by Kristine Williams
"Don't worry Chief, I dozed off a bit." Jim was spreading the embers of their fire and Blair held out his hands, trying to push back the night's chill before all the warmth was gone. "You hungry?"
He thought for a moment, then shook his head. His throat was still scratchy, and his skin was beginning to feel sensitive. Great time to catch a cold. "How's the head?"
Jim nodded, "Feels fine. I've got the dial turned way down."
"Jim, that's not always such a good idea. I mean, pain is your body's way of telling you there's something wrong. What if you have a concussion? You could be walking along, feeling fine, then drop dead." Blair knew he was sounding a little over dramatic, but the thought of Jim, helpless and hurt, with no way to call for help...No, he didn't even want to think about that. He wasn't so much concerned about being chained to an unconscious man, it was the thought of him being the only thing standing between Jim and death that he couldn't handle. "Come on, let's just lay low for a while. Like you said, Brackett could have made a move already."
Jim shook his head and pointed up. "Not a good idea, Chief. We are about to get very wet. If it rains hard enough, it could provide some cover against Brackett. Maybe we can make some headway."
"Headway to where, Jim? We still don't know where we are, or what's at the bottom of this ridge." He was shivering a little and started to rub his arms. "I still think we'd be better off taking Brackett on." Well, maybe not better off, but at least something would get resolved, we could end this stupid game.
"I'm working on that. But for now, let's get moving. Come on." Jim reached down and pulled Blair to his feet. "Walking will generate some body heat."
Blair let Jim pull him to his feet and he nodded, following him. He knew Jim had to be as cold as he was, they were both dressed alike and without coats. But why didn't it seem to affect him? Blair was shivering, and felt as though he had been for months now. Except for the bandage around his head, and the red and purple skin over his eye, Jim looked like nothing was wrong. He kept a close eye on his friend, partly to keep from thinking about how badly he was feeling, and partly out of concern. Blair just knew that being unconscious from a blow to the head for more than a few minutes couldn't be good. For those first few minutes, when he realized he couldn't wake Jim, he panicked. And, if he was honest with himself, his first thoughts were of himself and what Brackett would do if he knew Jim was down. He hated to admit that, and he never would out loud, but he did take some comfort in knowing that feelings of that sort were normal. Weren't they? Jim never seemed to think of himself first in any situation. Blair tried not to, but he still found himself doing so when things got tense. But he was trying. Being around Jim was teaching him an entirely new way of thinking. A way that Blair had never considered before. His life was so much more now, so very different than he might have imagined just a year ago. All those trips to Sumatra, Peru, Borneo, as fascinating and educational as they had been, they didn't compare to the excitement of the everyday life of one James Ellison.
"Hey Jim, how's your hearing now?"
Jim looked at Blair for a moment, then looked out into nowhere. "Fine. I don't think he's close."
"But how far can you hear?"
Jim stopped, "What do you mean?"
Blair raised his hands, wincing a little as the shackle rubbed his sore wrist. "Back there, when you found the stream, you heard it from miles away."
Jim's replied had a strange tone, but Blair ignored it for now. "Well, I was thinking, we are assuming Brackett's out here, and he's using the white noise generator when he gets close enough for you to hear him. But how does he know how close is too close? I mean, he can't know your range. We don't even know your range."
"And, I think he's had it on all this time. Not just when he's close. I think it's on now, but he's far enough away so that you don't hear it, not so loudly. But if you focus, maybe in one direction, you could hear it. Like feeling for the walls of a room in the dark when you're trying to locate the door. Only instead of the door, you're looking for the wall."
Jim stood there for a moment, considering what he said. "So, you think I can focus in a grid pattern, and the one area where I can't get much range, that's where he is?"
"Yeah, I think so." Blair was shrugging, but he was beginning to convince himself with the theory. Before he could continue his thoughts, the sky opened up with a thundering blast, and the rain came down in buckets, drenching them both almost instantly. Blair looked up just as Jim clutched his head and swayed. "Jim! What's wrong?!" Blair had to shout above the downpour.
"My ears! I was focused when that thunder hit! I'm okay!"
"We've got to get out of this!" Blair had reached out to steady his friend while he swayed, and now tugged at his arm, pointing to the trees. "Come on Jim!"
Jim nodded and Blair led the way farther into the forest. Once there, the din of rain was much quieter and Blair stopped. "Jim, you okay?" God, why did he tell him to listen so hardwhen a storm was brewing?
Jim was squinting his eyes against a pain Blair couldn't see. "Yeah, I think so." he blinked and shook his head slightly. "Just had my ears open full blast, you know? I'm okay. Headache's worse, but I'm okay. Let's see if we can find a cave or something, this rain's just too much to get through."
Blair nodded and let Jim once again lead the way through the trees. The rain was coming down heavy, but in the trees it was easier to take. The drops were larger, but the pounding roar was dulled by the forest. There were rivets of water running down Blair's face, his hair was clinging to the back of his neck, sending water down the inside of his shirt. He tried to suppress the coughs that were tickling the back of his throat, but after an hour trudging through the rain he couldn't hold them back. They had walked for miles with no sign of a cave, or the rain stopping. Jim thought Brackett would be having trouble keeping an eye on them in the rain, but Blair had stopped thinking about their hunter. His cold was turning into something worse, but he wasn't going to mention it. There wasn't a thing Jim could do about his discomfort, but if he said something, he would try. Another cough was forcing it's way and Blair gave in, falling into a coughing fit long enough to cause Jim to stop.
"Sandburg, you okay?"
Blair waved him off, "Yeah, yeah. I'm fine." He forced the coughing to stop and looked at Jim. "I'm fine." Jim was just as cold and wet as he was.
"We have to get out of this rain, get warmed up." Jim was looking around their location, scanning the trees. Suddenly he stopped scanning and Blair saw him focus intently in one direction.
"What? What do you see Jim?"
"There's a cabin, over there." Jim pointed to their left. "No one's there. I think it's a hunters cabin." He took hold of Blair's arm and started walking in the direction of the cabin Blair couldn't see. "It should have a stove, and maybe some dry wood. If we're lucky, maybe even food."
"What about Brackett?"
Jim shook his head, urging Blair along. "No. He's not there."
Blair didn't argue. Another coughing fit struck and he had to lean on Jim to keep from falling over. He didn't feel lucky. He didn't feel good at all. This cold had become a major case of the flu. They had to get these shackles off if Jim was going to survive this. If Jim is going to survive me. By the time they reached the cabin, Blair was too ill to be impressed at the distance from which Jim had seen their new shelter.
The door to the small shack wasn't locked, and once inside Blair gratefully let Jim insist he lay down on one of the two bunks they found. The cabin was small enough, and Jim had put him in a bunk that left his shackled arm free, so it wasn't long before there was a warming fire in the stove between the bunks. Blair's head was pounding now with the fever that had started to build. Great timing, just when Jim has a chance to spot Brackett's location, I have to get sick.
"Here." Jim was putting a blanket over him that he had found under one of the beds. "Looks like this place is a winter hunting cabin, it's well stocked with blankets and wood. Just take it easy for a while."
Jim." he accepted the blanket, but made sure he kept his left arm out from
under it. The small cabin was heating nicely with the stove, and the blankets
helped against his damp hair and clothes. Jim was wrapping a second blanket around
himself as he sat on the edge of the bunk opposite Blair. He closed his eyes against
the cold and concentrated on warming up as the fire sent waves of heat his way.
Somehow the chill that had penetrated his bones standing in that stream slowly
began to fade. He heard Jim moving around, felt the occasional tug on the chain,
then he stopped caring as the stress and fatigue caught up.
Jim dried off as best he could without taking his clothes off. The fire in the small stove was heating the cabin up quickly, so he knew his clothes would dry soon enough. Blair was finally asleep and he put a hand on his partner's forehead, feeling the fever there. Why hadn't he said something sooner about not feeling well? They could have done something, stopped and warmed up. He, too, had caught a chill in the stream that morning. But their hike down the mountain warmed him right up. Jim could see cupboards in the small kitchen area of the cabin, but with Blair asleep, he couldn't reach them to see if there was food there. He sat back on the bunk, eyeing the chain that held them together.
He hadn't been able to make a dent with the rocks, and picking the lock was useless. Brackett was sure to have used a lock too complicated, as well as chain that wasn't going to break. But, if he could weaken a spot just enough..He had come up with the idea last night, while Blair slept. But the wood in the fire couldn't hold enough heat to do any damage. He glanced around, and behind the stove found a metal poker. Placing the poker into the fire, he pulled a barrel from the end of his bunk that someone used for a table and set the chain on top of it. If he could melt the chain, or at least create a weak spot, they'd have a better chance. He wanted to go after Brackett, but he didn't want to endanger Blair any more than he already was. The idea of listening for that one area where his range would be less was a good one. It already worked once, just before Jim found the cabin. He was working on it as Blair made the suggestion, at least until that clap of thunder shot through his brain like a bullet. It took more than a few minutes to shake off that echoing between his ears. And his head was still pounding from it.
Blair stirred, moaning softly, and Jim looked up. He was still asleep, but restless with the fever. Jim prayed it wouldn't get any worse, that it was just a chill and Blair only needed to get warm. God, why wasn't he doing better? He should have heard, or smelled the bear. He shouldn't have gotten them both so close to the first trap. Then the bridge...How could he have missed those charges planted there? It was just like what happened back on the train, after he had taken the cold medicine, only on a much more subtle scale. How long was this drug going to last? The cold medicine had worn off while he was fighting to get back on board the train. He had been able to concentrate, push out all the distractions, then focus tightly on the task at hand. He was going to have to do that now, just take control.
He pulled the metal out of the fire, examining the red-hot tip, then put it back in. The rain was showing no sign of letting up, and with the sky so dark from the heavy grey clouds, Jim had no idea what time it was. He had already resolved that they stay the night in the cabin, Blair was far to sick to keep going at this pace. Whether Brackett would come after them in such a confined space, he didn't know. But then, their hunter hadn't even shown his face to them yet. And except for the two traps, and the bridge, Jim could almost believe he wasn't out there. But he knew better. When he focused as Blair suggested, he could feel a definite dull area behind them. An area that he couldn't seem to hear past or through. He was still afraid to stretch his senses out too far, for fear of knowing just how far they would go. Blair had never suggested a limit to his range, and they hadn't really done any of his tests lately. Laboratory tests were not Jim's favorite thing, and after having agreed to Blair's cough medicine one, well, it would be a cold day in hell before he did that again.
Blair stirred again, but didn't wake up, so Jim pulled the almost white-hot poker from the fire and picked a link. The one he had been pounding on with the rock would have been a logical place to start, but he couldn't tell which one it had been. He found one in the relative middle and pressed the hot metal onto it, holding it in place until the chain began to glow. Then he removed the poker and examined the chain. It was red hot, which meant it wasn't titanium, which meant he could do some damage. If he had something to hit the metal with while it was red-hot. There were no rocks in the cabin that he could see. No other fire-place tools, and any cast iron pans were most likely in the cupboards he couldn't reach. Waking Blair just to walk back out into the cold, rainy woods in search of a rock was not something Jim was willing to do. His only option was to use the shackle on his own wrist. Stuffing the poker back into the fire to re-heat, he tore a large chunk of blanket off and wrapped his hand, leaving the metal band exposed. After five minutes, he took the poker out and set it back on the still hot link, letting it get as hot as it was going to. Once he was satisfied, he put the poker back in the fire, gritted his teeth, and slammed his right wrist down on the steaming chain.
"Ow!...damn." He kept his teeth clamped tightly so as not to wake Blair, and did it again, trying to hit just the metal against the hot chain this time. Three more hits and he stopped to examine the chain. There was a definite dent, so he reapplied the poker, and tried not to look at his burning right hand. There would be plenty of time to take care of that, once he and Blair were freed. He had to reapply the poker three more times, and singed all of the hairs off of his right hand before the link finally gave way. He pulled the two halves apart, making sure the still steaming pieces fell away, then placed Blair's arm under the blankets and checked his temperature. He had been sleeping more soundly for the last ten minutes, and Jim was sure his forehead felt less hot than before. Satisfied that his friend was better, he stepped outside, letting the rain cool his burning hand. There were a few blisters at the base of the wrist, and some blackened marks farther down, but the rain cooled the throbbing nicely.
Once back inside Jim was able to inspect the cupboards and found not only several cans of soup, a cast iron pot, bowls, mugs, spoons, but also the one thing he had been craving for the past three days, coffee. There was an old pot behind the soup cans and he pulled it out, then took it outside to wash out what looked like three years worth of grounds, then he set it on a rock to fill with rainwater and went back inside. Blair was still asleep, and the rain was slowing down, so Jim sat on the bunk to wait. He intended to check on the coffee pot in five minutes, but sitting soon became lying down, listening to his partner's steady breathing. He closed his eyes for just a moment, but when he did open them again, it was pitch dark outside, and the fire was going out.
Jim sat up quickly, straining to hear for Brackett. His little nap had lasted longer than he wanted. He listened, trying to filter out the rain that was still coming down, and thought he detected that same 'blind' spot behind them. Brackett hadn't moved, if that was where he was, and was probably settled in against the rain like they were. He added more wood to the fire from the bundle under his bunk, then checked on Blair. The fever was nearly all gone, and he was still sleeping quietly. He had a chance now to go after Brackett, a chance to turn the hunter into the hunted. But he didn't want to leave Blair here, unable to call for back up, or to back him up. He was trusting Blair more and more with the unenviable task of watching his back. And his partner had proven himself time and again to be dependable and quick. No matter what Simon said. 'He's not a cop, Jim. He's just an anthropologist.' 'He's not just an anthropologist, any more than I'm just a cop. I need him, Simon.'
It was then Jim remembered the pot, collecting rain outside. He retrieved it and set about making coffee strong enough to keep him from falling asleep again. His internal clock told him daylight was still several hours away, but his little nap had been enough. With Blair asleep, and Brackett behind them, he didn't want to doze off again. While the coffee boiled on the stove Jim found a small dirty mirror on the far wall and a small first aid kit, so he began to unwrap the bandage on his head. He discarded the bits of plant that Blair had placed there and dipped some fresh bandages in water, cleaning away the dried blood gingerly. He could tell even in the old mirror that the gash was deep, but the bleeding had stopped, and the edges even closed up tightly. It was too tender to the touch for much probing, so Jim just wrapped a clean bandage around the wound and worked on his blistered wrist. After getting his hand as clean as he could around the metal band he wrapped a thin layer of cotton bandaging around the wrist and eased the shackle back over it. The smell of coffee induced his stomach to growl, so he decided to open one of the cans of chicken soup he had found in the cabin's tiny kitchen.
The coffee was awful. It was God knew how old, and came from a can, which was never very good even when fresh, but it helped push out the last of the headache from Jim's unfortunate thunder reception. By the second cup, he even felt more awake and alert. Maybe the drug was finally wearing off. The soup was warming next to the pot while he set about examining Blair's left wrist. The metal was irritating enough, but his friend had been trying so hard to slip his hand out that he had rubbed the skin raw, and bleeding in spots. Jim used rain water and bandaging from the first aid kit to clean the hand, trying not to wake Blair as he did so.
Sitting there, wrapping Blair's wrist,
he could hear with such detail the noises and shuffling in the woods outside their
cabin. And behind them, just how far he wasn't sure, but definitely behind them,
he could sense a bubble of quiet. He was trying to guess how far away Brackett
was when he heard Blair stir.
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