Previously appeared in the fanzine See No Evil – The Three Monkeys Vol. 2 – Blackfly Presses
The story was betaed by Nightowl – thanks.
Search & Rescue
The day spread out, violet at the edges, blue at the heart. It was quiet. Very quiet. Jim Ellison sat on the bank of the river, dangling his bare feet in the cool water, smiling to himself. He held a fishing rod in his hands and idly played with the line, watching the ripples and listening to the water music and leaf-edged undertones.
He leaned back onto his elbows, feeling the moving hush of the warm summer air, and sighed happily. Now this was a holiday!
Closing his eyes, he began a tentative migration of his senses. He could hear the soft simmer of insects; the sibilance of leaves falling from the canopy overhead. At his feet, the water washed gently against the shore, in a dim, mindless cadence, monotonous, quiet and as old as the world. And underpinning all this, the steady drumming of his partner’s heart.
Jim turned to look at Blair. Further
Smiling to himself, Jim cast another lure into the stream. Blair needed the sleep. The student was always burning the candle at both ends. If he was not working with the sentinel, he was at the University—if he was not at the University he was out playing—hard. The holiday was a good idea, Jim reflected. Their last case had been, for want of a better word, nasty. There was something inherently repulsive about dismemberment. Jim shuddered and pushed the memories away, concentrating instead on the pristine beauty of their surroundings.
Beneath the surface of the water, silver light played over a fish’s scales. Jim willed the salmon to swim to his lure. He was, however, not particularly bothered if he caught the fish. The whole point of fishing was to relax and kick back. But, always the sentinel, he extended his senses and made a sweep of the immediate area. A myriad of sounds tickled his ears—small humming insects and the dancing of feeding birds in the foliage. Behind the sounds of the breathing world, he could hear the rapid heartbeat of a small animal. Curious, Jim strove to identify the scuffling beast. He snorted at his lack of wit—a child was tromping through the woods. Judging from the echoes, the kid was approaching.
Downstream of the sleeping guide, a
small girl stepped out from between the tall
Evidently bored by the water, the small girl began to pick her way through the stones edging the riverside, heading upstream. As he debated whether or not to call out to her, the girl stopped dead and stared at Blair. Curled up around a book, his glasses hanging on the end of his nose, Blair was about as threatening as a teddy bear. Intrigued, the girl crept forwards, cocking her head to the side as she studied the guide.
“Grace, don’t go too far ahead!” a voice called from the woods.
From the same point where the girl had emerged, a tall man appeared. The park ranger, judging from his clothes, spotted the child immediately. He also saw Blair. He started and ran forward, reaching automatically for the first aid kit on his belt.
“Shush!” Grace said dramatically, putting a finger to her lips. “He’s sleeping.”
The ranger stopped dead, only then seeing Jim sitting on the bank. The sentinel nodded as he finally secured his line and began to stand. Grace took one glance of him and then glued herself to the ranger’s side. Sentinel ears could hear her whispering that the man hadn’t been there a minute ago. It was an old trick, Jim mused. Keep still and it was amazing how even a man-mountain could merge with the environment.
Moving slowly, he picked his way barefoot along the shore, stopping a good distance from the little girl.
He smiled as reassuringly as possible. “Jim Ellison, Detective.” Prepared, he pulled out his gold badge, showing the twosome.
The ranger had the same tousled blond hair and brown eyes as the little girl; he was obviously her father.
“Dan Moore. This is my daughter, Grace.”
The object of their attention hid her face in her father’s trouser leg.
“The sleeping beauty is my partner, Blair Sandburg.”
Hearing his name, Blair muttered and roused.
“Sleeping Beauty? I’m Morpheus—God of peaceful dreams and tired grad students. I’m also responsible for creating hot milky chocolate; I’m pretty good at marshmallows too.”
Yawning mightily, Blair struggled onto his back, propping himself on his elbows.
“Oh, hello?” Blair said quietly, seeing their visitors for the first time.
“Weally?” Intrigued, the girl lifted her head from the protection of her father’s legs and smiled tentatively at the student.
Blair echoed the smile. “I make a wicked hot chocolate and I know the perfect way to toast marshmallows, but I have to admit that I am not Morpheus, God of Dreams. My name is Blair.”
“Bear?” she lisped.
Jim shook his head at Blair’s ability to transfix women of all ages. Charmed, the little girl sidled forwards, stopping just before the guide. Blair smiled with his open, guileless quality, and two friends were made. Evidently Dan had also fallen under the guide’s spell, as he seemed quite happy to let the younger man talk to his daughter.
“So you’re on holiday?” he asked, although it was obviously an opening.
Jim accepted it as such. “Yeah, we just finished up a big case and we managed a week off.”
Dan gave him a frankly piercing
look. “I spent five years with the
Jim took an appreciative glance at his surroundings. “I’m tempted myself.”
He felt a degree of comradeship with the ranger, an ease that was probably aided by their shared experiences. He cast a glance over his shoulder—Blair was weaving a tale for the child, twisting a piece of cord in his hands to describe some long forgotten mythical adventure. Jim padded down to the water’s edge, Dan walking easily at his side. Yes, Jim reflected, he could like being a park ranger—patrolling this natural beauty, finding bumbling tourists lost with the back woods, no more perverts and psychopaths, no more horror.
“Hard case?” Dan said knowingly.
Jim started, surprised by the degree of empathy he felt with this man. Evidently, knowing Blair was mellowing him out.
“Yeah,” Jim said slowly, as he bent and picked up a stone. He played with the smooth surface before casting it into the water. The stone skipped twice and sank with the slightest of ripples.
“It’s a good place to decompress,” Dan offered.
Jim cast a sideways glance at the man. “How long have you been ‘decompressing’?”
“About three years. Grace’s mother, my wife, died three and a half years ago. I moved up here. I didn’t want Grace to become an orphan. I’ve family nearby.”
Jim nodded, knowing instinctively that Dan Moore didn’t need a verbal expression of sympathy. He understood. If he and Caroline had had kids, he would have remained on the force, but he would have bucked for promotion—taking him away from the streets. And the call of family would be difficult for a widower to resist.
A peal of laughter echoed along the riverbank. Blair’s eyes crinkled with merriment as the little girl clapped her hands. Then he flashed Jim a wide smile, the first true smile Jim had seen since Simon had literally kicked them out of the precinct and told them not to darken the doors of Major Crime for a whole week.
Blair was enjoying himself immensely. He felt the fist of tension that had been gripping him inside slowly uncurl as he chatted to the bright-eyed little girl. Jim and Grace’s father were further along the river, obviously deep in conversation… but right now he preferred the lighter conversation of the young lady in front of him.
Grace was totally at ease with Blair. Her shyness had disappeared and she now sat facing him, enchanted with her new friend.
“Bear, I know a poem.” Her voice was laden with invitation.
Blair grinned. “Do you now?” He waited.
Grace sat silently, bent forward with her chin cupped in her hands. “Well… do you want me to say it?”
Her friend chuckled and nodded his head emphatically.
The little girl held her small hands in front of her as if she were to begin a lengthy recitation. “It’s about a goldfish. My Grampy taught it to me.” She cleared her throat importantly and then began to speak in a clear, ringing voice.
“Ode to a Goldfish… Oh wet pet.”
She stopped and put her hands out in an exasperated gesture. “Did ya like it, Bear?”
Blair’s eyes widened. “That’s it?”
Grace nodded, her blond curls dancing, and giggled, “It’s a bit of a trick.”
Delighted, Blair threw his head back and laughed loud and long. His sides ached, and it seemed as though he hadn’t laughed this much in months. It felt good.
They sat companionably watching the run of the river, small leaf-netted suns tattooing them. Blair sighed happily. He could do this all day.
“Your turn.” The brown eyes smiled up at him.
“My turn? Ummmm, I don’t have a poem. But how about a story? I could tell you about my pet dragon.”
Grace’s eyes widened. “You’ve got a pet dragon? For true?”
“Well… not anymore… but when I was five….”
“That’s me!” interrupted Grace, holding up five little fingers to reinforce her claim. “I’m five!”
Blair touched one finger to each of hers, and counted. “One, two, three, four, five. Well… so you are!” He shook her hand. “Congratulations, Grace. That’s a great age to be!”
“The dragon, Bear! Tell about the dragon.”
Blair settled back against the trunk of the tree and Grace wriggled as close to him as she could get.
“Uhm… let’s see. When I was five—” he smiled down at his wide-eyed little friend, “—my mother gave me an egg. She said it was a rock… but I knew that it was a dragon’s egg. I put it in a box and taped it all up so that it would be nice and dark for it to hatch.”
“Everyone at school wanted to see, but I wouldn’t let them. The dragon needed to be warm and quiet until it hatched. I waited and waited. One morning I peeped in and there he was. A little baby boy dragon. He was pink.”
“Ohhhhh.” Grace clasped her hands together in positive rapture at the thought of seeing such a creature.
“Everybody still wanted to look at the dragon. But I knew that he wanted to be alone. He was just beautiful. His wings were still soft, of course, because he was very young. They had gold edges that lit up the box just a little bit….”
“Ooohhhhh, Bear.” Grace’s imagination tiptoed her into the box. “He’s so pretty.”
Blair paused for effect. “And then…”
“Well… well… well. What do we have here? Why… it’s Papa Blair and Goldilocks.” Jim’s amused voice startled the storyteller and his small, but very devoted, audience. Blair wrinkled his nose at Jim and Grace giggled.
Inwardly, Jim was cheering. The clinging miasma which had weighed his guide down had dissipated. Blair’s heart rate was slower, the white, drawn cheeks were filling out and the dark ageing circles under his eyes were fading. All it took was a laugh.
“Come on, Dan’s invited us to dinner.” Jim stretched out a hand that Blair took eagerly.
In a smooth movement he hauled the young guide to his feet, scattering books and half-eaten sandwiches. Dancing like a golden whirlwind, Grace skipped around them. She grabbed Blair’s free hand and pulled him out of Jim’s grasp and began to tow him along the riverbank.
“I can make macaroni,” she announced.
Bent over at the waist, Blair trotted happily along in her excited wake. Shaking his head in bemused amusement, Jim set down his tackle box and rod and began to collect Blair’s clutter. Dan crouched down to help.
“They certainly made friends fast.”
“Common ground,” Jim pointed out, “emotionally they’re both five years old.”
Dan looked at him, shocked for a moment, and then burst out laughing. The ranger collected up the five books that Blair had needed so very badly and couldn’t do without—even on a camping trip, and rose to his feet. Jim grabbed Blair’s backpack and slung it over his shoulder.
Bright, happy voices chimed from around the bend in the river. By common, unspoken consent, both men started to follow. Jim knew that he would be able to track that sound to the ends of the earth.
“Legends of the Cree? God of the Witches? Anthropology 101? Strange books for a cop to carry around with him. What’s he doing? A part time degree?” Dan flicked through the other books: they were equally diverse.
“Nah.” Jim smiled, wondering how
many times was he going to have to explain this one. “Blair’s a consultant with
the Police Department. He’s a teaching assistant at
“What the hell does Cascade PD need with an anthropologist?”
Jim snorted, “I sometimes ask myself the same thing. Writing a heck of a lot of papers for journals—I tried reading them; but he uses big words where he could get away with five small ones, so I don’t bother.”
Dan laughed at Jim’s kidding expression, and as Jim hoped, didn’t pursue the subject further. The two ‘children’, Jim grinned to himself, had managed to put seventy yards or so between the two adults. Jim blinked and his eyes flicked into sentinel mode, automatically keeping track of them. Blair clambered over a large rock and then reached up and lifted Grace down to his side.
“Why didn’t they walk up the bank and skirt around the boulder?” Dan shook his head and then answered his own question. “Because it wouldn’t be as much fun.”
“Got it in one, Partner.”
They didn’t skirt the boulder either.
“Oh, nice house,” Blair enthused.
He turned on the veranda. The two-storey wood lodge had been built at the turn of the century as a hideaway for a mining tycoon. Said tycoon had not skimped on the construction, with hardwood surrounds and old bevelled windows.
The house was certainly well situated, on the edge of an old forest which had only been logged intermittently before becoming a nature reserve. The grounds had been turned into a well-equipped campsite. Jim had chosen it supposedly for its impressive record of fishing catches, but mainly for its facilities since neither guide nor sentinel were up to a backwoods, man-against-the-elements camping trip.
“Show you my coolection!” Grace squealed.
“Okay, okay, okay.”
Once again Blair was dragged away by the whirlwind into the house.
“Daddy,” Grace called from inside the house, “the light’s beeping on the machine.”
Dan smiled. “That will be the Ranger Service. Better get it.”
The ranger slipped through the double doors. There was an answer machine just inside the foyer on an old mahogany table.
“Hi, Dan,” a serious voice started at the push of a button, “we’ve got two hikers in here saying that they found two dead bodies out by Old Dick Pass! They’re practically incoherent. It took them about two hours to walk down from the hill and they’re not changing their story. You better get up there. Gramps is out at the coast and won’t be back until later. Can you take the ‘copter?”
A high-pitched squeak heralded the end of the message. Dan hit the re-dial. The person on the other end of the line picked up the phone immediately.
“Dan, where the Hell have you been?”
“Chacopee, calm the heck down. I’ve been out with Grace. Where are these bodies? Have you called Sheriff Arbuckle?”
“Arbuckle’s driven down to Lyndham. His wife said that he’d be back late this evening.”
Jim reached forwards and tapped Dan on the shoulder. Dan’s brown eyes gleamed as he read Jim’s body language.
“…I’ve got a camper on site who’s a detective with Cascade PD—I’ll take him with me to Old Dick. Where exactly did these two hikers say they found the bodies?”
“They mentioned a lighting-struck tree. As near as I can guess, it’s on the lower west side by the split oak by Old Dick Pass. I think they ran all the way to the Ranger station—they got quite a fright.”
“I’ll radio you when we get there.”
Dan put the phone down, appearing deep in thought about his next step. Jim waited, debating whether or not to take control. He was somewhat out of his jurisdiction. He’d give the guy two minutes and then he would take over.
“Daddy, what’s the matter?”
Jim turned with Dan a heartbeat behind him. Grace stood silhouetted in the hall doorway, her hand clutching Blair’s larger one.
“Nothing, sweetie.” Dan moved forward, crouching down onto his haunches.
“I just have to go sort out something for Chacopee.”
“No dinner?” Grace stuck her bottom lip out.
“No dinner,” Dan affirmed.
“What’s happening?” Blair whispered solely for the sentinel’s benefit.
Jim held up two fingers and mouthed, “Hikers found two dead bodies nearby.”
“Oh, man.” Blair’s expressive face fell.
The grad student needed to see another dead body like he needed a hole in the head. Jim’s gut churned as he remembered Blair’s expression when the student had stumbled over the final victim of the psychopath in their last case—a case which, when over, had resulted in the departmental psychologist advising the Captain of Major Crime that his top Detective and the tagalong observer needed to get away for a few days.
“Baby, I’ll call Mrs. Buchanan to come over and look after you,” Dan said soothingly.
“Auntie Nellie went to Auntie Sunny,” Grace announced brightly.
Dan’s shoulders tensed—Jim could feel the indecision rolling off him waves. Jim flicked a look at his watch. Thirty seconds and he would start issuing orders.
“Blair,” Dan began.
Jim blanked his expression; he didn’t want Blair to guess his elation at what he suspected the ranger was going to ask. He guessed that the ranger trusted them—based solely on their shared experiences in the police force. Jim did not want Blair near a dead body and this was a damn good reason. Over protective, Jim mused. Maybe, but he didn’t care. Essentially pointless, he knew that Blair would see bodies on the future… but he could be protected from seeing these two husks.
“Blair, can you stay with Grace? I know it’s a lot to ask, but without Auntie Nellie… And Gramps won’t be back until later.”
“Hey, man, it’s okay,” Blair said easily. “Grace said that she wanted to make Cheesy Macaroni—I know a great recipe with grilled bacon.”
Grace pulled her hand out of Blair’s and bounced with glee. The guide locked eyes with the sentinel’s. The message was plain and unadulterated by false machismo. Jim nodded once—he would be careful.
It was quiet in the high, sun-steeped kitchen, so warm and still. Blair looked down at his little kitchenhand, amusement dancing across his face.
Grace had pulled a sturdy chair over to the bench so that she could reach the burners, and was now industriously stirring the cheese sauce. Her tongue emerged from between her lips as she used every ounce of concentration to co-ordinate the movement of the wooden spoon clutched in her chubby fist. She murmured a self-composed song to her creation: “And you stir you up… and you mix you round… and you stir and stir and stir.” She chuckled infectiously. “Look at the bubbles, Bear.”
Blair reached over her shoulder and put his large hand over her much smaller one.
“Right. Five more stirs… because you’re five… then we’re done.”
With great ceremony, the sauce was poured over the macaroni, and Blair placed the dish into the oven. Grace stood beside him, beaming at their achievement.
Suddenly, she clasped his hand in both her tiny ones and looked up at him trustingly. He was mirrored in those dark pools.
“Do you want to see a secret, Bear?”
He nodded down at her.
She pulled him to the rocking chair in the corner of the kitchen and settled him into it, patting his shoulder solicitously.
“Wait here. It’s something veeeerrrrrrrrryy special.” She bustled off to find the treasure to show her new friend.
Blair leaned against the hard back of the rocking chair and used the toe of one boot to push against the floor till he was gently rocking back and forth. He closed his eyes. The only sound was the quiet percussion of the Grandfather clock in the hallway. The last remnants of tension washed away like something breaking up on invisible shoals. He sighed contentedly and could almost have drifted off to sleep were it not for the soft voice piping in his ear.
He opened his eyes and studied the serious, little figure standing in front of him.
She took his hand and turned it palm upward. With a sense of ritual, she delivered her much beloved treasure into his care. It was a small music box, no bigger than the palm of her own little hand. Delicately scrolled with filigree silver, it had the initials DM entwined in the centre.
“Grace, it’s so beautiful!” Blair’s voice held all the warmth and encouragement that the child needed.
She reached out one finger and traced the initials.
“It’s my special-est thing, Bear. It was Mommy’s and now it’s mine to look after. The ‘D’ is for Donna… that’s her name. Daddy called her Darling… so it’s ‘D’ for Donna and Darling as well.”
Blair’s mouth softened into the gentlest of smiles for this little one who was clinging so hard to the few memories that she had of her mother.
“I bet your Mom was beautiful… just like you.”
Grace beamed with pleasure. “She was very pretty. She had curly hair like me. Shhhhh… listen.”
She opened the lid of the music box and the tune tinkled out like far-off wind chimes. Amazing Grace.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…” the little girl’s voice warbled along with the tune. “It’s my song, Bear. It was Mommy’s favourite.”
She lifted her arms up into the air and spun slowly around the room in a ballet of her own. Blair stood up and moved towards her. He tapped her on the shoulder.
“May I have this dance, my lady?” Taking her hand, he bowed low and kissed her hand. Grace was enchanted.
Through the fluted afternoon light, Blair and Grace waltzed in endless circles, laughing and spinning till they both collapsed in a heap on the couch, out of breath, grinning from ear to ear.
“And who is this dancing with my favourite girl?” a cheerful voice boomed from the front door.
Grace leapt up and threw herself at the owner of the voice in a frenzy of delight. “Grampy!!!” She peppered his face with kisses.
Standing up, Blair watched as the older man tossed his granddaughter into the air to her squeals of excitement. He was not much taller than Blair, but strongly built. White hair and even whiter teeth contrasted with his tanned, weathered skin. He had a kind, humorous face. He was, Blair decided, someone who could be trusted.
Smiling broadly, the man swung his granddaughter onto his hip and walked towards Blair.
“Now, Grace, introduce me to your young friend.”
“Bear, this is my Grampy.” Grace leaned out and put one hand on Blair’s shoulder. “And Grampy… this is My Bear.”
“Ahh… That’s Blair, sir. Blair Sandburg. Pleased to meet you.”
The older man stretched out and encompassed Blair’s hand in a firm handshake.
“Jackson MacLeod. Grace’s grandfather, in case you hadn’t already guessed. Call me Jack…. Papa Blair.” His grey-blue eyes twinkled.
The younger man rolled his eyes in mock indignation. “Guess you’ve already talked with Dan and Jim! There goes my image!” His good-natured grin belied his words. “Goldilocks and I have had fun while waiting for you. Haven’t we, my lady?”
Grace nodded, totally smitten with him.
Jack smiled, and then dropped his voice. “Dan radioed me on my plane. Bad business. He told me that someone was keeping an eye on our girl. Appreciate it.”
“It’s been an absolute pleasure,” Blair responded sincerely.
Grace wriggled in her grandfather’s arms, signalling her wish to be set down. She gathered up her precious music box and turned to the two men who were watching her with shared amusement.
“I’m going to get changed. I’ve got macaroni on the front of me!!!!” She shook her head and trotted off in the direction of her bedroom, talking to herself all the way.
Joseph Ellison entertained himself
seeing how white his knuckles could turn each time the helicopter took an
unintentional little dip. There was no focus of a hunt to distract him from the
flight; and his thoughts inevitably turned to his fateful crash in
“Hey, Ellison, are you feeling a bit air sick?”
Jim turned glassy eyes on the ranger. He managed a nod.
“We’re almost there,” Dan said reassuringly and matched actions for words, pushing the joystick forwards.
The muscle in Jim’s jaw was working overtime, pulsating with the beat of his heart. It wasn’t so much nausea but the ever-present memories of another helicopter and a crash which had robbed him of his tightly knit crew. Losing himself in memories, he missed the descent of the helicopter. His eyes snapped open as the helicopter joined the earth. While his fingers were twitching to put as much distance between himself and the helicopter as possible, he waited until Dan had stopped the rotating blades and the engine had droned to a halt. Only then did he remove the masking ear mufflers and open the cockpit door.
He took a deep breath of air filled with the fragrance of evergreen pines, summer flowers and the faintest breath of sea air. Blair would be proud of him as he selectively concentrated on the scents that would relax him. As the intrusive smells of leather upholstery and engine oil intruded, he visualised his dials and turned down his sense of smell.
“The split oak’s up there.” Dan was pointing up a low rolling hill towards an ancient tree that had thrived for two-three hundred years before Mother Nature had seen fit to split it straight down the middle with a phenomenal lightening bolt. Automatically, Jim honed his sight, looking at the oak as if he were standing next to it rather than being a good five hundred yards away.
“The tourist said that the bodies were by the oak.”
“Can’t see any,” Jim said absently.
Dan snorted and picked up a backpack filled with an assortment of useful equipment an ex-police officer now ranger deemed necessary on any outing. The ex-ranger now policeman approved of his careful attitude as he hefted his own well packed knapsack.
“I guess we’ll start at the oak and work systematically,” Dan said easily.
Jim nodded tersely, and strode towards the oak.
As the sentinel approached the tree, he smelled the odour of freshly charred wood. The question was, would Dan be able to smell the wood? Jim shrugged his shoulders fatalistically. He had to follow his senses. He wasn’t going to catfoot around when there were possibly injured victims or a murderer lurking near-by. He checked his gun and arrowed towards the smoke.
Beside a raised bank of grassy earth a fire still smouldered. The campers had been careful, digging a wide firepit around their fire. A bucket of soil had been dumped on the sticks and twigs, then the campers had left. There were other signs of a rapid departure: a couple of tent pegs lying on the grass, a cup, food wrappers and a book of matches.
Dan picked up the matches and pocketed them.
“So where are the bodies?” Dan asked.
“Don’t know.” Jim’s nostrils flared. He couldn’t detect the sickeningly sweet smell of decaying flesh. He cast around on the grass looking for any trails. A series of measured footsteps led to the campsite and another set moved off towards the mound. Another set of footprints, widely spaced, ran back from the mound. Jim crouched down and pretended to examine the grass and mosses underfoot.
“Two sets of feet walked up this bank—then they ran back very fast.”
“You’re good.” Dan peered at the earth. “It’s been so dry recently that I can’t see a thing.”
“Ex-Army Ranger,” Jim said, by way of explanation, “I’ve tracked people in harder terrain than this.”
He jogged up the bank and came to a dead stop at the top. The side of the mound had been torn open. There was evidence of digging. Judging by the spoors, either a beaver or a larger animal had been responsible. Strewn on the ground were bones. The remains of a rib cage poked up from the hole.
“I think we’ve found our murder victims,” Jim said lightly.
“No way!” Dan said eagerly and bounced down the slight slope. “Do you know what this is?”
Jim sauntered down next to the
ranger, who was scrutinising the remains. The man’s face shone with enthusiasm,
similar to a certain anthropology student. Jim stood back, gingerly expanding
his senses. There was no scent of death; these bodies had been dead a long
time. He had no real basis for comparison, but he was inextricably reminded of
the bowels of
“I think it’s a burial mound,” Dan
said. “This area had two principal tribes—the Snohomish who inhabited parts of
“Jack?” Jim asked.
“Yeah, my father-in-law. He’s a historian and bit of an archaeologist. We’ll tell Chakopee too, he’ll be concerned.”
“Whatever. But we have to report this,” Jim said sensibly.
“Yes, of course.” Dan stood, and brushed off his hands despite the fact that he hadn't touched anything. “I’ll get on the radio.”
Blair and Jack sat at the scrubbed, pine kitchen table, clasping steaming cups of coffee and chatting easily, like old friends.
“She’s a delight,” Blair said, nodding towards the little voice chortling to herself in her bedroom.
“We think so,” replied Jack. “But then, we are totally biased.”
Blair cupped his hands around the comfortable shape of his mug, and took a sip, sighing happily. “I needed this. So, Jack… how long have you been living here?”
Jack’s brow furrowed slightly. “Since my daughter died. Dan needed help with Grace. I was retired. It just seemed to make sense. It’s worked out really well. Dan doesn’t work regular hours, so he gets plenty of time with Grace and I fill in when he is working.”
“Grace seems to be thriving here. It’s a magic place for a kid to grow up.” Blair’s smile was a tiny bit wistful.
“Donna loved it here. She was a real feisty girl… but with a great heart. Dan’s a lot quieter… they complemented each other. Grace is like her Mom. She’s really too young to remember much about her… but Dan and I tell her stories and we’ve got photographs.”
The young lady in question trudged into the kitchen. She’d changed into denim overalls with a white t-shirt underneath, and was towing a small patchwork quilt. Clambering up onto her grandfather’s lap, she snuggled herself into the quilt and promptly fell asleep.
Jack held her tenderly. “She’s always been able to do that. She’ll sleep anywhere. She goes and goes and goes… then she just drops.” He placed a kiss on the head of bright curls and settled her into the crook of one arm so that he could drink his cup of coffee.
“Tell me, son, what brings you up this way?”
“Jim and I are just taking a break. Jim’s a detective for Cascade PD. I’m a teaching fellow at Rainier University. Anthropology.”
Jack smiled. “I taught History at Lawson before I retired. I thought I recognised a kindred spirit. Have you ever…”
A squawking noise interrupted Jack. Blair stretched out his arms to take Grace, smiling down at the still sleeping child as she stirred and then muttered something about “My Bear.”
Jack hurried to pick up the radio handpiece before the crackling voice woke his granddaughter.
“Easy, Dan. Give me a couple of seconds. Yes. Grace is fine. Fast asleep in her new friend’s arms. Papa Blair has the knack.” Jack winked at Blair who wrinkled his nose and shook his head at the Papa Blair reference. He canted his head to one side in a vain attempt to decipher what Dan was telling his father-in-law.
“Really? Dan, do you know what this could mean? Yes. We’ll fly up. I’m sure Blair would like to be a part of this. We should be there in about an hour by the time we go out to the airstrip and I have to refuel. See you then.”
A huge smile lit the older man’s face. “Blair, my boy, you and I are in for some fun.”
The young anthropologist looked puzzled. “Why? What’s going on?”
“We three are flying up to meet Jim and Dan. They’ve found something very interesting. I think we will keep it a surprise until we get there.”
Blair jiggled in his seat, despite the sleeping Grace on his lap. “Oh, man. I so hate surprises! Tell me?”
Mischievously, Jack waggled his finger at the young man. “No. But you are going to love it.”
He moved across to Blair and patted Grace’s face, gently. “Come on, honey. We are going to Daddy.” The little girl stirred and her eyes fluttered open. Blair marvelled at the huge yawn that came from so small a creature.
“We going flying, Grampy? Is My Bear coming too?”
“We’re all going, sweetheart.” The old man grinned at Blair, who was blushing.
Grace stretched her hands up high and jumped off Blair’s lap. She began to spin around the room on tiptoes, singing her own little song. “Oh I love to fly… I do… I do… and I love it more when you come too.”
She curtsied flamboyantly at the applause from two of her favourite people in the whole world.
Absently, Jim tuned into Dan’s conversation on the helicopter radio. He had contacted the Sheriff’s wife and then the Rangers’ Office. He had a longer conversation with the senior ranger, who expressed his concern about the discovery and said that he would speak to the local Native American tribal council.
Jim devoted a second’s thought to
the ramifications of the council verses archaeologists, then something caught
his eye. Intrigued, the sentinel crouched down. The bear, or whatever, had torn
a hole in what looked like a hollow hill. Jim racked his brains for a moment,
remembering a paper about which an excited Blair had enthused. Dead Vikings, of
Adjusting his vision, he peered into the dark hole. The creature had pulled out the desiccated rib cage of a human and strewn about a few other unidentifiable remains. The skull remained within its resting place. Leathery brown skin was pulled taut over prominent cheekbones to tear over a jutting eagle nose.
He couldn’t see what had drawn his attention. Composing himself, he took a slow, deep breath. He heard the glide of an earthworm through moist earth. He inhaled lightly. The sweetly cloying scent of death had long since passed. A few grasses were curled up in a roughly hewn clay bowl. Jim reached forward breaking off a few stalks. Sharp grains of salt bit his fingers. Tentatively, Jim licked the tip of his finger, tasting sea air and waves. The grass was in fact dried seaweed.
Growing increasingly frustrated, Jim listened. A far off peal of thunder tickled his ears. Automatically, Jim dampened down his hearing. A clap of thunder overhead could shock him into unconsciousness. He estimated that he would have a few minutes before that was a possibility. There were squalling clouds gathering over the purple-hued mountain peaks on the horizon. Losing himself, Jim watched the interplay of air pressures and moisture. A streak of lightning shocked him as a cascade of light washed over him.
“Hey? Are you okay?” Dan was patting his forearm.
Jim blinked furiously as he shook his head. “Fine, fine, fine,” he muttered.
Dan’s face was a mask of concern and curiosity.
“I was watching the lightning storm,” Jim said as he pointed at the mountains.
Dan peered along the length of his arm at the glowering clouds.
“Impressive—it will be blowing in soon. We better cover this site.”
“Excuse me?” Jim cocked his head to the side.
“The run of the valley means those clouds will siphon down here like a water chute at an adventure park. We should cover up these… remains… so they don’t get damaged.”
“Won’t that damage the integrity of the site?” Jim ventured.
“If we don’t, the damage will be worse. I’ve got a tarpaulin in the back of the ‘copter. I’ll go get it. We can stake it over the hole. If there are any artefacts lying on the grass pick them up carefully and place them just in the entrance of the lodge,” Dan directed.
Jim resisted the temptation to salute as Dan scurried back the way down the bank. He allowed his eyes to focus on the scene before him. What constituted a “remain”? The few bones scattered over the grass, obviously. What constituted an “artefact”?
A hint of ochre caught his eye. Jim picked his way across to it, being careful not to stand on anything of importance. Turning the object over in his sensitive fingers, Jim realised that he held a large, well worn tooth in his hand.
As directed, Jim laid the tooth just in the entrance of the hole. Ideally, he should have been wearing rubber gloves, but he hadn’t brought his forensic kit with him. In retrospect, Jim decided that he was never going to leave home without everything and the kitchen sink when he and Sandburg left on one of their expeditions.
A clap of thunder rocked him, galvanising him to move more quickly. As Dan had predicted, the mountainous valley was funnelling the storm towards them. Sniffing, Jim detected another front of air washing over him. The air pressure made his sensitive ears pop. Belatedly, Jim pulled the cuffs of his jacket over his hands and then reached for the first bone strewn on the ground. Gingerly, and tentatively, he carefully laid the brown leg bone beside the tooth. Working increasing faster, as the storm raced towards him, he moved the few bones—small finger bones, a broken ulna and assorted scraps into the hole.
He could hear Dan huffing and puffing his way back from the helicopter. The man was weighed down with an enormous tarpaulin, rope and an axe. The ranger dumped the heavy material and the rope on the ground well away from the site. Wielding the axe with a practised hand, he crossed to a bank of trees and proceeded to cut himself a handful of, for lack of a better word, tent poles.
Jim picked up a piece of burned wood, wondering whether or not this had to be collected. He sniffed, the blackened end was odourless. It was old—Jim put it next to the bones. Dan joined him, carrying two poles, which he drove into the soft earth on either side of the hole.
“We’ll drape the tarpaulin over the poles so the water drains off.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Jim said easily. He pulled out his boot knife, gouging a hole in the top of the poles so he could rest another stand of wood across the raised poles. Jim doubted that the construction would hold.
Thunder pealed again and the first wet drop of rain smacked on the top of Jim’s head. Swearing under his breath, Dan skipped across to the tarpaulin and began to unfold the waterproof material. The heavens opened. Buckets of rain drummed against unprotected heads. The summer storm was violent in its intensity.
The plane bounced and lurched again. Blair’s stomach joined the dance and he swallowed against the bile rising in his throat. Apprehension tightened like a rubber band around his chest.
Looking out of the window, the young anthropologist watched the blind fingers of rain push against the glass and the blue cracking air of the summer storm. Another plunge as the plane dipped its wings into the weather. Blair could hear the rumble of Jack’s voice and the piping soprano of his granddaughter.
Unlatching the seat belt, Blair struggled up the aisle and pulled aside the curtain that separated the cockpit from the rest of the small plane.
“It’s getting a bit rough, isn’t it, Jack?”
“Yes, m’boy. It is.” Jack didn’t take his eyes off the instruments to acknowledge Blair’s presence. “It’s come up so quickly. These summer storms are over almost as quickly as they start. It’ll be done soon.”
The little girl in co-pilot’s seat bounced up and down and clasped her small, chubby hands together in excitement.
“I like it, Grampy. It’s fun!”
A snarl of lightning spat at the plane, sending it leaping and rocking through the sky. Blair ended up in an ungainly heap on the floor. He heard the engines cut out and Jack screaming at him.
“Take her! Take her! Buckle her into the seat next to you. Take her!”
Blair unbuckled the child and pulled her from the seat. Her smile had given way to wailing, and he could hear the terror spilling from the little girl in a river of noise.
He managed to get back to his seat and buckle Grace and himself in. Covering her hand with his right hand, his left hand gently kept her head on her knees.
Through all the noise, Blair could hear Jack trying to contact Dan on the radio. For what seemed like eternity, the little plane fought against the pull of the earth, leaning on the wind. Then, with one final shrug at the elements, it dropped like a stone from the sky.
The child screamed in pure terror all the way down. Blair had time for one heartfelt, “Ohhhh shit!” before the plane seemed to explode and disintegrate around them. There was pain strong enough to collude with death, just for a moment, and then darkness crushed the breath out of him.
The tarpaulin was not very successful—if they had had time they would have probably been able to construct a superior shelter. Working against the squalling winds and drumming rain with several square meters of tarpaulin was like trying to light a candle in a hurricane.
“Throw everything into the lodge and then we’ll just throw the tarpaulin on top and weigh it down with rocks!” Dan yelled against the gale.
Jim nodded tersely—whether they liked it or not, the site was compromised. He reached down and grabbed what looked like a finger bone.
Darkness. Looking at a zone from the inside out. His senses clamoured for attention, each one swamping him with its intensity. He, now, was the hurricane which he had fought against moments before. A guide’s voice spoke to him: ‘Find the eye of the storm.’
Distantly, Jim was aware that he was moaning, a low horrible tone, under his breath. A stone moved under his hand, rhythmically and constantly—smoothing against another larger stone.
Perplexed, Jim looked down at his hands as he worked the stone against a larger stone breaking a green plant down into moist shreds.
Pestle and mortar, Jim thought distractedly. He shifted to touch the plant; his hand didn’t move but continued grinding the plant down to shredded fragments. His hands stopped moving and shifted to pick up more plant from a pottery bowl on his left. He hadn’t planned on doing that. He realised that the plant was in fact a seaweed.
Then he saw that his hands were brown. The hands froze in the middle of their task and turned over, presenting their palms for his inspection. Worn calluses dotted every finger and the knuckles were gnarled, promising pain on long winter nights.
These were not his hands.
The fingers darted out and grabbed a pinch of seaweed and lifted to his mouth. His mouth? The mouth opened and unfamiliar tastes exploded across his senses—wet, slimy and salty but, strangely, refreshing.
He could hear the play of children outside. Belatedly, Jim realised that he was within a tent constructed of hides braced against the ribs of some frighteningly large creature. As if in answer to his unspoken query the body stood and ducked through the entrance. He saw the encampment in all its glory.
There were two squat tents as long as a bus—constructed of the same patchwork of hides tied to massive ribs by tendons and dried intestines. Children ran squealing around a large central fire—proving that kids played no matter where they were. The children had jet black hair, although a few possessed hints of chestnut and reds in their matt black hair. All were sun-kissed to a golden brown colour. None wore clothes in the warm midsummer sun. Jim looked down—he too was naked, unselfconscious and comfortable. A long jagged scar marred the inside of his thigh—twisting his limb. His limb. He could feel and sense and, when he thought, the body moved—but it was not his body.
Squat, Jim thought picturing the movement.
The body paused and then settled down on its haunches, the gamy leg protesting. Jim apologised profusely and the body moved, positioning the leg before him. Whether he liked it or not, he appeared to be resident in a body which wasn’t his own; but the owner was apparently aware of him and, impressively, content. Maybe this possession thing happened everyday? Jim wished with all his heart to simply wake up.
He didn’t. His host’s shoulders bobbed up and down with amusement. White hot anger flooded his mind, screaming for answers railing against the unknown. He felt the vaguest sensation of divorced concern, then his anger was quenched, utterly and irrevocably. A sensation of calming patting hands soothed him—guide’s hands, comforting hands. They weren’t, however, his guide’s hands.
This man knew him—knew his temper, knew how to squash his fearful outbursts. A smile tugged at his cheeks. Paternal and avuncular feelings washed over him. The body twisted and reached for a leather bag—little more than a scrap of hide pulled together with twisted grasses. The bag was opened with due ceremony—the man bowed low before carefully undoing the multitude of knots. As each knot yielded he bowed again, until the contents were unveiled.
Small bones, rabbit bones he thought at first, but, no they were tiny finger bones—one belonged to his host’s father. Jim knew that, as he knew his own name. Nimble hands moved forwards, positioning the bones and fragments of stone and tooth. A picture grew under the hands. Two bones lay on the earth, two dried flowers topped the fingers. Tiny stones were carefully set next to the finger bones until distinct crosses bisected the bone. A sturdy finger tapped the construction and then pointed to his own chest. Jim could not see the connection. A fine edge of frustration tickled his senses, stalemated by his lack of understanding.
His host twisted and pulled a familiar weapon from the doorway to the tent. A bolas—a throwing weapon with weights—was set next to the larger man—Jim suddenly realised. Two men, almost caricatures, stood next to each other like some child’s family drawing. Satisfaction ringed his thoughts as a twist of herbs was brushed over the smaller figure. A warrior and a shaman. Or more accurately: a sentinel and a guide.
A shaman and a sentinel, Jim thought awed. His host, he had no sense of a name, brushed the sentinel’s stick figure. A feeling of profound sadness washed over Jim. Alone and lost. This was a shaman without a sentinel to guide. Tears pricked his cheeks.
The leathery brown hand reached up touching his tears. Almost losing himself, Jim watched their diamond purity on his fingers. He felt the strangest sensation of comforting himself. Who else would understand this loss? He shied away from his thoughts of how he would handle the loss of his guide. His upbringing had taught him self-restraint until he excelled at the many facets of denial. It was something that he would not consider.
Contrariwise, he wondered how the shaman was coping. A harsh laugh sounded in his ears, part pain and part amusement. It cut him to the quick. His arm lifted and pointed to the children playing. Then the demanding hand gestured to a woman sitting cross-legged, sifting through grasses. Even an emotionally distant sentinel was aware of the beat of life around him.
Jim grimaced, inwardly echoing the shaman’s laugh. Abruptly the shaman stood and dignified and straight, despite his limp, he showed the sentinel his world.
Jim assumed that he was introduced to the group, tribe, family… he wasn’t sure; he did not understand the language. The shaman never said a single word. The people seemed to find this unsurprising. Eventually they turned back to the tent of hides and leather.
The shaman settled himself beside his herbs and tools. Jim sensed deliberation of thought. It was a simple question, wordless but the emotional overtones were: ‘Why?’
Somewhat stumped, Jim immediately spoke. His voice sounded weird, reverberating through different ears. A voice which spoke understandable English but elicited a riotous laugh from the shaman.
My God, I’m speaking in tongues! Jim thought.
He realised that he had spoken, controlling his host. The shaman seemed unconcerned by the usurpation of his voice. Completely flummoxed, Jim pondered the shaman’s question. Obliquely his mind wandered, Sandburg was never going to let this lie unstudied.
A pique of interest played across his mind. Obediently, Jim pictured his guide, creating an image honed by memory exercise after memory exercise. The shaman seemed satisfied. Belatedly, Jim realised that the shaman had understood the picture. This was one way that they could proceed, although the only thing that he was picking up on was emotion. This was the weirdest zone out that he had ever perceived.
OboyoboyboOboyoyo. Spiralling downwards….
“Jim? Jim?” A soft pat against faintly stubbled skin. And again.
Uneasily, Jim opened his eyes. A cratered, pockmarked moon loomed over him. Automatically, Jim readjusted his vision and Dan came into focus.
Jim saw the reflection of his contracting pupils in Dan’s eyes.
“Shit, if you’ve got epilepsy, how do you function as a police officer?” Dan’s eyes narrowed accusingly. “Have you told anyone? Your partner? Your captain?”
“It’s not like that.” Grey and trembling, Jim looked up at his fellow officer. “I don’t have epilepsy.”
“Damn well looked like an attack to me. You were totally unresponsive. I’m familiar with the symptoms, you didn’t seize but you were completely out of it.”
Rubbing hands over his short hair, Jim frantically sought for a believable answer. “It’s known as sentinelitis. Yes, my captain is aware of it. It’s under control.”
“Doesn’t look like it.”
Jim gritted his teeth, realising for the first time that he was lying prone on the wet earth under the crude tarpaulin tent. Dan was kneeling at his side.
“That was a bad one,” Jim admitted. He propped himself on an elbow. It was also a weird one, he reflected.
“Is that why you’re on vacation? Medical leave? Can you stand? I’d like to get you to the medical centre to be checked out.”
“That’s really not necessary,” Jim began. Then something shifted. For the barest instance he felt strangely disconnected and someone walked over his spine. Dan saw him shudder, and Jim knew that the park ranger was not going to brook any argument.
They crawled out of the pocket of the tarpaulin into the tail end of the flash storm. It wasn’t necessary, but Dan hauled his shoulder under his arm and began to help Jim to the helicopter. At least Jim thought that the assistance was unnecessary until another involuntary twitch rocked his long frame.
“Sentinelitis, you said? Never heard of it.”
“It’s rare,” Jim gritted out.
The radio in the helicopter was squawking loudly. Feeling uncommonly wobbly, Jim allowed Dan to settle him on the passenger seat. The ranger leaned over and picked up the radio thumbing the send button.
“Dan, to base. Over.”
“Dan! Thank God,” the voice descended into profanities, caught itself, then at a much calmer pace stated, “Jack called out a mayday about forty minutes ago.”
Hissing quietly, the plane lay balanced on its nose. Both wings had been torn off. Jack MacLeod was sprawled forward across the instrument panel, his sticky blood oozing over the buttons and dials. He had been dead before they hit the ground. His mind had given in, his heart gave up, and he had died with his granddaughter’s name on his lips.
Blair hung awkwardly across his seat, head resting against the broken window. He was unconscious, but breathing, the breaths coming in little fits and starts. Blood was smeared across the window from his head wound.
Grace sat balanced on the back of a tip-tilted seat, rocking herself and humming drearily. Everyone was asleep. She wished they would wake up. Her face hurt and there was a big egg on her head. Big enough to fry, Grampy would have said. Her small fingers trekked through her blonde curls and touched the lump again. The little shiver of pain caused her to yelp a little, and she smiled importantly.
“I’ve got a sore head,” she announced to nobody.
Blair stirred, and was immediately sorry he had. Pain. The scythe turned under his ribs and exploded softly in his belly.
“Shit… Jesus… shit!” Confused, he straightened up as best he could and brought his hand up to his head.
“You said bad swears.” The voice was fiercely reproachful.
Blair turned his head slowly in the direction of the voice.
She sat perched on the edge of the seat, nodding wisely. “I have a sore head and I didn’t say any bad swears.”
Blair turned his head slowly in the direction of the voice, trying to orient himself. The world was pushed off beam, and slowly he realised that he was held in his seat only by the seatbelt.
A sniffle, a modest demand for comfort, sideswiped his concussed ruminations.
Despite the pain, Blair managed a mock grin. “I mostly humbly beg your pardon, my lady.”
Curls bobbed up and down as her hands went up to cover her mouth and she giggled. “I’m not a lady. I’m Grace.”
Blair gingerly extended a hand across the aisle, feeling the pull in his ribs. “Pleased to meet you, Grace. I’m Blair.”
The little girl took a finger and shook it, still laughing. “You’re already my friend, My Bear. You know that!”
With infinite care, Blair braced himself with one hand on the seat before him. Taking a breath, he unbuckled the seat belt, fearful that it was all that was holding him together. With glacial slowness he leaned into the forward passenger seat. So far so good. He smiled at the little face watching him with concern.
Splinters and shards of pain shot through him and he gasped. “Sh…” He looked at Grace and rephrased. “Ouch!” She rewarded him with a smile.
Turning his head, he peered out of the window. Through the rivulets of rain that blurred his view, he could see that they were in deep forest. The fact that thunder was cracking overhead, and the rain was fairly minimal, suggested that they were under a canopy of trees.
Ribs grating, he shuffled across the seats and then eased himself down the aisle, using the seat legs as a ladder, swearing comprehensively under his breath. Before he reached Jack, Blair knew that the older man was dead. The amount of blood painting the crushed instrument console told him that. Reaching down, he pressed his fingers against the man’s neck to find a pulse… nothing. Laying his hands gently upon the man’s head, he whispered, “I’m sorry, Jack. I’ll take care of her. I promise.”
Moving back to look up the aisle, he began to take stock. He didn’t want to think about explaining this to Grace. He had to try to get her out of the plane first.
“C’mon, Amazing Grace. Let’s go for a little walk outside. See what we can find.”
He watched as she clambered out of the seat and noted that she moved freely and easily. Good. Like a little monkey, she shinned down the seats. Blair held out his hand, to prevent her entering the cockpit.
Without preamble, she placed her hand confidently in his.
“Let’s try and get the door open.”
The old plane had a spinning wheel to lock the exit. His ribs clamoured as he strained to open the door. He couldn’t smell any gasoline—he wished for Jim—but he didn’t want to stay in the tip-turned plane. Grating loudly, the door swung out and down; the bang against the hull reverberated through his bones.
Grace snuck by him, slipping and sliding down that door as if it were a ramp, dropping on the pine needle covered floor. She squatted on her hands and knees peering into the crumpled nose cone.
“Grace!” Oblivious to his ribs, Blair jumped, determined not to let her see her Grandfather’s soul-empty body. The cacophony of pain was a discordant orchestra.
A jerk on his sleeve and he came back to himself, sprawled disconnected at Grace’s feet.
“What about Grampy? He’s still asleep.” Her eyes were wide and guileless. Her golden curls hung in lank wet locks around her chubby face; he had lain on the wet moss half dazed for more than a heartbeat.
Rising onto one elbow, clutching at his side, he searched for the right words, knowing that they were never going to be right.
“Grace, your Grampy has gone.” Blair sighed painfully. “I know it looks like he's still there, but he’s not. All the things you loved about him, how funny he was, and how he told you stories… all those things… they’ve lifted up from him and gone up into the sky.”
Two blue eyes mirrored his, and he saw her small brow furrowed in concentration, trying so hard to understand. He took a breath and continued.
“Now he is part of the sky, and in the morning when the sun comes up, that’s Grampy saying ‘Morning, Grace’… and when the sunset comes, that’s Grampy going ‘Don’t forget that I love you, Grace’… and when the stars come out… we’ll pick one and that will be Grampy saying ‘Night, Grace.’” The words now came easily.
He felt two small arms reach around his neck, and her soft breath as she cried quietly. And they stayed like that for a very long time.
The stormy weather prevented the search and rescue team flying into the area. Dan was beside himself. He had his father-in-law and his daughter lost somewhere in the wilderness. An epileptic, who refused to admit it, who needed medical attention, was masquerading as a detective, and they were stranded due to the tail end of the storm raging overhead.
Jim sat huddled in the cockpit of the helicopter watching the ranger chewing his nails. He had a headache that was verging on a paralysing migraine. If the pain began to block out his vision he would be neither of use nor an ornament in the upcoming search.
Another peal of thunder rolled down the valley and he actually whimpered.
“Shit, man, don’t you have any medication?” Dan asked stridently, adding to the sentinel’s pain.
“No,” Jim growled. His head hurt so much that shooting seemed like a viable alternative.
Shhhhshh. Phantom hands drifted over his body.
Jim allowed himself a startled inhalation as his own hands came up to mimic the movement of the hands now resting on either side of his head. Slowly, soothingly, fingertips began to move rhythmically over the thin bone at his temples. Callused fingers traced the ridges of bone protecting his eyes as a voice whispered unknown words that brought comfort. Astonishingly the headache began to ease, and the nausea-inducing aura, that heralded the most appalling of migraines, dissipated.
“Blair?” he asked, unthinkingly.
A distant rattle of beads and the scent of something very much akin to sage answered that question.
“Shaman?” Jim ventured.
“You’re scaring the bejesus outta me.”
Free from pain, Jim glanced up at the ranger crouched beside him. The brown eyes were worried. Absently Jim noticed that Dan’s accent was becoming stronger the more concerned he became.
“It’s okay. It’s over; the… episode has passed.”
“Just like that? And now everything is hunky dorey?”
“Until the next one,” Dan said candidly.
Lightning flashed, illuminating the entire valley in stark monochrome. Jim clamped down on his hearing as the phantom hands clapped warningly over his ears. The peal of thunder rolled overhead, almost immediately.
“Yeah, I see; everything is fine,” Dan said pithily. “Look we’re grounded until this grandfather of a storm passes. As soon as I can get out of here, I’m taking you back to the outpost and then joining the S.A.R. team.”
Plainly frustrated, Dan sagged back into the pilot’s seat and stared out through the wash of rain blasting against the glass on the helicopter’s portside.
“I don’t have time for this,” he muttered under his breath—so quietly only a sentinel would have heard.
Jim cast a sideways glance at his companion. He had never been considered an encumbrance before; he didn’t like the feeling.
“That isn’t necessary.” Somewhere within and without he felt the shaman agreeing. Jim sagged back against the passenger’s seat unconsciously mimicking Dan’s defeated posture.
His mind almost balked at the fact that somehow he had a hitchhiker.
Okay, fine. I’ve picked up a spare shaman along the way.
Righteous indignation washed through his body.
Okay, I’ve acquired a welcome guest.
He definitely heard the laugh. The shaman had cured a potentially debilitating attack of sentinelitis. It almost defied belief; yet, the fact that he had never been able to handle the migraine level attacks without Blair’s assistance told him irrefutably that somehow the shaman had managed to help him.
Without warning his hand reached out and tapped the glass window at his side. Fingers splayed his hand to rest against the glass soaking up the cold. Dan was watching him out of the corner of his eye.
Shit, I’ve been possessed.
The hand dropped quiescent onto his lap but then turned and picked, curiously, at the fabric of his jeans. His toes twitched in their hiking boots and, suddenly, he felt very uncomfortable. Jim hung his head, hiding a blush that coloured his fair skin. To say that the shaman was disconcerted by his boxer shorts was something of an understatement.
“Are you okay, man?” Dan said loudly, for the—no doubt—second time. “I can get you to the doc’s an hour after the storm breaks.”
The strain almost broke the ranger’s voice. Jim knew where he was coming from. His guide was somewhere out there in that raging storm.
“Look, I'm sorry,” Jim said almost blurting. “I know that you have never heard of sentinelitis. It's a medical condition where my senses of hearing, sight, scent, taste and touch are heightened. What I am experiencing is—” Jim gritted his teeth, “—my sense of touch playing up. Before it was my hearing; during the thunder.”
“So how come you're still a cop?” Dan shifted on his seat, directing his entire attention at the detective.
“Actually—” Jim resisted the temptation to resituate his boxers, “—it's an advantage. I have better than average hearing. It's proved an asset in work. A lot of the time I don't need surveillance equipment.”
I don't believe that I am saying this! I barely know this guy. For once in my life my sentinel abilities aren't what I am trying to hide. I can imagine the conversation: I'm being tormented by an ancient shaman who's fascinated by the weird cloth thing I've got hanging around my… our… dangly bits.
“I think that your fits are a disadvantage.”
“That’s the first one in a long time,” Jim said through gritted teeth. “Look, handing me over to a medic will accomplish nothing. I’ve been to all the doctors and had all the tests that they can dream up. Believe you me, if you have one C.A.T. scan, you’ve had them all. What I am is a trained Black-Ops Ranger who can track through this terrain as easily as a hunting jaguar. If you want to find your daughter, father-in-law and, incidentally, my partner, you want me along. We’re also hours ahead of the S.A.R. teams—do you really want to take the time out to get me to a doctor? And, frankly, I’m not going anywhere.”
Buoyed by the shaman, he looked out of the window and allowed his sight to penetrate the clouds above them. Black tumultuous clouds warred with flashes of light. The heavens above were glorious in their awesome majesty. Nature was incredible when unleashed. The shaman seemed to appreciate the sentinel view.
“This storm is going to blow itself out by morning—four or five hours maximum. You’re going to need me as a watchman when we try to retrace Jack’s plane through the canopy in this forest.”
As the tide of darkness swept in, Blair and Grace lay tucked up in the hollow of a tree, looking at the stars twinkling through the dark tracery of the trees. Wrapped in a tarpaulin, they were dry at least. He slept fitfully, waking each time Grace moved or muttered. Blair could feel the little girl’s breathing slowing down… heading for sleep… but he smiled when he heard the tiniest whisper aimed up at the stars, “Night, Grampy.”
“Storm’s over,” Jim announced.
Dan squinted through the driving rain lashing against the windscreen. “You think,” he said dryly.
“Yup,” Jim said equally dry, as the clouds broke and a shaft of moonlight broke through. Automatically, he reached for the handle on the door.
“Where are you going?” Dan caught his coat sleeve.
“Check the prop and loosen the ropes so we can go look for my partner and your family.”
“It’s pitch black, I can’t see a damn thing.”
“The wind’s blowing the clouds westerly; it’ll be a clear night in half an hour. The moon is full; there will be sufficient light. I’ll direct you.”
“We’ll fly dark. Your night vision will adapt.” Jim tapped the altitude meter. “That’s all we need. I’ve got a good sense of direction.”
A sudden inner query clamoured for attention. The shaman was confused. Somehow he seemed to be following their plans, knew that they were looking for Jim’s partner. Ellison’s stomach flipped, they were going to fly—how was the shaman going to handle that little adventure? How do you communicate abstract concepts like flying—emotionally? Jim thought as hard as hard could be, picturing a bird flying in the sky.
A soft laugh echoed in his ears. Jim strove to imagine little doll figures sitting on the bird. The resultant chuckle was highly amused. When his hitchhiker travelled home, he was going to have one Hell of a story to tell. As if in response, the shaman tapped the metal dashboard and then stroked the soft fabric covering the seats.
Dan was looking at him with an expression which didn’t bode much about the man’s opinion of a certain detective.
“There’s no way in a million years that I’m going to take off,” Dan said flatly. “Do I look insane?”
Jim twisted in his seat, hunting around until he found Dan’s S.A.R. kit. He had his own well-packed backpack, with a first aid kit that verged on the kitchen sink category. But he didn’t have a Global Positioning Device or radio.
“You can’t do that,” Dan protested as Jim hunted the required equipment in his bags.
There was a radio but no GPS, so he pocketed the former. “I’m heading up the ridge. Then I’ll be able to see the lay of the land. I should get up there before sunrise. I’ll call you on the radio when I have a sighting or if I pick up a trail.”
“No way.” Dan clamped a hand around Jim’s bicep.
“You’re not responsible for me.” Jim caught and twisted Dan’s thumb forcing him to release his hold. “Believe me, I can and will do this.” Leaving the ranger nursing his numb thumb, he slipped out of the copter. “I’ll check in on channel 16.”
Jim strode out into the darkness, which for him wasn’t darkness.
Blair had faith. He had faith in his sentinel. The warmth of his belief warmed the cockles of his heart. He also had a thermo-nuclear power plant tucked against his side, drooling on his shirt. His sentinel was out there somewhere under the dome of stars, heading towards them. Blair chuckled at his fancy, the cosy glow of the utmost of trusts. But he wondered on what to do when dawn broke? Cool green logic told him to stay put because of the trusting soul tied with a pretty bow of new-born friendship, who was cuddled against him. The red part of him, the part that demanded action, prodded and poked him to gather the wee one up and head out into the primeval forest.
Jim and the shaman perched on the edge of the precipice. He had climbed high and fast, intent on his goal, up the cliff face. Deftly scaling it, utilising his senses to find safe handholds and footholds, he had broken free-climbing ascent records. He had needed the altitude, to scrutinise the canopy of Douglas firs and red-cedar trees. Emerging from the canopy of the forest had been amazing; the vista of dark green at first had seemed unbroken.
Then, as dawn’s morning light touched the horizon, the world turned russet gold.
Red sky at night; shepherd’s delight.
Red sky at dawn; devil’s warning.
The presence within demanded a question.
Jim couldn’t begin to answer the query. Glib childish poetry was beyond their emotional level of communication. His hand moved as if a phantom limb, plucking at the lichen tucked between the stones at their side. For a moment, fear clenched his stomach into a tight fist; he was still possessed. Immediately, the shaman patted his knee and Jim felt warm arms wrapped around his soul. Then his arm extended, palm face out to greet the dawning sun.
Jim felt the thrum of greeting within and smiled his wide easy smile. The shaman, hand still greeting the sun, curled two fingers and thumb against his palm, leaving his fore and index finger held out.
The touch to his soul spoke of friendship.
“Friend,” Jim said.
The answer was explicable.
Jim laughed, “Let’s find my friend.”
He relaxed, slipping into the sensory arena with an ease which should have surprised him. A veritable wave of sensory information washed over him. The living world touched him: birth, life and death. The swell of budding trees and the scent of pine evergreen. An eagle cawed, then launched from the cliff face to soar into a newborn thermal. A wolf rolled with its mate in a patch of sunlight, where the forest met the cliff face.
He could have easily lost himself in the melange, but he coasted through the gamut as if a surfer on the perfect wave.
Engine oil—discordant, out of place. Jim snorted, falling out of the sensory web. He coughed violently, tears welling in his eyes. The shaman spat with him, appalled by the raw smell. Lost, Jim searched for another target and latched onto a discarded piece of decaying sandwich miles away. The rot made him gag.
The shaman grabbed him, heart and soul, wrapping ephemeral arms about Jim, protecting him.
A piece of moss was thrust before his nose.
Jim latched onto it with relief. It was cool and wet and clean.
“Thank you,” he breathed.
The pat on his back was paternal and loving.
“Blair’s there.” Jim pointed at a break in the canopy that only a sentinel could have seen. The Douglas fir canopy had absorbed the crashing plane, a few branches had broken, but the majority had merely bent aside and sprang back to cover Blair’s tracks.
Jim pulled out the radio, turned the dial on top to channel 16 and clicked down the send button.
“Ellison to Ranger Dan, I have a lock on the plane. Over.”
Dan’s response was instantaneous, “Do you have co-ordinates?”
Belatedly, Jim pulled the ordnance survey map from his backpack. In an ideal world, Dan would have had a GPS; as it was, Jim had to plumb his ranger training. “Mount Rainier is to the northwest, across the ridge.” Focusing, he could see the glimmer of the Noolsack River reflecting on the clouds in the distance.
“Yeah, latitude: 48.816. North and longitude 122.22 West.”
“That’s a big area,” Dan immediately protested.
The shaman was distracted, standing to stare at Mount Rainier silhouetted by the rising sun. A wealth of nightmarish images cascaded over the sentinel. He felt the earth beneath him shake, but it was memory rather than the moment. The shaman had faced the Earth Mother at her angriest.
Jim saw in his mind’s eye the birth of Mount Rainier. The shaman’s tribe was cast asunder, running from a world gone mad. Dread images of brown-skinned children running from spitting coals raining down assaulted him. He saw a man, long of limb, tall and straight, scoop up an armful of children and run vainly from heaven gone mad. The burning coal that obliterated the man from view was like Zeus’ lightning bolt, Odin’s thunderbolt and Snoqualm, the Moon, falling to earth all rolled into one.
Tears coursed down the shaman’s cheeks and Jim touched the wetness on his lashes. “Not now. Not now,” Jim soothed the bereft guide. “Not now.”
He strove to picture the verdant green land before them, rather than a past pyroclastic nightmare. The dry sobbing cut him to core; it was as if he stood before a grieving Blair, not knowing how to touch or why he should, but knowing that it was needed.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” There was nothing to hold onto, just feelings of utter misery, a pain too painful to bear in mind. The detective had no foe to defeat on the shaman’s behalf, only compassion to extend. He was built for action; this was Blair’s purview.
“I am sorry,” he uttered.
The shaman felt his tentative attempts at sympathy, the fear of making the wrong step and mortally offending the shaman of past time. The evanescent touch on Jim’s cheek, spoke of ultimate sadness and an adult’s appreciation of a child’s attempt to offer comfort.
Jim read deeply into the shaman’s declaration: that another sentinel would not be separated from his guide was his vow.
“Ellison! Ellison!” The radio was squawking. “Are you having one of your episodes! Ellison!”
Jim pressed the send button and grated, “What?”
“Ellison, are you having one of your episodes?” Dan’s voice was sweetly tight, then slid into anger, “My daughter’s out there and my father-in-law; I don’t have time for this!”
“I’ve got a bead on your family and my partner,” Jim shot back, angrily. “Get over here in your precious helicopter, I’ll send up a flare when I get to them.”
Icy calm, Jim scrambled back down the rock face, once again focussed on his goal.
The storm was over. Everything was damp from the rain, but already you could feel the sting of the sun and the uncomfortable moisture rising from the ground. Blair sat on a fallen moss-blanketed tree, gazing up at the green cathedral above him, trying to organise his thoughts.
They had spent a reasonably comfortable night, all things considered, in their tree and wrapped tent. Although it would have been easier to stay in the plane, he didn’t want Grace to see her grandfather. There was no way that he could have moved Jack; his rib injuries had the final word there.
The sound of the rain was soothing. It was the thunder that made him edgy. He had tried not to think of lightning strikes.
There was no way that they were going to be spotted from the air. You could hardly see where the plane had plummeted through the trees. He had no idea how far off course they were. The radio was toast. As far as he could see, there was no emergency beacon.
He watched Grace fumbling with the buttons on her dungarees, and then saw her bob down behind a bush.
Her head peeped back over the greenery. "Hey, My Bear. I can see the grass coming up already!”
He didn't miss the excitement in her voice. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement and called back, “Yup. Thanks for sharing that, Grace.”
Grinning, he returned to his thoughts. He knew he had at least a couple of broken ribs, painful, but not life threatening. Grace came out of the crash virtually unscathed, except for her ‘egg’. He wondered how far they would get if they tried to walk out. He wouldn’t be able to carry her at all with his ribs grinding and grating together. How much stamina did a five-year-old have?
He figured that if they headed south, then they would have to hit the river at some stage. He had seen it snaking below them, through the rain, just before the plane went down. It couldn't be too far away. Then it was just a matter of following the river until they hit a town or something. Lucky that it was summer. They weren’t going to freeze.
Already he had clambered through the plane and collected what little food there was and a couple of bottles of water. And they had what was in his backpack. They would do it. He wanted to get some miles behind them before night fell.
But the voice of experience spoke to him and it sounded disconcertingly like an ex-ranger he knew very well.
If you get lost in the wilderness, Chief, you sit down and make yourself visible.
The first time, he had ever gone on a camping trip with the anal detective, Jim had laid down the law. Jim had actually subjected him to a morning’s lecture on the do-and-don’ts of rough camping. As if he hadn’t been on field trips all over the world. But he’d listened, knowing that fear and memories of a mission gone wrong propelled Jim’s words.
“Grace! Come here. We have to talk, my lady.”
The kid dawdled across to him, staring in fascination at her hand. She lowered it in front of Blair.
“It’s a caterpillar,” said Blair, touching a finger to the remarkably ugly specimen.
“Can I keep him?”
“If you want to.”
The child’s eyes glowed with pleasure. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his forehead with exuberance. “Gee, thanks. You’re a good Bear.”
Blair disentangled himself gently and plopped her straw hat onto her head. With some difficulty, and a considerable amount of jabbing pain, he managed to shift down to look her in the eye.
“What do you feed him on?”
“The caterpullar. Does he eat bread?”
“Aaahhh. No. That would be leaves. He eats leaves.” Blair smiled tightly. “I need to talk to you.”
Grace nodded importantly. “Yes, Bear.”
“You remember my friend?”
“The big one, who pretends to be annoyed?”
The snigger was completely involuntary. “Yes. Jim knows what to do when your plane falls to the ground. He told me once that I had to start a smokey fire.”
“So Daddy’s heli’ can see us.” Grace clapped her hands.
“Got it in one, little lady.”
“So what’s we got to do?” She leaned into him trustingly.
Blair took her hand and they started walking. It was quietly beautiful in the forest. Flutes of light filtering down through the leaves tattooed the ground. Grace stepped in each puddle of sunshine, singing to her ‘caterpullar’. Blair concentrated on foraging for dry wood. He got into a rhythm of step, bend, pain, step, pain.
After collecting wood for two hours, Blair couldn’t help but admire the endurance of the little girl as she ferried armfuls of wood back and forth to the fire. At the end of the third hour, her feet were scuffing and Blair knew they had to stop… and was glad. In the dripping, humid green cathedral, it was hard to find moderately dry wood.
He found a bush that afforded some protection and began scraping leaves and debris together to form the heart of the fire. Grace went off to socialise with another bush. Blair was spreading shirts across the pile of leaves when he heard a piercing yell. Through the late morning haze, Grace came running towards him screaming like a tiny banshee.
“What is it? What is it?” Blair’s stomach dropped away. Had she been bitten?
He couldn’t understand the lachrymal babble that was pouring out of her mouth.
“Tell me! Grace…”
“My caterpullar…” she got out.
“Yes. Your caterpillar. What about it?”
“It’s gone!” she howled in a fresh paroxysm of weeping.
Blair’s shoulders dropped. He let out a deep sigh of relief. He reached for her, but she pulled away. She fell on her hands and knees, crawling around on the ground, peering, sobbing all the time. He saw the tears dropping from her eyes.
“Where is my caterpullar gone?” She was in a rage of grief, and as the search proved unavailing, the rage stepped up a few levels to inconsolable.
He pulled her onto his lap, jarring his ribs and causing an even more discordant bereavement to burst forth. He held her and let her cry until she leaned against his chest and hooned mournfully to herself.
“I want to go back,” he heard her snuffle.
And he knew then that this wasn’t about the caterpillar… it was about loss.
Blair turned her gently until she was facing him. Her face was dirty and tear streaked, her bottom lip pouting.
“Grace, you know Jim. He’s my friend.”
She looked up at him, put her elbows on her knees and bent forward with her chin cupped in her hands. “Is he your best friend? The very best?”
Blair smiled, “Yes. He’s the very best. But he’s not here now, is he?”
She shook her head seriously.
“No. He’s not here. But just because I can’t see him doesn’t mean he has stopped being my friend. He’s just too far away for me to see. And Caterpullar is still your friend even if you can’t see him. And your Grampy is still your most special friend… he’s just a little bit too far away for you to see.”
She nodded, considering his words.
“Will I ever catch up, Bear?”
“One day, but not for a long time yet, Grace.”
And they were both silent.
Jim sped through the forest, moving through the lush undergrowth. The scent of gasoline drew him onwards. He ran effortlessly, scarcely out of breath. He hurdled over a fallen log, daubed with lichens and white red spotted fungi. The air was thick and filled with rich pine scent.
Ahead of him a wolf bayed, close to where he though the plane had crashed. He picked up his pace. Regardless of Blair’s fondness for nature documentaries and staunch defence of wolves and grizzlies, they were predators. And if his friend was injured, he could be a welcome meal to a wolf pack.
A sudden image of a fecund she-wolf flashed in his mind. Jim stumbled falling over a hummock to sprawl on the pine needle floor.
The shaman’s apology was heartfelt.
Jim rolled to his knees and then rocked back into a crouch.
“Are you going to explain that one?” he asked whimsically, as he cocked his head to the side listening. The pack was moving towards Blair.
His shoulders shrugged, conveying that it was far too complicated. Jim snorted; even ancient dead shamans shrugged. He brushed the pine needles from his knees as he rose. There was no time; he needed to get to Blair before the pack investigated.
The sharp coppery smell of blood assailed him: taut, rich and painfully sharp. Only a wash of blood could fill the air with a stench so thick and strong.
“Sandburg!” He leaped forwards, his stride long and lithe.
The blood scent was wreathed in smoke, and his terror rose. Fire in the humid forest, if it smouldered in the resin, could erupt in conflagration. The plane was a likely source of fire.
Faster, faster. One moment he was running alone beneath the trees that reached so high that they seemed to be giants. The next he faced a tiny plane, twisted and torn by its forceful meeting with the earth. A figure was smashed against the cockpit window, and the glass had cracked crazily.
“Blair!” He saw the blood, the faintest trickle oozing from the centre of the broken spider web in the centre of the window, to drip on the verdant floor. “Blair?”
The sentinel spun on his heel. Blair was squashed into the hollow truck of a lightning blasted tree. Between them ranged the pack of wolves. The largest, a dark grey beauty, craned its neck and speared him with an amber gaze. Smoke spiralled from a wet leaf fire ahead of Jim and behind the wolf.
Jim bent and snatched up a smouldering branch from the fire.
“Don’t hurt them, Jim,” Blair blurted automatically. He knew his partner was going to say that; compassionate Blair, even in the face of slavering blood-slaked chops.
A feeling of gentle rebuke cuffed him on the side of the head.
The voice that spoke to the wolves was not his own, even if it came from his lips. The shaman spoke to his brothers. Blair was wide eyed with amazement as Jim implored the wolves to leave. A tiny palm wrapped around Blair’s knee as he backed further into the trunk.
With a snort, that sounded suspiciously amused, the chief wolf spun on its hindquarters and bounded into the wet woods. As it disappeared between the moss-covered trees, it howled for its pack. Delight filled the sentinel, but he didn’t know if it came from his resident shaman or the pack.
The pack moved silently after their leader, leaving Jim standing exhausted in their wake.
“Jim,” Blair began tremulously. He pushed away from the trunk and staggered into the clearing. Jim moved forwards automatically to catch him as he fell.
“Blair, you’re alive,” he said unnecessarily as he began to pat him down.
“Hey, man. It’ll take more than a plane crash to do me in.”
There was a region of blistering warmth on Blair’s right hand side. Sentinel senses diagnosed broken ribs and the seep of internal bleeding. Luckily Blair hadn’t moved about or he could have exacerbated the damage.
“Bear?” Grace ventured slowly out of the tree trunk. She paused uncertainly, at odds, disturbed by massive leaps in her tiny life: falling out of the sky; Gramps moving onto heaven and lost in the wild wilderness.
“Hey, Grace.” Blair held out his hand. “Jim’s here; we’re safe.”
Jim sat on the edge of the wooden deck, nursing a beer. Blair had spent a day and a night in the local hospital. A scan had shown some deep bruising and some internal bleeding. It had been hit and miss whether or not he would need surgery to tie off the bleeds. Blair had opted for lying supine and seeing if Mother Nature would heal his wounds. They had also had kept Grace overnight due to her ‘egg’. When Blair had been discharged, Daniel had offered his home for the duration of the student’s recuperation.
Blair was currently ensconced in a Shaker double bed, luxuriating on a postupedic mattress, devising machiavellian machinations to finagle the use of his partner’s king-sized bed when they returned to Cascade.
Jim was going to argue that climbing the stairs to the upper loft would be bad for his ribs.
A soft question rippled through his amusement. Jim held the bottle of beer before his eyes so the shaman could study the glass bottle. His other hand moved robotically and stroked the smooth glass surface. Jim hadn’t realised that marvelling bordered on emotion.
“Glass,” he enunciated carefully.
The exclamation of amazement from behind him was almost soundless. Jim turned slowly. Gnarled like a twisted bonsai, Blair carefully crept along the veranda. Swathed in a large terry towelling robe, one hand clutching the folds of fabric against his neck, he was an all together impossibly wretched figure.
“Straighten up, you’ll seize that way,” Jim admonished.
“Drop dead,” Blair snapped, as he continued his arthritic way. “The water’s heating up for a good long soak.”
Jim shifted over on the wooden floorboards, making room for his guide. Blair accepted his outstretched hand, helping him into a sitting position.
“Who were you talking to, Jim?” he asked carefully.
“What?” Jim said with no end of guile.
Blair simply glared. “Glass,” he echoed and scratched the bottle at Jim’s knee with a fingernail.
Jim’s eyes became hooded, but an eager prodding from another source demanded explanations. “I picked up a traveller en route…” he murmured.
“Traveller?” Blair ventured, confused.
“A shaman—” Jim swallowed, “—guide at the dig site you were going to visit.”
Blair could only blink, in puzzled question.
It behooved Jim to explain, even if it defied explanation. “I’ve been visited by a spirit shaman, he helped me find you. I met him at the dig site. It’s his burial mound.”
Blair’s brow furrowed as he digested that account. His lips worked as he started to speak and then changed tack. He finally asked, with an open mind, “So where’s this spirit shaman now?” Unable to help himself, he looked around.
Jim tapped his temple with a fingernail. “In here. He doesn’t speak, though. He talks in pictures and feelings.”
“You’re possessed?” Blair asked, aghast.
“No,” Jim said pointedly, “we’re just sharing living space.”
“And you’re okay with that?” Blair blurted. “You’re really okay with this? You’re really okay with this? Wow, this could be a whole chapter in my thesis!”
Jim rolled his eyes heavenward. He felt the shaman’s curiosity at his aversion to his guide’s words, but knew that the old spirit couldn’t understand.
“Why’s he here?” Blair suddenly
said. “I mean, the burial mound’s ancient. Daniel said that the local
Why are you here? he asked the shaman. Ten thousand years as a ghost?
But the shaman couldn’t answer or understand the question. Belatedly, Jim realised that he might have an extra guide for the rest of his life. Now that the focus of the quest had ebbed, he could only marvel at his acceptance of the shaman’s invasion. The shaman’s phlegmatic persona seemed to be contagious.
“He had a sentinel,” Jim interrupted
Blair’s ‘Ancient Americans’ lecture on the latest hypothesizes regarding the
advent of homo sapiens in
“What?” Blair screeched to a verbal halt.
“He had a sentinel.” Jim gazed up at
the stars only he could see in the sunlit sky. “His sentinel died when
Blair laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. He didn’t squeeze, just allowed the warmth of their friendship to flow between them.
“Tell him thanks, man.”
Jim reached up and gripped his friend’s hand. “I think he knows already.”
Blair sat quietly, lost in his own space.
Jim relaxed into the soothing presences of his guide and the shaman. The student was sipping on his beer; Jim’s top lip quirked in fond exasperation. The companionable silence warmed him.
“How do we help him, Jim?”
“What?” Jim started, his amiable thoughts of absolutely nothing derailed.
“Tell me more about your spirit shaman. You said he communicates in images and emotion?” Blair questioned intently. “He’s a ghost?”
“No,” Jim responded with his customary shortness.
“Come on, Jim! Tell me what happened. Start at the beginning.”
“We found the bones and when I touched the shaman’s bones I zoned. I ‘saw’ his village… tribe… through the shaman’s eyes. And when I came out of the zone, he came back. He was just curious. Then he stayed to help me to find you.”
“Astral projection.” Blair’s eyes were round with amazement.
Jim shrugged—astral projection was just as impossible as ghostly possession.
“You saw his village,” Blair persisted. “Wow, a ten-thousand-year-old shaman’s village. What was it like? It’s an anthropologist’s dream come true. Did you see the family structure of the tribe? What about the huts or tents? What kind of shelters did they construct?”
Blair was so intent that he had actually stilled. The active hands had paused mid-motion, a finger jabbing a question. Jim smiled with the shaman’s amusement at the younger guide’s zeal. He felt his hand begin to move and knew that he was going to ruffle Blair’s curls.
Blair grinned up at him as he carded his hair.
“You know this is fascinating. Is he a ghost or an astral projection? You touched his bones and you saw his reality and then he’s with you interacting with your reality. But,” he said seriously, “how do we help him? If he’s a ghost, is it fair to keep him with you? You know, separate from his sentinel. And if he’s astral projecting—transcending both time and space—his people will need their shaman.”
Trust Blair to accept what I’m saying without argument and then dissect out all the problems.
“I’ve got a point, Jim,” Blair prodded. “And you’re like so cool about this, it’s just strange.”
“The shaman’s a pretty matter-of-fact sort of guy. I guess his attitude’s rubbing off.” Jim shrugged.
Blair leaned forward at his words, hiding his expressive face behind a veil of curls. “Okay,” he said slowly. “Can you ask the shaman, by pictures or something, if he can go back home or onto the next plane of existence?”
Jim pondered on the structure of the question for a moment. He could only think of one way to get the message across.
“Come on, Jim, try.”
Obediently, he mentally pictured the tribal hut and the grinning child who had held their hand as Jim had been introduced to the tribal elders.
The scent of the sea washed over him. A longing for home.
“He wants to go home.”
“So how do we help him get home?”
“I don’t know.” His shoulders moved in the shaman’s expressive shrug.
Blair was so silent, thoughts seemed to still around him. Jim could practically hear the cogs turning beneath the curtain of hair. Slowly, Blair brought his thumb up and gnawed noisily on his nail.
“You said you touched his bones and then you saw his home?” he said eventually.
“I guess we go back to the burial site.”
With an absent wave, Daniel took Grace down to the creek running down the middle of Old Dick Pass, leaving the sentinel and guide to walk up to the barrow.
Jim kept a supporting hand under his friend’s elbow as he shuffled along. They had argued long and hard about the timing of the trip. Jim had wanted to come alone and Blair point blank refused to stay in bed, threatening to hike to the Split Oak site on his own two feet.
Half way up the bank, Jim paused to study the surrounding countryside as the perspiration dried on Blair’s brow and his colour evened out.
“The shaman doesn’t recognise the lay of the land,” Jim said deliberately.
“I guess it’s been a few years.” Blair resumed plodding along.
The site was covered by a large space-age tent, big enough to house a circus. Another boundary of flapping ribbon supported on poles circled the dig. Signs hanging on the band proclaimed to all and sundry that the area was off limits. Jim ignored it, lifting up the ribbon so Blair didn’t have to duck to slip under.
“Does the shaman know where we’re going?”
“No, he’s curious, though.”
“Well, don’t tell him that we’re going to his grave.”
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
Jim zipped open the marquee giving Blair his first view of the barrow. The ground was as he and Daniel had left it, even the pile of bones at the threshold rent in Mother Earth.
After making sure that Blair was stable on his own two feet, Jim crouched and allowed his sentinel senses to plumb the depths of the mound. Carefully placed stones forming a dome of sorts supported the barrow. The skull with its jutting nose was still undisturbed. Slowly Jim realised that the skull was nestled against a second rib cage. Peeking further into the tomb, he could now make out a larger man curled around the smaller figure.
“There’s two of them,” he whispered softly.
“Of course there is.” Blair crouched painfully at his side. “How is the shaman?”
“Quiet.” Jim was aware only of a tiny mourning spark.
“Ten thousand years,” Blair said sombrely. “But you said you saw him in his home. I hope that they haven’t been separated all this time. You think you met him just as he died? But that means that the sentinel’s been waiting for him as he went beyond space and time. Maybe the sentinel was reincarnated and… hey… maybe you’re his real sentinel and I’m…”
“Blair?” Jim’s even tones stopped the gibbering student dead.
“Yes, Jim?” he said sheepishly knowing that nervousness propelled his words.
“Okay.” But that was against Blair’s innate nature. He was silent only as long as it took to take a breath. “I think you should touch him again. Touch him with reverence.”
With great deliberation, Jim stroked the tiny finger bone he had first touched. There was a spark, a tiny spark as the shaman responded. But he still resided within him—present and not present—not moving on.
“He’s there. Closer but… he…” He had no words to describe what he felt. The shaman lived for a specific role and he found a purpose in helping Jim. Even as the shaman knew that the other’s guide waited, ready once again to fulfil his role. But why move on when he could still help?
“It’s okay, Jim.” As always Blair knew what Jim couldn’t verbalise. “Let’s try something else.”
Carefully, Blair reached into the tomb and gently laid his hand on the tall sentinel’s chest.
“Oooh,” Blair straightened, blinking furiously. Blair’s spirit stepped aside with an ease that was quite disconcerting. Briefly, his eyes shaded as brown as the loamy soil beneath their feet.
The ancient sentinel reached out with a trembling hand. “Kooné?”
The shaman surged forth. “Eaeo?”
Jim gasped, the breath dying in his throat as the pain-filled hope in that single name rocked him to the quick.
“Eaoe!” The shaman was exultant. They gripped each other shoulder-to-hand and hand-to-shoulder, searching each other’s eyes, not daring to believe that they finally faced one another.
A single tear tracked down Jim’s cheek. And then shaman and sentinel merged, one seamlessly moving to the other. Simultaneously, Jim felt both his compact guide and Kooné’s long, straight back as he held on with all his strength.
Light, silvery light flared; and in its heart, Jim saw a tall long-limbed sentinel standing by a grinning, effusive guide. They shared the same shock of black hair growing hither and thither, deep-set brown eyes and jutting noses. Brothers by both body and soul.
The shaman curled two fingers and thumb against his palm, leaving his fore and index finger held out.
“Friend,” Jim echoed, mirroring the sign.
The light flared and dissipated and Jim held Blair.
“Hey, Jim,” Blair murmured softly into Jim’s collarbone where his nose was pressed.
“Hey, Chief,” Jim murmured back.
“So, man,” Blair began a timeless moment later. “Did it work?”
“Didn’t you see it?”
“Nah.” Jim heard a soupçon of regret.
Jim rested his chin on Blair’s head. His eyes unfocussed. Had it really happened? Or was it an excuse, his need for a crutch to help him with his senses? He didn’t think he was fanciful by any stretch of the imagination. And he was fairly sure that he had no need for a crutch of any sort emotional or otherwise.
Snorting, he ruffled Blair’s copper-streaked curls.
“What’s so funny?” Blair seemed perfectly content to stay, nose pushed up against his shirt.
“Oh, you know, Chief…” He fobbed Blair off with an unformed sentence.
Blair let him off the hook, as he always did. “Yeah, I know.”
Blair simply held on, content to hold and be held. Jim was comfortable basking in the warmth of knowing friendship that filled a portion of his soul that he hadn’t known was so very hungry to be filled.