Notes: Thanks, Wolfshy, for your talent, patience, and generosity. Lory and Heidi... my gratitude for your helpful comments and constant support. To my wonderful beta, Danae, many thanks for your hard work on so many stories!
By a Thread
The doors of the courthouse closed behind them as Jim and Blair jogged down the steps to the sidewalk below. High above, the early winter sun shone weakly. As they walked toward their rented truck, Blair kicked at the dry, faded leaves littering the sidewalk.
"Man, I'm glad that's over," the younger man commented with a relieved grin. "Who would have believed that we'd have to come all the way to North Carolina to testify in a serial murder case?"
After the two friends climbed into the truck and shut their doors, Jim buckled his seatbelt. "I'm just glad Harrison finally slipped up and got caught, no matter where it was. Too bad it took a string of bodies all the way from Cascade to Bryson City, North Carolina for it to finally happen."
Blair clicked his seat belt into place. "True. Hey, you were called earlier to testify than we thought, so we've still got two days before our flight out from Asheville. You want to try to change the tickets or you think Simon would go for us sticking around a while?"
Pulling out into traffic, Jim looked at his partner in amusement. "You know we barely convinced Simon to let you come along as it was, Chief. What makes you think he'd okay two extra days for us at taxpayer expense?"
"We can pick up the hotel tab, Jim, and it's Friday, man! We'd be off in Cascade, and we'd be off here. What's the difference?" Blair glanced Jim, and groaned at the teasing gleam in the sentinel's twinkling blue eyes. "Oh, man! You're jerking my chain, aren't you? Have you already talked to Simon?"
Chuckling, Jim turned the corner. "Yep. Last night. We're clear to fly out Sunday night. Until then, we're on our own time."
Sandburg's grin flashed brightly. "Great! What do you want to do?"
Ellison pulled into a parking place beside an old train depot. "What about taking a little trip, Chief?"
Blair read the sign outside the building. The Scenic Mountain Railroad
"A train ride?" The anthropologist's questioning eyes met his partner's. "Where does it go?"
Jim pulled a brochure from his jacket pocket. "I was reading about it last night. They run an old steam locomotive on the old tracks that were once used to bring supplies into this area back when it was really isolated. The trip lasts about five hours, going into Nantahala Gorge and over the trestle that crosses Fontana Lake. This is the last weekend it runs before closing down for the winter season. You interested?"
Blair didn't miss the note of hope behind Ellison's nonchalant demeanor. "Are you kidding? Sounds like a plan to me. I'm surprised it's something you'd want to do, though, Jim."
Ellison shrugged, staring ahead at the old depot. "I've always loved trains. My grandfather and I... " He fell silent, obviously lost in the memories from so long ago.
After a few moments of silence, Blair prodded gently, "You've never talked much about your grandfather. Were you two close?"
"Yeah, we were." Jim's eyes were distant as his voice grew quiet. "My dad was always too busy to spend too much time with me, but Granddad was always there. I was his favorite for some reason. He'd take me up to the lake to fish, and we'd camp out as often as we could. He and Steven got along okay, but it was me he took under his wing."
Blair was fascinated by the unexpected personal information about his partner's past. Jim seldom opened up about his early years living with his distant father and the brother he never really knew after his mother abandoned the family. Any revelations about Jim's childhood were few and far between, and Blair Sandburg, anthropologist and professional sentinel observer, treasured the tidbits he received so rarely.
"My dad and his father couldn't have been more different," Jim continued. "Granddad was always in a good mood and never too busy to listen to a little boy's dreams. He loved trains. We would go down to the tracks and wait for the afternoon freights to pass by and wave to the engineers. When I was about eight, he gave me a model train set for Christmas. I was thrilled when I opened that package."
A misty cloud obscured the blue of Jim's eyes and when he continued his story, his voice was a dull monotone. "We were setting it up under the tree when Dad came in with Steven. He took one look at that train and said, 'Steven, help your brother pack up that toy. It's too loud, and it will destroy the decor of our home.' Then he looked at my grandfather. 'Father, I assume you retained the receipt so it can be returned. Maybe you can find something more suitable for Jimmy's gift next year.' It was gone within five minutes." Jim's voice trailed away.
Neither man breached the silence for long moments. Jim stared unseeing at the depot in silence, as Blair watched his friend's profile. Without speaking, the younger man clasped Ellison's shoulder, squeezing firmly in silent support. Jim reached up, covering Blair's hand with his own in unspoken thanks. There are times when mere words pale in the shadows of more tangible gestures.********************
The train station was nearly deserted as Jim and Blair approached the ticket window. An elderly man with a thick mane of wavy, white hair looked up from his paper as they approached. His brown eyes regarded them curiously. "Help you, gentleman?"
"Got any tickets for this afternoon's ride?" Jim looked toward the schedule board posted behind the desk inside the ticket booth.
Chuckling to himself, the old man nodded. "Got nothing but tickets, mister. The weather's been so puny, we might as well have closed up shop after last weekend. This one's it, though. Last ride of the season. You want to go?"
Pulling out his wallet, Jim smiled. "Where we're from, rain's an everyday occurrence. We're used to it, right, Chief?"
Sandburg nodded as he reached for his own wallet, but Jim's hand caught his arm. "This one's on me, okay?" Their eyes locked for an instant as silent understanding passed between them. Blair let his hand fall and smiled. Jim felt the need for this trip, and he wanted him along. That was enough. There was no need for further explanation. Blair studied the route map as Ellison paid for the tickets.
"What time do we leave?" Jim glanced at his watch. "We haven't had lunch and... "
The old man shook his head. "Train loads in twenty minutes. Pulls out in thirty. Got food on board, though. Homemade sandwiches and pie. Chips and Cokes."
Jim looked to Blair and shrugged. "Okay with you, Chief?"
"Naomi raised me on picnics and roadside snacks, Jim. Sounds fine to me."
Patting Blair affectionately on the back, Jim turned to the man holding their tickets. "That'll work. Let's go railroading, Sandburg."
The Scenic Mountain Railroad consisted of eight open rail cars, joined behind four enclosed club cars. Pulled by a classic steam locomotive, the train provided a bounty of beautiful views to the tourists and locals who rode it throughout the spring, summer, and fall.
Jim and Blair were assigned to an open car, identified as "The Oconaluftee" by the lettered signboard on its side. The last car from the locomotive, it was painted in bright shades of red and yellow. They handed their tickets to the woman stationed at the gate and climbed on board.
By the time the train pulled slowly from the station, Blair and Jim remained the sole passengers in "The Oconaluftee". The sides of the car were open from waist height upward. Long back-to-back bench seats stretched the length of the car down the center, providing passengers with clear views out both sides. Tall metal poles spanned the length of the car, providing support for the walls of the converted freight car.
The woman who'd taken their tickets came to check their car. "Ya'll have the place pretty much to yourselves today, don't you?" she observed with a friendly smile.
"Looks like it," Blair agreed. "How many others are on board?"
Pausing beside their bench, she thought for a minute. "About ten, I'd say. You'll be the only ones bringing up the rear today." Gesturing toward the engine, she added, "I'll be selling sandwiches up front, if you get hungry later. Just gotta make sure nobody snuck aboard through here first. Last car's a favorite for stowaways." She continued on her way toward the front cars of the train, then called back to Jim and Blair. "Come get some lunch, boys."
The train picked up speed, passing through the thick woodlands boarding the tracks. The Smoky Mountains rose up on both sides of them, covered with green pines and hardwoods which had long before lost their leaves.
Blair shivered slightly against the cold mist. Jim glanced over at him. "Cold, Chief?"
Digging his hands deeper into his coat pockets, Blair nodded. "A little. Not too bad, though." He grinned up at Jim. "I've been lots worse. Trust me. Glad I brought my gloves this morning."
Both men stared out at the changing scenery. They were traveling alongside the Nantahala River with steep mountains on the other side. A favorite with rafters, the cold waters tumbled over rocks worn smooth over the ages. The tracks nestled almost on the river's banks, and the effect of watching the water as the train rolled past was mesmerizing. Past the river and across the main road, more mountains rose from the earth to brush the clouds.
Glancing from the river back to his best friend, Blair cautiously checked Jim's awareness. He didn't need a zoning sentinel. "You all right, man?"
Ellison broke his gaze away from the tranquil scene and looked at his partner with a guilty smile. "I'm fine, buddy," Jim reassured him. "Just thinking how much my grandfather would have enjoyed this ride."
Nodding toward the rounded mountaintops, partially obscured by low-hanging, misty clouds, the sentinel's smile bore a trace of melancholy. "'Old man's smoking his pipe', he used to tell me. I remember when I was a kid, I'd stare up for hours toward the mountain peaks, trying to spot that old man. Even with my eyesight, I never found him."
Blair chuckled in appreciation, then he regarded his friend with frank curiosity. "Did your grandfather... you know... know?"
Immediately understanding the hidden meaning beneath the question, Jim Ellison looked thoughtful for a moment. "That's a tough one, Chief. If he did, he never said anything directly."
"What do you mean 'directly'?" his guide prodded carefully.
Long seconds ticked by before the quiet answer came. "He always encouraged me. To be myself. Not to be intimidated by my father." Jim stared out the train window at the shrouded mountaintops. "Funny, I guess. I'm so much more like him than my own father." Jim took a deep breath, and his eyes were thoughtful. "Anyway, sometimes I wonder. If he knew, I mean."
"Why?" Blair hated to speak, afraid to break the contemplative mood enveloping his partner.
Jim stretched his arm back to rest it on the bench, pressing lightly against Sandburg's back. The warmth of his guide anchored him to the present, making the bittersweet memories of the past more tolerable. "Nothing really specific, I guess. Little things. We'd be looking at a train passing by, and he'd ask me to describe the sound, the rumbling, and the... feel... of it. He'd play classical music for me and encourage me to pick out the softest instruments, the most obscure rhythms and harmonies. Or the sun would be setting, and he'd ask me to tell him about the colors and the clouds and the light." Jim turned to meet Blair's gaze and his eyes held steady. "Just not the kind of stuff grandfathers usually talk about, you know?"
"Maybe he knew," Blair said softly. "Maybe he didn't understand what it was all about, but he was trying to help you the only way he could." Blair leaned back heavily against his friend's arm, smiling as he felt Jim's hand come around to cup his shoulder. "He cared, man. He understood there was something special about you, and he loved you all the more for it." He paused for a beat, considering. "I'm glad he was there for you," Blair added, nodding slightly in approval. "Sounds like a guy I'd like to have known."
Jim swallowed hard against the sudden lump in his throat. Knowing instinctively that he didn't have to hurry to reply, not when he was with Blair, he breathed deeply, savoring the cool, clean air. Still staring straight ahead at the rushing river, Jim said softly, "He'd have liked you, Chief. You'd have liked him. I wish... " His voice broke, the sentence left hanging unfinished between them.
Yet, there was no need to finish the thought, and Jim was thankful for the knowledge, even though his friend spoke not a word. The warm weight of Sandburg's back pressing against his arm spoke volumes.
They fell silent for a while, taking in the scenery. Even in the gray mist, it was hauntingly beautiful. Rising above the rapids was a light mist. The wintry sun remain cloaked behind clouds, and tucked between the tall mountains, the train rolled on in a dim, silvery light. The river bubbled and roared on its ancient path, providing a continuous accompaniment for their journey. Occasional signs warned of rock slides, and many large boulders and flat slabs lay strewn about in mute testimony to the unpredictable power of nature.
A tinny voice blasted from the loudspeaker. "We're nearing the trestle over Lake Fontana. We'll be slowing as we make the crossing. Remember to keep arms and heads inside your cars as we go over. This trestle's seven hundred ninety-one feet long, so it'll be a right lengthy trip. Just sit back and enjoy the view!"
Jim and Blair stood up, leaning against the half wall to peer down at the water far below. Blair drew back, shivering dramatically. "Man! That's a long way down."
"One hundred seventy-nine feet, Chief, to be precise," Jim quoted from the brochure he'd read earlier. "Straight down to that cold water below."
Blair turned to look up at Jim, his face decidedly paler than it had been a moment before.
Ellison laughed at his friend's discomfort and ruffled his curls affectionately. "Tell you what, Chief. I'll head up to the dining car and get some sandwiches for lunch. You stay here and enjoy the view."
Glaring at his companion in mock aggravation, Blair commented sarcastically, "Thanks, man. Really appreciate your thoughtfulness there, Jim."
Turning away, Jim called back before he left the car. "Hang in there, Chief. I'll be right back."
"Take your time, big guy. No rush here." Even though Jim had disappeared from sight into the next car, he added, "I'll be right here, man. Just hanging out. Me and that lake, way, way down below." He could almost hear Ellison's laughter, and he smiled.
Taking small steps, Blair moved cautiously to the side of the car and glanced hesitantly down. The train was halfway across the trestle. If he leaned out carefully, he could see the engine just crossing back onto solid ground, its noisy convoy following along behind.
Talking to himself to ease his nerves, Blair drew back inside the open car. "Almost like riding a train back in the old West. This sure could pass for a scene from an old horse opera." He grinned at the image his entertaining imagination conjured up. "Jim could be the sheriff, ready to defend his town from the vicious train robbers, and... "
Blair's musings were suddenly cut short by a violent lurch. He staggered backward, catching himself against one of the metal posts spaced down the center of the train between breaks in the seat rows. "Damn! What the hell was that?"
Before he could straighten up, the train jerked again, this time leaning dangerously to one side. Terrible sounds of twisting, tearing metal filled the air, along with the squealing of emergency brakes struggling to hold. "Jim!" Blair cried out as their car began sliding sideways along the track.
Blair lost his footing as the train car plunged over the open side of the trestle. He grabbed blindly at the long row of benches as he fell downward toward the rear of the car, but the force of his fall ripped his desperate fingers loose, and he was unable to grab hold. Blair slammed into the end of the railcar with tremendous force. A searing pain shot through his chest, followed by an instantaneous one in his head, and everything went black. His fingers clutched involuntarily one last time in a feeble attempt to save himself, then he lay unmoving.********************
When the train began its lurching plunge from the tracks, Jim was thrown from his feet. He grabbed hold of the snack counter, but the wrenching motions were much too powerful to overcome.
In the distance, the sentinel heard his guide's voice. "Jim!"
Even though he knew he was too far away to be heard, Jim called out desperately to his friend. "Sandburg!"
He didn't have time for more. The train lurched again, and Ellison tumbled sideways, his breath forced from his lungs with a single gasp as the side of his head struck the corner of the old, wooden counter.
He was only unconscious for a few moments. Struggling back from the edge of darkness, Jim raised his head, ignoring the roaring in his ears and the dizziness that caused everything in sight to swim before his eyes. As he staggered to his feet, he felt a sharp pain in his right ankle. Falling back to the floor of the car, he ran his sensitive fingers over the bone, drawing in a quick breath at the pain the slight pressure caused. Maybe not broken, but definitely a bad sprain, maybe even a fracture. Turning inward, he dialed back the pain. The ankle could wait.
Struggling once more to his feet, he called out for the middle aged woman who had been assisting him at the snack bar. "Mrs. Jenkins! Are you all right?"
"I'm here," she answered, pulling herself upright against the counter. Her hair was disheveled, and blood oozed from a cut on her forehead.
"Can you walk?" he asked. At her nod of affirmation, Jim took the woman's arm, and they limped toward the doorway. "Let's get out of here."
The club car was tilted a thirty degree angle, and its floor was littered with broken bottles, scattered cans of food, and various other snack items. Tables and chairs lay overturned, and most of its windows were broken, letting the wet, cold air pour inside.
Opening the door, Jim climbed carefully to the ground, immediately turning to assist Mrs. Jenkins from the train. As soon as she was safely down, he turned to find out what had occurred.
The sight that met his eyes was a scene stolen straight from the depths of hell.
The steam locomotive had made it off the trestle, as had the first four cars behind it, including the club car where Jim Ellison had been. Where the tracks had been was no longer visible. A looming pile of gray rocks completely covered them, lying where they had plunged from the mountainside high above.
The engine and the four cars which had followed it were still upright, but now rested in a zig zag pattern, having collapsed into each other like a giant accordion. The few passengers aboard and the engineers were slowly climbing down, stunned and confused.
Jim stared back at the trestle. Four more cars lay completely on their sides, still linked to the preceding cars and to those that followed. It was the fate of the remaining three cars that nearly caused Jim Ellison to become physically ill.
The final four rail cars remained joined to those in front of them, however, they were no longer on the trestle. All four were now dangling dangerously over Lake Fontana far below.
"Oh, my God," Jim murmured, in shock at the sight. His body felt like concrete, too heavy to move.
A small crowd of passengers and rail employees gathered around Jim.
The chief engineer announced, "We've contacted the station. The rescue squad's on the way, but it's gonna take them some time to get here. We're a long way from the nearest road."
Jim snapped, "What about a helicopter?"
"One's on the way, but it's coming from Asheville." The engineer glanced at his watch. "It'll take at least an hour to get here."
"We don't have that kind of time! How many people were on the last four cars?"
Mrs. Jenkins spoke up. "There was a family on the ninth car. You and your friend on the twelfth. That was all. Everyone else is out now." She nodded toward the handful of huddled passengers waiting a safe distance away from the crumpled train. There appeared to be no serious injuries.
"How many in the family?" Jim's words were clipped and to the point. A lifetime of military and police discipline instinctively strengthened him. He forced down the fear for Sandburg's safety rising within. He would get to his guide; of that, there was absolutely no doubt. The only question was how to do it as quickly and as safely as possible and to help any others trapped in the first of the dangling rail cars.
"There were three, I'm sure. The mother, father, and a little girl." Mrs. Jenkins' voice trembled. "Oh, those poor people!"
Suddenly, a young couple ran up to them. Their voices were almost hysterical as they pleaded to the assembled group. "Have you seen our daughter? We were on the first car that went over, but my wife and I went up front to buy some snacks. We left Rachel asleep in the other car. There were so few people on board, and we thought she'd be safe. Please! Have you seen her?" The father's eyes kept darting anxiously toward the first dangling train car.
Their silence was all the answer they needed. The woman fell sobbing into her husband's arms, and they clung together in their despair.
Jim turned to the men gathered around, leaning heavily on his good leg. "I've got to get down there. Does anyone have any rope I can use as a safety harness?"
One of the assembled passengers stepped forward. "I was getting off at Nantahala Gorge to do some climbing. I've got some gear."
"Wait a minute!" protested the chief engineer. He indicated Jim's ankle. "You're injured! I don't know that you need to be taking off..."
Ellison turned to him with eyes bright with fury. "The way I'm going, I won't need my ankle to bear weight. We don't have time to debate this!" He jabbed his finger angrily toward the dangling rail cars. "Look at those cars! If that coupling breaks, if the first car comes loose from the rest of the train, the people in those cars will fall to their deaths. Their daughter and my best friend will die!" Jim paused for a moment, allowing his words to sink in. "I was an Army Ranger, and I'm a cop. I have the training to do this." He turned cold, determined eyes on the group, slowly looking from one to another. "Besides, I'm not asking anyone's permission."
When there was no protest, the young climber ran toward his duffel bag, still lying beside the other waiting passengers. "I'll get my gear and be right back."********************
Jim was buckled in to the safety harness, checking the straps carefully. He stood at the edge of the trestle with the engineer, George Meadows, his assistant, Jeff Mabry, and the mountain climbing tourist, Sean Hawks. "You think you've got enough rope to get me down there?"
Hawks shrugged. "I dunno. I'm a free climber, and I usually don't carry a line. When I was packing, I just threw this in. It's not even mine. Belongs to a friend who's meeting us up here, and I figured he might need it. I'm not sure how much line there is, and I know you don't want to take time to measure it. This may not reach that far down. I know it'll get you through the first couple of cars, but after that... " Sean glanced down at the suspended cars and shuddered.
Nodding his understanding, Jim glanced downward. "I'll use it as far as I can. Hopefully, it'll go all the way. If not... " The unfinished sentence hung in the air.
"I really wish you'd wait for the rescue squad," Meadows insisted.
Jim ignored the comment. "I'll check out the first car and see what's going on there." He longed to bypass the first three cars hanging from the trestle and hurry to check on Sandburg, but duty called too clearly. He pocketed the small two-way radio the engineer had provided him. "I'll be in touch in case I need you to help pull me up."
Tightening the safety harness one last time, Jim commented, "Ready." He stepped gingerly to the trestle's edge and gathered the ropes in his hands. "I'll feed it out slowly. I'll call if I need any help on the way up. Hopefully, I'll be bringing two passengers."
Carefully, he played out the line, gradually lowering himself down. Jim's sensitive hearing focused on the frightening groans and creaks of the cars. So much weight bearing down on the connections between those cars still on solid ground and on the trestle. How long could the twisted, strained metal hold?
Shaking away his fears, Jim continued his descent. He lowered himself about halfway down into the first car, then paused to call out, "Anyone in here?"
The only response was quiet sobbing from the bottom of the car. Rachel was alive, at least that much was certain. Hurriedly, Jim descended to the bottom of the car. A little girl was curled in the corner, her head buried on her knees, her arms covering her head. Jim knelt beside her. "Rachel?"
Tear-filled brown eyes gazed up at him, and she nodded.
"My name's Jim, and I'm here to take you back up to your mom and dad. Are you hurt anywhere?" A quick sensory scan revealed only a few cuts and bruises, but the little girl seemed to be in excellent condition.
Rachel shook her head, but she didn't speak.
Jim smiled reassuringly. "That's good news, Rachel." He touched the safety harness. "This will keep us from falling. Do you think you can stand up?"
Slowly, she rose to her feet, her eyes still fearful. Jim held out his arms. "If you'll trust me, I'll take care of the rest. Deal?"
Nodding, Rachel stepped into the tall man's waiting arms. Jim barely cringed at the added weight on his injured leg.
Jim tucked the tiny girl against him, bracing her with his left arm. With his right, he pulled out the radio. "Got her! Tell mom and dad that their daughter's fine. We're on our way up."
One handed, the ascent was more difficult than Jim had planned. Rachel relaxed against him, instinctively trusting her rescuer. Jim pulled against the ropes one-handed, the strain evident in the sheen of sweat which soon covered his face.
At last, they cleared the door at the top of the hanging car and emerged into the cold winter's afternoon. On the trestle, the waiting observers cheered at the sight of the emerging cop and his small cargo.
Swinging out away from the doomed train, Jim allowed those above to hoist them the rest of the way up. As soon as he lay panting on the relative safety of the trestle, Rachel was scooped from his arms by her anxious parents.
As they hustled her toward solid ground, the father called back, his voice breaking with gratitude, "Thank you! Thanks so much! We'll talk to you later, when you have your friend back."
Meadows turned toward Jim. "The rescue unit's less than a half hour out. Sure you want to go back down there? You're taking an awfully big risk, especially with that bum ankle."
Already checking the buckles on the safety harness, Jim didn't answer. His thoughts were on Sandburg. Now that the child was safe, his partner was the only thing on his mind. He tried not to think about Blair's fear of heights and how terrified he must be, suspended high above the lake, helpless and alone. Jim wouldn't entertain the thought that Blair wasn't conscious, that he might already have perished, mortally injured in the crash or, even worse, been thrown from the open car to plunge to his death on the rock hard waters waiting so deceptively peacefully below.
Jeff Mabry, the assistant engineer, looked at him in sympathy. "It must be hard - not knowing."
Before Jim could answer, there was a loud popping from the strained coupling holding the last car remaining on the trestle to the first dangling below it. Quickly, all the men backed further from the train. Jim watched in horror, praying that the link would hold. The sounds continued for an eternity, or so it seemed to the sentinel. At last, all fell quiet once more, and the engineers stepped forward to inspect the connection.
Kneeling beside the coupling, Meadows looked up at last. "It's holding, but for how much longer, God only knows. If you're determined to go down there, Ellison, you best get moving."********************
Jim passed through the first two cars with no problem. The four cars dangling over the lake were all open cars, their only furnishings the double row of seats down the middle. Those and the supporting columns spanning the length of the train cars weren't hard to avoid.
His biggest concern was the length of rope he had remaining. Sean Hawks hadn't been certain when it might run out. If he ran out of line before reaching Sandburg...
Jim wasn't sure what he would do.
He was halfway through the third car when he heard it. To that point, Jim had been concentrating so hard on his descent that he hadn't been able to pinpoint life sounds from the last car. Now, however, the faint thrumming echoed in his ears - a welcome, breathtaking sound.
Sandburg was alive.
Jim listened as he lowered himself a few more feet. Blair's heartbeat was too fast, and now that he had picked up on that, he could tell that the younger man's breathing was too quick and much too shallow as well. Pushing himself to move faster, Jim covered the remaining distance between the third and fourth cars in record time.
Until the rope ran out.
Cursing under his breath, Ellison paused, scanning the car for his friend. He spotted him, in almost the same spot as Rachel, lying in the far corner of the train car, drawn into a near fetal position.
"Sandburg!" he called out, then waited for a reply. Nothing.
Jim forced his voice to remain calm. "Blair, I'm here. It's Jim. Can you hear me, buddy?"
Listening intently, Jim heard the already racing heart beat even faster, the breaths becoming the desperate pants of panic. Blair was on the verge of hyperventilating.
"Chief," he called calmly. "I need you to listen to me for a minute, okay?" He waited a moment for an answer, but he wasn't really surprised when one didn't come. "Blair, I've run out of rope here. I'm right at the entrance to the car, but I can't come down any farther without unhooking this harness. To be honest, Chief, my ankle's busted, and I'm not sure I could carry you back up here, if I did."
At the news of his injury, Jim heard Blair's quick intake of breath. Encouraged that at least his friend could understand him, Jim hurried on. "Blair? I want you to listen to me. Trust me, Chief. I'm not going to ask you to do anything I'm not absolutely certain you can handle, all right?"
Jim took a deep breath, sizing up their predicament carefully. Sandburg lay directly below him at the far end of the car. The back door of the car swung freely, revealing the terrifying sight of the water far below. The winter wind and drizzle whipped through the car, and Jim could tell that Sandburg was soaked and shivering from the cold. All of the seats were intact, he noted with satisfaction. The bracing columns were located between the double-sided bench seats at distances of about five and a half feet or so, and they seemed sturdy. It just might work...
"Blair? Are you hurt? I need to know if you've been injured, buddy. Just whisper to me, okay? Please, Chief. Talk to me a little here. I need your help to make this happen." Jim waited anxiously for a response.
At last, it came. "N... not... h... hurt."
Not realizing he'd been holding his breath until he released it gratefully, Jim spoke as quietly as he could and still be certain Sandburg heard him. "That's great news, Junior. I'm going to get you out of here, I promise. I'm going to need you to help me, though." As much as Jim hated to admit it, he knew he wouldn't be any good to Sandburg if he left the support of the harness.
"Blair, my ankle's in pretty bad shape. I can't put my weight on it, and I know I can't lift you if I'm on the ground with you. I can help you if I keep on the harness, though." Jim tried to give his voice the same gentle, low tone that Blair's had when he was helping Jim through a crisis with his senses. "Sandburg... Blair... I want you to do something for me. You can keep your eyes closed; that's okay. Just lift your head and look toward the sound of my voice. I'll keep talking for you, but I want you to look up toward me."
As he coaxed his frightened friend, Jim watched for any sign that Sandburg was trying to do as he asked. "Please, Blair. Do this one thing for me, okay? Just lift your head up and find the direction of my voice."
Finally, there was a slight movement. Slowly, cautiously, Blair's curly head began to move.
"That's it, Chief! You don't have to move your body at all right now, I promise, just your head. C'mon, buddy. Look this way."
At last, Blair was turned halfway on his back, his head angled toward the sound of Jim's voice. Encouraged by this small measure of progress, Jim called down, "That's great, Sandburg! You're doing so great here." Jim slipped back into his soft, reassuring voice. "Now, I want you to open your eyes, Blair. All you're gonna see is me, hanging up here above you. That's all. Trust me."
Ellison could almost feel the shiver that wracked Sandburg's frame. The kid was terrified, yet he was doing his best to follow his sentinel's instructions. Jim was humbled by that pure trust, that undoubting devotion. A fierce surge of protectiveness fired through him. He would get Sandburg out of this, one way or another.
The tightly shut eyes relaxed almost imperceptibly, little by little, until a slit of blue was visible to Jim's sentinel vision. "That's it, kiddo," he encouraged. "Open your eyes for me, Chief. Look at me."
At last, his eyes were open. Terror filled blue orbs focused desperately on the face of the sentinel so high above. "J... Jim?" Blair whispered, his voice breaking on a barely controlled sob.
"Right here, Chief. I'm not leaving you, I promise. You got that?"
Jerkily, the curly head nodded. "Help me?" his hushed voice whispered. "I'm scared, Jim."
Ellison's heart nearly broke at the fear he saw in Blair's eyes and heard so clearly in his voice. "It's okay, Blair," he called down softly. "It's going to be all right."
Gathering his thoughts, Jim was silent for a moment. He couldn't afford to make a mistake. They didn't have the luxury of enough time for a replay.
"Blair? I want you to get to your knees for me, then try to stand up. Think you can handle that?"
A flash of pure terror distorted Sandburg's handsome face as he looked up at Jim and realized in a moment of intuition what his friend had in mind. "NO! I can't, Jim! Don't ask me to... "
Ellison interrupted him. "Sandburg! Stop it!" His voice was harsher than he'd intended, but perhaps that was for the best. He had to help Blair gain control of his fear, even if it took hard words to accomplish it. "You've got no choice! I can't help you unless you get to me, Blair." Frustrated, Jim fought for words which would convince the frightened young man to move, to try to reach him so they both could live.
The answer hit him immediately. Knowing how deep his guide's concern about his well-being ran, Jim decided to play his ace. There was a slight feeling of guilt as he did, but he pushed down the feeling. There was too much at stake, and besides, it was the damn truth.
"Sandburg, I didn't want to tell you this, but we're in a dangerous position here. We're not sure how long the couplings holding the cars together are going to last. If just one of them snaps... " Jim let his words hang in the air a moment, resolutely ignoring the small moan of fear from Blair.
"I meant what I said about not leaving you, Chief. If you won't come up here to me so we can get the hell out of here, then I'll make it down there to you."
At the look of denial on Blair's face, Jim hurried on. "I swear, Chief, if you don't get yourself standing in the next minute, I'm coming down there. I can't promise I'll be able to get us out before the train falls."
"Damn it, Jim! You just don't play fair, you know that?"
The muttered words were clear to Ellison, and he smiled in relief. Blair was getting mad, and that was a good sign.
Hesitantly, the young man moved to a sitting position, still keeping his eyes focused on his partner.
"That's the way, Chief. Just look at me. Nothing else exists right now. Just you and me."
At last, Blair was leaning against the wall of the train, his entire body trembling with the effort. "Okay, man. I'm standing up. Now what?" Then he added with a nervous laugh. "Or do I even want to know?"
Jim's voice was serious. "Blair, I swear to you that if you can do this, I'll get us out of here. You've got my word on that. Okay?"
Sandburg's eyes filled with tears, and he swiped them hastily away with the sleeve of his jacket. Why did it have to be so damned cold? He shivered again. Jim's word was a strong as steel. "Yeah. Okay. Just tell me what to do."
The sentinel's calm voice drifted down. "You can't fall, Blair, as long as you stay away from that open door. Do you understand me? You cannot fall. I want you to move slowly toward the middle of the car. Stop when you get to that first pole."
With feet that never lost contact with the train car, Sandburg slowly shuffled to the pole, his upturned eyes resolutely locked onto Jim's. His feet felt heavy as lead, and with each step, his body screamed at him to stop moving, to remain still and safe. Seconds seemed like hours, and it was an eternity before the pole was within his reach at last.
"That's it, Chief." Ellison congratulated him when Blair's hands grasped the cold steel of the support beam. "Now, I want you to climb up here to me. Just like the old monkey bars at school." Jim's words seemed off-hand, as if he was only tossing out a request for Blair to bring him a cup of coffee.
For a moment, Blair thought he hadn't heard Jim correctly. Surely, the man couldn't be asking him to... ? "Jim?" Sandburg's questioning voice was filled with disbelief. "You want me to what?"
Jim repeated his words, slowly and calmly. "Climb. Up here." Suddenly, his voice turned hard, the tone of one long used to giving commands and having them obeyed. "You can do this. You have to do this, Sandburg. Either that, or I come down there. We both know what that means."
He didn't have to specify the probable outcome, but before Blair could argue, a sudden movement captured their complete attention. At that instant, the train car lurched two feet closer to the lake, knocking Sandburg off his feet, and sending Jim swaying wildly overhead.
"Jim!" Blair cried in terror as he sprawled on what had become the floor of the car. "What's going on?!"
"It's okay, Chief! We're not falling! It was just a little movement, that's all!"
Carefully, Jim fished the radio from his pocket. "What the hell just happened?" he demanded in a low voice. He listened to the response, then repeated it to Sandburg.
"The coupling on the first car's weakening, Chief. We don't have time to wait for a rescue crew or a chopper. You've gotta get up here. Now!"
Struggling to his feet again, Sandburg didn't argue. The sudden drop had brought home all too clearly the danger of their predicament. If he didn't move, they would both die; he and Jim would die right here in an old converted boxcar, in the frigid waters of a mountain lake. The vision of his own death was frightening enough, but the image of Jim's strong body lying crushed and lifeless at the bottom of the dark, cold lake was more than he could bear.
Jim Ellison couldn't die that way. Not because of the cowardice of his partner. Still not believing what he was about to do, Blair removed his gloves. Reaching upward, he grasped the cold steel pole and began to climb.
His progress was slow. The poles were spaced just close enough for him to reach for one to the next, but it was a stretch. Each time he reached out with his fingertips to grasp the next pole, Blair cringed inwardly, fearful that eventually, his strength would fail him. Jim spoke to him constantly, cajoling, coaxing, and calming his friend as he moved cautiously upward. Hand over hand, Blair kept his gaze steadily fixed on Jim's beckoning eyes. His sentinel's warm voice enveloped him, and those warm blue eyes kept his fears at an almost controllable level. Blair Sandburg began to believe that just maybe, everything would be all right.
Until the train car slipped once more.
This time, the downward plunge was even more violent. Blair felt his grip loosening, in spite of his dogged determination to maintain his hold. "Jim!" he shouted in panic. In the darkest regions of his mind, he pictured the open doorway looming directly below, a gaping chasm awaiting his falling body.
"Hang on, Chief!" Jim fought to stop the wild gyrations of his own body as the car rocked from side to side. Then, the deafening groans of torn metal ceased, and the only sound surrounding them was the ghosting of the wind through the broken windows, accompanied by eerie creaks from the overstressed metal.
Coming to a stop at last, Jim's eyes searched anxiously for his partner. Blair had vanished from the column he'd been gripping as the car dropped. For a second, Jim's heart stood still in his chest. Had Sandburg fallen all the way down? "Sandburg!!" Ellison cried out.
He was rewarded by the comforting sound of his partner's harsh breathing. Somehow, Blair had managed to grab hold of the next pole down, and there he was, hanging by one hand, his face gone white with fear. Wide, blue eyes stared up into Jim's face in horror, and Jim realized with a jolt of fear that Blair was far too close to losing whatever thin thread of control he'd managed to establish.
Keeping his voice calm, Jim called down to him. "Blair? It's over now, okay? I'm right here, buddy. Everything's okay. Reach up with your left hand and hold onto the pole. You can do it, Chief. Grab the pole, Blair."
Like a man captured in amber, Blair slowly moved his left hand toward the metal pole. Reaching out with trembling fingers, he grasped it tightly and hung there, panting. The eyes staring at Jim were clearer now, and Ellison breathed a sigh of relief.
"What the hell was that, Jim?" Blair gasped as he began pulling himself to the top of the column. A moment later he was straddling it, resting briefly before standing up to grab for the next pole.
Ellison grimaced as he glanced out the window. "Those couplings aren't gonna last much longer, Chief, especially with this wind picking up. We've gotta get out. Fast. Are you ready to move?"
Blair's only answer was to carefully stand on the narrow, round pole and quickly reach up for the next one. He fought against the nausea that threatened to overcome him at the thought of where he was and what he was doing.
He was so not comfortable with this whole idea!
But the calm look in Jim's eyes and the soft melody of his voice coaxed him upward. Each pole, each movement, brought him closer to the comfort of his sentinel, and that thought gave him enough strength to continue.
At last, Blair's tired hands grasped the final pole, the one which would bring him into reach of Jim's strong arms. As he struggled to lift the weight of his body up and onto the metal column one last time, his exhausted muscles trembled violently with the effort.
"C'mon, Chief! You can do it! Just a little more and you're there," Jim encouraged him. Inwardly, Jim was worried that Sandburg's strength had been drained completely by his fear and the long, difficult climb.
Please, God. Just give him the strength to reach me. I promise I'll take it from there. Just don't let him fall...
Blair's entire body was trembling now, and his eyes reflected his growing panic. "I... I can't do it, Jim! I'm... too... tired!" Tears threatened to spill over, and for the first time, Sandburg broke his promise to Ellison and looked down. Through the doorway so far below, Lake Fontana's waves were barely visible, like tiny ripples on a giant pond. "Oh, God... "
"Sandburg!" Jim snapped. "Look at me!" When Blair's frightened eyes remained locked below, Jim's voice grew harsh. "Sandburg!! Look at me! Now!"
Slowly, Blair's head turned and he looked up at Jim. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I almost made it." His fingers slipped a little more on the pole.
Jim Ellison had been patient long enough. It was time he took action. Unhooking the front buckle of the safety harness, he quickly calculated the distance down to Blair.
"What are you doing?" Sandburg cried, his eyes growing wide as he comprehended his sentinel's intent.
Ellison didn't answer. Leaning down, he gracefully flipped over. Blair gasped in fear, fully expecting to see the sentinel plummet to the hard end of the train car so far below them. Then, he saw Jim's plan and almost laughed aloud in relief.
Hanging from the harness by his bent knees, Jim's hands reached out for Blair's and immediately covered his wrists, grasping them tightly. "Let go of the pole, Chief," he ordered.
Jim could see the conflicting emotions flicker over his friend's face as shadows from a fire dance on the wall. Fear. Uncertainty. Hope.
"Blair," Jim said softly. "I won't let you fall. Trust me. Let go."
For long moments their eyes held, locked and unblinking. With a deep breath and a trembling smile, Blair Sandburg released his hands...
... and found himself suspended in mid-air, held firmly by the strong hands of Jim Ellison. Grinning down at him, Jim quipped, "In case you ever wanted to join the circus as a kid, I recommend the trapeze, Chief."
In spite of his fear, Blair smiled tightly. "Just get me up there, okay, man? This monkey act gets old really fast!"
Moments later, Jim had managed to turn himself upright, bringing Blair right along with him, in spite of his quivering, tired muscles. Quickly buckling the safety harness once more, Jim had to admit to himself that he was relieved; the worst was behind them. Clutching Sandburg tightly to him with one arm, Jim pulled out the two-way radio again.
Before calling, he looked down at his friend. Blair had his arms and legs wrapped around Jim, holding on for dear life. His head was pressed hard against Jim's shoulder, and once more, the blue eyes were tightly screwed shut.
Jim felt a wave of affection wash over him. As frightened as Blair had been, he'd faced his greatest fear and made the treacherous climb. Resting his cheek against the soft curls for a moment, he said softly, "You did great, Blair. Really great. Just hold on to me, and we'll be to the top in no time." When he felt Blair's answering nod, Jim clicked the radio on.
"We're ready," he announced firmly. "This time, I need you to pull us in. I'll radio if we need you to stop. Slow and steady. Let's move!"
Slowly, inch by inch, sentinel and guide were lifted upward. They cleared first one train car, then another, as their upward journey continued. Every few minutes, one of the men above would call on the radio to make certain everything was progressing well.
"We're fine," Jim reassured them on the third call. "We're almost to the final car now. Just keep it going nice and slow."
It wouldn't be long now. In a few moments, they would enter the last car, then be pulled through it to the final door. The door that led to safety and freedom.
"You doing okay, Chief?" Jim studied the still bundle tucked closely against him.
Blair tightened his arms around Jim's shoulders. His eyes didn't open, but his voice was stronger when he replied, "I'm okay. Are we almost there?"
Smiling, Jim glanced upward. "We're... " He stopped abruptly as his eyes filled with horror at the sight.
With his sentinel vision, Jim could see the coupling connecting the car they were in to the final car hanging from rest of the train above on the trestle. He could see it too clearly, in fact.
The coupling was slowly, but steadily, sliding apart.
Jim grabbed the radio. It couldn't end like this. Not after all they'd endured since the train left the tracks. Not with only one final car to go. Jim Ellison was far from ready to die, and Sandburg deserved better than the one thing he feared the most - falling to his death.
Ellison barked into the radio, "Meadows! We've got trouble!"
As the sentinel's voice rumbled in his ear, Blair glanced up fearfully. "Jim... ? What... ?"
"Just hold on, Sandburg. I'll... "
When the engineer's voice answered, Jim quickly explained the situation. He felt Blair's hands grip him even more tightly as his guide heard the terrifying details of what his sentinel had seen.
Meadows suggested hopefully, "We'll pull faster. Get you out before it breaks apart."
"Negative!" Jim argued. "We'd never make it. There isn't time! Put Sean Hawks on!"
When the young man's voice crackled through the radio, Jim hurried to explain what he needed.
"Think you can do that? Fast?"
Hawks was confident. "I'm on it, Jim. I'll tell you when we're ready."
"Hurry up! There's not much time!"
Blair's face tilted upward, his eyes opening cautiously to study his friend. "What are you doing? What are we going to try?"
Releasing his grip on Sandburg for a moment, Jim brushed back an errant curl and tried for what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "We've just gotta get out of the car a little faster than I thought, Chief. Don't... "
Sean Hawks was back on the radio. "Ready!"
Jim acknowledged him, then slipped the radio back into his pocket. With a mighty push against a nearby support pole, Jim swung them over to the side of the train car. Catching hold of the window frame, he anchored them there. Blair glanced outside the window. A second rope hung right outside. He looked up at Jim, an unspoken question in his eyes.
"Trust me, Chief," Jim said simply.
Blair nodded. There was no more need for words. To no other man would he entrust his life in a situation like this, but Jim Ellison was no ordinary man. Whatever happened in the next few minutes, Blair was certain to the depths of his soul that Jim would do his best to save them. Or die trying.
Jim began to unhook his safety harness, explaining as he worked. "We've gotta get out of this car, Blair. The only way to do that... " He stopped long enough to release the harness, the only thing preventing them from falling. "The only way to do that is to get out of the safety harness and grab hold of that." He nodded toward the thin rope dangling outside their window.
Blair's eyebrows raised in disbelief. "And then?"
Jim grinned. "That's the easy part, kid. They pull us up. Voila!"
"Yeah, right. Voila." Blair's eyes seemed pulled by a force stronger than his own will toward the lake below.
Seeing his friend's gaze move downward, Jim snapped, "Stop that! Concentrate here, Chief. I need you to hold on to me as tightly as you can. I'll need both hands now for the rope."
"You're... you're letting go? Of... me?" Blair seemed stunned at the idea.
"No choice, buddy. Just hold on, you hear me? Whatever happens, you don't let go of me. Got that?"
Nodding, Blair tightened his grip on his partner with both arms and legs.
Jim huffed an exaggerated exhalation. "Don't cut off my oxygen here, Sandburg. I won't do us much good if I pass out."
Muttering, Blair buried his head against the powerful shoulder again. "Funny, Jim. Let's get this over with, okay?"
Jim heard another creak from the coupling. It was time to move. "You got it, Chief."
Releasing his grip on the window, he reached out and snagged the line. Taking a deep breath, Jim Ellison eased out of the car and into nothingness.
For an instant, they hung in mid-air with only air between them and the hard surface of the water below. Then, Jim's fingers touched the roughness of the rope, and he grasped it with a strength born of desperation.
Jim heard Blair's breath catch in his throat in a half-sob, and the body clinging to him began to shiver uncontrollably. "No, Chief, don't," he whispered, wishing he could do something more to comfort his friend. "Shhhhh... . They're already pulling us up. I've got a good grip. We're going to be okay."
Suddenly, the air was inundated by the thunderous sounds of the couplings giving way at last. Creaking and moaning, the metal tore apart slowly. Blair's trembling grew stronger, and the arms and legs wrapped around Jim tightened like a vise. Ellison tried to speak, to tell Sandburg that they were well away from the groaning train cars, but the din drowned out his voice. All he could do was hold on tightly to the thin line attaching them to the safety waiting above.
In a cacophony of protest, the last railcar they'd been inside broke free, carrying the cars below with it. They plunged freely into the air, twisting and turning gracefully as they fell. The sound of a tremendous splash rose slowly upward as the cars sank into the icy waters of Lake Fontana.
"That could have been us," Blair whispered brokenly.
Letting his breath out in a deep sigh of relief, Jim murmured, "It could have been, but it wasn't. We're safe, Chief." Looking upward, he saw the faces of their concerned rescuers peering over the trestle as they pulled them the last few feet. "We're almost there. Just a minute more. A minute more, and we're home free."
At last, they were dragged onto the railroad trestle then hurriedly moved to the solidity of the earth beyond. Limping from the pain in his ankle, Jim kept one arm wrapped around Sandburg as they hurried to the end of the trestle. Once there, they collapsed weakly onto the ground.
Blair leaned into Jim once more, and the older man drew him close. Tiny tremors still wracked Sandburg's body, but whether they were from exhaustion, the cold, or the lingering terror of their ordeal, he wasn't certain. Someone draped a heavy coat around their shoulders, and in the distance, Jim could hear the sounds of the rescue crews approaching. Resting his chin atop Sandburg's head, he whispered, "We made it, Chief." At the small, answering nod, Jim closed his eyes in sheer relief. "We made it."********************
The loft was warm. Safe and warm and comforting, and Jim Ellison had never been so glad to be home.
They had arrived in Cascade on the last flight of the evening, touching down shortly after midnight. Sandburg had slept the entire trip, curled up in his seat by the window, his curly head resting on one of the small, flat airline pillows tucked against the glass. In the truck as they drove toward Cascade, the only difference was the changing scenery outside the window where his head rested.
Once they arrived home, Sandburg had muttered something about taking a shower the next morning, not being hungry, and had headed for his room. By the time Jim had changed into boxers and robe and checked on him five minutes later, Sandburg was sprawled on the tiny futon, fully clothed, his feet hanging off the edge of the bed.
The sentinel stood for a moment at the doorway, leaning on his crutches and watching his sleeping guide, a bemused half-smile on his lips. "You could sleep anywhere, couldn't you, Chief?" he whispered under his breath. "Bed... plane... truck. It's all the same to you, right?"
Limping over to the bed, he leaned his crutches against the wall. Jim carefully slipped off the worn Nikes and gently adjusted Blair to lie more comfortably on the bed. Inch by inch, he eased the covers out from beneath his exhausted friend. Just as he was about to pull the warm blankets over Sandburg, a drowsy voice unexpectedly whispered, "Stay?"
Not entirely sure that Sandburg wasn't caught in some dream world, Jim rested his palm on Blair's forehead. He frowned. A little too warm? "Chief? I thought you were asleep."
The head beneath his hand nodded slightly. "... was. Just woke up. Dreaming... "
Jim perched carefully on the edge of the small bed. "About the train?"
Blair's thoughts seemed to drift as he spoke. "Train... water... the fountain..." He frowned, his blue eyes still tightly shut. "All seemed to run together..."
Jim's heart twisted in pain. Damn. The kid didn't need all his demons descending on him at once tonight. Blair hadn't mentioned it, but Jim was sure Lash was lurking in there somewhere as well.
"Stay?" The sleep heavy voice whispered once more.
Ellison grimaced in a half-hearted attempt at irritation and without regret, drove all thoughts of his big, soft bed from his mind. Pulling off his robe, he folded it carefully and laid it on the foot of the bed.
"Move over, Chief."
After Blair had shifted as far as he could to the opposite side of the small futon, Jim crawled in beside him, carefully maneuvering the cast on his fractured ankle. He smiled as he settled into the warm spot just vacated by his partner.
Sandburg rolled to face Jim, his eyes open now and watching Ellison in the darkness. Jim knew Blair couldn't see him, although his sentinel sight took in Blair's face clearly and read the question in the younger man's eyes.
"Jim?" Blair sounded more awake now, although there was still a drowsy undertone to his voice.
Ellison yawned, feeling the stress of the last twenty-four hours catching up to him at last. "Yeah, Chief?"
"Thanks, man. I... I can't think of many ways I'd rather not go than falling like that. If you hadn't come for me, I never would have made it out. I couldn't believe your coming down for me like that, though, man. You could've been killed, Jim, just trying to get to me. Just one slip and... " Blair wiped the wetness from his eyes. "I still can't believe you did that for me. I mean, I was a complete coward, but you... you weren't scared at all. I'm sorry I let you down, Jim."
Jim lay silently, staring up at the ceiling. It bothered him that sometimes Blair seemed to think so little of himself, of his value in Jim's life. If it took a lifetime, Jim was determined to convince his friend of his own worth. As for that coward remark...
Reaching out, Jim caught Blair's hand and squeezed hard, gripping it firmly. "Courage isn't the absence of fear. Courage is being afraid but facing up to whatever it is that terrifies you. It's looking fear in the eyes, Chief, and staring it down, unblinking, until you come out on top. You think I wasn't scared? Only a fool wouldn't have been scared in that situation."
Jim hesitated. It still wasn't easy for him to admit his fears. Owning up to any personal weakness wasn't the way Jim Ellison had been raised, and his career as soldier and cop hadn't softened that long-held stubbornness. Yet, one of the greatest gifts he'd received from Sandburg was his growing ability to be honest with himself about his emotions. Ignoring the inner voice that berated him to deny what he had truly felt beneath that trestle, Jim added softly, "Hell, yes, I was scared. Just as much as you. I've had more training in how to deal with those kind of situations, that's all."
Jim continued in a voice that allowed no room for argument. "You listen to me. You are the most courageous guy I've ever met, Sandburg. Yeah, you were scared down there, but you did what you had to do to get us both out alive. You didn't let me down, kid. You've never let me down. Not once. Don't ever be ashamed of your fear, Chief. Not as long as you have the courage to overcome it. Got it?"
His moist eyes glistening in the moonlight, Blair whispered, "Yeah, man. I've got it." After a moment, Sandburg closed his eyes, thinking back to the horror of the crash, to the terror he'd felt dangling high above the lake, staring straight into the jaws of death. Jim was right, he marveled as the truth suddenly dawned at last. He hadn't frozen; he hadn't been unable to move or been too frightened to help Jim bring them to safety. Somehow, he had managed to find the courage for that upward climb, the courage to reach Jim at last. A tiny smile turned up the corners of Blair's mouth as relief warmed his heart. He really hadn't disappointed Jim after all.
Jim spoke again, his voice roughened by barely restrained emotion. "One more thing, Chief. I'm only going to say this once, so listen up. As for not believing that I took the risk to come down into that railcar for you, there is nothing on the face of this earth that will keep me from getting to you if you need me. I didn't think twice about going down that rope because you needed me to do it, and I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. Because you are worth the risk." The sentinel stared hard into his guide's wide, unblinking eyes. "Whatever it takes, Blair. Always. Do you understand that?"
Jim didn't miss the catch in Blair's voice when he whispered his reply. "Yeah, man. I understand. I don't think anyone's ever told me that before. Thanks."
The sincerity in his friend's soft voice tightened Jim's throat, and he swallowed hard against the welcome pain. "It's okay, Sandburg. It's okay. All part of life as a Blessed Protector." He smiled at the huge grin plastered across Sandburg's face. Yawning, Jim added, "I don't know about you, Junior, but I'm fading fast." He squeezed his partner's hand, still encased warmly within his own. "Get some rest, Chief."
A few moments later, Jim Ellison drifted off to sleep with Blair tucked beside him as the younger man pressed closer to the comforting warmth of his sentinel. Their joined hands, relaxed in sleep, remained loosely entwined throughout the night. The twin dream worlds of sentinel and guide were peaceful now, soothed by the murmuring waters of quiet mountain streams, warmed by summer's sunshine, and brightened by the light of the powerful, enduring friendship they shared.
Notes: Yet another tale based on my travels. This time, the story takes place in the mountains of Western North Carolina, a location dear to my heart both from my childhood and today. I spent summers there with my grandparents who ran a small antiques shop in Nantahala Gorge. It was there I learned to love the wildness of nature and, many years later, rode the Great Smoky Mountain Railway for the first time. This fall, while taking the train trip again to see the magnificent colors of the leaves, I couldn't help wondering as we crossed the Fontana Lake trestle, "What if... ?" A sure sign of danger for a fanfic writer! This story was the result. Enjoy it? Please send feedback, the only pay we writers receive. Thank you for taking the time to read.
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