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Skis balanced comfortably across his shoulders, Jim Ellison paused in his uphill slog and focussed for a moment on the skier fully a thousand feet above him. The man was moving across untouched snow, and to judge from the few ski tracks near him, he was the only one of the half dozen or so people between him and the watching cop who had gone quite so high; but Ellison, who had already had one good long run that day, reckoned that he was already high enough to enjoy a second one without including that extra thousand feet.
He began to fasten on his skis; ready to go, something made him glance up again at the other skier.
He stiffened; he could see the snow behind the man beginning to slide, the crust broken by the edge of the skis, and knew it was almost impossible that he could get out of the way of the avalanche. Nobody could outrun an avalanche. The trees to his left were worse than useless for shelter; the rush of snow would snap the trunks like matchsticks, and the broken trees would add to the danger.
He spared one more second to decide the angle the snow would take, then began to ski desperately downhill, aiming towards his right. He might - might - just get far enough, in the time available, to reach the edge of the avalanche's path, but it would be a close thing.
As he went, he was aware of one thought - relief that Sandburg was not with him. The grad student hated the cold too much ever to have learned to ski, and - having repeatedly warned his partner to be careful not to concentrate too hard on anything and risk zoning - had waved the older man off for a long weekend of skiing while he remained at the loft working on his dissertation. And while he had known he would miss his guide's company, he had also realised that it would be selfish of him to ask Blair to accompany him.
Though if Blair had been with him, he would have been with Blair on the easier slopes and safely out of the path of the avalanche.
Blair was quietly satisfied with the progress he was making on his dissertation.
Over the months of their partnership he had become surprisingly fond of Jim who - he had come to realise - provided a steady affectionate presence in his life that he had never previously known; while he had no doubt that his mother loved him, she was seldom there, and as often as not he had no idea where she was. Even when he was a child, he had often been left with relatives while she went off somewhere.
There was no denying, however, that the big cop's constant presence was a distraction. With Jim away for a weekend of skiing - a sport that had never appealed to Blair - the student knew he could make much-needed progress on the dissertation.
It doesn't really do any harm for us to have a few days away from each other, either, he reflected. Given that he had responsibilities at Rainier, they weren't always together when Jim might need him; so it made sense for Jim to get occasional practice at being without his guide. Though he was aware of a growing unease that had started in the early afternoon and would not go away, he put it down to missing his friend, and refused to let it disturb him.
He stretched, unkinking muscles that until now he hadn't realised had stiffened while he worked, and crossed to the TV to switch it on. He'd missed part of the news, but he might as well catch what was left. As he was walking back to the couch, the sound came on.
"...ski resort." The words catching his attention, he whirled, gasping at sight of the devastated slope, the snapped-off trees sticking out of the churned-up snow. "The cause of the avalanche is not yet known; this morning's inspection of the snow showed it to be stable enough for the risk of avalanche to be low. However, a steady rise in temperature throughout the morning is believed to have played a part in destabilising the snow.
"Fortunately, the avalanche missed the Three Pines Lodge and the busier slopes, but four hours after the avalanche, the latest reports indicate that several skiers who were staying there have not yet returned, and it is feared that they may be victims of the avalanche."
Blair was already reaching for the phone.
"Simon? Have you seen the news?"
"That avalanche - Jim went to the Three Pines for the weekend. The avalanche was four hours ago. If Jim was all right he'd have phoned me."
There was a moment of silence. Then, "I'll pick you up in half an hour."
A phone number was showing on the screen - he scribbled it down, then punched it into the phone. Engaged. Of course it was. He redialled... and redialled...
It was nearly twenty minutes before he finally got through.
"Three Pines avalanche emergency number - how can I help you?"
"Any word on James Ellison? He was staying at the Lodge."
A momentary silence. "He is on the 'missing' list. Of course, he might be perfectly all right, just not have thought to report his whereabouts - "
"He's a cop. He'd report in right away then join any rescue effort that was being made. He certainly wouldn't leave his whereabouts unknown. Is the road open?"
"Only the emergency services are being allowed into the area. We aren't advising relatives - "
"I'm talking police, dammit! We wouldn't be coming just to stand around helplessly waiting and getting in the way, we know how to help!"
"If you can show police ID, you'll get through."
"Thanks." Blair hung up, rushed to his room, kicked off his shoes, grabbed his walking boots and thrust his feet into them, laced them up quickly, then rushed out again, grabbed his coat and gloves. He checked the loft quickly, made sure his laptop was switched off and everything was secure, shoved his keys into his pocket and left, locking the door behind him. He was waiting at the kerb when Simon arrived.
"I phoned the emergency number they gave," Blair said quietly as Simon eased his car back into the stream of traffic. "Jim is listed as missing. They're only letting the emergency services in, but police ID will get us through."
"Right." Simon was silent for a moment. "He doesn't often go off without you?" A question phrased as a statement that clearly indicated surprise.
"I don't ski, Simon. If I'd gone with him, he'd have stuck on the nursery slopes with me, teaching me. I don't say he wouldn't have enjoyed that, but I wanted to let him have the fun of the advanced skiing that's his level - and anyway, I needed to get on with University stuff. We're not joined at the hip; we agreed to have the weekend apart. Doesn't do any harm to get our own space occasionally." He shivered. "Though if I had gone, he'd probably be safe right now."
"Don't go beating yourself over the head with guilt," Banks said quietly. "You did what you both thought was the sensible thing to do."
"I know... but if Jim dies because I tried to be unselfish..."
"That's interesting wording."
"If Jim dies. Not 'He's dead' or 'If he's dead'. If he dies - as if you're sure it hasn't happened yet."
Blair looked at Simon, startled. His face took on a thoughtful expression. "Yes... I'm sure Jim is still alive, I'm sure I'd know if he wasn't... "
"This a guide thing?"
"I think it has to be. Burton's records were pretty vague on the subject - hell, there's a lot Burton was vague about - so I'm guessing here, but there is a link between us - that's how I can pull him out of a zone in seconds when nobody else has been able to reach him. But I don't know why I'm so sure he's still alive when I wasn't even aware he was in danger until I saw it on the news. With a proper link, I'd have known right away, as soon as it happened. Though come to think of it, there's been something bothering me since lunchtime. I just put it down to feeling a bit lonely."
"Did you have any reason to think he would be in any danger?"
"No. Those ski resorts are run so smoothly, you're in more danger crossing the road. And the main runs weren't affected... He must have been off piste."
Sandburg gave a mirthless grin. "I may not ski, but from listening to Jim I know some of the language. Away from the regular runs. Looking for something a little more demanding, maybe even doing a bit of cross-country work."
"So maybe he was completely away from the area that had the avalanche, might not even know yet about it?"
"He'd be back by now. He's not stupid - it'll be dark in an hour, and I know he'd keep an eye on how far he went and leave himself a good margin for delay. And as soon as he found out about the avalanche, he'd phone me right away in case I'd heard. No, Simon - I'm sure he was caught up in it."
It was half dark before they reached the turn-off for the Three Pines Lodge; there was a road block, and a car in front of them was turned away as they reached it, but Simon's ID got them past it.
The forecourt of the Lodge was well lit; it was pretty full, but Simon found a space at the end furthest from the Lodge and they got out of the car.
There was a steady movement of people backwards and forwards; a TV outside broadcast unit was parked near the Lodge doorway; from the activity there it looked as if they were interviewing eyewitnesses; and a group of half a dozen men were getting dogs out of a truck, fastening harnesses onto them.
Banks glanced at Sandburg as he locked the car doors. "Dogs?"
Blair was already looking more hopeful. "Search and Rescue. I once saw a couple of SAR dogs working after an earthquake in South America. They'd been flown in from Europe. Traced several people still alive even three days after the quake."
They made their way to the man in police uniform who was talking to the dog handlers, obviously organising the search. Simon showed his badge again. "Anything we can do to help?"
"Cascade? You're a bit away from home territory."
"One of the missing men is from my department - Sandburg here is his partner, so we have a vested interest in helping. Anything at all we can do, Captain... "
"Whyte - Alan Whyte. You realise we're probably looking for bodies now."
Simon nodded. Nearly six hours buried under who knew how many feet of snow... suffocation and hypothermia would surely have had their effect by now. Blair said nothing.
"In the dark, even with this moonlight, it's safer if only the dog handlers go out, but we'll be grateful for extra help in the morning. If the dogs don't find anything, we'll need to probe the snow, especially at the run-off. That's where we're concentrating the search, since anything brought down by the snow usually ends up there, though a couple of the dogs are going higher."
"Right." Simon glanced at Blair. "Sorry, Sandburg. I know you'd like to start helping right away. I'll see if there's a room for us." He moved away.
Blair looked at the churned-up slope that was visible in the light of a nearly-full moon that had now risen high enough in the sky to cast a decent light over everything, and shivered. Somewhere up there, buried under the snow...
He took a deep breath and, deliberately blanked his mind while still staring at the slope.
He had thought the dogs were still two or three minutes from setting out, and for a moment he thought one of them had already set off, then he realised that what he was seeing was a wolf. He watched as it ran across the snow towards the edge of the track left by the avalanche - and then he saw the black jaguar waiting for the wolf.
He shook his head and looked again; the two animals had gone, but he knew exactly where they had been. He glanced at the dog handlers; they were starting out. Once they were away...
He checked that he had his cell phone, and slipped into the shadows beside the Lodge. There were spades there, leaning against the wall, and long poles to probe the snow. He took one of each, afraid that he might have to probe for Jim before he could start digging, then set off up the hillside.
He made good time at first, but even so it took him nearly half an hour to reach the spot where he had seen the wolf and the jaguar; once he reached the track of the avalanche the snow was uneven, hard to walk on. He could see two dogs, each one with a green light strapped to its back, moving up the hillside not far above him, but nearer the centre line of the broken snow, with the torches of their handlers rather lower, but still higher than he was; but he knew from the way they moved that neither animal had scented anything yet. A glance back showed the green lights of the other dogs quartering the great heap of snow where the avalanche had finally stopped.
He stopped, knowing he had to be close... looked round, searching for something to guide him to the exact spot where he had seen the jaguar; he didn't want to waste time probing, but would if he had to. Then in the moonlight he clearly saw on the snow the marks of dog-sized paws that led him to the marks of bigger, cat-like paws. He was at the right place, he wouldn't need to probe. To get rid of it, he stuck the pole he was carrying upright in the snow, and began to dig.
He had dug down several feet when he heard a faint, "Hello!"
"Blair? Is that you, Chief?"
Relief weakened his knees for a moment and he leaned motionless on the spade as he said, "Who else would it be? How much deeper do you think you are? Can you judge it through the snow?"
"Two or three feet, I think."
Blair started digging again. "Are you hurt?"
"Just feeling a bit claustrophobic."
"Getting slightly stuffy. I was beginning to get a bit worried."
From Jim, that was a fairly major admission. "Cold?"
"Not really. It's surprisingly warm in here."
"Like being in an igloo," Blair agreed. He dug in silence for some moments. "Once I get a hole down to you so you can get air, I'll call for help."
"How did you find me?"
Blair grinned. "I had a bit of help. My wolf and your panther. I'm not sure how I'm going to explain it, especially since I'm not supposed to be here."
"Why doesn't that surprise me. Where are you supposed to be?"
"Back at the Lodge. Only the SAR dogs and their handlers are supposed to be out here now that it's dark. But I saw the wolf running over the snow to join the panther, and their pawprints are in the snow here... though I'd guess nobody but me, or maybe another shaman, could see them."
It was getting harder to throw the shovelfuls of snow clear of the hole he was digging; suddenly the snow gave way under him, and he fell two or three feet into an already-existing hole, snow falling cold on top of him.
Hands on his shoulders, an anxious voice. "You all right, Chief?"
Blair took a deep breath, pushed himself to an upright kneeling position, and threw his arms round his kneeling friend. "I'm fine. You?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. A little stiff, but I'm not hurt." Ellison moved his hands from Blair's shoulders to hug him back.
"With the avalanche?"
Blair nodded, knowing that his friend would feel the movement against his shoulder.
"I saw it starting - I think I actually heard the snow beginning to break away. Tried to ski out of its path, but I was pretty certain I wouldn't make it. Then I came on this sort of small cliff, about seven, eight feet high, so I kicked off my skis and crouched at the foot of it. The avalanche pretty well went over my head, though I nearly zoned on the noise; it was the last of it that settled and covered me, but by then I had time to move, make the hole as big as possible to give myself as much air as possible... But I don't think I would have survived till morning."
"I knew you were in some sort of trouble - I was worried all afternoon, but it wasn't till the report on the news that I knew... but I knew you weren't dead." Blair pulled back a little and looked upwards. "We're going to need help to get out of here." He felt in his pocket, pulled out his cell phone, and dialled Simon's number.
"Sandburg! Where the hell are you?"
"At the bottom of a deep snow hole... with Jim."
"With... Is he all right?"
"Yes, he's fine. We're both fine. But we need a bit of help to get out of the hole."
"How did you... No, I don't think I want to know. Can you describe where you are?"
"About half an hour up the slope, and not too far from the edge of the avalanche. I stuck a probe pole in the snow beside where I was digging - it'll make a clear marker."
"All right. I'll get someone up to you ASAP."
Blair switched the phone off.
It was only about ten minutes before they heard panting, then a deep barking. Someone had clearly alerted the dog handlers, and one of the dogs had found them. Moments later, a head appeared, staring down at them.
The dog handler waited till a party from the Lodge, headed by Simon Banks, reached the spot, then he headed off to continue his search while the new arrivals set about getting the two men out of their prison. It took about an hour before more digging provided them with a way to climb out of the hole, and the two men were helped back down the hillside to the Lodge. After a quick check by the resort's resident doctor - who was mostly used to treating knee injuries and fractures, and was surprisingly willing to accept their claims that all they needed was a meal and a good night's sleep - they were free to go in search of that meal.
Their trip to the Lodge's dining room was interrupted, however, by a call from a dog handler; another survivor had been found, and men were needed for a stretcher party. All three promptly volunteered their services; they were already halfway to the victim before anyone realised that two of them had already taken part in the rescue of the third; the person who recognised them being the doctor.
Challenged by him, Ellison simply said, "I'm OK, and we're cops. How could we not help?"
The doctor looked at him, shook his head, and said, "Well, I don't deny that your help will be welcome, but don't overdo it."
This new casualty was closer to the Lodge, having been carried to the foot of the slide, and chance having left her lying close enough to the surface of the snow for air to filter through to the small space she had managed to clear near her head, though her legs were firmly held by the weight of snow.
It didn't take long to dig her clear, though the doctor was definitely needed to immobilise a badly broken leg before she was lifted carefully onto the stretcher. With the men carrying the stretcher trading off at regular intervals, the casualty was soon back at the Lodge, and Jim, Blair and Simon were free to go for their delayed meal.
Dinner was constantly interrupted by reporters who had somehow tracked them down asking for details of how Blair had managed to find Jim. All Blair would say however was, "I just knew he was there. We're partners. A good partner always knows where the other one is. When I got there, I heard him calling. Yes, it was faint through that depth of snow. You needed to be right there to hear it." Then of course someone realised that they had then gone on to the other rescue; Jim merely repeated what he had said to the doctor.
Simon had managed to book a twin room for the night; Jim and Blair took it, while Simon used Jim's single room, recognising that sentinel and guide needed to be together. Both knew that they should talk about what had happened; both were too tired to think about having that conversation until they had slept. But both slept more easily for knowing that the other was sharing the room.
By morning, it was clear that there were only the two survivors; seven skiers died in the avalanche, including the man whose ski-track started it.
Simon headed back to Cascade after breakfast; Jim and Blair followed a few hours later, after Jim had told the resort's manager how he had seen the start of the avalanche. (The cause was officially put down to the snow crust being broken by skis coupled with a rise in temperature that loosened the snow.)
Instinctively realising that the truck was not the place to start a serious conversation, they spoke little on the trip back to Cascade. Both men were still thinking over the details of the rescue; Blair's awareness, almost from the moment the avalanche started, that something was wrong, the two spirit guides collaborating to draw Blair to where Jim was buried...
Jim parked in his usual spot, and they went up the stair to the loft. Inside, Jim turned to his guide.
"Blair... Chief..." He pulled Sandburg into a fierce hug. "What would I do without you?"
Blair returned the hug. "You'd manage somehow. Maybe you wouldn't at one time, but you'd manage now. You know how to control your senses now."
"No, I wouldn't. I need you, Chief, I think I'll always need you. A sentinel is useless without his guide..."
Blair was silent for a moment, then murmured, "And a guide needs to have someone to help. I wonder how many potential guides there are who have never found someone to help? Who never realised what they were?"
"Would they even know what they were?" Jim asked. "You found Burton's book, and studied sentinels... but if you hadn't? I'd be in a mental hospital somewhere - and you'd be in Borneo. And even though you knew what you were looking for, it took you years to find me."
"Come to that... If you'd found another sentinel before you found me, would you have settled as comfortably as his guide?"
Blair pushed back a little, and watched the older man's face as he gave the question a moment's consideration. "I don't think so," he said slowly. "I think you and I were predestined to come together. I could have helped another sentinel, you could have been helped by another guide, but ultimately I think we're more efficient together than either of us would have been with anyone else."
Ellison nodded. "I think you're right. I can't see me responding to anyone else as easily as I do to you..." He hesitated. "I'm not usually good at saying it, but you do so much for me... I do appreciate it, Chief, though you mightn't always think so."
Blair grinned and leaned his head against Jim's shoulder again. "I've learned a fair amount of Jim-speak. You say least when you feel most strongly, I think."
"Carolyn never realised that."
"Then she didn't deserve you."
Jim laid his head against Blair's. "Blair... You're so completely non-judgmental, accept me, what I am, so readily. Nobody else ever did. Carolyn didn't. When the going got tough, she walked out. My mom didn't or she wouldn't have left. Dad... well, I suppose he was fond of me in his own way, but he never ever showed it. My brother? He saw me as a competitor. When we met up again he said he always admired me, but he sure didn't act as if he did when we were teenagers.
"I've had friends, some of them good friends, men I worked with that I trusted, sometimes with my life - but I never felt that they really cared about me as a person, would grieve more than superficially if I was killed. I would be easily replaced."
"Jim. I would be shattered if you were killed. You're my sentinel. Mine, and nobody could ever replace you. Now - I'm going to be a good guide, telling my sentinel what to do. It's been quite a long weekend; we need something to eat - not necessarily much, but we need something. Then we go to bed and catch up on some sleep if you're to be fit for work tomorrow. Right?"
And as he always did, Jim accepted his friend's guidance.