starwatcher_fic ([personal profile] starwatcher_fic) wrote2009-09-28 07:14 pm

#27 - The Misty Solitudes


Title: The Misty Solitudes
Summary: While camping, Jim and Blair meet a local legend.
Style: Gen
Size: 14,050 words, about 26 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: The inspiration came from a poem -- "The Road through the Woods" by Rudyard Kipling -- which is posted at the end of the story.
          If the pictures don't show up, direct links are in the Author's Notes at the end.
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-

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The Misty Solitudes

by StarWatcher

Dedicated to the memory of Cindershadow,
a dear friend who was taken from us much too soon.

Ellison scowled in confusion as he stood in front of the door, swaying slightly with key in hand; he couldn't remember what he was supposed to do with it.

Blair was exhausted, too, but not quite at the point of mental shut-down. He hadn't spent the last thirty-seven and a half hours with his senses cranked up to maximum, tracking a killer through the cramped and congested back-streets and the stench of filthy alleyways. He'd only provided the care and backup so that his sentinel wouldn't zone, so that Jim could keep going forward long after any sensible man would have called it quits and headed home to a well-deserved rest.

'Only', Blair thought with a flicker of wry amusement; the trite word concealed hours of driving, walking, running, searching... Thank God they'd caught the man, or they would probably still be out hunting -- despite the fact that each had reached the end of his endurance. But habit would keep him going just a little longer. A few more minutes of giving care and support to Jim, and then they could both collapse.

Blair gently pulled the key from Jim's fingers and unlocked the door, pushing it wide. He grabbed Jim's hand and led the unresisting man through the opening, shutting it behind them with an absent-minded kick, then yanked his jacket off and tossed it in the general direction of the coat-hooks. When Jim simply stood mindlessly, Blair unzipped his friend's jacket, tugged it down his arms, and tossed it after his own. Bed. No food, no drink, no cleanup -- just bed, and sweet, heavenly sleep. Ten hours, maybe even twelve.

Blair started urging Jim toward the stairs that led to the bedroom loft, and then stopped. No. There was no way that either of them would make it to the top. He changed direction and stopped in front of the larger couch. Gentle pressure indicated that Jim could sit; three seconds later, he had collapsed sideways to lie with his head on a throw-pillow that Blair had hastily shoved into place. But his friend wouldn't be comfortable like that. With a last burst of effort, Blair lifted Jim's legs to the cushions, then pulled off his shoes to drop them on the floor. A twitch brought the afghan down from the back of the couch to settle over the sleeping man.

Blair nodded to himself as he regarded Jim. Yes. This was good. He'd taken care of his friend, and now it was just a few more steps until he could collapse on his own bed. He turned, and staggered as a wave of dizziness washed over him. Of course, this couch was a lot closer...

As he settled into the softness, he remembered at the last moment to toe off his own shoes. Jim's snores masked the 'thud' of them hitting the floor and, seconds later, Blair was also snoring, warrior and companion sharing a richly-deserved rest.

The following day brought little relief. Although they'd slept late, the pile of paperwork that adorned their desks -- ignored for several days while they had been investigating and chasing the killer -- was enough to give even Sandburg pause. Ellison frankly glowered at it, then shook his head in resignation and sat down to open the first file. "I'd rather chase down another perp than do this stuff," he griped quietly to his partner. "I just hope I can keep my eyes open."

"You and me both, man," Blair agreed as he took his own seat. "I predict lots of coffee today, for both of us. But I don't wanna chase any more perps. How about we help some little girl find her lost kittycat instead?"

"No good, Sandburg. We'd find the kittycat hiding in the middle of crates full of illegal weapons, be discovered by the owners before we could get the hell out, and get stuck in a pitched gun-battle. We would, of course, heroically save the day and capture all the gunrunners, but then we'd get back here to twice as much paperwork." He shook his head firmly. "No lost kittycats, no runaway horses, no escaped Barbary apes; it is never worth dealing with the repercussions."

Blair nodded thoughtfully as he grabbed another folder. "You may be right, man; the animal kingdom does seem to have it in for us. But have you noticed that it's just the warm-blooded animals? Fishing usually works out okay."

"You've got a point there, Junior -- as long as you don't count poachers, drug kingpins and their mistresses, train robbers or survivalist rejects, fishing works out real well for us."

"You're being deliberately obtuse; what, you want pistols at dawn?" Blair cocked a derisive eyebrow. "It isn't the fishing that's the problem; it's the people around -- all of whom are warm-blooded animals, by the way. If we got way, way out, with no people within... oh, about twenty miles... I think we should be safe. And I think we should do it soon; if we don't get more rest than a couple nights' sleep, we're going to start making mistakes." Becoming serious, he urged softly, "We can't afford that; in our line of work, mistakes can be deadly. So, what d'ya say; fishing this weekend? Maybe Simon would let us take three days."

Ellison took a moment to study his partner, noting the slightly grayed undertone to his skin, the uncharacteristic slump of his shoulders, and the thread of exhaustion that underlay his voice. Blair's personal scent was 'off', too, as if his body chemistry was unbalanced from stress and strain, coupled with too many inadequate meals on the run and too much missed sleep; they'd been working intense, high-profile cases for the better part of three weeks. This was bad. It was one thing to take liberties with his own health and well-being, but not fair to foist the same state onto Sandburg simply because the man insisted on 'covering his back', no matter what. And, now that Blair had an official position with the PD, Jim could no longer convince his partner to wait anything out; what one man endured, they both endured.

"You're right," he agreed quietly. "Let's see how much of this we can get done, and I'll talk to Simon about a few days off."

At 5:25, Ellison passed the last report to Sandburg for his corroborating signature, accepting one from his partner in return. An exchange of glances confirmed that each man was caught up with the files and paperwork -- at least for now. Ellison rose and approached his captain's office, to knock on the door.

"Come!" Banks called, and scribbled his signature before he looked up at his detective. "So, Jim, how's it going?" he asked as he waved the other man to a seat and rose to pour two mugs of coffee. He slid one mug across the desk, then sat and took a swallow of the fragrant brew. "You got the Bartolo case wrapped up?"

"Yes, sir, the report's on Rhonda's desk. We've also finished the Cumberland case, the Snipes case, the Fidelli case, and the partridge in the pear tree. And Sandburg can do a juggling act, if you'd like." Ellison closed his eyes as he shook his head; Simon didn't deserve such a smart-ass attitude. "I'm sorry, sir; I had no call to speak to you like that."

The captain stared at his friend and analyzed what he saw; after all, he was a detective, too. "You certainly didn't. But I'm going to file it under 'extenuating circumstances'; you look like you'd have to climb up a few steps to feel like shit."

"That's exactly where I am, Simon," Jim agreed, "and Sandburg's not much better. That's why I'm here, to request some time off. We don't want to reach the stage where we're a danger to ourselves and others."

"Reasonable," Banks acknowledged. "D'you have anything open that can't wait awhile?"

Jim shrugged. "The only thing open is the Graffen case, and we're stalled on that. Joel and Megan have the information, if anything comes up."

The captain nodded. "Good. Okay, take a week. I'll expect to see you back here next Thursday, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I don't expect to have some local lawman on the phone, needing information because you two have jumped into another 'incident'." He pointed an admonishing finger. "Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir; thank you. I'll keep that in mind -- bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by the time we get back. I'll handle the bright eyes and let Sandburg do bushy-tailed. On a normal day, he's already halfway there."

"Go on, get out of here," Banks growled. As the detective reached the door, he said softly, "Jim." Ellison turned, waiting silently. "All joking aside, you need this. Take care of yourself, and the kid; I don't want to attend either of your funerals within the next fifty years. You got that?"

Ellison nodded. "Got it, Simon. Thanks again." He slipped out the door to tell his partner the good news.

"So, Jim, where're we headed?" Blair asked as they skirted the national forest. He admired the towering trees, and breathed in the fresh scent of green growth and moist earth through the open window. "We can't take any fish from federal lands, can we?"

"Depends on the season and type of fish, Chief. But we'll be four or five miles outside the boundaries -- pick up supplies at Tonasket, then drive and finally hike till we get there. There's not even a road in anymore; I can pretty much guarantee that we'll see no one else, and it's a great place to fish -- basically untouched because it's so difficult to get to. But it'll be worth it."

Blair was interested; it sounded like Jim knew a lot more than he'd said. "What d'you mean, 'no road anymore'? And how did you find it?"

"Well... Sandburg, look ahead! To our left!" Ellison removed his foot from the gas, and pressed lightly on the brake before releasing it to let the truck continue quietly forward on residual momentum.

A broad smile lit Blair's face as he watched the doe and fawn grazing peacefully at the edge of the trees, unperturbed by the slow passage of the truck. Once they were past, he released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "That was so cool! We always know that there are animals in the forest, but we hardly ever get to see any -- except for you, with your senses. With those guys in the shadows, I probably wouldn't have noticed them if you hadn't pointed them out. Thanks, man."

"Think nothing of it, Chief. We'll probably see plenty in the next week -- deer, elk, possibly some otters, maybe a badger; could even see a bear if we're unlucky."

"You make it sound like Shangri-La," Blair said, intrigued.

"Pretty close. I've only been up there twice, and never told anyone -- too selfish. Of course, someone else could find it the way I did, with a little research."

Blair widened his eyes in pretended shock. "My God, Jim Ellison admits to doing research? The world as we know it may end." He chuckled, and leaned away from Jim's half-hearted attempt to whap his head. "So tell me about this miraculous place."

"Stoneville -- it's a ghost town now, completely abandoned. It was mentioned in a book of local legends I read when I was a teenager, and this one grabbed me and stuck in my memory. Used to be a mining town, with a bit of lumbering on the side. But the mines played out, and the lumbering wasn't self-sustaining; it was too far from major waterways to transport the logs. 'Round about the eighteen-nineties, people started to drift away. Then the Spanish flu epidemic of nineteen-eighteen wiped out three-fourths of the remaining population. There weren't enough survivors to keep the town viable; everyone picked up and moved away. The buildings have fallen in, and the road is all grown over, but the fishing can't be beat, and the peacefulness is so deep you can hold it in your hands." Jim cast a half-abashed smile toward his friend. "I think you'll like it Chief, and it's so close to the middle of nowhere that no one will bother us."

"With our luck, I'm not going to bet on it," Blair chuckled. "But it sounds good, man, just what we need." He went back to watching the passing forest, until his memory tossed up one of Jim's statements. "So, what was the legend?"


"You said you read about it in a book of local legends. What was it?"

"Oh..." He frowned in thought. "I really can't remember. At fifteen I was mightily impressed, but I guess I grew out of being impressed and forgot what it was." He shrugged. "You can check it when we get back to Cascade, if you want."

"Jim, I thought you understood the concept of 'forewarned is forearmed'," Blair protested. "I mean, it would be helpful to know whether we're supposed to look out for lake monsters or unicorns."

Ellison gave him the 'sardonic raised eyebrow'. "Sandburg, neither of us needs to worry about unicorns, and the lake is too small for monsters. Of course, you might have to avoid the wood nymphs that want to carry you away."

"Better wood nymphs than the hulking ogres that might want you to join them," he snorted. "But I guess as long as it wasn't werewolves or vampires you've forgotten, we're good. So... how long till we get there?"

"Sandburg, you're worse than a kid. Three more hours, and worth every minute of it. So be a good little boy and watch the pretty trees go by."

"Jim?" Blair waited until Ellison glanced his way, then stuck out his tongue, crossed his eyes, and thumbed his nose.

"Very mature, Chief; I'm impressed with how you're growing up."

Blair chuckled again and turned to watch the passing scenery. He could already feel the stress of the past few weeks being peeled away from his psyche and, judging by Jim's teasing, his friend felt the same. Yes, this week would be just what the doctor ordered.

The sign said,

Welcome to Tonasket,

A Town of 1,000 Friendly People (and three or four old grouches.)

Blair grinned; somebody had a sense of humor. "So, what're we here for?"

"This is the end of civilization, Chief," Jim answered as he pulled up to the pumps in front of 'The Old Country Store'. "Last chance to gas up and get the perishables we'll need -- eggs and bacon, maybe a jug of juice since you won't be able to make your algae shakes out here. Why don't you go in and see what looks good while I fill 'er up?"

"Sounds like a plan, Stan." Blair approached the store, his anthropologist's gaze taking in every aspect. Small towns like this could provide fascinating nuggets of human interaction, so different from a large city, yet so similar in many aspects. He pushed through the weathered screen door, listening in delight to the tinkling of the bell overhead. Spying a stack of hand-baskets, he grabbed one and set off on what felt like a treasure hunt, meandering through aisles that showcased everything from artichokes to zucchini, with side trips past chicken feed, gardening supplies, and sewing fabrics.

Shortly thereafter, he had Jim's stipulated bacon and eggs -- from free-range local chickens, the carton assured him -- as well as a carton of orange juice. He'd also grabbed three plump, ripe tomatoes -- organically grown in local gardens, according to the sign -- that would be delicious in a morning omelet. As Blair reached the check-out counter, Jim appeared beside him. "This too, Chief," he said, placing a blueberry pie next to the other items. "My nose tells me it's homemade, without artificial anything."

"You got it, mister," the cashier assured him cheerfully as she started to ring up the items. "Sally Ann picks them berries herself, and makes the crust from scratch. You won't find a better pie in three states."

"Only three?" Jim asked, a twinkle in his eye. "You're supposed to tell us that it's the best this side of the Mississippi, or north of Los Angeles. We might think you're slighting Sally Ann's expertise if you only claim three states." He deftly avoided the elbow that Sandburg aimed at his ribs.

"Ain't been in those places, and don't know nobody that has," she retorted, matching his teasing with a smile of her own. "'Sides, if people from more'n three states was to come lookin', Sally Ann'd be hard-pressed to keep with the demand." She winked as she counted the change into his hand. "We need to keep enough for the townfolk to have their share. You sure you got everything, now?"

"We're planning on doing some fishing, and we could use some new flies," Jim answered, "but I didn't see any in the store. Is there a place in town where we can pick something up?"

"Yep; Tom's Tackle Box, about a mile down the road. We got an agreement; we don't sell fishing supplies, and he don't sell drygoods." She smiled merrily at what was obviously an old joke, served up fresh to anyone new. "It's just before the turnoff to Oroville. Got a big ol' fish carving out front, kinda like a totem pole; ya' can't miss it. Tell 'im Hazel sent ya'."

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After stopping for lunch at 'Sarge's Burger Bunker' -- Jim had vetoed Blair's suggestions of 'The Udder Restaurant' and 'All Perked Up - Groceries and Dining' -- they resumed their journey, traveling a narrow road through dense stands of trees.

The turn-off had a warning sign: Unimproved Road. Suitable only for trucks and 4-wheel drive vehicles. As Blair bounced on the seat, he wondered what it must be like after a hard rain. Probably impassable even to the reliable 'Sweetheart'. As they hit another pothole and his head narrowly missed impacting the roof, he wondered if they'd even make it over the current dry surface.

Finally, Jim pulled into an open circular area at the end of the rough road and parked. Stout wooden barriers -- cut from whole logs -- prevented vehicles from going further, although the lack of anything resembling a road past this point should have indicated that motorized passage was no longer allowed. The trees around them towered to tremendous heights and, with the motor shut off, the only sounds were the rushing of the wind through the treetops, and the chittering of birds among the branches. They might have been the only people on the planet -- were it not for three other trucks parked around the circle, and the well-used path that led off to their right.

"I think we're in trouble, Jim," Blair declared with ominous tones. "It looks like someone else has done their research. Remember, we need to be twenty miles from other people, not two hundred yards or whatever."

"Relax, Sandburg; those guys are just weekend warriors." Jim waved at the trailhead with a careless hand. "There's pretty good fishing about a half-mile down that path, but my place is even better. We're heading about five miles that way." His nod indicated a spot almost directly opposite the only visible trail. "We won't be bothered, because no one will even know we're there."

"Five miles?" Blair squeaked. "With all of this stuff?" His backpack was already bulging with a change of clothes, plus extra underwear and socks, and several books to enjoy when he wasn't fishing or hiking. Jim's backpack wasn't quite so full, but there was still two sleeping bags, a tent, and their food to carry, as well as the fishing poles and his spear.

Jim snorted and shook his head. "Yesterday, you were all gung-ho for twenty. I thought you were an old hand at expeditions, Sandburg. This is nothing. I'll lash the tent and my sleeping bag to the bottom of my pack, and you'll carry your sleeping bag the same way. We'll split the non-perishable food between our packs, and I'll carry the cooler with the perishable stuff. You'll carry the fishing gear, and we're good to go."

A short time later, Blair announced, "I can't fit all my share of the food in my pack, man. Do you have any room in yours?" Jim looked over to survey the situation.

"The problem is all those books, Sandburg; this is a fishing trip, not a literary convention. Leave some of them in the truck.

"There are only four!" he protested. "And two of them are paperbacks. I need something to do when we're not fishing."

Jim ticked the possibilities off on his fingers. "Fishing, hiking, swimming, wild-animal watching, cooking, eating, sleeping... and I figured you'd probably like to explore what's left of Stoneville."

Blair's silence was stubborn. He'd leave his laptop locked in the truck, but he needed something to read.

Jim knew an addict when he saw one; there was no fighting the need. "Look," he said patiently, "you can't read them all at once. Leave two here. When you finish the other two, it'll be a nice hike back to trade them out."

Blair had to admit that it made sense, and soon had the remainder of the food stowed in his pack. He heaved it onto his shoulders, grabbed the fishing gear, and turned to follow Jim into the forest.

It had been almost a hundred years since any logging had been done in this area. Although the trees weren't the giants found in old-growth forests, they were substantial enough to prevent the development of most underbrush. Jim and Blair walked over a cushion of moist earth and fallen leaf detritus, welcoming the shade that protected them from the early-afternoon sun. Within fifteen minutes Blair realized that, if he tried to find the truck, he'd be hopelessly lost. "Hey, Jim, how are you finding your way?" he wondered.

"I've got a compass." Jim lifted a hand to show what he held. "But mostly, I just know."

Oh, now, that was interesting. "'Just know' how, Jim? What information are you using?"

"Chief, I've had a lot of experience with this stuff. I just took a compass bearing, got a bead on the direction we need to go, and I can tell if I veer off a straight line. It's just... a gut feeling," he finished, unable to explain any more clearly.

"Sounds good," Blair assured him, not wanting to push any harder. But he filed the information away, wondering how he could test Jim's directional sense. If Jim had taken a bearing, then was blindfolded and turned, would he be able to find the same bearing again, still blindfolded? They might be able to use that information, sometime.

Thirty minutes later, Jim said abruptly, "It's the waterfall."


"There's a small waterfall just above Stoneville, about fifty feet high. They used it to power a gristmill and sawmill. I've just realized that I'm following the sound; I must have heard it subliminally and locked onto it without noticing."

"Oh, man, that is so cool! So how far away are we now, and how far when we were at the parking lot?"

Jim paused, and turned in a circle, surveying the area. "About..." It seemed to Blair that he consulted some inner marker. "We're about three miles from the falls now, about five when we started." He pointed an admonishing finger at his guide. "And that's all the information you need; call it a real-world test and let it drop. This week is for relaxing, remember?"

Blair nodded reassuringly. "Got it, Jim; no tests," he promised. At least, not this week, he amended. He'd have to devise the bearing tests with and without distinctive sounds. But when you were dealing with a sentinel, could you find any place without distinctive sounds?

They walked on, Jim following his auditory marker, and Blair following his partner, marveling once again about the things the sentinel could do.

Oh, yeah, Blair thought, this place is absolutely worth all the trouble to get here. He flicked his rod and dropped the fly on the glassy surface of the water, next to a fallen log that provided perfect shelter for a weary fish to rest, hoping to be protected from predators. Not this time, pal; you and I have an appointment for a dinner date. He lifted the rod-tip and flicked it again, allowing the fly to make a new 'landing' on the water.

On the opposite bank, and slightly downstream, Jim was performing his own flick-and-drop ritual; his fly landed next to a good-sized boulder. The sound of rapids downstream was barely audible -- to normal senses, anyway -- and served to enhance the quiet of this spot.

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After having put up the tent, arranged the campsite, and gathered wood for a fire, they'd realized it was the perfect time to get in a little fishing before dark; with the lowering sun casting cool shadows across the water and bugs landing on the surface, the fish were rising to feed. Blair patiently played with his fly, and sent 'enticing' thoughts to any lurking trout. He hoped to gain a few more points in the unstated competition between him and Jim -- who would land the first fish, the biggest, the most, the shortest catch times? It amused him to play these games whenever he was engaged in a physical activity with Jim -- or any of the guys from Major Crime -- but he recognized it as typical male bonding behavior. Not that he and Jim needed any more bonding; their partnership couldn't be any more solid than it was. But maintaining an adequate level of 'BS points' helped him fit smoothly into the closed society of the Police Department. Besides -- kicking ass once in a while was just plain fun. He lifted the rod-tip again, and set the fly down in another promising spot.

With three trout between them -- enough for supper -- they had pulled in their lines and were headed back to camp when Jim stopped with hand upraised and head cocked. "Do you hear that?" he whispered.

Blair tried, but -- "No; what?"

"Wait here a minute; I'll put the fish in the river and be right back."

Jim disappeared silently into the shadows while Blair waited impatiently. He couldn't tell if Jim's actions were leading to a pleasant or unpleasant surprise. God, he hoped it wasn't gunrunners or poachers again; he'd turn in his Union card and drag Jim to Bora Bora with him.

Without warning, Jim was beside him again. Blair jerked, startled, but obeyed the caution of Jim's finger raised to his lips. "Don't say anything, and walk as quietly as you can," he instructed with the tiniest thread of sound. "Follow me." He turned and led the way into the shadows under the trees.

Although light lingered in the sky over the river, it was dark enough under the trees that Blair couldn't see clearly. He stretched out a hand to grab Jim's shirttail, ensuring that he'd be able to 'follow' wherever Jim led, and tried to step exactly in the ex-Ranger's footprints. If Jim could step without crackling sticks or dried leaves underfoot, then so could Blair.

Ten minutes later, Blair could hear high-pitched whistles and guttural chattering sounds; some kind of animal, obviously, but he wasn't sure what. In a few more moments, Jim tugged his arm to bring him down to the ground. They crawled forward, using a slight upthrust of the embankment as cover, then cautiously peered over the top.

Blair was immediately captivated. Below them, the river had widened into a small pool -- and that pool seemed to be a playground for at least a dozen river otters. They played with carefree abandon, strongly resembling children let out on the last day of school. Blair watched, entranced, as some of the animals took turns slipping down a mud 'slide' into the water, while the youngsters -- well, smaller animals, anyway -- played a fast game of 'tag' through the water and over some fallen branches. The scene was lit by the last rays of the setting sun, as if Mother Nature Herself had invited them to a critically-acclaimed theatre performance.

But this is better than any play, Blair thought, and settled down to watch until the otters quit playing, or it became too dark for him to see. Beside him, he felt Jim settle in to wait patiently, and he raised a thumb to silently thank his friend for giving him such a treat.

Blair was just putting his half of the third trout onto his plate when he noticed Jim cock his head and frown slightly. It couldn't be the otters; Jim had already identified and marked that sound, and would have dismissed it from 'alert status'. Blair closed his eyes to maximize his own hearing but, to his average senses, there was nothing unusual in the forest sounds around them.

"What've you got, Jim?" he asked quietly. "Whatever it is, I'm not getting it; you're hearing it at a sentinel level."

Jim seemed to hesitate. "It sounds like... a horse, moving fast. Not a runaway," he clarified. "More like a brisk canter. But it can't be; there's no roads out here. D'you suppose my hearing could be skipping over air layers or something, and picking up an echo from farther than I can usually hear?"

"Could be," Blair agreed cautiously. "Or maybe there's a road there now; it's been a lot of years since you were here, and there could be a new route from Tonasket to someplace else."

"I don't think so. If I can hear a horse from whatever distance it is, I could certainly hear any cars that would've passed this afternoon, and there's been nothing. All we have around us is uninhabited forest, all the way back to Tonasket." He stood and walked a few steps from the fire, still tracking the sound that Blair couldn't hear.

Blair looked around, evaluating the information Jim was giving him, as he followed his friend and stood close enough to prevent a zoneout. He trusted the sentinel's senses, he really did, but... "The moon is only three-quarters full," he pointed out, gazing upward to check the sky. "Can a horse go that fast under these conditions? It's not like they have headlights."

"Good point, Chief. They could do it if they know the area pretty well, but the rider would still be risking a bad fall if the horse put a foot in a hole it couldn't see in the ground-shadows." Jim shook his head and relaxed his listening pose. "Well, whatever it was, it's gone now." He returned to sit by the fire, pick up his abandoned plate, and put the last portion of trout on it. He chewed thoughtfully, then said, "What d'you say we hike that way tomorrow and see if there is a road I don't know about? If there is, it'll answer a lot of questions."

"And if there isn't?" Blair countered. He chuckled at the fierce glare Jim threw his way as he sat across the fire and grabbed his own discarded plate. "Hey, chill, man. Just trying to cover all possibilities. I'm sure it'll all be clear in the plain light of day; we just have to find it."

"You don't have to coddle me, Sandburg," Jim growled. "I know what I heard."

"I'm not! We've been through too much strange shit together; no way would I doubt your senses. You heard what you thought you heard. But just like always, we need to find the answers before we can be sure what's going on."

Jim grunted in acknowledgement. He hoped they could solve this little mystery quickly; they were supposed to be on vacation, dammit.

They crested the top of a small rocky hill and looked down the other side to see -- nothing. Or at least, no road. The same forest that they'd been hiking through for two and a half hours spread before them, with a few breaks here and there from small creeks, or clearings caused by downed trees, but absolutely no sign of a road, or anything manmade.

Blair threw himself under the nearest tree. "Time out, man," he gasped as he twisted the top off his canteen. "I need a rest." Neither man was heavily burdened, each carrying only a canteen and a few emergency supplies 'just in case', but Jim had set a strenuous pace. The tree-growth cut off any breezes that might have cooled them and, despite the shade, Blair was hot and tired. He upended his canteen and took several deep swallows, then capped it again and leaned back against the tree to catch his breath.

Jim prowled the length of the stony outcropping, occasionally stopping to extend his vision or hearing, desperately hoping for some sign that would indicate a hidden road, or even a wide foot trail through the forest. He knew what he'd heard, dammit, and a horse had to have some kind of open area to travel as fast as a canter. If there was no such open space, then... what? He'd heard an auditory 'mirage'? He was going crazy?

"Jim," Blair called quietly, "come and chill out for a few minutes. If you collapse on the way back, I won't be able to drag your ass to camp -- assuming I can find the camp without you, anyway."

"Sandburg, I can do five times this distance with a forty-pound pack," he snapped. "I'm not going to be collapsing any time soon." But he squatted next to Blair and took a hefty drink from his own canteen.

"So, how far have we come?" Blair asked as he used the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his face. "And have you seen or heard or smelled anything that would indicate the presence of something manmade?"

Jim shook his head in frustration. "About eight miles. And nothing since we passed Stoneville. Hell, there wasn't even a road near there -- like I told you, it's all overgrown. But there has to be something I missed," he snarled, rising to stare down into the forest again. "Otherwise..." He shrugged helplessly, unwilling to put his thoughts into words.

"Jim, you're not crazy," Blair calmly assured him. "Whatever you heard, it was real. Just because you can't find it now, doesn't make it less real. If you hear it again, we'll just have to figure out a different way to search, that's all." The broad shoulders in front of him remained rigid, apparently unconvinced. Blair sighed and tried again. "Okay, look -- do you know where Tonasket is from here?'

Jim pointed off to Blair's right. "Yeah, it's about ten miles that way."

"Okay. If you focus your senses, is there anything that would tell you there's a town over there, if you didn't know?" As he spoke, Blair stood and walked to Jim's side, ready to ground the sentinel as he searched. He waited patiently, letting Jim explore the range of his senses farther than they'd ever tried.

"I think so," Jim finally said, uncertainly. "It's like... the air is different over the town, somehow -- dustier, and I can... feel the gasoline pollution in the back of my throat. I think. It's so faint that I might just be imagining it."

"Nope." Blair seemed utterly certain. "Your senses just aren't used to stretching that far, so they don't have different levels to compare. You could refine it with practice, but that's not necessary. Now, you mentioned a combination of touch / taste / smell. Can you hear anything, like maybe a tractor in the fields, or a car horn on the street? Try it with and without the piggyback effect -- if your eyes will zoom you five miles closer to town, you could, like, listen from there as well as from here." Again he waited patiently, his hand gripping Jim's shoulder to keep him from zoning.

"You're right, Chief. From here, it's so faint that I wouldn't notice unless I was specifically trying to hear. But when I piggyback -- it was about four and a half miles out, I think -- I can hear the town easily."

Blair bounced in excited satisfaction. "All right! So now we know that you can hear clearly somewhere between five and ten miles. We've already walked eight, without finding a source for the sound you heard last night. If it was just another couple of miles in front of us, you'd recognize it easily from here -- would probably already have it pinpointed from a few miles back. If it's more than two miles in front of us, it would be too far for you to have heard it from camp. In other words," he grinned up at his friend, "we've come far enough to prove what you thought -- there is no road that a horse and rider could travel along, close enough for you to hear it. So if it happens again, we'll know to look for another explanation."

Jim cocked an eyebrow at the energized man in front of him. "You make it sound too easy, Chief. I still think there's something hinky going on -- but I don't see a way to get a handle on it right now. So, you ready to head back?"

"Oh, yeah. I'm dying for a swim to cool off and get rid of some of the dirt; I think the otter pool will make a great swimmin' hole. Let's go!" He turned and plunged into the trees at the edge of the outcropping.

Jim chuckled as he headed toward another section of the forest. "This way, Hiawatha -- unless you want to end up in Oroville about a week from now."

Blair grinned sheepishly and turned to follow his friend back into the depths of the forest.

"Hey, Jim, can you tell how deep the pool is?" Blair asked as he shucked his clothing and left it draped over a convenient boulder. "I mean, is it deep enough to dive into, or just swimming depth?"

Jim paused in removing his own clothing and turned his senses on the water, letting himself feel the currents and movement. "It's pretty clear, about fifteen to twenty feet in most places. It's too shallow right here," he nodded at the muddy verge near them, "but if you go about a quarter way around that side, you'll be safe."

"All right!" Blair trotted over to make a visual check of the suggested area, then moved back about ten yards. "Cowabunga!" he shouted as he took a running start, then executed a cannonball into the sun-warmed pool, laughing delightedly at the resultant splashing explosion of water.

Jim shook his head; sometimes his friend was nothing more than an overgrown kid. On the other hand... "You're a piker, Sandburg!" he shouted as he started his own run to a cannonball jump. With his greater mass, the upward splash was considerably larger. He surfaced to find Blair still wiping water from his eyes. "Gotcha!" he chortled.

"Oh, I don't think so." Blair smiled sweetly, then rotated on his own axis and sent a surging kick-splash into Jim's face, immediately digging into the water to out-swim any retaliation.

Ah-ha! This was war. Jim was quickly in hot pursuit, following Blair as he dived and twisted through the water. But he soon discovered that his size didn't give him as much advantage as he'd expected. His greater arm reach and musculature let him move through the water more quickly than Sandburg, but the smaller man was much more flexible and agile, continually twisting away just when Jim thought capture was imminent.

Finally, after about fifteen minutes, they mutually declared the battle a draw, and ceased hostilities. Momentarily treading water, they grinned at each other in high good spirits. "Are you sure your animal spirit isn't an otter?" Jim asked.

Blair shrugged nonchalantly. "An otter would be a good spirit animal; it signifies a woman's healing wisdom -- no cracks, now! -- guidance in unmasking talents, which is useful for a recalcitrant sentinel, psychic awareness -- excellent talent for a shaman, you must admit -- and understanding the value of play. But as talented as otter is, he probably couldn't knock sense into panther's thick skull when necessary, so I better stick with wolf." He exhaled deeply, and let his body ease back into the water.

That looked like a good idea. Jim swam a few strokes to get out of accidental collision range, then he also lay back in the water. They floated quietly, supported by the buoyant water and warmed by the sun as breathing and heart rates returned to normal.

When the sun touched the treetops, Jim turned over and started swimming to the bank. "The fish are gettin' hungry, Chief," he called. "We need to be there if we want to eat tonight." He dried himself with his T-shirt -- it would dry before the air grew cool enough for him to need it -- and started to dress.

"Too bad we can't bottle this and take it with us," Blair said as he joined Jim and used his own T-shirt as a towel. "If we could sell it, we'd make a fortune."

"Sounds like a helluva karmic debt, Junior. What would Naomi say about you trying to sell peace? Shouldn't it be given freely?"

Blair turned and stared at his friend. "This is getting scary, man," he complained. "First you talk about research, and now you mention karmic debt. What's gotten into you?"

"Must be the company I keep," Jim suggested. "I've been hanging around with this real smart guy. He actually makes sense sometimes, and sometimes I even listen. Not that I'll tell him, of course." Although he kept his face sober, his eyes twinkled at his friend.

"Sounds about right, I guess. I, on the other hand, have obviously been hanging out with the wrong crowd." Blair shook his head mournfully. "You're right; selling peace is waaaay outta line. I'll have to do some heavy meditating and soul-searching when we get home. Still, it would be nice to have this when the job gets hectic."

Jim turned and led the way into the trees, back toward their camp. "I know exactly what you mean, partner. But we'll be able to swim again before we leave; no reason we can't do it every day. Then when we get home, we can hold it in memory -- and make plans to come back before the weather turns cold."

"It's a date," Blair declared firmly, "and I'll hold you to it; you won't be allowed to wiggle out of it."

"I'm counting on that, Chief."

It was a little earlier than the previous evening -- the sun had only just disappeared below the mountains, and there was still light in the sky -- when Jim lifted his head and turned to face into the forest. Blair went immediately to his side, laying a hand on the sentinel's arm. "Is it the horse again?"

"Yeah, exactly like last night. Except..." he frowned and seemed to be straining, if that were possible. "There's another sound with the hoofbeats. Something weird, like... I dunno. It's kind of a swish-swish thing; doesn't make sense at all."

"You're pushing too hard," Blair suggested. "Instead of you going out to meet the sound, pull back and let it come to you. Let it flow into you, relax into it, and then let your sight flow to the source so maybe you can see what's making it." He waited quietly while Jim took a deep breath and relaxed tense muscles. A few more minutes, and then Jim pulled abruptly away, breaking the connection between them.

"That's enough," he said brusquely, striding back toward the fire. "Let's get those fish cleaned and cooked."

"Jim? What --?" Blair hurried after him, but Jim didn't respond, seemingly absorbed with the supper preparations. All right; Blair would wait...

It was full dark, with stars shining overhead. They'd eaten and cleaned up, and now Jim sat staring into the fire, while Blair stared at his friend.

"Jim? I heard it too, this time. I swear," he went on hurriedly when Jim lifted his head to stare at him. "Maybe it was a sentinel-guide connection thing because I had my hand on your arm; it stopped as soon as you pulled away from me. I didn't hear the swish-swish you mentioned -- probably too soft a sound for my ears -- but I definitely heard the hoofbeats, man. It's not your imagination or you going crazy or something."

"Crazy might be better," Jim snarled. "These damned senses show me too much..." He took a deep breath and scrubbed his hands over his face, as if he could wipe away the after-image of what he'd seen, then watched Blair's face closely as he admitted, "It's a ghost."

Blair blinked; it was so unexpected. "A ghost? Like Molly?"

"A ghost, like Molly," he confirmed. "A lady riding sidesaddle, black habit, chestnut horse. I saw her as clear as I see you, but she wasn't quite -- solid."

Blair nodded. "Well, that makes sense. It explains why the horse doesn't need a road."

"Sense? Sandburg, you have a loose definition of the word." His voice sounded bitter, causing Blair to shift uneasily; the sentinel was hurting, and the guide would have to fix it. Jim continued, "They're probably using the old road, from before it got overgrown. But it doesn't explain what they're doing out here."

"Well, I suppose they lived in Stoneville, so of course they'd ride around here," Blair said reasonably.

"No, I mean, what they're doing here. Molly was trapped as a ghost because she needed her murder to be solved. So I have to wonder why this lady is still riding through the forest -- what's keeping her from finding her peace?"

Blair raked a hand through his hair. "That's a good question. Don't murder victims' ghosts usually hang around the place they died?"

"You think I know?" Jim growled. "But she could have been shot from ambush, somewhere around here. Or maybe had a bad fall and broke her neck."

"Death from a fall would be like natural causes," Blair objected. "It shouldn't precipitate -- 'ghosthood'."

Jim's frustration seemed to be rising toward the surface. "Well, whatever the cause, it happened," he snapped. "She's a ghost. And I'm a sentinel and you tell me the sentinel takes care of his tribe, but if that spreads out to ghosts, too, how the hell am I supposed to help them? It's too much, Chief; I can't do it all alone."

"You don't have to do it all alone," Blair gently reminded him. "The sentinel has a guide to help; whatever you need, man. And when we're in Cascade, you have the whole of Major Crime and the Police Department standing at your back. As for this ghost-rider," he shrugged and made his voice deliberately casual, "nobody says you have to help her." He gauged the effect of his words; would Jim rise to the challenge? "It's not really our problem; she can just keep riding until whenever."

"No, she can't." Jim's voice was firm, and he relaxed slightly as he made his decision. "Now that I know, I can't just walk away."

"I didn't think so, man. If you could ignore someone in need, you wouldn't be you," Blair said fondly. "But we need more information before we can make a plan. What d'ya say we go in to town tomorrow? I can check out the library, and maybe there's a local historian to talk to; I doubt we're the only ones to have seen and heard this ghost-lady."

Jim nodded and relaxed even more. Even so tenuous a plan as this gave him a feeling of control. "Good idea, Chief. And while we're in town, we can have lunch at Sarge's again."

"No way!" Blair protested. "You got to pick last time; now it's my turn."

"I warn you, Sandburg, I'm not stepping into that 'Udder' place."

"Yeah, yeah, no sense of adventure. But it's not that small a town; there has to be someplace we can both agree on."

They continued bickering amiably as they spread out their bedrolls. If there was to be time for research after hiking to the truck and driving into town, they'd have to make an early start. Jim made sure that the fire was completely doused, and soon a medley of very masculine snores rose to join the night noises of the forest.

The library was easy enough to find, situated just one block off the main street. Jim pulled into a parking spot directly opposite the front doors, and turned to his partner. "Y'know, Chief, that blueberry pie was so good, I think we need another one. And Hazel strikes me as the type that would be happy to share the local legends with anyone who'll listen."

"Jim, Jim, Jim." Blair shook his head sorrowfully. "You're doing research, talking to people -- you're going to ruin your reputation, man. What will Simon and the gang think?" He sighed deeply. "But since you're trashing your rep anyway, seems like maybe you should get Simon a fancy new fly. I'll bet Tom could tell you a tale or two, in between the fishing stories."

"Good thinking, Chief; I'll just bet he could. So I'll leave you to poke through the newspaper files and ghost stories in here, while I go talk to Hazel and Tom. I'll come pick you up in a couple of hours and we can go to lunch."

"Sounds like a plan," Blair agreed. He grabbed his laptop -- he might want to transfer some of the information he hoped to find -- and hopped out of the truck, then watched as Jim headed off on his own fact-finding mission.

As he approached the library, he wondered if it served dual duty -- museum or cultural center, perhaps, as well as library. Many small towns had community buildings that encompassed multiple purposes, and this looked like it would fit the bill. It was a long, low building made out of peeled logs -- local timber, Blair supposed -- and had a totem pole sitting in front of lush trees to each side of the main entrance. He recognized traditional Coast Salish work, and paused to study each one; the workmanship was awesome.

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Inside, his suspicions of museum-cum-library were confirmed; Blair noticed displays of native baskets, weaving, pottery and carving. But he wouldn't find the answers he sought there; it was highly unlikely that a tribeswoman had donned a formal habit to roam the area in a sidesaddle.

Blair donned his 'friendly, eager grad student' persona -- not such a stretch, after all, and it would be more effective than a 'cop' demeanor -- and approached the comfortable-looking matron working behind the desk. "Hi," he said. "I wonder if you could help me?"

"I should hope so, young man," she said, smiling to take the sting out of her words. "That's a librarian's job, after all."

"And I think civilization would crumble without librarians," Blair declared fervently. "I'd probably have flunked out of college without the help of ladies like you."

She gave an unladylike snort. "And it's young men like you who make ladies like me old before our time. The soft soap isn't necessary; just ask your question."

"Right. Well, my partner and I are fishing in the area -- camping out -- and last night we got into the traditional 'telling ghost stories around the campfire' gig. And I need to write a paper for my Classic Americana class, and it suddenly occurred to me that local ghost legends would be just the ticket. So Jim dropped me off for a couple hours of research -- I'm Blair, by the way -- and I thought I'd dig into whatever material you have that deals with local legends. Or maybe Tonasket has an Internet page with that type of thing linked?"

"Good heavens, boy, do you ever breathe?" She smiled sunnily as she rose and headed toward the stacks, Blair following behind. "I'm Jonquil -- mama was a garden fancier; pleased to meet you, Blair. We don't have an Internet site, yet -- we figure maybe next year -- but you should be able to find what you want here." She handed Blair three thick volumes, and pulled down another three before leading him to a study table.

Jonquil lingered as Blair opened the first book, staring at him speculatively. She seemed to come to a decision, and said abruptly, "You spin a good tale, Blair, but I sincerely doubt that a young man would leave off fishing to research ghost stories. So I'm guessing -- you heard something out where you're camped? Maybe even saw something?" She watched his face intently, looking for any clue.

"Not really," he hedged. "It was probably just the wind, or something. We're city-folk, you know; not used to the noises of the deep woods." His smile invited her to share his mild embarrassment at being an awkward tenderfoot.

"Blair, I've been around the block a time or two; I know when someone's trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Would it help if I told you that you're not the only one who's seen or heard Miss Amelia?" Jonquil smiled at his drop-jawed expression. "I thought so; Miss Amelia is our best-known citizen." She pulled up a chair and sat facing him. So, you tell me everything you saw and heard, and I'll tell you all about Miss Amelia Featherstone."

"Now, this is the most popular fly I carry," Tom said as he handed Jim a bit of orange and green fluff to examine. "The fishermen around here won't use hardly anything else; the trout'll rise to it when nothing else works."

Jim inspected it closely; it was well-made, with a certain indefinable something... "Very nice," he said approvingly. "Is it hand-tied?"

"Yep. Benny Jones makes 'em; says he likes to keep busy now that he's retired. He was Sheriff here for almost forty years. You wouldn't think it in a little town like this, but some of the things Benny's run into would curl your hair." Tom chuckled. "'Bout ten years back, we had some folks come in and set up a religious commune about three miles out of town; they believed that the human body was sacred and should never be covered up. Of course, what folks do on their own land is nobody's business but theirs, but when they came into town for shopping, it flustered some of the ladies. Benny had to go out and talk to them; said later he didn't know which was harder -- talking to the naked women or the naked men."

"Eyes-up would be difficult in those circumstances," Jim agreed.

"That's what Benny said, but at least they promised to wear clothes in town. It wasn't a problem for long, though; when the weather got colder, I guess the 'not covering the sacred body' thing didn't seem like such a good idea anymore. They all packed up and left before Halloween."

Jim nodded. "I work with the Cascade Police Department, and I've found that if you wait long enough, some problems will just go away. And some things that seem really strange have perfectly logical explanations. A couple of years ago, for instance, we had reports of ghost lights in an abandoned house, and it turned out to be teenagers playing some kind of fantasy game; what people saw was their flashlights waving around." He chuckled, inviting Tom to share the joke. "So I'm betting there's a logical explanation for the horse I thought I heard cantering through the woods, last night about sundown. Is there some kind of natural echo effect around here, with distant sounds bouncing off the hills, or something like that?"

"Well, it's like this. I got an explanation, but if you want logic, it might not set too well." Tom regarded Jim soberly, trying to gauge how open-minded he might be.

Jim shrugged. "That's another thing you learn, working in law enforcement; even if you don't like an answer, sometimes you just have to accept it."

"Okay," Tom nodded. "Of course, if you don't believe it, it's no skin off my nose. What you heard was Miss Amelia on her horse. Lots of folks have heard her, and some have even seen her. She's been ridin' through here since eighteen seventy-two. But since eighteen eighty-six, she's been a ghost.

Deciding on lunch at the Maverick's Bar and Grill, Jim and Blair requested a quiet, out-of-the-way table, ignoring the speculative looks of the waitress. After placing their orders -- steak, salad, baked potato and beer for each -- they quietly discussed their findings.

"At least we know it wasn't foul play," Blair stated. "Amelia died of pneumonia in her own bed."

"So why is she a ghost?" Jim asked. "No murderer to be caught -- or brought to light, since a perp would be long dead by now -- and not even a violent accident to trap her spirit on this side. It doesn't make sense."

Blair buttered a hot roll while he considered his answer. "I've got a theory about that. I think she's still here because she's happy, and doesn't have a reason to move on."

"You don't need a reason," Jim objected. "You die, you move on to the afterlife -- and hope it's a good one instead of bad. Unless your spirit needs closure, like having your killer found. It's not like we get to choose."

"I did," Blair quietly reminded him.

"Chief..." A pained expression crossed Jim's face. "Are you saying you shouldn't have chosen, or you wish you'd chosen to go on ahead?"

"Absolutely not! I came back because it's where I want to be -- standing by your side." Blair spoke earnestly, trying once again to convince Jim that he hadn't given up anything important when he became Jim's permanent and official partner, guide to his sentinel. "What I'm saying is, if I got to choose, why shouldn't other people have the same possibility?"

"It still doesn't make sense," Jim complained, "unless she was afraid of going to Hell, and it doesn't sound like she'd be a candidate. Hazel and Tom both told me she was well-liked by everyone around. Even though her father was the richest man in town, she was about as far from a rich bitch as you can get; she helped people get food and medical attention if they needed it, even paying for it out of her own pocket, and she talked her father into improving working conditions and wages for the miners and lumberjacks. She instigated changes that most people didn't think about for another hundred years. Sounds to me like her afterlife should be pretty damn good."

Blair nodded as he cut into his steak. "You're right; she was generous and giving. But according to Jonquil, she was still Daddy's spoiled little pet -- and I think that's why she's still hanging around."

"Huh? You lost me, Chief."

"Okay, answer me this -- why does our spirit move on to the afterlife? Don't bother; rhetorical question. If you believe the major religions, most of the time, it's because we want to join with our loved ones who went before.

"But Amelia didn't really have any 'loved ones'. She never married -- and do you realize how unheard-of it was at that time for a thirty-year-old woman to not be married, especially one who was born into British gentry? She probably got away with it because she had brothers to carry on the all-important family name, but still, her father must've really indulged her. No marriage means she didn't have children. She wasn't close to her nieces and nephews, because her married siblings had moved too far away for easy visiting -- and she died before them, anyway. Because she died so young, even her parents outlived her." Blair shrugged, waving a hand as if it was self-evident. "No loved ones on the other side to draw her over, so she decided to just hang around and ride her horse."

"Tom did say it was her favorite activity," Jim agreed. He paused, thinking about it while he drank some beer, then continued, "But once her parents did pass on, why wouldn't she join them?"

"I think it's typical teenage behavior, sort of like a hundred years of saying, 'Later, dude'. Jonquil gave me the impression that Amelia never really matured; her mother ran the house, plenty of servants did the work, and Amelia did pretty much whatever she wanted -- which was mostly riding her horse all over this part of the country. When parents call kids to do something, for instance, how often do the kids say, 'In a little while', and the little while drags out for hours?"

"Not in my house, Chief."

"Well, not every kid or teenager; it depends on the home discipline," Blair conceded. "But I think Amelia was having so much fun riding that, when her parents died and she might have heard a call to 'come home', she said 'In a little while'... and her 'little while' isn't over yet. According to Jonquil, Amelia frequently said she'd like to ride forever. I think she just grabbed onto 'forever' and didn't let go."

"But how can we be sure? I hate to think of her wandering around because she doesn't know her parents are waiting for her to come home. That leaves Amelia and her parents just... empty."

Interesting, Blair thought. He cares so little for his family, and so much for other people's. He nodded, then shrugged. "Her parents, maybe, but not her. I think the town knows how she feels; I'll bet some people have actually met her, from time to time. Jonquil talked about Amelia like she's a favorite niece that everybody indulges. If they thought she was unhappy, they'd want her to move on, to find the peace she deserves. But they know she's already at peace, doing what she loves, so they don't worry about it."

"Tom and Hazel said the same thing. But what if they're wrong?" Jim challenged. "What if she's still here because nobody ever told her she could cross over? What if -- oh, I don't know -- maybe she doesn't even know she's dead, doesn't realize she's a ghost. Maybe that's the reason we're seeing her -- something wants us to step in and show her the way home."

Blair thought about it while the waitress refilled their water glasses and they ordered dessert. "What we have here is competing assumptions," he declared. "I think Amelia's happy, and we don't need to do anything. You think she needs to go home, whether she wants to or not. But neither of us can prove our assumption -- unless we ask her."

"And how do you expect us to do that, Chief?"

"Well, you talked to Molly," Blair pointed out. "But I suppose it would be tough to chase Amelia cross-country to talk to her. So I'm thinking maybe I could meditate my way onto the spirit plane, and talk to her there."

After the predictable objections, Jim had agreed with the idea. Before leaving town, they'd stopped at the local health food store so Blair could buy some organically produced bay leaves and -- after first checking with Jim to be sure that the sentinel didn't find the smell irritating or offensive -- some catnip. Both could be used in Wiccan rituals to enhance psychic abilities; Blair figured one or the other should help him reach the spirit plane and contact Amelia.

Now, with sunset coming on, he'd completed his simple preparations and sat cross-legged, relaxed in front of a tiny fire. Jim was sitting a short distance away -- upwind, just to be safe from traces of herbed smoke. He'd watch over his guide to be sure that nothing untoward happened.

Blair crushed a mixture of catnip and bay leaves between his palms, mixing the broken bits with the oils of his hands, then sprinkled them on the flickering flames. He closed his eyes and pictured Amelia as Jim had described her -- an attractive woman with laughing brown eyes and dark hair worn in a bun under a silk top hat, dressed in a plain, dark riding habit and riding a little chestnut mare. He leaned forward to breathe in the smoke and felt his mind start to drift; releasing control, he went where the spirits would take him.

Blair Sandburg rode his bay gelding out of Stoneville, heading toward the large house -- almost a mansion -- a half mile away. He had a riding date with Amelia Featherstone, and it wouldn't do to be late; the lady was highly independent and would ride off alone if she had no one to escort her.

Before he got to the house, he examined as much of himself as he could. Hunh! Had the spirit plane affiliated with Enterprise's holodeck? He was wearing tight white breeches and black knee-high boots. His black jacket had -- he turned to glance behind him -- uh-huh, long tails which fell to either side of the saddle. Underneath was -- jeeze, he'd get laughed out of Major Crime with all the ruffles and that particular shade of waistcoat. Salmon, his mind supplied helpfully, very fashionable in the eighteen-eighties. He sighed deeply and cocked an eye upward; yep, he even had a top-hat on his head.

As Blair approached the front of the house, he saw that he was barely in time. Amelia had just settled herself in the saddle. She looked like a period fashion-plate, wearing a simple but elegantly-designed riding habit in a deep green that contrasted well with her horse's copper-colored coat. Under the open collar -- good grief; his shirt was frillier than hers. He shook his head at the vagaries of fashion, grateful to be living a hundred years later. Blair watched as Amelia gathered her reins and nodded to the groom, who released his hold of the bridle and stepped back. With an encouraging cluck and a tap of her heel, she started down the drive.

Okay; showtime. He had to remember that he was a nineteenth-century gallant. As her horse approached his, Blair swept off his hat and bowed deeply. "Well met, Miss Featherstone! It's a nice day for a ride, isn't it?"

"Indeed it is, Mr. Sandburg." Amelia smiled enthusiastically, revealing a dimple on each cheek. "After the rains last week, it's pleasant to see the sun again. Amber feels the need to stretch her muscles after being cooped up for so long, and I am in complete agreement with her." She leaned forward to stroke the horse's neck.

Blair turned his horse to ride beside her as they trotted down the road. He admired the way she sat the saddle, and her control of her horse. Amelia seemed as comfortable on horseback as she would be in her own drawing room; she obviously was not a weekend rider who mounted a horse only to impress prospective beaus. "And I agree with you both," he said courteously. "Captain is also eager to stretch his legs."

"Then we should stop dilly-dallying." Her smile was a challenge as a tap of the crop sent her horse into a free-moving canter.

Blair grinned and let her keep the lead, since he had no idea where they were going. They stayed on the road for a couple of miles, then turned into the forest. The trail was fairly open, but it was necessary to moderate their pace to a more collected canter as they wove through the trees, passing from sunlight to shade and back again.

Eventually Amelia slowed to a trot, and then a walk as they emerged into an open grassy area at the edge of a bluff. Below them wound the river, and on the other side was the vast northern forest, rising to snow-capped mountains in the distance.

"I come here all the time," Amelia said quietly. "I think it must be the most beautiful spot within a hundred miles. I imagine Heaven must be like this. If it's not, I'd rather stay here than go there." Her glance suggested she was testing him, to see if he'd be shocked by her heresy.

"It is truly awe-inspiring; I can see why you love it so. But since it was made by God, don't you think His own home would be even more beautiful?"

Amelia shrugged. "Perhaps. But it's a matter of taste, isn't it? Some people prefer apple pie, and some prefer cherry. One is not better or worse than the other -- especially since the good Lord gave us both apples and cherries. I just know that if I could choose, I'd spend eternity riding through these hills and forests.

"And I have chosen, Mr. Sandburg." She turned and looked directly at Blair while he gaped, trying to play mental catch-up. "I'll go home eventually, but Mama and Papa will wait until then. So you can tell anyone who wants to know, that I'm quite happy to be exactly where I am."

"You know?" Blair gasped.

"That I'm a ghost? Of course, silly boy. I also know that you're a visitor to this level of existence. I appreciate the concern that brought you here, but it is truly unnecessary. I can go home whenever I want; I'm simply not yet ready." She turned her horse and headed toward another path through the trees, with Blair riding beside her. "But you shouldn't stay here too long; there is a possibility of getting lost and not finding your way back to your own level."

"Jim would find me," Blair muttered, hardly aware of what he was saying; he was still trying to absorb this new information.

Amelia nodded agreeably. "Oh, I'm sure he would; friends like that are an incomparable treasure. But you don't want to put him to all that trouble, do you?"

Blair shook his head gently, then more firmly as he shook off his surprise. "Forgive me, Miss Featherstone," he said, giving her another sweeping bow. "I've been churlish to question your decisions, even by innuendo. I'm sincerely pleased that you're happy with this level of existence, and I'll make no more suggestions against it."

Amelia laughed in delight. "Oh, very prettily spoken, Mr. Sandburg; you might almost be born of my time." She winked to see him blush. "But I'll tell you something... I have a friend as close to me as yours is to you, but it's not yet time for us to be together. When my friend is called home, then I'll go to join her, and later we'll be born into new lives, together. Every end is a new beginning, Mr. Sandburg; sometimes it just takes a little while. And in the span of eternity, a hundred years is a very short time indeed."

Since her beliefs matched his, Blair could hardly disagree. As they turned onto the road back toward Stoneville they trotted side by side, sharing easy conversation until it was time for him to go back to his body, and to Jim.

Jim sat with Blair's spare shirt in his hand. He didn't want to touch Blair and risk breaking the meditative trance, so he used the scent on the shirt to help him stay grounded as he split his attention between listening for the ghostly hoofbeats and monitoring his guide's vital signs. So far, so good -- Blair's heartbeat and respirations were about twenty percent slower than normal, but rhythmic and steady.

It was a long wait; the sun was well down and the stars shone brightly before he heard the sound of trotting hoofbeats. Remembering Blair's instructions of the previous evening, he deliberately relaxed his attention to let the sound flow through him, then followed it outward with his vision. And there they were, Sandburg and Amelia trotting side by side down a sunlit road. Jim recognized the devilish tilt of Sandburg's eyebrows; he had just said something outrageous, and Amelia's peels of laughter floated on the breeze.

Jim laughed too, in mingled relief and amusement. The image of Sandburg with crisp white ruffles at his throat and a pink vest would stay with him for years to come. Too bad he couldn't take a picture, but even a verbal description should make good blackmail material.

He watched as the riders stopped in front of a large house on the outskirts of a town that was in considerably better repair than its present-day state. Sandburg dismounted quickly and helped Amelia down, then bowed over her hand as if he'd been born to it. Jim chuckled; it seemed that Blair could charm the ladies of any era. He glanced toward the man sitting by the fire and, when he looked back, the spirit images -- or whatever he'd been observing -- were gone.

About time, Jim thought as he hurried toward the fire; he'd been concerned that Blair had been out of body too long. But now his heartbeat and respirations were increasing to normal levels. Jim knelt in front of him with barely-controlled patience. Finally, Blair inhaled a long, deep breath and opened his eyes. There was no sign of disorientation as he smiled up at his friend. "Hey, Jim. I'm back."

Blair sipped at his cup of coffee while Jim 'debriefed' him. "Are you sure, Chief? She actually said she's a ghost, and she's okay with not going to the afterlife?"

Blair kept his sigh internal; as irritating as it was that Jim kept repeating the same points, he recognized it as simply an indication of how much his friend cared -- especially about someone who might be a victim.

"Yes, Jim, I'm absolutely sure. She's exactly where she wants to be, and she'll move into the afterlife when she's good and ready. I told you she was headstrong."

"You said 'indulged'," Jim pointed out.

"The two frequently go together," Blair retorted. "A kid who grows up indulged often becomes a headstrong adult. You didn't talk to her; Amelia has that in spades. But whatever; there's no crime here, and we certainly can't haul her off in handcuffs and shove her through the pearly gates." He hesitated to voice his speculations, but maybe his observations would help Jim accept the situation. "Besides, I think she has an ulterior motive. She's a guide who's watching over the person who will be her sentinel in the next life."

Jim glared suspiciously. "You said that herbal stuff only enhanced psychic abilities, not that it caused hallucinogenic trips. Where did you come up with that idea?"

"Several things she said. When I slipped and said you'd find me if I got lost on the spirit plane, Amelia agreed that you could; it's like she knew you have special abilities that most mortals wouldn't be able to use.

"And then there's what she said about the other person she's waiting for -- called her a 'special friend', and said her special friend is as close to her as you are to me. I know, I know," Blair said hurriedly, seeing the doubt cross Jim's face. "But it wasn't the words, so much as the innuendo. Amelia recognized an unusual connection between you and me, recognized that you have abilities that aren't common to most people, and as much as said that she and her friend have the same relationship that you and I have. Ergo, sentinel and guide."

"Don't you think she's too calm to be a guide who's separated from her sentinel?" Jim objected. "I mean, whenever I'm doing the sentinel thing, you'll plow through anyone or anything that gets in the way. And I appreciate it, I really do," he added quickly, forestalling the justification that Blair seemed about to offer. "I'm just saying, I can't see you observing from a distance and doing nothing when I need help with my senses; you'd go ape-shit crazy. So if Amelia's a guide, why is she okay with it?"

"I think her sentinel's abilities are dormant in this lifetime. If the sentinel never comes online, the guide is out of a job, so to speak. But whether or not a guide is needed, they're likely to feel better if they keep watch over their sentinel. Assuming they know they're guide to a sentinel, of course, which I think Amelia does." He shrugged, outspread hands signaling that this was merely supposition. "And maybe she's trying to make sure that she and her sentinel get born into the next life at the same time and place, so she's hanging around here until she knows the time is right -- like, when the person who's carrying her sentinel's spirit crosses into the afterlife, she will, too."

Jim frowned, trying to follow Blair's logic. "Chief, that's way out there, even for you. Do you really believe we -- or our spirits -- have that much control over the lives we're born into? I've gotta say, I've seen a lot of shitty lives that I can't believe anyone would deliberately choose. And if Amelia had that much control, why would she have to wait? She could be next to her sentinel right now, helping to awaken and control the senses."

Blair shook his head, radiating exasperation. "Jim, I don't have the answers to life, the universe and everything; I'm just trying to put the pieces together with a lot of wild guesses. IF a spirit can affect its next life -- and that's a big 'if' -- it wouldn't be like walking into the video store and ordering the movie you want to watch; there are bound to be all kinds of variables. Some will be more successful, others less, and still others wouldn't even have a clue, which could account for the shitty lives some have to endure."

"And it could be just one big crap shoot, and you're blowing a lot of hot air," Jim suggested.

"I said that, didn't I? I don't know how it all works -- nobody does -- but I do know that Amelia is happy and doesn't need our help. So we can relax and finish enjoying our vacation and the next time she rides by, you can just wave and go back to fishing."

Jim poured himself another cup of coffee while he pondered Blair's ideas. He wasn't completely convinced, but Blair was right about one thing -- there was absolutely nothing he could do to help Amelia Featherstone. "Okay," he acknowledged, "you've made your point. Amelia can ride to her heart's content, and we'll just keep right on fishing."

Blair made sure to project warm encouragement. "That's the spirit!"

"Sandburg, you did not just make a bad pun," Jim growled.

"Why not? It seems a suitable 'pun'-ishment for a sentinel who doesn't listen to his guide." Sandburg's eyebrows were doing that wicked tilt thing again.

"Didn't you hear? The Hilarious Order of Funnymen were successful in getting the Legislature to pass a new law -- punning without a license is now a third-class felony. It's 'pun'-ishable by being forced to watch twenty hours of old Phyllis Diller reruns."

Blair groaned theatrically. "With material like that, you'll be right next to me. Think carefully, man -- do you really want to continue this?"

"You're right, Sandburg. It probably wouldn't 'pun' out, after all."

"I don't have to take this abuse!" Blair declared in outraged tones, dramatically stalking toward the tent. "I'm turning in. Maybe by morning your jokes will be less 'pun'-gent." He ducked quickly through the open flaps, as if the thin fabric would protect him. Jim couldn't see the broad smile that signified his immense relief that his sentinel had regained his peace.

Jim smiled gently as he doused the fire. "Thanks, Chief," he murmured. "I needed that." He stirred the ashes to make sure they were dead, then followed his guide into the tent, and soon into sleep.

The next three days passed as they had originally intended -- fishing, swimming, a few gentle hikes, Jim pointing out and helping Blair sneak close enough to see the wildlife. Blair did walk through Stoneville, but he found it depressing after having seen it in its heyday and didn't stay long. Jim heard Amelia each evening, but at a farther distance that didn't intrude on their peace.

The last evening was cool and a bit misty. It was a welcome change after the heat of the day, although the swirling mists seemed to invite the specter of ancient, prehistoric visions. After supper and cleanup, Blair lay staring into the fire, seeming a hundred miles -- or maybe a hundred years -- away. "Penny for 'em, Chief," Jim prompted.

"Huh? Oh, I'm just thinkin'. It's kinda nice to know that you and Alex can't be the only ones with enhanced senses. If Amelia expects to rejoin her sentinel in the future, that must mean that the genetic code is still viable. I wonder how many there are around the world right now?"

"Doesn't matter, Chief; I'm not sharing you with any other sentinel," Jim warned.

"I expect you're right; it may be that a sentinel and guide have to be exclusive to each other. But it might be fun to help another sentinel/guide pair get their feet under them, help them avoid some of the pitfalls we ran into. I wonder if Amelia and her sentinel will be born in our lifetime?"

"Not too likely we'd recognize them," Jim pointed out. "Even if we did, you can hardly walk up to whoever it will be and say, 'Didn't I meet you as a ghost a while back?' They'd probably send the men in white coats after us."

Blair grinned briefly. "That would not be cool," he agreed. "Still, I can't help but wonder."

Jim snorted. "I wonder if this seeing ghosts thing is going to become S-O-P; it could turn into a real pain in the ass. Still..." his voice became teasing, "there is one positive aspect to this whole thing."

Blair couldn't ignore the challenge. "Only one? I counted at least five. So what's yours?"

"If we keep our mouths shut, the gang in the bullpen won't ever know. A ghost lady won't be able to send flowers with sappy notes attached."

"But if we don't tell them about Amelia, you won't be able to share the juicy details of my sartorial splendor with our fellow detectives. Admit it, man; you're bustin' to tell the story."

"I was trained to withstand torture, Sandburg; I think I can control myself," Jim retorted. "Besides --" He stopped and cocked his head, looking out into the mist.

"Amelia?" Blair asked.

"Of course. C'mere, Chief." When Blair stepped up beside him, Jim reached out to grasp his hand.

Now Blair could hear -- and see -- Amelia riding straight toward them. As she came closer, she smiled and waved, then turned her horse back into the trees. Just before she disappeared into the haze, Blair was sure he heard her say, "Godspeed, Mr. Sandburg."

Jim took a deep breath. "That settles it, Chief. The potential for blackmail about your pink vest just isn't worth the aggravation we'll get if the gang learns about this. We will never mention this where anyone else can hear. Deal?"

"Deal," Blair agreed. "They'd probably just spoil the memory anyway."

Satisfied, Jim released Blair's hand and returned to the fire for another cup of coffee. Blair lingered for a few more moments, staring into the swirling mists. "Goodbye, Amelia," he whispered. "Godspeed to you, too -- and to your sentinel."

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The End

The Way Through the Woods

by Rudyard Kipling

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate.
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few)
You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods. . . .
But there is no road through the woods.

Notes: All pictures are mine, taken during various vacations. If they didn't show on the page, direct links are --

Forest - Summer 04, driving through the Sequoia National Forest in northern California.

Fish Carving - Summer 06, in the village of Hope, Vancouver, Canada.

Fishing Spot - Summer 06, a small river running through Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island, Canada.

Totem Pole     and     Totem Pole - Summer 06, Buchart Gardens, Vancouver Island, Canada.

Rider in Forest - Background: Summer 04, driving through the Sequoia National Forest in northern California. Rider: Googled from the Internet.

Author's Notes

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