starwatcher_fic ([personal profile] starwatcher_fic) wrote2009-09-28 08:14 pm

#04 - Once More Into the Breach


Title: Once More Into the Breach
Summary: It seems that our boys will never manage to have an uneventful camping trip.
Style: Gen
Size: 6,835 words, about 14 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Written February 2003, Revised March 2006
              Apologies to William Shakespeare for the title. But he, if anyone, should understand the strange turns that a writer's mind takes.
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at-

Once More Into the Breach

by StarWatcher

"So, Jim, do you think we should put something in the kitty before we head out?"

Jim paused in signing his newly-finished stack of reports and stared at his de-facto partner. "What are you talking about, Sandburg?"

"The betting pool, man. Here we are heading out for a weekend camping trip. If we work it right, we could clean up when we get back."

"Sandburg, where's your head? If you bet on us getting hurt, and then we get hurt, they'll figure we rigged it somehow and won't pay up. And do you really want to bet on us getting hurt? Don't you think that would be like taunting fate?"

"Give me a break, Jim. I'd bet on nothing happening, both of us coming back undamaged. I mean, it's got to happen eventually -- why not bet on 'now'?"

"Because, Chief, betting against something is the surest way to make it happen. I want at least the possibility of a relaxing weekend, without worrying about the universe waiting to get back at us for making stupid bets. No, I don't want to add to the pool, and you're not going to, either."

"Oh, come on, man, that's just superstitious nonsense. The universe doesn't care if we make bets on the outcome of certain actions. There's no way that making a bet for non-excitement can cause something to go wrong this weekend."

"Then it works both ways, Chief. Making a 'bet for non-excitement' won't ensure a peaceful weekend, either."

"Jeez, Jim, I'm not expecting assurances, just looking at the odds. The law of averages says that we'll have an uneventful camping trip sooner or later; I just think it's worthwhile making a small wager that it could be this weekend."

"Will you listen to yourself, Sandburg? On the one hand you're saying that we could have a peaceful camping trip, and on the other hand you're talking like it's our destiny or something to run into trouble every time. You just can't have it both ways. No," he interrupted as Blair opened his mouth for a rebuttal. "No bets. We're going to treat this like two normal guys planning a simple weekend of fishing, because that's what we are."

Jim gathered the files and went to deliver them to his Captain. He knocked, and entered after hearing the growled, "Come!" He barely registered Sandburg slipping in behind him; it was so normal that it didn't cause a blip on his radar.

"Here are the reports, Simon. My desk is cleaned off, nothing pending, and we're out of here."

Captain Banks leaned back, chewing on his cigar, and regarded the men in front of him. "So, gentlemen. You're heading out for a weekend in the wilderness, away from big-city crime, communing with Nature, right?"

"Yes, sir," they chorused.

"And you're both going to come back whole, without even one damaged piece between you, right?"

"Yes, sir," they dutifully replied.

"And you're going to avoid any emergencies that require me -- or any of us in Major Crime -- to rush to your rescue, right?"

Blair rolled his eyes at Jim, while Jim smirked at his Captain. "Yes, sir," they assured him once again.

"And you're taking both cellphones, fully-charged, and have left your itinerary and destination notes with Rhonda, right?"

"Simon!" Blair finally protested. "We're grown men, both with extensive camping and wilderness experience. Jim spent eighteen months in the Peruvian jungle, in case it's slipped your mind, and I've been on half-a-dozen anthropology expeditions in very primitive parts of the world. Why does everyone think we can't leave town without running into trouble?"

"Simple, Sandburg. Because experience has proven that you two can't leave town without running into trouble. I don't know if it's you or Jim, or maybe the combination, but 'expect the unexpected' must have been coined with you two in mind."

"Simon, that is so unfair," Blair complained. "And you know, it just might be all the negative karma that everyone generates that precipitates the trouble in the first place. Maybe if everyone held good thoughts about us not having any problems, it would come true."

"Fine. I'll think good thoughts. In the meantime, does Rhonda have the necessary information, in case we do have to ride to the rescue?"

Jim stepped in as Blair opened his mouth for another retort. "Give it a rest, Chief. It doesn't hurt to be prepared; if the backup plans are unnecessary, we'll all be relieved. But we might just end up being grateful for them. And yes, Simon," he continued, "we've taken every possible precaution, and we expect to be back safe and whole on Monday."

"Fine. Go. Enjoy your weekend. See you Monday."

As Jim drove toward the mountains, Blair stared out the window at the dry landscape. In the past four months, the area had received barely half its normal precipitation, and now it had been a record twenty-seven days since Cascade had last seen rain. He had reveled in the warm, sunny days this summer, but now...

"Do you think the fishing will be any good?" he asked his friend. "We've had so little rain..."

"Never thought I'd hear you complaining about the lack of rain, Chief." Jim sounded amused. "But we shouldn't notice anything different; the river we're headed for is deep, and it catches runoff from the snow-melt. We will need to be extra careful with our fire, though, and make damn sure we don't let any sparks escape."

"I hear ya', man. Umm... do you think it would help if we soak the ground before we set up the campstove?"

Jim shrugged. "It shouldn't be necessary; the fire itself will be contained by the stove, and wet ground won't prevent sparks. All you'll do is create a mud puddle to interfere with getting close enough to the stove to actually use it."

Blair returned to his observations of the passing countryside, noting tinges of faded green, and wilted edges on the vegetation. Thank heaven they'd decided on the little propane stove instead of a traditional wood-burning campfire; he would never forgive himself if a bit of carelessness on his part started a forest fire.

Blair thought that he would hold this time in his memory as the quintessential definition of a 'perfect day'. He stood in knee-deep water as he waited for a passing fish, with his Cree fishing spear poised to strike. He felt the chill even through his thick waders -- Jim must be right about the river being fed by snow-melt -- but it didn't matter. The sun was warm on his head and shoulders, and a gentle breeze kept it from being too hot.

Jim was downstream of his position. "It's simple, Sandburg," he had declared. "Every time you lunge with that spear, you'll scare every fish around. Since they tend to head upstream, they'll pass my spot before they get to you. After they're past, I don't care how they react to your stomping around."

Blair watched his friend expertly flick his rod to drop the fly next to a large boulder, a likely resting place for trout. When Jim cocked his head, Blair wondered what he might be listening to. Experimentally, he paid attention to his own hearing; how many sounds could he isolate with normal senses?

The river, of course, but with several variations -- a soft lapping of wavelets along the muddy shore, a subdued gurgle as the water swirled around protruding boulders, a cheerful chuckling as it bubbled through a narrower, rocky area. Animal life, too. A squirrel chattered at the intruders from a safe distance. He heard the distinctive knocking sound of a woodpecker in search of a meal. On the other side of the river, a mourning dove called softly, almost drowned out by the harsher, strident cry of a raven.

Briefly, he wondered how much more Jim could hear with his enhanced senses. How many more voices in the river spoke to his friend? How many more animals carried on their lives out of earshot of his normal senses, but not out of Jim's? Blair decided not to ask. He'd let Jim enjoy this quiet, rejuvenating weekend without the mention of even a hint of tests. The sentinel could relax and stand down for a while, and his guide along with him.

"Heads-up, Sandburg! A big one's coming your way!"

Jim's urgent call pulled him from his reverie. He scanned ahead carefully, and located the silvery shadow approaching. Yes... It was going to pass right by his leg. He shifted the spear's position minutely and... YES! Score one for 'primitive' methods. He'd caught the first fish -- a good four-pounder at least, he judged as he lifted it on the spear.

"So, Jim, are you going to help provide our evening meal, or are you going to leave it all to me?" Blair aimed a broad grin at his friend.

"Just wait Sandburg; we'll see who laughs last. Whoever catches the fewest fish has to do the cooking." The threatening growl didn't hide the twinkle of his eye, or the twitch of his lips; Jim was every bit as relaxed as Blair had hoped he would be.

With the shadows lengthening across the water, they decided that it was time to quit fishing and start cooking. After catching another fish, Blair had spent the rest of the afternoon lying in the sun while reading the latest Clive Cussler thriller and watching Jim's expertise with the delicate flies on the end of the gossamer line. Jim eventually caught eight fish -- one worthy of
a 'Simon, eat your heart out' picture, that Blair carefully captured -- but released all except two modest-sized trout for dinner.

While Jim fired up the stove, Blair prepared their dinner as he'd once promised Jim and Simon on an earlier trip. He used a deft hand with the herbs and garlic, keeping sentinel senses in mind, and moistened the maple leaves that he wrapped the fish in, to prevent scorching. The result was delicious -- the perfectly-seasoned fish flaked easily, and the leafy wrapping imparted a subtle, 'woodsy' undertone that highlighted the taste of the trout. Both men happily gorged themselves, then spent a peaceful evening under the moon and stars, sipping their beer as the camping lantern hissed quietly in the background.

Conversation was sparse, interspersed with long silences. They were comfortable and relaxed, each sipping a beer and simply enjoying each other's company and the whole 'weekend communing with nature' situation. Several times, Blair stifled idle comments unspoken; even he felt that the peaceful quiet should be savored, and none of his observations were so important or unusual that they couldn't be saved for another time. Eventually, still with a minimum of conversation, they crawled into their sleeping bags, falling asleep within minutes.

The following morning, Blair used a rod instead of his spear; they didn't need to keep any more fish, and he couldn't very well catch-and-release one if it had a spear-hole through its body. The day was a repeat of the one before, right down to the squirrel chattering from a nearby tree. Blair was supremely content. He realized that he'd become bored if every day were like this one, but decided that it would probably take a month or two.

Jim had already caught -- and released -- two fine trout, and Blair had caught a small catfish, when Jim stilled. "Chief, did you hear that?"

Blair looked around. "Birds and squirrels is all, man. Why, what did you hear?"

"A gunshot, but not close; several miles away at least." He relaxed, with an obvious 'standing-down' of his alertness. "I don't think the shooter will come close enough to bother us."

A frown marred Blair's face. "But what would he be shooting at? Hunting season's still three months away. Do you think we should investigate?"

"There's no season on pest animals, like rabbits, squirrels or skunks," Jim pointed out. "More than likely, it's a farmer disposing of a rabbit in his garden; the shooter is using a small caliber, like a twenty-two. Not the sort of weapon carried by your typical mobster or escaping con." He winked broadly, then went back to eyeing the water for a likely spot to drop his fly.

Blair carefully cast his own fly in a quiet spot; if Jim wasn't worried, neither was he. He let the peace of the day seep into his psyche once again.

Less than ten minutes later, Jim visibly tensed and froze, head cocked slightly to the side. Recognizing the stance, Blair hastily reeled in his line and waded over to support his friend.

"Jim? What's up, man?"

"I hear a running horse, Chief -- very fast, not a controlled gallop -- and there are no riding trails around here. The nearest town is about ten miles away."

"Can you tell how far it is?"

"I'm not sure; the trees muffle and distort the sound. It does seem to be coming this way though, if it doesn't change direction."

The question became moot as a wild-eyed horse, its hair darkened with sweat, bolted out of the trees. It plunged into the water without slowing, close to the men but ignoring them completely as it continued its urgent run. There seemed no chance to catch it, until it stumbled and fell, going completely under the water. Jim moved toward the animal when it went down; as the horse scrambled to its feet, he eased forward and caught a broken, trailing rein, uttering nonsensical platitudes in a soothing voice. The animal squealed and half-reared, but was too tired to continue the protest. It submitted to the coaxing, comforting tones of the man, perhaps expecting that a human could fix its troubles. It stood with wide-spread legs and heaving sides, ignoring the human while it keep a lookout for danger, head raised and nostrils snorting its uneasiness.

"Easy, fella, easy," Jim murmured as he stroked the tense neck, "You're okay now; easy." In a few moments, the horse had relaxed enough that he could lead it to dry ground while Blair retrieved his friend's dropped fishing rod and followed. Once out of the water, they quickly shed their waders and turned their attention back to the horse.

"What d'ya think, Jim, someone in trouble?"

"I think it's likely, Chief." Jim was examining the horse, stroking and soothing it as he evaluated the evidence. "This saddle has been scraped, probably against a tree. If it happened while the rider was up, she could be badly hurt."

"She? How do you know that?"

"Look at the length of the stirrups, Sandburg. The rider has short legs -- either a small woman or a young teenager. And..." he took a deep breath to confirm it, "...I smell perfume clinging to the mane and saddle. Ergo, a small female, age undetermined."

"What do you think happened?" Blair was watching the horse's reactions as Jim worked with -- he took a quick glance underneath -- her. The speed with which she had calmed down indicated a mellow personality, although part of that could be due to weariness. "Is there anything to tell you what might have spooked her?"

"Yeah, take a look. See here -- the river washed most of it off, but there's blood on her hip. It's a bullet wound; she was shot. It's a small hole -- maybe that twenty-two I heard earlier -- but something like that would scare a horse enough and hurt enough to cause it to bolt. The pain of running with the wound would probably act as a goad to keep her from stopping. The question now is, where is the rider and what shape is she in?"

"So, we call in Search and Rescue?"

"And tell them what, Sandburg? We have no idea where this horse started out."

"Hey, man, you used to ride. How far could a horse like this have run before it was too tired to keep it up?"

Jim stepped back and evaluated the situation dispassionately. "Well, she looks like a Thoroughbred, built for speed but not necessarily long stretches of stamina, and the weight of the western saddle would slow her up a bit. On the other hand, she'd keep trying to run away from the sting of that bullet wound. Hell, with nothing to stop her, she could have run all the way from that town ten miles away. For all we know, the rider was dumped in the stable yard and has already been taken to the hospital if she needed it. We'll just have to go find out. How are your tracking skills, Chief? Did you learn anything on those expeditions to 'primitive parts of the world'?"

"Well, I know the theory, of course, and have some basic skills, but I spent most of my time talking to the tribal elders and the women. Many times, they're the real keepers of the culture. I went on a few actual hunting trips, but... Oh, come on, man; you're pulling my leg! You hunted with the Chopec; you know all about this stuff, right?"

"Yeah, Sandburg; just gotta keep you on your toes. Let's get ready; we're probably in for a long hike."

They stripped the saddle and bridle off the horse; she would have to fend for herself until someone could come to lead her home. "What about these, Jim? Should we leave them on, or take them off?" Blair stared at what appeared to be rubber booties on the horse's hooves, crisscrossed in front by thin wire cables, with a big silver latch-thing holding it all together. "And are you sure we shouldn't tie her to something?"

Jim shrugged. "Whatever they are, it doesn't look like she's uncomfortable wearing them, and there's nothing to get tangled and trap her if something goes wrong. Just leave them. But tying her up could be dangerous; horses have a positive genius for getting in trouble sometimes. She's tired, and she has grass and water; she won't wander too far. We don't have time to deal with it, anyway; we need to get moving."

Blair put the large first-aid kit in his backpack, along with a good supply of trail mix and several apples and oranges from their provisions. Jim rolled up his sleeping bag, and added a couple of the extra blankets that Blair always brought. When they found the victim, she might well need the added warmth until medical personnel could arrive. They made sure that both canteens were full, and that each had his cellphone in his pack. Finally, Blair left a note detailing the situation and their intentions pinned prominently to his sleeping bag. If things fell apart and they needed rescuing, the searchers would at least know where to start.

They shouldered their packs and entered the trees where the horse had emerged. The sentinel was on the hunt, and his guide would provide backup and support.

The horse's rubber-shod hooves had left minimal markings in the dry ground, the trees were spaced far enough apart to provide few obstacles to a running animal, and the mature-growth forest had little underbrush. Consequently, the signs -- a tail-hair caught in rough tree bark, a slight scuff mark on the dry forest floor, an occasional broken twig, or a sporadic drop of blood -- were insignificant and widely-spaced; without Jim's enhanced vision, they might not have been able to follow the trail. But they made steady progress until the backtrail crossed a large outcropping of solid granite. Despite his efforts, Jim could find no visible sign of the horse's passage.

"Problem here, Sandburg; even I can't track that horse over this kind of ground."

"Umm... maybe we should just go straight across and see if you can pick up the signs on the other side."

"No, we'll lose too much time. Chances are that the horse didn't run straight across; searching the perimeter to find where she came out could take hours, unless we get lucky."

"Well, let's think about it for a minute. Vision is out, hearing... hey, what about hearing? If we're close enough to the victim, and if she's calling for help, maybe you can hear her. Give it a try."

Jim took the suggestion; with his eyes closed, he extended his hearing while Blair anchored him with a hand on his arm and occasional whispered directions. Finally he released a pent-up breath and opened his eyes. "No good, Sandburg. She's either too far away, or not making any noise."

"Well, okay. Then how about... smell?"

"Smell! Sandburg, even strong perfume doesn't carry very far. If I was close enough to smell her, I'd be close enough to see her."

"Not the woman, the horse! Think about it, man; she was panic-stricken, running all out, and she was really sweaty when she got to us. I'll bet some of that sweat splattered on the ground; maybe you could pick it up. Maybe even blood-smell from where she was bleeding." Again he rested a hand on Jim's arm to provide an anchor.

Once more Jim closed his eyes. He knew the drill; carefully he sorted through the various scents. Sun-baked rock, mouse droppings, drying vegetation... there! Horse-sweat and fear-scent mingled together. "Got it, Chief; come on." He led Blair across the outcropping at a forty-five degree angle from the straight-line trajectory; it was fortunate that they hadn't tried the 'straight-across-and-search-for-signs' method.

Once again under the trees, they moved more quickly. Now that Jim had identified a scent-track, he was able to use it to augment the visual signs. Vision and scent worked together to provide an easily-followed trail. Blair bit his lip and refrained from making any comments about human bloodhounds as he followed his sentinel's lead.

Over an hour later, Jim paused and held up his hand. "Wait, Chief, I think I heard something." He cocked his head, waiting for a repetition of the sound, while Blair took the opportunity to sit -- quietly! -- on the ground to rest.

They remained silent for several minutes. Blair was starting to worry about a zoneout when Jim stirred. "Got it, Chief; three hoots on a whistle. Not very strong, but definite. At least we know she's conscious and lucid. This way." He pressed forward now at a brisker walk, apparently abandoning the sight/scent trail to home in on the whistle.

Fifteen minutes later, Blair was able to hear the whistle himself. The faint hoots were so distant that he probably wouldn't have noticed them under normal circumstances. But since he could hear it with average senses, they were probably getting close to the victim.

"Hey, Jim, even my ears can hear her now. Does that mean we're close enough for you to get a visual?"

"We might be, Sandburg, if there weren't so many trees in the way. Even sentinel vision can't see through solid objects. But we should be there in about ten minutes or so."

They found the victim sitting at the base the tree that she had probably impacted when her horse bolted. Even Blair could see the scraps of cloth from the torn shirt and the smear of blood on the rough bark. The woman had apparently tried to make herself comfortable; she was leaning against the tree trunk instead of crumpled in the dirt. However, she was obviously in pain; although she was shivering, her face was shiny with sweat, and her breath came in shallow, gasping pants. The hand that she used to raise the whistle to her lips for another signal visibly trembled.

"Take it easy, ma'am, you've been found," Jim called across the remaining distance. They drew closer, and he and Blair knelt beside her. "I'm Detective James Ellison of the Cascade Police Department, and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg. Your horse ran into the river where we were fishing. When we saw the state she was in, and the tree-scratches on the saddle, we decided to backtrack to see if the rider needed any help."

He catalogued the woman as he spoke. She was small, as he'd surmised -- barely five feet tall and a hundred pounds, he judged -- with a silvery-white ponytail hanging beneath her riding helmet. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, despite the hair color; her face was mature but not yet age-wrinkled. Old enough to be sensible and -- apparently -- relatively calm in this difficult situation.

"Oh, thank God," she sighed. "I tried my cellphone but I can't get a signal, and they don't expect me back at the stables for several hours. I thought I'd have to wait for nightfall to be rescued, unless Astra ran back to the stables, or maybe even till morning. Oh! I'm Denny -- Denise Schoonover. So very pleased to make your acquaintance."

"Well, Denny, I have some basic medical training; let's check you out," he comforted. "Sandburg, we'll need a fire until S and R can get here; how about finding us some dry wood?"

"Gotcha, Jim." He started off, then paused. "Um, Denny, can I borrow your whistle? My sense of direction isn't as bad as Jim thinks it is, but these trees all look alike. I can blow it if I can't find my way back here. Okay, Jim?" He didn't want his friend to demonstrate his enhanced senses too obviously in front of a stranger.

"Good thinking, Chief. Just try not to break anything; one patient at a time is enough."

"Funny Jim, real funny. Hang on, Denny; we'll have a fire to warm you up in no time." He emptied his backpack, placing the precious first-aid kit close to Jim, and took the empty bag to hold the smaller kindling.

Jim turned to his patient. "Okay, Denny. I'll be as gentle as I can, but I'm afraid this is going to hurt a bit. But I need to see what you've done to yourself so I can make you as comfortable as possible until we can get the medics here." Jim's voice was as professional as he could make it; victims often drew strength from the calm attitudes of their rescuers.

"I understand, Detective; do what you need to. But I take exception to your terminology. I did nothing to myself; my horse bolted, smashed me against a tree, and knocked me out of the saddle."

"Why were you riding alone?" he asked as he began his examination. Apparently she wanted to talk, perhaps to distract herself from what he was doing. "People are advised to ride with a buddy to provide help in just such circumstances as this."

"Detective, I'm neither foolish nor stupid. I know the horse -- Astra is a sensible, well-mannered animal; I trained her myself. I know the territory -- we've ridden out here dozens of times, many times alone. Today I wanted a quiet ride without any companions, but I did leave my planned route at the stables, and I brought my cellphone with me. Unfortunately --" she hissed and tensed at the slight pressure of Jim's hands exploring her injuries. In a wavering voice she continued, "Unfortunately, there are no-signal areas around here, and it was my bad fortune to be in one when I got hurt. I hoped she'd run home and my friends at the stable would know I was down, but since she didn't... I didn't plan to return until three, so I don't figure anyone will become really worried till four or four-thirty. I knew I just had to tough it out for a few hours and wait for rescue, but... I'm really glad you found me before all that."

"So, do you have any idea why your 'sensible, well-mannered animal' suddenly bolted?" Jim wondered if she was aware of being shot at, and if she could provide any eyewitness information. "And, since the circumstances are hardly formal, you might as well call me Jim."

"Well... Jim... I think we were shot at." She interpreted his raised eyebrow as disbelief. "No, I didn't see anything, but Astra jumped like something had stung her. I thought it was a bee, and then she bolted, but... things were happening so fast that I'm not certain, but... I'm pretty sure I heard a gunshot."

"You're right," he told her. "She has a small bullet-wound in her hip. Damn-fool idiot probably shot at the movement without identifying what kind of animal was making it. You're lucky you weren't hit, or even killed."

"I know." She grimaced again in pain. "But right now I don't feel very lucky. I'm entered in a jumping competition next weekend. This certainly puts paid to that. But at least... you did say that Astra's all right?"

"She's fine," he assured her while he silently marveled. What was it about women and horses? Her face and voice were tight with pain, she couldn't speak an entire sentence without gasping for shallow breaths, but she was worried about the animal and irritated about missing a jumping competition. Maybe Sandburg could explain it, but it made no sense to him. "The pellet will have to be dug out, but I don't think it's big enough or deep enough to cause permanent problems. No other injuries that I could find, and she was running soundly when we caught her.

"As for you, you have a broken collarbone and your right leg is broken below the knee, which you probably already figured. It could be worse; at least the bone hasn't pierced the skin. And it's a good thing you're wearing a helmet; it looks like your head hit the tree as well, but it prevented what could have been a nasty head injury. When Sandburg gets back, we'll get you fixed up and make you comfortable while one of us goes for help." He could hear his partner coming now, but Blair wasn't within her hearing range yet.

"Great!" she sighed. "I was hoping it wasn't all that bad. I won't complain, though, if you've got some painkillers in that first-aid kit. Could I have something before you start messing with my injuries?"

"Well, I have Tylenol Three and Lortab Ten left over from times Sandburg or I have been hurt. Also aspirin and Advil and regular Tylenol -- not as strong, of course, but a little safer. Are you allergic to codeine or acetaminophen, or are you taking any antihistamines or antidepressants?"

"Oh my; I always heard that policemen have the best drugs." When she saw Jim's frown, she hurried to apologize. "Sorry, sorry! Please, I'm feeling a little spacey; no offense -- I didn't mean to insult you. Just -- oh, God, can you give me something? I've used Tylenol Three before with no problems; that should be okay."

Jim relaxed; he, more than anyone, understood how easily thoughtless words could escape in times of stress. "No offense taken, Denny; I know you didn't mean it." He pulled a pill bottle out of the first-aid kit and shook a capsule into her hand, then held the canteen to her lips for her to drink. He noted the time with a glance at his watch; medical personnel would need the information when they treated her.

"Thank you," she murmured. "I'll just rest until your friend gets back."

"YO, JIM!" they both heard a few minutes later. "Sing out, man! Which tree are you hiding behind?"

"Over here, Sandburg! You're about two hundred yards away!"

Blair appeared through the trees, backpack bulging with small kindling-sized sticks, and arms filled with larger, heftier branches. He dropped his load next to the tree, and squatted down next to his friend. "Okay, man, I made it back with the wood -- and without using the whistle, you'll notice. So, what's next?"

"She has a broken leg, broken collarbone, and some relatively minor abrasions on her back. I've just given her some Tylenol Three; we'll build a fire while it takes effect, then splint the injuries and put her in the sleeping bag. You can watch her while I scout out a place that an ambulance or 'copter can get to."

"All right; sounds like a plan." He started to scrape away the forest debris; Jim added his efforts, and they were soon down to bare dirt. They quickly had a small fire crackling merrily, placed close enough to Denny to give her some welcomed heat. Despite the mid-afternoon sun, it was cool in the deep forest shade, and Jim had noticed the minute shivers that occasionally passed over her body.

"All right, Denny, your turn." Jim opened the first-aid kit again. "You're in luck. Sandburg and I have been through similar situations so many times that we come prepared. No jury-rigged blanket-and-stick splints for you. This handy-dandy air splint will take care of you with no fuss at all. No jostling as we wrap the leg -- we'll just slip it on and blow it up like a beach ball."

Blair glanced at Jim with fond amusement as the soothing babble continued. Ellison showed the world a cold, stern 'cop' persona that prevented most people from trying to get close to him, but he knew that the tough outer shell covered an inner core of pure mush. The tender, crooning tone in his friend's voice was proof of that -- it demonstrated a large part of Jim's character, but was used almost exclusively for children, animals, and victims.

Working together, they splinted Denise's leg, strapped her arm to her chest to relieve pressure on the collarbone, cleaned the abrasions on her back and covered them with antibiotic salve, and finally slid her into the sleeping bag. Jim was pleased. He and Sandburg made a great team; they had accomplished the entire procedure with a minimum of fuss and -- thanks to the wonders of modern pharmacology -- a minimum of pain for their victim.

"Okay, Denny, Sandburg will stay with you while I go arrange a way to get you out of here. You said you've done a lot of riding around this area. Are there any roads close enough to get an ambulance in, or a clear space for a helicopter to land?"

"Umm..." Between the medication and the relief from the stress that had been caused by pain, she was becoming groggy, but she made the effort. "The nearest road is about five miles away, just two miles north of the stables. But there's a big clearing about half a mile east of here; a fire a few years back burned the side of a small hill, and the trees haven't grown back yet. Just some wildflowers and scrubby brush. I think that area is in cellphone coverage, as well."

"Sounds promising. I'll check it out, and call for a rescue copter with paramedics aboard. We'll have you out of here in no time. Is there anyone else I should call for you before I head back?"

"Umm... Call Molly at the stables. Five-five-five, six-five, six-four. If she can ride with them... you could lead her back to Astra? And she could ride her home."

"We'll work something out. You just take it easy till I get back." He patted her hand and rose, pulling Sandburg to one side.

"Chief, it's okay to let her sleep. Just keep her covered, and the fire going. Let her have a little water if she's thirsty, but only a little -- the stress and shock could make her prone to vomiting. If it takes too long to get someone here and she's in considerable pain, you can give her another Tylenol Three -- but just one, and note the time you give it; the paramedics will need to know before they give her more meds."

"Got it, Jim. Don't worry; I'll just sit here and vege till you bring back the cavalry."

"Since this is a dead area, I won't be able to get you on the cellphone; sure you can handle things for awhile?"

"Jim, I'm perfectly capable of watching one injured woman. Just go. We still have a long hike back to camp, ya' know?"

"Right, Sandburg. See you later."

Jim and Blair watched the helicopter lift into the sky. Denny was now safely in the care of professionals; their job was almost finished. They turned toward Denny's friend, who had indeed managed to hitch a ride on the rescue flight.

"Well, Ms. Campos, are you ready for a long hike and a longer ride?" Jim asked. Privately, he thought she looked capable; she was considerably taller than her friend, and appeared to be fit and muscular. But of course, looks weren't everything...

"Please, Detective, it's Molly. And I followed your instructions -- hiking boots, new reins, and a full canteen. This won't be the first time a horse-related mishap has caused a long walk." She grinned at both men. "At least this time I'll be able to ride home."

"Then it's Jim and Blair. So let's get moving. As it is, I'm not sure you'll make it home before dark. There's a full moon tonight, but you won't get much benefit under these trees."

"Ah, but I have a secret weapon!" She patted the backpack she carried. "Denny and I had special headstalls made that hold a battery-operated miner's lamp. We've both trained our horses for night-travel with that as a light-source. I just have to keep Astra's head pointed in the right direction, so she can see where she's going. No problem at all."

Blair stared at her, the astonishment plain on his face. Jim simply shrugged and led the way. Women and horses...

Jim walked toward Major Crime on Monday morning, determined to uphold the not-quite-fiction that nothing had happened. At least, as promised, neither he nor Sandburg had been hurt and, as Simon had instructed, no one had had to 'rush to their rescue'. The effort was doomed before it got started; as he entered the door, he was faced with a large floral arrangement on his desk, and the sound of Rafe and Brown snickering.

He opened the card and read, 'No damsel in distress ever had a sweeter pair of knights in shining armor. Thank you. May the Lord bless you, and keep you safe in your job. Denny Schoonover'.

"So, Ellison, it seems that the lady is very grateful," H grinned. "Which one made a date with her -- you or Hairboy?"

"No dates, Brown. The lady was a victim in need of rescuing. We assisted in that rescue. End of story. And how the hell did you find out about it?"

Simon couldn't allow his men to have all the fun. He strolled over to deliver the 'good news'. "As Brown said, the lady is grateful, Ellison. She called me, singing your praises. She called the Chief, to tell him what great personnel the Cascade PD has. For all I know, she's taken out an ad in the newspaper. You're stuck with it, Jim -- you and Sandburg are her heroes. Just one more notch added to the Ellison-Sandburg legend."

Jim groaned. "I swear, Simon, the next time we take a weekend off, I'll find an uninhabited atoll to camp on. There's gotta be some way to have an uneventful trip."

"In your dreams, Ellison. In your dreams." Simon grinned and headed back to his office.

That afternoon, Jim paused to grab a cup of coffee from the break-room. As he headed back to the bullpen, he heard Sandburg's voice raised in protest. This was strange; his friend had specifically said that he would be spending the entire day at Ranier. He stopped in the hallway, and extended his hearing to listen in on the conversation.

"What do you mean I didn't win the pool? Jim and I are both in one piece -- not a scratch between us!"

"But Hairboy, you didn't bet on you and Jim not getting injured," Henri pointed out. "You bet on 'nothing unusual happening'. Stopping a runaway horse and rescuing its rider definitely qualifies as 'unusual' -- for anyone but you and Ellison."

"He's right, Sandy," Megan chimed in. "But look at it this way. You didn't get hurt this time. Maybe you'll start a trend and come back without injuries next time, too. You just have to be more specific about what you're betting on."

"Fat chance," Blair groaned. "We've probably used up our non-injury quota for the next five years." He sighed. "Okay, okay, I'm out of here. I don't want Jim to know I made the bet. I'll see you guys later."

Jim drew back around the corner as Blair approached the elevator; he didn't want his friend to know that he had overheard. He would bide his time, and wait for the perfect moment to rub Sandburg's nose in the failed bet. He could be patient, and he would make sure that the lesson was sweet indeed. Jim grinned evilly as he sipped his coffee and headed back into the bullpen.

The End

Author's Notes

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