Treeline Series (ii)
thanks and apologies to Pet Fly, and proceeding under the assumption that
forgiveness is easier to ask than permission....
tale takes place after "The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg." It was written in response to requests for a sequel to "Treeline"
and takes place after that tale, and before "Montane", the final story
in the trilogy.
-- Waste material worn away and collected by glaciers and left behind by glacial
melt; a poorly sorted mixture of soil and rocks that are usually angular in
shape and highly abrasive.
opened his door to a cloud.
gazed out into the dream-like vision of fog that had rolled up into the yard
during the night. It curled gentle
and opaque around the little cabin and beaded on his hands and his hair.
Blair let a sigh escape him.
time in this high place had taught Blair much about the ways of weather, and he
knew that the heavy moisture laying low at this elevation was an ethereal crown
to rain clouds farther down the mountain. A
gentle rain without the violence of wind and lightning was a rare benediction,
and Blair was thankful for it. He
would be spared the slow and painful climb into the fire tower, for the rain,
long needed, meant that today fire would not threaten his forest.
there was a price to pay for his day off. The
solar panels would not be as productive as usual; he would have to make his
coffee on the wood stove, and the wood box was almost empty.
And the rain and fog meant that Simon would not make the drive up the
treacherous access road until tomorrow or the next day.
felt a twinge of guilty relief at that thought.
He needed the supplies and, truth be told, he needed Simon ... needed
that contact, needed to hear that all was well with those he still loved, even
if only from a distance. But the
visits were hard on him, too.
left the cabin door open and wisps of mist followed him back inside as he walked
to the wood stove. A fire was
already laid in its cast-iron belly and needed only to be lit.
Blair struck a safety match and touched it to the kindling, then placed
the matches back on the shelf behind the stove.
His eyes fell on the chunk of jasper there.
found it one late afternoon on his first summer on the mountain, while limping
back down the path from the fire tower. It
was the size of his fist, with some edges rounded and others as sharp as an
arrowhead's. The stone's shape
testified to its past; millennia ago it had been torn from the mountain's
shoulder by a glacier, worried and worn down by the remorseless grind of ice and
gravity, and finally left stranded on the hillside when the ice melted.
The sunlight glinting off of those sharp angles had made it stand out in
the pile of till that littered the hillside; that and its color, much lighter
than the normal deep rust hues of most jasper.
The same pale gold as Jim's hair, or of his forearms in the summer.
native Americans who had walked these mountains had thought jasper to be a
powerful stone; capable of making rain, used to clear the mind, a talisman of
courage, and protection. It had
been a summer of drought, and the forest in his charge needed rain. And Blair himself had felt the need of a clear mind, and
courage, and protection.
so he'd kept it. He had nowhere
else to turn to for these things now, apart from a piece of stone left in his
path by a glacier and delivered to him by a random glance.
He'd decided to take his blessed protection where he could find it, and
so he had picked up the stone and carried it in his hand back to the cabin.
reached out with one shaking finger and touched the scarred piece of jasper, and
then the unopened envelope beneath it, anchored to the shelf by the stone's
weight. Scant inches above the
stove, where he'd often thought to do away with it, but never had. Perhaps it was time now?
It had sat on the shelf for a month, and Simon would surely ask about it
when he next came up the mountain.
fire heated the sap in a pine knot and it burned bright for a moment, then
exploded with a loud snap. Blair
flinched and left the envelope where it lay.
He quickly prepared his coffee in the old enamelware drip pot and placed
it on the stove, then headed outside. He
had wood to chop.
trips up the shallow grade from the woodpile to the cabin had filled the box
next to the stove, and the coffee was ready.
Blair's ankle ached from the work and the cold damp of the fog that crept
through his wool sock and ace bandage and seemed to touch the metal pins in his
bones with a hurtful chill. Resolutely
he pushed the ghosts of memory back into the shadows, poured a mug of steaming
brew, and limped out onto the porch. He
settled into the old rocker there, warming his hands on the stoneware while he
waited for the coffee to cool, and rested his eyes and his mind in the subtle
ceaseless movement of the fog.
muffled sound of an engine took him by surprise.
Simon hated the road that led to Blair's cabin, and surely would not have
attempted the drive today. Perhaps
the park service was sending up a ranger to check on him? But he'd made his twice-weekly check-ins over the short-wave.
Perhaps there was a hiker lost in the area?
It was late in the season, and camping was discouraged by the park
because of the unpredictable and sometimes dangerous weather.
But autumn campers were not unknown.
Blair looked into the fog to the place where he knew the road emerged
from the trees, and waited.
noise grew louder, and he heard tires spin on wet stone and a transmission
strain through two downshifts before the muted glow of headlights appeared
through the mist, looking like two blurry fireflies.
The vehicle came to a stop, and a door slammed.
Blair could hear boots crunching on the skree in the level place where
Simon always parked, and then the rustling of bags. It seemed that Simon had braved the road after all.
set his mug down on rough wooden planks, pushed himself to his feet, and left
the porch, picking his way carefully across the shrouded ground to meet his
visitor. He was only a few steps
from the cabin when a tall form took shape in the mist.
stopped too, and stood very still, grocery bags swinging slightly.
He saw the panic in Blair's face and spoke quickly to calm it.
all right, Chief. Just wrenched his
knee taking down a guy in a raid. He
can't drive, but he's all right."
closed his eyes in relief.
name was spoken more softly this time, and almost swallowed by the heavy air,
but Blair heard it. His own voice
refused him, and he swallowed hard and nodded slightly.
No other part of him seemed capable of movement.
seemed to understand. "There's
more stuff in the truck," he said, and took a step forward ... slowly,
carefully ... and then another.
steps disturbed the mist that haloed him, and broke the spell.
Still wordless, Blair nodded, and stepped forward too ... and then limped
past Jim and on down the hill, into the fog. He could carry bags. It
was something safe to do, something not requiring speech or thought, something
to delay whatever lay ahead. He saw
the knuckles on Jim's hands go white as he passed by, but did not lift his eyes
to see the man's face.
tried to remind himself that the feeling of comfort that stirred in him as he
approached the truck was mere reflex. The
days when this old vehicle had truly meant comfort and safety to him lay in the
past. Still, the warmth of the hood
reached out and touched him and made that renunciation difficult. Blair swallowed hard as he noticed the deep dent in the left
front fender, and the star in the windshield that might have been left by a
rock, or a bullet. Whatever had
happened didn't matter; Jim was obviously unharmed, still standing strong and
tall. And if the glimpse of gray in
his hair and new lines on his face spoke otherwise, Blair chose to ignore it.
He opened the passenger door, swayed for a moment at the fragrance of
damp vinyl and denim, of gun oil and old coffee, and other things that brought
back irresistible memories, then determinedly reached for the bags on the
floorboards and slammed the door shut.
was waiting for him on the porch, watching with barely concealed pain as Blair
carefully climbed the hillside. He
reached for the bags and their fingers brushed, and Blair quickly relinquished
his burden and took a shaky step back. Jim nodded as if at a familiar pain, a
sad acknowledgement of the withdrawal, and carried the bags inside.
Blair retrieved his coffee cup and followed.
little sunlight that had penetrated the descended cloud outdoors did not reach
into the cabin, and Blair reached for the box of matches, deliberately averting
his eyes from the envelope that sat next to them on the shelf.
Jim took a seat at the small table ... the same chair that Simon always
chose, Blair noticed absently ... and watched as Blair lit the oil lamp over the
kitchen counter where the bags now rested.
He dropped the smoking wooden match into the sink, struck another,
shuffled across the wood floor to the table, and lit the lamp there, leaving the
match in the glass lip of the lamp base. He
opened the stove and placed three more splits of wood inside and closed the
grate. A clean stoneware mug was
filled with hot coffee, his own cup was refilled, and then there was nothing to
do but to sit down and face Jim. He
watched silently while Jim explored the room with his eyes.
you're the sentinel now," Jim said, a little sadly, indicating the
binoculars hanging from a nail by the door.
hardly," Blair answered harshly.
flinched, and tried again. "What
you're doing here is important. It's
good work, Blair. It's like you, to
have found some way to contribute, even after...."
not Joel?" Blair interrupted in a harsh whisper.
asked me to come," Jim said softly.
shouldn't have done that."
shouldn't have," Blair said quickly.
head dropped. He blew on his coffee
but did not drink. One big hand
slipped inside his jacket, and came out with an envelope.
Blair flinched at the sudden sense of deja vu as Jim placed it on the
it," he said gently. "You'll
want to ... it's not from me."
looked up but could find no bitterness in Jim's eyes, only tenderness, and
encouragement. The neatly typed
label said merely, "Blair Sandburg"; the return address was Canton,
Richter and Rauch, Law Offices. He
tried to control the trembling of his hands as he turned the envelope over,
slipped his finger under the flap and tore it open, and unfolded the single
sheet of paper inside. The neatly
typed words ran together as his eyes skipped from phrase to phrase; "terms
and conditions ... criminal record erased ... declaration of exoneration in the
Cascade Times ... medical and legal expenses paid in full ... loans and grants
forgiven ... readmission to Rainier University ... direct deposit ... six
doesn't fix things, I know," said Jim sadly.
"Nothing can ever...." He
swallowed hard. "But you're
free now, Chief. You can go
anywhere, do anything ... you don't have to hide anymore, from anyone or
never should have had to."
on an attempted murder charge. Another
girl ... but she's okay, Chief," he said hastily.
"He never even touched her. We
were watching him, and her, and she lived. She wasn't hurt. Because
of the work *you* did. Because of
what *you* showed us." It
seemed desperately important to Jim that Blair understand what he was saying.
"And we've got him, on film and tape," he pressed on.
"He won't walk away from this one.
Because of *you*."
moved his hand over the paper, smoothing out the creases, pressing flat one
corner turned under when he'd pulled it from the envelope.
He could think of nothing else to say.
He stared at the letter, hiding behind the ragged curtain of his damp
hair, smoothing the piece of letterhead from Canton, Richter and Rauch, Law
Offices, over and over again in a rhythmic motion.
call me that!" The anger
sparked like lightning, arcing through Blair like electricity through a storm
cloud, striking bright and hard and hot at Jim.
Blair watched Jim's body physically react as the anger tore through him,
and didn't care. "I'm not
Ch--" He caught himself ... he
couldn't say the word. But there
were other words he could say, and they flew furiously at the man who sat before
him, hunched over as if in physical pain.
not your partner. I'm not even your
friend any more ... if I ever was. You
let me go ... you let me go...."
Blair struggled to his feet, snatched up the letter and crumpled it.
With a quick clumsy motion he opened the grate of the stove and threw it
in the fire. "You're right,
Jim," he said harshly, "this doesn't fix anything.
It doesn't even come close. I
had everything taken away from me ... my reputation, my credibility, my job, my
home. My body."
groaned. "God, Blair...."
I could have taken it. I could have
handled even that. I've been with
men before, Jim ... and I've been raped before."
Jim's head snapped up and stared at him, but Blair pressed on.
"I could have made it through.
I couldn't handle losing you."
the lawsuit was filed, I meant what I said when I told you and Simon to keep
quiet. All those cases that we
worked together ... all those criminals we put away ... we all knew that would
happen. Between Internal Affairs
and all those defense lawyers, they would have walked.
And I couldn't deal with that. Not
after what happened with Vogel.
in a way, it was all my fault anyway."
Blair's voice was harsh, his breath coming in harsh gasps. "I should have known from the beginning that you could
never be a Sentinel openly. When I
... did what I could, to protect you, it was the right thing to do.
Necessary. A part of me
wanted you to stop it, to stand up and shout to the world that I was right, that
you were special ... but you couldn't, and I understood that, and I could live
then ... when I was in jail, and they were taking me every night and I couldn't
see an end to it, I wanted you to do it! I
didn't care what it cost! I was
hurt and they kept on hurting me, and there wasn't any way out for me unless you
proved that I was right. And I
dreamed about it, Jim. I wanted it
so bad that I'd dream about you walking into Chancellor Edwards' office and
telling her the truth, and then you'd come and get me out ... you'd be standing
at the cell door and you'd push it aside and come in and get me out...."
was crying now, for the first time in months.
"And then I'd wake up, and know you weren't coming for me, and I'd
hate you. But at the same time I
knew why you wouldn't come ... couldn't come.
And I'd feel guilty for wanting it, at the expense of turning all those
criminals free, and I'd hate myself.
I knew I couldn't make it after all. And
I did the only thing I could to make it all stop hurting."
reached up on the shelf and picked up the piece of jasper, hefted it in his
hand, then set it aside and picked up the envelope there.
He held it for a moment in his shaking hand, and then with a swift motion
threw it into the fire and slammed the grate shut.
apologies, Jim. I can't forgive
you, but it doesn't matter. You
don't need my forgiveness. You did
the right thing. I know that."
Blair leaned back against the kitchen counter and closed his eyes.
His breathing was still ragged, but his anger had burned out and left him
please ... go home. Just go
did it, Blair." Jim's voice
went to Rainier. The morning after
they arrested you."
Blair said again, dumbly.
did what you wanted," Jim said. "I
walked into the Chancellor's office and asked to see her. Demanded, actually."
He smiled wryly. "I was
pissed, and scared to death for you. Too
scared to care about the consequences."
just stared at him. Jim looked up
into blue eyes full of confusion, and nodded.
was ready to tell the whole story to her and to anyone else who would listen.
But she wasn't in. They told me she was somewhere else on campus, and I said I
would wait. And by the time she got
there...." His voice trailed
off, and Blair's eyes widened in horrified understanding.
nodded, and dropped his gaze to the tabletop again.
"They transported me to Cascade Memorial, and put me in the psych
ward. Shot me full of shit, even
used the paddles on me." Blair
gasped. "It's okay," Jim
said quickly, "it's all right, Blair.
I didn't feel a thing. But
nothing worked. I was just ...
lost. And by the time Simon found
out and got there, they'd decided I was in a catatonic state caused by some sort
of severe schizophrenic break, and they wouldn't even let him see me."
all that time, at the trial, when you weren't there...." Blair's voice
would have been, Blair. I'm sorry,
Jim." Blair's face was dead
white, his hands white-knuckled on his mug.
"You zoned because you were caught between two impossible choices,
Jim. You couldn't save me without
endangering others ... hundreds of others.
You couldn't make that choice."
could!" Jim hit the table
with both hands, hard enough to rattle the coffee cups.
"I did make that choice!
is as important to me as you are! But I fucked up. I
didn't mean to, I didn't want to, but I did."
never told me."
didn't want you to worry. And when
I could, I thanked him. I didn't
want that either."
heard a wolf howling. It sounded
afraid ... desperate. It was the
day that Simon went to get you out."
rubbed one big hand through his hair, sighed, and got to his feet.
"I should go," he said. "Long
drive home." He shrugged into
his windbreaker and walked to the door, then hesitated, as if thinking.
He rummaged in the pocket of his khaki pants, and produced a small cloth
bag. He looked at it for a moment, then turned and held it out to
is for you," he said.
Blair pushed his chair away from the table and slowly he limped across the
floor. He stopped an arm's length
away from the outstretched hand and looked at the offering for a long moment,
then reached out and took the bag, being careful not to touch the fingers, which
bought it months ago, at a place in Albuquerque, when Simon and I were there for
a conference. A Navajo artist made
it. It ... it reminded me of
Blair undid the string on the bag and pulled out a silver cuff bracelet.
The surface was chased with petroglyphs; he recognized the symbols of sun
and moon, lightning and rain, wind and mountains.
The bear for healing, the buffalo for strength.
The crossed arrows of happiness, and the broken arrow of friendship.
in the center, raised and in gold, the symbol of a hand, with a spiral in the
palm. Blair traced it with his
Anasazi ... the ones who lived in the cliffs," Jim said.
"That's what the artist told me.
The Hand of God. For guidance, and protection."
turned the bracelet in his hands, losing himself in the glint of lamplight in
the polished metal. "The
Anasazi believed that their gods abandoned them," he murmured.
"There was a drought that lasted for years.
They were forced to leave their homes and disperse, and the civilization
dropped his head. "I bought it
because I remembered ... I knew you'd done a paper on them.
That you'd been interested.... Ah.
Maybe it was a better choice than I knew," he sighed, shaking his
head and putting his hand on the doorknob.
swallowed hard. "Recent
discoveries have inspired theories that the Anasazi betrayed their gods ... that
they began to follow destructive rituals introduced by remnants of the old
civilizations to the south, and brought darkness upon themselves."
looked up, and stared at Blair with angry eyes.
failed you, Blair. Not the other
it," he said harshly. "You
don't have to wear it. I
understand. But please ... don't
give it back to me. And don't throw
it in the fire. Please."
he was out the door, striding swiftly down the hill toward his truck through the
thinning fog. Blair followed and
stood on the porch watching as Jim got in and started the engine.
When he saw blue eyes look up one last time, he met them with his own,
and slipped the bracelet onto his wrist. A
shaft of sunlight broke through the fog and touched the silver.
held his hand up in farewell until the truck disappeared into the treeline.
- 30 -