Early June, 1976
Jim Ellison stared at the passing scenery as the cabbie drove him toward the training stables. It rankled; he was sixteen, dammit, and had passed Driver's Ed with flying colors -- as if his father would permit anything else -- and there was no reason that he shouldn't be able to drive himself in his own car. If he had a car. But, oh no. He remembered the last argument they'd had about it.
"Jimmy," his father had said, "the insurance rates for boys between sixteen and eighteen are ridiculous. The same amount of money would pay for fifty cab-rides a month; I'm getting a bargain at sixteen, and there's no upkeep on another car besides. We'll talk about it again when you're eighteen."
Hell, he'd even offered to work it off around the estate, or get a real job in town to pay a fair share toward the upkeep and insurance of a car, but his father had shot down that idea, too. "Doing what, Jimmy? A clerk at K-Mart? I've worked hard to raise this family to a better social and financial level, and you will uphold that. My son will not work for pennies at a minimum-wage job."
Hunh! If the old goat would just pay Jim what he paid his other workers, he'd be able to afford a decent used car and basic collision insurance. And he might just as well get paid; he was more an employee than a son to William Ellison, with the 'job' of making straight-As to uphold his father's expectations, and being paraded at corporate shindigs as the perfect son.
He stared with disfavor as the cab pulled up in front of the Olympic Flame Training Stables. His current 'job' was to ride -- and win -- in the steeplechase race over Labor Day, eight weeks from now, and Jim hated it. Not the people; most of them really loved the horses they rode or trained. And the horses themselves were great; honest and straightforward, and you always knew where you stood with them. But his father's expectations of push-push-push, win-win-win hovered like a dark cloud over his head, blighting his enjoyment of being with the big animals. Dammit; he'd just got out of school for the summer, and now he had to waste four mornings a week training for a race that would give his father bragging rights at the Country Club.
Jim sighed as he climbed out of the cab; time to see how Sam wanted him to ride Hercules today. He paid the cabbie and added a generous tip -- no sense in taking out his bad mood on someone else, and the man was just doing a job. Besides, his father would regard it as a waste of money, and the small rebellion felt good.
He walked around an idling station wagon and stepped inside the main barn. Pausing, Jim took a moment to adjust to the smells. Although he enjoyed the sweet scents of fresh hay and grain, and the pungent tang of the horses themselves, it was always too strong to start with -- and the odor of manure and various liniments and medications was almost enough to make him gag. He concentrated on breathing shallowly through his mouth until his sense of smell became acclimatized. After a few minutes the smells faded into the background, and he was able to ignore them.
He found Sam at the far end of the middle aisle, talking to a little girl about the lesson she'd just had, and how she could improve her performance the next time. She looked to be about ten, with long blonde braids hanging down under her helmet, but she listened seriously, nodding to show she understood each point. "I'll remember, Sam," she promised. "Thank you so much. See you Saturday." She turned and hurried toward the front of the barn and, Jim assumed, the station wagon outside.
Sam turned toward the respectfully-waiting teenager. "Jimmy!" he greeted. "I hear you want to ride in the Labor Day Steeplechase."
Jim sighed and shrugged. "I suppose my dad told you that, didn't he?" He shook his head, a twisted smile on his face. "I just like the horses, Sam, you know that. But riding for fun is a waste of time, as far as the old man is concerned; I gotta be training to win something if I expect him to keep paying for it. But I'm not gonna try to control things like he does; I'll ride and train the way you tell me to."
Sam Evanston regarded the young man in front of him. Tall and lanky, Jimmy Ellison had an athlete's coordination and rode with firm but gentle hands on the reins. More importantly, he cared about the horses, never pushing them beyond their limits, but also never letting them get away with any shenanigans.
Sam sighed internally. In his time, he'd ridden in three Olympic games, and had two silver medals to show for it. He recognized a talent in Jimmy Ellison that would have let him go that far, as well -- if only the boy's father wasn't so hard-nosed about grooming his son for the corporate world and relegating Jimmy's riding to a part-time hobby. Well, Sam couldn't change any of that. But he could ensure that Jimmy's summer of training was as much fun as work, so that the boy's love of horses wasn't soured by the necessity of meeting his father's expectations.
"I'm glad to hear that, Jimmy; I don't like using spurs on my horses or my riders." He winked, pleased to see Jim's expression relax. "Marcella rode Hercules for a strong round of jumping yesterday; he doesn't need that much impact on his joints again this soon. So today I just want you to reinforce his responsiveness to your guidance. Take him out cross-country and practice rating his speed and length of stride -- slow down, speed up, shorten his stride, then lengthen it -- just as if you were riding a course, but without the jumping. After you have him warmed up, work at trot and canter; you can do two sets of hand-gallop, but no more than ten minutes each time. Total time out, ninety minutes, and I expect you to bring him back already mostly cooled out. You got all that?"
Jim relaxed even more. When one of Sam's junior trainers had worked on 'fine-tuning' a horse's training, it allowed the owner/riders time to relax and simply enjoy the relationship with their animal. Spending time in the wide open spaces, just him and the horse, was the best part about riding; maybe training this summer wouldn't be such a pain in the ass, after all. "I got it, Sam," he assured his trainer. He ducked his head a little, embarrassed. "And thanks," he added softly.
Sam chuckled. "I was young once, Jimmy; I haven't forgotten what it was like. Go on; get Hercules cleaned and saddled -- and be sure you go by the notice board and write your time out and where you plan to ride before you take off."
Jim stopped at the tack-room to grab halter and cleaning equipment, then carried them halfway down the aisle to Hercules' stall. But the big horse wasn't there. Jim shut the stall door behind him, then walked out the back door into the attached 'run' that was part of each stall, allowing every horse the space to have a little free movement and minimum exercise. Sure enough, Herc was at the far end of the run, under the shade of the big mulberry tree, standing just across the dividing bars of the fence from his neighbor and best friend, Rosie.
Jim left the tools by the back door and walked toward Hercules with halter in hand, once again admiring the horse as he approached. Champion Hightower Gladiator of Hilliard -- Hercules, to his friends -- was an Irish-bred warmblood, a big bay with a white blaze on his face, a kind look in his eye, a generous heart and a courageous soul. Jim had been prepared to hate the animal when his father had bought it, six months previously; the purchase of such an expensive, proven winner smacked of trying to buy a trophy. But he'd come to realize it wasn't Herc's fault that his father was trying to cash in on the champion's record, and the big, gentle animal had won Jim over with his honest, straightforward attitude and his enthusiasm for jumping.
Jim stroked the horse's neck while Hercules snuffled his shirt in greeting, then slipped the halter over his head and led him toward the back door. There he made short work of brushing the dirt out of his coat and cleaning his hooves. Finished, he led Hercules through the stall and hitched him to one of the rings set in the wall outside the tack-room, while he went to get saddle and bridle.
As he smoothed the saddle-pad on Hercules' back, he heard a young voice from the end of the aisle. "Hi, Sam. Naomi said I could go riding, an' Uncle Trevor said it's okay with him if it's okay with you. An' then Naomi said not to bother you if you're too busy. But you don't look too busy, so would it be okay?"
The clear tones of what seemed to be a very young child struck Jim like the pure resonance of a perfectly-tuned bell. It wasn't unusual for him to hear conversations from such a distance, but very seldom did someone's voice spark a reaction in him that demanded his attention. He turned to see who was speaking.
Standing in front of Sam was a small, curly-headed moppet that appeared to be not a day over five. Yet as the child looked up at Sam, he exuded a self-confidence and sturdy independence that would be appropriate for someone ten years older. Jim wondered if this kid had ever heard the word 'no'; his attitude suggested that it was unlikely.
"I'm sorry, Blair," Sam was saying. "I don't have time to give you a lesson, and since you're under twelve, you need to follow the 'ride-with-a-buddy' rule, and nobody's free to go out with you right now. Maybe tomorrow, okay?"
The child's shoulders slumped slightly and, even from that distance, Jim could see the glow in his eyes dim a little. But, far from throwing a tantrum, he took the disappointment like a little trouper. "That's okay, Sam," he said gamely. "Maybe I could watch somebody else having a lesson? Naomi says watching other people is a valid learning method, an' knowledge is never wasted. An' someday I want to visit some honest-for-real Indians, so it would be good to know, wouldn't it?"
Sam laughed and agreed, clapping his hand onto the boy's shoulder, even as Jim's feet carried him toward the pair, entirely without his volition. "He could go with me, Sam," Jim heard his own voice saying. He stopped in front of them and looked down to see the moppet gazing up at him with wide blue eyes and open mouth; he looked slightly awestruck. Jim squatted so that he was at eye-level with the child. "What d'ya say, Kid? Would you like to go with me? If you ride Rosie, she'll follow wherever Hercules goes, and all you have to do is hang on. That is, if it's okay with Sam to ease up on Herc's training for today." Jim glanced toward the trainer, silently asking permission.
"I'm not a kid; my name is Blair an' I'm seven years old!" The answer was accompanied by flashing eyes and a set chin. "An' Sam's been teaching me; I can ride a whole lot better than just hanging on, can't I, Sam?"
"Yes, Blair, you sure can," Sam agreed gravely, striving to hide the quirk at the corner of his lips. "Jimmy Ellison, meet Blair Sandburg. Blair is staying at the big house for a while; his mother is..." He hesitated, not wanting to be too blunt in front of the child. "She's keeping company with Mr. Madison for awhile."
Blair was nodding vigorously, either unknowing or uncaring about the innuendo. "Yeah, Uncle Trevor is my new uncle," he confirmed. "Naomi likes him a lot, an' I do, too. This is the best place we've stayed in a long time, because I really like horses, an' Sam's teaching me all about them; I can groom an' feed an' ride an' everything!"
Sam allowed the chuckle to escape, and tousled Blair's curls. "That's right; Blair is turning into quite a competent horseman," he agreed. "And it's a great idea, Jimmy; Blair will have no trouble handling Rosie, especially if she's with Hercules -- if you're sure you want to."
Did he? Not ten minutes ago, he'd been celebrating the chance to be alone with his horse in the wide open spaces. Did he really want this little munchkin around, making him have to moderate his riding? Did he want to be responsible for the safety of such a pipsqueak? But, gazing into the deep blue eyes that looked so hopefully into his, Jim felt he couldn't back out now. Besides, there was something about this kid; with just a few minutes' acquaintance, Jim felt more comfortable with him than anyone he'd ever known.
"Yeah, Sam, I'm sure," he said. He winked at Blair in response to the joy spreading over the eager young face. "I think we'll have a great time together, won't we, Chief?" The little boy nodded vigorously.
"Then it's a done deal," Sam agreed. "And Jimmy, Blair really is a good rider. You can still work on responsiveness at trot and canter; just avoid moving into a hand-gallop. Blair can follow your example and work on the same exercises." He smiled down into the boy's upturned face. "So, what are you waiting for? Go get Rosie and tack her up."
"Thanks, Sam," Blair said fervently, and hurried down the aisle as fast as the 'no running' rule would allow.
"I'll help you, Chief," Jim called and started to follow, but Sam caught his arm.
"Take it easy, Jimmy," he ordered. "You can watch over him, but let him do as much as he can himself. He really is quite competent, and we want to foster that independence; if you ever meet his mother, you'll see why. So just keep an eye on him, and help him tighten the cinch, because he's simply not strong enough yet to pull it home. For the rest, I think he'll surprise you."
Jim nodded and hurried after Blair, but soon saw that Sam was right. The little boy put a tall stepstool under a tie-ring close to Hercules, then laid the cleaning equipment on top. He carried a halter and rope to Rosie's stall and slipped inside.
"Hey, Rosie!" Blair called gently. "Com'ere girl; we're going for a ride." He made gentle kissing noises as he looked out the back door of the stall. Jim watched in astonishment as Rosie pricked her ears, then ambled toward Blair from the far end of the run. When she reached him, she lowered her head, allowing the little boy to buckle the halter without needing to strain upward.
Blair confidently led Rosie toward the tack room, where he 'parked' her next to Hercules, then hopped up on the stepstool to hitch her to the tie-ring. Although the dapple-gray mare looked almost petite next to the large bay gelding, she was still a big horse; standing next to her, the top of Blair's head barely reached the mid-point of her body. Unfazed, he repositioned the stepstool at her side, which gave him the needed height -- provided he stretched -- to brush her clean.
To Jim's amusement, the kid kept talking to the horse as if she could understand him. In a crooning voice, Blair told Rosie that it was a nice day for a ride, that she'd have fun going out with her friend Hercules, that Jimmy Ellison was really tall but he seemed awfully nice, and that Blair would give Rosie two horse treats when they came back. Oddly enough, Jim didn't find the prattle irritating; on the contrary, he felt like he was floating on the musical nuances of that young voice.
When Blair started to speculate about where they'd be going, Jim shook himself from his near-trance; they wouldn't be going anywhere if he didn't get his act together. Quickly, he repositioned the pad on Hercules' back, then set the saddle in place and cinched it tight. He turned to see Blair carrying a saddle out of the tack room, and stepped forward to lend a hand.
"I can do it," the little boy stoutly assured him. He set the saddle on the ground while he examined the pad carefully. "There was a sticker in it once," Blair explained, "and Rosie didn't like it. So now I be extra careful." Satisfied, he climbed up on the stepstool, to find that the horse had shifted and was now beyond his reach.
"Rosie, I can't reach you over there. Move this way!" he insisted, adding some kissing noises to his command. Jim's jaw dropped when she did just that, standing patiently while Blair placed the pad, and then the saddle, upon her back.
Blair pulled the cinch buckles snug, then hopped off the footstool and carried it into the tack room. When he came out, he had the bridle hanging over his arm while he buckled the chin-strap of a helmet. "Now you can help," he informed Jim. "I can't make the saddle tight enough; will you do it, please?"
Jim tightened the cinch as requested, still pondering what he considered basically unhorselike behavior. "How did you get her to do that?" he finally asked.
"I been riding Rosie a lot, an' she likes me an' I like her, so me an' her have a n'understanding. See?" Blair stepped toward the horse's face, holding the bridle upward and opened. Rosie gracefully lowered her head and opened her mouth, allowing the boy to place the bit between her teeth, then kept her head down while he slipped the leather behind her ears and buckled the chin-strap. Finally, Blair unhooked the tie-rope from the halter, and turned to Jim with a frown.
"Aren't you ready yet? Hercules is wondering why you're just standing there."
Blair was right; the big horse did seem to have an impatient glint in his eye. Wordlessly, Jim put on his own helmet, bridled Hercules and unsnapped the tie-rope, then turned toward the main doors. "You got it, Chief; let's get this show on the road." Side by side, boys and horses headed out of the barn, Jim shortening his stride to allow Blair to keep up.
Outside, Jim turned toward his young companion. "Need some help getting up there, Chief?" he asked. Anticipating an affirmative, he was already reaching to grab the little boy, but Blair firmly shook his head.
"No, thank you," he said. "Sam says I have to be able to do it myself, 'cause there won't always be someone around to give me a boost. 'Sides, Rosie knows to help me." He led the horse to a white-painted fence and positioned her lengthwise beside it, then climbed the boards like a ladder. Giving a small push off a center post, Blair was over the gap and sitting neatly in the saddle. He slipped his feet into the stirrups, competently gathered the reins, then turned to Jim with a triumphant smile on his face. "See?"
Jim chuckled as he swung into the saddle. "I'm impressed, Chief; you really can do it all. So, have you ever ridden the steeplechase course in Murphy's Meadow?"
"Noooo," Blair breathed with wide eyes. "You mean, we get to go there? But Sam doesn't let me jump, yet."
"Not to jump," Jim assured him. "But plenty of wide open spaces for riding, and you can at least see the obstacles." He reined Hercules to the left and urged him into a gentle trot.
"Cool!" Blair exclaimed, encouraging Rosie to move up beside her stable-mate.
From the barn doors, Sam watched the incongruous pair head toward the lane. He wondered what had come over Jimmy; the teen had shown no interest in any of the other youngsters that visited the training stables. Still, Jimmy's sense of responsibility would ensure that Blair would be watched carefully. And maybe the bright, buoyant little boy would help Jimmy relax and forget his cares for a while. Nodding to himself, Sam headed toward his office to deal with some of his ever-present paperwork.
As they jogged toward Murphy's Meadow, Blair kept up an almost continuous commentary. He compared the jumping saddle Jim was using to the endurance saddle he had selected for Rosie, explained the difference in habitat and behavior between red squirrels and gray squirrels, and discussed the various types of trees they rode past, speculating on what kinds of animals or birds they might shelter.
Jim wondered how the kid could have learned so much in the few short years he'd been alive. He grinned as he listened -- the kid was an amusing encyclopedia, at least -- and aided and abetted him by keeping an eye out for birds and small animals to point out to his young friend, just to hear what Blair would tell him.
But Blair's prattle was by no means one-sided. Jim found himself explaining the chemistry experiments he'd done in the school lab, watching Blair's eyes go wide as he described the effects of hydrochloric acid on various substances. From there, they moved into an analysis of the pros and cons of various sports. Blair expressed a preference for basketball -- "But I'll have to do a lot of growing before I can play," -- while Jim held out for the excitement of football. They debated whether horse-riding should be considered an individual sport -- since each person rode alone -- or a team sport, since horse and rider worked together to complete a task.
"I really like riding horses," Blair informed him earnestly. "I wanna get real good; I hope Naomi stays with Uncle Trevor long enough so I can learn everything. Sam says he'll start teaching me to jump pretty soon, an' I really wanna do that. Is it as exciting as it looks?"
"It's pretty neat," Jim admitted. "Feels almost like flying, and the horses seem to like it too. I saw an English steeplechase on TV a while back; one of the riders fell off, but his horse just kept going, and completed the course with all the others. It's just that..." He stopped, uncomfortable with trying to explain his aversion to submitting to his father's decrees.
Jim ignored the question. "The horses are warmed up; time to get to work. Let's canter up to that big oak tree, then ease them back to a trot." At a squeeze of his calves, Hercules flowed into the smooth, ground-eating gait.
Blair had followed Jim's directions and Rosie kept pace with her stable-mate while Blair whooped aloud, eyes alight with glee.
They swept up to the oak tree, then trotted toward the official starting line in front of the jumps in Murphy's Meadow. Jim reined Hercules to a halt, and Blair matched him flawlessly.
"Okay, here's the deal," Jim explained. "We'll follow the course, but aim the horses way to the side of the jumps; we don't want them to get confused and think they should go over. Depending on the distance to the next jump, we'll need to go faster or slower, and ask the horses to take shorter strides or stretch their legs out more. As we pass each jump, I'll shout out what you have to do for the next one. Think you can do that?"
Blair nodded vigorously, shortening his reins to ensure the necessary 'contact' with Rosie.
"Okay. Now, imagine there's a man in the judges' box with a starting pistol. You ready? One. Two. Three -- bang!"
As they swept around the course, Jim calling directions which Blair followed to the letter, Jim realized he was having fun. The combination of riding in harmony with the big horse, the unfettered space of the open countryside, and -- oddly enough -- the company of the little boy beside him, created a peacefulness for him, despite the speed at which they were riding. He decided at that moment to simply enjoy the opportunity this summer to spend a lot of time with the horses and people at the riding center. He'd practice for the steeplechase because it was fun. Winning would be nice but, if he didn't win, his father could just go hang. He had long ago planned to leave home as soon as he turned eighteen; the more time he spent out here until school started again, the less he'd have to spend at home.
They made the circuit of the course and crossed the finish line still riding side by side, the horses matching each other stride for stride. As they eased the horses to a walk, Blair chortled with delight, leaning forward to stroke Rosie's neck. "That was fun! Can we do it again, sometime?"
"You bet we can, little buddy," Jim assured him, also giving Hercules a congratulatory pat. "I'll be out here four mornings a week, all summer long. Some days I'll have to train over the jumps, but other days we can go out together."
"An' I'll watch," Blair assured him. "Then when Sam lets me start jumping, I'll already know what to do."
Jim reached out to tug a curl that hung down under the back of the riding helmet. "Now don't you make Sam think I'm a bad influence on you," he warned. "You still have to listen to what he says, or whoever your instructor is."
"Hey, don't pull my hair!" Blair protested. "An' I know that. Naomi says that we can learn by listening to those with experience, if we recognize whether the experience is valid for our lifestyle." He nodded firmly, as if the subject were settled, and Jim wondered again how such a young child had gained so much knowledge. He ostentatiously checked his watch.
"Well, my experience tells me that we have about twenty minutes before we need to head back to the stable, and the horses need to be cooled out. Let's ride through the woods; maybe we'll see something interesting." Jim turned Hercules toward the trees that bordered Murphy's Meadow and, once again, Blair fell in beside him.
It was cooler in the shade of the trees, a welcome relief for all concerned, but they kept the horses moving at a brisk walk; cooling out had to be a gradual process, to avoid the possibility of muscle spasms. However, they weren't moving so fast that Jim couldn't keep an eye and ear out for things that would entertain Blair. He'd realized many years ago that he could see and hear better than his friends. He never talked about his senses, and they didn't always work reliably, but today they seemed 'on' -- sharper than they'd ever been, and easier to control. He was able to see, and point out to Blair, the tracks of a badger, some deer-scat, and two baby owls peering from their nest-hole high up in a tree.
A shifting current of air carried the scent of fresh blood. Jim searched for the source. To the right? He thought so. "Slow down, Blair," he whispered, "and come this way." He was mildly concerned; someone could be hurt, although it was more likely a wild animal of some kind. Whichever; they should investigate, but needed to be cautious.
A few minutes later, they came to the edge of a small clearing and halted the horses. In the middle of the open space, a wolf stared at them balefully, a rabbit dangling limply from her jaws.
Blair squeaked in excitement. "Wow! What's it doing?"
"Taking lunch home to her family," Jim said practically. "See how big her teats are? They're full of milk; she's a nursing mother with cubs. Either they're old enough to start eating meat, or she wants to eat the rabbit there, so she doesn't leave them alone too long."
"Wolf puppies! D'ya s'pose we could follow her, an' maybe see them?"
"Wolves are pretty smart animals, Chief. I don't think she'd go to her cubs if she knew we were following her -- and there's no way we could hide from her."
Blair nodded sagely. "You're right; wolves are very protective of their babies. But they must live around here somewhere, an' that's neat to know, isn't it?"
"Very neat," Jim agreed. They watched for a few more moments while the wolf stared at them, golden eyes gleaming, as she apparently evaluated their level of threat. Coming to some conclusion, she turned and slipped into the underbrush on the other side of the clearing.
"Wow!" Blair breathed, awestruck.
"You said that already," Jim pointed out, although he felt the same way. "But now we have to head back to the stable. Giddy-up partner; Sam's expecting us."
Blair turned Rosie to follow Hercules. "Okay," he agreed. "But next time I'm going to bring some doggie treats an' drop them here. D'ya think she'd like that?"
Jim shrugged. "I dunno, Chief; maybe. I suppose it can't hurt anything, but you know she might not even find them."
"But she might," Blair insisted. "An' Naomi says every mother deserves good things. That's the only thing I can think of that a wolf might like."
"Well, she'd probably like a whole chicken. But I don't think either Sam or your Uncle Trevor would approve of you giving people-food to a wolf."
"Sadie too -- she's Uncle Trevor's cook -- she'd be real upset."
"And you always want to keep the cook happy," Jim said. "Our cook is Sally, and she's great. Y'know what? I'll see if she'll make some cinnamon rolls this week, and bring you a couple; they've gotta be the best in the whole world."
"Oh, yummy! I like cinnamon rolls. An' then maybe you can stay for lunch someday when Sadie's making chicken cacciatore -- it's the best!"
The ensuing discussion of favorite foods and cooks' personalities carried them all the way back to the stable. They unsaddled and brushed down the horses, then tuned them into their stalls. Shortly after, the cab arrived to take Jim home. He watched Blair waving goodbye until they turned the corner and the engaging, talkative little boy was no longer in sight. Jim looked forward to seeing him again tomorrow.
The following day, Jim and Hercules practiced jumping in the arena, under Sam's discerning eye. Blair watched from the rail, bouncing and clapping in excitement each time they successfully cleared a fence.
Blair crowed in delight as Jim completed his second circuit and eased Hercules down to a walk. "You did it, Jimmy, you did it!" he exclaimed as Jim approached the rail where Sam and Blair were standing.
"Hercules did it, Chief; I was just along for the ride," Jim assured him, leaning forward to give the horse a congratulatory pat. "I'm not even sure Hercules notices those little training jumps; he thinks he's out for a Sunday stroll."
"Don't sell yourself short, Jimmy," Sam advised him. "A poor rider won't get a decent performance out of even the best horse. You followed my instructions, rated him properly, and kept your approaches to the jumps clean. 'Those little training jumps' will make sure he responds to your cues and keeps his pacing accurate, without putting too much stress on his joints.
"Now, young'un," he continued, turning to Blair, "while Jimmy unsaddles Hercules, how about you saddle up Rosie? Use a jumping saddle; I think it's time for your first jumping lesson."
"Really? Oh, boy! C'mon, Jimmy!" Blair leaped down and raced toward the stable, not waiting to see if his friend followed him.
"Meet me in the small training corral in twenty minutes!" Sam called after him. He chuckled and turned to the older boy again. "Go with him, Jimmy; he's too excited for his own good."
Jim nodded and headed Hercules in that direction. By the time he tied the horse to the ring outside the tack-room, Blair had already brought Rosie from her stall and was industriously brushing her, while explaining the great treat they'd soon have.
After removing the saddle from Hercules, Jim did his own brushing while listening in amusement as Blair described the morning session. "I bet Jimmy's the best rider in the whole world; he went over those jumps so easy. I wonder if he'll stay an' watch while I have my lesson?"
"Of course I'll be watching, Chief -- if you'll do me a favor."
"Sure, Jimmy, what?" Blair asked eagerly.
"I'd like you to call me 'Jim'. 'Jimmy' sounds like a little boy's name. Sam and my dad think of me like that, and they'll probably never change. But I can start being 'Jim' with you. Sound good?"
"Yeah, I can do that, J- Jim. But then why do you call me 'Chief' instead of 'Blair'?" He examined the saddle pad as he spoke, then placed it on Rosie's back.
"Well, at least 'Chief' isn't babyish," Jim pointed out. "But I'll stop if you want. Would you rather be called 'Blair'?"
"No, I like 'Chief'," Blair assured him. "I just wondered why, is all." He lifted the saddle into place and pulled the cinch as tight as he could.
Jim walked around Hercules and finished pulling Rosie's cinch tight without being asked. "I had a friend, once -- a good friend -- who used to call me 'Chief'. It just seems to work for you. Do you mind having a used nickname?"
Blair's eyes widened. "You mean you gave me your old nickname? That's so cool! Thank you -- Jim." His smug expression proclaimed his satisfaction at remembering to use the preferred name.
"Then we're good, Chief. Now let's go see how good a jumper you are."
If Blair was disappointed to be faced with a series of eight-inch caveletti, instead of the forty-two inch training jumps Jim had used, he didn't let on. He listened carefully to Sam's instructions and executed perfect form -- head up, back level over the horse's neck, his little butt floating in the air above the saddle-seat -- as Rosie trotted over the low-set rails.
"Lookin' good, there, Chief!" Jim called out, and saw the flash of a prideful smile before Blair's face again showed his careful determination as he rounded the corner and headed over another set of the caveletti.
Finally, Sam said, "Jimmy, go set up a one-two at the far end; I'm going to let Blair ride a pattern." Sam called the little boy over and, while he explained the course Blair should follow, Jim formed a modest jump with three of the caveletti -- one in front with two stacked up directly behind, to form a sixteen-inch rise; Rosie would actually have to lift her body to clear it.
Jim heard the hoofbeats behind him and stepped to the side of the obstacle to watch Blair approaching, his face creased in concentration. He rounded the corner, trotted over four single-stride caveletti, then took three balancing strides and lifted up and over the miniature jump, maintaining his proper 'hunt-seat' position.
"Yippee!" floated back to Jim's ears as soon as Rosie landed; Blair sat up and pumped his fist in the air, as excited as if he'd won Olympic gold. "Did you see that, Jimmy? I mean Jim. Did you see? Me an' Rosie did good, didn't we?"
"You did real good, Chief," Jim assured him. "Pretty soon, you'll be giving me advice. I'll expect you to see me through to the steeplechase in September."
"Oh, I will, Jim, I really will. Me an' you an' Hercules will be so good you'll be sure to win!"
"I think you're right. But in the meantime, I think your lesson is finished. Let's give Rosie a good rubdown, to say 'thank you'." Together, the tall teen and the diminutive little boy headed toward the stable, each well-pleased with their morning's efforts.
On Thursday, Jim approached the stable with considerably more eagerness than he had just three days previously. He had missed Blair yesterday, and had been thoroughly bored at home. He wondered if he could convince his dad that riding five days a week -- maybe even six -- would increase his chances of winning.
He smiled to see Blair waiting for him at the main entrance, bouncing impatiently with excitement. Jim quickly paid the cabbie and hurried to greet his little friend. "Hey, Chief! How's it goin'?"
"Jim!" Blair caroled happily. "I been waitin'! Sam says we can go on a trail ride today, just take it easy an' stay out as long as we want. I already got some doggie biscuits; can we go to that place an' leave them for my wolfie?"
"Your wolfie?" Jim asked, eyebrows raised. "How did that happen?"
"I been thinkin' about her. When you think about people, that means they're your friends. So she's my friend, an' that makes her mine," Blair replied firmly, with the inarguable logic of a seven-year-old.
"You got it, kiddo. But after we drop off the goodies for your wolf, what about us?" Jim followed Blair's impatient scamper down the aisle.
"Oh, we got good stuff," Blair promised as he picked up a halter and headed toward Rosie's stall. "Sadie made us some chicken sandwiches an' chocolate cake an' lemonade."
"A veritable feast," Jim agreed as he picked up Hercules' halter. "Okay, meet you back at the tack-room." Each boy slipped into a stall to collect his horse.
They were soon trotting down the trail, enjoying the warm early summer sunshine. Realizing how eager Blair was to distribute his 'wolfie treats', Jim led them unerringly to the small meadow where they'd seen her. Blair rode around the perimeter, dropping a handful of the hard biscuits in three different spots. He rode back to Jim with an air of satisfaction.
"There! If she comes back here to hunt, I bet she'll find them," he declared. "Hey, Jim, you can see an' hear a lot better'n me; is she anywhere close by?"
How does he know? Jim wondered, but obediently opened his senses. After a few moments, he replied, "Not right now, Chief, but I think she was here yesterday."
Blair nodded, his expectations confirmed. "Good. I bet she'll find them tomorrow."
"And I bet you're planning to drop some more treats; I see a suspicious bulge in your saddlebag. So what d'ya say we ride up along that ridge? Seems like it would be prime wolf-hunting territory."
"Okay," Blair agreed. "An' you pay attention; maybe you'll find someplace else she's been."
They rode in comfortable silence for awhile, before Jim broached the subject. "Chief, how do you know I can see and hear better than you can?"
"Not just me -- everybody," Blair asserted. "An' smell an' touch better, too, an' prob'ly taste."
So much for secrets, Jim thought. "Yes, but how do you know?" he persisted.
Blair shrugged carelessly. "I dunno; I just do."
At seven years of age, Jim reflected, the kid probably really didn't know how he had made the connection. He sighed and gave in. "Okay, but look -- I don't want other people to know. So can you keep it a secret? For me?"
"Sure I can, Jim," the little boy declared stoutly. "But why? Isn't bein' good at that stuff a good thing?"
"Sometimes," Jim admitted. "I found my little brother, once, when he was lost. But lots of people will think I'm a freak if they know about it, and I don't want the hassle."
"You're not a freak!" Blair insisted. "You're really special, an' that's a good thing, I promise!"
"I'm glad you think so. But not everyone does. So, you'll keep the secret, right?"
Blair nodded vigorously. "Right! Pinkie swear?" He stretched out his hand, little finger crooked.
Jim reached out to twine his smallest finger around Blair's, and they solemnly shook. "Pinkie swear," he agreed. "Thanks, buddy."
They continued riding. Jim watched closely and soon spotted some sign. He reined Hercules to a halt. "Look there, Chief; I see some wolf tracks, and a bit of blood and rabbit fur."
Blair peered at the ground, obviously not seeing anything, but he trusted Jim's observations. "Good!" he said. "That means you're right, an' she's been around here, too." He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a handful of the doggie treats, which he dropped on the ground.
"It could be a different wolf, Chief," Jim cautioned.
"No, it's mine; I know it. Like you said, she's gotta feed her babies."
Jim shrugged; there was no need to disillusion his little friend. He picked up the reins, and they moved onward.
Half an hour later they came across a small grassy area that bordered a little stream. While the horses grazed, the boys pulled off their boots and socks and paddled their feet in the water as they ate their sandwiches and cake.
While they were packing their lunch wrappings into their saddlebags, Jim sensed... something. He looked around, extending his eyesight, and soon saw the wolf, peering at them from under a concealing bush.
"Chief!" he whispered. "There's your wolf -- under that bush."
Blair looked eagerly, but was unable to penetrate the shadows of her hiding place. "I can't see her," he said, disappointed.
"Well, she sees you," Jim assured him, "and it is your wolf, just like you thought. I bet she wants a drink of water, and she's just waiting for us to leave."
"That sounds fair. C'mere, Rosie," Blair called, and kissed to urge her toward him. Jim went to get Hercules, lifted Blair onto Rosie -- there being no convenient fence or boulder nearby -- and swung into the saddle himself.
"Just a minute," Blair insisted. Riding toward the water, he dropped a handful of biscuits at the edge of the stream. "Those are for you, Wolfie," he said softly. "I hope you like them." He waved at the bush where Jim said his wolf was hiding, and turned to join his friend.
They had ridden a scant hundred yards when Jim called a halt. "Get down, Chief. Let's leave the horses here, and see if we can sneak back." They tied the horses to a tree branch, took off their boots, and walked as quietly as possible back to the tree-lined edge of the grassy little glade.
Blair gasped in excitement. There was his wolf, just like Jim had said. She was eating his 'wolfie treats' with, he was convinced, a blissful expression on her face. She had accepted his present!
They watched while the wolf finished the hard biscuits, took a long drink of water, then slipped into the underbrush. Jim stirred and stood upright. "That's it, Chief. She's probably headed back to her cubs, and we should head home, too. Let's saddle up."
They rode homeward, Blair thoroughly satisfied with their day's outing, and Jim a little bemused that Blair's 'wolfie' had actually materialized. Blair was undoubtedly the most unusual little boy he'd ever met, and almost frighteningly self-confident and independent. Jim and Sam would need to impress upon Blair that 'his' wolf was still a wild animal, despite her acceptance of the doggie treats. Otherwise, Jim was convinced, Blair would soon be making plans to bring his 'wolfie' and her 'puppies' home to live with him.
One week slipped into two, and Jim continued to enjoy Blair's company; he was such an engaging little scamp. Blair, for his part, had a full-blown case of hero-worship; Jim was the smartest person he knew -- even smarter than Naomi -- and the best rider, and his extra-keen senses made him almost magical... or at least as good as Superman. And he never seemed to get tired of letting Blair hang around, as often happened with other people.
Sam, as he had promised, varied their schedule, rotating arena jumping with cross-country work and 'free days' when the boys could just relax and wander the countryside with the horses. Jim and Hercules were working so well together that they seemed to have a telepathic connection; each knew what the other wanted or needed, and responded flawlessly. Blair had a solid foundation in jumping, and could clear three-foot obstacles with ease; he delighted in finding downed logs or wide streams to jump over when they were out trail-riding on their 'free days'.
Jim became adept at spotting wolf-sign, and grew to recognize if it had been left by Blair's 'wolfie'; she had a crooked toe on her left hind paw that distinguished her prints from the three or four other wolves that seemed to roam the area. Blair continued to drop his doggie treats at likely places and, on two other occasions, they caught a glimpse of the animal. She appeared to be cautious, but unafraid of the boys, and even seemed to be associating the treats with their presence. But, as much of a chatterbox as Blair was, he had told no one else about his 'wolfie'; she was a precious secret between him and Jim, and he held it close to his heart.
Blair wandered through the empty landscape, unconcerned about the strange blue light which surrounded him. It was pretty, but he couldn't be bothered to pay attention to it. There was something important he had to do; he just knew it. He wasn't sure what it was yet, but he was certain he'd find it, if he just kept searching.
After awhile, he noticed a sound -- a kind of pleading whimper. Instantly, he was convinced that that was his goal. He hurried in that direction, and soon heard the whimpering grow louder, interspersed with pain-filled growls. He started to run.
Bursting out of a stand of trees, he saw his wolf crawling along the ground. Something was wrong; her back leg didn't work, and it was red with blood. Blair squatted in front of her; he didn't know what to do. The wolf raised her head to look at him, panting in distress, her golden eyes pleading for help...
"NO!" Blair gasped, bolting upright in his bed. He looked wildly around; the first light of dawn was just creeping through the windows, and he recognized his bedroom in Uncle Trevor's house.
It was early, he realized; probably no one else was awake yet, not even Sadie or Sam. But he'd get ready; then when someone did wake up, he could ask them to go with him to find and help his wolf.
Accordingly, Blair scrambled out of bed, dressed hurriedly in clean jeans and T-shirt, and washed his face and brushed his teeth. Then he tiptoed into the kitchen and -- oh, good! -- there was Sadie, mixing up the batter for breakfast pancakes.
"Well, good morning, Blair!" Sadie exclaimed. "And what are you doing up so early this fine day?"
Blair chewed his lip in thought. Sadie was a cook; she probably didn't know much about animals, and wouldn't be able to help him.
"I gotta talk to Sam about something," he finally explained. "D'ya think he's up, yet?"
"Oh, I'm sure he is. He has to feed the animals just like I have to feed the people. So you run out and talk to him, but don't be too long; breakfast in forty-five minutes."
Blair nodded. Yes, they'd need to eat before looking for his wolf; it might take a long time. But, if Sam started getting ready, they could leave as soon as breakfast was over. He slipped out the kitchen door and hurried toward the stable.
He found Sam -- and Marcella and Larry -- tossing flakes of hay into the hay-racks and pouring grain into the bins underneath. Blair waited till Sam came out of a stall, then asked, "Sam, can I talk to you?"
"Sure can, Blair," he said easily, then stepped into another stall. Coming back out, he continued, "But you'll have to do it in pieces while I work. I promise, I'll listen anyway."
"Okay." Blair hesitated, then plunged in. "I have a wolf-friend, an' she's hurt, an' I wanna help her, an' can you go with me 'cause I might not know what to do." He waited patiently while Sam stepped into another stall.
"A wolf-friend, huh? And how did this happen?"
"Me an' Jim been seeing her when we go on trail-rides, an' I been leaving doggie treats for her." Another stall, another short wait.
"Sounds like a friend," Sam agreed. "But how do you know she's hurt?"
This would be a problem; a lot of grownups didn't really believe in dreams. Maybe if it was something more, like a... yes, like the visions of an Indian medicine man. Those were important; surely Sam would respect a 'vision' more than a 'dream'.
"I had a vision last night; it was all blue an' everything. An' my wolf looked at me an' asked for help, so I really gotta find her."
Sam disappeared into another stall. When he came out, he asked, "Were you in bed when you had this vision last night?" At Blair's nod, he squatted to look at the little boy face-to-face. "Blair," he explained, "even if it was blue, it was still a dream, and dreams aren't real. I think somewhere inside of you, you'd like to be a hero to your wolf-friend, so your mind made this up. But a wolf is a wild animal, and can take care of itself. Giving her doggie treats is being enough of a friend; you don't need to do more."
Blair stared rebelliously at the door as Sam slipped into another stall. Naomi didn't allow him to use bad words, but he could think them. So he did. Damn! Stupid grownups!
But the thoughts didn't make him feel better, and didn't get him any closer to helping his wolf. Maybe...
"Okay, Blair," Sam announced, stepping out of the last stall, "I'll bet Sadie has breakfast ready. Let's get up there before it gets cold."
As Blair fell in beside Sam, stretching his legs as far as he could, he continued his plans. Jim would be here this morning, and he wasn't a grownup yet; maybe he'd listen when Blair told him how urgent it was. Okay. Blair would eat a big breakfast, and be ready as soon as Jim showed up. His wolf was counting on him.
"Jim! Jim!" Blair cried as the cab pulled up in front of the stable. He dashed forward and practically leaped into the teen's arms. "You have to help! My wolfie is hurt, an' we gotta go find her!"
"Easy, buddy, easy," Jim soothed, his arms curving to cradle the small boy and offer comfort for he knew not what. "Take it from the top, slowly, and tell me all about it."
And Blair did just that, explaining about the blue light and helpless wolf, and the urgency of finding her. But, to his vast disappointment, Jim brushed off his concerns, just as Sam had.
Jim sat Blair on top of the nearby fence, so that were at eye-level with each other. "Look, Chief, our minds can play tricks on us, especially in our dreams. I know you've been kind of worrying about your wolf, and how she's managing to take care of her cubs, haven't you?" He waited for Blair's reluctant nod. "So your mind just took that worry and made it bigger in your dreams. But, honest, it's not real. Your wolf is part of a pack, and the pack members take care of each other. So she's all right, and tomorrow we'll check out all the places we've seen her, and I bet we'll see her again. But today Sam has me doing practice jumps, so it'll have to wait till then. Okay?"
"We could go after lunch," Blair suggested hesitantly. "You could eat with us, an' we could go right after. I bet we could find her easy. She's up there, somewhere." He pointed halfway up the mountain that rose out of the forest.
"I'm sorry, Chief, I really can't. There's a corporate meet 'n' greet this afternoon, and my dad says I gotta be there; I'll have to leave right after my ride." He patted Blair's knee consolingly. "But I promise, first thing tomorrow, we'll head out, okay?"
What could Blair say? He averted his gaze from Jim's and shrugged unhappily, then climbed down from the fence and followed the older boy into the stable, his dragging footsteps signaling his dejection. He watched Jim saddle Hercules without his usual cheerful commentary, then followed them to the practice arena and plunked down in the shade of a tree to watch Jim ride. But his eyes kept trying to close, making it difficult to focus on Jim's performance. After a short time he gave up the struggle and curled up in the grass, resting his head on his arm.
Blair ran through the blue light. His wolf was here, somewhere; he had to see how she was doing. Maybe, like Jim said, the rest of the pack were helping her. Maybe she could wait another day. But he had to be sure.
There it was again, that pain-filled whimper. Blair ran even faster, pumping his legs desperately; he had to reach her, had to see what was happening to her.
He burst over a slight rise and found her curled up in a shallow depression. No other members of the pack were with her, and her continued distress was evident through her harsh panting and strained whining.
Blair threw himself prone in front of the wolf, aching to comfort her. He had been right, he had! She couldn't wait till tomorrow; she needed help soon.
"I'll come for you, Wolfie, I promise; you just wait for me. I'll come as quick as I can, an' I'll make Jim or Sam come with me, so they can fix you up. So you keep waiting, an' soon you'll be okay."
The wolf looked trustfully into his eyes, then laid her head on her paws to wait. Blair stayed where he was, talking to her in soothing murmurs, but soon the blue light -- and the wolf -- started to fade away.
Blair crept into the kitchen. Lunch was finished, and Sadie had not yet started preparations for dinner; the coast was clear. If no one would help him save his wolf, he'd help her himself. He had a splendid plan -- he'd get lost with his wolf. Naomi would worry, and he was sorry for that, but it was really important. When Uncle Trevor or Sam or somebody came to find him, and he was right next to the wolf, then they'd have to help her.
But it might take them a long time to find him -- maybe even a whole day -- so he had to take some food and water with him. Blair filled his small plastic canteen, acquired during his many travels with Naomi, with cold water, then made two peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. He put them in a small brown sack that would fit in the saddle bag, along with an apple and a banana, and six chocolate-chip cookies. That should be enough.
Heading toward the door, Blair paused. If he would get hungry, his wolf would, too. She might already be hungry, because the grownups had made him wait to rescue her. Blair was pretty sure a wolf wouldn't like peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches; Uncle Trevor's dog Patch didn't, and wolves were a lot like dogs.
He opened the fridge and surveyed its contents; what would a wolf like to eat?
Perfect! He pulled out the slab of leftover meatloaf. It was already enclosed in plastic wrap, and easily slipped into another small brown sack. But if Blair had two sandwiches, the wolf should also have two somethings. Another examination of the fridge contents yielded an almost-full package of bologna, which fit very nicely next to the meatloaf. And treats, of course. He added a few handfuls of doggie biscuits to fill in the empty spaces around the meat.
Water. His wolf might get thirsty, but Blair only had one canteen. But a kitchen should have something to carry water in.
A search of the lower cupboards yielded only pots and pans and a few empty glass jars, but they might break. Blair pulled over a chair so that he could search the high cupboards. And there was his solution -- some big plastic glasses with tight lids. He grabbed two -- his wolf might be very thirsty -- and filled them. Okay; now he had enough supplies.
Blair tried to sneak like an Indian as he entered the barn; if somebody saw him, they'd be sure to stop him. But Sam had taken a group of students to Murphy's Meadow, and Marcella was working with another group of students in the dressage arena. Uncle Trevor and Naomi had gone to town after lunch, and Sam had told Larry to fix some fence, so he should be safe from discovery.
He left the food and water to wait in the tack room while he went to get Rosie. She came to Blair as willingly as always, and he was soon brushing her clean. Of course, he had to let Rosie in on his secret. "I know my wolf is in trouble, even if they don't believe it," Blair whispered confidentially. "But I bet you an' me can find her. Then I'll stay with the wolf, an' you can come home by yourself. An' when they see I'm not with you, they'll come looking for me, an' you can show them the way to where we are, okay, Rosie?"
The horse snorted softly, which Blair took as agreement for his clever plan. He placed saddle pad and saddle on her back, then paused. Buckling the saddle tight enough was always a problem, but Marcella had showed him a neat trick just a few days ago; he was pretty sure he could do it. Blair pulled the cinch as tight as he could. Using the stepstool, he was able to reach the stirrup with his foot and swing his leg over the saddle just as good as Jim did. "I wish Jim was here to go with us, Rosie," he said softly, "but I know we can do this. Now hold still while I pull those buckles tighter." Blair moved his left leg out of the way, and bent over the saddle flap; his weight had pushed the saddle down far enough that he was able to pull the cinch straps two holes tighter. Now he could be sure the saddle wouldn't slip.
Blair slid down to finish getting Rosie ready. He tied a set of saddlebags to the rings behind his seat, and loaded them with the food and water. He put his helmet on his head, slipped Rosie's bridle in her mouth, and he was ready to go. He used the stepstool once more as he climbed into the saddle. It was against the rules to mount up in the barn -- or to leave things in the aisle, like the stepstool -- but he was already breaking so many rules that a few more wouldn't matter. He wouldn't write the time or where he was going on the notice board, either; he needed a head start to find his wolf before the grownups found him.
Blair patted Rosie on the neck as they exited the barn, and turned her away from their usual path. Somewhere up on the side of that mountain; that's where he'd find his wolf. He 'kissed' gently and nudged Rosie into an easy jog; he didn't want her to get too tired if his wolf was a long way away.
The sun was going down, and the air had a slight chill, especially under the forest trees. Blair had been riding for hours, and his legs were trembling with the strain of using the same muscles for too long a period of time. But that didn't matter; his wolf must be close now. Something inside of him had been telling him which way to go, like a rope pulling Rosie's halter, but it wasn't working anymore; maybe they were too close.
Blair drew Rosie to a halt while he tried to think of a way to find his wolf. He wished his friend was here. Jim didn't talk about it too much, but he could hear way better than other people; sometimes even better than the horses. Oh, that was a good idea; maybe he could use Rosie's ears. He leaned forward to talk to her.
"Rosie, I'm gonna ask my wolfie to make some noise. You listen real good to hear her, okay? An' then you can take us there." Blair straightened up to call into the gathering dusk, "Hey, Wolfie? We're coming to help you, but we can't find you. So make some noise, okay? So Rosie can hear you an' bring me there. Just make some noise, Wolfie, an' we'll come quick."
He waited, straining his ears, but heard only the normal soft sounds of the forest. But Rosie pricked her ears and looked to the right, snorting softly.
"Good girl, Rosie!" Blair exclaimed. "Now take me there." He nudged her with his heels, but left the reins loose, letting her find her own way.
A few moments later, Blair was looking across a small clearing at an outcropping of rock. He still couldn't hear anything, but Rosie didn't want to go any closer; she was snorting and backing up each time Blair tried. Well, Sam said that most horses didn't like wild animals, so his wolf must be somewhere in there. Okay, he could walk the rest of the way himself.
Twisting in the saddle, Blair unhooked the saddlebags and let them fall to the ground, then slid down himself. He pulled Rosie's face to his level, and stroked her forehead while he explained. "You did good, Rosie; thank you. Now you gotta go home so people will come looking for me, an' you can show them the way back, okay?" He unbuckled the bridle and slipped it off her head, because a running horse might get tangled in loose reins and fall and hurt herself. He petted her one more time, then moved down her side and slapped her on the flank, as hard as he could. Stepping back, Blair waved one of the reins in the air like a training whip as he shouted, "Go, Rosie! Go on home!" He added several urgent kisses for good measure, and watched in satisfaction as the horse moved off at a fast trot.
Good. Now to take care of his wolf. Blair picked up his saddlebags and the bridle, and headed across the meadow toward the rocky outcrop.
Halfway there, he could hear a series of whining growls, and homed in on two large boulders lying half-buried, a short distance away from the main mass of rocks. A few more minutes let him see the wolf he had come so far to help. She was lying between the two boulders, trapped somehow, whimpering and panting in distress.
Blair ached to comfort her, but Sam had told him that injured animals weren't always in control of their actions; you had to approach carefully, and give them time to adjust. Accordingly, Blair sank cross-legged to the ground, a few yards away from his wolf, but within easy sight / sound / sent range, so she could get used to him.
"Hey, Wolfie," he crooned. "It's okay now. I'll stay here an' take care of you till my friends get here, an' they'll get you out of there an' then you'll be okay. Will you let me come closer? I have some food for you, an' some water; that'll make you feel better. You'll let me come closer, won't you?"
The wolf was quieter now; she seemed to be listening to the soothing voice, and watched Blair without observable fear. Encouraged, he reached into the saddlebags and snagged the meatloaf and one of the plastic glasses of water. He unwrapped the meatloaf and, holding it in extended hand, scooted closer to the wolf, murmuring reassuringly as he moved. She watched alertly, but made no threatening gestures.
Finally, Blair was close enough. He laid the meatloaf under her nose, then moved back a little bit to reassure her. Keeping a wary eye on Blair, the wolf nevertheless devoured the food in four quick gulps, then licked her chops in gratitude.
Blair was pleased that his offering had been accepted. "That was good, huh? Sadie's a real good cook; I thought you'd like it. Are you thirsty? I have some water, but I forgot to bring a bowl. But if you'll let me stay close to you, I can hold the glass while you stick your tongue in it." Blair pulled off the lid so that the wolf could smell the water, and was rewarded with a small whine. "I'm coming," he assured her, and scooted close again.
The wolf started lapping at the water as soon as Blair was within reach. He set the tumbler on the ground and steadied it with both hands so that she wouldn't tip it over. But when the glass was half empty, her tongue could no longer reach. The wolf whined in frustration, while Blair bit his lip in sympathy and tried to think of a solution.
"I know how we can do it!" he exclaimed. "But you gotta let me get real, real close. Is that okay?" Reading assent in her eyes, Blair set the water out of spilling distance, then pulled off his top shirt. Moving still closer to the wolf, he crossed his legs and draped his shirt into the middle space to form a shallow bowl. Then he grabbed the plastic wrap, lined the improvised bowl with that, and finally poured the rest of the water into it. No longer wary, the wolf plunged her head forward and drank until she licked the plastic dry.
"I bet you feel way better now, don't you? You're so pretty; would you let me pet you? Sam says stay away from wild animals, but you know me now, so that's okay, isn't it? Here, you wanna sniff?" Blair slowly extended his hand, and broke into a broad smile as she first sniffed, then quickly licked the hand. "That tickles!" he giggled, "but I guess that means yes. Here I come." Still moving slowly, with the wolf watching as the hand approached, Blair gently touched her head, then started scratching between her ears. After a few moments she sighed, and lowered her head to her paws while Blair continued scratching. "Yeah, I thought you'd like that; Patch does."
Finally, Blair stirred. "You know, I need to see what's the matter with you before it gets all the way dark. Maybe I can get you loose an' you won't have to wait till my friends get here. I'll just go around the back of these ol' rocks an' see what's holding you." Giving a last pat to the wolf's head, he rose to investigate.
That side of the boulders faced west, and the rays of the setting sun showed the ugly scene clearly. Blair felt sick; his beautiful wolf had her back leg caught in a nasty steel trap, which was attached to a small log by a stout chain. She must have been dragging everything behind her, but the narrow passage that was big enough for her body wasn't wide enough for the log; it had jammed tight, impeding her further progress.
Blair stretched, but his arms weren't long enough to reach the trap. He probably wasn't strong enough to open it anyway, but he wished he could try. It was no use; they'd have to wait for the others. Poor wolf. But she was a little bit lucky; apparently a heavy stick had been lying on the trap when she stepped in it. That stick was big enough that the trap had not closed on her leg with its full force; the leg was bloody, and she was obviously held fast, but her leg wasn't bent, so maybe the bone wasn't broken. And it was a good thing the passage was so narrow; the wolf hadn't had room to turn on her own length and chew off the leg to get free of the trap. Blair had heard about that, and it was a dangerous solution; a three-legged wolf would die when she couldn't hunt, and her puppies with her.
Puppies! Blair craned his head and squinted as he peered at her belly. Yes, her teats were still full of milk. There were baby wolves somewhere, and they must be very hungry. Now the situation was even more urgent.
Blair hurried around to the front of the boulders and faced the wolf again. "I'm sorry, I didn't remember about your puppies," he said. "I bet you're worried about them, an' I bet they're awful hungry. Are they close? If you tell me where they are, I could bring them to you."
The wolf regarded him calmly, her golden eyes peering into his, but gave no sign that she understood. "Puppies," Blair repeated urgently, then made whimpering noises, imitating as best he could the pups he'd played with when Moonglow's dog had had a litter. It made an impression on the wolf; she pricked her ears, stared at Blair, then up into the rocks above, then back at Blair.
"That's right," he urged. "Call them, so they'll make noise an' I can find them." Once again, he made puppy-whimpers.
Abruptly, the wolf decided. Lifting her head, she sent a series of yipping calls aimed at the rock outcropping, which were answered by excited yipping squeals.
Blair stared closely in the direction of the answering yips. He saw a shadow that might be the opening of a hidden cave, and it looked like he could get up there. He'd have to hurry; the sun had slipped halfway below the horizon, and it would be dangerous to be climbing on the rocks once all the light was gone from the sky.
"Okay," Blair said earnestly, "I'll go get them for you." He gave the wolf a quick pat and headed up.
It wasn't too hard, though he had to zigzag back and forth to find rises that were low enough for him to climb. But finally, Blair reached a level ledge and, sure enough, there was an opening under a slight overhang. It was too dark to see inside, and he shouldn't reach in blindly; even puppies might bite if they were scared. But maybe he could coax them out.
"Puppies? Are you in there?" Blair used his most winsome tones, then added puppy-noises for effect. "If you come out, I'll take you to your mother. Come out, little puppies!"
Nothing happened. Well, that made sense; they didn't know him yet. Blair turned and called down to his wolf. "They won't come out! Will you tell them it's okay?" He was answered by a series of yips, which finally elicited a response from within the cave. Yapping excitedly, two little cubs bounded out of the darkness, only to stop in confusion when they saw the large, unfamiliar animal in front of them.
Blair immediately laid down to make himself look smaller. "Hi, guys. Your mama can't come up right now, so I'll take you to her an' then you can eat. You're hungry aren't you? Your mama can fix that. It's okay, I won't hurt you; your mama even let me pet her -- see?" He held out the hand that had touched the wolf and let them sniff.
Scenting their mother, the cubs lost all reservations; they scrambled forward and pounced on Blair, licking his face and pulling at his hair and clothes with tiny growls. Blair giggled and wrestled with them for a short time, but it was getting darker by the minute. Going down would be easier than coming up, but he needed to get started.
"That's enough, puppies; we gotta go see your mama. Com'on." He tucked one under each arm and headed down.
By the time he reached the bottom, the cubs were squirming wildly as they heard and smelled their mother. "Okay, okay," Blair grumbled, "I guess you can run faster'n me." He set them on the ground, and watched as they bounded toward the boulders that imprisoned their mother.
It was too dark to see clearly when Blair reached the boulders. He peered into the narrow space between; as best he could tell, the pups were lying on top of their mother's body and leaning over the side to suckle. His wolf was lying quietly, and seemed at peace.
All was well -- or as well as it could be until someone came to get his wolf loose from the trap. Now he could take care of his own needs. Blair ate one of his sandwiches and the banana, followed by a few swallows of water; he didn't want to use it up too fast. He'd save the cookies for later, in case he wanted a snack.
"You want some more to eat?" he asked, noticing that the wolf seemed interested in what he was doing. "Okay; you can have some doggie biscuits; we have to save the bologna for breakfast."
The wolf quickly ate the offered treats, and lapped up half her glass of water. "That's all," Blair informed her kindly. "Now I'm awful tired; is it okay if I lay down close to you?" Taking her silence for consent, Blair hunched closer, resting his head on one arm as a pillow, and twining his other hand in the thick ruff of hair at the wolf's neck. "Good night," he said drowsily, and was asleep within minutes.
Jim sullenly followed his father into the house. That was four hours of his life he'd never get back. Thank god it was over; he couldn't wait to get out of his suit and tie.
Sally stopped him as he reached the foot of the stairs. "Jimmy, a Mr. Evanston called from the stables. He'd like you to call him back; he said it was urgent."
Sam? What could he want? "Thanks, Sally; I'll do it right now." He hurried into the kitchen, trying to ignore the alarms shrieking in his mind. Sam wouldn't call unless something was really wrong, but he'd find out in a minute.
He dialed the number of the stable, then had to wait while Marcella fetched Sam.
"Jimmy? Thanks for calling back. Listen, it looks like Blair's gone off by himself. Do you have any idea what he planned?"
"You mean he's run away?" The kid wouldn't do that, would he? He'd seemed happy at the stables -- and with Jim.
"We don't know; we couldn't find him at suppertime, but he didn't leave a note. There's some food missing from the kitchen, and Rosie's not in her stall, so we know he's not on foot and he's planning to be gone awhile; we just don't know if he intends it to be permanent. We've got everyone out looking -- some of the neighbors are helping, his mother went out with Mr. Madison and Marcella, and even the sheriff's posse is out hunting. Between us, we've ridden all the trails around here, and searched the likely spots, but we haven't seen a sign of either of them. I came back to call you; I hoped you might have an idea where he'd go; did the kid say anything to you?"
In his mind's eye, Jim watched the confident hand pointing toward the mountain, watched the shoulders slump when the requested help was denied, and was certain he knew where Blair was headed. "Yeah, Sam, I think he's gone to rescue his wolf."
"His wolf!" Sam was incredulous. "You mean that dream he was talking about this morning?"
"Dream to you and me, maybe, but he thought it was a vision and you know what a determined little guy he is; he's going to follow that vision no matter what it takes." Despite the seriousness of the situation, a ring of pride crept into Jim's voice; his little friend had the gumption of someone three times his age. "But, yeah, I think I know where he's going. I'll change my clothes and come right out."
"That's okay, Jimmy. Just tell us which way to head, and we'll concentrate our search there; we'll find him."
Nuh-uh. No way in hell would Jim sit cozily at home while Blair was somewhere on the mountain, waiting -- he was sure -- for Jim to come help him. "It's almost dark, Sam," he pointed out, "and I..." He hesitated, but this was for Blair. "...I have real good night-vision. I think I might be able to find and follow the trail easier than someone else."
"Okay, Jimmy, I'll wait for you. And truthfully, I'll be grateful for the help. I'll have Hercules saddled for you; just get here as quick as you can."
"I will. And listen, Sam..." It was a wild idea, but his instincts insisted he bring it out into the open. "...You know, if Blair has found an injured animal, it'll break his heart if we drag him away without helping it. So maybe you should pack some antibiotics and bandages and stuff to fix up something like a bad cut. If we don't need it, it won't hurt anything, but..." He trailed off, certain that Sam would think he'd gone looney-tunes.
There was a surprised silence on the other end of the line, then, "You're probably right. Like you said, Blair's a determined little cuss. I'll pack some tranquilizer, too; I wouldn't want to tend a wounded wolf while the teeth are functional. Okay, I'll have everything ready. See you soon, Jimmy."
As soon as the ~click~ sounded in his ear, Jim called the cab company, then dashed toward his room, unbuttoning his shirt as he went.
"Jimmy! You made good time!" Sam called as Jim slammed the cab door and hurried forward.
Jim responded briefly, his mind already ranging far ahead. "Hey, Sam. Are we ready to go?" As promised, Sam had Hercules saddled and waiting, as well as Sampson -- a stout, muscular dun quarter horse -- for his own use. Jim untied Hercules from the fencepost, and waited impatiently for Sam to do the same.
"Everything but the kitchen sink," Sam assured him, untying Sampson. "Food and people medicine in your saddlebags -- just in case -- and water and animal medicine in mine. Let's go."
They had just settled in the saddle when Jim lifted his head. "Wait a minute, Sam. I hear a horse out there, moving kind of fast. Maybe Blair's coming back."
A few moments later, Rosie loped into the stable-yard, nickering happily to see her friend. She slowed and then stopped near Hercules, breathing deeply but without the heaving gasps that would signify panic or distress. Both men dismounted to evaluate the situation.
"No saddlebags or bridle," Sam pointed out. "Which means that Blair got off voluntarily instead of falling."
"And that means he found his wolf and is staying there," Jim agreed. "But why did he set Rosie loose?"
Sam chuckled. "Blair's a pretty smart cookie, but he pretty much believes that animals are people with four legs. Five'll get you ten that he expects Rosie to do a 'Lassie' and lead us back to him.
"But now we need to take another horse, so he can ride back with us. Hang on a few minutes while I get Sunny." Sam led Rosie into the stable, calling for Larry to take care of her while he saddled the other horse.
Left alone, Jim considered Sam's words. Maybe Rosie could lead them to Blair -- if he could distinguish her hoofprints from other horses. All the horses wore shoes, but maybe...
Jim walked along the route he'd seen Rosie travel as she approached, examining the ground minutely. Everywhere, her hoofprints were mixed with others, and he couldn't tell which was which. But a hundred yards farther on, he hit the jackpot. Rosie had stepped in soft dirt at the edge of a puddle left over from the last rain; no other horse had walked that close to the puddle, and her prints were as clear as if written on a page.
Jim studied them carefully, looking for anything that was more distinctive than plain old horseshoe. There! It looked like a nail was coming loose on the inside of her left rear shoe; he'd have to tell Sam to have it reset tomorrow. But, for now, the slightly-extruded nailhead left a deeper indentation in that hoofprint. Good. Jim would be able to distinguish Rosie's pattern when she crossed areas that had a multitude of tangled prints; they wouldn't waste any time trying to figure out which was which as they followed Rosie's back-trail.
Jim hurried back to the stable-yard. Sam had Sunny on a lead-line, and was ready to mount up. That suited Jim just fine; there was no time to waste. As he swung into the saddle, he explained how he could recognize Rosie's trail. Impatience riding him hard, Jim reined Hercules into the lead, Sam following with the extra horse trailing behind him.
Fortunately, the moon was almost full. Unfortunately, the broken layer of clouds dimmed the light at crucial moments. It hardly mattered. Jim could see Rosie's trail regardless of the light; he just made sure to point it out to Sam only when the clouds uncovered the moon. But for Jim, the trail was almost superfluous; he could feel Blair ahead of him, higher on the mountain. Rosie's trail ensured that they followed the same route Blair had taken, but Jim was absolutely certain that he could find his little friend with or without the trail, or even if he was blindfolded.
Sam followed the teenager's lead, marveling to himself. Jimmy was a city kid, but he was following the trail more easily than the best hunting guide Sam had ever met, or even heard of. It was almost uncanny. Jimmy had said he had good night-vision, but his eyes must be as good as... an owl's; a cat's wouldn't even come close.
Sam had little to do as he rode but ponder the mystery of Jimmy Ellison. This wasn't the first time the kid had seen something that others couldn't, and he'd heard Rosie coming for a full two minutes before Sam could hear her. It was like Jimmy had a double helping of sight and hearing.
But he didn't often let it show. As a matter of fact, the times Jimmy had demonstrated his super-senses, it seemed that he wasn't aware of it, as if he didn't recognize the line between what he could do and what other people could do. If he did become aware that he'd 'crossed the line', it seemed that he was embarrassed about his super-senses, or maybe scared of them.
Sam thought about that for a few miles. What would happen to the kid if it became common knowledge that some of his senses were so far above normal? Packs of reporters and months of scientific tests would probably be the least of it; Jimmy might never have another 'normal' day of life. Given that, his instinct to hide his special abilities was probably right on target -- at least until he was older, and had some clout against people who would push too far.
Sam nodded to himself. Yep, he'd keep Jimmy Ellison's secret; the kid deserved to grow up as normal as possible. In the meantime, he'd just thank the Lord that his super-senses were available to help find one lost little boy.
Sam settled a little deeper in the saddle, riding through the night behind a young man he trusted without reservation.
Jim reined Hercules to a stop at the edge of the small clearing. The moonlight showed the scene clearly. Blair was asleep in dangerous proximity to the wolf's teeth, and the wolf herself was already aware of them; her head was up and her ears were pricked as she looked toward the men and horses.
Sam pulled up beside him. "What's the matter, Jimmy? Have you lost the trail?"
"No; look." Jim pointed toward the rocky outcropping. "The wolf is between those two rocks, and Blair's asleep next to her."
Sam squinted, then shrugged. "I'll take your word for it, Jimmy. When you said you had good night vision, you weren't just whistling Dixie; all I can see is the rocks. But let's go get him." He picked up the reins to urge Sampson forward.
"Wait!" Jim grabbed his arm, speaking quickly to forestall objections. "The wolf knows we're here, and she seems wary. If she feels threatened, she might react by attacking whatever is close -- and that's Blair. It might be better if we move back a little, so she'll relax, and wait till Blair wakes up. When he moves out of striking distance, we can call him away from her, and then figure out what comes next."
Sam chewed a lip as he considered Jim's suggestion. The idea of leaving the kid alone for several more hours rankled. "Why don't we call him instead? Maybe we can wake him up."
Jim surveyed the intervening distance dubiously. "I'm not sure we can shout that loud, but it's worth a try." He watched for a reaction while Sam took a deep breath and bellowed, "BLAIR! HEY, BLAIR!! WAKE UP, KID!"
"Stop!" Jim said urgently. "Blair's still sleeping like a log, but the wolf is getting agitated; she's staring our way and growling. I think she thinks she's protecting him, but we still can't be sure what she'll do if she gets stressed enough."
Sam subsided. The night was mild and dry; Blair wasn't in danger of hypothermia and, if the wolf hadn't attacked him yet, she was unlikely to do so now -- provided she wasn't pushed into a reaction by their presence. He nodded his agreement.
"Okay, Jimmy; I guess we'll go with your first suggestion." He turned Sampson around. "See if you can find a spot that's far enough away for the wolf to relax, but close enough that you can still see her between the trees. It'll be up to you to keep an eye on things, so we can get there quickly if something goes wrong."
It took just a few minutes for Jim to find a small patch of grass growing in the clear space left by a fallen tree, about fifty yards back from the edge of the clearing where wolf and boy waited. Sam removed the horses' bridles and staked them out to graze, while Jim found a good vantage point to watch Blair and his wolf.
The wolf seemed more relaxed now; she had laid her head down on her paws, though her ears remained pricked in their direction; Jim decided their retreat had been the correct action. He reported the developments to Sam, then sat down with his back against a convenient tree trunk. Sam settled against the neighboring tree. It was still several hours till dawn; he could help Jim stay awake, at least, even if he couldn't help watch the wolf and boy.
Conversation was sporadic, prompted by a need to help each other stay awake. Sam shared anecdotes about the Olympic games he'd attended, which Jim countered with analyses of football games he'd played. But Jim's thoughts were constantly with Blair and the wolf.
"I know why Blair's hung up on the wolf," he said reflectively. "He loves animals -- any animals -- and he thinks the wolf is just a kind of super-dog. But Blair's lying right next to the wolf -- he's even holding on to a bit of her fur -- and she's tolerating it. What would make a wild animal react like that?"
Sam shrugged easily. "Most animals are completely tuned in to the unconscious body language of the other animals they meet; it's a matter of their survival. Two horse trainers can use the exact same techniques, and get very different results because the horses recognize one man as more aggressive and the other man as more accommodating, and respond accordingly.
"That wolf can tell that Blair has only the best intentions. And it helps that he's just a kid; the young of any species tend to be given more leeway, more acceptance of any harmless mistakes."
"And I suppose she recognizes his scent, from those doggie biscuits he drops for her," Jim suggested.
"That too," Sam agreed. "There're a lot factors that add up to that kid being the luckiest little tyke alive. What gets me is how Blair knew the wolf needed help, and how he found her, way out here."
Jim shifted uneasily. "That is weird. You don't suppose he really had a vision, do you?"
Sam shook his head. "That's a good question. There're a lot of people and cultures that believe in visions. It's not likely that they're all trying to bamboozle their followers, so I suppose it's real some of the time. And young minds are more receptive, haven't closed up with the certainty that they know how the world works."
Jim grinned; Sam could just make out the flash of his teeth in the darkness. "Well, Blair's got the most open mind of anyone I've ever known. I guess if the wolf was sending out telepathic messages or something, he'd be the most likely to pick them up."
"Truer words were never spoken," Sam chuckled. "So, what's happening now?"
"Same thing; they're just lying there together."
Sam grunted and shifted to a more comfortable position. Together, he and Jim continued watching, waiting until dawn might finally wake the sleeping child.
The sun rose early at this time of the year, launching a vibrant chorus of birdsong from the treetops. Jim roused himself from a half-doze and focused again on Blair and the wolf, while Sam used a pair of binoculars to do the same. Animal and boy were still sleeping peacefully.
"I think we should move toward the edge of the clearing, Jimmy," Sam suggested. "We'll leave the horses here; if we're careful, the wolf won't hear us, and we'll be that much closer when Blair wakes up."
That suited Jim completely; he had to fight down the urge to just run forward and snatch Blair away from the wolf. Together, he and Sam crept forward until they reached a spot just inside of the tree-line that surrounded the clearing. They sank to the ground, continuing to watch.
They had to wait another half-hour, but Blair finally rolled over and sat up. He stretched and yawned, then looked around as if suddenly remembering where he was. With a broad smile he turned to the wolf and patted her head; his, "Good morning, wolfie! Did you have a good sleep?" carried easily to Jim's ears.
With the spoken words, two little cubs bounded out of the gap between the boulders that concealed their mother's body. They pounced on Blair with tiny growls, pulling at his shirt and hair. Sam checked Jim's attempt to charge forward, and Jim quickly realized that Blair was in no danger. He rolled on the ground with the cubs, giggling and growling back at them as they wrestled together. Finally, Blair pushed them away and stood up.
"That's enough, puppies," Jim heard him say. "It's time for breakfast, an' then maybe later my friends will be here to help your mama. You wait here, an' I'll get the food." He headed toward the saddlebags, lying several yards away.
Now was his chance. Jim was past the tree-line and running toward the child before he was even aware of moving. "BLAIR!" he shouted. "CHIEF!! WE'RE HERE!"
Blair spun around, an expression of sheer joy illuminating his face. "JIMMY!" he crowed in delight, running as fast as he could toward his friend. He didn't even slow down, but leaped into Jim's open arms as soon as he was close enough.
"Jim! You came!" Blair announced with deep satisfaction. "I knew you'd come, an' you did, you came! Now you can fix my wolf."
Jim clasped Blair tightly, wanting never to let go. "Yes, buddy, I came. I'm just sorry you thought you had to come up here alone. I told you we'd come today."
"I know, but my wolf needed help faster. I gave her some food an' some water, an' I got her puppies for her, an' now you're here an' you'll fix her. I'm not big enough, but you are."
The shining trust in his eyes made Jim feel simultaneously ten feet tall and as small as a worm; what had he done to earn such regard from this special child? He cleared his throat. "We'll certainly do our best, buddy -- if she'll let us."
Blair had ignored the wolf for a moment. He turned with Jim to see her snarling in rage, scrabbling at the dirt with her front paws as she tried to free herself to defend the boy from the large human who had accosted him.
"Oh-oh," Blair said. "She doesn't like you. But I'll 'splain that you're my friend, an' then she'll be good."
"No, Blair, it's too dangerous," Sam said, dropping his saddlebags as he finally reached boys; he had let Jim outpace him in his mad dash across the clearing. "I know you made friends with her, but she's still a wild animal, and she doesn't understand that we want to help her. I brought a lot of medicine; I'll give her a shot to make her sleep, and then we'll get her out of there and fix her up. Did you find out what's wrong?"
Blair explained about the trap and the bloody leg and the log that was caught between the rocks. Sam went around behind the boulders to confirm Blair's report, while the wolf's increasingly violent snarls signified her impotent rage. Jim held Blair tight when the boy struggled to get down and reassure his 'wolfie', explaining that she was too upset right now to pay attention to her friend.
"The kid's got it right," Sam said, coming back toward them and opening his saddlebags. He pulled out a syringe and a bottle of anesthetic. "But once she's asleep, we'll be able to get her out of there. Jimmy, I can't see her body clearly in those boulders. You've seen her before; would you estimate her weight closer to sixty or seventy pounds?"
Jim played her image back in his mind. "I'd say the low sixties," he said, "maybe sixty-two or sixty-three."
"Fair enough," Sam grunted, carefully filling the syringe. Then he looked toward Blair, still in Jim's arms, who was watching apprehensively. "We'll take care of her, kid. She won't like having a shot, but then she won't feel a thing. But I'm going to need your help."
"What, Sam?" Blair asked eagerly, squirming until Jim put him down. He'd do anything to help his wolf!
"Those cubs are sitting on top of her right now; they're probably afraid because Jim and I are so big. But when I put my hand in there to give their mother a shot, they'll probably run this way. You can catch them when they come out, and then you need to hold them so they don't get in the way while I sew up their mother's leg. Can you do that for me?"
Blair nodded vigorously. "Sure I can, Sam! I'll hold 'em real tight."
Sam smiled and ruffled his hair. "I know you will, kid. So you wait here; they'll probably be running out in just a minute." He disappeared again behind the boulders, while Blair and Jim kept an eye on the front opening.
Sam's prediction was accurate; the cubs soon scurried out of their hiding place. They faced back toward the boulders with tiny growls, but their tails were between their legs in fear.
Blair slowly walked toward them, hearing Jim's cautious, "Not too close to the big wolf, Chief," behind him. He plopped himself on the grass and called, "Com'ere, puppies. You can wait with me while my friends help your mama."
Blair was a familiar creature in a world that had become confusing. The cubs scrambled into his lap, leaning into the arms that wrapped around them. Jim watched for a few moments -- even a cub could give a severe bite -- until the adult's snarls subsided under the effects of the anesthetic, allowing the cubs to quiet down as well. He said softly, "Looks like you have it under control, Chief. You take care of them while I go help Sam pull the wolf out of there."
Sam nodded as the teen came into view. "Glad you're here, Jimmy; it's going to take two of us to do this. We'll have to move the wolf and log together, so as not to damage her leg any more than it is. I'll grab her hips while you grab the log. It'll be a tight fit; I think you'll have to lie on your belly for us both to reach in there."
"Got it, Sam," Jim replied. He waited until Sam was in position, leaning into the gap with hands around the wolf's hips. Then he squirmed forward on his stomach, between Sam's wide-spread legs, and carefully pushed and twisted the log until it was parallel to the gap between the boulders and free to be pulled out.
Sam gave the count; on 'three' they both began to pull. Jim made sure to move the log in rhythm with Sam's actions; he had to keep it out of the way, so that Sam could bring out the wolf, but not move it so fast that the chain would yank the trap on the injured leg.
In just a few moments, they had the wolf free from her prison and laid on the grass. Sam cursed as he got a good look at her mangled leg. "Shit! That's criminal -- literally; it's illegal to set a leg-trap in this county. We'll take this back with us; maybe we can find out who it belongs to, and bring him up on charges."
A mess of old leaves and twigs had been caught around the spring mechanism of the trap as the wolf dragged it over the ground. Sam brushed away the detritus so that he could see what he was doing, then motioned Jim close. "This will be easier with two of us. See this ring? When I open the jaws, you slip it over that knob there; that'll keep it in the open position until we get the wolf out and close it safely. You ready? On three."
Sam forced the jaws of the trap open while Jim hovered nearby. When Sam grunted, "Now," Jim quickly slid the ring forward, locking the trap in the opened position. Sam sat back on his heels and heaved a sigh of relief. "Good job, Jimmy; those things can be tricky, even with help. Now..." He gently worked the wolf's leg free of the trap's small-toothed edges and moved her away from the immediate vicinity. Standing, he used the stick that had given some protection to the wolf's leg to prod the trigger, allowing the trap to snap shut.
"Jimmy, before we let Blair come over here... You've proved your eyesight's better than mine, and maybe your sense of touch, too?" He waited for Jim's guarded nod. "Fine. Check out that leg; see if you can tell for sure whether it's broken or not. If it is, we'll have big problems."
Obediently, Jim knelt over the wolf and ran his fingers delicately along the leg. Amazingly, he could feel the bone inside; it was undamaged. A close look at the bloody wound showed that Blair's wolf was even luckier than they had thought; the skin was torn and ragged, but there seemed to be minimal muscle or tissue damage underneath. He reported his observations to Sam with relief; Blair wouldn't be disappointed by their not being able to help his wolf.
"Great," Sam said. "Let's get the supplies and do what we can for her."
They walked around the boulders to find Blair waiting anxiously, still cuddling the cubs. He burst into speech as soon as they came into his view. "Did you get her out? Is she okay? Can you fix her? Can I watch?"
Jim hurried to his friend and knelt down to give him a hug. "Yes, yes, yes, and yes," he assured Blair. "She's out, she's not hurt too bad, she's sleeping, and Sam's going to make it all better. We came to get the medicines, and you can come and watch -- but you have to keep the cubs away while he's working."
"Okay, I can do that," Blair assured him. He struggled to rise, still clutching the cubs in his arms, until Jim grabbed one of them and took Blair's hand to pull him up. Together, the boys followed Sam back to the wolf.
At Sam's pointed finger, Blair settled into the grass where he could easily oversee his wolf's treatment. Jim placed the second cub back in his lap, briefly tousled his curls, and stepped forward to assist Sam's treatment.
Sam wrapped several layers of gauze around the wolf's muzzle. "Just in case she starts to wake up," he told the boys. "But, Jim, I expect you to keep an eye on her; if she starts to wake up, I bet you'll know it before she does. If she's coming to, give me the heads-up; we'll give her another half-dose of anesthetic to keep her under."
"You got it," Jim assured him.
Blair watched the procedure with bright-eyed interest. Aware of his audience, Sam explained each step as he and Jim washed the wound with copious amounts of water from a canteen and flooded it with hydrogen peroxide. Then, while Jim manipulated the leg for easy access, Sam stitched up the torn skin, and covered the area with a thick layer of antibiotic cream. He finished by giving the wolf a hefty shot of penicillin, patting her on the shoulder before he stood and stretched the kinks out of his back.
"Aren't you going to put on a bandage?" Blair asked. "Naomi says bandages keep the dirt out so cuts will heal better."
"Well, that works for humans," Sam told him, "but your wolf wouldn't like it at all. She'd just chew it off, and maybe hurt her leg some more. She'll keep it clean by licking it, and the cream and the shot should keep it from getting infected. Wolves have strong immune systems; chances are that she'll be just fine -- and that's thanks to you. If you hadn't brought us out here so soon, it would've been a lot worse. She'll probably be able to walk on it in just a few days." Blair glowed with satisfaction, until Sam raised a stern finger. "But," he insisted, "the next time something like this happens, you don't go off by yourself; you tell an adult. You got that?"
Blair nodded soberly, but couldn't resist a protest. "I tried. I told you an' I told Jim, but you wouldn't listen! An' my wolf needed help! I had to come!"
"You're right; we were wrong not to listen to you," Sam agreed. He squatted in front of Blair, facing him eye-to-eye. "But you were wrong to take off by yourself, even though it turned out okay; you need to be older, and have more experience, before you pull a stunt like this. So if Jimmy and I promise to pay attention to you next time, will you promise not to tackle a big problem by yourself?"
"I promise, Sam; cross my heart," Blair assured him, drawing a big 'X' on his chest. "But now what will happen to my wolfie? I don't think she should stay here; some bad animal might find her an' hurt her."
Jim hadn't liked to see Blair's reprimand, mild though it had been, and even though he realized it was necessary. He jumped in to break the moment. "I've been thinking about that. Blair, where did the cubs come from? Were they with their mother, or did you bring them from somewhere else?"
"They were up there, in a little cave." Blair pointed toward the rock formation above.
Jim and Sam both turned to see where Blair was pointing, evaluating the route up over the rough ground. Sam was impressed. "You climbed all the way up there?"
"O' course! I had to; the puppies had to be with their mama, an' she couldn't get to them." Blair punctuated his statement with a firm nod. It was obvious that, in his world, there'd been no other options.
"What do you think?" Jim asked Sam. "We could carry her and the cubs up; they'd probably be safer there, and it's likely the rest of the pack would bring her game until her leg heals."
Sam scratched his head as he stared upward, then glanced at the animal. "Well, it'll be quite a trek carrying a wolf, but it's probably the best solution."
"Jim can carry my wolfie," Blair asserted. "He's strong!"
Sam raised an amused eyebrow. "I guess you're elected."
"Well, I suppose she can't be much heavier than a backpack full of textbooks," Jim replied with a dramatic sigh. But when he saw the worried expression cross Blair's face, he hurried to reassure the boy. "Hey, I'm just teasing, Chief. I can carry her up there, no sweat."
"Oh, good." Blair's voice expressed his relief. "An' I'll carry the puppies, an' Sam can wait here and rest."
"Think again, kid," Sam said gruffly. "Going up will be harder than coming down, and Mr. Madison would skin me alive if I allowed you to be hurt after we found you safe. So you carry one and I'll carry one, and we'll all go up together."
Blair frowned at him. "Uncle Trevor wouldn't do that! He's a nice man, an' I'll tell him it wasn't your fault."
Sam chuckled. The kid was so knowledgeable about so many things, and so independent, that he sometimes forgot Blair still retained the literalness of a child. "Now I'm the one who's teasing," he explained. "That's just a silly way of saying Mr. Madison would be upset; I know he wouldn't really hurt me. But I'm still going with you and Jimmy; it'll just be easier if we share the work."
"Okay, we can do that. An' then I can bring the baloney and water, too. My wolfie didn't have breakfast; she can have it when she wakes up. Here; you hold the puppies." Blair waited until Sam had a hand on each cub, then trotted to his saddlebags. He pulled out the lunchmeat and the half-glass of water, as well as his own canteen. Returning to the little group, he announced, "I can let her have my water, too, 'cause we'll be home soon."
Jim took the canteen from Blair and made a show of studying it critically. "Well, it's a good idea, Chief, but I don't think she can use the canteen or the glass. How did you give her the water before?"
"I put it in the plastic from the meatloaf, but now it's all tangled an' stuck. I forgot to bring a bowl. Did you bring one?" He looked up confidently; Jim could solve any problem.
"I'm sorry, Chief, I didn't think of it, either," Jim said gently. "Maybe Sam packed something in with the supplies." Two pair of eyes focused hopefully on the older man.
Sam sighed and gave in. "I brought an old saucepan and a container of Sadie's beef stew, just in case we were out long enough to need food. I guess we can turn it into a wolf water-bowl. But it's with the other supplies, where we left the horses. You boys can go fetch it; this old man will be doing enough walking today." He grinned, to take the sting out of the mild complaint.
"We can do that, can't we, Jim?" Blair turned to Sam, still holding the wolf cubs. "Will you take care of the puppies till we get back?"
"I have a better idea; we'll just put them next to their mama. They'll stay with her," Sam said, matching actions to words. The cubs settled next to their mother and began to nurse.
Jim and Blair soon returned with the saucepan and, after a short discussion, they started their trek to the wolf-cave. Sam helped Jim hoist the limp body of the still-sleeping adult across his shoulders where he could carry her weight comfortably, her legs hanging down his chest like an old-fashioned ladies' mink stole. Blair carried one cub cradled in his arms, with the canteen hanging from his belt. Sam was able to tuck his cub under one arm, and carry the saucepan, package of bologna and glass of water with the other hand.
Blair led them on the same zigzag route he'd traveled the first time, but an armful of healthy wolf-cub made the climb more difficult than his previous trip. Jim stayed close, giving him a hand now and then. With the wolf on his shoulders, his own balance was a little precarious, but his athletically-tuned reflexes helped him adjust. Even so, he was breathing somewhat heavily by the time they reached the level of the cave, as were Blair and Sam. The cubs squirmed increasingly during the last part of the hike, necessitating that their guardians expend extra effort to navigate the trail.
"There it is!" Blair finally announced, pointing toward the low overhang. He and Sam stooped to release the cubs -- they wouldn't go far -- and Sam stepped over to help Jim ease the wolf to the ground.
"She's starting to wake up," Jim reported. "We better check out that cave and get her in there, or should we just leave her out here?"
"Cave!" Blair insisted. "So she won't get too hot in the sun, an' can stay dry if it rains."
"Cave it is," Sam agreed. He picked up a couple of loose stones and tossed them into the dark recesses, trying to ensure that there were no wild animals currently inside.
Jim's voice was amused. "Uh, Sam? I could've told you there's nothing in there -- nothing alive anyway."
Sam paused in the middle of reaching for a few more stones and turned a thoughtful gaze toward Jim. "Again, I'll have to take your word for it; I don't know how much you can see and hear. But I appreciate the confirmation. Let's take a look inside."
It wasn't much -- an indentation about ten feet deep into the rocky hillside, extending about twenty feet along the face of a low cliff, with brush growing in front that made it hard to see from the outside. A small area between the back wall and an outthrust boulder had collected a layer of dead leaves and pine needles that probably blew in during autumn storms; Jim pointed out bits of rabbit fur and small pieces of bone that indicated it was the wolf's 'family area'.
"Hunh!" Sam grunted. "I'd expect a more protected spot -- something dug deep, and harder for predators to get into. But maybe this is her first litter. She'll probably look for a better place next year."
Jim went back for the wolf and carried her inside. Following Blair's specific directions, he placed her in a comfortable position on the cushioning leaves, and unwrapped the gauze from her muzzle. The cubs, who had followed Blair's coaxing voice as he followed Jim, curled up at their mother's side and prepared to take a nap.
Blair studied the arrangement critically, and was satisfied. "Good! Now let's put the bologna an' water right by her nose, so she can have it when she wakes up." He pulled his belt loose so that he could free the canteen.
"That's not a good idea," Sam said. "If an animal -- or a person -- eats or drinks too soon after waking up from anesthesia, it'll likely make them sick. You wouldn't want her to eat and then vomit it up; it'll just be wasted, and won't help her get well."
Blair nodded. "That makes sense. But then, where should we put it?"
After some discussion, they chose a spot about ten feet away from the wolf. "If she's awake enough to get this far, she'll probably be awake enough that it won't make her sick," Sam explained.
Blair unwrapped the bologna and placed it on a convenient ledge; it would be out of the cubs' reach, but not the adult's. Jim settled the saucepan on the ground below the little ledge, and surrounded it with fist-sized stones to help prevent it being accidentally spilled. Blair carefully filled it to the brim, emptying the wolf's half-glass and most of his canteen. He stepped back to survey the layout. "Okay, I guess we're done."
"Good," Sam said. "Now let's head on home; your mother's probably worried sick, and driving Mr. Madison crazy."
"Just let me say goodbye," Blair said. He hurried toward the wolf, but slowed at Jim's, "Easy, Chief; don't startle her." He finished his approach carefully, hand outstretched to let her recognize his scent, then scratched her on the head one more time.
"We gotta go, Wolfie," he said. "But Sam fixed you up real good, an' we brought you home, an' you have food an' water, so you'll be okay. Jim says your wolf-friends will bring you more food, an' if they don't, I will." Blair turned expectant eyes toward his friend. "We can come back, right?"
Jim couldn't disappoint the hopeful child. "Sure we can, Chief. How about... Tuesdays and Fridays, if it'll fit into the training schedule." He cast an inquiring glance toward Sam, who simply shrugged.
"Sure, we can work it out. But now let's get out of here; she'll be more relaxed if we're not around when she wakes up." He led the way out of the little cave, Jim and Blair following close behind.
Blair kept up a commentary on the way down the hill, discussing the care of the wolf, the health of her babies, Sam's expertise as a doctor, Jim's skill at finding him and his strength at carrying the wolf so far. But once they were on the horses and headed home, he fell uncharacteristically silent.
"Feeling a little tired, there, Chief?" Jim asked with mild amusement.
"Uh-huh," Blair admitted. "Maybe I'll take a nap when I get home."
"Well, you deserve it. Rescue work is a tough job. You did good, Chief."
Blair basked in the glow of being praised by his hero. The satisfied feeling accompanied him all the way home and into his bed.
By the next morning, Blair was fully recovered, chattering happily as he and Jim saddled their horses, and making plans to visit his 'wolfie' the following day. "I'll take her some doggie treats, an' Sadie says she'll make a meatloaf for me, an' I can take the whole thing to her. Even if the other wolves are bringing her rabbits, she really liked Sadie's meatloaf, so that will be a good present, won't it?"
Jim smiled as he stepped forward to tighten the girth of Rosie's saddle. "That will be a great present, Chief; I'm sure she'll appreciate it." He patted Rosie's neck and stepped back. "So, are you ready to ride?"
"Yep." Blair buckled his helmet securely. "Sam says he'll let me try some in-and-outs today; that'll be fun!" Together, they led the horses toward the practice arena.
Jim evaluated Blair's skills as he rode the pattern Sam had specified. The weeks of riding with Jim, in all terrains and over any available obstacle, had given Blair a confidence and security in the saddle equal to riders with several years' experience. Nothing fazed him; even the in-and-outs -- a series of obstacles spaced so closely that the horse landed from one jump and took off for the next in the following stride -- were achieved with no reaction other than delighted crows of accomplishment from the child. No doubt about it; the kid was good. He might even take a ribbon in the junior classes.
Jim frowned as he considered that idea. Blair was wildly enthusiastic about Jim's upcoming steeplechase, and confidently expected him to take the trophy. But the big race was just part of the three-day gala weekend; there would be horsemanship classes of all kinds, geared to several different levels of horse and rider experience. Yet Blair hadn't even mentioned the possibility that he might enter a few classes. That seemed... unfair, somehow. Jim was certain Blair would enjoy the experience, even if he didn't win. He'd have to suggest it to him; the kid deserved to have the thrill of competing.
But now it was his turn. Jim helped Sam raise the height of the jumps, and then he and Hercules were flying around the course. Despite his concentration, Jim heard Blair's cheers each time they cleared an obstacle. Not that he had any difficulty. The weeks that had improved Blair's riding had also enhanced Jim's skills; he and Hercules responded as a unit, each knowing exactly what the other needed.
After they cleared the final obstacle, Jim slowed Hercules, a broad smile of satisfaction on his face. He headed toward Sam and Blair, waiting by the fence.
"Looking good, Jimmy," Sam said, approvingly. "You're already at the level I expected you to hit the week before the race. All you need to do now is maintain it -- trail-rides, mostly..." He grinned as Blair bounced beside him with an excited squeak, "...and just enough jumping and work on responsiveness in the arena to keep the fine-tuning. For now, rub down the horses and turn them out, then come on up to lunch."
Jim sniffed deeply, then grinned conspiratorially at Sam as he said, "Fried chicken and mashed potatoes, Chief; I think we should hurry."
"Yay! Sadie makes the bestest fried chicken!" Blair kissed to Rosie and led the way to the stables.
Jim finished buckling his saddlebags behind the saddle, and looked up to check Blair's progress. "It's a long trek up and back, Chief; are you sure you have everything?"
"Uh-huh." Blair nodded vigorously, patting his own saddlebags. "Water an' san'wiches for me, an' treats an' meatloaf for Wolfie."
"Just like the cavalry," Jim grinned. "Okay, Chief, mount up and move 'em out!"
Giggling softly, Blair quickly used the fence to scramble into the saddle, then followed Jim out of the stableyard and toward the wolf's den.
Though it was early, the late summer sun was promising a hot day; they'd welcome the shade once they entered the tree-growth. As always, Blair kept up a steady stream of commentary, discussing the various types of crops that grew on surrounding farms, when they'd be ready for harvest, what types of machines were used, and where the produce would be sold. "Uncle Trevor says there's nothing so sweet as an apple that ripens on the tree. He says the tree in his garden will be ready in about a week, an' he'll let me pick some an' find out for myself. An' Sadie says she'll show me how to make a n'apple pie with real apples off the tree, not the kind that comes in cans."
"You're in for a treat, Chief. Sally always gets fresh apples from the farmers' market and makes the uncanned kind of pies at this time of the year; they really are something special."
"Yep. An' Marcella says she'll show me where there's some wild blueberry vines not too far away, an' if I pick a bunch, we can have vanilla ice cream an' blueberries. But she says I gotta watch out real careful an' stay away if I see any bears, 'cause bears like blueberries, too. Did you know that?"
"I knew that, Chief," Jim assured him, gravely. "I'll tell you who else likes blueberries." He winked at Blair's round eyes. "Turns out, I'm rather fond of them myself, and I know Sally would like me to bring some home. So you name the day, and I'll show up to help you pick blueberries. What d'ya say?"
Blair's smile couldn't have grown any wider. "I say, 'right on, man!'" he declared enthusiastically, then frowned slightly when Jim laughed heartily. "Wasn't that right? It's what Naomi says, sometimes."
Jim throttled his laughter; Blair would be mightily offended to be called 'cute'. "No, you got it right, Chief. I was just a little surprised because I never heard you use that expression before. But it is a good one; I can see why you like it."
Blair's frown dissipated. "Uh-huh, Naomi says a lot of good things, but sometimes I don't un'erstand all of 'em."
"You will, when you get a little older," Jim assured him. "But there's something else that surprises me, Chief. How come you haven't signed up for any of the events during the Labor Day Horseshow? You're a good rider; I think you might even win a ribbon, and I know you'd have a lot of fun."
Blair's eyes grew round with astonishment. "But I can't jump over the giant fences like you an' Hercules! I'm not big enough, yet."
It was Jim's turn to feel astonished; had no one explained the possibilities to the kid? "Blair, it's not all giant fences like the steeplechase. There're classes with low fences, and classes with no fences, and classes just for people who've only been riding a little while, like you."
"Really?" Blair squeaked. "Wow!" He fell silent, apparently pondering his options. Then, "How many are you gonna do?"
"Just the steeplechase; my old man wants to be sure that Hercules isn't tired out before the big day." The touch of bitterness in his voice went unnoticed by Blair; whatever Jim decided was automatically a good thing.
"Then I'll only be in one class, too," he declared. "I don't want Rosie to get tired out, either." Blair leaned forward to stroke the mare's neck. "Will you help me pick a good class?"
"Sure thing, buddy; just as soon as we get back. But right now, look where we are." Jim reined Hercules to a halt in the same grassy area where he'd waited two days before, while keeping an eye on Blair and his wolf. "Let's tie the horses here while we check on your 'wolfie'."
Together, they tied the horses to graze, then Jim loosened the cinches. Each carrying a pair of saddlebags, they headed toward the rocky outcrop that hid the wolf's den.
Just as they reached the edge of the trees, Jim caught a flash of movement. He grabbed Blair's arm to prevent him going forward. "Wait a minute, Chief; do you see that?" He pointed outward.
Blair squinted, unsuccessfully. "Nuh-uh; what?"
"Maybe if you're higher; I'll lift you up." Jim grabbed Blair around the waist and settled the boy on his shoulders, then pointed again. "Going up the hillside; can you see it?"
Blair peered intently, then squeaked in excitement. "Something gray, and it's moving!"
"Yep. It's a wolf -- not your wolfie, a male wolf -- and he's carrying a rabbit toward your wolfie's cave. I told you her pack would take care of her." Jim set Blair down on the ground. "We shouldn't bother them while they're eating. So why don't we have our lunch right here, and then we'll scope out the situation again when we're finished."
"That makes sense," Blair said, agreeably, folding his legs to plop down onto the soft pine mulch, and opening his saddlebags. Jim joined him, and they munched companionably on their sandwiches while Jim kept an eye on the den area and reported developments -- the wolf moved out onto the ledge, putting partial weight on her bad leg, the wolf and cubs were sharing the rabbit, the big male wolf was leaving, the wolf was licking her injured leg while the cubs gnawed on rabbit bones. Blair listened to the news with satisfaction; now he had proof that his wolfie would get better.
As soon as he swallowed the last bite of his sandwich and stuffed the wrappings back into the saddlebag, Blair bounced to his feet. "I'm ready!" he announced. "Let's take our stuff to Wolfie." He grabbed the wrapped meatloaf from the other saddlebag, as well as a plastic bag of doggie treats, and frowned impatiently at Jim. "Com'on!" he insisted. "So the other wolf won't get them!"
"Take it easy, Chief," Jim advised with a smile as stood and stretched. "He has four legs, and we only have two; if he wants to beat us up there, he will, and there's no sense in knocking ourselves out. Besides, don't you think your wolfie would like to share with her friend? It would be a nice 'thank you' after he brought her a rabbit."
Blair considered that suggestion, head cocked to one side, then nodded firmly. "You're right. We can even break the meatloaf into pieces, so it'll be easier to share. But let's go!"
Jim watched as Blair darted across the clearing toward the rocky outcropping, and followed at a more leisurely pace. The kid obviously needed to expend some energy; he'd moderate his pace once they began climbing.
Just before they reached the level of the wolf's ledge, Jim grabbed one of Blair's arms, bringing him to a halt. "Hold on, Chief; I need to explain something. Sit down for a minute." He pointed to a handy boulder just a few steps away.
Blair looked up at him in puzzlement, then shrugged and sat down; if Jim had something to say it must be important. "Okay." He waited.
Jim squatted in front of his little friend and took a deep breath. He suspected that Blair might not like what he had to say.
"It's like this, Chief. You helped your wolfie, and she let you, because she needed the help. And I know she's grateful to you. But she's still a wild animal; now that she can move, she won't let you pet her or the cubs."
"But... but... she knows me; it'll be okay if I pet her," Blair objected.
Jim shook his head gravely. "Blair, her whole life, she's learned to stay away from humans. And that helps to protect her. If she wasn't afraid of humans, she'd go to their farms and kill their sheep or chickens for food, and then the farmers would hunt her and kill her.
"If you really tried, she might let you pet her, but then that'll teach her that maybe she doesn't have to stay away from humans, and that will put her in danger. It was special, the way you helped her, but now the best way to keep helping her is to leave her alone."
Blair sniffled as he stared at the toes of his boots, considering Jim's words. "Okay," he agreed with a small, sad voice, still not looking at Jim. "But can I pet the puppies?"
Jim shook his head again. "It's the same deal," he said gently, "but even more so. The cubs are young enough that they might think one nice human -- you -- means all humans are nice. If they tried to say 'hi' to somebody else, they could be in a lot of trouble. And I know you wouldn't want that."
"No, I guess not." Blair's voice was even smaller, and he sniffled again in disappointment while he grappled with these unwelcome ideas.
Jim waited patiently, patting Blair's knee in consolation. It was a difficult concept for a child, but the kid was smart, and generous-hearted; he'd want to do what was best for the wolf and her cubs.
Blair heaved a deep sigh and finally looked up at his friend. "But we can still leave the meatloaf an' treats, right?" he asked anxiously. Surely they hadn't come so far for nothing.
"Of course we can!" Jim injected as much cheerfulness into his voice as he could. "Your wolfie is walking already; we'll just leave everything at this end of the ledge and go away, and she'll be able to come get it after we've left." He stood and held out a hand to his friend.
Blair slid off the boulder and clasped the offered hand. Together, they walked the last few yards to reach the wolf's ledge.
If Blair had hoped that his wolfie would prove Jim wrong, he was disappointed. Hearing them approach, she had retreated to the far end of the ledge, her cubs tucked safely behind her. As the boys appeared, she growled softly -- a warning, rather than an overt threat, but a clear indication that she wasn't prepared to tolerate too great an incursion into her territory.
"Hi, Wolfie," Blair said softly. He stooped and emptied the plastic bag of doggie treats onto the ground, then unwrapped the meatloaf and laid it beside the treats. "I brought you a present 'cause I thought you might be hungry, but I guess if your friend-wolf is bringing you rabbits, you'll be okay. But you can have these anyway, an' even share with the other wolves if you want. I'm real glad your leg is getting better; I guess pretty soon you'll be able to do your own hunting again.
"Jim says you have to stay afraid of humans so you'll stay safe, so we won't bother you anymore. But you stay away from traps, okay? An' teach your puppies to stay away, too." The wolf was watching, ears pricked and no longer growling, with the cubs peering at the boys over their mother's back. Blair smiled tremulously at this evidence that she wasn't too scared of him, and waved. "Bye, wolfies," he whispered, then turned and headed down the hill.
Jim joined him, once again clasping the small hand in his large one, his thumb stroking over the knuckles in silent comfort and support. "You did good, Chief," he said softly. "That was a brave thing, and you did real good."
Blair tightened his grip in gratitude, but didn't say anything all the way down the hill. As they reached the level floor of the clearing, he seemed to come to some conclusion. "I guess if she has to stay scared, I can't bring her any more food, huh?"
"I think it would be a good idea not to, Chief."
"But can we still come an' see if she's okay?"
"Every Tuesday and Friday, just like I promised," Jim assured him. "But I think we should stay down here, and do a long-distance observation. I have a pair of binoculars I'll bring, so you can see her yourself."
Blair brightened a little at that information. "Binoculars? I never got to use those before; cool!" He bounced in increasing excitement and looked up at his friend. "Hey, Jim! Who do you think can see better? Me with the binoculars, or you with your own eyes?"
Jim smiled down at the excited boy, congratulating himself on a successful -- albeit unintended -- diversion. "I don't know, Chief. Maybe we can find a way to test it."
"You mean like a 'speriment? Cool!" Blair's enthusiasm for the idea carried him back to the horses and all the way home, while he speculated on possible 'speriments' they could use to test each of Jim's senses.
Jim listened in mild dismay. He was grateful that Blair had moved away from his wolf disappointment so easily, but some of the kid's proposed tests sounded uncomfortable at best, outrageous at worst, and mostly improbable. Where did such a little guy get such a wide-ranging imagination? He could only hope that the concentration of preparing for the upcoming horseshow would distract his 'junior scientist' from the anticipated 'speriments'.
Jim entered the stable, immediately focusing on Blair's energetic figure halfway down the aisle. As early as he was, the kid was already fussing with Rosie, giving a few extra strokes with the brush and the satin cloth to give her coat its best possible shine.
"Hi, Jim!" Blair called as his friend approached. "Doesn't Rosie look pretty? An' see; Marcella even let me help braid her mane."
Jim easily recognized the difference between Marcella's neatly-braided strands and Blair's less-experienced efforts, but it wouldn't be seen from the judges' stand, and the kid was so proud. "She looks mighty good, Chief," he assured Blair, "and so do you. Like a real professional showman."
"Are you sure?" Blair looked critically at his black coat and silver-gray breeches. "They're Cindy's, you know, but she's getting bigger and she can't wear them anymore. An' Naomi says there's no sense buying new things when old things are perfectly useful, an' it was very nice of Cindy to let me use them. But they're still --" his voice dropped to a disgusted whisper, "-- a girl's!"
Jim's lip twitched as he nobly refrained from laughing. "Well, that's one good thing about horse shows, Chief; boys and girls wear the same clothes, so no one can tell. You look just fine; you'll do Rosie proud."
Actually, the coat was noticeably a size large, and the breeches a bit loose, but appearance was unimportant in the Novice Rider, Jumper class Blair had decided -- with a little judicious advice from Jim and Sam -- to enter. Stylistic points would not add to or detract from his score, as they would have in a Hunter class; all a rider had to do was take the horse around the course without knocking down any rails. The maximum height of two feet, six inches was well within Blair's experience level; Jim expected that he'd have no difficulty in riding a clear round.
Outside, the band started playing; in effect, the half-hour warning before the first class, which was Blair's. "It's almost time, Chief. We need to finish saddling Rosie and get you out in the practice ring to let her warm up." He stepped forward to lend his customary hand in tightening the cinch, then cupped his hands to boost Blair into the saddle. When Blair would have protested, he just winked. "No fence-climbing today; you don't want to get your fancy togs all smudged. Up you go!" Blair accepted Jim's reasoning, stepped into Jim's linked hands as if into a stirrup, and was lifted smoothly and easily into the saddle.
Jim glanced at the sky as they exited the stable. The day would be warm, but there was a moderate overcast. No chance of rain, according to the weathermen and Jim's sense of smell, but the clouds would help prevent the day from being unbearably hot for horses and riders.
As Jim watched Blair walk and trot around the ring, practicing direction changes, he reflected that being in the first class worked out even better than they'd planned; Blair would finish his part early, with less time to stress about it, then be able to enjoy the rest of the weekend. The more advanced classes, with more experienced riders and bigger, more complex jumps, would be later this afternoon, dressage classes tomorrow, and the steeplechase on Sunday.
The music ceased, and the announcer went into his spiel. "Ladies and Gentlemen! We welcome you to the tenth annual Cascade Regional Horseshow! This weekend, we have some of the finest horses and best riders west of the Rocky Mountains. The first class will begin in just a few minutes, so sit back and prepare to enjoy the show.
"Riders, please make your way to the starting gate, and wait until the steward signals you into the arena."
The microphone clicked off, and the band started playing again. "That means you, Chief," Jim called. He opened the gate as Rosie trotted forward, then walked beside Blair as he rode toward the main arena. Jim kept a wary eye on the horse; some became nervous at the brightly-colored flags flapping in the breeze and the noise of the crowd and band. Rosie, however, merely flicked an ear at the noisy, colorful commotion and then ignored it, like the seasoned trouper she was.
Blair wasn't quite as calm, though he masked it well. "It's okay, Rosie," he was crooning softly. "I know you'll do good, but it doesn't matter. It's just like a game, an' only one person can win, but we all can have fun." He patted the horse's neck soothingly, and Jim realized Blair's pep talk was as much for himself as for Rosie.
"That's exactly right, Chief," he said gently. "You're just here for a good time, and to let all these people see what a great horse Rosie is. Just going out there makes you a winner in my book." Blair's grateful smile let him know he had said the right thing.
They reached the waiting area outside the entrance gate, lining up with the others to wait for Blair's turn in the arena. Together, they watched the initial riders complete the course. The first knocked down a rail, for four faults. The second had a clear round, as did the third. The fourth knocked down a rail and touched a hoof inside the boundary of the water jump with a noticeable splash, accumulating eight faults. Then it was Blair's turn.
Jim had his fingers crossed as the starting horn sounded and Blair urged Rosie forward. It was childish, maybe, but it couldn't hurt. He leaned forward as the pair headed for the water jump; that one was always a little harder to judge than vertical rails, but Rosie cleared it easily and swept onward. Jim saw Blair's wide grin as Rosie jumped nimbly through his favorite, the in-and-outs. This set was low, a test of skill rather than effort, and Blair rode it perfectly. Then forward over the final jumps, and Blair and Rosie crossed the finish line with no faults -- another clear round.
Jim relaxed. With three clear rounds so far, and probably a few more to come, there'd be a timed jump-off later, to determine the final winners. But the top six riders in the jump-off would get a ribbon, so Blair was almost certain to finish his class with some kind of prize. He walked around to the exit gate, to be there when Blair came out.
"We did it, Jim, we really did it!" Blair announced proudly as he slipped from the saddle and into a fervent hug.
"You sure did, Chief; I'm so proud of you!" He set Blair on his feet, patting a shoulder because he couldn't tousle the curls under the helmet. "Now let's go watch the rest of the riders till it's time for the jump-off round; you'll be in that, too."
Three more riders finished with clear rounds, and Jim relaxed even more. Blair was ensured of winning a ribbon now; it was just a question of which one. They watched while the assistants raised a couple of the jumps, and removed the rails from others, excluding those from the new pattern. Jim held Rosie while Blair, with other contestants, walked the course, getting a feel for the changes in distance and jumping arrangement.
As the first rider finished, Jim boosted Blair into the saddle again, then patted him on the knee. "Remember, Chief, they're checking the time for this round. You want another clear round, but you also want to go fast, if you can."
Blair nodded firmly. "I remember, Jim." As the second rider finished the course, he touched a heel to Rosie's side and moved toward the entrance gate.
Jim watched intently as Blair rode another clear round. So far, he was only 1.45 seconds behind the best time. Now to see if one of the other riders bettered that. He met Blair at the exit gate again and, together, they watched the final three riders.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, the judges have tabulated the times and points. Will the riders please enter the arena to learn the results."
Jim patted Blair on the knee. "Go get 'em, Chief."
"In sixth place, with a time of one twenty-four point two-five seconds and four faults, Miss Cassandra Temple." The crowd applauded as the young girl rode forward to accept her pink ribbon. The long blonde hair was caught up in a bun now, but Jim recognized the serious little girl who had been talking to Sam at the beginning of the summer, the day he had met Blair.
"In fifth place, with a time of one twenty-two point one-zero seconds and four faults, Master Benjamin Cole." Again the crowd applauded as a lanky boy, apparently a few years older than Blair, accepted the green ribbon. Jim waited impatiently through the next announcements. He thought he'd figured Blair's result accurately, but the judges might have seen something he missed. Or rather, might have thought they'd seen something. But finally --
"In second place, with a time of one seventeen point three-five seconds and zero faults, Master Blair Sandburg." Jim wished there were a way that he could physically clap louder, as Blair reached down to clutch the red ribbon that the steward handed to him. His face was beaming as he watched the final contestant accept the blue ribbon without a trace of disappointment. "In first place, with a time of one fifteen point nine-zero seconds and zero faults, Miss Lacey Stevens.
"Congratulations to all our winners. And now, ladies and gentlemen, there will be a short intermission while the assistants prepare the arena for the next class."
As tradition dictated, the winners formed a line to gallop around the arena, their ribbons held high and fluttering, before riding through the exit gate. Blair rode directly toward Jim, waiting in plain sight. "Look, Jim! Second place! Isn't that cool?"
"Very cool, Chief; you did a good job. Now let's get Rosie rubbed down, and then we can watch the rest of the classes."
"Okay. Did you see what a good jumper she was today? An' fast too, she's a good girl." Blair reached forward to administer a loving pat. "Not as fast as Honey was, but she tried, an' that's what counts, isn't it?" Blair's enthusiasm was bubbling over; he didn't need Jim's confirmation of Rosie's overall horsy excellence. "An' I'm glad Lacey won; she's a real nice girl, an' Rosie likes Honey, too." It was important, obviously, that the winning horses like each other as well as the winning riders.
After unsaddling Rosie and rubbing her down, Blair gave her a congratulatory carrot before leading her to her stall. Jim waited till he shut the door behind her, then offered a suggestion. "It's still a little early, Chief, but the smell of the barbecue is talking to me. What d'you say we grab some eats before we watch the rest of the show?"
Blair thought it an excellent suggestion. After a short detour to fill paper plates with barbecue-beef sandwiches, potato salad, chocolate-chip cookies and lemonade, they settled into the grass under a tree opposite the grandstand to watch another horse thunder around the course. Jim was content, for now; Blair had succeeded at his 'game', and his own was still a day and a half away. He'd wait until Sunday to worry about winning the steeplechase.
Jim peered ahead through the windshield of the cab to see, as he had expected, Blair waiting impatiently at the main stable doors. As he paid the cabbie and turned to see Blair racing to meet him, the butterflies in his stomach quieted their agitated dance. Somehow, just being around the kid always made him feel better; calmer, somehow, yet -- at the same time -- more focused. He'd need every bit of that today, and made a conscious effort to soak it up and save it for later.
Blair leaped into Jim's arms, already bubbling with the excitement of the day. "I talked to Hercules," he announced. "Herc says he's feeling good today, an' he'll run real fast, an' he'll try really hard to beat the other horses so you can win."
"Well, that's about the best news you could give me," Jim said gravely. "I really appreciate you talking to him about that. Now let's go get him saddled up." He set Blair on his feet, and they headed toward Hercules' stall.
While Jim went in to halter the big horse and bring him out, Blair slipped into Rosie's stall to explain to her that she wasn't being neglected, but today was Hercules' turn to win. He promised her that they'd have a nice ride tomorrow, then gave her a consoling pat on the nose and went to join Jim at the tack room.
Jim made sure the saddle was cinched tight, and added protective leather boots to Hercules' lower legs; the strenuous exertion of a steeplechase was hard on horses' legs, and he wanted to alleviate that as much as possible. He slipped the bridle into Hercules' mouth, then turned to Blair.
"Well, Chief, maybe I'll see you down at Murphy's Meadow before we start. Is your mother driving you there?"
Blair stared up at him, eyes stricken. "I forgot it doesn't start here! An' Naomi's gone; she's having a spiritual weekend with a bunch of other people." He chewed his lip in thought. "Maybe Marcella can take me; I'll go find her an' ask." He turned to hurry away, but Jim grabbed an arm.
"Whoa, there, partner! Why go in a car when we have a perfectly good horse we can use?" He grinned as Blair's eyes flickered between him and the horse, not quite understanding. "Haven't you ever seen anyone riding double? Herc's a big, strong horse; you can sit up behind me and it won't bother him a bit." It would also give Jim time to soak up a little more of the calmness that being near Blair always produced.
Blair looked hopeful, but doubtful. "Are you sure? I don't want him to get tired."
Jim kept his snort of amusement to himself; the kid was dead serious about not wanting to interfere with Herc's -- and Jim's -- chance of winning the race. He squatted to face Blair directly as he said, "Chief, you know horses like Hercules used to carry knights in armor into battle?" Blair nodded, but his forehead creased in puzzlement. "Well, those knights in armor weighed hundreds of pounds; me and you together don't weigh one-half what they did. Hercules won't mind you riding with me, and you won't make him one bit tired."
Seeing the uncertainty lingering in Blair's eyes, Jim had an inspiration. "Tell you what, Chief; just ask him. He'll tell you if I'm right or not." Surreptitiously, Jim crossed his fingers, hoping that Blair's attack of conscience wouldn't lead him to 'hear' bad news.
Blair's expression lightened. "I can do that!" He stepped toward Hercules' head and held out a hand, kissing gently. The big horse lowered his head, snuffling into Blair's hand and then the collar of his shirt, while the boy patted his forehead and murmured into his ear. Finally, Blair looked up at Jim, eyes shining. "You're right! He says yes, I can ride with you!"
"Then we're good; grab your helmet and let's go."
It took a few minutes to untangle the logistics of simply getting the two of them on top of the same horse. Finally, Jim mounted and maneuvered Hercules next to the fence outside; Blair climbed the fence and leaped over the gap to land on Hercules' rump. As Jim felt Blair's arms settle around his waist, he reined the horse to one side and trotted down the lane.
Murphy's Meadow was almost unrecognizable as the quiet haven they'd enjoyed all summer. Flags and banners hung from ropes strung between trees, flapping gaily in the breeze. Spectators milled around talking to friends, or settled themselves on the temporary bleachers that had been erected, and the band played vigorously, belying the fact that they'd performed two extensive 'gigs' during the past two days.
Jim stopped Hercules next to an old stump, rising about two feet above the ground. "Okay, Chief; time to slide down." He grabbed Blair's arm and helped control the downward slide until Blair's feet landed firmly on the stump. "Stay out of trouble till I get back, you hear?"
"I will. An' you ride good." He patted the big horse on the neck. "Bye, Hercules; have fun." Then, with a flashing grin that assured Jim of his confidence, Blair hopped down from the stump and dashed toward the bleachers.
The loudspeaker crackled to life. "Ladies and Gentlemen! We welcome you to the final day of the tenth annual Cascade Regional Horseshow, the running of the steeplechase! Today we have twenty-two riders and horses competing over a two and a half mile course, with eighteen jumping efforts along the way.
"We have spotters at each jump, who will report the progress of the race via radio while the riders are out of our view. But the final result will be easy to discern -- the first rider to make it back and across the finish line will be the winner!
"Riders, the race will begin in ten minutes. Please make your way to the starting line, and wait for the starting pistol."
Jim moved his leg out of the way and lifted the saddle-flap to pull the cinch one hole tighter, then tightened his helmet strap, too. It wouldn't do to have anything slipping around during the race; the slightest inconvenience could made the difference between winning and losing.
He evaluated the riders already lined up, and urged Hercules toward one end of the row. It wasn't unusual for the horses in the middle of the line to bunch up during the first dozen strides; if Jim could keep clear of that, he'd gain a valuable second or two.
The world settled to an unnatural stillness, in which Jim clearly heard the starter's pistol cocked back. His readiness transmitted itself to Hercules, and the big horse leaped forward before the sound of the pistol shot had dissipated into the atmosphere. Dimly, Jim heard Blair shriek, "Go, Jim, go!" as he approached the first fence. Then there was nothing but the horse under him and the course in front of him.
Jim was flying, riding the wind on a horse that had been bred and trained to race and jump, to take the lead and keep it. It was Jim's job to control Hercules' enthusiasm, to prevent him running flat-out and expending all his energy in the first part of the race; he needed to retain sufficient power to manage the jumps toward the end of the course. Jim's job also to handle the approach to each obstacle, to ensure that Hercules reached the optimum take-off point with the optimal speed to jump cleanly and successfully over each.
His summer of riding, of spending hours with Hercules -- not just in a practice arena, but in all types of terrain under a multitude of conditions -- was paying off. Hercules' responses to Jim's adjustments were instantaneous and flawless. The slightest tightening or relaxing of his fingers on the reins elicited a decrease or increase of the big horse's speed; the minutest shift in body position was answered by a corresponding shift in direction.
The course passed swiftly under Hercules' thundering hooves. They were over the water-jump, the double-oxer, the bank jump, the hedge jump; into and out of the river, through the sand-trap, through the switchback. The final three jumps were just ahead, in view of the spectators, with the finish line just beyond.
Jim loosened his focus a little, expanding his hearing to try to judge where the other horses were. There was one on his right flank; a quick glance showed a big sorrel's nose just opposite Hercules' hip, trying to move up. He heard another on his left side, about one length back. A slight relaxation of the rein, and Hercules surged forward; a slight shift in body position and Hercules settled himself to meet the jump, and the next, and then the final obstacle, a straightforward post and rail.
As soon as Hercules landed from that effort, Jim flattened himself over the big horse's neck, giving him free rein. Hercules answered with an astonishing burst of speed after the effort he'd already expended, but the big sorrel was keeping up with him. Jim 'kissed' urgently and, incredibly, the big horse gave him a fraction more speed, thundering across the finish line one and a half lengths in front of the big sorrel, the sound of Blair's cheers ringing in his ears.
Last day of freedom, Jim thought with a nostalgic pang; school started tomorrow for both him and Blair. He smiled wryly to himself as he remembered his irritation at the beginning of the summer, his disgust with 'wasting' four mornings a week, riding. The mornings had soon become whole days, and now he wished the summer could go for another two months; he'd miss his little friend something fierce while he was in school.
But at least they'd have weekends. Jim deliberately reached for a happier mood as he stepped out of the cab to greet Blair; he didn't want anything to spoil this day together. "Hey, Chief," he called as Blair dashed toward him, "I brought lunch; Sally made meat-pies and peanut-butter cookies for us."
"Yummy!" Blair crowed. "That sounds good. Where are we gonna go today?"
Jim shrugged. "With school starting, we can't see your wolf on Tuesdays and Fridays like we've been doing; I thought we could go see her today, and then have lunch in that spot down by the river."
Blair nodded vigorously. "I like that idea; we'll have lots of fun. Com'on; Rosie an' Hercules want to go, too."
Riding the now-familiar trail up the wolf's mountain, Blair enthusiastically analyzed Jim's win of the previous day. He had thought Jim's trophy, lavishly inscribed with 'WINNER' in ornate script, and the date, must be the 'bestest in the whole world'. When he'd realized that Jim's winning time beat the course record by two full seconds, Blair had been quietly satisfied as he declared, "I knew Hercules could do it." Now he had Jim describing every obstacle, and Hercules' performance over each.
"I wanna ride a steeplechase some day; maybe I can win a trophy, too," Blair declared. "D'you think I could?"
"I'd bet on it, Chief," Jim assured him. "You're already a good rider; in a few years, you'll be the best around."
"Not better'n you, though," Blair insisted, loyally.
Jim grinned. "Well, I'll always be older, with a head start -- but you could catch up."
"Okay, that works. Then we can tie, an' they can give both of us a trophy."
They left the horses grazing in their customary place next to the fallen tree, and walked toward the edge of the meadow that held the wolf's rocky den. Jim handed Blair the binoculars, then lifted him to settle on his shoulders; they'd learned that the extra height allowed Blair to see the den area more easily.
"There they are!" Blair squeaked. "I see 'em!"
"Me, too, Chief; they're looking really good."
It was true. The mother wolf's leg had healed fully; she had a residual trace of a limp that was so slight only Jim could notice it. The cubs were almost as large as their mother, though not as heavy, and still retained their puppy playfulness. Jim and Blair watched for a while as they wrestled together, then flopped down to nap on the sunny ledge.
Jim stirred. "Okay, Chief, it's getting on toward lunchtime. Let's go back to the horses and head on down to the river." He lifted Blair off his shoulders and set him on the ground.
"Bye, wolfie! Bye, puppies!" Blair called. "Be good, and 'member to stay away from people!" He looked up at his friend. "They will be okay, won't they, Jim?"
"They'll be just fine, Chief, thanks to you for helping her when she needed it. The cubs still have a mother to help them learn to hunt and grow up big and strong, and that's the most important thing in the world for them. You did real good." He gave Blair a swift hug as they turned away from the meadow and headed toward the horses.
Once again, Jim and Blair allowed the horses to graze while they dangled their feet in the water during lunch, happily devouring the meat-pies and peanut-butter cookies. "These are real good," Blair mumbled around a mouthful of meat, vegetables and pastry. "I never had them before; d'you think Sadie could make some?"
"I don't see why not," Jim replied easily. "They're called Cornish pasties. I'll get the recipe from Sally and bring it on Saturday, and you can give it to Sadie."
"Can you come out every Saturday?" Blair asked hopefully.
"I expect so, and Sundays after church. When football practice starts, I'll have to come after that, but we go out early in the morning, so I can be here about eleven-thirty or so. At least half a day is better than nothing."
Blair nodded eagerly. "An' I'll tell you all the things I learn in school; I'm gonna study real hard so I can be as smart as you. I can do it, I know I can!"
"I believe you, Chief. In fact, I bet one day you'll be even smarter than me."
They finished their lunch, scattering the pastry crumbs for the birds to find, and mounted the horses again. Jim was reluctant for the day to end, and set a roundabout course back toward the training stable, meandering along the river and then through the trees. He listened to Blair's chatter as he pointed out the signs of the changing season, gleefully noting each tinge of red or yellow at the edges of leaves, and nests left empty of baby birds now grown.
But time was passing, and Jim was expected to be prompt for dinner. Eventually they rode into the stableyard. As they unsaddled and brushed down the horses, Blair's animation dimmed; he murmured quietly to Rosie, but hardly spoke to Jim.
They turned the horses into their stalls, and Jim used the stable phone to call a cab. As they settled onto the wooden bench in front of the stable to wait, and Jim put an arm around Blair's shoulders, squeezing gently. "Blair, it's only four days," he said softly. "And you like school; you'll have all kinds of fun stuff to tell me about on Saturday."
"Yeah, but it seems longer," Blair said, still subdued. "An' it seems like something's gonna happen. You promise you'll be here?"
"I promise, Chief; every Saturday and most Sundays. I won't let you down." After one last hug, Jim stepped into the cab, and watched Blair waving until the vehicle turned the corner. He settled back against the seat and heaved a deep sigh. Blair was right; it seemed like a long time till Saturday.
Jim was surprised that Blair wasn't waiting for him when he left the cab; the four days since they'd seen each other had really dragged. But maybe the kid was so anxious to get started that he was already saddling Rosie. Jim hurried into the stable, but there was no big gray horse with attendant little boy in view.
Maybe he was still in Rosie's stall. Jim leaned over the half-door and called, "Hey, Chief! You in there?" No answer, and he saw Rosie standing at the end of her pen, next to Hercules. Could Blair be having a late breakfast? He turned to head toward the house, and there was Sam standing just a few yards away, looking at him gravely.
"Blair's gone, Jimmy," he said gently.
"Gone! What do you mean, gone? Gone where?"
"His mother decided that the 'vibes' around here were no longer 'energetic'; she packed up herself and Blair and hightailed it out of here on Wednesday. Blair left me a letter to give to you." Sam handed him a piece of paper that had been folded over several times, with 'JIM' in big block letters on the outside.
With shaking hands, Jim unfolded the page. It was covered with awkward block-printing, in smudged pencil. He could picture Blair, hunched over the table, struggling to make paper and pencil do his bidding. He was such a little kid, after all, and Jim was aware that his first year of school had been interrupted twice with sudden moves. He suddenly had a deeper understanding of what that might mean to the kid, and wondered how hard it must be for him to keep starting over in a new place.
Reluctantly, he started to read.
Naomi says we got to move on. She says that there are new truthes to expeereeans. She says Uncle Trevor is a nice man, but he is stifuling her spirichal inlightinment.
Naomi says we should de-tatch with love, but I don't like it. You are the bestest frend I ever had, and I will remember you for ever and ever and I will miss you a hole, hole lot. I hope you will remember me too. And when I am all grone up, I will come back to Cascade and I will find you, and we can be frends agen.
I wish I could wait till Saterday and say good-bie for real, but Naomi says there is no time to wast. So Sam says he will give this lettr to you. I am glad you wun the steepulchase. The trofee is very pretty. But I want you to have my ribbun too, so you will not forget me. This is me, giving you a biiiiiiig hug.
Yure bestest frend,
Jim fingered the little red ribbon that Blair had been so proud of, and blinked back the tears that interfered with his view of the curly-headed stick figure at the bottom of the page, a huge smile on its face and arms stretched impossibly wide.
Damn. Leave it to an adult to ruin everything, dragging a little kid all over the country just when he was happy and settled in and comfortable. Jim hoped Blair would be able to adjust soon, and viciously shoved aside his own feelings of loss and disappointment, burying them deep in his heart. It served him right for thinking he could be happy; living under his father's implacable decrees had taught him that anything he enjoyed would eventually be taken away. The deep friendship he'd felt for Blair had led him to overlook the lessons he'd learned years before. Jim felt like kicking himself for being so stupid; he should have known better than to get complacent.
"How did he look?" Jim asked, barely recognizing the hoarse voice as his own.
"About like you'd expect," Sam said soberly. "You could tell he really didn't want to go, but he took it like a little trouper; with that mother of his, I guess he's been through it all before. He said goodbye to Rosie, and left some biscuits for his wolf, that he hoped you'd give her. And he left me with two big hugs -- one for me, and one to pass on to you." He opened his arms slightly, allowing Jim to decide how far he was willing to go.
He was sixteen, dammit; he didn't need cuddling, and he sure as hell wouldn't cry. But, somehow, Jim was wrapped in Sam's arms, burying his face in his friend's shoulder. He swallowed the lump in his throat, still refusing to cry, but feeling slightly soothed as Sam patted his back.
"I know, Jimmy, I know," Sam said huskily. "I'm going to miss the little guy, too; he's definitely one of a kind. But friendship doesn't disappear just because friends are apart; he's not dead, after all, just somewhere else. And you might meet up again someday; he seemed real definite about coming back when he's 'all grown up'."
"That'll be a long time," Jim whispered hopelessly. He felt Sam shrug the shoulder under his face.
"Not so long," Sam disagreed. "Life goes on, and it passes faster'n you'd expect. You'll graduate high school, then go on to college, then find a job you like. Before you know it, ten or fifteen years'll have gone by, you'll hear a knock at your door, and Blair Sandburg will be standing there with his eyes shining and that big grin of his all over his face. He'll probably tell you you should have believed him, and then ask you how you've been and what happened to his wolf. I suggest you make up your mind to live your life so you can tell him 'fine', and keep an eye on his wolf and her cubs, so you can give him a good report about them, too. When you're an old man like me, you'll look back and realize that the separation was just a blip."
Jim pushed away from Sam's hold, sniffling and blotting his eyes on his sleeve, determinedly standing as straight and tall as he could. What Sam said wasn't completely true; he could feel deep in his heart that this separation would hurt every single day from now until it was over. But he clung to the partial truth; separations didn't have to last forever. He'd give Blair -- he did a fast mental calculation -- fourteen years. The kid would be twenty-one then; if he didn't show up on Jim's doorstep, Jim would go looking for him.
In the meantime, Sam's advice was sound. He couldn't quit living just because one little boy had been taken somewhere else. "You're right, Sam," he said quietly. "Life does go on. So, how do you want me to ride Hercules today?"
Sam cleared his throat. "I think you could both use a day of relaxation. How about you take some treats to Blair's wolf, and tell her what happened? I'm sure Blair and his wolf would appreciate it."
"You got it, Sam," Jim agreed, though privately, he wondered just how much enjoyment he'd have while riding without a certain bright little chatterbox by his side.
He made short work of brushing and saddling the big horse, then went to Blair's stash in the tack-room and grabbed a double handful of doggie biscuits, which he put into the saddlebags. Mounting up, he headed toward the wolf's mountain, and a future that he could only hope would, someday, be brightly lit once again.
Late March 1996
Blair Sandburg's heart was singing in anticipation as he walked toward the hospital treatment room. James Ellison -- it could be the 'Jim' of his childhood. He'd so long ago forgotten Jim's last name, but he'd never forgotten his 'bestest friend' with the super-senses, and the age of this patient was about right. He'd know for sure in just a moment.
But if the man was 'his' Jim, this wasn't the place for a reunion. Blair couldn't afford the time to explain here. He didn't know how much trouble he'd be in for impersonating a doctor if hospital personnel discovered his little obfuscation, but he didn't want to find out. Okay, he'd use a fake name, Doctor... Smith. No, too stereotyped. Doctor... Sanderson. No, too similar to Sandburg.
Blair caught sight of a polished blue nametag, carelessly dropped on the floor. Saved! He snatched it up, gave it a cursory glance, and pinned it to the lapel of his 'borrowed' white lab-coat as he approached the examination room.
"Detective Ellison," he said breezily as he entered the door, "I'm Doctor McKay."
The cool blue eyes regarded him suspiciously. "Your nametag says McCoy."
Blair managed some kind of cover-up babble, although he felt a jolt in the pit of his stomach. It was him, it was! Older, of course, and considerably changed, but the eyes -- Blair could still see his childhood friend in those eyes. The voice was harder now, but the tones were the same. Thank God, he'd found him at last.
"Forget the tests," Blair said earnestly. "You don't need medicine. You need information."
"What are you, an intern? Go get the doctor for me, will you, please?"
Blair's heart sank; Jim didn't remember him. Well, duh! A seven-year-old changes a lot more in twenty years than a sixteen-year-old. And I haven't even given him my real name. Gotta find a way to let him know who I really am.
"Me, I'm no one. But this man, he is." Blair forced one of his business cards into Jim's reluctant hand, anticipating some fast talking when his name sparked Jim's memory; hopefully, he could convince his old friend to wait till later for the explanations. But Jim was still staring at him suspiciously, completely ignoring the card in his hand, so Blair continued with babbling something -- anything -- that might get Jim into his own territory. "He's the only one who can truly help you. You're too far ahead of the curve for any of this techno-trash. You're a cop. See the man."
Blair left quickly, shoving aside his disappointment that Jim hadn't recognized him. This was not the time or place to force the issue; he still didn't want to be caught out by one of the real doctors. He just hoped that Jim would seek him out at Hargrove Hall. With the right name, surely he'd remember that summer, and the little kid who tagged at his heels and cheered his winning ride. If not... well, he had a last name now, and knew his job. If Jim didn't look him up in a few days, Blair wouldn't have too much trouble tracking him down.
Jim Ellison stared at the handwritten 'Blair Sandburg' on the door. His brow creased as something twitched in the dim recesses of his memory. But the music -- if you could call it that -- assaulting his eardrums prevented coherent thought. He barged through the door with little hope of being helped with his out-of-control senses, but he might as well see the quack so he could cross him off the list.
I knew something was fishy, Jim thought, easily recognizing 'Dr. McKay' despite the wannabe-hippie grunge look the kid now sported. He was certainly unimpressive, with his wild curly hair flaring around his shoulders, mis-matched vest and torn jeans; what could such a kid possibly know about his condition?
But at least he cut off the music when requested; thank God for small favors.
"Why are you in my face?" Jim asked, abruptly. He just wanted to get this over with.
This kid could do 'earnest' real well. "I just had to find some way to get you into my area here to talk."
"So talk," Jim grunted. So I can get out of this rattrap.
"Okay, um... my name is Blair Sandburg." He paused expectantly, waiting in vain for Jim to show some recognition. When none occurred, he continued talking; if he kept Jim around long enough, maybe something would jog his memory. "And I'm working on my doctorate in Anthropology and you just may be the living embodiment of my field of study. If I'm correct, Detective Ellison, you're a behavioral throwback to a pre-civilized breed of man."
The rage that swept over him drowned out the feeble whisper of awakening memory at hearing the kid's name. Jim surged to his feet, barely holding himself in check. "Are you out of your mind? You dragged me all the way over here to tell me I'm some sort of caveman?" Before he even realized what he was doing, he had slammed the little twerp into the wall and was threatening him with every possible violation he could dream up.
Surprisingly, the kid didn't even flinch, just shifted his motor-mouth into high gear. Feeling slightly ashamed of his over-reaction, Jim released the plucky little man and tried to walk away. But this Sandburg guy made sense, in a weird, twisted way; hyperactive senses just might explain what was going on with him, although the 'sentinel' shtick was straight out of the Twilight Zone. Maybe he could help Jim get the control he so desperately needed; certainly no one else had any explanation for what was happening to him.
But there was always a catch. "What's the payoff?" he asked.
Sandburg was intense. "My doctorate. I want to write about you. You're my thesis!"
No way in HELL! Jim thought as he stormed out of the cluttered office, ignoring whatever Sandburg was trying to say behind him.
As he crossed the lawn, he tried to bring his rage under control. The kid was as subtle as a bulldozer, but he wouldn't be able to write anything without permission; Jim would simply make it a point to not cross paths with him again. On the other hand, now that Sandburg had given him a clue, maybe he could find someone else who knew about this sentinel thing.
Lost in thought, Jim started across the street without paying attention to traffic. He looked up when he heard a shout, and his eye was caught by a bright red frisbee whirling through the air. It pulsed and expanded, filling his whole visual field....
The impact of hitting the pavement was shocking and disorienting; he barely grasped that he'd narrowly avoided being run down by a very large truck, and it seemed to have been Sandburg that saved him. The kid was up now and bouncing around like a cricket on crack as he proclaimed, "Wow! Oh, that really sucked, man!"
It certainly did, but it didn't make any sense. "What happened?" Jim asked.
"It was that thing I was trying to warn you about; the zone-out factor," Sandburg explained -- rather unhelpfully, as far as Jim was concerned.
Okay, he had to get a handle on his runaway senses, one way or another, and it looked like he was stuck with this Sandburg person whether he liked it or not. "Let's get out of here before I gotta answer a lot of questions. Let's go," he ordered.
Sandburg's face lit up with enthusiasm. "Let's? As in we? Oh, great, I've got some really specific ideas on how we can proceed here. Come on, let's go. Come on."
Jim followed the little powerhouse almost against his will. Why is Sandburg so damned excited about helping a complete stranger? he wondered uneasily. What the hell am I getting myself into?
Ten years of searching is over, Blair wrote in his journal a few days later. Jim Ellison is the 'Jimmy' I hung around with the summer I was seven. He doesn't remember me, though, which I suppose isn't so surprising. I mean, he hardly ever called me by my name -- I was always 'Chief' -- so I guess 'Blair Sandburg' doesn't ring a bell. And there's been a lot of water under the bridge in the last twenty years, not least of which was being stuck in the Peruvian jungle for eighteen months; talk about traumatic! I'm not surprised there are holes in his memory.
But it doesn't matter; he's allowing me to hang around and help him with the senses, which kind of helps him with his job, so that's good. I wondered, over the years, if I wasn't building him up too much, looking back through a child's eyes, but he's everything I remembered -- decent, kind, wise, good-hearted, courageous, humorous... Hurt, though. I think he's been really battered by life, and it's made him kind of suspicious and closed-down.
Which makes it even more hopeful that he's willing to tolerate the presence of a longhaired academic -- or, in his words, a neo-hippie, witch-doctor punk. <g> He even told Captain Taggart that I was his new 'partner'. Of course, ten minutes later he told me never to use that word, but I'm betting he feels the connection between us at some subliminal level.
I think this will work. If he doesn't remember our previous friendship, we can build a new one. And who knows? Maybe someday the memory of that summer will pop to the surface. Or maybe I'll break down and tell him after he's feeling a little more secure in his senses; I don't want to hit him with too much, too fast.
Funny thing, though -- he's already calling me 'Chief' again. I wonder if tiny tendrils of memory are starting to sprout?
Jim stared with satisfaction at Lash's body. He might be called on the carpet for using 'excessive force', but this madman would never again terrorize an innocent, helpless person -- and certainly not Blair.
Jim ran back up the stairs and burst through the door. He saw Blair shudder at his abrupt entrance and, despite his grogginess, feebly try to pull himself free of the chains that held him to the big dentists' chair. Jim was at his side in an instant.
"It's okay, Chief," he soothed. "It's me. Just relax; I'll have you out of there in a minute." He bent to release Blair from the abominable contraption.
Blair's head rolled weakly to the side as he attempted to focus on his friend through the effects of the drug. "Zh'm," he mumbled, "y'u c'me."
"Of course I came, buddy. Hang on; I've almost got you loose."
When the chains dropped to the floor, Jim quickly ran his hands over Blair's limbs and body, looking for any injuries. Finding none, he sighed in relief. "You're okay, Chief, except for that crap he forced into you. The ambulance will be here soon; I can hear the siren. We'll just wait here until the medics come up."
"Nooo," Blair moaned. "Ouuut..."
Jim surveyed the grim room, festooned with the tragic keepsakes of Lash's 'friends'; he could see why Blair wouldn't want to stay another minute. "You got it," he agreed. "Hang on and I'll try not to drop you." He lifted Blair from the chair, cradling him close, and smiled as he heard a faint chuckle.
"N't... baby," Blair whispered.
"No, not a baby; an injured warrior. And it's another warrior's duty and honor to care for an injured companion. So just shut up and let me do it."
"'kay." Blair's head lolled against Jim's chest, and he was already asleep by the time his rescuer reached the doorway and started down the stairs.
Jim. You came. Jim paced the hospital waiting room while he wondered what was taking the doctor so damned long. Simultaneously, he tried to put his finger on his feeling of acute déjà vu.
Jim. You came. Three simple words; why did they ring like a bell in his mind?
Jim. You came. Like he'd told Sandburg, of course he came; there'd never been a doubt, or any other choice.
"Ellison, sit!" Simon finally barked from his chair on the far side of the waiting room. "Wearing a groove in the linoleum won't make the doctor come any faster. The kid's okay; we just have to wait for the details."
Jim sank down next to his boss and scrubbed his hands over his face. "It was too damned close, Simon. If I'd've been five minutes later, he'd've been too drugged to speak, and I'd never have heard him. And you know what he said when I got to him? Barely able to make his body function, but he said, 'Jim. You came.' That's just... scary."
"Why?" Simon asked, reasonably. "He was saying that he trusts you. Would you rather he didn't trust you?"
"No, of course not. It's just..." Jim shrugged uneasily. "I dunno. Something about those words. Like I've heard 'em before."
"I'm sure you have," Simon pointed out, practically. "They're simple, common words; I'm sure someone's had an excuse to say them any number of times in the past thirty-odd years. It's not like they're a magical incantation or anything."
Jim shook his head wearily, then slumped in the chair. "But that's just it. For some reason, they feel like a magical incantation, like something really important. But I can't get a handle on it."
"Then the best thing to do is to ignore it. These things always jump out at you if you leave them alone. If the memory's that old, a few more hours -- or even days -- won't make a difference. It'll come to you eventually."
Jim was prepared to argue -- every instinct he had was screaming that this was too important to ignore -- but a doctor walked through the door marked, 'Hospital Personnel Only'. He immediately stood and approached the small gray-haired woman, Simon following a step behind. "Doctor?"
"You're here for Mr. Sandburg?" she asked, eyeing both men.
"Yes," Simon said. "Blair is Detective Ellison's partner, and they both work for me. What can you tell us?"
She nodded approvingly. "It's good news; your Mr. Sandburg is a very lucky young man. He didn't ingest enough of the trichloroethanol to have an extensive impact; he's already starting to throw off the residual effects. We'll keep him under observation for a couple of more hours, just to be on the safe side, but then he can go home."
"May we sit with him?" Jim asked.
The doctor shrugged. "There's no need; he's sleeping soundly. He'll probably be asleep more than he's awake for the next twenty-four hours."
"Please," he said intensely.
The doctor searched Jim's eyes, apparently seeing the deep need within, and nodded. "All right," she said kindly. "But don't disturb him; that's for us to do." Her eyes twinkled at Jim's amused snort. "We've put him behind a screen in the far corner of the ER; you can go on back, but stay out of the way." She nodded toward the doors.
"Thank you, doctor," Simon said. "We appreciate your care for our friend." He turned to the man next to him. "Jim, I think you can handle it from here, and I have a mess of paperwork calling my name. I'll expect to see you in by ten tomorrow morning; till then, take care of the kid."
"Thank you, Simon," Jim murmured. He hurried toward the ER.
Simon watched him disappear behind the doors and shook his head slightly, marveling at how Sandburg had become such a large part of Ellison's life in such a short time. Then he shrugged and headed toward the parking lot; his work wouldn't get done if he stood around here all day.
Sandburg resisted going to his room. "I've been sleeping for five hours Jim; I'm all slept out. I'll just sit on the couch and watch the news." Ten minutes later, he had tilted sideways and was snoring gently, his neck bent at an uncomfortable angle with his head on the armrest.
Jim smiled and put aside the broom he was using to sweep up broken glass. Moving quietly -- although it was probably unnecessary; Sandburg was out like a light -- he gently removed Blair's shoes and lifted his feet onto the couch. Then he shoved a bunched-up throw-pillow under the kid's neck, positioning it to a more normal angle, and pulled the afghan down to settle gently over his body.
Jim glanced at his watch. If Sandburg continued as he had been, he'd be awake again in a couple of hours. He'd probably be able to overcome the effects of the drug more easily if he ate a substantial meal, and Jim intended to provide it. It would be somewhat early for an evening meal but, if he waited till later, Sandburg might be asleep again, probably for the rest of the night.
For a few minutes he simply watched as Blair slept, incredibly grateful to have him back in one undamaged piece, then went to the kitchen and started preparations. Moving with his typical efficiency, he washed the sweet potatoes and put them on to boil, then mixed the orange juice, brown sugar and diced dried apricots and put them in a saucepan to simmer.
With both pans bubbling satisfactorily, he had to wait half an hour before beginning the next step, and Jim felt unusually restless. The remaining disarray in the living area was an irritation, but it was minor compared to the mental question that demanded his attention. There was something he needed to find, or discover. It was important, but hell if he knew what it was. It wasn't anything recent, he was sure; it must be something from his past, which had been boxed up for years. Most of it was down in the storage area in the basement, and he had no intention of leaving Blair alone while he went on a 'hunting' expedition. But there were a couple of small boxes in his bedroom; he might as well rule them out.
The service memorabilia in the compact wooden box brought back memories, as they did every time he opened it, but none of them answered the driving necessity Jim felt to find something important. He reached for the battered old shoebox, tied with a knotted piece of string. Jim hadn't opened it since he'd left college; he didn't even know why he hung onto it. Might as well go through it now, while he had some time. Kids kept the most worthless things; he'd probably just toss out most of the undoubtedly childish drivel.
As soon as Jim saw the little red ribbon, the memories came rushing back. With shaking hands, he unfolded the paper with the bold 'JIM' on the outside, its edges beginning to yellow with age. His eyes misted as he reread the childish scrawl.
In his mind's eye, he relived that special summer, watched a bright-eyed, excited little boy run across the meadow toward him and leap into his arms, heard the confident trust in Blair's voice. Jim! You came!
How could he have forgotten? That summer had been the best of his life, and he'd been closer to Blair than he'd ever been to anyone else, before or since. Jim smoothed the paper under his hand, reading the words again.
This is me, giving you a biiiiiiig hug.
Yure bestest frend,
'Bestest' friend then, and quickly becoming 'best friend' now. Jim wondered if Blair knew. Had he also forgotten, or was he simply waiting until Jim recognized him? And, my God -- what combination of chance and circumstance had brought them back together? It seemed... miraculous.
Jim put the letter back in the box, but carried the ribbon when he went downstairs to continue supper preparations. Even though he had the ribbon's owner here in the loft -- and thank God for that -- he wanted to keep the tangible evidence with him. He folded the little piece of fabric and put it in his shirt pocket while he seared the pork chops, covered them with the apricot/orange sauce, and put them in the oven to bake. Then he peeled and mashed the sweet potatoes, sprinkled them with brown sugar and marshmallows, and slipped them into the oven beside the pork chops.
Supper would be ready in forty-five minutes but, if Blair wasn't stirring by then, it could be kept warm in the oven without damaging it. Jim continued setting the loft to rights, but slowly. He paused frequently to watch the sleeping Blair, searching his features for the child he'd once been. Now that he knew, Jim could see that little boy in the man he'd become -- still bright and energetic, almost frighteningly intelligent, with an unquenchable zest for life, enthusiastically greeting each new experience. He should have expected that Blair would have grown into exactly this sort of man.
Without being aware of his own actions, Jim sat on the other couch, a fond smile playing on his lips as he stared at Blair's face. Gradually, he lost himself in his memories -- the horses, the riding, the wolf-rescue, Blair's glee at winning his ribbon... and always, the deep-seated, contented companionship of one talkative and generous little boy. He felt that he'd just received an unexpected but precious gift -- his childhood best friend and the man who was dedicated to helping him master his wayward senses, rolled into one incredibly special person, and he was here. Now. Jim vowed to himself that he wouldn't lose Blair again. None of this 'only one week' crap; he'd keep Blair here for the next twenty years, if he had any say in the matter at all.
Jim began planning some improvements to Blair's room, something to give him an incentive to stay. He needed shelves for his books and anthropological keepsakes, and a real door instead of that old curtain. And there was no reason that Blair couldn't move some of those keepsakes out here into the main room, if he chose; this was his home, too.
Gradually, he became aware of a change; Blair's heartbeat and respiration had increased. Jim opened his eyes to see Blair watching him, looking more alert than he had since he'd been drugged.
Blair smiled when he saw Jim's eyes focus on him. "Hey, man; you okay? You got a headache, or your senses acting up?"
"I'm fine, Chief; just remembering some things. How about you? Are you getting that crap out of your system?"
Blair tossed the afghan to the side, sat up, and stretched mightily. "Yeah, I think so; I feel pretty much back to normal. If nothing else, I'll manage to stay awake for supper; whatever it is, it smells delicious."
"Your timing is impeccable; it'll be ready in five minutes. Why don't you wash up while I set the table and put it out."
With one last stretch, Blair rose and headed toward the bathroom. "Sounds like a plan."
Inevitably, the conversation over the meal became a mutual debriefing session. Blair's eyes glowed as Jim described how he'd used his enhanced senses to unravel the clues to the location of Lash's lair. "Oh, man, that is so cool! I told you your senses would help your police work. Just imagine what you'll be able to do with them after we've had more time to practice. You'll be beyond awesome!"
"You didn't do so bad yourself, Junior. If you hadn't strung Lash along, kept him talking, I wouldn't have had your voices to home in on. I'm proud of you."
Blair glanced disparagingly at the remaining disorder in the living room. "For what? I shouldn't even have let him take me out of here. I should've been able to fight him off, and I tried, Jim, I really did, but he was just so damned strong!"
"Blair, there's no shame in being overcome by a greater force; it happens to all of us," Jim said gently. "You gave it everything you had, and that's all anyone can expect. You delayed him, kept on fighting even when all you had was your words, gave me the time I needed to find you. You did everything right, Chief; you have no need to apologize for anything."
Blair searched Jim's face for confirmation. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Jim insisted. "Can I tell you a story, Chief?"
Blair raised a quizzical eyebrow. "You have the floor, man."
"When I was sixteen, I knew a little boy -- cute as a button, sharp as a tack, and loyal as a hound dog. I was practicing for a steeplechase that summer, and whenever I was at the stables, he'd be right there by my side. Nothing fazed him; the biggest horses acted like puppydogs around him, and he rode over jumps that were taller than he was. He was so full of plain, cussed courage that he even headed off into unknown territory, alone, to find and help an injured wolf." Jim pulled the little red ribbon out of his pocket, unfolded it, and laid it on the table between them. "That little boy hasn't lost one ounce of his intelligence, courage, or sheer joie de vivre as he grew up." He had to clear his throat before continuing huskily, "I am soo proud of you, Chief, then and now, and so grateful to whatever Providence led you across my path again."
Blair's eyes had shone ever brighter during Jim's recitation, and his smile grown ever wider. Now he chuckled softly. "Well, you can call it Providence if you want; I call it ten years of dedicated searching." He shook his head ruefully. "Jim, you're the reason I've studied and researched the sentinel phenomenon, and you're the reason I'm going to college in Cascade, Washington. I'd a whole lot rather be someplace warmer and drier -- but I figured this was the only place I had a reasonable chance of finding you." He shifted slightly in his seat. "So you don't mind that I tracked you down and I'm tagging along by your side again?"
"Mind?" Jim shook his head in bemusement, then pushed back from the table. "Chief, come here." When Blair stood, Jim put an arm around his shoulders and urged him out onto the balcony. He pointed outward.
"See those three young ladies at the end of the block? They're discussing a killer math test they have day after tomorrow. Down the next block, the fire escape on the fourth floor has a planter box on it; it has hyacinths in bloom, two purple and one pink.
"I could go on, but you get the idea. You've given me this, Chief; in just a few short weeks, you've given me control over my senses that I haven't had since... since..." Jim faltered to a stop as the realization hit him. "My God, Blair; not since I was sixteen with a curly-haired little munchkin by my side." He turned, and pulled Blair into a fierce embrace. "'This is me, giving you a biiiiig hug'. I missed you buddy, missed you so much, for years and years. I don't know how I ever forgot you."
Blair returned the hug just as fiercely. "It doesn't matter, now," he said softly. "I missed you too, but I came back, just like I promised. In my whole life, you were the best friend I ever had, and I've dreamed of finding you again, ever since Naomi took me away." He chuckled softly and drew away, looking out into the gathering dusk. "But you're probably right; without the hand of Providence, or Fate, or Gods and Goddesses, I could have been searching for another ten years, or twenty years. I guess we should both offer thanks to the Universe that we're together again."
His face was split by a sudden, wide yawn, and Blair settled tiredly against the strong body of his best friend. "Sorry, Jim; I guess that crap is still affecting me, after all. Did I say thanks for coming after me? I'm so glad to be home." His eyelids drooped, and he swayed slightly on his feet.
"Yeah, buddy, you told me," Jim said as he steered Blair into his bedroom. There he urged Blair onto his futon, made short work of divesting him of shoes and jeans, and tucked the covers around him as tenderly as a mother with a child. He stared at his best friend for a moment, then caressed his cheek with gentle fingers. "I'm glad you're home, too, Chief, and I hope you'll be home for a long, long time." He bent and kissed the sleeping man on the forehead, then turned and quietly left the room.