The Camping Trip
Crossover with Without A Trace
A sequel to Full Moon and Denver Seven, but the storyline stands alone.
"I'd like to propose a toast."
Josiah's rich voice quelled the good natured ribbing circling the table. All eyes turned to the big man standing to the side of the table holding a cornucopia of Thanksgiving food. There was a scant second of teasing and laughter as the faint ringing of glass and silver ware fell away. A dozen long stemmed wine glasses were raised high, the liquid contained within each crystal bowl sparkling crimson hues in the candle light.
"This is the time of year to give thanks for our blessings. I, for one, have many things to be grateful for, as do each of us, but I think we can agree that discovering a new family member is at the top of the list. With that in mind, I would like to welcome the newest member of our unusual family . . ."
A round of affirmations punctuated the statement.
". . . and give thanks to family, no matter how unconventional." Josiah raised his glass higher. "To family!"
Glasses clinked around and across the table and there was a split second of silence as the Magnificent Seven and guests drank to the toast. Josiah settled again in his chair and exchanged his wine glass for a fork. "Now pass the potatoes!"
The Larabee Ranch dining room was filled to capacity with the seven ATF team members and four others - Raine Jackson, Maude Standish, Casey and Nettie Wells and the latest addition, Martin Fitzgerald.
Sitting across from his recently found twin brother Vin Tanner, Martin looked completely at ease and relaxed. It had been five months since the two of them had found each other in the middle of a murder for hire case. A few injuries later, the reason for their meeting was resolved but the family entanglements were just beginning.
Although Martin and Vin hit it off immediately, their relationship with their biological father Victor Fitzgerald, went careening uncontrollably downhill. As a result Vin refused to acknowledge Victor as his father and vice-versa. Martin never did feel put in the middle because as soon as he heard the details about how he had been separated from his twin at birth, Martin Fitzgerald was feeling none to friendly toward Victor, either.
Martin's acquired mother Katherine, however, was another thing entirely. Martin could not ignore his attachment to her. In a way, she was as much a victim of Victor's actions as the brothers and in the short time Vin had with Katherine, Martin knew a connection had been made. If allowed, Katherine could easily love Vin as much as she did Martin.
Victor, however, was doing all he could to make sure that didn't happen; all he could see Vin bringing to Katherine's heart was pain. That's the way Martin interpreted things, anyway. But, tired from the physical and emotional upheaval that surrounded his sibling discovery Martin had pulled away from the elder Fitzgeralds and allowed himself to heal. He threw himself into his work and connecting with Vin via phone, instant messaging, email and the strange mental connection they'd established from the very beginning. He'd agreed to come to Denver for Thanksgiving before the invitation was completely out of Vin's mouth. The hike and camping was the final event of Martin's trip.
"So what time are you two departing for your excursion into the hills?" Ezra Standish asked as he passed on the green bean casserole with a look of distain.
"As soon as the sun's up." Vin accepted the beans with a look of delight. He scooped a generous helping of the creamy glop onto his plate and sent the dish on its way. "We're all packed."
"You ever been camping, Martin?" The question came from Buck. "Let me rephrase that: You prepared to go camping with Vin?" He didn't hide his snicker very well.
As he forked a helping of white meat to his plate, Martin grinned across the table at Buck. "Are you trying to scare me? Because if you are, it isn't working."
"Aw Buck, just because stuff happens to you every time Vin takes us camping it's no reason to assume the worst." JD Dunne refilled Casey's wine glass. She smiled with obvious affection and thanks.
"Not just Buck," Nathan Jackson interjected. "Remember your own head-banging excursion?"
JD waved off the comment with a snort. "That wasn't Vin's fault," he said. "I slipped in the mud."
". . . while making a new trail at Vin's suggestion."
"It was only a mild concussion. And Vin got hurt, too!"
"Vin always gets hurt," Chris Larabee interjected, handing off the rolls to Nettie. "That's a given with any outing."
"Hey! That's not true!" Vin protested. "Remember Albuquerque? I didn't get a scratch!"
"But the rest of us did," Josiah reminded him.
"Well, that wasn't the point," Vin grumbled. "I didn't get hurt."
"Should I be worried?" All Martin had to do was think the words and he knew his brother heard.
"Nah." Vin's Texas-accented voice was clear in Martin's mind. "They're exaggeratin'."
Martin raised his wine glass to his brother across the table in acknowledgement. Vin nodded and winked.
"It is not polite to exclude the rest of us from your conversation while gathered together at this gastronomical affair." Ezra raised an eyebrow at the pair before delicately cutting into his turkey slice. The others laughed.
To an outsider, Vin and Martin were identical twins. If it weren't for Vin's penchant for longer hair, the two would seem to be interchangeable. In actuality, it didn't take long for the six members of Vin's team to individualize them in the five days they'd had to get better acquainted, Martin found out.
Ezra noticed Martin's better taste in clothing and the minute differences in facial expressions - he believed Martin would be tougher to read in a poker game.
Josiah saw a difference in posture and calm - Vin seemed more comfortable in his own skin. That realization made Martin think.
Nathan knew the individual nature of their physical scars even as well healed and well hidden as they were.
Buck saw individual senses of humor and that Martin took his teasing about Samantha without becoming uncomfortable or embarrassed as, apparently, Vin did.
JD noticed that Vin had quicker reflexes and therefore managed to dodge most physical pranks. Martin found that one out almost immediately.
And Chris - well, Chris simply felt the differences between the pair.
But most importantly, Martin strongly felt Vin's joy with the discovery of a blood brother.
It was a Thanksgiving meal Martin would fondly remember as warm and welcoming. It was what followed that he preferred to forget.
The next morning's air was sharp and cold, stinging Martin's nostrils as he inhaled. It was different from New York air, thick with the smell of pine and earth and . . . wilderness. He tilted his head back, closed his eyes and drew the air deeply into his lungs, enjoying the cool stimulation.
Then a slap on the back nearly keeled him over.
"So, y'all headin' out now?" Martin turned to find Buck grinning back at him. "You got enough cold weather gear?"
"Yup, I think I'm set. Vin and I went shopping to get the things I lacked, like better boots."
"Our sharpshooter does know his hiking gear, I'll give him that." Buck winked at Martin and headed toward his truck. "JD! Let's hit it, pard! The job of snacks for the game is the most important one of the day!" he bellowed as he walked.
"Jeeze, Buck, I'm comin' already!" JD shook his head in exasperation and gave Martin a crooked grin as he passed. "Have fun in Vin's backyard. See ya when you get back!"
Buck and JD argued as they loaded in the truck, much to Martin's amusement. Buck took off like a shot down the driveway as JD's door slammed shut.
"Hope the women and children are safely out of the way," Martin chuckled, shaking his head.
"Buck'll sniff out the women where ever they hide." Nathan's voice was right at Martin's shoulder. "You two be careful out there, you hear? There's a little snow and it is cold. Vin knows his stuff but he still manages to get in trouble on occasion. You comin' by the office before you take off on Monday?"
"Sure am. I'll see you then and I'm pretty sure I'll be intact." Martin laughed as he picked up his pack and slung it over one shoulder. "I think I've discovered more than one brother, the way you all worry."
"We are brothers in lots of ways, Fitzgerald, and you're in by default." Nathan shook his hand and turned back to Chris' house. "Be careful now."
As Nathan mounted the steps to the front door Vin emerged from the house closely followed by Chris and Josiah. The latter pair stopped on the front porch and was joined by Nathan. Vin hopped down the stairs with his pack. The three left behind leaned on the porch railing.
"Where's Ezra?" Martin asked.
Josiah and Nathan laughed outright. Chris cracked a lopsided smile.
"We won't see Ezra before noon," Chris said.
"Oh, right. He's not a morning person," Martin chuckled.
Vin grinned back at him then turned to the porch and waved. "See y'all on Monday."
"Call me when you get in Sunday night." Chris' tone left no leeway for argument.
"Yes, Dad." Vin rolled his eyes. He then reached over and tugged on Martin's shirt sleeve. "Let's go before he decides to ground us."
"I mean it, Vin!"
"Yeah, I know," he called over is shoulder. "I'll call. See ya!"
A few minutes later Martin and his brother were on the open road, headed for the hills.
+ + + + + + +
A pair of hours later Vin turned off the Jeep. The hot engine popped a few times in protest to the mountain cold, the only sound that could be heard in the quiet of the dirt parking area. Old patches of snow under the trees had turned shiny with ice.
"Wow," Martin said as he opened the vehicle door and stepped outside. His words carried on frosted puffs of vapor. "This is great. No one else around for miles.
Vin walked around to the back and opened the rear hatch. "It's a nice hike. We'll be at the campsite tomorrow afternoon."
"The trail head looks well marked."
"The first part of the trail is pretty well traveled. When we hit the Outlook, that'll change."
"The Outlook?" Martin moved to his brother's side and helped unload the packs.
"It's the marker used to indicate where the wilderness trails start. It's a sheer rock hillside - good climbing, but we'll be hiking around it to get to the top of the hill then follow the trail from there."
"I take it you know the trail well?" Martin checked his pack and then checked the water pack.
"Been there a time or two." Vin moved the clip on holster that held his gun closer to his hip before pulling on his pack.
Martin mirrored his brother's actions. "I'm surprised no one else is here."
"This is a little out of the way and pretty cold. It's busier in the spring. With the first heavy snow fall, this'll probably get closed for the winter." Vin tightened the pack straps and took a sip of water from his hydro pack tube. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
The brothers hiked at a good clip but still took the time to notice their surroundings. Vin pointed out some birds and identified prints that Martin found. Patches of snow in the shadows became more prevalent with increased elevation, as did the icy edge of the air. It was early afternoon when Vin called for a break. "That's the Outlook."
Breathing hard, Martin followed Vin's line of sight and saw the smooth face of the next hillside. Ragged black lines of shadow etched the greyness of the stone like black lightening. The face was framed, top and bottom, by huge, scattered boulders. "Wow," he said. "That looks like some challenging climbing."
They were at the top of a hill that overlooked a valley between them and the Outlook. The rocky face rose about two hundred feet at it's highest point, sloping gently down until it disappeared behind a canopy of trees and cluster of boulders.
"Yeah. It's a real workout. Come on," Vin said, hitching his thumbs in his pack straps. "We want the Outlook well behind us before night if we want to make it to the summit tomorrow."
"Lead on, then."
They pushed hard, the trail winding around to the side of the Outlook and then leading them up along the top. The took only one long break to admire the view from atop the Outlook. Shadows were long when they finally made camp in an upper valley. Vin settled them in an open area that had a tell-tale circle of scorched rock in the center.
"Here." Vin handed Martin a large, folded utility saw. "Go trim some dry branches for the fire."
Martin unfolded the knife and whistled. The serrated-edged blade was at least a foot long. "Can't be called a pocket knife, can it?"
Vin laughed. "Airport security would have a melt down if I pulled that out in line, wouldn't they?"
"If that ever happens, I'll bake it into a cake for you at Gitmo." Chuckling, Martin left on his quest.
The night was cold, the sky sharply clear. Beside a crackling fire, the brothers enjoyed a hot meal and decided to sleep without tents under the canopy of stars glittering icily overhead. Later, as the flames burned down to glowing embers, the pair, snuggled deep in their down bags, studied the heavens. Martin, amazed by the sheer number of lights above, fell asleep to the sound of his brother reciting Cherokee lore about the rising moon. They both slept soundly.
Morning was just a pink cast in the sky when Vin shook his brother awake.
"Let's hit it. We want to make the next camp by early afternoon. Then we can leave the big packs there while we make the summit hike."
Martin yawned and stretched, causing the cold morning air to leak into his sleeping bag. Goose bumps erupted on his skin. "Okay, then." Vin turned away as Martin crawled from the pack, shivering as he hit the open air. "Damn, I could use some . . ."
His though was completed when Vin turned back and shoved a cup of hot coffee in his hands.
"Hope you like it strong," Vin commented.
"This mind reading thing comes in real handy. Thanks!" Martin hunched his shoulders and wrapped both hands around the hot cup. He brought the brew to his lips and took a careful sip, the heat of the liquid warming him from the inside. "Perfect," he sighed.
Vin laughed and turned back to the small fire. "The guys say it's warmed battery acid that could stand on its own outside the cup."
Martin snorted, pulling the steaming cup closer to his nose. "They say that like it's a bad thing."
"Finally," Vin said. "Someone with good taste!"
After quickly eating and packing up, the pair was on their way just as the sun crowned the eastern range. By the time it tipped from its apex, Martin and Vin were making camp again. Martin then pulled together a quick lunch before they left the base camp to make their push to the range summit.
By mid-afternoon the brothers were perched on the top of the summit, overlooking a sea of trees and miles of mountains that seemed to stretch to infinity. They sat in comforting silence for a long time, neither man willing to breach the quiet. It was Martin who spoke first.
"I can't tell you what it means to me to find you," he said softly, his eyes studying the distant range. "I didn't know I was missing something until we crossed paths. Since then, I've felt - whole." He shook his head and rubbed his eyes with a groan. "Damn, that sounds so cliché."
Vin smiled, eyes sparking with an inner energy. "It does, don't it? Couldn't say it any other way, though. I know what cha mean." He paused, momentarily fiddling with the small binoculars in his had before bringing them up to his eyes before speaking again. "I only had family for a short while but I still remember the strength of it - the inner strength - the . . . hell, I can't tell ya how it feels. I just know. And I'm glad to have it again. There was a spell for awhile where I thought I'd imagined it." He paused. "I had that feelin' again when I hooked up with Team 7, but this is . . . deeper. It's like I'll go on if anything, well, you know . . . if anything happens to me."
Martin smiled crookedly. "Family. Now there's a term I've had to re-define. How you look at it changes everything."
Vin's eyes slid sideways when he pulled a few inches away from the binoculars. The corner of his mouth quirked upward. "Or not, if your definition don't change but . . ."
Martin tilted his head and caught his brother's gaze. ". . . But the people do. I get it."
The pair settled back to absorb the wilderness from their lofty perch. Vin pointed out various geological landmarks visible from the summit and filled in Martin about the history associated with them. They both wanted to stay longer, but had to leave the summit to make it back to the base camp before dark. When they reached base camp, Martin felt refreshed and renewed - their new beginning well established.
That night the chatter between them was non-existent. Instead, their mental connection sizzled, the conversation fast and furious, all of it laced with emotion easily felt and openly shared. As a result, their connection deepened, rooting each with the other in a way that forever redefined the meaning of family.
By the time they surrendered to sleep, Martin and Vin knew every detail of each of their lives - the high points, the low points and the events in between that made them the men they were at that moment.
+ + + + + + +
The sun had barely warmed them by the time the camp was broken down and Martin and Vin started their outbound hike to the Jeep. They would keep up a steady pace that would easily get them to the Jeep before dark.
Martin felt rejuvenated and strangely at peace. He knew that on his return to New York the pressures of family - the Fitzgerald version - would renew again but from here, the situation seemed less stressful and definitely less real.
"So what are your plans for Christmas?" Martin asked aloud. Vin was several yards ahead setting a near-brutal pace. Before his brother responded verbally, Martin felt a wash of warmth that made him grin; the speed at which he'd grown accustomed to this internal connection amazed him.
"Not sure. Skiin' somewhere, I suppose."
"There's good skiing in New York," Martin offered.
Vin threw him a backward glance, his eyes reflecting the grin on his lips. "Not sure I'm ready for that."
Without having to voice his specific concerns, Martin knew exactly where his brother's thoughts dwelled. Victor Fitzgerald would always be a lurking figure in their minds.
"The mountains are far away from where Victor will be."
"Never far enough. It's not fair to Katherine, though."
Martin was touched at the sentiment Vin held toward his - acquired mother? Adopted mother? The semantics of that relationship was something Martin still struggled with. The time with his blood brother, however, was doing a lot to define the situation. Their blood mother died when they were five years old, leaving Vin adrift. Martin was grateful for having Katherine in his life.
"I could have my sisters bring her for a visit," Martin suggested. He frowned, concentrating on the vague path and working to avoid some exposed tree roots that Vin seemed to float over.
"Sounds nice," Vin replied, his voice barely heard because he'd again managed to put space between them with his measured stride. His sibling was certainly comfortable in this venue, Martin realized yet again.
Martin scanned their surroundings. The trees were thick in presence and smell. Morning dew had enhanced the earthy aroma and dampened their steps on shed leaves, now a carpet-like under their feet. The canopy over them was spotty with a mix of evergreen and deciduous branches, the sporadic sunlight making gold jigsaw pieces on the ground. Clusters of icy snow collected at the base of the larger trees, protected by eternal shadow. A light cloud cover was slowly taking over the blue above and Vin mentioned the possibility of a drizzle by dark - or even light snow, which was all the more incentive to get to the Jeep in good time.
They passed the morning's part of the hike in quiet talk and comfortable silence. No solid plans were made at this point but they both knew that they would get together soon. The desire to try and reclaim what was long lost strong between them.
Finally, Vin called for a quick break. The spot couldn't have been more perfect. They had been following the shallow side of a ridge all morning and they were now at the end of the level trail. From here out would generally be downhill, but at this point, the view down the valley ahead was spectacular. The brothers sat on a rocky outcrop clear of trees for several long and silent minutes sharing dried apples.
"I'm guessing the Outlook is just ahead?"
"A little ways. Not far to the Jeep from there. I'm thinkin' steak for dinner," Vin said as she scanned the horizon.
"And I'm agreein'," Martin replied immediately. "I didn't see a barbeque at your place. You use the oven?"
Vin wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Nah. There's a small grill on the roof."
"Ah." Martin nodded. "Missed that the other night during star gazing." He hadn't missed the affection his brother felt for the run-down area called Purgatorio. Meeting Vin's friendly neighbors made the attachment understandable. Hope shared by the apartment dwellers that Purgatorio would turn around someday ran strong among them. Vin was doing good things both at work and at home, and Martin was proud of his sibling.
Obviously reading Martin's thoughts, Vin glanced at him in surprise.
Martin laughed. "Yeah, I am proud of you and proud to be your brother."
Vin dropped his chin. "Thanks," he uttered softly.
Still smiling Martin wiped his hands and took a final look around. "Guess we'd better . . . hey, what's that?" He pointed to the left side of the valley below. "An antenna?"
Vin followed Martin's line of sight and squinted. A light breeze swept the trees causing the autumn canopy to ripple, but one thin, black line didn't sway like the trees. It stood out from the surrounding leaves and branches as black, metallic and unbending.
"Yeah. That side of the valley has some sections of private property. This ridge we're on divides the private lots from the federal park land."
"There are some houses over there?"
"I wouldn't call 'em that. More like small vacation or hunting cabins. There ain't many because there's no real road up this far. Someday, maybe. Some of the places have ham radios with generators and I guess that's what that is - someone's antenna for their radio." Vin sighed and stood, adjusting his pack. "I expect this area'll be another Aspen someday."
Martin also stood and prepared to leave, clearing picking up Vin's disappointment with the idea of development. "It'll never be New York, though," Martin offered with a grin.
Vin smiled crookedly in return. "Thank God," he chuffed.
Chuckling, Martin slapped Vin's shoulder and they set off on their final push. The pair walked steadily downhill until Vin called a halt for lunch which consisted of cheese sticks and granola bars. Martin recognized the area as their first camping spot. He absorbed the season's offerings - the scattered turn in colors, the nip of frigid air, the scent of trees and earth all interlaced together with birdsong - hoping to imprint it all in his mind; he was going to miss his brother and this comfortable silence between them when he returned to the bustle of New York.
A gentle slap on his shoulder followed by a short, raspy laugh made Martin realize he'd been sitting with his eyes closed. Far from napping, he'd allowed his mind to wander at will and found a peace that made him feel incredibly relaxed when he opened his eyes.
"Gotta hit the trail if we're gonna be outta here by dark." Amusement heavily accented Vin's words. "Don't blame ya for wantin' to stay where you were in your thoughts, though. This place does the same thing to me."
Martin returned the crooked smile and shouldered his pack. "Can't remember the last time I've felt so relaxed," he admitted. "But I think I'll have some painful reminders of this trip." He leaned against a tree for a moment to stretch his calves and thighs. "Haven't hiked like this in a while."
"You'll be fine. Come on, brother." Vin hitched one shoulder, adjusting his pack, and started off.
Martin felt warmed when Vin said the word "brother". It seemed so . . . right.
After walking steadily downhill for awhile, Martin, distracted momentarily by a cloud of gnats in his face, took a wrong step, twisted his ankle and fell hard. He was sure he'd heard a tell-tale crack in the joint.
"Shit!" he swore as he grabbed his ankle. For a fleeting second there was no pain, and then sharp, electric bolts shot up his leg from the area around the knob of his ankle.
Vin was squatting at Martin's side in an instant. "How bad?" Vin didn't have to ask if it hurt; Martin knew his brother felt the pain as it hit.
"Not sure," Martin said between gritted teeth. "Didn't see that root."
"Sorry. Shoulda pointed it out." Vin dropped his pack and carefully straightened out Martin's leg, maneuvering his pack under Martin's calf.
Martin gripped either side of his knee and watched as Vin carefully probed what he could around the top of Martin's boot. He twitched once as Vin hit a tender spot just above the outer part of his left ankle.
"I don't dare take the boot off," Vin mused. "If it swells, we won't be able to get it back on. For now, the boot's good support." Vin's eyes rose to meet Martin's pained expression. "Let's wait a spell before tryin' to walk. Maybe it's just bruised."
They both knew otherwise, their connection made lying impossible. Vin rose and, after making Martin as comfortable as he could, left with purpose.
"Think I can rig up a crutch," Vin told him mentally. "There's some aspirin in the outer, side pocket of my pack. While you're at it, shift some weight to my pack."
"Yep. Carried heavier before."
Chewing his lower lip at the blossoming pain Martin fumbled with the pack under his leg and found the small first aid kit that contained the aspirin. Martin shook out two tablets, tucked the small pill container in his hip pocket and downed the aspirin with a mouthful of water. It took a few minutes to remove his own pack and drag it around to where he could reach it, but he finally got it situated just right and began pulling out the heavier items.
As he worked, an odd kind of movie ran in his mind. Martin could "see" what Vin was doing and they worked in concert to create a crutch. During the repacking, Martin held back some cloth items that could be used to pad parts of the crutch he could see being "made" in his mind. By the time Vin returned Martin already knew what the wood part looked like and had his additions ready to go. Neither one made any comments on the speed in which the crutch evolved. There was no need.
Martin's injury didn't improve with time. Obvious discoloration and swelling had already crept up his leg from the boot top by the time the crutch was finished. Aspirin and elevation didn't help much.
"You could hike out and get help," Martin suggested.
"Not an option," Vin replied immediately. "I'm not leaving you alone up here. There's no cell phone service this far up but there are some areas of connectivity farther down, beyond the Outlook."
"What about that cabin with the antenna?" Martin suggested.
Vin tilted his head. "I thought of that but I'd have to break in. They usually aren't occupied this time of year." He pursed his lips in thought. "Guess they'd understand. I could come back and fix it before the heavy snows. Can you go a little ways?"
They put the packs back together and Martin's was significantly lighter than before. He felt better that Vin wouldn't be hauling it the entire way so he didn't object to the transfer of load. Vin helped him struggle to his feet and Martin tucked the homemade crutch under his arm. Lightning shots of pain zinged up his leg at the repositioning so Martin had to stand still and take a few deep breaths until the uncomfortable surge leveled out. Vin's arm was around his waist, patiently steadying him until he was ready to go.
Martin indicated with a shaky nod when he was ready to go. Vin hoisted up his pack and started out, walking backwards and slightly ahead of Martin until he saw that his brother had the hang of using the crutch.
"Just like old times," Martin puffed, joking about the circumstances under which they'd first met. "Different limbs this time."
"The team'll never let me forget this," Vin mumbled.
"And you said they were exaggerating."
They both huffed breathy laughs.
They followed the trail for a little while but eventually had to veer off to get to the cabin. The pair carefully made their way over the ridge and down other side. Martin knew he was slowing Vin up, but his brother refused to leave him. Inwardly, Martin was glad and he knew Vin felt the sentiment.
Vin followed a trail mapped in his mind and Martin felt Vin's confidence in his chosen path. Martin followed without hesitation or suggestion, knowing his brother was in his element. Even twins had their individual strengths, Martin had come to realize over the past few months.
"There." Vin paused and pointed down hill, off to their right. Between the trees Martin could barely make out a boxy structure.
"The antenna place?" Martin said, squinting painfully.
"Yeah. The tower's separate from the cabin. This guy's serious about his radio system; that's an impressive antenna."
"Rather risky having all that equipment up here, unguarded."
Vin shrugged. "No real road up here. You'd need a serious four-wheel drive, dry ground and lots of guts."
"Like the ambulance that has to get me?"
Vin laughed and shook his head. "Sorry, bro, but it's either gonna be a mule or a helicopter, and the mule has a better chance of gettin' in," he joked.
Martin grinned through his pain and then winced. "I am entrusting you with the task of insuring that there are no photographs of this incident. Danny would never let me live it down."
Vin quirked an eyebrow. "Do camera phones work without a cell tower?" He felt his pockets teasingly.
Martin groaned "Me and my big mouth. Let's get a-move-on, brother, before I completely lose my sense of humor."
Going slower as the terrain steepened, it seemed forever until they were close enough to the tiny wooden structure to confirm that is was probably unoccupied. It was so basic it was ugly, yet the area around it was meticulously clean of brush or any kind of shrub. A generous pile of chopped wood was neatly stacked to one side. Parallel tracks sunk in the dirt where a vehicle's path had been established were filled with dead leaves.
"Someone's been up here fairly recently," Vin noted, handing Martin the small binoculars. "That wood in the pile's not that old." Vin turned to Martin and the expression on his face told Martin that they shared the same pained weariness. "Sit. Take a rest while I get inside. Technically, it's not burglary, right?"
Martin dropped to the ground with a grunt. "Don't know about Colorado, but it's not in New York. Vandalism at best. Why? You worried about adding a felony to your rap sheet?"
"Nah," Vin snorted. "I'm more wonderin' about what the boys can harass me about. But what they don't know . . ."
"My lips are sealed. Brothers in crime and all." Martin forced a grin. "No photos, right?"
Vin laughed as he started down the hill to the lonely structure.
Martin settled down against a tree trunk and pulled the two packs together, using them to elevate his injured foot. He didn't want to let on how much the injury hurt but he knew that Vin knew. He leaned back with a pained sigh and pulled the tube from his hydro pack to his mouth. The water was far from cool but it was wet and still refreshing. Martin found the aspirin and downed two more, the bitter taste lingering on his tongue.
Watching Vin's progress to the cabin gave him a needed distraction. His brother moved like a wild thing amongst the trees, so natural and at ease. Martin chuckled when Vin approached the structure with ingrained caution. Years of police work were hard to put aside. First, he circled the building from just outside the tree line then started to the front door, slightly off center and away from the single window on that side of the building. Vin's voice carried faintly up to where Martin sat.
"Hello in the cabin!"
With no reaction from the inside, Vin stepped up the two front steps and knocked on the door, standing to one side.
"Hello?" Vin's voice was faint.
Confirming there was no one inside Vin began a slow circle of the cabin, checking the windows. Martin hefted the small binoculars. Now with a round, magnified, albeit narrowed, view of structure, Martin realized that "cabin" was a gross over statement - it was more like a shack. Unpainted and raw-looking, the structure still struck him as being fairly solid. Two additional antennae stuck up from the roof. As Vin disappeared from view around the corner, Martin noticed the windows were covered from the inside with what looked like newspapers.
That made him chuckle out loud. "At least it isn't aluminum foil," he muttered, recalling the "alien abduction" case he'd handled in New York. Samantha and Jack had been more than entertained by his knowledge of the UFO culture.
Martin's mind wandered in the direction of Samantha as he surveyed the shack. He put the binoculars down, a small smile forming on his lips. Gazing in the direction of the cabin, his mind went elsewhere for a time before the faint sound of breaking glass refocused his attention in his brother's direction. Vin must have decided to get in on the other side, Martin reasoned.
He leaned back and shut his eyes in an attempt to truly rest. Melodious birdsong and the chittering of squirrels drifted on the cool, light breeze, relaxing Martin. After a few moments, he realized that his ankle felt a little better. Well, maybe less painful was a better description, but still, it was an improvement. With a satisfied sigh, he shut his eyes and simply listened. The call of some kind of hunting bird came from far above and soon after, something fell nearby, softly striking the leaf-padded ground with a muted thump.
Suddenly, Martin felt a stab of alarm. His eyes flew open and he instinctively reached for the weapon on his hip. The second he realized it was Vin's emotions he'd read, a muted and sudden explosion shook his world.
"Shit!" Martin spat as he struggled to his feet, eyes locked on the cabin. The sound echoed distantly down the valley, silencing the birds. A puff of smoke trailed upward from the far side and quickly dispersed in the light breeze. As Martin tried to slow his heart, a tiny drift of white smoke crawled from under the door and across the porch. The cabin was still standing, but Martin's mind held a vast, empty space.
He couldn't feel his brother anymore.
Martin took an anxious step forward and lurched sideways against the tree, his injured ankle cruelly reminding him of its presence. Awkwardly frantic, he leaned down and retrieved the crutch, hurriedly fitting it under his now bruised arm. Ignoring the pain, Martin hobbled as fast as he could down the slope, forced to watch where he put his feet instead of the cabin. Frustrated eyes snapped from ground to cabin as he covered the yards, anxiety making him yell again.
Finally, he reached the edge of the clearing where he forced himself to pause to both catch his breath and study an approach. Martin's heart pounded frantically as he studied the seemingly benign structure.
The front door and window was still intact. Along the side, he could see that the newspaper linings were yellowed with sun damage, but still firmly attached. One window in the back was broken, the paper wafting in the slight breeze. A hose faucet protruded from the wall under the damaged window - Vin's step to the crude entrance. Other than the broken frame, there was no indication of fire or, alarmingly, life. Martin finished his circle of the structure and then approached the front door with his gun raised.
Martin struggled up the two porch steps, wobbling dangerously. "Vin?" He called, the silence now becoming frightening. He studied the door, which was locked shut with a hasp and padlock as well as a dead bolt. For a moment, he debated shooting his way in, but then a memory was nudged awake by the lingering odor of smoke; he'd smelled it before, and the realization of what it was made him take a surprised step back.
"A flash-bang grenade?" Alarms went off in his mind. With added caution, he moved toward through the window and zeroed in on one upper corner where the newspaper covering had sagged down. Martin holstered his gun and put his crutch aside, needing both hands to support his body and cup around his eyes as he stretched up to look through the triangle of glass.
The darkness inside slowly rolled back and revealed shapes and forms as Martin's eyes adjusted low light, and soon a horrible scene emerged from the shadows.
Martin's pulse quickened when he saw Vin's sprawled face down on the floor. A ray of light cut a path into the single room from the broken window. The beam slashed across Vin's still face. Martin also saw a dark finger of . . . something . . . staining the floorboards outwards from under Vin's head. Blood? Martin forced himself to be still and evaluate the scene.
He pressed closer, the stressed glass crackling ominously. Backing off slightly to assess the glass, something clicked in the agent's mind when he noticed wire leading away from the inside of the window frame. Frowning, Martin looked back into the room, his attention focused on the other windows.
"Damn it," he whispered, frustrated at the lack of detail in the poor light. Martin felt his pockets with one hand finally locating the small flashlight tucked in an inner pocket. He twisted it on and pointed it inside, first pausing at Vin to confirm any signs of life. Martin was relieved to see his chest rising and falling, but he also noticed the many dark spots scattered over his body. More blood? Martin's jaw clenched. He had to force himself to check the rest of the interior and reluctantly moved the light away from his brother and to the cabin walls.
The bright beam skimmed around the window across from him, the wire he sought visible against the chipped white paint of the frame. From there, the light followed the wire to the floor where it ended at a duct taped cylinder tucked against the wall.
"Booby trapped!" Martin gasped and his heart raced again. Now knowing what to look for, other wires and wrapped devices sorted themselves out of the darkness in the probing beam. A surge of fear forced him back where he was stopped by the railing edging the small porch.
"Oh my God," he whispered, rubbing his eyes. Images of "Unibomber" Ted Kaczynski's cabin popped instantly into Martin's mind. This was the same, booby-trapped - laced situation and the last thing they needed was for the owner to arrive. The agent recognized the cylinders as gas grenades, but there were box-shaped devices in there, too. Were they stuffed with shrapnel? What other weapons would the obviously disturbed owner have if he returned? And how did Vin survive this deadly set-up? "Jesus, Vin, what did you fall into this time?"
Collecting his thoughts and reining in his panic, Martin gathered his crutch and began a slow circle of the wooden structure. He checked every window and looked in every opening, no matter how small. Eventually, he was able to put together a mental picture of what was inside. From what he could discern from his limited visual investigation, it appeared that each opening had two traps - an initial trap and a back up trap. There was only one door. Martin theorized that there had to be a way to disarm the door traps - otherwise, how would the owner get inside?
The only other item of interest he found on his inspection was a generator locked in a small shed attached to the house. The fuse box must be in there, too, Martin thought. He returned to the shed and tried to remember the details of what he'd read about Kaczynski's cabin - how had they initially entered?
The shed door was locked with a simple hasp and lock. Making a decision, Martin shot the hasp and the lock fell to the ground with a soft thud. Standing to one side and turning his face away, he carefully nudged the door open. The hinges' dry creaking scraped at his raw nerves, but Martin pushed again. The door fought movement but he finally got it open enough to look inside. The generator, a cracked garden hose and a breaker box on the wall were the only occupants, save for a few scrambling spiders.
The generator needed a key and Martin figured that the key was inside the cabin or with the owner. The breaker box was locked with a small padlock which the agent grabbed and twisted viciously, breaking the hasp from the slightly corroded metal box.
The two pairs of breaker switches were in the "Off" position.
Martin resisted the urge to throw the switches when he saw a lone wire trailing out of the box. A conduit ran from the top of the box and disappeared into the cabin wall, typical of all breaker boxes, but the sole wire taped to the outside of the conduit was not normal. He could see that the wire mingled in with the rest of the wires that spilled from the conduit to the breakers. That sole wire was obviously added after the breaker box had been installed. Could it be the way to disarm the door traps? It was a simple and clever design and an easy way to allow initial entrance to the cabin if all he had to do was throw the switches. Usually, though, nothing was that easy. Instead, Martin decided to follow the wire first. And with the shape his foot was in, it was going to be painful.
First, though, he needed a saw to take out part of the wall. He remembered the folding saw he'd teased Vin about and hobbled his way back to the packs. The folding blade was easy to find, as it was stored in an outer pocket of Vin's pack. He also found a sturdy hand axe, and tucked it into his waistband with the saw. Before returning to the structure he downed a few more aspirin and stuffed whatever first aid supplies would fit into his pockets..
Entering the shed Martin climbed on top of the generator, his leg and ankle screaming in protest, and paused to catch his breath, waiting for the pain to ebb. Then, when the agony was at least tolerable, Martin pulled out the folding saw and began working on the dry, aged wood around the conduit's juncture with the cabin wall.
Martin prayed as he worked.
+ + + + + + +
"Come ON! Another flag? That was a good play!" JD's loud commentary was backed by the groans and grumbled curses of the rest of the team. It startled Chris back into reality, his twitch noticed by one other teammate.
"Mr. Larabee?" Chris snapped his head sideways to find Ezra staring at him curiously. "Are you all right?"
Chris scowled at him, slightly embarrassed, and turned back to the game. "Yeah, yeah. I was just . . ." He paused, thinking back to the disquieting feeling that had suddenly washed over him a few moments ago.
"Just what?" This came from Buck whose attention was now drawn away from the television screen.
Chris glanced at Buck, opening his mouth for a sharp reply, but found no words. The feeling was back again, stronger this time, and he frowned, searching for a verbal definition. Unable to do so, Chris rose and turned to stare out towards the mountains framed by the large great room window.
Sudden silence, save for the electronic mutterings of the football game, brought his attention back to the here and now. He glanced back to find five sets of eyes staring at him. He returned the looks for a moment before asking, "When does it get dark? About six?"
"Earlier," Nathan responded. "Closer to five-fifteen. Why?"
Chris glanced at his watch. It was a little past three o'clock. "Vin should be home by then or at least out of the hills." He looked around and spied his cell phone on the bar and stalked to it, snatching it up and dialing in one swift motion.
"Don't think you'll get him right now," Josiah said. "There's lousy to no reception up there. Once they're on the road, maybe."
The profiler's assessment proved to be correct as Vin's cell went immediately to voice mail. Chris snapped the phone closed with a soft curse.
"You think they're in trouble, don't you?" JD rolled to his knees from his prone position on the floor. His expression told Chris that the youngest team member already knew the answer.
Clipping the phone to his belt, Chris ran his hand through his hair and turned to look out the window again. Expectation weighed the air around him, settling an imaginary weight on his shoulders. This odd connection he had with Vin had become a fact of life for him and his team, proven true too many times to ignore. He turned back and did what he did best: took control.
"I'm not sure but I sure as hell can't sit here and ignore what my gut's telling me." Chris grabbed his keys from the same place he'd found the phone. "I'm getting my hiking boots and some supplies."
Before he could move away the rest of the team was on their feet, verbally dividing up tasks without question.
With a grim smile, Chris headed down the hall to begin preparations. He still couldn't pinpoint exactly what he was feeling but he did know that it felt better to move, and move he would until Vin and Martin were back in the fold or the worrisome feeling dissipated - whichever came first.
Chris was determined to make it the former as opposed to the latter.
+ + + + + + +
Martin had managed to remove a sizeable chunk of the wall due to the dry nature of the wood. He was sweaty and his hands splinter-ridden but kept on with an unexplainable sense of urgency that wasn't tied to his injured brother. Finally, he was able to see inside after peeling away a thin layer of insulation and cutting through inadequate wallboard.
Now able to get his head and one shoulder in the cabin, Martin fished the small, powerful flashlight from a pocket and clicked it on to examine the inside. First, he checked on Vin.
Vin position on the floor hadn't changed. Satisfied his brother was still breathing, Martin probed further with the flashlight. Radio equipment was stacked against one wall across from the frighteningly still body. A table sat in what must have been the kitchen area was piled with boxes, some labeled "Explosives" or "Explosive Material". Notebooks, folders and books were haphazardly stacked on every surface, including the floor. Photos and newspaper articles were pinned to the walls. The single room smelled musty and vaguely chemical. Fine wires flashed silver when the light's beam crossed over them, and they seemed to be everywhere.
Martin took a shaky breath and refocused on his mission. Looking up, he found the single wire he sought and followed its path from where it separated from the conduit and climbed the wall to the juncture with the ceiling. The wire ran along the ceiling line, around the corner and to the front door frame. From there, it ran down the hinged side of the door frame to a box. From the box, another wire ran under a throw rug to a tripod. Martin could see the wire that ran from the tripod, about a foot off the floor, to another tripod on the other side of the door way. The door, when pushed open, would trip the trap. A grenade was taped to the floor under each set of tripod legs.
Martin swallowed hard. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck and he worked to control his breathing. Visually, he swept the small cabin once again and counted no less than eight other traps. He had to get Vin out of there.
Quantico had trained him to recognize a bomb but not how to disable one. Martin frantically tried to recall anything he'd seen or heard about this kind of trap, and how other agents had dealt with them. The trap wired to the door was different from the others. The breaker box had to be the way to disarm it, Martin thought with as much conviction as he could muster. Vin's life was at stake, and he knew he probably wouldn't be 100% sure about any plan he'd come up with.
He decided to go with his gut. Martin clambered down from the top of the generator, careful to not antagonize his injury more than he already had. He balanced on his good leg, panting heavily, and yanked open the breaker box again. His trembling fingers hesitated momentarily over the switches; then he swallowed hard and threw them to the "On" position.
The only thing he heard was a faint hum.
Releasing a deeply held breath, Martin snagged his crutch and limped his way to the front door where he was now confronted by the padlock and deadbolt. The padlock hasp was easily dispatched with a gunshot. The deadbolt would be trickier because even if he had two good legs and could kick the door in, there was a possibility of setting off another trap.
He could go in through the same window Vin had, but from what Martin saw there, again, was the possibility of setting off another trap. Each opening into the cabin had a primary and secondary trap. For some reason, Vin hadn't set off the primary window trap - he'd been injured by the secondary one once he was inside. Martin wasn't quite prepared to say the primary was a dud. Besides, with his injured ankle he wasn't sure he could make it in the window, anyway. It had to be the door and he didn't have a key but he did have . . .
Martin took off in an awkward stride to the shed. He retrieved the saw and returned to work on the door. Once he got safely inside and checked on Vin, he could use the radio to get help. It would be over soon and they would be back at Chris' ranch in no time.
+ + + + + + +
The apartment was dark even as the full light of day struck the west facing windows. A smoke stained, heavy drape covered the glass to keep outside eyes from prying into his life. Any fresh air from the open window was rebuffed by the heavy material which also refused any of the stale air inside from escaping. As a result, the room's air was heavy and warm
He liked it that way. It was like an invisible blanket. It was comforting. It was his.
A radio murmured constantly from one corner, always tuned to a news station and continually infused the air with biased political commentary, debates and rude radio hosts. At the top of every hour there was laughingly called a news brief.
He knew the briefs lied because government lied and the government owned the radio waves. By keeping track of the government issued lies, though, he could hear what wasn't being said and those were the things that kept him ever vigilant.
Secrets - understanding them was the only way a common, working man could understand the government's real intentions. Those secrets were what constantly threatened his life and lifestyle. He wanted government completely out of his life and he wasn't above fighting to keep it that way. A short stint in the Army had taught him how to defend himself; demolitions proved to be an area he excelled in and he could have been the best if he hadn't have been dishonorably discharged because of lies. Government lies.
The phone rang and he jerked his head up from the mass of wires on his kitchen table. The clipper handles became slick in his palm from instant sweat. The phone rarely rang and when it did, it never brought good news.
He carefully set down the clippers and turned off the radio with a remote control. He reached for the telephone with a shaky hand. Slowly, he lifted the receiver from the cradle. In the sudden silence he could hear his own heartbeat as he drew the device closer. The hard plastic was cold on against his skin but it was the telltale coded message playing in his ear that turned his gut to ice.
His secret, private retreat had been breached.
Without a word he replaced the receiver and instantly fell into his well-rehearsed plan of action. He knew this would happen eventually, it always did. A deadly calm enveloped him. The alarm had been triggered and he rose to meet the challenge.
Grabbing the black duffle which was already packed and always ready, he strode from the room, leaving everything behind. Such were the wages of war and right now, his personal, private enclave was the front line and it had been violated.
He'd be there in about an hour, ready to fight to the death for his own secrets and what was rightly his.
First, though, he had to isolate the enemy. Leery of most electronic surveillance because they were too easily turned against you, there were still some basic electronic backups that were simple, untraceable and very, very useful. At this moment, he was glad he'd incorporated one such device into his security system.
Without power, the interloper would be cut off. It just took one call from the disposable cell phone he kept for just this scenario. Once he was away and on the road, he called the number.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had an unshakable feeling that he was racing against time. Corded muscles stood out in clear definition along the tops of both hands and forearms as he gripped the steering wheel and pushed his truck to the edge.
"Whoa there, stud, we want to get there in one piece, right?" Buck slapped one hand onto the dashboard in front of him and threw his boss a tentative glance.
Chris pressed his lips tightly together and settled deeper into the seat without altering speed or course.
"I know Ez can really drive that fancy car 'o his, but I think even he's havin' a problem keepin' up. Slow down, will ya, pard? Don't think trucks this size are designed to take turns on two wheels."
With a disgusted snort, Chris glowered at his long time friend with the intent of shutting him up but the open-eyed fear he saw there shocked him into reality. He glanced down at the speedometer - 90 MPH. Surprised, he let up on the gas pedal.
"Thanks," Buck sighed, retracting his hand from the dash. "Wasn't sure these jeans'd be clean much longer."
That made Chris chuff a strangled laugh and his hands relaxed a bit on the wheel. "Just worried," he finally grumbled.
"Yeah, I can tell, old dog. We're all here with ya so just take it easy. We'll get Thing 1 and Thing 2 outta whatever fix you think they're in."
"I know. Thanks, Buck."
Buck glanced at his watch. "I figure twenty minutes 'till we're there. Not much time 'til dark."
"Did the Park Service call back yet?"
"Chris, JD only just called. What with it being Sunday afternoon and a holiday weekend I don't think they're gonna call back too quick. JD'll let us know when he hears from 'em."
Chris' grip on the wheel tightened again and he pushed a little harder on the accelerator pedal as Buck muttered a curse and grabbed the door handle for support.
Visions of "The Shining" flashed in Martin's mind as he swung the hand axe at the cabin door. He started just above the dead bolt and managed to inflict some major damage because the door was constructed with the same planks that made up the cabin walls. Although the planks weren't really that thick, they were well seasoned and very sturdy. His plan was to make some holes around the lock then use the utility saw to simply cut out the lock - time consuming, but the safest way he could think of to gain entry.
Finally, after what seemed like hours according to his screaming shoulders and throbbing ankle, the door was free of the bolt. Martin carefully pushed it open and made sure his crutch was firmly set under his arm before stepping inside. As he paused to allow his eyes adjust to the inner darkness, his brother's still form separated itself from the shadows. Martin's shaky hand pulled out the small flashlight, its beam easily picking out the web-like trip wires between him and his goal.
Before anything else, Martin had to defuse a few bombs. The grenade canisters would be simple enough - all he had to do was detach the wires from the pull pins. What he assumed to be shrapnel packets was another story; they needed a closer look.
Martin stepped over the first wire now lying flat and impotent on the floor. It had automatically defused when the main circuit breaker was turned on, but the door's secondary wire was still intact and strung taut about a foot off the floor. Martin cautiously stepped over it and awkwardly dropped to his knees to investigate. His assumption about the shrapnel packets was correct but on the positive side, the device was easily rendered inactive by disconnecting the trigger wire. He did so quickly and returned to his path.
The cabin crowded with clutter that did not block the effectiveness of the devices. Martin carefully worked his way toward Vin, checking each step along the way for trip wires. He disconnected two more before reaching his brother and immediately felt for a pulse, letting out a grateful breath when he found one. Holding the flashlight in his teeth his hands roamed over Vin's head and found the reason for his brother's state - there was a good-sized, bloody dent in the back of his head and another sizeable lump over one ear. Vin had hit something very hard on his way to the floor. Looking up, Martin figured it was the corner of the solid crate being used as a table he lay near. Martin continued his investigation.
Vin sprawled on one side. Bloody rents peppered his back and shoulders; what felt like a nail protruded just below one shoulder blade. Martin's fingers felt sharp bits in many of the other wounds. He glanced around and looked closely at the window Vin had come through - the initial grenade was still intact and had obviously failed but the second device had done its job. The alarm Martin felt from Vin prior to the explosion must have been when he realized what he'd done.
Martin quickly realized there wasn't much he could do for Vin at the moment. His first priority, then, was to get help on the way and get themselves out of this mess. But where the hell were they? Even if he got someone on the radio, how could he direct them?
He quickly felt his pockets and cursed. His phone had GPS capabilities, but it was currently switched off and in his pack . . . outside. As was Vin's. Martin chewed his lower lip and quickly organized his thoughts - radio someone, get Vin out then turn on the phones.
With a plan in place Martin turned to the radio and picked his way to the console. He played the flashlight beam over the equipment to locate the power switch. Finally, he located one and reached out. Before he touched hit, however, something he recalled from his explosives training stopped him cold: Radio waves detonated some kinds of explosive devices.
An odd tug-of-war took place in his mind as he quickly weighed pros and cons, the biggest con being that he wasn't an explosives expert. The debate ended.
"Crap," he sighed dejectedly, turning his back on the tempting display of electronics. Instead, he studied the inside of the cabin for any clues of what his next step should be. His ankle screamed in pain as he shifted his weight and he paused to catch his breath at the assault. His gaze fell on one of the many newspapers covering the windows and pinned to the wall. The word "Explosion" jumped out at him from one sheet and he shuffled a little closer.
The bold headline was easy to read, even in the dim room - "Explosion Rocks IRS Offices."
The overlapping sheet's headline announced. "Bombing Closes Federal Building".
Martin's eyes skipped along the next half-dozen headlines - "Explosion", "Bomb" and "Terrorist Attack", all in bold text, were prominent in the titles. As his gaze swept the entire cabin Martin's pulse quickened - hundreds of clippings dangled from the bare, wooden walls. Exterior photos of the crime scenes that showed fire and police personnel cleaning up after the bombings were everywhere. There was a bloody shirt pinned below one photo of a dead politician. A partially burned American flag drooped from a nail in one high corner. Alarms rang in Martin's brain.
They had to leave. Now.
Swallowing hard, Martin carefully retraced his steps to Vin and stopped to study their escape route. Two more traps to defuse and there would be an absolutely clear path to the front door. After an extended glance at the prone figure, he hobbled past Vin and went to work. While disconnecting the second device a sorrowful moan refocused his attention.
"Vin!" he called. Quickly finishing the job he crawled to Vin's side and gently cradled his face. "Hey, you awake?"
Vin blinked, hissing painfully. One arm dragged its way to his forehead as his body twisted aside.
"Lie still. You're hurt." Martin's hands slipped down to Vin's chest, where careful pressure stopped any more motion. "Hey, hey . . . it's me, Martin. You with me now?"
Vin gasped and twitched. One hand flailed the air then settled on top of Martin's. His eyelids fluttered. "Shit," he groaned. "M'head."
"You're going to have a hell of a headache, I'm sure. Lie there a minute and don't move. Remember where you are?"
Vin stilled with concentration. His eyes opened a crack. "Martin?" he breathed.
"Yeah, it's me. What hurts, brother?"
Vin groaned again and slipped a hand up to his temple. "Head. Dark."
"Yeah, it's dark in here. Look, I need to get you outside but we're in kind of a mess . . ."
That made Vin stiffen and blink rapidly. "Huh?"
"We're surrounded by trip wires and booby traps. I've disarmed most of them . . ."
"Shit!" Vin hissed, struggling to sit up. Martin grabbed his shoulders so he wouldn't topple over. "Traps . . ."
"Hold still, will you? I've taken care of most of them. I'll have you out of here soon. I think someone . . ."
"I can't see."
Martin tightened his grip on Vin's shoulders. "What?"
"I . . . it's dark. I can't see anything . . . just blurry shadows . . . spots . . ."
"It's dark in here and you hit your head. We'll be outside in a few minutes . . . can you stay still? I want to check the area again."
"Sure, sure." Martin helped Vin sit up. He pulled at his legs until they were crossed and then Vin propped his elbows on his knees and supported his head with his palms. He swayed where he sat.
Martin made a quick exam of their exit path and was satisfied it was clear. Speaking quietly, he then helped Vin to his feet and waited until he was able to maintain balance. Stabbing pain shot up from Martin's ankle.
"This isn't going to be easy," Martin puffed. "You have to help me walk and I'll tell you where to go. That work for you? Can you do that?"
"Yeah, I c'n do that. Just quit shoutin'."
"I'm not shouting," Martin said in a quieter voice. "I need to . . ." He draped his arm over Vin's shoulders and awkwardly snuggled up to Vin's side. Vin twitched and hissed at the touch. "Sorry. There. You ready?" Vin nodded slightly. "All right then, let's move out. Small steps. I'll direct you with my arm. I'm using you as my crutch."
The sorry pair crossed the littered floor to the open door and, with a little careful maneuvering by Martin, made it onto the small porch. Martin talked Vin down the stairs and across the short clearing to the trees' edge, their progress agonizingly slow. Once they reached the safety of the trees Martin directed Vin to sit and settled his brother against sturdy trunk.
"I have to get my crutch. Stay put."
"I'm stayin'," Vin whispered, holding his head between his hands. He gulped a few times and Martin realized his brother was trying not to vomit; sometimes the ability to sense his brother had its drawbacks.
Martin swallowed hard himself. "I'll be right back."
By the time Martin got to the cabin, breath-stealing pain zinged up from his ankle with every step. When he retrieved his crutch, he took a few moments to regroup both mentally and physically before returning. Every instinct told him to put distance between them and this structure, but Martin had to make sure Vin could move without injuring himself further.
Curled over onto himself, Vin didn't acknowledge Martin's return and Martin couldn't feel the usually reassuring presence in his own mind. Once at his brother's side again, he was a dismayed to really see Vin's injuries in the light of day.
Bloody holes peppered his clothing and, recalling the nail protruding from Vin's back, Martin was sure he had shrapnel embedded everywhere. Dried blood flaked off the back of his brother's head causing the hair to mat in a gory clump. Vin's face was buried in his hands, elbows propped on crossed legs. Ragged breathing shook his shoulders. The city boy wondered if wild animals would react to the smell of his brother's blood. Martin patted his gun in his waistband.
A visual examination of Vin's lower back told him his brother's weapon was still intact, too. Satisfied, Martin gently shook Vin's shoulder.
"Hey," he said softly. "Time to get moving. Is there a good place for us to hunker down and wait for Chris and the boys? Maybe pick out some shrapnel? Vin?"
It took several moments of gentle prodding before Vin responded with a faint hiss. His surge into consciousness triggered waves of pain in Martin's own mind and he staggered back a step with a gasp. Gathering himself, Martin swallowed hard and worked through the waves of agony, repeating the questions until Vin finally replied.
"Uh, yeah," he said breathily. "Th' . . . the Outlook?"
Martin nodded, trying to catch his own equilibrium. "Yeah, yeah. I can find that."
"Y'can see 'em comin' up the trail from there." Vin whispered. "Good shelter in th' rocks."
"Then the Outlook it is." He urged Vin to his feet and they made it to the backpacks in a stumbling pace. Martin emptied the packs and combined anything useful into his alone and discarding anything that would lighten the load. There was no way Vin could carry a pack with so much shrapnel.
He hauled Vin to his feet again. It struck him then that something still wasn't right - the way Vin groped for balance and then for his shoulder told him his brother still couldn't see. Martin waved his had in front of Vin's eyes and got no reaction.
A zing of fear raced down his spine and he felt Vin tense up. "We're okay. We'll be all right. Can I use you as a crutch?" With his arm over Vin's shoulders he could direct their path. Vin nodded, clearly dazed. "Come on, then." Working keep his voice calm, he lifted Vin's arm over his shoulder again and directed him toward the trail. "Let's get out of here. Daylight's burnin'."
It was another hour before the sun dropped behind the surrounding mountains and after that, the light faded quickly. Martin ignored his pressing desire to simply collapse and, instead, pushed on a little longer stopping only when the narrow path disappeared between several scattered boulders. He recognized that the Outlook wasn't far away.
"I think we're close," Martin puffed. "We have to stop. I can't see the trail anymore."
Vin grunted, clearly spent. How he'd managed to stay on his feet so long amazed Martin. He maneuvered his brother to one side and settled him sideways against a larger rock, then dropped down beside him. Rubbing his leg above his injured ankle, Martin tried to judge Vin's condition without looking obvious but soon realized that it didn't matter - he could tell that Vin's eyesight was still severely compromised. The usually bright, expressive eyes were dull and unfocused and Vin groped to find the tube to his water pack.
Fear tingled Martin's gut - it was up to him to get them out of this.
"Jerky, granola bars and Gatorade for dinner," Martin stated brightly, pushing aside his worry.
Vin slumped against the rock.
"Don't think I c'n keep anythin' down." Even Vin's thoughts sounded weary.
"At least drink some liquids for now. Small sips."
Martin mixed Gatorade powder in one of the hydropacks. "Good thing I filled up with water. Don't think I could take another step right now to find any." He handed Vin the drink. "Here. Work on that." Vin took a few half-hearted sips with trembling hands. "I'll look for something to make a small fire."
"'kay," was all Vin mustered up.
Nearly overwhelming exhaustion washed over Martin's mind. Vin was suffering badly. "Rest," Martin said lowly. "I'll take care of things."
Vin sagged against the boulder, breathing raggedly. Martin studied the bloody pattern on Vin's body in the fading light and surmised that Vin had managed to turn aside before the explosion, protecting most of his chest and stomach from the flying missiles. It was a crude trap designed to wound but could be deadly in the right circumstances. He dug out one of the sleeping bags and unzipped it to use as a blanket.
As he tucked the bag around Vin, Martin frowned as a thought suddenly occurring to him. Why wound? Why leave the victim alive enough to report the incident? The only reason would be to . . .
"Damn!" Martin growled. Vin flinched at the voice and turned in Martin's direction, his eyes blank shadows.
"He's comin' after us, ain't he?" Vin had picked up on Martin's train of thought.
"It's possible." Martin made sure the bag was snug around Vin's shoulders. "It would make sense, then, that he's not too far away."
Martin looked at the westward sky and then his watch. "It'll be completely dark soon. If we don't make a fire and lay low, he can't find us."
"An' neither will the guys."
Martin stood, drawing from a reserve of energy deep within. "We'll just have to find the guys first, then, won't we?"
+ + + + + + +
Dust thickened the surface of his vehicle when he finally stopped. He was sure the intruders were still in the area of the cabin, probably on foot because this was the closest anyone could get in a vehicle and he hadn't seen any signs of a car on his way to this spot. They had to have reached the cabin on foot from another direction.
Insuring that his vehicle was parked out of sight, he shouldered his survival pack and quickly checked his equipment. The two handguns were locked and loaded, but would only be used as a last resort. Noise could draw unwanted company. He tucked them in his waistband and shrugged on the water backpack. Before donning the specially designed daypack he loaded up the incorporated quiver pockets with a dozen arrows - all metal rods with razor sharp heads. The last item he grabbed was the small crossbow. It wasn't much in size, he knew, but it was the most powerful bow on the market. He had brought down all manner of game with it in the past, quietly avoiding any complaints about out of season hunting.
All that practice had readied him for this moment. Protecting what was his energized his body in a thrilling way. He grinned wolfishly. He knew he'd have to move to a new enclave, but first he had to wipe away any sign of his existence at this one, starting with those that knew his secret.
Satisfied, he turned and started his trek. He would be another person and on his way to a new life by dawn.
+ + + + + + +
Salty curses bit the air as Chris stumble once again.
"It's gettin' dark, pard, what did you expect? I think it may be a good idea to stop . . ."
"Can't stop," Chris interrupted Buck sharply.
"Getting lost out here isn't going to help Vin 'n Martin." Buck's voice was breathy with exertion. He batted a low branch from his face and spat. "Damn spider webs."
Chris pushed on, the path still clear to him in the glowing white of his flashlight beam. That would change soon, he knew, as the well-worn day hike trail shriveled down to the narrower, less used path that lead to the wilderness camping areas. Chris remembered the rocky precipice that marked the start of the upper trails; only serious and experienced hikers and campers continued around and beyond the impressionable landmark. He remembered Vin telling him that "this is where the fun starts." He snorted and shook his head at the memory. Vin always did like his fun tinged with challenge.
"Chris," Buck continued. "We'll need to stop soon."
Exasperated, Buck rolled his eyes skyward and then turned to train his light beam on the others, who were puffing and grumbling behind him. "Hang in there, boys." The other four nodded shortly, unwilling to break their concentration on the darkened trail.
Chris weaved around a few more trees and then paused to look around. The path ahead dropped rapidly at this point but he knew it would slope sharply upward again. Between the trees he could see a lighter patch of the neighboring hillside where the trail would take them. The moon's light wasn't quite yet at its full luminescence, but the contrasting paleness of the Outlook's rocky face made it easy to pick out. Seeing it gave Chris an unexplained feeling of dread.
Setting his jaw, he pushed onward.
+ + + + + + +
Night crept slowly over the exhausted brothers, its shadows silently and inevitably embracing their world. Martin noticed how the rustling of small wildlife around them eventually disappeared along with the light. Birds fell quiet. With the night came a gentle wind that rustled the trees and carried the voice of a distant owl. Martin listened hard for any noise that wasn't natural and after a while, he was convinced that they were, for the meantime, safe from pursuit. Coldness, however, had found them and grabbed a foothold - Martin felt Vin shiver.
Dragging himself out of his exhaustion, Martin fumbled through the packs and pulled out clothing - knit hats, jackets and gloves. He also pulled out a small camping stove and cups to heat water and tried to measure Vin's condition by asking questions. Vin replied, but slowly and with a faltering voice which caused Martin's concern to grow. He was starting to realize how long the night was going to be as he heated water to warm their icy hands.
The breeze eventually calmed. Martin put down his hand-warming cup and pushed to his feet, found the worn crutch leaning against the boulder and awkwardly moved off.
"Where ya goin'?" Vin said, turning his head in Martin's direction.
"Nature calls," Martin replied, trying to lighten his voice. "And I want to see if there's a better place close by to sleep."
When Vin didn't comment, Martin continued on after fishing the tiny flash light from his pocket. The rest had allowed all his muscles to tighten up and he was incredibly stiff and sore. His ankle throbbed. Martin tried to wiggle his toes but the swelling in his boot didn't allow much movement. Plus, it hurt like hell. His jerky motions made the flash light beam bounce wildly along the ground as he moved along. Martin complained softly to himself about their predicament as he squinted into the darkness and relieved himself.
When he was finished, he turned back to the boulders. He carefully wound his way through the stretch of smaller rocks that surrounded their rest site until he found Vin still slumped against the boulder. When he paused to catch his breath Vin turned his head in Martin's direction. He approached slowly, clearing his throat to let Vin know he was here.
"How're you doing?" he asked.
Martin relaxed against a tree at Vin's hip and thought about what to do next. After several seconds, he pushed away from the tree. "Well then, let's . . ."
His words were cut short by a hissing noise and resounding thump. Both men twitched in surprise and Martin automatically dropped to a defensive crouch.
"What . . ." he started.
Then Martin was yanked unceremoniously to the ground where he hit the dirt with a painful grunt. A strange hiss sounded just behind him and something plucked at his shoulder, followed immediately by another solid thump.
"Crossbow!" Vin barked.
Martin rolled to his knees behind the boulder. He glanced at where he'd stood a moment before and saw an arrow sticking out of the tree where his chest had been. A second arrow must be in the tree behind him. He was momentarily stunned.
Vin, though, was in motion and instantly alert. He grabbed Martin's coat sleeve and pulled him close. "We gotta move," he said next to Martin's ear.
"Yeah, yeah. Looks like he's behind us." Martin threw his arm over Vin's shoulder and they moved deeper into the boulder field hunched over make use of their protection. "How the hell did he see us? It's completely dark!"
Vin didn't answer. He maintained a firm grip on Martin's arm as he practically dragged them along a zig-zag path thorough the boulders. There was one more ominous hiss, this time followed by a sharp ringing as the metal arrow struck rock close to them.
"Shit!" Martin breathed. "That was close!"
"Must . . . have . . . night . . . vision . . . goggles," Vin gasped as they pushed on.
"Great. Now what?"
"Gotta find the guys. I know they're comin'." Vin's statement came of a wave of sharp pain.
"Only chance. Scale down the face and keep under the lip. He'll have to circle around to the bottom to get a bead on us."
"That's where the guys'll be." Martin bit his lip. There would be no way to warn Vin's team of the danger - if they were, in fact, on the way. He heard Vin chuckle darkly.
"They're on their way, brother." There was absolutely no doubt in Vin's tone. "All we gotta do is meet 'em halfway."
"Sounds easy." Martin wondered if his sarcasm carried through mentally.
"Hard part's not getting more holes before we get there."
It was Martin's turn to bark a grisly laugh. He pulled Vin's arm tightly around his waist and the sorry pair stumbled onward.