Desert Hunt by Ice Bear

Desert Hunt - Ice Bear

Blair smiled serenely as he watched his partner and best friend complete a perfect flip turn at the deep end of the pool. Jim’s long, even strokes barely caused a ripple in the crystal blue water. The junior detective returned his attention to his book. Closing his eyes momentarily, he stretched carefully not wanting to tip the float; luxuriating in the warm sun. Life, he was pretty sure, didn’t get much better than this.

It had been two years since he’d become a detective. Jim joked that the only real difference from his time as an observer was the fact that, at least now, he got paid to fill out forms and be shot at. This was their first real vacation, aside from a short camping trip or two, since he’d started the Academy.

Jim’s brother, Stephen, was working on remodeling a race track in the Southwest, and had invited the partners to visit. He was living in a large ranch house – complete with pool – in a small town in the middle of the desert. As it worked out, he had been called to the East Coast, and the two detectives had the place to themselves for the first week.

The timing of the invitation couldn’t have been better. Jim had wrenched his knee chasing a suspect, and the Sentinel on desk duty was never fun. And they both had big chunks of vacation time that fell in to the use it or lose it category.

Blair couldn’t remember his partner ever being this relaxed. He didn’t know if it was the sun - an infrequent visitor in Cascade at the best of times - the quiet beauty of the desert; or the lack of men with guns and bombs, but it felt good to see some of the worry lines around the blue eyes ease. He startled as his float began to tip – opening his eyes to a grinning Ellison.

“Earth to Sandburg – I asked if you were ready for lunch.”

“Sure, Jim. Though it seems a waste for both of us to get out,” he returned the devilish grin.

“Flip you for it, Chief?” The float rocked precariously.

“Oh, no! No way, Jim! This is a library book, I…”

“Okay, I’ll do KP, but that means you get breakfast, deal?” Receiving a nod, the bigger man dove under the blue water and swam to the end. As he exited the pool, the sun gleamed off the muscular body. For a moment Blair caught a glimpse of the panther, sleek and wet, emerging from a jungle river.

Jim hummed along with the country song on the radio as he fixed a salad. He owed his baby brother big time for this vacation. His partner was soaking up the sun like it was his last chance, and the gleam in his eye and the bounce in his step that had been missing for so long had returned. He wasn’t sure how, but he was going to do everything in his power to keep it there.

In addition, the vacation was going to give him time with Stevie. Despite a few awkward fits and starts after the race track case, they had managed to become friends, and he would always cherish the support his brother provided to the pair after the diss disaster.

And the setting – well, after the cold, wet of Cascade, dry heat was a pleasure. And the sights, smells and sounds of Mother Nature were a balm to his overworked senses. Except for the presence of a Sportsmens’ Club a half mile from the end of their private drive, there was little to interfere with his senses and he could stretch them without fear of a spike. He felt freer than he could remember since leaving Peru.

As dusk began to fill the sky, the two men made their way to the front porch and watched the sunset paint the surrounding mountains in companionable silence. When the last of the natural light slid away, leaving only a faint pink rose color flowing along the black outline of the mountains, they headed into town for dinner. They were working their way through every Mexican restaurant in town, searching for the perfect margarita and the spiciest salsa. Jim teased that his partner was in search of the perfect pick up line, and he sat back in wonder as his partner charmed every waitress – regardless of age or gender - that crossed their path.

------

Jim woke abruptly at 4:15 the next morning, unsure why. Extending his hearing a car – an SUV or truck by the sound of it - was on the road beyond the turnoff for their drive. That made no sense as the road turned to dirt fifteen feet beyond their gate, and they were the last house on the road. He moved silently out of the house, climbing the three steps that separated the patio from the far end of the pool, eyes trained on the far ridge. He could see the vehicle working its way up the steep hill. He watched as it disappeared over the far side.

“Jim, everything okay?” Blair whispered, from the small patio outside the den. “Jim?” He moved cautiously over to his partner and took hold of a bicep. “Come on, man, come back to me.”

A slight shiver ran through the older man, “Chief?”

“Hey, what brought you out here?”

“A truck just went up the hill over there.”

“But that’s a dirt trail…”

“Yeah, and Blair…thought I smelled gun powder and blood.”

“Poachers maybe?” Jim shrugged, eyes still focused on where he’d last seen the truck.

“Come on, Ellison, back to bed. Nothing you can do about it right now. Besides, we’re on vacation, remember?” He tugged hard on the arm, finally gaining his partner’s full attention.

“Yeah, vacation. Sorry, Chief…didn’t mean to wake you.” Jim ran a hand gently through the soft hair and let it rest on the warm nape of the neck, enjoying the feel of the short hairs there.

Blair leaned back into the touch, soaking up the moment. His blue eyes found his partner’s, and he smiled, “You didn’t, I was thirsty. You going to be able to go back to sleep?”

“Yeah, sleep well, Chief.” Blair was right; his imagination – even on vacation – was in overdrive. He settled back onto his bed, but sleep eluded him. There was something about the incident that he couldn’t let slide. As to why it bothered him – that he couldn’t put his finger on.

After cleaning up the breakfast dishes, the two men headed to the pool the next morning. Jim swam laps, as the doctor had said no running, while Blair worked on soaking up as much sun as possible, his body glistening from the oil he’d slathered on his chest and legs. He wondered why his partner hadn’t joined the SEALS instead of the Rangers as he watched him cut easily through the water. He was about to ask, when he remembered Jim’s long ago confession that open water made him very uncomfortable.

“Car coming, Chief.” Jim startled him from a doze, and he grabbed the side of the pool to keep from flipping his float. “And it’s got a police radio.” Jim moved out of the water and swiftly down the steps leading from the pool to the drive with his partner on his heels.

Jim stood at the base of the short, paved driveway, head cocked. “Two men, Sherriff’s deputies from the sounds of the radio.”

“How’d they get through the gate? You need a code.”

“Smart folks make sure the locals have ‘em in case of emergency.”

A County Sheriff’s jeep pulled to a stop at the base of the circular dirt drive, and two men in tan uniforms stepped out. The four men eyed each other cautiously. “Sorry to bother you. I’m Deputy Hart,” the blonde said as he took one step toward the two.

“Jim Ellison, Blair Sandburg.” Jim replied, making no move forward – arms crossed tightly across his bare chest. “Can we help you, gentlemen?”

“Got I.D.?” The other deputy ‘Litton’ Jim read the name tag, asked from his spot by the jeep.

“Sandburg, you want to get them, please.” Jim remained where he was, making it clear they weren’t invited in. He was scanning them. They were apprehensive – that was clear – about what was the question. Litton had remained behind his partner, and far enough off to the side to make it impossible for anyone to take both of them at once. It was odd behavior when you considered he and Blair could hardly be hiding weapons in their bathing trunks.

Blair returned and handed their badge wallets to Hart. He then stepped back, taking a stance near Jim mirroring the one Litton had with his partner.

Hart glanced at the wallets and up at the two men, confusion clear on his face. “Detectives Ellison and Sandburg?”

“Cascade PD, Major Crimes. Cascade, Washington,” Jim filled in, seeing the question in the man’s eyes.

“Dale, run a check on ‘em,” he said tossing them to his partner. “You want to tell me what you gentlemen are doing out here?”

“Vacation,” Blair answered. “Jim’s brother, Stephen, is working on a race track remodel near here. The house belongs to a friend of his from business school. We had some time coming, and I’ve seen more sun in the four days we’ve been here then we saw all last year in Cascade.” Jim was listening to the radio discussion, grateful for his partner’s diversion. Blair knew the dispatcher must have verified their identities when his partner’s stance relaxed ever so slightly.

“Detective Ellison, Detective Sandburg,” Litton acknowledged, coming to stand beside his partner. The two were as much a contrast as the Cascade pair. Hart was tall, blonde, tan, and slender, with sharp hazel eyes. Litton was a compact man with brown eyes and black unruly hair.

“You guys like something to drink,” Jim offered, turning to go up into the house. After handing out iced bottles of water and settling their guests in the den overlooking the small patio and pool, Jim continued, “What, or whom, should I say, are you looking for?”

“Last night somebody killed the Burtons - husband, wife and two kids. Shot them down in their beds. Neighbors called it in.” Hart responded, his body tightening as he recalled the bloody scene.

“Motive?” Blair asked.

“Not sure yet. Frankly, it seems damn random right now.” Litton answered.

“You hear anything odd out this way last night?” Hart asked.

“A truck went up off the pavement and headed into the hills about 4:15-4:30 this morning.”

“How’d you know it was a truck?” Litton asked.

“It’s quiet up here and sound travels. Wasn’t sure at first what woke me. Realized it was damn late for anyone to be driving up here, especially since we’re the last house on the road. Went out back by the pool and saw the lights.”

“How’d you know it was a truck?” Litton demanded since he hadn’t gotten an answer to his first question.

“It was light enough that I could see the outline of an extended back.”

“Did you see where it went?” Hart asked.

“Nothing’s been up that way this morning, ought to be able to follow the tracks.” Jim replied.

“What would you know about tracking?” Litton demanded.

“Jim was an Army Ranger,” Blair responded. “He spent 18 months living with a native tribe in Peru. The feds use him on cases up our way all the time.” He was unhappy with the man’s attitude toward his partner.

“Yeah, well this ain’t the woods.” Litton responded arrogantly.

Jim shrugged and headed outside. “You gentlemen need anything else, you know where to find us,” he said, striding up the three steps that separated the back patio from the pool.

“Detectives, would you mind coming with us? We would appreciate your help. Ignore my partner; his mouth has a nasty habit of getting ahead of his brain.” Hart asked.

“Jim, you don’t need to do this. It’s your vacation, man,” Blair whispered, unhappy with the tight set of the broad shoulders.

“Chief,” Jim turned to look at his partner, a hand ruffling the curly hair, as the need to help shone clearly in the blue eyes, “it’s our vacation.”

“Give us 10 minutes to change,” Blair said, turning to face the locals after sharing an understanding smile with his partner.

The four men were quiet down the mile long drive. At the point where the tar ended, they exited. Jim stood quietly, eyes closed. Blair placed a hand on his arm. Blue eyes opened, and Jim smiled his thanks. “Going to need some help, Chief. There’s a lot of new smells here. It’s gonna be hard to sort through them all.”

“You can do it, Jim, just concentrate.”

“You waiting for an invitation, Ellison?” Litton barked.

“Lay off, Dale, this guy knows what he’s doing.” Hart cautioned. Their actions were stirring an old memory.

“What do you mean? We don’t know squat about these guys.”

“I remember reading about Ellison when he came out of the jungle. He lost his entire team and still managed to successfully complete his mission. And I came across his name again a couple of years ago in a law enforcement magazine. I was curious if it was the same guy…he’s good, Dale, the best. Let them work.”

“Just sift through what doesn’t fit, Jim. And remember last night you said you smelled blood and gunpowder. Remember those smells. Find them here.”

Blue eyes scanned the dirt road once and then again. “Here - wide tires,” he said as he moved forward while slipping on a pair of dark shades. “The truck’s leaking oil,” he finished, after sniffing a pinch of sand and pointing to a miniscule spill.

Blair stayed slightly to Jim’s left, his eyes never leaving his partner. Once Jim had accepted his senses, he’d worked hard to hone them, and the things he was able to do, even in the most difficult of circumstances, continued to amaze him.

The pair moved steadily along the hard packed dirt road, ignoring Litton’s loud disbelief, than grudging admiration at finding the oil drip. The road split two miles from where they left the car – both roads hard packed with very little loose sand. The Cascade detectives walked slowly up and down twenty yards of both junctures before following the road to the right which led to a steep trail that was composed of deep sand, making walking difficult, but the truck easier to track.

“Hey Jim, time for a break. It’s hot. We all could use a drink,” Blair softly demanded. It was over 90 degrees, and just after noon. They’d been on the trail for close to two hours, and walking in the sifting sand was not what the doctor had ordered for his partner’s abused knee.

“You doing alright, Chief,” Jim asked, turning slowly around as he lifted his Jags cap and brushed a hand through his close cropped hair.

“Yeah, but its only gonna get hotter. No sense in getting dehydrated.” Jim took the bottle Blair produced from his ever present backpack and loosed a small smile at his guide.

“I’ve got a call into forensics – see if we can get a mold on the tracks. Dale’s going to wait for ‘em. I also asked for some horses, depending on how far they went, we’re going to need ‘em.” Hart said.

“Where does this trail go anyway,” Blair asked as he eyed the dusty terrain.

“A couple of hundred miles of open desert - nothing out there but jackrabbits and snakes.”

“Ugh! You just had to mention the snakes, didn’t you?” Blair said, earning a smile from both men.

“Don’t worry, Chief, they’re more afraid of you then you are of them.”

“So not possible, Jim!” That earned him a laugh.

Two miles later, Jim came to an abrupt halt, nostrils flaring. “Easy, Jim, what is it?” Blair was instantly beside him, a hand latching onto his wrist.

“Blood,” Jim whispered before heading off the track and into the scrub. Hart hesitated. It was clear to him that Sandburg had somehow known his partner had picked up on something and was helping him find it by keeping contact with him. And he would have sworn in court that he’d heard the angry growl of a big cat just before Ellison took his detour. He carefully cased the area before following.

A bloody gray shirt was twelve yards off the trail, half hidden under a barrel cactus. Jim’s body was vibrating with rage and tension as he knelt beside it. Hart caught his breath when he saw the shirt. “God…does this mean one of them was hurt?”

“No…no holes. If he was close enough when he fired, there’d be splatter.” Jim responded woodenly. Hart moved back to call in the find.

“Jim?

“At least three people’s blood, Chief.

“Okay, let’s go over there by that rock and have some water.” His partner had paled. “And I’ll leave it to you check for snakes before I sit down,” he finished.

They rested for fifteen minutes before Hart joined them and gratefully accepted some water. “I would have walked right by that shirt, Ellison. How’d you know it was there?”

“Color,” Blair responded smoothly. While their colleagues in Major Crimes were used to Jim’s abilities, he could still obfuscate with the best of them. “The red stands out amongst all the browns and grays.”

Hart nodded, though not in agreement. He had stood back while calling it in, and knew it was impossible to see the shirt until you were almost on top of it, but now was not the time to question the find. “Any thoughts on why he tossed it?”

“Figured no one would find it; or by the time they did, it wouldn’t matter,” Blair offered up as he watched his partner stalk back to the shirt.

“He’s pretty intense,” the blond offered quietly, his eyes never leaving the older man.

“It may not be his city, but he’s a born protector. He wants to find these guys bad,” Blair said softly, “We both do. Okay with you if we keep going?”

“Lead on.” Hart nodded, wondering why the Detective’s use of the phrase ‘born protector’ sounded so familiar. Given the need to focus on the issue at hand, he put it aside for future consideration.

Jim followed the trail as though it had been painted in blazing orange across the desert, and Hart shook his head in admiration. He’d been born and raised in this country, and he had trouble keeping the track in the hard sand.

Litton and another deputy caught up with them at 2:30 pm leading three horses. “You gentlemen order lunch?” The new officer asked, pulling ice cold bottles of juice out of a saddle pack.

“Hey, Graves, I hope you’re not expecting a tip,” Jon answered as he grabbed a sandwich. “Jim, Blair, this is Deputy Matt Graves. Matt, Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg.”

Serious green eyes swept the strangers carefully. “We’re lucky Hart and Litton stumbled on you two. I don’t know how you found, let alone can follow, a trail in this. A snake leaves more sign then a truck in this country.” Jim nodded in acknowledgement before handing his partner a sandwich and some grapes. He grabbed two drinks and an apple. After scanning the area, he moved them to the scant shade thrown by some scrub brush. He kept an ear tuned to the three deputies, who sat ten yards away near an outcropping of rocks, as he ate.

“I checked them out, called Cascade.” Graves started. “Ellison’s a three time officer of the year. Last one he shared with his partner. Those two have the highest closure rate in the Pacific Northwest. And Sandburg wasn’t kidding – FBI, DEA, ATF – the whole federal alphabet uses them when they have a tough case in the Northwest.”

“We’re lucky, then, we might actually be able to catch the bastards with their help. Ellison’s amazing. I’ve never seen anyone read dirt the way he does,” Hart finished softly.

“I told the Sheriff we’d send the sidekick back with Graves. Don’t see what good he’s doing – only slowing us down.” Litton said. Blair felt Jim stiffen beside him.

“No way, they’re a team,” Jon responded firmly, having caught a glimpse of a suddenly tense Ellison – almost as though he had heard what had been said. “Not sure how it works, but it does. It’s almost like Sandburg keeps Ellison focused – or maybe centered is a better word. You pack him off and we lose Ellison. And we need him, Dale.”

Jim suddenly loomed over the three men. “Anyone coming in from the other end?”

“The other end encompasses 300 miles of desert. Until we know for sure where they’re headed, it’s a waste of time.” Litton shot back.

Jim took four bottles of juice out of the saddle pack and walked back to his partner. “You ready to ride?”

“Sure. I want you to eat more than that apple, first though.”

He shook his head. “Not hungry. Don’t like this, Chief…they had a big head start, and if we can’t squeeze them in the middle we’re going to lose them.” He looked back at the three deputies. “If things get bad and we get separated, stick close to Hart. He’s a good man.”

Blair smiled. “Not to worry, partner, I plan to stick to you like glue.” That earned him a fleeting caress across his cheek. “I’ll be careful, Jim,” he finished, suddenly serious. “I need you to promise the same.” He tugged off the dark glasses, one finger lifting the chin so he could look into those blue eyes. He received a trademark crooked Ellison grin. “Okay, guess it’s time to mount up – never thought I’d hear those words come out of my mouth…at least not in relation to police work.”

Jim groaned, and shook his head dejectedly. “Don’t quit your day job, Shecky, let’s go.”

They joined the deputies by the horses. “Before we go any further, Jim and I need to be armed.” Blair’s statement brought three heads up. “Jim’s fine with a rifle. I can use one of your backup weapons, but we don’t go another step without them. When we catch up with these guys, we need to be able to defend ourselves.”

Litton’s loud protest was ignored as Graves pulled out his backup weapon and handed it to Blair along with two clips. Hart handed Jim the reins attached to the buckskin gelding, whose saddle held a rifle. Jim helped his partner mount, and fixed his stirrups before mounting his horse. He looked over to his partner for confirmation before urging his horse forward.

Forty five minutes later, he pulled up short – his left hand raised for silence. Blair urged the gray up beside his partner and waited. “The truck – it’s half hidden by the rocks. You can see the bumper.” Blair did, but only with the help of binoculars.

“Anyone there?” He asked softly, as he brushed his knee against his partner’s leg.

Jim sent his senses out to scan the area again before responding, “No.”

“The truck is behind those rocks,” Blair said, his voice barely a whisper, as he turned in his saddle to face the others. Jim had dismounted, and moved forward as silent and deadly as any desert predator.

“What the…?” Hart cut his partner off as he squinted through binoculars, trying to sight the truck. How Ellison had seen it was another question he put on his list to be asked later.

“Let him do the recon, Dale. Blair, what do you think?”

“Ran out of gas? Ditched it…maybe they had something stowed here?”

“That would blow the random theory,” Jon answered his eyes on the detective until he lost him in the rocks. He blinked as he caught sight of a large black cat disappearing around a thick stand of cactus. He rubbed a hand across his eyes; sure they were playing tricks on him.

Twenty minutes later Jim gave them the all clear signal. “ATVs – it must be why the truck’s tracks were so deep – they had them in the back. They headed northeast from here,” he pointed to a slight indent in the sand. “Truck’s got no registration; should be able to get some decent prints, though.”

Litton called it in while Jim, Blair, and Jon walked the scene. “Any idea how long ago they left?” Blair asked.

“Couple of hours…from the tracks it looks like one of the ATV’s tires is losing air. Terrain like this, an air leak’s gonna bite you,” Jim responded.

“We got two choppers up – Staties lent us one. They’re coordinating a search pattern based on the new track. And Ellison, you don’t go busting in again, hear me? These guys are armed and dangerous, and the only badge that counts around here is mine. Got it?” Litton moved to punch a finger into the center of Jim’s chest only to be pushed back by a very pissed off Sandburg.

“He gets it. If they’d been here, he wouldn’t have gone in. We’re on the same side here, Litton, Remember that.” Blair took a bottle of water from his saddle bag and pushed Jim down, a few yards away from the deputies. “Drink it – all of it. What is it you’re holding back, Jim? What else did you find?”

“Blood – the smell is still fresh here. Doesn’t make sense.” Jim looked to his guide – his confusion clear on his face.

“Same as the blood on the shirt or different?”

“Same.”

“Maybe they took some - a trophy?”

Jim nodded slowly, “Or proof they’d done the job…Chief, you doing alright?”

“I may not be able to sit down again anytime soon, but I’m fine otherwise. You?” He reached over, and pulled off the shades hiding the blue eyes.

Jim sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. “What is it about us, Blair? Why is it we can’t cross the street without finding trouble, let alone go on vacation?”

“Just lucky I guess,” Blair’s smile was infectious, and the older man barked a laugh.

“Remind me of that when Simon finds out about this and chains us to our desks for the next 30 years.”

“Will do, as long as you make sure my chair has extra padding.”

Jim ran a hand through the sweat soaked chestnut hair, his feelings for his guide clear from the warmth in his eyes. “Couldn’t do this without you, Chief – wouldn’t want to. Thanks.” A 1000 watt Sandburg smile was his reward and the two stood, recharged and ready to continue.

Hart was pretty sure there was something Ellison was holding back, but surprisingly it didn’t bother him. His own partner’s attitude, however, did. “Dale, this isn’t some pissing contest – no first prize okay. So cut the macho crap. Ellison and Sandburg know what they’re doing.”

“Yeah, but I don’t, and I don’t like it. You may be willing to buy their publicity, but I’m not.”

Jon swung up into the saddle, and shook his head. It had nothing to do with publicity. Surely his partner could feel the energy – the vibe – emanating from the two strangers. There was something else at work here. His grandfather would know the right word for it – he’d been the doctor on the reservation for 30 years – and the memory of a story he’d heard as a child was tantalizing him, sitting just outside his grasp.

The others mounted, and with Jim at point, continued. As the sun began to fade from view the temperature dropped sharply. Jim motioned Blair up beside him. “Chief, you got a jacket in your backpack? Hold still and I’ll get it for you.” Barnes and Litton took advantage of the stop to dawn jackets as well.

“It’s gonna be dark soon,” Litton said. “We need to find a place to make camp.”

“Moon’s full tonight,” Jim responded, eyes intent on the horizon. “Be enough light in another two hours to make it clear as day.” And with that he pushed his mount forward.

Twenty minutes later, Blair whispered, “Jim, we need to stop – at least take a break until the moon’s up. Remember, you’re the only one in this group who can actually see in the dark.” His Sentinel was on the hunt, and would continue until he physically couldn’t. The Guide’s job was to keep that from happening. Not sure whether his advice would be heeded, he let out a sigh of relief when Jim dismounted near a small stand of cactus. He scanned the area carefully before loosening the cinch on his saddle, and Blair took this as a sign to dismount.

“Easy there, Chief,” Jim urged as he came up behind him, steadying him as he touched the ground, and placing strong hands on weary shoulders, giving them a brief massage. “Takes a minute to get the circulation going again. I put a blanket out. Go sit down. I’ll take care of your horse.” He joined his partner 10 minutes later, bringing water and two sandwiches. Hart checked all four horses before joining them, while Litton radioed in for an update.

“Autopsy shows something strange – more blood’s missing then can be accounted for in the house.” Litton said as he sat down beside his partner.

“Trophy?” Blair asked.

Proof of the kill, maybe,” Hart suggested.

“Pretty sick either way, but it would make for a quick conviction if we catch ‘em with it. The feds have sent up a bird. The Marshals Service finally decided to inform the Sheriff that the victims were in witness protection,” Litton added.

“So we’re not dealing with amateurs here. This was carefully planned. They figured if they went into the desert by the time someone thought to look for them, they’d be long gone. Explains why they didn’t even try to hide the truck.” Jim started eyes on the horizon. “We need to be very careful.” They rested for an hour as the moon rose and then were on their way.

At 11:30 Jim tensed in the saddle. Jon stopped and watched the older man carefully, noting that his partner pushed his horse up beside him and reached a hand over to rest on a muscular thigh. For a moment he saw a wolf and panther standing side by side. He shook his head slightly, most be losing his mind he thought before returning his attention to the two men.

“One of the ATVs is up ahead. My guess is the tire finally gave out.” They dismounted and split up; approaching carefully, even though Jim, and therefore, Blair, were aware no one was there.

Jon checked the machine out carefully “This hasn’t been here too long – maybe an hour at the most. The engine still has some heat.” Dale called it in, and they remounted.

Jim swung his horse away from the deputies and faced his partner. “We’re close, Chief. I can feel it. Not sure how this is gonna go down. They’re clearly not expecting us, so we have the element of surprise. Just remember your promise and be careful.”

“I will, if you will.” Blue eyes stared into blue and both nodded.

“Its spooky how those two seem to communicate even when they don’t say a word,” Dale said, pulling his partner’s attention away from the detectives. “They’re damn touchy feely.”

“Probably helps explain why they’re so good at what they do.” “Don’t you find this all a bit odd, Jon? I mean this guy – this city dude – is following the trail like a freaking blood hound. A trail you and I have trouble making out even when it’s pointed out to us.”

“I think Ellison has training you and I can’t begin to imagine and practical experience we wouldn’t want. The point is, Dale, we’re damn lucky to have the two of them because we both know we’d still be back in town trying to figure out what the heck happened without them.”

“I don’t get you, man. Why are you letting this guy run the show?”

“Don’t care who runs the show as long as we get those guys, Dale. Nobody shoots down an entire family and gets away with it – not on my watch.”

“I think Hart is on to us, Chief.”

“What do you mean?”

“He knows we’re…a little out of the ordinary.”

Blair chuffed at the understatement. “Does that bother you?”

“Surprisingly enough, no. He seems to accept it without question, and is doing a pretty good job of throwing his partner off the scent.”

“I’ll talk to him about it later,” the guide promised.

They caught up with the suspects three hours later. They were able to circle around them, thanks to Jim’s hearing, and he galloped up, unheard over the ATV’s engine, and swept both men off the moving machine. When the two suspects caught their breath, they found themselves looking down the barrels of four guns. Jim found the small bottle of blood on the ATV. The suspects were airlifted back to town, with Litton along for security. After a short discussion the three men headed back, Jim content to let the younger men lead.

“Blair, can I ask you a question?” Jon asked two hours later as they moved through the stillness that overtakes the desert just before dawn.

“Sure.”

“Is Jim…he found that oil spill despite the fact it was miniscule. I had a hard time seeing the truck with the binoculars, but he never used them, and there is simply no way he saw that shirt from where he was standing. And he heard that ATV long before the rest of us did. Are you and Jim… my grandfather was a doctor on the reservation. I spent my summers and most of my vacations with him as a kid. I got to hear a lot of the old stories…stories about the Watchman and his Guardian Shaman.” Blair remained silent, restraining himself from looking back, knowing that Jim was listening. “I think, well it’s more what I feel really, but I think you and Jim, you’re one of the pairs.” Hazel eyes looked hopefully at the Cascade Detective.

“We’ve been partners for quite a while and…”

“If you don’t want to talk about it, I understand. Just don’t lie to me, please.”

Jim’s buckskin pushed its way between the two men. “Deputy Hart, after we fill out the paperwork and catch up on our sleep, why don’t you plan to come out for dinner,” he offered. “We can talk then.” He urged the buckskin forward, and Blair followed.

Three days later, just as the sun was setting, Jon Hart pulled his jeep to a halt in front of the ranch house. He smiled at his passenger, and the two men headed for the porch. Blair stood protectively between Jim and the newcomers. He had a smile on his face but he was uneasy as he could feel the energy surrounding the stranger. “Easy, Chief, he means us no harm,” the Sentinel whispered, laying a hand on a tense shoulder.

“Jim, Blair, this is my friend, my best friend,” Jon amended shyly, “Runs like the Wind.”

“My friends call me Will,” the man said, shooting a warm smile at the pair. “Jon’s been talking about you nonstop so I just had to meet you two. Hope you don’t mind me crashing the party.”

“Not at all,” Jim said as he squeezed Blair’s shoulder again. “We’ve got plenty.

They drank beer, ate chips and salsa, and talked about general things, swapping stories guaranteed to make the others laugh. Blair remained unusually quiet, feeling uneasy about the stranger, and he was more than a little annoyed that it didn’t seem to bother his partner at all.

When Jim went out back to check that the grill was off after dinner, he wasn’t surprised to find Will behind him. “Jon was right,” the stranger started quietly. “You and Blair, you are one of the pairs – you’re the Watchman and he’s the Guardian, your Shaman.” Jim simply cocked his head and waited. “My people, they have shared stories through the ages about the pairs, but there has not been one for many, many years.”

“The Chopec, a Peruvian tribe I lived with for 18 months, they too tell stories – only they call them Sentinels. I didn’t know I was one until I was stranded in the jungle, and they took me in. When I returned home, it faded away – like I forgot what I was. The senses came back with a vengeance six years ago. If it hadn’t been for Blair…if it hadn’t been for Blair I’d have been dead a long time ago,” he finished softly, his eyes seeking his Guide who appeared at that moment, followed by Hart.

“No! No, that’s not true, you would have found a way to survive - you always have.” Blair declared almost angrily.

“Sorry, Chief, but without you, it would have been over a long time ago.”

“You’re the panther, and he’s the wolf,” Jon said staring at the two.

“How’d you know that?” Blair asked, the academic in him wishing madly that he had a tape recorder.

“I kept seeing them while we were out there…just now; just now I saw them again.”

“Powerful spirit animals. My father would have been worried that you meant harm to the tribe.”

“But you’re not worried,” Blair responded, puzzled.

“Jon has told me of your hunt. Clearly, you are protectors so there is nothing to fear.”

“No one can know,” Blair said softly as he stepped closer to Jim, “it would be too easy for someone to hurt Jim if they knew what he was.” Jim reached out and pulled his partner to his side.

“Your secret is safe, Shaman. It is the duty of the tribe to protect the Watchman and his Guardian. You have nothing to fear from us.”

“How did you know,” Jim asked turning his blue eyes toward Hart.

“Jon’s great grandfather was a powerful Shaman. He carries some of his ancestor’s gifts. That is why he recognized you, and could see your spirit animals,” Will responded, looking fondly at his friend.

“But I didn’t feel…there was another time – another Shaman was around Jim and it about drove me crazy. I never felt that with Jon.”

“Because Jim is your life mate, and you are his. Others recognize this and honor it. Just as another Watchman would know that you have a mate.”

“But we’re not…” Jim started before cutting himself off. No need to tell them everything.

“You are in all the important ways, Watchman. And in your heart, in your heart, he is your life mate. Am I wrong?”

Jim blushed slightly, “No.”

“And you, Shaman, is it not true that you have committed yourself, heart and soul, to your Watchman?”

He looked up into Jim’s eyes and smiled warmly. “It is true.”

“Then our job here is done. Come on, Jon, these two have some, ah, bonding to do. I would like you to visit me on the reservation, if you have time before you leave. It would be a privilege to have you, and there is an elder among us who knows many of the stories of our ancestors – a few of which I think you would find very interesting.”

“We’d like that,” Blair responded. “We’ll figure out which day works, and tell Jon.”

“Thank you,” Will said before dragging Jon back to the car.

As Jim heard the gate close a mile down the road, he ran a hand tenderly through the long, soft hair. “Chief?”

“I’ve wanted it – you - for a long time. Was afraid what you’d do if I told you.” Blair was looking everywhere but at his partner as he finished.

“This,” Jim responded before locking his lips on his guide’s.

The end

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Author’s note: Thanks to Mary for a terrific beta and her enthusiasm, and Patt for her always amazing artwork. Perhaps someday she’ll share her secret with me. And thanks to Lydia and Marty for sharing an amazing ‘girls week’ in Wickenburg filled with laughter, margaritas, tarantulas, and microbrews. This story had its origins on the porch there, overlooking the desert.