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In a Nutshell (volume two)

Chapter Text

It was innocent enough when it started. Well, innocent was the wrong word. He knew from the get go that it was illegal, but it was only money after all. He certainly didn't mean any harm by it. Move a little something here, something there... earn a little extra on the side, that was the plan. He deserved it, after all. It wasn't like the RCMP paid him enough, and to begin with they were victimless crimes. Or so he told himself. Of course, there were victims, but he didn't see them... and most of them were crooks themselves, so who cared?

He hadn't meant to hurt anyone. Not in the beginning. It was meant to be a one off, a quick pay day... not the start of a slippery slope. And it was easy... so easy. And why not, after all? Why the hell not?

It was Muldoon who came to him with the idea.

“Look, you're a Mountie. You've got a free pass, pretty much. You can move things about more easily than I can... so what do you say?”

By the time that question was asked, Gerrard was in pretty deep anyway. So he went along with it. Again, who would it really hurt?

He'd known for some time that Muldoon had his little deals going on. He liked the man, so he had turned a blind eye. At first the extent of his collusion was just to keep what he knew to himself. Then, one evening, sitting in the back corner of the bar, he started offering advice to Muldoon. Perhaps he'd had too much to drink, but hell... he couldn't let a friend get in trouble now, could he? If Muldoon wasn't careful Bob and Buck would notice. The only reason they didn't already know was that the RCMP kept sending them on long assignments... God alone knew where. Muldoon was getting careless, and next time they were assigned nearer home Bob and Buck would figure it out. They'd notice, of course they would... and they'd do something about it. They'd have no choice. Because those two guys were married to the Law. They would be bound to start digging into things if they knew.

So the day came when Gerrard eased himself comfortably in his chair, stretching his legs out, took a swig of beer, and started on the slippery slope. “You know, Muldoon,” he tapped his nose, “you've got to figure out how to make the money look legit.”

“What money, what you talking about?”

“You know... your extra curricular earnings.” For a moment Gerrard worried that he had... well, not so much put a foot in it, as stepped over a cliff. Muldoon's face was sinister. The bar noise carried on, unabated, but it had got unnervingly quiet in Gerrard's head. He suddenly remembered that Muldoon was a hunter, a trapper... a skilled and dangerous man. Then Muldoon was laughing.

“Well, since you seem to think you know something, why don't you tell me what you think you know?”

“I don't know anything,” Gerrard said, his palms sweating. “And... and I want to keep it that way. You don't want people to know anything, do you?” He took another pull on his beer, and set it back down on the table with a clunk. His hands were shaking, but he managed a smile, as though nothing was unusual at all. He cleared his throat. “On a completely unrelated matter,” he stuttered, and tried again. “On a completely unrelated matter, did you know how Mounties often get their man?” Muldoon shook his head. Gerrard continued, warming to his theme. “Sometimes it's just hunting, tracking, what you do. But sometimes it's different... tracking humans is different from tracking animals. Often times it's because the person made some little mistake, or got greedy. When people seem to have more income than you'd expect... it seems... well, incongruous is the word. People notice money, you know, watch it. And they get jealous about it, complain about it. If enough people grumble then it's bad news... unless the money looks legit. So... guys who get away with having lots of money... well, they have to be clever. It's not enough to earn the money, you have to hide it too.”

“And how might a clever guy hide his money?” Muldoon was leaning forward, with his elbows on the table, staring straight at him. He was a big guy. 'Massive' was the word. Gerrard couldn't keep up eye contact, felt like a kid on the playground who had inadvertently attracted the attention of the school bully. Why had he started this? He couldn't remember... He picked up his bottle, and started swirling the dregs around, to keep his hands and eyes busy while he talked.

“Well, a clever man would make sure he declared at least some of his extra income, paid tax on it... Nobody expects criminals to pay income tax on their illegal earnings. Paying taxes goes a long way to legitimising money. But of course, to pay tax you have to make it look legal in the first place.”

“And how might a man do that?”

“Well, he might come into money through inheritance... obviously some distant friend or relative from a foreign country might leave him something. Harder to check up on dead relatives if they're living in Africa, or Asia... And then again, a clever man might also have financial interests, a stock portfolio perhaps.”

“And would you be able to help such a clever man to legitimise his business?”

Gerrard darted a glance at Muldoon, and realised that the man was offering him an opportunity. For a moment he was squeezed between anxiety and greed. He didn't want to get involved in anything too dirty... he'd never thought to play in the big leagues before. But Muldoon... well, Muldoon was a friend, wasn't he? And he was a legend, people admired him. A man like Muldoon could get away with a lot, and with Gerrard to watch his back...

“Yeah,” he said, “yeah... I might be persuaded to help a clever man.”

That was how it had started. In a muddle of slightly tipsy concern for a friend not to be caught, fear for his own safety, and undeniable greed. When he finally realised how much trouble he was in, there was nothing he could do about it.

And God, honest to God, he never, ever intended anyone to get hurt. Not someone he knew. Least of all Bob. Least of all... her.

By the time he was called to that crime scene it was far too late to stop.

Chapter Text

The 'midgies' were ferocious this year, but Caroline welcomed them. With the coming of spring Bob was likely returning. Benny, however, took no such comfort in their arrival. He kept slapping himself, just an instant too late to punish a midge, but just hard enough to add to the insult.

“Come here, son,” she said, for the umpteenth time, “let me put some cream on you.”

“I don't like it, it stinks.”

“Yes, but it stops the midgies from biting.”

“It's as bad as the midgies!”

“Nothing's as bad as these midgies.” Caroline tried not to grin, because Benny was very solemn in his martyrdom by midgie, and didn't see the funny side at all.

“Why did God make midgies?”

“Because he wanted to give us something to pray about.”

“Are they like the plaque of locals the minister was talking about?”

They had just put in one of their semi regular appearances at Sunday services. Caroline had no problem with God, or his son, but she wasn't particularly fond of organised religion. However, in order to fit in around here, even slightly, it didn't do to be suspected of heathen practices. So she dragged herself and Benny along, maybe once a month, to sit at the back of the chapel, bored out of their minds. Every time they came back from some such service Benny would be in a bad mood, and full of awkward questions about the sermons.

“Plague of locusts. And yes, I suppose so.”

“God was mean to the Egyptians.”

“I suppose he was.”

“Is Canada Egypt sometimes?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the sun goes dark every winter. And the sun went dark over Egypt.”

“Ah, no. You see, Egypt is nearer the Equator than we are, so its days tend to be a similar length.”

“Equator?”

“Yes... the middle of the earth. We're on the roof. Look, let me show you...” Caroline took an apple out of her pocket, flown in earlier that week, and held it by the stalk, twirling. “You see us? We're up near the top, here. And the Egyptians are here.”

“So why do they have different days from us?”

“Because...” Caroline blinked. If he was asking questions like this when he was five, how on earth was she going to answer his questions when he was fifteen? “Look, come in with me, and I'll show you in a book.”

“Okay!” Benny launched himself towards the cabin with uncharacteristic eagerness to get indoors. Anything to get out of the range of the merciless midges.

So when their visitor came over the hill, they had their heads in an Atlas, examining paintings of the planets as they circled around the sun.

Benny looked up first. “I hear a horse.”

“Do you?” Caroline crinkled her brow and tipped her head to the window. She had extremely good hearing, but Benny's youth gave him an edge. “I can't hear anything.”

“Oh, it's not a horse. It's too little. And there's a man walking with it.”

“Do you think it's Daddy?”

“No. It sounds like Murphy.”

Caroline nodded. Benny was usually right about these things. “I'll put the kettle on for him. I wonder what he's doing with a horse?”

“A little horse.”

“A little horse. I wonder what he's doing with a little horse.”

“I'll run up and see.”

“Turn round, Benny.” He turned round, and she couldn't help but grin as she splashed him with anti midgie cream.

“Mom! No!”

“Too late, you might as well let me put it on properly now.”

He scowled, and let her splather his face and the bare parts of his arms and legs with the gooey unguent. “You think this smells bad,” she teased him, “just be glad I made it. The stuff people buy from shops smells even worse.”

“Nothing smells worse than this.”

Caroline shook her head, fondly. “Go on with you then. See what Murphy wants.”

Benny bounced out the door, and tore off down the lane as fast as his dimpled legs would carry him.
...

The grumpy little mule had been nothing but a nuisance for the last fifteen miles, but it was worth every step. The look on Benny's face when Murphy told him the mule was a present for him and his Mom was priceless.

“Can I ride him now?”

“You know, he's a cranky old thing, and he's walked a long way over the last couple of days. Maybe give him a bit of a rest first.”

“Does he like apples?”

“I reckon so, but I don't suppose anyone's got any apples yet.” Murphy guessed that the boy must have a secret stash somewhere, or he wouldn't have offered it, but knew also that the lad wanted to return the surprise with one of his own.

“We got apples three days ago. You can have some too. And spuds, and lots of veggies, and tins of meat, and tea, and sugar and...”

“Well, our friend here won't eat the meat or the potatoes, but he'll be happy for any apples or carrots you might have.”

“Will he like sugar?”

“Oh, he'll love sugar, but he can't have too much. Bad for his teeth.”

“Mom only lets me have sugar once a week. Too much makes me feel sick.”

“That's why you have such nice teeth then.”

Benny nodded solemnly, and stroked the old mule down his long nose. “He feels all soft on his face like a cushion. Does he have a name?”

“Well, some of the kids who had him before had names for him, but I don't think he liked 'em much.”

“What, did they call him bad names?” Benny sounded offended on behalf of his new friend.

“One of the nicer names was 'Sir Stinks a Lot.'” Murphy grinned ruefully. “So it's not surprising he's cranky. But he's a nice enough mule when you get to know him. You have to be kind to him though. He got cross with me a while back, and I think the old boy's tired.”

“Who gave him to you?”

“Farmer's wife, back a way.” He jerked over his shoulder with his thumb. “Her husband wanted to feed him to the dogs, but the kids didn't like the idea.”

“Why would they want to feed him to the dogs?”

“Well, he's old, and bad tempered. But I took a look at him, and I reckon he's got a few good years in him yet, if somebody's kind to him. And I think his temper will improve if he's treated right. You reckon you can be kind to him?” Murphy knew the answer before the boy replied. It was shining in his eyes.

“Oh yes, yes, I'd love to.”

Caroline stood with her hand on her hip, shaking her head incredulously. “Only a man,” she said, “would think it was a good idea to turn up out of nowhere and give a horse to a five year old.”

“He's not a horse, he's a mule,” Benny's lower lip was pushed out, and he had his arms wrapped buried in the creature's mane. Already, Caroline could tell, the old mule was beginning to warm to her son. She didn't know what it was about the boy, but most animals seemed fond of him. Bob was the same.

“I'm sorry, Caroline,” Murphy scratched his ear. “I couldn't think what else to do with him. Anyone else would have worked him to death or...”

“Or fed him to their dogs. Oh... please, Mom? Please?”

“For goodness sake...” She wasn't really cross about it, in fact, she was rather amused watching Benny's instant attachment to the creature, but she felt the need to show at least some token resistance. If word got out that they were taking in rescued donkeys or whatnot they'd end up swamped.

“He will be more useful when the snow's completely melted,” Murphy pointed out, “and besides, Bob told me that he'd be looking out for a little donkey or mule. He thought it was about time that Benny learned to ride. I'm sorry, I thought you knew about this.”

“So this was Bob's idea?”

“He did tell me to keep an eye out for a little donkey, or pony...”

“Well, he could have told me.”

Murphy was looking embarrassed. Caroline was too cross to sympathise with his discomfort. All right, so it wasn't his fault, he was just doing a favour for Bob... but for goodness sake!

“I don't know why I bother,” she muttered. “He won't be the one to clean up after him, pick up his poop, check his hooves...”

“I can find somebody else to take him if it's a problem?”

Caroline took one look at her son's pleading gaze, and relented. “Of course not, I'm sure that...” Benny threw himself at her, and she staggered back three steps under the velocity of that hug.

“Thank you, Mom, I love you...”

“Thank Murphy!”

He turned round and did just that, hugging Murphy's knees. Caroline chuckled at the look of alarm on the man's face as he patted Benny's head.

“Well, I suppose he should have a name,” she said, looking at the mule speculatively. “What do you want to call him, Benton?”

“Oh, I know! I know!”

“Well then, share it with us.”

“You know that story you've been telling me, about the Spanish man, and the windmills?”

“You want to call him Don Quixote?”

“No... let's call him Rocinante.” Benny was obviously concentrating hard in his effort to get the name right.

“We could. Or maybe we could call him Rocky for short?”

“Rocky,” Benny said, obviously relieved. “Hello Rocky, do you want an apple?” The mule put his face alongside Benny's and grumbled. Benny looked at her solemnly. “Rocky wants an apple.”

“I can see that.” She smiled across at Murphy, and nodded. “And I suppose you'd like a cup of tea. Come on. Back to the cabin...” she glanced at her son, tongue in cheek. “Rocky stays outside, you understand.”

“Yes, Mom.”

“And you'll look after him, yes?”

“Yes, Mom!”

Hmm... well she could see that she had the ultimate weapon to coerce her son's obedience from now on... if he wanted to play with Rocky he'd have to do as he was told. But she could also tell that she'd be doing the real 'donkey' work.

It was worth it, to see Ben happy.

“Come on then.” She started walking back to the house, followed by Benny, Murphy, and the shaggy old mule. Men, she thought, raising her eyes to heaven. Typical Bob.

Despite her irritation, she couldn't help but smile.

Chapter Text

It had been a long trek from the Thomas farmstead, and this was his first cup of tea in two days. It was heaven. He cradled the warmth of it gratefully between his hands, and inhaled its sweet scent. Soon he'd have to be on his way, but it was the last leg of the journey now. He could rest, clean up... and see her. A private smile crept across his face. He hadn't seen her in six weeks. He wondered how she was. Behind the expectation anxiety began to nibble again, like a nasty little mouse in his belly. It always came alive at this stage of the journey. Maybe she wouldn't be there, maybe she would have moved away, moved on...

He pushed the mouse down. Nothing he could do about it. Worrying didn't help no one.

He sat on the step, and turned his thoughts outward, watching with approval as Caroline taught Benny how best to card Rocky's mane. Once he finished his tea he joined them, and rechecked the old mule's hooves again, using it as an excuse to educate Benny on how to behave amongst equines. He'd noticed, long ago, that the boy was fluent in canine body language. He imagined that the lad had the knack to learn to talk horse.

And he was right. As he knelt by the old mule, gentling him with words and touch, Benny was shadowing his actions, watching him eagerly. Murphy showed him how to approach the old mule without intimidating him, and told him to always be careful around his feet. “You might love him, and he might love you, but just remember, an angry or a frightened mule can kick you to death. So be careful, all right?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good lad. Your father will be home, he'll teach you some. And every time I come by here I'll drop in to see how you're doing. And remember to listen to your Mom, she knows horses if anyone does.”

“He's not a horse.”

“Well, he's in the same family. Like dogs are in the family of wolf. If you can talk to a dog, then you should be able to talk to a wolf, so long as you treat them with respect, and remember who's in charge.”

“We're in charge, right?”

“Don't be silly, son,” Murphy laughed. “The wolf's in charge, nothing wrong with that.”

“Have you met many wolves?”

“I'm related to them, on my mother's side of the family.”

Benny looked at him gravely, and Murphy looked gravely back, tongue planted firmly in cheek. It was easy enough to keep a straight face. After all, he was only half joking.

“Come on, Benny,” Caroline was talking now. “You know you've got to come in and get cleaned up. We'll get Rocky nice and comfortable, and you can see him tomorrow.”

“Awh, Mom, please?”

“You can help me get him sorted out for rest, and that's it. The old boy's tired, he needs to sleep. And so do you.” She looked across to Murphy. “You're welcome to stay, I can make up a bed by the stove.”

It was not the first time one of the Frasers had offered him hospitality for the night, but though he was grateful, he was yet to accept it. He knew that their neighbours already thought them an odd couple. Letting a native into their home could lead to all sorts of unpleasant gossip, particularly since Caroline's husband was not home at the moment. The Frasers might not think of the consequences, or might think them trivial, but he knew better. Particularly given the division of public opinion in the aftermath of the murder trial.

“No, thank you Mrs Fraser, but I've got to get on tonight. I've got to get into town.”

“That's long way in the dark. You can borrow the truck.”

Murphy felt his shoulders relax a little. It was a police vehicle, he could justify that generosity.

“Thank you kindly. I'll get it sent back to you tomorrow.”

“That's all right, I don't want to think of you slipping on the ice and breaking a leg. You know to drive careful of course.”

“That I do,” he sighed. “That was one hell of a crash up by the reservation. They're still picking up bits of...” his voice trailed off, and he looked at Benny. The boy didn't need to hear this. “Well, you know, Mrs Fraser, you were there.”

Caroline nodded. It had been a terrible scene. The road had simply collapsed, swallowing up two vehicles and eight people before a warning came out to avoid that route. As she'd come over the horizon and saw the black mouth in the earth, smoke still rising from it, she had realised that she shouldn't have taken Benny with her. He was too old to be oblivious, but too young to leave by himself. Fortunately Murphy had been waiting on her arrival, and had taken the lad off to visit Edward and his foster family. Benny's memories of the day were full of fun. Caroline's memories were entirely different, as were Murphy's. They had spent hours piecing people back together, as the light failed around them. The last victim had taken three hours to die. By the time the rescue crew finally arrived there were no survivors.

He shouldn't have brought it up. “Yes, I'll be careful,” he said, reassuringly. “Don't worry.”

She nodded, then briskly nudged Benny on the small of the back. “Come on then, let's see you lead Rocky to his bedroom.”

Benny gently stepped up to the mule, rubbing his face along the length of his muzzle, and stroking his neck with long fluid movements. Then he turned, loosely embracing Rocky, and started walking to the dog shed. There was a longish shed next to it that they used for stabling the occasional horse who visited, so it was obvious where Rocky would be living now. The old mule resisted for only a moment, then began, uncomplainingly, to trot along after his new friend. Murphy looked at Caroline, and raised his eyebrows. “He's got the knack.”

She nodded, an affectionate pride on her face. “He does that.”

Fine woman, Murphy thought. Fine son.

He thought about his own woman, his own son, some day, his own daughter.

And there it was again... anxiety, excitement, a mouse scuttling in his chest.

He would see her today.

“Thanks again,” he said as Caroline handed him the keys to the truck.

“Think nothing of it. Be safe.”

He backed the truck out slowly, so as not to spook the mule, then turned, and began, carefully, to make his way to town.

Chapter Text

“You do know that she's gonna kill me?”

“Oh, don't be melodramatic, she'll do nothing of the sort.”

“Well, I'm supposed to look out for you, you big galoot, you are my partner after all.”

“You did fine, stop going on about it.” Bob's eyes were screwed shut, and he clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. He was probably white as a sheet, but you couldn't tell in the moonlight. “Could have happened to anybody,” he continued tersely.

“Happened to you, that's the problem.” Damn... it wasn't deep, thank God, but it was messy. A dark shudder ran through Buck, as he considered just how much worse it might have been.

Bob hissed. “What the hell is that? It burns.”

“It's whiskey, only disinfectant I could think of.”

“You're wasting whiskey on my leg?”

Buck pretended to glower at him, but cracked up instead. Completely inappropriate, practically hysterical, but he was still so damned frightened, and so damned relieved... it had to come out of him somehow, and cackling like a loon seemed suddenly the only way to go. Finally he managed to talk again. “I know. Single Malt. Criminal, isn't it?”

“Well, thank you kindly,” Bob did not sound amused. “I am forever in your debt.”

Buck wiped his eyes on the back of his arm, and took a steadying breath.

“You think you can walk on it?”

“I'm not crippled.”

“Well, you're as ornery as ever, so I reckon you're okay.”

Bob laughed then, and hissed as Buck began to wrap up his leg. “What the hell shall I tell her happened?”

“Tell her the truth, you got swiped by an angry polar bear.”

“She'll kill me.”

“Bob, she's a nurse for God's sake. She's going to know you didn't cut yourself shaving.”

Bob looked at him, and managed to smile. “When you put it that way...”

“Come on. Get yourself up, just for a little while, you don't want the muscle to stiffen up on you.” That wasn't why he wanted him walking. He just wanted to make sure Bob didn't go shocky on him, though he wasn't about to admit that to his partner. He braced himself, and hauled his friend to his feet. Bob let out a yell, finally, but managed to stand and take a step.

“Oh yeah, this is wonderful,” he said, drily. “Let's go for a walk. In fact, let's walk all the way home, why don't we?”

“The dogs will be back.”

“What makes you think that?”

“They'll be hungry. The rest of the pack are here. And there's a whopping great polar bear to eat.”

Bob stared across at his fallen foe, balefully. “You sure it's actually dead this time?”

“Yes,” Buck sighed. “But if you like I'll shoot it in the head again for good measure.”

“At least we won't starve to death,” Bob conceded, “though we might damn well freeze to death.”

“Well, you've got a point, we need to eat.” Buck looked at the fallen white mass. Funny, people always thought polar bears were white, but when you got up close to one of them, they didn't seem white at all. Certainly not against real snow, and not in this light. The moon was hard as a diamond, the stars like spikes and shrapnel in the sky. The snow reflected back the sky's brutal beauty like a mirror. Against that purity the bear looked dirty in death. Although Buck knew he'd done the only possible thing, and he'd do it again in a heart beat, he felt sorry for this creature. There was a real indignity in how he had died. He had been trapped by his left hind leg, and had half gnawed it off by the time he and Bob came upon the scene. They had circled at a distance, and watched for some time, before deciding that the bear was obviously dead.

“Yeah, it looks like the same guy's behind it,” Bob had said, peering at the trap. “It's our hunter all right.”

“We'll have to wait till sun up to get proper pictures of this,” Buck pointed out, “if we use the flash it will just wash it out. And we'll need the light to safely disassemble the trap.” They'd been tracking their illegal hunter for several weeks now, and though they hadn't been able to find him yet, they had gathered enough physical evidence of his activities that they had a solid case now. They could prove that somebody was breaking regulations, hunting without a licence. Only native peoples were allowed to hunt polar bears, and they were restricted to doing so using traditional methods. And that big claw trap was certainly not one of the approved methods. Whoever their malfeasant was, he seemed to be hunting everything, without regard to any law, or tradition, or decency. Buck was a hunter, he knew how these things should be done. With mercy. This guy was ruthless.

“Hopefully there will be some damn finger prints on it,” Bob had said, and stepped closer to get a better look at the trap.

Which was when the polar bear decided to come back to life again.

“Jesus!” Bob jumped back, and went ass over heels, tripping on the chain of the trap. Buck jumped sideways, yelling at the top of his lungs, trying to attract the bear's attention as he pulled his rifle off his back and braced himself to shoot. He had never, ever in his life got his weapon ready to fire so quickly.

Time was slowing to a crystal crawl, and the bear swung and moved in that moment, lashing out at Bob, lying in helpless on the snow.

The creature ignored the first shot, which scored across his back, drawing what looked like a charcoal line through the fur. The second shot dug into his shoulder, making him flinch, and turn his attention from Bob. He lurched toward Buck, jerking and tugging against the traitorous limb which anchored him to the spot, and roared. Buck reloaded, and stood firm as he braced his rifle over his left arm to steady it. The bear was swinging at him now, his paws swiping within inches of the rifle. Buck squeezed the trigger again, and the bear dropped, one side of his head exploding messily, in a shower of black blood.

“Bob! Bob!”

That horrible moment when your partner is down, and you don't know if he's living or dying. Officer down... and nobody within hundreds of miles who could do anything to help.

“Bob!”

“Oh Good Lord,” that familiar voice, and Buck could have kissed him. Instead, he flung his arms around him, and slung him on his back, crunching back to the dogs, who huddled together, shivering by the sled. Damn it, some of them had tangled out of their straps and fled... three. Damn it... He was shaking himself, and after he positioned Bob as comfortably in the sled as he could, he put his rifle down, turned, marched quickly ten steps away, and threw up.

Okay, that was over with. He spat, then marched back as though nothing had happened. Briskly he began to see to Bob's wound.

And while he was tending the wound (not so, bad, thank God, not so bad at all) and bantering about Caroline, and whiskey, and bad temper, and making Bob walk to stop him going into shock, and laughing like a maniac, all he could think was if it had to have been somebody, why couldn't it have been him? There were so many things out here that could kill you... cold, loneliness, hunger, damned bears, disappearing dogs, hunters, holes in the ice... and Bob might still get a fever from the wound, and they still had to collect their evidence...

If somebody had to be hurt, he thought, why hadn't it been him? Because he'd do any damn thing for Bob, he knew it.

He'd even missed.

Chapter Text

“Your boyfriend is here.” Aimée's heart clutched in her throat, and she smiled despite the malice in the other woman's voice. Claire made a huffing sound of disapproval, and stepped out the back of the shop. “You can serve him. I'm taking a break.” Aimee couldn't complain, since Claire was, after all, the daughter of the owner. She could do as she liked. Aimée's hands went to her hair, smoothing it down. If she'd known he was coming she'd have tried to do something with it...

The bell tinkled, and Murphy came in the front door. She tried to school her face, but she could feel the smile breaking through anyway. It was answered by his own. He looked good.

“Aimée,” he said, “how are you?”

“I'm fine, Peter,” she replied, “it's been a long time. You been busy?”

“Pretty much. And you?”

Her throat felt tight. Sometimes it took them ages to get past the dull small talk. It was as though, every time he went away, it put them back a bit. She needed to say something to break the pattern. Think, try to think of something...

All that came out was, “you look good.”

He grinned, craggily. “You look good too.”

Too forward, she thought, but said it anyway. "You want to walk with me, after work?”

“You don't mind being seen with me?”

“You don't mind being seen with me, do you?”

“Ah, but you're beautiful.”

“I'm a brioche,” she declared. “Brown on the outside, all fluff on the inside.”

Murphy shook his head. “That's what you get for reading le Comte de Monte Cristo. You're not a brioche.”

Quite how that joke had evolved, she couldn't remember, but she wished she'd kept her mouth shut... he hadn't thought it was funny for quite some time. Not since he realised that she meant it.

“Come here,” he leaned over the counter, and tendered a kiss, a feather touch on her cheek. “You're my beauty. I'll meet you after work.

Clare, of course, took delight in delaying her, giving her dull and unnecessary tasks. Aimée performed them, without complaining, knowing that eventually the woman would get bored, and want to go home herself. Clare's father, after all, would not allow Aimee to lock up, so there was only so long the other woman would put herself out for the sake of malice. After about half an hour of game playing Claire gave it up. Aimée darted into the back for her coat, and took a quick glance at her reflection. Most days she wished she was whiter, but now that Murphy was back she found herself wishing her skin was darker instead.

Shut up, she told herself, just be happy for what you have. He likes you just as you are.

Proof of that was waiting patiently outside the store. She stepped out of the door, and he smiled, stepped alongside her. He wouldn't offer her his arm, wouldn't touch her in public. But they could walk together.

They walked a long time.

Chapter Text

Buck had been right, of course. He had known it himself, even as he was carping on about things the night before. The dogs were back in the morning. Buck fed them, and made a fuss of them, then secured the whole pack safely to the sled, before trudging back down to where the ruined bear lay.

Bob watched, tired and resentful, as his partner circumnavigated the scene, taking the necessary photos, before removing the trap. Quite some job with gloved fingers, but they were determined to get prints, if there were any to be got, and they didn't want to muddle things up by introducing their own.

He closed his eyes, as the pain in his leg started to flare up again. The muscle of his thigh felt like a harp might feel, if someone was playing it with a handsaw. He'd been wounded before, more seriously, and he had a high threshold for pain, but it always surprised him, how easy it was to forget when it was over. It was fresh each time it came.

Worse than that though, was that he was rendered nearly useless to his partner. That was what he resented, and what put him in such a bad mood. Buck returned with the camera equipment, and the trap, and started fiddling behind him with the bags, making room for the new evidence. Nothing was said, and it was getting on Bob's nerves. Long silences could develop between the two men, but this wasn't one of the comfortable ones. After the scattered back and forth chattering of last night, this particular lull was loud as a shout in Bob's ears. Last time he had been this irrationally resentful of his friend was... well, it was before Caroline had made her choice.

He closed his eyes, and saw himself and Buck, standing on the wrong side of the chasm, trying to make that shot to save Caroline. Remembered Buck, the slightly better marks man in those days, going first. How he had positioned his rifle over his arm, steadied his aim, cool as ice. How he had taken the shot. Taken it and missed... And the look on Buck's face after. Complete shock, but something worse behind it, as though he'd done something terrible, instead of making a mistake.

And then Bob had taken his shot, and won the whole damned shooting match.

After that, he and Buck were back to normal again. Better than normal, because Bob had got the girl.

The girl... oh she wouldn't like that. Caroline...

He watched as Buck tramped down to the bear again, with a bucket and a knife. He started to cut it, using his knife to peel back the fur, then carve off chunks. The dogs were beginning to clamour urgently for their dinner, and when Buck returned with the bucket full of entrails they went wild. “Be good,” he told them, then prepared the space for their dinner. Normally he would have let them loose to help themselves, but after the scare last night he wasn't running any risks. He returned to the bear once more, refilled the bucket and delivered seconds. The dogs fed, he began to prepare the human meal.

Bob watched him, as he lit the little gas stove, and started frying steaks on the pan. Despite himself, he was hungry. He supposed that was a good sign.

“See it as payback, Bob,” Buck said, as he flipped the meat. “He tried to eat you, you get to eat him.”

As quips went, it wasn't very funny. But it was a friendship offering, conciliatory. Buck mightn't understand why Bob was cross, but he must surely feel it, and was doing his best to get past it. Besides, the meat smelled good. So Bob ate, and didn't complain when Buck insisted on poking around the wound again, wasting more good whiskey.

“We need to get going,” he reminded Buck, after they had finished their breakfast. “Longer we sit here the more likely it is that something is going to turn up and eat the rest of that bear. We don't want to be here when that happens.”

Buck nodded, looking undecided. “Reckon we should wait till you're a bit stronger. We've got the dogs to alert us, and we've got our weapons...”

“For God's sake, Buck!” Bob finally exploded. “I'm not an invalid. Do I look at death's door? Do I? Well, let's get the hell out of here. We're not going to get our man, not this time, I accept that, but we can at least get back what we've found so far, and take another stab at it with more support. We'll get him eventually, but not if we wait here till the birds peck out our eyes.”

There was another of those long, loud silences. Then Buck sighed. “All right. You're right. We'll get going.”

It would have been better if Buck had yelled back at him, but the flat response made Bob feel worse, much worse. He recognised suddenly what Buck was going through. He remembered how it felt when it was Buck being put through the wringer. He couldn't offer an apology though. Instead, he let out a chuckle.

“That was one hell of a shot, when you took the bear out.”

“He was up close, it wasn't that difficult to hit the target.”

“He was up close, that's right, but most guys would be pissing themselves if a polar bear was that close.” Bob smiled at his partner, and the simple act of making himself smile helped soften his senseless anger. It wasn't Buck he was angry with, after all. “That shot's up there with the 'Great Yukon Double Douglas Fir Telescoping Bank Shot.'”

Buck laughed, and Bob relaxed. As they broke up camp, he hobbled and offered the best help he could. He felt better. Still sore, still embarrassed as hell, but alive, and glad of it. And glad of Buck. It would be all right, he told himself. They'd be all right.

Chapter Text

“Oh Lord, Bob...” now that the fright had subsided, and the anger, she was able to think a little bit more clearly. And what she was thinking scared the living daylights out of her. They were lying together in their little bed, fully dressed, and he was holding onto her like she was a raft and he'd been drowning. “Bob,” she whispered into his chest, “you've got to be more careful... I don't know what I'd do if...” her eyes brightened with tears. “You can't take risks like that. I couldn't... I don't know what I'd do without you.”

“You'd raise Benton,” he said, “you'd be a star.”

“I'd be damned lonely forever, and I'd never forgive you.”

He cupped his hand to her face, and gazed at her. “You'd forgive me.”

“No. Not for being eaten by a bear.” When she was a little girl, before her parents died and the family sent her away, she had seen a polar bear eating its prey. Her father had his arm around her, reassuringly, and the reigns to the sled held firmly in his grasp.
“Remember that,” he had said, “if someone starts romancing about how beautiful nature is.”

“But it is beautiful.”

“Oh yes, it is that. But it's dangerous too. Don't ever take it for granted.”

At that moment, the polar bear had looked up, and even across the long distance Caroline could see that his face was masked in blood. She'd never forgotten that day, in all the many years which followed after.

And her Bob, her own Bob, had nearly been eaten by a bear. She flinched at the thought of the blood faced bear, and put her arms around Bob, squeezed for comfort, to reassure herself that he was really, truly there.

Outside the cabin she could hear the clip clop, clip clop, as Buck walked Rocky up and down and around, with Benny on his back. Benny giggled in a treble voice which wove in with the sound of the birds, and Buck's subterranean belly laughs. The man was providing them with an island of time just for themselves, and she was wasting it by worrying, and crying.

“Let me see, Bob,” she said, finally pulling herself together, and putting her finger on his lip to stop any protests. “I need to see it sometime.” She undid his trousers, and gently slid them down, until they exposed his thigh, and the bandages that Buck had applied. Good, she thought, good. No foul smell. She unwound the bandages, and removed the dressing, and finally took a look at the wound. Long shallow scars, as Buck had described, cross hatching the skin above the tensor fascia latae. They had bit into the muscle, not deep, but long. The polar bear, after all, had been dying. If it had been stronger it might have... it could have...

“Hey, don't cry,” Bob was brushing her cheek with his thumb, “it doesn't even hurt that much any more.”

“Buck did a good job. You could have gone septic.”

“I didn't. So... don't worry.”

“Let me redress it for you, wait a minute.” She rolled off the bed, and started arranging the medical supplies she had bought in, thinking, I'm sure this isn't what Buck thought we'd be doing with our free time. Men, she snorted to herself, think of only one thing... Of course, that was what she had been thinking of the moment Benny declared he could hear them approaching. She hadn't been expecting this as a home coming gift...

“Hey, Caroline,” she heard a smile in his voice, and turned back with her bottle of disinfectant and tray of cotton balls and bandages.

“Oh, Bob...” she started laughing. He must have been reading her mind. It was obvious what he'd been thinking about while she was looking at his leg. “Put it away for a minute, I've got to put a clean bandage on.”

He pouted. “Look at him though,” he said, “all alone for months, and here he is, so hopeful, and you're just ignoring him. It's not kind, I tell you.”

“Tell him to wait a few minutes, and once I've sorted out your leg, I'll sort out him.”

“You promise?”

She bent towards him, moved her face over his thigh, and dropped a kiss on the skin, just above the wound, right where she knew his tenderness would turn to pleasure. He let out a little moan, and she peered up at him, wickedly, stuck out her tongue, and licked.

“Oh, God, Caroline,” he pushed his fingers into her hair and tried to move her head up toward him. She gave him a quick little smack on the arm, and pulled away.

“Sit still, and stop wriggling. You've waited this long, you can wait a little longer.

“I can't wait.”

“If you don't eat your veggies you can't have any pudding.”

He growled at her, but sat obediently still while she rebound his leg. Drawing the moment out she made a big fuss of cleaning up all of her accoutrements, until finally as she was going past the bed to the door he swiped her, and pulled her to him. She giggled, fell along side him, and moved in close. “Be gentle with me,” Bob said, trying not to laugh.

She lent over him, pinned his shoulders, and gazed down into his beautiful eyes. “Never,” she replied, straight faced, and kissed him hard.

Chapter Text

Sometimes he wondered if grown ups were deaf.

“I can't ride him today, he says he's tired.”

“Are you sure, son? He looks fit enough to me.”

Benny looked at Rocky, and Rocky looked back. 'I'm tired,' the mule grumbled in his head, 'I'm cranky. The weather hurts my bones.'

“His bones are sore, its the weather.”

“What about the weather?”

“I don't know, he didn't say.”

“Well, you've got to learn how to handle him.” His father sounded amused. “Do you think he's up to being groomed?”

'Handle me! Hah! I'd like to see you people try!' Benny started chuckling.

“What's so funny?”

“He's laughing at us, he thinks we can't handle him.”

His father went quiet, and looked at Benny just a little too long, with an uncomfortable expression on his face. “You know, I understand you're joking," he said carefully, "and this is a game, but if you play games like that too long people will start to think you've got a hole in your bag of marbles.”

“What game?” Benny pulled his ear, and looked up at his father innocently.

“This... this 'I can talk to animals' thing.”

“Can't everyone talk to animals? I mean, you talk to animals all the time. You tell the dogs to come and get their dinner, you tell Rocky to move his butt, you say sorry when you shoot a rabbit.”

“That's different. The animals don't talk back to me.”

Benny froze at that. He'd heard the animals talking back to his father. At least... he thought he had. And if his father couldn't hear them, then how come he usually responded as though he knew that they'd been saying?

“They don't?”

“No, of course they don't. They're animals. Mules don't talk.”

“There was a donkey who talked in the Bible.”

“Yes, and Jesus walked on water. But if you try it, you'll drown.”

'That's true,' Rocky said, 'but you can still learn to swim.'

“That's true,” Benny said, “but you can still learn to swim.”

His father rubbed his bristly cheek with his knuckles, continuing to stare down at him. Benny squirmed beneath his gaze, feeling very exposed. “I suppose you'll grow out of it,” his father said at last, dubiously.

'He's right,' Rocky said, sadly. 'I've seen it happen before.'

Benny's lip wobbled, but he didn't cry. “Do you want me to groom you, Rocky?”

'Oh, yes please,' the mule pushed his head under Benny's armpit and groaned with pleasure, 'and can I have some carrots while you're at it?'

“Do we have any carrots, Dad?”

“I'll get him carrots.” The man sighed, and dropped his hand heavily on his son's head, tousling his hair. “I'll just be a minute.”

As he went Benny put his face up along side Rocky's head, and whispered in his ear. “I promise I'll not stop speaking to you, and I promise I'll always listen.”

'Promises, promises. Don't worry about it, kid. So long as you keep me in apples and carrots, I'm happy. And don't ride me when my bones ache.'

“Promise.” Benny kissed the mule, and the mule huffed his breath through his nostrils, wuffled.

'What happened to you grooming me? The brushes are over there.'

Benny gathered his little tools together, and started, gently, to comb Rocky's hair.

“Caroline, you know he's out there talking to the mule?”

She glanced up briefly from her book. Bob looked worried, which wasn't like him. “Of course he is,” she replied. “He loves that animal.”

“That's fine, of course, but I think he really thinks the mule is talking back. He's laughing at its jokes now.”

“Oh, that's normal,” she smiled. “Don't worry about it. He's just a child, playing. At least you can see Rocky. When I was his age I had an imaginary friend... completely invisible to anyone else.”

“Are you sure that's all it is?”

Caroline lifted her head from the book she was studying, and closed it, tucking her thumb between the pages to mark her place. She narrowed her gaze. “Why? What are you worried about?”

“Well...” Bob looked out the window to where he could see Ben combing Rocky's mane. Damn it, he was still chattering away to that old mule. He took a deep breath, and got it out. “You know my brother Tiberius...”

“Oh, Bob,” she tried to cover her exasperation. She knew it wasn't fair of her, that Bob was just worried, but it annoyed her for Benny's games to be compared to that situation. “This is nothing like what happened with Tiberius.”

“Well, I don't know, do I? He was ten years older than me, I don't know what he was like as a child. What if he started off the same way?”

“Bob,” she put her book down, and took his hand between her two, squeezing it reassuringly. “What happened to Tiberius was... I don't know... it was terrible I know, but... it was random. It was some kind of freak accident or something.” She wasn't really convinced of that, but it was the family explanation. “You can't really speculate. And Ben's just a very clever kid, with a very good imagination. He doesn't have any human friends, not his own age. So if he's surrounded by adults he's going to create friends in the animals he looks after. It's a perfectly normal thing, so don't worry.”

“Hmm.” He sounded unconvinced. “I suppose you're right.”

“Of course I'm right.” She patted the back of his hand, maternally, as though Bob were Benny climbing into her bed because he'd had a nightmare. “It's fine. He's fine.”

“He wants some carrots.”

“They're in a bin in the shed, by the potatoes.”

“Thanks.” He dropped a kiss on her forehead, and she tipped her head back to return the kiss, landing it squarely on his chin.

"You need a shave," she pointed out.

“We'll be back in when the stew is ready.”

“I'll give you a shout.” She returned to her medical text, flipping the pages back to her place with her right hand, and gathering her notes together with her left. He smiled at her intense concentration, then made his way back to his son, and the talking mule.

She was probably right. Benny just had a strong imagination. And it could be worse. He shuddered, remembering Tiberius toward the end.

At least the boy wasn't talking to ghosts.

Chapter Text

It was a stuffy room, overheated against the outside chill, and Buck wished he could just step across and open the window. Inspector Harrison, however, made that impossible. He sat like an Easter Island statue, glaring at them from across the glossy desk, easily the most expensive piece of furniture in the room, oozing authority out of every pore. Buck and Gerrard stood, waiting for the meeting to start, trying not to shuffle. Time ticked on, and Harrison's bad temper grew more and more weighty by each slow second. The worst of it was that Buck and Gerrard were early to the meeting, which made it look even worse for Bob, when he came in late.

The Inspector didn't give him any leeway. He leant back in his chair, and glared at his subordinate, drumming his fingers against the desk, waiting wordlessly for an explanation. Bob cleared his throat, and pulled himself to attention. “Sir,” he said. “I apologise that I'm late, Sir.”

“That's not good enough,” Inspector Ford replied, tersely. “I expect professionalism, and punctuality. Do you happen to have an explanation for the delay?”

“I was engaged in a pursuit,” Bob replied, staring straight ahead. “A car thief. He took a car from a gas station. The father was at the counter when the car thief struck. There were two children in the back.”

“I see.” Harrison looked sour. “And did events come to a satisfactory conclusion?”

“Yes, Sir. The malfeasant was arrested, and the children returned to their father.”

“And the vehicle?”

“Yes, Sir, that too.”

“All right then. It would appear you have a reasonable excuse for being late.” Harrison seemed disappointed. It was almost, Buck thought, as though he wanted to catch Bob out. Well... never mind. Buck bit back a smile. Round one to Bob...

He had to stop seeing the Inspector as the villain...

“So...” Harrison spread his notes out on the table, like a large, and slightly scruffy deck of cards, “it seems we have a rogue hunter on our hands. You've all been investigating this. So... thoughts, gentlemen?”

Gerrard was looking uncomfortable. “There are plenty of rogue hunters,” he pointed out. “I agree they need to be brought to justice, but I'm not sure that one, in particular, needs so much attention and man power. There are crimes against humans which should take priority.”

Harrison nodded. “On a personal level I agree. However, this is not just a conservation issue. It has, unfortunately, evolved, and become a native issue. It would appear that this hunter has not just been trapping illegally, he's also been removing animals from other hunters' traps. And he's been hunting endangered species on a fairly spectacular scale.” He pulled out photographs from the files in front of him, and Buck recognised, upside down, that most of them had been taken by Bob or himself. Apparently Gerrard hadn't had been as fortunate in his pursuit of the malfeasant. “Given the volume of his activities, it seems unlikely that he is acting alone. So, what leads, if any, have you got?”

“Well, Sir,” Bob cleared his throat, “I think you're right that he's not working alone. One man alone wouldn't have any need to kill such a volume of animals, so he must have a buyer for his merchandise. Also, Buck and I discovered that some of the animals had been...” he paused for a moment, trying to find the right way to put it. “They'd been...”

“They'd been stripped for parts, Sir,” Buck interjected, knowing how uncomfortable Bob found this aspect of the case. “Sometimes we would arrive too late to get a clear look at the scene, other animals arrived and ate the evidence often enough. But we did come upon several carcasses that had been...”

“Stripped for parts,” Harrison repeated. “What exactly does that mean?”

“Well, Sir,” Bob began again. “We might come upon the body of a grizzly bear, relatively intact, but it's gallbladder removed. Or its... ahem.” He cleared his throat. “Or its testicles. That's... odd. Someone hunting for sustenance would use as much of the bear as possible. We found several bears missing their gallbladders, and other species too, missing various organs. This led us to suspect that somebody has taken out an order on those specific parts.”

“Interesting,” Harrison mused. “Am I correct that such body parts are used in Chinese medicine?”

“Yes, Sir. But we also discovered several Arctic wolves who had been skinned. Arctic furs are not particularly popular in the Chinese market, so we assume that our hunter has several buyers.”

“And,” Buck added, “he's extremely good at what he does. His traps are laid out professionally, his... eviscerations are very neat and methodical. Plus, he covers his tracks.”

“I assumed,” Harrison said, drily, “that you two would be able to track him. You have quite the reputation. Am I to understand that it's been exaggerated?”

Bob and Buck looked at each other, embarrassed, then looked down.

“Also, did I read this correctly? You managed to get into a fight with a polar bear?”

“Uhm... yes, Sir.”

“I see. And this brought your most recent investigation to a premature end.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Well.” Harrison started to shuffle his documents together. “You've certainly given us a lot to think about.” He glared swiftly at Gerrard. “You, on the other hand, don't seem to have noticed anything.”

“I'm sorry, Sir. I was patrolling in more densely populated areas. This sort of thing has been going on for years, and I'm afraid that human cases took priority.”

“Well, I can understand that,” the man conceded. “But the news from above is that, starting now, we are to make all reasonable efforts to discover who is behind these incidents. They are escalating, and the natives are complaining.” He leant across to the filing cabinet and dropped the file into the drawer. “Admittedly, they're always complaining about something, but this time they've got lawyers.” He smiled at them, as though expecting them to laugh at his joke, but the three of them remained expressionless. He slammed the door of the filing cabinet shut, and pulled some letters out of his in-tray. “That's it. You're dismissed.”

As the door swung shut behind them Buck leaned across to Bob and said, “not as bad as I thought.”

“We've faced worse,” Bob patted his bad leg, and quirked a smile. “He's not as bad as a bear.”

“Gerrard,” Buck called to the other man, who was stomping ahead of them, hands shoved deep in his pockets. “Come on, it wasn't that bad.”

“Not for you,” Gerrard scowled. “At least you got something. And you,” he glared at Bob. “You can't even come to work in the morning without getting into a car chase. Did someone curse your family tree?”

“Maybe,” Bob quipped. “My parents worked in China, maybe somebody cursed us all to live in interesting times.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Nothing... hey, you look like you could do with a drink. How about, once we're all off shift we meet up at the bar?”

Gerrard brightened at that. “You're buying the first round.”

“Why me? I got mauled by a bear!”

“All right then, Buck.”

“Why me? I shot the bear!”

Gerrard laughed. “All right, heroes. I'll buy the first round, but you have to return the favour.”

Buck nudged Bob in the ribs. “Don't worry,” he said quietly, “I'll get you home to Caroline before you've had too much.”

At any rate, that was the plan.

Chapter Text

This time, Caroline didn't have the energy to be angry. Buck came on the second day, and apologised... “he was on shift early in the morning, and well... well... he had a late night.”

She looked at him standing there, shuffling and looking down at his feet, smelling faintly of beer and cigars, and sighed. “I suppose you had a late night too?”

“Yes... I'm sorry, I did try to get him away...”

“Who's bright idea was it to go drinking anyway?”

“I don't remember." He looked shifty, and Caroline guessed that it had been Bob's idea. "I'm sorry.”

"And I suppose Gerrard and Muldoon were there too?"

"Yes, Ma'am," he said, sounding for all the world like a boy repenting of a childish infraction. Damn, why did these stupid men have to be so appealing?

“Well, I suppose I should thank you for letting me know.” She would normally have offered him a cup of tea, but she didn't think he deserved it. She flicked the dish cloth over her shoulder. “I'm busy cleaning now. Tell him if he comes back drunk he can sleep with the dogs.”

Buck nodded, and walked back to his truck. He glimpsed Benny, peeking from the roof of the shed (what's he doing up there?) and raised a hand to him. Benny waved back, and watched him go.

 

“You get down from there, Benny.” Mom was standing next to Murphy's little shed, hands on her hips.

“Just a bit longer.”

“What are you doing up there?”

“Everything looks different up here.”

It was true. He could see all the way to where the earth dipped into a bowl, and the snow was almost melted, and there were flowers popping out. He could see all the way to the river, and beyond it, all the way to where the hills were smokey blue.

“That's lovely," Mom said, "Now, get down now, because everything's going to look really different if you break your neck.”

“I won't break my neck.”

“No, because you're coming down now.”

“Please?”

“Now!”

Benny stuck his jaw out, sulkily, then jumped off the roof and rolled, like Edward's big brother had taught him.

“Oh my God!” Mom came flying toward him, looking petrified.

“What's wrong?”

“I didn't mean jump!”

“Why not?” Benny had been practising jumping, and he enjoyed it. It felt like flying.

“Because... because I'm your mother, and you do as I say!”

“No I don't.” He didn't mean to be rude, he was simply stating a fact. He did try, but with the best will in the world he couldn't always do as she said.

“That's it. Room, now,”

“Mom... I was going to play with Rocky.”

“You should have thought of that before you started jumping off roofs and talking back.”

Scowling Benny stomped to his room, and threw himself on his bed. Life wasn't fair.

Bob came home the next day, looking contrite. By then she'd found energy enough to be angry with him, and without even being asked he made his bed with the dogs.

The following morning she called him in for bacon, eggs and bannock, and they didn't talk about it at all. He had already fed the dogs, and let Rocky out to grass, and was looking good, despite the succession of rough nights. He just needed a shave. Over breakfast he talked about work, more openly than usual, since it was a matter of public knowledge. Illegal trapping and hunting, and disappearing game. She told him that Murphy had been noticing more of the same locally. He grunted, and ate fast, gave her a greasy kiss, and patted Benny on the arm. Then he was gone.

It had felt more like a business meeting than a meal with her husband.

She cleared the table, called Benny to his lesson, and kept it all inside. All she wanted was for Bob to come home when he could, to be there when he could. To play with Benny sometimes, so that she wasn't the only one trying to stop him from breaking his neck. Benny was reading out loud now, in a clear, beautiful voice, and it dawned on her that Bob hadn't heard how well his son was doing with his studies.

What she really wanted, more than anything, was very simple. She wanted him to come home again tonight. She couldn't even rely on that.

She bent her head to Benny's hair, and gave him a kiss, then gently turned the page.

Chapter Text

Murphy was standing at the counter in the general store, hands hidden behind his hat, carefully impassive.

“Aimée's not here today.”

“Ah.”

“So you can go.”

“Actually, I came here to purchase goods.”

“Did you?” Claire glared at him with complete disdain. “So, what are you after? We don't sell liquor.”

“I don't drink liquor,” he replied, trying to keep the angry snap out of his voice.

“Really?” She snorted. “That's a first.”

“I'm looking to purchase a map.”

“A map. Don't you know your way around here yet?”

“Yes, I do. But I'm looking for a topgraphical map..." he paused, seeing the blank look on her face, and tried again. "A large map of the wider area. I need to make a record of various incidents in order to...”

“We don't have that kind of map here.”

“I'm sure you do,” Murphy turned his gaze to a shelf behind her, up and to the left of her head. “I recognise the colours... that would be a large survey map, just over there.”

“I'd thank you not to try any of your cheek on me,” Claire snapped. “I'm in charge of the inventory here, and I can assure you we don't have the kind of map you're asking for.”

Murphy straightened, tucked his hat under his arm and put his hands in his pockets. He was going to try an experiment. “Well then, in that case, may I buy an apple? You do sell apples.”

Claire tried to ignore him, and started fumbling under the till. Murphy saw her getting pink and flustered, but stayed stock still, until she had no choice but to say something.

“I suppose... I suppose you can buy an apple. Don't tell anyone.”

“I don't want an apple. I want that map, there, the one with the red binding.”

Claire glared at him. “I can't sell you that map.”

“Why not?”

“Oh for God's sake,” she snapped, causing Murphy to blink at the unexpected blasphemy. “You stupid native. Don't you understand?”

Murphy was pretty sure that he did understand, but he wasn't going to give her any wiggle room. “No,” Murphy replied, deliberately choosing his language to contradict her 'stupid native' comment. “Please, elucidate.”

As he had guessed, she didn't understand. “Eloosy... what?”

“Please enlighten me.”

She gave him a very dirty look, but replied.

“My father says he doesn't want you hanging around the store any more. It looks bad, people are talking. I'm not really supposed to sell you anything, not a stupid apple, and not a map. Nothing.” She trying her best to look brave, but he could sense her shaking. As though she had cause to be frightened of him... “You understand,” she added, pleadingly, before repeating, “people are talking.”

People are always talking, Murphy thought, but did not say. He merely continued to stare the woman down. She blinked and looked away.

“I would like to buy that map there,” he pointed again, flatly, “and if your father has any problems with that you can tell him that it is on RCMP business. I'm sure he wouldn't like having to explain to one of the regular Constables that he'd been getting in the way of an investigation simply because he doesn't like natives.”

“Fine, here you go, buy the stupid thing,” Claire pulled it out, and slammed it on the counter. “Hey, don't open it before you've paid for it.”

“Just double checking it's the right one.” Thank God, he thought, after all that it is the right one. He started feeding the coins out on to the counter top. Claire, sullenly, slid them into her cupped hands, then dropped them in the cash machine. He knew from experience that she didn't like to touch his skin, or even Aimée's, and wondered what would have happened if he'd let one of his fingers nudge her while handing over the money. Maybe she thought brown skin was contagious. Like a children's game. Tag, you're brown.

“And a receipt, please,” he added. “For the RCMP records.”

“You know,” she said, maliciously, as she dropped the receipt on the counter, “You won't be able to see her again, Aimée.” Murphy looked up, but the woman was definitely smiling now. “Father isn't going to allow her to work here any time you're in the area, she'll be waiting on Mother. So, your little romance will just have to go away, don't you think?”

There were a hundred things Murphy could think of to say, but he said nothing. He saw disappointment on her face, as though she'd been expecting him to break down or throw a temper tantrum. That wasn't in his nature, and even if it had been, he wouldn't have given her the satisfaction. “Thank you for the map,” he said, mildly, and left the shop, bell jingling. He didn't even slam the door.

He turned, and made his way to the station house. Keep your back straight, shoulders square, he told himself. He could feel the weight of a gaze between his shoulder blades, and was certain it was Claire. Keep calm until you're out of sight, he told himself, and pushing the door stepped through into the fusty smelling cabin.

Obviously, from the tang of urine and vomit there were some occupants in the cage, left over from the night before. The woodstove added to the general malodorous atmosphere, as though it had been cooking the smells all night.

Fortunately it was Constable Fraser manning the desk today.

“Fraser,” Murphy hung up his coat and hat, and stretched as he dropped his backpack.

“Murphy,” The man looked up from his paper work, and smiled. “You're looking pretty dusty. Come a long way have you?”

“That's right.”

“Well, I was just going to make some tea. How did the search go?”

“I found several more scenes where the evidence indicated illegal traps had been prepared, or illegal firearms used. Physical evidence in the form of animal remains is harder to come by, there is more animal predation now that the weather's warmer, so it's harder to see what condition the carcasses were in immediately after the kill.”

“Yes, that was always going to be a problem. Have you been able to retrieve any physical evidence at all?”

“Well, I've disassembled several traps, left them stored up at your place, if that's okay."

"Ah, you've seen Caroline and the boy. How are they?"

"Your young man is keeping her busy. He's comfortable with Rocky, rides him, but looks after him too. The the dogs also respond to him easily. He's far too young yet, but when the time comes he will learn to manage a pack of them well." Murphy smiled ruefully. "His mother keeps him busy too. She's teaching him Latin."

"Good Lord, I've only been gone a few days. What on earth for? I had enough of that kind of thing with my own mother, I thought Caroline would know better!"

"She told me that he had asked her why there were so many strange words in the books she borrows, and she started talking to him about medicine, and the next thing she knew he wanted her to teach him Latin."

"That's a likely story," Fraser laughed.

Murphy cleared his throat, and turned the conversation back to the topic at hand. "I've kept the cartridges I managed to find, labelled and dated etc. Here they are..." He retrieved a transparent plastic bag from his backpack, and displayed the contents before placing it on the desk. "Plenty of photographs," he continued, "until the film ran out. Uh... Yes, unfortunately the map that I had covered too narrow an area... I was going, with your permission, to transfer the data onto this map. I kept notes as to the location of each crime scene, dates, weather, coordinates... here." He passed Fraser his battered notebook, now nearly full. "As well as covering a wider area, this particular map is the same standard as the maps you and Frobisher used over the winter. We should be able to paste them together, and get a fuller picture.”

“Hm... yes, that would make things easier. So... give me a minute...” Fraser pulled open some drawers and started clearing space on his desk. “Use this,” he raised his hands against Murphy's objections. “The only other option is the floor, and I'm damned if I'm going to let an employee of the RCMP scrabble round in the dirt. There you go, you get started on that map, and I'll go make us some tea, and see if last night's objectionables have woken up yet.”

“Thank you.” There were not many regular Mounties who treated him as an equal, and it still made him feel a little bit uncomfortable. As though they might just change their minds some day, and remind him who he was. It was an unworthy thought... The Fraser's had more than proved their decency and fairness. But the thought niggled there, nonetheless.

“Think nothing of it. So...” there was a smile in the other man's voice. “How goes your courtship with Aimee?”

Murphy sighed, and unfolded his large map. It covered most of the desk, and drooped over the edges. There had been some slight, rather shy conversation on the subject of his romance for a while now, but he was never very forthcoming about it. Today, however, he suddenly felt the need to talk.

“It's difficult.”

“Difficult?” Fraser's voice touched just the right note of concern. Enough to encourage him that he wasn't boring the man, and yet not so overbearing as to make him clam up in embarrassment.

“It would appear that her guardian does not want her to see me any more, so his daughter Claire has taken over full duties in the shop. Only while I'm in the area, it would appear.”

There was a clattering of cups, then Fraser was in the room bearing a tray, laden down with tea, biscuits, what looked like fresh milk, and a bowl of sugar. He plonked the tray and its contents onto a spare chair, and seated himself opposite Murphy at the big desk. “The stupid man,” he said. “Do you want me to have a word with him?”

“No!” The word blurted out with more urgency than Murphy had intended, but it caught Fraser's attention. “He'd just get angry, and besides...” he glanced away for a moment. “Besides, as far as the town is concerned you're a native lover, so what you say can be ignored.”

“Really? I'm a native lover?” Fraser sounded surprised at first, then smiled. “I'm flattered.”

“It's not meant as a compliment.”

“Still, I'll take it as such. But anyway, this isn't about me. How serious are you and Aimee?”

“We were...” his voice trailed off into silence.

What, he thought, what were we? We were we so happy to see each other that we could walk in the rain for hours, and not notice we were wet. We could walk side by side, and never touch, but the feel of her warmth beside me made me dizzy from her heat. Her smile is the most beautiful thing...

Oh stop it. He shook his head. You sound love sick, spitting out clichés. He should have known it was never going to work. Love never did.

“I can't say.” Murphy bent his head back down to the map, ignoring the tea which Fraser had set before him.

There was a long silence, and then Fraser reached out, and squeezed his hand. It was unexpected, completely new. For some reason, some weird idiotic reason, it didn't make Murphy uncomfortable. It made his heart thump harder with hope. Someone saw what he saw. Someone was on his side.

“As bad as that, eh?" The other man's voice was gentle, reassuring. "Don't worry, Murphy, we'll think of something.”

Typical Fraser, Murphy thought. Only a romantic would do half the crazy things he did. But still... he looked across at the other man and smiled.

Chapter Text

Caroline was curled against him, her hair a swathe of silk across his chest, her right leg and arm thrown across him, heavy and warm. Her breath was warm too, and sweet, and he turned his head to smell her better. His right arm was growing numb with the weight of her, but he didn't move, stroking her along her spine with his trapped hand, counting each little knob and nook. She probably knew the names of all the vertebrae, he thought, as his fingers climbed them like a ladder. He made it up to the nape of her neck, then stroked down again, repeating the ascent and descent until pins and needles became a real problem. Oh Lord, he was going to have to move at some point...

She shifted, and mumbled against his skin, and he edged carefully, turning more towards her, so they faced. She was still so close to him that he could feel her breasts pressing up against his chest, and her legs wrapped around him, so that his left leg was caught between her thighs. She wriggled in her sleep, and sighed. He felt himself twitch, and bit his lip, trying to distract himself. Poor woman was asleep, he couldn't wake her up for more of... more of... more of the same, he thought.

An image of waking her up for just that flashed upon him, and he didn't just twitch, he awoke. He shut his eyes, and swallowed a groan of frustration. He couldn't believe he still had it in him. And they were so entangled that he couldn't roll over and take care of it himself, because just to move would disturb her. She hadn't been asleep long. Wasn't it supposed to be men who fell asleep leaving the women wanting more? Well, that was the fable. And here she was, sound asleep, and here he was, as... well, as stiff as a poker, with absolutely no chance whatsoever of getting to sleep.

He lay very still, and closed his eyes. His right arm was full of pins and needles, and he concentrated on them gratefully, thinking that it would distract him from... She was moving in her sleep, and he opened his eyes, helplessly watching as she rolled her head so that he could see her parted lips. Her hair was tousled across her face, and before he could stop himself he gently stroked it back so he could see her better. She opened her eyes, sleepy, and smiled.

Oh Lord God, he thought, hardening to a point where it hurt.

“Hey,” she whispered, and rolled, releasing his trapped arm. She moved to hold him, and her thigh bumped into his erection. He froze, and she opened her eyes. “Again?” She was still half asleep, but smiling at him. He moved his face close, and nibbled her ear. She shuddered in his arms, then crept in close, skin to skin, then closer still, sliding down and engulfing him.

It was so sudden and unexpected that he nearly came right there. For a moment he didn't move at all, he barely even breathed. Then, slowly, slowly he began to move with her. Her eyes were closed, but she poked out her tongue, and licked his lips, pushed herself into his mouth, and flickered in time with his motion. He ached with the desire to go hard and fast, but her sleepiness was precious and he went slow. He could feel her body getting hotter, and her warmth getting slick and slippery, beginning to clutch and grasp at him, but he fought the urge to speed it up. His hands were cupping her beautiful warm bum (and he tried not to laugh at her innocent sounding word for such a lovely arse) and he rolled over onto his back, pulling the full drowsing weight of her on top of him, letting her engulf him. She was more awake now, eyes wide and surprised looking, pupils blossoming black in the light from the dying lamp, and she began driving harder on him. Now he was determined not to let it go until she did, so he held back his rhythm, keeping it slow and deep. Her lips were parted, and she was panting. He smiled, and let go of her buttocks, brought his hands up to her breasts, and began to flutter, stroke and tease. She arched back, and he caught full sight of her, and despite himself began to push deeper and faster. She bore down over him, pelvis pushing so hard he could feel the bone, and she squeezed her legs shut, tightening herself for him, so that for a moment he thought he would spill himself before she'd come. He rolled his eyes back in his head, and counted till he'd steadied, then slid his legs back between hers, and rolled them both over, so he could go deep. He could see her pulse jumping in her throat, and he started to thrust again, timing it for her. He watched her, as her eyes shut and she pushed back against the pillow, and at last he began to speed up, pushing firm and deep, catching up with her. She shuddered, and clenched, and swallowed a cry, and he knew that she was thrown. Finally he let himself go.

Then they both slept.

Chapter Text

The second waking was as abrupt as usual. The wick on the lamp had long died out, but cool light was coming in through the window. Caroline opened her eyes to the sound of the dogs barking as Benny ran across the yard to say good morning to the mule. She leant up on her elbow, and smiled down at Bob, who was drowsily rubbing his eyes.

“Good morning.” She tried not to look smug, and failed. “So, what came over you last night?”

“You did.” Bob looked far too pleased with himself. “At least twice.”

“Cheeky,” she slapped him, teasingly, and dropped a kiss on him. “I've got to do Mom things...” He wrapped his arm around her and pulled her toward him. “Come on, let go. Benny's awake. You just lie there, and look pretty.”

“You're a minx,” he said, and released her. “You must have put something in the tea.”

“Just so you know what you're missing when you're at work.”

“I'm an idiot,” he said, “I should quit work, and be a farmer... then I could come home every night to my beautiful Caroline...”

“And I'd be so happy that I'd turn into a fat warm housewife smelling of gingerbread and cinnamon...”

“And I'd love you anyway.”

“Stop it,” she giggled, “stop it, Bob...” She wrenched herself away and started pulling her clothes on. She'd have to wash later. “Don't think this gets you out of helping round the place.”

“But I'm all tuckered out.”

“And I'm not?”

He pulled a face at her, like a sulking schoolboy. “You have only yourself to blame. You're too sexy.”

Caroline guffawed at the outrageous word, buttoning herself up. Look at me, she thought, never wash in anything but soap and water, no make-up, wearing my husband's shirts. And he calls me sexy. “Your mother would spank your bottom blue if she heard you use that word,” she pointed out, trying to sound stern. Though the image of how Martha Fraser would react to that particular word set her off giggling.

“I don't suppose you'd spank me?”

That didn't help. “You, sir, are incorrigible.” She pinched her nose, high up between her eyes in an attempt to stop them from watering with laughter. “Quite frankly, I don't know how I put up with you.”

“I'm irresistible.”

“Watch this,” she smirked at him. “This is me, resisting you.” She slid to her feet and sashayed out of the bedroom, glancing over her shoulder and giving him 'the look.'

He propped himself up, watching her, and grinned. "Vixen."

Benny was already making a fuss of Rocky. “Now I know where all the apples go,” Caroline grumbled. “That mule of yours is going to be a pudding by the time you're done with him.”

“It's just his breakfast.”

“It's just a snack. We'll give him his breakfast after you've had yours. Come on. See you, Rocky,” she addressed the mule. He turned his face toward her, and huffed out a long breath.

“He says 'thanks for the apples.'”

“You're welcome, Rocky.” She scratched him on the forehead, then tapped Benny between the shoulder blades, and prodded him back toward the cabin.

Bacon and eggs, she thought, for breakfast. Poking her head through the bedroom door she noted, approvingly, that Bob was already up, having set up the porcelain pitcher and jug. He'd got to the lathering stage, and smelt rather more fragrant than she did. “Leave that up for me,” she said, “I'll need it after we've eaten.” He nodded, and commenced to scraping his chin. She made her way back to the stove, once again wondering how clumsy men ever managed to shave at all.

She ended up adding fried bread and apples to breakfast, opening a tin of beans, and making powdered orange juice. Bob fed the dogs while she cooked, and then they all set to. Over breakfast talk rambled. It had been a while since Bob had a day off duty and spent it at home, so they conversed at a leisurely stroll. Finally Benny got impatient, and demanded that he go and feed Rocky. Caroline pretended to consider this, though she already knew that he would be fine. Benny bounced up with delight at her thoughtfully delivered yes, and was out of the house in a blur of little boy giddiness and glee.

Bob pushed himself back in his seat, still lazily eating. “Murphy picked him out a fine animal.”

“Apparently so. At least, Benny seems to like him.”

“I wanted to ask your opinion about Murphy.”

“My opinion? He's a good man.”

“Yes, I know that... what I mean is, do you know anything about this thing he has with Aimée?”

“Ah... that.” Caroline scraped around her plate, the fried bread soggily absorbing the last of the bean sauce. “Not much. Only small town gossip, and you know how much stock I pay to that. Why? I wouldn't have thought you'd be interested in chitter chatter.”

“Well, I'm not normally... it's just, this is Murphy. I want him to be, you know... happy. And it seems Mr Watkins has put a stop to that. Trying to keep Aimée away from him.”

“Has he now?” Caroline shook her head, got to her feet, gathering plates. “I suppose it's to be expected.”

“Expected? Why? I don't get it, Caroline, I know he's Aimée's guardian, but what's it got to do with him who she sees? Nobody else in town is going to be interested in her, or not for the right reasons.”

“Oh,” she looked at him, “I suppose you really aren't up on the town gossip, are you?” Bob looked at her, perplexed, and spread his arms out in a gesture of 'what the hell?'” “Ah well,” she said. “I did actually hear this from Mrs Watkins, so it's fairly trustworthy. And you're the only person I've told.” She slid the plates into the sink, turned to put the kettle on for hot water. “Mr Watkins is Aimée's father.”

“Huh,” Bob looked surprised, and Caroline smiled at him fondly, sitting back down until the water was ready. He must have been the only person in the entire town who didn't know this particular secret. Though it was quite likely Murphy didn't know either, now she thought of it. People weren't exactly forthcoming when he was around. “And there I was thinking it was Christian charity.”

“Well, it's more than most people would have done.”

“Why didn't she stay with her mother's people?”

“They didn't want her,” Caroline said sadly. “If he hadn't taken her she'd have ended up in a convent.”

“And we all know how you feel about convents,” Bob said, reaching across the table and squeezing her hand.

“It would have been worse for her,” she pointed out. “I was twelve, knew my own mind. It was really hard for the native children, and for the kids who came in as babies.”

“I know.” He leant across the table and kissed her. “So, Watkins did one right thing, but he couldn't acknowledge her as his daughter.”

“That's right, and he's trying to set her up well in life. He's probably doesn't have a real plan, he just doesn't want to let her go.”

“Huh,” Bob stared off at the wall for a moment. “Well, that brings me to my next question. You know how good Murphy is at what he does?”

“Of course I do, he's one of the best.”

“Well, I've been thinking for a while, what's to stop him becoming a proper Mountie?”

“What, go to the depot and upgrade his status?”

“Yes... they are talking about accepting natives now. He meets all the requirements, he's already got a lot of experience, you know he's smart enough. It would be a lot of work... maybe if Watkins saw Murphy as a respectable citizen he'd let Aimée make her own choice?”

Caroline stared at her husband for a long moment. “It's a good idea,” she mused. “Nearly impossible, but... a really good idea... If anyone could do it, he could." Her eyes clouded over then, and she tightened her lips, as reality suddenly kicked in. "But it would be so difficult. I mean... you know what people are like." Bob said nothing, looked at his plate. She stared at him, turned the idea over and over in her head. Bob's blunt and endless optimism was so sweet. Perhaps it wasn't impossible... She smiled again. He really was incorrigible. A hopeless and hopeful romantic. "Yes... why not?”

He looked back up again, brightening. “And, you know," he suggested, cheerfully, "next time you visit Mrs Watkins, you can sound out Aimée, what do you think?”

“Oh Bob, getting involved in people's affairs like that... you don't live here. You don't know what you're asking. It would be all over the place like butter on toast before the end of the day.”

He looked at her with a puppy dog expression on his face, and she sighed. She already knew she'd oblige him.

“Okay, okay... I'll see what I can do.”

The kettle began to make a sharp sound, then to whistle, and she got back to her feet to do the dishes.

Chapter Text

To say that he was worried was an understatement. Gerrard stood waiting amongst the trees, furtively smoking, and partially concealed by his horse. She nestled her head down and nudged him, letting out a horsey sneeze at the cigarette smoke. Absently he patted her, took a last drag, dropped the butt, and let it fizzle out amongst the damp leafy mulch.

When Muldoon finally arrived he nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Jesus, Muldoon, you scared the crap out of me.”

Muldoon laughed. “You shouldn't let people creep up on you.”

“It's not funny, you know we're running a risk.”

“I'm not running a risk. I know exactly what I'm doing. You're the one who's panicking.” He smiled, showing just how relaxed he was, and lit a half spent cigar. His face lit up, orange and amber, as he sucked in a mouthful of smoke.

“And you don't think there's anything to worry about?”

“What, a few Mounties have taken a few pictures? They don't know who I'm selling to, they don't know who's buying, and they don't know who's funnelling the money.” Muldoon smiled, coldly. “And you know that your 'Force' won't care one way or the other about a bunch of wild animals anyway, or a few natives complaining. There are far more important things for them to worry about. Communists and political lunatics. Lesbians burning their bras and demanding equal rights for women. This nonsense will blow over.”

“I don't think it will. I've worked with Frobisher and Fraser for a long time now. Once they get their teeth into something, they go with it. You ever see a couple of well trained dogs after a hare? How often does the hare get away?”

Muldoon leaned back against a tree and laughed. “You're believing your own rhetoric, that's the problem. You honestly think that Mounties always get their man. It's not true you know. Nobody's got me yet. I'm not a hare. And if a couple of dogs do come after me, we'll see who has the sharpest teeth.”

“You can't keep this up,” Gerrard insisted, “not on the scale you've been doing. You have to reign it back in, just for a while. Just till they get moved onto other things.”

“As far as I understand it they've already moved onto other things. Frobisher's off undercover somewhere, and Fraser's doing his small town cop gig.”

“How do you know about Frobisher?” Gerrard had a gut feeling he didn't want to know, but couldn't help himself. He was curious.

“What, you think you're the only Mountie who's been helping me out?”

“I.. well... I thought...” Gerrard ducked his head down, feeling strangely betrayed. Despite the fact that he wished he'd never got involved in this mess he still found himself feeling surprised and cheated that he wasn't the only Mountie 'working' for Muldoon. Up until this point he had thought that they had a special understanding. That despite the intrigue and the increasing stress of the last several months they were still friends. But if he wasn't Muldoon's go to guy, if he wasn't special in any way, then were they really friends at all? Had they ever been? He glanced at Muldoon, then away. The look of amused contempt said it all.

He flicked on a dry smile, and shrugged his shoulder. “Money's good, I suppose it's only natural someone else would want in.” Damned if he was going to let Muldoon keep that expression on his face.

“Huh, glad you're being sensible about it.”

“But, just think what I'm saying. Bob Fraser's still doing his small time cop routine, yes, but he's still gathering info on you, and when Buck gets back from whatever hell hole job they have him in, well... he'll just get back stuck in as though he'd never been away. You should see the maps they have up all over the station house wall.”

“Yeah, maybe I should drop by to see it,” Muldoon grinned, licked his teeth. “Interesting to see what they've got.”

“Hey, don't play games. This isn't a game you know, it's serious.”

“Oh, like they'd suspect me for a minute.”

“Yeah, yeah... I know, you're a legend,” Gerrard felt sour as he said it. “Carrying that injured idiot on your back through the storm.”

“Well, would be hunters pay well, and someone's got to carry them back when they bollocks it up. Besides, it makes me look good. Who'd ever suspect a hero?”

“Really? Is that really why you did it?”

“Nah.” Muldoon looked irritated, but for once the irritation was not directed at anyone in particular. If anything, he seemed annoyed with himself. “I might be heartless, but you can't just leave someone to die in the snow. I mean you can, but... didn't seem the right thing to do.”

“So you can do the right thing.”

“Yeah, and I also know when not to chicken out. This is just like trudging through a storm. Don't lose your rhythm, don't lose your nerve. We'll come out the other end, and we won't even remember what we were worried about.”

“You're sure of that?”

“Pretty sure. I've been doing this for a lot longer than you have. We'll be fine.”

“Okay,” Gerrard shrugged. “But don't say I didn't warn you.”

Muldoon nodded. “Well, thanks for the heads up. I'll keep an eye out.”

“Particularly for Fraser,” Gerrard pointed out, “he's the one who's really going after this.”

“Like a dog after a hare.”

“Yeah, I'm afraid so.”

“Well, I'll bear it in mind. And Gerrard?”

“Yes?”

“Don't fuck up and blurt it all out?”

“Why would I do that? I'd be in the crapper even worse than you. I don't want to end up in prison.”

“That wouldn't be any fun for a Mountie.” Muldoon nearly smirked as he stated the absolute obvious.

“Yeah... I'm not an idiot, I'll keep it to myself. But please... just back off a little.”

Muldoon pushed himself back from the tree. “I'll judge the situation,” he said, “as I always do. And you've nothing to worry about, if you keep calm.”

“I'm always calm,” Gerrard lied.

Muldoon looked at him again, with that long contemptuous gaze. “If you say so.” He turned, without a wave, or a further word of acknowledgement, and tramped off through the squelching woods.

Shit, Gerrard thought to himself again, as the meeting came to an end. What have I got into? The money was good, it was very good in fact... but days like today? Well, sometimes he just didn't think it was worth it at all.

Chapter Text

As it happened, Caroline didn't have to broach the uncomfortable subject of Aimée and Murphy's relationship first. Mrs Watkins brought it up.

Caroline was kneeling at her feet, gently cleaning the painful wounds on her lower legs and feet, and allowing them to dry in the fresh air, rather than patting them dry with something as abrasive and rough as a towel. She had sent ahead a note to ask for a urine sample, but her patient, as usual, seemed less than eager to oblige. She was taking her illness rather poorly, and each complication seemed to throw her further into denial.

Caroline sat back on her haunches, and lifting Mrs Watkins left foot onto her lap started to knead it gently, to increase blood flow. Gradually she moved to the toes, careful to avoid any raw patches of skin, then back along the ridge beside the arch, then around to the ball and heel. Gently she rotated it, trying to keep a range of motion in it, so that when her patient began to walk again it wouldn't be so painful. That done she gently began to reapply the dressing. The foot bound she wrapped further bandages to the wounds beneath her knee. That done she repeated the actions on the right foot. Finally she slid Mrs Watkins feet back into their big slippers.

“How does that feel now,” she asked.

“Better,” the older woman conceded grumpily.

“It does look better. It smells clean now, and I think the worst of the wounds is only grade two. And they're none of them necrotic any more.” At one stage one of the ulcers had been unpleasantly near the bone, and Caroline had been visiting daily. Despite the nerve damage in her extremities Mrs Watkins had been in such extreme agony that Caroline had no choice but to administer morphine. Right now she was tapering down from the drug. That, combined with the unpleasantness of suddenly finding herself disabled, seemed to be having a detrimental effect on her mood.

She'd have to ask again. “Mrs Watkins, I'm very sorry, but I'm going to have to ask you for that urine sample.”

“I'm not about to pee in a bottle for anyone,” Mrs Watkins sounded cross. “What can you tell from a bottle of piss anyway?”

“Well,” Caroline was careful how she said it, not wanting to appear condescending, since it would set her patient off again. “I can test it for sugars, and that gives me an indication of how your pancreas is working. You do need insulin sometimes, but I can't give you a safe dose unless you start taking resp...”

“Oh shut up,” Mrs Watkins snapped, then immediately regretted it. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry young woman, I'm just not very happy today.”

“I understand.” One of the side effects of diabetes, as Caroline knew, could be a change in behaviour or mood, when the blood sugars were off. Perhaps this wasn't simply a case of Mrs Watkins being cranky as a cat in the rain, or withdrawing from morphine. It could actually be a symptom of the illness itself.

The other woman sighed, and rubbed her thighs. “I'm just sad because... because...” her face crumpled, and unexpectedly she started crying. Caroline got up and hugged her.

“Hey, what's wrong? You know you can talk to me...”

Mrs Watkins brought a flowery hanky up to her face, and dabbed her eyes. “It's that, that half-caste my husband brought home.”

Caroline flinched. She hated the word, but she had to find out what was wrong with her patient, get her to open up somehow. If she started lecturing Mrs Watkins she would only take it out on Aimée anyway. So she bit her tongue, and resisted the urge to tell her patient off. Some days you just had to shut up.

“I've been sick for months now, and you've been really good,” Mrs Watkins continued. “I know that. I thought I was going to lose my leg at one point. But the whole time I was sick it was Aimée who looked after me. When you weren't here, she did everything you showed her how to do. She cleaned the sores, massaged my feet, dressed the wounds. She cooked my food to the recipes you left, she made sure I moved about when I was really down, so that I didn't get bedsores. She even...” Mrs Watkins buried her head in her hanky again. “She even lifted me onto the potty, and when I had an accident she changed the sheets.”

“Sounds like she was good to you. She must be fond of you.”

“I don't see why. I've never been kind to her. Never treated her well. She was always some bastard my husband brought home... but she's been more of an obedient daughter than my own blood. My own child, Claire... she never came in to see me unless her father made her, or unless she wanted something. She wanted to borrow my jewellery for a dance, and like an idiot I let her, just because I was glad to see her. And then I didn't hear from her again for nearly two weeks, until she wanted to borrow one of my dresses, and have it taken in to fit her figure. And...” she sniffled. “And again, I let her.”

“Oh, I'm sorry...” Caroline didn't quite know what to say to this, but took the other woman's hands and squeezed them.

“I'm cross, I suppose,” Mrs Watkins continued, “because I feel like I'm being punished. The child I hated treats me the way a daughter should treat her mother, while my own child might as well be a stranger.”

Caroline thought of how she would feel if Benny ever turned his back on her. She couldn't imagine it as anything other than a huge stone on her heart, something crushing and beyond pain. Poor Mrs Watkins. Yes, objectively speaking there was some justice in her suffering now, after what she'd put Aimée through over the years, but justice was a cold thing. And Aimée, from the sound of it, forgave the woman. Blessed are the merciful, Caroline thought, for they shall see God. She smiled, thinking of Aimée and her mercy, and remembered her promise to Bob. Just as she was about to speak, however, Mrs Watkins pre-empted her.

“I know that Aimée's been interested in this Special Constable that's been visiting. What's he like?”

“Murphy?” Caroline was relieved that the subject had come up naturally. “He's a really good man. Hard working, honest. He works at least as hard as a regular Mountie, twice as hard as some. She could do a lot worse.”

Mrs Watkins sighed. “I'll have to speak to Johnny about it again. The girl needs to be properly provided for, and it would be no life if she just ended up becoming a spinster, in this town. She deserves better.”

Caroline was thinking just how reassuring it was that individuals could transcend their prejudices and become better people when Mrs Watkins put the lie to it. “And besides, the sooner she's out of the house the better. Some days I just can't stand to look at her.”

He was getting ever so good at riding Rocky now, so he was a little bit cross at first when Murphy came along to keep an eye on him. He was old enough that Mom could leave him sometimes. He was a kid, not stupid. But actually, it turned out to be fun, because Rocky liked Murphy, and actually listened to what he said. Murphy got Rocky to speed up a little bit, and told Benny how to bounce so that he didn't hurt himself. By which Benny assumed he meant his gingangs. Not that Murphy called them gingangs. Or anything else for that matter. Rocky laughed, and ran a little bit faster, and Benny heard himself going “whee,” as he bouced along. Then Murphy called again, something in Cree, which Benny didn't speak, and Rocky slowed down, turned, and came back toward him.

“How did you know what he said,” Benny asked Rocky.

'How do I know what you say,' Rocky replied, 'you don't exactly speak my language. I'm the genius here you know.'

“How did he know what you said,” Benny asked Murphy now, as he slid off Rocky and put his arm across his neck. The man was leaning against a tree, arms folded, looking approvingly at Benny's progress.

“All animals speak Cree,” he said, solemnly, “or Inuit I suppose, especially the horsey animals, the birds, and the dogs.”

“What about wolves?”

“Oh, they speak Cree too.”

“Rocky understands what I say in English.”

“Well, he's obviously a very clever mule.”

'The man's not wrong,' Rocky interjected, 'I am a very clever mule.'

“So, can you teach me some Cree, so I can talk to animals who aren't as clever as Rocky?”

“Of course I can. You already have some Inuit, don't you?”

“Some. But it's all Mom stuff, about bandages and babies.”

“Well, at least you've got something to build on that isn't European. They're very different kinds of languages. Though there's a lot of difference between Inuit and Cree as well. So, what do you want to say?”

Benny looked at Rocky, and tilted his head. “'Stop eating my sandwiches.'”

'I only did that twice!'

“Three times, you did it three times,” Benny corrected the mule. “And they were ham sandwiches, horsey animals aren't supposed to eat meat.”

'Can I help it if your food is delicious? You try eating grass and hay all day.'

“You get more than grass and hay,' Benny rolled his eyes, and tried out a new word that he'd heard from his father. “Ingrate.”

“He's talking to you now, is he?” Murphy was watching the conversation, fascinated.

Benny looked up, disappointed. “You can't hear him either?”

“Not as such,” Murphy said honestly. “But I can tell he's teasing you.”

“My Dad thinks I'm making it up.”

“Your Dad can't remember being your age, probably.”

“Will I forget how to talk to him one day?”

“Not necessarily. Not if I teach you Cree.”

Benny looked at him, unsure whether he was the victim of a prank, but decided to take the man seriously. “So, how do I say, 'stop eating my sandwiches?'” Murphy laughed, and obliged him with the answer.

The boy was a quick study.

The riding lesson had come to an end, and Murphy and Benny were tramping along with Rocky idling in their wake, when the women came over the hill. Benny started to run toward his mother, and Murphy raised his hand in acknowledgement. Then, for a moment, he froze, as he saw Aimée was accompanying Caroline.

A smile washed over him, and he carried on with a lighter step. “You see that beauty,” he addressed the mule in Cree, “that's my sweetheart.” Rocky made a high pitched whinny noise, and for a moment Murphy felt he could understand him, and that he was expressing approval.

He was still smiling when all four of them met up, and Benny and Caroline went ahead with the mule. Aimée watched their receding forms from the back, and when she was completely sure nobody was looking, stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. Gently he brushed his knuckles against the back of her hand, and she snagged his little finger with her own. They walked the rest of the way to the Fraser cabin, hands hooked together, and talking about the kinds of nothings that matter when you're in love.

It was a bright day, and that was just as it should be. Murphy was happy.

Chapter Text

Gerrard was scowling at his desk, and radiating an aura of 'don't come near, don't touch, just back the fuck off.' Bob had stepped in from the cold, vehicle parked up, shift over, and seeing the expression on his friend's face decided to ignore the standoffish attitude. Gerrard was pissed about something, and it was Bob's job to unpiss him.

He leaned over his friend's desk, and dropped his voice so the Sergeant, currently checking the status of the drunks in lockup, wouldn't hear. “Listen, you can finish those off tomorrow. Hell, I'll finish them for you. Just... you're an hour into overtime, and it's not like we actually get paid for it. You don't have to try and impress the Sergeant you know.”

Gerrard looked up at him, angrily. “I'm not trying to impress the Sergeant, you dick,” he declared, “I'm just trying to get this damned paperwork out of the way.” He stared at the form he was working on, and scrunched up the paper. He tossed it, unsuccessfully, in the direction of the waste paper basket. Bob scooped it off the floor and dropped it in.

“I could understand it if it was an important case or something,” Bob shrugged, “but it's not. It's just requisition nonsense.”

“You won't think it's nonsense in winter if the firewood doesn't turn up.”

“It's not winter yet. Just... give yourself a break. You've been like this ever since division sent you over here. What's wrong?”

Gerrard threw his pen down on the desk, and shoved his chair back. He glared at Bob, almost aggressively. “I hate this dump,” he said, “working a bunch of cases about dead polar bears and caribou and crap like that.”

“Well, the polar bears were nowhere near here...” Bob was trying to force a chuckle by being overly pedantic, but it wasn't working. Gerrard just glared at his hands, then brought them up, and covered his face. “Hey, what's wrong? Really?” Bob dropped his attempt at humour. This was more serious than he'd thought... “You got bad news?” Maybe it was his family... was his mother sick again? “What's going on?”

“Nothing,” Gerrard took his hands away from his face, and glanced at the maps all over the walls. He looked weary. “Nothing at all. I'm just tired.”

“You know,” Bob said, awkwardly, “you can tell me anything.”

“Yeah,” Gerrard replied, bitterly. “Anything.”

“Come on. You're off for the evening now,” Bob smiled, suddenly thinking of a far easier solution than a man to man chat. “Nothing's so bad a drink won't make it better. Let me buy you a drink.”

Gerrard stood, tilted his head to one side, as though measuring something, then smiled. “I suppose I could be persuaded.”

Bob grabbed Gerrard's overcoat, and threw it to him. Then, buttoning himself up into his own coat again, he stepped back out. It mightn't be winter yet, but the days were shrinking. It was cold and dark already. It seemed no time ago that the sun had been keeping them awake all night. Now night time was taking its revenge, and encroaching on the day, the minutes of sunlight being nibbled away as each day and night passed on their journey to winter. Bob shivered, and leaned against the wall of the little depot. Gerrard took his leave of the Sergeant, and slinging his arm over Bob's shoulder led the way.

Benny was sucking his thumb, holding Teddy under his left arm. “Mommy,” he said, sleepily, “why are you still up? Is it morning yet?”

“No,” she said, then stared at the clock and blinked. Actually, technically, it was. But it wasn't something she wanted to discuss with Benny now. He'd ask, again, why morning wasn't when the sun came up, and what made midnight such an important turning point anyway and... Oh Lord, she knew him too well. Maybe they'd have the talk about time tomorrow... but right now... “You shouldn't be awake baby. Come on now,” she stood up, “you should get back to bed.”

“I woke up. I heard the papers rustling and I thought the books were telling each other stories."

"Oh, what a lovely idea!" No sooner had she said it than she caught a glimpse of a dark expression on his face, and thought, 'oh, maybe not a lovely idea at all... not if you believe it's real.' She moved quickly on. "No, sorry honey, it was just me, looking at the maps."

"Why are you still looking at the maps, Mommy?”

She felt her face softening in a fond smile. It always touched her that when he was sleepy she was still Mommy, not just Mom. "I'm trying to see if I can help Daddy with something at work.”

“Is it about the animals?”

She gazed at him, levelly. She really shouldn't be surprised any more how much that boy picked up on. “Yes, yes, Benny baby, it's to do with the animals.”

“Some bad guy is making them go away?”

“Yes, dear, that's what's happening.”

Benny nodded. “I bet everyone knows him too.”

Now, that did startle her. “What makes you say that?”

“Well, Rocky said that the animals all know who he is, but they don't know his name in human.”

Her smile turned brittle. For some reason this turn of conversation was making her nervous. All of a sudden Benny's fantasy conversations with his mule sounded almost... well... real. “Could Rocky give you a description,” she said, lightly, trying to make a joke of it.

“He says all humans look the same to him. Apart from his humans... that's you, me, Daddy and Murphy.”

“Ah, what a pity.” She looked at him very gravely, joining in his little game. “We could have done with his help.”

“He did say the birds said that the man smells like fat tobacco.”

“Fat tobacco?”

“You know, when someone puts brown cigarettes together and rolls them up into a big sausage.”

“You mean a... a cigar?”

Benny shrugged, and popped his thumb back in his mouth. “What's a cigar,” he asked.

“Fat tobacco, from the sound of it,” Caroline smiled. “Well, tomorrow, when you give Rocky his breakfast, say thank you from me. Now, go to bed sweetheart.”

Benny blinked, woozily, then turned and bumbled back to his bedroom.

Caroline followed a moment later, to discover him already sprawled in a tumble of little boy sleepiness. Gently she pulled the blankets up to his chin, and dropped a kiss on his forehead. He smiled in his sleep. She stood then, and stared at him for a long time, just listening to him breathe. Fat tobacco. What a strange thing... what a strange thing for the boy to say.

It was odd. The oddest thing. She almost found herself wondering if it was true.

Chapter Text

“Bob, I'm telling you, he's ill.” Caroline looked as though she could barely contain her fury, and stood in her husband's path with her fists on her hips, in, if she had known but known it, fighting stance. Bob, who did know it, raised his eyebrows at her aggression, and tried, unsuccessfully, to calm her down.

“It's only the sniffles, Caroline, all kids get the sniffles.”

“Robert Fraser,” she said stiffly, reminding him of his mother, “I know the difference between sniffles and the start of a fever.” She shook her head. “For goodness sake, Bob, you'd think I wasn't a nurse.”

“Sweetheart, normally I'd not doubt you at all, but you're not just a nurse, you're his mother. Mothers worry about everything and nothing.”

She squared her chin, and shot him the fiercest glare she could muster. “You condescending bastard. How dare you?”

He had been going for reassuring, but now that he thought of it, yes, he had sounded condescending. He swallowed, and tried again. “I'm only saying... my mother was like that with me.”

“Your mother wasn't a nurse. And besides, she obviously knew what she was doing... you survived, didn't you? You're here, talking out your ass, aren't you?”

He paused for a moment, startled. She wasn't famous for her use of bad language. He'd certainly offended her, and there was always the possibility that she was right. “Look, Caroline,” he conceded, “I'm sorry... if he's really ill just radio it in, and I'll get back as quick as I can, okay?”

She scowled. “You'd better.”

Apologetically he stepped forward and tried to kiss her. She turned her head so the kiss glanced along the side of her face and hit her ear instead. Not the intended target. “Caroline,” he said, putting his fingers to the curve of her jaw. She turned to look at him, and her eyes drifted shut, as though she couldn't help herself, when he kissed her again, properly this time. “I'm sorry,” he caressed her hair, “I don't mean to be a jerk.”

She might have accepted the kiss, but she was still angry. “Being a jerk just comes naturally, does it?”

“So I hear.” He smiled, but she still wasn't softening. “I hope he's okay, that it is just sniffles, but if it's something going round, he couldn't have a better doctor than you.”

She harrumphed, gave him an abrupt hug, and headed back to the cabin. Bob watched the stiff line of her back, and pulled a face at himself. He was such an idiot sometimes. He hadn't wanted to go away with either of them mad. “Caroline!” He'd shouted her name out before he'd thought it. She turned to him, and he ran to her. Before she could speak he gathered her into a hug, and kissed her as hard as he could. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” he mumbled against her mouth. “I'm an idiot, I love you.” Against his lips her mouth opened, and she kissed him back. “You are an idiot,” she agreed, pulling back breathless, “and I love you so much it hurts.” Her eyes were sharp and fierce, but when she blinked there was water on her face. He kissed her again, gently on the cheeks, tasting her tears.

“Come back,” she said then, softly, with a real smile. “Come home safe.”

“Always.”

Three days later Benny spiked a fever, and Caroline knew for sure what she was dealing with. Measles had made a return to the neighbourhood. For the first time since she had started nursing she was unable to visit her patients. There was absolutely no way she could leave Benny alone. So, Murphy's suggestion was a life saver... perhaps quite literally.

Because it was Murphy who division sent over when she called for Bob on the radio. He came over the horizon on a horse, a cranky nag that few people could ride. This must mean that all the vehicles were out. Something big was afoot, no doubt including Bob, no doubt top secret. She knew she shouldn't be resentful, but she had wanted her husband, Benny's Dad, to come. Instead they sent Murphy, who couldn't even tell her where Bob was. Either he didn't know, or he wasn't allowed to say. It didn't even matter which, it hurt just the same.

“If I get Aimée on the radio to you, then you could tell her what to do for the measles cases. Would that help?” As always Murphy was being pragmatic, sensible. And it was a very good idea.

“Has she had measles?”

“Yes.”

“Have you?”

“Possibly. I had childhood illnesses... but they weren't diagnosed.”

“Well, you'll have to be careful then, just to be on the safe side, but Aimée should be safe enough.”

Murphy nodded. “I'll bring some goods up from town, leave them by the door as I come past. Is there anything you really need?”

She sighed. “Sweets, I suppose. He's barely eating anything, something sugary will at least get calories down him.” She was making him honey and milk drinks, but he could only take so much of them before throwing up. His main fluid was water, just as it should be, but even water he was just taking in sips, for fear of nausea.

“I'll see if someone's made ice cream,” Murphy said, “it will melt and go down easily.”

“Thank you.” She smiled. He was thinking of tonsillitis. Ice cream mightn't be the solution, it was very much man thinking, but it was well meant. And while it was true that Murphy wasn't Bob, he had come out at a moment's notice. “You're very kind.”

He dipped his head as though in denial of the compliment, raised a hand in farewell, and swung back on his horse. She whinnied, and tossed her head, and he bent gently to her ear and murmured. With a tap of his heel and a flick of the reigns he was off.

Caroline shut the window through which they had been conversing, and stepped back into Benny's bedroom. She hadn't wanted to scare him, by talking too loudly about illness, but looking at him he was out of it anyway. At least partly asleep, which was better than the feverish tossing and turning which had preceded it. Still hot though. She removed the damp rags, which had already heated up against his skin, then drew out fresh rags from the bucket of snow she had brought in. She rung them out, then gently placed them, rolled up, under his arm pits and behind his neck, laying the final one flat on his forehead. Lifting the lamp she peered into his mouth again. Tiny little white pimples on his inner lip and cheeks. The rash wouldn't be long now, and the rash was normally a good thing, appearing after the fever broke.

It would break tonight, she was sure of that. And all her instincts as a nurse told her that he would survive it. He would still be sick for his birthday though, covered in spots, and cranky... if he was like his father he'd be more cranky when he was recovering than when he was really ill. And he had reason to be cranky, after all. Not just sick on his birthday, but it looked as though Bob was going to miss it... again. She stroked his damp cheek. Even though she knew he was on the cusp of recovery, still... it hurt to see him ill. Miserable. If she could have taken the illness for him, she would. She'd take any pain he was ever to suffer in his life, if she could. Benny shifted and murmured in his sleep, and she replaced the brow cloth. His eyes half opened, and he smiled at her, drifted off again. Light as a feather she kissed his hot face, and took his little fingers in her hands. All the baby softness, the dimply knuckles... all of that was gone now, and he had the hands he'd have as a man, only smaller. Square, practical hands, blunt and strong. She imagined him a man, so vividly that she could almost see him in the room. Crooked smile, broad at the shoulder, something of his father, something of her father about him, but still, ultimately, himself. He was going to be such a beautiful man. She closed her eyes to embed the image in her memory, as though by visualising it she could call that future into reality. Grown up Benny smiled at her, with warm blue eyes. She opened her own, then, and returned the smile to her little sleeping son.

He would be well. She knew that. Whatever happened, she'd stand between him and any storm. And all would be well.

Time passed, and she waited patiently. Finally, she placed her hand against his face, and noticed that his temperature was going down at last, that his breathing had settled into a deeper rhythm. He was sleeping. Sleeping well, sleeping deeply.

Yes... oh yes. Everything was going to be all right.

Chapter Text

It was as cold as a witch's tit, and Bob was beyond pissed off. This was crap. Radio silence, how the devil were they meant to find Davis and the kid if they couldn't even talk to each other? Okay, okay... they could talk, but only through one of those codes that were so opaque and impenetrable you barely knew what you were talking about yourself.

Bob scratched his stubble, and leaned back, pushing the passenger seat back into an incline. Not much of one, maybe one day they'd get around to making vehicles that were actually comfortable to drive in. More to the point, to sleep in. He was tired, he was cold, he ached and they'd been living in the damned truck for days. Finally it had died on them, and he was glad to be seeing the back of it. Right now it stank so much of man sweat and socks that he could have cut the air with a knife. He snorted contempt at the vehicle. They'd warned headquarters it would be more trouble than it was worth. He only hoped that the relief they were waiting on would arrive soon with the dog team. That would be a pain in itself though... so damned cold. He needed some kind of real rest. They'd barely slept in days, he and Buck taking it in shifts to drive, to spot for each other, allocating four hours sleep out of each twenty-four, waking each other if something seemed important.

It was bizarre how, in the middle of nowhere, with nothing going on expect the weather, so many things could seem so suddenly important. Even without those interruptions he kept waking. Buck wasn't doing any better.

Where the hell had the bastard taken the kid?

The RCMP had originally been working on the assumption that he was heading south, taking the kid over the border to America, but then there was a sighting of them heading North... North to what? Well, the word from the top was that it had to be an airstrip. And there were scores of them scattered across the Territories. Every man available in the area had been called out, skeleton staff only left behind, and nobody was allowed to say a thing which might tip the bastard off that he was being followed.

And that was the real problem. The guy mightn't have been RCMP for years... but he would still know how the Force operated. Didn't matter how quiet they were, he wasn't an idiot. He'd know he was being followed. He was a crack shot, probably armed, certainly desperate. And it was cold, and it was grim, and he kept dreaming of Caroline and waking up painfully and shamefully erect next to Buck, grateful for his heavy clothing, and hoping he hadn't been moaning in his sleep. All this discomfort, and embarrassment, and the whole thing was a waste of time anyway. No way the bozo was going to be heading North into this. Even if he got to an airstrip, it would be suicidal – actually, by now physically impossible to fly. Winter had it's teeth in. They couldn't even get the damned truck to move, an air plane had no chance.

Buck grunted beside him. “I hear them.” His voice was, if anything, deeper than usual, rumbling against a gravel that sounded like an incipient chest cold.

“What, you hear the dogs?”

“Yeah, the wind's behind them.”

Bob strained his ears, and heard it, the wind whipping the noise toward them. “They can't be too far away now,” he said, with relief.

“Thank God,” Buck rolled his shoulders, and cracked his neck. Bob winced. “If we sit here much longer we'll freeze into solid blocks of ice.” Buck was only partly joking. Over the years they had discovered their fair share of human beings frozen literally stiff by winter.

“The damned RCMP are cracked if they think Davis is heading up here with his kid. The guy might be a crazy nut, but he's not suicidal.”

“Are you sure of that,” Buck asked, bleakly.

Bob was about to say something, but his voice stopped in his throat. Actually, he had been working on the assumption that Davis was trying to escape with his kid, set himself up a new life after the divorce. Because a kid was... well, your own child was everything. You'd do anything for your kid. But... what did he really know about Davis? He'd retired from the RCMP under dodgy circumstances, barely retaining his reputation, and pension. And he'd been violent to the child's mother... gruesomely so. Despite the bias of the legal system, his ex wife had gained full custody. Perhaps the guy had simply given up, knew he'd never have the legal right to see his kid again, and had decided that if he couldn't have her, nobody could.

“Shit, Buck,” Bob knuckled his eyes. “You didn't have to put that thought in my head. What if he's not heading to an airstrip at all?”

“It's a thought.” Buck closed his eyes, stretched, yawned convulsively. “Sorry, sorry... Lord God, Bob, I'm tired.”

“Well, we'll both have to wake up. They're here. Let's get ourselves out of this damned box.”

Reluctantly the two men braced themselves against the cold, hunched up, and stepped out of the truck to meet the dogs. Thank God it's not snowing, thought Bob, as he leaned into the wind. Horizontal, sharp as a knife, but at least not snowing.

“Do either of you guys have a damned clue where we're supposed to be going next,” he asked the youngsters who had arrived with the teams of dogs. They were wrapped up so tightly that he could barely make out their faces.

“No, I'm sorry... best guess is he's still heading for an airfield,” the smaller of the two men said.

“That's insane,” Buck grumbled. “When you two guys get back, why don't you tell the bigwigs who sent us up here that the guy's probably already killed himself and the poor kid? You know he's not going to escape in this... they need to think of places that are important to the guy, places he might hole up in.”

“What, you think he's going to kill himself?”

“For the love of God, it's so cold I'm thinking of killing myself,” Buck snapped, “if only because hell is warm. A man with a kid, in the middle of this... he can't be thinking straight. We need to change the way we're thinking about this.”

“Didn't he used to go hunting up here?” Bob had an idea, and bounced it at Buck.

“Yeah... yeah, he did.”

“So, what about that hunting cabin, away up to the west? He'd know that, wouldn't he?”

“Yeah, he would.” Buck's nod was barely noticeable in his furs. “If he's not heading for the airstrip, that would be the next best place.”

“And he's not heading for the airstrip,” Bob asserted confidently.

“You can't go off and do something else like that,” the kid said, “you have to obey orders.”

Bob laughed. “We can do what we like, son. How long you been out of the Depot? Six months?”

“I'm sorry, Sir,” it was hard to tell, but the lad looked like he was blushing. “It's just the rules...”

“Well, when you get back, you just tell them that we've broken the rules. For goodness sake, son, these are the guys who thought we should take a truck into the middle of this.” He gestured expansively at the snow. “Who would you trust up here, Buck and me, or them?”

“Well...”

“Quite. Look, son, if I were you, I'd hop onto your friend's sled, and get out of here before night falls. You think it's bad now, wait till it's dark.”

“All right, Sir, and we'll pass on your message.”

“Good lad.”

“I hope you don't get in too much trouble...”

Bob smiled, ruefully, and cast a conspiratorial glance at Buck, who looked like he wanted to laugh. “Don't worry kid,” Bob spoke for both of them. “We're used to it.”

He turned, and started sorting out the dogs. Behind him the kids set off back south, and Buck checked the contents of the sled, loading up what they could from the truck.

“Okay,” Buck grinned as they finished up. “I'll drive. You get some sleep.”

“I thought you were tired?”

“The cold woke me up.”

“If you're sure. Wake me up in an hour for my turn.”

Buck put an arm round him and gave a squeeze. “Will do.”

Bob realised as he drifted off that Buck would probably do no such thing, but by now he was too damned tired to fight it. The wind buffeted behind them, speeding them on their way, and the sound of it, the dogs, the snow sliding beneath the sled blended together into white noise. Before he could help himself he was properly asleep... his first good sleep in days.

Chapter Text

On the last clear day before the storm, the final piece fell into place. Benny's rash had blossomed and cooled, and so he was no longer contagious. He was celebrating by sitting up at the table, eating ice cream in big messy scoops, while she and Murphy sat on either side of him, poring over Bob's documents regarding the miscreant hunter. Her attention was divided between attempts to get Benny to slow down in his assault upon ice cream mountain, and listening, again, to the facts of the case.

Murphy scratched his forehead and said, “we thought at first it might be two people, one of them a smoker. But then we realised, nobody's going to be smoking cigars in real cold... you wouldn't risk your fingers to hold the thing, you'd keep your gloves on. So it was probably the same guy.”

This wasn't the first time she'd heard this theory, but this time something stirred in her memory.

“What did you say about cigars?”

“Well, a lot of the traps we found in spring and summer, there was ash near them. The guy must be either really confident nobody's taking it seriously, or he's stupid. And I don't think he's stupid.”

“So, why would he feel confident nobody's after him?”

Murphy shrugged. “We don't know. It's just one possibility. They're knocking around others.”

After Murphy was gone, Caroline mulled over what he'd said. She mulled as she washed dishes, she mulled as she gave the animals their evening feed, she mulled as she washed ice cream off Benny's face, and read him his bedtime story. An idea had sunk in, subliminal, uncomfortable. She found herself nesting on it, unable to let it go.

What would make such a flagrant criminal feel safe?

At three o'clock in the morning the idea hatched, and she woke to a revelation. Of course the guy felt safe. Someone on the Force was protecting him. And damn it, she thought, Bob wasn't there for her to talk to. Because if she was right in her suspicion, he should be the first to know...

By morning the weather really kicked in. It was about seven days since Bob's departure. Outside the whole world was a blank, heaven and earth blurring into each other, white against white, so sharp and cruel that it gave her a headache just to look at it. But Caroline couldn't help herself. After she had tramped out to feed the animals, she patrolled the perimeters of the cabin grounds, watching where the horizons should be. She could barely see anything, but kept looking. Gazed narrow eyed into the blizzard, waiting for his return, even though there had been nothing on the radio for days, even before the storm hit.

It could be the weather that was keeping radio contact to a minimum, she was used to that. But what contact there had been even before the snow hit had sounded... well, off somehow. She didn't recognise most of the voices that ghosted through, young voices, old voices. Seemed like the local RCMP was suddenly staffed by rookies and old men. Everyone else had vanished. When she did get through, briefly, to the station house she was told that Murphy had been called out the previous day. Must have been shortly after he'd left her. Besides the elderly Sergeant the only cops in town seemed to be an even more elderly Sergeant taking a vacation from his retirement, and the young volunteer Patrick, studiously building up his résumé in hopes of getting accepted to the Depot.

Something big was obviously going on, and it was killing her, that she didn't know what it was, where Bob was. This wasn't the first time he'd been gone a long time, in weather as bad as this, leaving such radio silences as this. But it was itching at her worse than usual because... even beyond her constant worry for him, this other thing was eating at her now. She hardly dared admit it to herself. She and Benny hunkered in, waiting out the storm, and they fretted against each other. He was well enough that he wanted to play. She was anxious enough that her patience thinned, and he whined, and sulked. She frayed around the edges.

She'd figured out the case. That was what got her, that and the fact that there was nobody she could tell. The maps, the photos of the traps, the skill of it all. She'd seen traps like that before, made by someone she knew. Glanced over them, as she'd gone on her way to visit patients, on her rare shopping expeditions, her occasional visits to the station house. She'd passed them by, and not paid much attention, because it was normal enough, after all. And it hadn't clicked, because, honestly... though she didn't like the man, never had done, she would never have thought a friend of Bob's might be behind the illegal trapping. And while he had never seemed quite respectable, a bit of a sleaze, truth be told... still, he'd seemed fundamentally honest. He was trusted, he was liked locally. Not just that though... he was a friend of Bob's, of Buck's. Even Gerrard, ambitious social climber as she knew him to be, trusted him. The guy had been hiding in plain sight.

And, strange though it was, it was Benny's talking mule who triggered the final connection in her head.

Fat tobacco.

She saw the man in her memory, leaning against the tavern door when she marched, heavily pregnant, to drag Bob home. How many times had she seen him before and since that day? Smirking, or laughing with friends, and all the time nursing that dirty fat cigar.

It was so damned obvious when you put it together.

Muldoon.