleon. This was the kind of stuff worthy of the Legend. "Bubba and me take the barn. Curt and Bobby, you take the kitchen. And for pete's sake, keep any females alive. And the pigs too, for now. I'm hankering for a couple of rounds with a woman, and I've got other plans for the cops. Kill the rest of 'em."

"I hope they ain't got any big, strappin' sons."

Buster snorted. "Don't matter. We got the guns and surprise on our side."

Curt and a grumbling Bobby trotted off toward the back door. Bubba and Buster headed toward the barn just as the light in there went out.

The knocking at the kitchen door was firm, but polite.

Blair and Minnie jumped, momentarily startled, then took their positions just as they'd discussed: Minnie by the back door, and Blair plastered to the wall beside the mud room entry, his hand on the door. He nodded encouragement.

Minnie's voice sounded faintly tremulous as she spoke through the heavy curtain, keeping her head and body well away from the line of fire. "Who's there?"

"Ma'am, my car broke down and I need to use your phone."

"I'm sorry, young man, but the phones are out."

The visitor refused to be thwarted. "Then could I have some tools to fix my car?"

Minnie sighed in exasperation. "Tools are in the shed. Help yourself." Blair saw the woman whisper Ezra's name in prayer, and he hoped Jim and the older man were ready for anyone sent their way. Jim must know Corelli and his goons had arrived.

Blair motioned her back, expecting the man to make his move. Instead, the speaker persisted. "Ma'am, I'd always heard country folk were more hospitable than this."

Minnie snorted softly. "Hospitable, yes. Plumb loco, no."

The man was obviously a diversion. The other back door crashed inward on her final words. In the glow of the candle placed in the doorway, Blair saw two men stumble into the mud room. Their feet flew out from under them as they slipped and skidded on the marbles he had scattered across the floor. One of them had a shotgun; as he toppled over, his finger automatically tensed on the trigger. The sound of the blast was deafening in the small area.

Blair toggled the switch on the remote for the Tonka toy. Obediently, the little dump truck raised its bed, tumbling a container of bleach into a basin of ammonia directly beneath it. He slammed the door without waiting to see if his plan worked.

In the confined space of the mud room, the two men began to hack and cough, their lungs burning from the fumes of the combined chemicals, their eyes streaming. One of them crawled back outside, but the second stumbled to the interior door and pushed it open.

Minnie met him with a cast-iron skillet in her hand and murder in her eye. The man went down like felled timber.

Coughing, she pulled his unconscious body inside so Blair could close the door again and keep the noxious fumes contained in the mud room.

"I'll tie up this one," he told her, easing himself to the floor. "The other one may try to get in another way."

Minnie handed him the skillet and a long length of twine. "Here you go. It's not as strong as rope, so don't be stingy." She hefted a baseball bat from the table. "I haven't hit a homer in years. Hope I still have the touch." With this departing shot, she headed to the front of the house.

Jim led the way unerringly through the dark barn, the wind and rain still providing an appropriate Mahleresque musical background to what was quite literally going to be a fight for their lives. He stopped suddenly about two yards before the open doorway, a hand to Ezra's chest. Taking two quiet steps to his right, Jim grabbed a rake from the wall and hefted it for weight and familiarity.

His Sentinel radar told him that two men were headed toward the barn, and two were at the house; he could hear a soft voice trying to convince Minnie to open the door, and her less than soft response. Damn it all. He should have been ready. He should have been listening more closely instead of telling stories. Because of him, Minnie and Blair now had to face two of these sadistics bastards by themselves.

Ezra was watching him with that same calm confidence Jim had come to admire. He held up two fingers in the meager light of the predawn and pointed to the open doorway. Ezra nodded once and pulled the screwdriver from his belt.

Plastering himself next to the opening, Jim used every ounce of control he had to block out whatever might be happening at the house, and concentrated instead on the heartbeats closing in on the barn. One second, two seconds, three....

Mustering all his strength, Jim swung the rake in a 90-degree arc out into the open doorway, tine side down. He felt the sharp metal points impact something thick and fleshy, and a corresponding animal scream told him he'd hit his mark. A man he didn't recognize staggered into the barn, the rake still clinging to his upper left thigh, his face contorted in pain. Jim spared him no more than a quick glance to ensure that he wasn't an immediate threat, and ran outside to take out the second heartbeat.

Corelli. Sonofabitch was wearing his Jags cap.

He caught him in a full tackle and they landed hard on the muddy ground. Corelli twisted, but it wasn't enough; Jim had anger, fear, and desperation on his side, raining blow after blow to the murderer's head and face as he pinned him to the ground.

The sound of a door being smashed in overrode the noise of the storm and Jim instinctively turned, realizing too late that he'd just provided Corelli with all the distraction he needed. An arm slammed into his side, followed by a glancing blow to the head, and Corelli was up and on his feet again, a savage grin splitting the ugly face.

"Ellison! I was hoping I'd get a chance at you."

Jim recovered quickly and regained his footing on the slick ground, every muscle primed and ready. All he wanted to do was wipe the smirk from the monster's face, but he knew he had to be patient. Corelli was an idiot, but he knew how to fight.

Before either of them could make another move, a shotgun blast from the farmhouse startled them both.

When the injured man collapsed on the floor of the barn, Ezra knew that Ellison would go after the other one. This one was his.

Now that the initial shock had warn off, the man pulled the rake out with one quick yank and glared at Ezra with murderous intent. Blood seeped from between his fingers as he clutched at his thigh, his other hand pawed blindly, Ezra supposed, for his gun. But the handgun had fallen several feet away, just outside the door.

For a moment the two just locked eyes, each unsure what his next move should be. The sound of the farm house door crashing in spurred Ezra to action. He couldn't bring himself to stab an already injured man, and doubted he could get close enough to do so anyway, nor did he think the flare gun would be much use in this instance. He grabbed the rake and slammed the flat edge of the metal end against the side of the thug's head.

The rake broke in half. The man dropped like a stone.

Ezra had little time to feel victorious. He could hear the sounds of fighting outside and he had a decision to make: go back to his workshop for rope to tie this one up, help Jim somehow, or go check on Minnie and Blair. Each choice seemed important and yet he couldn't wrap a decision around any one of them.

The decision was made for him. The roar of a shotgun snapped his head up toward the farm house, his heart in his throat as horrific images invaded his thoughts. For the first time that night, he was thankful Danny hadn't been able to get home.

Someone staggered out of the mud room, choking and coughing. A small smile played around Ezra's lips as he realized that round one must have gone to Minnie and Blair. The man collapsed briefly to his knees in the mud, hand to his throat, before he got himself under control. Pulling a small handgun out of his coat pocket, he took off at an unsteady gallop towards the front of the house.

Ezra followed as fast as his slightly arthritic knees would allow, pausing long enough to scoop up the dropped weapon. That man would not get inside his home or near Minnie again.

"Bulls eye!" crowed Corelli in response to the shotgun blast. "I wonder who bought it in there?" Suddenly he bent his head and charged Jim like a bull.

Jim had been waiting for some move from Corelli, but he almost didn't get out of the way in time. The killer's head only glanced off of his ribcage, but it was enough to send a flash of pain through his side and leave him gasping for air. Still, he kicked out at the right moment, and sent his opponent headfirst into the mud. Movement in the corner of his eye captured Jim's attention -- Ezra was running toward the front of the house. Good. That meant he'd taken care of the guy in the barn.

Corelli's bounced back up, his eyes wild. "You know what I'm going to do to that partner of yours, cop? First I'm going to have me a little fun. Never screwed a man before -- 'course, I'm not sure that little hippie freak counts as a man -- but I'm kind of lookin' forward to the first time."

Jim knew he was being taunted. Corelli didn't want to kill him yet, and that was where Jim had the advantage. But exhaustion and concern and guilt were depleting his control and he felt the rage rising to the surface with every comment thrown in his face. Rage would lead to stupid decisions.

Another movement caught Jim's attention. Shit. The goon from the barn was standing in the doorway, leaning heavily against the side. A handkerchief wrapped around his upper thigh was already streaked with blood diluted from the rain. There was blood caked on the side of his face, too, but Jim had seen his type before in prisons -- big and tough and stupid. It would take a lot to keep him down.

"You need any help here, boss?"

"Naw, Bubba. This one's mine." Corelli never took his eyes off of Jim, who kept a wary eye on both men expecting to have to fight them both. "You go on up to the house " A delighted sneer split the big man's lips. "If that hippie cop's still alive, he's mine, too."

Bubba grinned at that. "Sure thing, Buster." He walked out of Jim's line of sight. Rage was so close to the surface, Jim thought his jaw would crack as he fought to keep it under control. Wishing he could remove the cumbersome parka, he suddenly remembered what he had in its pockets.

Corelli returned to their original conversation. "And while I'm doin' him," he chuckled, removing a large knife from a sheath on his belt and maintaining his offensive stance, "I think I'll decorate that pretty little face of his with this. It's more fun when they scream, don't you th--"

Jim attacked.

Ezra rounded the porch just as the man ahead of him flew up the stairs, seemingly possessed, his gun pointed at the window of the big front door. Ezra held his 'borrowed' gun with shaking hands, and aimed up at the man's torso, trying to keep the rain out of his eyes. But before he had to worry about pulling the trigger, the man slipped and skidded like a giraffe on ice, finally falling to the floor with an ungraceful "Oooof!".

Followed by an intensely frustrated "Shit!"

The front door opened. As the man reached for his gun, a baseball bat collided with the back of his head. He collapsed to the floor. Minnie's head poked out and examined her handiwork.

"Nice one, old girl!" he called up to her.

"Ezra!" A delighted grin blossomed across her face.

"What on earth did the poor fellow trip on up there?"

"An entire bottle of PineSol," Minnie explained, "Lemon-fresh."

Ezra smiled and rocked back on his heels. "You okay?"

"Fit as a fiddle. Blair has another one in the kitchen, stuffed and mounted by now, I'd imagine. But you might want to check on the poor dear, anyway. I'll take care of this one."

Blair had one, Minnie had one, he'd left one in the barn, and Jim was taking care of last one. For the first time, he began to feel a small amount of relief.

Until he noticed the wounded man he'd left in the barn hobbling around toward the rear of the house. "Keep your bat handy," he cautioned Minnie. "There's still one of 'em on the move."

Jim fought like a madman, and Corelli seemed to relish it. The taunts had stopped, but only because the punches were flying fast and furious and there simply wasn't time to say anything. A kick to Corelli's side and then one more left the murder momentarily motionless and gasping for breath. Jim used that moment to clasp his hands together as if he were going to play "Here's the church..." and slam his doubled fist into Corelli's jaw.

Stunned but not out yet, Corelli rolled over and bounced to his feet once again. Jim dropped to his knees, gasping for air and reaching what he knew to be the absolute limit of his endurance. He bowed his head intentionally and stuck his hand in the large parka pocket, waiting for the murder's next less-than-tactical move.

Corelli didn't disappoint. He launched himself straight at Jim and aimed for a head butt, but Jim was ready. He pulled out the nail gun and shot it in front of him, not bothering to aim. The gun pinged as each nail was released with force and speed, and Corelli started shouting and clawing at his face, chest, and arms.

When the gun had depleted its supply of nails, Jim maintained his grip on the handle and swung it hard against the convict's head. This time he did not get up.

Blair had used the entire ball of twine on the man and some masking tape he found in a little chest of drawers next to the cellar door just for good measure. The guy never woke. He could feel a pulse, and he hoped for Minnie's sake that the jerk wasn't too critically injured.

Voices floated back from the front of the house, and while he couldn't make out the words, he knew one was Minnie and her tone was light. Maybe Jim and Ezra were out front. Maybe....

A minute later, Ezra entered the kitchen, holding a set of keys and looking cautiously around. "How're you doing, son?"

"All right, I think." He debated on trying to get up and shelved the idea for the moment. "Jim?"

"Well, when I ran by him a bit ago, he seemed to have things well in hand."

Blair struggled to his feet. "We need to go help him."

Ezra looked around the kitchen with a perplexed expression. "I saw another scalawag coming this way. He came around this side of the house."

Minnie's large form filled the doorway. "I spotted him," she reported with a smile of satisfaction. "He's high-tailin' it into the hills like the hounds of hell are after him."

Ezra nodded in satisfaction. "Okay, try to keep an eye on him, will ya? Make sure he's really runnin' away."

With a nod, Minnie headed back the way she had come.

William 'Bubba' Dibello was not a coward. He was not a fool, either. He should have left Buster Corelli's company when the maniac had decided to chase Ellison and his partner down the mountain in the middle of a storm, but like a fool himself, he'd stayed.

No more. He was out of jail, legally for the moment, and only the old man could identify him as being part of Corelli's gang. Bubba bet it was too dark for the geezer to make any kind of positive ID in the future. Everyone else who'd gotten a good look at him was dead.

And if he ever ran across Buster Corelli again, Bubba knew he was going to be dead, too. It was time to get the hell out of there and keep his head down until Buster was either dead or in jail.

Blair sagged against the cabinet, exhausted. The painkillers Minnie had given him were wearing off and his leg felt like it was on fire. Ezra had promised -- threatened? -- to look him over as soon as he was done gathering supplies to better secure the bad guys.

Holding a damp towel to his face, Blair could only wait.

An equally exhausted sounded above him. "You okay?"

Blair looked up. A very battered Jim leaned in the open doorway of the back door, his eyes full of concern. "Yeah, man, I'm fine. You?"

Jim raised his eyebrows. "If you're fine, then I'm Tara Lapinski." He moved into the kitchen and shut the door behind him against the rain and the cold.

"Yeah," Blair grinned, feeling suddenly renewed. "Glad to hear it, Tara. Help me up." He reached up with his right hand, but Jim swatted it away.

"Stay there, Junior. I need something to go secure Corelli with... I'm not sure if I killed him or not. "You move," the words were said with a great deal of emphasis, "and I'll twist off your other leg and beat you with it."

"Listen to him, son." Ezra returned from the cellar, holding several pieces of rope and a large roll of duct tape. "My doctor skills are pretty limited when it comes to limb reattachment, though I did sew the tail of a mouse back on once."

Blair didn't argue. Truth was he didn't think he could move anyway, and he was dying for another one of Minnie's pills. That alone attested to his condition. He held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay. If you insist."

Jim turned to go back outside when the door crashed in, startling the three men.

"I'm not done with you, Detective." Corelli stood in the doorway holding a pistol with a steady right hand, a gun he'd felt he hadn't needed earlier.

Oh God. Blair stared in shock from where he sat. This was the first truly up-close look he'd gotten at the man.

Corelli looked every bit the maniacal psychotic the press had made him out to be. Bits of straw stuck in his hair, mud and blood caked his head and clothing, and little bloody holes dotted his face. Rain fell in a steady stream behind him, forming a waterfall that shimmered eerily from the effects of the flickering candlelight. The gun was pointed directly at the older detective's heart.

Jim's arms hung loosely at his side. His fists clenched and unclenched, and Blair could see that he was warring with himself, calculating the odds, waiting for an opportunity.

"Where's the wife?" Corelli asked, looking beyond the three men.

"Dead," said Ezra, allowing his voice to crack just a bit. He was so convincing that Blair actually believed it for second. Movement caught his eye and he saw that Ezra was reaching for something stuck in his belt, just above his right buttocks.

"Gee, that's too bad." Corelli took a step into the room, an easy smile on his face. Blair swallowed and unconsciously pushed back further against the wall when those sadistic eyes trapped his.

"The little punk partner. Got yourself shot up, I see. Ellison must have drawn the short straw the day he got stuck with you as a partner."

Blair thought Jim's jaw would shatter from the way he was trying to hold himself together. "Go figure," he told Corelli, hoping to give Jim the opportunity he was waiting for. "But I did manage to take out two of your partners. And me wounded and all."

"You little --" Corelli stepped further into the room and Jim made the briefest motion forward, only to be stopped by the waving gun.

Ezra took advantage of Corelli's focus on Jim and removed the object he had stuck in his belt. Blair breathed a sigh of relief.

A flare gun.

Then he looked up at Jim, knowing his partner's sight was dialed up, compensating for the meager candlelight. Jim's full attention was on the killer and his gun.

Ezra aimed the flare gun inconspicuously at hip level, pointing it directly at Corelli, his finger tightening on the trigger.

"NO!" Blair yelled as he realized what would happen. He grabbed the wet towel he'd been using and slammed to his feet, the injury and pain in his leg forgotten. In the space of a second, he tossed the towel over Jim's head and pushed past him, barreling into Corelli just as he heard the flare gun pop and felt the heat of a flash next to his ear.

They'd fallen just outside the doorway. Someone pulled him back inside by his legs as Jim, blinded and confused by the towel, staggered out through the door.

"No!" Blair shouted again, agony burning through his leg.

The phosphorous charge from the flare gun had embedded in the doorframe, which was fortunately too soaked by the rain to ignite. The glow sputtered and sparked angrily for a few moments, then gradually died out. When it was clear there was no danger from that source, Ezra shoved the door closed and pushed a wedge beneath it to keep it secured.

"Strangest damn police tactic ever I saw, son, but I'm sure you had your reasons," Ezra commented. "Let me look at your leg."

Blair squeezed his eyes shut against the almost unbearable pain, but his mind was still on his partner. "Jim..."

"Jim will be fine," said Ezra.

Blair wasn't so sure.

Jim managed to whip the towel off his head just in time to see Corelli stumbling to his feet. Peripherally, he was aware of Ezra dragging Blair back inside and slamming the door. Vaguely, his sleep-deprived mind processed that Blair had acted desperately to save his eyesight from the flash of the flare gun, but the move had disoriented him, and Corelli was back up and ready for action.

With a snarl of determination, Jim tackled the man again, and they went down into the mud. Grappling for control of the weapon, both men were on the brink of total exhaustion. They fought with sluggish awkwardness, their breathing hoarse and strained, but neither willing to give up.

Corelli managed to break free for just an instant, and he smashed his pistol against the side of Jim's head. Jim sprawled, momentarily dazed, and when he'd levered himself as far as his knees, he found himself staring down the barrel of the gun.

Corelli leered between swollen, bloody lips. "I win."

Jim shook his head slightly, not so much in disagreement but to clear the last cobwebs from his mind. Shit. Yes, the odds were against him now, but he couldn't just kneel there in the mud and let the sadistic bastard kill him. Although his chances were slim, he was determined to go down fighting.

His hand was numb, his fingers could barely move, but he tried to grab a fistful of mud. Setting himself for one final, desperate lunge, he was shocked into immobility by the ear-numbing roar of a weapon firing at close range.

Jim gasped, waiting for pain, or darkness, or something, his mind too clouded to comprehend what his eyes were telling him. Corelli sprawled inelegantly a few feet away, his body nearly torn in half by the force of a riot gun's blast. Confused, he couldn't unravel what it all meant -- a moment ago, he'd been staring down the barrel of the killer's pistol and accepting that he was very likely about to die. Now, he was staring at his tormentor's broken corpse.

Wavering, he slowly shifted his eyes around to Simon. He felt no rush of recognition, although there was a sense that everything was going to be better now. Beyond the tall, dark figure, a thin swath of ochre lit the dawn sky, promising an end to the bad weather. He couldn't recall when the rain had stopped, but he knew he was soaked and muddy. The slight morning breeze cut through him like a scythe, chilling him to his bones.

The captain tucked the riot gun under his arm and pulled out his cigar case. Extracting a cigar, he savored the rich aroma. "Anybody got a match?" he asked calmly. "Mine are all wet."

The trance that had held Jim in its thrall snapped, and he returned to complete awareness with a jolt. Struggling to his feet, he swayed with exhaustion. He managed to find his voice, a hoarse, distant resemblance to the one he was used to hearing. "Good to see you, Captain." He started to bend over to retrieve his battered Jags cap from the mud, thought better of the movement, and straightened reluctantly. Later. He'd get it later.

"Same here." Simon waved, and Jim shifted his gaze to see a slow-moving Hummer. Rafe was walking in front of it, his riot gun and attention sweeping from side to side as he scanned for additional danger. The woman behind the wheel was barely tall enough to see through the windshield. "I've brought a doctor and transportation."

Jim managed a tiny smile. "Looks like you have everything under control, sir."

Simon stuck the unlit cigar in his mouth and grinned. "That's why they pay me the big bucks," he admitted wryly, guiding his exhausted friend inside.

Blair didn't want to open his eyes. He felt snug and warm and free of pain for the first time in recent memory, and he wanted the illusion to last just a little while longer.

"Good morning."

Ah. It wasn't an illusion. He opened his eyes and focused blearily on the woman sitting on the edge of the couch. Describing the woman as petite understated her diminutiveness. She was lovely, a tiny Asian angel in flannel pajamas. He instantly fell in love. "Hello."

Her cool, tiny palm stroked his brow. "Your fever's gone. How are you feeling?"

"Great." It seemed to be a time for unimaginative, one-word answers, so he just went with it. "Tired."

"I gave you some pain medication," she explained, tucking the blanket in around him. "As soon as the road becomes passable, an ambulance will come to take you to the hospital."

Good. No helicopters. He hated helicopters. That no one had summoned one meant the danger was past, another relief. He stared at her some more. "You're beautiful."

She grinned. "You're delirious."

A low snort from somewhere behind his head caught his attention. "He's Sandburg."

Blair tilted his head back and saw an upside down image of Simon in a chair. "Hi, Simon."

"Still managing to get into trouble even when you're off-duty, I see." Simon tried to sound gruff, but his low tone and comfortable slouch made him just sound relaxed.

"Yeah. Where's --" He turned his head sideways and found Jim. His partner was lying on his back atop a sleeping bag on the floor just a few feet from the sofa. The back end of a very large hound dog was tucked under his armpit, while the jowly end of the beast used his ankles for a cushion. Jim's arm circled the animal, his hand resting lightly against the furry back. Both were completely, soundly asleep.

"He okay?"

"Battered, bruised, and completely, utterly exhausted, but he's just fine." The woman smiled beatifically and dropped something into a black bag.


"Dr. Sparrow Cade." She patted one of the hands lying limply across his chest. "You rest now. Later I want you to have a glass of juice and some food." Dr. Cade swiped her hand once more across his forehead and disappeared from view. Blair sighed.

"She's married, Sandburg." Simon pointed out.

"Shit," mumbled Blair. He was fading fast. Whatever she'd given him was good stuff.

"How're you doing, son?" a different voice asked. Blair forced his eyes open and looked up at Ezra who had seated himself on the edge of the couch.

"Didn't get a chance before..." he tried to explain. "Thanks."

Ezra shrugged. "Taking out that bullet was a stupid move. Didn't know when the weather would break, though, felt I had to do something."

"No," Blair shook his head sluggishly, but emphatically. "Saved my life."

"Mebbe so, mebbe so." The old man seemed reassured by Blair's certainty. "I want you to have this." He placed something extremely soft, but with a patterned texture into his hand.

Blair looked down at his chest and examined it. A weathered leather pouch with some sort of a bead design. "What...?"

"It's a medicine bag, son. Those teeth marks are yours. You probably don't remember, but that's what you bit down on for the pain earlier."

Grimacing, Blair tried to focus better on the object. Something was nagging at the back of his lethargic brain. "I had this in my mouth? D' you know where they carried these?"

Ezra nodded. "The tribal shaman would carry it next to his... private parts."

Simon snorted in the background. "Hey, I'd be less worried about that bag being worn down some Indian's crotch a hundred years ago, than I would be about where it's been since then."

Ezra smiled. "In the bottom of my toolbox, pretty much. I seem to recollect one of my patients -- a goat named Socrates -- trying to eat it."

"Ewwwwww," Blair said sleepily. Someday he'd like to hear the story of how a country vet ended up with an authentic medicine pouch. And then a light bulb snapped on -- he had just received the corporeal counterpart to one of his gifts from the seven Shaman. Majorly cool.

Ezra was saying something else, but Blair was drifting. He clutched the bag in his hand and fell into a deep, restful sleep.

Jim was lying against something incredibly warm, soft, and fuzzy, and for a brief moment, he thought it might be Sandburg. Opening one eye, he saw instead the hindquarters of the old hound -- Hobo? -- he'd seen earlier. He grimaced, contemplating the wisdom of being so close to the back end of a dog, when Hobo, sensing that his sleepmate was awake, wagged his tail enthusiastically against Jim's face, yawned, and fell back to sleep. For reasons he couldn't begin to fathom, Jim was oddly comforted by that.

Corelli was gone. Dead. And good riddance to him. He wasn't sure at one point that they'd come out on top, but teamwork -- a tried and true method in the past -- had proven its value once again. Simon's timing was impeccable, and thinking to bring a doctor with him was a Godsend. Yes, his captain did deserve the big bucks. Dr. Cade had Sandburg cleaned up and pain-free in no time, though he doubted his partner would remember any of it. Then she'd tended his own wounds with a gentle efficiency that found him once again trusting a stranger.

Turning his head slightly, Jim looked at Sandburg lying relaxed and comfortable on the couch. Thank God. Heartbeat nice and steady, breathing slow and deep, fever gone... sometimes it definitely paid to be a Sentinel, being able to monitor all those body statistics without moving from the warmth of the sleeping bag.

His eyes wandered above his partner and took in the lime-green, well-worn features of the old couch. It was dirty and stained beyond even an old afghan's ability to cover it up, and if Blair hadn't been so exhausted and drugged up, he might have been uncomfortable lying on stuffing that had virtually petrified over the years. Moving his eyes back to his peaceful, wonderfully alive partner, he decided to give Sears a call as soon as he got back to Cascade.

That decided, Jim closed his eyes and nestled more closely against his canine pillow.

Ezra stood in the doorway to the living room and observed his sleeping patients. Well, technically they were Dr. Cade's patients now. He'd heard tell of the tiny woman doctor who'd moved into Chesterfield from the city, but he hadn't had the pleasure of meeting her before now.

"Peaceful, ain't they?" asked Minnie. She was carrying enough blankets for an entire army. Setting them on the coffee table that had been moved against the wall, she placed her hands on her hips and looked satisfied. "Just in case they need 'em," she explained.

Ezra nodded, then smiled slightly. "Doc Cade did good by them."

"She's something!" Minnie's eyes were wide with admiration. The difference between the two woman was like the difference between a pea and a honey dew melon. But he loved his honey dew.

"Kinda cute, too." Ezra raised his eyebrows and smirked.

Minnie snorted and slapped his arm. "Ezra John Deerfield, you're a little old to be going through a mid-life crisis. Now leave me be and let me go make some eggs and flapjacks and sausages for breakfast."

She shuffled off with a purpose. Not two minutes later, someone knocked on the door.

Before Ezra could answer it, Captain Banks and Detective Rafe were by his side.

"Probably just a neighbor checking on us after the storm," Ezra explained.

"Probably," the captain agreed. "But we shouldn't take unnecessary chances with one of them still on the run." He approached the door cautiously, the younger officer at his side, and peered through the glass inset. "My, my."

"You know him, Captain?" Detective Rafe asked, relaxing slightly.

"Indeed I do." Simon opened the door and gazed at the bulky, slicker-cocooned figure shivering on the front porch. "Deputy Madden. Nice of you to join us."

Madden peered at him from under the brim of his plastic-covered western-style hat. "It's all over then?"

Simon nodded. "You may be late to the party, but I see you've arrived bearing gifts." Huddling beside the deputy in thoroughly bedraggled misery and angry defiance was a hulking young man whose bloody thigh and sullen expression told Simon all he needed to know. "Our missing fugitive, I presume."

The deputy shrugged. "We crossed paths a mile or so back. He immediately took a swing at me, so I arrested him."

"How'd you get here?"

"On foot the last few miles. I ran out of luck somewhere back in the foothills and managed to put my Jeep in a ditch."

Detective Rafe's eyes widened. "You tried to drive down the mountain?"

Madden flushed. "There are a bunch of old firebreaks and logging roads I used to drive on when I was a kid. I had a VW bug I'd converted for off-road use." He shrugged. "I knew they'd be overgrown after all these years, but I didn't realize how bad they'd become." He looked back at Simon. "Sorry I didn't get here in time."

Simon grasped the young man's shoulder and gave a friendly squeeze. "You made the right decision, Madden, and then did your damnedest to see it through. That's what counts."

Madden flushed again. This time, Ezra noted, with embarrassed pleasure. "What d'ya want me to do with the prisoner, Captain?"

"Detective Rafe will take you to the barn where we've stashed our other suspects. Then I'm afraid one of you will have to escort Doctor Cade back there to dress the prisoner's wounds. We don't want to give some slimy defense lawyer any ammunition to claim we neglected the medical needs of anyone in our custody."

The young detective reached for his heavy parka, which was hanging on a hook by the door. "I'll do the escorting," Rafe said, shrugging into the damp coat. "Madden looks as if he needs a hot cup of coffee and a place to sit down."

Ezra was heartened by the exchange. Banks had told him about what had happened to Sheriff Kazmaryk, and the guilt in which Madden had been drowning himself. Aaron Madden, raw and inexperienced, had shown his mettle today. Good for him.

Banks led Madden down the hall to the large kitchen where the wonderful smells of breakfast were emanating. Even Minnie had a hard time spoiling eggs and sausage, though he had to admit her pancakes made better hubcaps.

"Jim?" Sandburg rasped sleepily from the couch. Ezra didn't think it was possible for Ellison to wake up, but he did.

"Chief? You okay?"

"Yeah... You ever wonder about gorillas?"

"Go to sleep, Sandburg."

No doubt about it, Ezra thought as he joined the others in the kitchen. He just had to have them over for coffee some day.

~ Finis ~

This Episode Dedicated in Loving Memory to Julie Goldwyn (Julie, a prolific Sentinel writer and 'listsib' of ours, was badly injured in a lab accident three months ago. After a valiant battle against all odds, Julie passed on to a better place. Please visit her Memorial Page)
E-mail the authors of this story, Hephaistos, at hephaistos@valley.net and Mackie at fourpaws@qnet.com
Read Hephaistos' other fan fiction for The Sentinel at The Browsery and read Mackie's other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Mackie's Idol Pursuits
Beta Credit and Thanks: We'd like to thank JoanneG, Susan Williams, and Shellie Williams for their fine beta work and encouragement. Jane (Hephaistos) would like to also thank Mackie profusely for pretty much everything.
Medical Consultant: Thanks to Kimberly Heggen for helping us to get the surgery and medicine right!
The artwork in Act III, Empyrean, was created by Rike... Enjoy more of Rike's art at her website, Rike's Sentinel Page
Please visit our Virtual Season 5 Staff Page to learn more about the hard-working behind-the-scenes crew responsible for bringing you this episode
E-mail Faux Paws Productions at fauxpawsproductions@yahoo.com
NEXT WEEK on THE SENTINEL: Wind Shift (2/23/00, FPP-506) by Sue Wells
    It's rumored that something illegal and 'big' will be going down at the Annual Windsurfer Master's Competition. Jim is familiar with the sport and personally knows the organizers, so he goes undercover, presenting himself at the venue as a bitter, disillusioned cop who can be 'bought.'

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This page last updated 2/2/01.