Just over a week later, ranging farther afield than usual to inform the supply bases about the army's move out of winter quarters and their new location, Jim and Blair were in Connecticut and making their way from one depot near the coast to another. Their path along the high ground took them along the coastline and Blair stopped at one point to look out across the sea. The wind was fresh off the water, the day warm with the promise of spring and the coming summer. He brushed hair out of his eyes and smiled to himself. Standing beside him, Jim asked, "Whatcha thinking, Chief?"

Blair's eyes were bright and his smile wide as he looked up at his friend. "Oh, just that someday, I hope I'll be able to cross that water and see more of the world. There's so much out there, Jim. So, so much to see."

Chuckling, Jim looped an arm around his shoulders and turned him back to the path. "Tell you what, Sandburg, when this war is over, you and me, we'll go check out the world. See the places you've been telling me about, like Greece and Jerusalem."

"You mean it?" Blair exclaimed, excited by the idea. "Man, that would be so great."

"I mean it," Jim laughed. "But first we've got a war to win."

Later that morning, they were jogging across a farm, when Jim stopped in mid-stride and half-turned toward the south, his head cocked.

"What is it?" Blair asked, his gaze searching the horizon and the forest nearby, but unable to discern anything wrong.

"Gunfire, and lots of it," Jim told him as he fully turned to squint in the direction of the fighting. "But it's too far away. I can't see ...."

"S'okay," Blair assured him. "You want to check it out?"

Nodding, Jim led off in the new direction and, a good hour later, they encountered panicked militia men who were running flat out as if the Devil himself was on their tail. The British had struck again, this time in Danbury. According to the barely coherent militiaman, a frightened kid who looked no more than fifteen years old, two thousand redcoats had sailed from Long Island and then marched inland to destroy the stores in Danbury: 4,000 to 5,000 barrels of preserved and pickled meat and flour, 5,000 pairs of shoes, 2,000 bushels of grain, and 1,600 virtually irreplaceable tents among other supplies were lost. As a further punitive gesture, the British burned nineteen homes in the area before marching westward, intent upon raiding more of the American logistics bases. The Americans in the depot had barely escaped with their lives ... or at least, some had escaped. All the kid knew was that quite a few had been killed.

"Two thousand," Blair echoed, swallowing hard. There weren't two thousand Continental Army soldiers in the whole of Connecticut. Hell, there weren't that many militiamen.

Jim licked his lips as he frowned and thought about what they could do. "General Arnold is probably the closest," he finally decided, and they set off to brief him. Brigadier General Benedict Arnold had been in the northern reaches for two years, but had last fall gone south to aid the efforts there; he had recently come north from the Carolinas with a regiment, and wasted no time upon hearing the report. Quickly mustering his men, they set off in a forced march to stop the British advance. En route, they met up with five hundred militia and one hundred regular colonial soldiers led by Brigadier General Silliman. After a hasty discussion about tactics, Arnold and his men continued at full speed to confront the British head-on, while Silliman skirted around to harass the British from the rear.

When they encountered the enemy, though outnumbered five to one, Arnold and his men held the line boldly and bravely for three hours, despite punishing cannon fire and repeated British charges. At one point, the fighting was so close and fierce that Arnold's horse was shot out from under him and he was pinned underneath when the animal dropped and rolled on his leg. He had to fight off and kill a British soldier who ran forward to finish him before he was able to struggle free. Finally, the overwhelming numbers of the enemy pushed him back, but he wasn't giving up. Leaving snipers behind him to slow the British advance, he led the rest of his men away at a fast clip, toward a bridge fifteen miles away where he planned to again try to stop the British advance.

Jim and Blair were amongst those snipers. With grim and icy calm, time and again, Jim clapped one hand around Blair's arm, leading him and the handful of others to places of adequate cover that also provided a sheltered means of escape. They crouched in the shadows behind bushes or up in tall branches, and fought the sense of being awash in a tide of red serge, a handful of men trying to slow thousands. Their aim was deadly and there was time, in the confusion they engendered, to shoot, reload, and shoot again, before they had to turn and race to another forward position, while the British regrouped in frustration and marched on toward them, Silliman's men still annoyingly chewing on their heels.

While the marksmen were hastening ahead to find another place to ambush the British, one of the men muttered disgustedly, "Hidin' in the trees, shootin' 'em like they was no better than animals. T'ain't decent." With a slanting look at Sandburg, he muttered, "Might as well be Injuns."

Blair stiffened but didn't respond. Jim, the only officer in the group, turned on the man and snarled, "They burned out nineteen families back in Danbury. An' they'd kill us all, given the chance. There're two thousand of them, maybe more, and half a dozen of us. You want to stand in a line in front of them like good honourable soldiers, and let them cut us down? Or you just want to run? Huh? You got a better idea of how to slow them down?"

Affronted, the man griped, "I'm just sayin' this ain't the way whitemen fight."

"And I'm saying we're not Europeans, we're Americans," Jim retorted coldly. "This is our land and we can make the rules. We don't have to play the game their way and lose, because we will lose if we don't use every surprise and strategy we've got to keep them off guard." Glancing at Blair, he added, "Just 'cause we might have learned something from the Indians, doesn't make it wrong. We've got to keep learning, keep adapting, or we're going to lose ... and we're going to die."

When the soldier flushed and looked away, Jim turned from him, again taking the lead. "C'mon. We're wasting time here." Over his shoulder, he grated, "It's a free country - or at least, that's what we're fighting for. You can either fight with us, or you can go home. Up to you."

But they couldn't stop the British column, only slow it down, and it eventually reached the bridge Arnold had barricaded. Three times the redcoats rushed his position, but the Americans held them off. Finally, forsaking the bridge that Arnold held, the British line swung away, but he once again hastened across country to block them at yet another bridge. Silliman persisted in chasing along behind, while the snipers moved alongside. Attacking with no warning from the shadows, they aimed to wound rather than kill, because the wounded slowed advances more than the dead.

Finally, though they vastly outnumbered the Americans, the British circled back to their longships, fighting a rearguard action all the way. Though the British claimed the victory for the destruction they'd wrought in Danbury, they hadn't succeeded in wiping out the full line of supply bases. Arnold, led by Jim and Blair, rode to Washington to report the attack. The General was quick to capitalize on the time Arnold and Silliman had bought for him by ordering his remaining supply depots to relocate more than a day's march from all coast lines, rendering them less vulnerable to a surprise attack from the sea.

Alone in his tent that night, thinking about the coming campaign he felt ill-prepared to wage, Washington fretted about his inadequate supplies and the fact that the pay for the soldiers was once again months in arrears. Having caught his personal aide in a plot with Lee to undermine his command, he was unsure who he could trust, but he needed to get a confidential report to Congress very soon, which would essentially be a demand for more timely and substantial support in terms of getting him the supplies he needed and the troops paid on time - or risk losing the war. He couldn't afford the rate of desertion he'd suffered the year before, not and have a hope of holding the British, let alone triumph over them. But the situation was not yet desperate, and he was loathe to cry wolf. Sighing, he told himself he had to be patient and allow Congress to do their part.

But when nothing was any better by the end of May, and the men were grumbling bitterly about the lack of pay, Washington's patience was at an end. With the summer campaign looming ever closer, he needed relief and he needed it soon or he might as well surrender and be done with it. But there was still the issue of who could be trusted absolutely to carry such sensitive information and not have it fall into the wrong hands. He pondered his options and then nodded, having decided upon his couriers. Sitting down at the table in his tent, by the lantern's wavering light, he wrote his short, pithy, and to the point message to Congress.

********************

The weather was balmy, the ground firm underfoot, and they made good time on the sturdy horses Washington assigned them for the journey. An accomplished horseman, Jim found the rare opportunity to ride across the countryside a pleasant change from hoofing it, but Blair wasn't as sanguine. He'd learned to ride during the time he'd spent living with Washington, and had the skills to sustain the pace, but was he was uncomfortable being so far from the ground. Every time he mounted, he'd grit his teeth and, once in the saddle, refuse to look down lest dizziness swamp him.

"Looking a little green there, Chief," Jim teased him gently their third morning on the trail.

Breathing shallowly, Blair shot him a withering look. Swallowing carefully, he grated, "I told you, I hate heights."

"You're not that far from the ground," Jim reassured him, laughter in his voice. "Trust me, if you fall off, it won't kill you."

Blair ventured a sideways look to the earth that seemed miles below and quickly closed his eyes. Shuddering, he muttered to himself, "I can do this. I can do this."

"Seems to me you can do anything you set your mind to," Jim said staunchly. "Eventually," he added, as he kicked his mount forward, "you'll get used to it."

"If you say so," he replied, his tone clipped, not sounding at all convinced. Nevertheless, he gamely dug his heel into his horse's flanks and followed at the moderate galloping pace his partner set.

When they finally rode into Philadelphia early in the afternoon, Blair looked around curiously. In a lot of ways, it reminded him of Manhattan - loud, crowded, busy, and foul-smelling. Buildings loomed up on either side as they made their way to the center of town, giving him the feeling that he was riding through a narrow, hazard-strewn canyon. Skirting around heavily loaded wagons and wary of people who dashed into the street without first looking to see if the way was clear, he concentrated on keeping his mount under control, and only belatedly thought to call to Jim, "How're you doing? Need to adjust a telescope or anything?"

"I'm okay," he replied, but his lip curled against the rotten stench emanating from the alley they were passing, and his eyes were narrowed against the noise and confusion.

"Better turn it down a bit," Blair counseled, a slight frown of concern puckering his brow, his own fears forgotten for the moment. Jim grimaced but nodded.

A few minutes later, while they waited for a large cumbersome and heavy wagon stacked precariously with boxes and pulled by four horses to clear the intersection, Jim looked around and said, "Did you know that the largest community of Jews in the colonies lives here in Philadelphia? Their synagogue is just down the next street, I think."

Blair's brow quirked and he looked ahead. "Really?" he replied. "I didn't know that."

"We could ask around, see if there are any Sandburgs living here," Jim offered.

His expression guarded and his manner reflecting his nervousness about the idea, Blair flicked his friend a quick look, and then nodded. "Thanks. I'd, uh, I'd like to do that."

"Right after we deliver the General's missive to Congress," Jim assured him, winning a small, tight smile.

Less than half an hour later, they found themselves being shown into a large assembly hall that was strewn with spare wooden tables around which solemn men crowded, several of them muttering to one another while two shouted back and forth at each other. But when they entered the room, all eyes turned to them, some curious, others irritated by the interruption. Few seemed impressed by their less than pristine clothing and stubbled beards.

Jim straightened to something approximating attention and said briskly, "Sorry to interrupt, gentlemen. I'm Captain James Ellison of the Continental Army, and this is Corporal Blair Sandburg." Holding out the sealed scroll, he told them, "General Washington tasked us to bring this to you safely."

"Come in, come in," one of the younger delegates, a tall, handsome man called as he stood to move toward them. "Good to see you again, Blair," he added, holding out his arm to warmly shake Blair's hand. "You men look like you've seen hard action."

Smiling, Sandburg nodded deferentially. "It's a pleasure to see you again, too, Tom," he replied, adding under his breath for Jim, "Jefferson."

Jefferson took the missive from Jim, broke the seal and waved them to stand by the wall, as there were no empty chairs, while he read aloud. "My most esteemed and respected colleagues, Once again, I find myself having to beg your earliest attention to the matter of Army's needs for more substantial and timely support. The spring campaign is beginning and, I regret to say, the men have once again not been paid for months, food supplies are inadequate to our needs, many are ill-clothed and we have insufficient ammunition or armament to present a credible challenge to the enemy. The States are not fulfilling their obligations and our mission is at risk, not for lack of bravery or fortitude, but because of pecuniary issues that should not still be plaguing us. I need not remind you that these men serve voluntarily and their families suffer their absence. If they cannot rely upon their pay, many have no choice but to recant their commitment to return home to feed their families. Attached to this letter is a detailed accounting of what is required and I urge you to resolve these matters as your highest priority. General Howe has again taken the field and we are hard-pressed to meet the challenge you have set for us. Your most humble servant, George Washington, Commander in Chief, Continental Army."

Jim and Blair watched the others as the message was read, seeing some respond with concern, some with irritation, and still others looked impatient. Several called out when Jefferson finished the recital, shouting that it was a disgrace that Washington had to plead like a beggar in the streets for food, let alone munitions, and shot pointed looks at some of their colleagues, who grimaced or smirked as if the army's woes were the least of their concerns. One muttered that the army was nothing but a lazy rabble of drunken sots, and another sneered back, "Maybe so, but they're our rabble, and if they fail, it's our necks that will be stretched."

Reminded of the dire consequences of failure and being tried as traitors to the Crown, the crowd sobered and fell silent.

Thomas Jefferson looked toward the two warriors standing just inside the doorway, men who faced the enemy and didn't just talk about the challenges. "Would you tell us, in your own words, what the situation is like in the field? Tell us about Trenton and Princeton, and about what's happening or is rumored to be happening now."

"Sir, the General doesn't exaggerate the dire nature of our situation," Jim replied soberly, his voice ringing out in the quiet room. "Many, even most, of the men marched to Trenton all night in a raging blizzard, naked, with bare feet on frozen ground. The new recruits pouring in since our victories are willing but untrained. They have inadequate clothing as they are required to clothe themselves and they are not wealthy men. Their weapons are often inadequate, old and cumbersome, and we are forever short of munitions. The winter was hard and ... and starvation was a real threat. Many of the men are weak and sick as a result. The British outnumber us and are far better equipped. But, even so, just a couple of weeks ago, outnumbered five to one, we held the line and forced them out of Connecticut. We don't lack fortitude, sir. We lack food and armament." Looking at the Congressman who had described the army as drunken rabble, he added darkly, "We are a rabble, sir ... a conglomeration of untrained free men doing our best to secure this nation's freedom on behalf of everyone. We don't in the least respect resemble an army - as you can see," he gestured at Blair and himself, "we don't even share a common uniform. And, yes, many of the men do drink, to fill bellies empty of food, to warm bodies frozen by the cold. We'll give our lives to fight for this country, for the beliefs we all share, for freedom - but we could use a little better support from the rest of you, so that none of us die in vain."

Humbled, some seeming ashamed, many men averted their eyes and shook their heads sorrowfully.

"Thank you for your candor, Captain," Jefferson said, bowing formally in respect. Waving at the room at large, he said, "We'll need to talk about what you've told us, and about the General's needs for our support. It may be a few days before we have an answer for him that addresses the specifics of the matter. If you've not yet found accommodation, may I offer you a room where I lodge? I'd be honoured to have the opportunity to talk with you further this evening, over dinner."

"Thank you, sir," Jim replied with quiet dignity. "We're pleased and grateful to accept your hospitality."

After they exchanged information about where to meet later, Jim and Blair saluted the Congress and retired to the street. Behind them, when Jim heard angry shouting erupt behind the closed door, he feared Jefferson had underestimated the task and the time it would take to get all those men to agree to what was needed.

Glad to be outside, they stood a moment to enjoy the warmth of the sun on their faces.

"You did good in there, Jim," Blair murmured admiringly. "Said it straight. Like it is."

Shrugging, he replied, "I just hope they were all listening, Chief. But there are some in that mob that I wouldn't trust with a tadpole, let alone the effort to secure this nation's freedom."

"Divided loyalties, huh," Blair observed thoughtfully.

Snorting, Jim shook his head. "Loyalists, plain and simple, Sandburg. With lines of communication straight into General Howe's office, I've no doubt," he retorted pithily.

"So that's why you didn't say anything about the rumours we've been hearing about Gentleman Johnny up in Quebec, bragging that he's going to win this war before summer's end? Or anything else specific about the General's thoughts about this year's campaign?"

"Yep. That's exactly why."

Blair sniffed as he looked up and down the street, and scratched his cheek thoughtfully. "Maybe we need to do some scouting. Put our ears to the ground or," he grinned, looking up at his friend, "whatever works for you, to see what rumours we can pick up while we're here."

Looping an arm around his shoulders, Jim grinned down at him. "My thoughts exactly, Chief," he agreed. But, before he could say more, a syrupy Southern drawl hailed from across the street, "Why, if it isn't Jimmy Ellison, as I live and breathe!"

Startled, they both turned toward the voice and saw a tall, pretty woman richly dressed in black satin, with a narrow brimmed black hat and lace half covering her elaborately coiffed blond curls. She was waving demurely, and beckoning Jim to join her. When she knew she'd caught his attention, she turned to another woman by her side and seemed to be urging the woman to be on her way.

"Ah," Jim sighed, though he kept the smile on his face. "The lovely and very treacherous Alexandra."

"She looks very glad to see you," Blair teased, laughter in his voice. "An old flame?"

"Hmm. I think she sees my father's fortune more than she ever saw me - probably hoped that if we married, I'd pitch over in one of my fits and die, living her a wealthy widow," Jim countered wryly with an amused glance at his partner. "But, in the interests of the nation's security, and with full knowledge that we'll be fraternizing with the enemy, we'd best pay our respects."

"Oh, no," Blair declined definitively, waving him on. "There's no 'we' about this mission. I'm sure you'll find out a good deal more on your own." He paused and then added, "I, uh, I think I'll look for that synagogue you mentioned."

Gesturing at Alexandra to wait for him, Jim frowned in concern. "You sure you want to do that on your own? I mean ... I'd be glad to go with you."

"Nah, that's alright," Blair assured him with a blithe confidence Jim didn't quite buy. "I'll meet you back here in an hour or so, when Tom's ready to show us to his boarding house."

Jim searched his eyes and then nodded. Clapping him on the shoulder, he said gently, "Good luck, Chief," and then he was loping across the wide street.

"You, too," Blair replied softly, for sentinel ears only, before he resolutely squared his shoulders and retraced their path to the corner that Jim had told him was near the synagogue. He only looked back once, and saw Jim bending to kiss the fair lady's cheek when Alexandra looped her arm in his, as if taking possession of him. "Careful, buddy," he whispered, teasingly. "Looks like she's loaded for bear."

Jim looked up over her head to meet his eyes with a half-smile and a wink. But when Blair turned to continue on his way, Jim's eyes darkened with concern. He wasn't entirely sure it was a good idea to leave his partner to seek out answers to his past on his own. So he scanned the street further ahead, and spotted a tea room not far from the corner where Blair would be turning off. Smoothly, he whirled Alexandra around, all the while chatting gallantly about how good it was to see her again and insisting he buy her a cup of tea to celebrate - and he knew just the place. Flattered, she allowed as that sounded like a wonderful idea.

A few minutes later, he assisted her into a plush, padded little seat at an elegantly draped small round table, and was ordering for the both of them. He then asked after her family, how her father's business interests were going, her mother's health, discovered she'd been recently widowed and showed appropriate sympathy.

And all the while, he was listening to the steady drum of his partner's heartbeat and Blair's dry, tight voice as he asked directions to the synagogue.

********************

Following the directions he'd been given, Blair soon found the synagogue down a narrow, winding street. It was an impressive building, but not ostentatious. Uncertainly, he stood across the lane and just looked at it, wondering if he could simply enter or if only members were allowed. When a diminutive, elderly, conservatively but well dressed man with long curls and a small black cap on his head hurried down the street and into the door, he gathered up his courage, pulled off his cap and crossed to go inside. At least he knew the building was open and there was someone there.

He found himself in an entry hall that had a quiet elegance and, beyond, he heard the deep voices of men chanting in a language he didn't understand. 'Hebrew,' he thought, and smiled nervously, filled both with a sense of anticipation and a kind of homecoming, and a profound fear that he didn't belong there. Taking a breath, he moved further into the building and around a corner into a hallway, where he encountered the old man he'd seen from the street. The fellow was still hurrying as he darted out of what looked like a kind of antechamber or office or meeting room, Blair wasn't sure which, and back along the hall toward the voices that were emanating from an open doorway at the far end.

Startled by his presence, the man pulled up short and blinked up at him. "Oh!" he exclaimed softly, his voice deep and resonant. "You've not been here before. Was there something you wanted?"

"Um, yes, sir," Blair stammered, and then swallowed to pull himself together. He was too conscious that his hands were trembling and his throat was dry as dust. "I'm looking for relatives," he said simply. "My name is Blair Sandburg and, uh, well, I wondered if there are Sandburgs who, um, worship here."

"I see," the old man replied, studying him. "You're not wearing a yarmulke."

"A ... what?" Blair stumbled, unfamiliar with the term.

Touching the small black cap on his head, the man repeated, "Yarmulke. It's a sign of respect to cover our heads in God's presence."

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know," Blair replied, flushing in embarrassed apology as he awkwardly tugged his coonskin cap over his curls.

The man frowned at him. "Your name is Sandburg and you didn't know something so ...." But he couldn't seem to find a word to express how intrinsic, how basic, the tradition was.

"My mother died when I was very young," Blair hastened to explain. "And I wasn't raised by people who practiced the Jewish faith."

"It's taken you long enough to try to resume contact with your heritage, hasn't it?" the man challenged dryly, eying his frontier garb.

"This is my first time visiting Philadelphia - I only just arrived today," Blair offered in excuse, feeling as if he was undergoing some kind of inquisition without knowing any of the right answers. "I'm sorry if I'm intruding or ... or if I shouldn't be here."

"Hmm," the elderly fellow ruminated. "Well, you're here now, and you've come with a reasonable request. As it happens, my friend, Bartholomew Sandburg is just down the hall with a few others. We meet here each day at this time to study and discuss the Talmud. You know what that is?"

"I ... the holy book, the scrolls, er, the rules, sort of," Blair hastened to reply, though his tone was uncertain. He'd only read about the general precepts of the Jewish traditions.

"Close enough," the old man sighed, apparently saddened by the depth of his ignorance. Taking Blair's arm, he drew him down the hall. When they reached the open doorway, Blair saw a room richly appointed with crimson curtains and gold fixtures. At the far end was a simple table with an ornate closed box standing upright upon it and candelabra on either side. Benches arranged across the width of the room were divided along the middle aisle by a shoulder-high, intricately-made wrought iron screen. A small group of elderly men were in one corner, facing one another in a rough circle of sorts. They looked up at the intrusion, some nodding respectfully at Blair's companion, others looking at him with some consternation.

"Bartholomew," the fellow called gently, waving his friend to join them. "I've someone here who wishes to speak with you." One of the men frowned and then stood, evidently reluctant to be pulled away from the group and their study. He was tall and spare in build, his clothing reflecting a degree of considerable wealth. His face was long, and he had a hooked nose, vivid blue eyes the colour of Blair's, and his bearing was almost regal. He crossed the room with long strides, and the little guy made the introductions. "Bartholomew, this young man is Blair Sandburg and he's looking for relatives. He's been long away from our traditions and seems to have little knowledge of his heritage. I leave him in your capable hands." With that, the old man bustled into the chamber and took his place with the group.

Bartholomew studied Blair with little favour before waving him back into the hall and along to a small sitting room. When they were settled, he set his piercing gaze upon Blair's face and said with cool courtesy, "Tell me your story, young man, and we'll see if I can be of assistance to you."

"Thank you," Blair sighed gratefully. His gaze skittered around the room and then back to the man's stern visage. "My mother's name was Naomi Sandburg and all I really know is that I was born somewhere here in the North, maybe in New York, but I'm not sure. She never said very much about her family or her background. I grew up in Virginia, on the frontier, and ... and she died when I was seven years old. She would have left home about nineteen years ago. I ... I'd like to find out if I have any family. I'd like to know more about my roots."

"I see," Bartholomew murmured as he rubbed his mouth and chin, his gaze dropping away. "What happened to you after her death?" he asked, but he didn't look up. Nor did he ask about the presence of a father in Blair's life, a fact that Blair found intriguing, even hopeful. As if the man recognized Naomi's name and knew something about her.

"I never knew my father," Blair replied carefully, supplying the unasked for information, just in case it might be helpful. "I was raised by the Cherokee."

Surprised, the older man's eyes jumped to meet his, and then darted away again. He frowned heavily and there was a long moment of silence between them before he sighed. His lips tightened, as if he was debating saying anything further, and then he began to speak, his voice low and his tone distant. "My cousin, Joshua, had a daughter, Naomi, who he cast out nineteen or so years ago because she was ... unclean. She had become with child without a husband and, worse, the man was a gentile. Her behaviour was offensive to us, an abrogation of our Law, our morality."

Nodding, Blair bowed his head. "I understand," he murmured, the man's manner making him feel guilty, dirty ... the reason for his mother's disgrace.

"The family sat Shiva, our tradition for mourning our dead. From that time forward, she was dead to us, and her child was nothing to us," Bartholomew went on. He hesitated, and then said, "We are not a heartless people, but our traditions, our Laws, are rigorous. Naomi ... Naomi broke her parents' hearts. She was their youngest, their only daughter. Ruth, her mother, mourned her deeply. It caused great tension between Joshua and Ruth, and within their family."

Again Blair nodded. Looking up, he hazarded, "Are they, my grandparents, in New York, or was I born here, in Philadelphia?"

"They are in New York; you were born there. But ... but you cannot think of them as your grandparents. You do not exist to them. You are anathema."

Blair's jaw tightened and he stiffened, but then he forced himself to relax and take a deep breath. "Do you know who my father was ... is?"

"No, nor do I have any wish to know," Bartholomew replied fervently. "That was a long time ago. Best to leave it alone, and not open old wounds. You are not some kind of prodigal son who was beloved and for whom the family would kill the fatted calf. You are an outsider; not part of our community."

Unconsciously, Blair wrung his hands together as he struggled with the implacable rejection of his existence and his deep anger about how his mother had been treated. What they had done to her was another kind of murder. "My mother," he said slowly but resolutely, lifting his eyes to meet Bartholomew's, "was not a bad person. She may have made a mistake when she was very young, but she was not evil. She took the best care of me that she could, and she never said a harsh word about her family or ... or their ... their cruel rejection of her, and me, when she probably most needed their love and support. And ... and she paid the ultimate price for her sin, if that's how you want to think about it," he went on bitterly, his words falling fast and hard. "She was stoned to death because someone from her past recognized her. She didn't deserve to die like that, on the side of the road, still trying to protect me." When Bartholomew's gaze dropped, his expression troubled, Blair paused and wrestled with his anger. After all, this man had done nothing more than answer his questions and it wasn't this stranger's fault that his family didn't want him, didn't want to know about him. Blair shook his head, bewildered by how cold people could be to their own child, how mean-spirited the laws that governed their lives. Sighing, he added with less heat, "My ... my mother was a good woman. A good person who did her best. The next time you see your cousin, you can tell him that."

Bartholomew nodded slowly, evidently uncomfortable with their conversation and his presence. "And if I ever do tell him of our meeting, what would you have me tell him about you?"

Shrugging, barely able to contain his fury and the stinging pain of being so bluntly and arbitrarily rejected, Blair stood. "You can tell him that I try to be a good man; a man my mother would be proud of. You can tell him that I'm a soldier in the Continental Army, a scout and personal messenger for George Washington," he rasped hoarsely. "You can tell him that I'm fighting for his freedom." Blair started to turn away and then hesitated. His voice very low, near breaking, he added, "And you can tell him that ... that I wanted to know him and my grandmother and the rest of my family. That I always wished and hoped that I had a family, somewhere, to love and to ... to belong to. But ... but I don't need them, and never wanted anything from them; I just wanted to know to them and let them know about me. I've found my own family, maybe not of the blood but family just the same. I have a place where I belong. So if ... if he or Ruth ever wondered or worried about me, you can tell them I'm doing fine."

Coming to his feet, Bartholomew nodded solemnly, and then he held out his hand. Surprised, Blair took it and, as they briefly shook hands, man to man, his elderly cousin said, "I will tell him, Blair Sandburg. I'll tell him that, from what I've seen, he can be proud of the boy who bears his name."

Blair's throat tightened at the unexpected approbation, and he looked away to hide the emotion in his eyes. "Thank you," he replied simply. "Thank you for your time and your honesty."

With that, he turned and walked away, down the hall and out of the building. He strode quickly, blindly, for a block and then, panting hard, nauseated, he leaned his shoulder against a brick wall. Bowing his head, one arm pressed across his body, he covered his face with a trembling hand. "I'm sorry, Mama," he whispered brokenly. "I'm sorry they hurt you so bad." Tears filled his eyes and, though he tightly closed his lashes to contain them, one dribbled onto his cheek. Torn by fury and pain, he fought the urge to sob. All his life, he'd wondered about his family, imagined finding them, finding his father. And now he wished he hadn't looked, hadn't asked, for the answers left him far emptier than he'd been when all he'd had was his dreams.

********************

Jim's head tilted and he lost the train of the vacuous conversation. Cutting across Alexandra's words, he stood and said with hurried gallantry, "I'm sorry, Alex, but I've just realized that I was on my way to an important appointment. Seeing you again drove it right out of my mind, but I must go. If you'll forgive me, I'll call at your home later this weekend."

Though piqued by his abrupt manner, she was equally evidently charmed by his words. "Of course," she allowed with marginal warmth. "We've only begun to get caught up. Please, do, stop by Sunday afternoon. My parents would love to see you again, I'm sure."

He smiled with as much sincerity as he could muster and then hastened out the door. Once on the street, he broke into a run to the end of the block and around the corner and then skidded into a narrow street, where he saw Blair hunched against a brick building, halfway down before the lane curved out of sight. He only slowed his pace when he neared his friend, and then he gently gripped Blair's shoulders and drew him into his arms, hugging him tightly.

"I'm sorry, Chief," he murmured huskily. "I'm sorry."

Blair turned into his embrace, and spastically gripped the edges of his jacket, as if he needed to be anchored, just as Jim so often needed to be grounded by Blair's touch. Sandburg shook with his effort to regain his control; he dragged in one deep breath and then another, sniffed and swallowed hard. Pushing away, he stepped back from Jim, scraped his hands over his face and took another shuddering breath.

"You heard," he said flatly, knowing the observation was unnecessary but still evidently struggling to find words, to figure out what he felt, what he wanted to say. With a brittle laugh, evading Jim's concerned gaze, he shook his head ruefully. "Can't have any secrets from a sentinel, I guess."

"Did you want this to be a secret?" Jim asked quietly, with a scowl of concern.

Sniffing again, Blair shook his head. "No ... no," he replied more calmly. "Not from you. I just ... uh, don't like to break down in front of anyone," he explained self-consciously. Pulling off his cap, his gestures quick and jerky, his hands still unsteady, he raked fingers through his hair to drag it off his face and behind his ears and then, giving up the effort to pretend a normalcy he didn't feel, he sighed and his shoulders slumped. Looking up at Jim, his eyes reddened and his lashes spangled with moisture, he shrugged again, helplessly. "I didn't know whether this would be a dead end or not. But, I, uh, I didn't expect ... I didn't expect to be told I pretty much don't exist, you know? Or to hear such a ... a cold justification for how they treated my mother."

"People can be hard when their most basic beliefs are challenged, Blair," he replied, wishing he had something more consoling to offer. "It's not personal."

Sandburg snorted and his lips twisted in a wry half-smile. "Personal? No, not toward me. To be personal, they'd have to actually know me. But it was damned sure personal for my mother, Jim. Man, they were cold."

Unable to disagree, at a loss for words, Jim looked off down the street and nodded bleakly. Naomi's parents hadn't reacted any differently than a number of others he'd known or heard about over the years but pointing that out would hardly make Blair feel any better. But then he said, "I heard you tell him you had a family."

Blair's smile softened then, and he nodded. "Yeah. Thanks to you, I do."

"Alright, then," he replied, a smile quirking on his lips. Looping an arm around Blair's shoulders, he drew him back along the street, effectively turning both their backs upon Blair's past heritage and directing them toward their shared future. "C'mon. We should be getting back to meet Jefferson."

Badly wanting to put the pain behind him, Blair searched for something else to talk about as they walked along the uneven pavement. Finally, doing his best to find a light teasing tone, he asked, "How'd it go with the fair Alexandra?"

Rolling his eyes, Jim laughed without humour. "She is as superficial and as obvious as she ever was," he replied very dryly. "A widow now. The poor guy probably died of boredom. Looks like she's already trolling for the next rich sucker she can get her hooks into. But you'll see for yourself. We're going visiting on Sunday afternoon. They'll try to pick our brains about the General's plans, and we'll see if we can find out what they know about Howe's intentions. Should be fun."

Laughing, Blair shook his head. "You've got a very strange idea about what constitutes fun, my friend," he chuckled.

Jim just quirked a brow and gave him a crooked, closed-mouth grin.

********************

Over dinner, in a quiet corner of the tavern close to the boarding house, Jefferson soberly told them, "There are rumours of an assassination plot to kill Washington."

They both stopped eating to stare at him, and then Jim frowned as he reached for his glass of red wine. "I suppose that's to be expected. Without him ...." He shrugged and his voice died away. After taking a sip, he asked, "Anything more to the rumour? Like how? When? Who, maybe?"

Jefferson shrugged as he sliced into his beef. "No, nothing specific. The Loyalists are behind it. Whether the British know about it or encourage it is hard to say. Since George is known to always be with his troops, often out in front, at least from what I've heard, it would be easy to accomplish during the confusion of battle." Sighing, he set his knife and fork down, his appetite apparently waning. "You're right. Without Washington, we don't have a hope. It's his ... integrity and dignity, his absolute conviction in the cause that holds it all together."

"If you're right, that it's planned for a battle situation," Blair mused, idly twisting his glass in his hands, "then, well, maybe there aren't that many opportunities, and there might not be for some time. We, uh, we tend to pick our fights."

Jefferson smiled grimly. "So I understand," he allowed wryly, but with no evident censure.

"Alright," Jim said. "We'll warn the General and keep an eye out; see if we can figure out who it is before there's trouble. Watch for someone who's got more money to spare than would be expected of a common soldier. Given that we haven't been paid for months, that shouldn't be all that hard to spot." Pushing his plate away, finished with the meal, he asked, "So, we going to get the money and supplies we need?"

Emptying the carafe of wine into their glasses, Jefferson replied hollowly, "You'll be given a formal response to take back to George late on Monday. But, candidly?" he went on, as he lifted his glass. "You'll get the usual reassurances and not much else. The States are hard-pressed to fund their own militias. We have little or no experience with provisioning on such a massive scale and, as you both well know, support for this war is lacking in too many quarters. What support there is seems to waffle almost on a daily basis." Sighing, he shook his head, but then confided with guarded optimism, "I've heard that there is one person of wealth who doesn't wish to be named who may - may - contribute substantially to address the backpay issue."

"Why wouldn't he want to be known?" Blair asked curiously. "Sounds like a good Samaritan to me."

Jefferson hesitated and then told them, "He's a Quaker."

"Oh," Blair murmured, his brows arching with understanding. "Like Benjamin Franklin and even General Greene. I hear his family threatened to disown him for violating their commitment to non-violent resistance."

Bringing the conversation back on track, Jim said bluntly, "If the pay isn't addressed, and even if it is but we don't get food and supplies, desertion's going to be a big problem again this year."

"I know," Tom replied bleakly. Frustrated anger flickered over his face, but as quickly disappeared behind his veneer of calm deliberation. "We must win this war," he said unequivocally. Looking at them solemnly, his gaze shifting between them, "I'm sorry, for I have no answers as to how. But we cannot lose."

"Yeah, well, you keep telling your fellow Congressmen that," Jim returned sharply, impatient with the rhetoric when substantive relief wasn't assured. "Britain doesn't deal gently with traitors."

A wry smile quirking his lips, Jefferson lifted his glass in a toast. "To victory," he offered hopefully.

Grimly, they saluted him in turn. "To victory."

********************

On Saturday, ignoring his partner's protests, hauling him unceremoniously out of the room they shared, Jim took Blair shopping. "I know, I know," he reiterated, waving off the objections. "We hardly need clothing suited to a drawing room when we're back in the bush. But we can't go visiting rich Loyalists dressed for war and expect them to forget who they're talking to."

"Man, I don't see what you need me there for," Blair whined as they tromped down the narrow wooden staircase, out onto the porch and down to the street. "This is your world, not mine."

"My world is your world, Chief," Jim replied archly. Giving him a fond look, he jostled Blair's shoulder. "Family, remember?"

Snorting, Blair shook his head, but he grinned.

"Besides," Jim went on, teasing as he ruffled Sandburg's wild curls. "There may be other children there you can play with."

"Oh, that's low," he retorted, laughing as he ducked away. "Mocking my best sources like that."

Unrepentant, Jim shrugged. "And if there aren't any kids, there'll still be women: Alexandra, her mother, maybe her sister, Peggy, who I guess would be about sixteen-years-old now, and the maids. Bat those baby blues and they'll be putty in your hands. Probably fall all over themselves to tell you King Georgie's secrets."

"Ah, so that's why you want me along," Blair chuckled. "You want me to be the spy and do all the work."

"You're my secret weapon, Chief," Jim agreed with a complacent smile. Shaking his head, he added bemusedly, "They all seem to think you're harmless."

"It's a gift, Jim," Blair replied solemnly, though his eyes twinkled merrily. "It's a gift."

Jim snorted and shook his head.

********************

Sunday afternoon, they dressed in their new finery: high collared dark gray loosely-fitted frock coats, a burgundy waistcoat for Jim and one of crimson silk for Blair, pristine white shirts with frilled cuffs and lacey cravats, tight fitting black breeches, black knee-high finely woven socks with garters, and patent leather shoes that gleamed so brightly that Blair could see his reflection in their dark surfaces. Standing before the pitted, wavy mirror over the bureau, his hair pulled back and being tied with a black velvet ribbon by Jim, he squirmed against the high starched collar, grimacing as he fingered the cravat.

"Relax, Chief, you look fine," Jim told him, unable to restrain a grin at his partner's discomfiture. Patting him lightly on the shoulders, he added cheerfully, "Actually, you clean up pretty good."

"This ... this isn't who I am, Jim," he replied unhappily. "I feel like a fraud ... no, actually, I feel like an idiot."

"Well, it's not who I am, either, Junior," Jim said more firmly as he picked up his top hat and handed one to Blair. "But this isn't for fun. We're on a mission, here, and this is the uniform of the day, so suck it up."

"Yes, sir," Blair answered sardonically as he placed the tall hat on his head at a rakish angle. "Reporting for duty, sir."

"Smart ass," he laughed, opened the door to the hall and, with a wave, ushered his partner out.

They rode across the city in style and, after he'd observed Jim tipping his hat to the ladies promenading in their Sunday best, enjoying the warm April day, Blair mimicked the courtesy. Twenty minutes later, they dismounted in front of a rambling three story yellow brick mansion faced with a deep covered wooden verandah painted a rich ivory cream, and set amidst lavish gardens on gently rolling grass on the edge of town. They were admitted by a butler and ushered into the drawing room. Large and fronted by tall French windows and doors, the room was bright and furnished with silk-covered settees, chairs and gleaming occasional tables arranged in conversational circles around fireplaces on either end.

The butler offered them glasses of sarsaparilla from bottles arranged on a side table, which they accepted, and said the family would join them momentarily. When he closed the double doors on his way out, Blair looked at Jim and cocked his head. "You hear anything interesting?"

"The master of the house and the wife are arguing because he's not happy about entertaining two rebels, and she thinks a match with the Ellison dynasty would be a good thing," Jim replied sardonically with a twist of his lip.

"Oh, yeah, this is going to be a real fun time," Blair teased ironically, toasting his partner with his glass. Jim just rolled his eyes, and then the doors opened and the family swept in, effusive with their greetings and pleasure to see Jim again and meet his handsome friend.

Jim affected the introductions for Blair. "Mr. Elliot Shippen, and his lovely wife, Jeannine, and his daughters, Peggy and Mrs. Alexandra Barnes. And this is my associate, Mr. Blair Sandburg."

"Sandburg?" Elliot echoed genially. "Would you be related to the diamond merchants in New York, then?"

"Distantly," Blair replied with an engaging smile. "My branch of the family tended toward more scholarly pursuits."

"Ah," Elliot replied, seeming to not quite know what to make of that, so he turned to Jim while the butler served everyone with their beverage, and then offered delicacies to nibble on from a tray he'd carried in with him. "How's William? I've not seen him in far too long. And Steven?"

"Father's well," Jim assured him blithely, "and busy as ever. The last time I visited Steven and his family on the farm, he was looking robust and very proud of his three children."

"Good, good," he acknowledged, and then seemed at a loss for words.

While the two daughters regarded the visitors with avid admiration, Mrs. Shippen picked up the conversational ball when her husband fumbled it. "We were so pleased to hear Alexandra ran into you the other day. What brings you to Philadelphia?"

"Business," Jim replied smoothly. "Following up on partnerships, ensuring open lines of communication in these difficult times, and arranging logistics for the transport of goods."

"Really?" Elliot jumped back in, an edge to his voice. "I'd, uh, heard that you'd joined the Continental Army."

"Yes, I did," Jim affirmed. "Best way to know what's going on is to be where it's happening, don't you agree? Only way to assess threats and opportunities, and future implications for commerce, is to observe events first hand."

"Ahhhh," Elliot smiled, his tight shoulders relaxing. "I should have realized you're your father's son; always got the jump on the rest of us. Bold, if a bit dangerous."

Shrugging, Jim sipped at his glass and then said with a slightly disparaging tone, "There's been more walking and running than real danger, so far at least. I suppose a lot has to do with what Howe plans for this year's campaign."

Shifting to place an arm around Jim's shoulders, very much the senior, wiser and better connected fellow in the room, Elliot leaned close to say with a confidential, conspiratorial air, "He's not made his mind up, yet, son. Gentleman Johnny wants William to meet him on the Hudson, but William has a yen to enjoy the life here in the capital."

Looking into the depths of his glass, Jim nodded sagely. "Either would have its merits in making things difficult for Washington. Splitting the colonies would complicate defence, and losing the capital would be, well, a telling blow."

"Exactly," Elliot beamed. "Either way, this ridiculous rebellion will be over and we can all get back to business as usual."

"Oh, enough talk about business!" Alexandra pouted, and her sister bobbed her head in enthusiastic agreement. Turning to Blair, Peggy observed winningly, "We've been ignoring you, Mr. Sandburg. Please forgive us."

"Not at all," he replied with a winning smile. "Though my family was academically inclined, I've an interest in business and how I invest my, uh, time, so it's always interesting to hear how the future might play out. But, you're quite right. On a lovely day like this, it's a sin not to enjoy the fine weather and such very fair company."

Mrs. Shippen raised a brow and asked, "Your family must miss you while you're here, Mr. Sandburg."

"Alas, I'm an orphan, Madam, and haven't yet started a family of my own, so there's none to miss me while I pursue future opportunities," he assured her.

"Indeed," she replied, intrigued to hear that a Sandburg so young must have already inherited his portion of the family fortune and was still unattached. The fact that he was Jewish was inconvenient, of course, but still ... a rich, eligible bachelor was not to be scorned, and he was bound to have other rich bachelor friends, especially if he was a member of the Ellison family circle. "Peggy," she suggested genially, "why don't you show Mr. Sandburg our gardens. We've some lovely early roses I'm sure he'd admire."

"Wonderful idea," Blair agreed heartily, handing his glass to the butler and holding a hand out to Peggy. "If you'd indulge me, I'd be very grateful."

Not to be outdone, and clearly uninterested in remaining in the company of her parents, Alexandra asked, "Jimmy, how about you? Would you like to see Mama's gardens?"

"I'd enjoy that very much," he replied with a broad smile.

For the next hour, the young people rambled around the extensive grounds. Peggy, in an effort to impress Blair with her sophistication, confided that she was the source of her father's knowledge about the brilliant British General's considerations. While she'd been visiting cousins in New York over the winter, she'd made the acquaintance of a dashing British major, John Andre, who was engaged in intelligence work for Howe, and they'd formed a friendship such that they corresponded regularly. He was suitably impressed, congratulating her on the astuteness of her conquests, and she giggled as she leaned more closely upon his arm. Alexandra told Jim more about her late husband, how he'd been dead set against the rebellion because 'it would be the ruination of the colonies'. He listened and nodded sagely, but refrained from comment. Looking out across the lawns, she said idly, "Men well placed in Washington's camp and who would be willing to help end this travesty would earn a great deal of gratitude from some quarters." And then she gave him a coy, sideways look that had less vacuity and more slyness than she had used to reveal when he'd known her in her youth.

"Really?" he murmured, and quirked his brows as if interested in hearing more.

"Hmm," she nodded. "In fact, you might want to attend a small soiree I'm holding in my home tomorrow evening. Nothing grand, just an intimate gathering of like-minded people who would, I'm sure, appreciate the opportunity of knowing you better."

His eyes hooded, he again nodded. And then he looked up into her eyes. "I think I'd like that very much. What time would be convenient and where would I find your residence?"

Pleased, she gave him the information and then graciously suggested he'd be welcome to bring the charming Mr. Sandburg, as well.

********************

Later that evening, over another fine dinner in the nearby tavern, Jim and Blair advised Jefferson of what they'd learned that afternoon.

"Damnable Loyalists," the Congressman growled angrily. "They're talking treason!"

"Yes, they are," Jim agreed soberly. "And it sounds like they're going to actively try to recruit us tomorrow evening."

"That's grounds for arrest," Jefferson stated flatly.

"Uh huh," Blair grunted. "We were thinking you might want to have reinforcements nearby. We don't know how many people will be there. But ... well, we might not want to shut the whole thing down. Watching them, even feeding them false information - given the link straight into Howe's office - might be as useful right now as putting them out of action."

"We could have some kind of signal after we leave that would let you know whether to arrest those who depart after us, or to let it go, if they don't reveal anything substantial enough to warrant arrest," Jim added. "Or maybe, even better, we could debrief afterward, and the miscreants could be apprehended the next day so their arrest wouldn't be so directly linked to us."

Jefferson nodded thoughtfully. "Let me get back to you tomorrow before you set out for the evening."

********************

"Alright, here's what we're going to do," Jefferson told them in their room late the next afternoon. "You go ahead with the meeting this evening, and then brief me on your return. If there are clear grounds, I'll have the traitors picked up tomorrow. We'll attempt to keep your names out of it - and we'll also leave the Shippen family out of it. You're right. They could prove useful in the future, especially the pert and pretty Peggy with her friend in intelligence."

"Fair enough," Jim agreed, and Blair nodded solemnly.

********************

Once more in their city clothes, as Blair had come to call his new finery, they arrived at the time suggested, only to discover that Alexandra had arranged for them to be there before the others were expected. She greeted Jim as an old friend, with a lingering kiss on his cheek, and offered them wine. While waiting for her manservant to serve the libation, she gestured to a portrait of a distinguished elderly man over the fireplace. "I don't believe you ever met my husband, Jim," she said blithely. "Dear, departed Reggie."

Blair's brows arched. The man was older than her father. And then he looked around at the plush furnishings, the silver and gold fixtures; the house was every bit as grand or more than was her family home. Schooling his face to neutrality, he locked gazes with Jim for a moment before accepting the crystal goblet of wine the servant handed to him. "My condolences on your loss," he murmured. "If it's not too painful a subject, how did your husband die?"

"Suddenly," she replied with hollow coldness. "Despite his age, he was as strong as an ox, and we thought he'd live forever. But, poor man, he took ill one night, perhaps from something he'd eaten, and was gone by morning."

"Shocking," Jim said evenly.

"Very," she replied, and then smiled. "But the old dear left me well provided for, as you can see." Turning to Blair, she said, "I presume you know that Jimmy and I were very close years ago." Batting her eyelashes at Jim, she went on, "Our fathers thought we'd make a good match."

Willing to play along, Blair replied, "And now, here you are again, the two of you free. Funny how things work out sometimes."

"Yes, my thoughts exactly," she agreed. "You're a very astute man, Mr. Sandburg. I trust I'm not betraying a confidence when I say my sister was quite taken with you."

"You're too kind," he rejoined, pretending to be pleased though he was finding her and her family increasingly repulsive. "Your sister is a delightful young woman," he added for good measure.

Jim turned away, apparently to stifle a cough, and Blair was hard-pressed not to laugh himself. The whole situation seemed surreal. She was like a black widow spider, already busy weaving a web around Jim before her husband was hardly cold in his grave. He'd no doubt that the man had died from something he'd eaten; his only question was whether it was arsenic or strychnine.

Further conversation was prohibited when the butler announced three gentlemen. Curiously, Blair studied them. Their names meant nothing to him, but he could see that Jim recognized the men, all of them evidently well-heeled merchants. For the first time, Blair fully understood his friend's concerns about where William Ellison's loyalties rested - these men were his contemporaries and, from the exchange of greetings, they evidently knew the elder Ellison well.

The conversation began with a prelude of genial generalities and gradually moved into a subtle dance of eliciting information and mutual interests. They were sounding him and Jim out, wondering how far they could be trusted. Quaking inside, desperately worried that his lack of any social training or common knowledge of people, places and events would give his charade of the rich young adventurer away, he guarded his tongue and gladly let Jim take the lead. The wine flowed and gradually the men relaxed, reassured as much as anything by the fact that Alexandra had obviously set her cap for William's tall and distinguished son.

Before two hours had passed, they were outright offered a small fortune if they could be helpful in arranging an 'accident' for General Washington. When they indicated they'd do what they could, one of the men laughed with relief. "So fortunate that business brought you here at this time. We've another 'friend' in the camp, but he's ... well, I think he's less reliable."

"Oh? Maybe we know him," Jim suggested. "Always useful to have friends nearby."

"Oh, I doubt that," the fellow demurred, lifting his goblet. "He's riffraff. Not the sort you'd care to associate with, I'm sure. No, young gentlemen, you'll do well, I think, without that scoundrel's help."

Letting it go, Jim nodded and lifted his glass in a toast to their new acquaintances and a long and profitable association.

********************

"Too bad you couldn't get his name," Thomas Jefferson said later that night, then shrugged. "We'll bring them in tomorrow. Maybe one of them will be willing to reveal it for consideration in the sentencing."

"Worth a try," Jim said. "What about Alexandra? She probably murdered her husband."

Sighing, Jefferson shook his head. "Too late to prove that now. Best, I think, if we don't have an overt connection between the arrests and the little coven gathering tonight. We'll watch her. We'll watch them all."

Noting that Blair was fidgeting in clothes he found inordinately uncomfortable, Jim started to wrap up the discussion. "Fair enough; we'll leave all the intrigue to you. What about the Congress' response to Washington?"

"Hopefully, the debate will conclude in time to get you something tomorrow, but I fear a letter to him probably won't be ready until Wednesday."

Jim grimaced unhappily at the delay, but there wasn't much he could do about it; as desirable as democracy was, it wasn't a particularly efficient system of governance, especially in times of crisis. Nodding will ill grace, he stood. "Well, it's late. Time to call it a night. We'll talk with you again tomorrow."

********************

Dressed in their more casual and comfortable garb, they spent the next day wandering around the city. Hoping to gather more clandestine information, Jim listened in to conversations, while Blair stood watch and ensured he didn't go too deep into his sense of hearing. But they didn't learn any more than they already knew. Late in the afternoon, they went to the Congressional Hall and learned that Tom had been right the night before; the formal response to the General wouldn't be ready until late morning. Disgruntled, chafing to be on their way, worried about the unknown assassin in the ranks, they returned to the boarding house to pack their gear to be ready to move as soon as they obtained the missive the next day.

Shortly after their return, there was a sharp rap at the door, and Blair answered to find Alexandra standing in the hall. She was flushed and her eyes flashed, and her smile seemed forced as she asked to be allowed entry to speak to Jim.

Backing up, he opened the door more widely to allow her to pass, and then didn't quite close it, aware that it would be indelicate to entertain a lady behind a firmly closed door in a public boarding house. Frowning to himself, he thought it strange that she'd risked her reputation by coming to see them without any chaperone, but he figured she wanted to further her conquest of Jim.

He turned to find her standing close to the wall, glaring at his partner.

"You must think me a fool," she hissed. Flicking a look at Sandburg, she grated, "And you - my father checked you out with the Jews he knows in the city. You're nobody. Nobody knows you. You have no inheritance." Looking from him to Jim, she drew a cocked pistol from her reticule and snarled, "You lied, didn't you? You're not Loyalists at all. You were only there to spy on us."

Lifting his hands, Jim said, "Put the gun down, Alex. Shooting us won't make anything better."

"We execute spies," she snarled in response, her expression ugly with self-righteous anger.

Taking the opportunity of her attention being off him, afraid she was about to shoot, Blair considered the distance between them and decided she was too far to lunge for, to grab the pistol. With a swift, smooth move, he pulled his hunting knife from his belt, drew his arm back to throw it, and yelled, "Hey!"

Startled, she turned her head toward him and, seeing him ready to attack, she jerked the pistol around and fired, just as he threw the blade. Blown back by the impact of the bullet, Blair banged into the door, slamming it closed and then dropped to the floor. Vaguely, he was aware of Jim cursing and the sound of his friend rushing across the room. Someone started banging on the door behind him. Panting for breath, aware of a blazing burn in his side, he pushed himself up onto his knees. Jim was kneeling over Alex, and she wasn't moving. Blair didn't expect she would; he usually hit what he aimed for. The banging on the door grew more frenzied and Jim yelled, "Just a minute." Standing, he stepped over Alex's body, swiftly helped Blair shift clear of the door, and then opened it to the harridan who owned the house, but blocked her view of the room. "Sorry, sorry, Mrs. Evans," he said hastily. "We were cleaning our weapons and a shot went off accidentally. No harm done. But thanks for checking so swiftly."

She gave him a narrow look and huffed. "If there's been any damage, you'll pay for it," she said sternly.

"No problem," he assured her, already closing the door, anxious to be rid of her. "We're leaving tomorrow and you can do a full inspection before we go."

"You can be assured I will, young man," she promised him and stomped away, muttering about soldiers and guns.

Closing the door, Jim wheeled to drop to one knee beside Blair, who was leaning against the wall beside the door, pressing a hand to the blood seeping through his buckskin shirt. "How bad?" Jim demanded, reaching to lift the edge and examine the wound along his ribs.

His teeth gritted, sounding disgusted, Blair rasped, "It was a pea shooter and she was a lousy shot. Gouged my skin, that's all. Hurts like blazes, though." Licking his lips, and wincing as Jim felt around the raw edges of torn skin and muscle, he grated, "Get my pack. Got some bandages in it. Need the herbs, too."

In seconds, Jim was back at his side and assisting him out of his bloody shirt. While Jim helped him doctor and bind the wound, he glanced at the body. "Why'd you tell Mrs. Evans that everything was fine? We need to report this."

"When hell freezes over," Jim replied caustically. "Young, attractive, rich widow stabbed to death by common soldier. Her family will claim she was trying to defend her virtue and that you murdered her. We've got to get rid of the body."

"What?" Blair exclaimed, and then smothered a yelp when Jim tightened the bandage around his body to hold the dressing in place.

"She was right about one thing, Chief," Jim said grimly. "Spies are executed. You saved her from a hanging. Not to mention saved my skin."

"Don't mention it," he replied with a wan smile. "Just doin' my job."

Jim's lips tightened and he shook his head. When the weapon had fired and Blair had fallen back, he'd thought ... been scared .... Ruthlessly, he pushed the shaky thoughts and feelings away. "Yeah, well, next time?" he said roughly, "Try to do your job without bleeding all over the place, okay?"

Blair's expression softened as he read the clear anxiety for him that lingered in his friend's eyes. "Sure," he agreed as he gripped Jim's arm reassuringly. "Live and learn, right?"

"Right," Jim agreed heartily, and ruffled his hair fondly before gently easing Blair up and over to the chair by the window. "Sit tight while I clean the blood off the floor and find the bullet."

Slightly hunched and wishing he had a telescope in his head to turn down the flaring burn that pulsed in his side, he watched Jim quickly wash his blood off the plank flooring, and then fill the basin with water from the ewer on the bureau to soak the blood out of his shirt. Once that was done, he rolled the damp shirt and shoved it into Blair's pack. Only then did he turn to the body. Kneeling, he wrenched out the knife and wiped it down. "Looks like it pierced her heart, Chief. She didn't bleed at all."

Swallowing, Blair looked away and nodded. He'd never killed a woman before. He hadn't had a choice, and he knew it, but he didn't feel good about it. "We have to tell Tom," he said, suddenly feeling weary.

Straightening, Jim crossed the room and laid the knife on the table beside him. "We don't tell anybody," he said harshly. "It was self-defence and she was a goddamned spy, Sandburg. I'm not going to risk anyone second guessing what happened here or a witchhunt for someone to punish for the death of one of society's darlings. We're in a war, here, and she was the enemy. I'll take her body out tonight, after everyone's asleep. Leave it in an alley. Let it be a mystery."

Pressing his lips together, Blair leaned back to rest his head against the chair and closed his eyes. After a long moment, he nodded wordlessly in reluctant agreement. When he lifted his head, he saw Jim prying at the wall with his own knife. "The bullet?" he asked.

"Yeah," Jim grunted. "You're right; it was just a small ball. You must've absorbed most of the force - it's barely dented the plaster." Pocketing the round pellet, he said, "I'm going to go get us something to eat later, and check in with Tom to confirm the letter will be ready tomorrow before noon, like he figured. You going to be able to ride out once we get it?"

"Yeah, sure," Blair nodded. "Providing the damned horse doesn't throw me."

Snorting, Jim shook his head. "Whine, bitch, moan and complain," he teased. "You gotta do something about that attitude of yours, Corporal."

Snickering half-heartedly, Blair nodded slowly. "Yes, sir. Will do, sir." Feeling groggy with fatigue, figuring he was suffering mild shock, he again leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "Wake me when you get back," he mumbled, already drifting into sleep.

Chewing on his lip, Jim studied him for a moment in silence. And then he left the room, locking the door behind him.

He was still sleeping when Jim returned and he only half-wakened when his friend shifted him onto the bed and covered him with a blanket. About all he noticed was that the room was dark but for the glow of a candle on the table. He mumbled that he was thirsty, and Jim supported his head while holding a cup of cool water to his lips. After he drank and muttered his thanks, he tried to roll onto his side and groaned at the sharp pulling pain along his ribs.

"Easy, Chief," Jim soothed him and helped him get comfortable. He closed his eyes as Jim tucked the blanket around his shoulders and, with the comfort of Jim's hand gently rubbing his back, he quickly relaxed into deep sleep.

When he woke again, it was morning and Jim was snoring softly beside him.

The body was gone.

His hand pressed against his side, he carefully shifted onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Thinking back over the last few days, his jaw tightened and his lips thinned; all in all, he hadn't had a great time in Philadelphia and he rather hoped he'd never, ever, have to come back. Sighing, he closed his eyes and dozed until Jim stirred and woke.

"How're you doin'?" his partner asked, rolling onto an elbow to look down at him.

"Okay," he replied, lifting a hand to cover a yawn. "I'm hungry."

"Good sign," Jim smiled and got up.

Stiff, his wound sore, Blair slowing pushed himself up to sit on the side of the bed. Grimacing, he took a few deep breaths and, looking at his friend, he told himself it could have been a lot worse, a whole lot worse.

Wordlessly, Jim gently soaked off the bloody dressing, wound fresh linen around Blair's chest, and helped him into one of Jim's warm, flannel shirts. And then his partner also eased on his buckskin vest, as the day was chill and drizzly, muttering, "Don't want you bitching about how damp it is, getting a chill and sneezing all over the place."

Smiling at the transparent concern, Blair waved off further assistance, and shuffled to the chair by the window. He was ravenous and gratefully tucked into the cold meats, cheese and bread Jim had brought the night before. When he started to stand, Jim told him to stay in his chair while Ellison packed the last of their gear.

"Where'd you -" Blair started to ask, his gaze upon the empty floor by the wall next to the door.

"A few blocks away, in an alley," Jim cut in. Straightening, he slipped their packs over his shoulder, and turned to face Blair. "We don't talk about it again. It never happened." His gaze dropping, Blair nodded. But when Jim crossed the room and gripped his shoulder, he looked up into his friend's eyes. "But that won't mean I'll forget that I owe you my life," Jim told him. With a crooked smile, Blair held out a hand and Jim hauled him to his feet.

"I hope the letter is ready," he said as he moved toward the door.

"Me, too," Jim agreed, following behind.

They had to wait until Mrs. Evans assured herself that they hadn't trashed the room but, then, their bill having been paid in advance by Jefferson, they went to the stable behind the boarding house and saddled their horses. Jim boosted him into his saddle so he wouldn't pull the wound open, and they rode slowly across town to the Congress Hall.

********************

They had to wait an hour on a hard bench by the entrance, but finally Jefferson appeared and handed the sealed scroll to them with a broad smile.

"What? There's better news in here than we expected?" Jim asked hopefully, as he tucked it into his pack.

Shaking his head, Tom replied sardonically, "No, just the usual empty assurances from Congress ... but that other possible source of funds I told you about? He's donated fifty thousand dollars to the cause. It'll cover the back pay and the cost of provisioning for the summer. I'll keep working on the rest of them, to get you more support by winter, or at least I'll do my best."

"Oh, man, that's great news," Blair sighed, vastly relieved that they wouldn't be returning empty-handed except for all the bad news they'd picked up over the last few days.

"Hmm, well, I've got some not so great news," Jefferson said with a sigh. "The conspirators refuse to admit to anything, and certainly aren't willing to disclose the name of the potential assassin already in the camp."

"So ...?" Jim asked with a frown.

"So we'll try them using your signed testimony to me, and they'll hang," he replied darkly.

Blair swallowed and looked away. He knew war meant death, but it was all just so ugly. And so many people were still divided over the revolution. Hanging four prominent and well regarded Loyalists wasn't going to endear the rest. If they weren't careful, they'd end up beating the British only to find themselves divided and at war amongst themselves. Hesitantly, he asked, "Do they have to hang? I mean ... I know they're traitors to the cause, an' all. But ... we are fighting for them, too, aren't we? For all Americans? If they hang, their friends, their families, they'll hate the revolution and those of us who support it even more. It's like a poison that would rot our country from within. Couldn't, well, couldn't they just be held in prison? Besides, if you put them on trial, and our statements to you have to come out, well, then, someone else will alert the assassin about us, and that might make it even more difficult to figure out who he is. I don't know - maybe a summary conviction or holding them pending investigation or something, until the war is over. Hanging them ... I, well, I think that might only bring more people to their cause. Like they were martyrs, or something."

Jefferson looked at him, and then frowned as he studied Sandburg's face. "You feeling alright, Blair? You're looking a little peaked."

"Aw, I'm fine, just a stitch in my side, that's all," he replied with a negligent gesture. "Got a bit of a muscle cramp."

Satisfied with the explanation for the younger man's pallor, Jefferson scratched his cheek and thought about what he'd said. "You may have a point," he allowed. "I'll see what the others think of the idea. Imprison them as a threat to the nation? Maybe." Holding out his hand, he thanked them for all their help and, as they shook, he wished them a safe and speedy journey back to their camp.

Minutes later, they were on their way. Blair was so glad to be leaving town that he didn't complain once about having to ride.

********************

Mindful of Blair's injury, once they were free of the crowded city streets, Jim kept a much slower pace than he would have otherwise. Well aware of his partner's solicitude but not wanting it, Blair nudged his horse into a fast gallop, calling caustically as he passed Jim, "I'm not made of glass! Let's move it."

Rolling his eyes, Jim urged his horse to catch up and they were both soon thundering along the dirt road. When he finally drew alongside, he grabbed Blair's reins to slow him down.

"What?" Blair demanded, irritated, jerking the reins back. "We need to get back! Washington needs to know -"

"Yeah, hero, I know," Jim growled. "Look, you're in pain, dammit, and you lost a fair amount of blood last night. If you fall off your horse and break your stubborn neck, it'll just take that much longer to get back."

Blair tried to maintain his sense of umbrage, but started to snicker. "You said, if I fell off, it wouldn't kill me."

A grin tugging at the corner of his mouth, Jim gave a long-suffering nod. "Uh huh, that's what I said. But you're off-balance and could fall wrong and hard - and could very well break some bones if you landed badly. You're in no shape to ride flat out, not today, anyway."

Blair cast a wary look at the ground and shuddered reflexively. "Okay," he allowed grudgingly, "but we don't have to go so slow your Granny would pass us hobbling barefoot."

"My Granny?" Jim snorted, and then laughed at the image. "Tell you what, hot shot, you set the pace that's comfortable for you, and when you need a break, you say so, you understand?"

"Yeah, yeah. You're worse than a hen with her chick," Blair grumbled. "Okay, we'll play, 'Mother, may I', if it makes you happy."

"You're a pain the ass, Sandburg," Jim complained, seriously irritated. "If it was the other way around, you know you'd be giving me grief about pushing too hard." When Blair just turned his face away, Jim goaded, "I'm right, aren't I? And you know it. You don't have to be such a tough guy all the damned time."

Taking a deep breath and wincing at the pull on his side, Blair nodded. Chagrined, he allowed, "Yeah, you're right."

"I'm the Captain. I'm always right," Jim teased him then, and Blair chuckled. "You wish," he murmured sotto voce, knowing Jim would hear him just fine, and nudged his horse forward, setting the pace at a brisk cantor that was better than the original slow walk but more moderate than the punishing pace he'd been pushing for. His grin widened when Jim just laughed.

********************

Washington's lips thinned as he read the formal response to his letter to Congress. Setting it aside, he looked up at them. "You said you had other matters to report?"

"Yes, sir," Jim replied, and briskly summarized the news about the anonymous donation that was forthcoming. A relieved smile ghosted over the General's face and as quickly vanished as he nodded for Jim to continue. "We uncovered a plot to assassinate you, General," he said soberly. "There's a man in the camp whose been hired by the Loyalists to kill you in the confusion of a battle."

Washington's brow arched and he scratched his cheek, shrugged. "Well, the next time we're in a battle, I'll worry about that. Anything else?"

"We've confirmed the rumours that General Burgoyne will be making an assault on the Hudson in an effort to split the states. What isn't clear yet is whether General Howe will be marching to meet him halfway, or if Howe will attack Philadelphia."

The General's cheeks puffed and he blew a long, slow breath as he looked away to consider the news. His eyes grew distant and he rubbed his mouth, shook his head pensively. "Wait here," he directed them, and then stood to go to lift the flap of the tent. He ordered the sentry outside to bring Generals Greene and Arnold forthwith.

Just as the others were arriving, a courier from the local militia rode swiftly through the camp and slid to the ground outside. "Permission to see the General," he called. He was granted entry and he hastened inside the tent. "Sir," he saluted, and blinked to see all the generals in the confined space. Holding out a message, he went on, "This has just come in from the North."

Curious, Washington took the rolled paper and, opening it, he found a second sheet inside, a printed notice that informed the populace that General Burgoyne had made a treaty with the Iroquois Confederacy, who would take immediate action on his behalf against anyone who supported the rebellion. The note with the poster explained that such announcements had recently been hammered to every other tree and post south of Quebec. Grimly, he passed it around, and dismissed the courier. Glancing at Blair, he reflected, "You warned us, a year ago, that the Indians would have to be reckoned with, but I'd hoped their neutrality would hold." Shaking his head, he ruminated, "The epidemic amongst the Onondaga last winter, and the loss of a number of their Chiefs, have kept them out of the conflict until now, but it seems the respite is over."

Arnold muttered, "Gentleman Johnny's making his move then. He'll already be bragging that he'll be the one to end this war, not Howe."

"Yes, it's what I called you both in to tell you," Washington agreed. "Burgoyne is going to come down the Hudson. Apparently, Howe may march to meet him, if he doesn't go to Philadelphia instead."

"Gates will be hard-pressed to hold him if he makes a determined assault," Greene murmured thoughtfully. Looking up at Washington, he added, "But, we have to hold Howe - if those two armies unite, we won't be able to stop them." Frowning, he shook his head. "I don't see how we can afford to split our forces, to send relief to Gates."

Washington turned to Arnold. "Benedict, you know the land up there, and you've dealt with Burgoyne - snookered Tyconderoga right out from under him more than a year ago. What do you think about this situation?"

"Nathaneal's right, sir," the young brigadier replied. "You'll need all the men you've got and more if Howe makes a determined push, whichever direction he jumps in." His brow furrowed, and he pinched his lip in thought. "Gentleman Johnny is brash, more a juggernaut than a strategist." Gesturing at the poster in Greene's hand, he said, "Like that, for example. Bully tactics. Intimidation. And the British back home won't like it; won't like the idea of enlisting what they think of as 'savages'. He's trying to scare the north into submission, so he won't have to fight all that hard. The man's a dilettante. All flash, not much substance." Rolling his shoulders, as if his energy was too great to be constrained by the uniform, he added, "But there's no question his troops badly outnumber Horatio's - and they're seasoned soldiers, know the land. Been over here for years. Not just arrived last summer like Howe's bunch."

They stood in silence for a long moment, darkly considering the grim situation that was unfolding as their summer challenge. Arnold's gaze flicked toward Jim and Blair, and he went very still, his expression intent as he scrutinized them, and then he turned to Washington. "Sir, I've got an idea. You need my regiment, but you don't need me. Give me two dozen of your best sharpshooters, like these two men here, who helped me drive the British out of Connecticut, and we'll lend a hand to Horatio."

Startled, Jim and Blair stiffened and looked from Arnold to Washington, who was nodding thoughtfully as he considered the request. The General knew full well that Arnold and Gates got along as well as oil and water. Arnold was all fire and action, bold, resolute and impetuous, and the man was lucky - his risks paid off. Gates was conservative, slow to act, a bit too ambitious but steady and, as the senior of the two, he'd keep a rein on Arnold's tendency to act a bit too recklessly. He trusted Gates, but he needed the energy and initiative Arnold would supply if they were to stop Burgoyne's march. Gates knew Burgoyne; they'd trained together as youths in the British military years before. But Arnold had won against the man before. Gates wouldn't be happy, though, to have Arnold foisted on him. "Let me think about it," he finally temporized. "In the meantime," he went on, turning to Jim, "Be thinking about who might be suitable to this assignment if we go ahead with it. You've hunted with these men, fought with them - you probably know as well as anyone who are the best marksmen. If the situation deteriorates in the north, you'll need to move quickly in support of General Arnold."

"Yes, sir," Jim acknowledged smartly; they saluted and left the tent.

********************

"Yo! Captain Ellison!" a deep, rich voice hailed as Jim and Blair strode away from the General's tent.

Turning at the welcome sound of a voice he hadn't heard in far too long, Jim lifted his hand in greeting, smiling broadly when he saw both old friends jogging towards them. "Hey, when'd you two reprobates get here?"

"Earlier today," Joel told them as they slapped one another's backs and shook hands all round. "After we reported in, the General says that seein' as Howe's already movin', there's no point in us hangin' roun' the city for the summer."

"So we're reporting back for duty," Simon grinned. "Heard you two were enjoyin' the pleasures of Philadelphia."

"Yeah, my kind of town," Jim drawled sarcastically, grimacing as he shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Loud, filthy and way too many people."

Joel was regarding Blair, his eyes narrowing in concern at the lines of strain around the younger man's mouth and eyes. "What happened?" he asked. "You okay?"

"Yeah, sure, I'm fine," Blair replied with a negligent wave of his hand. "Just a little sore from being in a saddle too long."

Simon's attention had swung to Sandburg at the question, and his joviality faded. "You look like you're hurtin'," he said, frowning, not buying the excuse and observing that the kid seemed to be favouring his left side. "What the hell happened in Philly?"

"Oh, you know, the usual: political intrigue, spies, femmes fatales, matters of national security," Jim drawled. "Fill you in on the details later." Looking around at the men hustling past, some just loitering in the open, beaten down field that served as a parade square of sorts, Jim took Simon's arm, his voice dropping as he said, "Let's take this somewhere a little quieter. You set up quarters yet?" When Simon nodded and waved them to follow toward the campsite he and Joel had set up on the edge of the main encampment, Jim asked with studied innocence that immediately piqued their attention, "So, how would you fancy a trip up the Hudson?"

"Always like to travel," Joel replied laconically. "See the sights; get to know the country better."

Grinning, Jim replied, "Good. 'Cause you might just get to see a lot more of it."

Once they were settled and Simon had poured them mugs of warm ale, Jim filled them in on their upcoming journey, and what they'd learned about Burgoyne's activities and intentions. "So, we need a score of men who can hit what they aim at."

"I was thinking," Blair suggested, "there's that group from the Virginia frontier that showed up together. Every one of them's a damned fine hunter."

"Yeah," Simon agreed. "Morgan and his Rangers. Was talkin' to 'im once an' he said they was always so short of ammunition in the back of the beyond that they had to hit what they'd aimed at, every time."

"There's what? A dozen or so of them?" Jim asked.

Blair nodded. "So, that leaves eight more slots."

They all put forward ideas of men they'd not only seen handle their weapons well, but men they knew to be solid, not likely to hightail it in the opposite direction when things got rough. After they'd agreed on those they'd choose, Jim and Blair left their gear with the others. Joel promised to scramble up a meal for them all, while they set out to find the men on their informal list and alert them to be ready to travel if the order came for them all to support General Arnold.

When they were on their own again, Jim asked, "You up for this, Chief, if Washington gives the order to go sooner rather than later? Gonna be hard and fast travel."

"Will you stop?" Blair replied, exasperated. "You know as well as I do that it's healing clean. Yeah, so it stings a bit. So what? I'll live."

Jim nodded and they strode a few more paces in silence. Then, jerking his head back the way they'd come, he said quietly, "Philadelphia is your story, Blair. Up to you how much you want to tell them."

"What's a femme fatale, Jim?" he asked as they continued walking across the camp.

"A deadly woman, Chief," he said flatly.

"Oh," he replied and sighed. Raking his hair back, he gave a little shrug. "Well, then, I guess you already gave them the gist of it," he said, looking into the distance. "Not much else to tell." He hesitated and then elaborated, "Not sure there's any point in talking about the, uh, synagogue and all that." When Jim didn't say anything, he went on, "It's not that I don't trust them, you know that. It's just ... there's no point. And, about the other stuff, well, it's safer - for them - not to know all the details."

"They'll be curious about how you got hurt," Jim told him. "They already are."

"Yeah," Blair agreed. "Guess there's no harm in saying we had a run-in with a wannabe traitor and I got burned by a bullet before we got things under control."

"No harm at all," Jim agreed.

"And for sure we have to tell them about the plot to assassinate Washington - we all have to keep our eyes open," Blair added.

"Gonna be hard to do if we're all the hell the way up the Hudson, isn't it?" Jim retorted with a grimace, not particularly happy about the General maybe sending them away when they knew there was a threat in the camp.

"Well, if it turns out we have to go, guess we'll just have to send Gentleman Johnny on his way and get back here on the double," he replied matter-of-factly, as if it would be as easy as that.

Bemused by the confident assumption of victory in the persistent face of defeat, Jim chuckled and nodded. "Yeah, Sandburg, I guess we'll have to do just that."

********************

June dragged on and they wondered what the British were up to, what Howe was waiting for as he dawdled the weeks away in New Jersey, holed up around New Brunswick with nearly eight thousand British and Hessian soldiers at his beck and call. However, the influx of cash cheered the men and desertions dropped so, at least for the time being, the Continental Army contingent under Washington's direct command once again numbered nearly ten thousand. However, with his men undertrained and ill-equipped, Washington did not feel the numerical advantage was enough to engage in an aggressive attack upon Howe's forces.

One day, on his way past the command tent, Jim inadvertently overheard Washington telling Greene that he'd had a letter from Benjamin Franklin. The General sounded discouraged about the fact that the French still hadn't committed; the French wouldn't take on the British unless and until the Americans showed they were useful allies and not simply needy supplicants. However, Jim didn't need enhanced hearing to know that, every chance he got, Arnold argued ever more stridently that they needed to take the war to the British, not hide in the hills and nip at their heels. Washington remained patient with him, but Ellison wondered if the persistent nagging and petulance wore thin after a while. Jim thought if the man reported to him and had so much damned energy, he'd have him out digging trenches and building fortifications until he dropped. Still, he sympathized with the cocky general's irritation. Nobody was ever going to win a war by sitting on their asses and waiting for something to happen.

Day after day, the men did drills, but haphazardly, with no real purpose or goal and no one to show them how to do better. They were all amateurs in the game of war, pitting themselves against the elite of the world's professionals. And so they drank heavily, to fill themselves with false confidence and the strength of bravado as they told one another stories about what they'd do when they had the redcoats in their sights.

Jim, Blair, Simon and Joel all kept an eye out for who might be a little more flush with cash than the others, but the payment of monies owed to the soldiers for months of back pay muddied the waters. Everyone seemed to have more than enough to spend on drink and on the favours of the camp followers.

All in all, being in camp, waiting for something to happen was tedious, grindingly boring. They were all glad when scouting duties, largely to keep an eye on Howe, took them into the countryside, to some peace and quiet and clean air that didn't stink of unwashed men and the filth of the latrine pits.

For weeks, nothing much happened but, finally, the third week of June, they once again inched as close as they could to New Brunswick, so that Jim could get a handle on the rumble of innumerable conversations going on constantly on the streets and in the buildings. As the forest thinned, they crouched low behind scrubby bushes and boulders, and then slithered forward through tall grass to hunch behind wild brush. Blair kept a hand on Jim's lower back or shoulder, grounding him as he struggled to make sense of the cacophony of sound in his ears. Finally, finally, after extending his hearing to the utmost, concentrating until his head ached from the effort of sifting through the clamor of the town to find something useful, he heard officers talking about Howe's intention to march to Amboy to join with Cornwallis' force of eight thousand men. "Got it," he gusted, sagging back and rubbing his ears. "They're getting ready to move out. We've got to alert the General."

"Good job, Jim," Blair praised him, that glow of wonder in his eyes that seemed reserved only for Jim. "You just keep on amazing me, you know that?"

********************

Upon hearing the news, Washington wasted no time in deploying Generals Maxwell and Sullivan to harass the British flanks. But, the next morning, Washington changed his mind and his orders, sending Greene's three regiments to charge the British rear position, intending to box them in. But, it was a disastrous engagement. Maxwell never did get his new orders and Sullivan received his too late to move forward from his position along the line of presumed British retreat. Greene barely got close enough to be a nuisance as the British marched to Amboy, and had to fall back when no reinforcement arrived from his colleagues.

Irritated by the Americans, the British burned houses all along the route as they completed their journey to Amboy.

But Washington did not retreat back to the hills; instead, he gave orders to break camp and follow the British, intending to continue his strategy of harassing their rear guard. But, five days later, Howe contrived to attempt to entrap the Americans, using the same ploy he had on Long Island of sending a large flanking force with the intention of boxing the ten thousand Americans between sixteen thousand superior warriors. Fortunately, Lord Stirling - the same man who'd held the British back long enough on Long Island to allow the main force of the Continental Army to retreat to the Heights - reprised his role as the intrepid and determined wall they'd first have to pass to get to Washington. For hours, Stirling and his division fought with spirit and courage, giving the General time enough to pull his main force back into the hills and well out of the Lion's jaws.

Disgusted, Howe gave up the pursuit. He had other fish to fry, and ordered his forces back to Staten Island.

Watching the massive retreat from their lookout point in the hills, Jim shook his head. "He's going back to New York. To his brother and the armada."

Blair gnawed on his lip. "But to sail where? North, up the Hudson, or south, to the Delaware, to get to Philadelphia?"

"That's the question, Chief," Jim sighed. "If the General guesses the wrong answer, then ... well, we'll have to wait and see what happens next, I guess."

********************

Word reached General Washington that Fort Tyconderoga - the largest, most elaborate fortress in the New World - fell to General Burgoyne the first week of July, and that several other British victories in the north made it clear that Gentleman Johnny was making his move. He was coming down the Hudson. But ... Washington had no idea where Howe was. He'd sailed out of New York harbor and had taken the massive armada with him. The sails slipped over the horizon and disappeared into the Atlantic without giving any indication of their ultimate direction. Watchers were stationed up and down the coastline, seeking a sign to indicate whether Howe was sailing to support Burgoyne, or had plans to invade Philadelphia but, so far, the ships remained far out of sight.

General Arnold was beside himself with frustration at the indecision and lack of any meaningful activity. His urgings to be allowed to go to Gates' aid became relentless and, finally, tired of the constant haranguing, Washington gave him leave to go, and take the sharpshooters with him.

********************

General Arnold rode, but the rest of them - Jim and his three subordinates, Morgan and his rangers and a handful of other men, including the obnoxious Quinn who was, unfortunately, a superlative shot, too good to be left behind - hoofed it cross-country to the banks of the Hudson River, far enough north of Manhattan to evade any British presence. Once they reached the broad waterway, they hustled north along its shoreline to the nearest village and wharf. There, General Arnold commandeered a sloop and they clattered onboard. The sturdy vessel, designed by the Dutch settlers in the area, sported broad sails to catch the wind and carry it against the current at good speed.

Wide-eyed and unable to completely mask his delight despite the sober reasons for their voyage, Blair hurried to a place on the rail, to watch the river and the passing shore. Jim dumped his pack to the deck beside his partner and settled beside him. Simon and Joel fetched up nearby, and the others ranged themselves around the rest of the top deck. Arnold's horse shied a bit when the sloop dipped and rolled under its weight, but the General soothed the animal with low croons and looped sturdy ropes around its neck that attached to hooks in the decking, to keep it from rearing and plunging if the craft hit rough water.

Blair flashed eyes filled with excitement at Jim, who once again found himself thinking that the kid looked scarcely more than fifteen, despite the fact that he was some years older. His enthusiasm for new experiences seemed boundless, his curiosity insatiable. "You look awfully happy to be heading toward a major fight, Chief," he observed fondly.

"I've never been on a sailboat," Sandburg replied with a grin. "A canoe, sure, rowboats, that barge when we left Long Island, even a big longboat but this, this is something completely different." His gaze flashed to the rigging and the sails that were being unfurled, and his mouth dropped open in awe at the massive spread of canvas fluttering above his head. The boom shifted and they all had to duck as it came around and wind filled the sails with a loud snap of canvas that flapped and then billowed tightly and the sturdy craft lunged forward. "This is great," he sighed happily, and then again turned to watch the shore recede as the sloop moved swiftly into the centre of the river. "Sure beats walking for days and days."

"Or going horseback," Jim added wryly.

"Yeah, that, too," Blair laughed in agreement.

While Blair watched the passing view as the day sped past, sometimes of farms, occasionally of small fishing villages, increasingly of dense forest upon the steep slopes of the Adirondacks that soon loomed around them, Jim watched the waters behind them, half expecting the British Armada to hove into sight. But, as the hours passed, all he saw were fishing boats and barges, rafts and other sloops like their own plying up and down the waterway.

When dusk fell, the four of them shared cold meat, hard bread, cheese and apples, and then arranged their bedrolls on the decking. At full dark, the sloop anchored for the night. Lying on the deck, looking up at the stars dimpling the night sky, Blair murmured wistfully, "I wish I could see what you see."

"The sky's not all that different from what you see; it's all so far away," Jim replied softly, reaching out to pat his shoulder consolingly. Blair didn't often express envy of his greater acuity of sensory perception, but he knew the kid often wished he could share the experience. Somehow, Blair had never gotten to the point of taking his senses for granted, never got past being in awe of them. And Jim knew that it was because of Blair that he seldom saw them as curses anymore, but had discovered a kind of joy in them. "Brighter, I guess. More stars. But not a lot different."

Blair smiled a little and nodded. Lulled by the gentle rocking of the current, they soon slipped into sleep.

********************

They disembarked late on the morning of their third day on the vessel, some distance south of Saratoga, and strode, more than marched, through the forest to Gates' nearby camp. Jim, walking to one side behind General Arnold, was the only one of their group who could have seen General Horatio Gates' reaction when he realized who was approaching the encampment. At first, Gates gaped, and then an expression of mingled disgust and anger swept across his long, narrow, aristocratic features, and his posture stiffened in resistance and resentment.

Rolling his eyes, Jim sighed. Not a propitious welcome.

When they drew closer, Gates and Arnold exchanged greetings that were painfully civil, brittle in tone and manner. "What brings you here?" Gates demanded abruptly as soon as the official pleasantries were concluded. Looking past Arnold, he cast a disparaging glance at the two dozen hard men who fell in behind Arnold.

"General Washington thought I might lend a hand," Arnold replied, affecting a nonchalance that sounded forced.

"Two dozen more men will scarcely do much to hold the line against Burgoyne."

"We'll see about that," Arnold contested, and then gave a rough laugh. "For want of a nail, after all," he added, quoting the old nursing rhyme. Gates didn't look impressed.

For the next several days, the generals attempted to hide their mutual antipathy from the ranks, and only Jim could hear the increasingly heated discussions about strategy and tactics over their nightly dinners together. Arnold wanted to take the battle to Burgoyne, insisting he be allowed to take a contingent and march north and reinforce their forts below Quebec. Gates thought he was crazy, arguing that to split their forces, which were already badly outnumbered by the British, would be criminally negligent and lead to certain defeat. Uncomfortable with what he considered eavesdropping, but unable to not hear what others couldn't, Jim kept the conflict between their leaders to himself, not even confiding it to Blair.

But when Arnold continued to press his views, growing ever more insistent, anyone that was in proximity of the command headquarters that incorporated Gates' private domain could hear the escalating argument. Getting nowhere, cursing to himself late one evening as he stomped out of the building to return to the modest shanty he'd appropriated for his own use, Arnold spotted Jim and waved him over.

"Tell the men to prepare to move out in the morning," he directed abruptly. "I'm sending them north under Major Morgan's command, with you as his second, to reinforce Fort Schuyler and Fort Stanwix - God knows, we're doing no good sitting around here waiting for the British to come to us. I'm betting that Burgoyne has a force heading their way, to ensure he'd got no one behind him as he continues down the Hudson. I saw longboats on the riverbank - take one of them as far as you can, to save time."

"Yes, sir," Jim acknowledged. "You're remaining here, sir?"

Nodding, Arnold cast a dyspeptic glance back at Gates' quarters. "General Gates and I have more to talk about," he said darkly. Turning back to Jim, he laid a hand on his shoulder and drew him further away from the building. "We can't afford to lose those installations. Don't be constrained to fight the British the way they choose. Do whatever is necessary to hold the ground and drive them off, and then hightail it back here."

Nodding that he understood, Jim saluted and moved off to alert Morgan and the others.

********************

Very aware that they were moving deeper into what could be enemy territory, especially given that at least some of the Iroquois nations were said to be mobilizing in support of the British, they cautiously paddled up the river. Even Quinn, the inveterate complainer who was always mumbling in disgruntlement with the rations or the mosquitoes or the damned heat or whatever, lapsed into uneasy silence. At night, they eschewed campfires, eating hard tack and jerky, berries when they were near to hand.

When they encountered fishermen on the river, they sought as much information as they could get, though most were reticent to talk with them, afraid of British reprisals. Everyone seemed to be constantly looking over their shoulders at the shadows of the surrounding forests, clearly wondering if they were being watched by Indians. Jim found he picked up more by stretching his hearing and listening in on the gossip and speculation of others on the river, who were more open when they thought they were out of earshot.

Gradually, as the men talked together in the evenings, keeping their voices low, the pieces of the complex puzzle of relationships and alliances in the north became clearer.

"I've heard," Jim said one night, as if he was opening a general conversation rather than reporting on what he'd overheard that day from two fishermen talking on the bank, "that the Iroquois Confederacy is split over this war. That they're reluctant allies of the British, at best."

Morgan looked at him, his gaze assessing, his manner suggesting that he'd begun to wonder just where and how Captain Ellison 'heard' all that he did. But he let it go and simply added what he knew or guessed. "Yeah, makes sense. There was a big epidemic in the heart of Iroquois country last winter - killed off several of their big chiefs. Mostly, the Indians, at least the ones where we come from, want no part of 'whiteman's wars' - figure that there's no point getting themselves killed on our behalf, and one white man in charge of things is pretty much the same as another, the way they see it. But ... if the Chiefs that're left can't keep a rein on the hotheads, and if the British are threatening reprisals if they don't help, then some'll resent the British and fight 'em just to spite 'em, an' others'll fall into line."

"How do we know who's friend and who's foe?" Joel wondered with a frown.

"Ain't no Injun that's a good Injun," Quinn asserted with a sneering glance at Sandburg, and then he hawked and spit.

Blair's lips thinned but he didn't bother reacting to the obvious insult. "We can't afford to attack any who might be on our side," he asserted, ignoring Quinn's derisive snort. "We need all the allies we can get."

"So ... you're saying, we go carefully and only shoot back if we're attacked," Jim interpreted.

"Yeah, that's exactly what I'm saying."

"Makes good sense to me," Morgan agreed sardonically. "Problem is, most of us might be dead before we even see these suckers. Move like shadows, they do; silent as the night. But ... if we can't see 'em, we can't fight 'em. An arrow in the back'll let us know if we're in trouble quick enough."

Blair gave Jim a sideways glance. "Guess we'll just have to listen hard and pay attention to moving shadows," he said quietly.

Jim cut him a quick look, but only nodded. And then he heard something, a long way away. Miles away. He frowned and turned his head, tried to catch the high pitched yips, a screaming wail, then shots ....

"What is it, Jim?" Blair asked, lightly gripping his arm as he leaned close.

He blinked and shook his head. Whatever it was, it was over. "Something bad, I think. Something north of us." He looked past Blair and saw Morgan staring at him, a frown puckering his brow. The Major's lips thinned, and he turned away.

********************

The mood on the river was different the next day. There were angry shouts and a buzz of conversation in the village up ahead. Jim signaled that they were turning into the bank, and a few minutes later, they heard the news from a furious group of fisherman.

"Killed her, the savages!"

"God-damned British! It's their fault!"

"What? Slow down! What's happened?" Jim commanded fiercely, his ice cold voice cutting through the heated shouts and silencing the men around them.

"Indians. Kidnapped a girl - Jenny McCrae, her name was - and she was goin' up to Fort Edwards, to be with her fiancé. She was a Tory, one of the Loyalists, dammit. And those heathen Indians took her anyway. Killed her. Took her scalp," a whippet-thin man in faded dungarees told them bitterly. "God-damned Brits," he swore again, nearly inarticulate with fury.

"That's it," another called out. "I'm done putting up with it. Time the militia showed 'em they can't push us around no more! Whose with me?!"

A ragged shouted cheer greeted his words ... and Jim and Morgan found themselves with a bunch of volunteers only too eager to hunt redcoats.

After that, all along the river, more and more men joined them, grabbing their weapons and shoving canoes into the water behind them. Two days later, they left the river and began traveling overland, northeast toward Fort Stanwix.

The land was rough, filled with steep terrain and bogs in the low-lying areas. Though they moved steadily, Jim felt as if it took forever to cover a mile as the crow flies. But from the map they'd copied while at Gates' camp, they all knew they were nearing the Fort three days later when he stiffened, and tilted his head. Blair laid a hand on his back, murmuring to him so low none of the others could hear what he was saying.

Jim heard whispers, muffled sounds of men moving stealthily, not far away - just a couple miles, if that, past the nearby Oriskany Creek. He strained and caught British accents. Holding up a hand, he shook his head. There was something else - further away, from the southeast, but oddly louder. Many men tramping through the forest, coming toward them but angling slightly north, toward the Fort. American accents.

"Ambush!" he growled to Blair. "Up ahead, no more than two miles away. Waiting for ... can't be sure. Lots of Americans." Louder, he called to the others, "C'mon! This way!"

Some of the men looked at him uneasily. The rivermen had grown increasingly aware that he was different, and all had heard rumours that he could see far better and hear far more than any ordinary man. But the range of acuity of his skills unnerved those who were superstitious. Morgan simply nodded briskly and added his own sharp orders to hasten the troop on its way.

They heard a volley of shots before they got there, and that fired them, so they plunged forward through the thick underbrush, heedless of thorns catching at them, lunging around trees in their way. And they ran headlong into a bloody, hand to hand battle of hundreds of British soldiers, militiamen - and Indians, who seemed to be fighting one another, so they'd no idea which of the natives were on their side. There was no room to get clear, clean shots. Muskets were hastily slung over shoulders and hunting knives were drawn. Those with bayonets on the end of their rifles used them, swinging and slashing, stabbing. Battle cries filled their throats as they plunged into the fray.

The leaf-strewn earth ran slick and red with blood. Grunts and screams, shouted orders and furious resistance filled the air. Blair had his war club in one hand and his blade in the other, and Jim used his bayonet. Back to back, they cut a swath through the British, Simon and Joel close behind and to one side, slugging, hacking, stabbing. Morgan and his men, and the militiamen who'd joined them en route, waded into battle until they all formed a formidable line, catching the British between them and the Americans who had been ambushed, but had rallied rather than run, and were fighting back tooth and nail.

The bloodbath raged for two hours before the British pulled back and away, leaving the Americans gasping for breath. Gradually, Jim and Morgan learned that their fellow Americans were eight hundred militiamen from the Mohawk Valley of upper New York and sixty Oneida warriors, led by Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer. The Brigadier had received a severe leg wound early in the conflict and yet had coolly directed his men from where he slumped against an oak tree. The thousand or so British and Mohawk warriors they had driven off were part of a larger contingent who were apparently laying siege to Fort Stanwix. Two hundred and fifty of the Americans suffered wounds or were killed in the engagement, and they had to believe a similar number of the British had gone down, else they'd not have retreated so smartly.

Herkimer and the wounded needed attention as soon as possible. Blair did what he could, along with others who took on informal medic roles of binding wounds, but there were too many injured, and some wounds were too serious for his skills. After doing his best to stem the blood flowing from Herkimer's wound, he turned to Jim and said quietly, "His leg was shattered by a musket ball and I doubt it can be saved." He swallowed and, looking back at the valiant man, added sorrowfully, "I don't think he's going to make it."

Dusk fell by the time they got everything organized and a contingent of the upper New York men headed home with their wounded and dead. The rest had no choice but to set up camp for the night, and hope Fort Stanwix could hold out a little longer.

The next day, they set out at double time with the Mohawk Valley men and Indians, more familiar with the territory, taking the lead. Somehow, the British must have learned they were coming, no doubt from those who had fled the battle the day before. The patriots came out of the forest around Fort Stanwix just as the last of the redcoats who had been laying siege were disappearing to the north, scurrying back to Quebec.

Fort Stanwix had not fallen and was now secure.

But there were other vulnerable targets in Burgoyne's path. Turning around, they marched back toward the Hudson River to the south and west of their position. Two days later, they encountered fifteen hundred militiamen from New Hampshire under the command of Colonel Stark, who had crossed the boundary lines into New York. He had information that there was a large contingent of Hessians nearby, marching toward Bennington to acquire supplies from the depot there for Burgoyne. The two groups of patriots banded together.

Stark divided his now larger force, sending some around to attack the Germans from the rear. The two wings quickly surrounded the Hessians, and the Loyalists and Indians with them panicked and ran. The Germans fought stolidly, trying to break through the American lines, and the battle raged fiercely for two hours before the Americans triumphed.

They'd barely caught their breath, however, before Jim heard the approach of another large contingent, and he hastily warned Stark to prepare for attack. Five hundred more British attacked and the battle turned into another bloody confrontation. Back and forth, neither side gaining much ground, they fought for hours, and the patriots were flagging, exhausted from the earlier brutal fight. But, just as it seemed as if they must fall back, five hundred Vermont volunteers charged with piercing battle cries into the foray. The British were overwhelmed and some broke away, but the rest were trapped. When the second battle finally ended, of the thousand British warriors, only a hundred had escaped; there were over six hundred enemy dead, and most of the captives were wounded. One of them told his patriot captors what his commander, Raum, had said about the patriots before he died in the battle: 'They fought more like hellhounds than soldiers.' From another they learned that the British they'd driven back north from Fort Stanwix had been key to Burgoyne's assault, the second of three waves, the third being Howe, who was expected from the south.

But for now, it appeared as if Burgoyne was on his own ... and was faltering. Apparently, his supply lines back to Canada had stretched too thin, which is why he'd sent Raum's force to secure more supplies. And the Americans retreating from Fort Edwards had cut down trees, fired farms and driven off cattle, to slow his advance even further. The patriots snickered appreciatively when they heard that it had taken the British General twenty-three days to traverse as many miles.

However, the Americans sent by Arnold to assist in the north didn't come through the battle unscathed. They all numbered amongst the nearly three hundred wounded. Simon and Joel both had bloody, if shallow wounds on their arms and legs, Morgan had lost a man, and three others had suffered flesh wounds. Blair was bleeding from a nasty cut to his scalp, but he just kept swiping the blood out of his eyes as he concentrated on stemming the flow of crimson from the saber thrust Jim had taken in his left shoulder.

"How bad is it?" Simon demanded roughly, as he and Joel helped bind one another's wounds after liberally lacing them with herbs from a leather pouch Blair thrust at them.

"Looks clean; damned lucky it wasn't lower," Sandburg grated hoarsely as he kept pressure on the wound and then he muttered urgently to Jim, who was clenched tight with the agony of it, "Turn it down, dammit. Now. Turn it down."

His face starkly pale, eyes pressed tightly closed, gasping for breath, Jim nodded jerkily. Grimacing with effort, he concentrated for what seemed like endless minutes but could only have been seconds. Finally, his breathing eased and he blinked. "Okay," he rasped. "S'okay now."

"Good," Blair replied and swiped another runnel of blood away from his eyes. "'Cause I'm gonna have to hurt you, man. The bleeding isn't stopping; I have to cauterize the wound."

Jim looked up at him balefully and swallowed hard. Closing his eyes, resignedly he said, "Do it."

Joel drew flint from a pouch at his waist, and hastily got a small fire going nearby. Simon took the knife Sandburg held out to him. "Clean it," Blair directed, curling his lip at the blood on the blade. "And then stick it in the flames."

"How's ... how's your head?" Jim panted, wincing and squinting up at his friend.

"Other than the fact I see two of you, not too bad," Blair told him with a ragged grin.

Jim snorted and then huffed, "Just put the knife in the real wound, okay, Corporal?"

Lightly stroking his hand over Jim's brow, Blair murmured fondly, "Yes, sir. Of course, sir."

Laughter at their old joke creased Jim's face, but the pain caught him again and he clenched his jaw as he fought off a moan.

"Easy, Jim," Blair soothed, glancing at the knife and noting it was turning red. "Easy." When he decided the blade was hot enough, he signaled to Simon to bring it back to him. Before he took it though, he grabbed a small thick twig from the ground beside him and said, "Bite on this, Jim. And, and, turn the scope down as far as you can. This is really going to hurt bad, but I'll be as quick as I can."

Jim obligingly opened his mouth and then clamped down on the wood fragment. He closed his eyes briefly, and then nodded. Simon handed the blazing hot blade to Blair. Grasping it firmly, he gestured to Simon to hold Jim's shoulders down. And then, when Simon had knelt by Jim's head and had leaned his weight on Ellison, Blair took a deep breath, bit his lip and then swiftly lifted the pad of rags he'd been holding over the wound, and slid the hot knife into the wound.

Jim grunted a low, wild howl and tried to arch away from the pain, but Simon held him securely. His face contorted and flushed with the effort to control and contain the agony, and then he went limp as he passed out. The sickening stench of burning flesh nauseated all of them.

Hot tears warred with the warm blood dripping down his brow and into his eyes, but Blair blinked furiously to clear his vision and counted under his breath in Cherokee. And then he pulled the blade away and drove it violently into the ground. Panting, he watched the wound, relaxing only when he was sure the bleeding had stopped. Rifling in his pack, he drew out a small clay pot of ointment, and he carefully, tenderly, coated the burned flesh and the wound. And then he bound a thick wad of clean rags over the injury with a long strip of linen that Simon helped him wind around Jim's shoulder and chest.

"He gonna be okay?" Joel asked soberly.

"Yeah, yeah, I think so," Blair replied faintly, sounding woozy now that the adrenaline that had been driving him wore off. "Probably ache like hell in cold weather for the rest of his life, but he should be ... should be ... f-fi -" His voice broke and he abruptly jerked around, gagging and retching but there was nothing inside to give up. "Oh, man," he moaned and lifted his hands to his head, swayed sideways ... and sagged, sprawling on his side, unconscious before he hit the ground.

"Sonuva ..." Simon exclaimed, as he scrambled to help Joel turn the kid onto his back. Using water from Joel's canteen and another rag from Blair's pack, they cleaned the blood away and found a bone-deep gash on his brow, near the hairline close to his temple.

"Nasty. Damned near got scalped," Joel commented hoarsely, and then dug out the gut and a needle he knew Blair kept in a leather pouch in his pack. "Good thing he's out of it. This'd sting." Swiftly, he stitched the ragged edges of skin together, and powdered the wound with more of Sandburg's magic herbs. "Nasty bump coming up," he muttered, and then, while Simon held Blair's head off the ground, he wound a bandage around the kid's skull. Looking up at Simon, he said, "Looks like you and me get to play nursemaids for a few days."

"Lord help us," Simon rumbled. "I doubt these two are good company when they can't do for themselves." Shaking his head, he added, "Sandburg's gonna have one godawful headache when he wakes up."

"We just better hope he wakes up before Jim does," Joel sighed with a glance at Ellison. "Or there'll be hell to pay." Simon barked a laugh and nodded. They both knew that their Captain would be a bear until he was assured that Blair wasn't badly hurt. But, gazing down at the kid, he sobered as he soaked a rag to wash the blood-matted hair and then gently smoothed the damp curls from the bandaged brow. God, he hoped the kid's collapse was mostly due to exhaustion and shock, and not something more serious.

Head injuries could be tricky.

********************

Jim moaned softly as he eased back into consciousness. There was a fire in his shoulder that was burning relentlessly, mercilessly and he had a vague idea of pouring water over it. Confused, unable to think past the agony, he floated helplessly but then he latched onto the heartbeat that was always there, and the heartbeat reminded him he could diminish his experience of the pain. There was something about the heartbeat that bothered him, something not quite right, but he couldn't figure out what until he could focus better - and he couldn't think about anything until he got the pain under control. So he struggled with the damned spyglass in his head, imagining the pain skimming farther and farther away, so he could scarcely make it out in the distance and he gulped in air with the relief of being able to breathe easily again. What the hell had happened? Oh, yeah, the ferocious, exhausting battles, one right after the other. Scraping his face and rubbing his eyes with his good hand, he blinked and looked around, expecting to see Blair hovering over him - but he saw Joel, and frowned. The heartbeat. There was something ... it was slow. Slower than he'd ever heard it before, even when Blair was deeply asleep.

"Where's Sandburg?" he rasped, struggling to push himself up, made awkward by his useless left arm. The agony in his shoulder flared and he subsided with a frustrated growl.

"He's right here," Joel assured him, waving toward Blair who was stretched out a few feet away, with Simon squatting next to him. "He's, uh, he's catching some shuteye."

His gaze narrowing, he studied Joel, and his gaze flicked to Simon and then to Blair's still form. Their heartbeats were racing, as if they were running flat out - they were worried and they were flat-out lying to him - and the kid's was slow. Too slow. Fear erupted in his gut and he surged up to his knees, heedless of the shrieking, searing, furious burn in his shoulder. "Bullshit," he snarled. "What's wrong with him? What happened?"

Grimacing, Joel looked at Simon and held up his hands. "Can't hide nothin' from this guy. Don't know why I even try."

"He passed out after he'd seen to you," Simon told him evenly, trying to instill calm. "He's got a bad lump on his head. Needed some stitches. But he's probably fine."

"How long's he been out?" he demanded, swaying dizzily as he pushed himself to his feet. Joel hastened to support him as he shuffled the two steps that separated him from Sandburg, and then helped him ease down beside his partner.

"Not long," Joel assured him. "Just a few minutes."

Scowling heavily, gritting his teeth against the keening wound in his shoulder, Jim studied Blair, assessing his respirations - too slow, but even, his scent - the residual odours of anxious fear and anger, blood and sweat, so soon after the battles nearly knocked him over. Shaking his head, taking deep open-mouthed breaths to steady himself, he reached out with his good arm to touch Blair's face, finding it cooler than the skin usually was, and the kid was as white as a ghost. Shuddering at the unpleasant comparison, he explored further, his touch delicate over the dressing, feeling the heat of the wound and the bruising of the skin, the shape of the lump. Feeling helpless, he cupped Blair's cheek. "He's not just sleeping," he rasped hoarsely.

"Now, come on, Jim, take it easy," Simon urged, his tone low and reassuring. "You know as well as I do that anyone's going to pass out after a blow like that. Doesn't have to be bad news. Just natural - let's the body, er, the head heal without the distraction of thinking and such."

Jim's lips and jaw tightened, but he nodded. He'd been knocked out himself a time or two. He'd always woken up. "We need to keep him warm," he grated. "He hates to be cold."

Quickly, Joel untied the rolled blanket on Blair's pack, and draped it over him. And then he dug out one of Jim's spare shirts from his pack, and fashioned it into a sling. When Jim resisted his fussing, he sternly rebuked, "Blair worked hard to fix up that shoulder and get it to stop bleeding. You want to ruin it, overstrain it now? He'll give you proper what-for when he wakes up if you mess around and don't take care of it."

Grudgingly, Jim stopped resisting the attention. But ... but he wondered if they had any idea how hard it was for him to see Blair like this, so ... so still, so hurt, and not be able to do a damned thing about it. How it tore at something inside, something he didn't understand and hadn't even really grasped was there until Philadelphia. Until that pistol had blasted - loud, deafening - in their small room and Blair had been flung back and, in that frozen moment, his hearing too fractured by the explosive shot to be able to think or hear anything, let alone the soft, steady cadence of Blair's heartbeat, he'd thought ... he'd thought Blair had been killed. Just like that. Extinguished. Gone.

He'd lost it.

He'd rampaged across the floor like a mindless, raging predator and if that bitch hadn't already been dead, he would have annihilated her with his bare hands.

His rage, his all-consuming instinctive horror and fury, had shocked him, but it was nothing beside his fear that she'd killed Sandburg. Scared, he'd been shaking when he'd gone to Blair, and knelt by his side. But the kid was already moving, trying to get up, and he was able to release the breath he hadn't known he was holding and breathe again. When he realized that his friend was okay, really just grazed, he'd nearly been undone by relief. His throat had tightened and his eyes had burned with hot tears. He still shook when he remembered those moments.

Later, when he'd gone out and left Blair to rest, he'd walked for miles, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, lost inside himself, trying to come to grips with the magnitude of his reaction and emotions. He'd known they were friends, good friends. Blair had become his best friend, someone he knew he both wanted and needed in his life. And, sure, Blair had helped him enormously with his senses, still did, helping him to make them work so that now he rarely had to think about them most of the time. But ... he hadn't believed that he'd ever care so much about another person that the loss of them would shatter his world. Hadn't known he'd felt that way about Blair until that shot had gone off. That he could kill in a blazing fury of grief that knew no bounds.

He'd been frightened by his reactions, and had wanted to deny them, but he couldn't. This was a friendship the like he'd never known, and hadn't even heard of outside the nursery and fairytales. Hadn't believed could be real. Somehow, he'd become bound to Blair and now the man was essential to him, as essential as air or food or water. He'd become angry then, hating the idea of being tied to another so ... so intrinsically. Loathed the feeling of dependency those feelings aroused. How the hell had Blair done it? Woven some kind of spell around him? Used some of that Indian magic? By what right, had Blair taken possession of him -

But his thoughts and roiling emotions had hit a wall and he'd felt sick and he'd begun to shake so badly that he hadn't been able to stand and had dropped to his knees, and then he'd shifted to sit with his face in his hands. Trembling, trembling so badly and the tears, the tears ... he couldn't stop them from leaking from his eyes. Like a child, he shook with sobs he stifled as best he could.

How had Blair done it? No, not by magic. Not through any kind of spell. Just ... just by being the only person in his life who ... who accepted him and ... and loved him just as he was. Who held him in high esteem and always had, no questions asked. Who forgave him his surliness on bad days and laughed kindly at his foibles. He hadn't realized how much he'd needed that kind of love in his life; hadn't even imagined such unconditional acceptance and affection existed. Blair not only understood his senses, but reveled in them, thought they were fantastic and thought Jim was amazing that he could handle them so well, had survived so long on his own with no help or understanding of what was happening to him. And what Blair offered had no strings attached. He simply gave a kind of unconditional acceptance, even approval, and he committed to be there, to always be there. In those dark moments, Jim had remembered that Blair believed they belonged together and would search him out through lives as yet unlived, to find him, to be there for him, to watch over him and help him however Blair could. That kind of devotion and loyalty were breathtaking, too much to really grasp.

But Blair was no slave, no doormat - he stood up for himself and held his own on the oft times they argued. He saw things in completely different ways and made no bones about sharing his views, his beliefs. He was this amazing person who took all life threw at him, all the hurt and misery, the uncertainties and what must often have been the hopelessness, and learned from it all, not only surviving but coming out whole, more than whole, with lots of himself to share. Blair ... Blair gave himself as a gift, had given Jim his love and his support and his compassion and his humour and his courage just as - or even more - freely than others gave a token at Christmas. And all of that had soaked into the soul that Jim wasn't even sure he had. Had imbued him with a sense of peace that, no matter what ever happened, it would all be alright. That they could face whatever came at them together and, regardless of the challenges and hazards, they'd be okay.

Only ... that was crazy. Nobody could live so entwined with another; needing that other so much. Blair was young. He might want to marry someday, have a family. And he dreamed of traveling the world, seeing all the wonders just past the horizon. Hell, even if they weren't at war, people had accidents, got sick ... died.

And he'd just come face to face with that possibility, hadn't he? Had just had their mortality, Blair's mortality, smacked in his face. And it had shaken him; shaken him badly. What the hell was he going to do?

Every day during this damned war, since the day they'd first met, they'd been concerned about protecting other people - the army from attack, the citizens from the predations of the enemy, the future and all the people who would come after them, to secure the freedom of as yet unborn generations. And while they'd been doing so, Blair had quietly, capably, been taking care of him, whether it was anticipating his need for help with his senses or curing skins to keep him warm in the winter. In all that time, what had he done to take care of Blair? When had he ever put his partner first in anything?

A sense of protectiveness for Blair had swept over him then, so hard and fast, so complete that it left him gasping. And he'd vowed that things were going to change. From that moment on, he promised himself that he'd do all in his power to keep Blair as safe as he could, to watch over him with equal diligence and care. But even as he made the vow, he was pathetically aware of the irony and hopelessness of such a commitment.

They were at war.

There were no guarantees.

He'd learned that in spades in the last chaotic hours; he'd lost track of his partner as they'd fought for their lives and for freedom. And now Blair was lying here, so still, so hurt ... and it scalded him that Blair had managed to hang on long enough to meet his needs before succumbing to his own injury, and he'd not even realized how badly hurt Blair was himself. God damn it, he'd thought the kid was kidding when he said he was seeing double.

Jim scrubbed his face. There was no way that Simon or Joel, or anyone for that matter, could fully understand all that Blair meant to him; he scarcely understood it himself. All he knew was that he could not contemplate life without Blair there, beside him, giving all those gifts he gave with such a generous spirit. Jim sniffed and swiped at his eyes. Took a shuddering breath to pull himself together. He couldn't do much for the kid if he was sniveling like a child frightened by the bogeyman. He hadn't saved him from injury, and there wasn't much he could do to help him now, but he could keep him safe, watch over him and .... It wasn't enough. But it was all that was left to him to do.

Gently, he reached out to tuck the blanket around Blair's shoulders, and he tenderly stroked his friend's head. Looking around, feeling dazed, he tilted his head toward the trunk of a sturdy oak nearby. "Help me over there," he asked, sounding humble and uncertain, unused to asking for help. "So I can sit with my back against it. And ... and then would you move him so that I can hold him?"

Mutely, looking as if they wanted to weep - so that Jim wondered in astonishment if maybe they did understand after all - Joel helped him to his feet and supported him with his strong arms until he was settled, and Simon carefully lifted Blair to carry him and laid him so that Jim could hold him close, secure in his one good arm. Brokenly, Jim bowed his head until his cheek rested on Blair's curls, desperately sorry that this was all he could do, just hold him, let him know - if he could feel at all, was aware at all - that he wasn't alone and hadn't been abandoned. Just hold him and pray with all he was to whatever deity or power Blair believed in that his partner would wake up and be fine, just fine. Joel and Simon left him alone, and did what they could to create a space of privacy around them.

Morgan came, to check on them, and he looked grave as he squatted in front of Jim. "How's he doing?" he asked.

Exhausted by his own injury and the anxiety that gnawed at him, Jim shook his head slowly. "I don't know," he rasped. "He's still breathing. Guess that's a good sign."

The Major smiled bleakly and reached to grip Jim's shoulder. "A very good sign. Don't give up on him. The kid's tough."

"Yeah," Jim agreed. "Tougher, a lot tougher, than most people know."

Dusk fell and campfires were lit. A space in the clearing was stacked with brush and deadwood, and the bodies were laid upon the pyre, as they were after every battlefield and encampment death. They had no means to transport the dead home; and they didn't want to risk their fallen being dug out of shallow graves to be ravaged by wild animals. Nor did they want the enemy to know how many they'd lost. So they burned the bodies, and watched silently in respect and sorrow until the fire caught and then they turned away, unable to watch their comrades burn down to ash.

Quinn, nursing a bruised wrist and carrying on as if it was broken and his whole hand was about to fall off, swigging rotgut from his apparently bottomless canteen, staggered by and paused, weaving a little as he stared at them blearily. "Ah, t'aint that the sweetest thing," he mocked drunkenly. "Holdin' the l'il savage while he's sleepin' like he was yer sweetie pie. Allas thought there was some'tin unnatural 'bout you two."

Jim glared daggers at him and the only thing keeping him from surging to his feet to bash the fool into the next week was his need to keep Blair safe and secure, not dump him unceremoniously on the ground. But Simon and Joel had no such restraint upon them and they loomed over the drunken sot. Telling him to shut the hell up, they shoved him none too gently to get him to move on.

A little later, Simon and Joel prepared a light meal, but he wasn't hungry. As night fell, the camp stilled but for the sentries who were posted around the perimeter, and the restless moans of the wounded. The moon rose overhead, and the fires burned down to embers. His old friends had turned in hours before and were snoring peacefully nearby.

Jim rested his head against the tree trunk and looked up at the stars, and he remembered Blair's excitement on the sloop, as they'd set out on this perilous journey. The kid didn't let fears about what the morrow might hold interfere with his enjoyment of the day he had in his grasp. "I wish you could see what I see, too," he murmured and then looked down at his partner. "Especially what I see when I look at you."

Tired to the bone, he again rested his cheek on Blair's curly head, and tightened his grip around his friend's slack body, pulling him closer. "Wake up, sleepyhead," he whispered. "I miss you when you're not around."

As the hours passed, he fell into light, unsettled slumber, and he had a weird dream that seemed to happen over and over, as if his mind was stuck on the same fractured, distorted images, waiting for him to understand the meaning, the import. A vague, hazy, blue jungle and a black jaguar, looming across a path, blocking it, and behind the big cat, starkly illuminating its dark form, was brilliantly, blazingly bright, blinding white light that made Jim wince away. And then he became aware of a gray wolf curled at the big cat's feet, mewling feebly, as if it were hurt, and crawling on his belly, inching toward the light. But the jaguar howled and snarled furiously and would not let the wolf pass. Strange jungle. Strange dream. But he thought he knew the cat and the wolf. They seemed familiar to him in a way he couldn't remember.

Even when he dozed lightly and dreamed the odd dream, Jim remained preternaturally attuned to Blair's breathing and his heartbeat, as if the vibrations of those sounds resonated within his own body. So, when Blair's heart rate began to pick up, beating more strongly and his breathing deepened, Jim jerked into full alertness. "Hey," he murmured hopefully. "You coming back anytime soon?"

Blair stirred slightly as the sound of his voice, and frowned heavily. His lips twisted in a grimace of pain; one hand flapped up to his head and he moaned softly.

"Easy, Chief," Jim soothed. "You've got a hell of a headache, but you're okay."

"Mmm?" he muttered, not yet fully conscious but struggling up from the depths. The long lashes twitched and then Blair blinked and his eyes shifted around, his pupils wide in the darkness, his gaze confused. "Jim?" he rasped, one hand gripping Jim's shirt. "Wha' happened?"

"Somebody tried to take off the top of your skull, Sandburg," he replied, almost managing his usual sardonic tone. "You, uh, you passed out a few hours ago."

Blair's brow puckered as he reached for his memories, and then his eyes widened and he twisted, to look up at Jim and to push himself upright, carefully extricating himself from Jim's embrace. "How're you?" he asked. "Your shoulder ...?"

"Relax, I'm doin' okay," Jim assured him, unable to resist smiling with relief that Sandburg seemed alert and generally okay. "Don't be moving too fast - bound to be dizzy. You'll make yourself sick."

Grimacing again, as if recalled to his own hurts, Blair nodded and delicately touched his stomach. "Feel a bit queasy, to tell you the truth," he admitted softly so as not to disturb the others. "An' my head feels like it wants to come off."

"Probably going to hurt like hell for a couple days," Jim told him sympathetically. "Joel left some broth over the fire, if you're hungry?"

"No, just thirsty," he replied, looking around dazedly for a canteen. When he found it, he half crawled to it, and drank slowly, but deeply. Setting the vessel down, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and sighed, as if relieved the water didn't just come right back up again.

As his thoughts cleared, he looked around and then back at Jim ... and he frowned. "How long you been holding me like that?" he asked, a hint of accusation in his tone. "You should be flat out resting - you lost a fair bit of blood."

Looking away, Jim shrugged and then winced, gasping a little at the molten shard of pain digging into his shoulder.

"Ah, geez," Blair groused as he crawled back to sit beside Jim and share the support of the broad, ancient oak, settling close enough that Jim's good shoulder was against his. "Tell me you weren't holding onto me like that since I keeled over."

"Well," Jim replied, making a face that said he was fairly caught and trying to make light of it, "I cannot tell a lie."

Snorting, Blair shook his head. "You're nuts, you know that? What? You thought ...." But his aggrieved tone trailed off and he swiveled to squint at Jim, leaning close to read his eyes in the moonlight. "Ah, man," he sighed. "You really did think I might ... might not make it."

Embarrassed, Jim's gaze dropped and he turned his face away. But Blair wouldn't let him retreat. Lifting his hand, he cupped Jim's cheek and drew his face back toward him. "I'm sorry you were so worried," he said soberly. "But, well ... it means a lot to me that you were. Thanks."

"Just glad you're okay, Chief," Jim muttered. "Just, uh, duck or something next time."

Blair snickered softly, but he continued to study Jim so intently that he had the feeling the kid could see right into his head, or maybe right to his soul. "You know," Blair murmured softly, "you'd be okay ... I mean if anything ever did happen ...."

Jim's gaze flew up at that, and he growled, "Don't. Just don't, all right? I don't want to go there."

"But, Jim, you need to know that -"

"I mean it, Sandburg," he grated, but his voice gave him away by cracking. "I don't ... I can't ...."

His expression softening into understanding and compassion, Blair nodded. "Okay, I get it. Like I don't want to go there about you, about anything ever happening to you. Ever." He settled back against the tree and leaned his aching head on Jim's shoulder. "Just know one thing, okay? I'd never really be gone. I'd never, not ever, no matter what, ever, leave you."

Tears sprang from nowhere, blinding him, and he had to press his lips together to keep them from trembling. Wordlessly, he lifted his good arm around Blair's shoulders and drew him close. He sniffed and turned his face to lightly press his lips against Blair's brow. "I'll hold you to that, Chief," he rasped hoarsely.

"No problem," Blair assured him softly but firmly. "I'd never lie to you, and my word is good. I promise, Jim. You're stuck with me. Whatever might happen - you're stuck with me."

"I can live with that," he replied solemnly. The promise relaxed him and the tension he'd felt for too many hours eased away. But his lips quirked wryly in self-mockery as he thought he was like a little kid in the dark, being reassured there were no monsters under the bed, and believing just that simply because he wanted to believe it so badly. Nobody could make that kind of promise, but it meant a lot that Blair wanted to and that he believed it, 'cause Blair believed in things like forever. Well, Blair would just have to keep believing enough for both of them.

They settled against one another, and Blair drew the blanket up to cover them both. Gradually, they slipped toward sleep. Just before he drifted off, Blair mumbled, "Had the weirdest dream. Was tryin' to get to this big bright light, where it would be warm you know? 'Cause the jungle was all blue an' cold. But the panther ... my panther, wouldn't let me past."

Jim twitched awake, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He drew a shuddery breath and swallowed heavily. "T'was just a dream, Chief," he muttered. "Just a dream."

Yawning, Blair nodded his head against his shoulder. "Felt so real," he whispered, and then he settled and slept.

"Just a dream," Jim insisted to himself, not inclined to believe in signs or visions. "Just a dream." Losing himself in the soothing cadences of Blair's steady breathing and heartbeat, he gradually relaxed into sleep.

********************

There wasn't a man among them who wasn't bruised, battered, stiff and sore the next morning, but they were warriors and they couldn't lie around until they felt better. As soon as he woke, just after dawn, Blair mixed them a potion of willowbark tea seasoned with honey, and insisted they all drink their battered tin mugs dry. "It'll help ease the aches," he said matter-of-factly. "Trust me. You'll be glad you did."

When Morgan came round to check on them, they'd already changed their dressings, washed the dirty rags in the creek with the soap Sandburg carried in his pack, broken their fast, had packed up their gear, and were ready to go. The Major nodded approvingly, said simply, "Glad to see you woke up, Sandburg," and, with a wave that they should follow, turned to head out.

"We've done what we came for," he called back over his shoulder. "The militiamen are staying and'll reinforce Fort Schuyler, but it's time we got back to camp. Must be the middle of August already. Gentleman Johnny'll be on his way." He turned with a rakish grin and winked. "Wouldn't want to miss the party."

The first day - slogging through the ancient forest, pressing through thick undergrowth, climbing and descending the steep grades - the going was slow, but the walking helped loosen stiff and sore muscles and got their blood flowing. Still, they found it seriously taxing of their limited reserves of energy. Jim's shoulder was raw with pain, and Blair kept feeding him sips of the bitter tea he'd poured into a canteen before they'd broken camp, and murmuring to him to 'turn it down'. Made irritable by the persistent pain, and disgruntled that Sandburg was focusing on him when the kid could hardly stand on his own when dizziness overcame him in waves, gnawed by worry about Blair's head injury, Jim had a tendency to snap that he was fine. Vastly unimpressed, Blair would snap back that he was a stubborn ass. Then Jim would grimace and sigh, and nod and do whatever Blair told him to do. When Blair routinely just patted him on the back after he did as he was told, as if he was a toddler being jollied along, Jim's sense of the ridiculous would take over and he'd laugh and Blair would give him a winning, if a bit wan, smile. Beside them, keeping a careful watch over them, and ever ready to lend a hand of support on the steep grades or when Blair started to weave, Simon and Joel chuckled at both of them, glad to know they were feeling well enough to be bickering.

The next day was easier, and they all made better time. Jim's arm didn't plague him as much and Blair's dizziness abated. Both of them found their appetite had returned with a vengeance, and they munched on hard bread and cheese as they traveled. The third day, the squad of sharpshooters found where they'd hidden their longboats, covered over with brush, near the banks of the Hudson. Jim stood and listened, his gaze raking the steep, brooding forests around them, but he could sense no threat. They hauled one of the heavy boats into the river, splashing through water up to their knees, and climbed inside. Those that could, grabbed a paddle. Those that couldn't, like Jim with his bum shoulder, kept a lookout.

Heading down river was easier and faster than paddling against the strong current, so they made good time. More than one of the men idly wondered why Burgoyne hadn't elected to move his army on the water - he'd've made a whole lot better time. But they were glad he'd followed the traditional practice, marching from one place to another, regardless of the challenges of the terrain.

At night in their camp, they quietly speculated about whether he was still on his way down the river, or if the defeat of half his forces would have discouraged him and sent him scurrying back to Quebec. But the unhappy consensus was that he was committed because Howe was probably, even now, on his way from the south.

They had to stop Burgoyne before the two armies met up, or they could be in a world of trouble.

********************

By the time they strode back into Gates' encampment, most of the bruises had faded and all of the wounds were well on their way to healing as well as they ever would. Some would always have a bit of a limp. Jim's shoulder would always ache when the weather was damp and a storm was coming. When he was tired, Blair would be prone to dizzy spells. But they were more than ready to dance again when the tune was called.

Arnold spotted them and hastened across the barren, beaten earth that served as a parade square. "Dispatch arrived from Fort Stanwix days ago," he said warmly. "Good job." Looking around, he waved them to an open patch of grass and told them to relax. Several dropped to sit on the ground, most just hunkered down, wondering what he wanted to say to them.

"We also got a dispatch that Howe was spotted landing at Turkey Point in Maryland. He's going to Philadelphia."

Blair flashed a look at Jim, who nodded, understanding his partner's concern. Washington would be going into battle before they could possibly make it back. There was nothing they could do but hope the assassin either didn't make a move or muffed it. The General knew there was a threat and they had to believe he'd take reasonable precautions - or wish he would. The man seemed to think he was invincible and he routinely took stupid chances, more often leading the troops than guiding them with orders from a safe distance in the rear.

"So that leaves us to deal with Burgoyne," Arnold was saying, pulling their attention back to the situation at hand. "He's moving down from Fort Edward and could be here any time in the next week or so. We need to be ready."

The men nodded stoically. Morgan stroked his rifle and spoke for all of them. "We're ready, Sir. Just let us know where and when."

********************

They weren't back in camp long before they heard talk about a serious falling out between Arnold and Gates. Apparently, or so the story went, Arnold had pushed too hard, too often, slamming his fist on the dining table and storming to his feet, shouting something about Gates being an old grandmother - and Gates had ordered Arnold out of his sight. Since then, they hadn't spoken and Gates, the senior officer, had given him no role in the plans for the military engagement to come.

Jim was disgusted when he heard the gossip. Striding off, Blair following in his wake, he grumbled, "God damned glory-seeking stupid ass excuses for leaders."

"Er, which leader, specifically?" Blair asked, being deliberately provocative.

"Gates is a moron," Jim clarified as he crossed his arms and leaned against a tree far from any curious ears and stared balefully at the forest. "He thinks because he was trained in England that he knows all there is about warfare. Thinks he's better than everyone else, including Washington. Figures he should be in charge - and if he can pull off this victory and if Philadelphia falls, he'll have a good chance of Congress shoving Washington out of the way. Damn it - him, Lee, Sullivan - they're all the same. More concerned about their reputation and promotion than the cause or the battle at hand."

"And General Arnold?"

"He at least knows what he's doing, isn't afraid to capitalize on opportunities - or to fight alongside the men, rather than hide well behind the lines. And he's not married to the traditional style of warfare. This lining up less than fifty yards apart and shooting at one another is damned stupid. We don't have the men or the ammunition to waste. It's a slaughter. All a question of who can afford to lose the most men." Sighing he shook his head. "From what I've heard from the men who've seen the action up here over the last couple years, Arnold was responsible for the wins here in the north last year and the year before - or at least, he held the British off. But Gates took full credit for that in his official report. And Arnold also did something significant in South Carolina just before he came north this year, and the ranking ass down there also took credit. Only thing that surprises me is that Arnold keeps trying so damned hard to make a difference and win this war. He's a rich man, or was, a successful merchant. Most men like him, with the exception of Nathaneal, are still taking care of business, not out risking their lives." Looking down at Blair, he went on, "Arnold's going to use what we did in Connecticut, I'm sure of it. Use snipers to even the odds and shake up the enemy. Make the Brits less complacent. Gates probably told him it's not 'honourable', like there's anything honourable about standing like a target and waiting to be shot down. That's not courage. That's just stupid."

Blair nodded. He'd thought it pretty stupid himself, the first time he'd seen the two armies line up on a field and start shooting when there were perfectly good rocks and trees around to use as modest shields and give a man a chance to sight his target and not be so shit-scared of being shot that he couldn't see straight.

"I've been thinking about something that I think Arnold might like - but Gates would probably think it was too provocative," he ventured.

Curious, Jim cocked a brow. "And what might that be?"

"Well, you know how Burgoyne plastered warning posters all over the north - fall in line or my friendly Indians will get you - to terrorize folks up here? Well, I wondered if we shouldn't put up our own posters on every other tree south of Saratoga."

"Why south of Saratoga?"

"Because if Gates was going to try to stop him above Saratoga, we'd be camped on that side of it by now."

"You're getting to be a pretty good tactician, Chief. So what would this poster say?"

"Uh, I don't know. Something like, 'This far and no farther'. To show that we're drawing our own line in the sand."

Jim smiled slowly. "I like it." Looping an arm around Blair's shoulders, in a better mood, he directed them back toward the camp. "And, you know, I think General Arnold will love the idea."

Turned out, Arnold grinned like a shark and then started to laugh, liking the idea very much. It appealed to his sense of drama and of umbrage at the British arrogance. This was their land, and it was time they announced that stark reality along with the implied warning. It was subtle but bold ... the warning cold and decisive. He set them to work lettering simple signs on whatever paper or cardboard came to hand. And then, in contravention of Gates' orders that he stay out of the conflict, he led his sharpshooters out the next day to assess 'the lay of the land' and to covertly hammer up the posters along the route Burgoyne would be bound to take.

As they quartered the land between the encampment and the outskirts of Saratoga, they planted the posters on trees and posts, the men grinning as they hammered in the nails. They felt cocky and ... it gave them confidence.

On the way back, they crossed a broad meadow and Arnold drew on his reins and paused. "What's this place?" he demanded, waggling his fingers for the ordinance map Ellison, as the designated scout, was carrying.

"It's called Freeman's Farm," Jim told him, handing up the worn pages.

"Freeman's Farm," Arnold echoed as his gaze swept the meadow once again, the small, abandoned cabin on one side, and the encroaching forest. Then, studying the map thoughtfully, he traced routes from the north that Burgoyne would mostly follow to move so many men and cannon, and from the south, Gates' entrenched position. "Freeman's Farm," he murmured again.

Looking up and around, he said softly. "This is it. This is the place where we meet them and make our stand. What more fateful place could there be, more perfect place, than for the Empire that is trying to quash us to face us on land called Freeman's Farm? We are Americans, free men, and these United States are our 'farm'. Here. We'll meet them here."

He pointed around at the trees and the heavy undergrowth on the edge of the meadow. "You'll secrete yourselves under cover and in the branches above them. And when they come into this field, on my signal, we open fire."

"At just the men, sir?" Morgan clarified, referring to the unspoken chivalry of not firing deliberately on officers.

"That's old thinking. The kind of traditional thinking that lets this war drag on and on as they simply send in more fodder for the artillery and guns," he replied, but mildly; not in rebuke, but to clarify matters. "The British have abrogated that consideration themselves ... too many of our fine officers have fallen in battle - hell, they've come after me personally a time or two. You get an officer in your sights, you bring him down."

The men nodded, most of them soberly, understanding the need whether they were entirely comfortable with the new style of warfare or not. But Quinn grinned salaciously, evidently very much liking the idea of shooting from cover, in surprise, savoring the vision of shooting officers like fish in a barrel.

Jim noticed his sly manner and wondered about the man. Wondered what manner of man seemed to actually enjoy sneaking around to take the lives of other men. Sniffing, he picked up the scent of male pheromones, easy enough to become familiar with in a military camp, and he was revolted to realize Quinn seemed to get a sensual, sexual charge out of the killing he would be engaging in. Now that his suspicions were raised, thinking back, he recalled that last winter Quinn was never short of ready cash to buy as much drink or as many woman as he ever wanted. He wasn't the only one, of course but, coupled with his grousing attitude and his propensity to do as little as possible, his persistent tendency to hang back in any battle and now this predatory delight in killing men from hiding ... it all began to add up.

Watching the sleazy creep that made his skin crawl, Jim made a quiet bet with himself that whatever happened to the south, in the confrontation with Howe, Washington would not be shot from his own ranks, not this month, anyway.

As they made their way back to the main encampment, Jim muttered to Blair, Simon and Joel, "Watch Quinn. I'm thinking it was a stroke of inspiration to bring him along."

"That weasel?" Joel exclaimed.

But Blair and Simon studied Jim and considered his comment. "Better that he be here than with Washington, right?" Blair murmured, nodding thoughtfully. "The Universe does move in mysterious ways."

And Simon grinned and ruffled his hair. "Always did say you were a quick'un."

********************

After Jim and his small band of scouts reported that Burgoyne had reached Saratoga and had stopped there, setting up a camp and building fortifications, frustration mounted in the camp when days passed with nothing happening. What was Burgoyne waiting for? Did he imagine they were going to attack him, for he had his own spies and scouts and had to know they were close?

On a hillside well over a mile away from Burgoyne's encampment, Jim watched the activity, assessing the tension he could read in the bearing of the men, and hear in their voices. "They're worried," he muttered, his gaze narrowing with surprise. "They're nervous about the battle."

"Proves they're not stupid," Blair murmured. "For the first time, we're pretty evenly matched, with what? About seven thousand men on each side? But they've got to be rattled by the trouncing we gave the column set upon capturing Fort Stanwix, not to mention taking out the Hessians after the supply depot - they have to have heard about all that by now, right? I mean, think about it, about what we heard about the German mercenaries last year and ... and how wild and savage we thought they were? But we beat them. We've significantly reduced Burgoyne's resources and defeated the best he had. If I was them, I'd be pretty damned worried about fighting us, too. If they were smart, they'd turn around and march right on back to Quebec."

Jim grinned down at him and then tilted his head bemusedly. Blair looked more like a ragamuffin than a military tactician, with leaves and twigs caught in his wild hair and a smudge of dirt on his cheek, his leather clothing stiff with sweat and old splatters of blood. But he supposed he didn't look a whole lot better. "Well, they're not going anywhere today," Jim told him. Wrinkling his nose, he suggested dryly, "There was a pond about three miles back. What say we take a break, clean up a bit? We're both way past rank, Chief."

Amused, Blair snorted. "War is hell, man, and damned filthy," he whined playfully. "But yeah, sounds like a plan I could get behind."

Keeping to the shadows and avoiding showing themselves against the horizon on hilltops, they ambled through the forest. Some of the trees had begun to don their fancy dress for the annual autumn ball, with leaves turning luminous yellows and vibrant oranges, with a dash of crimson against the deep blue-green of the pines and purple shadows. Their footfalls on the mossy earth were silent, and they could hear birds that had not yet fled south twittering in the branches above their heads. Before long, they came to the burbling brook that fed the pond in the hollow below them and, when a break in the trees showed the valley beyond, they paused to enjoy the view.

"It's such a beautiful world, man," Blair sighed as he bent to pluck a long blade of grass to chew on. "Shame we can't seem to find a way to just, you know, enjoy it."

"The war can't go on forever, Chief," Jim consoled him. "Peace will come, one day."

Blair looked up at him and then his gaze took on a faraway look and he tilted his head as if listening to the soft rustle of the wind in the brittle leaves. Sadness blossomed and darkened the striking blue depths of his eyes and he blinked, before dropping his gaze and bowing his head.

"What?" Jim asked, peering at him, feeling an unaccountable shiver lift the fine hairs on his skin.

"I think it'll be a long, long time before this world knows any peace," he replied quietly, his tone hollow. "Men ... men can always find reasons to fight." Looking out across the countryside, he shrugged. "For land, gold, power, just to control other men. There's always a reason, Jim, when men look for one. Always a reason to kill."

"Whoa, where did that come from?" Jim chided him, striving for a tone of indulgent mockery. "Don't you think you're too young to be that cynical?"

Gazing at him with an unreadable look in his eyes, Blair said evenly, "I don't remember ever being that young." But he seemed to see Jim, then, for the first time since he'd grown reflective, saw the flash of pain for him in his friend's eyes, and he gave himself a shake, found a crooked smile. "But there are always men who seek peace, too," he offered, trying for a more positive tone. "And, yeah, you're right. One day, this particular war will finally be over and we can move on." Turning away and continuing down the slope to the hollow, he added with determined cheerfulness, "Meanwhile, we have a gorgeous day and a little peace of our own to enjoy. It'll be good to feel clean again. Real good."

Jim stood stock still for a moment, just watching his partner, but then got himself moving and followed along behind. Still, he had a hard time shaking the eerie sense that Sandburg sometimes gave him, the feeling that the kid saw and heard more of the world, in some ways, than he did. His memory drifted back to the day he'd heard Blair tell his story to Simon, and he'd said the shaman had told him that if he listened closely, the wind would tell him secrets. His gaze lifting to the trees around them, Jim wondered why secrets the wind had whispered had made Blair look so forlorn.

********************

On September 18th, Jim caught enough of a conversation between two officers in the encampment below to know that Burgoyne planned to make his move the next day. Hastening back to Gates, he made his formal report and then they sought out Arnold, to bring him up to speed. The General listened and nodded, and then told him to alert Morgan. Though Gates had refused Arnold any role in the upcoming battle but 'reconnaissance', Arnold planned to stretch those orders for all they were worth. In the flurry of all the other preparations for battle that went on that night, nobody noticed Arnold and his small band of sharpshooters silently slipping off into the shadows.

By the time dawn arrived, they were scattered around the south fringes of the wide meadow of Freeman's Farm, some on their bellies under thick undergrowth, others securely perched high in the branches of beech, elm and maple trees, obscured by the leaves. The morning was chilly and fog obscured the landscape. Though he couldn't see much as he hunkered beside Blair behind dusty wild shrubbery, Jim could hear the distant rattle and shouted orders of armies forming up - Burgoyne ahead of them and Gates behind on Bemis Heights where he intended to make his stand.

The hours passed with maddening slowness as they waited for the fog to lift and the redcoats to begin their march. Finally, at eleven o'clock, the sun broke through and Burgoyne gave the order to advance. There was time before the column to reach their position so they each broke out the dry rations they'd brought - bread, cheese, jerky, and they drank brackish water from their canteens.

And then they waited a little longer.

Near one PM, the redcoats streamed onto and across the meadow. The day was now warm and the British were suffering under the red serge they wore. They slowed, needing a break before they pushed on and tried to sweep Gates from Bemis Heights. Officers gathered at the small, sturdy wooden cabin on the end of the meadow to review their orders.

Shots rang out, shattering the dusty stillness of the early afternoon. The first blistering volley brought down all the officers. The second sharp hail of shot began decimating the ranks. Stupified by surprise, the redcoats and the Hessians amongst them were thrown in chaos, scrambling for their weapons, desperate to identify the invisible enemy that was cutting them to ribbons. A few of Morgan's men, fired by adrenalin's rush, charged without orders, and brought down a few more, but had to retreat smartly in the face of the numbers arrayed against them. But, in the further confusion of their aborted charge, British warriors began firing on their own.

Alerted by the shots that conflict had broken out in advance of their position, believing the order to engage had been given, light infantry and seven regiments spontaneously moved off the heights to offer reinforcements. When the British rallied and charged, Burgoyne quickly took command of the arriving force and gave the order to regroup in a nearby cornfield to fend off the attack rather than fall back to the protection of the main contingent up on the Heights.

Time after time, the Americans attacked the British line but, though there were considerable losses on both sides, the British did not give way. Three times during the explosive, bloody afternoon, Arnold left the field and the rode hellbent for leather back to Gates, to beg him to give orders for the main force of the Continental Army to join the battle. But Gates - furious that his orders had been disobeyed - refused to engage and thousands of patriot soldiers could do nothing but stand frustrated and angry on the Heights and watch their comrades bravely confront their enemy.

Arnold led five charges himself that fateful day, and his marksmen continued to harry the enemy, their aim relentlessly deadly; the feisty Brigadier only retired from the battle after he was shot in the leg and his horse fell on him, reprising his earlier injuries and worsening them. But still they could not break the line or separate Burgoyne's main column from the wings that supported him. Finally, after five in the afternoon, unable to summarily defeat seven thousand British and Hessian troops with only a handful of regiments, however brave and noble the men were, however willing they were to stand and fight, the Americans gave up and allowed the enemy to retreat from the field of combat with such alacrity that they left their dead and wounded behind. The two sides dug temporary trenches about two miles apart and settled in for the night.

********************

The British counted the day's battle as a victory, but it was hollow. They'd lost a thousand killed and wounded, far too many of them officers, which left the organization and conduct of future engagements very much at risk. The patriots had lost only half that number in their desperate charges to hold the British line in place. And hold them they did. For the first time since he'd set out from Quebec weeks before, Gentleman Johnny had encountered the resistance of the regular Continental Army, not just militiamen, and his unchallenged march south had now hit a wall.

'This far and no farther' the crudely scrawled handmade notices had warned him and, as the sun slipped toward the horizon, for the first time he wondered if he'd make it all the way down the Hudson. Overlooking the trenches and the hasty pickets, he shook his head and cursed Howe's stubborn refusal to support his drive down the Hudson. Claiming Philadelphia might be a serious blow to the morale of the rebels, but dividing the colonies by controlling the Hudson would bring them to their knees.

He'd chosen the right strategy, he knew it.

But he wasn't sure that he could triumph with the handful of men he had left.

His gaze lifting to Bemis Heights, he considered his intelligence reports that Gates not only had at least as many men as he did, but that hundreds, even thousands, of militiamen were pouring in to offer their support with every passing day. If the reports were accurate, the patriots now outnumbered him as much as three to one. Disgusted, he turned his back on the enemy and stomped into his tent to weigh the options remaining to him - wait for Clinton to fight his way north up the Hudson to reinforce him, or retreat back to Quebec. Either way, he was galled to know that he did not have the strength to continue the forward march south along the Hudson on his own. If Clinton made it, then there was still a chance, but he'd have to come soon.

Later that evening, he passed the orders to retreat back to the fortified position they'd established near Saratoga. Gates, now with an army at least twelve thousand strong, followed upon their heels and quickly surrounded his encampment.

For weeks, Burgoyne waited for Clinton and had no way of knowing the Americans had stopped his ally's northward march and had blockaded the Hudson far below his position. Messengers between them weren't getting through, were being captured by the patriots. He felt blind and deaf, and grew increasingly frustrated and bitter that Howe had abandoned him. He was running out of both food and time.

********************

Jim's lips thinned as he listened to the angry shouts coming from the command tent. Arnold, obviously in great pain, had hobbled in to confront Gates, demanding that the men who had fought so valiantly at Freeman's Farm receive commendation for their efforts. But Gates was unmoved. The commanders had defied his orders and would get no congratulations for that from him. He was scathing in his abuse of Arnold, calling him an irresponsible hothead who couldn't be trusted to follow orders, and accusing him of seeking glory at the risk of others' lives. Arnold snarled it was better to risk and stop the enemy's until then unchallenged advance, than to sit on his hands and watch others fight for freedom from a safe vantage point miles away. Some men risked their all, he stated icily, beside himself with rage, and some men were cowards, and that was that.

"We can take him now!" Arnold insisted vehemently, shouting over Gates' roar at being impugned as a coward. "We've got them surrounded, outnumbered. If we press our advantage, we could force their surrender and end the British threat in this part of our country right now! If you're not careful, he may yet fight his way out and slip away!"

Furious with the haggling, with the challenge to his authority, Gates had him forcibly removed from his sight.

"The bastard," Jim swore viciously when he saw their leader being officially escorted back to his tent, and a guard stationed to ensure he stayed there. His visage stark with fury, he glared toward Gates' quarters. "What do you want to bet that pompous, useless stuffed-shirt takes all the credit for this win?"

Blair was still gazing at the guard standing at attention outside Arnold's tent. "No bet," he replied, his tone hard, unforgiving. "Any man who treats a hero like Arnold with such contempt, and denies the courage of others, let alone the fact that we stopped the damned British in their tracks - such a man would do anything for his own glory. He's a waste of good air. Gates can't be trusted; that's it, that's all."

The mood in the camp was grim over the next weeks as Gates refused to relent and accord Arnold the laurels all the men felt he richly deserved. Contempt grew for Gates amongst the rank and file as time wore on. There were few who disagreed that he was as useless as tits on a bull - and a lot less amusing to behold.

********************

The tense waiting came to an end on October 17th when Burgoyne quietly surrendered, laying his sword in the hands of his former classmate, Horatio Gates.

Later that day, Jim suddenly and violently threw a clay mug of ale against the nearest tree, shattering it. When Blair looked at him askance, he pointed at the command headquarters and snarled, "Gates is dictating his report to Washington and Congress. He's taking all credit for the defeat of Burgoyne for himself. There's no mention of Arnold, except to say he's an argumentative and impetuous upstart who won't follow orders and can't be relied upon in combat to do his job." He paused, breathing hard, struggling for control. "God save us," he rasped, "from incompetent, useless leaders like him. Watch, just watch - now that Washington has lost Philadelphia, Gates will be angling to be made Commander in Chief. And the war really will be over. He'll sit on his damned hands and let the British walk all over us. Just like Lee. The two of them are so fucking useless that I really wonder if they're not secret Loyalists who are trying to ensure we lose this war."

"Careful," Blair urged vehemently, surging to his feet to grab Jim's arms to silence him and looking around warily. "Those are treasonous words," he warned heatedly. "If Gates hears you, he'll have you hung."

"And that would suit him just fine, wouldn't it?" Jim allowed sarcastically, glaring down at Blair as he struggled with his anger. "One more patriot who tries to do his best that he wouldn't have to worry about maybe making a difference."

"You do make a difference, Jim! A huge difference. You're like a secret weapon, man!" Blair hissed forcefully, half-growling his words right into his face, taking his attention away from his grievances and making him listen. "You're always getting information we couldn't get in any other way, giving us advance notice of British intentions and actions before they can be enacted, letting our side get prepared. Washington wouldn't still have an army, wouldn't have been able to slip out of harm's way so many times, if you'd not been listening and watching, his eyes and ears."

When Jim tried to pull away, Blair just gripped him harder and shook him a little to make him pay attention. "You're vital to this war effort, Jim; absolutely irreplaceable. We need you focused and engaged until it's finally over. You hear me? No matter what, you can't let anything stop you from doing your best. We sure in hell can't afford to lose you because your sense of fair play is offended. So just calm down. Yes, sure, what Gates is doing is wrong, but we haven't got the power to stop him and we can't do anything for General Arnold here. We'll inform Washington of our personal knowledge of events when we get back to him. Set the record straight and tell him to watch Gates, watch him closely." When he felt the tension finally begin to ebb from Jim's body, he sighed gratefully and patted Jim's arm consolingly. Raking his hair back, he turned away, and began to pack their gear. "We're done here, man. We won. We need to get back to the General before the river freezes over."

Nodding stiffly, still livid though less explosively angry, Jim mutely agreed and went to tell Morgan that he and his scouts would be moving back south in the morning. Morgan, every bit as disgusted as Jim was, decided that he and his men would go with them, and he promised he'd get word to Arnold that they, at least, would be informing Washington of what exactly did happen on Freeman's Farm.

The next morning, just as dawn was breaking, all of the sharpshooters Arnold had brought with him appropriated two longboats from the mass of them beached along the riverbank, and paddled south, disappearing like wraiths into the fog shrouding the water.

Gates didn't even notice they were gone.

********************

Their trip down the Hudson was uneventful but for Quinn's constant whining and grumbling. Morgan threatened to toss him over the side if he didn't shut up, so he finally subsided and was seemingly content to view the world with a scowling visage. The days remained clear and the current strong, speeding them on their way. Around them, the earth was brilliantly garbed in the luminous, exuberant and staggeringly beautiful colours of autumn as if the trees were having one last riotous celebration of life before the wind blew cold and left them barren. Leaves had already started to fall, a gold and crimson shower that wafted gently over the river, urging them onward and waving valiantly as they passed by. The air was fragrant with their crisp scent and the tang of woodsmoke and, though the sun still burned hot, the breeze held a chill warning of winter's approach.

After they left the Hudson, they jogged overland and into the high Pennsylvania hills, their boots crunching on the crisp dry leaves underfoot. The closer they got to Philadelphia, though, the more wary of British patrols they became, and they slowed to move more silently. Jim held point, Blair close beside him and frequently reaching out to ground him, as he cast his senses for threats and a trace of Washington's camp.

Finally, in early November, two weeks after they'd left Gates, they rejoined Washington's encampment. The General was warm in his greeting and his congratulations for their unprecedented success in the north, but he listened with growing gravity to their report about how the events had actually transpired. Turning away, he rubbed his chin and nodded thoughtfully. Though he didn't say anything about Gates, Jim had the impression the news of the man's ambition and probable machinations with members of Congress to have Washington removed from command weren't unknown to the General. Well, Washington had faced similar challenges in the past, from Lee and his own aide-de-camp, and had survived. Shrugging, Jim left those political matters in the General's hands. At least now he knew that Arnold wasn't the dilettante Gates made him out to be.

Washington then brought them quickly up to speed on the current situation and Jim was surprised that the General was less depressed about the loss of Philadelphia than he would have expected. The man's resilience was astonishing. Instead of bemoaning what couldn't be undone, he was effusive in his praise for Benjamin Franklin's success in winning a treaty with France; apparently, King Louis had been suitably impressed by the stunning victory at Saratoga. Their revolution was now a world war and the French would be sending gunboats in the new year to contend with the British navy. And, he went on to tell them, some anonymous supporter in France had sent wagonloads of crates with uniforms, so now they looked like an army and not simply a hodge-podge of ragged farmers, frontiersmen, clerks and bakers and candlestick makers. And, under the uniforms there had been weapons, hundreds and hundreds of rifles, weapons they badly needed ... only, Washington added with wry observation, "We would have done better in stopping Howe's advance to Philadelphia if the firing pins had worked or if the right sized ammunition had been included with the rifles."

And that was all he said about how his blind reliance upon the new armament had contributed to the loss of the capital. He knew he should have had the men drilling, testing the new guns, but there'd been neither time nor ammunition to spare, and he'd not anticipated the disastrous problems they'd encountered in the midst of battle.

"Now," he said, dusting his hands together as if brushing off the blows of the past, "our task is to block Howe's supplies from reaching Philadelphia. It will be hard on the city - pity the poor souls trapped there - but if we can starve him out, he'll return to New York post haste. Even if we fail to soundly defeat him, we can at least chivvy him on his way."

Briskly, he assigned Jim and his scouts their new duties, to keep watch on Fort Mifflin, the installation that blocked the Delaware River and rained cannon balls on any British supply ship that attempted to pass, and Fort Mercer, the hastily erected fort that stood astride Howe's highway between Philadelphia and the Delaware. "The British will take them, if they can. They've already tried to take Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer, both, but so far with no success. Indeed, Colonel Christopher Greene has made them pay dearly for their efforts." Sighing, he scraped his face, in his weariness betraying some of the despair he generally hid so well. "It's only a matter of time, I'm afraid. We can't stand against the gunboats forever. But we need to support and provision the brave men there as best we can, so they can hold out as long as possible."

Before they turned to go, Jim warned Washington of his suspicions about Quinn. The General considered the news bemusedly and then chuckled. "Well," he replied, a glint of humour in his eyes, "we can hardly hang a man for being a drunken and inveterate whiner. If he did his duty and contributed to our success on the Hudson, then that's what counts."

"Sir," Blair interjected soberly, "yes, he did his fair share of taking out Burgoyne's officers. But ... I don't think it was because they were redcoats. The man despises anyone in authority. And if he is being paid to kill you, he's not the sort to consider that that buys any other loyalty to the British. He can't be trusted, not by either side."

Washington's brow quirked, but he didn't reply directly other than to thank them for their concern. As he waved them out, he said he'd bear their warning in mind.

********************

In the second week of November, while Simon and Joel made their way to observe the action around Fort Mercer, Jim, and even Blair, heard what sounded like continuous rolling thunder long before they crested the last hill and looked down on the Delaware River and Fort Mifflin. Staggered by the vision below them, they stumbled to a halt, gaping speechlessly in appalled horror.

Fort Mifflin, constructed on an island in the middle of the river, was completely surrounded. The tall masts of innumerable warships filled the river, a forest of naked spires, and the ships pressed so closely together that a man could walk their decks in a nearly continuous circle around the American fort and never see the water beneath his feet. Smoke, like filthy fog, whirled thickly over the river valley and cannon belched fire from the ships like angry, vicious dragons, their roar never abating. Even as far away as they were, they could feel the earth tremble beneath their feet as thousands upon thousands of cannon balls screamed through the air before smashing into Fort Mifflin, exploding with blasts that echoed and re-echoed up and down the valley ... and, above the low-throated blasts, distant guttural screams rent the air. Cannon from the Fort answered the fire, rumbling out their own challenge and hitting their marks - they could scarcely miss. The shattered hulks of half-sunken ships littered the shallows; masts snapped like matchsticks or tilting drunkenly bore mute testament to their marksmanship. The stench of gunpowder on the wind was choking, and Jim had to cover his nose with his hands to ease his breathing, even as he winced against the bombardment of sound that battered his ears.

They'd heard that Mifflin had been bombarded on a regular basis since the middle of October but, seeing it, hearing it, they could scarcely believe the Fort was still standing or that there were men still alive in that hell-hole, let alone still fighting back. Jim narrowed his gaze and focused in on the Fort. Shaking his head, he muttered in awe, "My God, they're scrambling to rebuild walls as quickly as they're blasted apart. I can't believe they're still hanging on, that they haven't given up. This ... this is too much. Too much."

Blair blinked, shook off the shock, and then hastily pulled a spy glass he'd scavenged from the battlefield of Freeman's Farm from his pack. Focusing on the interior of the Fort, he swept the pock-marked, blasted earth littered with sprawled, burned and bloodily mutilated bodies, and tracked the walking wounded - men suffering grievous burns and leaking blood from nasty wounds - who struggled with pitiful determination to fight on. His gut twisted with nausea and bile burned the back of his throat, so that he had to swallow hard to keep from retching. "There's no place of shelter ... they're caught like rats," he rasped, horrified. "Jim ... man, so many bodies. More than half of them look dead." Lowering the instrument, feeling utterly sick, he was no longer certain he wanted to see all that Jim could see. Sometimes, sometimes, not seeing was a mercy. "There's gotta be over two hundred dead down there."

"They can't last without support, immediate support," Jim grated harshly. Grabbing Blair's arm, he started back the way they'd come, racing to report the carnage to Washington and bring back help - though he feared it was already too late.

But Washington and the Army weren't where they'd left them. Howe had sent columns out to chase the Fox relentlessly. They lost precious days evading British patrols and scouring the thickly forested hills before they finally tracked Washington down. Immediately, the General mobilized his forces and led off at a punishing pace.

But the Army only made it to a vantage point northwest of the Fort, on the New Jersey side of the river, close enough to see the devastation, to be sickened by it, but too far away to provide any relief. The cannon of Fort Mifflin had fallen silent - they had clearly run out of munitions and could only endure until the sun finally set. Pale with grief for the suffering of the men below him, Washington watched grimly for a long, long time. And then he turned to Jim and Blair and said hoarsely, "When the sun goes down and the bombardment ends for the day, go down and tell them this battle is over; guide them back here. They are to burn whatever cannot be brought out of the Fort, leaving nothing for the British. They've fought valiantly, with incredible heroism, but it's time to end this ... this slaughter."

********************

Jim called for Simon and Joel to join them and, together, they slipped down through the forests to the shoreline, keeping in the shadows of the ancient trees. As dusk fell, they set out in one longboat, trailing two others they'd tied bow to stern behind them. In near silence, mindful of the dark gunboats that loomed over them, they paddled across the river to the night-shrouded wharf of the Fort. Moving with the stealth of hungry wolves, they loped silently up to the closed and barred gate, and quietly called the password. A side door cut into the gate creaked open and a man with skin slick with blood and ash granted them entry. Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Smith was so exhausted and so abject in his relief that it was over that he couldn't speak when he received the orders to withdraw before he'd been forced to finally order a retreat. He turned away sharply, one hand swiping at his eyes to hide tears he couldn't constrain, took a shuddering breath and nodded. And then he sent word around the fort to fire all that was left, including their dead. Under cover of darkness, the flames within the Fort distracting the enemy who believed them to be trapped inside, the two hundred wounded survivors limped down to the dock and were assisted into the longboats. One by one, the three silent vessels skimmed back across the river, bearing Smith and his men away from hell.

After holding on for seven weeks and, with Fort Mifflin, successfully throttling the British supply lines, Fort Mercer was the last remaining obstruction to the free flow of goods and supplies up the Delaware to Philadelphia. But, without the guns of Mifflin, their position had become untenable. Five days later, with Cornwallis on the march toward them and British cannonballs bombarding them, Colonel Greene, with General Greene's concurrence, gave up the hopeless task of defending Fort Mercer against the combined onslaught of the British navy and army. As they withdrew, he had his men burn to the ground the sturdy Fort they'd built only months before. On their way to join Washington, they also evacuated and burned the last remaining American ships on the river, to keep them from falling into British hands.

********************

Howe was now free to turn all his attention upon hunting down Washington. If he couldn't defeat the Patriots, he wanted to at least drive them far enough away from Philadelphia that his men could forage without fear throughout the surrounding countryside during the fast-coming winter. But his long patience was at an end; he'd reached the stage where he wanted badly to defeat them summarily. Burgoyne's surrender had made his victory in taking Philadelphia hollow, very hollow; he'd already submitted his resignation to Parliament and, though it had not yet been accepted, he well knew that he would soon be recalled in disgrace. It was time to end this war, if he could. He outnumbered Washington by nearly four thousand troops and his army was once again well supplied. He called in his subordinate commanders and they began to develop their plan of attack.

********************

Howe wasn't the only one spoiling for a fight. Washington was well aware of the criticisms circulating after the fall of Philadelphia. Congress, having scrambled out of the capital, was now in an exile of sorts and they deeply resented the panic they'd felt as the British had closed in upon them. Many lauded the exceptional General Gates who had won such a dramatic victory over the British at Saratoga, and agitated to have him placed in command of the Continental Army. For the most part, Washington ignored the rumours of his imminent replacement, leaving the politics to those who supported him. The General's attention was firmly focused on the enemy and he wanted badly to take Howe on in battle.

Immediately after Fort Mercer fell, anxious to assess the situation for himself and believing it could be possible to take the war to the Howe, Washington rode with Jim and Blair to scout the fortifications the British had built around Philadelphia. But what he saw, as Ellison and Sandburg eluded British patrols and guided him carefully from one secure viewpoint to another, was badly discouraging. An attack would be suicidal. Sorely frustrated, leaving Ellison and Sandburg to keep watch on the enemy, he returned to Whitemarsh where the Army had entrenched on the high ground behind stout fortifications.

For more than two weeks, hard as they tried, Jim and Blair were unable to get close enough to the city, without risking capture by the redcoats that kept a constant vigil around the perimeter, for Jim to get a clear bead on Howe's headquarters. Day after day, he struggled to sift through the myriad voices until he finally shuddered and vomited with the chaos and pain of the relentless sounds cascading into his mind. Alarmed, Blair called a halt to it all; pulling him back, insisting he rest, Sandburg pushed him toward the rudimentary and nearly invisible lean-to they'd constructed as their 'home base'.

"Damn it," Jim growled, resisting and resenting the solicitude even though the monster headache that throbbed mercilessly behind his eyes left his gut roiling with persistent nausea. "I can tell something's going on down there. I just can't tell what. I ... I get so close ...."

"Okay, okay, give it a rest already," Blair cajoled, his hands up in self defence. When Jim just glared at him and wheeled away, Sandburg built a small, nearly smokeless fire under low hanging boughs that would disperse whatever fumes did rise from the flames. Swiftly, he brought water to boil and set herbs to steep. Feeling the tension as much as his partner did, though he knew he wasn't suffering the same headache that had Jim's brow furrowed and his shoulders stiffly hunched, Blair inhaled the steam and held his breath, letting the heat and the aromas calm him. When the potion had cooled sufficiently, he carefully poured the clear liquid into a small tin cup and held it out to his friend. "Here, drink this. It will help."

"Help what?" Jim demanded heatedly. "Help me hear what the hell is going on down there? Help me see more clearly so I can be of some use here?"

"Help kill the headache and settle your stomach," he replied calmly, struggling not to rise to the baiting. "Stop being a jackass and drink it."

"Damn it, Chief -"

"I don't want to hear it, man," Blair broke in angrily, his voice cutting like steel. The leash on his own impatience and sense of impotence slipping badly, he snarled, "This is why you keep me around, right? To help you? So let me help you. Drink it."

Shocked by the icy anger, Jim blinked and gaped at his partner. Blair rarely lost his calm, most especially when things were tense. Distractedly, he took the cup and sipped at it and then he hunkered down across the fire. "What's up, Chief?" he asked. "What's got you so riled?"

Sitting back on his heels, shivering, Blair blew on his nearly frozen fingers to warm them, and then raked back his hair before he shoved his hands into his armpits. "I'm cold and I'm tired and I'm sick to death of watching you torture yourself hour after hour every damned day until you literally make yourself sick," he muttered irritably, his gaze on the fire.

But then he lifted his eyes, and Jim could see they were dark with concern for him and so nakedly vulnerable with the helplessness Blair felt that he had to look away. His lips tightened, and then he sighed. Rubbing the back of his neck, he said, "I'm just doing my job. That's all."

"No, it's not your job to try so damned hard that ... that you throw up from the pain of focusing too long and too deeply on something that's impossible even for you to do," Blair argued. "And I'm clearly not doing my job or this wouldn't be so damned difficult." He took a deep breath, then, obviously trying to rein in his emotions and again held up his hands for peace between them. "Look, yelling at you doesn't help, I know that. But there must be something I could be doing besides crouching beside you and keeping you grounded. God, talk about being useless."

"Chief, it's not your fault if I can't get a handle on what's going on in town," Jim protested.

Blair shook his head and poured a second mug of the tea. Clasping both hands around the metal cup, desperate for its warmth, he stared into its depths and frowned. "What makes you so sure something's going down?" he asked, puzzled.

Jim took another sip of the herbal potion and was grateful that it did settle his stomach and mute his headache. Scratching his cheek, he grimaced. "I don't know. It's just an impression."

"Yeah, but something must've triggered it," Blair insisted, his gaze now searching Jim's face. He bit his lip and then suggested hesitantly, "Look, I'd like to try something that might help you to remember what you noticed but didn't quite register, if you know what I mean."

"I don't have a clue what you mean," Jim replied wearily. "But, sure, if you've got an idea, go for it. God knows, I don't know what else to do."

Blair took a gulp of tea as if to fortify himself, and then he set the battered cup on the ground. He rubbed his mouth and then held out his hands, palms up. "Okay. I want you to just relax. Close your eyes and take deep, slow breaths. Can you do that?"

Shrugging, Jim nodded and got comfortably settled on the ground. Clasping his hands loosely around his upraised knees, he dutifully closed his eyes and took deep, slow breaths. After a few moments, he felt Blair's light touch on his back, and his partner spoke very softly, his voice low and soothing, "Okay, that's good, that's good. Keep breathing deeply. I want you to just listen to the sound of my voice and the wind skimming through the frozen grass ... not the creaking of the tree branches - filter those sounds out. Just the wind in the grass. When all you hear is the whisper of the grass and my voice, nod."

It took awhile before Jim was able to let go of the cacophony of noise that still reverberated in his skull, and only hear the subtle rustling of the grass, but he finally nodded. By then, he was feeling deeply relaxed, almost as if he was floating or was on the edge of sleep.

"Good, Jim," Blair's rich voice commended him, his friend's breath warm on his cheek. "Now, still listen to the grass and the wind, but let your mind skim over the day, just lightly ...."

When he jerked and frowned, Blair began rubbing slow circles on his back to sooth him further. "Shh ... just lightly. The sounds are far away and can't overwhelm you. But you are aware of them, aware of people moving and talking. Someone's saying something ... something about ... what is it, Jim? What are they saying that catches your attention? That tells you something - something important - is happening?"

Gradually, he relaxed fully again and let his mind simply drift from one memory to another, not forcing them, not straining or struggling, just drifting ....

And then he jerked and sat up. "That's it!" he exclaimed, turning to face Blair, a wide smile of incredulity on his face. "You did it!"

"What?" Blair asked, bemused.

"I remembered! In the middle of all that hubbub of noise, someone ordered that six days of rations be requisitioned immediately for eight thousand troops!"

Blair's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. "Oh, wow," he gasped. "They're getting ready to march on Washington, maybe tonight."

"That's exactly what they're doing," Jim agreed as he surged to his feet and held out a hand to haul Blair upright. "We gotta make tracks."

Swiftly, they doused the fire and packed up their gear. By the time the sun settled below the horizon, they were already moving through the forest at a ground-eating pace that they would sustain through the night. When it got too dark for him to see where he was going, Blair did as he'd learned over a year ago to do in order to keep running without hesitation though he might as well be blind. He hooked a hand in Jim's belt and, keeping a half pace to the side, he ran on, trusting Jim to keep him safe.

********************

When Howe and his army stealthily arrived at Chestnut Hill in the predawn hours, expecting to surprise Washington just as the wily Fox had surprised Trenton nearly a year before, he was sorely disappointed to find the encampment already wide awake and waiting for him. He was even more displeased when his scouts reported that the American force was much stronger than he'd anticipated - Gates had evidently finally arrived with his contingent from the north, swelling the patriot numbers to more than fifteen thousand, twice his own complement. However his plans had been leaked, it was abundantly clear that he had to abandon his hopes for a quick, decisive attack that would destroy the Continental Army.

Washington boldly sent out troops in the first foray, and the skirmish was sharp and short. The Americans withdrew behind their lines, and Howe shifted his forces, looking for a weakness that he could capitalize upon. But the Americans shifted with him and he could find no chink in their defences.

For three days, in growing frustration, he moved his army back and forth though he remained about a mile away, out of range of the rebels' cannon.

Washington was equally frustrated, for he badly wanted to engage the British. But ... though he had the numbers, they were short of ammunition. And his troops, surly and spoiling for a fight after not having been paid since late summer, were in as dire shape as they'd been the winter before. The much appreciated uniforms from the anonymous French benefactor were now tattered, filthy rags and many of the men were nearly naked. Their boots were so rotten that feet were rubbed raw and bleeding, leaving scarlet footprints in the snow. So, he used his numbers to bluff, relentlessly moving his regiments like chess pieces, constantly facing the British with an enemy the redcoats believed stronger than they were.

Finally, utterly furious to be thwarted, Howe ordered his army back to Philadelphia. In retribution for having been denied satisfaction, he also ordered that every building, every home and storehouse, every barn and shed, in every farm, town and village they passed, be put to the torch. The resulting destruction was wanton and devastating. For a full night, the dark sky was licked by flames and billowing clouds of smoke blotted out the stars. The whimpers and wails of children and the aged and infirm who wept inconsolably to have lost all they had were haunting and heartwrenching. Even those still loyal to the King were shocked and appalled by the ruthless and merciless annihilation of property.

High on a hillside, his gaze following the rampaging retreat, Jim's expression was grim with anger and he clenched his jaw in frustrated helplessness to stop the cruelty. "Howe's a fool," he grated. "Worse than a baby having a tantrum. Whatever support he might ever have had, it's gone now. There'll be nobody between here and Philadelphia that will give a damn if he and every last one of his men starve to death this winter."

His eyes narrowed against the glare of the fires that lit the night as far as he could see, Blair nodded dully. "Some victory, huh?" he rasped bitterly. "Even when we win, the people lose." Turning away, unable to watch any longer, he tugged on Jim's arm. "C'mon. We've hardly slept for four days. I'm cold and pissed off and I've had enough, at least for tonight."

Jim blew a long breath and reluctantly nodded. There was nothing they could do and they were both just about dead on their feet. He jogged a few paces to catch up with his friend and dropped an arm around Blair's shoulders. As if he needed the warmth, the affirmation of human good will, Blair's arm lifted to clasp him around the waist and draw him close as they ambled deep into the shadows, away from the flames, away from the horror and utter waste of war. With the economy of effort borne of repeated practice, they soon constructed a sturdy shelter of pine boughs, crawled inside and wrapped themselves in their bearskin. Curled together, secure against the cold, they let sleep draw them away and give them respite, however briefly, from the madness and exhaustion, and what increasingly felt like the futility of a war of attrition that had no end in sight.

********************

The next day, Washington sent them back to continue to keep watch on Howe, while the Continental Army remained secure behind their fortifications on the high ground of Whitemarsh. The General needed to know if Howe was finished for the winter before he risked moving his men away from relative safety to another location for the winter.

The weather had turned cold and bitter, the sky above crystal clear. They kept a steady pace over the frozen ground, a pace that should have warmed them but, though his partner didn't complain, Jim was aware that Blair was shivering, his face pinched and wan with weariness. Calling a brief halt, he quickly untied his blanket from his pack and draped it around Blair's shoulders. "Not much," he muttered, but it might help. Can't have you getting sick on me."

Having grown used to Jim's solicitude over the past months, Blair no longer fought the small kindnesses, accepting them for the care and concern they represented and not rebelling in a need to prove he didn't need special consideration. "Thanks," he said, his teeth chattering. "I'm okay, just tired."

"That's a relief," Jim teased as he tugged Blair's coonskin cap down more firmly over his ears. "Wouldn't want to have to carry your sorry ass back to camp."

Snickering softly, clutching the blanket around his shoulders, Blair shook his head and resumed the steady march through the barren countryside toward Philadelphia. All day long, they passed the blackened and occasionally still smoldering ruins that marked Howe's route of retreat. The devastation, the utter silence, bore down upon them - they had no idea where all the people who'd once lived in those ashes had gone, but they'd scattered like leaves before the winter's wind.

"He's decided this is a real war," Blair sighed, staring at a burned-out homestead with an expression of painful sorrow. "Last year, Howe was playing with us, trying to bully and intimidate us, but he left the civilians pretty much alone. Now he's letting everyone know that the gloves are off."

Grimly, Jim nodded. "He probably hopes that the fear and outrage of the population will provoke them to demand Washington's surrender, if only so they don't have to live in constant fear."

"It's not a good idea to take, to destroy, everything a person has," Blair murmured distantly as he trudged along, his leather foot coverings squeaking on the crisp snow. "When there's nothing left to lose, the ones who survive grow strong with stubborn determination, and they'll fight back out of desperation and a desire for revenge. You were right last night. This wanton retribution in retaliation for rebellion won't change the thinking of the patriots - they'll just be even more certain that they were right about wanting to be free of the British overlords ... but it will alienate the Loyalists. If Howe keeps up like this, he'll do more to unite the people of this country against him than we could ever have done on our own. It's ironic, in a really terrible way."

"Man has been conquering other men since time began, Chief - just like this, through the use of brutish power," Jim replied. "Howe is just following a tried and true formula."

Blair shook his head. "You can't conquer a people, Jim," he said with a sigh, his gaze roaming the countryside. "You can force them to submit, if you have the power and can stand watch over them to keep them in line. But they'll remember the atrocities, and they'll resent the domination. And they'll teach their children to remember, and to hate. Might take generations, but they'll eventually turn and fight back. War ... war is expedient, that's all. It doesn't really win anything in the long run. People have to choose to support one another, to be a community, not just a collection of individuals guided by their own self interest. That's what we're fighting for, isn't it? Our right to choose the rules we'll live by?"

"Yeah, I guess when you get right down to it, that's exactly what it's all about," Jim agreed. "But it's a new idea, this ... this conviction that we should have that freedom. Comes from being in a wide open new world, I guess."

"No, actually, it's not a new idea," Blair responded earnestly, looking up at his friend. "The real irony about all this is that the British are reaping what they sowed. For centuries, they've had the freedom of their own Parliament - they rejected the divine authority of kings a long, long time ago. And when they seeded this land with their people, they seeded their ideas and their beliefs, too. We're their sons and daughters, and we've grown up to want and expect the same freedoms they already enjoy. Only they don't get that we've grown up. They still want to be ... parents, I guess. Still want to tell us what's good for us, what we can and can't do." Waving at more blackened remains of what had been a farmstead, he sighed. "And, like many parents, they punish us with increasing vigor when we fail to comply with their wishes. Maybe if Howe, if the British could see it that way, they'd understand that this strategy just isn't going to work. When kids get big enough, they fight back, and then they leave for good."

Jim's brows quirked and his pursed his lips as he considered the simple analogy that summed up the past more than year's struggle - and he also noticed that when Blair got caught up in his ideas, he didn't seem to feel the cold as badly. Searching for a way to keep the conversation going, he reflected, "What's really strange is that King Louis finally agreed to support us. He rules as a tyrant in his own country ... why would he risk supporting a people who want complete freedom from their own king?"

Snorting, Blair laughed humourlessly. "Because hate blinds a person to reason," he stated bluntly. "He hates the British so much and figures we might be of use in defeating an old enemy; his hatred has stifled his common sense. Good thing ... for us. But it might cost him very dearly in ways he'd never imagine in the long run."

********************

When they got back to the hills overlooking Philadelphia, they set up their camp, laid out some snares to hopefully catch their dinner, and then they found a good vantage point and hunkered down.

"Let's do this a little differently this time, okay?" Blair suggested. "Instead of straining to hear so finely that you damned near kill yourself, how about you just cast out your senses and, I don't know, just absorb it all. Later, we can try the same thing we did before - you know, sitting back, relaxing, and letting your mind play over the memories of what you heard, filtering out what's meaningful and allowing the rest to slide away."

Happy to imagine he might manage this round of surveillance without the grinding headaches and nausea, Jim readily agreed to give it a try. As the day wore on, they shifted position frequently, as much to move and warm themselves up as to improve his chances of hearing more. A couple times, he nearly slipped into the fog of over-concentrating on sounds, but Blair's touch and low voice called him back before he went over the edge. When the sun began to set, Blair decided it was time to call it a day, and he was glad because even without consciously striving to sort through all the noise, his head was beginning to ache with the sheer chaos of sound.

Their snares had fulfilled their function, and they dined on fresh rabbit. After they'd eaten, Blair led him back to the odd relaxed state he remembered from the last time he'd listened only to the soft rustle of wind and his partner's voice. But, after a while, he frowned and shook his head, breaking off the exercise.

"I'm not getting anything, nothing," he grumbled, rubbing his eyes wearily.

"What's 'nothing'?" Blair asked. "I mean, you're getting phrases, right? Stuff from all over town? What do you remember?"

Shrugging, Jim sighed and scratched his cheek. "Well, you know, people shopping, scolding their kids, making dinner plans, talking about ordinary stuff. Nothing."

Sitting back on his haunches, Sandburg frowned in thought. "Maybe ... because that's all there is to hear."

"Huh?"

"Well, if Howe has decided that's it for the year, then, well, nobody would be talking about the next assault, right? They'd be settling down for the winter."

Jim's gaze drifted away and then he nodded slowly. "You could be right. It was around this time last year that he returned to Staten Island." Shrugging, he looked back at his friend. "Guess we give it a couple of days and if that's all there is, then we can report back to Washington."

"Oh, joy," Blair replied with a sardonic grin. "We get to march some more to some godforsaken place and build a camp from scratch."

"War is hell, Chief," Jim rejoined, a glint of amusement in his eyes.

"Yeah, ain't it just," his friend agreed, rolling his eyes.

For awhile, they sat in companionable silence. There was only the crackle of the small fire and the dry rattle of the wind in the barren branches of the trees around them. And then Blair shivered. As if to distract himself from the cold, he reflected, "You know, you're doing really, really well with managing your senses. You hardly have any trouble anymore."

"Nearly lost it out there a couple times today," Jim admitted then, with a diffident shrug as he poked a stick at the fire to stir up the coals and generate a bit more heat. "You pulled me out before I went too far."

Blair bit his lip and looked out at the night. "Can you feel it? When you start to slip away? Before I bring you back?" he asked, and then turned to Jim, waiting for his answer.

Thinking back, he nodded slowly. "I think so," he replied hesitantly. "I mean, I was sort of aware but I don't know if it's because I knew I was losing it or because I realized I was losing it when you pulled me back."

Blair crossed his arms, as if hugging himself against the cold, and his gaze again drifted away. "We need to work on that," he murmured.

"Well, it's not a big problem," Jim said, unconcerned. "If I lose it, you're there to pull me back."

Nodding slowly, Blair agreed. "Most of the time. But ... if we're under attack and I'm shooting at the bad guys while you're trying to get a grip on what's going on and what our options are, we can't afford you to get lost when I'm not paying attention."

Grimacing, Jim had to agree that made sense. "This means more tests, doesn't it?" he groused.

With a wan and regretful smile, Blair looked up into his eyes. "Yeah, Jim, sorry, man. More tests."

********************

By noon of their second day, when Jim picked up nothing more than the usual 'nothing', along with an increasing number of whines about hangovers, they decided to call it quits and head back to Whitemarsh.

Washington, anxious to get the Army moved into winter quarters, welcomed their report and immediately ordered Greene, Gates, Sullivan and Arnold to get their contingents ready to move out the next day, the eleventh of December. When the men formed up into their divisions just after dawn, they were a sorry sight. Shivering, blue with cold, clutching blankets around their shoulders, half-naked and ill-shod, they reminded Jim and Blair all too clearly of the wretched march to Trenton. Aside from the fact that they'd be marching during the day and there wasn't a blizzard, this march looked like it was going to be just about as bad.

The General gave the order to Sullivan to lead off, and signaled Jim that he and Blair should go with him to ensure there were no unpleasant surprises along the route. Gates followed with his men, and then Washington left with Greene's contingent, Arnold bringing up the rear with the Marquis de Lafayette, who had only recently been given command of his own light infantry. The lilt of fifes and the rat-a-tat-tat of the snare drums set the beat, and a flag bearer proudly carried the new flag that had been first flown earlier that summer in the battles to safeguard Forts Stanwix and Schuyler.

The Continental Army was on its way to set up winter quarters on the south side of the Schuylkill River, twenty miles from Philadelphia, in Valley Forge.

Though they'd gotten underway briskly enough, the men almost glad to be marching to keep warm, despite the misery of bleeding and frozen feet and the bitter chill, they lacked the energy to sustain a brisk pace over the more than fifteen miles of rough terrain. And then it started to snow. After hours of painful plodding, they finally neared their goal. Sullivan had just moved his division across the bridge across the Sckuylkill River at Matson's Ford, and Gates' column was half way over, when Jim whirled around and stared down along the broad waterway that had more curves than a serpent. Aware that something potentially serious had caught his friend's attention, watching Jim peer through the forest of trees and tilt his head, listening intently, Blair moved closer to touch his back and ground him. A moment later, Jim stiffened in alarm, and turned to urgently wave at the men approaching the bridge to halt on the far side. "Move it!" he yelled then at Gates. "The British are just around the far bend and coming fast! Get back across the bridge!"

Not known to make fast decisions, Gates hesitated, uncertain whether to run or fight. Washington's mount clattered across the wooden bridge and he demanded of Jim, "How many?"

Swallowing, Jim looked back toward the distant bend that hid the approaching redcoats from sight. "I don't know, exactly, General," he replied, "but thousands. Thousands." Lifting his gaze to Washington's, he said with abject regret, "I'm sorry, sir. They seemed entrenched in Philadelphia."

Waving the apology away, Washington said, "Could be a large foraging party, not a deliberate attack." Turning to Gates, and waving Sullivan forward, he ordered, "Get the men back across immediately. There's no time to delay."

Word spread fast that the British were bearing down upon them, and nearly four thousand men hurried to swiftly move in orderly, if tightly pressed, ranks back over the bridge to the north side of the river. Before they were all across, Washington ordered a fire be lit and torches prepared. On the south side, Blair quickly gathered deadfall and struck a spark from his flint, nursing the flame and sheltering it from the wind, while Jim gathered up more broken branches.

Cornwallis appeared around the far bend of the river, leading more than three thousand soldiers. For just a moment, he came to a dead stop, evidently astonished to see Washington and his entire army so close at hand. And then he yelled and the British surged toward the bridge. The men remaining to cross lunged forward, scrambling to get to safety on the other side. Jim and Blair were the last men across, flinging torches on the kindling that Jim had hastily scattered on the bridge. Turning, they raced over the wooden planks and, as soon as they cleared the decking, Washington set fire to that end as well. Officers shouted and the men swiftly strung out along the river, dropping to one knee and leveling their weapons. Everyone held their breath as they waited to see if the old bridge would catch or if the flames would sputter and die. Cornwallis' leading ranks were very nearly there when the wind caught the fire with a mighty whoosh, and the entire bridge danced with flames that drove the British back.

Frustrated, Cornwallis glared across the half-frozen river, the ice too thin to bear weight, the water too deep and cold to ford. On his order, his soldiers also formed a line along the bank, dropped to one knee and leveled their weapons. One volley followed another, but the river was too wide and the shots fell short. Cornwallis had no cannon, and was stymied. Washington smiled coolly and lifted his fingers to the brim of his cap in a taunting salute, and then waved his men back into their columns. While Cornwallis stood, helpless to stop them, they formed up and began the march back to their fortified camp on the hill. The British general cursed and disgustedly ordered his men to continue foraging along the river though, in truth, as he had less than four thousand men and Washington's army numbered eleven thousand, and the British did not know how short of ammunition the patriots were, Cornwallis may have counted himself lucky to have escaped a direct confrontation without compromising his honour.

********************

It was another week before Washington determined to make the second march to Valley Forge. This time they made it without incident, though the weather was more bitter, the cold terrible, and the bloody tracks they left in the snow made their trail easy to follow. Exhausted, many of the men more than half frozen, they plodded into the valley and gazed about numbly. Well forested, easily defensible, close enough to Philadelphia to keep an eye on the British, the location Washington had chosen made sound strategic sense. But there was nothing but a handful of farmhouses in the entire length of the valley. Wind whistled down from the hills, bearing the scent of snow, and the men bit their chapped lips to keep them from trembling.

Fires were lit, to warm them, and tents were struck for shelter, though they were wholly inadequate against the chill and there weren't enough of them to house all the men. But that's all they had until they cut down the trees, stripped the branches and hauled them into place to build their quarters and hospitals. There wasn't even any straw to strew upon the ground to provide some insulation against the frozen earth.

Immediately, work crews were established and axes and saws distributed, for there was no time to rest after the grueling march; their urgent need for shelter was too great. Hunting and foraging parties were formed, for there was no food readily at hand.

The next brutal days made the memories of the hideous march to Trenton seem moderately pleasant in comparison to the suffering they now endured. The morning after their arrival, nearly four thousand, more than a third of the Army, were too sick to work or forage. Half-clothed, starving men huddled close to the fires, hungry for the warmth, or were carried into tents to lie upon blankets layered over the frozen earth. Befuddled by the cold, utterly miserable, the numbness of frozen feet and legs at first passed unnoticed, until the flesh blackened with rot, and then the surgeons hastened to amputate the ruined limbs, hoping to at least save lives. But ... without adequate shelter or nourishment, most perished. Hundreds froze to death in their sleep before the crude shelters could be constructed. Starvation hung like a specter over them all.

By Christmas, at least the most ill were housed in over-crowded, cold and damp hospitals built as adjunct buildings to each brigade and, by January, the rest were under cover in severely cramped conditions, but it was better than lying on the icy ground, exposed to the wind and snow. The hunting parties did their best, but there just wasn't enough game in the area to bring in the nearly thirty-five thousand pounds of meat that were needed to fulfill minimum ration requirements for more than twelve thousand men and their camp followers every single day. If much needed supply wagons hadn't arrived in early January, many, many more would have died of starvation.

They endured.

But their misery was only beginning. Disease flourished in the over-crowded barracks, feeding upon their weakened state and poor hygiene until the hospitals couldn't begin to contain the numbers who were sorely ill. Typhoid and dysentery, typhus and pneumonia erupted all over the camp; cholera struck, and consumption - a disease so common that as many as twenty percent of the general colonial population died of it - plagued them. The needs of the ill far outstripped the capacity of the medical staff to care for them, even with the devoted help of the camp followers, all fondly called Molly Pitcher, for the women regularly braved enemy fire to bring them water and ammunition during battles. Now those same women braved the danger of disease. Soldiers that were still able-bodied and were so inclined also volunteered to help where they could, whether that be spooning gruel into men who were barely conscious, assisting weak men to the latrines or cleaning up after those who didn't make it that far, changing dressing on putrid wounds and stumps, or carting out the dead to the pyres that had become a routine evening ritual of mourning.

But the majority of men simply huddled under blankets, crowded together for warmth in the barracks, drank, sang songs and told tall tales to while away the endless of hours of grinding boredom - and to deny their fears that they might be the next to succumb to some disgusting, malodorous, deadly disease. Some wandered about more than half-drunk all the time, but where they found their evidently limitless supply of grog was something of a mystery. It was suspected that the stuff got smuggled into the camp, a constant frustration for officers who dearly wished it was as easy to keep up a steady stream of food and decent clothing, let alone medical supplies.

The arrival of the supply train freed Jim, Blair, Simon and Joel from their hunting duties, at least for as long as the supplies lasted, so they were among those that volunteered to help their comrades however they could. Scorning the drafty barracks that were normally filled with smoke from the fires kept burning in rudimentary stoves to stave off the cold, they had built their own shelters of pine boughs, just did when they were on the trail, as had Simon and Joel. When the snow came and stayed, the little huts were far warmer and snugger than the hastily constructed, drafty buildings and, while they didn't have a surfeit of space, nor were they crammed like sardines in a can. Over time, they'd all become as adept at foraging for wild edible roots as Blair was and their private snares caught sufficient rabbits, so they ate better than most. As a result, they were all in better shape than the majority of the men, if not exactly living in the lap of luxury.

However, even so, Sandburg thought a few extra precautions to sustain their good health were warranted given the magnitude and virulence of the diseases they'd be contending with every day and half of every night. "We need more wild onions in our diet ... and garlic, if we can ever get our hands on any," he told them earnestly.

Jim curled his lip and rolled his eyes. "Oh, c'mon, the place doesn't reek enough that we have to add onion breath to the air we breathe? Give me a break, Chief."

"I'm serious, Jim," Blair retorted. "Sure, we're all in reasonably good shape, but that can change pretty damned fast. Not only do we need to get this stuff into our diets, I've got some herbs to brew for tea that we have to drink at least twice a day to strengthen our resistance to illness. In fact," he went on, "I've just finished steeping some." Deftly, he filled four mugs from their shared cookpot over the fire between their huts.

Simon and Joel, used to the idea of homegrown remedies from their days as slaves, when the old grannies were the only doctors they had, willingly accepted their cups of steaming liquid, and barely blinked at the pungent aroma that assailed them. But Jim crinkled his nose, held up his hands, palms out and hastily backed away, shaking his head. "No way," he insisted. "Just the smell of that concoction is enough to either knock me out or make me puke or both."

"Jim -" Blair began, his tone half-cajoling, half-insisting, but Ellison cut him off sharply.

"I said 'no', and I meant 'no'. I never get sick and I don't need whatever that stuff is," he barked. When Blair's face fell at his vehemence, he tried to soften his refusal by offering more than stubbornness to his argument. "Look, you know how I can react to stuff I'm not used to."

"There's nothing in this that will hurt you," Sandburg insisted, still holding out the cup.

"I said 'no'," he repeated, this time his tone low and cold.

Blair's gaze narrowed angrily. "Fine," he snapped, settling back to drink from the cup himself. "Don't come whining to me when you're sick as a dog."

"You know, Jim," Joel tried to mediate, "it's not all that bad. The taste kinda grows on you." But he subsided when all he got for his effort was an icy hard glare. Shrugging, he saluted Blair with his mug and drained it dry.

********************

A week later, Jim woke feeling like the proverbial piece of shit. His throat was raw, his chest felt tight, and he knew he was running a low grade fever. But he was damned if he was going to admit it. It was just a cold, a few sniffles, maybe, and he'd be fine. Still, after his rigid stance a few days before, the fact that he felt sick at all pissed him off. No way did he want to let his partner know he wasn't feeling all that great, or Blair would be crowing and pushing more of that foul-smelling junk under his nose. Just the thought of it made his stomach do flip-flops. So, he was irritable and grouchy that morning, scarcely speaking to any of them before he lumbered off to his assigned brigade hospital for nursemaid duty.

Blair frowned as he watched him go. "I think he's sick," he muttered with concern.

Simon followed his gaze and shrugged. "He probably just got up on the wrong side of the bearskin. Don't worry about it."

Though he looked about to argue the fact, instead, Blair took a breath and nodded. "You're likely right," he allowed. They finished their morning dose of his potion and then they all hurried through the freezing dawn to the hospitals they were assigned to.

The sun was already done and the day growing dark when Blair trudged wearily back to their hut. The endless daily grind of caring for such sick men was more exhausting than a week's worth of hiking and tracking but, worse, was having to witness their suffering and not be able to do much to alleviate it. The doctors were no more interested than Jim was in hearing about his ideas for fever reduction, infection control and pain relief. Hardest of all was watching men he knew die in such abject misery and despair, and then carting their bodies like so much bad meat to the funeral pyre that was lit every sunset. The camp reeked with the smell of burning bodies, and the stench nauseated him.

He was only a few yards from the lean-to when he heard Simon yelling from somewhere behind him, urgently calling him to come quickly. Whirling around, he saw his friend waving at him from the side of the nearest barracks building. Breaking into a lope, he called, "What? What is it?"

"Jim," Simon told him grimly, grabbing his arm to pull him along. "I just found out. He collapsed a few hours ago and he's now a patient in the hospital he was helping out in."

"Oh God," Blair gasped, and then he was running flat-out, having to cross half the camp to get to the right building, barely aware of Simon shouting after him that he'd go and find Joel. He skidded to a stop at the doorway and, yanking the heavy wooden panel open, hurried inside. His gaze raked the long, low, narrow building that had men squashed side by side on blankets on the plank floor, in ranks running up and down along the walls until the filthy floor was scarcely visible; but, cocooned in blankets, one looked very much like another and there were just so many of them. Spotting one of the camp-followers he knew, he hurried over to her and asked breathlessly, "Captain Jim Ellison. I heard he's here. Sick. Where? Where is he?"

"Down at that end, on the left," she pointed and, because she knew they were good friends, she touched his arm and added, "I'm sorry. His fever is really high. He's ... he's really sick."

Swallowing hard, he lightly touched her shoulder in mute gratitude for her help and concern, and then he was hurrying down the narrow aisle that separated the ranks of suffering men, just as Simon and Joel rushed inside.

When he spotted Jim, he froze for a moment, staggered to see his friend so flushed with fever, muttering with inarticulate misery, and splattered with vomit. And then he was furious, at Jim, at the lack of adequate care, at the whole damned situation. Striding forward, he knelt beside his partner and touched Jim's brow, gauging as best he could the strength of the fever.

"God, he looks bad," Joel rasped from behind him.

Nodding his agreement, Blair felt Jim's throat and quickly checked his chest for any sign of rash, relieved when he didn't see any, but that didn't mean his friend wasn't still deadly ill. Jim's breathing was laboured, severely congested, and his blue-tinged fingertips picked and pushed at the scratchy blanket. His eyes were glazed and he didn't seem to be aware of anything that was going on around him. The dried vomit on his shirt and the edge of the blanket reeked nauseatingly. Finished with his cursory examination, he turned to look up at the others. "We need to get him out of here, back to our hut."

One of the medics, made curious by their appearance at what was usually a quiet hour, overheard him. "I'm sorry, but that man is too sick to move. Nor can we risk him spreading whatever he's got to other men in the officers' quarters."

"He doesn't live in the quarters," Blair told him as he stood, ready to do battle, if need be. "We've got a hut up against the treeline. The only person in danger of getting sick around him is me."

"Regardless, regulations state -" the medic began wearily.

"Just listen to me, will you?" Blair cut in. "You've got a whole lot more people in here than you can possibly look after already, and the way things are going, you'll probably have more by morning. The regulations are about ensuring sick people are separated from well people - I can do that. Jim won't be anywhere near the rest of the officers or men. And I've got some experience in caring for sick people, so I can work on lowering his fever and keeping him clean. The rules are for situations where there is no other option, no other choice. But I've got another option. Please," he cajoled as he lifted a hand to gesture at all the sick men around them, and begged, "we both know that just being in here often leads to sick men catching the disease of the guy next to him. Please let me take him out of here." When the medic continued to look intractable, his jaw tightened. "Okay, you want to play it that way, fine. Jim is General Washington's head scout. If it will make you happier, I'll march right over to the General's private quarters and get his personal authority to move Captain Ellison back to his quarters, where he'll be warmer, cleaner, and have constant, personal care. You really want me to do that?"

Throwing up his hands, the medic shook his head. "No, no, this isn't worth troubling the General. But if Captain Ellison dies, it's your responsibility, not mine, and you can break the news to Washington."

"Deal," Blair snapped and gestured to Simon and Joel. "Will you help me get him back to our place?"

"You know we will," Simon rumbled as they moved forward, careful of the semiconscious men on either side of Ellison. Holding the blanket he was laying bundled in as a makeshift stretcher, they pulled the corners taut and lifted him. Blair shrugged out of his fur-lined long vest and draped it over his partner, and then they shuffled out of the hospital and into the cold night.

Conscious that the last thing Jim needed was to get chilled, they hurried as fast as they could back across the camp, and eased him into the small, warm shelter. Blair layered strips of soft leather between him and the bearskin that covered the ground, holding back the cold. And then, with Simon's help, he stripped off Jim's filthy clothing. Over his shoulder, he asked Joel, "Would you fill the cookpot with snow and put it over a fire? I need to wash him off or the stink will just make him sick again." As Joel turned to leave, he called, "Wait, just a minute." Hurriedly, he rummaged in his pack and drew out a pouch. "This is ground willowbark. Would you also put a pot of it on to boil and steep? And I need the snow melted, warm but not hot, okay?"

"You got it," Joel agreed, taking the pouch and quickly moving outside to fulfill his tasks.

"Damn, stupid, stubborn jackass," Blair muttered as he went back to helping Simon undress Jim, and then he moistened a rag with the water in their canteen to carefully sponge Jim's face, neck and chest. "I need some light in here," he said, conscious that he soon wouldn't be able to see anything in the growing darkness and jerking his head at the small pile of thick candles in the corner. Wordlessly, Simon scooped one up and went outside to light it with a brand from the fire.

When he was alone, Blair cupped Jim's hot, stubbled cheek with his hand. "Damn you," he whispered, his voice near to breaking. "If you'd just drunk the damned tea ...." But when his voice cracked, he stopped, swiped at his eyes and pulled himself together. "At least you had the sense not to come whining to me and looking for sympathy, because you know I would have kicked your sorry butt," he groused, but his tone was warm with affection and rough concern. Untying the bedrolls neatly stacked against one wall, he layered the blankets over Jim. And then he went back to rummaging in his pack, to find the rest of the herbs he was going to need. From the sound of Jim's breathing and the swollen nodes in his neck, Blair was thinking it was probably pneumonia, but the evidence of vomiting worried him. He really hoped it wasn't cholera. Or worse, both. But then, it might not have been his vomit. He might have been caught when some poor wretch he was helping earlier had spewed and then, later, been rolled in the filthy, noisome blanket. Or maybe he'd vomited because of the fever's effect on him?

Simon returned with the candle, which he'd stuck in a mug to keep upright, and he handed it to Blair who positioned it carefully close to Jim's head but far enough from both his friend and the pine boughs of the wall to not be a danger.

"He gonna be alright?" Simon asked, hesitantly, reluctant to even voice the possibility that he wouldn't be.

Blair paused in the sorting of his pouches of herbs, and then looked up at his friend. "I hope so," he said bleakly. "But, you know as well as I do that ... that this isn't good."

Simon nodded, and then reached out to grip Blair's shoulder. "If anyone can pull him out of this, it's you," he said firmly.

Giving a bleak smile in return for the vote of confidence, Blair went back to choosing the medicines he needed; mustard, to make a plaster later if it became necessary to break up the congestion in Jim's chest, dried dandelion greens, powdered goldenseal, honeysuckle and forsythia vines which would all help combat infection, more powdered willowbark, for fever and aches, and he set aside sundew, in case he needed it later to give Jim to chew on, to reduce coughing. For the moment, though, he needed Jim to be coughing to get the gunk out of his lungs. Again looking at Simon, who was hovering with an expression that suggested he wished he wasn't so useless, he said, "I'm going to need help."

Immediately, the older man perked up. "All you need to do is ask," he said firmly.

"Okay, well, lots of different things," Blair began. "When you and Joel are out foraging, I really need you to find onions to make into a soup. And I'll need basins of melted snow until his fever breaks. Uh," he paused, thinking, "canteens of fresh water, and I'll need a variety of different teas made with these herbs. If you've got a pot of honey stashed away, I think he'd appreciate it if we sweetened the teas, and the honey is nourishing, if I can't get much else into him for awhile." When Simon nodded, soberly agreeing to it all, he gave him instructions on how long to steep the various greens, sticks and powdered herbs. "We're going to need just about every pot we've got between us," he sighed and pushed his hair back behind his ears. "The potions don't have to be hot, though, so once we've made a batch of anything, we're okay until we need to make more."

"I'll get working on all this," Simon assured him, bending to half-crawl through the low, blanket-covered opening in the wall. Once outside, he popped his head back in to say, "Look, I know it gets crowded in here with all of us inside, so Joel and I will stay close and you just yell if you need anything, okay?"

"That's great, Simon, thanks," Blair assured him. Simon had barely disappeared from view when Joel was edging in with a big pot of tepid water.

"Is this warm enough?" he asked with a worried frown.

Blair dipped in his fingertips and nodded. "It's perfect, just perfect." Joel beamed at the praise and then disappeared to help Simon get the teas prepared.

After rolling up his sleeves, Blair picked up the rag he'd used earlier, and began bathing Jim to fight the too hot fever. He didn't want to think about it, but if this didn't work, he might have to go straight to using snow. But that could be a real shock to the system, so he wouldn't resort to that unless ... well, unless the fever got worse or lasted so long that it could kill his friend before he drowned in the congestion in his lungs.

Jim wasn't completely insensible, but he was delirious and seemed totally unaware of where he was or that he wasn't alone. He whispered and muttered broken phrases and jumbled words, and his hands moved restlessly, pushing the blanket away and scratching at his skin. He winced at normal voices and, when Quinn stumbled by, singing off-key at the top of his lungs, drunk as usual, Jim moaned and tossed his head, as if in severe pain. Outside, Joel and Simon made short work of chasing the man off, and Jim calmed a bit. But the candle also seemed to bother him, because he flinched away from the light and his eyes watered.

"Oh, man," Blair sighed as he tenderly, very gently bathed what he knew was hyper-sensitive skin, "all your senses are out of control, aren't they? And you can't do much about it, can't focus on lowering them, not when you don't know what's going on. I'm sorry, Jim. I'm so sorry this is so hard for you. Bad enough to be so sick." As he bathed his partner, he also smoothed on a slightly greasy balm that he hoped would alleviate the itchiness of dry, dehydrated skin that the fever had evidently already aroused.

Simon began carrying in various pots of the different potions he'd requested, and when he finished the first round of bathing, he pulled a spoon from his pack. Patiently, painstakingly, supporting his partner's head and shoulders in the crook of one arm, he fed Jim the medicines drop by drop, and about half a cup full of fresh water, sometimes massaging Jim's throat gently to get him to swallow.

And then he went back to trying to cool his friend down. Hours passed as he alternated the bathing with getting some of the potions and more water into Jim. Objectively, he knew these first hours, the first few days even, were going to be bad because it took time for the medicines to work and the infection was raging, so the fever was burning way out of control as Jim's body fought back. But Jim was strong and basically healthy, so he had a good chance of fighting off the illness, a really good chance.

But he also knew that pneumonia killed more people than any other disease, more even than consumption. Blair was scared, really scared, that all he could do wouldn't be good enough. Listening to Jim's plaintive muttering didn't help, only made him feel helpless to ease his friend's torment. And it broke his heart to piece together some of what Jim was saying, worrying over ... afraid of. The sensory discomfort was bad enough, but when Jim wept about his mother's leaving and cried out as if he'd just heard she was dead, it broke Blair's heart. And he came close to weeping himself when he realized that Jim was so scared of losing him, that something would happen and Jim wouldn't be there or would fail him somehow. He'd known for a long time that Jim loved him, but not because he'd ever heard the words. Jim showed his feelings in his actions, in his small kindnesses and his blunt scoldings when he was worried. But now, now he was hearing the words, the poignant gratitude Jim felt to have him in his life, the wish Jim had that he could be sure Blair knew how much he was treasured, and the absolute abject fear he'd felt when Alex had shot him ... and when he'd lain unconscious for so many hours in Jim's embrace after that fierce battle up north. "You don't know," Jim kept rasping, over and over, "You don't know ... don't know...."

"I know," Blair assured him, again and again. "I know, Jim. Don't worry. Please, don't worry. I know."

But for all he did, for all the reassurances he offered until he grew hoarse, the fever worsened and Jim slipped deeper into confusion. His breathing grew ever more shallow, rattling in his chest, and faster, faster, until he was panting for breath. Blair propped their packs behind him, to lift his head and shoulders, to help him breathe more easily, but it didn't seem to help at all. Nothing was working. Not the bathing or the willowbark.

And he began to fear he might have to resort to the snow.

It was well after midnight when Jim started to cough chokingly, his hoarse guttural gasping attempts to breathe terrifying. Hastily, Blair turned him on his side and thumped his back, trying to loosen whatever was blocking his airway. "C'mon, Jim, don't do this," he pleaded when his friend's breathing grew even more labored, the choking sounds more desperate. Jim's body was so hot that just touching him, leaning close, pulling him up into a close embrace to help him breathe, left Blair sweating. He was like a furnace that heated the whole hut. And then his muscles began trembling, small contractions that rippled through his body in little, continuous convulsions, and his breathing hitched and faltered, and Blair was terrified.

"NO! Dammit, NO!" he rasped hoarsely. Laying Jim back against the support of the packs, he cupped his friend's fever-flushed face in his hands, and he ordered, "Don't you do this! You hear me? You can't let go, Jim. You can't. You're not done here yet. Please, man, you have got to fight back. I need you to help me, here. You hear me? Jim? Jim!"

Jim's breathing hitched again and faltered, and Blair closed his eyes. "I won't let you go," he insisted, galvanized into desperate action, pounding on Jim's chest with his cupped hands, to loosen the phlegm clogging his lungs, and then again clasped his face. "I won't." Tears leaked from his eyes and slipped down his cheeks, but he was oblivious to them. "Please, Jim," he whispered urgently. "You have to come back. You have to hear me."

Again he closed his eyes and, not knowing what else to do, he called on the cosmos and he called to Jim's soul, begging him not to leave. Dizziness swamped him and he found himself in a blue world that was dark and shadowed but for a blazing bright light far ahead. He saw his panther limping toward the light, and he cried out with everything that was in him in protest and longing. From out of nowhere, a wolf leapt past, lunging forward and then blocking the panther's retreat, growling fiercely ... and then whining piteously.

Maybe it was the desperate, frightened whine, or maybe it was Blair's pleading calls for him to come back, but something stayed the panther then. Panting hard, his head dropped as if he was almost too weak to stand. But he stopped moving toward that too bright light, and then he lifted his head and nuzzled the frightened, bereft wolf. Slowly, the panther turned his head, and his pain-shadowed blue eyes stared into Blair's frightened gaze. "Please, Jim," he wept in desperation. "Please, please don't go."

The panther blinked, hesitated, and then slowly turned to pad back towards him, the wolf leaning close as if to help him stay upright.

In that moment, when the panther chose and started back toward him, Jim coughed, violently, choking. Blair grabbed his shoulders and hauled him up. Holding him against his chest with one arm, he pounded on Jim's back. "That's it," he encouraged. "Cough it up, man. Clear out those lungs. Cough it up."

Finally, the coughing fit subsided and Jim lay heavy against him, panting for breath.

"You're going to be okay," Blair soothed, rubbing slow circles on his back. "You're going to feel like shit for awhile, but you're going to be okay. Just keep fighting, Jim. Just don't give up. You really can't go yet. It isn't time. You've still got a lot of work to do ... you hear me? It's not time, Jim. Not yet."

Though Jim was breathing again, his fever was still raging dangerously, weakening him too much. Biting his lip, Blair eased him down and then turned to grab a basin. Still feeling residual dizziness, Blair stumbled a bit in his haste to get outside, and then fell to his knees, to scoop handfuls of snow into the metal bowl. Quickly, he hurried back into the hut. Taking a breath, he drew down the blanket and layered handfuls of snow at the base of Jim's throat, over his armpits and groin, and over his wrists and elbows, under his knees and around his ankles, where his blood ran closest to the skin. If he could cool Jim's blood, the blood would cool his body.

Immediately, Jim moaned in unconscious protest and recoiled in reflexive shock, but Blair kept up a steady reassuring murmur as he rubbed more snow onto his partner's torso, only wiping it off as it turned to water. Jim started shivering violently, and Blair layered the blankets back over him, and laid down to wrap his own body around Jim to add to the warmth. Jim's teeth chattered and he thrashed weakly, trembling with the sudden cold chills.

And then he went very still. Scared, Blair lifted his head from Jim's chest and reached to touch his face. Sweat beaded on Jim's brow and cheeks, and Blair sagged with relief. "Oh, yeah," he whispered hoarsely, his throat thick with emotion. "That's it," he murmured, grabbing a dry rag to wipe his friend's face.

Jim still seemed warm to the touch, but when the extreme fever broke sweat poured from his body, soaking him. He stopped muttering and seemed to fall into a more natural asleep. Again Blair bathed him and dried him carefully, and then rolled him to change the sodden leathers under his body, replacing them with soft dry scraps he'd been saving to make into new knee-length moccasins for them. After tucking the blankets securely around Jim's shoulders, he then fed Jim more of the herbal brews and, knowing his friend needed to replenish the fluids he'd just lost, he urged more water past Jim's lips. When he finished, he shifted around to get behind Jim, and then he lifted his friend to lay propped upright against his chest, to help him breathe. Wrapping his arms around his partner to hold him securely, Blair leaned into his weight and rested his chin on Jim's shoulder. "I love you, too, Jim," he murmured drowsily.

Minutes later, he slipped into sleep.

********************

He jerked awake when Jim started coughing, deep, gasping coughs that sounded like they hurt. He could feel heat still radiating from his partner's body, but nothing as bad as it had been during the night. Tightening his grip to support Jim's chest and sides, he said quietly, "Easy, buddy, easy. Coughing is good but try to leave your lungs where they are, okay?"

When the hacking subsided with a small, miserable moan, he shifted to prop Jim on their packs and to see how his friend looked in the thin light of dawn that seeped in around the blanket over the door. Dipping a scrap of linen into the basin of cool water, he lightly washed Jim's flushed face, and noted the stark pallor under the fever on his flushed cheeks. Jim's eyes were open, but he seemed disoriented, confused about where he was and what was going on. His irises were dull, shadowed by misery.

Blair tipped a cup of water to his lips, and was relieved when he drank, if only instinctively, because he was beginning to look dehydrated; his lips were chapped and his skin had a papery sort of feel to it. When Blair started to spoon medicine into his mouth, though, Jim grimaced and spat it out, and turned his head away.

"Guess you're feeling a bit better, if you've got the energy to fight me on this," Blair sighed. Cupping his friend's face, he leaned forward to get Jim's attention. "Hey! Jim!" he called, but not so loudly as to hurt sensitive ears. Slowly, his partner's gaze tracked to look at him, but there wasn't any recognition in the look, nor curiousity, just a response to hearing his name. "Okay, Jim, you're sick, very sick. That's why you feel so bad, so sore and it's hard to breathe. Do you understand?"

Jim just blinked heavily, as if exhausted, and his gaze slipped away.

"Whoa, hold on, come back to me. Jim!" This time, when he got Jim's attention, he said firmly, "You need to swallow the medicine I'm giving you. Tastes sorta bad, but it'll make you feel better. Can you do that? Take medicine to get better?"

"Med'cine?" he echoed hoarsely. His brows bunched in a frown of concentration, and then he gave a slow, affirmative dip of his head and rasped, "Yeah."

"Good man," Blair approved, patting his cheek and then again spooning the elixirs, one after another. Jim's lips curled and he looked pathetic with his sad, hurt eyes, so confused but trying to do what was right, even though the flavours quite obviously made him nearly gag. "I'm sorry they taste so bad. I'll try to get some honey."

His energy spent, Jim closed his eyes and drifted into the half world of fevered sleep.

Simon appeared not long after with a canteen of fresh water. "How's he doing?"

"A little better, I think," Blair told him. "The high fever broke but he's still really sick. The coughing has started and that's good, but it'll exhaust him."

Joel called quietly from outside, and Simon slipped all the way in to let Joel slide in through the door. "Got some honey," he said triumphantly, holding up a clay pot as big as his fist. "From the camp followers. Woman said she'd do her best to make fresh bread for you, too. Name's Sally."

"Sally's a good woman," Blair smiled with gratitude. "She's married to one of Morgan's Rangers." Taking the jar, he said, "This is really great and will help a huge amount. He really, really hates the taste of the potions. And honey will give him some energy to fight back the infection. Thanks, Joel."

"He looks some better," Joel observed carefully, thinking Jim looked half dead.

"A little, I think," Blair agreed. "The next day or so will tell the tale." He thought for a moment and then said, "You know, if we could get some of that hooch that's in the camp, that might help."

"You planning on getting him drunk?" Simon exclaimed, surprised.

"No," Blair laughed. "But a little alcohol in bath water really helps cool the skin. I don't want that fever getting too high again."

Simon and Joel exchanged glances and then smiled wolfishly as they rumbled in unison, "Quinn." And then they were off to fulfill their mission. Blair grinned after them, glad of their enthusiastic help. He couldn't watch over Jim and look after him properly, and do all the running around for supplies, too.

And then he went back to caring for his friend. After getting Jim to swallow more water, he belatedly recalled with amusement that what goes in, eventually comes out, so he dug out one of his waterproofed pouches and tied it loosely over Jim's penis. Would save some cleanup time later. The leather shields he'd put under his friend's body would serve well enough to catch other elimination. He opened the precious jar of honey and used it to sweeten the brews of herbal medicine, and Jim accepted being dosed much better for the rest of the day. Blair chuckled when his friend unconsciously licked his lips. "Yeah, you like that, huh? Well, you can thank Sally and Joel. Far as I'm concerned, getting sick is your own darned fault, so you could just suffer the bad tastes." But his tone was fond, and gentle, and he caressed Jim's brow even as he teased him.

Another sponge bath, and then more sips of water.

And then Blair sank back to munch on some hard bread, a bit of cheese and some leftover roasted rabbit meat. As he ate, he studied Jim, who seemed less distressed; his fever was sure a lot better. But his breathing was increasingly congested, and that was worrisome. So, too, was the fact that he still wasn't responsive and it was clear, from the way he winced at noises and light, and the fretful twitching of his fingers and expressions, that his senses were still plaguing him.

With fresh flakes of snow sparkling on their ebony curls, Simon and Joel returned triumphant with a glass preserving jar of hooch. When he asked if they'd had any trouble, they snickered like fools and then shrugged with exaggeratedly innocent expressions and assured him that Quinn had been delighted to contribute to getting Jim well again. And that's all they'd say about that. They didn't stay but bustled off again to lay snares and to go scrounging for wild onions.

Sally came by to visit during the afternoon, bearing half a dozen rolls of precious bread. They talked quietly for a few minutes just outside the little hut, both of them keeping their voices low so as not to be overheard. Nobody else in the camp knew that they knew one another better than either of them let on. But Sally had also been a captive of the Cherokee for a few years. Like Blair, she'd been a child slave of sorts and had been reasonably well treated, too. Her grandparents had finally tracked her down, though, and gotten her back, oh, about seven years before. She didn't like people to know she'd lived with the Indians - people tended to treat women differently when they heard about it, always assuming the worst had happened. She couldn't stand the pity or the implied shame, when she had nothing to be ashamed about. So she just didn't talk about it. Even her husband didn't know. She'd been worried when she recognized Blair and feared he might betray her, and then had been inordinately grateful to him when he had not; he'd been friendly but had let her set the lead about how they handled those years, and those memories, between them.

The rest of the day passed quietly. Simon brought more fresh water as evening approached and, later, he brought Blair some fresh grilled rabbit, and Joel brought in a small tureen of hot onion broth. They made sure he didn't need more of his potions boiled up, and then wished him a good night.

Blair went through the regular routine of cooling Jim's skin, getting him to drink, take his medicine and to swallow some of the onion broth. He turned Jim on his side, to rub his back and to do some percussion pounding over his ribs, to loosen his chest congestion. Instead of putting Jim back on his back, he left him on his side, to give his skin a rest from the pressure, and Jim would breathe better and recover from coughing better on his side. Then he lay down beside his friend and reached out to caress Jim's face with feather light fingertips. "I wish you'd ... that you'd know what was going on, you know? We need to get those senses adjusted. And we got to get on top of that fever. It's just not letting go. Tomorrow, we'll get more medicine into you, and more water ... and we'll see how that works. I really hate to see you suffering like this, you know? Really hate this."

Jim, deeply asleep, snuffling and snoring raggedly because of the congestion, didn't answer.

"Well, at least you're sleeping, and that's good. Most healing seems to take place when we sleep. Don't know why. Guess it doesn't matter." His voice drifted away, and then he whispered, "I hope you wake up soon. I, uh, I miss you ... miss you a lot."

********************

Jim's hacking cough woke him often during the night. Gently, he'd pull Jim up by his shoulders, and support his upper body while pounding with cupped fingers on his back. When the coughing eased, he lightly massaged his partner's back to loosen tense muscles that were going to ache badly from the violent coughing spells. And then he coaxed more fresh water into his friend, bathed him gently to cool his fevered skin, and spoke to him in soft, low soothing murmurs until Jim's fretfulness eased and he settled back to sleep.

It was well past dawn when Blair woke slowly the next day, gradually noticing that the sounds outside seemed muffled, like they did during and after a heavy snow. Jim's breathing was rough and congested and, even without opening his eyes, the hand he rested lightly on Jim's arm told him that there was still some fever radiating from his partner's skin, but not as badly as the day before, and much, much better than the day Jim had collapsed. He sniffed and stretched, yawned and opened his eyes ... and found Jim watching him blearily.

"Hey!" he smiled widely, sitting up and reaching to lightly stroke Jim's cheek. "You really awake this time?"

"Chief?" Jim croaked, his throat sounding raw, and he winced, as if speaking hurt. And then he coughed violently, choking on the phlegm.

Blair hastily pulled him up, pounded on his back and held a rag for him to cough up into. "Easy, easy," he crooned. "Shallow breaths, Jim. Easy, you're okay."

The hacking stopped and Jim sagged against him, weak as a kitten. Carefully, Blair laid him back against the propped packs, and poured a cup of cool water for him. Jim drank gratefully and sighed. Searching out Blair's gaze, looking utterly confused and miserable, he asked huskily, "Wha' happened?"

Blair rubbed his nose and gave him a quizzical look. "Oh, right," he finally replied. "You're the guy who's never been sick before. Well, Jim, this is what being sick feels like. You fell on your face a couple days ago, burning up with fever. I think you've got pneumonia."

Frowning, squinting against the light filtering into the tent, Jim tentatively rubbed his aching head and then ran a hand over his chest. "Hard to breathe," he rasped. "Hurts."

"Yeah, I bet everything hurts," Blair murmured, not unsympathetically. "We need to get your senses sorted out. They're all out of whack, I think. So, close your eyes and picture your telescopes. Take your time but turn them all way down, okay? Can you do that? Just close your eyes."

Though he was obviously having trouble concentrating, Jim complied and scowled with the effort. Finally, finally, his tense shoulders eased and the lines around his mouth and eyes smoothed out, and he sighed. Stroking his brow, Blair praised him softly. "I'm going to cool you down a bit, and then we'll get some medicine into you. After that, you can sleep some more. Sound good?"

Jim gave a miniscule nod, too weak to manage more. He seemed to fade in and out while Blair cared for him, but he took the potions sweetened by honey without complaint. "Thanks," he managed to croak, just before he fell asleep.

"You're welcome, buddy," Blair replied quietly. "Just don't go making a habit of this, okay?"

********************

For the next three days, Jim slept more than he was awake. The fever came and went, but never spiked as badly as it had during the crisis of his initial collapse. Blair rigged a steam tent for him to help him breathe whenever the congestion got really bad, and percussed his back and chest for ten minutes or so at least three times a day, while Jim complained jokingly about getting beat up. For those days, Jim was a congenial patient, too weak and exhausted to be anything but grateful for the care he was given. Was even sweet, in a bleary, snuffly, croaky kind of way.

By the fifth day of his illness, he was feeling just well enough to be irritable, borne mostly from his embarrassment about being so much trouble, and his frustration at being so damnedly weak he couldn't stand on his own. Hell, he couldn't even crawl out of the hut on his own. It suddenly occurred to him that Blair must've been cleaning up after him for days, let alone bathing him to fight the fever and forcing enough medicine and nourishment into him to keep him alive. The fact that he knew full well he might have brought it all on himself by refusing to take that potion Blair had made for them all didn't improve his mood any. He really hated being wrong. Especially when someone else paid the price for it, in this case, Sandburg, who looked like he'd scarcely slept for a week.

So, he was grumpy and irascible, and just generally a pain in the ass.

"I can do that myself," he growled, gripping the bowl of broth and reaching for the spoon in Blair's hand. "Learned how to feed myself a few years back, as I recall."

Blair gave him a narrow look at the tone, but relinquished the bowl and spoon, and then hovered when he saw how shaky Jim's hands were. He spilled half the soup over himself before he got the spoon close to his mouth. "Yeah, I can see you learned those lessons well," he observed dryly, appropriating the bowl and wrestling for the spoon. A three-year-old would have put up more of a fight, so it wasn't much of a contest of strength.

At which point, Jim turned his face away and muttered he wasn't hungry.

"Yeah, well, tell someone who cares," Blair retorted, but without much sting. "You need to eat, and you know it. So stop the dramatics and open your mouth like any good little baby bird."

Despite himself, a grin twitched at the corner of Jim's mouth, but he manfully suppressed it. Grudgingly, he turned and opened his mouth, allowing himself to be fed. But he didn't have to like it, so he grumbled about the flavour and the smell and that it wasn't hot enough.

"I'll relay your concerns to the Chef," Blair replied evenly, and kept feeding him.

The medicines provoked another round of bitching about their taste, how much they stank, and how long did he have to keep taking this stuff anyway?

"Until the fever is gone for at least a week," Blair told him patiently. "And I know they don't taste that bad with the honey. The other day you were licking you lips to get more of them, so don't make like this is such a hardship. I'm not buying it."

Grimacing, Jim looked away. Just then, a light feminine voice hailed Blair from outside, and Sandburg turned quickly to crawl out of the hut. Frowning, Jim tried to hear who was there and what they were talking about, but his ears were stuffed with the cold and he'd turned his hearing down and he was distracted by the sound of laughter and then Blair was coming back inside, a cloth wrapped bundle in his hands. Jim sniffed but was too stuffed up to figure out what was in the package.

"Who was that?" he demanded to know, irritably.

"Sally," Blair replied with a bright smile. "She's been coming 'round every few days -"

"Well, sorry to be cramping your social life, Sandburg," he sniped nastily. Crossing his arms, he snarled, "You don't have to spend every damned minute of the day crammed in here with me. Go. If you want to see her so bad. Go."

"Sally's a friend, that's all," Blair told him, his tone subdued. He was getting a little tired of the persistent belligerence. "She brings us fresh bread, when she can."

"Say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," Jim growled disparagingly. "Next thing you know, you'll be up and married and ...."

"Sally's already married to one of the rangers," Blair cut in. "What's with the attitude today, man?"

"I'm just saying you don't have to stick around on my account," he snapped. "You got your own life to live."

Blair's gaze fell away and he tilted his head, thinking. Then he smiled and teased, "You're just jealous, that's all. Probably wish you had a pretty girl coming round to see you and maybe taking care of you."

Jim glared at him, and then pointedly rolled away, but he floundered in his weakness, and a coughing jag hit him, robbing him of breath, leaving him choking and gasping, and then Blair had him sitting up against Sandburg's sturdy chest and was pounding on his back and reassuring him and holding him safe and telling him to breathe shallowly, and that he'd be alright. When Blair started rubbing soothing circles on his back, to ease the strain of his muscles and relax him when he could finally breathe again, holding him so close, so kindly, he couldn't stop the rush of tears that blinded him, and his trembling lips couldn't hold back the sob that burst from his throat.

"Oh, hey, hey," Blair murmured, lips nuzzling his brow as he curled his face into Blair's throat. "It's okay. I know it's hard and you feel rotten. It's just the sickness, making you feel weak and sad. But you'll be okay. Shh. Aw, Jim, it's okay ...."

Feeling like an ass but shaking so hard he clung to Blair for support, he couldn't seem to stop weeping. Blair held him and rocked him a little, one hand rubbing his back, holding him strongly, holding him safe. When the tears finally, blessedly ran out, he lay panting for breath against Blair's chest, one hand fisted in Blair's shirt. "I don't ... I don't know why ..." he stammered, snuffling. He'd never broken down like that in his life.

"You feel bad about being sick," Blair whispered against his brow. "And the fever and the disease makes you more vulnerable, more emotional. S'natural, Jim. Don't fret about it. An'... an' just so you know, I wouldn't ever choose to leave you. Wouldn't ever want to go away. I sure won't abandon you just to get some fresh bread on a regular basis."

Jim snickered and snuffled and shook his head weakly. He didn't know how Blair did it, but that had been exactly his irrational fear in those moments when he'd heard Blair laughing with some strange woman. Possessive and scared and sure that someday Blair would leave him, and that that might happen sooner rather than later, especially given all the trouble he was. "I'm a mess, Chief," he muttered in a hoarse rasp. "I feel like shit."

He felt Blair's chuckle ripple through his friend's body, and warmth filled him at the happy sound. "'m sorry," he mumbled. "For being such a jackass."

Blair laughed again and gripped him more tightly, holding him close. Secure in his partner's embrace, with Blair rocking him gently and humming a low, sweet melody in his ear, he fell asleep.

********************

Every day after that, he got a little better, but slowly. His chest remained badly congested and they had to work on clearing his lungs, and using steam to help him breathe. The weakness seemed to go on and on but Blair told him that he'd been deathly ill and it was only natural that it would take a bit of time for him to get back on his feet again.

"Besides," Blair went on. "It's not like there's a whole lot to do this time of year. Not like we've got to get out and do some scouting or anything. If you're going to get sick, this is the time to do it." And then he hit Jim with the kicker. "Actually, this gives us a great opportunity to work on that problem of getting lost in a sense."

Jim groaned. "Great. Wait until I can't run for the hills and then torture me," he groused.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm a vicious tyrant," Blair agreed. "But it doesn't take much energy and it's something we can do right here. So, let's get started."

Jim looked at him balefully, but then sniffed and nodded. "Do your worst," he invited resignedly.

Grinning, Blair sat cross-legged beside him. "I've been thinking about how to do this," he confided cheerfully. Raking his hair behind his ears, he went on, "I'm sure you can catch yourself, if you're just a little more aware of the feeling of slipping away. So, we're going to start with hearing. I want you to stretch out your hearing to the forest, and find a sound, like a bird chirping or some little animal foraging in the snow. And then I want you to focus on all the details of the sounds, listening closer and closer and closer ...."

Jim nodded and closed his eyes, reaching out and farther out, filtering out the rowdy and wrenching sounds and voices of the camp around them. Out into the forest, where he found a squirrel chittering and scratching at something. Frowning, he listened to the scratching, trying to figure out what it was, closer and closer ...."

"Jim, come on back, big guy," he heard Blair calling to him, and felt Blair's warm hand on his arm. Blinking, he looked around.

"I lost it," he sighed, discouraged.

"Sorta expected you to," Blair replied, unconcerned. "What did it feel like as you zeroed in?"

And so it began. For days, they worked on all of his senses until he knew exactly the point at which he began to slip out of control and could bring himself back before it was too late. Blair was effusive in his praise and congratulations, and the warmth of such glowing approval made him feel good. As did knowing that the fits that had plagued him all his life were no mystery anymore, and he could stop himself, maybe not always, but most of the time, from getting lost in the depths of his mind.

Early in February, he noticed a new sound from the world outside. A guttural, commanding German accent, haranguing the men, cursing them.

"Who the hell is that?" he demanded.

"Who?" Blair asked, looking up from the moccasins he was stitching together.

Frowning, tilting his head, Jim replied, "There's a German guy in camp ordering men around and cursing them."

"Oh, yeah, that's the Baron," Blair told him, setting his work aside. "I heard he showed up the other day, offering his services to the General to train the men into professional soldiers. His name's von Steuben and he's quite a character. About sixty, I'd guess, strong as an ox. Trimmed white beard, marches around with military precision. Seems to rile easily and curses in frustration, but doesn't seem really mean. Not cruel. Brought his own entourage of two young aides that are at his abrupt beck and call, but they obviously worship him. And he's good. He knows what he's talking about. He's picked a squad of men to train and drill until they're good enough to drill other squads ... eventually we'll all be trained on the proper way to use a bayonet, how to act in precision formation, and whatever else real soldiers know how to do. The men are really perking up. Gives 'em something to think about and do, besides drink and play cards."

Simon and Joel dropped by a little later for their daily visit, to check on Jim and to see if there was anything either of the two men needed. They had amusing stories to share of watching the Baron first hand, and they mimicked his Prussian manner with devastating hilarity. The laughter did them all good, restoring a sense of normalcy amongst them. Though Jim was still very weak, he was getting better every day, and that filled them all with a quiet kind of joy.

********************

The Baron von Steuben was about the only good thing during that grim February of 1778. The supplies that had come in January were long gone. The cold was the worst of the winter, and the men were still barely clothed in rags. Horses dropped of starvation. Illness continued to rage through the camp, and men kept dying in starved misery. Their destitution was made worse by knowing that their wretched need wasn't the result of want throughout the country, but because nobody in Congress cared enough to ensure promised monies were paid to provisioners and wagoneers. Those that had used to care, men like Jefferson, had been voted out in favour of sly, wily men who made promises they'd never intended to deliver upon. Franklin and Adams were still in France. Rumours about hogsheads of meat, and countless wagonloads of grain and clothing all being left to rot at crossroads because the drivers weren't paid either enough or on time to bring the supplies into Valley Forge were hard to take when they were starving. The men were galled that the people they were fighting for couldn't be bothered to feed them enough to keep them alive, let alone strong.

But instead of desertions increasing, which was expected, they decreased substantially. The men seemed to grow stubborn, determined that they, at least, cared about the country and their future, and they'd be damned if they'd give up or let the British win. They were free men and intended to stay free. They worked with all the energy they had to learn what von Steuben had to teach them, and they learned well.

There were rumours, too, about a concerted plot against Washington, to replace him with Gates. The machinations came to light after the nephew of one of the principles in the nefarious scheme bragged about his inside knowledge while in his cups one night in a tavern - and friends of Washington overheard.

The General investigated with his usual fair and sober grace, winning a great deal of admiration from all concerned. The threat became a boon, as people who were ashamed to have been party to the slander and the backstabbing hastened to show their support of him. He argued fiercely for better supplies and support for his men - and, finally, after months of terrible deprivation, they began to get what they needed, and their back pay was finally brought up to date.

As March wore on, and the Army grew stronger, more confident, well and warmly garbed now, and well fed, Jim, too, regained his strength. He and Blair walked for hours in the woods to rebuild his stamina, and they both took part in drills to learn what von Steuben had to teach them all. On one of those walks, Jim paused to hunker down and poke a stick into the softening, spring ground. His expression was thoughtful, and a frown of concern puckered his brow. Blair watched him curiously, wondering what he had on his mind.

Finally, Jim sighed and looked up at his friend and thought to himself that the word 'friend' would never be enough to express all that Blair had become to him. No brother could be closer. No lover could ever share so much of what they shared. Blair was his confidante, knew all his secrets; was often his conscience and the best teacher and philosopher who had ever stretched his mind and soul. Blair had freed him from the chains his senses had been and made them gifts that enriched his life in ways he was still discovering. From the beginning, Blair had moved to anticipate his every need, from nursing his wounds, to harnessing his senses, to helping bring food to their camp and creating clothing and footwear to keep him warm in winter. Blair had been his protector in battle, his caretaker when he'd been so sick that he might have died, lavishing him with tender and gentle, patient and affectionate attention, meeting all his needs. Maybe his mother had done that for him, when he'd been a baby, but he couldn't remember, and no one had ever done anything so kind for him in his life since. Blair promised him companionship and safety, a refuge when it all got too much. Made him laugh in the darkest of times. Blair ... Blair had unlocked the anger that had held his heart hostage, had helped him to think of his family with affection rather than resentment. Blair had opened his world, taught him so much, made him so much stronger. And was there, always there, half a stride away, and was committed to always being there, someone he could trust without question and always rely upon with his life.

How did you thank a man who was all that? Did all that? A man who had become, somehow, the foundation of your world? How did you ever begin to let him know how valued he was, how important, even essential, he was in your life? How, when words didn't come easy, when the softest of emotions were the hardest to express, how did you say you loved such a man and that you'd die yourself, give your life freely, rather than ever lose him?

Tears burned in his eyes and, embarrassed, blinking hard, he broke their gaze and looked away. His head bowed as he sniffed and struggled to find a way to say what was in his heart. But his throat was thick and he could scarcely breathe, let alone speak.

Quietly, Blair moved closer and hunkered down beside him; reached out to grip his shoulder. "When you were really sick," he said softly, "you said things, lots of things, about how you feel. About how grateful you are and how ... how much our friendship means to you. But, but what seemed to worry you most then was that you thought that I don't know how you feel. That seemed to worry you a lot." Tilting his head to look into Jim's averted face, he went on, "I'll tell you now what I told you then, though you weren't in any shape to hear me. I know, Jim. I really do know. You show me in all kinds of ways every single day that you're really glad I'm around and that you enjoy my company. You listen whenever I have ideas, and you respect them, you respect me. You do your best to protect me, whether I need to be protected or not, because ... because you don't want me hurt. You're ... you're the best man I've ever known, and I'm just as glad and grateful to have you in my life, you know?" He paused, and his voice was husky, hesitant, when he said, "I love you, too, man. You're more than family to me. You're everything."

Jim pressed his lips and eyelids closed to contain the rioting emotions he felt. Reaching blindly, he pulled Blair toward him and hugged him fiercely. "I don't know what I'd do if ..." he rasped hoarsely, but couldn't even think the words, let alone say them.

Blair's embrace around him tightened. "You'd do what you have to do," he murmured fiercely. "What you were born to do. You'd keep on going until this war was won. Always doing the best you could, because that's who you are. And ... and I hope then that you'd have a good life, you know? Because that's what you deserve. A really great life."

"Don't," Jim begged raggedly. "Don't ever ..."

"I won't," he whispered, his voice raw. "Not by choice. I wouldn't ever choose to leave you; believe that. No more than you would choose to leave me. I know that, too."

They clung together for long moments more, and then Jim loosened his grip, ran his fingers over Blair's head and pulled fondly on a curl. Shifting out of Blair's embrace, he stood and reached a hand to draw his partner up beside him. Sheepishly, he studied the ground and then nodded. Swallowing hard, he looped an arm around Blair's shoulders and began to walk on. "I'm glad you know," he finally managed to mutter. "Really glad you know ... how I ... how I feel."

"Aw, man," Blair teased then, grinning at him brightly, "you're an open book to me. A wide open book."

"Is that so?" Jim challenged playfully.

"Yeah," Blair replied, and his smile softened. "My most favourite book of all. A never-ending story that I just can't get enough of, you know?"

Snickering, bemused by the description, Jim shook his head. Easy together, they moved on with their exploration of the woods above the camp, teasing and laughing, glad to be alive and to have these days of peace before the world called them back and the war beckoned.

********************

The Army remained in winter quarters until June. Eleven thousand, maybe twelve, had stumbled into that valley that was truly a forge upon which their spirits were hammered and fired, honed into steel. Officially, Washington told Congress that two thousand, five hundred men died of privation and illness that winter. And some he'd sent to winter elsewhere ... though not many could have made such a journey in the dead of winter and survived, while new recruits kept arriving, once swelling the camp numbers to thirteen thousand. No one really knew how many had died that grievous winter. The bodies had been burned; there were no graves to count. Of all those who marched into Valley Forge, less than eight thousand formed up to march back out again, but those eight thousand were men transformed. Those who survived the hell of that winter were a new breed, warriors who knew they had endured the worst that life could ever throw at them, and they'd come out not only alive but stronger than they'd ever been.

On June 16th, 1778, six months to the day of their terrible march into the valley, leaving bloody footprints in the snow, freezing and starving, a new, confident, professionally trained and disciplined Army strode proudly out of Valley Forge with fifes and drums playing and flag waving. Fit as athletes, trained as well as any European enemy, they were more than ready to confront those who would deny them freedom.

Ready and determined to win.

********************

Within days of leaving Valley Forge, the ranks of the army had swollen to nearly fourteen thousand as militiamen and new volunteers arrived. When Jim and Blair reported back after a scouting mission around Philadelphia that the British Army appeared to be packing up, Washington smiled sparingly, and briskly called in his commanders: Sullivan, Greene, Wayne, Stirling, Lafayette - and General Lee, who Washington was very glad had finally been released on a prisoner trade by the British, after having been held by them for over a year. Swiftly, he outlined his plan for the battle, but Lee protested, arguing that the British were too strong to take on directly, that the traditional harrying and cautious approach remained the best one. "Let them go back to New York," he urged. "So long as they get out of Philadelphia, that's all that matters."

"No, I disagree," Washington replied firmly. "We're more than a match for them now, and I just don't want them out of Philadelphia - I want them back in Great Britain."

It was settled that a small group would be sent ahead of the British forces to disrupt their retreat by burning bridges, blocking roads by chopping down trees, muddying wells to compromise their access to fresh water, and sniping at them, to give time for the whole Army to mobilize and catch up and engage them in battle.

Morgan and his rangers were selected for the duty, and Jim and Blair were assigned as their scouts. When the British began moving out of Philadelphia on June 18th and into New Jersey, the small band was ahead of them, already busy putting obstacles in their way.

The British Army of eleven thousand troops and another thousand Loyalists, and their extensive baggage train that rattled along for twelve miles in their wake, took a week to move a mere forty miles. Added to the nuisance of the patriot band, the weather was rainy and hot, the road muddy, so travel was hard. General Henry Clinton, who had been given command of the British forces when Howe was recalled, was growing increasingly frustrated and anxious. The French navy was on its way across the Atlantic, and he'd heard reports that Washington's army had weathered the winter well, coming out strong, whereas his own troops had languished in Philadelphia, enjoying the gaming and horseracing and women and drink too much. He wanted to get back to the fortress of New York and the flexibility that location gave him for movement either by land or by water. And he wanted to get there quickly.

On June 23rd, Washington moved his army into position, camping within miles of the British. He wanted a decisive battle. But Lee reprised his objections, pointing out vehemently that they had little more than a thousand men on the British strength, and while, yes, eight thousand or so thought themselves good enough to face British regulars, thinking so wasn't the same as being so. He contended that an attack was foolhardy and unnecessary. Once more, he advocated nipping at their heels, quick hit and runs, to do a lot of damage but not put their entire force at risk. He was eloquent and he swayed the thinking around the council table. Washington backed down, agreed to attack the rear of the British column and assigned that role to Lee. However, the general then shrugged and waved off the assignment. Such modest harassment didn't need a general in charge. Lafayette intervened to say he'd welcome the role Washington had allotted to Lee, that of being the advance force to engage the British as they marched toward the road to Amboy. Briskly, disappointed with Lee, Washington agreed, and the discussion went on. Lee, however, seemed surprised when Lafayette was then assigned over five thousand troops to harass the British rearguard. That was a sizeable force, one that was prestigious to command.

The next day, Lee recanted his position and asked for the right to lead the attacking force. As Washington's most senior and experienced general, it was his place and right to do so, and the General readily agreed.

On June 25th, Clinton started along the road to Monmouth Court House, a small village at the crossroads where he'd turn toward Perth Amboy. By the twenty-seventh, his column was within striking distance, and Washington ordered Lee to attack on the twenty-eighth. He told the rest of his commanders to be ready for changes in orders on the field, as he wanted to evaluate the situation on the ground before deciding the next move. He left Dickinson, with the New Jersey militia, and Morgan, with his Rangers, free to continue their harassment along Clinton's flanks. Jim and Blair, having been left to act on their own discretion, shifted up and around the advancing British, skirting the village of Monmouth Courthouse. From there, they had a vantage point on the first assault, and could watch for Washington as well as aid in the battle. Joel and Simon were back with the General and would watch his back once battle commenced. They would particularly watch Quinn.

June 18th, 1778 dawned blisteringly hot. At eight AM, Lee was on the high ground overlooking Clinton's advance, the perfect strategic location to wreak considerable damage. Clinton spotted the threat and moved quickly to have his own battalions form up to protect his baggage train.

And then, rather than attack ... Lee began issuing confusing orders willy-nilly, moving units around and back and forth until everyone was confused. Then he began complaining bitterly that he didn't have sufficient intelligence on the British force - which was clearly laid out before him. Units advanced, but didn't get promised support, and so fell back. Other units began to fall back, but weren't sure why, as Lee had stopped issuing orders, confusing or otherwise. Frustrated, Lafayette sent word back that they needed the General at the front. Finally, Lee ordered a precipitous retreat, urging the men to hasten forthwith through swampy ground and along the road back to the main Army. Nobody knew why they were retreating but orders were orders.

Clinton, astonished to witness the retreat of an army that had not yet been repulsed, charged after them.

Washington, in response to Lafayette's urgent summons, was riding fast to the front when he ran into the retreating soldiers. Outraged, he demanded what was happening and was told that Lee had told them to move back. Furious, he ordered them back around, and called to the officers to get them organized for battle, and then to resume a forward march. And then he rode further ahead, searching for Lee. When he finally encountered him, he demanded in a loudly ringing angry voice to know why Lee had failed to execute his orders and was running from the enemy.

Lee, somewhat overwhelmed by the unusual spectacle of Washington lividly angry, argued that he'd never supported the action and still didn't. That he was saving the men from annihilation by the British. Washington could scarcely believe his ears. "My orders MUST be obeyed," he roared with cold contempt. "Get to the rear and stay there. I'll deal with you once we've dealt with the British! GO, damn you. Get out of my sight!"

And then Washington took command, urging his forces into position to meet Clinton's advance along the road from Monmouth Court House.

When Lee had broken and run, Jim and Blair were as astonished by the action as everyone else. They loped ahead of the British, anxious to get to their lines and find out what the hell was going on. They arrived in the thick of things just in time to hear Lee being soundly dressed down and dismissed. Scanning the milling crowd of men, they couldn't see Simon or Joel and concluded the General must have outpaced them on his charger when he'd begun racing to the front.

"I don't see Quinn," Jim growled, rapidly searching the ranks of men who were still running about in some confusion.

"Listen for him," Blair urged. When Jim gaped at him, he went on, "C'mon, you know what he sounds like, always whining. He'll be bitching about this heat and anything else that comes to his pinheaded mind. Listen for his whine."

Jim quirked a brow, but gave it a try, tilting his head and frowning with the effort of pushing away all the other sounds that vied for his attention. Blair waited anxiously beside him, one hand on his back, and kept watch on Washington, his own gaze raking the crowd of men surging around him.

"Got him," Jim said, his voice clipped. Shifting, he pointed toward the General's location. "C'mon," he urged, and they were running flat out.

The Americans had only minutes to regroup in a defensive line before the British swept along the road. By twelve-thirty, fierce battle was engaged. Three times, Clinton tried to break through the American lines, first on the right flank, then the left and finally down the middle. His cannon bombarded the Americans, doing considerable damage, but still the Americans gave no ground and fought fiercely back. When one of their own cannon fell silent when the soldier manning it was wounded, his wife, Mary Hayes, one of the women affectionately known as Molly Pitcher, stepped into his place. Hitching up her skirts to keep them out of the way, her legs bare, she fired time after time as the cannon was loaded with grape shot. Once, a near deadly enemy cannonball came so close it the heat of it burned her legs, but she never faltered. Other American cannon were brought into position, and blasted the British cannon location into submission.

The fighting was fierce; neither side gave quarter as the scorchingly hot afternoon wore on. Washington was constantly on the move, rallying his men, shifting units as needed for greater effect. Jim and Blair were as caught in the battle as everyone else, firing and sometimes engaged in hand to hand combat with bayonet and warclub. They couldn't keep up with Washington's galloping shifts, and so they concentrated on sticking close to Quinn, or as close as they could, and paying particular attention to him whenever the General was in range of his deadly aim. A drunken, whining sot he might be in camp, but on the northern campaign the previous summer, they'd learned the man didn't miss what he aimed at, and that he killed with feral delight.

The day was waning but still the heat was blindingly intense. Men on both sides had collapsed from sunstroke all over the field, dying from the heat and not an enemy bullet. The British were trying a last push up the center, toward their position and Washington charged over to encourage his men.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jim saw Quinn lift his rifle and whirled to judge his line of fire, even as the British came at them. Blair shifted to stand between him and the enemy's advance, protecting his back. Jim looked from Quinn to Washington, back to Quinn and saw how he was tracking ... and he knew.

"QUINN!" he shouted, even as he lifted his own weapon. "DON'T!"

Bullets whizzed past his head and one tugged through his leather sleeve, but he held his position. Quinn jerked his head around at the shout, startled, and then he spotted Jim and realized the game was up. An eerie cold smile split his lips, and he sharply shifted, his rifle coming into line on Jim, his finger already tightening.

"CHIEF! DOWN!" Jim shouted and, behind him, Blair dropped without question, even as he lunged sideways and rolled, evading the shot that traveled on to bring down the redcoat Blair had been battling with. Sprawled on the ground, Jim aimed and shot.

And Quinn dropped.

Their final push repulsed, the British fell back. The day, the longest day of battle of the entire war, was drawing to a close and Clinton wanted to get back to secure the luggage train. The Americans had proven tougher, far tougher, than he'd expected. He could not overcome them in open battle. The thought was chastening.

Washington sorely wanted to race after him and continue the fight. But his men were dropping like flies now from the heat, panting with exhaustion after having run halfway across the countryside and back again that day - not to mention having fought off the determined might of the full British Army. By the time he was able to give them a breather and had rallied the light infantry to move forward and engage the British again, dusk was falling and he had to break off for the day.

The army entrenched for the night, intending to resume the battle with the dawn's light.

Washington rode back to the rear, where a furious Lee was waiting for him. Humiliated by how he'd been treated earlier in front of the enlisted men, he was wild with umbrage. He yelled at Washington to court martial him if the General thought he was so unfit to lead and trusted his judgment so little. Regarding him coldly, Washington obliged him, charging him with disobedience and willful neglect of duty and put him under guard.

When word of the unprecedented act circulated amongst the troops, Jim shook his head. "Not good enough," he grated. "The man's a traitor. Has to be. He's too experienced a general to have muddled so badly and to have refused to engage when he was in the perfect, the stronger position."

Blair's expression was grim. "You could be right," he allowed. "Lee was never any use - remember? Back in '76, he waffled around, avoided fights like the plague, kept the main army out of action for months while he rambled around New Jersey refusing to rejoin Washington. And he's been with the British ever since they took him in that ridiculously easy raid - been with them for a year and a half. And no prison ship for him, by the look of it, or treatment as a traitor to the Crown, which he could have been charged with as a former senior officer of the British Army. Came back here looking well fed and slick and as cocky as ever."

When they reported to Washington, expecting to be sent back out to keep an eye on the British force, the General eyed them critically. They looked as exhausted as they felt, streaked with sweat and grime, pale with fatigue. "I heard you dealt with Quinn today," he observed dryly.

Jim stiffened. Shooting a comrade, let alone in the midst of battle, could easily be mistaken for something other than it was. "Yes, sir," he replied tonelessly.

"I also hear he was drawing a bead on me when you called him down," Washington went on, a thin smile dancing on his lips. "While the British were hot on your back."

Shrugging, Jim nodded.

"Well done and thank you," the General said then, standing to shake his hand. "Both of you," he commended Blair, as well. "The two of you never fail to serve me well, not since the beginning of this confrontation. But, I think, for tonight, I'll dispense with your services. You both look like you could use some sleep."

"Thank you, sir," they said in unison, saluted, stepped back and left his presence. But they were smiling broadly at his approbation when they sought out the campfire Simon and Joel had set up. They all swiftly devoured their meal and then curled up on the ground. Trusting the sentries to do their jobs, they were asleep before they'd drawn another breath.

********************

Washington was not well pleased to learn the next morning that Clinton had stolen a page from his book, and had slipped away under cover of darkness. He mobilized the army and set off in pursuit, and did some damage from the rear, but Clinton had gotten too far and was away and into New York before he could be stopped.

Giving up the chase, Washington turned back to re-establish a firm American presence in Philadelphia, and he deployed regiments around the borders of New York to keep Clinton boxed in, as well as sending some south to bolster the war effort there.

When he rode into Philadelphia, he was shocked. He'd heard there had been privation in the city over the winter, with the British consuming more than their fair share of victuals and then some. But the haggard, impoverished, starved look of the populace was worse than he'd imagined. They needed help getting organized again, needed provisioning urgently. And he was tired of the nonsense and incompetence around the provisioning of his army. Never again did he want men under his command to suffer what they'd suffered in Valley Forge. So, he took command of the unacceptable situation, and took steps to ensure both the security of the people in Philadelphia and the wellbeing of his men.

Arnold got a promotion, as he'd hoped, but not the command he would have liked. Instead, he was given the responsibility for restoring Philadelphia, for organizing what supplies there were and for distributing them fairly, for getting local government re-established and for assisting Congress to return to their seat of government.

And Nathaneal Greene found himself in charge of provisioning for the Army, again, not a job he relished, but one he took on with vigor.

Having organized matters to his will, and looking around at the current war situation, Washington found himself momentarily at a loss. For the first time since he'd assumed command, he wasn't on the run. For the first time, the British were holed up in New York because he'd driven them there. And they were there under the leadership of a new commander because he'd defeated Howe and Howe had been recalled in disgrace. His army was strong, well uniformed, well trained, well equipped and well fed. He held sway from Quebec to Manhattan.

And for the first time, now that he had time to catch his breath and consider the situation, he realized he was winning the war. The Americans had proven themselves more than worthy adversaries. They were tough, gutsy, and committed ... and now they had shown they had the skills in all out, brutal combat to hold the British and drive them back. They were winning.

And he didn't have anywhere in particular to be.

Congress, ebullient at being back home in Philadelphia and effusive in their praise for his success, insisted on wining and dining him throughout July, but that soon palled. They might be winning, but they hadn't yet won; it offended his nature to be living lavishly when he had men still fighting battles in the field south of Philadelphia.

But, still, his presence was not required at the front, and there were others to be commended, others who had worked tirelessly to support the war effort from the beginning. Others like those who mined the ore and forged the cannon and the balls they fired.

One of those massive mining operations and forges was relatively nearby, just to the northwest of Philadelphia, so he determined to pay them a visit with a small retinue. It would almost be a holiday of sorts for men who'd had no respite and who had earned an easier time of it, at least for a few weeks before he sent them back into the fray. Besides, they'd be heading to the edge of the frontier and there was still the potential threat of Indian attacks. So, it would be good to have his best scouts with him. Smiling to himself, he wrote out new orders for Captain Ellison and his small but exceptionally effective team.

********************

They traveled slowly, enjoying the summer weather, stopping at towns and villages along the way who were excited to have the Commander in Chief in their presence. It was the third week of August by the time they reached Cornwall Forge, and they spent another week touring the massive forge and the mines, learning about the rigors of mining, and the hazards. Jim found the close, stuffy air, the heavy scent of metal and the feeling of being trapped under tons of earth claustrophobic in the extreme, so he and his team were given leave to go back to the surface. As they made their exit, Jim advised the General that they'd do some scouting of the area with Simon and Joel, and return to their camp on the edge of the forest, close to town by nightfall. The General, well content to be left with the Forge's manager for the rest of the day, and scheduled as well to enjoy the man's hospitality that night, genially waved them off.

When they got back above ground, they found the air outside was almost as stifling as it had been in the mine. Smoke belched from the tall chimneys and soot filled the air. And it was hot, very hot and humid, the air sticky and thick. Anxious for some fresh air, they headed away from the millworks and town, up into the hills; Simon and Joel broke off to scout to the south and west, while they headed north. Finding a brook-fed pool, Jim and Blair indulged themselves with a brisk swim to cool off. They played like boys half their age, splashing and wrestling in the water, and then sprawled on the fragrant grass in the shadow of an oak to let the hot air dry them before dressing again.

Relaxed, content, they dozed for an hour or so.

The sky darkened as they slept; black, heavy clouds from the southwest piled up against the mountains and dropped lower, obscuring the horizon. The wind picked up, at first a gentle ripple of relief, easing the mugginess of the day, but soon the branches of the trees were swaying vigorously. Lightning flared in the distance and low, long rumbling threatened of the coming storm.

Jim jerked awake and blinked at the clouds. He scraped sleep from his eyes and reached out to shake Blair. "Rise and shine, Chief," he called softly as he began to pull on his clothes. "Storm's coming. We should get off the high ground."

Blair yawned and stretched, but when thunder rumbled again, louder and closer, he scrambled to get dressed. "Oh, man," he grumbled. "We are going to get soaked before we get back to our camp."

Chuckling at the familiar complaint, Jim clapped him on the back and led off with a long, loping stride, down the long hill. As he had from the first day almost exactly two years before, Blair paced him easily, a half step back and to the side. Raindrops plopped heavily, smacking their faces and bodies, the first, tentative barrage of what was to come. The wind had a cold bite now, driving off the heat of the day, and the trees were being whipped, their branches creaking and clacking in protest. They increased their pace, moving faster as they skimmed around trees and leapt over low-lying thick undergrowth and the ancient rotting logs of trees that had fallen long years before.

The rain began to fall with a vengeance, pouring down, beating at them with stinging hard pellets, and the cold wind whipped their hair into their faces. Blair started to laugh, a rich counterpoint of lilting sound to the ever closer rumbling of thunder. "Cold and wet is our world, Jim," he chanted as he pounded along, and then he laughed again, having too much fun and enjoying their day of freedom too much to grouse about it.

Relishing the laughter, Jim unconsciously turned up his hearing to enjoy all the light and sparkling nuances of it against the voice of the storm. He turned, grinning widely, and was reaching to loop his arm around Blair's shoulders when there was a sudden, blinding flash of lightning shattering through the gloom around them and an almighty crack of shocking proportion right above them. Blinded and deafened in an instant, Jim stumbled and doubled over, his hands covering his ears and his eyes pressed tightly shut. Distantly, through his ringing ears, he heard crashing sounds and Blair screaming out his name - and then he was shoved hard and was falling, tumbling down the steep hill until he struck a tree. The breath knocked out of him, he just lay crumpled for a moment, gasping and getting his bearings.

The sensory spike had hurt but, like always, it passed quickly as he hastily focused on turning down his hearing and checked his sight. Pushing himself to his knees, he gazed around a little groggily, wondering where Blair was. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes, and then stood in the teeming rain, looking back up the hill. A tree had been split by the lightning strike and half of it had crashed to the earth, the broken wood white and jagged against the deepening false dusk of the storm. Where the hell was Blair?

And then the breath caught in his chest when he realized the destroyed tree was lying just about where they'd been when the lightning and thunder had blinded and deafened him. "SANDBURG!" he shouted above the raging howl of the wind. And then he was running, running flat out, running as if his life depended upon it, up the sharp slope, stumbling and half crawling as he pulled his way back to where he'd been when Blair had pushed him out of danger.

Lightning flashed again ... and in its brutal clarity, just at the edge of the fallen oak, under thick branches and leaves, he saw a pale hand stretched out, as if reaching, yearning toward him.

"BLAIR!" he screamed as he yanked an axe from his pack, and then he was hacking viciously through the branches, cutting his way closer to his partner. "SANDBURG!" he yelled, over and over, straining to hear a response, but all he could hear was a too fast heartbeat skipping out of control. In a frenzy of haste, he cut and chopped and flung branches away, getting closer, closer ....

Until he could see the branch that pressed down on Blair's chest. Not all that big a branch, about as thick as his arm, but it had come down with the weight of the tree behind it, crushing everything in its path.

Blair was sprawled, half twisted, as if he'd been trying to dive out of danger, lunging to follow Jim down the steep hill, but he'd been caught and ploughed into the rocky ground. Blood bubbled on his lips with every shallow, painful gasp, and his eyes were open, squinting against the rain, his pupils dark and wide with shock and pain.

"Oh no," Jim choked as he dropped to his knees. Furiously, he attacked the branch and with one mighty blow, shattered it and pushed it off his partner's body. But it was too late. The damage had been done.

"J-Jim," Blair gasped and coughed, blood splattering his lips. His hand fumbled, reaching for Jim but he was too weak to lift his arm. "C-can't b-b-breathe."

"Easy, easy," Jim crooned, his voice breaking as he lifted Blair's shoulders as gently as he could, and he felt Blair's cry of anguished pain in his gut. Carefully, tenderly, he supported Blair's back with one leg and the arm he had around his friend's shoulders. Curling over him, trying to shelter him from the rain, he gently drew Blair's head close to rest against his chest.

"S-s-sor-ry," Blair rasped breathlessly, his gaze seeking Jim's eyes. Again, he tried to lift his hand, and Jim clutched his fingers, wrapped his hand around Blair's and drew it to his heart. "I don .. don' wanna g-go," he whispered, each word an agony of wispy breath. Tears filled Blair's eyes and he weakly shook his head. "S-s-s-sorry," he stammered again.

"No, no, shh, don't talk," Jim urged him, unaware of the tears mixed with rain streaming down his cheeks. Horrified, he could hear Blair's lungs filling with blood, could hear the grind of broken bones with each breath Blair took. Helplessly, he listened to Blair's heart hammering faster and faster, a desperate tattoo, trying so hard to live. When Blair's fingers scrabbled for and found a grip on his shirt, he let go and cupped his palm along the side of his best friend's face. And he sobbed because he didn't know what to do, didn't know how to stop what was happening, how to turn back time and make everything all right.

Blair closed his eyes and cuddled close against him. "Just hold me," he sighed, his voice so fragile that only a sentinel could have heard him. And then he swallowed hard and struggled to find breath as he again sought Jim's gaze. "'member," he gusted faintly. "'member. Job to do. C'n do it," he panted, his fingers clutching Jim's shirt with fierce determination.

"Blair ..." Jim began, but his voice broke and his throat closed, locking the words away.

"S-kay," Blair whispered then, and a faint, faint smile ghosted over his lips as his gaze softened with love. "P-promise. I ... p-promise," he gasped and dragged in another shallow, shuddering breath. As he exhaled, he sighed, "I'll see you again ... someday."

And then there was just the howling wind and the splatter of rain, the clatter of tree branches and rumble of thunder. But the whole world might have gone breathlessly still for all Jim could hear was silence where there was once the steady, thrumming beat that had become the backdrop and foundation of his life.

His face a rictus of unbearable grief, his mouth opened in a silent howl of protest and loss. His chest felt like it was caving in and he couldn't, couldn't breathe. He started to tremble and then was quaking, and his body dragged in air in a shuddering moan as he clutched Blair's broken body to him. He lifted his face to the heavens and screamed, "NOOOOOOOOOOO!" But there was no one to hear, no help to be had. He sagged over Blair's body, weeping, "Oh, God. No."

Burying his face in the sodden curls, holding Blair against him, he sobbed with wild, naked, bottomless grief. Oblivious to the storm that raged on around him, time lost all meaning as he rocked Blair's lifeless body and whispered his partner's name over and over until he was too hoarse to make any sound and still his lips moved, keening for Blair.

Night fell and the thundering rain finally abated but still Jim crouched under the wreckage of the tree, clutching Blair close. He couldn't, just couldn't, get past ... couldn't take it in. Couldn't accept, couldn't believe, couldn't bear ....

"Ah, Chief," he murmured brokenly, stricken with guilt and aching with grief as he tenderly stroked the sodden curls and Blair's cold face. "I was listening to you laugh and ... and the lightning and thunder, the crashing - I lost it. I lost ... lost y-you. I don't know h-how to do this. H-how to l-let go." Tears again burned his eyes but he blinked them away as he stared up at the now clear sky, stared at the stars that Blair had wished he could see more clearly. "Where are you?" he asked plaintively. "How will I find you?"

There was no answer but for the rustle of wind through the trees around him. Sniffing, he again looked down upon Blair's face, smooth now, all the pain gone, but all the life and animation gone, too. "I never loved anyone like I love you," he whispered huskily. "And nobody, nobody ever loved me the way you did." He pressed his lips against Blair's chill brow. "I need you, Chief," he murmured then, sounding lost. "Need you here. I don't know if I can do this without you. I just know I don't want to. I don't want to."

Bowing his head over his partner's body, exhausted, he shivered and closed his eyes. Memories of old conversations drifted through his mind. "You said you'd never leave me," he whispered hoarsely, but without accusation. Blair had always added the qualifier that he'd never go willingly. And he hadn't. He'd protected Jim with his last act, and promised they see one another again with his last breath. But it hadn't been the war, an enemy bullet or saber that had taken Blair from him. The futility of it, of a senseless accident on a day when they'd been so happy, so carefree, was utterly shocking ... and the reality that, ultimately, it had been Jim's senses, the senses Blair so cherished, that had spelled his doom was horrifying.

"You said you'd never leave me," Jim whispered again, devastated.

But Blair was gone.

And he'd never felt so alone in his life.

Or so empty of everything but pain.

'I'll see you again someday,' he heard in his mind, the breathy compelling promise said with all the love Blair had in his soul.

"You better keep that promise, Chief," he husked brokenly. "I really, really need you to keep that promise."

********************

The next day, just a little after dawn, Joel and Simon looked up from their campfire and then surged to their feet in alarm when they saw Jim coming out of the trees, carrying Blair's limp body. They ran toward him, calling out to ask what happened, was he badly hurt, but Jim didn't answer. Just kept walking steadily toward them, slowly, as if he was exhausted, but without faltering.

When they got close enough to see his face, they stumbled to a halt. There was no mistaking that pale rigid mask of control that still didn't manage to conceal a grief so profound that it ripped into them. And they sagged with the terrible knowledge that Blair was gone.

"How?" Joel gasped, but Simon gripped his arm and shook his head. Jim was beyond any kind of response and explanations would have to wait. They could see that Jim was barely able to keep going, and wondered how far he'd walked with his precious burden. Wondered how he could stand at all, knowing what Blair had meant to him. Anxious to help in some way, Simon moved forward. "Here, let me take him."

"No," Jim replied. Not belligerently, but with scarcely any inflection at all; like he wasn't really there, somehow, but somewhere far away.

They fell in beside him and followed along as he continued on to the Forge Manager's house. When they got close, Joel hastened ahead to bang on the door. A maid answered, and Joel asked urgently for the General.

In moments, Washington strode out onto the porch, still in his shirt-sleeves, not yet having donned his vest and frock coat. When he saw Jim coming toward him and realized what he was seeing, sorrow filled his face and he hastened down the steps to meet the Captain.

"Oh, my boy," he said with heartfelt regret, "I'm so deeply sorry."

Jim's jaw clenched but he gave a grave nod of acknowledgement. Not quite meeting the General's eyes, he said smartly, "Permission to take Corporal Sandburg home, sir."

"And where is the Corporal's home, son?" he asked gently, knowing Blair's history and evidently very aware that Jim was in shock.

For a moment, Jim floundered and his lip trembled. But then he swallowed hard and rasped, "Long Island, sir."

Washington looked at Simon and Joel, and they shook their heads mutely, all of them understanding the impossibility of what Jim was wanting to do.

"Jim," Washington said very carefully as he reached to clasp his shoulder. "We're a long way from Long Island. And in the heat of the summer. It's too far to take him back for burial there."

Jim closed his eyes and pressed his lips together. His throat worked and he couldn't seem to breathe. He began to shudder and then he started to crumple. Washington hastily took Blair's body from his arms and Simon caught him as he fell.

Joel swiped tears from his eyes and shook his head. "I don' know how he's gonna survive this. I jus' don' know."

********************

When Jim woke, he was in a strange bed in a darkened room with a single candle burning by the window. He felt confused and even more so when he turned his head and saw his General sitting by the bed. But the sadness on the man's face brought it all back with a wrenching crash, and he gasped with the pain that filled him.

"Where is he?" he demanded harshly.

"Safe. Simon and Joel are standing watch over him," Washington told him calmly, and then asked, "What happened?"

Jim turned his face away and his gaze raked the ceiling. "We got caught in the storm. There was a lightning strike. Blair ... Blair pushed me out of the way, but he got caught by the falling tree."

Washington nodded solemnly. "We'll hold a service tomorrow," he said. When Jim turned to him, looking as if he was about to protest, the General went on, "And you have my leave to take his ashes home."

Grief spasmed Jim's face and he struggled to master his emotions. Finally, he rasped, "Thank you, sir."

The General patted him on the shoulder, and stood to leave him in peace. But he paused by the door and half turned back as he mused, "Corporal Sandburg was an unusual individual. Sad history but it didn't break him. He was a good, fine man. A brave one." Giving Jim a straight look, he said, "I'm very glad to know that he found his home, and he seemed most satisfied to know where he belonged."

Jim's lips thinned and he had to force back the lump that clogged his throat. "Yes, sir," he husked, turning his face away.

********************

The next morning when they gathered on the hillside overlooking the valley, Washington himself gave the eulogy. The storm had long passed, and the air was clear and warm with just a hint of autumn's chill on the light breeze. The sky above was almost painfully blue. They stood in a small half circle around the pyre on which Blair's body had been laid.

Jim didn't hear most of what was said, wasn't aware of much of anything except that Blair was dead. But when Washington's voice lifted in closure, the words nearly brought him to his knees.

"I'm not one to quote much scripture, but I believe these words hold a profound truth: And greater love has no man than this, that a man shall lay down his life for his friend."

"Amen," Simon and Joel rumbled solemnly.

"And so, we take our leave of this brave and good man, though we will miss him sorely for our world is less without him. May his spirit always fly free."

At a nod from the General, Simon moved forward with the torch, but Jim stepped in front of him and took the fiery brand. Wordlessly, he turned to face the pyre. Once more he gazed upon the beloved face, still now and peaceful, the pain gone. Taking a breath, he said softly with rough sorrow, "You're the best man I ever knew, the best friend any man could ever have." Blinking back the burn behind his eyes, he sniffed and went on, "I trusted you as I've never trusted anyone. And ... and I'm going to trust you one more time, Chief. I'm going trust that you'll keep your promise."

And then he set the torch to the kindling, and stepped back as the fire whooshed up.

He saluted sharply, and stood there, rigidly at attention, until all that was left was ash. Then, waiting for the embers to cool, he sat on the ground clutching the medallion of the wolf and the panther that now hung around his neck, refusing to be drawn away; refusing food or drink. When it was time, he carefully scooped up the ashes into a sturdy rosewood box the General had gotten from somewhere and given to him.

********************

Simon and Joel traveled with him, though he would have preferred to go alone. They respected his silences and gave him space, but they also insisted that he eat and rest. When they got close to New York, they drew him away from the city and east toward the coast. "General Washington sent word ahead. Colonel Glover has arranged transport for you under cover of darkness, so you can get to Long Island safely."

He nodded, distantly appreciating the forethought and consideration.

Three days later, he stood on the cliff on the edge of their family land, overlooking the Atlantic. Alone, he dug the grave and tenderly placed the rosewood box into the earth. He stood for a long moment, just staring at it, and then he slowly covered it over with dirt. Taking his time, he found a slab of stone that would suit as a marker and, with Blair's knife and warclub, he hammered Blair's name and age and the date of his death into the rock. He paused for a moment and drifted his fingers over the age. "You didn't even make it to twenty-one, Chief. You fought so hard, for so long, for freedom and you never once got a chance to vote."

He secured the headstone and then found a boulder he could roll to the side of the grave. Sagging down upon it, looking up into the clear, cerulean sky, he imagined he could see Blair smiling wistfully at him, the image so real that he blinked and wondered if he was losing his mind. But there was just the sky, and the lonely wind that rustled through the long grass, and the low rumble of the roiling surf below. He sat there the whole day, trying to find the will to go on but he felt numb and empty and more than a little lost. It had been just over two years since they'd met on this very island, not all that far as the crow flies from where he sat. Memories played through his mind; some of them made him smile with wistful poignancy. The wind riffled through his hair, catching his attention, and he felt the warmth of the setting sun on his back, as if ... almost as if ... he could feel Blair's touch.

The wind riffled again, murmuring through the grass, like a low, soothing voice and he closed his eyes, trying to listen, trying to hear what Blair had heard in the wind. And then he stiffened, and frowned, straightened as memories cascaded. He gaped at the gravestone and shook his head. "You knew," he whispered hoarsely. "Somehow, you always knew something ... something was going to happen. That you wouldn't be able to stay." His voice broke. "Sonofabitch, Chief. That's why, isn't it? That's why you worked so damned hard to be sure I could do it without you."

He shivered and hugged himself, caught between fury and shame and nearly overcome with the memory of Blair's love for him. His senses. His senses had brought them together. And his senses were what had brought about Blair's death, saving him one last time, watching his back, pushing him out of danger. The senses he thought, still thought, especially now, were a curse, but that Blair had always believed were awesome gifts. Gifts that Blair had taught him to use with confidence, and even with enjoyment. He hated the damned senses in those moments. Wanted to do nothing more than fling himself off the damned cliff.

But the wind mocked him, mimicking Blair's voice. 'Not yet,' it whispered. 'Not yet.'

Wearily, he nodded to himself. Blair had always told him that he was like a secret weapon, that he made a crucial difference in their war for independence. And that war wasn't yet done. A job to do. That's what Blair had said. That he had a job to do.

Pushing himself to his feet, he gazed down at the grave. "You're a hard man, Sandburg," he rasped. "You ask more than I feel inclined to give. Because ... because it's just ... just wrong somehow. Without you here, with me. Wrong. But ... but you worked so hard. Gave me so much. I can't let you down now. So ... so I'll go on. I'll do the job set out for me. I'll do my best ... but, I dunno, Chief, I just don't know if I can keep the senses reined in without you here with me. I'll try to remember everything you taught me. But no promises after that, Blair. None but the one you gave me. That I'll see you again ... someday."

He straightened to attention, and saluted. And then he turned and marched away, back to the war.

********************

September, 1782

The memories faded and Jim found himself back on the edge of the world. "Someday," he whispered, the breath tight in his chest, and he could taste blood in the back of his throat. Leaning heavily against the gravestone, he lifted his gaze to the sky. So blue. The colour of Blair's eyes. "I'm tired, Chief," he murmured hoarsely. "I want to come home."

"It's okay, Jim," Blair said gently, hunkering down beside him and reaching out to caress his cheek. "You don't have to fight anymore."

"B-Blair?" he gasped, feeling the touch but afraid to believe it. Seeing him. Hearing him. Oh, God. "Blair?"

"Yeah, man, it's me. You're not going crazy," Sandburg smiled at him and stroked a tender hand over his head. And then, so very glad that Jim was finally able to see and hear him again, he went on with a rambling, affectionate scolding. "But I gotta tell you, it didn't have to be this hard, you know? If you'd just quit fighting your senses, or believe in your own ability to control them, like I showed you you could, they wouldn't bother you so much. We've got to keep working on this. I just can't stand watching day after day and seeing you so miserable. And you won't listen to me. Man, it's like I'm not even there."

Not really hearing the words, Jim just drank in the rich cadences of Blair's voice, the warm, sure touch of his hand, the sight of his face, those sparkling eyes and bright smile. His eyes glazing with tears, trembling with incredulous joy, Jim reached out and tentatively touched him. He was solid, not an illusion. Real. Right there. Real! Awash with overwhelming, devastating relief to have him back again, Jim pulled him into a tight, fierce embrace. "Oh, God, I missed you," he rasped hoarsely. "I missed you so much."

"I know," Blair whispered huskily, hugging him right back. "I missed you, too. Well, sort of. I never really left you. But it wasn't the same."

Stunned, confused, not caring that it made no sense, Jim gripped his shoulders and pushed back, to see his face. "Damn it, don't you ever do that again. Don't you go and leave me behind like that again! Not ever again."

Laughing unrepentantly, Blair shook his head. Standing, he held out a hand to Jim and hauled him up. "Yeah, yeah, you say that every time it happens, man. But you know we don't control stuff like that. We really have to work on this control stuff, Jim. Keeps getting you into trouble. Either that or we have got to figure out a way to get around this amnesia thing where we forget everything when we're caught up in a lifetime," he teased. "Which, given your persistent control issues, might actually be easier."

Amnesia? Lifetime? Jim blinked at the words and looked around, belatedly realized he felt well and strong again, that the pain was gone. And then he ruefully shook his head and looked back at his body. "I never get used to this, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Blair said, sounding aggrieved. But his expression softened and he sighed. "I hate it, too, when I lose you. It's hard, so hard, to keep going on. You did good, Jim. Nearly got your head blown off a time or two too often, but good, all things considered. You made a very real difference."

Jim scrubbed his face and shook his head, not wanting to hear it. Clenching his jaw, he stared out at the horizon. "It's not right," he growled. "You died way too young this time. Protecting me. Again. As usual."

"Yeah, well, that's my job, but I didn't leave you," Blair argued. "Not really. I never do. Man, we have got to work on some strategies, some way to help you be less ... less blind to the mystical. You always get so concrete. I know, I know it's because your senses are all about experiencing what's really there ... but you can see spirits, sometimes ... once or twice." When Jim gave him a testy look, he insisted, "You've seen them before. It frustrating on my side, too, you know. Sometimes ... sometimes I think I'm just about to make the connection and you block me, tell yourself you're imagining things. I talked myself hoarse, man. And, you know what? A couple times I had to tackle you or you really would have got your head shot off. And that's not a nice thing to see, Jim. I really hate it when that happens, you know?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Jim muttered, looking away.

"Hey, remember, we don't have to keep coming back," Blair said, gripping his arm, trying to be reasonable when Jim felt just so damned angry, even though there wasn't really anything to be angry about. They'd done this dance before, more times than he could count. "C'mon," Blair cajoled, "We do this because, well, because you can help, and you protect people." Shaking his head, he mumbled, "And they sure seem to constantly need a whole lot of protection."

"Oh, no," Jim retorted, turning to face him. "This isn't just about me, here. Sure, sure, I can't do the sentinel stuff on my own and you've always been there for me, I know that. I need you to help me with the senses, to do what I do. But we come back because of what you offer, too. I might protect them, but you're the one who teaches - when enough of them start paying attention to you, maybe they won't need me around so much. You're the one who makes the real difference. Only ... only you didn't get a chance to do your thing this last lifetime. And that's just not fair, Chief. It's not."

Giving him a bemused smile, Blair caught his arm and tugged him along toward the horizon. "Yeah, but, that's the point, isn't it? Life isn't always fair. That's why we do what we do, to help where we can. It's all about learning, Jim. Learning what we can with what we're given. Doing the best we can to make a positive difference. And, hey," he laughed, nudging Jim with his elbow, "you got to admit, life, living, is a wild ride. I mean, there are endless possibilities, right? Forever would be kinda boring if we didn't, you know, engage?"

"Maybe," Jim groused. "But most seem to be just fine with one or two lifetimes. I think we're adrenaline junkies, Chief."

"Nah," Blair objected. "Well, maybe, partly. But ... it's what you are, Jim. You're a sentinel. You have always been a Watcher, that's what you were created to be, and I love being your Companion. We're just doing what we were always meant to do. What's right for us to do."

Nodding, Jim looped an arm around his shoulders. "I just don't want to ever do it again like this last time. I don't want to be separated for so long, you know? When I'm here, I know it's just a blink of time. But ... but when I'm living it? It hurts, Chief. It just hurts too much."

"Yeah, well, I really hate it, too, you know. That's why we've got to work on this, because there are never any guarantees. There can't be or it wouldn't be life and our choices and actions would be, I don't know, meaningless. They have to be real in the moment, our own choices - and choices have consequences," Blair replied, the rush of words clipping along with his usual speed and vigor. "So, I've been thinking about it, and I've got some ideas about how to help you be more in tune with the mystical when we're, uh, well, on earth. There are some things I want you to try, and we've got some time, not a lot, but some, before we're needed back there again. I think, maybe, we could be using visioning techniques. Or maybe our spirit animals could help - you know, actually talk to us once in a while and not always be so damned cryptic. That if, well, if you saw a jaguar that wasn't there and really believed it was real and it told you to just relax and open up your mind, I don't know, maybe you might be more willing to think I'm really there, when I'm not, but I am."

He looked up to see Jim regarding him quizzically. Shrugging, Blair threw up his hands. "You know what I mean. If, when, well, when we get separated like last time. So you'd know ... you'd know you're not really alone."

"You're talking about more tests, aren't you, Sandburg?" Jim challenged wryly.

"Uh, well, yeah," Blair admitted, and then gave him a gamin grin.

Drawing him close to his side, Jim shook his head, and then laughed in resignation. "Okay," he agreed. "Okay. It's worth a try."

"Really? All right! That's great! Well, here's what I was thinking we could ...."

Jim listened as Blair rattled on, relishing the rolling cadences of the rich, warm voice, immeasurably grateful to hear him, see him, touch him once again. But his eyes grew distant as he reflected on the lifetime he'd just lived, and he paused on their way to the horizon to look down at his soul's mate.

"What?" Blair asked, looking at him with such open affection, willing to put all his ideas on hold to hear whatever it was he had to say.

"Back there, in that lifetime, when ... when I couldn't seem to find the words," Jim said with deep concern, "you said ... you said you knew. Did you really?" His throat tightened. "It's just that ... that I know we have to start over every time and ... and I wouldn't want to think that you never knew, while you were right there, alive in that place and time, that you didn't know ...."

"I knew, Jim," Blair reassured him with a soft smile. "No matter what, however hard it gets, deep down ... I always know you love me every bit as much as I love you. I always know."

With a small vulnerable smile, Jim nodded, wanting to believe him. "I don't know how," he sighed.

"You show me," Blair reassured him, pulling him close for a fierce hug. "You show me in ways there aren't enough words to convey."

"I'm glad, Chief," he whispered into Blair's hair. "At least I'm getting something right."

Laughing, Blair again pulled him toward the stars. "C'mon," he urged. "Like I said, we don't have a huge amount of time here." Chuckling at Blair's eternal exuberance and seemingly truly infinite number of new ideas about how they might get it better the next time around, Jim very willingly followed along. He was finally back where he belonged, with Blair. He was finally home.

********************

Bitterwood Creek, Kansas, June, 1866

With a groan, Jim stirred, blinked and winced against the light, and groggily wondered why his shoulder felt like it was on fire. Covering his eyes with his hand, he moaned, "Too bright."

He heard someone quickly cross the wooden floor and close the shades on the harsh afternoon sunlight. And a rich, melodious voice said, "Hey, I'm glad you're finally waking up; you had me worried."

God, the guy was loud. Grimacing, he muttered hoarsely, "I can hear you; no need to shout."

His hand still covering his eyes, wrestling with a killer headache and the blazing pain in his shoulder, Jim heard the man come back toward the bed and the scrape of the chair as he sat down. For a moment, there was just blessed silence, and then liquid gurgled as it was poured into a mug. A gentle hand slipped under his neck and lifted his head and the mug was held to his lips. Grateful for the cool water, he drank thirstily, and then sighed, feeling oddly bereft when his head was lowered to the pillow and the warm hand was withdrawn.

"I'm Dr. Blair Sandburg and this is my infirmary," the stranger told him, his voice much, much quieter, and with a wispy quality that suggested he might be whispering. Damn, his hearing was acting up again. The guy probably hadn't been shouting at all. "You were shot in the holdup," the doctor was saying, "but you're going to be fine. I'm sorry, but I don't know your name."

"Ellison, Jim Ellison," he grated and lowered his hand. Squinting in the still, to him, bright light, he studied Sandburg, surprised to see a kid with wild curls that hardly looked old enough to be what he claimed. The wide, clear blue eyes looked back at him with compassion and sharp intelligence, and the face looked kind, the hesitant smile friendly. Not that he needed, or wanted, a friend. Shot, huh? Well, he guessed he was lucky that there'd been a doctor handy to patch him up.

And their continuing adventure through time and space begins once again ....

Bitterwood Creek

********************

Who You'd Be Today

Written by Bill Luther and Aimee Mayo
Sung by Kenny Chesney

Sunny days seem to hurt the most; I wear the pain like a heavy coat.
I feel you everywhere I go.

I see your smile, I see your face. I hear you laughing in the rain.
I still can't believe you're gone.

It ain't fair, you died too young, like a story that had just begun.
But death tore the pages all away.

God knows how I miss you, all the hell that I've been through,
Just knowing no one can take your place.

Sometimes, I wonder ... who you'd be today.

Would you see the world? Would you chase your dreams?
Settle down with a family?

I wonder what would you name your babies ....

Some days the sky's so blue, I feel like I can talk to you.
I know it might sound crazy.

It ain't fair, you died too young, like a story that had just begun.
But death tore the pages all away.

God knows how I miss you, all the hell that I've been through,
Just knowing no one can take your place.

Sometimes, I wonder ... who you'd be today.
Today. Today. Today-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay.
Today. Today. Today-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay.

Sunny days seem to hurt the most; I wear the pain like a heavy coat.
The only thing that gives me hope,
Is I know ... I'll see you again someday.

Some day. Some day-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay.

Finis

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