King of the Mountain
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The forest was cool and dark, still dripping from the rain that had only just stopped. The birds were still quiet, not yet willing to trust that the rain was truly over. In the pre-dawn hush, with the only sounds that of water dripping from the evergreens and trickling down the hillsides, he looked out over his territory. Lifting his head, he sniffed the air, seeking...searching for anyone and anything out of place in his domain. Satisfied, he turned and headed back for his camp. He'd just gotten under cover when the rain began again.
"Well, at least we're not being hunted by poachers or psychos, this time," Blair Sandburg muttered to himself.
"Got a problem, Chief?" his friend and roommate Jim Ellison asked, amused.
"Oh, nothing that a hot shower and a cabin with a fireplace couldn't cure...Tell me again why we're out here during a major rainstorm that they say won't be gone for several days?" He wasn't really annoyed...well, he was, but only because of the way his wet, soggy hair dripped down his collar.
"Because it's slow and we had a choice to either take the vacation time now...or maybe not for several more months. You had the option of staying home, Sandburg. You didn't have to come, you know." He'd originally suggested just taking off on his own, but his friend's expression of abandonment and that 'whipped puppy' look in his eyes had quickly had him extending the offer to include the younger man.
"Oh, yeah," Blair grimaced, remembering how he'd practically begged to come along...of course, he'd needed the break just as much as his partner had. They'd just finished up one of the messier cases he'd ever had the misfortune to be involved with, and the trial had gone on for weeks, with each of them spending days on the witness stand. When they had finally gotten the conviction, there was no elation; merely the quiet satisfaction of having done their jobs and done them well. The sentencing had been another difficult time, as they had to present their case, yet again. Fortunately, the jury had come to see things the District Attorney's way and sentenced three of the gang to death, and the other two to life in prison without parole. Appeals were, of course, pending. In the meantime, they were taking advantage of the slowness at the PD and escaping into the wilds of the forest, far from so-called civilization and the problems it caused.
"So, Jim, what's on the agenda for today? After this hike, that is?" They'd left Cascade at first light and headed north, then east. Half of the trip had been on unpaved, ancient logging roads...roads that wended their way through stands of second-growth forest and up into the oldest sections of woods, where the trees stood massive and silent. What others would call the 'forest primeval'. When they could no longer drive, they had parked in a clearing and picked up their packs, heading north-east, into the deepest, oldest section of wilderness. The rain had begun almost from the moment they were out of sight of the truck, but that wasn't going to stop Jim. No way. He led the way, following a path that either didn't exist, or that only someone with the heightened senses of a Sentinel could follow. Blair was in good shape, but his friend's longer legs forced him to work harder to keep up.
Jim paused for a breather, his unconscious monitoring of his friend telling him it was time for a break. Looking around, he smiled, some of the lines of fatigue diminishing from around his eyes as he finally started to relax. "I figure the next nice clearing we find near running water will do, Chief."
"And just how much further do you think we'll have to go before we find this perfect campsite?" They'd been hiking for nearly six hours, now and Blair was getting tired.
"Oh," Jim tilted his head, listening, then he straightened up from where he'd leaned against a tree and, pushing aside the branches, pointed. "Maybe about ten minutes?"
"You shit. You knew that was there, didn't you?" Blair growled in mock annoyance.
"Not really, but I could hear the water..."
"Come on, man. Let's get going. I want to set up camp and get warm and dry." Blair pushed past his friend, taking the straightest, although not the easiest route to their destination, straight down the steep hillside, over the boulders, instead of a more meandering and safer route.
Shaking his head in amusement, Jim followed, speeding his steps to catch up in time to prevent his overenthusiastic partner from taking a tumble down the steep slope. "Careful there, Hillery, we don't need you to hurt yourself. I have no desire to pack your carcass out of here."
Blair, pale from his close call, nodded, "Right. Good idea, man. Thanks."
"You're welcome. Come on, there's a much easier way, it'll just take a few minutes longer." So saying, he turned his friend and then carefully pushed past him, taking the lead once more; following a deer trail in a circuitous route down to the clearing below and the rushing water that burbled over the rocks.
Once safely down, they looked around. Blair pointed to a sheltered area under the trees, still close to the stream, but less exposed and open. Nodding, Jim followed his partner and, once at their chosen spot, slid his pack to the ground and pulled out their tent.
"I'll set up the tent if you want to gather firewood," Jim offered.
"How about you gather the firewood and start the fire while I put up the tent?" Blair countered.
Realizing that his friend was more tired than he was, Jim smiled and passed him the tent. "Fine, but you cook."
"Not a problem, man. Especially if I want anything edible...." Blair called after him as he quickly headed up the hill to search for deadfall to supply their needs. Jim simply waved in acknowledgment and continued on his way.
The silence was a blessing, as was the fresh air and peacefulness of the area. They were a good ten or twelve miles from the truck, far enough out not to have to worry much about meeting anyone. It was peaceful and he could feel the stresses of the past few weeks stripping away. He found a deadfall just under a hundred yards away from their camp. He pulled at the decayed wood, pulling down enough to get them started, he'd come back later with a tarp to drag enough to last the next day or so. As he dug down, he found that the center of the deadfall was dry. Loading up as much as he could carry, he staggered a bit under the weight as he struggled to maintain his footing on the uneven ground. He twisted to remain upright and, as soon as he regained his balance, he headed back to camp.
Blair had set up their tent in mere minutes, one of the advantages of dome tents, and had already pulled out the required packages of freeze-dried food, choosing one to make. He'd also gotten water from the stream, using his portable filter to make sure the water was drinkable. He'd just finished filling the coffeepot and adding the correct amount of water to their meal, when Jim returned with his load of firewood and kindling.
"Hey, good timing, man. I've got the stove ready and lunch will be in about fifteen minutes."
"Don't forget the altitude, Chief. Did you add extra water?"
"Right. Got it. No, I forgot...uh, a quarter of a cup?" Blair looked up, asking.
"Yeah, sounds about right. How's the filter working?"
"It's great, man. Just fill from the bottom and squeeze. Never have to touch the filter."
"Sounds good." Jim, having set down his load of wood, began clearing a fire ring. There, under the trees, he was careful to choose a spot that had no limbs directly above the firepit, yet still close enough to warm the tent. Blair had chosen well, placing the tent in such a way that it was on level ground, mostly beneath the trees, yet far enough out to allow them to have the fire close enough to warm them at night, and still be sheltered from the rain.
Lunch was eaten in companionable silence as the two men relaxed from the heavy stress they'd been under. The case had nearly been lost when the suspect claimed that he'd been denied his rights...fortunately, the videotape in the booking room had shown him being mirandized, as had the videotape from the interrogation room. Thankfully, the tapes had still been available. It had seemed that they were blocked at every turn. First, there had been the delaying tactics of the defense, followed by threats against witnesses and trying to protect them, moving several witnesses into protective custody. Then there had been the attacks on the police officers involved. Blair was still nursing a few bruises and Jim was out here against medical advice, his left wrist and elbow still wrapped in support bandages for the torn tendons and ligaments from saving his partner. But it was worth it. The clean, fresh air, the quiet and solitude, good companionship...it made it all worthwhile.
Jim volunteered to wash the dishes afterwards; then, since it had begun raining even harder than before, they decided to try and dry off in their tent. Once they had changed into sweats, they each stretched out on their sleeping bag and listened to the rain pattering on the fabric protecting them. Within minutes, the two mentally and emotionally exhausted men were sound asleep.
It was after dark when Jim awoke. He extended his senses, searching for what had alerted him, but found nothing out of the ordinary. Blair was snoring softly, curled atop his sleeping bag, his arms pillowing his head. Jim stretched and glanced at his watch. It was approaching nine p.m. He'd been asleep for nearly eight hours. His stomach growled and he reluctantly arose to begin fixing them something for dinner. The rain had stopped some time earlier, as there was no longer any water dripping from the trees. The wind had freshened and changed direction, now coming from the south. Sorting through their supplies, he heard something that had him instantly on the alert, only to relax a moment later as he spotted the culprit... Reaching down, he picked up a fist-sized stone and, taking careful aim, flung it at the intruder. The large cottontail never saw it coming. Pulling out his pocket knife, Jim quickly had the rabbit skinned, gutted, cut into pieces and ready for the pot, he placed a bit of oil in the pot and browned the meat, then he covered it with water and set it to cook. Looking around, he sniffed the air, searching...grinning when he found what he was looking for. Picking up the remains of the rabbit to dispose of away from camp, he quickly followed his nose to a patch of wild onions, their triangular blades and tiny, white, bell-like flowers dancing in the growing breeze. Pulling up a few of the onions, he supplemented it with the stalks of several more and, rinsing them in the stream, headed back to chop them up and add them to his stew.
He froze, the hair rising not only on the back of his neck, but along his arms and head, as well. His head came up and he sought out the source of the weirdly frightening sound. Not quite a howl, but not exactly anything else, either. It didn't sound like a wolf...but still... The noise, whatever it was, echoed off the mountains, reverberating through the valley and the ravines, until he was unable to discern what direction it had originated from. Setting back in motion, he hurried back to camp.
Blair awoke, startled from his sleep by the horrendous...howl, was the best he could describe it. Looking across the tent, he saw nothing but Jim's rumpled sleeping bag. He quickly scrambled to his feet and jerked the zippered door open, stumbling in his haste, his worried voice calling out for his friend.
"I'm right here, Chief. I'm fine."
"What the hell was that? You did hear it, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I heard it. I have no idea what it is, unless it's a wolf with a really sore throat, but yeah, I heard it."
"Man, that was enough to curdle your blood," Blair continued, finding solace in talking. "Hey, you don't suppose that was a Sasquatch, do you? I mean, this is his home turf, as it were...I..."
"Sandburg, take it easy. Whatever it was isn't anywhere near here, so just sit down and relax. Dinner will be ready in a while."
"What is it? Smells good." Distracted by the smell of the cooking meat, the younger man settled down, cross-legged, by his friend, who was using his pocket knife to cut his wild onions into manageable bits and putting them in the pot.
"Rabbit. With wild onions. We got any dehydrated vegetables?"
"Uh, yeah. I know I brought some..." Blair's voice tapered off as he dug through their supplies, making a sound of triumph as he came up with the desired package. "I knew I had some...vegetable soup mix. Will that do?"
"Perfect." Jim took the offered package and opened it, dumping half the contents into the simmering pot. "It'll be about half an hour, yet."
"Sounds good. How long did I sleep?"
"Oh, about half an hour longer than I did." Seeing his friend's disgusted expression, he chuckled and added, "I slept about eight hours, then I woke up and started to look for something to fix for dinner, then mister cottontail came along and helped me decide. I went looking for some wild onions, and then came back."
"Cool. Well, while you're doing the cooking, I need to go find a nice, friendly, bush..."
"Go downstream, Chief."
"Well, duh, Jim," came Blair's disgusted reply as he headed upstream.
"Oh. I knew that."
"Sure, you did, Chief," but there was laughter in the voice.
Dinner was delicious and Blair said so, eliciting a contented smile from his partner. It was cold enough that there would be no problem storing the leftovers in a ziplock bag for the next morning...when camping, leftover dinner generally becomes breakfast, when you're in the wilderness.
Once the dishes were washed and everything secured for the night, the two now awake men settled down by the fire, sipping their coffee and contentedly listening to the forest around them. Along about midnight, the silence was interrupted by the lonesome howling of a single wolf. Jim turned his head, judging direction and distance. A few minutes later, the lonely sound was joined by others, chorusing through the night. The two men listened in silence as the eerie sound echoed around them.
"I don't hear the one with the sore throat, do you?" Blair asked, softly. Jim mutely shook his head. Abruptly, the hideous sound from before came, sending involuntary shivers of unnamed dread through both men. The other howling immediately ceased, leaving the night dark and silent. Within moments, it began, once again, to rain. The two men quickly doused their fire with the remaining coffee and scrambled for their tent, intending to finish out the night in slumber...providing whatever made that noise didn't make it's presence known any further.
Throughout the rest of the night, the two men slept restlessly, waking often, wondering what had made that frightening sound and whether or not it was going to come closer.
The rain was still falling when they finally awoke the next morning. Neither man had really slept well until the first pale light of day lightened the sky. Somehow, the knowledge that it was no longer dark eased their concern and allowed them to rest. Blair was the first to stir, at around eight-thirty. With an enormous yawn, he stretched, allowing himself to wake fully. Glancing over at the other sleeping bag, he was a bit surprised to see that his friend was still sleeping, curled on his side and facing him. He couldn't suppress the smile at the sight of his normally so strong and stoic friend's face, so much younger and ...well innocent, in slumber. Carefully, he slowly unzipped his sleeping bag, trying to be as silent as he could. Slipping quietly from his bag, he repeated the procedure with the tent door. Just as silently, he slid his feet into his hiking boots. Stepping out into the cold, fresh morning, he inhaled deeply; once again grateful to his friend for allowing him to join him and experience the beauty of nature. Stretching, once again. He picked up his water bottle and headed first, downstream to relieve himself, then upstream to get some water for coffee.
Setting the coffee pot on the stove to cook, he got the leftover stew from the night before down and in a pot to heat for their breakfast. When the coffee had perked enough to send tendrils of fragrant steam aloft, Jim awoke and exited the tent, his hair was tousled and he still looked half asleep.
"Good morning, sleepy head," Blair called out. "Coffee will be ready an a few minutes, and the stew should be ready about the same time."
"Smells good, Chief. I'll be back in a few."
They relaxed over their meal, taking their time and relaxing, As they lingered over their coffee, Jim lifted his head and listened. "More rain coming, Chief. We'd better get back inside." Rising, they took the propane stove and placed it in the tent. Blair took the coffee pot in, and Jim left the dirty dishes out for the rain to fill, planning on washing them later, after the rain let up.
Sitting quietly over their coffee, they listened to the rain as it poured down. After a while, Blair pulled a pack of cards out of his backpack, "Gin Rummy?" he asked. Jim smiled and nodded.
They played cards for several hours, until the rain finally let up. Both men were anxious to get outside. Jim took care of the morning's dishes, while Blair got out their fishing gear. Heading for the stream, they joked and playfully shoved each other. Once at the water, they paused.
"So, Jim, see any fish?" Blair asked, innocently.
"A few. Good thing we brought plenty of food, though. I doubt if we're going to find much, here. But we can try. There's a fairly deep pool just over there," Jim said, pointing. "Why don't you try there, while I try over there, below the rapids?" Nodding his agreement, Blair made his way to the indicated spot.
After several nearly fruitless hours with nothing to show for their patience but half a dozen little fish that they threw back, they quit and returned to camp. They cooked another of their freeze-dried meals, cleaned up and turned in early, hoping for a better day on the morrow.
Hours later, they were awakened by the same weird, unearthly howling of the previous night. It was more than frightening, as they had no idea what could be making the horrible noise. Neither man said anything, each keeping his own council and trying to go back to sleep, but they were unable to get any real rest again until after dawn, when the eerie noise finally ceased.
Once again, Blair managed to awaken first. He looked at his partner in concern, it was so unusual for Jim not to be the first one awake, especially when camping, but looking back on the past several months, he could understand his friend's need to relax and unwind., and sleep was an excellent release of stress. The day had dawned bright and clear, and Blair was cheerful as he headed to the stream to fill his filter bottles for their morning coffee. The only thing he didn't like about his new filter was that it only held one quart...but since they were sold in pairs, he was able to get enough to fill their coffeepot.
Putting the coffee on, he made another trip for water and this time took a one-gallon, collapsible jug with him. He filled his filter and emptied the water into the larger container, repeating the process until he had a full gallon of filtered water, as well as his two filter bottles. Returning to camp, he put some of the water in a pan to bring to a boil, planning on oatmeal for breakfast.
The smell of coffee tickled his nose, teasing him awake. Slowly stretching, he opened his eyes and took in his surroundings. A lazy smile graced his lips as he remembered...camping. He could hear the sounds of his partner as he tried to be quiet as he prepared breakfast. He could smell the oatmeal as the younger man poured it into the boiling water. Languidly stretching again, he sighed as he reluctantly threw back the top layer of his sleeping bag, unenthusiastically rising. Pulling on his hiking boots, he pushed through the unzipped tent door and, standing up, stretched, his joints popping in release.
"Hey, good morning, sunshine," Blair smiled up at him. "Sleep well?"
"Yeah, I did. Yourself?"
"Great...well, after dawn, anyway. I kept having dreams of getting mauled by a Sasquatch..."
Jim chuckled, "Yeah. Me, too," he admitted. "So, what would you like to do today?"
"Well, I thought I'd check out that stream a little further along and see if there's any fish in it big enough to invite for lunch. You?"
"I'd kind of like to take a hike, sort of relaxing, you know?"
Blair knew perfectly well that his friend's idea of 'relaxing' frequently included some kind of hard, physical labor, be it building something with his hands or exhausting himself on a hike. But if that was what Jim needed to relieve the stress...then he would go along with him.
"A hike sounds good," then he thought a moment. He looked into his partner's eyes, trying to read his feelings, "Of course, so does lazing around camp and fishing for invisible, nonexistent fish. Do you want me to go with you?"
Jim heaved a gentle sigh, unobserved by his friend. "If you don't mind, I think I'd like to go alone. I'll keep within yelling range, so if you need me, I'll hear you. If that's all right with you?" He couldn't keep the hope out of his voice.
Blair picked up on it. Smiling, slightly relieved, he nodded, "Sounds like a plan, man. When and how long?"
"Oh, after breakfast, at least, or maybe later this afternoon, fishing sounds good, too."
"How about you take your hike this morning and we fish this afternoon?" The idea of a nice, lazy day sitting around and relaxing, dozing in the sun, oh, yeah, just what he needed. And it made sense, too, since it was really too late to bother trying to catch anything now.
"Sounds good, Chief," he hesitated a moment, considering. "You can come if you want to," he said softly.
Blair smiled, "Nah, that's all right. I got enough exercise the day before yesterday just trying to keep up with you. I think I'll just laze around here, read a little, take a nap...you go ahead."
"You brought a book?" Jim asked, startled.
"Well, yeah. Of course. Why?" Blair replied, puzzled by his friend's demeanor.
"You packed a book twelve miles into the wilderness," Jim said, confirming.
"Uh, because, as much as you enjoy a physical workout to relieve stress, I enjoy some peace and quiet with a good book."
"Oh." He thought about it, working through the idea of lugging around some enormous tome..."Okay," he conceded.
"Here, the oatmeal's done," Blair said, pulling the pot of hot cereal from their small camp stove and proceeding to spoon out two bowls full of the hot, nutritious food.
Quietly they ate, comfortable in silence, content with their own company. After breakfast, they lingered over coffee. Finally, Jim set his cup aside and rose, stretching.
"I'll take care of the dishes, Jim. You go ahead on your hike, okay?"
"Thanks, Chief. I'll be back in two or three hours."
"Uh-huh. More like five or six, knowing you. Here, before you go. Take one of the filter bottles and some trail mix, just in case you get hungry."
"Thanks, Chief." Jim smiled as he accepted the items. Stuffing the two baggies of trail mix in his pockets and slinging the filled filter bottle over his shoulder, he started off on his way. Blair watched him until he was out of sight, then went back to the tent and dug through his backpack for his book. Wandering upstream a ways, he found the perfect spot, the creek had widened at this spot into a fairly large pool, with rocks overhanging the undercut banks, well shaded, but warm. He found a large, flat rock and settled down on it to read, soon becoming immersed in his reading; he lost track of the time.
Jim, meanwhile, continued on the same line they had been traveling two days before. Alone, he was able to bypass the easier paths and exert himself with the climb. He was pleased to note that his injured wrist and elbow didn't seem affected by his use of them. Smiling, he picked up speed.
Nearly an hour passed, and he was still going uphill. He finally had to stop to catch his breath, knowing that it was in part due to the altitude, but more because he'd been pushing himself. He'd always preferred working through his stress with hard, physical labor. He smiled as he thought of his partner, back at camp, working out his own stress in his favorite fashion...buried deeply in some book. Taking a deep breath, he looked back the way he had come. Even with his enhanced visual acuity, he was unable to see through the trees that blocked the path he had followed. Still, he knew precisely where their camp lay. The sudden crack of a rifle and the ping of a bullet off the rocks near him had him springing for cover even before he was fully aware of what had happened. Stretching out his senses, he searched for his attacker, wondering what was going on.
Blair was abruptly awakened by what he was certain was the sound of a shot. Looking around, he waited, wondering if it had been real, or merely a dream. When nothing else happened, he shook his head and went back to his book.
When his stomach reminded him, he headed back to camp for lunch. The fact that Jim wasn't back yet didn't bother him. After all, Jim was a grown man and fully capable of taking care of himself far better than Blair was. Stretching out beside the fire pit, he munched on a handful of trail mix and when he was finished, he dozed off in the warm, summer sun.
Whoever it was, seemed to have vanished. If he didn't have a cut on one cheek from a rock shard splintered off by the ricocheting bullet, he might have thought it was merely his imagination...only Jim knew that his imagination wasn't that good. Unable to spot his attacker, he cautiously rose and started to work his way back to camp. Realizing that his original path had been fully exposed, he decided to try a somewhat different route back, one that would provide more cover...just in case.
The more covered path was also an easier one with fewer steep climbs and rocks. Since he hadn't heard anything else to alarm him, he'd begun to relax again. Coming into a clearing, he paused, searching for any sign of trouble. Finding none, he started across the open area.
He had no warning. There was no sign of anyone having been there before him, no scent, no displacement of leaves or other forest detritus. But then, that was how it was planned. He hit the hole with one foot and fell, stumbling and twisting to try and avoid falling...to no avail. Unfortunately, he wasn't a bear; although the trap didn't seem to care. The jaws snapped shut around his injured elbow and shoulder, causing him to scream from the sudden, agonizing shock.
Breathing in short, harsh pants, he tried to twist around to get a good look at the jaws of the trap. Obviously, it had been there a long time, perhaps even years, judging from the rust. He had a flash of amusement as he dryly chuckled, thinking that he was glad his tetanus shot was up-to-date. Unfortunately, he realized that he wasn't going to be able to release the jaws of the trap by himself...and he was still two or three miles from camp, with no way to reach his partner for help. Grinding his teeth in agony, he tried to sit up, but the chain for the trap was too short. The leg-hold design of the trap, outlawed in many states, had heavy, serrated jaws, designed to shred the meat from the bones of anything caught in its clutches. The way he'd landed, he not only was unable to work himself free, but he was unable to even reach it well enough to examine the wound, all he could see was the blood oozing from around the rusted, steel jaws.
Lying back, he tried to think. The rusted chain was too short for him to be able to get up and get any leverage to get it free. It hurt so much! The pain was too distracting, he was unable, for the moment, to think of anything beyond the pain. He'd at least managed to hang on to his bottle of water. Maybe...no, better to use the water for drinking, not cleaning the wound. He might need it more for that. Closing his eyes against the pain, he tried to force his mind to work on his predicament. Instead, all he could do was focus on the pain. Finally, he zoned out on the agony, finding the only relief available.
It was late afternoon when Blair awoke. He was a bit surprised that Jim wasn't back, yet. Still...he'd told him to take his time. He might have found something interesting. So, to pass the time, he pulled out his portable, collapsible fishing rod and headed back to the pool he'd found earlier.
Most of the fish he caught he threw back as too small. But eventually, he'd managed to hook a couple of decent sized trout. Taking them back to camp, he scaled and cleaned them. By the time they were ready for the pan, he was starting to worry in earnest about his partner. It was after six, and he should have been back long before now. Standing, he walked to the edge of the woods where Jim had passed so many hours earlier.
"JIM!" he shouted; hearing nothing in return but the sounds of insects buzzing and the occasional chirps of the birds. Knowing that Jim had promised to stay within hearing in case Blair needed him... but then, Jim could hear a long way away...miles, even. Sighing, he decided to cook dinner and hope the enticing smells would drag his friend back...soon.
Unfortunately, as it became increasingly dark, Blair realized that Jim wasn't going to be coming back...something was wrong and now it was too late for him to go hunting for him. He built up the fire, going to the deadfall Jim had shown him and dragging back enormous quantities of wood for it. He planned to stay up all night, if need be, keeping the blaze going, hoping that it would shine as a beacon for his friend's safe return.
When he came back to himself, his shoulder and arm were throbbing with every pulse and it was dark. Normally, he wouldn't consider the temperature as cold, but between his injury and shock, he was in trouble and he knew it. He listened. Finally, he realized that what he was hearing wasn't his imagination. Voices.
"Here!" he shouted, trying to attract the attention of the two men he heard, "Help me!" He waited. The voices had stopped with his first shout, and begun again with his second. After several minutes, he heard the sound of two...no, three people trampling through the forest. He tried to turn over to look at them as they entered the clearing, but couldn't, because of the pain.
"Shit. I told you it was a man. Now what do we do?" one man said.
"Well, we can't just leave him here." A second replied.
"Why not? Who's gonna find him?"
"Please," Jim groaned, "I left my friend back at camp, he'll be worried. Please, help me."
"Shit. He's not here on his own. We got to get him loose, Charlie."
"Shut your mouth, Cletus! Gimme a minute to think."
"What's to think about? We let him go and he brings back the rangers. We don't and the rangers come lookin' for him. Either way, we're screwed," the voice identified as Cletus countered.
"No. If we jest leave him here and he dies, no one's gonna know it was us what set that trap. That's the beauty of using them old traps; even if somebody finds one, they're gonna think it's been there fer years. But if we turn him loose, they're gonna know fer sure that we was here. I say we leave him fer the bear."
"Charlie, if that durned Griz ain't been through here to fall into our traps, what makes you think he's gonna come now, after him?" the third voice chimed in. "I gotta agree with Cletus, here. If we set him loose, we can just take off, the rangers won't be able to find us. We can go back up to Canada for awhile, 'til it cools down again. If he dies, they're gonna keep watch for us."
"And if we turn him loose, he's gonna be able to tell the rangers about us," the man called Charlie replied. "I say we leave him. 'Sides, who was it took that potshot at him earlier, huh, Joe?" This last was met with silence from his friends.
"Please. I won't turn you in. Just let me go, please?" Jim wasn't normally one to plead, but he knew that he was in serious trouble. He was weak and feverish. Even if they freed him, he might not make it back to camp.
"Sorry, mister. We just cain't take that chance." Reluctantly, Cletus and Joe agreed with their partner and turned to go.
"Why?" Jim croaked.
"It's just the way things are, mister. That's all. Nothin' against you personal-like. Sorry."
Gritting his teeth, he answered, "Some day, I hope someone will be just as kind to you." The anger wasn't enough, and Jim fell into the darkness of his pain and didn't hear them leave, still arguing.
Blair kept the fire burning high and bright all night, hardly sleeping at all. As he waited for the sky to lighten with the coming of dawn, he again heard the wolves howling in the distance. Shivering, but not from the cold, he stood up and faced the direction the sound came from. "Hang on, Jim. I'm coming after you, just as soon as it gets light!" He shouted into the darkness, hoping that his friend could hear him...that it wasn't too late.
The howling of the wolves replied to his shout, sending chills up his spine, chills that turned to shivers as that weird, surreal voice joined in. Only this time, the strange voice was much closer than the wolves were or the creature itself, whatever it was, had been the night before...much, much closer.
Fearful, now, for his friend, Blair paced worriedly, waiting for the sky to lighten enough for him to go in search. And the daylight seemed determined to come as slowly as it could.
He was dimly aware of the sound of the wolves in the distance. He could still hear Charlie and company, they were probably less than a hundred yards away, drinking and laughing. He ground his teeth in his pain and anger, using the anger to stay conscious. Once again, he tried to force himself to sit up, but the jaws of the trap just tore their way through the muscles and into the bones of his arm and shoulder. Gasping, he fell back once more, whimpering in his helpless agony.
Dimly, through his pain, he heard a snuffling sound, like a bear searching through a deadfall for grubs. Fear sent an instantaneous flow of adrenaline through his body and he managed to force himself up into a sitting position. He couldn't help the cry of pain, however. The snuffling noise stopped, and he heard what sounded like possibly a couple of bear cubs, playing and tumbling over each other in the darkness, coming towards him. He was only dimly aware when he started praying.
"Oh, God. Please, God. Please..." in his distress, he wasn't sure what to ask for. Finally, he was able to pick out the darker bulk of the animal as it scented him and came to investigate the smell of blood....
Blair paced, it was still an hour or two until daylight, but he was getting impatient. Fortunately, he knew that stumbling around in the dark would probably only get him hurt, as well, and would do nothing to help his partner. Softly, under his breath, he began cursing his stupidity at letting Jim go off on his own, no matter how much the older man needed solitude. It seemed that their luck was still holding...all bad. The wolves had stopped their chorus and there had been no repeat of the eerie, frightening cry, but still...
The mother grizzly snuffled along, following the path he'd taken through the clearing, hesitating before she hit the hole that had tripped him into the jaws of the trap. She lifted her head and looked at him. He met her eyes, gazing calmly into what would be certain death, should she decide to attack. There was a sound from behind him, and the bear stood up on her hind legs, sniffing and peering into the darkness behind the injured man.
Jim could hear whatever it was that was behind him, but even more, he could smell it. Whatever it was, was pretty rank, like the smell of a really dirty, wet dog...maybe crossed with the smell of wet wool, and dirt, and the scent of the forest duff...Not so much a bad smell, in and of itself, but it was nearly overpowering in it's strength. He sneezed, trying to clear his sinuses of the stench, but it only served to open his nasal passages even more. He tried to ignore whatever it was behind him and keep his attention on the known danger in front of him. The female grizzly was making soft grunting noises, calling her cubs to her; the two young bears galloped up to their mother and mimicked her stance, rising to their own, towering three-foot height to peer at him and whatever stank behind him. After several minutes of growling, snorting, and grunting, the mother bear gently lowered herself to the ground and turned away, her cubs following quietly behind her.
He couldn't believe it. He was absolutely certain that the bear was going to charge him. He was distracted for a moment as he watched in amazement as the bears left. Then the sound of whatever emitted that stench shuffled closer. Despite the agonizing pain, Jim forced himself to turn toward the creature, whatever it was. The movement left him gasping, but he managed to turn far enough to catch a glimpse of the beast; the creature opened its mouth and that bloodcurdling cry issued forth. Jim tried to shift away, but the creature moved towards him. Jim lifted his good arm to try and ward off the perceived blow, causing him to lose what little balance he had; he fell, staring up into the visage from his nightmares...and his eyes opened wide in astonished, horrified, terror, just before he fainted.
Blair couldn't wait any longer. Just as the sky began to pale, he once again heard that horrifying wail coming from the direction Jim had taken the previous morning. Grabbing up his pack, which he'd prepared while he waited, filling it with their first aid kit, his cell phone, a couple of space blankets, and his revolver. He'd wondered why Jim hadn't fired his gun to try and get his attention, until he'd gone through their packs and found that his partner had uncharacteristically taken off without his pistol. Putting out the fire, he shouldered his pack and headed off through the lightening darkness, hoping to find his friend.
The three poachers jumped in startled terror when they heard the eerie wail from so close. Looking askance at one another, they stood, peering into the darkness, their eyes blinded by the brightness from their campfire.
"What the hell was that?" Charlie snarled drunkenly.
"Y'spose it's that griz we been huntin'?" Joe replied uneasily.
"I ain't never heard nothin' sounded like that," Cletus added.
"Well, git your guns an' lets go see what we got. Maybe it's that fella in the trap," Charlie suggested. "He's gotta be hurtin' pretty bad by now." Grabbing their rifles, the three made their uncertain way towards the clearing where they had left the injured man.
He didn't like all the strangers in his woods. This was his domain, not theirs. He dwelt harmoniously with grizzly and wolf. He'd even managed to ignore the occasional hunter or camper, being careful to try and keep out of their sight. Most of them had been relatively harmless, hunting for food or just camping quietly by the fishing ponds. But now, there was trouble in his woods and he didn't like it. His mate touched him on the shoulder, beckoning him to follow her. With a grunt of acknowledgment, he followed her. He saw the female grizzly and her cubs as they quietly made their way down to the stream. He called out a warning that there were people by the stream. The old bear merely grunted in acknowledgment and continued on her way.
Reaching the clearing, his mate pointed. He could easily see the man, lying in the middle of the clearing. There was something obviously wrong with him, he could smell blood... He could also hear the others, thrashing around in his woods, the smell from the alcohol they'd been drinking causing his nose to wrinkle up in distaste. Quietly, he approached the sleeping man...and realized that he was injured by one of the ones who had been defiling his forest. This one, except for the stench of his blood, smelled clean, like his woods. None of the gun-smells. None of the stench of alcohol or cigarettes. He crouched beside the man and reached out one hand to gently prod the still form. He knew the man was alive, because he could hear his heartbeat and labored breathing. When the figure only moaned in pitiful agony, he examined the metal thing cutting into the man's arm and shoulder. Realizing that anything he did would cause more pain, he still studied the trap, figuring out its workings and how to release it. With a grunt of understanding, he called to his mate to hold the man so that he could get at the trap to release the mechanism. With Jim held on his injured side, he was able to place his hands on either end of the trap and press down. The spring mechanism released, and the jaws loosened. His mate, seeing how the jaws remained imbedded in the man's arm and shoulder, carefully balanced the injured man with one hand and used her other hand to pull the teeth of the awful device out of his flesh. Once clear of the vicious jaws, she lifted him away from the hideous apparatus. Gently laying the man on his back, she carefully probed his wounds and, with a murmur to her mate, headed off into the forest in search of medicinal plants.
He watched his mate in amused tolerance. She'd never been able to resist an injured creature, not even the dangerous ones. Standing up, he turned his attention to the intruders into his territory. He'd had enough of them. He was well aware of their traps and hunting. He'd told his neighbors about the traps and how to avoid them, but he hadn't been able to protect them from being shot. Striding purposefully toward the nervous voices he could clearly hear through the trees, he decided to put an end to this disruption in his forest.
Blair hurried his footsteps, hoping and praying that he was going in the right direction. He'd managed to travel a couple of miles before it really got light enough for him to be able to see well enough to stop stumbling over rocks and into pockets of brush. His jeans were torn and his hands and face were covered with scratches. When he heard the screams, however, he froze in place.
"Oh, God, Jim," he whispered, then hurried towards the sounds.
It took him another hour to find his friend. The sun was definitely up, the light filtering down through the enormous old-growth woods. He came into a clearing. At first, he didn't see anything, but then he realized that there was someone laying in the middle of the open space. He cautiously approached, his caution falling away when he realized that the figure was his partner...
"Jim!" He broke into a run, hurrying across the meadow to his unconscious friend. Falling to his knees, he gasped at the sight of the blood staining Jim's left shoulder. Someone had applied a poultice, however, and placed a woven grass mat over the injured man...Looking up, Blair searched for whoever had hurt or helped his friend. Looking around, he spotted the trap, and realized what must have happened. Cursing, he pulled off his backpack and dug through it for his cell phone, hoping it would work this far into the mountains.
He hit the autodial for their boss, knowing that the captain would be able to get things going much faster than he could from this far out in the wilderness. While he waited to see if the call would connect, he gingerly pulled at the edges of the poultice...it looked like some kind of vegetation, and from the looks of it, someone, or something had masticated it into a pulp and applied it to the grotesque tears in Jim's arm and shoulder. He could see that the only thing that had saved Jim's arm was the pressure bandage protecting his elbow...although even there, were signs of fresh blood...
Blair felt Jim's forehead, checking for a fever, "Jim? Come on, Jim, wake up, man. Jim? Don't do this, buddy, I need you to open up those baby blues for me, man...".
Jim moaned, softly. Feeling the hands on his body, he reacted, trying to push himself away from what he perceived as his attacker, only to cry out in pain. Opening his eyes, he was confused, seeing Blair there, looking worriedly at him.
"Sandburg? Are you all right? Did you see it?"
"See what, Jim? I didn't see anything. What happened? Who got you loose and applied the poultice? Have you been out here like this all night? How..."
"Breathe, Sandburg," Jim grimaced as he tried to sit up. Blair reached to help him, wincing when his friend gasped in pain.
"Easy, Jim," he checked his cell phone, only to realize that he wasn't able to get through. Disgusted, he pushed the useless device into his pack and pulled out his water bottle. "Here, take a drink," he offered the bottle, holding it for his injured friend. Once he was finished, Blair pulled a space blanket from his backpack and opened it, wrapping it around him.
"Can you tell me what happened?" Blair asked, once he'd reassured himself that Jim wasn't in immediate danger.
"You won't believe me," Jim replied, shivering slightly.
"Try me, Jim. I think you'll find that I can be pretty accepting of most things."
"Not this...I'm not sure I believe it, so how can I convince anyone else?"
"Well, I found out what made that God-awful noise."
Blair blinked. Thinking that his friend was joking, "Come on, man, don't tell me it was a Sasquatch..."
"I don't know what else to call it, Chief."
"Uh, sure, Jim," Blair felt for a fever, relieved not to find one. "Why don't you start at the beginning?"
"I was hiking, maybe three, four miles north of here. I'd stopped for a break, when someone took a potshot at me."
"What!" Blair exclaimed, shocked, remembering the shot that had awakened him the previous afternoon, the one he had dismissed as a dream.
"Yeah, well, I couldn't find anyone, but I decided to head back to camp. I'd gone straight up, right out in the open, so I decided to take a different way back, one that wasn't quite as exposed."
"So, what happened?"
"I came on this clearing, checked it out, didn't see anything to alert me. As I was crossing it, I hit a hole, slipped, tried to stay upright, but they did a great job. Of course, they were trying for the grizzly, but it worked just as well for me. I fell into their trap. The chain was too short for me to get up, even, and I couldn't reach to try and open it. I guess I passed out, but there were these three poachers..."
"Oh, man. Poachers? Did they get you loose?"
"No. They decided to leave me...later, it was dark, I saw a grizzly and her cubs, they looked at me, and then there was something behind me, stank, whatever it was. The bear just left...I managed to look behind me..."
"Jim, it was dark, it was probably just another bear."
"Blair, it looked at me and went away, when it came back, there was another one with it...a bigger one. I guess I passed out again, because when I woke up, the trap was gone, and she was chewing up leaves and putting them on my shoulder." He picked up his shirt, which had been removed, folded and placed under his head for a pillow, "I didn't, hell, I couldn't have taken this off without help, and I sure didn't fold it up for a pillow, either." He plucked at the grass blanket, "And where did this come from?"
"Jim..." Blair's voice told him that his story wasn't believed. Clenching his jaw, he looked away.
"I told you that you wouldn't believe me. The three men? They were camping about a hundred yards west. Go see for yourself."
"See what, Jim?" Blair asked, concerned.
"The male, the big one, went after them. They'd heard him howl and came to check. I'm not sure you'll find much left of them, but go and look anyway."
Unsure, Blair stood up and headed in the indicated direction, casting frequent, concerned glances back at his partner, who had closed his eyes and appeared to be resting. Pushing his way through the brush, he froze when he saw the first body.
Swallowing convulsively, he took a closer look. The man was definitely dead. But it looked like he had been mauled by a bear...no Sasquatch here, that was for sure. Passing the first victim, he found the second, and then the third. He decided that his friend, in his pain, had hallucinated...the three men must have changed their minds and freed him and tended to his wounds. Then been attacked by the bear Jim had seen. It was the only acceptable explanation. Turning away, he returned to his friend.
"Well?" Jim asked.
"I found them. Jim, they were mauled by that bear you told me about."
Jim looked at Blair. His jaws spasmed and he looked away. "I knew you wouldn't believe me."
"Jim..." Blair sighed, realizing that Jim had gotten the idea into his head and nothing he could do or say would convince his friend otherwise. "Fine, it was a Sasquatch, with big, sharp, claws."
"They had fingers, Chief. Like...like a gorilla..."
"Right, Jim," he stopped, realizing that he wasn't helping matters any. "Okay, do you think you can walk, Jim? We need to get you out of here and to a doctor."
"I don't know..."
"How about we just take it slow, get back to camp, rest, then later, maybe tomorrow, we get out, or maybe the cell will work, you up for it?"
Jim looked up at his friend, knowing that the smaller man was going to have to do most of the work, since he was too weak to do much more than shuffle, providing he could even stand. "All I can do is try."
It was only two miles...that's all, just two measly miles, and they were downhill miles... It should have been easy, even with Jim's injuries...but it wasn't. It was as if the old growth trees didn't want them to escape. And with Jim needing to rest every few minutes... but there was no way he was going to leave him to go for help. Not with a grizzly with cubs around. No way.
It was noon, and they were still at least a mile from their camp. Jim was exhausted, he'd lost quite a bit of blood and was in shock, as well. Despite the day's warmth, he was shivering, using up energy he really needed to move, wasting what little strength he had. Finding a good spot to rest, Blair helped Jim to sit down with a nice, big fallen tree for a backrest. As soon as Jim was seated, he sighed heavily and closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the fallen log. His breathing was ragged, but whether from pain or exhaustion, Blair couldn't tell.
Standing, Blair took deep breath and looked around, wondering what to do. Slipping the straps from his backpack off his shoulders, he reached inside and pulled out a bottle of water, which he held out for Jim.
When the bottle was ignored, he looked closely at his partner and realized he was either asleep or unconscious...either way, it wasn't good. Taking a drink himself, he looked around, seeking an easier path. Sighing, he pulled his cell phone out to try again. They were still too deep in the woods to get a signal out. Frustrated, Blair nearly broke his cell turning it off and replacing it in his pack. Taking a deep breath, he expelled it as hard as he could; there was nothing for it but to let Jim rest for a while, with Blair keeping a nervous watch out for predators.
His thirst finally brought him back to consciousness. Opening his eyes, the first thing he noticed was his partner, pacing and muttering to himself.
"What the hell am I going to do? Even after we get back to camp, we're still what, ten, twelve miles from the truck? And with the way these mountains are, the odds of getting a signal out...not gonna happen. I can't leave him; that's not an option...no way, no how. Not with a mother grizzly and her cubs in the area...you can just forget that idea right now, Ellison. I am not going to leave you..."
"You'd never be able to find the truck on your own, Chief," Jim's hoarse voice broke into Blair's practice speech.
He jumped, startled. Whirling, he went straight to his friend, crouching down beside him. "How are you feeling?"
"Oh, sure," Blair pulled the water bottle out and offered it. Jim gratefully took several swallows and then paused. "You're right, though. If we can't find an opening where the cell phone works, then we're going to have to hike out to the truck."
"Can you make it?" Blair asked, uncertain whether his friend's strength could possibly hold up. It had taken them about five hours to hike in...and they'd both been healthy at the time.
"I'll have to," Jim's jaw tensed in stubborn refusal to quit.
"Yeah, you will. It's going to take days, though, man...we didn't take any easy route in."
Jim looked up at the concern in his friend's face, "No, we never seem to do anything the easy way, do we?"
Blair couldn't help the grin that flickered across his face momentarily, "Nope, that's definitely not us...the hard way, every time." The smile disappeared even faster than it had appeared, "So, how long do you think it will take us?"
"We were two, three miles from camp, all downhill, and we've still got about three-quarters of a mile to go...you figure it out."
"We're in real trouble, aren't we?"
"Yeah, Chief, we are."
Finishing off the bottle of water, Jim handed it back, leaving his right arm extended in silent request for assistance. Blair slung the now empty filter bottle over his shoulder and reached down, pulling the larger man to his feet, grunting with the effort.
"How long was I out?" Jim asked, once he was stable on his feet.
"Not long, only about half an hour."
"Long enough, let's go." Jim reached out with his good arm to drape it across his friend's shoulders, needing him to keep him steady and on his feet. He didn't feel the need to say anything about how bad he was feeling, it was pretty obvious to them both.
They struggled on down the mountain towards their camp, mostly in silence. There was no need for words. Both men were well aware of their predicament and just how much trouble they were in. At least only Jim was injured...Blair vowed to himself to do his best to get them both out safely.
It took them three more hours to make the final stretch back to camp...First off, Blair got Jim down inside the tent, stretched out and as comfortable as he could. Jim was too tired and in too much pain to do much more than fall down and roll onto his back on his sleeping bag. He was asleep almost immediately...at least Blair decided to call it sleeping rather than the alternative of passed out...much brighter outlook if he was thinking he was asleep...
He first went to the stream and refilled the two filter bottles and returned to camp. Sorting through their supplies, he picked a package of chicken soup mix to prepare, making sure that he added extra water, both for the altitude and to provide extra fluids for his injured friend. When it was hot and steaming, he poured it into two bowls and set them to cool while he went inside the tent to awaken his partner.
"Jim?" he spoke softly, not wanting to startle the injured man awake. "Jim, come on, time for lunch." The man barely stirred, uttering a soft moan. "Jim, come on, man, you need to eat, it's easy, just some chicken noodle soup. Jim?" He had crawled into the tent as he spoke and gently reached out to grasp Jim's good shoulder...he snatched his hand back at the heat emanating from the supine form. "Oh, man. Jim? Come on, man, wake up for me, please?"
No matter how badly he felt, that was a tone of voice he couldn't ignore. With a groan of protest, he opened his eyes, "I'm awake...I'm awake."
"You've got a fever, Jim. How are your senses?"
Jim looked up, he felt dizzy and disoriented. Blinking blearily, he had to concentrate to understand the simple question..."Uh...kinda down...no spikes, but they're sort of off-line..."
"OK, I think we can deal with that. Let's get you outside and I'll take a look at your shoulder and arm. I wish I knew what kind of crap they put on your arm...that may be what's causing your fever."
Jim wasn't tracking well either physically or mentally..."But I didn't get a fever until you took it off, Chief..." he complained softly. Blair stared at him for a moment..."You mean, you think...I wonder what it was?"
"Dunno, Chief, she had these big leaves, stuck them in her mouth and chewed them up, spit them into her hand and put them all over the cuts...burned, at first, but then it felt kind of numb..."
Chewed it up and spit it out? Oh, his imaginary Sasquatch...best to humor him...but this delirium was starting to worry him "Yeah, well, I'll clean it again and rebandage it, then I want you to eat your soup and take some aspirin, OK?"
"Sure, Chief...Maybe they'll come by tonight and you can ask her what she used..." Jim's eyes drifted closed again, but he wasn't asleep...nor was he entirely awake, however.
Blair removed the dressings he'd placed on Jim's injuries back in the meadow and winced in sympathetic pain at the swelling and redness. Mumbling apologies for the pain he was about to inflect, along with warnings to turn down the pain dials, Blair tore open one alcohol wipe after another, cleaning each cut as best as he could. Then he squirted antibiotic cream over each cut, using up most of their small supply. He also used the last of their bandaging materials re-covering the ugly wounds. He was especially worried about the injuries along Jim's shoulder blade, where the trap had ground the muscle down to the bone, leaving gouges and marks on the exposed bones.
When he was finished, he realized that he was going to have to feed Jim, as he was too weak to even lift his spoon for himself. Once he finished his own now cold soup, he washed the dishes and wondered how on earth he was going to get them out of this mess...there was no way on earth that Jim was going to be able to hike the ten or twelve miles back to the truck. Once again, he pulled out his cell phone, only to slam it closed again in frustration when it was still out of range. He woke Jim up several more times to force water and aspirin down him, but eventually, even he had to give up and sleep, too.
Blair woke several hours later. He squinted at his watch, trying to read the time in the dark. Giving up, he sat up, glancing over at the form of the man beside him. He didn't need to check for a fever, he could sense it from here without trying...and the temperature had him on the verge of a panic attack...only if he panicked, there would be no way to save his partner...and he wasn't willing to give up his friend just yet.
Rising, Blair went outside. The full moon had risen over the mountains, so it had to be nearly ten...checking his watch in the light of the bright orb confirmed it. The night was conspicuous in its silence. There were none of the usual night sounds, no insects, not even the wolves were howling; even the wind was still. He wished, just once, that he was big enough and strong enough to simply pick Jim up and carry him the twelve miles to the truck...but that was a foolish wish, and he knew it.
Frustrated , he savagely banged the coffee pot as he put grounds in the basket, filled it with water and set it to percolate on their camp stove. If only the bear hadn't killed those poachers...if only....
He sighed,. His mate could be such a nag...but he'd seen the uninjured one. He'd caught many fish, but kept only the large ones, setting the others free, unharmed. Of course, both fish had ended up going to waste, but that was due to the intruder's concern over his friend. His mate muttered something else and he sighed again. With a grunt of acquiescence, he rose. Leading the way, he headed toward the place where the injured intruder lay. He'd much rather stay away, but 'she' had cared for the one...so he had no real choice if he wanted any peace. If the intruder died in his demesnes, she'd probably punish him for it for days.
Listening to his forest, he heard what others could not. 'She' was right, the injured intruder was in dire straits. Taking a deep breath, he called out to his subjects, alerting them to his movements. 'She' muttered imprecations against him and started gathering the things she would need. He could not understand why she should bother, why she should care about this particular intruder. When she told him...he growled his annoyance that she hadn't said anything before. How was he to know that the intruder was a protector? Not just of his own kind, but of his and those subject to his rule? He bent to help her gather the plants she would need...if only they could manage to keep the second intruder from seeing them...but there was probably no hope of that...maybe if he had she-bear go in first? He might run away in fear...He rose up to his full height and called out his instructions to his subjects. Immediately following his call, the wolves began to call back...
His mate, having gathered what she needed, followed him without complaint as he led the way to the intruder's camp.
The coffee was almost done. Fifteen minutes earlier, he'd heard two of the eerie, haunting cries. Shivering, Blair waited anxiously for the coffee to finish perking. A crashing noise from back in the trees made him stand up and turn towards the sounds. Moments later, he saw a large, dark shape lumbering through the trees, headed directly for him. Suddenly, he wished he'd built a fire...Thanks to the light of the full moon, he was able to make out the creature...make that creatures...there were three shapes moving towards him. The grizzly with cubs Jim had talked about. She was heading right for him. Stopping at the edge of the campsite, the old bear stood on her hind legs, peering myopically at the figure standing beside the soft shelter-thing. She growled. The intruder just stood there, looking at her. She stood taller, advancing a few steps, cocked her head and roared. She was old, but she hadn't gotten that way by being timid or fearful. She'd sent many an intruder scampering from her in terror, even a few huge males had run before her when she had cubs...but this intruder was standing his ground.
"Oh, man. I'm not going to run, if I run, she'll chase me and kill me, and then who will save Jim? No way, I'm gonna stand real still, right here, and maybe she'll go away..." The bear roared, he couldn't help but flinch, but still stood his ground. "GO AWAY!" He shouted back when she roared the second time, "I'm not leaving him! You can't make me leave him..." the last ending almost on a sob. The bear was huge, well over six feet tall and an easy eight hundred pounds...one blow from a massive paw and he'd be dead, but if he ran, she'd just chase him down and might still come back to kill Jim...He wasn't sure why he was trying to stand up to a grizzly bear with cubs, but something inside told him that was what he had to do. Forcing a calm to his voice he didn't feel, he started talking to the bear.
"I'm not leaving him. He's my friend. I won't let you hurt him. Of course, if you want a cup of coffee, I might be willing to share with you, but somehow, I doubt if you need the caffein...although, if you have a headache, it might help..." He continued his rambling conversation with the puzzled bruin, who finally got tired of the intruder's voice and, calling to her cubs, dropped to all fours and shuffled back off into the forest.
Passing the Lord of the Forest, she lifted her silvered muzzle and apologized for being unable to make the small intruder run. His mate chuckled in amusement and made a comment about commitment that at first annoyed and then pleased him. The small intruder was willing to stand his ground in order to protect his friend...most unusual...in fact, he'd never seen it among any of the other intruders in all his long years as Lord, here...His mate's comment about the Protector having a protector of his own struck a chord...he remembered the oral tradition of his kind, of how once their kind had lived in harmony with the intruders, but that had been many generations ago. Now, the Forest Lords kept out of sight of the intruders, having seen the destruction they brought with them with their guns and machines. With a grunt of annoyance at his mate's prattle, he continued leading the way to the intruder's camp.
Shaking in reaction to the close call with the bear, Blair poured himself a cup of coffee. Cradling the hot cup in his hands, he sat by the tent and hunched over his cup, still trying to figure out how to get them out of this. He just might not have any choice but to leave Jim here and call for help.
He felt the wind pick up and shivered. The wolves were howling again, and that made him shiver as well, but not from cold. He listened for the strange, otherworldly howl and when he finally heard it, it was right behind him.
Leaping to his feet, he spun around to face the sound, his coffee and cup flying to clank to the ground at the feet of...Blair's breath caught in his throat, his eyes widened impossibly and he stiffened...just before pitching forward in a dead faint.
His mate chuckled in amusement as she made her way past the unconscious intruder and opened the door to the tent, having to drop to her knees in order to enter. Her nose told her that the injured one's wounds were turning septic. Grumbling in annoyance that her poultice had been removed, she gently peeled the bandages from the wounds and began the age-old ritual of chewing up the medicinal plants, making sure to mix plenty of her saliva with the herbage and then applying it to the pus-oozing wounds.
Meanwhile, the male grunted and crouched beside the unconscious intruder... He gently prodded the inert figure. Listening, he could hear the man's heart beating regularly. Sighing in relief, he rose and looked around the campsite. The layout pleased him. There was minimal disruption to his forest and they had been careful not to endanger his trees with their need for a fire. Sniffing curiously, he picked up the cup from the ground and sniffed...finding the smell pleasant, he lifted the coffee pot from the camp stove and poured the cup full. Replacing the pot, he sniffed appreciatively at the brew and took a cautious sip. The bitterness at first startled him, but he found that he liked it. He paid slight attention to his mate's ramblings as she tended the Protector's wounds. He concentrated more on his cup of coffee and the smaller intruder unconscious beside him. He sank down on his haunches to wait, knowing that his mate would be thorough in her tending of her charge.
The first thing Blair became aware of was a nearly overpowering stench...well, not really a bad smell, but definitely strong. He was surprised to find himself face down on the ground. What had happened? Had he hit his head? No, there wasn't any pain...he pushed himself to his hands and knees, still confused and really wanting to move upwind of that smell...
As he raised his head, it all came back to him in a crashing wave, as he came nose to knee with...he looked up...even crouched, it....his eyes shifted...he was huge. Upright, he was probably close to eight feet tall. His body was covered with long, coarse, reddish-brown hair. His hands...Jim was right, like a gorilla's. Forcing his gaze higher, his eyes took in the humanoid face, the high-domed, conical head... He closed his eyes and swallowed convulsively. Opening his eyes again, he was dismayed to find that the apparition hadn't disappeared. Only now, it seemed to be smiling at him...
Rising slowly to his feet, Blair looked around and spotted the second one inside the tent. He managed to stop himself from rushing in to 'rescue' his injured friend. Somehow, he managed to realize that the two Sasquatch didn't mean them any harm...after all, the male was sitting right there drinking coffee...
"Y-you like coffee?"
The huge creature cocked his head, his brow furrowing down in puzzlement. Blair gestured to the cup..."Coffee." Understanding dawned and the big male smiled and gestured with the cup, then took another sip.
Blair smiled and picked up the pot, offering to refill the cup. The Sasquatch smiled and held the cup out. With perceptibly trembling hands, Blair poured it it full. The beast took an appreciative sniff and then a small sip of the hot beverage.
The small intruder had good manners. Especially since he was so afraid. He was impressed, to say the least. His mate called to him. The Protector needed to return to his own people for further care. She had done what she could for him, and his fever was dropping but he needed to be in his own den. He sighed. Looking at the small one, he managed to catch his concerned glance toward the tent...Gulping down the rest of the coffee, he held the cup out, returning it.
Blair didn't quite know what to do. They obviously meant no harm. He'd been able to get a glance inside the tent and seen the female reapplying her poultice to Jim's badly infected wounds. He just hoped that the plants she was using actually helped. He still didn't know how to get his partner back to the truck. When the female started 'talking' to the male, he found he could maybe read some of their expressions. They were remarkably human, in that respect. The male seemed a bit put out, but heaved a huge sigh and gulped down his coffee. When the cup was offered, he automatically took it. When the male stood, Blair stepped back, momentarily afraid again. The enormous beast looked around the campsite. With furrowed brow, he gestured at the tent and other equipment.
He wasn't sure how to explain so the intruder could understand. He gestured at the campsite, they needed to pack it up so they could leave. The small one had a concerned, puzzled expression on his face. Frustrated, he gestured again, making the 'open-close' sign....
When the Sasquatch held his hands out, side-by-side, palms up, then folded them closed, he thought he understood. "You want me to pack up the camp?" When the male made the same sign again and gestured at the tent, he was sure. "Right. You don't want us to leave all this junk here to mess up your forest. Got it." He grabbed the camp stove and began breaking it down, quickly and efficiently. Within just a few minutes, he had his backpack packed and ready to go and had started on Jim's pack. Soon, all that was left was the tent and Jim's sleeping bag.
"But how am I going to get Jim back to the truck, man?" Blair asked, looking up at the the no longer frightening male.
The female crawled out of the tent, pulling Jim out behind her, bundled up in his sleeping bag like an infant in a bunting. Fortunately, he had remained unconscious throughout the ordeal, so far. With Jim out of the tent, Blair quickly struck it and had it packed in Jim's backpack. Shouldering his pack, he stood, looking at the pair of Sasquatch. He still wasn't quite sure he believed what was happening...that this wasn't some sort of hysterical imagination on his part. The male, taking a look around and finding that the small intruder had done a good job of cleaning up after himself, turned and spoke to his mate. She nodded and came closer, smiling at Blair, who gave her a nervous smile in return. The female picked up Jim's backpack and turned towards the southwest. The male bent over and lifted the injured Jim, cradling him to his chest like an infant, and led the way through the forest.
It was early morning when they started. The sun not yet over the tops of the mountains, but the sky was bright enough to see. Blair was grateful that the two Sasquatch didn't move as quickly as their longer legs could have, leaving him behind, or having to hurry to keep up. Instead they set their pace for his comfort. They also took the easiest routes, so he didn't have to work hard. It was still a long hike, however.
Several times, they stopped to rest. The smaller female would check on Jim and Blair would watch closely. Whenever Jim showed signs of waking up, they'd stop and Blair would force some water down the injured man's throat.
It was nearly noon, and Blair realized that they were getting close to the truck. Excited, he began to extend his stride, wanting to get his friend out and to a doctor as soon as possible.
His first real conscious thought was one of motion sickness...then his nose clued him in to the stench he'd smelled before, when he was still in the trap. Automatically in a panic, he began to struggle against whatever it was that was binding him. Abruptly, he found himself on the ground, with his Guide beside him, using 'the voice', calming his fears.
"Easy, Jim, easy. It's okay, man. Nothing's wrong."
Jim continued to struggle against the confinement of the sleeping bag, still panic stricken...That smell... Eventually, however, the calming voice of his partner reached through his terror and registered.
"Blair?" the hoarseness and tremble in Jim's voice was just a secondary clue to Jim's fear and confusion.
"Right here, man. It's okay, we're almost to the truck, now. We should be out of here in just a little longer. How about some water?" He lifted his larger companion up into a sitting position, using his raised knee to balance and support his injured friend. "Easy, little sips, okay?"
Jim drank, his eyes drifting closed as he swallowed. When he'd had enough, he tipped his head away, indicating his desires. Blair immediately removed the bottle, slinging it back over his shoulder. Glancing up at their impatient rescuers, he looked back at his friend. "You up to making the rest of the way on your own, or do you want to be carried some more?"
Jim's brow furrowed down in confusion. "Carried? You've been carrying me?"
"No, your friend has."
"Friend...?" Jim opened his eyes and looked past his partner to see the obviously concerned visages of the pair of Sasquatch. His breath catching with the s udden spike of fear and pumping of adrenaline, he began, once more, to shake. "Ah...Sandburg....?"
"Yeah, I was wrong, they were real. You were right, man. They were the ones who rescued you, although I'm still not convinced that the bear didn't kill those men..." his voice trailed off. "I thought you were delirious from being hurt, Jim. I mean, I just thought they were a myth, you know?"
"Yeah, I sort of do, Chief." He smiled wearily, the adrenaline coursed through his system and left him exhausted. He wasn't really surprised when the pair of Sasquatch smiled back at him. Shaking his head, he thought about his options.
"Much as I hate to say it, I think I'd better let them carry me..."
Blair held his shoulder as he stood, looking up at the big male, who came over and gently scooped Jim back up in his arms and continued on their way.
It was a surprisingly comfortable way to travel, Jim mused, nearly dozing. And, once he got used to the smell, it really wasn't so bad, earth, plants, forest duff, just concentrated. Really concentrated...and strong, yet somehow, soothing, as well. In a remarkably short time, he felt himself gently lowered once more to the ground. Opening his eyes, he was surprised to find himself looking up at his truck.
Working his good arm out from the confines of the sleeping bag, he reached out to touch the one that had carried him. Both of them crouched down beside him to see what he wanted.
"Thank you," he said softly. The pair cocked their heads at him and exchanged glances. The female nodded, making a 'go on' motion.
"Ur welcome," the male's guttural voice was still perfectly understandable. With that, the pair stood and silently disappeared back into the forest, leaving both men with their mouths agape in shocked wonder.
They didn't talk much at all on the trip back. Blair spent the time concentrating on his driving and trying to come to terms with what had happened, while Jim simply w as too sick to really care or do much more than doze and occasionally remind Blair to turn in the correct direction.
Four hours later, Blair was sitting quietly in the waiting room at Cascade General, when Captain Simon Banks arrived.
"You look like hell, Sandburg."
"Nice to see you too, Simon." Blair rolled his head to look up at his friend.
"You want to tell me what happened? I thought you were just going for a little weekend camping trip?"
"And when has that ever really been possible, sir?"
Simon grunted in agreement. "How's Jim?"
"They're stitching up his shoulder and arm. He fell into a leg-hold bear trap. Seems some guys were trying to poach this old mama grizzly, only they caught Jim, instead."
The big captain winced and shivered in sympathetic pain, "Ouch, good thing you were right there, huh?"
Blair shook his head. "But I wasn't, Simon. I was at camp. Jim went for a solo hike."
"Then it was a good thing you were so close, then."
Again, the curly-haired head shook. "Nope. I didn't find him until the next morning. Took us all day to hike the three or four miles back to camp. And before you ask, I'm not the one who released him from the trap and provided first aid..."
"The poachers?" Simon's voice showed his surprise.
"No, by the time I found Jim, the poachers were dead. I took the time to stop and report it to the rangers on our way here. It looked like the grizzly got them... only..."
"Only what, Blair?" Simon's voice softened, seeing the confusion in the younger man's face.
"Well, their rifles. They never got off a single shot. One guy's rifle was wrapped around his neck, like a piece of wire...Bears aren't that dexterous, Simon."
"What, are you telling me that you think Jim was tended to by a... what, a Sasquatch?"
"I think so. " He thought about it, looking up at his friend consideringly. "All I know for sure is that there is no way on earth that I could have gotten Jim back to the truck. No way on this earth. Not without help, and the poachers are dead, Simon." He watched the older man's face, waiting for...
"No. No way. You are not trying to tell me what I think you're trying to...are you?"
Blair smiled, tiredly. "No, of course not, Simon...I mean, who would believe it?" Exhausted, Blair's eyes drifted closed as he fell asleep.
Simon stared at the younger man, wondering. Taking a deep breath, he nearly choked; what was that horrible stench? He looked down at the sleeping man. He knew the stories...the stories of Bigfoot, huge, hairy, gorilla-like monsters that stank like concentrated forest duff...nah, no way... could it? Just how did one hundred fifty pound Blair Sandburg carry one hundred and eighty-five pound Jim Ellison ten or twelve miles through tough, mountainous terrain by himself? And in less than a day?
He looked at the peaceful face of the sleeping man...Couldn't be. Could it?
This was definitely one of those things he didn't want to know...at least, not without at least a case of beer under his belt, first.
You don't suppose...?
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