Blair felt Jim's arms tighten around his chest.
"It was right after I graduated." His voice sounded very far away. "Top honors, placement in an elite unit, even some talk of me going back after my tour and teaching or something. Not that I wanted that...I was all gung-ho and ready to serve my country. It was 1960, so things were starting to heat up. But we had this long leave between graduation and joining our units. Dad came to my graduation, but left right after to go on a business trip and Stephen, my brother, he was spending the summer working for him. Economics major in Princeton, you see. He wanted something practical to go with all the theory. So...I got a bunch of my buddies together. We were going to go hiking and rafting up here."
"Yeah. Couple guys from the Point who were also at loose ends; couple guys from high school that I kept in touch with, guys from my football team. About six of us, all told. There are some great places around Cascade...maybe one day..." Jim broke off. "Sorry."
"It's okay. You'd be surprised what we gimps can do."
"Nothing would surprise me, Chief." Jim chuckled a bit, then became quiet again. "Six of us, with three first names...three Bills, two Jims and an Artie. I remember Bill from the Point asking Artie if he wanted to be a Bill or a Jim and he said he liked being different. And I had this old pickup I'd bought in high school - made right after the war, you know? We filled the back with camping gear and a raft and a couple of Bills and a Jim and food for a month and took off." He stopped.
"I was just thinking...it was my truck, so I was the driver. It was the last time I ever drove, and I had no idea...you have to know exactly what I mean."
"Yeah. I do. I mean, I know I was walking around and running and everything the day I hit that mine, but...it made no impression on me. Last time I could do stuff like that, and there was no way I could know." Blair shivered a little, remembering. Jim wrapped his arms tighter, taking care of him, warming him. It had been a long time since that had happened - a long time since the impersonal care at the hospital and rehabilitation center, since he left his parents home with their solicitation and silent recrimination for his folly. He waited for Jim to continue. When he didn't, Blair decided it was time for a gentle prod. "What happened next?"
"I woke up screaming in a hospital room, my eyes dazzled by the light. I think I lasted a minute before I started convulsing." Blair shivered at Jim's expressionless voice.
"I don't have them anymore. It was...sensory overload, I think." He stroked Blair's hands. "They pieced things together later. We'd hiked up a mountain for a few days, and were going to raft down. Used to do every summer. Water was running rough...more rain than usual."
"Not possible." Damn. You're an idiot, Sandburg. At least, Jim didn't seem to have heard him, because he kept talking.
"Then...something happened. They found the raft miles from where we would have stopped, broken and empty. And they found everyone's bodies. Everyone but mine. They found me limping and bleeding, shying at every sound, every touch, out of my mind with hunger and thirst. I had a severe concussion, I'd sprained an ankle. I showed evidence of having at least one seizure - the pattern of bruises and dirt showed that, they said. I was in absolute hell."
"You were alone for how long?"