"Sandburg!" No sooner were the words out of his mouth, than he registered Blair's heartbeat coming from inside the plane.
"Jim? Are you all right?"
Thank God. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just hold tight, I'll be right there." Gingerly, he extracted himself from the twisting metal and broken seat. It was a miracle, considering the damage to the cockpit, that he felt no sudden stabbing of pain anywhere. Aside from a few cuts on face and hands, he was unhurt. He glanced at the pilot, knowing the man had died before the plane even hit the ground. Heart attack, from the sound of it when Jim reached him. He'd died so quickly, even if they had been on the ground, he doubted the pilot could have been saved. But now, Jim had more important things to worry about. The Mexican jungle was trying to force its way inside the smashed windshield. The smell of smoke was easing, so the possibility of an explosion should have diminished by now. He squeezed past the seats that had broken from their bolts and walked into the belly of the plane. Jim's eyes quickly assessed the damage as he pushed through old crates and broken seats. The left wing was gone, and there was a gaping hole in the fuselage where he would have been sitting. Blair was on the opposite side, standing now, surveying the destruction. He brought his right hand up to push the hair from his face, and Jim saw blood flowing freely down his forearm. The slightly dazed look Blair greeted him with explained even more.
"Sandburg, sit down."
"Jim, what the hell happened?" Blair sat on the arm of the seat, still glancing around at the damage.
Jim reached out and took Blair's arm gently. He was in shock, but a quick look showed a gash that stopped before exposing bone. "I think the pilot had a heart attack." Jim glanced around the broken crates and filth, trying to locate his pack. If Blair hadn't registered his injury yet, he'd just as soon get it cleaned and bandaged before reality hit. His pack was under a seat by his foot.
"Yep. I think he was dead before we hit." Jim pulled out his spare shirt and found his half-empty water bottle. Blair was still glancing around, and hadn't seemed to notice.
"So, you brought the plane down?"
Jim nodded, unable to do more as he was twisting the cap off the bottle with his teeth. When the it came off, he released Blair's arm just long enough to removed the cap from his mouth and stuff it into a pocket. "Hang on." Jim didn't wait for confirmation before pouring the water slowly over the gash, letting the liquid roll from elbow down to wrist as it washed off the blood trying to dry there. Blair's sharp intake of breath was accompanied by an attempt to pull his arm away, but Jim maintained a gentle hold on his wrist. "Hang on. It's not too deep, but we need to keep it clean."
Blair nodded, gritting his teeth. When the majority of the blood was gone, Jim re-capped the bottle, then tore strips from his shirt. After making several lengths, he began to wrap the arm, gently applying pressure as he forced the sides of the gash together. The bleeding had stopped, so if they could keep it clean, there should be no problems. Not like...Jim paused as he tied a knot. Not like...?
"What do we do now?" Blair pulled his arm closer now that he had completed the bandaging, flexing the fingers of his hand gingerly.
Jim had to shake himself out of the thought that was eluding him even as it pulled him after it. "There's no telling how far off course we are. And it's pretty dense here. I think our best bet is to walk out. Find the nearest town or village."
"That could take some time."
"So could waiting here." Jim stuffed the remains of his shirt back into his pack and set it on the seat next to Blair.
"What about..." Blair let his voice trail off as he nodded toward the cockpit.
Jim sighed, feeling his jaw muscle flex. "I'll bury him. See if you can find anything in this wreck we can use." He'd spotted an old rusting shovel in a pile of broken wood and dirty rags several aisles up. Blair nodded, then picked up both packs before walking to the back of the plane and the storage lockers there.
Jim returned to the cockpit, giving the instrument panel a quick scan. The radio was out, and there didn't seem to be an emergency beacon. That held true with the condition of the rest of the plane. He heard Blair rummaging around in the back, then looked out to the tangle of jungle around them. It would be dark soon, so they'd spend the night here with the wreck. By tomorrow, maybe they could find a road and follow it to the nearest town. Jim's senses were on full alert, but the only movements and sounds that greeted him were normal jungle noises. There was an old blanket on the floor, so he used that to cover the body.
Jim hefted the old shovel and walked back to the rear of the plane. "Anything?"
Blair held up something in his left hand. "Just this." He handed over a machete, wrapped in worn leather.
Jim took it, then turned towards the door. "I'm going to dig a grave. We'll spend the night here, it'll be dark soon." He glanced at Blair's arm, noting the small amount of blood staining the bandage. "You take it easy. This won't take long."
He turned, stopping the protest Blair was instinctively forming with one raised hand. "Just take it easy. There's only one shovel, anyway." With that, he walked out of the plane, searching the immediate area quickly. There was a flat open segment of dirt a few yards away and to the left, so he tested the ground. It seemed soft enough. Jim jammed the shovel into the earth, then pulled off his shirt. In this jungle heat, he'd be sweating soon enough. Resignedly, he picked up the shovel, and began to dig. A rhythm soon developed of plunging the shovel into the soft earth, scooping out as much as he could lift, depositing it to one side, and coming back for more. The motions were only interrupted now and again so a hand could be raised to wipe the sweat from his forehead and face. The motions began to numb his mind even as sounds tried to impinge on Jim's thoughts, sounds alien to the jungle, and yet strangely familiar. And there was a pulling, like gravity, tugging him relentlessly outward. Must be a phantom equilibrium effect of the spinning crash. Must be. He paused once, looking up through sweat that dripped into his eyes, searching the jungle for the source of the odd sounds.
"What's eating at you, Ellison?"
Jim spun, meeting Major Brennan's eyes. He'd been standing there, in the Major's office, struggling with what he knew he had to say, but unable to find the words. "I can't -- I can't do this again, sir." How could they even ask him? After Peru -- after what had happened -- how could they ask him to go back out there? But how could he refuse? He was duty-bound.
"Captain, I can understand your hesitation. You've only been back for 6 weeks." Major Brennan stood, tossing his pen to the desk. "The Colonel and the board cleared you of all responsibility. You've got to let it go, Ellison. Get on with your career. This talk of leaving the army just isn't you."
Jim shook his head, pacing the large office until he came to a window. "I can't let it go, sir. I was in command. It was my responsibility."
"Your responsibility was to the mission." The major stepped out from behind his desk and approached Jim. "And to that, you did your duty far and above what could have been expected of any other man." Brennan put a hand on Jim's shoulder briefly, then removed it. "You did all you could, and more than most men would have. Hell, Captain, if it hadn't been for you continuing the mission, those locals could have been wiped out. And who knows how much farther that civil war would have gone? Those men gave their lives in the line of duty, just as you would have."
It might be true, but it wasn't helping. The pain -- the helplessness -- were all Jim had left to remember. All he had left to remind him of those many, many months thousands of miles away. The rest of it was a blur. A strange, vague blur that pulled at his thoughts like a magnet.
"I saw the pictures of that wreck, Ellison. You were -
"...lucky to be alive, man."
Jim turned, seeing Blair as he pointed toward the nose of the plane. He looked, following his partner's direction, and noticed then the sharp drop-off of the canyon they had missed by only a few feet. God, he hadn't even seen that when he brought the plane down! Jim had never thought that one day of emergency-landing training would ever come in handy, not now that he'd been a cop for so many years. It had really only consisted of a lesson in aerodynamics and how to crash anything with wings.
Crash being the operative word. He finished wiping the sweat from his face and looked back down at the grave. It seemed deep enough, and would be temporary. As soon as they reached a town, he'd lead a team back to recover the pilot.
"It'll be dark soon." Jim stepped up and out of the hole, glancing around. He saw where Blair had gathered some wood and found more blankets, making a crude campsite next to the fuselage. He trekked back into the plane, not allowing himself to hesitate, and hefted the body of the dead man over his shoulder. As he stepped back outside, Blair was there, laying a hand on the body to steady Jim's balance during the short walk to the shallow grave. They carefully lowered the pilot down, keeping the blanket over his face and chest.
Blair reached for the shovel and Jim stopped him, shaking his head. "I've got it, Chief. Why don't you get a fire going? That sun's going down fast."
"Jim, you're exhausted," Blair complained, but let go of the shovel as Jim retrieved it.
"And your arm is bleeding again." Jim dropped the shovel and reached for Blair's injured arm. There was fresh redness covering the bandages, but it seemed to have stopped again. Dammit, what was he thinking? "Go sit down." Jim released the arm. "Now!" When Blair seemed to hesitate, he added, "I'll be done in a minute."
Blair nodded and walked to his make-shift campsite, sitting down beside the small pile of wood to light it with some matches.
Jim made quick work of returning the loose dirt, covering the body. When he'd finished, he found a small assortment of rocks and placed a cairn as a marker, just in case the jungle tried to reclaim its ground before they could return. As he approached Blair and sat down, the fire was just beginning to take off.
"Here, I found these on the other side." Blair handed over several ripe guavas.
Jim accepted the fruit with a nod, and set them aside, looking around for the water bottles. He found one three quarters full, the other closer to being empty. "Any fresh water around?" Jim paused, listening through the jungle sounds for any sign of a stream or waterfall.
"Not that I found," Blair replied, poking at the building flames.
Jim's search was rewarded by the trickling sound of water several miles to their left. "I think I just found some." He opened the bottle that was almost empty and filled his mouth, swirling the water around before letting it trickle down his parched throat. His body seemed to be accepting a return to survival mode, and he quickly cooled off in the dimming light of early evening. He recapped the bottle loosely, then found his pack and fished around for what was left of his shirt, tearing off more strips.
"Let me see that arm."
Blair reluctantly held out the injured arm and began to clumsily untie the bandage.
Jim pushed his hand away and took over the task of undoing the knot. "We have to keep this clean, Chief. You can get a dangerous infection in no time in the jungle." Hadn't he learned from...from what? Something wanted to be remembered, but Jim shrugged it away.
Blair nodded, then hissed between clenched teeth as the wrappings came off . The bleeding had stopped again on its own, and the jagged edges of skin remained close together. Jim removed the bottle cap and gently poured water over the injury, just enough to clear off the last of the freshly dried blood. When that was done, he examined the cut more closely, giving the rough edges his close focus as he searched for any signs of dirt or debris that he'd missed earlier. Satisfied that it was clean, he re-bandaged the arm with fresh strips of cloth, tying it off at the wrist.
"How's that feel?"
Blair pulled his arm close, flexing his hand. "It's okay. Sore."
"Yeah." Jim replaced the cap on the now empty bottle and returned it to his pack for later use. "Tomorrow, we'll find a road or something, and head north. Shouldn't take too long to find a village or town."
"So much for a quiet weekend." Jim reached for one of the guavas and bit into it, watching the flames dance in the darkness.
"Yeah, well, it's quiet." Blair raised his eyebrows, trying to find humor in their current situation.
Jim just shook his head. Trust Blair to attempt a lighter view of whatever mess they found themselves in. It was almost his job, at times. Or so it seemed. It was Jim's job to keep them alive. But, aside from keeping a fire going to ward off the worst of the jungle animals, there wasn't much to be done tonight.
"Well, try and get some sleep." He put his shirt back on against the coming coolness, then handed Blair his jacket, pulling his own out from under his butt. "We'll head out at first light, see if we can beat some of the heat."
"How are you doing, Jim? This must bring back some hard memories."
Jim felt his jaw flex quickly, then forced it to relax as he shook his head. There was no way Blair had known. "No, Chief. It doesn't. Why?" He knew he shouldn't have asked. Leaving any avenue open for Blair could prove to be a mistake.
"I was just thinking of Peru, and the crash. Something like this, it doesn't bring anything back for you?"
"Nope." Jim shook his head, finishing the guava and moving to lie down. He bunched up the jacket, placing it on the ground, then lay down. "Get some sleep."
Blair nodded, taking the hint. He balled up his own coat for use as a pillow and lay down, curling up beside the fire with his bandaged arm stretched out in front of him on the soft ground. Jim closed his eyes, telling his jaw to ease up before it began to ache. Memories. Just the sound of the plane alone, screaming against the force of gravity and jungle, had brought back a feeling Jim had long thought buried. Not memories, exactly. Not in the conventional sense. The sound of tearing metal, the smell of burning oil and jet fuel, the heat and pressure of the jungle, all combined to tug at the back of Jim's mind. Tug and pull and tear at something he willed to hold fast. Whatever it was, whatever memory was there, he wanted it kept there, hidden, out of harm's way. He didn't want to go through that again, that feeling of...of what?
Jim lay quietly, listening to the jungle, the light breeze as it danced through the tops of tall trees. He lay there until the quiet, steady breathing of his partner indicated he had fallen asleep. Satisfied Blair was deeply sleeping, he sat up, added more sticks to the dimming fire, and pulled his jacket on. The flames briefly flared up, excitedly consuming the fresh wood in a feeding frenzy of heat, then settled down to a steady, burning glow. The jungle sounds had changed from those of the daytime animals to the more eerie-sounding nocturnals. Blair seemed undisturbed by the sounds, and slept soundly, his injured arm stretched out in front of him. Jim watched him sleep for a long time, taking comfort in the fact that Blair wasn't seriously hurt. He could have been killed. They both could have. They could very well have died in the crash, and been lost in the dense jungle for months before their bodies were found. Even now, with the night sky nearly obliterated by the growth of green above, they stood very little chance of being seen from the air.
Simon would have heard by now that they never arrived in Chiautla. No doubt he'd worry, and might even fly down to Mexico himself, just as he and Blair had gone to Peru to find the Captain and his son. But this time, there were no drug dealers to worry about, no one shooting at them or shooting them out of the sky. This was a simple case of an old pilot, a heart attack, and a barely controlled crash into a thick jungle. Plain, simple, bad luck.
Jim sighed, then adjusted his position so he could lean up against the plane. Bringing both legs up, Jim folded them and got more comfortable, noticing a dark stain of blood on one knee. He'd sustained no serious injury himself, and a quick examination proved it to be Blair's blood. He sat back and closed tired eyes. They had a long hike ahead of them, he really should try to sleep.
"Captain, I can't sleep."
Jim moved closer and pulled another thin blanket over Hicks. The morphine had run out earlier that day, and he knew if rescue didn't come soon, the infection would kill the young Lieutenant. "Just take it easy, Hicks. They'll come for us soon." They had to. He'd already buried the others. If Jim was forced to bury just one more man, he'd lose it. He'd finally lose it completely. If he didn't find release in death himself.
Hicks nodded, looking up with those damn trusting blue eyes of his. "Yes, sir."
Jim smiled down at him, shouldered his rifle, and returned to his position on the top of a rise, several yards away. He shouldn't be here. Hicks was barely 24 years old, and Jim knew he was only there because of him. Many years as a ranking officer had given Jim the ability to spot hero worship, but the service was designed to prevent that from becoming a problem. They had missed one in Hicks. Jim should have insisted he not be a part of this mission, but his marksmanship skills alone had secured him a place on this ill-fated trip, never mind his father's influence.
He scanned the jungle surrounding their position, trying desperately not to think about the past three days. About the graves he'd dug, one by one. About the missile that had brought them down so easily and quickly. Jim should have seen that coming. He was in command, he should have seen it coming. God, how did I miss that coming? How could this mission end before it even began? If he'd seen, or heard, or even sensed it in some way, his team would be alive today. And Hicks...Hicks wouldn't be lying there, bleeding and --
"Blair?!" Jim sat up suddenly, finding the space beside the fire unoccupied. "Sandburg?!" He got to his feet as quickly as he could, eyes darting unbidden to the freshly dug grave.
"Jim? I'm right here." Blair stepped out of the jungle, zipping his pants.
Jim let out a sigh. "You should have told me where you were." Even he heard the terseness in his voice.
Blair looked puzzled as he approached. "Relax, man. I just had to go. What's wrong?"
"Nothing, never mind." Jim shook his head, running a hand over the top of his hair. "Get your stuff ready." He brought the hand over the back of his neck, working out some stiffness there. "I'll be right back." Jim stepped away from the cold embers of the dead fire and walked into the jungle. After relieving himself, he returned to find Blair hefting his pack over one shoulder. He couldn't miss the grimace, or the hand that came up to rub the right side of his chest. "You okay, Chief?"
Blair looked up, nodding. "Just a little sore. Must be from sleeping on the ground."
Jim approached his partner and reached out, moving Blair's hand. "Let me have a look."
"Jim, I'm fine."
He sounded irritated but Jim ignored him. "Put your pack down and let me check." Blair reluctantly complied, sighing heavily, then stood still while Jim ran sensitive fingers over his chest and ribs. He started out with a light touch, then increased the pressure enough to feel the bones under skin and muscle. Jim's Sentinel fingers found the raised areas of healed bone; his jaw flexed with the memory as his fingers searched for any signs of fresh injury. Thankfully, he found none.
"Happy now?" Blair asked, pushing his shirt back down with a quick glare.
"Yes, Sandburg, I'm happy now." Jim found his own pack and the machete. "Where'd you find that fruit?"
Blair nodded to the left of the plane. "Over there a few yards."
Jim shouldered the pack and let Blair lead him to the fruit, picking several ripe ones which he put in his pack. He handed two more to Blair and took two for himself. They ate before starting off. Food wouldn't be a problem in the jungle, but drinkable water could be. They might need the fruit just for the moisture. Blair ate in silence and for that, Jim was unaccountably grateful. It could be due to his arm hurting, which Jim thought he should check on before they started out, or it could just be the shock of the crash. From where they stood, the canyon was clearly visible. A canyon that would have spelled the end, had that plane slid ten more feet forward.
"How's the arm?" Jim tossed the pits into the brush and wiped his hands on his pants.
Blair had discarded his seeds and now flexed his hand, looking down at the bandages. "Fine. Shouldn't we get going?"
Jim creased his eyebrows at Blair's uncharacteristic tone, but chose to shrug it off. "Yeah." He shouldered the pack once again and started off into the jungle heading north.
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