He went back to his own tent and his own equipment. By the time he came out again, it was full dark, the early evening rains were falling and the men were lined up and waiting to go in. Anderson, who was to be his partner, waited for him.
He nodded and gave the signal. Anderson shouted to the platoon, and they all shouldered their packs, checked their weapons and made their way into the jungle surrounding their base, two by two.
They were ridiculously noisy, or so they seemed to Blair's ears. He could hear branches breaking and men falling with muffled curses as they tripped in the dark. Any VC who heard them would either know to run or...rifle shots.
He ran towards the shots, relieved to hear Anderson's footsteps following him. He heard return fire. It was too close. More shots. They had to be there some place.
Then, "Oh, my God! NO!!!" Their voices were all too new. This one only sounded young. And terrified.
No more shots. The entire jungle became silent. And then there was the sound of tears. Anderson had long since caught up with him. They exchanged glances and followed the sound.
It was too dark already, and whatever light they might have gotten from the overcast sky was hidden by the trees. Blair finally reached into his pack and took out a flashlight. If the VC saw him, they saw him. If they were still around.
He heard Anderson adjust his rifle. "I'll cover you, sir."
"Thank you, sergeant. They can't be far." Blair hoped it was a "they", or still a "they".
"There, sir. By that tree." Blair peered. He could just make out four figures. Two were on the ground, two were standing. One of those standing was crying.
Quickly, he and Anderson separated. The sergeant went to the one crying. "Miller? What happened?"
Meanwhile, Blair knelt next to the men on the ground. Bruno lay in Delacroix's arms, bleeding heavily. Delacroix was applying pressure on the wound, but it didn't seem to do much good.
"What happened? Delacroix?"
"Sir?" There was white all around the boy's eyes.
"It's all right, Delacroix. Just tell me what you saw."
"Yes, sir." He took a deep breath. "Me and Bruno, we were scouting out to the right. Miller and Watts, they were going to the left. It was dark. Like it is now. And all I could hear, sir, was *us*."
"Yeah. Bruno ain't never hunted or nothing, so he moved like an ox. So's all I could hear was him."
"Okay. I've never hunted, either."
Delacroix's eyes widened. "Wow. Ain't never knew nobody who never hunted 'fore coming here. Now I met *two*. Okay. So, all I can hear is Petey. And other guys. Then...then someone shoots at us. I figure it's a gook, homing in on Petey. So, I pick up my weapon and I fire. I didn't hit nobody, though. Petey just falls down."
"Did he say anything?"
"No, sir, Lieutenant. He just fell. And then...then DeMarr Miller and Mike Watts come in, and DeMarr is saying, 'Did I hit you? Did I hit somebody?' And he kinda trips over Petey, and then he shouts 'Oh, no!' and starts crying on Mike's shoulder."
"What did you do then?"
"I go here so's I can take care of Petey. You know, what they taught us about first aid, 'cept it's not helping none."
"How's he doing?"
"I don't think he's doing too good, sir. It feels like...like it's slowing down. Oh, God, sir. Petey's going to die!"
"No! I didn't kill him. I *didn't*. Sarge, you know me and Petey. I wouldn't never hurt him." Miller sounded desperate.
"I know, DeMarr. No one thinks you wanted to hurt him. Right, sir?" Anderson seemed to be striking the right note, but Blair was seriously worried about the soldier. Was he expected to handle this? Was he supposed to find a chaplain?
"Right, sergeant. This is *not* your fault, Miller. Sergeant, round up the rest of the unit, find us a medic and then call HQ. Miller, stay with him."
"And where will you be, Lt. Sandburg, sir?"
"Right here, with Delacroix and Bruno, waiting for the medic, or to be evac'd. Bruno needs a hospital ASAP."
Blair understood Anderson's tone. Bruno wasn't going to need a hospital. Delacroix had blurted out the truth. But he couldn't let himself be seen losing hope, any more than he could leave his men alone in the night.
"You have my orders, sergeant. Move!"
Blair could hear the others move, and then, far off, the sound of Anderson gathering up the men and calling for Williams, the medic.
"He's...he's starting to get...cold."
Blair felt for a pulse on Bruno's neck. Nothing. "You can put him down now, soldier."
"Umm. Sir...no. It's...it's wet here, and he...Miller said he hated when he got wet. I think...I'll hold on to him." Delacroix fought back tears. Blair understood. No way was he going to cry in front of his lieutenant. Damn, the kid had a friend's body in his arms. What the hell was Blair going to do now?
"Good idea, Delacroix. Where the hell is Williams?"
"It's all right. It was just a rhetorical question. I know you don't know. You want me to take over now? Hold Bruno for a while?" No way was Blair prepared to hold a dead body, but he couldn't let this boy - all of two years younger than he - know this.
"No, sir. He was my...my buddy. You said so...we're responsible for each other."
Blair bit his lip. 'As I am responsible for all of you.'
There was only the sound of men stumbling around in the distance. Where the hell was Williams?
"Rhetorical? That means don't answer, right?"
More silence. "You college guys. You get these deferments, right? And then you go to medical school or be teachers or something?"
"Are you asking why I'm here, soldier?"
"Umm. Yeah, kinda. I'm sorry, sir. Just...I didn't have no choice. I got the letter in the mail and I had to go."
"That's why I joined. Because it didn't seem fair that I had the choice, just because my parents could afford to send me to college, just because I could afford to go instead of work. I'd just finished college...I had my deferments all in order for graduate school."
"You had more deferments?" There was sheer wonder in Delacroix's voice.
"Yes...I was going to be a professor. Then I walked past a recruiting office. All those draftees...a lot like you and Miller and poor Bruno here. And...it was wrong. You guys didn't have a chance. So, right then and there I walked in and signed up. And they made me an officer, too. My folks..." Better not talk about Mom and Pop's politics here. No need to advertise how red your diapers were. "...my folks were furious."
"Sir, if you don't mind me saying so...that was a real dumb thing."
Blair chuckled. "I figured that out when they expected me to shoot a gun. Which I turned out not to be half bad at. But I'm stubborn. I'm here, I'm going to do the best I can and I'm going to see this out." He squinted at the two shadowy shapes in front of him. "Assuming I don't get more of you killed."
Williams arrived not so long afterwards, and the three of them dragged Bruno's body back to camp. Anderson, Miller still following him, met Blair at the edge of the camp.
"All present and accounted for, sir. There were some minor injuries - the worst were a couple of sprained ankles. Williams was taking care of them when I found him."
"So he told me, sergeant."
"Lieutenant?" Miller sounded lost and not a little scared.
"Is that...is that *him*, sir?"
Blair nodded. "If you want, you and Delacroix can...get something to eat maybe." There was something fey in Miller's eyes. He didn't know what to do, but he knew he couldn't leave the boy alone.
"No, sir. I...I need to see. I need...please, sir. Let me...please?"
"Sir?" Anderson looked at Blair. "I think you should let him do what he wants."
"Very well. Take as long as you need, Miller."
Miller knelt next to the stretcher. They'd covered Bruno's face with a bandana that Delacroix had in his pocket. Miller moved it aside. He stared at Bruno for several minutes, then traced the dead man's mouth and cheeks with a hesitant finger. He turned to look up at Blair.
"He...he didn't suffer, did he, sir? He didn't...I didn't make...he didn't hurt?"
"No." Blair didn't know if it were truth or lie, but he did know it didn't matter. "It was...he didn't hurt."
Miller nodded and turned back to Bruno, and picked up his hand. "Petey...I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't know it was you, I promise. You're my best friend, Petey. I wouldn't do nothing like that on purpose. I'm sorry!" And the boy who was too proud to cry in front of his lieutenant moments ago collapsed on his friend, sobs torn from his throat.
Blair and Anderson walked several steps away, far enough to give Miller an illusion of privacy. "How is he doing, sergeant?"
"Look at him, sir." Anderson shook his head. "A few months ago, these two were at each other's throats - city Eye-talian, country Negro, had nothing in common. Then they got into a big fist fight on leave, and next thing we knew, they were best buddies."
"Was I wrong to split them up, then?"
Anderson's face became unreadable. "That was your decision to make, sir." Then he relaxed. "I don't think it was a *bad* idea. I think Miller was jumpy enough to shoot at anyone. It just wouldn't have been Bruno. And they were getting...a little too close. Sometimes best buddies pay more attention to each other than to the job at hand."
DeMarr Miller stood up and brushed the mud off his knees. He wiped his hands on his pants and then ran them over his face, leaving trails of dirt on his face. He walked towards his superiors.
"Sir? Sarge? Am I going to be put on charges?" Blair couldn't be certain if Miller was being hopeful or apprehensive.
Blair had thought about this question. "No. It was an accident, and that's how I'm going to report it. Just an accident." Anderson nodded.
"It wasn't your fault, soldier."
Miller bit his lip. "If you say so, sir. May I go?"
"Will you be all right, DeMarr?"
"Yeah, sarge. Can I...can I stay with him until he's evac'd?"
"If the lieutenant says so, sure."
Blair nodded. Miller thanked him and sat down on the ground next to his dead buddy.
Anderson had left to check on the injured men, but Blair hadn't been able to leave. He'd put that boy on the ground...he put both boys there by his orders, by his interpretations of his orders. It had been his first day in charge and he had a life...two lives...on his hands forever.
Blair leaned on his cane on that hilltop in Cascade. It was too dark to see his watch, but the moon looked a little lower. How long was Ellison going to take? Was he tripping down there?
'Please. I don't want to dream about his face, too.' Bruno was only the first. Miller was there, too, weeks later. He'd disobeyed orders and ran directly into the enemy. And Delacroix. And Anderson, after they'd turned to each other in defiance of rules and everything else, just for some comfort in the nights, before that last grenade took care of Anderson's life and his leg.
Where the hell was Ellison?
Concentrate, Ellison. Remember your training. It had been years...seven, eight years...since he'd used any of the tracking skills he learned at the point. Since that...that time they keep telling him about, the time he just couldn't remember, but that marked the end of his being normal - well, mostly normal - forever.
Just forget that, Jim. You have to protect this city. He could hear Sandburg's voice in his head. He'd known the man for less than a day, but he was already in Jim's blood.
He reached the house. Carefully, still hearing Sandburg in his head, he leaned against the wall and tried to focus his hearing.
"..me them works, wouldja?" This was definitely a different voice. Probably *him.*
"Sure thing, man." Bob's voice. "Whatever you want."
"You guys took long enough out there. You two havin' it on or something?"
"What do you think we are, Steve? Coupla *fags*?" The second voice.
"You're pretty enough, with them golden curls, Ken. Maybe I should have a go at you?"
"Ken" laughed nervously. "Yeah, right. Let's get it on, man! Damn, we need some chicks here."
"We'll get plenty of chicks when this deal is done, right, Steve?"
"Oh, man, yeah. We'll be rich, we'll have a different chick and a different set of wheels for each day of the week."
"If we don't get caught." Ken didn't sound happy.
"We're not going to get caught. We're out in the boonies here."
"A half mill each?"
"I said that, didn't I?" Steve was getting impatient. "Where's that candle? Stupid shack."
"Just shut up."
Jim could hear...what...a match being struck. He sidled around until he got to a dimly lit window. He peered inside. The light was from a kerosene lantern on a rather rickety table covered in candy wrappers and potato chip bags.
Three guys. One had long shaggy blond hair held down by a headband. That was "Ken." The big man holding a spoon over a candle had to be Steve, so the third man with the dark horn rims had to be Bob. Bob was holding yet another can of beer while Ken was...what was Ken doing? The angle was all wrong. They'd stopped talking, so that was no clue.
Okay. Let's see if these damn senses actually have some use besides ruining your life. Can't touch from here, and certainly can't taste...smell.
He sniffed, focusing on his most difficult sense. Whoa. Too much information. He kept his eyes and ears open, in case one of the guys came to the window.
He tried again, attempting to ignore the stuff he knew about...the grass, the odors from the highway, even the smells coming from the trash on the table and the men themselves, who hadn't washed recently, unlike Blair, who smelled of Ivory soap and baby shampoo and himself. Don't think about Blair right now.
Okay. Those scents present and accounted for, sir. Now...something bitter. Lots of something bitter. Not just the heroin Steve was currently shooting into his vein. But the same odor. And another...something chalky...powdery. Talc. Where was this, then? Jim was about to follow the scent when he smelled something else...sulfur...metal...oil. A gun. They were armed.
So...drug dealers and users, and they were mixing their drugs with talc. Jim's fists tightened. Two years ago, a boy at VMI had died because he'd shot up on a dare, and the heroin had been mixed with talc. He'd had a stroke when the insoluble powder blocked a vein in his head. They'd cracked down hard on drug use then, but they all knew it was just a matter of time before it happened again.
And now they were in his city. He had to do something. What?
Come on, Ellison. You were trained in this once upon a time. It's just reconnaissance. You were tops in the Point. What do you do now?
Find the gun. These guys would have it out in the open, ready to hand. He shuddered at the thought of someone high using a weapon - and he and Blair were unarmed. He glanced at the window. Steve was lolling back, and Ken had the needle up his own arm. Same one. Where was Bob? Bob was at the table with his beer. He was nursing it...when he drank, the same amount sloshed each time. He wasn't drunk.
Bob was the suspicious one. He wasn't going to like the other two. Jim peered again through the window. There is it was. A revolver. He was cleaning it. Okay. He had the weapon...or one weapon...sighted. Now what?
Now was the time to find the stash. Bob was occupied and the other two were out of commission. Time to play blood hound. Would it be a higher concentration of heroin because of the amount? Or a lower because of the talc?
He decided to home in on the talc instead. That was certain. There was an outbuilding on the other side of the house.
There it was. In that shed. He found it.
Now...now he had to report back. Blair wanted his intelligence. He was waiting up on that hill.
Jim stopped for a moment. He needed more information. He had to be certain. And...what was he doing, treating Sandburg like a superior officer?
He drifted over to the shed and tested the door. It was latched, but the latch was easy to open. There it was...bales of heroin and talcum powder. And one was open. They were consuming their own stock. Jim frowned. No one would be stupid enough to shoot up on horse they'd stepped on themselves. He went over and tasted it, and then spat. Pure. Those guys were going to kill themselves with this.
He should just let them die. Let the other junkies in Cascade die. The city would be better off without them.
'And what about you, Ellison? Are you any less of a junkie with your joint every night?' That's different. You need that joint just to stay sane.
Didn't matter. These scum were still part of Cascade. Now he had to save their lives, too. Providing big Steve or paranoid Bob didn't whack them all for him, of course.
Jim shook his head.
"What took you so long, Ellison?" Blair's voice was sharp with impatience.
Jim had to fight the urge to stand at attention and salute, even after all those years and despite the fact that none of his instructors had hair that long or wore white turtlenecks under sports coats.
"Sorry, s...Sandburg. Trying to get as much information as I can."
"Okay." Blair shifted a bit. "I've just been standing too long. Help me down? My leg's stiff." The ground was damp, so Jim took off his jacket, despite Blair's protests, and laid it down first before easing him onto it.
"Thank you, doc." He flexed his right arm and rubbed his stump above the prosthesis. "I'm getting old or something." He buttoned his sports coat and turned up the collar. "It's also getting a mite chilly."
"Sorry, chief. You're sitting on my coat, or I'd lend it to you."
"It's cool. I'll be okay. I'm used to it. It...I haven't been warm in years." Blair got that far away look in his eyes again.
Jim, who was already kneeling, sat down next to him on his jacket and wrapped his arms around his shoulders. "If I thought it would help, I'd give you my shirt, too." He'd keep this man warm forever if he could. That thought frightened him, but Blair shivered in his arms, so he didn't let go.
"Okay. Now...let's see what you found out." The next hour was the wildest of Jim's life. He sat under a bright, starry sky on his suit coat, his arms around another man, and that man spent all that time forcing him to recall everything he saw, heard, smelt, tasted and felt around that shack, checking and double checking, causing him to remember things he hadn't even thought about when he was there, such as the presence of a radio next to the table or a sweet odor around the doctored heroin. Jim was drained when the questions finally stopped. He took a moment to check in on the cabin. He found he could hear their heartbeats and even tell them apart. All seemed quiet.
"You are good, Chief."
He could feel Blair shrug against him. "It's something I had to learn to do in the field. They were all good kids, good soldiers but they needed just a bit of help with their scouting reports."
"They didn't teach us that at the Point, either."
Blair was warm against his side, inside his arms, and his hair smelled like nightflowers and candle smoke. He could feel his own body respond. He forced himself to keep his arms there, to not stand up and run away, to not follow the habit that had long since became instinct to flee from situations like this. He was safe with Blair - Blair wouldn't get him court-martialed or fired or even fight him.
"Jim? What's wrong? You stiffened up all of sudden."
He clenched his fists. "I'm sorry. I didn't want you to feel that." His arousal had disappeared. "It felt...good holding you. I've never...well, you know."
Jim suspected that Blair had not meant him to hear his whispered "Damn idiots", so he pretended not to. "Not even in grad school? I mean, I understand about being in West Point and all, and I can dig that you had to stay hidden when you taught at VMI. That place has to be so uptight. But, see, I looked at your book and it said you went to grad school right here in Rainier."
"I didn't have a choice. The only grad school that would take me was Rainier, and that was because I could live with my father, because of my 'seizures.'"
"But...they're not seizures."
Jim shrugged, but he didn't loosen his hands - even when Blair covered them with his own. "Fugues, seizures...whatever the hell you call them. They didn't want me living on campus. So, I moved back in with Dad. Not that we ever said anything to each other. I disappointed him, after all. He wanted a general, not a freak." He could feel his hands clench tighter. Blair's touch was gentle. Safe. He grabbed hold of that concept. He was safe here. He could be himself here, in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of drug dealers a hill away. With that thought, his hands relaxed. He checked the house again. Two of the hearts were slower, relaxed.
Blair didn't say anything for awhile. He just stroked him gently, keeping his fists open. Then he took a breath. "You're not a freak, you know."
He shrugged again. "No. I did some research into this...even found a couple of people with one or two enhanced senses like yours...before I took some time off. It's perfectly natural. You just got it worse."
"What about...you know. The other. Tell me that doesn't make me a freak." He clutched tightly now at Blair's hands. Blair let him.
"I wish I could, Jim. I really wish I could. It really sucks when society doesn't like who you...fall in love with." He turned and looked at Jim, his dilated eyes reflecting the stars.
"How do...why are you so cool with it?"
"Cool? Oh, man. I'm not cool. I totally freaked my first time, back in college, and when my sergeant bought it...damn. But it's part of who I am - the girls and the guys both."
"You...you like girls, too?" Jim could not keep the disbelief out of his voice.
"Yeah, well...why limit your options? It's not like...like I got too many chances anyhow, not with this peg." Blair thumped his prosthesis. "Not too many people into amputees, or into vets."
"They're idiots, then." Jim stared into those huge pupils, wondering if he could actually see into this man's soul. "You're beautiful." He bit his lips. Had he really said that?
Blair ducked his head down, his hair falling forward to conceal his face. "Don't say things like that." Jim looked at him in surprise. "Just *don't*."
Blair sighed and turned around. He leaned back into Jim's chest. Jim let go of Blair's hands and wrapped his arms around him. Blair murmured something incomprehensible and began to nuzzle Jim's neck. This time, Jim found himself relaxing instead of wanting to flee.
"When...when did you get your senses?"
"Whoa. Let me get my bearings..."
"Take your time. I'm not even sure what we're waiting for."
Jim had an inkling, but he didn't want to say yet. He hoped he was wrong. He had to answer one of Blair's questions....
Go to Part Four.