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.
Linda S. Maclaren (Mackie)
(Note: This virtual episode takes place early in September. Please adjust your mindset accordingly!)
The City of Cascade had grown a hundred-fold since its founding a century and a half ago. Wealthy timber and mining dynasties rose from the wilderness and were soon followed by fishing and shipping magnates. Then came the railroad, and the city grew into a center of genteel civilization by the dawn of the 20th Century.
Poorly executed surges of modern urban growth scarred some of the historic charm of the city, and two world wars all but destroyed the original waterfront in the rush to create a harbor capable of handling warships and massive cargo vessels. Still, the occasional wisdom of civic leaders resulted in many of the old, historic buildings being saved and ultimately restored to their former glory.
Such was the case with the original courthouse. Built in 1883, it was a massive edifice of marble and granite standing proudly at the crest of a gentle slope of manicured gardens. Growth had necessitated the addition to the court system of equally massive but far less charming buildings, but they were tucked safely out of sight behind the original courthouse and a narrow band of trees.
However, for all their utilitarian plainness, the newer wings had all the modern conveniences: heating in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, comfortable lounges where the various participants of the judicial system could wait until they were called into the courtroom.
The same could not be said for the old courthouse. Its sprawling slabs of marble and granite only gave the illusion of being a sturdy buffer against the elements. In the winter, frigid draughts whispered through the broad, stone halls; in the summer, guilty and innocent alike sweated while waiting their turn to state their case. Its soaring ceilings made even quietly spoken words sound like a cacophony, a sad fact many lawyers learned to their chagrin.
Jim Ellison sat on a hard wooden bench in the hallway outside Courtroom 3. Frustrated after a long day of waiting to testify, he tugged his tie loose and shrugged out of his suit jacket. He'd listened unabashedly to the lawyers in conference with the judge inside the courtroom and knew yet another postponement had been granted. His testimony wouldn't be heard for at least another three weeks. He'd wasted another day.
Still, he had to wait for the official announcement, so he sat impatiently and chafed at the interminable delays plaguing this case. A bit farther down the hallway and on the opposite side sat a small contingent of the defendant's family.
Unwillingly, his eyes were drawn to the matriarch of the group. She was a dark-skinned, gnarled little figure dressed in black wool. She should have been sweating, but her skin was dry as old bones. Her hands, swollen with arthritis, looked like misshapen talons at the ends of stick-like arms. Small, deep-set eyes glared blackly at him from beneath nearly hairless brows.
Frankly, she spooked the hell out of him. To Jim, who didn't think of himself as fanciful, she looked as wizened and dried as the mummy on display at the Museum of Archaeology over at the U. And the way her claw-like fingers worked rhythmically in her lap as if she were handling a string of prayer beads just plain gave him the willies.
She hadn't stopped glaring at him since his first day in court.
If she hoped to jinx his testimony, however, she would have to wait another three weeks.
The bailiff called everyone back into the courtroom, where they sat down to hear the judge confirm what Jim's heightened sense of hearing had already told him: a three-week continuance was being granted to the defense.
With a sigh, he rose to head back to the station. Turning into the center aisle, he nearly bumped into the old woman, who stood her ground and glared up at him with all the vehemence her five feet of bowed frailty could project.
A vulture. That's what she reminded him of, he realized as he stepped back to let her precede him. The two young men with her hastened to get the door. Like the woman, they hadn't spoken a word in the weeks this trial had dragged on.
The precinct building was newer than the old courthouse, and it had air conditioning. However, the tepid air wafted around by the ancient system barely qualified as cool, and Jim was thoroughly disgruntled when he finally got back to his desk.
Blair Sandburg read the signs. "What happened?"
Jim flopped into his chair and stretched his long legs beneath the desk. "Another postponement. Three weeks, this time."
"Sorry, man." Blair sighed in sympathy. "At least you don't have to face those hard benches for a while."
"Or that crazy old woman," Jim added.
"She's related to the defendant, isn't she?"
He tried to figure out the various branches of the family tree he'd been assembling in his head. "Great aunt. Her name is Esther Delgadillo. Part Apache, part wicked witch of the west."
Blair grinned. "Maybe she is."
Jim groaned. "If anyone could make me a believer, she could."
Blair sat back in his chair and stared thoughtfully toward the ceiling. "I don't know if the Apache believe in witches and shapeshifters, but a lot of the tribes of the plains and the southwest have numerous tales about good and bad witches."
"That's okay. I don't need to know any more than I do already." Jim stabbed reluctantly at his computer keyboard, which responded with an irate beep before the monitor flashed the dreaded blue screen of death. "Damn. It's doing it again." He looked hopefully at his partner.
"Forget it. I couldn't fix it last time. Call tech support."
They were saved from this recurring argument by the arrival of Captain Simon Banks, who paused to glare with disapproval at Jim's monitor. "Screwing up your computer again, Ellison?"
"I don't know enough about it to screw it up," Jim protested, hitting the reset button with ferocity.
Simon's scowl deepened. "I have something that will spare your pc your tender ministrations for a while."
Jim's eyebrows rose in a silent question, and Simon looked down at the sheet of paper in his hand. "Special Agent Neil Portman, Shiprock, Arizona."
Blair bounced in his chair. "That's right outside the Navajo Reservation."
"Near as damnit," Simon agreed.
Jim groaned. "I'm surrounded by Indians."
"That's Native Americans to you, Mr. Sensitivity," Blair retorted with a cheeky smile. He looked back at the captain. "I take it this has something to do with the case Jim's testifying in?" The case, involving a nationwide smuggling ring, was really FBI jurisdiction. Most of the contraband had been moved via big-rig across reservation lands stretching from Florida to Washington. The gang, consisting of several dozen Native Americans and a few Caucasians, had a sweet operation in place until Jim and Blair had almost accidentally uncovered the Cascade end while they'd been investigating something else entirely.
The Feds had stepped in to take over the bulk of the investigation, and the ring had slowly collapsed as more and more of its links were broken. The Cascade DA, however, sensing a bit of political mileage, had stubbornly clung to his small portion of the spoils.
Jim figured the DA was regretting that decision as each new delay brought more unfavorable press, always a bad thing when elections loomed.
Simon shushed them both with a look. "Part of what the FBI has uncovered seems to pertain directly to your case. The DA wants you to fly down there and check it out."
Blair's enthusiasm was enervating, and Jim slouched even lower in his chair. "Is 'cool' going to be the operative word, Chief?"
His partner shrugged in sympathy. "September in the Arizona desert. You figure it out, Jim." He brightened. "But the nights will be cooler. With the low humidity, the heat of the day bleeds off quickly. None of this sticky mugginess we have around here."
Jim didn't feel particularly appeased. "That's something, I guess."
Simon slapped two airline ticket folders down on the desk. "You leave tomorrow morning. Go home and get packed."
The following morning, Jim and Blair caught an early-morning flight to Phoenix, Arizona, where they scrambled to make a puddle-jumper connecting flight to Page. The lower altitude of the commuter prop-job gave Jim an excellent view of the vast openness of the great Southwest. His eyes were accustomed to seeing expanses of forest or jungle; he now saw the clean, stark lines of striped rhyolite and the softer curves of red sandstone thrusting up from the pale green of the desert floor. Monoliths, mesas, and steep escarpments sculpted by millennia of wind and water, the sweeping vista was an eloquent testament to the beauty of Nature's handiwork.
Ahead, a huge lake looked like an unnatural swath of azure winding through the red and ochre. "That's Lake Powell?"
Blair's mouth turned down in disapproval. "Yeah, that's it."
Jim turned away from the window to study his partner. "Something wrong?"
Blair shrugged dismissively, shaking off his mood. "The lake was formed by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Glen Canyon was one of the great natural wonders of this continent, probably the whole world, and sometime back in the early 60s, some mentally moribund idiots in Washington decided Los Angeles needed more hydro-electric power. The miracle that was Glen Canyon is buried under hundreds of square miles of evaporating water."
Jim nodded. "Okay, I hate Lake Powell, too."
Blair grinned. "Thanks. Another convert to the cause."
"Just don't expect to turn me into one of your tree-hugging environmentalist whackos."
"I dunno -- the thought of you handcuffed to a redwood has a certain perverse appeal."
"In your dreams, Sandburg." The plane lost altitude as it entered the landing pattern and Jim winced. "Man, I don't know if it's the bumpy ride or that mystery meat we had on the flight to Phoenix, but my stomach is getting queasy."
Blair was immediately concerned. "Is it bad?"
Jim shook his head. "No. I'll grab a couple of antacids out of my bag after we land."
"I'll get it out of the overhead for you," Blair said, starting to unbuckle his seat belt.
Jim stayed him with a gentle hand. "No, we're almost down. There's no point in getting chewed out by the flight attendant."
Blair settled back in his seat and looked forward at a young man in the uniform of the commuter airlines. "You're right. Still, if he was a she, it might have been worth it."
A few minutes later, the plane landed at the small airport. A gangway was rolled up to the hatch, and the passengers were allowed to disembark.
The intensity of the sun was a surprise after the cool air conditioning of the plane. Heat waves shimmered off the tarmac and distorted the distant view of low mountains.
Jim and Blair hurried inside to the coolness of the terminal building, then paused while Jim fished out a bottle of antacids from his carry-on and chewed them with a grimace of distaste. "Man, I think I preferred the plain chalk to this flavored stuff."
"You could always try some of my herbal remedies," Blair returned without sympathy.
"Are you kidding? The last herb you gave me tasted like road tar." He took a long drink from a nearby drinking fountain. "Okay, let's find the car rental desk."
One positive feature of small airports was the closeness of its various services. There were only two car rental agencies, and their check-in desks sat side by side near the terminal exit.
Unfortunately, the lateness of their reservation resulted in a singular lack of transportation choices.
"It looks like an unmarked police car," Blair murmured as they stepped outside to gaze at the plain Ford sedan they'd been issued.
"We never should have mentioned that we were going to the Reservation." Jim opened the trunk and tossed their carry-on bags inside, then waited patiently while Blair fussed inside his backpack to locate the bottled water and snack food he'd brought for the long, hot drive. "We might have gotten the Chrysler."
"Either way, it's too bad they didn't have a sport utility available. Then again, we're supposed to meet Special Agent Portman on the Rez, so the FBI probably has what we need."
Jim tossed him the keys. "Mind taking the first turn?"
"Of course not. Is your stomach getting worse?"
"Not really." Jim climbed into the passenger seat while Blair slid behind the wheel. "Still a bit queasy, that's all."
Blair organized the drinks and snacks for easy access, adjusted the seat, then started the car and turned on the air conditioning. "I hope you're not coming down with something. The Holiday Inn in Kayenta is not the place I'd choose to recover from a bout of flu." He put the car in gear and headed away from the airport.
Jim pushed his seat all the way back and lowered the backrest until he was somewhat reclined. "Kayenta. That's on the Reservation, right?"
"Right. I stayed there once as an undergrad with a team from the University. We called it The Horrible Inn because of the food."
"Isn't there anyplace else?"
"We could go all the way into Shiprock, in New Mexico, or Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation, but Simon said Kayenta is close to what Agent Portman wants to show us, if anything on the Big Rez can be called 'close' to anything else."
"Kayenta it is, then," Jim said.
The highway wound through a low range of hills and past the spewing concrete towers of the Navajo power station.
"We're on the Reservation already?"
Blair nodded. "The Big Rez takes up the whole northeast corner of Arizona, with the Hopi Reservation smack in the middle of it. In land area, it's bigger than a lot of states, but the population is relatively small."
Jim watched as the sprawling sandstone hills gave way to wide-open desert. Sagebrush and grass baked under the relentless sun. "Weird to think we've entered what amounts to sovereign territory."
"Yeah, and we'll have to get permission from the local tribal authorities if we want to venture off the beaten track. Then again, the Feds will know what we'll need. Tourists aren't welcome in many parts of the Rez."
They passed a sign welcoming them to the Navajo Nation. In fine print were warnings against transport or use of alcoholic beverages and the required use of seatbelts.
The miles rolled by, and Jim began to understand what Blair had meant. The sprawling emptiness stretched all around them, and yet he knew there were people living and working here, farmers and ranchers and laborers who made their livelihood from this inhospitable land.
As time passed, he dozed off, lulled by the hum of the engine and the gentle rocking motion of the car. He awoke a while later when Blair braked at an intersection.
Blair smiled at him. "You slept all the way through the major attraction of Kaibito."
Jim yawned without apology. "Did I miss much?"
"Nah. Out here, one town is pretty much like another." Although there wasn't another car in sight in either direction, Blair double-checked. Distances were deceiving, and reckless drivers were a normal hazard on the long stretches of open highway. He turned left, then carefully set the cruise control on 65.
"You're being unnaturally observant of the speed limit."
"Trust me," Blair said, "you do not want to get a speeding ticket on the Rez."
"Ah, like that, is it?"
Blair glanced at him. "How are you feeling?"
"Great. I feel fine now. It was just the airplane food."
Blair couldn't resist a gibe. "Or a case of motion sickness."
Jim's snort revealed what he thought about that notion. "You want me to drive?"
"No. We'll be in town in less than a hour."
"Hmmm, for the middle of nowhere, we're certainly getting there in a hurry."
"Exactly. It's getting out of the middle of nowhere that seems to take more time."
"I'm sure there's some Sandburg logic in there somewhere." Jim straightened his seat back and tried to appreciate the miles of desert surrounding them. It was beautiful in a stark, minimalist sort of way. Low-growing brush and grasses added touches of green and gold to the miles of reddish earth. Mountain ranges rose in the distance, and he remembered Blair telling him of the four sacred mountains that featured prominently in the Navajo religion. They passed another turnoff. "Navajo National Monument?"
Blair nodded. "There are some great Anasazi ruins there. I once spent a night in the campground. It was the dead of winter, and I was the only camper. My flashlight batteries were dead, and all I had was a backpacking tent and a sleeping bag. It was so dark, I literally couldn't see my hand in front of my face, but the stars looked close enough to touch. It was incredible."
Jim couldn't recall the last time he'd seen the night sky free of light pollution from a nearby city. Mexico. No wonder he hadn't remembered. "Maybe you can take me up there sometime."
"Yeah." Although Blair sounded enthusiastic, there was also an undercurrent in his tone that regretted the visit probably wouldn't happen during this trip, and the likelihood of them returning to the Reservation in the near future was slim.
Jim wished he were driving instead of riding. The monotonous journey was making him sleepy again. As the conversation lagged, he dozed off.
Events happened quickly, but their order remained clear in his mind. First was an unnatural waft of frigid air across his face, and the almost ethereal snarl of a jungle cat warning him of danger and yanking him toward awareness. Then Blair's startled curse, and the solid thump as the big sedan struck something in the roadway.
The car took on a life of its own, fish-tailing from side to side. Blair fought the wheel.
Jim could do nothing except hang on and cringe at the sight of the steep gully waiting to receive them just off the road.
Expertly working brake, accelerator, and steering wheel, Blair almost had the sedan under control when an ominous snap of breaking metal sent them careering helplessly off the pavement.
The engine stalled. A fine cloud of dust stirred up by their precipitous arrival settled around them, and in the stillness that followed, the ping of the cooling engine sounded unnaturally loud.
Blair clutched the steering wheel in a death grip, his wide-eyed gaze locked straight ahead.
Jim coughed as dust entered through the air vents. "Nice stop. You okay?"
Blair shook himself out of his shock. "Yeah. You?"
"Fine." He tried the door, and it swung open reluctantly, its bottom edge scraping the ground. "This doesn't look good for getting unstuck in a hurry."
They climbed out and surveyed the scene. The sedan had come to rest a dozen feet off the highway, its wheels mired in sand. A tow truck would be required to shift it regardless; the unnatural angle of the front left wheel indicated that the car had broken a tie rod. That Blair had managed to control the car at all to get them past the treacherous ditch was something of a miracle.
Jim walked the few steps back to the highway and gazed back along the pavement. "What did we hit?"
"A dog," Blair said, his voice shaky. "It came out of nowhere." He walked up beside Jim and frowned. "Man, I know I creamed it."
Jim started walking along the gravel shoulder, Blair behind him. "There's no sign of it." In fact, there was little evidence that anything untoward had happened. The anti-lock braking system on the sedan left no trace of skid marks, although the car's wild swerving had deposited some short streaks of tire rubber here and there.
But there weren't any mangled, bloody remains of a dog to be seen either on the pavement or the surrounding dirt.
Jim kept walking. "Maybe you imagined the dog -- you know, a mental association or something when the tie rod broke."
Blair scowled. "Sure, I imagined a three-legged mongrel that had a torn ear and was blind in one eye."
"Yeah, one of its eyes was opaque white."
Either his partner had a vivid imagination... No, Jim's recollection of events was certain: Blair's surprise, the dull thump of metal against flesh, the wild fish-tailing, and then the crack of the tie rod breaking.
But there weren't any signs of a dead dog.
They'd reached the spot where the pavement crossed the gully that could have resulted in a much more tragic ending to their accident if not for Blair's skillful driving. Just off the highway at about the point where Jim guessed Blair had seen the dog was a small, burned patch of ground hardly larger than the remains of a campfire.
"Weird place to build a fire."
He crouched down and studied the site more closely, trailing his fingers through the cold ashes. "There are some fragments of something here. Feels like bone."
Blair's voice was sharp with sudden alarm. "Bone?"
The stern, hard tone of a stranger's voice jarred both men.
"Get away from there!"
Jim pivoted too fast and lost his balance, landing with an undignified thud in the middle of the ashes. Flushing both with anger and surprise, he scrambled to his feet and stepped up beside his equally shocked partner. "Where the hell did you come from?" he demanded. It was not the most politic of greetings, but the sudden appearance of the old Indian had caught him completely unaware. His earlier scan of the area hadn't revealed another living creature of any substantial size.
The old man, his face bronzed and deeply creased with evidence of his advanced age, ignored the question and gestured urgently. "Step away from there."
Blair tugged Jim's arm, imploring obedience, and they returned to the roadside to stand beside the stranger.
"We're sorry," Blair said. He gestured down the highway toward their car. "We had an accident. My name is Blair Sandburg, and this is Jim Ellison."
Jim studied the old man's worn jeans, scuffed boots, and plaid western shirt. A red bandanna tied across his forehead and a long, gray braid told him the man was a traditionalist. He remembered Blair's tutelage about traditionalists, who had an aversion to shaking hands with strangers, so he didn't bother to offer his own in greeting.
The Navajo grunted, an eloquent response to what he clearly viewed as irrelevant information. His eyes bore into Blair. "Didn't you sense the danger?"
Blair looked startled. "I don't know what you mean."
For a moment, it looked as if the old man was going for his throat. Instead, the gnarled hand grasped the chain Blair wore around his neck and pulled out the iron wolf charm previously hidden beneath his tee. The grip tightened around the carving, then abruptly released it to let it fall back against Blair's chest.
The Navajo scowled with disapproval. "You were given this gift by a great shaman, and yet you do not take the proper steps to use it in your world."
Jim looked at the charm. He couldn't remember where Blair had gotten it, but the iron wolf certainly hadn't come from a shaman. Then again, there was Blair's vision quest, where he claimed he'd received special gifts from some ethereal shaman council. Surely, those gifts couldn't have been manifested in the real world, could they? Either way, Blair looked stung, as if a favorite teacher had taken him to task.
It rankled. "I don't suppose you have a cell phone?" he asked, breaking the mood.
"Someone will be along," the old man said, hardly sparing Jim a glance. He led them back toward the car. "We must leave this place. It is filled with bad medicine."
Bad medicine. Jim sighed as he trailed after the Navajo.
Blair whispered rapidly at his side. "Bad medicine. The evil ones. Navajo witches are called skinwalkers, but they're seldom referred to by name because a traditionalist fears use of the name will attract the witches to visit. Bones are a very important part of their rituals."
Jim fingered the fine residue of ash still coating his fingers. "Bones. Skinwalkers."
"Do not speak of them!" the old man admonished, his stride never slowing. They reached the car. "If you have items you can carry, get them. We must perform a ceremony to rid you of the spirit sickness that invaded you when you touched the ashes."
Jim remained unfazed. "And just how far do we have to hike before we get someplace where you can conduct this ceremony?"
"Jim," Blair said quietly in a tone that reminded him to be both patient and polite.
"Sorry," Jim murmured. In the distance, he could see an approaching car. Using his enhanced sight, he saw that it was a patrol car for the Navajo Tribal Police. "I guess there really is a cop around when you need one."
The old man looked at him oddly, and Jim smiled innocently. Blair cast an exasperated glance skyward, then opened the trunk to retrieve their bags. Luckily, they traveled light.
In the desert, distances were deceiving, and it took a long time for the patrol car to finally reach them. The driver, a young man with short, dark hair and aviator sunglasses, was dressed in a crisp, tan uniform with a shiny badge pinned over his left breast. His name tag read Tsosie. He surveyed the damage with a caustic eye. "What happened?"
Jim and Blair exchanged glances, and by silent, mutual agreement opted for brevity.
"I swerved to avoid a dog in the road," Blair said. "The car broke a tie rod."
"Nearest garage is in Kayenta," the officer said. "You got insurance?"
Jim nodded. Since he didn't carry collision insurance on his old Ford pickup, he'd bought the additional coverage offered by the car-rental agency. "Yeah. If you can get us towed that far, I'll call the rental outfit and see how they want to handle it."
"I'll radio for a tow," Officer Tsosie said, reaching through his car window for his radio mike. After he'd made the necessary arrangements, he turned to the old Navajo. "And you, Uncle. Did you see what happened?"
Again, Blair's lecture on the flight from Cascade came in handy. "Uncle" was a term of respect used by the young for their elders. It did not necessarily imply any biological kinship. The Navajo were careful about the use of proper names; to speak one too often could rob it of strength.
The old man pointed with his lips in typical Navajo fashion. "As he said. A dog crossed their path."
The officer scanned the desert in every direction. "And where is this lucky animal now?"
"We were more concerned with stopping the car safely than seeing where the dog went," Blair said nonchalantly. He didn't know why the old man had corroborated their story, but it gave him confidence to deal with the deputy.
After a long minute, Tsosie nodded, apparently satisfied that they'd been neither speeding nor reckless. "If you've got all your valuables, get in the car. I'll give you a lift to the motel. They have a phone you can use and a restaurant where you can wait until you've made other arrangements."
"We were planning to stay there anyway," Jim said. He didn't miss the sudden suspicion in the deputy's eyes.
The lie came easily to him, although for the life of him he didn't know why he didn't just tell the truth. "We want to see Monument Valley at sunrise."
It was a plausible story. The spectacular sandstone buttes of Monument Valley were best viewed at sunrise or sunset, and according to the Auto Club map the park entrance was a leisurely drive from Kayenta. Tomorrow they'd deal with finding transportation and joining up with Special Agent Portman.
"You must come with me," the old man said.
Jim remembered the healing ceremony and wondered how he could politely decline the man's obviously good intentions. "Thank you, but a cold shower and a hot meal are about all we need at the moment."
The man didn't argue. Instead, he nodded once and crossed the highway.
"You need a lift, Uncle?" the deputy called.
"Someone will come for me."
Blair was reluctant to climb into the police car. "We can't just leave him out here."
Tsosie laughed quietly. "The Rez isn't as desolate as you might think. The old man is right; someone will stop for him and get him safely home."
Reassured, Blair climbed into the back seat, relinquishing the front to Jim's longer legs. The police officer made a sharp U-turn and headed back toward Kayenta. "Why did old Herbert want you to go with him?"
"Herbert?" Jim said.
"His name's Herbert Atcitty."
"Ah." Jim didn't answer the question. "You know him well?"
"No. He was an old man when I was a kid, so sometimes I think he must be about a hundred and ten. He gets around okay, though. Someone always comes along to get him where he wants to go. He's one of our most respected Singers."
"Singer?" Jim glanced back at his partner for clarification.
"Medicine man," Blair said. "A shaman." His fingers strayed to the wolf charm and lingered for a moment before he tucked back down inside his shirt.
Jim rubbed his ash-slicked fingers again and felt a faint stirring of unease. If it hadn't been for Blair's skilled driving, they would have ended up smashing into the ditch with almost certainly fatal consequences. But it was stupid to think that Navajo witches had conducted a ceremony by the side of the road to ensure their car would crash. Why would skinwalkers be interested in a couple of Cascade cops?
Tsosie laughed. "You made a good decision not to go with him," he said. "The old guy lives in a battered travel trailer way the hell up against the foot of a mesa. Has his water trucked in, cooks over a wood fire, and has a septic tank that hasn't been pumped out since Geronimo was a toddler. He'll probably cook up a batch of rabbit stew for dinner. Not a place I'd choose over the Holiday Inn."
Blair rose to the old man's defense. "I don't know. I seem to recall the motel's restaurant has the worst food in the entire southwest."
"You've been here before." The deputy laughed again. "You could be right, but we've got a shiny new Burger King right across the street."
"All the comforts of home," Jim said, determined to remain polite but vague. He'd never been one to blab his business, not even to fellow police officers, and the other-worldly nature of the Reservation left him feeling off-balance enough to keep him cautious.
Tsosie drove fast, and they reached Kayenta a few minutes later. Located at the intersection of the highway leading to Monument Valley, it was little more than the traditional "wide-spot-in-the-road." There was the Holiday Inn, a service station next to it, then a market and the Burger King across the street. Jim could see other shops farther along the turnoff to Monument Valley. Next door to the Burger King were a new hotel and the Kayenta Visitor's Center. Equally close were a McDonald's and more gas stations. The town had grown considerably since Blair's last visit, but it was still hardly more than a wide spot in the road.
It wasn't exactly a tourist trap, but the large dirt parking area between the motel and the service station was cluttered with motor homes, their owners taking a respite from the seemingly unending miles of desert. Across the street, pickup trucks old and new dominated the parking lot of the market, although a few shiny cars and sport utility vehicles indicated that the tourist presence was being felt there as well.
Tsosie parked in front of the motel. "Stay here until they tow your car in. If they don't have a room for you, there's a newer motel just up the road. If they can't help you, call the station and I'll find a place where you can spend the night."
"Thanks." Jim opened the door and climbed out. "I don't suppose there's a car rental place nearby?"
Tsosie smiled broadly. "Joe at the garage might have something you can rent. He'll overcharge you for a wreck, but if you're crazy enough or desperate enough, he's the only game in town."
Things did not look promising. Still, maybe they could sweet-talk the Feds into a loner. "We'll check with him, thanks."
They walked into the motel. The lobby was cool and dim after the bright heat of the day, and they welcomed it despite the shabby plainness of the furniture. Jim sank gratefully into the worn-out cushions of a chair.
Blair looked at him in concern. "You okay, Jim?"
"Whatever got me earlier seems to have come back for a return visit," Jim admitted. He dug out his wallet and handed over his credit card. "See if they have a room, will you? All I want to do is grab a shower and a nap. I'll feel better after that."
Blair returned a few minutes later, a key dangling from a large plastic tag held triumphantly in the air. "No problems with the room. Most of the tourists are driving motor homes these days." He picked up Jim's bag in addition to his own and led the way toward the elevator. "You do what you need to do, and I'll keep an eye out for the car. You hungry?"
"Not yet, but I could use a bottle of water."
"I just happen to have another one," Blair assured him, "and the market across the street is bound to have some for wary, weary travelers. I'll make a scouting run after we get settled."
Their room was basic, but clean and air-conditioned. After the events of the day, they couldn't have asked for anything better.
Jim took his bag from Blair, tossed it onto one of the beds, pulled out some toilet articles and a bottle of aspirin, then headed for the bathroom. "I'm gonna grab a quick shower. Take the room key with you if you go out, okay?"
"Sure." After Jim disappeared into the bathroom, Blair spent the next few minutes unpacking some of his stuff and "sentinel-proofing" the room. He checked the direction of the motel window in relation to the sun, then closed both blinds and drapes against what was certain to be an afternoon glare when the sun dipped farther toward the horizon. He turned on the bedside lamp next to his bed; it gave a dim but adequate glow to the room. Lastly, he turned the air conditioner to a setting that was cool enough to ensure that Jim would crawl beneath the covers when he took his nap.
Jim's voice rose above the sound of running water. "Sandburg?"
"Do me a favor and pick up some of that over-the-counter migraine stuff when you go out, okay?"
"Sure." Blair frowned. "You getting a headache?"
"Yeah. It's probably just left over from a touch of food poisoning or something."
Blair sighed and shook his head. Jim's stomach had been bothering him before, not his head. After the antacid tablets, he'd felt fine again. Why would he be getting a headache after the stomach upset had passed? "Okay, I'm heading out now. You need anything else?"
"No, just the bottled water. Grab some cash from my wallet."
Blair helped himself to a twenty and made sure the door locked automatically behind him when he left.
In the bathroom, Jim finished a long, relaxing shower before reluctantly climbing out and toweling himself dry. The headache had started as soon as they'd stepped out of the sunlight into the dimness of the hotel lobby. Although he didn't suffer migraines very often, he'd had a couple since his senses had kicked online again after their five-year hiatus. Mostly, he had regular headaches, however intense. The migraines started differently, with his vision blurring at the edges as if he were trying to see through a window obscured by rain-snakes. Accompanying flashes of brilliant light blazed at irregular intervals, reminding him of lightning in a violent thunderstorm. He'd progressed to phase two of the migraine's course: a lightheadedness and the beginning of pain behind his eyes, as if someone had fastened a vise around his head and was slowly beginning to tighten it. If the headache continued as the others he'd had, the pain would soon become excruciating and be accompanied by nausea. Once the nausea culminated in vomiting, he'd be able to fall asleep, and by the time he awoke, the headache would have receded to a dull memory. All the same, its predictability didn't lessen his annoyance with getting one now, even if this one was probably the result of a food allergy and not something to do with his senses.
He squinted at himself in the mirror, then turned out the bathroom light and picked up his discarded clothes. A sharp prick in his finger caused him to curse mildly and drop his slacks to the floor. Examining his index finger, he saw a tiny splinter embedded in the tip. The wound was so tiny it didn't even bleed. Carefully, he used the thumb and index finger of his other hand like tweezers to pull the splinter free.
A sudden chill washed over him as he studied the splinter. It was a tiny sliver of bone, probably lodged in his slacks when he'd fallen into the ashes by the roadside. Scowling with anger at the superstitious fear that momentarily clouded his mind, he threw the bone into the wastebasket, picked up his clothes again, and went into the bedroom.
Skinwalkers, Navajo witches, shapeshifters -- whatever they were called, they were still the stuff of myth. While some Navajo of evil intent probably practiced the ancient rituals with fervent devotion, Jim held no truck with their ability to cast a spell over him, or Blair, or the car they'd been driving. Susceptibility required belief, and the simple fact was that Jim Ellison didn't believe. He was suffering a migraine from an allergy to something he'd eaten on the flight to Phoenix. No more, no less. He'd be fine in the morning.
Satisfied with his conclusions, he shoved his dirty clothes into a plastic laundry bag provided by the hotel, pulled on a clean pair of boxers, and climbed wearily into bed. The mattress was too soft and the pillow too hard, but Jim hardly noticed as he buried his head beneath the covers in a futile attempt to evade the bright flashes of light stabbing into his eyes.
Blair took the stairs down to the lobby and reluctantly assembled a list of tasks in his mind. The first thing he had to do was call the car rental agency. They were less than understanding about their wrecked vehicle, and it took some persuasion before he was able to convince them that he and Jim hadn't been speeding or traveling off the pavement at the time it occurred. A promise to forward a copy of the police report necessitated a call to the Tribal Police offices, where he left a message for Officer Tsosie. By the time he'd completed his telephoning his ear was hot and sticky from the receiver, and he hung up gratefully.
Through the glass doors of the main entrance, he saw their wrecked car towed in to the garage next door. It was time to brave the heat outside. With a sigh, he left the relative coolness of the hotel lobby.
Even though he was expecting it, the heat settled on him like a physical weight, squeezing him from all sides. Worse, the normally dry climate of the desert was turning humid from the moisture of thunderheads massing over nearby mountains. They probably wouldn't drop any rain on these arid plains, but they were sufficient to create an uncomfortable mugginess.
He hurried into the shade of the maintenance bay and found the mechanic. More necessary but boring business followed as he gave the man information concerning the rental car phone number and their insurance. He asked about the possibility of renting a four-wheel drive vehicle for the next day, but the mechanic didn't have anything available.
Frustrated, Blair left the garage and started resolutely across the street toward the market. It was a short distance, no more than a quarter mile, and yet it felt much farther in the intense heat. He darted across the wide highway after a careful search for oncoming traffic -- being pasted to the pavement by a speeding RV held no appeal -- then walked more slowly across the vast parking lot of the market.
Inside, he picked up several bottles of water, some migraine medicine, a couple of bananas, and a bag of sunflower seeds. The total at the register made him wince, but he hefted the sacks without complaint and started back for the motel, detouring long enough to pick up burgers, fries, and iced teas from the Burger King. Juggling everything made good use of his experience schlepping stacks of textbooks and tests around Rainier University, and he arrived back at the room sweaty but triumphant.
As far as he could tell, Jim was sound asleep. Moving around as quietly as he could, he deposited his purchases on the small motel table and sorted them. He got a glass from the bathroom, filled it with bottled water, and shook two tablets of the migraine medicine into his palm.
He went to Jim's bedside and gently touched him on the shoulder. "Jim? Wake up a minute, man. I've got the medicine you wanted."
Jim came awake slowly, wincing as if the dim light in the room hurt his eyes. He sat up to accept the glass and tablets. "Thanks."
"Your eyes giving you problems?"
"Lots of bright flashing." Jim downed the tablets and drank the rest of the water. "I've never had a migraine screw with my vision this long before."
Blair spoke quietly, the calmness of his tone hiding his worry. "If it's caused by a food allergy like you think, the symptoms may be specific to what you ate. When you're feeling better, you'll have to make a list."
"In the meantime, you feel up to a burger? It smells pretty good even to me, so I know I'm hungry."
"Thanks, but I'll pass for now. I just want to get some sleep."
"Okay. I'm gonna eat and then grab a shower. I'll try to be quiet."
"Thanks." Wearily, Jim sank back down onto his pillow. Within moments, he was asleep again.
Feeling worried and helpless, Blair sat down at the table and ate his meal. It was too early in the day to think about going to bed, but he didn't want to venture out into the heat again, and television was out of the question while Jim was trying to rest. With his options thus limited, he took his shower and settled down to read the latest issue of one of the several anthropology journals to which he subscribed.
It was one of the longest and most boring nights of his life.
Morning was a long time coming. When he opened his eyes for what seemed like the hundredth time, he saw a lightening of the view through the window, and belatedly realized that the drapes and blinds were open. Sitting up with groggy sluggishness, he saw that Jim's bed was empty, and heard the sound of the shower running.
He threw back the covers and winced as the cold air-conditioning immediately chilled his skin. Reaching for a tee shirt, he noticed Jim's still-uneaten portion of the Burger King feast of the night before and dumped it into the trash.
A few minutes later Jim wandered out of the bathroom, steam wafting behind him. "Morning, Chief."
"Morning." Blair noticed the telltale lines of tightness around Jim's eyes. "Head still hurt?"
Jim grimaced and reached for a short-sleeved shirt to put on over his tee shirt. Clean slacks and socks were already laid out on his bed. "It's receded to a dull throb. It's my eyes that are bugging me."
"How bad is it?" Although he'd done a lot of thinking throughout the night, he hadn't come up with a single explanation for the prolonged vision problems Jim was suffering.
Jim continued dressing. "Kind of like looking through a bullet hole in glass: the center is clear, but there are cracks radiating out from it that catch the light and refract it like a prism."
Blair headed toward the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth, but he paused in the doorway. "I don't like the sound of this, Jim. Maybe it's time to see a doctor."
"Where's the nearest one?"
That was the problem. "Shiprock, probably. That's a few hours from here. Whether or not they'd have a specialist...." He let the sentence trail off uncertainly.
Jim sat down to put on his shoes. "Let's get some breakfast, contact Agent Portman and see what he has for us, then grab a plane out of here. We can be back in Cascade by tonight."
He wasn't certain he liked the time delay. Then again, a hospital in Shiprock would probably run some blood tests, maybe prescribe some eye drops. If Jim's affliction was related to a bout of food poisoning, it was the strangest symptom Blair had ever encountered. If it was something connected with his senses, then no one but Blair could help him, and he'd need all his research material to do it. "All right," he agreed reluctantly. "I'll be out in a minute."
The dining room, only half full due to the early hour, was a simple affair: square tables covered with white cloths, a long buffet with both hot and cold breakfast offerings. The place desperately needed redecorating. The carpet was dull with age, and the wood paneling on the walls was dark enough to make the overhead lights inadequate to the task of proper illumination.
There was something about the smell of cooking bacon that set Blair's normally health-conscious mouth to watering. "Jim, it's a buffet. You want me to make up a plate for you, or can you manage?"
Jim dropped into a chair at one of the nearest tables. "You handle it. With my eyesight, I'd probably pick out something healthy."
Blair got the hint. "One cholesterol special coming up."
He grabbed two cups of coffee first and delivered them to their table. Then he went back and got into the short breakfast line, took a tray and two plates, and proceeded to fill them with bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, fresh melon, and two additional links of what smelled like an excellent sausage for Jim. He paid at the register and took his bounty back to the table, where he set about distributing the various plates and utensils. "Bon appetit."
At least Jim seemed to have found his appetite after refusing last night's hamburger. He dug in with relish and had consumed most of his breakfast before cocking his head alertly. "Deputy Tsosie."
Blair looked over Jim's shoulder and saw the Navajo lawman just crossing the lobby toward the dining room. "How did you know?"
"I could smell the leather and oil on his gunbelt, and the laundry detergent he uses on his uniform."
Blair grinned. "How do you know all the department's uniforms aren't done at the same laundry?"
Jim complacently munched on his toast. "Am I right?"
"Yeah," Blair admitted, "but I still think you were jumping to conclusions."
Any retort Jim might have had was silenced by the arrival of the deputy at their table. "Detectives Ellison and Sandburg." He didn't sound happy with them for not identifying themselves the day before.
"That's us," Blair agreed with a grin. "Grab a cup of coffee and pull up a chair."
After the cop had returned with his coffee and sat down, he gave them both an appraising look. "Why didn't you tell me yesterday?"
Jim smiled. "We didn't want you to think we were looking for any favoritism regarding the accident."
Tsosie didn't look especially convinced, but he apparently decided to let it slide. "I got a call from Special Agent Portman. He wants you to meet him out at the scene."
Blair put some excellent blackberry jam on his last slice of toast. Apparently, competition from the new motel up the road had resulted in some major culinary improvements at the "Horrible Inn." "And where is that, exactly?"
"An old airstrip here on the reservation. Since you don't have transportation, I'll drive you out there."
"Thanks." Jim finished his coffee. "After that, we'll get a ride with Agent Portman into Shiprock, then either rent another car or catch a flight back to Page to deal with the rental agency."
Tsosie nodded agreeably. "Fine. You got your stuff?"
"It's packed, but we left it in the room," Jim said.
Blair pushed back his chair. "I'll get it. Back in a minute."
Tsosie was driving a sport utility 4-wheel-drive this morning. They put their bags in the cargo area, then climbed inside. The air had a pleasant coolness to it, but that lasted only until a few minutes after sunrise. Within a half-hour, they rolled up their windows and the deputy turned on the air.
Jim leaned back in his seat and tried to get comfortable. His eyesight was getting worse, and he hid behind his dark glasses even though he knew the brilliant strobes of light weren't coming from outside. His field of vision had been reduced to the merest pinprick, and he couldn't even see the highway. How he was going to manage with Agent Portman at the scene of the investigation was something he'd have to figure out before they got there.
They'd driven miles outside Kayenta when Tsosie turned off the pavement onto a dirt road. Jim caught brief glimpses of square, white houses that were probably part of a government low-cost housing project for the Navajo who wanted to live there. He seemed to recall one of Blair's mini-lectures about many of the tribe choosing to live well away from their neighbors. Then again, he could see traditional hogans behind some of the houses, so not all the old ways were gone.
At the end of the little community, the road became much rougher. Tsosie didn't appear to notice. From what Jim could tell from all the bouncing, they were going around 40 on a road that would have been bumpy at 20. "Come here often?" he asked with barely concealed sarcasm.
Tsosie laughed. "You don't get anywhere around here by driving slow. Most of the roads around the Rez are like this. You get used to it."
In the back seat, Blair muttered an expletive as his head bounced off the roof. "You say we're going to an airstrip?"
"Yeah. Nobody much uses it anymore. There's an old hangar and a pretty decent landing strip, but no one actually works out there."
Jim thought about the case. "Sounds perfect for smugglers."
"Exactly. I guess the FBI found some pretty interesting stuff out there, but if they told my captain what it was, he didn't bother telling me."
Blair grunted as he was bounced around some more. "Are you sure we're going the right way?" He sounded suspiciously close to whining.
"Yeah, I'm sure. There's another way in from the Shiprock side that's better maintained, but this'll get us there faster than going all the way around the Rez."
They traveled in silence for a while, and Jim closed his eyes in the hope that resting them would improve his vision.
The truck stopped a few minutes later, and he opened his eyes again.
He couldn't see a damned thing. "Uh, Chief, I think we have a problem."
His partner's voice was tinged with worry. "Yes, Jim, I'd say the pistol Deputy Tsosie is holding on us definitely qualifies as a problem."
Oh. That wasn't what Jim had meant, but he silently thanked Blair for clueing him in. "What's this all about, Tsosie?"
"Nothing personal," the Navajo cop said coolly. "Just doing a favor for a friend. Get out of the truck."
Frustrated that he couldn't see what was going on, Jim complied. He heard the rear door opening and Blair climbing out on the other side, closer to Tsosie. Don't do anything stupid, Chief.
Blair tried to sound nonchalant. "Now what?"
"Now nothing." Tsosie sounded confidently in control, his voice almost totally devoid of emotion. "You stay here. I drive off. Simple."
"We'll die out here without water," Blair said. "But I guess that's what you want."
With Tsosie's attention on Blair, Jim reached out and touched the truck, using it to help him navigate around the front. Despite his blindness, he moved silently, feeling every step carefully through the soles of his hiking boots.
"Yeah. No one'll come back out here until next spring, when they bring the sheep up to graze."
Jim heard the deputy move away a little farther. So much for catching him unawares. He stopped beside Blair.
"Mind telling us why you're doing this?"
"Why not?" Tsosie paused, perhaps contemplating how much he could reveal safely. Despite his obvious certainty that his two captives were going to die, he didn't seem to be a man who took many chances. "You upset a very dear and powerful friend of mine. She arranged for our little rendezvous."
Immediately, Jim's memory flashed on the image of the old woman at the courthouse. He knew without a doubt that she was the mastermind of this trap. "Esther Delgadillo."
Tsosie's laugh was low and without humor. "You're smarter than you look, detective. Then again, you're stumbling around in more ways than one. Eyesight gone a little squirrelly on you?"
"What do you know about Jim's eyes?" Blair demanded hotly.
"I know he's blind. It's another gift from Esther, with a little help from a close friend here on the Rez."
"I don't believe you," Jim said. But he did believe. How else would Tsosie have known about his blindness? Was there really some power behind Navajo witchcraft? A stab of fear that he'd been resolutely ignoring thrust upward into his consciousness.
Whatever the cause, Jim couldn't submit without a fight to the ignoble fate planned for them. Fear made him reckless, and when he lunged for the gun, he realized too late he was woefully off target.
He felt the gun barrel slash at his head, and then he was falling, tumbling and rolling down a graveled, brush-covered slope that he hadn't known was there. Above him, he heard Blair's shout, followed by a gunshot and a sudden cry of pain.
The slope wasn't steep, and Jim managed to stop his uncontrolled tumble within seconds. He lay on his back, too stunned to move, as fiery waves of pain rippled across his body. The desert was a harsh, unforgiving land where everything was hard, stiff, or prickly. He felt as if his entire body had been scoured with coarse sandpaper.
Above him, he heard the sport utility's engine roar to life, and the sound of tires spinning into sand and gravel as Tsosie abandoned them to the fate he had planned.
He cursed his blindness, and for good measure stretched his anger to include the rest of his enhanced senses, especially his sense of touch. All of his senses had kicked into overdrive to compensate for his lack of sight, but it was his sensitivity of touch that resulted in the near-paralytic pain that momentarily consumed him.
An inarticulate bellow released his frustration to the uncaring wind. He resolutely rolled onto his hands and knees to begin the task of getting back up the damned hill.
"Jim?" Blair's voice was heavy with worry. "Jim? Are you all right?"
Well, that answered one of his concerns. At least Blair was alive. Bent double so he could use his hands to sweep for low obstacles blocking his path, he scrambled back up the slope. "Keep talking so I can find you."
"Just a few yards to your right."
Jim touched level ground and crabbed on all fours until he reached Blair's side.
"Son of a bitch shot me in the calf," Blair said through clenched teeth, hands gripping his wounded leg as he tried to stanch the bleeding.
Jim pried the fingers loose. "Let me check it out." Deftly, using only his sensitive fingers to guide him, he quickly determined the wound was a through-and-through. The bullet had missed the bone. He pulled out his handkerchief and used it to form a crude bandage over the wound, then gripped it tightly to stop the bleeding.
Blair yelped in pain. Sounding thoroughly aggrieved, he said, "Why am I the one always getting shot?"
"Must be people responding to your natural charm," Jim said lightly, relieved that the wound wasn't more serious. "Can you sit up?"
Blair did, then slumped against Jim's side. "Oh, crap, I think I'm gonna pass out."
Jim held him close, knowing from sad experience the dizziness and cold sweat even a minor wound could cause. "It'll pass in a minute. You're the one with eyes. Tell me our situation."
"Your vision's gone completely?"
He nodded. "Not even a pinprick of sight. Just fractured light, like a broken kaleidoscope."
"Okay." Blair sat up straighter. "Tsosie took off in the four-by-four. If there's a middle to nowhere, we're in it."
"That's not very helpful. What do you see?"
"Help me stand up and I'll give you a full report."
Jim climbed to his feet and helped Blair, who clung to his arm as he tried to balance on one leg.
"Okay, we're looking east, or rather a little south of east because we're facing directly into the sun. In front of us --"
"Wait," Jim interrupted, cocking his wristwatch toward Blair. "What time is it?"
"Ten after ten."
"And Tsosie dumped us here what -- ten, fifteen minutes ago?"
"Closer to fifteen, I'd guess." Blair sounded discouraged. "We're in deep trouble, aren't we?"
Jim didn't bother answering the question. "Sorry I cut you off. Keep talking about what you see."
"Right. We're near the western edge of the valley. Ahead of us, east, the land slopes away toward the valley floor. Way off in the distance is another range of mountains. The valley extends approximately north and south. Behind us, there's a long escarpment riddled with canyons that border the base of the western range of mountains. I can't see any peaks because my view's blocked by the mesa."
"Can you see the highway that bisects the valley? Any reflections off car mirrors or windows? Any sign of Kayenta or that housing project we drove through when we first turned off the highway?"
Blair was quiet for a minute. "Nothing. There's a thin haze that's turned everything a sort of sandy yellow. Besides, the sun's in the wrong position to see reflections."
"Last question: did Tsosie drive back the way we came, or did he keep going in the same direction?"
"Same direction." Blair hopped around in a circle and nearly fell. "Damn."
"I know the wound isn't serious, but I can't put any weight on my leg. The nerve-endings feel like they're on fire, which makes my knee want to buckle every time I try to take a step."
"Has the bleeding stopped?"
"Just about, I think."
"Okay, keep leaning on me for another minute or two while we figure out what the hell we're going to do."
Blair's quiet laugh was tinged with bitterness. "I hate to sound negative, but Tsosie dumped us out here to die. We're miles from anywhere, without food or water, and the temp's going to hit the mid-nineties by noon. You're blind, I'm crippled, and the chances of reaching civilization before we die of heat stroke are too astronomical to calculate. Hell, you've even lost your ball cap and sunglasses, and neither one of us is in any shape to go looking for them."
Jim kept his voice light. "And on the positive side?"
Blair was silent for what seemed like a very long time. "There isn't any positive side."
"We're alive, in relatively good shape, and we're both skilled in survival; you from all those expeditions you went on, me from my military training."
"Oh, well, if you're going to get disgustingly perky about it." This time, Blair didn't sound nearly so down. "Okay, Ranger Jim, what are we going to do?"
"We're gonna think for a minute and come up with a plan." Jim did some rough calculations in his head. "We left Kayenta about 7:00. Tsosie turned right onto the highway and really cranked up the speed. I figure we must have been going 80 most of the time. He turned left into the housing area about 30 minutes later, so figure we were 40 miles from town."
"Right. And once we turned onto the dirt road, he still pushed it," Blair said, getting caught up in the process. "We were bounced around inside that truck like marbles in a tin can."
"Okay, figure a speed of 20 at the slowest, 40 at the fastest. We were on the dirt road around two hours or a bit more, so a conservative average would put us 60 miles from the housing tract."
"Too damned far to hike without water." The discouraged note was creeping back into Blair's voice.
"Except the road traveled in a giant curve. The sun was behind us at first, and then it slowly crept around to our left."
"Jim, you're right!" The excitement was back. "Tsosie drove south after he dumped us. He was taking the shortest way back to Kayenta." Caution bade a caveat. "Maybe."
"Well, at least we've narrowed our choices," Jim said. "It's sixty miles northeast back to the housing area, so that's out. West would only take us into the mountains, and I don't recall seeing any sign of civilization that way on the map."
"Which leaves east or south."
"Exactly. East would take us cross-country to the highway, but we have no idea how far that is. If the road continues south, we don't know where we'll end up, but it has to lead somewhere. I agree Tsosie wouldn't take the long way home once he'd dumped us, so I'm guessing the road curves back toward the east and comes out somewhere around Kayenta." Time for more caveats. "Unfortunately, we don't have any idea how far that is."
"Except it can't be very close," Blair said. "Even with the haze, I should be able to see something if it was just five or ten miles away."
"Right, and even if Tsosie thinks we're just a couple of city cops, he wouldn't drop us too close to town. We're in for a hike no matter what we decide."
Blair sighed. "Great. Then I guess I vote we go east, toward the highway. It's something we can't miss, and there's plenty of traffic most of the time. Someone will stop for us."
"East it is. Let's see just how tough a job this is going to be."
It turned out to be exceedingly tough.
The slope toward the valley floor was deceptively benign. The desert was a veritable jigsaw of washes and gullies that meandered haphazardly in a roughly eastern direction. Blair had to be Jim's eyes, so he couldn't look too far ahead to spot these obstacles. They were forced to make a lot of detours. Furthermore, with his injury, Blair couldn't walk without Jim's assistance. The disparity in their heights kept throwing them off balance.
Their progress was slow by necessity. As the sun rose higher, so did the temperature. They were both sweating profusely, and Blair had to use one hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun. He'd been thinking over the events of the morning. They'd both had coffee with breakfast, a bad beginning to a long day in the hot sun. Blair had drunk several glasses of water as well, but Jim had not. His partner generally didn't switch over to water until mid-morning, and by then they'd already been abandoned. Blair's pack, including two bottles of water and an emergency stash of energy bars, was still sitting on the back seat of Tsosie's sport utility.
"Okay, what's the difference between a gully and a wash?" Jim asked as they made their arduous trek across the rocky landscape.
"We should be saving our breath and what little saliva we have left," Blair pointed out grumpily.
"It probably doesn't matter."
It was the first time Jim had sounded anything less than optimistic, and Blair felt his own hopes plummet. "Well, okay, it's sort of my own distinction. A gully is more V-shaped, with either steep or shallow slopes, and these can be covered with rocks or brush. A wash is sandy bottomed, with vertical sides that drop off either a few feet or several dozen."
"What happens after that?"
If Jim hadn't sounded genuinely interested, Blair wouldn't have bothered with an answer. "Then it becomes either a gorge or a canyon, and no, I don't make a distinction between gorges and canyons."
"So the Grand Canyon is a gorge, and Royal Gorge is a canyon."
"Hey, if English made sense, then everybody would be speaking it." Blair jerked Jim to a sudden stop that nearly toppled both of them to the ground. "Shit."
"What is it?"
"I don't know if you'd call it a gorge or a canyon, but whatever the hell it is, we're not going to get across it." The deep gouge in the desert floor was about forty feet deep, its sides steep and rocky. Negotiating it without a well-anchored rope would be hazardous under the best conditions.
Jim sighed. "City cops."
Blair was too hot and discouraged to put up with cryptic nonsense. "What do you mean?"
"The shortest distance between two points is a straight line."
"Of course it is." Then he got it. "Oh, the dirt road we were on made that long curve for a reason."
Jim nodded. "To get around this canyon."
"We angle back toward the dirt road and follow it in the direction Tsosie was going. South is pretty much our only option."
Blair looked around. They'd been stumbling on their chosen path for almost two hours, but he thought he could still see the spot where Tsosie had abandoned them. At most, they'd traveled a couple of miles. They were going to have to do better than one mile per hour if there was going to be any chance of survival.
There was no point in vocalizing this obvious conclusion, so he just sighed and gently turned Jim in the desired direction. His injured leg twisted, and he nearly fell as his knee buckled. Jim caught him in time, then grunted as a stone slid out from under him and they both sprawled on the hard ground.
They lay there for a minute catching their breath, but the sun beating down on them and the hot rocks radiating heat beneath them quickly drove them back to their feet.
"This isn't working." It wasn't like Jim to state the obvious, but their situation was far from normal.
"The only other thing we can do is give up," Blair pointed out logically. "And I can't see you giving up."
Jim shook his head. "I was thinking I could carry you."
Blair's mouth dropped open. "Carry me?"
"Piggyback. You can't weigh much more than a fully loaded combat pack."
Blair didn't point out that Jim hadn't carried an Army pack in years. Although Jim was in excellent physical shape, he still wasn't the young Army Ranger who'd survived in the jungle for eighteen months.
On the other hand, Blair's leg was aching worse with each passing yard. The pain distracted him from his job of being Jim's eyes, and their wobbly course hardly deserved to be called progress. "All right, let's try it as far as the road. After that, traveling should be easier and I might be able to walk."
It felt silly being carted on Jim's back, but they did make better time. Blair was able to look over Jim's shoulder at the ground and guide his footsteps around potential problems. His leg, while continuing to throb painfully, no longer sent shooting stabs of agony from outraged nerves. He was also able to unbutton his shirt and angle it enough to shield Jim's head and face from the brutal rays of the sun.
When they finally reached the road again, their progress improved even more. The ruts were rocky and uneven, but they didn't have to contend with tall brush or cactus. Under Blair's guidance, Jim was able to maintain a slow but steady cadence that alleviated much of the strain on both of them.
The enemies were time and heat. But at least they were fighting back.
Jim dropped to his knees with a suddenness that almost sent Blair sprawling. Gasping in pain as his injured leg buckled under the strain of his weight, he clutched at Jim's arm. "Jim, what's wrong?"
"I smell oil." Jim's head swung from side to side as he tested the air, his whole body taut with tension.
"Oil?" Blair's focus had been on the next small patch of ground ahead of Jim's feet, so he hadn't been aware of the broader surroundings. Now he looked around to find the source of the oil Jim had smelled. "Hey, there's Tsosie's truck."
Jim forced him to crouch lower, although there wasn't any real cover nearby, in the event they'd stumbled into an ambush. "Tell me everything you see."
"Right. Okay, it's about a hundred feet off the road ahead and to our left. It looks like it nose-dived into a wash. The driver's door is open, but I can't see anyone inside."
Jim straightened cautiously. "I can't hear or smell anyone either. Let's check it out."
Supporting each other, they struggled over to the sport utility. It was buried in sand up to its frame, and the front end was crushed where it had slammed into the bank of the wash. Whatever had caused Tsosie to leave the road had happened in a hurry. The truck would have had to go airborne to get mired so thoroughly.
"Jim, there's a bit of shade here by the truck. Sit down for a few minutes while I have a look around." He was deeply troubled by how flushed his partner looked. Dehydration was taking its toll on both of them, but Jim was the one exerting the most energy.
He felt more anxious when Jim didn't even object.
Jim sank down in the shadow of the stranded vehicle, but he had the good sense not to lean back against the hot metal. "Take a look inside."
"Okay." Blair tried not to touch any metal as he peered through a side window. "Damn! My backpack's gone. The bastard must have thrown it out. I had food and water in there." A minute later he'd worked around to the back. "Hey, our bags are still here." He tried to remember if there was anything useful inside and drew a blank. Toiletries, a change of clothes. Well, okay, maybe they could use their spare tee shirts to fashion crude coverings for their heads. Anything to help keep the sun off their scalps would be a bonus.
Blair got the keys from the ignition and opened the back to fish out their bags. Once he'd salvaged their extra shirts, the bags had pretty much worn out their usefulness. "Now what?"
"See if the engine will start, then check the police radio."
"Oh, right." He quickly hobbled around to the open driver's door and slid onto the seat. "Ow, this sucker's hot!" He stuck the key in the ignition and turned it hopefully. A faint grinding noise was his only reward. Clicking the key into the aux position, he tried the radio. It didn't even produce static. "Everything's dead."
Jim sounded half asleep. "Look in the glove compartment and under the seats."
"What am I looking for?"
"Road flares, flashlight, matches. Anything we can use to start a fire."
Blair grunted as he fished around under the seat. "What are we planning to set on fire?"
"The truck. If we can get ignite them, the tires will burn for hours and send up a cloud of black smoke."
"Good idea. We can use engine oil to get a fire started." However, his search was proving futile. "Good grief, how can anyone drive into the desert without so much as flashlight? You'd think a lawman would have a decent emergency kit."
"I think all the oil drained out through a busted oil pan. That's probably what I smelled." Jim was silent for a minute as he contemplated the rest of Blair's comment. "Tsosie probably removed anything useful before he met us this morning. Maybe he planned this crash to offer a plausible reason why we were stumbling around in the sun."
"Then where's Tsosie?" Blair climbed out of the furnace-like interior of the truck and popped the hood. "Let's see if there's enough juice in the battery to make a spark."
"Maybe Tsosie needed to disappear, so he staged the accident. Someone may have been here to pick him up."
Blair was skeptical. "That's a lot of maybes."
"Yeah." Jim sighed. "You find anything?"
"No. Do you have any more ideas?"
"Yeah. Grab the rearview mirror. We'll take it with us to use as a signaling device. And then let's get clear of all this damn metal. It's hot enough to grill steaks."
"Okay." Blair unscrewed the mirror and wrapped it in his spare undershorts before tucking it inside his shirt. The dang thing was hot enough to scald skin. As a final thought, he took his extra pair of blue jeans and formed a crude arrow on the ground to point any rescuers in the right direction. He weighed the legs down with large rocks. It took an inordinate amount of effort to accomplish this task, and he was nearly breathless when he was finished.
He was exhausted, and he knew Jim was faring even worse. His leg was protesting every movement, and he wouldn't be able to walk. That meant Jim would have to carry him again. It rankled to be so totally dependent on his partner, but he couldn't very well send Jim off on his own. They needed each other, handicapped as they were.
They didn't have much time left. He squinted up at the sun. It was finally dipping toward the western mountains. If they could survive just another couple of hours, at least they'd have plenty of shade. He hoped the night would offer some respite from the heat, although deep down he knew the sun had already done its damage; without water, they were doomed.
Two hours later, the sun had almost reached the top of the mountain range. Idly, Blair watched the shadows lengthen, and he willed the shade to reach them quickly. He could feel Jim lagging, his strides slowing and shortening as dehydration took its toll.
He squinted into the distance to the left. The vista hadn't changed. Just a gradual sloping away of the desert floor, mounds of rock and sagebrush marching into the distance, the upthrust of ancient volcanic plugs, the tiny row of mountains shimmering on the hazy horizon. There was no sign of the highway, no glint of sunlight off metal or windshield.
It was hopeless.
They were finished.
It took a minute for Jim to respond to the command. He staggered to a halt and swayed, head downcast, his breathing hard in the stillness.
"Put me down."
Again, Jim's response was sluggish, but Blair finally balanced on one leg beside him. Taking his arm, he turned Jim slightly and urged him forward. "There's an old hogan just a few steps away, Jim. There'll be some shade on the other side."
Supporting each other for the few arduous paces it took to reach their destination, they finally sank to the ground with sighs of relief. The shade cast by the old hogan was meager but welcome.
Jim dropped his head back against the rough exterior and closed his eyes. When he spoke, he words sounded slurred from the dryness of his mouth and tongue. "I don't suppose there's any sign someone lives here?"
"No." Blair drew his legs up carefully, calf and thigh muscles protesting even this simple movement. Dried blood around his wound pulled at his skin and made him wince, but he didn't want any part of his body, not even his feet, to extend into the sunlight. "It's been abandoned a long time. Someone's chopped a hole in the wall."
Jim pondered this. "You're saying someone died here, and the hole was made so the corpse's -- what was it... chindi? -- could safely depart."
Chindi. The evil spirit believed to linger after someone dies. It was why traditionalists never spoke the name of the dead person, fearing the chindi would be attracted to them.
In spite of everything, Blair was absurdly pleased that Jim had paid attention to his lessons. "That's right. If you don't mind, I'd rather stay out here. No sense tempting even more bad luck."
Jim nodded solemnly, the back of his head making a little scratching sound against the adobe wall.
Feeling oddly detached from the seriousness of their situation, Blair gazed numbly across the parched landscape.
Strange place to die, he thought calmly. Not quite what he'd planned for a final resting place.
They were finished, and he knew it. Jim had stopped sweating, a dangerous, potentially fatal development in their already dire predicament. Sunstroke was not an easy death. Extreme thirst, agonizing headache and muscle cramps were quickly followed by convulsions, unconsciousness, and death. By morning, Jim would be gone, with Blair more than likely succumbing by mid-afternoon. Although his exertions had been less, he was still badly dehydrated. His death would just take a little longer.
"How are you feeling, Jim?" he asked, only mildly surprised by the lassitude in his voice.
"Head hurts," Jim admitted.
Probably an understatement.
"How 'bout your eyes?"
"Still can't focus."
Well, that was it then.
They sat together in the shade, and Blair watched the shadow cast by the hogan creep past Jim's booted feet and move slowly across the ground. After a while, he became aware of other shadows stretching to either side of them.
For some reason, he felt this was important. He worried at the problem for several minutes, then resolutely rolled to his hands and knees and pushed himself into a kneeling position.
The hogan was situated on a low hill abutting a long escarpment of sandstone. A hawk soared lazily in an updraft created by the thermal differences between the desert floor and the summit. Peeking from behind the mesa rim and purpled with distance were the mountains. Great thunderheads massed along the mountain range, promising a deluge, but storms were a regular afternoon occurrence at higher elevations and their benefit seldom reached the desert valley of the Rez.
Still, this was important.
"Jim," he said when he'd finally worked through the puzzle.
There was no response. Either his partner was asleep or unconscious, and if the latter there might be no way to rouse him.
Fear made his voice sharp. "Jim!"
Jim's body jerked. "Uh -- what? Sorry."
Blair breathed a sigh of relief that Jim was awake and aware. It gave him a spark of hope. "Jim, I want you to do something for me."
Jim misinterpreted the words and struggled to rise. "Okay, we can probably make a couple more miles --"
Gently, Blair pushed him back against the wall. "No, not yet."
Even that effort had cost Jim greatly. His breathing was ragged, his face tight with pain. "Don't think it'll matter when," he confessed in a hoarse whisper. "I'm about done in."
Blair bit back a cry of shocked denial and struggled to quell the emotions that suddenly seemed determined to overflow. When he was certain he could speak calmly, he said, "No, Jim, this doesn't involve walking. Not yet, anyway. I want you to use your sense of smell."
Jim's lips cracked in a semblance of a smile. "Why? It's pretty obvious we could both use a bath."
"I want you to try and smell water."
"Water." Jim appeared to savor the word.
"Yeah. Think you can do it?"
"I'll try." With Blair's help, Jim managed to calm his ragged breathing and relax into a light trance. His nostrils flared as he tested the air.
This continued for several minutes, until Blair was willing to admit the exercise had been futile and call a halt.
But suddenly Jim turned his head to the right. "Are there still canyons behind us?"
"Yeah, bunches of 'em. There's a huge sandstone mesa riddled with clefts and gullies and canyons. Why? Do you smell something?"
Jim grimaced. "It's faint, but it's there."
"Think you can get us to it if I help support you?"
Already Jim was tackling the arduous task of getting to his feet. "I think I can get us there if we both have to crawl." There was a note of confidence in his tone that had been lacking before. With a specific destination, they had hope again.
Blair struggled to his feet and stood with his good leg closest to his partner. "Come on, put your arm around my shoulders. I've got you."
Step by agonizing step, they began the journey. It was slow going. Time and heat were still the enemies; would they succumb to exhaustion mere yards from their goal, or was the elusive scent Jim followed merely an illusion?
They passed numerous small gullies and two likely canyons, each with evidence of seasonal flash flooding carved clearly in the rocky soil, but Jim ignored them all. Two hours later, he finally indicated that they'd reached the right one.
To Blair, it didn't look any different from the others. It was simply a yawning canyon cleaving into the great wall of sandstone, its mouth clogged with boulders and scrubby growth.
Still, he didn't hesitate to turn into the sandstone maw. Guiding Jim over or around the obstacles kept him occupied, so he was startled when they rounded a bed in the steeply sloping canyon floor and he felt a gentle breeze waft against his face.
A cool breeze.
"We're near," Jim gasped, his limbs trembling as he fought to keep moving.
Heartened, Blair accepted more of Jim's weight onto his already straining muscles. He was half-carrying his partner now, and the added burden was quickly taking its toll. When they could go no farther, they collapsed onto the gritty sandstone floor of the canyon. Blair was certain they would not be able to get up again.
Although they'd traveled in shade the entire way, the rock beneath his cheek felt warm as it gave off the heat it had gathered earlier from the sun. But the gentle breeze was still blowing, and it felt good simply to lie there.
The silence built around them as the noise of their tumble faded, punctuated only by the harshness of their breathing and a faint bird cry from far away. Blair thought he could hear trickling....
Raising his head, he saw a tiny cleft in the canyon wall. Water dribbled from the crack into a tiny pool a few inches deep and no wider than a pizza tray.
Not bothering to contemplate the incongruity of this sight, Blair crawled the few yards to the rivulet. Cupping his hands to capture some of the precious liquid, he permitted himself a small drink before resolutely climbing to his feet and carrying a palmful back to where Jim sprawled in an ungainly heap.
Jim was lying on his stomach, head turned to one side. Carefully, Blair let the water dribble through his fingers onto his partner's chapped lips. At first, there was no response, then Jim's mouth opened and his tongue probed tentatively for the moisture.
"There's more where that came from, Jim," Blair mumbled, his words mostly incoherent. He helped Jim rise to hands and knees, then half-dragged/crawled with him to the tiny spring.
Cupping another handful, he held it up to his partner's parched mouth. "Tiny sips, Jim. You'll bring it all up again if you drink too fast."
Despite his obvious yearning to do otherwise, Jim obeyed.
The process was repeated several times, Blair alternating between his own needs and Jim's, until both had drunk what they could. They were still badly dehydrated, but their stomachs couldn't handle more right now.
He helped Jim find a comfortable spot where he could lean back against the sandstone, and sat down beside him to rest for a moment. There was still so much to do; he couldn't linger despite his body's demand for rest. Even with the general aches permeating every portion of his body, and the more specific pains in his wounded calf and sun-scorched head, he felt elated. They'd beaten the odds for now, bought themselves a few more hours of survival.
He looked around the canyon. The sandstone was deep-scored with wave-like patterns and bore evidence of the cascading flood waters that sometimes poured down from the mesa rim. Delicate grasses and flowering plants more suitable to milder climates thrived in nooks protected from the harsh sun. The water here was no temporary fluke.
Even their tiny spring supported some plant life, ample evidence that the water was not going to abruptly disappear. The danger of a flash flood was a real one; he remembered seeing the storm clouds massing over the mountains. But he saw an easy climb to a ledge several yards above the watermarks and felt confident he could get Jim up there in time if the deluge materialized. After all their travail, drowning in a flash flood was too ironic to contemplate.
It was still daylight, so he memorized the route to the ledge. He remembered his night alone in Navajo National Monument and the almost total darkness that had left him virtually blind; even though he wouldn't have light tonight either, he was sure he could follow his chosen trail in the dark.
For now, he was content to sit in the shade and bask in the cool breeze wafting down from the mesa. Every few minutes, he helped Jim take another drink and took one for himself. When Jim's condition didn't improve, he felt that more strenuous methods were called for.
Peeling off his tee shirt, he scooted around to the edge of the pool. Not wanting to contaminate their source of water, he followed the thin trickle of runoff to where it disappeared back into the ground. Spreading out his shirt, he soaked it several times before he was satisfied he'd removed as much of his salty sweat as possible, and carried the wet garment back to Jim.
First he wiped his partner's face, then lifted Jim's shirt to wipe his chest. It was imperative that he bring down Jim's core body temperature as quickly as possible. After he'd wrung the remaining moisture onto Jim's tee, he returned to the runoff to re-wet his shirt. When this was accomplished, he exchanged the cool cloth for the spare tee over Jim's head, tucking it around his neck so the effects of evaporation would cool the blood coursing through his carotid artery.
The cloth dried out quickly, but Blair continued to soak both shirts and reapply them to Jim's overheated body. Jim hardly stirred under these ministrations, but Blair persisted in spite of his own growing exhaustion, rousing him enough to drink more water when he could, continuing to wet the shirts when he couldn't.
"What time is it?" Jim's question was spoken clearly, although his voice was heavy with weariness.
Blair's spirits lifted at this sign of improvement in his condition. "Late afternoon. Three or four maybe."
Jim held out his arm so Blair could read his watch.
"Okay, three-twelve if you insist on being precise."
Jim managed a smile through cracked, swollen lips. "We'll spend the night here, drink all the water we can. Tomorrow, early, before dawn, we'll strike out due east. The damned highway can't be more than a few miles."
A few miles sounded daunting with one of them blind and the other crippled, but they didn't have any other options. "Okay, but you need to rest, and drink some water whenever you can. You're still way too hot."
Jim hadn't started sweating again despite the fluid he'd consumed. And he couldn't drink more than a few ounces before complaining of stomach cramps. Blair was worried that perhaps Jim's kidneys had shut down, that perhaps he'd reached a critical level of sunstroke that could only be remedied by intense medical intervention. His inability to offer more positive aid was frustrating.
Blair sighed and shoved aside his fatalistic imaginings. Jim was lucid, he was drinking water, and he wasn't vomiting or having convulsions. These were all positive signs that the progression of sunstroke had been halted in time, and Blair clung to them, determined to keep up his ministrations despite his own body's demand for rest. To stop could mean a fatal rise in temperature in a body that had temporarily lost its ability to regulate its own heating and cooling.
Dusk was short-lived in the desert. It seemed as if one minute it was daylight, and the next the robin's-egg blue of the sky was changing to deep royal. Evening rushed quickly toward the night.
"Chief, I hear something."
Blair sat up with a start. Annoyed to realize that he'd dozed off, he checked the tee shirts and was relieved to find them both still damp. He hadn't been asleep long. "What do you hear?"
"I dunno -- a rumbling. An engine, maybe? Maybe more than one."
Curiosity piqued, Blair climbed carefully to his feet, every muscle protesting. "I'm gonna check it out. You wait here."
"Like I'm gonna rush off somewhere."
Blair grinned despite his anxiety and moved back down the way they'd originally come. As it turned out, he didn't have to go far. Within a few yards, he had a clear view down the slope of the canyon all the way to the vast desert beyond.
What he saw was so incongruous that he couldn't find any words suitable to express his amazement. "Wow."
"What is it?"
"Not it -- them. Headlights. At least a dozen of 'em, all in a row." Judging from the way the lights bounced erratically up and down, the vehicles were coming cross-country at reckless speeds. "Kinda looks like a cavalry charge, only with tanks instead of horses."
Jim sounded doubtful. "Tanks?"
"Well, trucks anyway. Whatever they are, they're coming straight for us." He glanced nervously back at Jim. "Who do you think it is?"
"Does it matter?" Jim's voice sounded philosophical. "Friend or foe, they seem to know we're here, and there's not a damn thing we can do about it."
The lights drew closer, then disappeared when they reached the clutter of boulders at the canyon mouth. A bright glow showed where they were, though, and soon Blair could see the silhouettes of several men climbing over the rocks and entering the canyon. Flashlights bobbed. "Some people coming up the canyon."
"Good." A moment later, Jim added, "I hope."
In minutes rather than the hours it had taken Jim and Blair to cover the same distance, the searchers arrived.
"Herbert Atcitty!" Blair grinned when he saw the figure at the head of the group. "How did you find us?"
The old Navajo shaman shrugged to dismiss what Blair clearly saw as a miracle. "If you were alive, this is where you would be. If we had not found you here, then tomorrow we would have followed the buzzards to your bodies."
Under the weight of that simple logic, it seemed possible. One thing remained. "Okay, then how did you know we were in trouble in the first place?"
This time, the old man smiled, revealing several gaps where teeth should have been. "I dreamed of the twin sons of Talking God."
Blair's knowledge of myth and culture was vast, but this was something he'd never heard of. "Twin sons?"
Atcitty leaned against a large boulder and watched one of his companions examine Jim. "When half-grown, one was struck blind and the other's limbs were withered. Because the People feared this evil magic, they banished the brothers into the desert to die. But the blind one carried the crippled one until they found the help they needed to be cured."
Blair was amazed at the similarities to his and Jim's own tale. "And somehow you knew the dream referred to us?"
"The brothers became you in my dream," the shaman said. "It was a vision I could not ignore."
Blair pondered the magnitude of the old man's revelations. "Then finding us really was a miracle."
Atcitty pushed away from the rock. "Perhaps. Now we must get you and your companion to a safe place where his healing can begin."
Blair was on the verge of protesting that Jim needed a hospital, but a quiet voice in his heart quelled the outburst. They'd been rescued based on the vision of a great shaman; he couldn't begin to doubt the man's power now.
Almost before he knew it, he was swept into a "chair" fashioned by the linked arms of two of their rescuers. They carried him rapidly down the canyon toward the waiting trucks. Twisting his head, he saw another burly Navajo pick up Jim as if he weighed no more than a small child. The rest of the rescue party hastened in their wake.
The cheerful chirruping of birds and the impatient chitter of a squirrel gradually intruded on Blair's idyll and dragged him toward reluctant wakefulness. When he finally opened his eyes, he realized it was full daylight, and the tiny house in which he rested was warming rapidly toward an uncomfortable level.
He knew it was a house and not a hogan. He remembered that much from last night, when he'd taken a very bumpy ride in an old pickup truck. He hadn't been able to see much of his surroundings in the black of night, but this fact alone had convinced him that the house was located in an isolated area. The headlights of the little cavalcade of trucks had revealed a hogan several yards from the house, and he knew Jim had been taken there. Blair had been ushered into the house, where exhaustion had finally clouded his awareness to a point where he wasn't certain what had happened after that.
The walls were thick adobe, the floor closely placed flat stones. The windows didn't have any glass in them, and the door was made of thick wood. A pot-bellied stove and some oddments of furniture occupied the center of the room; a crude, wooden countertop held a basin and some towels. An equally rough-hewn table and several chairs completed the furnishings, save for the narrow bed he lay upon.
Where was Jim?
Concern drove him to sit up and swing his legs over the side of the bed. He was certain there wasn't an inch of his body that didn't hurt. The sunburned skin of his face and neck felt hot and tight. His calf muscle, newly bandaged, still ached, although there was no evidence of heat or extreme tenderness that would indicate an infection. He also realized he was naked beneath the blanket. Looking around, he couldn't see his clothes, and he was about to wrap himself in the blanket and set out nonetheless when a tap on the door thwarted his plans. Making sure the blanket covered his most personal attributes, he called, "Yes?"
The door opened and a young woman walked in carrying a neatly folded stack of clothes. She wore jeans and a tee shirt with a logo showing a snarling, lunging wildcat wearing a football helmet with the logo of a snarling, lunging wildcat....
Obviously, she wasn't a traditionalist. Blair had only vague memories of her from the night before.
"I'm sorry. I've forgotten your name."
"Nina Atcitty." Pronounced with a long "i," he noted.
"You bandaged my leg."
Nina nodded and put the clothes on the table. "I've laundered and dried your things as best I could. After you've dressed, come outside. I'm whipping up some eggs and tortillas for breakfast, and there'll be plenty of coffee."
To Blair, it sounded like a feast. "How's my friend?"
"He's sleeping. Do you remember last night at all?"
"Vaguely. They carried him into a hogan. I remember someone singing, and a drum."
Nine laughed softly. "You wanted to help by singing along. Grandfather insisted you needed plenty of water and rest."
Blair had fractured memories of that as well and blushed. "Is Jim okay now?" The healing ceremony had gone on most of the night, or at least he'd heard the rhythmic drum and hypnotic singing every time he'd struggled to come awake.
"Yes. He drank gallons of water and sweated most of it out again. He's exhausted, but Grandfather assures me he'll be fine when he wakes up."
"And his eyes?"
"Grandfather's confident his medicine drove out the spirit sickness."
Blair accepted her words with a tiny flicker of doubt. He'd placed a lot of trust -- and Jim's health -- in the hands of the old shaman. "I know Atcitty is a fairly common name among the Navajo, but he really is your grandfather, isn't he?"
"Yes. He's taught me many of the old ways. Next semester, I'm going to study medicine at U of A. When I come back, I'm going to see if both ways can co-exist in harmony."
He nodded, seeing the possibilities. The progressives among the Navajo had accepted the new ways. Some of them had embraced the modern world with a vengeance, scorning anything that smacked of traditional Navajo values. This had created a huge schism between the progressives and the traditionalists, which had resulted in an entire generation of youth seeking an identity to anchor their place in the world. Recently, the schools had begun teaching a lot of the old ways again as a means of helping the children maintain a connection with their ancestors. "If you're anything like your grandfather, I'm sure you'll make it work."
"So am I." Nina looked at the blanket covering his lap. "There's fresh water in the basin and towels so you can wash up a bit. There's also a jar of salve to put on your sunburned face and arms. I'm sorry we don't have any of the modern conveniences out here. Come out when you're ready."
When she'd left, Blair dropped the blanket and walked naked to the counter. He put a towel beneath his feet to catch any runoff, and used the supplied sponge and soap to perform a quick but effective bath. It felt wonderful to be rid of the grit and sweat of the previous day. The salve smelled funny, but he smeared it over his face, neck, and ears. It only took a minute for the pain of his sunburn to fade.
Sorting his clothes from Jim's, he got dressed and cleaned up after himself, leaving the counter as clean as he could, piling the used towels to one side, and carrying the basin outside to dump. The pain in his leg caused him to limp a little, but it didn't interfere with his mobility. He was definitely on the mend.
The small encampment was well situated to make it defensible. Blair knew that when trouble brewed between the Navajo witches and their enemies, the hataalii, or singers, armed fighting occasionally broke out. It was sometimes necessary to have a stronghold where ceremonies could be held and lives defended. The hogan sat a few yards away from the adobe house. A corral, presently empty, completed the permanent structures. Several trucks and sport utility vehicles, some old and some new, all of them heavily layered with dust, filled the dirt parking area between the two buildings. A narrow dirt road led toward what was presumably civilization.
Blair paused to take a deep breath. The morning air was cool, and redolent with the odors of sage and juniper. A gentle breeze tantalized him with the aromas of woodsmoke, coffee, and frying onions. There was a small campfire with a well-blackened cooking grate, atop which a large frying pan sizzled with onions and peppers.
Nina had a propane camp stove burning atop a portable table. A coffeepot occupied one burner, while a flat stone atop the other served as a baking dish for the handmade tortillas she formed with quick expertise. "Coffee?"
Blair was already salivating. "You bet." He hefted the basin. "Where can I dump this?"
She pointed with her lips. "Any of the plants will appreciate it. There's a barrel of fresh water around the side of the house. Would you mind re-filling the basin for your friend when he wakes up?"
"Glad to." Happy to be doing something, he headed in the direction indicated. His path took him past one of the trucks, and he realized two men were sleeping atop an old mattress in the truck bed, only the tops of their heads visible above their sleeping bags.
He found a likely place to dump the basin, and gazed out across the desert. After a moment, he felt as if someone were watching him. Looking around, he spotted a man sitting atop a high pile of boulders. A rifle nestled comfortably in the crook of his arm. The man sketched Blair a casual salute and went back to watching for unwelcome intruders.
The presence of an armed guard troubled Blair a little. It meant there might still be danger. He hoped he and Jim weren't responsible for this scaling up of skinwalker activity, but he had a suspicion they were. He found the barrel of fresh water and filled the basin, carried it back inside the house, and came out to accept a cup of coffee. His limp was almost gone; the easy exercise had loosened the muscles.
He savored the hot brew for a minute, then saw the flap on the front of hogan shift. "Jim!"
Jim looked decidedly worse for wear. His hair stuck out in all directions as if eager to escape his scalp, while his face was blotchy with sunburn and glistened with salve. Half-hooded eyes drooped with fatigue, but he was upright, and judging by the hand that clutched a blanket wrapped around his waist like a South Seas lava-lava, he was cognizant enough to feel modesty.
Barefooted, Jim shuffled to the camp table. "Coffee," he mumbled.
"Don't you think you should get cleaned up first?" Blair asked, grinning at the picture his friend presented.
Jim held out his free hand. "Coffee."
Nina poured him a cup and held it so he could grasp the handle.
He sipped the scalding liquid cautiously, and closed his eyes in appreciation as he swallowed. "That's better."
"How are you feeling? And how's your eyesight?"
"Tired, and 20-20," Jim said, looking around the camp. "Where are we?"
Blair shrugged. "I haven't got a clue. We were both pretty out of it last night when they brought us here." That was when he noticed the small leather bag hanging from Jim's neck by a thin, braided cord. "A medicine bag?"
Jim nodded uncomfortably. "Yeah, the old man insisted I wear it from now on."
"Cool. What's inside?"
"Some sacred pollen, an assortment of small stones. He said what they were for, but I can't remember all of them." His expression became guarded as he hesitated.
"Yeah," Jim said reluctantly. "A fetish."
"That's pretty consistent with medicine pouches." Blair's eyes narrowed. "What animal is it?"
Jim hesitated for a long time. "An onyx jaguar."
Blair's eyebrows shot upward. "Really? Did you tell him about your spirit animal?"
"No. I figured you did."
"Uh-uh, I did not." The whole thing was both weird and exciting. "Wow! Imagine that. He knew about the black panther."
"Maybe I mentioned it when I was delirious or something." Jim sounded almost desperate to rationalize it. "I must have, don't you think?"
"No, I don't think so, and I don't think you really believe that either."
They were interrupted when Herbert Atcitty walked out from among the jumble of boulders. The old man looked disgustingly alert. "About time you woke up," he said. "Where's my coffee, granddaughter?"
Nina cheerfully poured him a cup before setting about assembling onions, peppers, and scrambled eggs into the hot tortillas.
The old man blew steam from the cup and took a cautious sip. Smacking his lips appreciatively, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out Blair's wolf charm. "Here. It's been properly blessed now, so it will warn you when there is danger."
Blair accepted the charm and slipped the chain over his head. "Thank you." He gripped the iron figure briefly in his fist before letting it fall against his chest.
Jim was impatient. "The evil one." He clearly had trouble speaking in a traditionalist manner and abandoned the effort. "Deputy Tsosie?"
"We have to find him."
The old man merely shrugged. "He will not be difficult to find."
Nina had gone to rouse the sleeping men from their trucks, but she returned in time to hear her grandfather's comment. "Once the identity of a witch is known, his powers are greatly limited. He'll have gone into hiding in fear for his life, if he hasn't fled the Rez altogether."
Herbert Atcitty shook his head. "He has not gone into hiding."
Nina's look suggested she was confused by her grandfather's certainty, but she didn't argue with him.
"We'll need a lift back to the hotel," Jim said.
The old man shook his head. "Not yet."
Jim looked perplexed. "Look, I appreciate everything you've done for us, but I'm feeling much better. There can't be more to this healing ceremony."
Atcitty's eyes crinkled with humor. "No. But we are a modest people, and the sight of you wrapped in nothing more than a blanket will raise many eyebrows."
Jim's face went scarlet with embarrassment. He looked at Blair, who was fighting hard to restrain a laugh. "Where are my clothes?"
Blair put down his coffee cup. "Come on, Jim. I'll give you the grand tour. To a laughing Nina, he said, "Save us some of those eggs, will you?"
It felt like a lifetime, but they'd only been gone from the Holiday Inn for two days. The only change Blair could see was a new assortment of motor homes parked in the lot and a single monochromatic sedan with Federal plates.
Nina parked her pickup and turned to her passengers. "I see the Feds are here. I'll let you handle them on your own, if you don't mind."
Jim opened the passenger door and climbed out. "No problem. Thanks for the ride. And thank your grandfather for all his help."
"You're welcome." She smiled. "I hope your journey home is less eventful than your stay on the Rez."
"Amen to that," Blair agreed, scrambling out after his partner.
They waved as she drove off, and entered the motel. The lobby was as dark and depressing as ever, but this time it was adorned with a short, rotund man pacing restlessly across the threadbare carpet. He practically lunged at them.
"Ellison and Sandburg?"
"Special Agent Portman?" Jim returned calmly, thinking that the man actually resembled his name.
"That's right." The agent fumed as he gathered his words. "Just what the hell is going on? I got a call yesterday evening from a Captain Simon Banks, who told me two of his officers had flown down here to meet me about some smuggling case. Needless to say, that was the first I'd heard of it."
"It's a long story, so let's sit down while we tell it," Blair said. "It's been an interesting couple of days."
They settled into chairs gathered into a rough circle and began to recount their adventure in shifts. Portman's gaze shifted from one to the other as if he were watching a tennis match. He was silent during their initial explanation, then had several dozen questions that the two did their best to answer.
"This is going to make one mighty strange report," he concluded at last. "I'll drive you into Shiprock where you can file an official report. There should still be time to get you on the commuter run into Phoenix. Our little airport shuts down at dusk. You can spend the night in Phoenix and catch a flight home tomorrow."
Jim and Blair exchanged glances. "What about Tsosie?" Jim asked at last.
"Oh, we've found Deputy Tsosie," Portman said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "We found him even before we knew he was one of the bad guys."
Blair frowned. "Where did you find him?"
"In the desert, not a mile from his truck. A private helicopter spotted the wreck and then the body early this morning. I was here on the Rez trying to figure out what had happened to you two, so I took a chance you'd been with him and drove out with the tribal cops. We found the arrow we figure you'd made out of blue jeans, but before we started the search, someone radioed in that you were with old Herbert Atcitty."
"Yeah, we know what happened to us," Jim said impatiently. "What happened to Tsosie?"
Portman's expression went vague. "Hard to say. I mean, there's nothing to tell us why he drove off the road into the wash, or why he abandoned his truck and took off on foot across the desert. One of the other deputies, a tracker, says Tsosie was running hard before he went down. Common sense says he should have stayed in the truck and used his sidearm to fight it out. I mean, what fool jumps out of a solidly built truck and tries to outrun a cougar?"
They'd had trouble following the stream of the agent's rambling story, but they grasped the salient facts quickly enough.
"A cougar? He was mauled by a cougar?" Almost involuntarily, Jim's hand strayed to his shirt and the leather medicine pouch concealed beneath it.
"Yeah, that's what it looks like. I mean, the deputy says the tracks were huge. Biggest damn cat ever found in these parts. The tribal police are going to put the warning out. We have mountain lions and bobcats around here, of course, but the really big cats, the jaguars, haven't ranged this far north in over a century. The deputy doubted a cougar could grow that big, but I guess there's always a chance, right?"
"Uh, right," Blair agreed, dazed. "A mountain lion. A really big mountain lion."
"Yeah, that's right. Anyway, if you two are ready, we can drive into Shiprock. I'll call the tribal cops from my office, give them the gist of your story. They'll be pissed that you didn't give them a report firsthand, but why spend the whole day repeating the same story and filling out another mountain of paperwork, right? Don't know how happy they'll be about finding out Tsosie was one of them Navajo witches, although the cops I was with this morning didn't seem too put out to find him dead. In fact, a couple of them looked downright satisfied by the development. Did I tell you most Navajo are real squeamish around dead folk? Something to do with their beliefs. Always makes me wonder how any of them manage to be police officers, what with traffic fatalities and other deaths they have to handle. Their local medical examiner is definitely persona non grata at social functions, if you know what I mean, because he works around dead people all the time. Of course, he's half white and was educated off the Rez, but still, it must be tough being an outcast just because of your work...."
They managed to tune out the bulk of Portman's lengthy dissertation on the long drive to Shiprock. Once inside the bright fluorescence of the FBI offices, they settled down for a boring afternoon of filling out reports in triplicate, calling Simon to assure him of their good health, and making plans to get back to Cascade at the earliest possible moment.
The ring of telephones and the hum of computer terminals made the silence of the Rez recede as if it were a distant memory.
"Okay, Jim, I've made reservations at a hotel near the Phoenix airport, and we have a flight out tomorrow morning at 6:30 straight through to Seattle." Blair looked smugly satisfied with his success. "Now all we have to do get out of Shiprock."
It didn't prove as easy as they'd hoped, but the glitch turned out to be relatively minor. The Navajo Tribal Police weren't happy with a verbal report over the telephone, so a captain drove in from the Rez to get their story in person. On the plus side, he brought their bags from Tsosie's wrecked sport utility. Even Blair's extra jeans, the ones Blair had used to create an arrow in the dirt, were included.
They caught the last commuter flight out of Shiprock before the airport closed for the night.
As they settled into their seats with a sigh, Blair checked out the flight attendant before asking the question he'd been contemplating. "You think you have a chance of pinning anything on that old woman? What was her name?"
"Delgadillo," Jim answered absently. "What can I charge her with? Casting a spell?" He fingered the pouch beneath his shirt. "Besides, I figure our magic is more powerful than hers now."
Blair looked at him closely. "Are you being serious or sarcastic? I can't tell."
Jim sighed. "That's because I don't know."
"You can't deny what happened."
"No, but I can come up with reasonable explanations for everything that don't rely on witchcraft and skinwalkers."
Blair wasn't willing to let it go. "Sure you can, but what do you believe?"
Jim took a long time answering. "I believe I have a lot of thinking to do before I can make up my mind one way or the other." He gestured toward the wolf charm hanging from Blair's neck. "What about that? Do you believe it will warn you of danger?"
"The shaman says it will." Blair touched the hammered iron. "Funny, but it's always cool. You'd think it would warm up against my skin, but it doesn't."
Jim touched it briefly. The charm was cool even where it rested against Blair's chest. "Was it warm before?"
"Before the shaman blessed it, you mean?" Blair thought about it. "I think so. It's not something I really noticed. But I think so."
"Then I guess we both have a lot to think about."
"And talk about."
"Yeah, and talk about. But can it wait until we're home?" Jim knew he wouldn't be able to postpone the discussion for long. His skepticism had collided soundly with inexplicable events, and he was left standing on shaky ground. He needed to find some security in familiar things: the quiet of the loft, the cry of gulls outside the French doors, the smell of salt air. He needed the stability of home.
Blair looked doubtful. "I'm not going to let you off the hook this time. We're going to talk about it. I expect you to be open-minded."
Jim was uncomfortable that Blair had seen through him so easily. "Right, right. Open-minded. But can we drop it for now?"
"Sure, but tomorrow we talk."
He hated being pinned down. "Tomorrow we talk."
Only they didn't talk about it the next day. As they stood in the terminal of the sprawling Phoenix airport that morning at 5:45 waiting for their flight to be called, the wolf charm grew hot against Blair's skin. He could hardly touch it, although it felt no different to Jim.
Blair dug in his heels and refused to get on the airplane. Jim cajoled, insisting the iron charm was as cool as it had ever been. As they stood there arguing, oblivious to the mass of people streaming around them, the world turned upside down, although it would be a while longer before they realized it.
The date was September 11, 2001.
~ Finis ~
E-mail the author of this story, Linda S. Maclaren (Mackie), at email@example.com Read Mackie's other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Mackie's Idol Pursuits E-mail Faux Paws Productions at firstname.lastname@example.org IN THREE WEEKS on THE SENTINEL: One Friendly Drop (12/19/01, FPP-619) by Eddie
Megan's life and friends are both in jeopardy when a tragic accident in the Major Crime bullpen reveals she's being systematically poisoned. Jim and Blair must find the motive and the would-be murderer before anyone else falls prey.
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