James Ellison, premier detective in the Major Crime unit of the Cascade Police Department and Sentinel of the Great City, was tired. Exhausted. Wiped out. Drained. They had caught the latest psycho serial killer, but only after an all-out effort by the police department in general, and Major Crime in particular. It had been three weeks of increasing tension and sheer hell – early mornings and late nights as they examined and re-examined the clues and crime sites, interviewed friends, relatives, and coworkers of the victims, talked with snitches, expounded ever more outrageous theories as to the motives of the killer, and planned how they could use those theories and motives to set a trap. Finally, after three days and nights of round-the-clock stakeout, their efforts culminated with the arrest of one Elwin P Hargrove, maniac extraordinaire. He was safely behind bars and, if the courts did their job properly, he would never again walk the streets of the city.
The paperwork would wait till tomorrow; Simon had announced that no one needed to report before 11:00 AM, so that all of them could catch up on some much-needed sleep. Jim had stopped at the deli on the way home; he planned to eat his sandwich, shower, and hit the sack within thirty-five minutes.
Shoulders slumped and eyelids drooping at half-mast, Jim tucked the deli bag under his arm as he reached into the mailbox. He was already contemplating the absolute peace he would feel as he climbed into those cool, smooth sheets and laid his weary head on the soft, downy pillow.
As he grasped the pile of bills and junk mail, the shifting air currents carried a much-loved and long-missed scent to his nose. Blair! Blair had touched one of these envelopes! His mind and body reacted as if he'd been hit by an electrical surge, every sense immediately alert and seeking.
Quickly, he searched through the handful of mail, and there it was. He ran trembling fingers over the address written in his friend's bold handwriting, as if those fingers could touch the man himself. He closed his eyes as he inhaled deeply, discarding the scents of the various people who had handled this precious piece of paper as it traveled to Cascade, until he breathed in only the essence of his guide. Blair was alive and well; his scent carried no hint of illness or distress. Jim opened his eyes to examine the envelope more closely. Thank God! Blair had included a return address. Jim would be able to write him, visit him, talk to him.
Hunger and weariness forgotten, he hurried up the stairs to the sanctuary of his loft. He tossed his coat on the hook and his sandwich on the table before sitting on the couch. He felt almost solemn, half excited and half scared. It had been so long, so very long, and he'd been afraid that this day might never come. Gently, carefully, Jim lifted the flap of the envelope and began to read.
An hour later, he surfaced from the world Blair had created for him. He'd read quickly, ingesting the meaning in great gulps. Then he re-read it slowly, contemplating the points his guide had raised. It was obvious that Blair still was his Guide; although he might claim sheer practicality and list things he wished for, almost every point he made was aimed at the comfort-level of the Sentinel. Finally, he read it one more time, simply absorbing the inherent feeling of the letter. Despite Blair's upbeat attitude, Jim's heart ached for the strictures that his friend had been forced to deal with.
But within every page, the friendship shone brightly. Jim felt the aching emptiness within him start to ease, a little. Blair wanted to come home, wanted to share his life again. It might take a little while – there were plans to finalize, and he would have to talk with Blair to learn exactly how he wanted to handle some of the options – but that didn't matter. Blair was coming home! Jim would talk with Simon in the morning, and start the wheels in motion.
Absentmindedly, he ate his sandwich while reading the letter for the fourth time. Still contemplating possibilities, he took a hot shower, then climbed to his bedroom. He carefully propped the letter against the lamp on his nightstand, so that he would see it again as soon as he opened his eyes in the morning. Finally, he breathed a sigh of relief – Blair was coming home! – and allowed himself to drift into sleep.
When he woke in the morning, doubts assailed him. Sandburg said he wanted to come home, but would Blair still want to work with him if he knew that Jim didn't merely want his friend, but rather needed him with an intensity that approached fanatical? Would Blair feel suffocated by his raging need? Sandburg was strong, but could he withstand the weight of perceived expectations for the next twenty or thirty years?
Jim sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the letter as he frantically searched for a solution. Too many times, when he needed someone, they disappeared. His mother. Incacha. Lila. ... Blair?
Maybe he could hide his abject neediness. If he found Sandburg another apartment, saw him only at work and the occasional social evening, he might be able to keep their friendship on the casual level they were accustomed to. He had lived without his best friend and guide for a little more than two years. Surely it would be enough to be with him only during working hours; they didn't have to live in each other's pockets.
He rose to get dressed, resolution firming within him. That would work. He'd find Sandburg a nice apartment, midway between Rainier and the PD, and school himself to act like a close but casual friend during their working hours. It had to work; Blair should be allowed to live his own life as much as possible, not constantly submerging his wants and needs to Jim's.
Jim carried the letter downstairs, intending to read it again while he ate breakfast. He was sure that, if he looked at it closely, objectively, he'd find confirmation that he'd just made the right decision.
But as he contemplated his guide's words again, Jim found his carefully-erected wall crumbling.
I really want to be the Sentinel's Guide.
Blair was aware of what being the Sentinel's Guide entailed. Maybe he would understand the neediness and accept it? Maybe he wouldn't even mind being needed.
Come on, Jim, give me the benefit of the doubt. Have I ever expected you to turn into another person?
No, he never had. So if the person he was, needed Blair Sandburg, did that mean that Blair could still accept him?
At least we can say that we gave it an honest try; no one can ask more of a friend and partner than that.
True. They should try together. He was willing to do anything for Sandburg; wasn't it denigrating to assume that Sandburg might not feel the same way about him? Wouldn't Blair be irritated that he tried to make this decision without involving his friend?
But getting back to the personal reaction thing, and you assigning the worst possible motives to my actions – enough, already! You can learn to consider my intentions before you make unwarranted assumptions.
Another truth. Sandburg intended to be the Sentinel's Guide. Why was he making assumptions about his friend's commitment? Shouldn't he at least discuss these feelings with him, and see if the problem actually existed?
We need to throw out all our old reactions and preconceptions about each other and start fresh.
And here he was, running scared again, letting his preconceptions about how Blair might react cloud his thinking.
You're a very beloved big brother.
Maybe he should simply go with that. 'Brother' didn't have an unsullied connotation in Jim's mind, but family seemed important to Blair. And that 'beloved' was encouraging.
Wherever you are is 'home'. I don't feel complete without you.
And he felt the same way. So why in hell was he letting his fears and insecurities get in the way of what he most truly wanted?
Okay. Fateful decision. He would send his letter to Sandburg, the one into which he'd poured his heart and soul. That letter had told Sandburg that he wouldn't hide from his guide anymore; he would live up to that vow. After Blair read that outpouring of unadulterated need, he might decide to maintain his distance from Jim. But maybe – just maybe – he'd still be willing to come home.
Jim retrieved the carefully-preserved letter from his desk drawer and, with slightly trembling fingers, sealed it into an envelope. He addressed it, affixed a stamp, and carried it downstairs to drop it in the mailbox on the corner. Now it was – literally – out of his hands. He'd have to wait to see how Blair responded to this letter.
He turned toward his truck. He didn't know yet if he should announce that Sandburg might be coming home, but at least he could tell everyone where their friend was and what he had been doing. Jim grinned, remembering his bet with Connor. Blair hadn't mentioned anything about wrestling alligators.
Blair guided the sure-footed Appaloosa to the top of the ridge and reined her to a stop. With index finger to his lips and silent gestures, he motioned the half-dozen riders behind him to spread out alongside, then directed their attention forward. Below them, in a shallow, grass-filled cup, three white-tailed does grazed, their half-grown fawns playing nearby. Whispered exclamations signified appreciation as the guests reached for the digital cameras that most of them had tucked into their saddlebags.
One of the horses snorted and shook its head, bothered by a persistent fly. The does raised their heads alertly, poised to flee, and studied the riders above. After a few tense moments, they seemed to relax and, one by one, lowered their heads to continue foraging on the lush greenery. Blair grinned. It seemed to him – and the more experienced hands had confirmed – that the deer knew very well that hunting season was still six weeks away. After October fifteenth, it would be almost impossible to catch a glimpse of one during daylight hours, but for now, they were relatively complacent.
When the guests seemed satisfied with their pictures and tucked cameras back into saddlebags, he picked up the reins and led the group onward. Another half-hour would bring them to Talbot Falls. If they were lucky, they might see a bear or two in the rapids below the falling water, giving fishing lessons to their cubs. If not, it was still a good place to take a break and let the horses graze while the human members of the group ate the sack lunches that the cook had packed for them. And the Falls themselves were very photogenic; the camera buffs wouldn't be disappointed.
Ellison pulled into a parking space in the garage below Cascade PD and turned off the engine, then sat, trying to decide his next move. He'd need Simon's help to ensure that Sandburg had a position waiting for him when he arrived, but should he tell the other detectives now, or wait until everything was settled? His instinct was to wait, but...
Jim frowned as he contemplated that 'but'. Why this urge to keep the news to himself? The people of Major Crime were as hungry for information about Sandburg as he was. Yet here he was, acting like a kid unwilling to share a new toy. Would spreading the news of Blair's imminent return detract from his own feeling of overwhelming joy? Of course not. And Blair's friends would want to help make the arrangements for him to come home and settle into – well, basically the same job, hopefully, but with a new title. They'd no doubt want to throw a 'Welcome Home' bash, and probably be upset – rightfully so – if they had insufficient time to plan it, simply because he was stingy with the information he had. But...
"But, but, but," he muttered to himself. "Sandburg'll kick your butt if you cheat his friends out of knowing he's coming home. So get off your butt and get up there and just tell them!" With these words of self-encouragement, Ellison climbed out of the truck and entered the elevator to take him up to Major Crime.
Once there, he gazed around the bullpen. He seemed to be the last one in; he must have been sitting in the truck for longer than he thought. Okay, no time like the present, before people started scattering to work on other cases. But first...
Jim crossed the room and knocked on the captain's door, waiting for Simon's customary, 'Come!' before he entered. "Sir?" he asked, still a bit ill-at-ease. "I have an announcement to make; could you step into the bullpen for a moment?"
The unusual request caught Simon's attention. He gazed sharply at his detective, noting the marks of tension in face and body-posture. Oh, hell. Had Ellison learned something that would weaken the case against the killer they had apprehended? Surely not. "All right Jim, what's going on?"
When the only reply was a shrug and a mute headshake, his concern grew. Grunting an acknowledgement, he followed the other man out into the bullpen. But there Jim stopped, apparently unwilling – or unable – to initiate his 'announcement'. Well, one thing you learned in 'Captains' School' was how to prod someone into action.
"Listen up, people!" he barked. "Ellison says he has something important to tell us." He crossed his arms and focused on his detective. Maybe his 'do it now!' glare would provide the impetus that Jim evidently needed.
With curious eyes pointing his way, Jim clutched the letter in his pocket to supply a boost to his confidence and managed to stutter, "Uh... Got a letter from Sandburg. He says he wants to come back."
He might just as well have announced the Second Coming. Work was forgotten as Blair's friends crowded around with eager questions. "When's he coming?" "Where is he?" "What's he been doing?" "How is he?" "What else did he say?" "How soon will he be here?"
Despite the confusion, Jim felt himself relax. Of course it was right to tell their friends. What the hell had he been worried about? "Uh, well... he says he misses everybody, and he wants to come back and work with us again. Says he's okay with being a cop, but he'd rather be a civilian advisor. Says he can come home as soon as his boss finds a replacement for him."
"So, what's he been doing, and what's he doing now?" Megan was insistent. "Come on, Jimbo, give!"
"Um, he worked as a trucker and a library assistant. Right now, he's working on a dude ranch in New Mexico." He grinned as he remembered his stray thought from last night. "He didn't mention any alligator-wrestling. You owe me ten, Connor."
"Just because he didn't tell you about it doesn't mean he didn't do it. You won't get your money till I can ask him directly; maybe you'll be paying me," she retorted.
"Damn; Hairboy on a dude ranch. With those curls under a cowboy hat, I bet he has the ladies falling at his feet. You think we can bribe somebody at the ranch to send us some pictures?" Henri suggested.
"Well, he says he kept it cut short for awhile, sort of as a disguise," Jim reported awkwardly. The group became still, remembering why Blair might have felt that he needed a disguise. "But he says it's growing again; enough that people call him a 'weird hippie' when he goes to town." There were quiet chuckles at that, and an easing of the minor tension that had swept through the group.
"Okay, people!" Simon interrupted. "We're all happy to hear the news, but we have work to do. Let's get it finished, then meet in the conference room at four. We'll discuss everything then, and put our 'bringing Sandburg home' plans into motion. This is still a police station, not a coffee klatch."
As everyone moved back to their desks, Simon lowered his voice to speak privately. "I'm happy for you Jim – happy for us all. Now we've got to be sure we do this right, so he never feels like he has to leave again. We'll discuss it later." With a nod, he returned to his office to begin making phone calls. He didn't need to wait until four to start the wheels in motion.
Jim returned to his own desk, once again fingering the letter in his pocket. This was shaping up to be a good day.
"Hey Curly, the boss has a letter for you. He's holding it in his office."
With a wave of acknowledgement to Big John, Curly – known to the world outside the closed society of the ranch as Blair Sandburg – changed his trajectory from the bunkhouse to the office. After leading a six-hour trail-ride and helping to rub down the horses, he was in desperate need of a shower before dinner. But that could wait for a few more minutes. He'd had only two letters in all the months he'd been working here. It might be another letter from Naomi, but it could be an answer to the letter he'd sent Jim...
He knocked informally on the doorframe as he entered the large, casually-furnished room. "Hey, Clem, I hear you have a letter for me?"
The big man leaned back in his leather chair, apparently welcoming a break from the paperwork that covered his desk. "Sure do, Curly. It's kinda thick; I thought it might be important." He plucked it from the catch-all box on the corner of his desk and placed it in Blair's eagerly-waiting hands. "Sure hope it's not bad news," his boss offered quietly.
Blair's heart jolted as he confirmed the return address. This was a letter from Jim. Would it be good news or bad? He schooled his voice to casualness as he answered, "Thanks, Clem. It's a letter from an old friend; I expect he just wants to catch up."
He should have known that his boss wouldn't be fooled. The man was canny, with an intuitive knowledge of psychology; he understood his people and his livestock, and cared about them all. Clem gave Blair an assessing look as he commented, "You just remember, kid – any help you need, you come talk to me. You're a good hand and a better man, Curly. Whatever it is, you don't have to go it alone."
With a lump in his throat, Blair nodded. "Thanks, Clem; I'll remember." Trying to maintain his casual façade, he excused himself and headed back outside.
He paused on the porch, considering his options. The married hands had cabins of their own, but the single men shared a bunkhouse. At this time of the day, it wouldn't be very private, as people came in to clean up for dinner.
Decision made, Blair folded the letter and tucked it into his back pocket, then strode to the corral. He assessed the animals inside. Old Blue hadn't been ridden today. Blair grabbed one of the halters hanging on the outside of the rails and slipped it over Blue's head. He quickly brushed and saddled the horse, while idly speculating on the mindset that would name a young dun, 'Old Blue'. Well, in a dozen years, at least the 'Old' would fit, even if the sandy-colored hide would never be considered 'blue'.
He swung into the saddle and headed toward the river. A couple of months earlier, he'd found a secluded glade nearby, out of sight of the water and surrounded by low-growing, bushy trees, an ideal spot for his evening meditations. He'd read Jim's letter there. Whatever Jim had written, he'd be able to deal with the resulting emotions in private, and get himself under control before facing the world again.
Blair leaned back against the trunk of the piñon tree. His gaze rested on Blue, eagerly cropping the green grass, but his thoughts were turned inward. He felt dazed – stunned – by the depth of emotion that had come pouring from Jim's letter. He had never – never – expected such a heartfelt declaration from the man. Realistically, he had hoped for gracious agreement, been willing to settle for grudging acceptance, and steeled himself for casual rejection. This was... this was simply unbelievable.
Blair turned his attention back to the letter, wanting to absorb every nugget of information from it that he could.
The first thing he noted – he hadn't paid attention on the first read-through – was that Jim had written this letter months ago, and apparently kept it until he had an address to send it to. So, it wasn't really a response to the letter that he'd just sent. But, if Jim mailed this after reading Blair's letter, he must still feel the same way. Mustn't he? Blair shook his head in bemusement and read on.
I moped around for weeks, fighting my senses, fighting our friends, fighting the whole damn world.
Well, hell. He'd been afraid of that. As much as Jim wanted to be self-sufficient, he also craved stability. Blair had hoped that his carefully-explained analysis of why he had to leave would allow Jim to feel some measure of control, and that including his friend in the decision-making would convince his subconscious that he hadn't actually been 'abandoned'. Apparently, the setup had been only partially successful.
But Simon finally sat me down and read me the riot act.
Thank God for Simon Banks. The man had a bark like a junkyard dog, but he was a true friend when the chips were down.
I went to the Police Chief, the Commissioner, and the District Attorney. I proved to them that I am an actual Sentinel, and that you hadn't lied in your dissertation.
You know what helped? The acceptance of all of our friends in Major Crime. When I knew (or decided) that I was in it 'for the duration', I told all of them about the senses and the truth about your dissertation.
Now that was a shocker. Why all the fuss about secrecy if the man was going to do a one-eighty turnaround? He couldn't have managed this insight before the diss disaster? Things could have been so different –
Blair drew his thoughts up short, aghast at where they were going. Where was all this anger coming from? Hadn't he dealt with this long ago?
He dropped the letter beside him, crossed his legs, and took a deep, centering breath. Blair had learned the art of soul-examination from Naomi at a very early age. Lately, Standing Bear had been reinforcing the lessons, and teaching him to go ever deeper. This wasn't hard...
Yes. There it was. A kernel of anger still flared brightly, directed at one Jim Ellison. The man hadn't trusted his 'best friend', had assumed that Blair would sell him out for the equivalent of thirty pieces of silver. That had hurt, deeply, and it still hurt.
Okay, he'd always known that Jim had 'issues'. But at least now he was trying to deal with it, and he promised to try to do better. Blair was taken aback to realize that he also had issues nagging in the background. But he had told Jim that he didn't blame him. So – was that the truth, or just a polite social lie?
Blair stood beside himself and examined the anger, tasting its flavor and holding its shape in his mind. Then he evaluated the character of the Sentinel and the character of the Guide, as well as the characters of Jim and Blair. Was he just fooling himself when he declared that the anger could be forgotten, that it wouldn't come between the Sentinel and the Guide? Between Jim and Blair?
No. The anger had been justified, but it was no longer important, or relevant. He would not allow it to affect the spirits of Sentinel and Guide, or of Jim and Blair. Now that he knew it still existed, it could be handled. He would put the anger aside for now, but come back later to draw out its poison and lay it to rest. Perhaps Standing Bear would help him, since he hadn't been successful at doing it alone.
He picked up the letter again.
God, I'm sorry Chief. So very, very sorry.
That helped. That helped a great deal. Jim more often spoke with actions than words. Blair understood that, and accepted it. Words weren't really necessary. But sometimes words could provide a healing balm of their own. He would cherish these words, and use them to help vanquish the anger still hidden within him.
I ache for you to be back beside me.
More healing words. Jim didn't just tolerate his presence, or accept his presence; Jim wanted his presence, apparently needed his presence. It was a precious thing to be wanted and needed – humbling, gratifying, sometimes even frightening, but deeply satisfying. Some might think it restrictive; it seemed that Jim was afraid that he'd react that way. Not so. Blair felt an answering need to be in Jim's presence, like coming home to a brightly blazing fire on a dark, cold night. Everything else was secondary; Sentinel and Guide would be together again.
You are closer to me than any brother could ever be, closer even than most married couples. You have a large piece of my very soul, and you took it with you when you left.
But this required some heavy thought. Blair nibbled a ragged cuticle as he pondered. Apparently, Jim's emotional – psychic? – investment in their friendship was stronger and deeper than he'd realized. On the other hand, he'd long been aware that Jim did feel things very deeply; he was just a master at hiding it from himself and others. But now... he had told Jim that he wanted to be the Sentinel's Guide. But was he considering a total commitment? Or was it just something he was planning to do until the 'time was right' to move on? He could easily give another five or ten years, but what about thirty? Forty?
He had to be absolutely certain. If he moved back with Jim, then left again – whether in five years or twenty-five – it would quite possibly destroy the man. Better to stop the process now, before it went any further, than to do that to his best friend.
Best friend. Still. Always.
Blair stared unseeing at a chattering squirrel as he pondered. He had told Jim that he wanted to be the Sentinel's Guide, and that he wanted Jim to like Blair, but he had avoided mentioning any deeply emotional aspects, assuming that Jim would not want to know. But in hiding his deepest feelings from his friend, he realized that he had also hidden them from himself. So... what were they?
All right. Give it a test. Blair deliberately set up a scenario – his future without Jim. There were places to go, and things to learn. He was beginning to realize that, for all his study of the Sentinel phenomenon, he had barely scratched the surface of the information waiting to be discovered, or re-discovered; the more primitive peoples of the world still remembered what modern society had forgotten. He'd learned long ago that it didn't take much money to be comfortable while wandering from place to place and, if need be, he could take Jim up on his offer of the money in his checking account. (That had been an amazing little tidbit. He'd withdrawn all his meager funds when he left and never accessed the account again, 'knowing' that it was empty. It was mind-boggling that Jim would invest that much money to try to ensure his well-being and comfort.) He could get his PhD, go on expeditions, publish books...
Blair slid back into reality and clinically noted his body's reactions. His heartrate was up, his forehead and palms were sweaty, and he was short of breath, panting as if he'd been running. Apparently, his entire system rejected the idea of the Guide remaining apart from the Sentinel. Or of Blair remaining apart from Jim. It didn't matter; his heart and soul agreed with his body. Contemplating that scenario left him feeling empty and adrift, aching with a loneliness that couldn't be appeased. It seemed that he needed Jim as much as Jim needed him; he was committed for the duration. They had needed the time apart, and the distance, but no more. He was going home.
'Until death do us part'. He smiled slightly. If either of them ever married, it would have to be to a very special lady (or ladies) who could accept the sentinel / guide connection. Blair envisioned side-by-side houses sharing one big back yard, with a dozen children happily playing together while their wives commiserated with each other about husbands who had to be pried apart with a crowbar.
But this I can promise, Chief – I'll try. I'll try my damnedest.
And that was all he'd ever asked of the man. If they were both actively trying to 'optimize their partnership' – Jeeze, he admonished himself, can't you even talk to yourself without dropping into academese? Anyway, with both of them working to heal the cracks in their relationship, they'd be such a hot team that criminals would soon be giving Cascade a wide berth, as word went out that not even the most minor of crimes went uncaught and unpunished. Blair grinned at the mental picture of Jim as an 1880's Western lawman, leaning back in his chair, booted feet on the desk, cobwebs forming between his spurs and the desktop because there was no crime for him to deal with. Apparently, the world of ranching was seeping into his very pores; he normally avoided such stereotyped images.
You've got a place here, just waiting for you. Your choice – you can go through the Academy and be a cop if you want. Or, you can be an official, paid, civilian consultant if you prefer.
His heart warmed anew as he contemplated that statement again. Realizing that Jim – that all of his friends in Major Crimes – would go to such trouble to establish a 'place' for him was... humbling. Breathtaking. And totally unexpected. Blair really liked the idea of becoming a 'Socio-Cultural Anthropologist'; if nothing else, it would give him a lot of scope to define his own job description, and baffle The Powers That Be – they couldn't complain that he was overstepping boundaries if they didn't know what those boundaries were.
Satisfied with his ruminations, Blair stirred, grimacing slightly as he stretched to ease the stiffness in his spine. Piñon trunks weren't the most comfortable supports. His eyes widened as he noticed that full dark had fallen while he was lost in his thoughts. It hadn't seemed to take that long to reach his decision.
No matter. Horses have good night-vision and a full moon was rising; Blue would get him back to the ranch with no problem. Miguel – usually addressed, inevitably, as 'Cookie' – didn't mind if hands or guests raided the refrigerator for leftovers. He'd take that long-delayed shower, fill his grumbling belly, and get to bed. In the morning, he'd tell Clem that he'd be leaving as soon as a replacement could be found to do his job.
Finally, Blair Sandburg would be going home.
Four o'clock, and the staunchest of Blair's supporters were gathered in the conference room. Captain Banks leaned back in his chair, surveyed the group, and called the 'meeting' to order. "All right, people, let's get this show on the road. Jim, did Sandburg say anything specifically about what he wants to do when he comes back?"
Jim was feeling considerably more relaxed than earlier. Somehow, just working on plans to bring Sandburg home made him feel that he was 'doing something' to accomplish that goal. His voice was easy as he replied, "Several things, Simon. He said he didn't mind being a cop, and that he could even handle carrying a gun, but that he'd much rather remain a civilian." He smiled at his fellow cops as he revealed, "He listed a whole bunch of high-falutin' titles that he figured would let him 'do his thing' while keeping the brass comfortable about his presence. Pure Sandburg obfuscation all the way. I don't think it'll make much difference which title we choose; he'll just inform anyone who cares that 'of course' that title involves these duties!"
He paused to appreciate the soft chuckles that passed through the room, then sobered. "But he is concerned about how the ordinary police will react to him after his news conference. Of course, he didn't know about our little whispering campaign; with the sentinel secret not so secret anymore, I don't think anyone will hold that 'fraud' declaration nonsense against him. But I think he's right to be worried, and people could be mouthing off when I'm not around. Have any of you heard anything that would make it tough for Sandburg to come back?"
There were pensive looks as each person thought about the question, followed by relieved headshakes as no alarming memories surfaced. It seemed that Blair would be home free, until Henri spoke up.
"Yeah, I heard a couple'a dudes talkin' about a month ago. You had led us to the evidence that let us catch Rawlins, Jim. They were sayin' as how calling you a sentinel was a crock, that any decent detective could do what you do, and it was a good thing that Sandburg was gone so he wouldn't be stirrin' things up anymore with all his 'crazy stories'." He glanced at the now-grave faces around the table and shrugged. "I dunno how many people feel like that, but I guess some still do."
"Then we have to stop it!" Megan's reply was fierce and unequivocal. "We need Sandy back here; we can't let a few bloody drongos put up a roadblock!" She looked wistful for a moment. "D'ya suppose we can corner them in a dark alley and beat some sense into them?"
Joel, always a peacemaker, demurred. "Blair wouldn't want us to hurt anyone, and if we did, it would just make them more set against him. And if it's just a handful, it won't matter. There wouldn't be much that a few could do with the whole precinct as a buffer."
"But we don't know that it's just a handful," Rhonda objected. "I think Megan's right. If we don't find out how far this attitude reaches, and do something about it, Blair could be miserable trying to work here."
Rafe shook his head. "We've already let the 'secret' of the sentinel out. If they don't believe it, what else can we do?"
Rafe's question led to a storm of suggestions, points, counter-points, and more suggestions. Gradually, the ridiculous was discarded, and a workable plan emerged. As the room became calm again, Simon summarized their strategy.
"All right. We 'casually' mention to everyone we meet that Sandburg's planning to come back. We act neutral about it until we notice the reaction, good or bad. We make note of those who have negative reactions. Within a few days, Jim will 'accidentally' do something very 'Sentinel' where the naysayer can observe him. A day or two after that, one of the rest of us will just 'casually' comment on Jim's abilities, but complain about how much easier it would be for him, or how much more extensive they would be, if only Sandburg were here. Anything else to make this more effective?" He glanced around the table.
"Yes, sir." Rhonda remained calm as all eyes turned toward her. "You're all focusing on Blair as a... a... 'crutch' for the Sentinel," her eyes sent apologies to Jim for the term, "...and forgetting that he's worthy in his own right to be a member of this department. He's proved it time and again, and I think it's unfair of us to ignore that!" She flushed a little – as a 'mere' secretary, she didn't normally speak out at a detectives' meeting – but was gratified to notice supporting nods from everyone present.
"Good point, Rhonda; thank you," Simon concurred. "So, an addendum. While we're just 'happening' to mention how useful Sandburg's presence is to help Jim, we'll also just 'happen' to mention how many times he's helped all of us in the past, and what a great addition he'll be as a permanent member of the department. So, anything more before we move on to Sandburg's official position?"
Jim had remained silent through most of the discussion, awed at how much these people were willing to do to bring Sandburg back among them. He had to swallow a lump in his throat before he spoke up. "Yes, Simon... all of you," he affirmed, glancing a 'thank you' at each of his fellows. "I just want to say how much I appreciate this, and I'll make sure that Sandburg knows how much you all want him back. It'll mean a lot to him."
"Just a bit of self-interest, Jimbo." Megan grinned cheekily at him, knowing how he disliked the nickname. "You're not the bear you were when Sandy first left, but you're still not a pussycat to work with. It'll be a relief to let the master take over." She cocked an eyebrow, wondering how Ellison would take the insinuation that he wasn't at his best without a particular person at his side. To her surprise, he didn't object, but simply nodded.
"I know, and I also appreciate how you've all helped me get through this time. I know I don't say it often enough –" he grinned wryly, "– or ever... but, thank you. You're all a great team to work with." He pulled a face in Megan's direction. "But frankly, I'll be relieved when 'the Master' takes over, too!" He let the comfortable laughter swirl around him as he settled back into his seat.
As the amusement faded, Simon brought up the next point. "Okay, now we have to actually get Sandburg into the department. I've been talking with the Chief and the Commissioner. It seems that a few major cities have instituted official certification programs for their civilian personnel who sometimes need to go into the field. Sort of 'Academy-lite' – physical fitness, weapons training, basic field procedure. Those who complete the course aren't expected to be in the front lines, but the idea is that, if something happens while they're with other cops, they won't be in the way through sheer ignorance, and may even be able to provide simple backup or assistance. The civilian trainees attend basic Academy classes with the police trainees; they just get to opt out of the really in-depth stuff. The plan is that the civilians will understand our job better, and be able to provide more effective support, and the cops won't resent the civvies as 'know-nothing desk-jockeys'."
Simon paused to let his people absorb the new idea. Although the higher-ups had been considering the logistics for several months, the rank-and-file of the PD had not been told of the projected innovations. Privately, he wondered just how much of the upper echelons' willingness to consider the idea was a side-effect of Sandburg's time spent as an unofficial adjunct to Major Crime. The kid's readiness to jump in wherever needed, his enthusiasm for supporting the Police Department in general, and Major Crime in particular, and his seemingly offbeat ideas that had sometimes provided fresh insight to help the detectives solve various crimes, had often been the subject of break-room gossip in various departments. It would be ridiculous to think that the scuttlebutt hadn't reached higher levels, but if they were hoping for a class full of Sandburgs in their training program, they would be disappointed. However, right now, one was all that mattered.
"Naturally, what's good enough for other cities has to be implemented in Cascade." Simon raised an eyebrow as he heard several soft snorts from around the table. "Tentative plans are to schedule the first class in January, when the new crop of cadets starts training. There are already half a dozen current or potential employees who have expressed an interest in such a program; Sandburg should fit right in. So, what d'ya think, Jim; would Sandburg be interested, and could he be here by then?"
"I think 'yes' to both counts, Captain. Sandburg already indicated that he's willing to consider the Academy, and he said he could leave as soon as his boss finds a replacement. January's almost four months away; he ought be able to get away by then."
"Maybe even a few weeks earlier than that," Megan interjected eagerly. "It'd be great to have Sandy home in time for Christmas!" Murmurs of agreement confirmed her words.
"Good! Anything else?" Simon looked around the table, noting the various head-shakes and shrugs. "Okay. Jim, you let Sandburg know what we're planning, and get some input as to what direction he really wants to go. The rest of us will start our 'Sandburg's coming back' campaign. If we note any problems, or anyone has other ideas, we'll have another planning session or three – whatever it takes to get the kid back. Any questions or comments?"
"Yes," Joel offered. "Jim, you be sure to tell Blair how much we've missed him, and how much we're looking forward to having him with us again."
Before Jim could assure Joel of his compliance, Megan ordered, "Hell, Jim, just give us his address! Whoever wants to write Sandy can do it themselves, and a personal note will mean a lot more than a passed-on message."
Of course; why hadn't he thought of that? Everyone readied their notepads as Jim pulled out Blair's letter and read the return address to them.
When the notepads were closed and slipped into pockets or purses, the meeting was obviously 'finished'. Simon watched as a lull settled over the group; it seemed that no one had anything else pertinent to discuss but, equally, no one wanted to leave. Perhaps they needed to stay together a little longer, to reinforce the belief that Sandburg was really coming 'home'; it was amazing how much the kid had been missed. He cleared his throat.
"All right, people, no sense sitting around here all night. Why don't we meet at Murphy's for dinner and drinks together? We can grill Jim about Sandburg's letter – I'm sure he said more than 'I want to come back'..." he fixed his detective with a gimlet eye, "...and then we can start planning the kid's 'welcome home' party."
The lull dissipated immediately as Simon's suggestion was whole-heartedly approved. They moved en masse to the elevators and parking garage, already making bets as to who would beat who at darts, and who would take who at pool. Murphy's Irish Pub was a favorite spot to kick back and relax with good friends and good food – just the ticket to let them 'level off' from the charged emotions that they had been dealing with. With calls of, "Meet you there," and "See you in a few," doors slammed shut, engines rumbled to life, and the cars proceeded sedately into the evening's slanting sunlight.
Morning brought clear skies of what promised to be another hot, late-summer day. Blair had forgotten, last night, that the day's activities included a miniature 'trail drive' to move about two hundred head of cattle from one pasture to another, about four miles distant. He shrugged mentally as he kept an eye on the guests who intended to participate. Most of them were fairly confident in brushing and saddling the horses that had been assigned to them, but the ranch hands unobtrusively monitored the situation, making sure that saddle blankets had wrinkles smoothed out, that saddles were placed correctly, and that cinches were adequately tightened. In truth, it would probably have been easier – certainly quicker – to simply have the horses already saddled for the guests. But looking at the happy faces of the men and women who believed they were being 'real cowboys', Blair couldn't begrudge them this simple pleasure. Besides – they had paid for the privilege.
It wasn't as if he planned to pack up and leave immediately; he could wait till this evening to tell Clem that he'd be moving on as soon as another hand could be hired.
Blair watched as Miguel and Pete finished loading their supplies into the chuck wagon and headed out the main gate. The cook and his helper would drive directly to the second pasture and start their preparations. By the time the herd could be driven to the new grazing area, a 'real cowboy lunch' would be waiting for the guests. He knew, from previous excursions, that Miguel and Pete enjoyed playing to the crowd. The guests would be enthralled by the sight of the large black pot hanging over the open fire, with the cast-iron Dutch oven and the blue enamel-ware coffee pot nestled among the flames. The chuck wagon with its billowing canvas top would be optimally placed – enhanced by a backdrop of pines – to be included in the inevitable pictures.
The horses were finally ready. Clem called for attention, and reminded the guests to do one last check. Water, cameras, sunscreen, light jacket – at this elevation, it could be cool under the trees, even though it would be hot later, especially in the open grassy areas. Satisfied, Clem called, "Okay, folks, mount up!" and swung into the saddle with the ease and grace of forty years' experience. Many of the guests were able to do so with fair competence, but Blair bit back a grin as he watched the inevitable show-offs cockily try to emulate Clem's nonchalant poise, and succeed only in highlighting their lack of experience. Big John stepped forward to give one 'vertically-challenged' woman a boost into the saddle, while Blair gave similar assistance to the eager ten-year-old girl who was also part of the group. The ranch hands, satisfied that everything was under control, mounted their horses as well, and the cavalcade rode out, heading for what would be a long, tiring – but ultimately, very satisfying – day.
With a feeling of déjà vu, Blair knocked briefly on the doorframe as he entered the large, casually-furnished room. Though Clem had joined the hands and guests on the trail ride, he was once again immersed in paperwork. Blair flashed on an image of Simon Banks, also chained to a desk more often than he wanted to be. It occurred to him that, whatever the job was, the higher someone rose in importance, the more time was spent in paperwork instead of doing the specific work that was usually the foundation of self-satisfaction. Maybe he should reconsider getting that PhD after all...
"Something I can do for you, Curly?" The big man leaned back in his leather chair, ready, as always, to give his full attention to one of his men and whatever was brought to his notice. He waved Blair to the easy chair in front of the desk, and moved the plate of chocolate-chip cookies a few inches closer in silent invitation.
Blair accepted one and bit into the soft, chewy morsel as he considered how to start. It was always a bit awkward to tell a boss that he had decided to move on and, in the close-knit society of the ranch, it seemed almost a rejection of the man himself. As he swallowed the last bite, he decided simply to jump right in. Clem had surely seen hands come and go for many years; this shouldn't be anything unusual.
"Yeah, Clem... I came to tell you that I've decided to go back home, and wanted to give you time to hire another hand before I leave. There's no big rush – I can hang around for another month or two, or even three – but... well... just wanted to give you a heads-up so you wouldn't be caught short-handed when I take off." He grinned slightly. "Uh, no pun intended."
Clem returned his smile, but then sobered and regarded him steadily. "This is about that letter you got yesterday, right?" He barely waited for Blair's nod before he continued, "Because if you got somethin' troublin' you, Curly, I can help. If you need an advance on your wages, or maybe a good word in someone's ear –"
Blair shook his head vigorously. "No, man, no; everything's copasetic!" He recalled that he was talking to his boss, however informal the man was. "I mean, I appreciate it, Clem, but there are no problems. It's just time for me to go back."
"Curly – Blair – I know you've been hidin' out from someone or something." His gaze was piercing; if Blair had really been in trouble, he would have owned up immediately. "I didn't question it; around here, we judge a man by what we see, and not by what might be in his past. When we look at you, we see a good man. Like I said yesterday, you don't have to face whatever-it-is alone."
"Thanks, Clem; that kind of support means a lot to me, but honest, there's no trouble. In fact..." A bright smile crossed his face as it hit him again – I'm going home! "– my friend told me that everything's been cleared up. There was some trouble before – a major misunderstanding, not really anything anybody did wrong – and I left so that the repercussions wouldn't affect my friends. But now the misunderstandings have been explained, the fuss has died down so there won't be – shouldn't be, anyway – any unfortunate consequences, and I have a job waiting for me, working with people I care about." He drew himself up short, aghast at the implication he'd just made, then hurried to explain. "Not that I don't consider you all friends – it's been really great working here, I've really appreciated the companionship and the – psychic comfort – that you've all offered, but..." He stumbled to a halt with an embarrassed shrug, unable to untangle himself from the disarray of his own thoughts and words.
Clem waved off the need for apology with a careless hand. "I know what you mean, Curly; don't sweat it. It's a lucky man who finds a place where he truly fits. You've done well here, and I think you've enjoyed sharing our life, but we all knew that it wasn't really where you belong. I just hope, this time, you can stay in the place you want to be. You'll be working with your cop friend, right?"
"Yeah, Jim Ellison," Blair agreed, somewhat surprised that Clem would remember a passing reference made months ago. It was part of what made the man such a good boss. "There's a few things to be worked out – I don't know if I'll be a cop, too, or a civilian adjunct – but we're a good team; we can handle it. I'm just excited to have the opportunity; I thought that door was closed to me."
His boss nodded. "You know, ranch work is flexible; one man more or less won't make that much difference. I appreciate you offering to wait till I find another hand, but if you want to leave sooner than that, it won't be a problem."
"Thanks, Clem; that's good of you. But there are still a few things to get straight, so it'll take a little time. And I want to visit Standing Bear another time or two; he's been..." Blair hesitated; how much did he want to reveal? But, somehow, he wanted to assure Clem that he would stay longer because of preference, rather than unlooked-for obligation. "Well, he's been teaching me a lot, and he's sort of been acting as my... um, spiritual advisor. I want to be sure my head's on straight so I don't make the same mistakes again."
"Standing Bear's a good man," Clem agreed. "I'm glad he's able to help you." He pulled his ledger closer and lifted his pen, a signal that the discussion was finished. "All right, Curly. Like I said, I appreciate the advance notice. I'll start advertisin', but if you need to leave before someone answers, don't trouble yourself. I'll be ready to cut your final paycheck whenever you need it."
Blair stood, understanding that the man had work to finish. "Thanks, Clem. I'll let you know when I have a definite date." He let himself out into the lengthening evening shadows.
To: jjellison @ cascadepd.com
From: blairsandy @ zianet.com
Sent: Wednesday, September 6, 2000 9:48 PM
Subject: Confirming contact
It occurred to me that I forgot to give you my new e-mail addy. This way, we can 'talk' about stuff back and forth quicker than waiting for the mail. Also, the phone number here is 505-555-9278, if you need to do some real-time talking. The phone's in the 'living room' of the bunkhouse – separate lines from the main house and office – so the best chance of me being nearby will be after supper. Say, 7 to 10, local.
Got your letter yesterday, and I gotta say, man – I'm overwhelmed. 'Thank you' just doesn't cover it. I'm – amazed – that you would go to so much effort, in so many different ways. I never expected it, but I'm incredibly grateful. So, thank you, my brother. I look forward to coming home.
Speaking of which – can't wait to see the improvements to my room! You know I would've gotten my own apartment if you wanted me out from underfoot, don't you? (And I still will, if you ever decide that me being around all the time is too claustrophobic.) Or that I'd've been happy to spend the next – oh, fifty years or so – in my 'cozy little cubby'? <g> It's not like I can't share the rest of the loft with you. But since you've gone to so much trouble, I can assume that you really want me there, and I certainly won't look a gift horse in the mouth. Thank you, again. (Hmm... I think I'll be saying that a lot, in this mail, and for a while after I get home.)
Spoke to Clem earlier this evening, let him know I'll be leaving before too long. He actually said that I don't need to wait for him to find a replacement hand, but...
Well, now that I'll be heading home, this has become an 'interlude' instead of a 'road', and I'm seeing it with slightly different eyes. Not that I wasn't enjoying the place before, but the mental shift has turned it into a 'vacation'. So I think I'll revel in the 'naturalness' for a little longer, talk to Standing Bear a few more times to learn as much as he can tell me about the warriors with enhanced senses and the ways their companions helped them cope...
I think I'm also looking for – well, call it 'psychic closure' of this wandering part of my life. I want to see it come to a 'natural' end, before I step into my 'new' life. The changing of the season, as the year winds down to a close, will be a very significant, and relevant, marker.
Yeah, I know, major cliché, but still – psychic satisfaction all over the place. Close one chapter, open the next, smooth transition from one life to another...
So, I think I'll plan to head back to Cascade around the end of October. I have enough money saved for a plane ticket (sold the Volvo that first summer), and to tide me over until I start drawing a paycheck.
Um... I'm not assuming too much, am I? I mean, I know your letter to me wasn't a direct response to the one I sent you, but... Well, you wouldn't have sent it if you didn't still mean it, right? You did say that I have a place with the PD – that still holds, right? And there won't be any flak about my 'fraud' declaration?
'Cause, right now, I'm almost afraid that it all falls under the heading of 'too good to be true'. I trust you, Jim, I really do. But... well, if you do change your mind, you'll let me know, right? I don't want a repeat of us spiraling into a pattern of dysfunctional disassociation again; much easier to make a clean break.
Not that I'm expecting that, or anything... just – keep it in mind.
Well, you know what? A ranch hand has to get up even earlier than a grad student. So I'm gonna shut down and hit the sack. I'll be waiting to hear from you, and we can get the plans all worked out.
Thanks, Jim. Really, really, thanks.
PS – Tell everyone in MC 'hi' for me, and I'll be back soon.
Jim Ellison sat down at his desk and booted up his computer. With the tip he'd gotten from his snitch last night, and a little bit of creative cross-referencing, he just might be able to crack this case...
Within a half-hour, he found the connections he needed; they should be able to put away that lowlife for a long time. He printed out the information to pass to Simon, to see if they could obtain a search warrant. Almost as an afterthought, he started his e-mail downloading while he headed toward the captain's office.
"Come!" Banks called at the perfunctory knock at the door. He eyed the sheaf of papers in his detective's hand. "What've you got, Jim?"
"I think we've got enough to nail the bastard, sir. Take a look; you think this'll get us a warrant?"
His captain read the documents carefully, and grunted in satisfaction. "Good work, Jim." A quick phone call brought the results they both wanted. "It'll be delivered in about thirty minutes. Set it up with Brown and Rafe, and plan to take a couple of uniforms with you. We don't want any slip-ups on this."
"Okay, Simon; we'll keep you informed." He nodded acknowledgement, then strode to Brown's and Rafe's desks to fill them in.
With their plans finalized, Jim had just enough time to check his e-mail. He sat down at his desk, and nudged the mouse to 'blip' the screen saver. Hmm... Junk mail – delete. Junk mail – delete. Advertisement – big sale at Home Depot. Good; he'd make a point to drop by, in a day or two – delete. Confirming contact – my God, it was from Sandburg!
Quickly, he scanned the message, relieved that Blair had received his letter and was still planning a return to Cascade. But – Jim frowned, feeling a faint unease at the tone – something wasn't quite right. He glanced at the clock. Damn! He didn't have time to think about this now. With a few keystrokes and a click, he forwarded the letter to his home computer.
Glancing once more at the screen, he scribbled Blair's new e-mail address on a Post-It Note, then shut down the computer. Rising, he pierced the air with a shrill whistle, then waved the slip of paper in his hand when he had their attention. "Got an e-mail from Sandburg," Jim announced, loudly enough for everyone to hear. "He says 'hi' to everybody, and he'll be coming home at the end of October. Here's his addy, if anyone wants to write back."
Just then, he spotted Officers Sanchez and Jorgensen walking in, Sanchez holding what must be the warrant in his hand. "Sorry, folks; this seems to be our cue to go and grab Blanchard. I'll leave it here on my desk. Brown, Rafe – let's go."
The detectives joined the officers at the door, and the group swept out, united in their purpose to get one more sleazeball off the streets of Cascade, and make their city just a little safer for the citizens they were sworn to protect.
To: blairsandy @ zianet.com
From: mfconnor @ cascadepd.com
Sent: Thursday, September 7, 2000, 7:22 PM
Subject: So glad
I'm so glad to hear that you're coming back to the department. We all are – we really miss you around here. If nothing else, just to stand between Jim and the rest of the world. You made it look so easy.
Jim gave us your addresses, in case we wanted to e-mail or write to you. And I don't suppose 'close-mouthed' Ellison will tell you the good oil, so I'll fill you in.
When Simon offered you that badge, Sandy, it wasn't guilt on our parts – leastways, not completely. Being inside your own head, you can't know how much you really contributed to the team. I know sometimes the guys gave you a gobful and teased about 'putting up with' your 'weird ideas', but when we look back, we can see how often your ideas really helped.
So, in case you're wondering, it's not just Jim that wants you back. It's all of us. I'm sorry we left you in the lurch; it was no way to treat a mate.
And no worries about the rest of the PD. We all (I mean, us in MC) discussed it, and we have a plan to suss out the nonbelievers and make sure they recognise the truth. There aren't many skeptics left – Jim's let his abilities become an open secret since you've been gone, and people understand why you gave that press conference – and I can tell you Sandy, anyone who doesn't give you a fair go will be itching for a blue.
Jim told us today that you're not planning to come back until the end of October. I won't be a sticky-beak – I'm sure you have your reasons – but I want you to know that there's no hang-up on this end. Two months or two days – you'll get such a welcome when you show up.
I guess that's all. I just wanted to give you a push, if you needed it, to come back to us. I promise you, the only changes will be for the better.
Jim closed his door behind him, tossing his keys in the basket and hanging his coat on its customary hook. The arrest had gone down without a hitch, and the evidence discovered in the search should ensure a conviction. But underneath his sense of satisfaction was the niggling disquiet that he'd pushed aside all day. Why did Sandburg want to wait before coming back to Cascade?
He hurried upstairs to boot up his computer and print out a hard copy of Sandburg's e-mail. He'd be able to think better while looking over a piece of paper; somehow, a computer screen was too impersonal.
Jim read the letter again, frowning in concentration, and then again, with uneasiness continuing to grow. Something wasn't right with his guide. Blair said he 'looked forward to coming home' – but he planned to wait another two months?! He needed 'psychic closure' before 'starting a new life'? What 'new'? – He'd be stepping right back into the place he'd made for himself in Major Crime. Was this an indication that the idea still bothered him?
And what was that crack about a 'cozy little cubby'? Was he hinting that he really wanted his own apartment? Not that Jim would mind – exactly – but Sandburg needed to be up-front about this.
Jim sighed, and tried to rub away the ache behind his eyes. It was seven-thirty, eight-thirty where Blair was. Surely he'd be in the bunkhouse by now. Jim really needed to hear his friend's voice. And with a phone call, he'd be able to tell if Sandburg was feeling stressed.
He went to the kitchen for a beer, then settled on the couch, shoes off and feet on the coffee table. To hell with the rules; he wanted to be comfortable while he kept Sandburg talking as long as possible.
Jim listened to the phone ringing at the other end of the line. Finally, "C-Bar Ranch; you've reached the bunkhouse."
"This is Jim Ellison, calling from Cascade, Washington. May I speak to Blair Sandburg, please?"
"We ain't got no Blair San- Oh, you mean Curly! Yeah, hang on a sec." The speaker apparently covered the mouthpiece with his hand, but Jim clearly heard the shout. "Curly! You got a phone call. Some guy in Washington!" The speaker uncovered the mouthpiece and continued in a more normal volume to inform him, "Hold on; he's comin'."
"Jim?" Blair spoke with mingled hope and surprise. "Is that you?"
He closed his eyes and drank in the sound of his guide's voice. Muscles that he hadn't realized were tense, relaxed, and the headache started to ease. "Yeah, Chief; it's me. How're you doing?"
"I'm good. Is something wrong? Trouble with..." In the pause, he assumed Sandburg was checking the room to be sure he couldn't be overheard, before he continued in a quieter voice, "...your senses?"
"Sandburg, why does something have to be wrong? I just wanted to touch base, without waiting for e-mails to go back and forth." Damn! He could almost feel Blair withdraw at the thread of irritation in his voice. Was his promise to 'listen' to his friend out the window so soon? He sighed; try again.
"Sorry, Chief, I didn't mean it that way. I've just been worried about you, ya' know? Let me start over. – No, Chief, nothing's wrong. I just wanted to chat a little, hear your voice, make some plans, you know?"
"Oh. Okay. Well, hey, it's good to hear your voice, too. And you know me – I can talk till the cows come home. Which actually has meaning around here – the milk cows come in twice a day to line up and wait their turn at the milking machines. So, the cows coming home is usually within twelve hours, at the most."
Jim relaxed, and simply enjoyed the sound of Blair burbling with enthusiasm. He made a silent vow never again to complain when the kid spouted off. He just hoped he'd be able to keep it.
"So, how is everybody in Major Crime? Nobody hurt? Catching a lot of bad guys?"
"Yeah, we're all good, Chief. The whole unit got a special commendation for cleaning up a major drug ring about six months ago; we've been able to keep busting the little guys who're trying to make it big, so the drug trade still isn't back up to that level. Joel and Megan got an award for 'Partners of the Year' at the annual banquet; they make a good team. Otherwise, same ol', same ol', ya' know?"
He heard a sigh of relief from his friend, and a deeper, softer voice as Sandburg seemed to relax, as well. "That's good to hear, man. I mean, I know you're all good at what you do, but it's a dangerous profession. Sometimes I can't help but worry, and wish I was there. Not that me being there would make that much difference – it's not like I can wave a magic wand to keep you all safe – but I just feel better knowing. You know how it is."
"Yeah, Sandburg, I know how it is. So it's got me kind of wondering..." Keep it light, he reminded himself, he's your friend, not a perp, "... well, kind of wondering why you want to wait two more months before coming home." He heard a sharp, indrawn breath and gentled his tones even more. "We all miss you, Chief. We've got plans in place for you to have a permanent position, and we're making sure that there'll be no 'fraud' or 'liar' innuendoes flying around. So, why do you have to wait? What's wrong? Whatever it is, I want to help. Just explain it to me, buddy," he coaxed.
"Well, you know... like I told you in the e-mail... psychic harmony and all that. I just wanna talk to Standing Bear a few more times, and the chance to feel like I'm on vacation, and I gotta bring things to a natural finish here, and –"
"Sandburg!" he interrupted, sharply. "Chief, relax! Slow down and breathe." Jim listened as Blair followed his instructions with a shaky, indrawn breath and forceful exhalation. "Good; that's good, Chief, keep it up. Now let's try this again. You're not Naomi, and I don't buy the psychic mumbo-jumbo stuff. What's really going on?"
Shit; he'd put his foot in his mouth again, and given Sandburg another angle for diversion.
"Jim, I can't believe you, man! We both have spirit animals, you talk to ghosts, Incacha passed the Way of the Shaman to me... It's all valid and I need to learn as much as I can, and Standing Bear is a very wise man; there's no telling what he might teach me that could come in useful later. Just because you prefer to hide your head in the sand doesn't negate the reality of our experiences and the experiences of other cultures. In fact, we can –"
"Chief. No." The interruption was gentler this time, but somehow the soft but firm tone halted the rush of words. "Sandburg..." Damn, he wished he could see his Guide's face, and let Blair see the conviction he felt. "Look, I'm not denigrating your feelings, and I'm sure those are all valid reasons. But I just get the idea that you're only giving me part of the story."
Silence; a waiting stillness on the other end of the line, punctuated by Sandburg's thundering heartbeat. Jim wondered if he should be pushing like this, but somehow, it seemed too important to let go. Their future as partners, as Sentinel and Guide, might be at stake.
"Blair," he reminded him quietly, "your letter said you'd be honest with me, and you wouldn't pull any punches. And I promised to tell you everything I was thinking and feeling. We can handle this, buddy, whatever it is."
The voice was hesitant. "It's not your problem, Jim; just something I gotta work out for myself. I sorta figure Standing Bear will help me get it fixed up. It's nothing for you to be concerned with, honest."
"I don't believe that, Chief, and I don't think you do, either. Partners need to work these things out together."
"You won't like it."
"Maybe not," he agreed, "but if it affects you, it affects me. Lay it on me, buddy."
A deep sigh signaled capitulation; Blair's heartbeat was slowing down as he apparently reached a decision. "It's... the way the whole PD knows about your senses, now."
Jim tried not to tense up; he couldn't get defensive, or Blair would clam up again. Damn; maybe he should have waited for a face-to-face talk, but it was too late to back out now.
"What about it? I thought you'd be pleased that I quit being so 'anal' about keeping them a secret. Like I told you, things go a lot easier now, not having to worry about hiding them."
The dam burst. "Exactly! Do you know how pissed that makes me?! How much shit we could have avoided if you'd got your head out of the sand earlier? I swear to God, Jim Ellison, you can be such an asshole sometimes!" He heard Blair's heartrate increasing again; his agitation made his breathing ragged.
Dear God. Jim closed his eyes in pain, feeling the impact like a physical blow. He had thought this was all behind them. Sandburg had said that he wanted to be the Sentinel's Guide, to be his partner. But how could Blair be his partner if he felt this way? How could he still feel this way? He had said that he didn't blame Jim. What had changed?
Jim frantically searched his mind for a solution. He could no longer hide that he was a Sentinel; the entire PD was part of the 'secret'. Maybe they could go somewhere else, work together, keep the sentinel secret. But he hadn't been very good at hiding his abilities before; it wasn't likely to be any easier in a different city. What the hell could he offer in reparation?
"Chief... I'm sorry... I didn't know... But I thought... I'm sorry," he offered, miserably.
"Sorry? What for? You didn't do anything wrong!" Sandburg's voice went from anger, through befuddlement, to outrage; Jim couldn't keep up with the changes.
"I don't know," he confessed. "But if you don't think I did anything wrong, why are you so angry?"
"Aw, Jim, I'm not sure, either." Sandburg now sounded just as dejected as Jim felt. "When I read your letter, I was so happy that you had stopped hiding and could use your senses openly. But then I thought of all the – practically sneaking around – we did, and all the obfuscations, and the whole diss mess, and I just got angry. I didn't even know it was there until it hit me. I guess I'm not so bad at repression myself, huh?" The laugh was tentative, shaky, but enough to give Jim hope.
"So, what do we do, Chief? Do you want..." Jim swallowed convulsively, but he had to make the offer, and stick by it. He couldn't hold Sandburg to him if his guide would be miserable. "Do you want to just walk away, forget the partnership?" He steeled himself for the answer.
The swiftness of the response reassured him. "What! No, man, nothing like that!" Sandburg sounded shocked at the suggestion. "No way do I want to walk out on you! But I realized that I gotta work through these feelings, and I figured it would be better here, before I jump back into the middle of things in Cascade." His voice was earnest now, trying to make Jim understand. "I just need to meditate and get my head on straight, you know? I'll probably go visit Standing Bear – you remember the Apache shaman I wrote about? He's a very wise man – well, yeah, he should be, since he's a shaman, right? Anyway, if I can't deal with the anger issues by myself, he'll knock some sense into me. I'll get rid of this, Jim, I promise."
"Chief, are you sure? I mean..." He floundered, not sure what he meant. "How can you just 'get rid of it'? What happens if it... I don't know... jumps out again later?"
"No, Jim, it's not like that. Stuff that's repressed, or hidden, can come back to haunt us. That's what's bothering me now – I'd stuffed the anger down where I wasn't even aware of it. But now that I am, I'm not planning on stuffing it back into hiding... more like pulling its fangs and throwing it overboard. It can't jump out again later 'cause it won't be there. And I need to get rid of it – there's no reason for it, but the human psyche tends to hang onto old things like that, sorta like picking at a scab, you know? So sometimes ya' gotta, like, trick the subconscious into letting go, 'cause it pretty much ignores the conscious mind. That's why meditation, and ceremonies like the purification rituals of the various Indian tribes work so well – they convince the subconscious that something meaningful has happened."
Jim still felt uneasy. If Sandburg made significant changes in his inner self, would the new him still want to come back to Cascade? "But..." He hesitated, completely unable to express himself. "Chief, can't you do that here? I mean... maybe I could help... or even join in," he concluded, feeling a glow of inspiration. Maybe that would bring his guide home sooner.
"Aw, Jim." Sandburg's voice softened, slowing from its headlong rush of a moment before. "I really appreciate the thought, man, but I honestly feel that it needs to be done here – or at least, before I head back to Cascade. And here, I feel such a spiritual connection to the universe – and if the universe has guided me to a fully-fledged, experienced shaman to help, I'd be a fool to walk away from that, you know? This is just too important to leave to my haphazard guesswork; I want all the help I can get." His voice begged his sentinel to understand.
Jim sighed. It seemed unnecessarily convoluted to him, but if Sandburg felt it was important, he wouldn't interfere. His guide had promised to come home; he'd just have to hold on to that. "Yeah, Chief, I understand. You do what you have to do; I'm not going anywhere in the meantime."
Blair snorted softly. The smile was evident in his voice as he said, "Nah, I suspect you're just humoring me, Jim. But it means a lot to have your support in this. And don't worry..." he seemed to be reading his friend's mind, "... this won't change my plans. I will be coming back. Remember what I said – the Sentinel and Guide belong together, and Blair Sandburg wants to be a partner to Jim Ellison. Nothing will change that, big guy, absolutely nothing."
"I'm glad, Chief. It'll be good to have you home." Enough of the mushy stuff; his voice became brisk as he teased, "So, what's on the agenda for tomorrow, cowboy? Ridin', ropin' and brandin'?"
"Actually, would you believe – hang-gliding?" He chuckled as he waited for Jim to take the bait.
"The way you feel about heights? No, Sandburg, I wouldn't believe it. Try pulling the other one."
"Well, I won't be flying. But we have several avid hang-gliders with us right now, and they're going to take off from Calaveras Cliffs tomorrow – I think whoever named them must've read Mark Twain. Anyway, it takes a four-wheel drive to get up there, so I'll drive them and their gear to the top, help 'em launch, and then come back down."
"So tell me, do they seem crazy to you, or are they being forced to do this by some sort of evil machinations?" The army had taught him to parachute, but it was for 'need to' situations; why step out of a perfectly good plane or off solid ground for no good reason?
Blair laughed, a light-hearted sound that Jim had sorely missed. "Oddly enough, I can see the attraction. This must be a good spot, or something, 'cause several groups of hang-gliders have come to stay, so this isn't my first time helping out. They have their own little mini-competitions, like who can stay up longest and who can fly farthest. Of course, when I help 'em launch, I don't get too close to the edge! It boggles the mind – that first step is a doozy – but then when I look up at them soaring in that limitless blue sky, I think that's what an eagle must feel like – absolutely free and unfettered. I can really understand why the ancient peoples were so entranced by the idea of flying. It's a kind of magic, but the commonness of using airplanes has made us lose sight of that. Watching them, it almost makes me want to be up there, too."
Jim gripped the receiver tightly as he sputtered, "Sandburg! You better be joking!" The answering snort was a great relief.
"Get real, man! I said 'almost'. I plan to keep my feet firmly on the ground – at least until the next psycho killer starts shooting at us. Of course," he teased, if I tried it and broke both legs, I'd be no use to Clem, and I'd have to come home earlier. What d'ya' think?"
"I think I want you in one piece, however long it takes you to get home. So you keep those feet on the ground." Jim hesitated; were these little digs an indication of Blair's hidden feelings? "Sandburg... speaking of psycho killers... you know how dangerous my job is... that's not going to change. Are you sure about coming back?"
"See, I knew I shouldn't have told you! You're going to be worrying about this for the next fifty years, aren't you?" The light, good-humored tone suggested that the idea didn't trouble him. His voice became more serious as he continued, "Jim, I swear to you, I meant every word in my letter. I don't care how dangerous the job is – my place is by your side. It's just – I have to make a joke about it, to sort of keep it in perspective, you know?" The grin was back in Blair's voice, and Ellison relaxed again as he heard it. "And just think of all the stories I'll have to tell the grandkids!"
"Grandkids, Sandburg? Don't you have to find someone who'll have you first?"
"Yeah, yeah; spoken by a man who goes six months between dates! So, what else has been going on at the PD?"
The conversation moved into the less emotional areas of perps and personalities, arrests made and the vagaries of the job, which Blair countered with affectionate observations about life as a cowboy. Eventually, he was interrupted in mid-comment by an enormous yawn. "Oh, hey, sorry Jim. But it's gettin' late here; I really need to turn in."
"Got'cha, Chief. Sleep well. We'll talk another day."
As he hung up the phone, Jim contemplated the idea that had occurred to him midway through the conversation. If Blair was so sure that the Apache shaman could help him resolve his 'issues', maybe he should talk to the man, too. If nothing else, it might put them on an equal footing as they rebuilt their partnership. Jim pondered how he might get in touch with Standing Bear without Blair knowing...
To: blairsandy @ zianet.com
From: hsbrown @ cascadepd.com
Sent: Friday, September 8, 2000, 8:04 PM
Subject: Hey, Hairboy
Saved by the bell – Ellison told us you're letting your hair grow out again, and I can still call you that. Or you could wear your boots and Stetson hat around here, and I'll call you 'Cowboy'. You'd be the only one at the PD. Are you bow-legged yet? <g>
Seriously, I just wanted to tell you that I'm glad you're coming back. You were good for the unit, and you'll fit right back in again. And, just to let you know – I'll be standing at your back (and Ellison's, too) whenever you need.
So, come on, bro. I've been saving my best jokes just for you.
Jim crossed the bullpen and knocked on the captain's door, waiting for Simon's customary 'Come!' before he entered.
"'Mornin', Jim," he greeted. "You have anything new on the Danson case?" A lifted mug and inquiring look asked if Jim wanted a cup of coffee.
"Yeah, Simon, thanks." He sat at attention in the chair while he waited till the captain passed him the mug, then took a sip. "No, nothing new there yet. But what I came for is to see about taking some time off after we close this case."
"Well, you certainly have it coming. You planning to head up to another secret fishing hole? I'll promise not to follow you this time, if you'll promise to avoid nut-case conspiracies."
"Actually, it's Sandburg. I called him last night to ask why he wants to wait two months to come home."
"Ask him or grill him, detective?" Simon growled. "Haven't you pushed Sandburg hard enough in the past? If you keep it up, he might decide to tell us all to go to hell instead of coming back."
Jim shifted uneasily in his seat. "Simon, I've learned my lesson! There was no grilling involved."
"Uh-huh," the captain muttered, unconvinced.
"Well... only for a minute," he confessed. "Then I remembered. But... I think, maybe if I go to meet him, he'll be ready to come back sooner."
"I know you too well, Jim; what aren't you saying?"
Jim hesitated, but his captain's face remained implacable. "Simon, you know you don't like it when I talk about the sentinel stuff."
"Maybe not, but I'm thinking it's about time I learn to deal with it. It occurred to me, when we were all making plans for Sandburg to come back, that maybe he wouldn't've left if he'd had some kind of support in dealing with 'the sentinel stuff'." It was Simon's turn to shift uncomfortably in his seat as he faced an unpalatable truth. "No one else knew about it, and I sure as hell didn't help when I absolutely refused to discuss it, or even listen to his explanations. There he was, helping you deal with your senses, propping you up sometimes, holding your hand other times, trying to hide a secret that you kept letting out of the bag, and essentially working two fulltime jobs – all without anyone to lean on when the going got rough." He sighed gustily and seemed inordinately fascinated by the end of his cigar. "Looking back, I'm surprised he stuck it out as long as he did; I don't think any of the rest of us would've had that strength of purpose."
He fixed his detective with a measuring gaze. "A man needs the support of his superiors and coworkers if he's going to do the best job he's capable of. We know everyone in the department is behind him now, but that's not enough. I sure as hell better get with the program as well, and that means acknowledging – and accepting – his role in your life, and not hiding my head in the sand while he flounders alone."
"Simon, it wasn't like that!" Jim felt compelled to protest, although he was painfully aware that it had indeed been very much like that. "You didn't know... hell, none of us knew."
"Jim, it's my job to know things like that. If I can't see the stresses that are affecting my people, I have no business being their leader. Sandburg's leaving was a kick in the ass that I needed, and I've been kicking myself since then that it ever came to that. I've promised him, whether or not he knows it, that I won't let it happen again. So, to that end – what's going on, and why do you need to go see Sandburg? Because," his voice became stern, "if you're just going to bedevil him about coming back before he feels he's ready, I won't let you do it. So if you want the time off, you'll come clean and convince me it's for the right reasons."
Jim's shoulders slumped and he scrubbed his hands over his face as he considered his captain's words. Simon had a point, and maybe his own promise to Blair to be more open included opening up to other people and letting them help as well. If his captain really couldn't be comfortable with the... the... 'inner connection' between Sentinel and Guide, they could pretend this conversation never happened, and he and Sandburg would be no worse off than before. Jim straightened, and regarded Simon calmly.
"Yes, sir. It's like this. When I asked Sandburg why he wanted to wait, he danced around a little, then finally admitted that he's still 'pissed' at me and he hasn't been able to 'process' it. He figures it might sour our partnership, and he wants to talk to this Apache shaman he knows, to help him get over it. And I got to thinking, maybe I should talk to the shaman, too, just... I dunno... get the lay of the land, I guess."
"'Get the lay of the land'?" The captain snorted in disbelief. "Jim, this isn't a covert ops mission you're going into. What do you expect to accomplish?"
"Simon, I don't really know. I just..." His gaze turned inward as he pondered his answer. "Okay, you know I'm kinda pitiful at this 'communication' thing. Not being able to talk things out scuttled my marriage, and it really messed up the partnership between me and Sandburg. Now he's giving me a second chance – well, really, a fourth or fifth chance – and I can't afford to blow it. I'm pretty sure, if I do, I won't get another."
Simon nodded thoughtfully. "I think you're right, Jim, and since you've finally recognized that in yourself, I assume you're planning to deal with it. But why don't you just talk to the psychiatrist again, and wait till Sandburg comes home to talk to him? I've gotta admit, I'm a little concerned that if you're alone with the kid, you'll fall back into your old habits and start chewing on him. At least here, I or one of the others will be able to run interference if he needs it."
"I think there's more to it than that, Simon. There's a... a kind of... 'spiritual connection', I guess, between me and Sandburg. I told him he took part of my soul with him, and I feel this emptiness where our – 'connection' – was." He grinned briefly at his captain's incredulous look. "Yeah, I never thought I'd be saying anything like this, either." He became serious again as he continued, "But it's like you said, he supported me, and no one supported him. This – 'connection' – is telling me that if I want to keep my guide, I've gotta change that. I've gotta learn not to shut him out, and learn how to give him the support he needs."
He shrugged ruefully. "But you know Sandburg; he helps everyone else and never asks anything for himself. I figure he won't tell me what he needs, he'll just suck it up and figure he has to deal with it by himself. But Standing Bear – that's the Apache shaman – knows Blair, knows what another shaman needs, probably even knows what a guide needs; Sandburg said the man has been telling him tales of 'Guardians' and 'Companions'. So I'm hoping that this Standing Bear will be able to tell me what I need to do – and not do – to make sure I don't trash our partnership again. So... yeah, I really want some time off, drive to New Mexico, talk to the man. Maybe, if I'm lucky, Sandburg'll be ready to come back with me. If not..." he shrugged uneasily under his captain's measuring eye, "...I'll back off and wait for him to come home when he's ready; I won't push it."
Simon nodded soberly, admiring his friend's strength. He knew that Ellison would much rather face an armed perp – or worse, type up the report – than talk about such things. But he knew he hadn't heard all of it, yet. "Jim, I've had a lot of experience recognizing half-truths; I'm the father of a teenage son. What are you leaving out?"
Unable to sit still any longer, Ellison rose and paced to the window, staring down at the bustling street below. Finally he steeled himself; Simon had a right to know what might happen, both as his captain and as his friend. He turned back, and rested a hip on the windowsill as he crossed his arms. "Simon, one thing I learned from that psychiatrist is that people need to face what made them angry in order to deal with it. I figure Sandburg might need to face me – in person – to do his 'processing'. And I figure it'll be easier for him if we're on neutral ground, where neither one of us are weighed down by old expectations. And..." He swallowed heavily and turned again to stare blindly out the window as he admitted his deepest fear. "If... if it doesn't work... if Sandburg feels that he really can't come back... it'll be easier for him there, to stay where he already has friends, instead of coming back to Cascade and then having to make the break all over again."
The silence stretched painfully between them, until Simon tried to offer what comfort he could. "Jim, he made the first overture; he sent you the letter. He must be pretty damn sure that he does want to come back; why borrow trouble?" The only answer was a half-hearted shrug of one shoulder. Simon's throat thickened; this was serious.
"Then what, Jim? If it comes to that, what will you do?"
"I don't know." Ellison's voice was so soft that Simon barely heard him. But then he shook himself, straightened, and strode purposefully to sit and face his captain. "No, that's a lie. I do know. It's up to Sandburg, but if he'll have me... I'll stay where he is. I can do ranch work; imagine what success I'll have at locating stray cattle." He grinned crookedly. "And if he wants to go walkabout – he mentioned that in his letter – I'll go with him. Whatever he wants."
"'If he'll have you'? Jim, for god's sake, you're not talking about a marriage here! Sandburg wouldn't want you sacrificing yourself to make up for past wrongs!" Simon almost sputtered in his indignation.
"No, I'm not talking about a marriage," he replied, his voice eerily serene. "I'm talking about something much deeper. I've realized that Sentinel and Guide should never be separated, and I honestly don't want to be apart from Sandburg anymore. If he can come back here, that's fine, but if not, I'll turn in my resignation and find another job. Staying with Sandburg is absolutely the only thing that matters, and I won't let anything interfere with that."
Simon hardly recognized the Jim Ellison sitting in front of him. He reviewed what he'd heard, while Ellison sat calmly, awaiting his decision. "So, this is about the 'spiritual connection' you mentioned?" he ventured. A self-contained nod was the only answer. "And it's really important enough for you to change your whole life if you need to?" Another nod. He grunted in irritation and leaned back in his chair, turning over the situation once more.
"Okay. I said I'd give Sandburg the support he needs, and enabling you to support him falls under that heading. So, how much time do you need?"
Jim shrugged. "I don't know, Simon. A week, two weeks, a month? Like I said, whatever it takes. I'll have to get hold of this Standing Bear, see what he advises. But I won't come back till Sandburg is ready. Or – I won't come back."
"Do you really think it'll come to that?"
"No I don't. As you said, Sandburg made the first offer to return, so that means he really wants to. But if it doesn't work out... I just want you to be aware of that possibility."
"All right. Check with that Standing Bear character and let me know what's going on. Close out the Danson case, finish your open reports and turn them in, and I'll sign off for you to have three weeks' leave. After that, if necessary, we'll play it by ear."
"Thank you, Captain. I appreciate it; I'm sure Sandburg will, too."
Simon donned his customary mantel of gruffness. "Forget about it. Just go and get the goods on Danson so you can get out of here. The sooner you leave and bring Sandburg back, the sooner things will be back to what passes for normal around here."
As Ellison left his office, Simon Banks breathed a silent prayer that Sandburg would truly be back after he finished 'processing' with the Apache shaman. He was certain that Jim had meant what he said about following Blair into a new life, if necessary. He hoped it wouldn't come to that; the Captain didn't want to lose an excellent detective, and Simon didn't want to lose another friend.
Blair shut down his computer with a smile. The support from his friends was heart-warming. And, really, it shouldn't take two whole months to excise those remnants of anger. He had a day off on Wednesday; he'd ride out early and visit Standing Bear, stay all day.
He tapped the lid of the closed laptop as he pondered. Standing Bear recognized Blair as a fellow shaman, albeit an untutored novice. Should he explain that he was also a guide who needed to solidify his connection to his sentinel? It might make a difference, somehow, and he wanted to be completely truthful as he sought the other man's wisdom and advice. But it wasn't really his secret to tell...
Okay, he'd call Jim tomorrow and discuss it with him, first. No more secrets between Sentinel and Guide, ever. He'd promised, and he couldn't break faith with his best friend.
Blair hadn't given him the number of the main business phone, but there couldn't be more than one C-Bar Ranch in southwestern New Mexico. A few minutes with directory assistance had given him the number, and Jim listened to the ringing on the other end of the line. Would Blair's boss be in his office, or out somewhere with his hands?
"C-Bar Ranch, Clem Barstow speaking." The voice was gravelly, but the tones were calm and confident.
"Yes, sir, this is Jim Ellison of Cascade PD, in Washington State. I'm a friend of Blair Sandburg."
"Police? Curly said he wasn't in any trouble. What's this about, officer?" The warm tones had chilled considerably.
A small smile tugged at Ellison's lips; the man sounded as willing to defend Sandburg as any of his friends in Major Crime. "Nothing, sir. I mean, it's not police business; I'm simply calling as Blair's friend. I just need some information, and didn't know how else to get it."
"So why don't you ask Curly directly? I don't hold with goin' behind a man's back." Apparently, Jim's answer hadn't settled all of his suspicions.
"It's nothing that will harm him," he assured the other man. "But I'm planning a surprise for Blair, so I can't exactly ask him to help with it." He chuckled, inviting Clem to see the humor, but the only response was a waiting stillness. "I know he's been talking to the Indian shaman Standing Bear, and I'd like to talk to him too. But Blair didn't give me his last name, or the name of the town he lives in. I was hoping you could give me a number where I could reach him."
Clem apparently relaxed at that answer; Jim heard the slight creak of springs and the soft ~whoosh~ of leather as the man leaned back in this chair. His voice was warmer as he replied, "Well, now, I don't know as I can rightly say. I've never heard any other name than 'Standing Bear'. And he follows a lot of the old ways – lives in a teepee, so he hasn't got running water or electricity... or a phone." He paused in thought, and Jim waited patiently. "I guess your best bet would be to call the General Store there in the village. They could send someone to fetch him to the phone, or take a message for him to call you back. Let me get you that number." Jim heard pages being turned. "Here it is. The Tinde General Store, 505-555-7963. You can prob'ly catch someone there for another hour or so, likely Billy Blue Wolf; he's the proprietor."
"Thank you sir; I really appreciate the help, and I know Blair will, too, when the plan all comes together." Jim tried to make his voice as warm and sincere as he could; he had a feeling that Clem still wasn't completely convinced.
"I certainly hope so. We think a lot of Curly around here, and we won't hold with anyone causin' him trouble, policeman or not. You just keep that in mind."
Jim shook his head as he grinned to himself. It seemed that the eternal anthropologist had once again made a strong place for himself within the 'local subculture'. "You have my word on it, sir. And thank you again for your help." He hung up the phone, with an easing of the slight tension that he hadn't realized he was feeling. It seemed that Blair did indeed have good people around him; his guide should be safe until his sentinel could reach him.
Blair rode through the small village, waving to the children playing a game of baseball in an empty lot. Although many of the community lived in ordinary frame houses or mobile homes, a few of the tribal elders preferred to uphold the ancient traditions; several colorfully-painted teepees were interspersed among the buildings. Blair had found them to be surprisingly spacious inside, as well as quite comfortable – if one didn't mind the lack of chairs.
Standing Bear's teepee was set somewhat apart from the rest of the village, almost at the edge of the forest. As Blair approached, the shaman appeared at the entry flap. Not for the first time, Blair wondered if Standing Bear had a few heightened senses; he had never been able to take the older man by surprise. He reined his horse to a stop, and inclined his head respectfully. There was a certain amount of comfortable protocol to be followed before they relaxed into the informality of friends.
"Good morning, elder brother. It is a fine day. I had hoped that I might visit with you, and talk. I am in need of your wisdom."
"Greetings, younger brother. It is good that you have come. I will share my wisdom with any who wish to heed it." There was a subtle shift as the formalities were dispensed with; Standing Bear smiled at his friend and student. "Step down, Blair, and put your horse in the corral. I've been expecting you."
Wondering a little about the full extent of the shaman's abilities – Standing Bear always expected his visits, no matter how irregular they were – Blair dismounted and led his horse to the corral. He quickly stripped off the saddle and bridle, then turned it loose and shut the gate behind him. Turning, he saw Standing Bear waiting quietly at the teepee's entrance flap.
As he approached, Blair was struck once again by the sheer charisma of the Apache shaman. At first glance, Standing Bear was a very ordinary man; strong and capable, barely a dozen years older than Blair, he would probably have been one of the tribe's premier warriors in an earlier era. But anyone who looked closer could see the depth of wisdom in his eyes, as if from a soul that was centuries old. He radiated a quiet knowledge and acceptance of the dark places of the human psyche as well as the bright, and his mere presence seemed to engender feelings of peace.
Blair sat down on one of the padded skins near the small central fire, and accepted the cup of aromatic tea that Standing Bear offered him. The tea was made from local grasses and herbs; not only was it quite tasty, the shaman used it to help 'break the ice' for those who were nervous about discussing their problems or seeking advice.
Standing Bear sat near Blair, and poured himself a cup of tea. As he sipped, he eyed the younger man. "Blair, I can feel that you are troubled; this is not your usual visit to learn more about the Guardians and their Companions. How may I help you?" With another inconspicuous shift, Blair was no longer facing his Indian friend, but the wise tribal shaman.
Blair sighed. It didn't matter that he recognized the need, or that Jim had given his permission to discuss it with the shaman; this was going to be hard. He fumbled for the right place to start.
"I had a letter from my friend a few days ago. He wants me to come home, and I want to go home." Standing Bear's calm nod encouraged him to continue. "But when I thought about it, I realized that I still have feelings of anger toward him, and I can't face him with that eating away at me. But no matter how much I've meditated and argued with myself, I just can't find the way to get rid of it!" The explanation that had begun so calmly finished with an impassioned cry of frustration.
"This is indeed a difficult puzzle. Consider this – is the anger truly misplaced? Or is there sufficient reason for you to be feeling this anger?" The shaman gazed calmly at his young friend's expression of outraged disbelief. "Don't censor yourself, and don't think about what 'should' be. If the circumstances were the same between two strangers, would one of them have a valid basis for his anger?"
Blair knew the answer to that; he had been picking at it for days, and the ongoing resentment quickly surfaced. "You damn bet'cha! The man didn't trust me! I was at his side and watched his back for four years, did the best I could to support him and help him, but every time I goofed up he ascribed the worst possible motives to it. Never asked me what was happening, just assumed that I was either stupid or unreliable or only looking out for myself. And he was so worried about being called a 'freak', instead of trusting his friends to know what was going on, that I lied to keep his precious secret, trashed my life so that he could keep his. Then as soon as my back is turned, he goes and spills the beans anyway, and lo and behold, it's no big deal after all! I am so damn tired of being kicked up, down, and sideways, and if nothing I do is ever right, why the hell should I try again?!" He was panting in his agitation, literally trembling in reaction to the force of his outburst.
"Those are good reasons for your anger," Standing Bear agreed gravely. "Now tell me why the anger is wrong. Why should you not feel this way?"
Letting the quiet, measured words soothe him, Blair's tension receded. This also was well-trodden ground. "Well, basically, his whole life has been one piece of shit after another – or at least, he looks at it that way – and it's just ingrained in him to strike out before he's struck. 'Most everybody who he's ever loved or respected or felt connected to has either abandoned him or died – which I suppose is the same thing, in his view – or did him dirt, or both. When you think about it, the man should be a walking psychiatric textbook. It's actually a tribute to his strength of character that he's not some misogynistic, sociopathic recluse – or a serial-killer." Blair gazed earnestly at the quiet, non-judgemental man in front of him. "So basically, he's doing the best he can with what he has, psychically speaking. It's really not his fault the way he reacts when one of his triggers is pulled."
Standing Bear nodded again. "So, your friend reacts with mistrust and suspicion, and dismisses your feelings and advice, and this hurts you. But this is a natural reaction for him, one he's not fully in control of. How can you reconcile this?"
"That's just it! I can't reconcile it, and it's about to drive me crazy! What the hell am I supposed to do?!"
"A problem cannot be corrected unless it is addressed. What have you done to resolve this imbalance?"
"Well, like I said, I've meditated. And I wrote a letter, told him I wouldn't put up with it anymore."
"Did he acknowledge your concerns?"
"Mostly. Sorta." Blair squirmed under the questioning gaze. "Well, the letter he sent back was written months ago. But in it, he said he was sorry, and he'd really work at listening to me better. Said he'd even been talking to a shrink, to understand himself – and me – better. And when he called a couple of nights ago, he told me again that he was sorry, and he offered to help my meditations, or even join in. So I know he has good intentions. But I don't know how long that'll last, and I sure don't want to go back if I'll just be walking out again later."
"So." Standing Bear softly outlined the situation once again. "You and your friend both recognize a problem. One man cannot change another, but a man can change himself if he wishes. Your friend indicates a willingness to try to change. But you fear that his willingness to change will fade and that there will be no differences from before." Blair nodded his agreement. "Tell me, do you expect these changed behaviors to happen overnight?"
"No, of course not. These things take time; it's hard to break old habit patterns. And actually, I don't really want him to change, exactly – he wouldn't be Jim if he did. I'm not expecting him to be all mushy-talky, spouting off about his feelings whenever we hit a snag. But...." He floundered, unwilling to put his seemingly petty feelings into words.
"But you want him to acknowledge that you are equal together, and to treat you as an actual partner, and when difficulties arise, you want him to 'chill out' before 'the shit hits the fan'." He chuckled at Blair's look of astonishment. "A shaman must understand the language of his those who seek his help," he murmured serenely, "even the young ones."
"Yeah, I guess that's about it," Blair admitted.
"Yet your friend has said that he will make a good effort to do this, for him and for you. Do you believe that he's lying?"
"No, of course not!" Blair was indignant at this slur toward his best friend. "If Jim says he'll do something, he means it. He might not always succeed, but he'll sure as hell give it a damned good try!"
"What will you do if he doesn't succeed?"
"I'll put my foot down, slap him upside the head, and sit on him until he notices what's going on," he growled fervently. Casting the older man a quick look, he offered a shamefaced grin. "Well, figuratively speaking. I did tell him that I wouldn't let him run over the top of me anymore."
"So, the previous anger was justified, but both parties have acknowledged it. Now, both parties have agreed to change the situations that caused the anger. You realize that it will take time, but you expect your friend to be true to his word. You will help him in this endeavor by stopping a repeat of the pattern each time it begins. Is this correct?" Blair nodded again, silently. "Then search your heart once again. Is the anger still there?"
While Blair closed his eyes in concentration, Standing Bear threw some aromatic herbs on the fire, filling the teepee with a subtle, soothing scent. He pulled down his drum from its position hanging on one of the support poles, and began a soft, rhythmic tapping that echoed the heartbeat and then slowed, encouraging a feeling of tranquility. He waited while Blair's breathing slowed to match, and watched his body relax and his face become calm.
Finally, after an unmeasured time, Blair's eyes opened. They met the shaman's, and quickly filled with anguish as he confessed his shame. "It's still there," he whispered miserably. "I don't understand it. I've been in therapy so many times, I know all the ins and outs, I know there's no reason anymore – but it's still there! Why can't I convince myself to get rid of it?"
"What do you need to do to convince yourself to get rid of it?"
Blair shook his head and shrugged, unable to see past his own feelings of failure.
"You know this," the shaman admonished. "You've already told your friend what you need; why won't you believe it yourself?"
"A purification ritual? You know that I respect your customs and beliefs, but they aren't mine. Would such a ceremony really work for me?"
"Yes. The spirit draws strength from rituals. And during the trials that must be part of the ritual, you can come to know your animal spirit. The wolf will give you calmness and acceptance of your and your friend's imperfections, and the perseverance to continue until the goal is reached."
"But I know my animal spirit!" Blair protested. "I've seen him, and I accept that he's real."
"You know of him, but you do not know him," Standing Bear pointed out. "You have not walked with him, learned what he has to teach you, accepted him into your inner self. Until you can do that, you will continue to feel the pain of an incomplete soul."
Blair considered that, gazing into the kind, dark eyes that held his own. He still had doubts; maybe his scientifically-biased, analytical mind would be too skeptical to derive any benefit. But surely it was worth a try. "Will you help me? I don't know the proper rituals."
Standing Bear smiled gently. "There are some general customs, and I will guide your way. But the 'proper' rituals are those which will speak to you, and will satisfy your wolf spirit. You will need to blend the traditions of your people and mine."
"What; you mean like couples writing their own wedding ceremony?" he squeaked. "But Jim and I aren't like that!"
"On the contrary; you and your Sentinel are exactly like that," the shaman assured him. "Not physically, no, but the joining of souls is as meaningful and as binding as any marriage. And, just like a wedding ceremony, your Sentinel should join in a part of the ritual. He also needs to accept the guidance of the Spirits."
He shook his head at Blair's thunderstruck expression. "Of course I know that you and your friend are Companion and Guardian, or Guide and Sentinel, as you name them. The aura of the Companion shines brightly from you, for one who is able to see. And your questions, whenever you visit, have been much more intense than the simple curiosity of an intellectual mind. I would not tell a mere scientist the details I have shared with you, but a Companion has the need, and the right to know."
Blair looked dubious. "I don't know if he'll go for something like that."
"Of course he will." Standing Bear's certainty was unshakeable. "He told you that he wanted to help, to join you in your spiritual journey. He will be calling you soon, or perhaps me, and we can make arrangements for the ritual fasting and cleansing."
But Blair knew better. "Nah. He was just trying to get me back to Cascade quicker. He's really not interested in the spiritual part of being a sentinel. Actually, he's pretty damn good at denying it entirely."
The shaman noted the shadow of discouragement hiding in Blair's eyes; his tones deepened and reverberated as he reached for the powers of the spirits to ease the pain for this wounded soul. "Your sentinel will come, younger brother. Even now, he makes arrangements with his leader for the time needed to accomplish this. He, too, feels the pain of an incomplete soul, and he will be drawn to you, for only by each soul supporting the other will you both be able to put aside the anger and misunderstandings. The panther needs the wolf, just as the wolf needs the panther. He will come."
"It's a nice thought, Standing Bear," he sighed, "and I'm... grateful, I guess... that you think Jim would go to so much trouble. But no matter how good his intentions are, I just can't see him actually making the effort."
"I don't 'think' he will come, younger brother, I know it. Your Sentinel may not recognize the knowledge he has, but he is acting on it nevertheless."
"What makes you so sure?" he challenged. "Jim hardly ever does anything without having his nose rubbed in it. And I'm not there to give him a push."
"I'm sure because the spirits have shown it to me. And your Sentinel has been pushed by the pain of being separated from his Guide for two years. You will find that he has changed, as you have changed; he wants to support you, just as you want to support him. If you undertake this journey alone, you will be only partially successful. But that will not be necessary; your Sentinel will come."
Faced with such complete confidence, Blair allowed himself to feel hopeful, while a slow feeling of warmth suffused him. Jim would do this for him? The thought was – exhilarating and comforting at the same time. This would work; it had to. He bowed his head in solemn acquiescence. "Thank you, elder brother. You have given me a lot to think about. I will speak with my Sentinel, and return in a few days to discuss the needs and methods of the purification ritual."
In the space of a moment, Standing Bear once again transformed from shaman to friend. He smiled at the still-troubled young man. "This will work, Blair. When we speak to the spirits with an open heart, they will respond. You will truly recognize and understand that 'home', for each of you, resides within the spirit of the other. Then your journey home will be finished."
The smile Blair offered was tremulous, but resolute. "Yes. I believe you. Or at least, I want to believe, and I'll make it work. Thank you, again." He glanced up at the open smoke-flap above, noting the fading of the light's intensity. The sun must be well on its way down; it was time to leave.
Once again, Standing Bear seemed to be reading his mind – or maybe he had simply noted the upward glance. He stood, causing Blair to scramble to his feet in respect, and stepped out of the teepee, with Blair following. Waving at the sky, he pointed out, "Sun's going down, Blair; you need to head back to the ranch." He escorted his guest to the horse corral, and watched as the younger man made short work of bridling and saddling his mount. As Blair swung into the saddle, he repeated his assurances. "Remember, younger brother, the Spirits will help you if you give them a chance."
Blair raised a hand briefly as he smiled down at Standing Bear and nodded his acceptance of the shaman's words. Then he gathered his reins and headed toward the other end of the village, and the trail that would take him back to the ranch, and another long-distance conversation with Jim.
The members of Major Crime gathered once again in the back room of Murphy's Irish Pub to hold a 'Sandburg Update' meeting in comfortable surroundings. Over helpings of barbecued ribs and shepherd's pie, double-decker cheeseburgers, and Irish stew, the talk wandered lazily past previous and current cases, celebrating the triumphs of successful investigations, and commiserating with those who were struggling with stalled cases. Finally, over desserts of hot apple pie a la mode and English trifle, Simon called the meeting to order.
"All right, people, let's see where we stand in the 'Bringing Sandburg Home' campaign." His gaze traveled the length of the table, catching everyone's eye in turn. "How goes the rumor-mill? Are there any dissenters about Sandburg's competence to join the PD?"
"I think we've got it covered, Simon." Joel's tone was confident and relaxed. "I've talked to one man in the bomb-squad, and a couple of patrolmen who were backup on a stakeout last week. They're at least willing to give Blair the benefit of the doubt, even if they're not enthusiastic about his coming back. Everyone else has seemed pleased about the news, at least in my hearing."
Simon took a contented puff on his cigar. "Good. Detective Brown? What about the doubters you mentioned?"
Henri gave a satisfied smirk as he reported, "Smooth as silk, Captain, just like we planned. When Ellison 'accidentally' let them catch him in action, their eyes practically bugged out. And then the next day, they just 'happened' to hear me an' Rafe talkin' about how many of Hairboy's crazy ideas had helped out on cases, and how helpful he was and how much support he gave to everybody in the department. Haven't heard a negative peep out of 'em since."
"Nice to hear it, Brown." The captain glanced around the table. "Anyone else?"
Rhonda spoke up. "Yes, sir. I'm sure you know how the secretaries of all the departments share news and gossip?" He nodded at her to continue. "I've made it a point to have a few coffee-breaks or lunch hours with most of them, and they're all helping to... monitor the attitudes of their departments. Of course, the way Blair always made time to chat with them, for whatever reason..." she paused at the chuckles and outright laughter the remark engendered, "...they all liked him anyway. But now, they're actively talking about how nice it will be to have him back – and the attitude of the secretary can influence a lot of people in her department. I think it'll be a big help."
"I think you're right, Rhonda," he assured her. "Thank you for taking the initiative. Anyone else?" Banks surveyed his people again, but saw only shrugs and headshakes.
"Well, then, it seems that's taken care of. Now, I've spoken to the Chief of Police and the Commissioner. Sandburg has a definite slot in the 'Civilian Support Personnel' class that starts in January, and..." he cast a cat-eating-canary grin to the people who were waiting almost breathlessly for him to continue, "...after graduation, Blair Sandburg will have an official position with the Cascade Police Department as a 'Socio-Cultural Liaison'.
Cheers erupted as their hopes were confirmed. Although the news had been expected, there had also been a shadow over their anticipation, given the barely-acknowledged possibility that something might still go wrong. The relief of knowing that 'all systems were go' couldn't be contained.
Simon waited for the noise and the mutual backslapping to quiet down. "Since Sandburg will be a consultant to the PD as a whole, he may be called upon by other departments who need his input and expertise, and even by other precincts, once in a while. However..." he fixed Ellison with a gimlet eye, stopping the pending protest before it could start, "he will officially be based with the Major Crimes department, working with Detective Ellison first, the rest of you clowns second, and everybody else third. Sandburg is ours, ladies and gentlemen, and we won't let him go."
That set of another round of cheers, along with assurances of "Damned straight!" and "They better keep their mitts off!" and "Anyone who tries to steal Sandy away can bloody well bugger off!" Ellison refrained from commenting, but watched the others' enthusiasm with a slight smile softening his face. It warmed his heart to see how much Sandburg was wanted, and he made a mental note to tell his friend all about it.
"So, Jim," Simon continued as the noise began to subside, "Give us an update. Has Sandburg said anything about coming home earlier, or do we still have to wait for another six weeks?"
"Yes, sir, he has it all planned." Ellison took a deep, centering breath; it was still difficult to speak about such things aloud. "Sandburg wants to do an Indian ceremony to... ah... reaffirm the connection between Sentinel and Guide." Jim would not admit that Blair was trying to work through anger that was aimed toward him; hopefully, no one but he and his guide would ever know. He took heart from the understanding nods he saw; apparently, their friends were willing to accept the more – esoteric – aspects of working with a sentinel and guide. "Anyway, he wants me to be part of it, and I said I would, so..." he shrugged, trying to convince them – himself? – that it was 'no big deal', "...I'll leave next weekend, drive down to meet him, do the ceremony, and then bring him back with me."
"How long will that take, Jimbo?" Megan demanded. "We need to start planning his 'Welcome Home' party. Have you figured out your travel schedule, so you know when you'll be home? And you'll need to give us the key to the loft, so we can get everything ready. We need to let Sandy know that –"
"Wait, wait a minute!" he protested, raising a hand to stop her. "A lot of it depends on Sandburg; I'm leaving it up to him. I plan to reach Gila, New Mexico – that's close to the ranch where he's working – on Monday after I head out. I can do it in two and a half days if I push it. But I don't know when Sandburg wants to start the ceremony, or how long it will take, or how long after before he'll be ready to leave." His jaw firmed as he focused on the far wall, avoiding their eyes. "You all know that this 'sentinel thing' was mostly – usually – about me. But now I need to prove to Blair that... that I know the 'guide thing' is equally important. I can't just show up and say, 'Do it, it's done, let's go'. So," he met their eyes again, grinning slightly, "I don't decide the mission parameters on this one; he does. And I'm determined to respect that."
Surprised silence greeted his words. Although Ellison had become more open about using his sentinel abilities, he was still reticent about discussing them candidly, and rarely mentioned the full extent of the guide's – Blair's – involvement.
Finally, Simon gave voice to what everyone seemed to be feeling. "Jim, don't you think you're being just a bit too cautious, here? You're talking about Sandburg like he's some nervous virgin on her wedding night. He worked with you for over three years, and you know each other inside and out. I understand your concerns, but aren't the kid gloves overdoing it?"
Ellison shrugged dismissively. "You said it yourself, Simon; a man needs the support of his coworkers. We know he has that now..." he noted the vigorous affirmative nods around the table, "but all he has so far is a few letters and phone calls. That's a good start, but it's not solid proof, at least, probably not in his eyes. Maybe I am being overly – tentative, but I'd rather err on the side of caution." He sighed gustily. "I figure it's a 'can't hurt, might help' situation; let him call the shots while we reestablish our partnership."
"He's right, Simon," Joel agreed. "Whenever a renowned expert comes into a new situation, adjustments are made. Sandburg is our expert, and the situation will be different than it was when he left; Jim can't act like nothing has changed. None of us can." Murmurs of agreement echoed around the table.
Banks grunted as he puffed his cigar. "All right, I see your point. You do what you have to, however you have to, to get Sandburg back. You and he will set the timetable. But that leaves us with the problem of when to schedule the 'Welcome Home' party. Any suggestions?"
"Captain," Rhonda said softly, "it's as simple as a phone call. Detective Ellison can call two nights before they're due in. Assuming the next day is a workday, we'll have that evening after work to bring in or cook the perishable foods, then set up the next day for the party."
"Of course!" Megan exclaimed. "Why didn't we think of that? So let's get this show on the road; who'll be in charge of decorations, who'll be in charge of food and grog, and who's going to bring what?"
The atmosphere lightened once again as Simon ordered another pitcher of beer, and Sandburg's friends settled to a spirited planning session, happily discussing logistics as each person promoted his or her ideas for the best 'Welcome Home' party in the history of Cascade. All Ellison could do was go with the flow, firmly veto the suggestion of flowers, and silently consider hiring a cleaning service for the day after.
Ellison pulled out of the truck stop and continued south on I-5. He'd filled the truck with gas, his thermos with coffee, his cooler with bottles of water, and the box on the seat beside him with a variety of snacks. He was good to go until both he and the truck required a pit-stop.
As he bit into the large slice of fresh apple pie, he glanced at his watch, then surveyed the moderate traffic with satisfaction. So far, he'd run into no delays, and was right on schedule – Sacramento last night, Tucson tonight, then Gila by late morning tomorrow.
It made for long days of driving, but Jim had found that he couldn't ease up, even if he'd wanted to. The knowledge that each mile traveled brought him closer to his guide was singing through every fiber of his being. Now that their separation was almost over, he could barely contain the mixture of anticipation and uneasiness, excitement and uncertainty that filled him.
The ceremony that Sandburg planned had to work, had to clear the air between them and help them reestablish and restore their... partnership. Relationship. Friendship. Jim was aware that, for all his expressions of acceptance to Simon, to the psychiatrist, and even to Blair himself, he wouldn't let his guide walk out of his life again. Never again.
Traffic increased, and he brought himself back from his inner contemplation to pay more attention to the road, and navigate the maze of various intersections that would take him around Los Angeles and let him catch I-10 east toward Tucson, and then Gila. Toward his friend and guide. Toward Blair.
Jim drove into the small village, noting the mixture of structures. The sight of the teepees interspersed among the buildings was a slight surprise, despite Blair's mention of them. They were somewhat larger, and considerably more colorful, than he had envisioned. Noting the sign that read, 'Tinde General Store, Hours 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM', he parked in front of the long, wooden building; someone here would be able to tell him where to find Standing Bear.
Once inside, he found an astonishing variety of goods; the store might rival Wal-Mart in what it could offer its patrons. He noticed items ranging from everyday needs such as food, clothing, tools and toys, to native crafts of beadwork, jewelry, baskets and woodcarvings. Jim assumed that, this close to a National Forest, a number of tourists would pass through, looking for 'authentic Indian' memorabilia.
"May I help you, sir?" The proprietor's voice brought him back to his reason for being here. Jim turned to find a Native American of about his father's age standing in front of him. The man was still straight-backed, with a strong, proud gaze, but strands of gray showed in his traditional braids.
"Yes, sir," he responded. "Mr. Blue Wolf? I spoke to you on the phone. I'm Jim Ellison from Cascade, Washington, and I've come to talk to Standing Bear. Could you give me directions to his place?"
The level gaze warmed slightly. "Yes," he nodded. "Standing Bear told us that a white man would come to speak with him. It is good that you try to honor the old ways."
Jim kept his face impassive, not showing his discomfort that, apparently, his impending visit had been a topic for discussion. It might even have been necessary; unless the shaman had indicated his prior approval, the other villagers might well have denied Standing Bear's availability.
"Yes, sir," he repeated. "So, how may I reach Standing Bear?"
"Follow the main street to the last house," the old man said, nodding in the correct direction. "Then turn left, and follow the dirt road almost to the edge of the forest. Standing Bear's teepee sits alone, with a horse coral next to it. He will be expecting you."
How? Jim wondered, but let it pass. Standing Bear hadn't known the exact day that Jim would arrive, but he had been given a general timeframe. With a nod and a brief, "Thank you," Jim headed back to his truck, trying to quell the nerves he felt about his imminent 'consultation' with Blair's shaman friend. Somehow, he was afraid that if he failed to meet Standing Bear's approval, he might lose his chance to bring Sandburg back with him.
He drove slowly, noting that children and adults alike were observing his passage. Undoubtedly, his visit would be gossip-fodder for a while; might as well let everyone have a good look. Besides, it might seem... insolent... to rush toward the shaman and arrive in a cloud of dust. This community – and Blair – respected Standing Bear; Jim was sure he needed to extend the same respect if he expected any help in reconnecting with his guide.
He parked the truck near the horse corral, on a patch of bare ground that showed the tracks of other vehicles. As Jim left the truck and turned to approach the teepee, he saw the shaman standing in front of the entrance flap, regarding him solemnly. Jim walked forward, but paused a short distance away, waiting in respectful silence. Living with the Chopec had taught him that there were times when ceremony was important; he would take his cues from the man in front of him.
Standing Bear continued to observe for a moment, quietly pleased that this stranger was attempting to show courtesy for another's traditions. "It is good that you have come, Guardian. It demonstrates a care for my younger brother, your Companion, that will strengthen the connection between you, if you will acknowledge and act upon it."
Ellison did his best to respond in a similar manner. He bowed his head as he replied, "I thank you, Shaman. It is my strongest wish to help and support my guide – my companion – but I have need of your wisdom to ensure that I proceed correctly."
As the formalities were completed, Standing Bear smiled at his younger brother's friend and guardian. "I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Ellison. Your being here will be a great boost to Blair's spirits, and to his feelings of self-worth. Come inside, where we can sit and talk."
"Thank you, sir," he responded, ducking through the flap that Standing Bear held open for him. "But please, just call me Jim."
"Certainly," the shaman said as he followed Jim and nodded toward one of the padded skins near the small central fire. "Unfortunately," he continued as he poured two cups of the herbal-grass tea, "there is no comfortable way to shorten Standing Bear." He handed one cup to Jim, then seated himself on the other side of the fire, and took a small sip from his cup, waiting till the other man followed his lead and sipped his own tea. "But names are unimportant for our discussion."
Standing Bear continued to sip his tea as he studied his brother's guardian. He saw a fellow-warrior, who was fiercely protective of the tribe he guarded, but whose heart was aching for the missing piece of his soul. Jim, watching the shaman over his own cup, recognized a spirit that was similar to Incacha's – a soul that was older than the body that contained it, combining wisdom with understanding and calm acceptance. He felt an easing of tension; this man would be able to help him reconnect with Blair.
When he judged that the guardian had relaxed, Standing Bear spoke. "So, Jim, how may I help you?"
With a subtle shift, Jim was once again facing the wise tribal shaman. He hesitated; he'd spoken of the 'sentinel / guide thing' to Simon, and to his friends in Major Crime, but this man was a stranger, for all that Blair looked up to him and trusted him. Maybe half an explanation would suffice.
"I guess Sandburg's told you that he and I... well, we had a bit of a falling out. But he was the best partner I've ever had, and my friend, and I don't want to leave it at that. He wants to do this ceremony before he comes home, and I just want to be sure I won't screw it up. So I was hoping you'd give me some information as to what to do, or not do." He knew the explanation sounded lame, but maybe the shaman wouldn't notice.
No such luck. Standing Bear chuckled as he said, "You drove almost two thousand miles just to rectify a 'falling out'? Blair said that you agreed he could speak freely to me; why do you now try to hide what you are?"
Busted. Okay, he'd come too far to back out now. Jim sighed deeply, then plunged in. "Forgive me. It's just that I don't often speak openly of this." The small confirming nod encouraged him to go on.
"You know that Sandburg and I are sentinel and guide – or companion and guardian in your terminology. Did he tell you that I've had a lot of trouble with my senses? I wasn't taught to use them from childhood, the way someone who's..." He hesitated; he could not call this man's culture 'primitive'. "...who's not raised in a big city might be. It seems I had them as a child, then lost them, then they came back when I was stranded in Peru, then they went away again when I came back to the city, until Blair found me."
"My younger brother told me of this, yes," Standing Bear confirmed. "He also told me that, with his help, you were using your guardian senses well."
Ellison shifted uncomfortably. "Yes, sir, that's true. But..." He hesitated; how best to phrase this? "Well, a lot of times I didn't make it easy for him. I didn't really want the senses, and I bitched and moaned like I thought it was all his fault." He was speaking to the fire now, not wanting to see condemnation in Standing Bear's eyes. "Then one day the shit hit the fan, but I had gotten so pissy that I didn't listen to Blair, or even give him the benefit of the doubt. When everything finally fell apart, I tried to fix it; my captain and I offered him a permanent place with the PD. But..." he shrugged, and took a fortifying swallow of tea. "...I guess it wasn't something he felt comfortable with."
"Such reactions are normal human failings." Standing Bear's voice had none of the disapproval that Jim expected; it was calm, and even slightly amused. "You are not a paragon, to never make mistakes. When an honorable man fails, he tries to repair the results of his failure. Your offer to Blair was a worthy response to your actions."
Jim shrugged, regarding the shaman soberly. "Maybe so, but nothing came of it. Sandburg felt that he couldn't stay, and he just took off. Until I got his letter a few weeks ago, I'd had only one untraceable postcard from him in two years." A little frustration colored his voice; he grasped it firmly and shoved it deeper within. He must not give Standing Bear – Blair's friend – a reason to doubt his sincerity.
"And that irritates you," the shaman noted, unperturbed. "You feel that a true friend – a guardian's companion, or a sentinel's guide – should have accepted the offer and continued to walk by your side."
"Well, I did," he admitted. "For awhile, anyway. Sandburg had said he'd stay!" Jim finished defensively. "It just seemed like cutting and running when he didn't."
"His rejection of your offer seemed to be a rejection of you."
Ellison simply nodded, once again unable to face the shaman.
"And yet, your guide explained why he could not stay, did he not? Did you believe that he lied to you?"
Jim fidgeted uneasily. "Not lied, exactly, but... uh... 'obfuscated', I guess, to take the easy way out. I know better now, but... well, I was pretty pissed for awhile."
"How is it that you 'know better now'?"
"I talked to a shrink," he sighed. "I talked to my captain. I saw the reactions of some of the PD personnel before I let the truth about my senses be spread around." Jim smiled slightly, finally beginning to relax under Standing Bear's non-judgmental manner. "I guess even my thick head will accept new ideas, if it's pounded hard enough and often enough. And then Blair's letter laid everything out in black and white, and I could really see where he was coming from."
Standing Bear's lips twitched. "Fortunate indeed, that such a thick head can learn. So, tell me, Sentinel, why did your guide walk away from you?"
"Well, I guess because he really couldn't stay." Standing Bear was silent, waiting. "And... because he didn't think he would be accepted if he tried to stay." The shaman still didn't speak, waiting for more. "And because... maybe we both needed to learn a lesson, find out what it would mean to us if we went our separate ways. And that way, we'd really understand that it's better – right – that we're together, working as a team," he concluded, satisfaction coloring his voice as he explained what he'd come to know on an instinctive level.
Standing Bear nodded, seemingly pleased with Jim's thoughtful answers. "So, Sentinel, you accept that it was necessary and right for your guide to be apart from you for a time?"
Ellison sighed and ran a hand over his hair. "Yes, I can accept it – now. I didn't like it, and I can't wait to be finished with this... 'learning experience'... but I do see that things would probably have gotten worse if Sandburg had stayed." He shrugged. "Shit goes around, sometimes. We deal with it as best we can, and move on, I guess."
"So you understand why your guide left, and why he had to stay away. Now explain why he should come back to you; what does the Sentinel now offer the Guide?"
"I offer him my support, and my un-ending friendship," Jim said gravely. He stared into the fire, not in an attempt to avoid Standing Bear's gaze, but using it as a focus as he searched the corners of his soul to express his hard-won, heart-felt knowledge. "I offer him a place by my side, in a community that will accept him and offer him the same support, and I offer him a home if he still wants it." He swallowed, trying to rid himself of the uncomfortable lump in his throat. "I offer him my belief and my trust, and my promise that I'll listen to him instead of making thoughtless assumptions and snap judgments. Well..." he shook his head wryly, "...I offer a promise to try to do that, and the promise of our captain to run interference and help me keep that promise if I start falling back into old habit patterns." His eyes lifted to meet the shaman's. "I offer him the acceptance of my senses, and the acceptance of him as my true and equal partner, and I offer him my sincere attempt to never again let him down. Of course..." he flushed and looked away, "...I'm an old dog, and new tricks don't come easy, but I'm fully aware of the pitfalls now. I think, with the help of our friends, I'll manage to keep my promises."
"All of these form a worthy tribute from Sentinel to Guide," the shaman assured him. "What does the Sentinel expect from the Guide, in return for these offerings?"
Jim gaped at him, astounded. "Sandburg doesn't have to offer me anything; I just want him back where he belongs!"
Standing Bear fixed him with a stern gaze. "Do you truly believe that such a distorted connection can survive? If one half gives everything, and the other half gives nothing, there will come a time of ill-feelings, of anger and bitterness on both sides, and the connection will once again be broken. The needs of one cannot be buried in favor of another, no matter how worthy the other is perceived to be. The guide cannot be equal to the sentinel if the bond between them is so severely unbalanced. I ask you again – What does the Sentinel expect from the Guide? Search your heart, and be honest; there is no shame in speaking one's needs."
Ellison's eyes lost focus as he struggled with this new idea. It seemed to him that... "But it was all my fault," he almost whispered. "I didn't trust him, I didn't let him explain, I let him throw his life away to protect mine. He's given so much, and I gave him... nothing but crumbs. How can I take more?"
"Sentinel, your arrogance is deep – and unseemly." The shaman smiled slightly at Jim's shocked expression. "Is your guide a child, that he has no control over his actions and his life? You didn't trust his actions at that time; did he ever give you reasons for that distrust?"
"No!" he insisted, but under Standing Bear's gaze, he had to face the truth. "Well, sometimes I thought he did. There were times it seemed like I was just a... a... 'carrier' for the senses, and he was more interested in them than me. And he was always talking about that damned dissertation, like when he was finished with it, he'd be finished with me. And he kept talking about fame and fortune and movie rights, and when it all came out, it just seemed like he had asked for it."
"When did your guide tell you that his perceptions had changed, that he no longer sought fame and fortune, but only wanted to support his sentinel?"
"Well... he never actually said it... but that just means I should have seen it for myself," he protested.
"Perhaps; but such things can be difficult. That is why the spirits gave mankind the gift of language, so that which is not seen can be spoken of, and misunderstandings can be rectified. If one does not speak, should he fault the other for misunderstanding?" Standing Bear paused to let Ellison absorb what seemed to be a new idea. "You say that you didn't let him explain. Why was that?"
That was still a painful memory; he set his jaw as he replied, "I was angry and... hurt, I guess, when I thought he betrayed me. And we were busy, working a hot case, and I just brushed him off."
"So, in a moment of anger, you made a mistake." He waited for a confirming nod. "But human beings make mistakes. It is right that they should be corrected, but does it seem balanced that the mistaken one should spend his entire life in atonement for a momentary lapse?"
"Well, but... isn't that what Sandburg is doing?" Jim frowned as he wrestled with the concept. "He threw away the life he had; isn't this life just one long atonement for what he did?"
"Is it? Does he suffer in his current life, crying to the spirits for forgiveness? Or has he simply moved into another life the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly? The loss of the old life does not make the new life worthless, or even uncomfortable; it is merely different. Has my younger brother indicated that he feels any distress about his current life-path?"
"No-o-o... but Sandburg wouldn't. He bitched when he thought I wasn't... appreciating my 'gifts' enough, but he never complained about day-to-day stuff, or cop stuff. "
"Never?" The shaman's lips quirked in amusement, though his eyes warmed with gentle understanding; his younger brother would not have been silent if he had felt ill-used.
Jim paused as he cast his mind back, and then his lips twitched in response. "Well... hardly ever," he admitted. "I guess I remember a few times..." He let the shaman draw his own conclusions from the innuendo.
Standing Bear nodded. "I have come to know Blair well during the past six months. Your guide is not perfect; he has flaws, just as any man does. He can be impatient, and inconsistent, and prone to act without sufficient forethought. But he is strong and honorable, and a fitting companion to one who is guardian to such a large territory as yours. Do you doubt this?"
"Not now," he whispered hoarsely. "But I did, and that's why I have to make it up to him."
"You are a warrior; as a soldier and as a policeman you know that warriors work together, and defend each other. One warrior may defend another at the risk of injury to himself, or even at the cost of his own life. This is unity of life and purpose; it is not something that must be 'made up for'. Did your companion freely choose a life by your side, or did you trick him into it, and bind him so that he could not escape?"
"Well... I don't think Blair really knew what he was getting into; we just sort of scrambled from one situation to another, and he fell into the habit of being with me."
Standing Bear raised an eyebrow. "Is Blair a stupid man, that he could not see what your life entailed?" He waited for Ellison's mute headshake. "Did he ever complain that your life was too dangerous for him to continue working with you?" Another headshake. "Would you have let him go if he told you he wanted out of your life, to be safe?"
"Of course I would!" he protested hotly. "I'm not some kind of... slave-master, keeping him in chains to pander to my every whim! Hell, I was always telling him to stay in the truck, where he'd be safe, but if it wasn't enough, he could always have walked away!"
"So, your guide is not stupid. He recognized the dangers of your life, but he did not indicate that he was afraid to continue working with you. You did not bind him against his will. In other words, he freely accepted the life of a warrior, working in company with other warriors. Is this not true?"
Ellison nodded, seemingly mesmerized by the shaman's words.
"Tell me; have you ever risked your life in defense of a fellow-warrior, in the army or on the police force?" He waited for a confirming nod. "Have you ever risked your life in defense of your guide?" Another nod. "If necessary, would you take a bullet, or die, to protect a fellow-warrior or your guide?"
"In a heartbeat," Jim answered hoarsely. "Partly, as you say, it's my job; warriors protect and defend each other. But with Blair, it's... I can't even think about his death. I'd do anything to keep him safe; no price is too high."
Standing Bear smiled gently. "And Blair feels the same about you, which is why he acted as he did, and why you must accept it. Emotionally, each of you is holding his friend's life as more important, more worthy, than his own. This is not uncommon among close friends or fellow-warriors. Especially between Companion and Guardian, it is an indication of the strength of your bond. But intellectually, you must realize that each of your lives is equally worthy; he would sacrifice for you, as you would sacrifice for him. To deny your guide the right to offer such a sacrifice is to deny his equality with you. By deciding that your life was not worth his sacrifice, you demean his perceptions and actions, treating him as an ignorant child instead of a capable adult. Can you understand that this is so?"
The shaman waited calmly, sipping his tea, as his younger brother's friend and guardian pondered the new viewpoint. Eventually, Ellison shifted on the mat, and his eyes regained focus as he returned from his deep contemplation. He regarded Standing Bear solemnly as he dipped his head in acknowledgement.
"You're right," he sighed. "The sacrifice was freely offered and is freely accepted, between equals, the same way he might need to accept my sacrifice for him, someday." His slight grin was somewhat shamefaced. "I'll take him down off that pedestal I set him on, and try to remember that he's not some wet-behind-the-ears kid anymore."
"That would be beneficial," the shaman returned gravely. "Now, once again, what does the Sentinel expect from the Guide, in return for his offerings?"
Jim pinched the bridge of his nose as he considered. "This is hard," he admitted. "I never thought about it before." He paused to re-examine his half-formed ideas. "I guess... the Sentinel expects the Guide to offer loyalty, to stand by his side even when the going is rough. And competence – the Guide is expected to be able to help his Sentinel use his senses fully, and be able to figure out how to alleviate the problems when things go wrong. And... the Guide is expected to help the Sentinel keep his promises of listening and not making thoughtless assumptions. And I guess... the Guide is expected to accept a place working within the police community. But if the Guide cannot be comfortable in that community, he is expected to discuss that openly with his Sentinel, so that they may find a life-path that is acceptable to both." He hesitated as he realized that the sentinel / guide relationship wasn't everything – and wasn't enough. "And I – the man, not the sentinel – hope that Blair will accept my committed friendship, and offer me his own." Ellison paused again to replay his own words in his mind. Satisfied, he nodded firmly. "Yeah, I think that about covers it."
"Excellent! Now you have placed your guide on an equal footing with his sentinel. Together, you can go forward, each trusting the other for loyalty and support, as well as the friendship that your soul longs for. This is as it should be," Standing Bear affirmed.
"So what do I do now, to show him my support?" Ellison asked quietly. "I can't just tell him, and assume that everything will magically be fixed."
"Do you not see that your being here for your friend and guide already shows the unconditional support that Blair needs?" the shaman said gently. "He knows how difficult it is for you to reveal your inner self – particularly to an outsider such as I am. You showed your support when you did not protest his wish to speak to me about your connection as sentinel and guide. For the rest, your demonstration only needs to come from your heart; how would you like to show your support?"
"Well, I was hoping to join him in the purification ceremony he talked about, if I can. Sort of... I don't know... prove that I'll do whatever I can to help him in whatever way he needs." He frowned slightly. "Uh... it won't be sacrilegious or something, will it, if I don't exactly believe in what he's doing, but I'm just going along for the ride? Not that I think he's wrong or anything," he hastened to assure the shaman. "I don't disrespect your beliefs, just... well, they're not mine; I don't want that to affect the ceremony."
"That will not matter. To stand aside from your own teachings, and act on another's beliefs, shows the highest level of support. Frankly, Blair will be relieved to have you join him; he doesn't quite believe that you will accept what he feels he must do."
"'Must do'?" Jim swallowed, trying to moisten a suddenly dry mouth. "What if his 'must do' is to walk away from me – from the Sentinel?" he asked uneasily.
Standing Bear's gaze was full of compassion. "That will not happen. Blair is your true Guide, and your friend. He is already committed to returning with you. This is just a small step to smoothing his path back to you, and increasing his harmony with his life-path."
Ellison tried not to show the overwhelming relief that he felt. "Good. So, when can I leave, where do I go, and what should I do when I get there?" With a definite objective in mind, he was once again goal-oriented, focused solely on an upcoming mission.
Standing Bear smiled, understanding the guardian's need to be with his companion. "You must wait just a little longer. Blair is already at his vision place, fasting and meditating as he seeks the guidance of the spirits. Tonight, you must refresh yourself from your journey. Find a comfortable hotel, and eat and sleep well. Tomorrow," the shaman shook his head slightly, "will be difficult for you, but you must compose yourself in patience. You will not eat after the midday meal," he instructed. "Then, as the sun is setting, you will present yourself back here, fresh in body and clothing. You will spend the night sitting by my fire, contemplating the future of Sentinel and Guide, and your places in each other's lives. When the sun rises, I will lend you a horse, and give you directions to reach the vision place."
Jim tried to throttle his impatience; he'd see Blair again in just a little more than a day. "Okay," he agreed. "Then what do I do when I get there? I don't want to ruin Sandburg's ceremony."
"You will do as the Spirits move you, and as your companion needs; that is all you need to know," Standing Bear assured him serenely.
"But..." Jim floundered. He preferred the security of having a definite plan; he couldn't afford to screw up what might be his last chance.
"There is no need to worry. With an open heart and accepting spirit, nothing you do will be wrong." Standing Bear smiled broadly, shifting once again from shaman to Blair's – and now, Jim's – friend. "But if you sit here any longer, you'll become so ensnared by 'what ifs' that you won't be able to function. So you must leave now, and I'll see you tomorrow evening."
The discussion was over. Ellison sighed and stood, accepting the inevitable. "Thank you, sir. I appreciate your time, and the insights you've given me. I'll be here tomorrow at sundown."
With that, he allowed Standing Bear to escort him out. When he reached his truck, he turned to see the shaman standing, as before, in front of the teepee, though his gaze seemed warmer than previously. With a formal nod of acknowledgment, which the shaman returned, Jim climbed into his truck. Tomorrow would be difficult, with dragging hours to endure until he returned to keep his vigil by the fire, and then another long night before he could go to Blair. But if that was the way Sandburg wanted it, that was the way it would be.
Ellison put the truck in gear and headed back toward the small town of Gila. He'd seen a small motel with a 'Vacancy' sign on it as he passed through. It had looked as if it would be clean enough, and he wouldn't need anything fancy while he counted down the hours. He glanced at his watch; just thirty-seven hours until sunup of 'B-day'...
Jim guided the sturdy Indian pony around the fallen tree and through the dappled shadows, following Standing Bear's directions to Blair's 'vision place'. He tried to ignore the 'pre-mission nerves' that hadn't been eased by the shaman's lack of instruction. You will do as the Spirits move you, and as your companion needs; that is all you need to know. But despite his uncertainties, he was eager to join Blair in the ceremony; hopefully, when it was finished, his guide would be coming back to Cascade with him.
He reined to a halt at the edge of the treeline, and studied the layout. The clearing was small, approximately 150 yards wide by 300 yards long. At one end, Blair's horse grazed on the late summer grasses, a set of hobbles preventing it from roaming too far. At the other end, a small stream flowed lazily down a rocky bed. Around the clearing, the trees were just beginning to be touched by splashes of orange and yellow as autumn approached. Sandburg's chosen vision place was beautiful as well as peaceful.
Jim felt a lump in his throat as he saw his friend for the first time in almost two years. Sandburg was sitting cross-legged beside a small fire in the middle of the clearing, wearing only jeans, his torso bare to the late morning sunshine. His chestnut curls were tousled, and didn't quite reach the shoulders that seemed broader and sturdier than previously. Whatever Blair had been doing for the past two years, it seemed to have been good for him; he looked fit, healthy, and strong.
Jim hesitated; Sandburg's eyes were closed, and he didn't want to interrupt a meditation. Should he wait, or go forward?
His pony broke the stalemate by nickering to the other horse. Sandburg's eyes opened, and he gazed levelly at Jim, before bestowing a wide, welcoming grin on his friend. Jim thought he also detected a touch of relief in Blair's eyes, and was reassured that, whatever Sandburg was planning, he had been right in deciding to join the ceremony. But Blair didn't speak; he schooled his face to a neutral mask and simply inclined his head gravely to acknowledge Jim's presence, then nodded toward the end of the clearing where his own horse grazed.
Ellison obeyed the silent instructions, and guided his horse to the same area. He hobbled the animal, then stripped off saddle and bridle, and placed them over a low-growing branch. He walked toward Sandburg, who once again had his eyes closed, and pondered his next actions. Deciding that he should approach the ceremony as open and unfettered as his friend seemed to be, Jim removed his own shirt, boots, and socks, and sank to the ground on the opposite side of the fire from Blair, taking a similar cross-legged position.
For a long time, neither man spoke. Jim listened to a myriad of sounds that constituted the 'silence' – the gentle chuckling of the stream, the quiet hiss and crackle as the low flames ate the wood, the soft sighing of the breeze as it rustled the leaves of the trees, and the quieter note as the grasses moved under its impetus. Briefly, he wondered how much Blair could hear, or if he was so deep within himself that he heard nothing at all. It didn't matter; Ellison relaxed under the warm sun on his skin, and waited.
Finally, Blair shifted and opened his eyes; his face was calm as he regarded his friend. "Sentinel, have you come freely to participate in this ceremony?"
"I have," Jim stated firmly, hoping that Blair could read his sincerity.
"Sentinel, why have you come?"
Why? Because he couldn't not come. "Because I had to," he blurted.
"Sentinel, why have you come?"
Okay; why had he come? For Blair, of course. "I come to support my Guide," he intoned gravely.
Blair nodded, then smiled happily, becoming Blair-the-friend, rather than Blair-the-mystical-Guide. "Okay, Jim, this first part is mostly mine. I'll ask you to join in later."
He reached into his backpack – the same one, Jim noted – which had been lying to one side, and pulled out a notebook and pen. Plumbing the backpack's depths again, he pulled out a handful of strips of paper. Blair balanced the notebook on his knee to provide a stable writing surface, glanced thoughtfully at Ellison, gnawed on the end of the pen for a moment, then began to write.
Jim waited while Sandburg scribbled feverishly, one sentence to each strip of paper. As Blair finished each one, he laid it face down on the ground beside him, so that not even sentinel vision could read it.
~Jim Ellison didn't trust Blair Sandburg.~
~Jim Ellison thought Blair Sandburg would lie to his face.~
~Jim Ellison thought Blair Sandburg would deliberately divulge secrets he had promised to keep.~
~Jim Ellison refused to listen when Blair Sandburg tried to explain what had happened.~
~Jim Ellison wanted to be a not-sentinel, and a not-sentinel doesn't need a guide.~
Jim grew restless; shouldn't he be part of this ceremony? "Chief, do I get to read those?"
"Not these, Jim, the next batch."
"But if this is supposed to help us clear the air, shouldn't I know what... I mean, how... I mean..." He floundered to a stop, uncertain how to express his confusion, or his feeling that he had to know.
Blair regarded him solemnly. "Jim, this part is to get rid of all the anger and the negative feelings in me. What I'm writing is some stuff that's not even true anymore, but if I don't express it some way, it'll fester inside. But if you read it, you'll probably feel guilty, and think you have to make excuses, and we'll have hurt feelings all over the place. Honest, you don't have to see it because soon it'll be gone and it won't matter anymore." He bent his head to continue writing, trying to let all the negative emotions flow through the ink onto the paper.
Jim still wasn't comfortable, but it was Blair's call. He settled into the patient, watchful waiting that had served him so well in the past, and resolutely avoided using enhanced vision to see what Blair was writing.
~Whatever Blair Sandburg does, Jim Ellison seems to ascribe the worst possible motives to its reasons.~
~Jim Ellison wants to deny the spiritual, integral parts of being a sentinel.~
~Jim Ellison doesn't trust Blair Sandburg's judgement.~
~Jim Ellison said he didn't want Blair Sandburg around.~
Finally, the frantic scribbling slowed, then stopped. Blair set aside the notebook and pen, picked up the strips of paper, and silently re-read each statement. He looked up at his waiting sentinel. "Okay, Jim, reach in my backpack and hand me the grinding bowl."
Ellison was puzzled; the bag was actually closer to Sandburg than it was to him. Maybe there was some significance in the bowl passing from his hand to Blair's? Acting with a reverence that he hoped wasn't misplaced, Jim used both hands gently cupped around the sides to withdraw the hollowed rock, with the pestle-stone nestled within, and presented it to Sandburg with a slight bow of his head. Blair accepted it in both hands with equal reverence and an answering nod, then placed it carefully on the ground between them. With a look, he encouraged Jim to match his own cross-legged position on the other side of the bowl. When Blair was satisfied that their positions were right, he picked up the strips of paper and began to tear them into tiny scraps, dropping the bits into the stone basin.
"Okay, Jim, now I need the dried corn from the leather pouch."
Once again he reached into his friend's backpack, and pulled out a small bag, about the size of his hand. It looked authentic, made of tanned animal-hide, with a pattern of beadwork made from porcupine quills and carved bone; briefly, he wondered where Sandburg had got it. With the same feelings of solemnity instructing his actions, he once again made a two-handed ceremonial presentation to Blair, and saw it accepted in the same manner.
Blair poured a double-handful of the dried corn into the grinding bowl. Rising on his knees to obtain a better working position, he began to pound the corn, grinding it into coarse meal and, incidentally, shredding the pieces of paper until they were indistinguishable from the cornmeal. But Sandburg continued to pound, the effort shortening his breath to grunted panting as he started sweating from the exertion. Jim watched, feeling slightly uneasy, as his friend continued pounding and grinding until the corn and paper was reduced to the texture of fine flour.
For his part, Blair was investing all his anger and frustration into the corn and the written words. All of these emotions needed to be purged, especially the biggest one – Jim didn't trust, didn't trust, didn't trust... But that was no longer true, and he needed to obliterate it from his psyche the same way he was destroying this corn. So he grunted, and beat, and pounded, and visualized smashing the anger as he pulverized the hard kernels – and watched the anger trickle away as the corn was transformed to coarse meal, then to flour, and lastly to the finest of powders.
Finally, it was finished. Blair sat back on his heels and pushed his hair out of his face. His eyes fixed on the powdered corn as he searched the hidden corners of his mind, seeking any residual traces of his previous resentment. Gone. Thank God, it was truly gone. He raised his eyes to Jim's, with a smile of satisfaction and triumph.
"It's gone, Jim. All the pettiness has been crushed, just like that corn. Now..." he scooped up the stone basin and rose to his feet, his friend following a beat behind, "...we try to ensure that it doesn't return by letting the Spirits dispose of it. Follow me."
Quietly, Sandburg walked toward the stream, with Ellison a step behind. Removing a small amount of the powdered corn, Blair cast it across the surface as he proclaimed, "The waters will wash away the anger, and dilute it, so that it fades into nothingness." Silently, he passed the bowl to his sentinel, with an encouraging nod. Trying not to feel foolish, Jim also tossed a portion of the ground corn upon the water as he repeated Blair's words, then passed the bowl back to his guide.
Blair led them back to the clearing, coming to a halt in a grassy area away from the campfire. Standing with his back to the breeze, he tossed a half-handful of the finely-ground corn into the air. As he watched the particles scatter and drift in the currents, he announced, "The winds will dissipate the frustration, so that it can never find root within us." Again, a small nod persuaded Ellison to imitate actions and words.
Blair headed back toward the campfire, Jim now comfortably beside him. He stopped within reach of the low-burning flames, and tilted the bowl to allow half of the remaining cornmeal to fall and be consumed. Watching the tiny motes flare and die, he declared, "The fire will incinerate the irritation, rendering it impotent and powerless to affect us." He passed the bowl to Ellison, who tipped the last of the powdered corn into the flames while he repeated Blair's words.
Blair heaved a sigh as the last of the ground corn burned to nothingness, then sank cross-legged beside the fire again, waving for Jim to sit next to him, rather than across from him, as before. "Now comes the good part; we celebrate all that's right between us." He passed a handful of the pre-cut slips of paper to Ellison, along with a pen, and a grin. "Think of it as homework, man. "Write at least five sentences – more if you feel like it – that tell what you think is good about me and what I do, and why we should keep our partnership together. And I'll write what I like about you, of course. Just one sentence per slip of paper, but..." his eyes twinkled, "... spelling doesn't matter." Then he bent over his own pieces of paper, his hair falling forward to shield his face as he scribbled industriously.
~Jim wrote me he was sorry.~
~Jim said that he wanted me to continue as his partner.~
~Jim said that I have a piece of his soul, and he's happy with that.~
~Jim said he doesn't want to live without me.~
~Jim said he's closer to me than a brother, closer than married couples.~
~Jim said he felt empty without me beside him.~
~Jim said he needs me to use his sentinel senses to their fullest effect.~
~Jim said he'd try to be a better partner, and a better friend.~
~Jim said he needs me to be with him.~
~Jim said he would talk to me, that he would no longer shut me out.~
~Jim's already a good friend; he cleared up the dissertation mess at Rainier.~
~Jim figured out a way to remove the taint of 'fraud' and 'liar' from my reputation.~
~Jim put money in my bank account to try to make my life easier.~
~Jim renovated the loft so that I would have more room, and feel more at home.~
~Jim made the effort to address his own issues – he actually talked to a shrink and a Rabbi!~
~Jim has made sure that I'll have a place at the PD.~
Sitting beside his friend, Jim stared blankly at his own pieces of paper. Words. Sandburg wanted words. He still felt uncomfortable, almost as if he were on the spot, but... of course, he wasn't. Sandburg would take any offering he made, without judgment; he knew that. And, he'd already written what Blair meant to him, in his letter. So, he just had to write those things again; that would work.
~Sandburg doesn't make negative judgments.~
~Sandburg accepts me for what I am.~
~Sandburg understands my senses, and helps make them work.~
~Sandburg is always there for me.~
~Blair is the most giving person I know.~
~Sandburg knows everything that's inside me, and it doesn't matter to him.~
~Blair wants to keep being my partner.~
~Blair wants to keep living in the loft.~
~Sandburg wants to be Guide to the Sentinel.~
~Sandburg is strong; he can take my guff and give it right back.~
~Blair doesn't hold my guff against me.~
~Sandburg's intelligence and people-insights make him a great partner.~
~Blair 'fits' – in my life, in the PD, and in Major Crimes.~
~Blair said we'll be partners in the Sentinel thing, not researcher and subject.~
~Blair thinks of me as a 'beloved big brother'.~
~Blair and I make a damn good team.~
The ~scritch~ing of the pens gradually slowed, then stopped, and both men looked up at almost the same moment. Sandburg gave a lopsided, self-conscious grin as he said, "Well, now it's your call, Jim. I'd like you to read what I wrote, but you don't have to show me yours if you don't want to. It's whatever you feel comfortable with, man."
"Chief," he said firmly as he shook his head slightly, "I already told you how I felt; this is just more of the same. I don't mind you reading it. It's kind of sappy, but as long as it's just between us..." He shrugged as he handed over the pieces of paper, receiving Blair's in return.
"Thanks, Jim," he said quietly. "I really appreciate it. Now, no comments as we read these; we just accept what the other person says and feels, got it?"
Jim nodded silently, and started reading Sandburg's thoughts. As he went through the list, his heart eased with a sense of relief and quiet satisfaction. Good, and thank God; Blair recognized and understood all that he'd tried to say in his letter, and his actions, and accepted it all. Ellison breathed a silent sigh of satisfaction, and turned his perceptions outward; how was Blair responding to Jim's thoughts?
Despite his own instructions, Blair couldn't read without commenting, although his whispered words would have been inaudible to anyone but the sentinel sitting beside him. Murmurs of, "Yeah, man, absolutely," and "You really think so? That's great!" assured Ellison that his words were being received with equal appreciation.
At last Blair looked up, his gaze meeting Jim's with a quiet serenity. "Now that we know what's in each other's hearts, we give it to the Spirits, so that they'll know, too, and can safeguard it for us. Pass me the basket that's in my backpack."
Once again, Jim reached inside – Everything but the kitchen sink, he thought with amusement – and carefully extracted a small, shallow basket. A slight unevenness in its shape suggested that it had been made by less-than-experienced hands, but apparently with great care – three different grasses had been used to supply color variations that had been woven into an attractive, graceful pattern. As before, he handed it to his friend with ceremonial reverence. But Blair hadn't missed Jim's appraising glance.
"I knew basic basket-weaving techniques, but Mary Two-Feathers showed me how to incorporate the pattern. But I did it all with my own two hands, so that it's an offering of my own work and effort to the Spirits. Now, pass me the canteen."
Canteen? Jim did so, and watched in astonishment as Blair filled the basket. Although tightly-woven, it was not sufficiently so to hold liquids. Blair held it away from himself as he watched the water darken the dried grasses, then drip through to fall on the ground below. "We want it to burn slowly, with lots of smoke, so that the Spirits will have time to capture and save our messages," he explained.
"All right," he continued, when all the water had seeped through the basket, "now we lay our message-strips inside." He handed the basket to Jim, who carefully placed Blair's papers inside, and passed it back. Blair laid Jim's papers within, then painstakingly set the basket in the exact center of the low-burning fire. As the flames licked at the offering, and the smoke started to rise, he intoned, "Let the Spirits hold the secrets of our hearts within their safekeeping, so that Sentinel and Guide, and Jim and Blair, always remember their place in each other's lives, and treasure their friendship and partnership. And..." Jim noted that his solemnity now had a twinkle, "... may the good Lord, Yahweh, and the Great Earth Mother also watch over us, and let us not forget what we mean to each other, so that never again will the shit hit the fan. Amen."
Jim manfully caught the snort that tried to escape, and shoved it deep within. "Amen," he answered with suitable gravity and, together, they watched the basket burn smokily into ashes, carrying their heartfelt messages to Whoever – or Whatever – would listen.
Oddly enough, despite the sometimes hokey aspects, Jim did feel more confident of his partnership with Sandburg, and certain that it would all work out. The nagging uncertainties were fading and, noting Blair's more relaxed manner and the lack of former tension in his muscles and around his eyes, he rejoiced that his friend was feeling the same benefits. The ceremony had worked; they would go back to Cascade and their partnership with a stronger, unbreakable connection.
"So now what, Chief? Are we ready to head back to Cascade? Or..." he hesitated, uneasily aware that he might be presuming too much, "...do we still have things to talk about?"
"Tomorrow, Jim," Blair murmured gently. "Right now, you ride back to wherever you're staying. I'll spend the night here, do some more meditation, and ride back to the ranch in the morning. How about you meet me there around three?"
His gaze swept the area, noting a distinct lack of supplies. "Sandburg," he objected, "you don't have any food here, or any shelter!"
"I don't need any of that," was the calm reply. "A shaman doesn't eat or sleep when communing with the Spirits, or a guide when meditating. Don't worry, man; I'll be fine.
Jim was unwilling to leave his friend alone. "Blair... it's been two years; I can't just walk away! How about I stay here and keep watch, or something? It's what a sentinel does, after all. I promise, I won't disturb your meditation."
"I know how you feel, big guy, but this is something I have to finish alone." His gaze was earnest as he tried to reassure his friend. "I'll be perfectly safe here. Just come to the ranch tomorrow; I'll be there.
Still reluctant, but realizing that arguing might damage the peace they had constructed between them, the Sentinel once again followed his Guide's instructions. He put on his shirt and boots, then saddled and bridled his horse, removed the hobbles, and led it to the stream for a drink before they started the long ride back to the village. Finally, he swung into the saddle and guided the horse to the homeward trail.
As he reached the treeline, Jim paused and looked back to see Sandburg once again sitting cross-legged by the fire, eyes closed in silent meditation. He wasn't particularly surprised to see Incacha sitting on the other side of the fire, with the wolf and panther completing the circle, and Incacha's spirit eagle watching from a not-too-distant tree. Reassured that his guide was safe, he turned again and headed into the forest.
The blue and white pickup passed under the peeled-pole archway with the metalwork sign that proclaimed, "C-Bar Ranch - Welcome". Ellison looked around, then headed toward the "Guest Parking" sign.
As he exited the truck, Jim glanced again at his watch. 2:36. Well, that was 'around three'. He simply couldn't wait any longer. Sandburg must surely be here by now, but where? Aided by the discreet signs on the front of each building, it was easy enough to recognize the main house, guest quarters, office, and bunkhouse, but which one held his partner?
Scent wouldn't work. Although he could catch traces of Sandburg under the dusty earth, animal smells, fresh and dried manure, and dozens of other olfactory inputs, the target scent was too diffuse, and too long-standing to follow a fresh trail.
Sound? There wasn't much activity to screen his guide's heartbeat. Jim delicately extended his hearing – and there it was. He headed toward the office, eager to get Blair into the truck, back within his senses, his circle of protection, his... personal comfort zone.
As he approached the building, Sandburg stepped out onto the porch and stood without speaking, regarding Jim solemnly. He seemed to be waiting, expecting something specific, and Jim paused in confusion. What? Hadn't they covered this yesterday?
As his mind searched frantically for a clue, he suddenly remembered a line from Blair's first letter. We need to throw out all our old reactions and preconceptions about each other and start fresh... Yes, of course. The pattern for first meetings was well-known.
He climbed the steps to the porch and extended his hand. "How do you do?" he said easily. "I'm Jim Ellison."
Blair's hand met his with equal formality. "Pleased to meet you," he answered. "I'm Blair Sandburg." Then the wide, easy, Sandburg smile brightened his face as he looked up at his friend. "God, Jim, I'm so glad to see you!"
Jim's face sported an answering smile as he dropped Sandburg's hand and gathered him into a profound hug, which Blair fervently returned. "Me, too, Chief," he murmured, reveling in the contentment of being with his friend and guide after so long apart. "Me, too." He tightened the hug, and felt Blair reciprocate. They stood for a timeless interval – friend and partner, Jim and Blair, sentinel and guide – each silently promising the other that they would never again be parted.
Finally, when the need to touch and reconnect had been marginally satisfied, Jim pulled back just a little, but still kept his hands on Blair's shoulders. "You –" His voice cracked under the emotion, and he cleared his throat to try again. "You ready to come home, Chief?"
Blair's smile became impossibly wider, seeming almost incandescent. "Home." He seemed to savor the taste of the word in his mouth. "Y'know, it's a cliché, but that's gotta be the sweetest word in the language. Yeah, Jim, I'm ready to come home."
He slung his backpack over his shoulder and reached for the duffle bag that had been waiting next to the porch railing. Ellison, seeing his intent, grabbed it first. Then, with Jim's arm across his partner's shoulder, and Blair's arm around his friend's waist, Sentinel and Guide headed toward the truck, ready to face their destiny – together.
Aussie - American Translation
Drongos - idiots
Fair go, a - a decent chance
Gave you a gobful - gave you a hard time
Good oil, the - the real truth
Grog - alcoholic beverage
Itching for a blue - asking for a fight
Stickybeak, a - a nosy person
Suss out, to - to check out or discover