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This story was begun by Anna S. She turned it over to me, first to beta, and then to finish, and I finally did, with a bit more input from her. Since most of the work is mine, I'll lay claim to it, and have placed a break where Anna's work stopped and mine began, even though some of my input is there, as well, and there are bits of her input later on. The majority of the work is mine.
Joining The Company
Begun by Anna S. and completed by TAE
It was now the fourth day of Michael 'Mickey' Kostmayer's training and he idly wondered when he would be either flushed out of the program or McCall would notice what was going on. So far, he had managed to completely miss the targets on the shooting range, which had actually stung a bit; he had wanted to show off, but restrained himself. He had also deliberately 'blown' himself up numerous times, while trying to deactivate extremely amateurish bombs. Again, it was a blow for his professional pride, but McCall had to learn a lesson.
Ever since he'd met the man, McCall had assumed, never asked, that he'd join The Company.
So he had decided to teach McCall to stop taking things for granted and had purposefully screwed up royally. He half-expected to be refused entry when they arrived, but no, no problem whatsoever.
In silence, he followed as McCall led the way down a corridor, then into an almost empty room. The only objects in it prior to their entrance were a table, a pair of wire cutters, and a bomb. What the hell?!? thought Mickey as he whirled back to look at McCall, and then heard the snick of the door being locked.
"You will now disarm the bomb, Mr. Kostmayer, or we shall both die," McCall stated calmly.
"What the hell are you pullin', McCall?" Mickey demanded.
"It has been observed that you've been falling far behind your potential as an agent. To keep you in the program, a demonstration of your abilities is required. This demonstration."
"Who said I even wanted to join in the first place?" he asked bitterly, as he turned and studied the bomb. It was the genuine article, he was dismayed to discover. They would die if it weren't disarmed. The time remaining on the clock was thirty minutes.
Slightly taken aback, McCall retorted, "What do you mean? You agreed to give this a chance."
"No," Mickey replied, as he picked up the wire cutters and visually traced the wires, "you told me I was. I didn't have a say in it at all." He snipped the first wire. "I got out of Leavenworth, you brought me here and told me I was startin' trainin' the next day."
"Give me the cutters then, and I'll finish disarming the bomb and you may leave."
Feeling ornery, Mickey refused. "I started, I'll finish. Besides, might as well show them I'm not quite as bad as I've been makin' myself out to be."
"What is it you do want, Mickey?" McCall asked, perplexed.
"To be asked, not to be ordered," he replied simply, as he snipped the second wire.
After about a minute, McCall spoke again. "Mr. Kostmayer, would you care to join The Company?"
Snip. "Sure, what do I have to lose?" Mickey replied flippantly, as the clock stopped. The bomb was disarmed.
McCall shook his head minutely as he wondered if he would ever understand his young friend. He unlocked the door and stepped through, almost running Control over.
Luckily, Control still had fast reflexes and had stepped backwards as he sensed movement from the room. "Robert, I'd like a word with you," he said forebodingly, and added "alone," when he saw Mickey Kostmayer exit the room.
"Excuse us," McCall said, lightly touching Mickey's arm. "You remember the way to the shooting range, don't you? I'll meet you there soon."
Mickey nodded, then walked off as McCall and Control made their way to Control's office.
After both had comfortably settled into their chairs, McCall took the offensive. "If this is about Kostmayer, give him one more day to prove himself."
"It is," Control replied calmly, "and why should I? He's proven himself to be not quite agent material," he finished dryly.
"Ah, well, that was my fault," McCall asserted. "It would appear that in my haste to procure his services for The Company, that I forgot to ask him if he wished to join," he laughed ruefully. "I've ascertained that he would, in fact, like to join, and I don't foresee any more significant problems."
"My superiors have already decided he has the wrong attitude and they don't want him."
"Just one day, Control," McCall leaned forward as he said earnestly, "just one day and I promise you that they will change their minds."
Control weighed the pros and cons. Pros, McCall would be in his debt, and it would disturb his bosses, which he was rather looking forward to seeing. Cons, he couldn't really see any. "All right McCall, but just today. If he hasn't significantly improved, he's out."
They arose and then left the office.
Control tilted his head and had to smother a snicker of amusement. His eyes caught the embarrassed Mickey's and he winked. Mickey started in surprise, but recovered quickly.
He challenged, "Not good enough?"
Control burst out laughing and slapped McCall on the shoulder, "I think we have a winner, Robert!" he crowed.
A slow smile crossed Mickey's lips as he slowly relaxed a little. "You so sure about that?"
"Son, you want a contest?" There was a predatory glint in the old man's eyes that Mickey found irresistible, the chance to show up this guy, whoever he was.
What the hell? he thought. "Why not?" he drawled. "Might as well see where I am, compared to the best, right?"
Control's smile matched the predatory gleam in his eyes. "Robert? Would you care to join in this, or just watch and referee?"
McCall frowned, looking from one man to the other. He'd never known Control to play games, at least, not this kind. He'd only seen him 'work' on occasion and had no idea what was going on. He stared at his friend and superior and suddenly got it. Control needed proof that Mickey was as good as claimed...he smiled, a bit ruefully. "Oh, why not? I'm in need of a bit of practice, myself."
Mickey watched them both, covertly, as they readied themselves for the contest.
Control pulled his S&W Chief's special from its unobtrusive holster in his belt. He frowned at it and shook his head, then grinned as he looked at Mickey. "I don't think this will do."
Mickey smirked. "Yeah, not much range on that one."
Control smiled. "A two inch barrel from twenty-five yards? Not even I am that good." He turned to spot the range master, surreptitiously watching them from the safety of the gunroom. "George, get me something to shoot with, will you?"
"Yes, sir," George replied and disappeared. Mickey watched with avid interest as George came out with a box. He blinked in surprise to discover that the gun was nothing more than a Smith and Wesson .357 magnum.
"Not that one, just the four inch." Control reached past the box and took George's revolver from his shoulder holster. "Glad to see you got rid of that Colt," he muttered, opening the cylinder and checking out the loads and the cleanliness of the weapon. "This will do just fine."
"Yes, sir," George replied and retreated back to the gunroom, after depositing six bags of bullets on the counter.
"Sure you want to use that one?" Mickey asked.
The old man smiled as he gently closed the cylinder. "This will be just fine. I kind of like revolvers. They don't jam at inopportune moments."
Control handed each man a bag of bullets, leaving the other three on the counter. "Standard modified combat course, gentlemen?" he asked.
Mickey frowned, "Doesn't seem exactly fair, my gun holds fifteen rounds, you'll have to reload a lot more often. How about I just use six at a time, too?"
"Don't worry about it," Control insisted. "It takes longer to load a clip than a revolver." Noticing how both Robert and the kid were frowning at him, he grinned. "Don't let it bother you, gentlemen. This isn't a quick-draw competition. We're shooting with a time limit, for points, not speed."
"You don't say." Mickey intended to sound as flippant and relaxed as possible, so that both older men would underestimate him.
"You are familiar with the modified combat course, gentlemen?" Control asked, looking at Mickey.
Mickey smirked. "Yeah, but just to be sure, why don't you tell me?"
"Standard course, at seven yards, twenty-four rounds within sixty seconds, firing off-hand. From fifteen yards, twelve rounds in sixty seconds, firing off-hand. From twenty-five yards, six rounds, right hand barricade, six rounds left hand barricade, six rounds kneeling, and six rounds off-hand, within two hundred and forty seconds."
"Got it," Mickey agreed. Robert simply nodded, wondering what his friend and superior had up his sleeve. Perhaps it really was just a means to get Mickey to show what he was capable of? As usual, he had no way of knowing for certain. He considered Control a friend, but he was the most annoying friend he'd ever had. Even after nearly twenty years, he still couldn't figure him out.
Mickey pulled the clip from his gun and emptied it, replacing the bullets with those from one of the bags. He was impressed. George had known what caliber he was using without asking. He glanced over at McCall and watched as he replaced his own hollowpoints with the wadcutters favored for target shooting.
The old man...Mickey frowned. He had no idea who the guy was. McCall hadn't bothered to introduce them. He was curious and glanced at his 'savior'. He really did owe the guy, getting him out of Leavenworth like he had. Even if he did want to turn him into a spook. Still, he could think of a lot of jobs he'd hate more.
"Hey, you got a name?" he asked. The old man just gave him an enigmatic little smile.
"You can call me....Control."
McCall rolled his eyes and looked up, seeking divine intervention. Whatever it was, his friend was enjoying himself. He could be so very bloody-minded, sometimes. "Shall we get on with it, gentlemen?" he asked, annoyed with himself at the plaintive tone he heard in his voice.
Mickey readied himself as he quipped, "Who're you callin' a gentleman?"
Control chuckled, "The only 'gentleman' here is probably George," Seeing McCall's expression, he grudgingly added, "Well, Robert cleans up pretty well, come to think of it."
"Oh, please. Can we just get on with it?" McCall took his place next to Mickey, placing the younger man between himself and Control.
Both Control and Mickey snickered and took their places. Control looked over to George and nodded.
The lights dimmed and George's voice came over the speakers. "Very well, gentlemen. When the lights come up, you will have sixty seconds to place twenty-four rounds into your targets. When the lights again dim, cease firing."
Mickey's eyes narrowed as the lights dimmed even further. He knew what was coming and was psyched up for the contest. He hoped the old man... Control's, feelings weren't hurt too much when he lost.
The lights came up and all three men drew their weapons. Mickey began firing, allowing his instinct to take over. He knew that at seven yards you don't have to aim, the trick was in the reloading. He was surprised when he saw just how fast that Control guy was, however. The old man had easily fired off his first twelve rounds and reloaded twice before he could even get his clip changed.
He was impressed, despite himself. Of course, being fast didn't always equate with accuracy, as everyone well knew. He'd gotten his clip changed and the other twelve bullets sent towards the target. Just as he finished, the lights dimmed.
"Sir, do you wish to compile the scores at the end, or change targets for comparison?" George asked.
"Let's change them. I'll let you tally the scores." Control didn't bother to ask anyone else's opinion or preference and Mickey shrugged. Obviously, the guy had some kind of clout. Of course, he had to. Who the hell wore a bow tie except with a tux, these days?
"Very well, sir."
The three targets came in and each man looked briefly at his own before replacing it with a new one. Control scribbled something on his target and handed Mickey his pen. "Sign it. That way, you'll know there was no collusion."
Mickey smirked, letting his expression show his bemusement. All part of his plan to make them underestimate him, then he signed his target, grinning. Collusion, huh? Well, the guy seemed on the up-and-up. He'd just have to wait and see.
McCall rolled his eyes again and signed his target, shaking his head. He hadn't seen Control on the firing range in years; he wasn't even sure Control had even qualified more than the required every three months, and there was a lot of room for variation when qualifying. Two hundred fifty out of a possible three hundred seemed like a lot, but it wasn't really.
The new targets in place, the lights then dimmed again. When they again came up, they opened fire. Mickey didn't have to reload at all, for this one. Neither did McCall. He was shocked, however, when he heard Control set his revolver down, having finished shooting, while he still had two shots to make.
As the targets came in, he stepped back to stare at Control. Seeing the kid's interest, he looked at him. "Something wrong?"
"Uh, no. Not a thing." How in hell did the guy shoot so fast, reload, and shoot again, all before he'd gotten off the same number of rounds? He shook his head. He was not going to get rattled. Nope. No way. Not Mrs. Kostmayer's little boy, Mickey. Not today, anyway.
Reloading his revolver, Control grinned to himself. He'd seen the kid's target as it came in. He could very well be as good as he thought he was; but Control had at least twenty years of practice and experience on the kid. Even if by some miracle the kid beat him, he was going to have to work for that win.
The second set of targets signed and replaced, the lights again dimmed. When they came up again, Mickey was ready. Six - right-hand barricade, shift over; six - left-hand barricade, drop to his knee as he changed clips, six more; straighten up, gun in both hands, the final six. Just about every shot had gone exactly where he wanted it. Like most right-handed people, he was weakest at left-hand barricade, still... He wondered how the other two had done.
The targets approached and he glanced over at McCall's. He couldn't help the grin. He knew he'd beaten him. Glancing over at Control's target, his jaw dropped and his eyes felt like they were bulging from their sockets.
No way. There was no way in hell... He looked at the old man with a new and very real respect. There were six holes forming a perfect little face in the middle of the 'head' of the target. Two eyes, one for the nose, and three for the mouth.
He looked around. Except for George in the gunroom, they were the only ones there. There was no way it could have been faked. No matter the final outcome on the competition, Control had him beat, hands down. Even if his final score was higher, he hadn't dared to play. Not this time. Not when he was trying to prove himself. Damn.
"Not bad," he drawled, rather impressed. No need to let Control know it, however.
Control just grinned slyly. McCall looked over and groaned. "Good Lord, Control, are you still doing that 'face' thing with the left hand barricade?"
Mickey gaped, but realized that McCall was genuinely exasperated. So, he'd seen it before? Wait a minute..."Left hand barricade? But, you're right handed!"
"Ambidexterous," Control said softly. "No dominant eye, either."
Shit. Shitshitshitshitshit. No way he was going to win. And he'd really wanted to impress them. "So, uh, it's like a trick, right?"
"Not at all. Of course, I've been doing this for more than twenty years, so it's second nature, now." He understood how the kid felt. "All it takes is a lot of practice. Years of it. And no matter how good you are here, it's irrelevant out there," he gestured to mean out in the real world. "Out there, fancy tricks are worthless if you choke up when you see a real, live human being in your sights. Not everyone can handle it." Control tilted his head slightly as he regarded the recruit. "Can you?"
Quietly, locking eyes with the older man, Mickey replied, "Yeah."
"Oh, dear God. You two go and have your pissing contest and let me know who wins, will you? I, for one, am through for the day." McCall was royally torqued. It wasn't so much that he'd been so dramatically out-gunned. He knew he didn't spend enough time practicing the basics, but this was ridiculous.
"Scenarios course?" Control asked softly.
"Sure," Mickey readily agreed. "Uh, what's a 'scenarios course'?"
McCall rolled his eyes. "If you two don't mind, I'll just sit this one out."
Control frowned and shook his head. "After that debacle just now? I'm wondering if you can even shoot your way out of a paper bag, at the moment."
McCall bristled. "As you mentioned," he gritted out through clenched teeth, "It's very different when shooting at real people."
"Good, so let's head for the scenarios course, shall we?" Control smirked, turned and led the way out, tossing his companions their second bag of bullets and juggling his own.
Mickey caught his one-handed, tossed it back up into the air, underhanded, and snagged it again as it came down, smirking at McCall, gratified that he'd outshot the more experienced man.
McCall caught his as well, having expected it. Shaking his head in resignation, he followed.
Following the old man out, he looked around curiously. He hadn't seen this, before. It looked like a movie back-lot. He rubbernecked as he stuck close to Control. He was curious, wondering what this was all about. Scenarios? What the hell was that?
Coming to an 'intersection,' they stopped. Control turned and regarded the younger man very seriously. "Do you know what a scenarios course is?"
"No," Mickey replied, deciding honesty was the best policy, this time.
Control nodded, pleased. "It's 'real world.' We 'search' the streets, looking for bad guys. When we see them, we kill them. However, some of the 'people' are innocent. You get ten points for every bad guy you 'kill,' five for 'wounding' them. However, you lose twenty-five points for every innocent you injure, and lose fifty points for every innocent you kill."
Mickey frowned. "Uh, how do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?"
Control smiled. "Well, the cops are all in uniform, the women, children and innocent bystanders don't have guns."
Mickey's frown deepened. "I'm not sure I understand." Were they going to be shooting at real people?
"George? Demo, please," Control called out. Immediately, three spring-loaded targets sprang up, one had a picture of a policeman on it, gun drawn and pointed away from them, one was a woman holding a purse, which if you weren't careful might be mistaken for a gun, the third was an ugly and obvious thug.
Mickey nodded, understanding. "Looks easy enough."
"Don't be fooled," McCall warned. "It's not nearly as simple as you might think."
Mickey gave his mentor a cocky wink and grin. "I'm game. It's not like we'll be shooting at real people, right?" He looked at Control to make sure.
"Usually," came the enigmatic answer. Mickey frowned in confusion while McCall groaned and shook his head.
Deciding that maybe he didn't need/want to know, Mickey shrugged. "So, let's get on with it."
Turning to face the 'town', Control called out, "George, start the course, please." Glancing at his companions, Control explained the rules. "The scenario is that we are working together. We each pick a street to search and have to make our way through the gauntlet. You will hear the sound of the targets coming up, you decide immediately, shoot/don't shoot. It's filmed with hidden cameras, so you don't have to keep score for yourself. Any questions?"
"Got it," Mickey mumbled, looking around and wondering where to start.
Giving the kid a long, appraising look, Control gave the order to begin. "Pick a street, Kostmayer, any street."
Mickey looked surprised. "Just pick one?"
"Yes. You get to choose your path." His eyes met Mickey's, challenging, wondering if the younger man understood the double entendre. Mickey blinked and nodded. He got the message.
"Got it." The cockiness was gone. He had seen something in the old man's eyes. This was his real test. Here was the challenge that would make or break his chances. It surprised him to discover that he didn't want to fail.
Turning in place, he looked down the four possibilities. Gesturing with his chin, he chose. "I'll take that one."
Control nodded and looked at McCall.
"Oh, very well. I'll take South Street."
Control smirked. "Old son, you always take South Street. Take West, for a change. "I'll take East. Good luck, gentlemen." Control started towards his chosen street. Mickey stopped him.
"Why didn't you want him to take South?"
Control paused. "He always takes South. Times change, you need to be flexible." Turning back to his chosen course, he moved into a graceful crouch as he approached the corner.
"If it's okay with you, I think I'd like to try South," Mickey called out, wondering what the old man would do.
Without a backwards glance, Control waved his left hand, giving tacit permission for the younger man to do what he wanted.
Mickey frowned as he watched the old man disappear around the corner. Looking at McCall, he asked. "Is there something I should know about South Street?"
McCall smiled. "Not a thing, my boy. Not one, damned thing." With that, he headed west.
Mickey watched McCall start down his own assigned street. Turning, he looked north for a moment, considering; then, with a shrug, he turned and headed down South Street.
So, a 'senarios' range had targets that looked like real people, huh? Well, he was going to do his very best to show them just how good he really was.
South Street was a short little street which went about thirty feet, then abruptly turned to the right. Placing his back to the wall, gun cradled in both hands and pointing skyward, he listened for a moment. Hearing nothing, he sprang around the corner, ducking even lower and scanning for enemies. A movement in a window caught his eye and he spun towards it. Seeing the 'gun', he fired.
"Got him, old man," Mickey muttered under his breath. There was another noise and he spun and fired without looking... and saw he'd taken out an elderly 'woman' walking her 'dog'. He paled at the realization. Had this been real...
Gritting his teeth, he tightened up. That was not a mistake he would make again. Looking cautiously around, he made his way down the street.
At the sound of the next target popping up, he hesitated just a moment, almost too long, but he took out the 'gunman' and his crony. The next two targets were also bad guys, and he started getting complacent again. When the next one that popped up turned out to be a 'cop', he was already pulling the trigger and the only thing he could do was to jerk so his aim was off and he missed the target. He was starting to sweat from the strain and his nerves were humming like a high-tension wire.
The next target to come up was a child and he never even pointed his weapon at her. He was learning the 'trick' to this course; eyes first, then gun. See: shoot/don't shoot. Of course, the appearance of the targets was totally random. He was quite aware that if he ever came this way again, the 'people' would change, as would their location. For the most part, they were popping up in windows and doorways, and occasionally springing out unexpectedly from an alley.
Speaking of which, there was another alley. He figured it would be a good place for 'bad guys' to pop out of and he was cautious in his approach, getting down on his belly to creep around the corner. He yelled in shock as he came eye-to-eye with a live creature. The cat was easily as frightened as he was, as it hissed and took a swipe at his cheek, drawing blood but fortunately missing his eye, before it disappeared back into the alley. Climbing back to his feet, Mickey retreated and used the sleeve of his old green fatigue jacket to mop at the blood flowing down his cheek. That stupid cat had really done a number on him. In a crouch, this time, he again turned the corner to check the alley and took out the three hoodlums now targeted there. There was no further sign of the cat. Thinking back on it, that had been the biggest damned cat he'd ever seen.
But he couldn't let a little scratch slow him down. Not even if it did hurt like a sonovabitch. Clenching his teeth, he ignored the scratches and continued.
McCall was fairly blase' about the scenarios course. He was confident that he would do well, as he always did. He was a bit surprised to realize that Control had been correct about his always taking South. He decided that he'd have to vary his routine; after all, being predictable could get you killed in this line of work.
McCall was accustomed to the various patterns the course tended to have. You could never be sure, however; it all depended on who was pushing the buttons. Still, there were usually more bad guys and there were only two choices to make, shoot or not shoot. There were also only three possible targets, bad guys, cops, or innocents. Usually, there were more bad guys than innocents, with cops being the least in number.
His thoughts distracted him and he almost shot a 'little girl'. Cursing himself, he stopped thinking and hit the course in earnest.
Mickey was hiding in an alley, reloading. That Control guy was right, it did take a lot longer to reload a clip than a revolver. Still, he could go more than twice as long between reloading. Good thing these targets didn't shoot back, although he wouldn't be surprised if there was a version that did, at least in simulation. There were a couple of times that, had this been real, he might have been shot, or even killed. It wasn't nearly as easy as it looked. His clip reloaded and back in his pistol, he took a deep breath and slipped around the corner to finish the course. He was beginning to wonder if it would ever end. A 'dog' ran across the street, followed by a gunman; he almost fell for it, but nailed the bad guy, who was immediately followed by a 'little boy', chasing the dog. He approached the spot and was impressed by the narrowness of the track in the concrete that carried the targets.
Control, when he needed to do a little stress relief, had taken to frequenting the scenarios course and had even made suggestions for improvements. The targets were totally random, with no pattern as to which one would appear, or when, or where. The total focus and concentration to successfully navigate the course helped him to forget whatever problems he currently had, as well as allowing him to vent a bit of frustration brought on by those who caused those problems. The faces on some of the targets were remarkably lifelike and familiar. He paused for a moment, wondering what Robert would do when he came face to face with himself on West.
Damn! Damn the man to bloody hell! "Control!" McCall shouted in frustrated futility. The photograph they had used had been a bad one, it made him look positively demonic, when he got his hands on that man, he was going to.... He took a deep breath to steady himself. At least he now knew why Control had been so adamant about his taking West. He was probably laughing his fool head off.
Three targets later, he was confronted by a cutout of the man, himself, complete with bow tie and his trademark hands in his pockets, non-threatening. He didn't shoot, but wondered how many people shot it, just on principle? Shaking his head, he grinned and patted the target as he passed it, continuing on his way.
He was running low on ammunition and was wondering if the course would ever end. He was actually tired, not from the physical exertion, but from the mental stress, would the next one be a shoot or a don't-shoot? He'd stopped trying to keep the categories straight. Another corner.
On guard, he waited until he heard something, then sprang around the corner, ready to.... His eyes widened in horror as he realized that this wasn't a target, but a real person. He threw himself into a forward roll, coming up with his gun pointed at the man.
His jaws were clenched. "How many people would cheer if I went ahead and killed you?" Mickey asked. Control just smiled that enigmatic little smile. There was something about this guy that sent chills down his spine.
Another man stepped out, his gun leveled at Mickey. "Please don't. It would just make him rather angry," McCall said very softly. Control just stood there, his hands in his pants pockets, watching, showing no emotion, no sign of concern on his face. Mickey decided that he didn't want to ever play poker with this guy; he showed absolutely nothing.
He looked the kid straight in the eyes. There was something there, something he needed to see. There was fear, quite naturally, but there was plenty of courage, as well. There was also a recklessness that he recognized from when he'd been young and dumb and stuck on stupid. The kid had promise, if he could only survive the training and his first year on the street, he could see the possibilities in him. "Take your best shot."
Mickey studied him in return and knew that this wasn't the time to challenge him. He ostentatiously thumbed the safety back on his gun. "Not worth dying for." He knew if he shot Control, McCall would shoot him. "Let's find out our scores."
Control nodded and pulled his hands from his pockets. "You just might do." He turned his back and walked away, leaving a very puzzled Mickey behind, looking askance at McCall.
"What the hell was that all about?" Mickey whispered his confusion.
McCall turned to his protegee and looked blankly at him. "I think he likes you." Shaking his head, McCall turned to follow his boss, leaving Mickey to gape for a moment in shock. Then, with a face-splitting grin on his face, he followed.
"Really?" he asked, catching up.
After collecting his score and studying it, Mickey performed a little fact-finding mission of his own, taking care not to be seen doing it, then returned to the barracks he'd been assigned to.
Sixteen recruits, including him, were currently using it. Unfortunately, everyone was lounging around, now that classes were done for the day. Since he arrived, he'd been heckled about his scores. He knew it was his fault, and he didn't give a damn what they thought of him. As expected, more heckling occurred.
"Hey, Kostmayer, last bus out of here leaves in fifteen minutes, we've got your bag all packed," Jay Curtis taunted him.
"Gee, thanks Curtis, but that's not necessary, I'm not leaving," Mickey drawled as he ambled towards his bunk.
"With scores like yours, you don't have a choice," chipped in Frank Jenkins.
"You'd be surprised," Mickey replied mildly and stretched out on his own bunk, feeling the eyes of the group studying him.
The barracks leader, Tony Holloway, asked, "Are you really staying?"
"Yep." Mickey closed his eyes and thought about what his little fact-finding mission had uncovered: Control was the man in charge for their training, and also was the one to assign missions. Impress him, and he was in. Had he?
Mickey couldn't quite make up his mind. He was a wily old bird; that was for certain. He smiled inwardly, remembering the test on the range. He'd really thought he'd win, but Control had surprised him. Not many could do that.
He felt a certain grudging respect for the man, but knew he'd never fully trust him. McCall didn't seem to, and Mickey already completely respected him and knew it would be wise to follow his lead.
Definitely someone to reckon with. He wondered just what Control thought of him and slowly shook his head, deciding that that would, perhaps, be better not to know. Control also struck him as a master manipulator, but he could deal with that.
Before he knew it, he'd fallen asleep, and only the dinner announcement woke him in time to grab his grub. After dinner, the recruits enjoyed free time until lights out. The time was expected to be used to study or to learn to work together better, as a team, but Mickey slipped off instead and used the track to continue to get back in shape. He was currently up to ten miles, and wanted to be up to twenty miles before he left.
He returned just before lights out, showered, changed for bed, and slipped wearily under the blanket. An hour later, unable to sleep, he got dressed and, using all his skills, he quietly left the barracks. He cursed silently, hating the feeling of the walls closing in on him. It was like being back in prison all over again. About the only way he knew to get rid of the feeling, or at least keep it at bay a while longer, was to reassure himself that he really could go outside. He breathed in deeply, enjoying the fresh, crisp night air as he closed the door behind him. A cursory glance around showed him he was alone, and he padded silently over to the grass, not noticing the figure in the shadows.
He stretched and then flopped down, squirmed enough to find a comfortable position, placed his hands under his head, and looked up at the sky. He hadn't realized just how much he had missed the stars, until he was released.
He lay there for nearly an hour, basking in the starlight, soothed by the feel of the cool night breeze blowing over him, bringing scents of new-mown grass to tickle his nostrils. He was nearly dozing when he felt a presence, or heard something. Startled, he was up and in a defensive crouch before identifying the source of what had alerted him.
"Stand down, Kostmayer."
Control. Shit. He wasn't supposed to be out here. His ass was grass and here came the lawn mower.
"What are you doing out here?" Control asked.
"Enjoying the stars, you?" came Mickey's flippant reply. He then silently cursed himself - he didn't really want to antagonize this man, but sometimes, him mouth opened and smartass remarks came out before he had time to actually think.
Control looked up and considered for a moment. "Me? The walls were moving in on me and I needed some fresh air." Watching the kid out of the corner of his eye, he saw the involuntary flinch. Bingo.
"Yeah?" Mickey drawled. "That happen a lot?"
"More often than you might think," Control answered gently.
Mickey didn't know what to think. From what he'd heard, the guy was barely human and thought nothing of sending people on suicide missions; yet, he wasn't coming across that way to him. He was confused and uncertain. Something was off, here, but he couldn't figure out what, or why.
"So, am I in trouble for being out?"
"Not if you get back to your bunk without anyone seeing you."
"You've seen me."
"You're imagining things. Everyone knows that after dark I turn into a bat and go out foraging for my supper." There was a hit of wry humor in that.
Yeah, he'd heard stuff like that about this man. He preferred to make up his own mind, however. "I won't tell if you won't," Mickey promised.
"Deal. You had enough fresh air?" The words were light, but the meaning was clear. If Mickey didn't want to get caught and/or get into trouble, he was going to have to go back, now.
"Yeah. I guess I have." He straightened up and headed back to the door he'd come out of. Reaching it, he was momentarily dismayed to find it locked.
"It's automatic, after lights out." Control informed him.
Mickey nodded, cast a worried glance his way, and then reached into a pocket to come back with a pair of lock picks. Catching the flash of surprise on the older man's face, he grinned and cockily said, "Never leave home without 'em." He quickly had the lock disengaged and the door open. Looking up and seeing what appeared to his untrained eyes as maybe just a little respect, he grinned. "Thanks."
"Don't thank me. You still have a hell of a hard row to hoe to get through this."
Taking the plunge, Mickey asked, "What do you think of my chances?"
"Stick to the program and you just might do." Seeing the kid frown, he continued, "That doesn't mean letting anyone walk on you. It also doesn't mean you can't goof off, on occasion. Just..." he shrugged. "Just try your best. You showed today that you're capable. You have a lot of promise, but your attitude can get you into a lot of trouble."
Mickey smirked. "It already has." Looking up, he saw the concern in the older man's eyes. "I'll try. I can't make any promises, but I'll try. One thing I will promise, when I leave this place, it will be through the front gate and in broad daylight."
"That's all I ask. Good night, Mr. Kostmayer." And with that, he turned away.
Mickey had a flash of insight. The poor schmuck probably didn't even have anyone he could talk to. For just a moment, he felt sorry for the poor guy. "Good night, sir." He turned towards the door and missed the momentary tensing of the broad shoulders. Mickey didn't realize that this was the first time he had used 'sir' since he'd been here. He was barely aware that Control had gained his respect, and only because he'd given him some, first.
He made it back to his bunk, undetected, slid beneath the covers and was almost instantly asleep.
It was just like being in boot camp, except that Mickey was already used to being awake before the sun came up. Their barracks master slipped quietly into the room and looked at the sleeping men. With a sadistic smile, he dumped over the trashcan and kicked it down the center aisle. "All right, you babies. Up and at 'em. No time to lay about in bed, boys. Get on out of those racks and get those feet on the floor!" He walked down the aisle, shaking bunks where the inhabitants didn't move fast enough for his liking. He stopped when he came to an empty, already made bunk. Frowning in confusion, he shouted, "All right, where's Kostmayer?"
"Sir, here, sir!" Mickey shouted at the top of his lungs from two feet behind the Drill Instructor (DI).
It had the effect Mickey desired. The man jumped and spun around, gaping at him. Mickey was already dressed and ready for inspection. He'd been awake for nearly an hour and he had to stifle his desire to smirk at the man.
The DI looked him up and down, unable to find a thread out of place. "Looking good, Kostmayer," he said, grudgingly. Turning, he continued his harangue. "As for the rest of you prima donnas, get your asses out of those racks. You have fifteen minutes to be outside and ready for inspection! MOVE IT!" He watched in satisfaction as the other fifteen men scrambled for the showers or their clothes.
As usual, Mickey sat alone at breakfast. He hadn't bothered to try and 'make friends' with any of the other recruits. Instead, he kept himself to himself, as had become his habit. It didn't bother him one bit what the others thought of him. He wasn't here to make friends. Now that he'd decided to actually work....
After breakfast, there were several hours of 'classroom time'. He was bored nearly to sleep. He'd seen and done all of this. Yet, when the instructor called on him, he snapped out the correct answer, without ever changing his expression or lackadaisical position.
Lunch was basically a repeat of breakfast, no one came near him, and he didn't approach anyone. He ate his lunch and headed to the gym early. He liked to work out on the free-weights by himself. He got changed into his sweats, and when the rest of the group arrived, he'd already put in half an hour, first on the weights, then on a stationary bike, working his leg muscles, warming up for whatever the DI had in mind for them today.
The DI in charge of their physical training came into the gym. He looked over the class. His first impression had been that they must have been getting pretty desperate, at least for some of these guys. He realized that someone was behind him and turned. Kostmayer. Prime example of just how pitiful this class was. The guy seemed like a burnout, not a recruit.
"All right, ladies. Today is the beginning of your self-defense instruction. I need a volunteer." He didn't really, he looked directly at the one he wanted, "Kostmayer, you're up." He turned his back on the smaller man and moved to the center of the mat.
Mickey, not particularly surprised, followed the man, standing beside him at ease, waiting for his instructions.
"Now, the purpose of self defense is to get up close and personal with your opponent. That is not to say that you should try to get close to your target, but rather that sometimes, there is no choice." He turned to Kostmayer, "Attack me." He turned away again. Mickey frowned, then shrugged and jumped on the man's back. He was unsurprised to find himself sailing through the air, but was startled to discover that the DI had held onto his arm, preventing him from breaking his fall. He landed flat on his back, the wind knocked out of him and his shoulder nearly dislocated. The moment he was down, the DI jumped on him, making sure he couldn't escape. By the time Mickey had been able to breathe again, the DI had managed to hurt him. Not seriously, but definitely unnecessarily. Mickey's eyes narrowed.
"As you can see, proper use of self defense tactics can be used to immobilize your opponent." He motioned Mickey to get up again. "Attack me." The DI again turned his back on the smaller man. This time, Mickey was a bit more cautious, but again, as expected, he was thrown, and again, the DI held on to him, trying to hurt him. Mickey was getting annoyed; as this time, the guy hit him, hard, trying to knock him out. Fortunately, Mickey had a tough jaw and a hard head.
Several more 'demonstrations' and Mickey had had enough. His nose was bleeding, now, from an elbow to his face during the last 'throw'. He wasn't going to let this guy maim him. Both shoulders ached from nearly being dislocated and he had some places that would definitely be showing bruises, soon, including a black eye. The class, which had at first enjoyed the 'demonstration', seemed to have realized that the DI was using Mickey for a punching bag. Some were still amused, but most of them wondered if and when Mickey would respond.
"Is Johnson trying deliberately to provoke him?" McCall asked Control from their viewing post high above the floor of the gymnasium.
Control frowned. "I don't know. It certainly looks like it." He glanced at his companion. "How long do you think he's going to let him get away with it?"
McCall looked concerned. "I don't know. I can't imagine him taking it much longer, particularly after the elbow to the nose. I hope it isn't broken."
"Not enough blood for that. Still, he's showing a lot of restraint. You or I would have put him down three moves ago."
"Very likely." He watched as once more, Mickey was tossed around like a child's doll in the grip of the much larger man. "Come on, lad, do something. Don't let him hurt you," he muttered under his breath. Control nodded his agreement, silently urging the kid to retaliate.
Enough. No more. As he again found his arm held and his shoulder nearly dislocated, he allowed his SEAL training to take over and just reacted. In an instant, he was up and flying through the air, both feet landing in the middle of DI Johnson's chest, driving the larger man back, and forcing him to the floor. Mickey was on him in a flash, flipping him over onto his stomach, one arm under the DI's arm and his hand wrapped around the back of his neck, the other arm cradling Johnson's jaw in the crook of his elbow... just the tiniest bit of pressure, and he would snap Johnson's neck. Very softly, he whispered into the DI's ear. "I am not your punching bag. The only thing you've been teaching today is just how big a bully you are. Now, you may not like me, and you may think I'm stupid, but there is only so much a guy can take, you know? Now, if I let you go, are you going to try anything else? I mean; I'm grateful that you didn't dislocate my shoulders or break my nose, but don't you think you could have made your point without hurting me? I always thought seeing someone bounce made a better impression. So, what do you say? Truce? Or, should I just move another half-inch and put you out of my misery?"
Mickey jumped at the voice, nearly breaking DI Johnson's neck. He turned his head and looked; from his position, he could only see two pair of legs, but they weren't clad in sweats like the class, these were suit trousers. The voice had been Control's, so the other pair must be McCall.
"You've made your point. You can let him go, now."
Mickey frowned. "Do I have to? He hasn't answered me, yet."
"Well, since his face is turning blue from lack of oxygen, I'm not at all surprised."
Mickey looked down and realized that he'd cut the guy's air off, too. "Oops. Sorry about that." He carefully released his hold and stood. Johnson, able to breathe again, lashed out with both feet, knocking Mickey to the mat. With his arms unencumbered, Mickey slapped the mat to break his fall, rolled away from his assailant and came up. Johnson was on his feet as well, crouched and ready for him.
Mickey didn't say anything. He circled, looking for an opening, as Johnson did the same. Johnson feinted at him, but Mickey wasn't fooled and simply dodged. He made a feint of his own, which was also ignored. Mickey couldn't help but smirk as his opponent carefully twisted his neck, trying to relieve the spasm caused from the grip Mickey had had on him.
"You are dead meat, Kostmayer."
"I've heard that before, Johnson. I'm still around." The taunt worked, Johnson lunged, and Mickey stepped aside and caught the larger man's hand, leaning back and holding on, he let the momentum turn them, and he let go. Johnson, already off balance, didn't just fall; he fairly flew across the mat, to land at the feet of the two visitors.
As Johnson came up, intending to return to the fray, Control caught his arm. Johnson didn't even look, swinging a fist up to land on Control's jaw. Control was rocked for a moment, but held on. Turning on the man restraining him, Johnson tried to head-butt Control. Control simply kneed him in the groin, letting him drop as he curled into his pain.
"And, if all else fails..." Control muttered.
McCall had gone to restrain Mickey, but found he didn't have to. The younger man was panting from exertion, his eye swollen almost closed, blood still trickling from his nose, but he was in control of himself.
Control frowned down at Johnson. "Twenty laps, gentlemen. Afterwards, you are dismissed for the day. Self-defense and hand-to-hand instruction will continue tomorrow." He waited until the rest of the class left, noting those who were disappointed that the fight had been stopped, those who had been dismayed, those who had wanted to intervene, and one who had thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle.
"You all right, Kostmayer?"
"Yeah. Just a little sore." He rotated both shoulders, gently stretching the abused muscles. "What was with him, anyway?"
"I don't know." Control nudged the still down man with the toe of one shoe. "Johnson! You have some explaining to do, mister."
With a groan, Johnson forced himself up; he couldn't stand straight. Control hadn't pulled his punch and he was really hurting. "Sir?" he squeaked. He couldn't quite figure out what had happened. He'd been mopping up the place with that loser, Kostmayer, one minute; the next, he was nearly unconscious. And now, to top it all off, he'd attacked Control, and been put in his place by him, most emphatically... and in front of witnesses... an entire class full of witnesses.
"What the hell were you thinking, Johnson? Why did you decide to pick on Kostmayer? You knew he came from the SEALS, didn't you?" McCall asked.
"SEALS? Hell. No, I didn't know." Johnson now wondered what had taken so long for Kostmayer to react.
"So? Why?" Control was being patient, not normally his strong suit when it came to dealing with people under his command.
"Sir?" Johnson obviously didn't understand.
Control glanced briefly at the concerned McCall and confused Kostmayer. "What made you decide to try and hurt Kostmayer? You're not usually so abusive." There. He said it.
Johnson frowned. "I was just trying to make an example of him, sir. Finish him off, as it were."
"'Finish him off'? Just what exactly is that supposed to mean?" Now it was Control's turn to be confused.
"Well, everyone knows he's a washout, I was just trying to hurry him along."
"By hurting him? Whose idea was this?"
Snorting in annoyed exasperation, Control stepped into Johnson's 'space' and growled softly, "Yes, Johnson. Who's idea was it for you to beat up one of my recruits?"
"Y-your recruit, sir?" Wait a minute, SEAL? Control's recruit? Had this been a setup? Oh, damn.
Control leaned very close, "You're lucky he was so self-restrained. You're even luckier I happened to be watching and called him off in time. You were very foolish to attack him after he let you go. I don't think you're doing your job very well. What do you think?"
Everyone knew that Control wasn't someone you messed with. The man had liquid nitrogen flowing in his veins. Cold, calculating, and manipulative. Those were the words most often associated with the man. He was about to head up the East Coast Sector, possibly even the entire western hemisphere. He was no-nonsense and took no prisoners. Johnson realized that he had screwed up very badly, and hoped he would be lucky enough to come through with his life, let alone his job.
"I-I think I screwed up, sir."
"You think?" Control moved away and turned his attention to the real victim. "You going to be all right, Kostmayer?"
"I'm fine, sir." Mickey did a passable imitation of standing at attention. There was a bit of a stoop to his shoulders and a slump to his back, he'd have to get the medical unit to check him out. He looked the kid in the eyes and saw that, indeed, Kostmayer was 'all right'. He nodded and turned back to Johnson.
"What do you think the recruits learned from you today, Johnson?"
"What not to do, sir."
"And how do you plan on rectifying this egregious error on your part?"
"You heard me." Johnson started fidgeting. Control knew, without a doubt, that he'd been put up to beating Kostmayer and try to make it look unintentional. Control knew otherwise. Maybe the recruits couldn't tell, but he could. And he was most displeased.
"Uh, what would you suggest, sir?" He was sweating, and not from his earlier exertions.
"An apology to the class, and Mr. Kostmayer."
Johnson stiffened, "But, sir!"
"No?" There was something in Control's voice that made Johnson shiver. He stared into the pale blue orbs of the most dangerous man he'd ever met, and felt the sudden, nearly uncontrollable desire to relieve himself. Even McCall, who knew him best, winced at the cold, implacable tone in his voice. Mickey just watched in confusion. He was aware that there was a lot more going on under the surface and wondered what it could possibly be, and how it affected him.
"An apology. Yes, sir."
"Wise decision. Definitely the best one you've made today." Control turned away, seemingly dismissing the nearly cowering man from his awareness. "Kostmayer, go to the infirmary and have them check you out. Then take it easy for the rest of the day."
"I'm fine, sir," Mickey said again.
"Humor me." Control turned those icy-cold, pale blue eyes on the younger man. Meeting him, eye-to-eye, Mickey was the first one to look away.
"Robert, go with him."
"Certainly. Come along, Mickey. Let's get that nose tended to."
When they had gone, Control gave one last instruction to Johnson. "You will tell whomever it was who told you to do this to watch themselves. I will get to the bottom of this and there will be comeuppance." With that, he left, without turning to see how his words affected the DI, whose eyes closed as he heaved a sigh of relief. When he was sure Control had gone, he finally relaxed. He didn't care what he'd been told. He was much more afraid of Control than the man who had set him up. He was most definitely going to have a talk with him. And soon. Control had been right. He was lucky that Kostmayer hadn't killed him; and he had been stupid to go back after him once he'd been released. He wondered if he'd still have a job after he apologized.
To hell with that. Would he still be alive?
Mickey got a clean bill of health. His nose was bruised and his black eye was simply that. McCall made them do a thorough check, so they found the pulled ligaments in his shoulders and back, the bruised ribs and a number of other things. Nothing that would prevent him from most activities, except heavy physical training.
"I can still run, can't I?" he asked.
"Oh, certainly. No martial arts or contact sports for at least a week, until those pulled ligaments have a chance to heal. You'll be fine."
"Yeah, fine." He didn't feel 'fine.' He wanted to hit something, or someone. He knew he hadn't gone out of his way to make any friends, but he hadn't thought he'd done anything in particular to make any enemies, either. It didn't really make much sense, to him. It did, however, make him wonder just what was going on. He didn't think that Control guy was part of it, not from the way he reacted and laid into Johnson.
"Hey, McCall? What the hell is goin' on, here, anyway?"
He didn't hedge. "I don't know. Neither does Control."
"I didn't think he did, not the way he acted. He seemed royally pissed off, though."
"Yes. You could have been seriously injured, or you might have killed Johnson. I'm sure he'll find out what's going on, however."
"Yeah. I guess. Question is, will he tell me?"
McCall tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a laugh. "Most likely not."
"Yeah. That's what I figured."
"Since classes ended early, what do you plan on doing with your free time?"
"I'm gonna go for a run. Care to join me?" He grinned cockily at the man he was coming to feel was his friend.
"Run? No, thank you."
"Hey, it's good for you. Good exercise, you know?"
"Well, I prefer less strenuous forms of exercise."
Mickey laughed. "Yeah, elbow-bending exercises?"
McCall chuckled. "Now that's an excellent idea. Care to join me?"
"I'd love a beer, but this is a dry camp and I'm not gonna give them any reason to bounce me, now."
"Well, then, in that case, I'll see you later. I have some things I need to check into."
"Good luck. Let me know if I can help."
"I shall. Enjoy your run."
"You can count on it." And with that, they went their separate ways.
"Do you have any idea who was actually behind it?" McCall asked.
Control growled negatively. "No. I have some suspicions, but nothing concrete. They've retreated back under their rocks. I seriously doubt that anyone will try anything else. Watch yourself, though, Robert. They may have targeted you for some reason."
"Perhaps trying to discredit me over bringing Kostmayer in?"
"Maybe. Hard to say. How is he, by the way?"
"Out on the track, running."
"Away, or to?"
"Good question. For now, however, he's at least decided to play the game."
"Yes, I imagine it is." McCall had nothing more to say, so he left.
Control brooded, as was his wont, when things went wonky. Personally, he liked the brash young ex-SEAL. He was talented and intelligent; things he admired in anyone. The kid also had a chip on his shoulder the size of the Sears Tower. He hoped the kid survived. He could use him.
His phone rang. "Yes?" He listened to the voice on the other end. "That is not acceptable.... No. I said no. I advise you to reconsider. Next time, he might not be so self-restrained.... Very well. Yes. I'd be more than happy to take him on, myself. He can work with McCall." He smiled at the sounds of consternation coming over the phone. "We'll just have to wait and see, won't we?" He listened some more, then, "Oh, and I want Johnson gone. I don't care what you do with him. He has no business here. I will not. No. No. I said no. That's better. All right. Yes. Very well." He didn't say good-bye before he hung the phone up. He sat pensively, tilted back in his chair, hands clasped on his chest, steepled index fingers touching his lower lip as he scowled. He had some answers, but they only brought more questions, as usual.
He didn't really expect to get any answers. At least he now knew who was behind the sudden attack on Kostmayer. He'd been singled out as a probable washout from the program. 'They' wouldn't act again. He also had a good idea who was being groomed for the internship, upstairs. He'd go through the files and make sure, but if it was the one he thought it was... he had been the one watching with avid, almost fervent glee, as Kostmayer was being beaten. So, the guy was a bit sadistic? That might be all to the good, according to the ones grooming him.
God save him from amoral sociopaths.
Since Mickey had decided to try, his participation in the classes improved. His posture was still disrespectful of most people, but he always snapped to attention whenever Control entered a room. When his classmates discovered who Control was, the former military members all followed suit.
It took almost three weeks before Mickey was deemed healthy enough to renew his participation in the physical training. Johnson had been replaced, and the new instructor was far more interested in teaching than showing her own prowess. Of course, several of the students, seeing the petite, five foot one and a half inch tall woman, tried to overpower her physically, much to their chagrin when she met all comers with aplomb and quick reactions. None of them were able to best her.
Mickey had been running the track during Physical Training, and hadn't yet met or observed the new instructor. When he came back, he was standing quietly, watching as she demonstrated a move. Spotting him, she motioned him over.
"You must be Kostmayer. Got your release from medical?"
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, handing her the note. She read it; all of it, even the fine print. She looked up at him. "You ever do martial arts before?"
"Yes, ma'am." He was relaxed, standing totally at ease. She looked him over, eyes narrowing as she considered him. She abruptly moved, reaching for his wrist. He dodged and as she went off-balance, 'helped' her on her way to the floor, catching her before she actually hit. She turned and looked up at him.
He understood. He recognized the words of an expert. He'd heard his classmates talking about her, how none of them could escape or counteract any of her moves. As soon as they learned to react to one move, she'd change it just enough to knock them back off-balance. What sounded like scant praise was, in fact, high kudos, indeed.
"Thanks." He offered her a hand up. She accepted.
"Now, let's see what the rest of you have learned, shall we?" And the class went back to normal, with Mickey once again participating.
"I can't believe it. You actually took her down. You've been gone from PT for three weeks, and your first day back, you take down the instructor. You are awesome, Kostmayer." Toby Jacobs, a tall, thin, bookish looking man grinned at him.
"Yeah, We've been trying for three weeks to just once keep her from smacking our faces into the mat, and you do it first try. What's your secret?" Jason Masur asked.
Mickey didn't much like Jason, so he replied flippantly. "It was easy. She's a lot smaller than I am." Followed by the snickers of several of his classmates, he headed out for his post-dinner run.
"Smart ass," Masur snarled under his breath. Like Mickey, he hadn't made any friends among the recruits. Unlike Mickey, he had made enemies. He didn't really care. He was only here to get the basics out of the way, as he was being groomed for 'management', not grunt-work like these losers. Even at his best, he was condescending and rude.
More than half way through. The next hurdle was the survival course. They would be split into pairs and flown out and dumped in the wilderness. Their mission: Get back to camp. Their supplies consisted of a small first-aid kit, a sleeping bag, a canteen, water purification tablets, salt tablets, a pocketknife, a hundred feet of parachute cord, some fishing line and a hook, and their parachutes. The things they were allowed to take with them were only personal items. Mickey packed socks and underwear, almost exclusively, wrapped in plastic trash bags. If he had to swim, he wanted to be able to keep his boots and socks dry. He was crazy, not stupid.
Their partners were decided by lot. While Mickey wasn't particularly liked, neither was he disliked. Mostly, he was mistrusted, as no one could be sure how he might react. His unpredictability put most of his classmates off. Toby Jacobs, who rather admired him, pulled his name from the bowl.
Alex Robinson was the unlucky young man to be partnered with Jason Masur. Alex was the youngest member of the class, being barely twenty-one, and everyone was surprised by just how well he did. His scholastic grades were among the highest in the class, only Toby's were higher. Physically, he was just a bit over six feet tall, slender, with broad shoulders, medium brown hair, and brown eyes. He was built like a jock, a basketball player, or maybe baseball. His favorite sport was, however, tennis, and he would take on all comers. Frank Jenkins suggested he turn pro. His response was he didn't want to follow his father quite that closely, which only got puzzled looks from everyone. He was probably the best liked of all the class. He was smart, talented, athletic, and humble. He treated everyone with respect and always had a ready smile for each of them.
They were given their meager supplies and taken out to the airport. Given, at the last minute, maps and compasses, they found themselves pushed from the plane in pairs, five minutes apart.
Mickey whooped with joy as he hit terminal velocity. His partner, Toby, had pulled his chute cord immediately upon exiting the plane. As Mickey got ready to open his own 'chute, he first rolled over onto his back to check for his partner. Seeing the open parachute directly above him, he flipped back over and pulled his ripcord.
His heart pounding, he pulled his secondary parachute cord and his held breath gushed out in relief as it deployed. He gracefully landed, quickly gathering up the rayon canopy so his partner wouldn't get tangled in it. He'd landed in a nice little clearing.
Toby either wasn't that lucky, or that skilled. He hung up for a moment in a tree, and then fell, slamming to the ground. Mickey saw it and immediately ran to see if his partner needed help.
"Hey! Toby! You all right, man?"
"Give me a minute. Got the wind knocked out of me." Toby lay panting for several long moments. Taking a deep breath, he sat up. While Mickey waited, he gathered his partner's parachute and crammed it back in the pack.
"Oh, man. That was awful, you know? I really hated that," Toby finally managed.
"I can see that. Are you all right? You landed kinda hard." Toby rotated his shoulders and then windmilled his arms, gently.
"Yeah. I think I'm okay." Mickey reached a hand down to help him up, only to have to ease him back down when the taller man let out a yelp as he tried to put some weight on his left foot.
"Easy. Take it easy. Here, let me take a look at that." He knelt down and gently unlaced Toby's boot. "Ouch." It was already swelling and Mickey was gentle in his probing of the injury. Toby sucked in his breath through his teeth in a hiss, stiffening up at the pain as Mickey gently rotated the joint. "I don't think it's broken, but it's definitely sprained."
"Great. So, now what? You go for help?" Toby recognized that Mickey was a loner. This would be the perfect excuse for him to take off on his own, leaving him behind.
"No way. Look, I'm going to go see if I can find anything to try and reduce the swelling. We'll camp here tonight." Seeing the dubious expression on Toby's face, Mickey grinned. "I'll leave my pack with you. Including my water, okay? That way, you'll know I'm coming back."
Toby looked at him, still uncertain. Finally, "Okay. What should I do while you're gone?"
Mickey pulled off his parachute pack and his backpack. "Well, for now, you're going to relax and elevate that foot. If you feel industrious, redistribute our supplies so that I'll carry the heavy stuff and you carry the lighter ones. I'll be back as fast as I can." He turned away, "Oh, wait. One thing...." He turned back and rummaged in his pack, pulling out the line and hook. "Just in case there's a big stream." He winked and started off. It didn't occur to Toby to ask how Mickey was going to carry anything back with him.
Mickey's first concern was to find water. Once he did, he intended to get Toby to it, to soak that ankle in it. Hopefully, it would be fairly close. He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering what he'd seen during freefall. Turning, he headed down. It was away from the camp, but it was still the closest water, and the only sign of water he'd seen as they descended.
Twenty minutes later, he found it. The creek ran cold and deep and he could see signs of fish, from the bank. Satisfied, he took a reading from his compass, not that he needed it. He'd be able to retrace his steps with no problem. He took a more direct route back to his partner, after having caught a cricket and using it to bait his hook and, after tying the loose end to a sturdy bush, tossed the baited hook into the water. With any luck, by the time he got back, there would be something edible on the other end.
Toby started feeling abandoned from the moment Mickey left. To occupy his hands, he commenced redistributing the weight of the supplies. "He promised. He said he'd come back. He left his pack here with me. He even left his canteen. He's coming back; he's coming back. He said he would." His litany was constant, just to hear something other than the silence of the wilderness. It was just over half an hour later when Mickey returned. Toby had a face-splitting smile upon seeing him.
"Miss me?" Mickey drawled, grinning.
"Yeah, a little." Now that he'd kept his word, Toby was embarrassed by some of the thoughts that had run through his mind while the smaller man was gone.
"Good. I told you I'd be back."
"What did you find?"
"Well, about fifteen minutes hike that way," he jerked his thumb in the proper direction, "there's a lovely little creek. Big enough to have some nice-sized fish in it. Small enough to cross, and deep enough to soak your ankle."
"So, how do we get there?"
Mickey had brought back a stout tree limb. "With this. I'll trim it into a walking stick for you. Hold it in your right hand and with me on your left, we can make it."
"What about our packs?"
"Well, you carry the parachutes, and I'll carry the packs, at least as far as the creek, okay? We'll soak your ankle and wrap it and see how it is in the morning." Toby didn't have anything to say to this, so he simply nodded.
The trek to the creek wasn't as bad as it could have been, but it took them closer to forty-five minutes to get there. Once Mickey got Toby settled on the bank, with his injured ankle soaking in the ice-cold creek, he went to check his fishing line. He was pleased to find a good-sized trout on the hook. Not enough to feed them both, but a good start, at least.
While Toby sat, Mickey fished. Once he had enough for their supper, he built a fire ring and got the makings of a fire going. He set it up near Toby and put him to work grilling the fish, using willow sticks as skewers. While their supper cooked, Mickey set up camp. Using one parachute for a tent, he built a lean-to under the trees, spreading their sleeping bags out under the shelter. When Toby called him to let him know that their fish was done, he went back and they enjoyed their meal.
"We're going to be a bit behind, I'm afraid, but I don't want to take any chances with your ankle. How's it feeling?"
"Numb. That water is like ice." Toby was comfortable. His ankle was no longer hurting and his belly was full. Now, all he needed was a nice, soft, warm, bed.
"Good. You got any extra socks?"
"Yeah. One pair, why?"
Mickey shook his head. "I'll loan you some of mine. Let's get you to the shelter and I'll take care of that ankle." Toby was going to just walk over, but Mickey wouldn't let him, telling him that he had to stay off the leg until he got the ankle wrapped.
"What are you going to wrap it with?"
"My favorite tool. Duct tape."
Toby frowned. "Duct tape? What's that?"
"Great stuff. Strong, sticky, and not a lot of give, but it works well as an impromptu bandage."
Once Toby was stretched out on his sleeping bag, Mickey got to work. He had Toby get his spare socks out of his pack and put them on. Then, he took his duct tape and wrapped the entire foot and ankle in the silvery material. Satisfied, he then pulled one of his boot socks on over the injured foot.
"There. That should hold you. I'll relace your boot in the morning so you can get it on."
"Thanks." Toby looked down at his ankle and grinned. "It looks good."
"More importantly, how does it feel?"
"Feels good, too."
"Good. Well, nothing to do now but sleep."
"It's still daylight!" Toby complained.
"Yeah?" Mickey looked at him curiously.
"Uh, nothing." Toby already felt bad for causing so much trouble. He knew perfectly well that Mickey could have set him up in a camp and taken off, gotten help, and continued back to the training facility. He'd been considered by them all to be the one most likely to get back first. That wasn't likely, now. Not if he stayed with him.
"You don't have to stay with me. You can leave me here and go on back to camp. You can send someone for me when you get there."
Mickey frowned at him. "That's not how I work. We go back together. Period."
"No buts. Go to sleep. We have a long day in front of us tomorrow." With that final admonition, Mickey turned away and quickly fell asleep.
Hours later, after the sun had set, Toby was sound asleep, and Mickey woke up to stoke the fire. After it was comfortably blazing again, he pulled out the map they had been issued in order to study it. He wanted to take the easiest route back, to spare Toby's ankle. When he was finally sure, he curled up again in his sleeping bag and slept the rest of the night.
Just before dawn, he awoke and prepared to leave their little camp. He picked up the bag with his clean socks and underwear and went down to the creek to freshen up. He changed his socks and briefs, then dressed back in the fatigues he'd worn the previous day. Tossing his baited hook and line out, he was pleased when he caught a couple of nice fish fairly quickly. When he was ready, he returned to their campsite. As the fire warmed him thoroughly, he roasted the fish. When they were done, he doused the fire, and only then woke up Toby. "Breakfast," he announced, handing him half of the fish. "While we travel, keep your eyes peeled for anything we can use as food."
Toby nodded and they ate in silence. Once finished, Mickey refolded the parachute, examined the branches he'd used for the tent poles, laid two aside to take with him, then helped Toby stand up. Once he was upright, Mickey handed him the walking stick and helped him slide his arms through the bag with the 'chutes, then slid his own arms through the other packs. It was awkward carrying most of the supplies, but it kept Toby from having to carry too much weight and gave the ankle a chance to heal. He bent at the knees, picked up the branches, one in each hand, and said, "C'mon, this path should take us most of the way back, and according to the map, shouldn't be too difficult to follow."
By late afternoon, they had collected enough berries and nuts to consider them dinner, and Mickey called a halt so he could set up camp again. He helped Toby shuck the pack, then set his own beside Toby. Once the lean-to was ready, he helped Toby hobble over to it, then returned to the woods, to find the makings for their fire. When the fire was blazing and dinner had been consumed, Mickey said with a grin, "Only thing missing are the marshmallows."
Toby laughed wearily; the hike had taken a lot out of him, even with the frequent rest stops.
"Get some sleep," Mickey said kindly, as he slipped into his own sleeping bag and used the pack with his clothes as a pillow.
About mid-morning the next day, Mickey couldn't quite put his finger on what felt wrong, but he felt it enough to want to explore up ahead, so he called another rest stop, and laid his packs by Toby, as well as the branches, so he'd have his hands free. Not to alarm Toby he announced, "I'm just going up ahead a bit, looks like there's a cliff coming up, I should be able to get enough bearings to make sure we're going the right way."
"Okay," Toby agreed.
Mickey followed the sun-dappled trail; glad to see that the incline was gentle, not sharp. Toby should have no problem traversing it. Something, some sound perhaps, had alerted him and he wanted to check it out alone, in case it meant danger. He didn't want to have to worry about Toby, if he ended up in trouble.
Near the top, he realized he had heard faint cries. "Help! Help!" came the hoarse shouting.
He raced to the top, and then cautiously approached the edge, lying down to look over it. About thirty feet below, Alex Robinson lay on a small overhang, jagged rocks far below him. Mickey cupped his hands to his mouth. "Whatever you do, Alex don't move! Are you hurt?"
The young may looked up, surprised to see anyone, but relieved, nevertheless. "Yeah. My leg is broken, I think my shoulder's dislocated, and my back hurts." The brown eyes were large and very dark in the pale, dirt-smudged face.
"Did you lose consciousness at all?"
"I-I don't think so."
"What happened?" Mickey shook his head, "Never mind. Tell me later, after I get you back up here." He looked around, but found no real signs of anything out of place. Where the hell was the kid's partner, anyway? Just like Jason to take off and leave the kid behind. "Try to relax and stay still, I have to go get my knapsack with the rope, I'll be back soon, all right? I am not going to leave you here, stranded like this." After he saw Alex nod, he fairly flew down the trail, back to Toby.
Toby agreed to follow more slowly, so Mickey raced back up the trail, carrying his poles and the pack with the rope and the other, heavier items. Once at the top, he shrugged out of the pack and unzipped it to withdraw the rope. He tied one end of it around a tree trunk, tested it to make sure it would support his weight, and then tied the other end around himself, leaving several feet free at the end, to which he tied the two long poles he'd kept for their makeshift tent. He also had one of the parachutes with him. He lowered himself over the side and rappelled down, coming to a halt just left of the overhang. "Now we're going to get you out of here, Alex. Get ready, I'm going to come over there to check you out."
Mickey carefully swung himself over onto the ledge. He pulled his poles and the parachute up beside him and cautiously moved closer to the injured man. First, he looked. The leg was definitely broken, but at least it was a 'simple' break, not a compound fracture. That was good. Alex was right, he could see that the kid's shoulder was out of its socket. "Can you wiggle your toes?"
"Yes. Hurts like hell, but I can move. I think my back is just bruised, no real damage. Can you fix my shoulder?"
Mickey looked at the boy, surprised. "You sure?"
"Yeah. I figure it will make it easier to move, don't you?" The kid looked up at him with the plaintive, trusting expression of a child who expected his father to make it all better. Mickey felt a peculiar flutter inside. This kid didn't even know him, he'd never gone out of his way to even talk to this kid, but that expression...
"Yeah. It'll hurt you less if I pop it back in. It'll hurt like hell when I do it, though."
Alex nodded. "Okay. Let's get it over with."
"First, let me splint that leg." He looked around on the ledge, The poles he had brought with him were too long, but he found some manzanita growing out of the cliff face, and managed to pull one of the plants out by the roots. It was a small shrub, but the wood was tough and strong. He had a hard time breaking off the smaller branches and twigs, but finally, he had the root and three decent sized limbs to use as a splint. Alex watched patiently as the older man silently worked.
Mickey looked at the kid. Trusting. "Why don't you tell me what happened?" He was going to be moving that broken leg; maybe if he was talking, it might distract the kid a little.
"We were hiking down the trail last evening. There's a fork up ahead, and I said we needed to take the left fork. Jason said, no, the right one. We stopped and argued. I pulled out my map and oriented it and showed him. He got mad and called me a stupid kid." He gasped as Mickey straightened his broken leg. He had used a panel from the parachute to wrap it, providing a bit of padding before applying the splint, but the movement really hurt.
"Sorry. Can't be helped. So, what did you say to him?" He could now position the manzanita around the leg and, using his roll of duct tape, strap the splint on.
"I told him I might be a kid, but he was the only stupid one here." He grinned ruefully, "Not the brightest thing I've ever said. He got really mad and shoved me. I shoved him back, then he punched me in the solar plexus and when I was doubled over, pushed me over the edge."
Mickey stared at the boy in horror. "He did it on purpose? Then left you here? Where's your pack?"
"I'd taken it off. The straps kind of chaffed my shoulders, so I took it off. He took it with him."
"Hey, don't denigrate dogs." Alex was trying to be brave... okay, he was being brave, and Mickey grinned at him.
"True. He's a lot farther down the scale, say... oh about on the level with lawyers and politicians."
Alex laughed. "Oh, man. That's a good one. I'll have to remember to tell Uncle Scotty that one."
"He's got this thing about politicians."
"Don't we all?" Mickey drawled, which sent the younger man back into paroxysms of laughter.
"Mickey?" Toby called down from above. "How bad is it?"
Mickey looked up at his own injured partner. "Busted leg, dislocated shoulder, sore back," he called up. "I got the leg splinted, now I'm gonna pop the shoulder back in place."
"Anything I can do to help?"
"Not just yet. I'll let you know."
"All right." Toby could be heard shuffling around up above, then there was silence.
Mickey looked down at Alex. The boy was pale and perspiring. He frowned and pulled his canteen off his belt. "Let me guess, he didn't even leave you any water?"
Alex blushed in shame. "No. I had my canteen in my hand and had just taken a drink when he shoved me. I dropped it."
"Not your fault. You're supposed to be able to trust your partner. You ready for me to do your shoulder?"
"No time like the present." Alex tried to relax, but his teeth were clenched together and his face screwed up in anticipation of the pain.
Mickey knelt beside the boy and gently picked up his injured arm. He was surprised and impressed to realize that although the rest of his body was tense, Alex's arm was totally relaxed. Pressing one knee into Alex's side, he lifted and rotated the injured arm. There was an audible snap as the joint slipped back into place.
Alex hissed in pain, and then groaned; tears leaked out of his eyes from the pain, but he was a tough kid, and he didn't cry out. "Well?" he asked.
"Can you move it, or should I immobilize it?" Mickey watched as Alex slowly moved his arm, a grimace of pain on his face.
"It hurts, but more like a sprain, now, than anything else. I think it'll be okay." Sucking his lower lip between his teeth, he used both arms and slowly sat up. Mickey grinned at him in approval.
"Now let me take a look at your back." He moved behind Alex and lifted his shirt. There was a vibrantly livid bruise across most of his back and Mickey winced in sympathy. No wonder the boy's back hurt. "That's some spectacular bruise, kid. Doesn't look like anything's broken. It doesn't hurt to breathe, does it?"
"No, just kind of aches." He looked up at his rescuer. "So, now what?"
"Now, I put you in a sling and Toby and I haul your skinny ass out of this hole."
"Sling?" Alex asked, frowning.
"Yeah." Mickey turned and pulled his two long poles over. Taking the rest of the parachute, he folded it in half, long-ways, and then tied one short end to a pole. Placing the second pole two feet away, he began wrapping the parachute around the two poles, forming a crude stretcher. He tied the end off, and then looked at Alex. "So, I need you to lie down on this thing, so I can strap you in."
"Strap me in?" Alex looked doubtfully at the contraption. "Uh, do you have to?"
"Yeah, so you can't fall out. I'll make sure you can use your arms, but your hips and that broken leg need to be strapped firmly in."
Alex swallowed hard, and nodded. "Okay. I can see that. How are you going to get me out of here?" I'm pretty heavy."
Mickey looked down at the lanky young man. "What do you weigh, one-fifty?"
"One-forty-five," he admitted.
Mickey grinned. "I can bench press you, kid.
"That's not the same as hauling dead weight up a cliff face."
"Yeah, but I've got help up there, remember? Don't worry, we'll get you out of here." Using the rest of the shroud lines from the parachute, Mickey tied Alex to the makeshift stretcher, and then used the rest of the cord to make a harness for it. It would have been easier to just haul Alex up the side of the cliff, but he didn't want to hurt him any more than absolutely necessary. Taking up one of the larger branches he'd culled from the manzanita bush, he handed it to Alex.
"Use this to try and keep from scraping and bouncing into the cliff, okay?"
Alex nodded, taking the stick. He just hoped they didn't drop him. From the ledge, it was a very long way to the bottom. He watched as Mickey tied the end of the rope to the apex of the cords tied to his stretcher. Mickey turned and gave him a wink before climbing the rope hand over hand.
The only thing Mickey saw was the trust in Alex's eyes. There was no way he was going to fail him, not in this lifetime. Getting to the top, he untied the rope from around the tree and knotted the end. Turning to Toby, he said, "I need you to brace yourself against this tree. Then, wrap the rope around your back and hold it, like you're anchoring a tug-o-war team, okay?"
Toby nodded, understanding. "How bad is he hurt?"
"Busted leg, bruised back, dislocated shoulder. I splinted the leg and popped the shoulder back into place. No broken or cracked ribs, luckily. He can't walk, though. I made a stretcher and tied him into it. Now, we've just got to pull him up."
"Tough. What happened? Where's his partner?"
Mickey snorted. "Jason shoved him over, then took his gear and took off. I hope he gets lost, permanently."
"That's nuts. What would he do that for?"
"The kid can read a map better than him." He shrugged. "Don't know. Don't really care. Right now, we need to get him out of there. He's been there since last night, no shelter, no water, no food."
"Ouch. Okay, give me the rope."
It took them nearly fifteen minutes to haul Alex to the top. Two feet down, Alex called out, "I'm almost there, but I can't keep from catching on the rocks." Toby set himself and nodded for Mickey to let go and go get the kid.
Alex still had that same child-like expression of trust on his face when Mickey peered over the edge. Reaching up with his good arm, Alex grinned. "I could use a hand,"
Mickey chuckled. The kid had brass; that was for sure. "Sure, kid." He reached down and pulled him up the last two feet and dragged him, stretcher and all, away from the edge. Toby, feeling the slack on the rope, got up and with his walking stick under one arm, he hobbled over, coiling up the rope as he came.
"You look like hell, Robinson," Toby informed him.
Alex grinned up at him. "I'm much better now, thanks. You don't look so hot, yourself. What happened to you?"
Toby blushed. "I sprained my ankle when I landed."
Alex winced in sympathy. " Sorry, man."
Mickey didn't get it. Alex had serious injuries, but he was concerned about Toby's sprained ankle? This wasn't the right business for this kid. He was too gentle a soul for this line of work.
"If you're through exchanging recipes, girls, we need to get some food and some more water into you, Alex, then we need to get going."
"You guys can't carry me!" Alex protested. "I'll just slow you down. If you can leave me some water, I can hold out until you get back and send out a rescue party."
"No. I don't leave anyone behind." Alex looked like he was going to argue, but Toby stopped him.
"Mickey's right. He wouldn't leave me, and we certainly won't leave you. You need a hospital as soon as possible. It's too overgrown here to get a chopper in, so they'd have to hike in to get you, and then hike back out again. It'll be a lot faster to just carry you out now."
"But you're hurt, too. You can't carry me."
"You're right. I'll have to drag you," Mickey agreed. Alex frowned but could see by their faces that they weren't going to take 'no' for an answer.
"I'll just pull you along behind me. It's not going to be comfortable, and there's probably going to be some really rough, unpleasant spots, but we'll manage." Mickey handed Alex his canteen and insisted he drink his fill. Alex took several sips, enough to ease his thirst, but he wasn't going to leave them without. Mickey knew what he was doing, but let him get away with this small deception.
"I picked some more berries on my way," Toby announced, opening the bag he'd made with a square of material from his parachute. "Here, you missed supper last night and breakfast this morning." He handed the food to Alex, who looked at them with a doubtful expression on his face. Mickey nodded, and Alex started eating. He ate one berry at a time, savoring each one and making them last. Mickey smiled his approval and turned to look at what they had to work with.
"I'm going to put one pack under your leg, to elevate it, and another one under your head for a pillow," Mickey announced, suiting action to words. "If you're ready, we can get started." Alex nodded, his mouth full of berries. Mickey turned away and picked up the end of his makeshift stretcher. Adjusting his grip, he began to pull.
"Uh, Mickey?" Alex's voice was very tentative. Mickey stopped and looked over his shoulder at the younger man.
His expression apologetic and uncertain, he made a suggestion. "Uh, wouldn't it be easier if you made a harness so you don't have to use your hands? You know, like an Indian travois?"
Mickey frowned. "Do you know how to make one?"
"You already have, more or less. Get me off of this, and we can re-do it. I know how, my uncle Scotty showed me once."
Mickey, ever willing to learn an easier way to do something, set the poles down and turned to help Alex off of the stretcher.
"First, we have to undo the parachute." Alex reached out to help, but Mickey waved him off.
"You instruct; we'll do the work."
"Oh, okay. Uh, once you have the parachute undone, take the poles and tie them together at one end. Spread the other end apart, it gives it stability and stuff. They need to be about three feet apart. Yeah, like that. Now, wrap the parachute around it again, You'll have to knot the material at the top, so it doesn't slip or hang down." Mickey and Toby followed the instructions. Soon, the travois was ready. Then, Alex explained how to make a harness to drag it. Mickey was impressed with the ingeniousness of the design.
"Great idea, Alex. Of course, we'll need to stick to wider paths, but we would have needed to do that anyway." Once again, they got Alex situated on the parachute wrapped poles. Mickey lifted the crossed section and stepped under it. The makeshift straps settled over his shoulders and he leaned into it and began to pull. It was a lot less stressful than holding the poles in his hands and dragging.
Fortunately, they didn't come upon any particularly narrow sections of trail and Mickey found that pulling the travois was a lot easier than he'd thought it would be. Of course, they were going downhill; it would be a lot tougher going up.
Toby was actually grateful for Alex's injuries. He no longer felt that he was slowing his partner down. Mickey could only pull the loaded travois about as fast as he could walk on his injured ankle and now, Mickey needed to take rest breaks more often as well. He always made sure there was a fairly tall rock to hook the front of the travois on, so he wouldn't have to lift it every time. Each time they stopped, Mickey would make them each drink some water. Toby was assigned the job of picking any berries they found along the way. Alex would hold them, and they were fortunate that it was late summer, as there were a lot of berries available.
In mid-afternoon, they came across another stream. It was somewhat larger than the last one, and to get across, they were going to have to get very wet. They piled all the packs at the top of the travois, and Mickey started pulling it across. The water at the deepest point was nearly chest-high on Mickey, and almost up to Alex's neck. On tall, lanky Toby, the water only came to his waist.
When Alex and the travois became a bit more buoyant in the middle, Mickey almost lost control and staggered to maintain his grip. Alex was frightened, but never made a sound. Once they were across, Mickey stopped.
"I think that's far enough for today, guys." He hauled the travois a bit further from the water, to a stand of scrub oak, where he found a low limb to prop it against. "Tomorrow is going to be uphill, and we're going to need all our strength to get up it." Toby and Alex exchanged unhappy looks, knowing that they were the reason Mickey needed to rest up for the trip the next day. While Mickey bustled around making camp, he assigned Toby to go fishing, while soaking his injured ankle. After the lean-to was built, with Alex as a part of the support system, Mickey checked Alex's leg and shoulder. There was some swelling in the broken leg, but that was to be expected. He frowned, realizing that the leg needed to be elevated.
"I'm going to have to put you on the ground, Alex,"
"Don't move the travois, just help me up. My left leg's fine. My shoulder's feeling a lot better, too." Mickey frowned, considering, then relented. Spreading his sleeping bag on the ground beside the travois, he helped Alex out and down on the soft material. Then, he gently lifted the broken leg back onto the travois, which supported and elevated it.
Alex frowned. "Wait, you can't give me your sleeping bag, what about you?"
Mickey grinned. "I'll sleep on the travois and use the other 'chute for my blankets." Alex smiled back at him.
"Yeah, the travois is pretty comfortable, when it's not moving." Mickey patted him on his good shoulder and went to gather some firewood. He also set a snare and caught a rabbit to add to their rations.
"This is about as close as we can get to 'surf 'n turf' out here," Mickey chuckled as they dined on grilled fish and roasted rabbit. Toby had turned out to be quite the fisherman and Alex could clean fish with the best of them, even injured. Mickey had taken the offal far downstream before burying it, not wanting to attract anything to their camp.
"Close enough for me," Toby agreed.
"Close enough for government work," Alex added.
Mickey laughed. Barring the problems they'd had, they would probably have been able to make it 'home' by tomorrow. Looking at the map, he figured at least two, maybe even three more days. Alex watched him.
"How far behind schedule are we?" he asked softly. Toby was already asleep.
"Day, maybe two. Nowhere near overdue, yet. They gave us a week, remember. We're not in any trouble, yet."
"I'm sorry." Alex looked into the flames, his expression showing his distress.
"Not your fault. With Toby's ankle, we couldn't have gone any faster, anyway. Besides, this way I'm not pushing him so hard he does himself a permanent injury."
Alex regarded the older man. "Thanks. For everything."
Mickey looked at him and could see all the emotions the kid was feeling. He grinned, "You're welcome. Just so you know, there's no way I would have left you behind."
"I know." Alex smiled. They understood each other. Shifting to make himself as comfortable as he could, Alex closed his eyes and was soon sound asleep. Mickey relaxed on the travois. It really was pretty comfortable. He should get up to bank the fire and take a look around... later. Within just a very few minutes, he was sleeping, too.
He was surprised to find himself waking just before dawn; he had thought he would wake a lot earlier, to bank the fire and explore. Now only a few embers remained of their fire. Since it was still dark, the sky an inky blue, he estimated it was about an hour and a half until the sun rose. He worked hard to bring life to the coals, and then got up to take a look around and plot their route a bit.
Again, he used the stream to clean himself, then changed clothes, enjoying the heat from the fire as it dried him, making him feel toasty warm. There was, he admitted to himself, something good to be said about camping out. He felt more alive than he had since before he'd been.... he shook his head to throw out that thought. He pulled out the water containers to refill them.
After he was dressed, he placed the berries he'd foraged from the nearby bushes his exploration had turned up, with the water for their breakfast, then commenced breaking up camp, so that when Toby and Alex awoke, they could eat, then leave. He'd been pleased to see that the trail they would travel appeared to have no debris close to the end of it, to hamper their use of it.
Satisfied, he awoke his companions. They ate their breakfast, filling up on water. Then Mickey refilled the bottles again while Toby and Alex packed the bags. Once Alex had resumed his original position on the travois, they left the camp.
Toby plucked berries as they traveled, dropping them into the bag Alex held, while Mickey played pack mule by pulling Alex along. Mickey found himself grateful for all the jogging he had done recently, as well as the exercises with the weights. He knew that if he hadn't, there was no way he could have brought Alex along with them. Even when he'd slacked off in the rest of the classes, he hadn't when it came to physical training.
Frequent rest stops were called; about an hour of traveling, then fifteen minutes to rest, and repeated, seemingly endlessly. As they ate their lunch of blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries, raspberries and chokecherries, loud screams rent the air.
Mickey swore under his breath as he bounced to his feet. "You two wait here, I'm going to find out what happened." So saying, he ran along the trail near the cliff, speeding up as he heard loud swearing.
Just about a quarter mile further up the trail, he found a section of the dirt path that had crumbled away. He cautiously crept closer to the edge, until he could look over the drop-off. About fifteen feet below, there was another team. Mickey recognized them immediately. Frank Jenkins and Chris Petersen. Frank was crouched beside his partner, examining his arm.
"You guys okay?" Mickey called down. Frank looked up in surprise.
"Not really. Chris broke his arm in the fall." He looked down, and Mickey could see blood. "It's pretty bad."
"Okay. Do you need help getting it taken care of?"
"What?" Frank looked up again, surprised.
Mickey knew that Frank didn't much care for him. He didn't really blame him. He'd screwed around at first, so no one really knew what to think of him. "Do you need, or want any help? Either splinting his arm, or getting out, or whatever?"
Chris looked up, doubt and pain mixed in his expression. "H-how can you help?"
"Well, I know how to splint a compound fracture... and I can pull you guys back up."
Frank scowled, not liking the idea.
"You've got nothing to lose by letting me help," Mickey said quietly, eyeing Frank.
"Please, Frank? If he knows what to do, what can it hurt?" Chris was starting to tremble with the first signs of shock.
Mickey stayed silent, waiting to see if Frank's dislike of him would be enough for him to jeopardize his partner.
Looking back and forth between his partner and Mickey, he finally sighed and nodded. Looking up, he asked, "Do you really know how to splint this?"
"Yeah. I do."
"I don't. What should I do?"
"For now, what you're doing is fine. Keep the pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding. I'll be back in about ten minutes with the first aid kit and a rope. You climb up first, then I'll climb down to splint it, and you help us both back up," Mickey said.
Mickey turned back, jogging down the hill to where he'd left his own partners. Without saying a word, he dug under Alex for the climbing rope and first aid kit. Toby frowned, watching him.
"What's wrong? What is it? Do you need help?"
"Jenkins and Petersen, path crumbled out from under them. Petersen has a compound fracture of his right arm. You guys stay here and I'll be back in a while. Why don't you finish eating and just relax until we get back, okay?"
"Yes, sir," Alex grinned, popping a huckleberry into his mouth and crunching down on it. Mickey ruffled the younger man's hair and trotted off, heading back up the trail to rescue the others.
"You know, he's going to ruin his reputation," Alex softly informed Toby. At the puzzled look on the other man's face, he explained. "He's supposed to be this uncaring, hard, cold son of a bitch, but he's taking care of us like he would his kids, or something."
Toby looked surprised, then his expression cleared and he grinned. "I promise not to tell." Alex grinned conspiratorially back at him.
Mickey tied the rope to a stout tree across the path from the crumbled edge. Tossing the loose end over the edge and away from the two men, he slung the first aid kit over his shoulder and climbed down. Stepping over to them, he peered over Jenkins' shoulder and nodded.
"Okay, let me in there." Jenkins moved aside, but stayed close, watching Mickey like a hawk.
Mickey knelt down beside Petersen and gently placed his hands on the injured arm. "I'm going to have to cut your sleeve off, I'll be as gentle as I can, okay?"
Petersen nodded, biting his lower lip as he watched Mickey take out his pocketknife and carefully slit the fabric of his long-sleeved shirt. Looking at the now revealed injury, Mickey winced. "Normally, I'd just splint this, but we've still got a ways to go before we can get you any help, so I'm going to pull on your wrist until the bone goes back in. It's going to hurt like hell, but I don't think we have much choice." He looked up at Jenkins. "Hold him. Sit behind him, wrap your arms around him, make sure you hold his upper arm steady, okay?"
"Okay," Jenkins agreed, following instructions. Once he was in place, Mickey smiled at the injured man.
"You ready, Chris?"
"As I'll ever be, I guess."
Mickey took hold of the broken arm on either side of the break. He gently applied torsion to the arm, pulling the break apart until the broken point of the protruding bone eased back under the skin.
"Sorry, Chris. Okay, I'm going to splint this, now." He looked around to find something to use as a splint. Not finding anything, he frowned. "What do you guys have in your packs I can use for a splint?"
"All I have are some clothes," Chris said through gritted teeth.
"Me, too," Jenkins said. "Wait!" He unfastened his belt and pulled his knife sheath from it. "Will this work?"
Mickey looked at the huge Bowie knife with an odd expression on his face. "Yeah, that'll be fine." He accepted the offered weapon and took the knife from the sheath. The sheath was stiff enough to use as one splint, and he used one of their t-shirts to wrap the blade, to use as a second splint. Placing the makeshift splints on either side of the broken arm, he used another t-shirt to pad it and act as a bandage, then proceeded to wrap it until it was immobile, using a triangular bandage to immobilize the broken arm to Chris's chest.
"Okay, that should do it. Tie your packs to the end of the rope, then if you climb up, I'll make a sling for Chris and then I'll climb up and the two of us can pull him back up."
"Okay," Jenkins agreed, still wondering what was in this for Kostmayer. Jenkins climbed up and turned back to watch as Mickey got Chris ready to go. Once Mickey had come up, the two of them grasped the rope and slowly pulled the injured man up. Chris used his legs to 'walk' up the cliff-face, holding on to the rope with his good arm. When he reached the top, he forced himself forward to fall to the ground on his knees and catching himself with his good arm as he fell.
Mickey released Chris from the rope and then pulled the rest of their gear up, while Jenkins helped his partner up and made sure he was all right. Leaving their packs on the ground, Mickey coiled up the rope. Glancing over at the pair, he realized that they seemed to be at a loss as to what to do next.
"Uh, you can either go on ahead, or you can travel with us," Mickey said very softly.
"Us? What us? Where is your partner, anyway?" Jenkins asked, accusingly.
"Sprained his ankle on the jump. He and Robinson are about a quarter mile down," he added, pointing.
"Robinson? What's he doing with you? I thought he was partnered with Masur?"
Mickey scowled. "Pushed him over a cliff, took his gear and left him. He's got a busted leg, and had a dislocated shoulder."
Jenkins and Petersen stared at him. Mickey looked up at them and shrugged, "What was I supposed to do? Leave him there?"
"How are you moving him? He can't walk, can he?" Chris asked, concerned.
"Built a travois. Used a parachute for the sling, and I'm dragging him along. It's kind of slow going, but it's the best we can do, for now. Anyway, you guys can continue on your own, or Frank, you can go on ahead and I'll take care of Chris, here. It's up to you guys. Me, I'm going back to get the others. If you're still here when we get back, I'll take that as we're traveling together." With his rope coiled over his shoulder and his first aid kit in one hand, he headed down the hill, back to his men.
As Mickey scrambled down the path, he contemplated the odds that Jenkins and Petersen would still be at the top, when he returned. Petersen, if by himself, would certainly have waited, he was sure. Safety in numbers and more easy to feed and sleep. But Jenkins? Depended on how badly he wanted to win the competition versus looking after his partner. Considering how closely he could feel himself being watched, he figured that there was a four in five chance that they'd wait. One man injured, one only with a few scrapes and bruises, would travel better with a group than on their own.
He had no doubt whatsoever that Jenkins would be wondering about his motive in helping, what his angle could possibly be. Mickey grinned to himself. Let him wonder, it would do him good. Obviously, Jenkins was still young enough to think that there had to be a payoff for every action taken.
When Mickey got back, he found them packed up and ready to go. Toby stared up the trail behind Mickey, looking concerned. "Where are they?"
"Left them up there. They have to decide whether to travel with us, or continue on their own, or Jenkins go ahead. Won't know until we get there." Sliding into the travois' harness, he started pulling. Alex and Toby exchanged worried looks as Toby began limping along beside him.
Mickey wasn't particularly surprised to get back to where he'd left Jenkins and Petersen, only to find them both waiting for them. They paused for a moment, and Jenkins grabbed hold of the travois. "Let me do that for a while."
Mickey frowned at him, considering, then he nodded and let him take over. With two able-bodied men, they would make better time.
Mickey still insisted on traveling an hour and then taking a fifteen-minute rest break. With the extra help, though, they made much better time, with a lot less stress and strain on all of them.
He'd set Chris the task of also looking for berries while, now unencumbered by the travois, he scouted up ahead to make sure the trail remained reasonably clear and intact.
As he moved, he felt Jenkins' eyes practically burn a hole through his back. He was positive the man was consumed with questions, such as: 'Why are you helping us?'. He wondered if Jenkins would figure it out, or even believe it.
After each break, Mickey switched places with Jenkins. Around one o'clock, he declared it was time for a lunch break and, gratefully, Jenkins looked around for a place to lean the travois against.
Mickey silently helped to place Alex against a tree. Jenkins freed himself of the harness while Mickey took the bag of berries collected so far and divvied them up evenly amongst them. "You both have water, right?" Mickey queried, looking at Jenkins, then Chris.
"Yeah," Chris said. Jenkins bent by their backpacks and unzipped them to retrieve their water supply. Mickey watched approvingly while Jenkins unscrewed the lid on one, then handed it to Chris to drink. He handed out the berries, leaving his own for last.
"I think we'll call a halt early today, to set some snares," Mickey looked around the group, allowing them to have a say, too.
As he expected, Jenkins spoke up. "Why don't we just push through as much as we can today?"
"Because I, for one, need more nourishment than a few handfuls of berries will give me. We can't keep any food except the berries, so we have to set up camp early and try to live off the land. That means fishing, catching rabbits, whatever. We need to stay as strong as we can, so that we get back in good shape."
Slowly, Jenkins nodded.
Mickey looked up at the sky, at the darkening clouds. "I want to try to get past," he pulled out his map and pointed to where they were, approximately, "this empty space before the rain hits. There should be woods on the other side and we can make a lean-to."
Jenkins studied him. "You've thought this through, haven't you?"
Finally, Jenkins agreed. "Okay." After they finished eating their lunch, Mickey slipped into the harness. About halfway through his turn, the rain struck while they were caught out in the open. Mickey swore to himself.
"Jenkins, put your jacket around Chris, so his bandage doesn't get soaked, then look for something to try to keep the rain off Alex's face. Chris, you and Toby look for any sign of somewhere that we can find shelter," Mickey ordered the group. He could hear Jenkins mutter, but since he also obeyed, Mickey didn't say anything. Once Jenkins had placed his jacket around Chris's shoulders, Mickey said, "Help me off with mine, we can use it to try to keep Alex from drowning, if the rain shifts in the wrong direction."
Jenkins nodded, and slowly they worked Mickey's jacket off him without Mickey having to take the harness off, then slip back into it. "If nothing else, I'll try to hold it so that his face'll be dry," Jenkins said and Mickey nodded approvingly. The rain had started as a few scattered drops, but quickly escalated to a full-blown storm.
"Toby, Chris, any luck on finding shelter yet?" he hollered at the figures in the distance.
"No!" Toby yelled back.
Mickey sent his eyes around, looking for any likely source for shelter. Nothing. He concentrated, thinking of the map as the rain soaked him. "I think there might be some caves nearby," he told Jenkins. "Keep an eye out for them as we move."
Mickey hated the feeling of the cold water trickling through his hair, battering against his face, and sliding down his spine through his shirt. Useless, he knew, but he wiped his hands on his now soaked jeans, then used the back of his hands to wipe the water away from his eyes, and then shaded them with one hand, to look around. "I think our best bet is find an overhang or something."
Grudgingly, Jenkins concurred. "You just might be right."
An improvement, thought Mickey. "Toby, Chris, look for an overhang!" shouted Mickey, and Toby waved in acknowledgment.
"And if there isn't one?" Jenkins asked softly.
"Then we cross into the woods again and make a lean-to, with branches and the parachutes."
Progress, Mickey approved. At least Jenkins wasn't instantly shooting down everything he suggested. He was well aware that Jenkins didn't like him one iota, but perhaps, by being able to splint Chris's arm and rescue them, he had earned a smidgen of respect. He hoped they'd find a way to get out of the rain soon; if he came down with a cold or the flu, then they'd really be up a creek because Jenkins, if he was up to it, would have to get them all out.
And Mickey wasn't at all sure that he would entrust that task to Jenkins.
He started to trudge forward again, since if an overhang wasn't found, they would want to reach the woods on the far side as soon as possible. He kept his hand up, to keep his vision as clear of water as possible. He hadn't gone more than a quarter-mile before Chris yelled, "Mickey! I think we've found something!"
"You go look," Jenkins said, as he helped Mickey off with the harness, then slipped into it, himself.
Mickey ran over to Chris, nearly slipping a few times in the mud but recovering his balance before he could fall.
"What do you think?" Chris asked anxiously, while Toby looked on hopefully.
Mickey grinned widely, then gave Chris a noogie. "I think you did real good. We'll get Alex over here, place him in the shelter, then go looking for anything we can use for a fire."
Chris nodded, pleased, and Mickey hurried back to Jenkins and Alex. After Alex was made as comfortable as possible, Mickey gave the recruits a crash course in finding wood dry enough for a fire, and then sent them out to look for it, while he used the cords of the parachute to make snares to catch rabbits for dinner.
The parachute itself was used to keep the rain out of their space. A small hole was left, for the smoke to escape through. Mickey was glad to find out he didn't have to pound it into their heads that the best way to carry matches was in a plastic bag, to keep them dry.
They were all grateful to finally dry off. Mickey ducked out to check the snares, and came back with two rabbits, which he'd already killed and cleaned. While the fire was slowly built up, Mickey prepared the two nice, plump cottontails for roasting.
Again, all had another early night. Mickey insisted that Chris use the travois to sleep on, to keep him comfortably in one position, so his arm wouldn't inadvertently be jostled. Mickey restoked the fire, then lay down near it, keeping watch for a while. In the silence, he noticed that Jenkins wasn't sleeping, although the rest of the group was soundly in the grips of the sandman.
Might as well see where I stand, thought Mickey as he levered himself up to a sitting position. "What's eating you?" he asked quietly.
Jenkins frowned, sitting up, as well. Looking at Mickey, he struggled to find the right words. "Why?" he finally asked.
"Why?" Mickey repeated, as he gazed at Jenkins. "You mean, why am I helping you all? Why not? Part of this exercise is to work in pairs, and believe me, anyone showing up without his partner is screwed."
"Yeah, but me and Chris aren't your partners, neither is Alex. Why help us?" He shook his head in confusion. "I don't get it. I don't get you. I mean, I thought you were a total screw-up, but this... I just don't understand."
"Alex got dumped and hurt by his partner. If you'd come across him, tell me, would you have kept going or stopped to help him?"
Jenkins looked surprised. His brow furrowed as he frowned, thinking about it. "I'd have done what I could to help him, but I don't know that I'd drag him along behind me," he admitted.
"Maybe after you get some experience, you'll change your mind. Me, I've been in positions where you had to rely on your team. Yeah, even though we were paired off, I'd consider the group my team. I can't, literally can't, leave anyone behind, it was drilled into me that everyone, even if it's just a body, comes back. I saw that there was no way Alex could make it back on his own, so I'm bringing him."
Jenkins thought about it for a few minutes, mulling it all over. Finally, he nodded and met Mickey's eyes, which were quietly regarding him. "Okay. I can accept that. One more question, though. How come you kept screwing up? I realize that it was on purpose, but why?"
Mickey was sure that the rumor mill would have the story circulating in no time, so it was best to get in first with the truth. "I was a Navy SEAL. I was convicted of murdering my partner. McCall got involved, proved it was really the KGB. For that, I'm grateful, I could have spent my ten years doing hard labor otherwise. But, and here's the big but, McCall never bothered to ask me what I wanted to do afterwards, he just assumed I'd join The Company. Now, I can get pretty stubborn, so I decided I'd flunk out. He confronted me about it with a live bomb that I had to disarm. He finally realized why I was so pissed off, so he actually did ask, and I agreed to really try. So, here we are." At Jenkins look he added, "If any of those activities had been pairs or groups, yeah, I would have done my best, instead of my worst. No point in bringing everyone else down, right?"
Jenkins nodded his understanding. "Thanks. I needed to know." He didn't bother to explain that it helped him with his mistrust of Mickey. Lying back down, he snuggled into his sleeping bag and settled down to sleep.
Mickey watched as Jenkins relaxed and fell into sleep. Glad it worked, he thought, as he followed suit. Maybe they'd never like each other, but they would be able to work together if need be.
Dawn brought snares filled with more rabbits, which Mickey had cooking by the time the others awoke. Jenkins was surprised that he hadn't awakened earlier, either when Mickey woke up, or when he built up the fire, or when he left, or even when he began cooking the cottontails. Like the others, he had to be shaken awake to eat.
"Rise and shine," Mickey greeted him with a smile. "We have to get moving soon."
Jenkins shook his head to clear the sleep from his brain and, tossing his sleeping bag open, he sat up and stretched. "Man, how long have you been up?"
"Long enough to fix breakfast." Mickey smirked at him and handed him half a rabbit to eat. "Bon appetit."
Jenkins shook his head, covering his surprise, and accepted the food. "I take it that your snares worked better overnight?"
"Yeah, thankfully," Mickey replied gratefully. "By now we're close enough that we won't starve to death even if we don't catch anything, but it would be pretty uncomfortable."
Jenkins perked up at that. "How long do you think it will take us to get to the rendezvous point?"
"I figure by tomorrow morning we'll be close enough for you to spurt ahead and bring help back for us."
Jenkins frowned. "What do you mean, 'spurt ahead'? I'm not leaving you guys behind." What Mickey had said the night before had made an impression, and he found himself in full agreement with Kostmayer's philosophy.
"I mean it makes sense for us to travel together, then, when one of us can make it back in less than a day on his own, it makes sense for someone to do so and bring back help."
Jenkins frowned. "Well, yeah, okay. I get that, but why should I be the one to go ahead? You're the better outdoorsman. You should be the one to go."
Mickey just looked at him.
"Well, I do know some basic first aid. I can change a bandage, at least. You understand wilderness survival, so you can make better time, so you should go." His jaw was starting to clench in stubbornness.
"What if there's another storm? How would you shelter the group? How would you catch food for the group? No, you should go. Besides, you can run faster than I can," Mickey finished with a small laugh.
Frank Jenkins scowled, realizing he'd been out-maneuvered. He shook his head, and laughed at how he'd been had. "Right." he nodded. "Just make sure you point me in the right direction before I go. I'm okay with street maps, but out here... well, I tend to occasionally get turned around." He barked out a sharp, nervous laugh, to punctuate his concern.
"No problem, Frank, you'll do fine," Mickey assured him as he took out the map. He unfolded it, then showed Frank where they were on it. "See, I want to make camp here, tonight, if at all possible." his finger traced the route. "After a good night's sleep, I want you to go this way," again, he pointed out the route, "and you should be back before nightfall." He moved his finger back to an empty area. "This should be an empty field; tell them that we'll be waiting here."
Frank frowned. "How far is it from there to there?" he asked, pointing to the intended campsite and then the 'field'.
"Three, maybe four miles. It'll be no problem to reach and it'll give the cavalry a good place to find us. I'll have a fire going."
"So, why don't we camp there, tonight, instead?"
"I don't want to push them too hard. Besides, it'll give us all something to do, while you're off playing hero," Mickey grinned at him.
Jenkins blushed, "I'm no hero. That's your job. I'm just a good soldier who knows when and whose directions to follow."
"You and me both, Frank, you and me both." They exchanged rueful grins, understanding one another. No, they probably would never be friends, but at least they wouldn't be at odds, any longer. "Bring me back a beer, would ya?" Mickey wisecracked. "This rescuing people is thirsty work."
Jenkins looked at him in momentary shock, and then chuckled, shaking his head. "Hell, I'll make them bring you the entire keg!"
Mickey laughed. "I'll look forward to it."
Frank Jenkins was in the traces as they prepared for their scheduled midmorning rest stop. They found a tree to rest under, and Frank, with Mickey's help, leaned their travois up against the lowest branch of the tree.
"At least that's one advantage you'll have tomorrow, no travois to deal with," Mickey commented so quietly that only Jenkins could hear him.
"Yeah," Frank murmured back, "But I'll have a lot more responsibility, instead. I'm going to be responsible for making sure you get rescued."
"Don't worry, you'll be up for it," Mickey assured him. "I'm going to refill our water bottles. Make sure they don't get too out of hand."
Frank laughed. "This lot? Like me, they're just going to collapse and catch their breath. Let them drink whatever water we have left, before you go. I'll go down and get a drink after you get back."
Jenkins was right. Toby was walking on a badly sprained ankle, and even with his walking stick, his injury was getting worse. Chris's broken arm was, despite their care, becoming infected, and Alex was mostly silent, and had bitten through his lower lip to keep from crying from the pain.
Mickey walked over to the group and patiently waited for the water to be finished, then collected the bottles and headed down to the stream. Once he was out of sight of the group, he stopped and stretched. This training exercise was taking more out of him than he wanted to admit. To keep up morale, though, he didn't show any signs of fatigue around the group. He hadn't lied to Jenkins earlier, when he had said that Frank could run faster than him. He knew there was no danger of them dying, but if they had to return under their own steam, well...
He shook off the negative thoughts and continued down to the stream. He allowed the cool water to slake his own thirst, using his bottle and decontamination tablet, then he took off his jacket, shirt, then t-shirt, soaked the latter, and pressed the refreshing coolness to his face. He knew he'd have to be careful to not get a sunburn, but that was what the shade was for. He used the water to get rid of his sweat, and the sun dried him quickly as he refilled the bottles.
He looked around casually, then stopped, startled, as his eye made out a red shirt. Soon, a mop of curly dark hair appeared, on the other side of the stream. Jason!
So far, Jason hadn't spotted him, as he traveled downstream in the wrong direction. He had a few choices: he could cross the stream and kill Jason for injuring Alex, he could stay silent and laugh to himself as Jason continued in the wrong direction, or...
"Jason! Wrong way, pal, the rendezvous is on this side and the other direction!" Mickey hollered across the stream.
Jason Masur came to an abrupt stop, turning and trying to place where the voice was coming from. He didn't see anyone, and frowned. Shrugging, he began to once more trudge along his way. He'd kept Alex's sleeping bag and anything he thought he might be able to use, dumping the rest when it became too cumbersome to carry. He was about to dump the extra sleeping bag, now, and decided that leaving it behind while he got a drink was as good a time as any. Amazing how heavy stuff got, the longer you carried it.
Mickey watched in amazed silence as the other man paused about a hundred feet upstream, dropped his pack and lay down to drink directly from the stream, not bothering to use a bottle and decontamination tablets.
Jason finished his drink and only then dug out his water bottles, filling them both. He pulled the strap and left the extra sleeping bag behind as he stood up and began to continue his journey.
Mickey raised his voice as he stepped out of his cover. "Jason! The rendezvous is the other way!" You moron!
Jason froze, searching for the source of the voice. Finally, he spotted him, on the other side of the stream. Kostmayer. Jason didn't try to hide the smug sneer from his face. "Right, like I'd believe you? I see you managed to lose your partner, too. What happened, his 'chute fail to open?"
"You son of a bitch, you screwed with mine, didn't you!" Face hard, Mickey replied "He's fine and at least I still have my partner. What did you do, push yours off a cliff?"
Jason paled, realizing his mistake. Mickey's chute hadn't opened? It was supposed to have been the other guy's...they must have switched by mistake. He grinned, recovering. "Of course. He was slowing me down."
"You do realize, don't you, that the major purpose of this exercise is to work with your partner, to get back don't you? You're already screwed and don't know it."
Jason laughed. To Mickey, it sounded just a bit maniacal. "The idea is to get back first. I wasn't about to hang around and let that kid slow me down. You snooze, you lose."
"I didn't think you'd paid attention," Mickey sneered. "That was the whole reason we're in pairs; come back without yours, and you fail."
"You small minded drone. That may be true for those in the trenches, but management has to look at the bigger picture. Fortunately, I am headed for management, unlike the rest of you. You're just the pawns."
"Your 'look-out-for-number-one' attitude will also get you sent to Outer Mongolia, when the agents you try to direct either don't return because of your ineptitude, or worse."
"Oh, please, spare me your platitudes. I know what you are. You're the ringer they sent in to disrupt the class. Well, I'm on to you. I saw you with McCall and Control; I heard how he let you win on the scenarios course. You can't fool me. You say this is the wrong way? Well that's all the proof I need." He turned away and marched off, downstream, in the wrong direction.
Mickey smiled savagely after him. He eyed the dropped sleeping bag, then made his way carefully across the stream. He'd done everything he could; no one could fault him later about Jason. He decided on one last barb. "Jason! If you're going in the right direction... how come you haven't reached the rendezvous yet? God knows, as unencumbered as you are, you should have gotten back by now!"
Jason didn't even turn to acknowledge the comment, but his back stiffened as he continued on his way.
Bullseye. Mickey wrapped the sleeping bag around his shoulders, then crossed the stream again, picked up the water bottles, and returned to his group.
"Here, got your sleeping bag back, Alex," Mickey announced as he came into view. At their looks, he added, "Ran into Jason; he didn't believe me when I told him he's going the wrong way so at least we'll beat someone back."
Alex frowned as he stared at the sleeping bag. "Burn it." Seeing everyone's confused expressions, he explained. "It's contaminated. One of us might get infected with whatever it is that's wrong with Jason."
"After it won't serve a purpose, sure," Mickey agreed. "What's wrong with Jason isn't catching, it was with him from birth." Seeing the dubious looks the others gave the bag, Mickey sighed. "Fine," he said. "I'll use it." He shook his head at the superstitiousness of his comrades.
He distributed the bottles, hooked his own onto the travois, donned the harness again, and they continued. As expected, they reached the area Mickey wanted to camp in that night. A couple of jackrabbits were caught and devoured, but no one complained about the food. They all realized that Mickey was doing his best and had decided as a group to show their gratitude by not complaining. Early the next morning, Mickey took Jenkins aside, before he was to head out for help.
"Here, a little something for your trip," Mickey said as he handed over the sealed bag of GORP. "Should help you keep your energy up."
Frank frowned down at the bag of. Looking into Mickey's eyes, he just 'looked' his question.
"Sure, we weren't supposed to bring anything with us besides what was packed, but I'm experienced enough to know that not everything will go as planned, so I brought it along. You're going to need your energy; we can pick fruit as we go, and I'll set snares. Tell 'em that if they don't show up by tomorrow night, we'll come in."
Jenkins just nodded. He had noticed that as they had progressed, it had gotten harder and harder to find any berries to eat. The only thing sustaining them at the moment was Mickey's skill at catching rabbits and fish. "Is there water near where you'll be camping tonight?"
"Yeah, should be some fairly close."
"Okay. I'll take one full canteen and a couple of decontamination tablets. You keep the rest and take care of the kids, all right?" He was a little surprised at how responsible he was feeling for the three injured men and how helpless he felt at leaving them behind, even if it was to go for help...
"You got it. Don't worry, we'll be fine. Here, take the map, I've gone over the route so often I've got it memorized by now." Mickey pulled out the folded map and handed it over. Mickey studied him a moment then commented, "I think you're finally getting why I had to help."
Frank turned startled eyes to meet a pair of amusedly understanding ones. Rueful, he grinned and nodded. "Yeah. I think I am, too."
He'd decided to go as light as possible. He wouldn't be stopping for any length of time, planning on going all night long, if necessary. With a cheery wave, he headed off at an easy, ground-eating jog, up the path and soon out of sight. He never once looked back.
Mickey was surprised how proud he felt, as Jenkins moved out of sight.
Frank had been a distance runner in both high school and college. He kept his eyes on the terrain and his feet on the path. This part of the trek was uphill. He needed to get to the top of the mountain, and then it would be downhill to the rendezvous. It took him three quarters of an hour to get to the spot Mickey had shown him on the map. He stopped to look around. He found a tiny green spot, and went to investigate it. There was a clearwater spring. He pulled his handkerchief out and tied it to the surrounding scrub as a signal for Mickey. There weren't any fish, here, but at least the water was good.
He drank from his canteen and rested. He broke one of his decontamination tablets into fourths and added one piece to his canteen, then refilled it from the spring. He capped it, then shook it to make sure the tablet dissolved. Putting it back on his belt, he took his bearings and started jogging again. When it got too steep, he would slow to a walk, but he wanted to get back as fast as possible. He'd noticed that Chris, his own partner, was running a fever, and the Robinson kid, Alex, was in even worse shape. His mission was urgent, and he had no time to waste.
Quietly, they broke camp, then Mickey set an easy pace; no need to rush, after all, where they stopped would be the rendezvous spot for the help Frank would bring back. He shoved the little voice that whispered in his head, What if he doesn't? What if he gets injured? down as far as he possibly could.
He knew they'd make it back, but he didn't want his group to be at death's door when they did, which was why he had sent Frank ahead. Hopefully, helicopters would be sent to the field; it was why he had chosen it for their campsite, easy for landing. He'd noticed that Alex's and Chris's faces were flushed from fever, somehow he'd have to find a way to break it, and bring their temperatures down. In the meantime, they had to get to the field.
As he trudged along with the travois, he occupied his mind by wondering just how this little excursion would be written up. By the time they reached the field, he had decided on various options: he would be treated to a hero's welcome, get all the free beer and food he could ever want, and get a Get Out Of Jail Free pass from the remainder of the course. Conversely, he could be hauled out in front of the entire group, bawled out for allowing his partner to get injured in the jump, yelled at for not getting back as quickly as possible. He decided his fate would probably be somewhere in the middle: some people would notice his capabilities and he would be appreciated, while others would think he had made the wrong choices all along; he would also have to finish the course, no beer or free food, but there'd probably be a party after graduation.
He deliberately kept the pace slow and steady, so Toby wouldn't have too much trouble keeping up. Since they were only covering a few miles, he called frequent rest breaks. By mid-afternoon they reached the field, and no further injuries had occurred, for which Mickey was grateful. Instead of immediately dashing off to refill the bottles, Mickey stretched out and enjoyed the sun's rays for a few minutes. He was surprised to learn it was an hour later, when he finally stood up to get the camp ready. Taking more out of me than I want it to, he thought ruefully.
He used the parachute cords as snares, which he set up as he strolled to find the water source that should be nearby. His eyes caught a flash of color against the greens and browns, and he went over to examine it. His mouth broke into a grin as he saw it was a handkerchief, Frank's, in fact. Well, at least you made it to here, he thought as he untied it, and sent his eyes around, soon spotting the spring. He folded the handkerchief and placed it in his jacket pocket as he covered the rest of the distance easily. He thoroughly rinsed the bottles, then broke up a decontaminant tablet and deposited it into the bottles, then refilled them. He found a few stones, and picked them up in his hand, idly checking their weight, before he sent them hurling through the air, to land as far away from him as possible.
He used the parachute as a tent, to keep the sun off the injured men, and allowed them to rest as he returned to the forest to gather wood for their fire. He checked the snares on the way back, and brought along the two dead jackrabbits he had caught. Sure, they'd be tough and gamey, but they were better than nothing.
Back at the camp, he methodically skinned them, then prepared them for cooking. He buried the remains, then cooked the salvageable meat. After dinner, to try to keep everyone's spirits high, he asked "What are you going to do, after we get back and you heal?"
Alex grinned. "Me? I'll probably get assigned a desk job somewhere." At the puzzled looks from his companions, he explained. "My dad's an agent. I know he wouldn't do anything to keep me out, but I kind of doubt they'd let us work in the same realm, if you know what I mean."
"Who's your dad?" Toby asked.
Alex shook his head. "Need to Know." he intoned, mysteriously, and then laughed. "Honest, that's what I was raised with. What about you?"
Toby snickerd, "I'm going to do my best to be a brave hero like Mickey." The others joined him in laughter, as Mickey blushed.
Mickey snorted in derision. "I'm no hero, I'm just doing what any decent human being would have done. Guess that lets Jason out on two counts," he finished dryly.
"You've got that right," Alex muttered.
Toby giggled. "Actually, though, I'll go wherever they send me, I guess." He shrugged. "I haven't really thought that far ahead." The others nodded their understanding.
"What about you, Chris?" Mickey asked.
"My dad's in the Diplomatic Corps. So, I doubt if I'll be sent anywhere he's stationed. But I can speak six languages fluently...like being a military brat, I'm a DipCorp brat. Dad always had me going to local schools, so I had to learn the language. It was pretty good."
Mickey looked impressed. "Six languages? Including English?" Chris shook his head, negatively. "So, including English, seven languages....you'll probably have your choice of embassies, once you get through probation." He smiled and patted Chris on his uninjured shoulder, "You, my boy, will go far in this man's army," he intoned in fair imitation of the head of the agency training program. He couldn't resist quipping, "Keep us in mind when you can hand out the good assignments." The others laughed. With the tension eased, Mickey took a moment to heave a relieved sigh. Laughter was definitely good. Now, if only rescue would arrive...
It was hot. He had no idea just how hot it might be, but he knew it was hot. Hopefully, it wasn't hot enough to be dangerous. Even if it was, as long as he didn't know how hot it really was, he would be okay. He felt like he'd been climbing for days. Well, they had, but today, alone, it seemed a lot longer, hotter, and harder. He hadn't realized that just having the others around had made the trip so much easier. Sure, they couldn't go very fast, and he was jogging as much as he possibly could, but he hadn't been alone. He felt the weight of the responsibility for the three injured men, as well as Mickey's expectation that he bring back help for them. He'd die rather than screw this up.
The rattlesnake nearly did just that. He'd been on the downhill side of one of the rises, near the bottom, zoned on running, looking ahead, picking his path, to make sure he wouldn't trip or fall, when he heard the startled noise of the snake. He spotted the movement just in time to leap over the creature and put on an adrenaline burst of speed. As soon as he was clear, however, he had to stop and catch his breath. He stood, hunched over, his hands on his knees, gasping for air. He looked back and saw the snake, the huge snake, slithering away. When his adrenaline rush was over, he walked away, heading up the next rise.
He was still shaking from his encounter with the snake when he reached the final top of the mountain and looked down. This side of the mountain was rougher that the side he'd just come up, but the slope was gentler. Squinting, he could see the reflection of sunlight off of glass in the distance. Even if that wasn't where he was supposed to be, it looked like a good place to get help. Using his eyes to trace the path he needed to take, he started down.
He was going to make it!
Of course, it was a lot farther than it had looked. He had made the mistake of believing his eyes, and had run all out, wanting to get there as fast as he could. After an hour, he realized his error and took a break. He was liberal with his use of water. Any time he found water, he would drink what he had and refill his canteen, always remembering to use a decontamination tablet. He had no desire to get sick. Particularly when it was something that could be easily avoided.
The afternoon went on and on. The temperature was almost unbearable, but he was determined to get his partners help, or die trying. Every time he found water, he also ate a handful of the trail mix Mickey had given him. Just as long as he kept moving, he would be all right.
As dark approached, he found a good place to look out over the valley and recheck his bearings. The late sun was nearly blinding, but he thought he saw buildings in the distance. More experienced, now, he guestimated that it was probably another ten or twelve miles. Three hours, if he was lucky. He wondered if there would be a moon? He hadn't bothered to look the previous few nights, and had no idea just how dark the night would get. Not wanting to waste any time, however, he pressed on.
There was no moon. At least, not by the time it was full dark. His eyes had adjusted as best they would, and he could actually see the lights of the buildings in the distance, now. He couldn't really see the path very well, although the stars did provide quite a bit of light. A full moon would have been much better. He should have slowed down, but he could actually see the lights of the buildings in the distance, and he wanted to get there as fast as possible.
He should have been more cautious.
He didn't see the dip in the path in time and stumbled, falling and skidding down the hill. His hands took the brunt of his fall, followed by his knees. He slid, face down, hands extended before him for a good ten to twelve feet before coming to a halt against a boulder. He lay there for several minutes before slowly rising. He was shaking in shock and he knew he was hurt. It felt rather a lot like the road rash he'd gotten that time he'd tried riding motorcycles in the dirt. His pants were torn at the knees, and he could feel the blood trickling down his legs and arms. He'd skinned his elbows pretty badly, as well. Cursing himself soundly, he started moving again. He had no choice, now. He had to move slowly, because his knees were really painful. He hadn't realized he'd lost his canteen, but he didn't want anything to drink, anyway. All he wanted was to get to help and get his friends to safety.
McCall and Control were sitting up late. The rest of the recruits had been sent to bed at 2100, but they were still up. All the teams but three were in, now and, although they didn't show it, they were concerned. Kostmayer was among the missing. True, there were still two more days, but they'd both expected Mickey to be the first one in.
Control was slumped in an armchair, sipping at a snifter of brandy, while McCall paced, his own drink forgotten on the table.
"D'you think something happened to them?" McCall asked, pausing by the window and looking out into the darkness.
"Robert, sit down. I have no idea what may or may not have happened. There are still three teams out there, and they still have two days to make it in. You know the rules, we don't go looking until they're overdue."
McCall glared at his friend and superior. "Rubbish!" He caught Control as he flinched and realized that he was just as worried. "Perhaps I could go for a nice hike tomorrow?" he offered.
Control hid his smile behind his brandy. "That sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours. I suppose you want to hike to the summit and back?" He knew perfectly well that they would be able to see a good portion of the course from there.
"What a lovely idea!" Robert agreed. "A nice, leisurely little stroll sounds perfect." He picked up his snifter and inhaled the bouquet. He smiled, Control had excellent taste.
"It's eighteen miles to the summit, Robert," Control informed him.
Eighteen miles? In ninety-plus degree temperatures? "Perhaps a nice drive, then?"
Control laughed. "Old son, why not just take the helicopter and go look for them? Of course, if nothing's wrong, they're going to be very upset that we didn't trust them to be able to do it on their own..."
"And, if there is something wrong, it might mean the difference between life and death," McCall countered.
"The rules..." Control abruptly stopped talking and frowned. McCall watched him in confusion as he set his snifter down and rose, catlike and stalked to the front door. He cocked his head like he was listening, and suddenly jerked the door open. He was just in time to catch the blood-stained and ragged Frank Jenkins as he collapsed forward into his arms.
McCall rushed to their side and helped Control with the obviously injured Jenkins. Half dragging him in, they eased the exhausted recruit down into the chair Control had vacated. As soon as he was seated, McCall hurriedly left the room to find a first aid kit.
"Bring some water, too, Robert!" Control called after his friend. He quickly checked the recruit over. He tilted the young man's head back and frowned, recalling his name. "Jenkins? Where's your partner?"
"Mickey. He's got them at the flat spot at the bottom of the mountain, on the other side."
"Them?" Control asked.
"Toby sprained his ankle when they landed. Chris, my partner, well, we were too close to the edge of a path and it gave way beneath us. Mickey took care of Chris's broken arm and pulled us back up. And he's got Alex. Jason pushed him over a cliff and took his gear, leaving him to die. He sent me on ahead this morning. He said he'd meet us at that big flat spot right near the bottom of the mountain." Jenkins had gotten his message out. He tried to reach his shirt pocket for the map, but Control gently caught his wrist, taking the map out, himself.
McCall returned with a basin of water and the first aid kit in time to hear part of Jenkins' report. While Control moved away to take a look at the map, he began to gently cleanse Jenkins' injuries.
"Tell you what, lad. I'll clean these a bit and then you head for a shower. When you're finished, I'll continue with the bandages."
"No. I'm okay. We have to get them. Alex has a broken leg, and his shoulder was dislocated, and Chris has a compound fracture. They need a hospital, and soon. Chris had a fever, when I left, and Alex was pretty much out of it. They're both really hurting, and I think that Toby is lying about how much his ankle hurts." He tried to stand up, insisting that they go immediately.
Control turned and pushed him back down in the chair. "First things first. You get yourself cleaned up and your injuries tended. While you're doing that, I'll get a rescue prepared. The moon isn't due up until about 0300, so there's no point in going until it does. The more light available the better. Providing everything works right, we should have them home by dawn." He patted Jenkins on the shoulder. "Good job, Jenkins."
He was surprised that Control knew his name, but the older man's calm reassurance eased his tension. It also served to distract him while McCall tended his wounds. When instructed, he let them direct him to the bathroom to shower. By the time he stepped out, he was surprised to find shorts and a t-shirt waiting for him... in his correct size. When he came out, he found a real doctor was waiting for him to treat his injuries. He watched in awe as he saw the man known only as 'Control' as he quickly put together the rescue.
Control was quiet as he worked. He had rousted out the helicopter pilot and they had their heads together over Mickey's map, deciding how to mount the rescue. Knowing that there were two seriously injured men, he suggested they call in a medivac helicopter, as well. The pilot nodded his agreement and made the call.
Back at the campsite, Mickey moved restlessly in his sleep. The fevers were still high; neither had broken yet, and he had no way to bring them down. After another half hour, he gave up trying to sleep, as his mind told him all the ways Jenkins could have failed in his task.
Stop with the negative thinking, already, he chided himself as he stretched quietly. No need to wake his group, after all. He pulled out some of the branches he'd stacked nearby and laid them on the fire, building it up again.
Damn, I really should have found a way to smuggle out some marshmallows, too, he thought morosely, as he used a long twig to poke at the fire. Hot dogs would be great, too, he mused.
While I'm at it, I might as well imagine the rest of what I can't have here, he thought, as he imagined a blonde, brunette and redhead near the fire. His lips quirked into a smile.
If there was one good thing that came out of meeting McCall, it was the chance he would have to improve his private life. He grinned again to himself; life would be pretty good after all, come to think of it. He moved his hand forward and placed the twig in the fire, then stretched out on his back to look up at the stars again. Soon, he was fast asleep.
A sound awoke him and he opened his eyes. For a second, he couldn't place it in his sleep-fogged brain, then he sat bolt upright. Chopper! he thought as he scrambled to his feet. No, choppers, he corrected himself mentally, as he made out the sound of more than one of the machines. He strode over to the others, waking them up. "Help's on its way," he gleefully announced, burying all of his worry about Jenkins. He had gotten back, after all, thank God.
He piled all the remaining firewood on the flames, blowing hard to brighten the fire, the dry wood quickly ignited and flared brightly enough to serve as a landing beacon for their rescuers. The first helicopter to land had county markings indicating it was a medical life-flight. Mickey approached it the moment it landed, and explained to the paramedics what they were dealing with.
The second helicopter landed and Mickey watched as Control and McCall disembarked. They all watched in silence as the paramedics did their jobs.
Soon, he was alone with McCall and Control. "I can make it back on my own, if that's what you want," he offered.
Control looked him over. His practiced eye noted the stress the kid had been under, as well as the exhaustion from having taken care of three injured men and taking full responsibility for getting them back alive. Of course, his face didn't show what he was thinking.
McCall approached Mickey and frowned at him. Placing a supportive hand on his shoulder, he asked, "Are you all right, Mickey?"
"Never better," Mickey smiled back at him. "It'll be a piece of cake from here," he assured them. "But you should probably send someone after Masur."
"Oh? and just where is Mr. Masur?" Control's voice showed nothing of what the man might be thinking, and Mickey wondered just how much trouble he was in.
"Last I saw, lost and heading downstream," Mickey replied. "I told him he was going the wrong way, he didn't believe me, and he took off."
Control expelled a breath in disgust. "Which stream?" He pulled out Mickey's map and held it out to him, using the spotlight on the nose of the helicopter to see by.
Mickey shifted his position, took the map, then laid his finger on the area he last saw Masur. "Here."
Control grunted in annoyance. "Stupid..." he instantly slapped his iron will over his emotions and crumpled the map in his hand. "We'll have to go after him on horseback. The idiot is going down the Devil's Bikepath. It can be done on foot, but it's faster on horseback. I, for one, am not going after him on foot."
"Motorcycles?" Robert asked.
"I don't think they'd make it - it's pretty rocky," Mickey chipped in.
Control nodded. "Motorcycles will bog down by the stream, and the rocks get pretty rough for them. There are also some rather deep cracks that horses can jump, but a motorcycle can't."
"And just where can we find horses?" McCall asked, his distaste at the prospect obvious.
"When do we leave?" Mickey addressed Control.
Mickey suddenly felt like a bug under a microscope when the full blast of Control's pale blue eyes latched onto his own. "What makes you think that you're going?" he drawled softly.
"Well, I saw him last. I think I've proven that I'm fairly useful in the wilderness, and I really want to see the look on his face when he realizes just how badly he screwed up," he replied quietly.
McCall groaned and turned away, not wanting to watch Control chew Mickey up and spit him out. A moment later, he was turning back and watching in shock as Control burst into laughter.
Mickey frowned, uncertain about this reaction.
"Robert, you were right," Control kept laughing. Turning to Mickey, he threw an arm across the smaller man's shoulders, staggering him. "Tell you what, son, if you come back to the compound with us now, and can be showered, rested, up and ready to go by 0700, you can come." He pushed Mickey towards the helicopter, still chuckling. As he let go of Mickey, he paused to look at his friend. "That boy has more guts than brains...and the brains are pretty damned good, too."
The flight back was quiet. Mickey wisely rested, and the others remained silent, as well. Fifteen minutes later, they set down in the compound and Mickey found himself hustled off for a well deserved (and needed) hot shower, some food, and a bed.
After he had showered and eaten, he had been surprised to find Jenkins had required some medical treatment, as well. "What happened?" he asked quietly.
Frank blushed and looked away. "I did something stupid. I tripped and fell. I was going too fast and it was dark and I didn't see the path drop and I hit air and went down, skinned both hands, elbows and knees...like some stupid kid, running too fast."
Mickey studied him a moment, then patted his shoulder consolingly. "You'll know better if there's a next time. The important thing is that you got back up and kept going. Probably doesn't mean much to you, but I'm very proud of you, and I'd be happy to be on any team with you in the future. You kept your head, you listened to advice, you made your own decisions."
Jenkins was surprised to realize that Mickey's pride in him made him feel a lot better... maybe they could even be friends, one of these days. He grinned. "Thanks, man. You're right, next time, I'll know better."
"Yeah, you will," Mickey agreed. "I went through the same thing, and you do learn from your mistakes, I can promise you that."
From the door behind them, Control's soft voice came. "You learn or you die. Good work, gentlemen. Now, I suggest you get some sleep. Lights out was several hours ago." He waited while Mickey grinned and lightly punched Jenkins on the shoulder.
"Yeah. I got one more thing to do in the morning, then I'm gonna sleep for a week, if they'll let me."
Frank looked at both men with a question in his eyes. "I'll make sure your beer is waiting for you when you get back." He slid back down under his covers as Mickey left, turning out the light as he went.
"Beer?" Control asked as he escorted Mickey to his own room.
"Uh, yeah, one of the things we talked about was what we were going to do when we got back. I wanted a beer, a nice, cold, beer."
Control grinned. "Well, I don't see a problem with that, you've certainly earned it. Now, sleep fast, and I'll see you outside in the morning. We can talk some more then."
"All right. Let me know how I can reach Toby, Alex and Chris later, I want to make sure they'll be okay."
"That sounds only fair. Meanwhile, get some sleep. If you're not up in time, I'll leave you behind."
Mickey nodded, knowing that this guy said exactly what he meant. "I'll be there." Control indicated a door and Mickey went in, as indicated. There, like the Holy Grail, was a nice, clean, soft, bed.... He was still barefoot from his shower, so he simply took a swan dive to the mattress and was asleep even before he finished bouncing.
From the doorway, Control watched him. He had a soft smile on his face that anyone who knew him would have wondered about. Turning away, he headed back to where he and McCall had been talking earlier. No sleep for him. He had horses and supplies to set up for the morning...
Mickey awoke with a start. For just a moment, he wondered why, and then remembered. Glancing at his watch, he was relieved to discover that he still had time. Control had said seven, and it was just after six. He stretched, luxuriating in the softness and comfort of the bed, then threw the covers back and sat up, swung his legs over the side and stood. His duffel from the main training facility was in the corner of the room, much to his surprise. He didn't dwell on it, but simply dug through for some clean clothes and dressed. He grinned when he realized that they'd even brought his 'unauthorized' cowboy boots. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, he pulled a long sleeved chambray shirt out, as well. No sense in inviting further sunburn. He sort of wished he had a cowboy hat, but that couldn't be helped.
At twenty minutes after six, he found his way to the mess hall, where he was pleased to find not only food, but Control and McCall as well, just sitting down with food and coffee. Grabbing a mug for himself, he poured his coffee and looked over the selection of breakfast foods. Snagging a tray, he got a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, and hash browns. Pausing, he also picked up three apples and an orange.
When he turned to join the others, he frowned at the scowl on McCall's face as he handed a twenty-dollar bill to Control. Realizing what the bet must have been, he smirked as he sat down and began to eat. "McCall, never bet against me when it comes to my doing something I want to do, "he admonished. Control chuckled, while Robert looked peeved.
"Yes, well, I did rather expect you to sleep somewhat later. The bet wasn't on whether you would make it, but what time you would appear. I bet that you'd get every last moment of sleep you could, only dashing out at the last minute, as we were preparing to leave." He smiled ruefully, "That's a mistake I won't repeat."
Mickey grinned and shoveled in some more eggs. Swallowing, he asked, "How are Alex, Chris, and Toby?"
Control, enigmatic as ever, gave a signal. A man came over with a telephone and set it on the table, plugging it into a nearly invisible connection on the floor. Control handed him the receiver and dialed a number. Mickey listened and when the line was answered, asked about Robinson, Jacobs and Petersen. He was greatly relieved when they allowed him to talk to them; Toby and Chris were going to be released later in the day and return to camp, while Alex was going to be stuck for at least a few more days with his leg in traction. All in all, they were doing just fine, under the circumstances. Mickey was relieved, but tried not to show it. Hanging up the phone, he noticed both McCall and Control watching him with bemused expressions on their faces. With a lopsided grin, he shrugged and went back to eating.
Several more men came in and helped themselves to the food and coffee. Mickey didn't recognize any of them, but from their dress, he figured they were the guys with the horses. None of them approached their table, sitting down together and eating silently. When they had all eaten their fill, they gathered their dishes and put them on the conveyer belt to the kitchen. Mickey peeled and ate his orange, but had squirreled away the three apples in his pockets, for later.
Mickey waited for instructions. Control finally looked at him. "You ever do much riding, Kostmayer?"
"Uh, not really. Pony rides when I was a kid, was about all," Mickey admitted.
Control nodded and grinned at McCall. "Well, come and learn." Turning, he exited the mess hall. Mickey noticed McCall roll his eyes as he turned to follow. Curious, now, he followed them out.
There were six horses outside, tied to a stock trailer. There were three more, with packs already strapped to their backs, tied to a fence. One of the strangers had come out with them. Mickey figured he had to be the man in charge of the horses. Looking them over, the man pointed, first to McCall, then to a tall, rangy looking reddish horse, "You take the sorrel, there. You," he looked Mickey over and frowned. "You get the claybank. You need help gettin' 'em saddled?"
"I'll show them. I'll take the cream," Control turned away and missed the man's surprise at his choice of mounts.
"McCall, what the hell's a 'claybank'?"
Control answered, "The funny looking dun, over there. The one that's the color of Arizona clay."
Mickey looked at his choices, OK, this should be easy enough, the red one was McCall's... the one that was the color of cream was Control's. One of them was a deep, rich red, with black mane, tail, and legs, he knew that color to be bay. Of the three remaining, one was definitely gray, so he had to guess between the last two. One was a yellowish-blackish color, with a paler muzzle and definitely black mane, tail, and legs. The other... claybank. Of course. It was a yellowish-orangish-grayish color, with a darker mane and tail and darker legs, and with a dark line down its back, as well. And it was the color of Texas clay. He grinned and pointed. "That one."
"Yes. Claybank dun. The other colors are grulla, blue roan, and bay." Control opened a compartment in the stock trailer and climbed inside. Mickey and McCall followed.
The compartment was a fully stocked tack room. "We're going to trailer as far as the plateau where we picked you up last night. It's a rough trip, but still faster than riding the entire way. It'll cut a day off our journey, at least." He eyed Mickey and pulled out a saddle. "Hold this, and this, and this." Besides the saddle, there were a saddle pad and blanket, and a bridle. Mickey held the items awkwardly and almost fell out of the trailer, but managed to recover and land upright on the ground. McCall accepted his own tack, and came out to join Mickey. Control came out with his tack, as well as a canvas bag of brushes and other grooming supplies.
Mickey watched and mimicked how the other two men set the saddles down, very carefully, standing on their front ends, with the saddle blanket underneath. He then hung the bridle off the skirt of the saddle, so it didn't drag on the ground. He joined the other two men and watched as Control handed out tools. There was a rubber thing with concentric rings of zig-zag cut edges. There was what looked like a scrub brush, but softer, and a metal hook of some kind. He looked at the items and then looked up in total confusion.
"Uh, so, now what do I do?"
"Watch and learn," was Control's cryptic answer. So, Mickey watched him. First, he untied his horse and moved it away from the others a little bit. Then, he talked to the animal for a moment, petting its head, before turning away and picking up the front foot on that side. Taking the hook thing, he scraped mud and crud from the bottom of the foot, making sure he got around the v-shaped part at the back. Finished, he gently set the foot down, and moved to the back foot on that side. The horse dozed while he worked. He glanced over at McCall, who had also moved his horse to a more clear space. He had begun with the rubber thing, rubbing the horse's body all over with a circular motion. When he finished with that side, he then took the bristle brush and went back over the area, brushing the hair in the right direction.
He wasn't very confident, but he took a deep breath and went up to his assigned horse. The animal looked at him and snorted, moving away from him. Control watched him and frowned. "Kostmayer, take the roan, instead, or the bay."
Mickey frowned, looking at the other two horses. "Uh, why?"
"Because that animal has vertical shoulders, short, vertical pasterns, and an attitude problem. Masur can have him," Control explained. McCall tried to smother a laugh, and failed.
Mickey, frowning, looked at the other two horses he was told he should choose from. Neither animal seemed to be looking at him, but he felt that they knew he was there. He stepped between them, and both animals shifted away, to give him room. Working his way up to their heads, he looked at them both. Both horses were looking at him. The bay seemed to be bored. The roan, on the other hand, seemed to be looking back at him with the same regard. The horse had a kind expression on its face. Hesitantly, he reached out and stroked the animal's face. The horse sighed and closed its eyes.
"Uh, I guess I'll take the roan, here." Gingerly untying the lead rope, he backed the horse away from the trailer. Once they were clear of the others, he turned and led his horse to a clear spot and tied it to a tree. Looking at the tools, he decided to try cleaning the feet, first. Setting the brushes aside, he patted the horse. "Look, I don't know what I'm doing, here, so help me out, will ya?" The horse blew softly through its nose, the nostrils fluttering. "I'll take that as a yes."
He turned away and bent down to try and lift the front foot. For a moment, the horse leaned against him then, just as he was about to give up, the horse shifted and lifted the foot. Mickey looked at the bottom with interest. There was a metal shoe around the outer edge, but open towards the rear. The area in the middle was caked with greenish and brownish 'stuff'. Taking the hook thing, he began prying out the stuff. The smell wasn't the best, but it was far from the worst, either. Much better than dog crap, at least. He had a pretty fair idea of what it was, but ignored it. Copying what he'd seen Control do, he was careful to get the triangular section at the back well cleaned. He set the now-clean foot down and continued to the next one, working his way around to all four feet. When he was finished with that, he straightened up and stretched, leaning far back. He grimaced as he felt his spine crack in several spots, but then the stiffness went away. Grinning, he picked up the rubber thing and started imitating what he'd seen McCall do. The horse grunted and leaned into the pressure.
"Like that, do you?" Mickey murmured, as the horse groaned its pleasure. He chuckled and rubbed even harder. When he shifted to the top of the animal's back, the horse stopped moving, just seeming to enjoy the pleasure of the massage. He worked from the horse's ears down its neck and along the body, then the top of the back. Bending down, he rubbed the stomach and the area between the front legs. He was regarding the place between the hind legs and hesitated. He figured that horses were like dogs, in which case, this was a girl horse. Instead, he began to rub the horse's legs. He was startled when a hand grasped his shoulder and stopped him. He looked up to find Control 'almost' smiling.
"Don't rub the hair on the legs the wrong way, just the way it grows."
Mickey frowned. "Why?" he asked.
Control shrugged. "It irritates them. Just brush with the hair on the legs, and don't use the currycomb on the face at all, just the dandy brush. Make sure you brush the hair on the back, sides, and belly all smooth, in the way the hair grows. If you don't, the saddle can sore her back. Sore back, you can't ride, and it's a long walk."
"Got it. Thanks. So, uh, what did you mean about shoulders and pasterns?" He'd glanced over at the nearly white horse and realized that it was already saddled... and he hadn't seen how it was done. He went back to brushing the horse.
"The longer and more sloped the shoulders and pasterns are, the smoother the ride. Straight shoulders and short, straight pasterns mean that the ride will be rough and choppy, very uncomfortable to ride. If anyone has to ride that thing, it should be our wandering boy."
Mickey looked up at the older man, whom he was surprised to find was brushing the other side of the horse. "That reminds me. He pushed Alex over the cliff. He also told me that he'd tried to kill Toby, by packing his 'chute, wrong. Lucky for him, I got the mis-packed 'chute, and didn't panic, like Toby would have." He looked away, swallowed hard, then continued; knowing what he was about to say could get him into trouble.
"I told him he was going the wrong direction because I knew he'd ignore me and keep going his own way. I kind of thought to just leave him out there, but... well, I couldn't. That's why I told you. So you would know that I didn't do anything to him. I really wanted to, but decided it'd be better to get it done all legal."
McCall was standing and listening to him. Seeing that the horse was groomed, except for her face, he brought over Mickey's saddle, pad, blanket, and bridle. Handing the saddle to Control, he placed the pad up on the horse's back, partly on the horse's neck. Pressing lightly, he slid it back into place, then he shook out the blanket, folded it, and lay it gently atop the pad. Control lifted the saddle into place and let it gently settle on the blanket. McCall unhooked the stirrup from atop the saddle horn, while Control moved the stirrup on his side to the saddle's seat. Mickey watched closely, knowing that in future, he would be expected to do this, himself.
McCall unhooked the girth from where it was tied with the saddle strings and passed the loose end to Control, under the horse's belly. Control bent down, grabbed the girth and pulled it up. Moving slightly to the side, so Mickey could see better, he silently threaded the long, leather strap through the large metal ring on the girth.
"This is a 'latigo'. You run it through the ring, then up through the saddle ring, back down through the girth ring, back up.... You'll notice that it's over the top, under the bottom? That's so when you've taken up all the slack, you can tie it off." He demonstrated. "Now, you grab the latigo between the rings and pull, until you get it snug. Then you tie it off like this. For now, you can leave this. When we get ready to leave, tighten it some more. Even after you get it tight, when we unload them, check it again. You'll see that it's loosened. Hang the bridle and reins on the horn, for now. They don't need to be trailered while bridled."
Mickey nodded. "Uh, you didn't say anything about what I told you."
Control sighed and finally looked at him. "I believe you, but there's no way to prove it. Unfortunately, Masur is being groomed by people higher up than I am. Without incontrovertible proof, there's nothing to be done. Each thing he's done, he's admitted to only one person. I'm sorry. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn't."
"So even though I can testify, and so can Robinson, we're screwed?" Mickey asked quietly as he shook his head in disgust.
"Yeah, even though you both could." Disgust briefly flitted across Control's face, then he added, "Well, we can make the rest of his trip as miserable as possible, without killing him."
McCall pointedly ignored them, but hid a smile. He watched as the emotions chased themselves across Mickey's face, ending with resignation, but then followed by a mischievous little grin.
"We can?" he asked innocently.
Control looked at him and winked. "As long as no one tells on us." He liked this kid. He had moxey enough to drown a lesser man. He smiled at McCall and nodded, giving him a wink, as well. McCall smiled back, understanding. "Well, let's get one last cup of coffee and get this show on the road, shall we?" Control headed back for the mess room, Mickey and McCall following him.
Mickey wasn't sure that riding from the camp might not have been better. The so-called 'road' was hardly designed for a big truck hauling a stock trailer. He hoped the horses were okay. If one of them fell down... he shuddered at the idea. He glanced at the men on either side of him. Control seemed to be dozing, but McCall was holding on, trying not to bounce. Mickey couldn't stop the grin, somehow, he couldn't quite picture McCall in jeans and a plaid shirt, but there he sat, clinging for dear life to the door and the seat in front of them. For himself, Mickey was pretty secure, held firmly in place by the two larger men on either side of him. He glanced again at Control, wondering if he really was sleeping, or just playing 'possum.
He looked at the men in the front seat, they didn't say much, although the one who had told him to take the claybank had glared when he saw what horse he had ended up with. He'd started to say something, Mickey was sure, but Control had stopped him. When Control finished speaking, far too softly to be overheard, the man had simply nodded. He'd been somewhat surprised when only two of the wranglers had come along. They sat in the front seat of the crew-cab truck. The second man looked to be a Native American. He was older than Control, or McCall, but unlike those men, his hair was still nearly all black. He hadn't been introduced to them, so Mickey was curious. The man, like Control, seemed to be asleep.
The road, such as it was, went around the base of the mountain, rather than over the top, the path that Jenkins had taken. It was only marginally wider, but there were fewer turns. It was also longer. What would have been a thirty-five mile long trip on horseback, and taken them all day, was a sixty mile drive, which took them more than four hours. Mickey had no idea how the two men managed to sleep at all, with all the bouncing and swaying.
"How do they do it, McCall?" he finally asked.
McCall, still holding on, glanced at him, not understanding. "How does who do what?"
Mickey pointed with his chin, "Them, how can they sleep through this?"
"Well, as for the gentleman in the front seat, I have no idea. Control is simply tired. He hasn't been to bed since night before last, and that night, he only got about four hours sleep, if that. He's just taking the opportunity to recharge, as it were." He craned his neck so he could see past Mickey to the dozing Control. He was leaning against the door, his arms folded, head bobbing on his chest, seemingly oblivious to the bouncing and swaying of the vehicle. McCall envied him his ability to sleep under almost any conditions. "I rather suspect that it's an ability he's honed through his many years in this business."
"I think it looks like a good idea, to be able to sleep whenever you can snatch some," Mickey murmured. McCall smiled at him and nodded his agreement, still clinging tenaciously to the door and the seat in front of him.
Control awoke. For a few moments, he didn't move or open his eyes; letting his other senses tell him what was going on. Satisfied, he lifted his head, using one hand to rub the back of his neck. Glancing out, he realized they were nearly to their starting off point. He shifted, sitting up straight and looked at his companions. McCall had finally gotten in time with the movement of the vehicle and was fairly relaxed against the other door. Kostmayer was wedged between them, sleeping. Control smiled.
"How long, Perkins?" Control asked the driver.
"'Bout fifteen minutes, sir."
"Excellent." The elderly Indian in the front seat snorted and sat up. Turning to look at Control, he nodded his head; Control smiled at him and returned the gesture.
Twenty minutes later, the vehicle ground to a halt. Mickey awoke with a start when the pressure on either side abruptly eased. He looked around, puzzled at first, then remembered and scrambled out the passenger side. The others were waiting for the trailer to be opened. Mickey came to stand right behind McCall. As soon as the trailer was opened, the Indian man went in to lead the horses out. Perkins simply stood by and watched him, not offering to help at all. First, the saddled horses were brought out and each man took charge of his own mount. Mickey watched closely as Control took the bridle from the saddle horn and placed it on his horse. Mickey tried to copy him, but couldn't seem to get the horse to open her mouth. Control came over to help.
"Slip your thumb in at the corner of her lips, feel the gums there? Press down." Mickey did as instructed and the horse opened her mouth and he managed to get the bit in, then the leather straps of the headstall pulled up over her ears. Reaching under her jaws, he pulled the throatlatch down and buckled it tightly under her left ear.
"Loosen that up about three notches," Control admonished him.
Mickey frowned, "Why?"
"So she can lift her head up and down without it binding...it's sort of like having to wear a collar and tie...the looser it is, the better it feels. It's just to keep the headstall from slipping." Control watched critically as Mickey re-buckled the throatlatch, glancing over to see Control's nod of approval. "Now, tighten up your girth. Don't be surprised if it tightens up a lot. You want to barely be able to slide your hand between the girth and the horse." He watched as Mickey flipped his left stirrup over the seat of the saddle and loosened the knot, and then began pulling up the slack.
Mickey was surprised, by the time the girth was the proper tightness, he'd a loop of leather over a foot long. He finished tightening it, then looked at the long strip of dangling latigo. There wasn't enough to go around another time, and he didn't want to leave it hanging, either. "Uh, what do I do with this?" he finally asked.
"Slide the end through that little keeper down on the girth," the elderly Indian told him. Mickey looked up in surprise, finally hearing the man speak.
The man smiled and pointed. "Keeper. Thread the latigo through the keeper, like on your belt."
Mickey looked down and saw the loop through the yarn of the girth that he hadn't noticed before. "Oh. Right. Got it." He slipped the end of the latigo through the keeper. "Uh, I'm Mickey Kostmayer." He held out his hand. The old man looked at him in surprise. Recovering, he shook Mickey's hand. There was no 'hand crushing' intimidation between them, simply two men introducing themselves.
"You can call me 'Sky Hunter'." He smiled when Mickey didn't even blink. Turning away, he caught Control watching them, an enigmatic expression on his face.
Perkins, looking rather surly, Mickey thought, was tightening the saddle on the grulla. Sky Hunter stopped him. "I see to my own animals," he admonished, taking the horse and leading it away. Perkins noticed Control watching him, and turned away to take the bay.
Control frowned, and continued to watch.
Mickey admitted to not knowing much at all about horses, or any other kinds of animals, but he thought that Perkins seemed inordinately rough with them. He moved quickly, which he remembered from the pony rides of his childhood that you weren't supposed to do. The horses all seemed to flinch every time the man came near them. He didn't know what was going on, but Mickey felt definitely uneasy about it. He looked at the others. McCall seemed oblivious, Sky Hunter watched, but said nothing. Control was watching with narrowed eyes. Something was going on, and Mickey determined to keep an eye on everyone and everything.
Once they were all mounted, Sky Hunter led the way, followed by Mickey, Control, McCall, and Perkins, bringing up the rear, leading the pack horses and the saddled claybank. The trip that had taken Mickey most of a day, dragging Alex in the travois, took just over an hour on horseback. They stopped to let the horses drink, to dismount and stretch. Mickey frowned as he saw Perkins jerk the lead rope of the claybank, and the way the horse pinned his ears in annoyance. He noticed that Control was also watching Perkins. When Perkins slapped the bay he'd been riding, for no discernable reason, as far as Mickey was concerned, he called him on it.
"Hey, that horse didn't do anything. What'd you hit it for?" Mickey demanded.
"Stay out of it, greenhorn. You don't know what you're talking about."
"Maybe he doesn't, but I do, and he's right. What's wrong with you, Perkins? I swear you deliberately hit every bump, rut and pothole getting to the plateau. You're manhandling the horses like you have a personal grudge against them. What's going on?"
Control was calm. Too calm, Mickey thought. His impressions were substantiated when he noticed McCall drifting closer. Sky Hunter remained with his horse, watching, but not interfering.
Perkins' shoulders were high and his face was pinched and tight. Mickey watched him closely, waiting to see what would happen.
"Nothin's wrong with me," Perkins snarled, glaring, not at Control, but at Sky Hunter.
Mickey frowned, glancing at the Indian. The man hadn't done anything that Mickey could see to cause any problems. He turned back to Perkins' confrontation with Control.
"Oh?" Control's voice was soft as a whisper, but carried like a shout. "You don't like Mr. Hunter? Any particular reason?" Perkins practically squirmed. Control's eyes narrowed. "I trust it's not due to Mr. Hunter's ethnicity?" he was practically purring. Mickey was watching Perkins and realized, as he was sure Control did, that that was precisely the problem. Mickey frowned, wondering why it was any kind of problem.
Perkins scowled and looked away. "We're wasting time. We should get moving."
"Take the bay and go back. You can stay with the rig until we return. Or, you can go back to the camp. If you do, however, you know the consequences." Control turned away, back to his horse, which was still drinking. Pulling gently on the reins, the horse lifted her head and dribbled water from her lips. Tossing her head a few times, she pulled at the reins, asking to have some more water. Control placed his hand on the horse's chest, between the front legs and then allowed the horse to continue drinking.
Perkins stood watching, his mouth agape. "You're firing me? Over some over-the-hill, would-be Geronimo?"
Mickey tensed, as did the others, even Sky Hunter. Control kept his back to Perkins when he answered.
"Leave the horse at the camp. You and your men be gone by the time we get back. I advise you to start now, before I decide to make you walk." He turned, his pale blue eyes searing into the larger man's soul. "I'll take one of Mr. Hunter over a thousand of you, in any situation, at any time, and in any place."
Perkins snarled, snatched up the reins of the bay and flung himself into the saddle. He jerked the horse's head around, only to be stopped by Sky Hunter, who blocked his path.
McCall, understanding what was going on, stepped up to Perkins. "The pack animals stay with us, if you don't mind, Mr. Perkins." Perkins unlooped the lead rope from his saddle horn and threw it at McCall. When he looked for Sky Hunter, he had moved out of his way. Driving his spurs into his horse, he drove the horse into a startled gallop up the path towards the plateau.
"Anybody want to explain all that to me?" Mickey asked, still not understanding.
"Mr. Hunter is probably the finest tracker in the country," Control explained. "It would seem that Mr. Perkins doesn't care for the fact that Mr. Hunter is a Canadian."
Sky Hunter's face cracked into wrinkles surrounding a broad smile as he began to laugh.
Mickey frowned and looked at McCall, who was rolling his eyes and trying not to smile. "Huh?"
Control gave him a mild look. "Mr. Hunter is from Canada."
"I thought... well, that he was an Indian." Mickey's confusion was obvious.
Sky Hunter took pity on him. "I am, Mr. Kostmayer, I'm Cree, and I do come from Canada. Glacier Eyes was just being his usual self, I'm afraid." He shook his head and chuckled, and then turned back to his horse. "In the meantime, we need to get going. Thunderstorms this afternoon. I want to be under cover before they hit." He checked his girth, then swung up into his saddle and, without waiting to see if they followed, started to follow the path that Mickey remembered Jason having taken.
Mickey, still right behind Sky Hunter, watched in amazement as the man followed Jason's trail. Occasionally, Mickey could spot some sign, like a footprint in the mud, but for the most part, he couldn't see much of anything to follow. He determined to find out, if possible, how to do this.
McCall was still behind Mickey, and was watching the surrounding area, watching for any sign of their missing recruit. Control brought up the rear, with the packhorses and the extra riding horse.
Control began to chuckle, as they paused to let the horses drink, again. Sky Hunter grinned back, and then turned back to watch his horse, gently rubbing it's chest.
"What?" Mickey asked, confused.
Control pointed to some marks on the stream bank. "He fell in, here, and slipped again, trying to get out. Probably..." he leaned down to touch the marks, "Last night?" He looked to Sky Hunter, who shook his head.
"Yesterday morning," he announced. Control grinned and nodded, accepting the expert's pronouncement.
Mickey looked. He could barely see anything at all, but when he shifted, he could make out the faint traces of something sliding in the mud. "Show me how you can tell what happened?" he asked in fascination.
Control raised an eyebrow in surprise. "You should ask Sky Hunter, he's the real expert."
"But you saw this. Show me how you could tell what happened, and how you know it was yesterday?"
Control contemplated the younger man, then looked at Sky Hunter with a question in his eyes. Seeing the older man nod almost infinitesimally, he turned back to Mickey. "Look at this, see the footprint in the mud in the stream?"
"Yeah?" Mickey had to squint to see the indicated marks in the water.
"From the way it is smeared? That indicates he slipped. So, you look onto the shore, see this?" 'This' was some scuffmarks, where the pebbles had been compressed and dragged through the dirt/mud.
"Yeah. I see it." He looked hard, and pieced it together. "He stepped here, it moved under him, and he stepped into the water, right?" He looked up and saw Control nod. He also noticed Sky Hunter smiling and nodding.
"Good. So, you see over here?" He pointed to the 'slide' marks again.
Mickey frowned and put it together again. "He fell into the water and when he tried to get out, he slid and got himself soaked and covered in mud?"
Control chuckled and slapped him on the shoulder. "Right. Now, Sky Hunter, here, could tell us the time within an hour, and tell us which knee hit, and whether he landed on his back, or not. The best I can do, is tell you that he slipped and stepped into the water, then fell and slid through the mud." He stood and turned to his horse, checking its girth.
"Sky Hunter, how much further do you want to go, today?"
"He's still most of a day ahead of us...." He looked at the sky. "Storm in about two hours. We should look for shelter, soon."
"Won't the rain wash away the tracks?" Mickey asked.
"Yes, but not all signs will be lost. This man knows nothing. He is not trying to hide, he is afraid, and not very smart. We will find him tomorrow, or the next day. He is near water, so he will survive."
"Perhaps we should continue, then?" McCall suggested. "In two hours, we can, hopefully, find adequate shelter. I would not care to lose any of the horses to a lightning strike."
"Agreed," Control said, checking his horse. "If everyone is ready, let's go."
They mounted up and continued their journey.
The terrain became rougher as they followed the stream. In some places, the water had cut deeply into the mountainside, and they had to jump over some of the feeder streams. The first time, Mickey hesitated, watching how the others did it. Sky Hunter just seemed to sit there as his horse broke into a trot and arced easily over the gap in the trail. McCall followed, kicking his horse into a trot and standing up in his stirrups as he leaned forward while they jumped.
"Just don't hold on with the reins," Control warned him as he nudged his own horse into a trot to take the jump, the packhorses following along behind him. While everyone waited and watched, Mickey took a deep breath, muttered to his horse to please not dump him off and kicked his heels hard into the horse's sides. With a startled grunt, the horse leaped from a standstill, barely clearing the ditch. Mickey, unprepared, only remained aboard because he'd locked one hand around the saddle horn and clung for dear life. Stopping by the others, he blushed, expecting them to tease him about his lack of skill.
"Next time, get a bit of a faster start and she'll jump a little more smoothly," Sky Hunter suggested.
"Also, if you rise a bit in your stirrups and lean forward, with your hands on the animal's neck, you'll be able to balance a bit better, as well," McCall added.
Mickey only nodded, embarrassed by his lack of skill, even though it was the first time he'd ever been on a real horse, let alone jumped.
"Not bad for your first time," Control murmured softly for his ears alone as they continued their journey.
Mickey looked at him in surprise, followed quickly with gratitude. He grinned and sat a bit more erect as he fell into line.
Thirty minutes later, Sky Hunter called a halt. They were at one end of a canyon, and with a storm coming, they didn't want to be trapped there. Looking around, he pointed with his chin towards a faint game trail that climbed the steep canyon wall. "We'll go up there. We might find a cave, or maybe a little sheltered area. If we have to, we'll go up on the top and find a hollow to shelter in." He turned his horse's head and nudged it into a slow walk, allowing the animal to pick its careful way up the nearly invisible trail.
Control turned to Mickey, "Let your reins hang loose so your horse can pick its way up the trail. If you need to feel safe, hang on to the saddle horn. Don't try to change directions, as the horse will pick her way up, finding the safest path. Lean forward going up, it helps the horse, and don't be surprised if she breaks into a trot or even a gallop to get up the steeper parts, okay?"
Mickey was unable to keep his fear from showing. "Just let go of the reins?" he asked.
"Trust your horse. She doesn't want to get hurt, either. She's mountain trained and sure-footed. You'll be just fine, if you don't panic."
Mickey nodded, still uncertain, then nudged his legs against his horse's sides and followed Hunter and McCall up the trail.
If he survived, he would never again think of horseback riding as something just anyone could do. Several times during the climb, he considered getting off the horse and climbing on foot, but changed his mind when he looked down and realized that to get off would most likely result in his sliding to the bottom of the mountain.
Sky Hunter vanished around a curve in the mountain and almost immediately called back. "Be careful to let your horse have its head, here."
McCall, following several yards back cursed when he got around the bend, but that was about all.
Mickey, following, felt suddenly dizzy and immediately broke out in a sweat. Remembering what Control had told him, he let the reins lie loosely on his horse's neck, while he gripped the saddle horn with both hands, closed his eyes and began to pray. He felt the horse place one hoof on the smooth sheet of granite that curved down to the valley below. The hoof slid a bit and the horse picked it back up and re-placed it more securely. One hesitant step at a time, they navigated the enormous rock, safely.
When he no longer heard the ring of iron shoes against stone, he opened his eyes. Looking back, he saw Control crossing the terrifying space. From this angle, he could see that the granite was just a giant boulder. It was a good twenty feet wide, and was not quite horizontal, sloping towards the valley below. One slip, and the fall would be a couple of hundred feet. Control sat easily in his saddle, his left hand holding the reins loosely as he balanced and let his horse pick its way across the boulder. The packhorses crossed the rock with no difficulty.
Soon after, the path widened out so that they could ride two abreast. McCall dropped back next to Mickey and glanced over. The younger man was obviously still shaken by the recent crossing of the granite.
"Are you all right, Mickey?"
"Oh, yeah, just wonderful, McCall." They rode for a few moments in silence, then Mickey continued, "Uh, are we going to have to come back this way?"
"I rather doubt it. More likely we'll go back through the canyon."
"Why didn't we go through the canyon now? That's the way Masur went."
"Yes, but there's a storm coming. You don't want to be in a canyon or streambed when it rains, here. Too much chance of being overtaken by a flash flood."
Mickey was from Texas and knew about the dangers of flash floods. He nodded his understanding. "Hopefully, the rain will be gone when we go back," he muttered, with a hopeful tone in his voice.
"Yes. That would be nice," McCall agreed.
After climbing steadily for nearly an hour, they reached an area that leveled off. Crossing the level ground, Hunter led them into some trees. There, they found a good shelter. It wasn't much, as caves go, being somewhat too shallow to provide a lot of protection, but it would get them mostly out of the weather and would give them a windbreak, at least, depending on which way the wind was blowing.
Mickey watched and copied what the others did. First, of course, they dismounted. Next, they unbuckled the bridles and attached the lead ropes to the halters the riding horses wore under them. Then, they pulled the bridles off and hung them from the saddle horns. After that, they led the horses closer to the cave. Control took Hunter's lead rope and held his horse for him as the elderly Indian got the picket line from one of the pack horses. Choosing two stout trees well sheltered from any weather, he stretched the rope, tying it to his two chosen trees. He then took some metal rings and attached them to the rope, pulling a loop through each ring and then pulling it back over the ring, locking it in place. Satisfied that the picket line was high enough for safety, with the tie-rings spaced properly, he took back his horse and tied it to one of the rings. The others followed suit.
Control stopped Mickey as he was tying a knot in his lead rope. "Not like that." He admonished, placing one hand over Mickey's and taking the rope from him. "Like this. First, it has to be long enough for the horse to graze, but not so long as she can tangle herself. This is how to tie the proper knot...." He pushed a loop of the rope through the ring and made a loop from the hanging end, which he pushed through the first loop, then he made another loop and fed that loop through the second loop, and kept adding to the loop chain, until there wasn't enough rope left for any more. Seeing Mickey's confusion, he smiled and explained.
"It's called a safety knot. You pull on the loose end and it all comes undone." He demonstrated, much to Mickey's surprised pleasure.
"Let me try that?"
"Sure. You need to know how to do it, anyway." Control watched, nodding his approval as the younger man successfully recreated the knot.
Control nodded. "Good enough."
"Why do you keep making loops?"
Control smiled. "It keeps from having a long, dangling end that a horse might decide to play with. If you have one that likes to play with the rope, you feed the tail end through the last loop and tighten it just enough to keep it from falling out."
Mickey nodded his comprehension. "Cool." He followed Control as he returned to the packhorses. "How come you brought so much stuff?" It seemed that three heavily laden packhorses were just a bit much.
"None of them are carrying over a hundred and fifty pounds. We have to pack feed for the horses, just in case there's no decent grazing, and in these mountains, that's normal. One of them is carrying pellets, one is carrying some grain and food for us, and the third is carrying the tents, bedrolls, and stove."
Mickey blinked in surprise. "Stove?"
"Propane. Safer than an open fire. Don't want to burn the forest down, now, so we?"
"Uh, yeah." He looked around. Except for the grove of trees they were in, he hadn't seen nearly enough to call anything a 'forest'.
Taking pity on the confused ex-SEAL, Control explained. "This is officially a national forest. No trees, but it is protected wildlands. They just use 'forest' to designate it as nationally protected, I suppose."
"Don't make much sense to me, but then, I'm not in charge." Mickey grinned and helped to tie up the packhorses, then stayed to help unload them. Once the packs were unloaded and put in the cave, he followed the others back to unsaddle his horse and again brush her. Once they were clean and dry, they put blankets on them to protect them from the rain. Finally, he helped fill and distribute the nosebags for the animals to eat.
Finally, once the horses were taken care of, it was time to put up their tent. They'd just begun when it began to rain. By the time they'd gotten the tent up, they were all soaked to the skin. Mickey realized, belatedly, that he hadn't packed anything for overnight. Shivering, he followed the others into the three-room cabin tent. Hunter set up the propane stove in the screen-room of the tent and put on a pot of coffee to boil.
Control pulled off his boots and socks, setting them in the screen-room, near the stove. Shivering just as much as the others were, he started unrolling the sleeping bags, hoping that the activity would help to warm him.
Hunter, just as cold as the rest of them and who had also come without extra clothing, pulled some lightweight blankets from one of the packs. Handing them out, he explained, "Get out of your wet clothes and wrap up in these. I'll string a clothesline and they'll hopefully dry by morning." The four men were soon dry and considerably warmer, wrapped in the blankets, their clothes hung to dry across the screen-room.
The cave, such as it was, provided just enough protection from the storm that with just the heat from the propane stove and their own body heat, they were soon warm and comfortable.
Sitting on their sleeping bags, the room divider pulled back and tied, the four men settled themselves and huddled into their blankets, sipping mugs of hot, strong, black coffee. McCall grimaced at how strong the brew was, but didn't complain about the lack of additives for it.
Control had brought his saddlebags in with him. Once he was thawed out, he reached over and pulled a bottle from one bag. He removed the cap and held it up to offer to the others. McCall immediately held out his mug, grateful for the addition of some of Control's very good brandy. Nothing was said as Control topped up McCall's mug. Mickey held his mug out, as well, looking hopeful.
Control almost grinned. "Say when." He poured perhaps an ounce when Mickey signaled he had enough. Sky Hunter shook his head at the offer.
"Thank you, Glacier Eyes, but you know I don't drink the White Man's poison."
"I know, old friend, but I still need to make the offer. However...." He dug again into his saddlebags and pulled out a small bag of something. Turning again to the elderly Indian, he held it out.
Sky Hunter's face wrinkled up in pleasure. He knew what the bag contained. It was hard to come by, here, and he seldom went home, so the gift was accepted with gratitude. "Kinnickkinnick?" he asked, just to make sure.
"Of course. Although how you can possibly smoke that stuff is beyond me," Control replied.
Hunter laughed, "Like your tobacco, it's an acquired taste. I promise not to smoke any, now, as it would be discourteous to drive you out into the storm."
"Besides which, you'll most likely save it for ceremonial purposes, knowing you."
Mickey frowned, confused. "Uh, you guys are friends?"
Sky Hunter roared with laughter, while Control glared; even McCall had to chuckle.
"You might say that," Control admitted. "He's my uncle."
Mickey's confusion mounted. "Uncle?"
"Honorary title, I assure you," Sky Hunter said, still chuckling. He turned to Control and shook his head at him. "You should not be so enigmatic with the boy, Msakamiy Skizhig."
Control, already under the influence of the brandy, combined with his elderly friend, nodded. "I suppose so." He turned to the others, to explain.
"Sky Hunter was a POW with my father, during the second World War." He smiled in gratitude to the old man. "He helped make sure my father survived."
McCall looked surprised. In all the years he'd known Control, never once had he mentioned any family. He looked at the old Cree and cocked his head in question. The old man smiled.
"His father was far wiser than his years. When his plane went down, he made sure his crew got out safely, then steered the plane, as it was headed for a school. He survived the crash, obviously, but was badly injured."
Control nodded. "Broke both legs. It took him years to recover."
"That was because he did not receive proper care with the Germans. They set his bones and put him in casts, but then left him in the camp, with no further medical care. He wore those casts for six months."
"Six months?" Mickey blurted. "Hell, he's lucky he didn't develop gangrene!"
Control smiled. "That's where Hunter came in. He took care of my father the entire time."
Sky Hunter smiled and shrugged. "He was the only man who treated me as a white man. Of course, I knew who he was, or at least 'what'. Fortunately, the others did not, or his treatment by the Germans would have been much different."
"Why?" McCall asked, curious. The thought of learning anything about his superior and his past fascinated him; not that he'd ever use it against him, or for his own gain.
"In the plane, he took off his officer's insignia and hid them; he took his dog tags and hid them, as well. Then, he dragged himself from the pilot's seat to the back of the plane, to one of the gunner's spots. There, he just waited for the Germans to come and get him."
Mickey frowned in confusion. "Why would that make any difference, whether or not he had his dog tags or rank insignia?"
"He was a high ranking officer, one they would have tortured for secrets." Hunter nodded to Control, "He was a tough son-of-a-bitch, they'd have never broken him, but he would probably not have survived."
Finally understanding, Mickey nodded. "Must have been a full bird, huh?"
"Something like that," Control answered, smiling a secretive smile to himself. McCall frowned; his eyes narrowed, realizing that there was something very important that was not being said.
Sky Hunter smiled at the son of his friend. "So, Msakamiy Skizhig, are you up to some mechehek?" He took a small bag from his saddlebags and cast a questioning eye at Control.
Control smiled, grateful for the change in subject. "All right, but I haven't played since the last time. As I recall, you beat the pants off of me."
"Ah, but you were just a boy, then, without the experience you have gained since you grew up. Do I need to remind you of the rules?"
"Good idea. I suppose that you want to play for cash?"
The old man smiled, slyly. "Of course."
McCall and Kostmayer watched in fascination as Hunter emptied the small bag. Inside were two pieces of bone, three sticks, and a small hand drum. He handed one of the pieces of bone, the undecorated one, to his opponent. Control put his hands under his blanket and moved his hands, obviously passing the piece of bone from one hand to the other. Hunter did the same. When they decided that the other man couldn't know where their piece was, they pulled their hands out, holding their fists out. Each man spoke their guess.
Neither man guessed correctly, so they repeated their actions. Again they guessed, this time, both guessed correctly, so they did it again. This time, only Control guessed right. He received both pieces, and one of the sticks, indicating he'd won a point. He again hid his hands, only this time, he also put his hands behind his back, constantly switching the pieces from one hand to the other. Finally, he held out both fists, then crossed his arms.
Sky Hunter frowned. The younger man showed absolutely nothing in his expression. He pointed to Control's right hand. Control smiled and held out his hands, opening them to show what each hand held. Although he held a piece in each hand, the right hand held the decorated piece. Sky Hunter grunted, then smiled, handing over a second tally stick.
"You have indeed grown wily, Msakamiy Skizhig. You are more like Wagoc, now, I see."
Control grinned. "I suppose I play this game all the time, just not in this manner."
Hunter laughed. "Yes, I suppose so. Again, let me see if I have any skills left."
Control again hid his hands, swaying to distract his opponent, passing the two pieces between his hands, finally holding out his fists before again crossing his arms. Hunter looked Control square in the eyes, and saw only amusement in the blue orbs. There was a thaw to their usual icy demeanor, however. Choosing at random, he again pointed to Control's right hand. Again, he was wrong. Control was given the third and last tally stick. Once more, Control shifted the pieces between his hands, his body weaving, his hands moving quickly, under the blanket, behind his back, constantly moving, never still. Finally, he once again held out his fists, then crossed his arms.
Hunter, shaking his head, pointed. When Control held out his hands, Hunter cried out in triumph.
Control chuckled and handed over the pieces. Hunter put his hands beneath his blanket and duplicated as Control had done. When he was satisfied, he held out his hands, and then crossed his arms. Control stared him in the eyes, then pointed. Hunter shook his head in sadness, opening his hands and showing that Control had guessed correctly. He passed back the pieces.
Again, Control rocked his body as he passed the pieces from one hand to another, Mickey could almost hear the music in the man's movements, and unknowingly mimicked the movement. Sky Hunter watched him and smiled at Control, giving him a nod of approval. Control grinned and again held out his hands for his opponent to choose.
Sky Hunter cried out in dismay when he again chose wrong.
"By the way, how much are we playing for?" Control asked, handing the decorated piece back to Hunter.
"Well, considering how much better you play than last time, a dollar a game?"
Control roared with laughter and McCall and Kostmayer laughed, as well. "Done!" Control agreed.
After winning the next two games, Control suggested that one of the others play. They all looked at Mickey, who blinked in surprise. "Who, me?"
"Why not?" Control asked, his voice silky. McCall recognized that tone of voice. Mickey was being tested, and Control seemed to be rather expectant of the results. Shifting, in order to better watch the action, he paid close attention as the game continued; this time, between Sky Hunter and Kostmayer.
Mickey quickly lost the first two games, then figured out how to hide his knowledge of the location of the unmarked game piece when he had both pieces, and how to read Hunter's eyes when the older man had them. He won the next two games, then McCall called a halt to the game, as their supper was ready to eat.
Hunter put the game pieces away and they ate their meal. Afterwards, despite the earliness of the hour, Control suggested that they make an early night of it, as the storm was still raging and they'd need to make haste in the morning, to find Masur.
Control, having had so little sleep the preceding two days, fell quickly into slumber. McCall frowned, knowing his friend wasn't usually the kind to sleep easily in the presence of strangers. Obviously, he trusted Sky Hunter. Possibly even more than he trusted McCall, himself.
Sky Hunter cocked his head at McCall, his eyes twinkling in the light of the propane stove. "You wonder how he trusts me?"
"The question had crossed my mind." McCall glanced over to see that Mickey was also sound asleep.
"His father and I saved each other's lives. When he calls me 'uncle', it is much the same as when his father calls me 'brother'. Not by blood, but by choice and circumstance."
McCall nodded. He had many questions, but knew better than to ask. Control trusted this man enough to sleep: that meant that he could be trusted with secrets. "That is often better than blood, I've learned."
"Yes. Such family will not betray, even on pain of death."
McCall had no response to that, so he opened up his sleeping bag and crawled in. Despite his curiosity, he quickly fell asleep.
Once the others were sleeping, Sky Hunter turned off the stove and crawled into his own sleeping bag. He lay awake a long time, listening to the rain falling outside. He could hear the horses shuffling about as they searched for any grass nearby. Finally, the sound of the rain lulled him to sleep, as well.
Mickey awoke in pain and with his bladder screaming at him. Stifling his moan, he crawled out of his sleeping bag. Cautiously making his way into the screen room of the tent, he found and checked his clothes. They were dry, but cold. Shivering, he quickly pulled on his pants and t-shirt. Not bothering with his socks or boots, he slipped outside. It had stopped raining some time during the night, although the sky was still filled with clouds. Cautiously making his way away from the tent and the horses, he allowed his groan of pain to escape. He ached in places he hadn't realized he had; a lot of muscles had definitely gotten stretched in new and unusual ways. After relieving himself, he cautiously stretched, trying to relieve the pain and stiffness, to no avail. Sighing, he made his way back to the tent and inside. He was cold, now, his feet feeling like blocks of ice. Shivering, he crawled back into his sleeping bag.
"Here. Take these," Control's voice softly spoke, startling Mickey.
"Shit, man. Don't do that."
"You should have noticed I was up," Control replied, still with a lowered voice so as to not awaken the other two men. "Here." He handed something to the younger man.
"What is it?" Mickey asked, uncertain.
"Aspirin. It'll help with the sore muscles. Also, before we get started, I've got some liniment for you to use. It'll warm those sore muscles and help keep you from getting any more sore."
Mickey took the tablets and swallowed them dry, then accepted the canteen from the older man and took a few quick swallows, before handing it back. "Why not use it now?"
Control chuckled. "All right. Here." He handed Mickey a jar filled with a wintergreen-scented ointment. "Make sure you rub it in good, then keep your hands away from your eyes. It doesn't take a lot, either. Be sure to get the muscles just above your knees."
Mickey grunted an acknowledgement and dipped his fingers into the cold ointment. Awkwardly, he applied the stuff to his lower back, rubbing it in. At first, it went on cold, but as he rubbed it in, he felt the chemical warmth soaking in and soothing his aching muscles. He then did as instructed, rubbing it in above his knees. Finished, he moved to hand the ointment back, but realized that Control had gotten back into his own sleeping bag and appeared to be sleeping, once more.
Shrugging, Mickey set the jar down and snuggled back down into his own sleeping bag and quickly fell asleep, as well.
It was full daylight before he again awoke, this time to the smell of coffee and... oatmeal? He opened his eyes and looked around. Sure enough, there sat Sky Hunter, stirring a pot of oatmeal. Glancing around, he noticed that Control's sleeping bag was rolled up and tied, ready to be repacked on the horse. McCall was still asleep, so Mickey didn't feel too badly about sleeping so late.
Crawling out from his sleeping bag, he quickly rolled it up and tied it. Then he grabbed his socks from the makeshift clothesline and, using his sleeping bag as a chair, pulled them on, and then slid into his boots after he stood back up. Pulling his long-sleeved shirt off the line, he put it on. Turning, he was met with a silent Hunter, holding out a mug of coffee. Taking it gratefully, he sipped cautiously at the scalding hot brew
"Thanks. Where's Control?"
"Outside," was the enigmatic reply. Mickey just blinked. Sky Hunter laughed and continued. "He's communing with nature."
Understanding, Mickey grinned.
"So, how are the muscles, this morning?"
"Better, thanks. Control gave me some aspirin and liniment, earlier. I guess I woke him up when I went out to 'commune with nature'."
Sky Hunter laughed. "Glacier Eyes learned long ago to carry the liniment. He also knows to use it before riding, after riding, and in the middle of the night, if necessary." Mickey joined him in laughter.
"Well, it sure saved me. I didn't know riding was so much work."
"And if you'd ridden that claybank, you'd have been about ten times more sore," Control said from behind him.
Mickey nodded his agreement. "So, do you think we'll find Jason today?" He took another sip of his coffee.
"Today or tomorrow," Sky Hunter replied. "Depending on his condition, it will then take us two or three days to get back."
Somehow, Mickey didn't think that Control would be sharing his liniment with the errant trainee.
McCall appeared, looking disheveled and grumpy. "I'm getting too old for this crap, Control," he grumbled, accepting the mug of coffee that seemed to magically appear at hand.
Control laughed. For any who knew him only from The Company, the man was acting totally out of character. To those who knew him better, however, they would have recognized that Control had released much of his cold, hard persona and was relaxed. Whether it was the company or simply being out and away from the day-to-day grind was the question. Not that he was likely to answer it.
They ate their breakfast of oatmeal and coffee and then packed up their camp and loaded the packhorses, before saddling their mounts. Despite feeling better after the liniment and aspirin, of which he'd taken some more with his morning coffee, Mickey had to stifle a groan as his muscles protested being again stretched as he got on his horse. McCall smiled at him in commiseration, his own muscles were just as sore, but he was better able to hide it. Control, on the other hand, seemed looser and more comfortable than the day before, causing the other two Company men to frown at him in confusion.
"All right, Control; why aren't you hurting?" McCall grumbled.
"I recall offering you some liniment before we started, yesterday, old son. You were the one who decided not to avail yourself of it," Control answered with a grin.
"You didn't offer me any," Mickey groused.
The older men looked at him. Control nodded. "My apologies. You're right, I should have offered. I'm afraid it didn't occur to me that a kid who grew up in Texas didn't know how to ride. At your age, you shouldn't be hurting much by tonight."
Mickey's eyebrows went up in disbelief, "Yeah, sure," he muttered.
Sky Hunter agreed. "You are young and your muscles will stretch and relax today. By the time we get back to the camp, you will no longer hurt."
Mickey just shook his head, not believing them.
Sky Hunter led the way across the plateau. Several times, they stopped and the elderly man made his way to the cliff, to look down to try and spot their missing quarry. Finally, at mid-afternoon, he looked over the edge and grunted. "He is there, on a ledge, with the water still running below him. We will camp here and get him tomorrow."
Control dismounted and took a look for himself. There was a wicked gleam in his eyes when he turned back to his companions. "Let's set up camp, gentlemen." He again held both his and Sky Hunter's horses, as well as the pack string and spare saddle horse's leads while Sky Hunter, with the help of Mickey, strung the picket line. Meanwhile, McCall began clearing a space for their tent and fire ring. Once the horses were tended to and the tent set up and their sleeping bags laid out, McCall tilted his head to one side and regarded his superior.
"I know you've something unpleasant planned for our wayward recruit," McCall challenged.
Control smiled. "Right now, all I have planned is finding us some fresh meat. Would you prefer rabbit, or something more substantial?" He looked over at Sky Hunter, who made a hand gesture. Control nodded. "Like venison?"
"Is it hunting season?" Mickey asked.
"I can hunt whenever I wish, as a first nations person," Sky Hunter explained. "There are deer and antelope tracks," he gestured to the surrounding area.
"Sounds good to me," Mickey agreed, and then looked at McCall for concurrence.
"Either sounds better than those scrawny jackrabbits that live here," McCall agreed.
"Big game it is, then," Control smiled. "You two just kick back and relax. You can watch Masur if you want, but don't let him know we've found him, all right?" The two men nodded and watched as Control and Sky Hunter set off on foot, disappearing almost immediately into the brush.
"How the hell do they do that, McCall?"
"Years of practice, my boy. Years of practice." He took a deep breath and looked around. "Shall we go and watch Jason for a bit?"
Mickey grinned. "You're on."
The two men crept to the edge of the cliff and, lying on their stomachs, inched forward until they could see down to where Jason Masur was huddled on his ledge, about forty feet below them. The water was receding rapidly, now that the storm of the day before had ended higher up the watershed. Jason was shivering, his sleeping bag wrapped around him. The man looked wet and miserable, even from that distance. Creeping back, they stood up and headed silently back to their camp.
"He's gonna freeze tonight," Mickey murmured.
"Not if he stays where he is," McCall replied. "He's actually fairly well sheltered, on that ledge."
"Not if the wind picks up," Mickey disagreed.
"Well, let's wait until the others get back and see what they want to do." McCall was rather glad he didn't have to make the decisions on this; although, it would be difficult to get the foolish recruit up the cliff face. He was definitely going to let Control decide what to do on this one. Instead, he and Mickey set to work gathering firewood, while awaiting the return of their companions.
It was good to be out and away from reality for even a short time. He hadn't hunted for food in years, nor had he taken the time to visit with the few friends he had. It was nice, this. Hunter didn't talk much, but then, they didn't' need to. It was interesting, how easily they fell back into the habits learned when he'd been a boy and Hunter had first taught him to hunt. He even remembered the sign language, much to the old man's secret delight, he was sure.
His tracking skills, never of the caliber of the old man's, but still good enough to find sign and track a deer, or antelope, as the case might be, were working just fine. Gazing down at the sign, he glanced over at the old man, "Antelope?" he asked. It seemed that the tracks were somewhat broader than he thought a deer's track should be, plus, it was also smaller than he remembered.
"You remember well."
"I've never hunted antelope, the tracks just didn't seem quite the same," he admitted.
The old man laughed. "You do well to remember anything, Msakamiy Skizhig. You hunt people, now, not game."
Control rose from where he'd been examining the tracks. He answered softly, "We all do what we feel we must, Uncle."
"So we do, Nephew." He smiled and clapped the younger man on the shoulder and turned to follow the sign, sure that his pseudo-nephew would follow.
Control watched his foster uncle for a moment, then, shaking his head, followed.
The antelope was young, probably born in the spring of the previous year. He was young and foolish, and Control killed him with a single shot. Sky Hunter was pleased, considering the younger man had used a pistol, not a rifle. "Good shot," he praised as they approached the dead animal.
Control scowled down at the dead animal. "Not really, I was aiming at his left eye." His shot had entered just below the animal's ear, severing its spine. It was three inches from where he'd been aiming.
"Good enough, although, I'd have gone for a heart or lung shot, myself." Sky Hunter bent down and used his boot knife to begin dressing out the antelope.
"I know. But this way, he never had any adrenaline surge, so the meat won't be quite as gamy, as I recall."
Sky Hunter smiled and nodded. "Good point."
Between them, they had the dead antelope bled, skinned, gutted, and cut into manageable pieces within twenty minutes. Using the hide to carry the meat, and the long leg bones as handles, they carried it between them back to camp.
Kostmayer and McCall rose to meet them as they returned. Both men moved to help them carry it the last few yards. Mickey frowned. "What kind of deer is this?"
"Pronghorn," Sky Hunter replied. "Smaller than the deer or elk, but he will provide food for us tonight and tomorrow, at least." He sat down and began cutting the carcass into smaller pieces, preparatory to cooking it.
"Hopefully, we'll be getting home the day after tomorrow," McCall muttered.
"How's our wandering boy doing?" Control asked, as he began building a spit to roast the meat on.
"He's still on his ledge," McCall announced.
"Shivering," Mickey added. Control stopped what he was doing and looked up, waiting for more information. Seeing that, Mickey continued. "I think his stuff got wet, so he's still damp and cold. The water level's dropped to almost nothing, but he's showing no sign of moving. I think he's scared that another flash flood might come by, or that the bottom will be too muddy for him to pass."
Control glanced at McCall, who shrugged and nodded. "He's right. What do you want to do? He spent last night in the cold, and wet, and all of today on that ledge. He's got to be somewhat hypothermic, by now, don't you think?"
Control sighed and went back to making the spit and supports for their dinner. "Unfortunately, you're right. We'll have to go down and get him."
"Drop him a line," Sky Hunter suggested. The other three men just looked at him, blankly.
Control, after several moments contemplation, asked, "Do we have enough rope?"
"We can use the picket line, if we have to. It's one hundred feet long, and strong. One of us will have to hold the horses, and we can use one to pull him up, saving all our backs."
Understanding dawned, and they nodded their agreement. "But first, let's get supper started, shall we?" Control asked.
They built a fire and suspended one of the sides of the antelope over it. Every so often, one of them would turn it, to keep it cooking evenly and making sure that it didn't burn. Sky Hunter, satisfied that they could leave their food cooking for a short time, turned to the horses. Untying them from the picket line, McCall and Mickey were given the task of holding most of the animals, while Control and Sky Hunter prepared to rescue the wayward recruit. Using Sky Hunter's Grulla mare, they fixed a non-slip noose around her neck and chest, giving her plenty of room to lean and pull. While Sky Hunter handled the horse, Control took the rest of the rope and, after gauging the distance and angle, threw down the loose end to the man below.
He was cold. He was hungry. His shoulder ached where the water had smashed him into the ledge he'd then been fortunate to scramble up on. At least he hadn't lost his pack. Of course, his sleeping bag was soaked, but it was better than nothing. He'd listened to the water lapping at his feet all night, as it tumbled past on its way through the canyon. He'd already been soaked by the late afternoon rain, but this sudden river was something that truly frightened him. He began to wonder if maybe Kostmayer hadn't told him the truth, after all. Shivering, he watched as the sun began to go down. He wasn't looking forward to another night on this ledge, but it was too late to try and get down to find a better shelter
A hiss and slapping noise caused him to jerk awake; he hadn't realized he'd dozed off. It couldn't have been for too long, as the sun was still, albeit low, up. He looked around, fearfully, wondering what the noise had been.
"Masur, grab the rope and tie it around you, under your arms."
He jumped, startled. He frowned, trying to recognize the voice. He looked up and saw a figure above him, holding a rope. He followed, with his eyes, to the end of the rope, just a few feet away. Struggling out of his sleeping bag, he grabbed the rope and tied it around his chest. Looking up, he yelled, "Pull me up!"
Control looked over at Sky Hunter and shook his head. Turning back to Masur, below, he called down, "Get your gear, recruit!"
Grumbling, which could be heard but not understood by those above, Jason grabbed his backpack and stuffed the still damp sleeping bag into it. Hoisting it into place on his back, he yelled again, "Okay, pull me up!"
Sky Hunter clucked to his horse, which stepped forward and leaned against the rope, drawing it taut. The horse moved steadily against the drag of the man on the end of the rope, its ears cocked to listen to Sky Hunter's soft voice encouraging it along. Within minutes, they had dragged Masur to the top of the cliff.
He was surprised by how easily they pulled him up. He barely had time to keep his feet against the cliff face. When he reached the top, he expected them to stop pulling and reach down to lift him the last bit, but instead, he was dragged, quite painfully, over the cliff edge. As soon as he was able to sit up, he saw why. He scowled around at the four men. Kostmayer. That little S.O.B. was right there, grinning at him.
"Quit pouting, Masur," Control growled. "You're a hell of a lot of trouble, you know that?"
Jason looked up in surprise to see Control there. He pulled off his backpack and struggled to stand up. He'd tied a slipknot in putting the rope around him, and it had tightened painfully. He couldn't even get his fingers under the knot to try and loosen it. McCall had to come over and help him.
"Just cut it," Masur whined.
Jason looked up to see an old Indian man. "Why not?" He whined.
"We need that rope," was the sardonic reply.
Jason frowned. The others were grinning, slyly, he thought. He scowled. "What for?"
McCall finally got the knot loosened and removed the rope from Jason. He turned and handed it to Control, who helped restring the line and retie the horses to it. As soon as the four rescuers finished caring for the horses, they went to their little camp and tended to their cooking dinner.
Jason followed them, leaving his backpack where it fell. Sky Hunter frowned. "You're going to need that," he admonished. Pouting like a two-year-old, Jason turned back and dragged his backpack behind him to the tent. Since it was almost an hour before it would be truly dark, Sky Hunter suggested he lay out his sleeping bag near the fire to dry. Petulantly, Masur complied.
Sitting quietly around the fire, waiting for their dinner to cook, the rescue party waited patiently, and silently. Masur, unaccustomed to being ignored, kept shifting restlessly. No one acknowledged him, no one questioned him, and no one asked if he was all right. This was not what he expected. He at least expected someone to ask him if he was injured. He wasn't, well, not really. Some pretty good bruises and a sprained shoulder, he suspected, but still, shouldn't they make sure he was okay?
"I hurt my shoulder," Jason plaintively said. The four men just looked at him, unmoving. He squirmed and continued, "When the water came, it washed me into the ledge, and I hit it hard with my shoulder." He rubbed the injured limb, expecting sympathy.
He got none.
"If you knew anything, you'd have known not to be in the canyonlands when it rains anywhere. The canyons are arroyos, rivers that flow only when it rains. You are fortunate that the flashflood did not kill you, burying you deep in the sand." Sky Hunter's words were spoken softly, but firmly. His tone of voice made it abundantly clear that to him, at least, Masur was a waste of his time.
Mickey was careful to watch and copy the others actions. He had no idea what was going on; he'd been a bit surprised himself, that no one asked if Masur was all right or not. But it wasn't his call. He was, literally, just along for the ride. He was quick to understand, however, that they were 'punishing' Jason for causing them so much trouble. Knowing that it was in his own best interest, he kept quiet and decided to speak when spoken to and not volunteer anything at all.
Sky Hunter checked the meat once more, then pulled out his knife and sliced off a piece, using his fingers. He checked it for doneness and nodded in satisfaction. "Eat," he said, sitting back with his chunk of antelope. He'd taken a fair sized slice of meat and put one end in his mouth, holding it with his teeth, and then cutting it off with his knife. Control duplicated the procedure with his own knife, while McCall took a more delicate approach, cutting off small slivers and using his handkerchief to hold the pieces. Mickey took a good-sized chunk of meat, but then sliced off slivers, which he ate with his fingers.
Jason watched their 'table manners' in horror. Realizing that no one was going to serve him, he pulled out his pocketknife and reached to cut off a piece of meat for himself.
"Not with that," Sky Hunter stopped him. "It's dirty."
Jason gaped at the old man. "Excuse me? All of you used your knives, why can't I use mine?"
Control responded. "Our knives are kept clean and sheathed; your pocket knife is used for who knows what and carried around in your pocket. Don't you have a sheath knife?"
Frowning, Jason got up and dug in his pack. "This?" he asked, returning to the fire.
Sky Hunter took the sheathed blade from him and pulled it out. Sighing, he got up and carried it away from the camp. Taking his canteen from his belt, he washed the knife, then returned to the others, handing the knife hilt first, back to Jason. "Take better care of your tools," he admonished, sitting down again.
Jason, totally confused, looked down at the shiny, new knife. He'd never even taken it out of its scabbard and looked at it, before. Shrugging, he leaned forward and cut himself a piece of meat, making 'ouch' sounds at the heat. He didn't bother trying to cut it into smaller pieces, simply gnawed on it, like a dog with a bone. He didn't dare complain about how tough it was; he was just grateful to have food, and hot food, at that.
They ate most of the side of antelope they'd cooked, five hungry men can make short work of a ninety-five pound antelope; especially since when dressed out there was only about 70 pounds of meat, and almost half of it, bone. When they'd eaten their fill, Sky Hunter took their leftovers and flung them over the cliff.
Jason was shocked. "Why did you do that?" he exclaimed.
Sky Hunter looked at him and just shook his head. "Don't want to attract unwanted visitors. We threw the offal over, too, where we got him," he replied.
"What kind of visitors?" Jason asked, frowning.
"Cougar, coyote, maybe even wolf," the old man answered as he skewered the second side and set it up over the coals. The fire had burned down to glowing embers, not as hot as the flames had been, but with careful tending, the rest of the meat would slowly cook through the night, providing them with a good breakfast.
Jason started to put his knife back in its scabbard, when Mickey stopped him. "Clean your blade, first." He demonstrated by taking his handkerchief and carefully wiping the blade of his knife, before sliding it into its scabbard. "That way, you won't have to clean it in the morning, and you really do not want to have to try and clean out that leather sheath."
Begrudgingly, Jason followed Mickey's instructions, noticing, as he did, that the others did the same. By the time they'd finished, it was full dark. Control rose and went to check on the horses. There was a small pool of water, from the previous day's rain, and he took two of the horses to drink, as by morning the earth would most likely have swallowed it up. Mickey followed him, taking two more horses. Sky Hunter soon joined them, leading the last four horses.
When they returned, Jason had checked his sleeping bag and found it mostly dry, and warm from the fire. He'd taken it into the tent and, finding no room in the inner compartments, laid it out in the screen room, crawled in, boots and all, and had already gone to sleep.
McCall, who had stayed to watch Masur, shook his head at the others when they returned. "I think he may have the right idea, however," he said softly. "Although, I, personally, plan on taking off my boots."
Control nodded. "Good idea. I'll stay up a while and watch the fire, add a bit more wood, perhaps, then bank it for the night." Sky Hunter looked askance at him, and he gave a miniscule shake of his head. Mickey, who was learning, caught the unspoken communication. Curious, he followed the two older men into the tent and, while they went to sleep, he watched Control.
Control suspected that Mickey was watching him, so he waited more than two hours before he stood up and turned from the camp, walking out on the plateau. Mickey, who was almost asleep, startled awake and realized that Control was on the move. As silently as he could, he slipped from his sleeping bag, tiptoed out of the tent, and slipped into his boots, outside. Spotting Control a short distance away, he followed, wondering what the older man would do.
Control was only slightly surprised that Mickey followed him. The boy wasn't quite silent enough to go unnoticed by the far more experienced man. He smiled, satisfied with the younger man's initiative and savvy. He was far enough away to not awaken the others, so he found some boulders and climbed up to sit atop them. Leaning back, he looked at the blue-black sky, punctuated by billions of tiny pinpoints of light. He was glad that the moon wouldn't be up until later, as it gave him a chance to see.
Mickey frowned. He stood at the base of the boulders, behind Control, wondering what to do. The man seemed to be staring up at the stars.
"Come on up and join me, if you want, Kostmayer."
Mickey jumped. He thought he'd been quiet and circumspect enough to go unnoticed. Obviously, he had a lot more to learn. "How'd you know it was me?"
"You're the only one who'd be curious enough to follow me."
Blushing, Mickey was grateful for the darkness. He went around the boulders and followed Control's path to the top, sitting beside the older man. "So, what are we doing?" he asked.
"Getting out of our cages," was the gentle reply.
Mickey had no answer to that one, remembering that night when he'd snuck out of the barracks because the walls were moving in on him.
They sat in quiet companionship for several minutes, each lost in their own thoughts.
"How're your navigation skills?" Control asked, softly.
Mickey, who'd been nearly dozing, opened his eyes and looked around. "Find the big dipper," he pointed, "Follow the two stars at the end of the bowl to the north star."
"Depending on the time of year and time of night, you can figure out the time, as well."
"Yeah?" He straightened up, curious, now.
"Yeah." Control relaxed, gazing upwards. "Look, there are the Pleiades, the seven sisters, can you see them all?"
Mickey followed Control's pointing finger and couldn't see anything. He shook his head, frustrated. Control spread his index and middle fingers, forming a 'v'. "Look again," Control coaxed. Mickey looked between the spread fingers and found a tiny cluster of stars.
"Man, how can you know that? Where to look, I mean?"
"Time of year, time of night. The moon will be up in about an hour. The new moon was last, so it's now waxing." He pointed, again, moving in an arc, "Milky Way," he announced. "Cygnus, the swan, Cassiopeia, Delphinus..." He continued pointing out various constellations. Mickey decided he needed to brush up on his astronomy.
"Oh, wow," Mickey breathed in awe as an enormous meteor streaked across the sky. "That is so beautiful."
"Early Persiads. It will be even more spectacular in another month or so."
"How do you know so much?" Mickey asked, impressed, despite himself, at the older man's reach and scope of knowledge.
"Photographic memory," Control replied.
Mickey became very still, considering. "That sounds useful," he commented, blandly.
Control chuckled. "It is, son, it is. Gotten me into and out of more trouble than you can imagine."
Mickey nodded, understanding the two-edgedness of the talent. "Still sounds like it might be useful," he ventured.
"Most of the time," Control agreed. "Look." He pointed as another meteor streaked across the velvet blue-black of the sky.
For the next hour, the two men sat quietly, watching the sky for meteors. It was quiet and peaceful, and Mickey found himself relaxing in the company of the older man. They had some things in common, a love of freedom, of nature, of peace and quiet. Of excitement, of justice, and of danger, as well. There was no need to talk; just the companionship of a shared interest was more than enough for both men.
As the moon rose, Control straightened up, preparing to rise. "Time to get back and get some real sleep."
Mickey rose beside him and jumped down. "Tell me something?"
"Perhaps," came the enigmatic reply.
"Did you get more rest out here this past hour than you do when you sleep?"
Control climbed down, silently, coming to stand beside the smaller man. "Yes," he answered simply.
Mickey nodded, understanding that sleep and rest is not necessarily the same thing.
The two men made their way back to camp, taking their boots off outside, and slipping quietly in and into their sleeping bags.
Sky Hunter, who had lain awake, waiting for their return, listened as the two men drifted into sleep. Satisfied, he allowed himself to doze off, as well.
By morning, the fire had nearly burned out, but the rest of the antelope was cooked to perfection. The slower cooking had allowed it to be somewhat more tender than the previous meal. Sky Hunter encouraged them all to gorge themselves on the meat, as there was no way to take any of it with them. They had dry rations for at least two days, but it wasn't nearly as flavorful or satisfying as fresh meat.
Once they'd eaten their fill, and more, the rescue party began to break camp. Jason rolled up his sleeping bag and tied it to his backpack. He didn't offer to help the others in breaking down the tent, or anything else. When they'd loaded the packhorses, each man began to groom and saddle his own horse.
"Brushes are there, the claybank is yours to ride, Masur," Control informed the rescued recruit. Jason looked surprised.
"Take the brushes and groom your mount," Control repeated. Jason gingerly picked up a currycomb and, glancing at what the others were doing, he duplicated their motions, only far more tentatively.
The claybank pinned his ears and shifted away. Mickey, who was bumped by the horse, turned around and watched as Jason followed his horse and started to lightly run the currycomb over it.
"Press a little harder, Jason. You're just tickling him, and it's annoying him."
Jason frowned, but did as instructed. The claybank was still not happy, but stopped shifting away. When Mickey had finished saddling his own horse, he turned to help Jason with his. He had to show him how to pick out the hooves, and Jason's wrinkled nose told the story of what he thought of the exercise.
Saddling was another story. Jason had no concept of the task. Control, exasperated, finally took over. "Watch closely, you're going to have to do this for yourself from now on, and it's at least two days back to camp." He placed the pad and then the blanket on the horse's back, and then gently laid the saddle in place. Mickey, on the off side, pulled the girth down and made sure it hung straight, passing it under the horse's belly to Control, who ran the latigo through the rings and tightened it snugly. Then Control handed the bridle to Jason and talked him through the bridling process. Mickey was immediately grateful that he'd been given a different horse when the claybank raised its head, trying to escape being bridled. Fortunately, Control was there to give instructions.
"Just make sure you don't bang his teeth when you insert or remove the bit. If you think this was hard, bang his teeth and you'll see how hard he can make it on you," Control admonished.
Jason, somewhat nauseated by having to stick his fingers in the horse's mouth, squinched up his face and looked around for some way to wash his hands. Finally, he took his canteen and poured a bit over his hands to wash them. No one said anything, but they all thought it a foolish waste of drinking water.
Sky Hunter swung up on his horse and waited for everyone else to mount. He smiled when both Mickey and McCall mounted easily, their muscle soreness having eased with the continued exercise. He just shook his head at Masur's technique. He nearly pulled his horse over on him, trying to climb aboard.
Control, watching Jason mount, caught Mickey and McCall's eyes and gave them a wink, to which they grinned in response. Once everyone was safely mounted, Sky Hunter led the way, with McCall behind him, then Masur, then Kostmayer, and finally, Control, leading the packhorses.
Watching from behind, Mickey finally understood about straight shoulders and pasterns. Even at a walk, Jason was bouncing. He turned in his saddle to look back at Control, gesturing to the man in front of him. Control just shook his head and grinned.
They rode for two hours, until they came to where they'd originally come up onto the plateau. Jason blanched when he saw the narrow trail he was expected to ride down. "I think I'd rather walk," he called out, but was ignored.
Sky Hunter called back to him, "Give him his head and lean back, and he'll take care of you." Jason, not understanding the instructions, clung tightly to both the saddle horn and the reins.
Mickey called to him, "He means let the reins hang loose and lean back as we go down the hill, that way, the horse is free to get you both safely down." Reluctantly, it seemed, Jason followed the instructions, but clung even tighter to his saddle horn and hunched over it, terrified.
The claybank was a well-trained mountain horse. When he was finally given his head, he adjusted for the weight and movement of his rider and safely navigated the trail, albeit roughly. The roughness was less due to his conformation than to having to work harder because his rider was positioned improperly on his back.
Once at the bottom, Sky Hunter paused to wait for everyone to get down. Control's reins hung loose and he leaned far back in his saddle as his horse made its final descent to the valley floor, the packhorses right behind him. Sky Hunter dismounted and checked his cinch, making sure it hadn't loosened too much and motioned to the others to do likewise.
Jason let out a groan as he hit the ground, nearly stumbling. Foolishly, he didn't hang on to his reins, and his horse started to walk away from him. "Get your horse!" Control shouted, irate. Jason, hobbling from even the short time they'd been riding, was lucky that Mickey was close by and grabbed the horse for him.
"Never let go of your reins until your horse is tied. It's a long walk back, otherwise." McCall was already disgusted with the way Jason was acting. They weren't there to coddle or wait on him, but to get him safely back to camp, after which they'd be returning to the training facility. He was fairly sure that Control, at least, shared his annoyance. Mickey, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying young Mr. Masur's difficulties. Of course, knowing what had happened earlier made that perfectly understandable. Still....
Whenever they came across water, Sky Hunter would have them pause to allow the horses to drink. Most of the time, they didn't bother to dismount, unless a rider felt the need to stretch. Jason got off at every opportunity, and each time he had to mount again was more difficult than the last time. By the time they stopped to eat, Jason felt like he was one massive bruise. He didn't take kindly to being instructed to take care of his horse before himself, either. However, he was certainly not stupid, so did as he was told, albeit with ill grace and much muttered complaining.
Sky Hunter, watching Masur, shook his head. Turning to Control, he muttered softly, "If that is the future, I'm glad to be in the past."
Control nodded. "With any luck at all, he'll get himself killed on his first assignment." Then he answered the unspoken question, "Unfortunately, it would not reflect well on me, were he to die during my watch."
"A pity." He turned to look at Kostmayer, "The other boy learns well. Asks good questions and remembers what he learns."
Control nodded. "He's a good soldier, but he'll never be anything more. I just hope he doesn't get used up and sacrificed for no good reason."
"You take care of your own, old wagoc, it is the way of our kind."
Control smiled. "I do what I can. I think McCall will do well with him."
The old man nodded. "Yes, the wise old head with the brash young strength; a good combination. They will do well together."
Lunch consisted of granola bars and water. No one complained, although Masur made disgusted faces at it. After a very short break, Sky Hunter got up and tightened the cinch on his saddle, the others followed suit. Except Masur. He simply got to his feet and, groaning, untied his horse and moved to climb back on. McCall stopped him, his foot halfway to the stirrup.
"I suggest you tighten your girth, first, or the saddle may turn and dump you on your arse."
Masur glowered, but did as instructed, surprised to discover just how loose his saddle was. He tightened it as much as he possibly could, much to the horse's discomfort. At least the saddle didn't move when he got on, although it was hard to tell who groaned more loudly, Masur or the horse.
There were fewer stops during the afternoon, as there were fewer patches of water. Sky Hunter kept them going until they reached a spring, where they would camp for the night. Another day's ride would bring them to the plateau where the rescue party had started from, and one final day would get them to the outpost, where they would exchange horses for horsepower and fly back to the training facility.
But they still had a very long way to go.
Supper consisted of granola bars, jerky, and instant coffee. Masur was allowed to sit by while the others put up the tent, but he did have to untack and groom his own horse. Oddly enough, the cranky claybank seemed to like him, much to Mickey's wonder.
After eating, Masur collapsed on his sleeping bag, too tired and sore to remain in a sitting position any longer. Control sighed and got up, following the younger man and offering him some liniment. Masur declined the offer, and Control returned to the others, grinning.
"I can't force him to use the liniment, but it was offered."
"Gee, is he really that dumb?" Mickey asked.
"That paranoid," McCall replied, giving Control a conspiratorial grin. "It's all in how it was offered, I should think. Wouldn't you, Control?"
"Why, whatever do you mean?" Control replied, with his most innocent expression on his face.
"Oh, I think you know. You offered him the liniment in such a way that he was sure to refuse it, I'd wager."
"You'd lose that bet, old son. I simply said, and I quote, 'I have some liniment here, if you need it. It's good on sore muscles.' He gave me a surly answer, so I left him to suffer in silence."
Sky Hunter snorted, gaining everyone's attention. "That man couldn't suffer in silence if you slit his throat."
Control coughed, but McCall, after a moment's shock, burst into laughter. "Oh, that is absolutely priceless. I'll have to remember that one."
Mickey grinned and nodded his agreement. He'd certainly been learning a great deal on this trip, not to mention getting to know the boss. New life; new skills; new people. People who gave respect and deserved it in return, not because of rank, but because it was earned. He could definitely work with these men and was even beginning to look forward to it.
Sky Hunter took out his little pouch that held the implements of his game. He caught Mickey's eye and cocked his head in question. Mickey smiled. "Just for fun, though. I don't have any money to lose."
The old man laughed, but nodded. "Very well. This time." He handed Mickey one of the tokens and they began to play.
Mickey had learned well, to watch the other man's eyes, rather than try and follow his movements. By watching, he learned to reach slowly towards his guess, but realized that by watching his eyes, he could recognize triumph or stoic dismay. He 'guessed' right more often than not. For himself, his own tactic was to not feel for the markings carved into the one piece, but to simply confuse himself as well as his opponent. Thus, he tended to win more than lose. Finally, tiring of the game, they quit and headed in to their bedrolls. Mickey was surprised to discover that McCall and Control had already gone in and were sleeping. Sky Hunter grinned at him as he stretched out in his sleeping bag. Mickey returned the smile as he snuggled into his own.
In the morning, Masur was barely able to move, he'd stiffened up so much during the night. The others were already up and drinking their coffee when he stirred, whimpering and groaning, loudly. If he expected any sympathy, he had another think coming. At least no one teased him. He should have been grateful for that, but he simply whined and moaned until the others would have happily gagged him and tied him belly-down over his saddle and led him the rest of the way back.
He whined about having to groom his horse, oblivious to the fact that the others took care of not only their own mounts, but also the three packhorses. He complained that there was no cream or sugar for his coffee, ignoring that everyone else was also drinking it black, whether it was their preference or not. Of course, when he failed to tighten his cinch properly and the saddle turned under the horse, dumping him unceremoniously on the ground and sending the horse into a paroxysm of bucking, he simply received a reprimand about taking more care.
When his horse was caught and returned to him, no one even offered to help him resaddle the animal, much to his annoyance. He was simply convinced that they were picking on him; never realizing that they were at least as weary of the journey as he was. More so, actually. After all, they had him to put up with.
As the day wore on, Jason became surlier, and complained loud and long about the pain he was in, and wasn't anyone going to do anything about it? By the time they camped that night, he literally fell off his horse, crying piteously. Disgusted, Control told him to shut up before he spooked the horses.
At least they'd made it to the plateau where Mickey had waited with his earlier charges. Once the horses were taken care of, Control got a radio out of his saddlebags and turned it on, calling for a helicopter to come and get them in the morning.
It was a cold camp, with nothing to eat but the supplies they'd brought with them. Since there were no trees, Sky Hunter hobbled the horses and left them loose. There was water and good grass, so they wouldn't wander far. They were all silent, except for the whining, miserable Jason. If not for him, it would have been a nice camping trip. Mickey sighed, wishing the man would just simply shut up.
After eating, Mickey went for a hike, needing to get away from the racket Jason kept making. To his surprise, he found Control and Hunter out walking as well. He considered joining them, but there was something in their body language that stopped him. The two men were talking seriously, and Control was nodding, his expression showing sadness. Figuring that they were talking family stuff, he turned and made his way back to camp, where he found Jason still whining.
"Why don't you just shut up and give us a break? If you'd listened to me when I told you that you were going the wrong way, you wouldn't be in this mess. And if you'd taken the liniment and listened to anyone's advice, you wouldn't be so sore, now."
"I'm hurt, you cretin! That stinking beast has thrown me twice, now!"
"Oh, good God," McCall snarled. "Thrown? Oh, please. That animal didn't throw you. You fell off. And if you'd listened and tightened your saddle, it wouldn't have turned and spooked him! I agree, I suggest you save your breath for breathing, rather than whining. No one cares because you've done nothing to encourage such a response."
Jason opened his mouth to reply, but then changed his mind and folded his arms, his expression surly.
But at least he was quiet, finally.
Control and Hunter didn't return until quite late, and no one was awake to hear them come in. In the morning, a helicopter would come to take them home, and Sky Hunter would lead the horses back to the compound and then return home, himself.
When the helicopter touched down, Mickey slid out of his side, keeping low to avoid the still rotating blades. His own emotions were churning almost as much as the blades were. On the one hand, he had learned more about himself, his capabilities, and what sort of men he could trust with his life, but on the other... there was Jason Masur, who was being removed. If men like Masur would be handing out the missions and in charge of the planning, then he had no desire to join The Company. Moving away from it, he told McCall just loud enough to be heard over the noise, "I'm going to go check on Alex, I'll catch you later."
McCall studied him for a moment, patted him on the shoulder, then indicated the ambulance Jason had been trundled over to as Mickey looked to see what McCall wanted.
Restraining himself from making a face, he nodded and approached the vehicle, arranging a lift as the EMT rode in back with Jason. Once he was at the hospital, he walked over to the admittance desk and inquired where Alex Robinson's room was. Armed with the number, he ambled over to the elevator and rode it to the fourth floor, then stepped off and turned right. Alex's room was the third on his right. He opened the door and smiled slightly, as he saw the kid's face turn towards it. "Hey, just wanted to see how you're doing," he said as he slipped into the room and sat down on the chair by the bed.
Using the button, he raised the back of the bed a little so he could see his visitor better. "Fine. I should be getting released as soon as the doctor checks me over this afternoon."
"I'm glad to hear it." Mickey smiled widely, glad to know that Alex was going to be all right. "How many nurses' numbers did you get?" he winked conspiratorially at the recruit. A little smile played on Alex's lips but he remained silent. After about a minute, Mickey had to laugh. "Guess you have learned something," he joked, then he sobered. "Is there anything I can get you?"
Alex shook his head. "No, thanks anyway." Mickey stretched and started to get ready to leave but he went on, "I want to thank you, for everything you did out there. I know..."
Mickey cut him off. "You're welcome, Alex. If there's anything I can ever do for you, just holler, okay?" Mickey didn't want to be embarrassed by too much gushing, and he knew that Alex would have played up the hero angle if he had let him. Mickey didn't feel like a hero, just like a man who did what had needed to be done. When Alex realized it, they'd become good friends and Mickey wouldn't be stuck on a pedestal that he had obviously been placed on by the others. "See you back at the barracks." He grinned again and left, slowly walking back to the camp.
As he walked, he did a lot of thinking. He realized how much he owed McCall, for getting him out of Leavenworth, for taking a chance on him and recruiting him for The Company. He wasn't surprised to find himself smiling bemusedly, as he thought about the man. There was something about him that made Mickey want to follow him to the ends of the earth. Control... well, he was certainly complicated, he would have to give him that. Ice cold, manipulative, heated, kind-hearted, isolated, inhuman but also human. His gut feeling was that this man would not recklessly endanger agents, that they weren't just pawns to be used and discarded. Masur, on the other hand... Mickey shook his head. He could never take an order from that weasel.
Mind made up, he walked into the empty barracks and packed, then he left his bag at the bed and went in search of lunch. Since he'd been part of the Search-and-Rescue team, he'd been given the day off. They would be returning to the city that night, for their final exams and evaluations. He was sure he could slip away quietly, before anyone noticed. On his way out of the mess hall, he ran into McCall.
"Ah, there you are, is everything all right?"
Mickey nodded. "Yeah, Alex should be released soon, to make the trip back with us."
"Good, good. Are you ready for the last few tests?"
"Yeah. Should be a cinch, right?" He smirked.
"Well, I wouldn't say that but you should have no problem passing them." He smiled and Mickey nodded again. Before he could move off, Mickey spoke.
"McCall, I know I've been pigheaded at times. Thanks, for pushing me when I needed it, and for all of your help. I do appreciate it."
Pleased, McCall inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment, and then continued on his way.
Mickey returned to the barracks and hefted his bag up and slung it over his shoulder, then marched out, almost running Control over as he approached the door. He immediately apologized. "Sorry, didn't see you."
Control stepped back, his hands coming up to ward off the man-sized projectile that was Mickey. Seeing the duffel bag, he frowned. "Going somewhere?" he asked.
He nodded easily. "Back to the city." From there, he had no idea what he was going to do but it should be very easy to slip away. "Aren't the tests there?"
"Not exactly," Control replied. "Besides," he continued, reaching over Mickey's shoulder to snag the strap of his duffel from his shoulder. "You wouldn't be needing this if you were going to take the tests, now, would you?" The clear blue eyes bored holes through him, and Mickey looked away, trying to escape the reproach and disappointment he saw in those eyes.
But he knew that he couldn't, so he turned and met Control's gaze. "I've been doing a lot of thinking about the pros and cons. Masur is just too big a con." Before Control could speak, he added, "I know what this job would entail and yeah, I am willing to give my life if that's what it takes. However, I just can't see throwing it away and that's exactly what would happen if Masur gives me an order. He'll just toss it away first chance he gets. I know there's a chance I might get killed so more people could live, I can even accept that, but we both know that within a few years Masur will be handing out missions and that's when he'll waste me."
"He's not in line for my job, son," Control's smile was as cold as liquid nitrogen, in direct contrast to his warm tone of voice. "He may never be. Besides, I have the perfect job for you," he looked past Mickey, into an invisible distance, and waited.
I don't want to do this, I don't want to do this, I don't want to do this... He bit. "What?"
Control smiled, still looking into infinity. "I need someone to watch the back of a friend of mine."
I'm sure I'm going to regret this. "Who? For how long? Why?"
Control schooled his face into a neutral expression and brought his eyes to meet Mickey's. He narrowed his eyes as though examining him, and Mickey began to fidget just a bit. "McCall. However long it takes. Because he's a friend, and I don't have so many of those that I'm willing to lose one to his own foolishness."
He waited. Pretending to not care how he answered, but there was something....
"Kind of a permanent partner?" Mickey asked, mulling it over.
Smiling inside, he let his gaze drift back to infinity. "Something like that," he admitted; and waited.
"I could handle that," he admitted quietly. "I'm not naive enough to think we'll always work together but if I'm on most of his... yeah."
Control finally let the smile reach his eyes, if not his mouth. Patting Mickey on the shoulder, he nodded. "Good man. I can't promise you'll always be assigned to him, either. But I'll try to keep you together as much as possible." As long as it's working to further our needs, he added to himself. He hoisted the duffel bag over his own shoulder. "Come on. There's a car waiting for us."
"I do have a question, though," Mickey said as they started walking. "Who was it who wanted me to wash out so badly that Johnson was put up to hurt me?"
Control frowned. "I'm still looking into that. When I find out, I'll take care of it. Your job right now is to get through your exams."
An eye flickered over to his pilfered belongings. Not that he thought they would be kept but it certainly was a way to keep him there. "I can carry my own bag. If anyone else is trying to get me, I want to know, so I'll be prepared."
"No need. Robert and I are accompanying you." He glanced over at the younger man. "That's not a problem, is it?"
Oh yeah, definitely not letting me out of your sight until I sign the contract. He shrugged. "Nope."
"Good." He lightly laid his free hand on Mickey's shoulder. The touch was light enough to be mistaken for friendly, if Mickey didn't suspect it was more to keep him from making a run for it.
"How soon will I know the results?"
"You'll know before you leave the room."
Somehow, those particular words were NOT reassuring.
"How high do I have to score to pass?" he asked as he wondered, How high do I have to score to survive? You're going to have a firing squad troop in if I don't do good enough, aren't you?
Control looked at him and smiled. With a wink, he said, "Don't worry about it."
"I'm not," he replied breezily. "I can take anything that's thrown at me, and more."
The hand on his shoulder moved to the scruff of his neck and tightened just a bit, then shook him gently. "Of course you can. But remember who you're talking to. I know damned well that you're worried." Feeling the muscles under his hand, he quickly added, "but that's how you stay alive in this business. Act like a duck."
"Quack when you're quacked to?" he quipped lightly.
"Nope. When things happen, look calm and unruffled on the surface, but under the water, paddle like mad." The hand released the back of his neck and ruffled up through his hair, messing it up even more than it normally was and pushing it over his forehead and into his eyes.
He lightly shook his head, to straighten his hair a bit so he could see better. "Oh."
Control chuckled. "Come on. The car is waiting. If you'll get that door, there, we can be out of here."
Not stopping, he reached out and pressed the bar, pushing it open, then walked through. "How are Toby, Chris and Frank doing?"
"They're doing fine. In fact, you'll be seeing them very soon." He pointed to the limousine parked at the curb, indicating their destination.
So much for getting out of being hero-worshipped. He squirmed slightly and saw Control smile a little. "You're enjoying this!" he accused.
Control turned the most innocent expression on him, stopping him in his tracks. "Of course," he admitted, striding to the car and tossing the duffel bag into the trunk and closing it. He nodded to the driver and opened the rear door himself, motioning Mickey to enter.
He scowled a little, then let his expression lighten. No need to frighten the kids, after all. He bent over and slid into the limo.
McCall was already there, sitting in the far corner. Mickey took the back-facing seat and smirked as Control got in and sat down, closing the door. The driver started the engine and they pulled away from the curb.
Control looked over at the scowling McCall. "What is it, Robert?" he asked wearily.
Mickey wondered too what was wrong with McCall.
"One day, Control," McCall warned, "Your generosity will come back and bite you very hard on the ass."
"What's going on?" Mickey asked, looking from one to the other.
Control nodded. "I know, old son, but sometimes, you don't really have a choice. Neither did I."
McCall snorted and glared out the window, his arms folded across his chest telling the world that he was definitely NOT a happy man.
"It wasn't my call, Robert. You know that. Had it been, we'd have dropped him off over the canyon."
McCall grunted, but refused to look at him.
"Besides, they're sending him to Tokyo. Neither you nor I are involved in that part of the world."
Mickey thought about how nice it would be not to have to see the weasel for a long time.
"Yes, Control, but how long do you think he'll be there? Eventually, they're going to bring him back."
Which was a downside to be sure.
Control nodded. "But with any luck at all, someone will take care of him."
Mickey was certainly willing to, if he wouldn't be caught doing it.
"Not you, son," Control admonished Mickey; seeming to read his mind. "Nature will eventually take its course and he'll find himself looking up at the dirt."
He didn't respond. After a couple of minutes he asked, "So where am I taking the test?" He was wondering where they were going, exactly.
"We're going back to the center. Once there, you'll be isolated, given a minimal amount of information and some supplies. You'll have to go through the Scenarios course. Alone."
At least I know what to expect from that, now. "Should be a piece of cake, nothing I haven't handled before."
"Don't be too cocksure, young man," McCall admonished. "The course will be nothing like you remember it, believe me."
"I realize that, but I know the setup now, how it works."
"But it's very likely to change. Sometimes, there are real people on the course. You have to be more than positive. Don't get complacent, or you're liable to be very sorry."
Control nodded his agreement. "You may or may not be given live ammo, so there's no way to know, for sure."
He found it hard to explain but he tried. "I realize the targets will change, that different ones will pop up, in different areas, but now I kinda know what I'm doing, how to approach it, to see and then react, not just react blindly." Then he frowned, "What do you mean there might be real people on the course and live ammo?"
"Just that. You won't know in advance."
"That's nuts. Real people and live ammo?" He started to worry, "I don't believe that."
McCall smiled at Control, who winked at him. "We'll just have to see what happens, won't we?"
"I guess we will."
There was no way they were going to let him know whether there would be real people and live ammo used. One of the tests was how he'd react to thinking he had live ammo and that there might be real people on the course.
"But I'm not shooting if anyone is alive there, with live ammo. I'm not going to take a chance on killing anyone... well... unless it's Masur, I'd make an exception in his case." He smiled savagely at both older men.
Control and McCall exchanged a glance and shook their heads, hiding their smiles.
"That, I'm afraid, isn't very likely, no matter what we might wish," McCall replied softly.
Control sighed and leaned back in his seat. "Unfortunately, no. At least not this time."
Mickey sighed quietly, too, a little disappointed even though he hadn't thought it was likely. "So what's the worst that could happen, what if I somehow blow this?"
"You'll be handed a check for your time and invited to go elsewhere to earn a living," Control replied.
He nodded once. Sounded fair to him.
McCall shifted, trying to get comfortable. "You know, Control, I doubt that a meal would be remiss, ere long," he suggested, reminding the others that it had been some time since they last ate.
Control pushed a button and murmured instructions to the driver. Smiling, he leaned his head back to try and get just a bit of rest.
Mickey continued to keep track of their route as they rode. "So what happens after I pass?" He smiled slightly.
"Ah, yes," Control murmured. "That's when the real training begins."
Before Mickey could come up with another smartass comment, the limo pulled into a driveway and parked.
McCall looked out the window and began to laugh. "Too broke to spring for anything decent, Control?"
Control grinned. "What, you don't like McDonalds?"
"Well, it's hardly haute cuisine, is it?" McCall retorted.
Getting out, Control turned to walk across the parking lot to their real destination, a very small, very exclusive, and very expensive restaurant. Mickey held back, "Uh, guys? I'm not exactly dressed for a place like that."
Control nodded. "None of us are, but I know the owner, so there won't be a problem."
McCall, relieved, followed, wondering who the owner might be, and if they were in the business.
Shrugging, Mickey followed, never one to turn down a free meal, especially since it wasn't certain where his next one could be coming from.
When they entered the restaurant, Control smiled at the maitre'd and spoke softly to him. The man immediately removed the sneer from his face over their dress, and led them through the dining room to a quiet little room off to one side. The other patrons at first looked disdainfully at the three men, and then their expressions changed to speculative when they observed where they were seated.
Mickey wondered what was so special about this particular table.
The decor was opulent and very, very private. McCall looked around, impressed. "Very nice, Control. Very nice, indeed."
Control smiled and chose the chair in the corner, facing the main entrance to the room and with another door to his left. "Yes, it is. Better yet, is the food."
McCall deliberately sat with his back to the door, smiling at his boss. "I certainly hope so," he replied.
Mickey was content to covertly look around as he claimed his own seat at the table. He chose to sit next to McCall.
Control smiled and barely glanced at the server as she entered. "Good evening, Stephanie. For me, the usual." He looked at his companions. "Drinks, gentlemen?"
McCall ordered Scotch, which made Control wince, but he smiled, nonetheless and turned to Mickey. "Kostmayer?"
"Club soda." It wasn't what he wanted but he knew he was still on probation and that he would need a clear head for the tests, whenever they were held.
"Mr. Kostmayer will have one of your excellent house brews," Control corrected. Seeing Mickey about to protest, he winked at him. "You've got plenty of time before the test."
Giving in, he nodded. "Thanks."
Control didn't ask for a menu and it was obvious to the others that he didn't need it. As soon as their drinks were served, a dapper little man walked in and smiled broadly.
"Allo, my friend. How long has it been, this time? Two years? Six?"
Control, much to the surprise of his companions, stood up and exchanged a hug with the slender little man. Mickey watched curiously, realizing that the guy was even shorter than he was. McCall looked at the newcomer in puzzlement, like he was trying to place where he knew him from.
He sipped his beer slowly, enjoying seeing another side to his possibly future boss.
"It's only been about six months, Carlo, you old rapscallion," Control laughed.
"So, what will it be tonight, my friend?" Carlo asked, stepping back. He glanced at the other two men and smiled. "Ah, a working supper, eh?" He took a quick note of McCall and dismissed him. Turning his focus on the youngest member of the group, he nodded. "I have just the thing. Do you like Italian food, gentlemen?"
McCall still couldn't place Carlo, but was certain he'd met him before.
Mickey nodded enthusiastically. "That would be great."
McCall nodded slowly and raised an eyebrow at Control, who simply grinned.
Carlo smiled broadly and with a promise to be quick, left the room by the second door.
"Control," McCall said slowly, staring narrow-eyed at his friend, "Where do I know Carlo from? And by what name?"
Control smiled. "You've never met Carlo before, Robert." At McCall's skeptical look, he chuckled. "Truly, my friend. I've known Carlo for most of my life and he's got nothing to do with the Company."
McCall sighed. "Why is it that every time you attempt to reassure me that someone is not one of our kind, I find myself more suspicious than ever?"
"Because you're paranoid, old son," Control replied and took a sip of his brandy.
Mickey snorted, trying to hide his laughter and received a glare from McCall and a wink from Control for his trouble.
Oh well, he could live with both. He took another pull at his beer.
"Carlo is an old and dear family friend," Control said softly. McCall nearly choked on his scotch and had to wipe his eyes from the pain.
He looked at Control, amazed that the man would admit to even having a family, but then he remembered. "You..." he growled as the memory surfaced.
Control, eyes twinkling mischievously, lifted his brandy for another sip.
"That 'family friend' of yours is nothing more than a Mafia goon!"
"Now, Robert, he's got this lovely restaurant and once you taste the food, you'll be back on your own."
McCall just growled again.
Mickey's eyes widened for a fraction of a second before he hid his reaction. "How'd you meet Carlo?" he asked McCall. "What happened?"
McCall, glaring at the nearly snickering Control, ground out, "Albania, wasn't it?" Control nodded, becoming serious again. "Caught behind enemy lines, being chased by the KGB, and HE," he pointed at Control, "Decides that the best way out is by finding a gangster!"
"Robert," Control said patiently, "It worked, didn't it?"
"That's not the point! That man is a gangster, a murdering, thieving..."
Mickey sighed inwardly. So much for a good meal. He watched the two of them fight it out.
"Friend, who risked his life to save ours," Control cut him off, his expression turning stern. "As I recall, you have a very interesting scar from that little encounter, and if Carlo hadn't been there, you wouldn't be here now...nor would I. Besides, since he came here, he's not only paid his taxes, he's also donated a good portion of his profits to various charities, and on top of that, it's not exactly like he's still in contact with any of his old cronies."
McCall continued to glare
"And," Control continued softly, "We owe him. You owe him, and I owe him. Unless you don't think either of our lives were worth it?"
McCall grumbled to himself and finally nodded. "But I don't have to like him!"
"No one's asked you to, Robert."
Please! thought Mickey fervently.
McCall shook his head in defeat. "I'm almost willing to head across the parking lot for that other establishment," he began, and stopped abruptly when a waitress entered with a tray of antipasto. His nose twitched at the enticing smells coming from the tray and he forgot all about his moral outrage.
Control grinned and motioned for them to dig in. He delicately chose some fried calamari and a few other bits and pieces, obviously anticipating even better things to come. The others weren't quite as cautious.
McCall was smiling broadly as he dished up a bit of everything. Mickey, however, looked at the tray and started asking questions.
"So what is all of this?" he nodded towards the appetizers. "I recognize the veggies but that's about it." He dropped some olives, peperonici, sweet pickled peppers and cauliflower onto his plate.
"The carpaccio is lamb, the other fried items are clams and oysters. The rolled up pieces are proscuito wrapped around fresh buffalo mozzarella," Control explained, pointing out the different items.
"What's proscuito?" Mickey asked, the term unfamiliar to him.
"A dry-cured ham. Try it." Mccall urged.
He speared a slice of it with his fork and delivered it to his plate dutifully.
McCall used his fork and knife to slice off a bite of the proscuito wrapped mozzarella and sighed, contentedly. Mickey watched and then looked down at the multitude of cutlry before him and wondered how in hell you decided which fork to use. When he glanced up to try and figured it out, he observed Control, simply eating with his fingers and sighed in relief.
Fingers, he could handle.
Control caught his attention and grinned at him.
McCall ignored them and simply enjoyed the appetizers in his own way.
Manners, above all.
Before they had a chance to fill up on the antipasto, the waitress was back, this time, with fettucini in browned butter with mizithra cheese. Control smiled and filled his plate, then passed the huge bowl to Mickey.
"The cheese is from sheep's milk. Try it, I think you'll be pleased," he informed his companions, focusing most of his attention on the youngest member of their little group.
With a mental shrug, Mickey did so. He'd eaten worse to survive, like bugs. Forking it into his mouth, he prepared himself for the worst. It didn't happen. Instead, he was very pleasantly surprised. He'd had cheese before, even goat cheese, once. But it was nothing like what this sheep's milk cheese tasted. Smiling at his companions, he dug in.
He ate a little of everything, and kept a mental note of what he liked.
They'd barely finished the pasta when the waitress was back yet again, with another tray. This time, there were separate plates, with the entree. McCall groaned at the sight of veal piccatta and risoto. Control chuckled, "I tried to tell you, Robert."
McCall took a bite and groaned again, this time in abject pleasure. "I take it all back. You were right. I'll be back."
Mickey couldn't help but smile inwardly as his taste buds thanked him for taking McCall up on his job offer.
They fell silent again as they dug in and filled the last of the empty places.
When the waitress appeared yet again, this time with dessert, McCall groaned, half in pain, half in desire. When he recognized the dessert as Tiramisu, he scowled at Control.
"Damn you. You might have warned me."
Control laughed outright. "I didn't hold a gun to your head, old son. Besides, we have plenty of time to just sit here and enjoy our meal." He glanced at Mickey. "Take your time. There's still coffee, you know."
He nodded. This was certainly a meal to not be rushed.
It took them over an hour to finally give up. McCall sighed and looked sleepily at Mickey, and then Control. "All right. You've convinced me. Carlo is an outstanding innkeeper. Thank God none of us are driving."
Mickey nodded fervently in agreement.
Control looked up as Carlo reentered the room. "So, was it satisfactory?" he asked, smiling.
Control chuckled. "As always, Carlo. As you well know. Thank you." The other two men frowned when no bill was presented, nor money changed hands. Carlo simply smiled and followed his guests as they exited his establishment.
Mickey wasn't about to voice his questions though. He was sure McCall would ask, so he could simply wait.
Both men almost missed it. When Control shook Carlo's hand, he slipped him something. It was too well done to know exactly what had been passed, but both men were sure that something had been.
Mickey was burning with curiosity but still he didn't say a word.
Once they were back in the limo, McCall turned on Control. "And just what, exactly, did you give him?"
Control smiled innocently at him. "Just a hundred dollar bill, why?"
McCall looked surprised. "You're joking."
Control shrugged. "Not at all. I told you that it was one of my favorite restaurants. We have a deal. He feeds me and any guests I bring with me, and I pay him."
McCall shook his head. "For some reason, that doesn't make sense."
Mickey frowned. "Why not? Makes sense to me."
Control chuckled. "Robert doesn't always remember that people no longer in the game may still feel beholden and wish to make the appearance that they are still active. In Carlo's case, he is truly grateful for his little restaurant. It provides him with a decent living and keeps him safe."
McCall scowled, but remained silent. Control, looking forward to the two-hour trip, simply relaxed back in his seat, closed his eyes, and went to sleep; or at least, he pretended to go to sleep.
Mickey stayed awake but remained silent, simply paying attention to the route, watching the two older men, and thinking about what his life could be like, should he pass the final tests.
McCall glared at Control, annoyed at the man's ability to sleep anywhere and any time. He looked across at Mickey and decided to simply let the young man stew in his concerns about his future.
Mickey leaned back in his seat, face turned towards the window and waited for the next phase his life would undertake. He was ready to greet his future when the car stopped about two hours later.
Control opened his eyes without moving, recognized where they were and straightened up. McCall, who had finally fallen asleep himself, awoke with a grunt as Control elbowed him.
Seeing where they were, McCall sighed. "Finally," he muttered. "I must admit to looking forward to the end of all of this," he muttered. Control chuckled and released his seat belt; opening the door, he stepped out and stretched, but kept his arms down and ready, just in case.
Mickey pulled up the button to unlock the door and slid out of the limousine. He, too, stretched but stayed ready to face anything. Or so he hoped. He glanced around.
The 'school' hadn't changed since the last time he was here. He wondered how many of his classmates would be in attendance, but didn't ask. Looking to Control for instructions, he grinned as McCall climbed out the other side.
"I am getting too old for this, Control," he muttered. Control just grinned at him, turned and led the way inside.
He had to wonder why he had started to feel like he was walking towards a firing squad. After a few moments of thought, he put it down to the seriousness of the moment. If he didn't pass, he was thrown out. He could handle walking out on his own, but it was a slightly different matter if he didn't measure up. He squared his shoulders and marched in.
McCall watched him, smiling softly to himself. The boy had changed a great deal since that day he'd made him defuse the bomb. He nodded, thinking that his protege would make an excellent agent. He followed them inside.
He moved silently after Control, wondering what the first test would be.
To his surprise, he was simply instructed to go to bed and get a good night's sleep. He watched in puzzlement as Control and McCall left him at the door to the barracks.
He entered slowly, swinging his duffel bag off his shoulder and letting it land by the foot of his bed. He looked around and saw the others were sleeping already. He shook his head slightly, and then changed and fell into the bed. Sleep, however, refused to come easily.
Masur was still royally pissing him off. He should have been charged with attempted murder, not treated in a hospital without a guard and later to go into management. He growled under his breath and thought about the last test. As he had expected, he was fit enough to tackle most anything. Most of the students were a good group of human beings and he knew he could count on them. He rather thought that at least a few of them would think the same of him. He couldn't blame the others if they still didn't trust him; after all, he had deliberately started as a screw up. He wondered just how big a hero Toby and the others had made him out to be and winced inwardly. Dealing with that would almost be worse than dealing with his initial impression. Almost.
He practically fell off the bed when a loud annoying voice announced directly into his ear, "Time to get up, ladies!" He cracked open his eyes just in time to see a savage smile on the DI's lips as he started to move on to his next victim. He groaned inwardly as he rubbed his weary face with his hand. Some things hadn't changed and reveille was one of them. Hurriedly he stood up and gathered his clothes.
The classroom testing was about what he'd expected, as was the scenarios course. The final test, however, was somewhat different.
They gathered in the ready room. The woman in the front was not anyone they'd seen previously. She barely glanced up when they quietly entered and slid into their seats. When everyone was seated, she stood up. Lifting a clipboard, she frowned down at the papers on it.
"I see that a couple of your classmates have been removed from the finals list." She looked up; her eyes raked across the group, noting those who squirmed and, more importantly, those who didn't.
Mickey was one of those who didn't.
"I understand that they will be included in the next group's finals. I also see that some of you are going to be excused from the physical portion of your final due to injury," she looked up again, her nearly white eyes again raking the group. "Who is that, please?"
Three hands lifted. Her eyes bore through them and she stepped out from behind the table to take a better look. The soft cast on the one young man's leg and the other's arm in a sling told the tale, as did the full leg cast and crutches of the third. She scowled at the rest of the group. Raising an eyebrow, she said, "So, were two of you partners, or did the people you were supposed to be partnered with fail in their duty?"
Mickey frowned. He stood up and realized that the woman was over six feet tall. Standing at attention, he waited a moment for permission to speak.
"Toby was injured during his jump, he landed wrong and hurt his ankle. As we were traveling, I found Robinson, who had fallen down a cliff, so we pulled him up and took him with us. The next day, I heard Jenkins and Petersen shouting for help. The trail was crumbled away by the cliff face and they'd tumbled over the side, ma'am."
She raised one imperious eyebrow. "And you would be?"
She looked down at the report before her and then looked quickly at him again, surprise quickly hidden in her expression. She looked up and down his short, compact frame and wondered how the hell this little guy had managed. "Hmmm."
He'd seen the flash of surprise but didn't say anything.
She looked at the three injured men and frowned. "Unfortunately, you can't graduate unless you complete the course, therefore, you three are excused."
He cleared his throat. "It's just the obstacle course, isn't it? Seems a shame for them to score so high so far, only to be turned out now. I can do it with them and if they wash out, I will, too."
She raised the imperious eyebrow again. "That's quite a handicap you're giving yourself, Kostmayer."
"I'm willing to take it, ma'am."
She considered him for several long moments, while the rest of the class watched in fascination. The woman hadn't been here at the beginning and didn't know what a screw-up Kostmayer could be, but he'd seemed to come around, and was now showing some serious leadership ability.
Finally, she nodded. "Your choice. See you on the course, gentlemen. You have ten minutes," and with that, she turned and left the room.
"You heard her, let's get goin'," Mickey told them. He helped Alex out of the chair and they left the room.
Toby gave him a boost up to the top of the eight-foot wall. Then, as he straddled the obstacle, they helped Alex up, and then the two of them pulled up the other two, reversing the process to get down, with Chris jumping down first, and him helping first Toby, and then Alex down; and finally Mickey jumped down. Going up the rope ladder, he kept with Chris, to act as an extra hand when he needed to hold on. Alex was strong enough in the upper body that he simply swung himself up, pulled his good leg up, stretched, grabbed, and repeat. Toby followed his lead and they made it to the top, and then down. The belly crawl under the razor wire was fairly easy, although the rope bridge was hard. Mickey looked at Alex and shook his head.
"On my back, kid."
"You can't carry me...."
"Shut up and do as your told."
Flushing in embarrassment, Alex did as he was told and the smaller man carried him across the rope bridge, the other two managing on their own. They knew that if they didn't keep up, Mickey would cart them along as well.
It looked as though they might actually all four make it.
The tall, athletic man entered the control room where they were watching the recruits out on the obstacle course. Everyone looked at him curiously at his entrance, but only one reacted. With a frown, Control motioned him to go out and followed him.
"I thought you were in England?"
"I was. Just got back late last night, called home and was told my son had gone away to 'camp'. What's going on, here, Control? Alex shouldn't be here."
Alex.... "Alex Robinson is your son?" He frowned in confusion. "I didn't think you had any kids out of school, yet."
"How old do you think he is?"
"Eighteen? It's young, but the committee figured to give him a break for some reason. But... just how old is he, Kel?"
"Fifteen, going on five, or fifty, depending on the time of day. You mean he told them that he was eighteen and a high-school graduate? I'm gonna have to kill him. His mother's worried sick."
Control sighed. "Well, I think he punished himself more than you could."
Looking the slightly taller man in the eyes, he told him. "He broke his leg on the survival course. His partner pushed him over a cliff and left him there. They argued over which way to go. Your boy was right."
"What happened to the guy who pushed him?"
Control looked away, his bitterness obvious. "Jason Masur is being groomed by upstairs for management. Watch yourself if you ever have to deal with the little weasel."
"They'd better keep him away from me or I'll just kill him. I know plenty of good places to hide a body." He glanced towards the control room. "How's he running the course with a broken leg?"
"McCall's new partner. He's the one who brought your boy in, along with his own injured partner and two others who had managed to misstep. The four of them are running it as a unit. They aren't fast, by any means, but they are going to make it. And I think they get extra points for doing it injured, and in Kostmayer's case, for sticking with them."
Robinson nodded. "You don't really expect Alex to join up right now, do you?" His voice told his long-time friend and colleague that if he had any choice, his son would not be following in his footsteps.
"No. He'll need that high school diploma, first. However, this may get him a scholarship to become a linguist like his uncle." Control looked around. "Speaking of whom, where is Scotty?"
"Sent him home to his wife. I didn't even tell him." He tried desperately to stifle a yawn. "Man, I'm tired. How long before they're through?"
Control glanced at his watch. "Another hour, I'd guess. You probably know he aced all the written tests. Although, I'm rather surprised that no one noticed he's just a kid; but then, Mickey has called him that the entire time." He shook his head. "Be like him to keep the kid's secret, though." He looked at the exhausted agent. "You want a place to stretch out for a bit?"
Robinson shook his head. "If I did, you wouldn't wake me for at least fourteen hours." He looked at his watch and did the calculations. "I've now been up for sixty-seven hours straight. During that time, I've played two sets of tennis, chased four bad guys down and fought with them. Fled a communist country and snuck across the border, driven all night, taken a long flight to New York, only to have my wife tell me when I called her that my oldest son had taken a powder and gone to 'camp'. His note to me was cryptic, but I figured it out. Caught another plane, worrying the entire way whether or not he was all right, and now here I am. Believe me, if I relaxed now, I would not be able to wake up."
Control shook his head and sighed. Placing a gentle hand on the other man's shoulder, he tugged him along. "Come on, then. At least let me buy you a cup of decent coffee."
"Decent coffee?" He laughed. "What's your idea of decent coffee?"
"Fresh, hot, and black."
"And, if you're good, something to eat, as well."
"Even better. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich sounds wonderful, at the moment."
"I think I can do better than that. Come on, Kel. I've got just the thing." Control led him down to the cafeteria and ordered a pot of coffee and a hot, New York style pastrami sandwich. Then he sat back and watched the exhausted man wolf it down.
"Let me guess, you haven't eaten in longer than you've been awake?"
Swallowing, he shook his head. "I had a continental breakfast. Croissant and coffee. Fine to play tennis on, lousy to try and run on for two days. And the food on the plane...." He shuddered. "Took one whiff and wanted to puke." He grinned. "Good thing, too. Most of the people on that flight needed their sick kits."
Control winced. "What airline?"
"Which one do you think?" They grinned at one another.
When Robinson had finished eating, sitting back with a sigh of contentment, Control leaned forward. "So, how about that nap, now?"
He groaned. "Stop torturing me, man. You know I'll sleep like the dead for a good twelve hours if I stop now. I want to get Alex home before I crash."
Control sighed. "You can't take him home until we release him, Kelly. I want him to pass before we snitch on him."
"Because, when he passes, even though he'll be deferred for his age, he'll still be eligible. If he's outed before he gets that piece of paper, he's lost everything. It's his choice, Kelly. He's got guts and brains. You know as well as I do how rare that is. He's not into excitement or action. He's not an adrenaline junkie. He's the kind of agent we need for the future. One who can think and plan with the best of them. I'd like to see him get some psychology courses in, as well. Of course, by the time he's out of college, he may have outgrown wanting to be like his dad, but until then, I think we owe it to him and the company to give him all the help he needs."
"I bet you can sell a used car in Atlantis." Kelly shook his head. "All right. I can wait until he's passed. If he passes. But I still want to see him. I at least need to tell him off about worrying his mom like he has. Camp. Ha! I'll 'camp' him."
"All right. That's only fair. Besides, I'm rather looking forward to seeing his expression when he sees you when he comes in. He's going to be hot, tired, dirty, and sore; and then he'll have to face the wrath of a good father." He grinned. "Should be interesting."
He was surprised when Frank joined them at the balance-bridge. The two of them carried Toby and Alex across the bridge and watched closely as Chris made his way across safely. Their last obstacle came up and the five exhausted men barely made it. They were ready to collapse, but they still had the final 'run' to make. Without Frank, they'd never have made it. Mickey had Toby between him and Chris, then Alex, and finally Frank. The three with two good legs supported the two with bum legs and the five of them 'jogged' the final two miles. At the end, they were all beyond caring, but they'd made it. And within the time limit.
McCall was there to congratulate them. The blond amazon simply nodded to them and checked them in on her clipboard. The five men continued their way into the locker room, where Control and another man were waiting for them.
Mickey took one look at the stranger and realized that he had to be Alex's father. He glanced over at the kid and saw him go pale. He turned Toby over to Chris and Frank and hovered. These were his team, and he wasn't going to let anyone hurt them, even if it was the kid's father.
"Uh, hi, Dad. When did you get back?"
"Late last night. I haven't been home, yet, though. I called home and your mom told me that you'd gone to 'camp'."
Mickey saw Alex wince and how he wouldn't meet his father's eyes. Looking at the elder Robinson, he saw exhaustion and annoyance. Glancing at Control, he saw a bit of amusement. Frowning, he continued to watch.
"Well, it was sort of like camp. Combined with summer school." He tried a disarming grin, but it quickly dissolved under his father's grim expression.
"Alex, your mother read me the note you left for me. She was very upset. Since you lied to her, I'll let her mete out the punishment. In the meantime, you might want to get a shower and changed."
Alex blushed and hung his head. "Yes, sir."
"Hold it. He may be your son, but he's not some wayward kid, you know. He's a good man; one I'd be proud to work with any time, anywhere." Mickey had rocked forward onto his toes and jutted his chin out belligerently at the taller, older man.
Frowning at him, Alex's dad leaned close. "When he graduates from high school or hits eighteen, then he can decide for himself. Until then, he's going to have to live by my rules."
Mickey's jaw dropped and he turned to look at a very chagrined Alex. He narrowed his eyes at the kid and growled. "How old are you, Alex?"
Practically cringing, the boy answered. "Sixteen?"
"Not until November, you aren't," his father countered.
Mickey's jaw dropped and he gaped, first at Alex, then at the kid's dad, and finally at a very amused Control. "How long have you known?" he asked.
"I had no idea until Kelly got here looking for him. Now, not a word, for the moment."
"What, he works this hard and you don't want him to graduate?"
Mickey's head pulled back with a sharp intake of breath. Looking at the exhausted boy beside him, he nodded. "Come on, kid. Let's hit the showers. I'll wrap your cast for you."
"Thanks, Mickey." The two quietly made their way into the locker room.
"How tough is his mother?"
"Once she's finished babying him over the broken leg? He's looking at three months of grounded and an awful lot of extra chores."
Control nodded. "Well, they won't hear anything until tomorrow noon. Let's get you set up with a place to sleep." Seeing Kelly about to protest, he pushed him gently before him. "No arguments. I don't want your wife coming after me because you drop from exhaustion. He'll be just fine. Mickey will take care of him and won't tell anyone."
With a heavy sigh, Kelly nodded. "Fine. I really could use a little sleep."
Control watched him with a critical and knowing eye. "How bad are you hurt, Kelly?"
"Mostly just tired. Maybe a few bumps and bruises, is all."
"Uh-huh. Tell me another one. First stop for you is in medical. If they let you loose, then I'll find you a better place to sleep."
Control spun on him, getting right in the slightly taller and younger man's face, index finger prodding him in the chest. His eyes glittered with deadly intent. "Don't you ever call me that name," he hissed. He shifted back a bit. "It isn't my name. Never really was, Kelly. Remember that."
"Sorry, Control." He was. They'd worked together a number of times and the senior agent had always impressed him with his ability to always get his team out. He was one of very few who knew any of the enigmatic man's history. And he knew better than to try and trade on that privileged information. Properly chastised, he followed Control to medical, where he was checked out, had his cuts and scrapes cleaned and bandaged, and his injured ankle wrapped and iced. By the time he was finished, he expected Control to be long gone, but he wasn't. He was right there, waiting patiently for him.
"Now, let's get you a nice, soft bed to sleep on, shall we?"
"Right now, I'd settle for the floor, man."
Control chuckled. "No need for that, kid." He showed him to guest quarters. The bed was soft, the lighting properly dim, and there were no windows. An added advantage, it was also soundproof. Kelly stripped down to his briefs and t-shirt and practically fell into bed. By the time the covers settled over him, he was asleep.
"So, Alex. Why don't you tell me what's going on?" Mickey had helped Alex with the plastic to protect his cast and even helped him get his clean sweats on over the bulky cast. Now, after they had eaten and were back in the barracks, he was through waiting.
Alex sighed. "Well, as my dad said, I'm only fifteen." He shrugged. "Dad was recruited when he was in college, because he was a jock with a professional class talent."
Alex grinned and nodded. "Tennis. Davis Cup. He can go just about anywhere in the world and no one thinks anything about it, he's there for some tennis tournament. It's a good cover, for the most part. Of course, he's a bit past his prime, now, but he still plays occasionally, while coaching the next generation. It's still a good cover."
"And you want to be just like him, right?"
Alex grinned. "No. I want to be better." Seeing the look on Mickey's face, he laughed. "I want to become a combination of Dad and Uncle Scotty. Scotty's a Rhodes Scholar, speaks half a dozen languages. So far, I can speak eight, besides English. I'm almost as good as my dad in the jock department, but I'll never be a pro, like him. But I'm close." He shrugged. "Maybe if I start working harder on the physical stuff, I'll make pro; but I'd rather play golf than tennis."
"So? Work on your golf, then. Maybe you can become a pro golfer, instead. That can get you around the world, too."
Alex grinned and nodded. "Yeah. I think I will. Thanks."
"Who's 'Uncle Scotty', by the way?"
"He's my dad's partner." He shrugged. "You wouldn't have heard of them. They're called Domino."
Mickey frowned. "That's a funny name. Why?"
Alex shrugged. "Not sure. They've been partners since 1960, though. I think it has something to do with Uncle Scotty being black, while Dad's white, maybe."
Mickey nodded; he remembered that far back, when black and white people didn't interact. He wondered how hard it had been for 'Uncle Scotty' to deal with all that. "Probably," he agreed. "So, what say we get some grub and then head for our racks, huh? I don't know about you, but I'm tired."
Alex grinned. "Sounds great." With that, Mickey handed him his crutches and the two of them slowly made their way to the cafeteria.
Control quietly opened the door and couldn't help but grin at the sight of Kelly Robinson, sprawled face down across his bed, the covers kicked into a pile on the floor and his head buried in a pillow. He'd slept from just after 1600 the day before, and it was now 1000, a full 18 hours later. Stepping closer to the sleeping man, he could see that there were still lines of exhaustion and stress on his face.
"Kelly." He spoke softly, not wanting to startle him into fight-or-flight.
"Go 'way, Uncle George. Wanna sleep."
"Kelly, it's time to wake up, now, son. Come on. Don't make me drag you out of that bed, now."
Kelly groaned and pulled the pillow over his head. Control chuckled softly and shook his head.
"ROBINSON, HIT THE DECK!" he bellowed in his best imitation of a DI. Kelly yelped and hit the floor, snapping to attention. Seeing the laughing control, he slumped and groaned.
"You are a cruel and heartless man, Control."
Still grinning, Control shook his head. "I thought you'd like to be present for the announcements, is all. You've got thirty minutes." He turned and left him.
"No problem." With that, he was gone. Kelly headed for the bathroom and a shower to wake up. Within fifteen minutes, he was showered, shaved, dressed, and ready to go. Now, if he could only remember the way to the auditorium....
"Mr. Robinson. I noticed you had arrived. What brings you here?"
"Hey, McCall. I've got kind of a personal interest, for a change." He grinned.
Robert nodded. "Alex Robinson, perchance?"
Kelly nodded. "That would be him."
"I hadn't made the connection, but when I saw you, yesterday, the resemblance was quite apparent."
"Yeah." Kelly grinned. "He's a good kid, most of the time."
McCall looked past Kelly and smiled. "Ah, Control. Any word?"
Control sauntered up, hands in his pants pockets, totally relaxed. "It's not up to me. But I'm pretty certain that everyone passed." He gave nothing away.
The PA system crackled to life and the three men found seats in the back of the room. The platinum blond amazon stood at the podium, the students (minus one) lined up before her.
"Gentlemen." She raked her nearly colorless eyes over the group. "Congratulations. You've passed." There was a massive, collective sigh of relief. "Unlike normal schools, we don't generally rank our students. However, five of you merited extra points on the final physical testing." She looked at the class. "I think you know who you are. If not, then perhaps we need to reevaluate your scores on intelligence."
There were nervous giggles as Mickey and his group looked at each other in embarrassed surprise.
"You will receive your assignments after lunch. Congratulations, gentlemen."
The students stood up and cheered for themselves before heading for the exits. Kelly couldn't help the pride in his smile as he watched his son and friends grin and exchange congratulations. He looked over at Control. "Extra points?"
Control smiled, offering cigars. Kelly declined, but McCall accepted. Once they were outside, Control lit first Robert's and then his own. Taking a puff, he exhaled and shrugged. "For team playing. Kostmayer lived up to his SEAL training in that he never left anyone behind, not even when it was prudent to so."
"Prudent?" McCall asked.
"He did not have to take the three injured men on the final obstacle course and run. He could have gone alone and done well; but he is a team player in that he didn't think it fair for the three injured to flunk out due to no fault of their own. The fact that Masur was given special dispensation does not reflect well on either him, or his sponsors. Then we have Frank Jenkins. He initially intended to look out only for himself, but he stopped and helped Mickey and the others. Had he not done so, all four of them would have failed, as they would have exceeded the time allowed."
Kelly nodded. "Sounds a bit like you, Control." He smiled, remembering a mission where he'd been the one not left behind, despite 'prudence.'
Control's smile turned enigmatic. "Let's just say that it pleases me when there are more of my kinds of agents produced than Masur's, shall we?"
McCall shook his head. "You are the most devious man I know."
"Why thank you, Robert. That's a high compliment, indeed, coming from you." He raised his head and nodded. The others turned to look and spotted a man dressed in white.
"Isn't that..." Kelly began.
"Yes. He's here to pick out a couple for advanced training. I don't think your boy will make it, Robert."
"Just as well. The deputy director has a reputation for being very hard on agents."
"He gets the job done, old son. That's all that matters. Besides, he's got that toy of his he's working on; he's most likely looking for pilot material." He chuckled. "Let's see who he's interested in, shall we?" He led the way to meet the tall, slender man in white.
"Control. Nice batch of recruits you have there."
Control nodded. "They are. How's it going on that toy of yours?"
Archangel was possibly the only man on earth with a more enigmatic smile than Control, and he smiled it, now. "It's going, thanks. I still wish you'd reconsider."
Control shook his head. "No, thanks. I don't like Rotary Wing Aircraft. If the engines cut out, you fall, there's no glide to them."
"True, old friend. Very true." He looked at the others. "Mr. McCall, Mr. Robinson. How are things with you, gentlemen?"
"Quite well, thank you," Robert replied.
"So far, so good," Kelly added.
Archangel's blue eyes pinned the younger agent. "Was that your son I saw in there just now? Alex?"
"Yes, sir. It was." Kelly fidgeted just a bit.
Archangel nodded. "A bit young, don't you think?"
"Yes, sir. I agree."
"Mind telling me how he got here and through the entire course without anyone noticing?" The question was asked softly, but the blue gaze shifted to Control, who smiled.
"The boy lied about his age, of course. Since I wasn't involved in the selection process, I suggest you ask Mr. Masur's sponsors."
Archangel's expression turned annoyed. "Ah, yes. Jason." He shook his head and sighed. When he met Control's eyes, he was regretful. "I wish I could do something, but I'm afraid it's out of my hands. At least, for now."
"Time will tell," Control agreed. He glanced at the worried Kelly. "In the meantime, what do you want to do about young Mr. Robinson?"
Archangel smiled. "Send him home to finish growing, of course." He looked at the worried father. "I'm going to recommend some classes for him. He's got a lot of promise. I think he'll do very well."
Kelly smiled thinly. "Thank you, sir."
Archangel looked at McCall. "I honestly thought your man would wash out. I'm pleasantly surprised."
Robert grinned a bit ruefully. "It seems his initial attitude was somewhat my fault, I'm afraid. I forgot to extend an invitation to join us. He mistook my overtures as orders, and quite naturally balked."
Archangel nodded. "Understandable." He gazed into the distance. "I still think he's a bit too unstable for my tastes, but he's certainly determined enough. He's the sort I'd send in for damage control."
"I'm partnering him with McCall."
"Good choice. I commend your decision. I'm interested in young Mr. Jenkins. He's a bit hesitant, but his heart's in the right place. I believe young Toby belongs in a lab, somewhere. I may have a spot for him, as well." His attention moved to the future. "Meanwhile, I'm rather looking forward to the consternation upon the general discovery of young Alex's deception. Particularly in regards his innate abilities and stubborn determination." He turned his enigmatic smile on Kelly. "The fruit definitely did not fall far from the tree." He nodded to McCall and Control. "Gentlemen." He turned and made his way toward the administration building.
The three of them watched the deputy director walk away. Kelly sighed. "I'm glad he's taking this so well." McCall nodded his agreement.
Control chuckled. "I'm glad I'm not the one to be on the receiving end of his invective." His companions joined him in soft laughter.
"Fifteen." Archangel glared at the council member who had been in charge of choosing the students for the just-graduated class. "I thought there was a background check done prior to recruitment. It should have been caught and the boy deferred. Now, it's too late. We've entered into a binding contract with him. He can take full advantage of all we have to offer him in re: education and training, but he can back out at any time, based on his age right now. In ten years, he could change his mind. I don't think the committee is going to be pleased."
The council member glowered, but to no avail. He was royally and righteously screwed, and he knew it. Fortunately, he wasn't Jason's only sponsor, just the most vulnerable at the moment. He tried staring down the deputy director, but to no avail. Finally, he nodded. "I'll take full responsibility."
Archangel nodded in agreement. "You will, as well as for what your protege has done, as well. Young Mr. Robinson will be given full benefits, beginning immediately."
He was about to protest, but seeing the implacable expression the deputy director wore, he simply nodded. "Very well."
He leaned on the man's desk and into his personal space. "And you and your minions will keep away from him. I'll guide his education from this point on. Do I make myself clear?"
He ground his teeth in frustration. "Crystal clear, sir." It was obvious that it stuck in his craw, but he was trapped between the grindstones, and he knew it.
Archangel smirked and straightened up. "Oh, and Control's taking over at Northern."
"What?" he gasped.
"I'm not going to waste him on anything less. It's actually long overdue." His smile turned cunning. "Trust me."
He nearly stopped breathing. "Of course." He choked on the words.
His points made, Archangel left. He had plans to make and manipulations to put into play. And a young man's education and future to arrange.
Mickey was ready to go. His gear was all packed in his duffle bag and he was waiting at the front gate. He watched as the others got their orders and headed out to their new careers with the company. He smiled as he watched Alex leave with his father. He'd seen the pride warring with the worry and was glad he didn't have any kids; at least, not yet. Alex had been somewhat subdued at lunch, but when some guy all in white had handed him an envelope and the kid had opened it to read the contents, he'd seen Alex's eyes widen and the happy grin spread across his face. At that point, the boy had started talking to his father, who apparently had a pretty good idea what was in the envelope, as he was smiling and hugging his son. Toby and Frank were heading out to California, and the rest to various advanced training. Him? Well, he was waiting, still. Seeing Control and McCall headed his way, he watched them.
"Are you ready to go, Mr. Kostmayer?" McCall asked. Mickey rose to his feet and hoisted his duffle bag to his shoulder.
"Any time you are."
"Robert, I have your next assignment, here. I'll be seeing you around. Gentlemen." Control handed McCall an envelope and went through the gate, where his limousine awaited.
"So, where are we going?"
McCall tore open the envelope and read the contents. He shook his head. "New York. You've a furnished flat waiting for you, and then we're going to Cairo."
McCall frowned down at his new partner, suddenly realizing that the man looked like a street person. "First of all, I think we need to adjust your wardrobe."
"You are not touching my clothes, McCall."
"But jeans and a tee shirt are not appropriate for every situation."
"I've got some good flannel shirts, too."
McCall sighed. "You can't wear jeans to a diplomatic party."
"You go to the parties, McCall. I'll be outside providing backup. Or sneaking around behind the scenes."
"Kostmayer," McCall groaned.
"What?" Mickey was grinning.
McCall sighed. "Never mind."
They climbed into their car and McCall, wondering what he'd gotten himself into, drove away.
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