The smell of burning oil and steaming jungle mingled with the blood
in Jim's nose. Faint voices registered, calling his name. The voices were familiar,
but the recollection of them was as distant as the voices themselves. He groggily
tried to focus on them, but they had gone away, leaving only the smell of smoke
and blood, and a throbbing over his right eye. What had -- My God, the plane!
"Sandburg!" No sooner were the words out of his mouth,
than he registered Blair's heartbeat coming from inside the plane.
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
"Sandburg, sit down."
"Jim, what the hell happened?"
Blair sat on the arm of the seat, still glancing around at the damage.
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
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.
Blair let his voice trail off as he nodded toward the cockpit.
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.
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.
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 -
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
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
"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."
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."
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.
it's quiet." Blair raised his eyebrows, trying to find humor in their current
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
"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
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?"
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.
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
"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.
"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?"
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.
Blair asked, pushing his shirt back down with a quick glare.
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.