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One advantage to being Department Head was that he could select which classes he wanted to teach, and this second-year class held more than the usual number of keen and promising students.
As Eli Stoddard entered the room he glanced around, noting that the only absentee was the class troublemaker.
There's always one, he thought as he did every day, unable to decide whether he did hope the young man really was absenting himself or if he were resigned to the habitually five-minutes-late-in-an-apparent-attempt-to-make-a point student breezing in, scowling as if to challenge Stoddard to make something of it.
Just what point Bob Gemmell thought he was making, though, was something Stoddard still found unclear, even as he half wished that it was possible to refuse to have the student - a football jock who had to take some classes to get the academic credits he needed - in any of his classes.
There was room in this class, though, and someone had to have him; and Stoddard was loath to give up on even the most difficult student.
He opened his folder of notes for the lecture. Not that he needed them; this was a lecture he could have given in his sleep. But over the years he had learned that it was sometimes useful to appear to be checking on something in his notes, as well as teaching by example that there was no disgrace in having, and referring to, notes. Just as he looked up again the door opened and the missing Gemmell sauntered in, insolence in his every move. He closed the door with a briskness that fell just short of a slam and, totally ignoring Stoddard, he strutted his way to his desk.
Stoddard paid no attention to him, knowing that doing so would gain him points in the undeclared war between them, while utterly frustrating Gemmell.
He looked calmly around at the students who for over a year had been learning about different cultures in remote corners of the world, and asked, "What exactly is anthropology?"
Blair Sandburg took the book he needed from the shelf and moved quietly to the table he usually occupied in Rainier's main library.
It was smaller than any of the other tables, tucked away in a quiet corner out of sight of most of the room, and not many students ever seemed to use it; indeed, he doubted that many of them even knew it was there. He had discovered it years previously, and had made it his own; in this corner, the potential distractions offered by the library were minimal.
In addition, since the table was mostly out of sight, it kept him out of sight. To himself he could admit that he was hiding, at least to some degree; he flatly refused to admit it to anyone else.
Not that he'd had much trouble from the people who knew him, but he had heard whispers. Only one student had actually asked him about his 'fake' dissertation; to which he pointed out that he had not submitted it to the University, and even if he had, there was no way he could have defended it. He had simply wasted some of his time writing a piece of fiction because he had been unwilling to let his interest in sentinels go. The University authorities had accepted that, hence his continued presence while he worked on finalising his genuine dissertation subject.
He had never, in the past, had occasion to check up on what the university library carried in the way of books on the police; he had been pleasantly surprised to discover, when he did need them, just how many such books were available to him.
He opened his notebook, opened the book he had selected at the relevant chapter, and buried himself in it.
Blair jumped, his heart pounding, the adrenaline rush from the surprise he got taking some moments to dissipate.
He looked up at the man who had spoken, and grinned. "Eli. Sorry, I was miles away."
"I know. I had to call you three times before you heard me. How're you doing?"
Blair shrugged. "It's coming, though not as fast as I'd like."
"That wasn't what I asked. How are you doing?"
Stoddard looked at him. "Truth?"
Damn. Stoddard - who had supported Blair in the aftermath of the press conference where he denied the truth of his sentinel dissertation - knew him altogether too well. "Near enough. I mean, I should have let the sentinel thing go - oh, three years ago. I realized quite soon after I started working with Jim that if the world learned of his abilities... well, it wasn't a good idea. I deserve at least some fallout for my bad judgment in not changing my dissertation topic back then."
Stoddard grunted, a non-committal sound that could have meant anything, especially since he was one of the few people who actually knew about Jim's senses - in the face of his unwavering support after the press conference, Blair had finally admitted the truth to him. "Actually, Blair, I'm here to ask a favor."
"Anything I can do, of course."
"I'm organizing a field trip to a dig in the Cascades."
Blair frowned. "I don't think I've heard anything about a dig?"
"It's being kept pretty quiet - you know how the Indian tribes feel about having the bones of their ancestors disturbed."
"Oh, man - it's not, like, on sacred ground?"
"No. In fact, it's so old that I don't think any of the tribes could lay claim to these bones, the few that have been found, being of their ancestors - we're talking an estimated twenty thousand years old, here. But some of the tribal elders could still feel they had cause to complain."
"Twenty... And positive proof? Considering how controversial some of the anthropology of North America is... Wow."
"Professor Meechan is an old friend of mine; he's hoping this dig will be the definitive proof that homo sapiens reached America twenty thousand plus years ago, rather than around sixteen thousand."
Blair grunted. "That date comes from some findings in Pennsylvania, doesn't it?"
Stoddard nodded. "But what it doesn't allow for is the time it would take for a tribe to migrate from the land bridge to relatively near the east coast."
"Which would have taken them... oh, a couple of thousand years at least, if you base the rate of migration on ten miles per generation, and assuming they were moving on all the time. Possibly longer, if at any point they stayed put for a few generations."
"And that pushes the date a lot closer to that twenty thousand year mark," Stoddard finished. "I know the evidence for earlier settlement of the Americas is scarce, but I've never quite understood the reluctance of some people to accept that carbon dating of twenty-one thousand years ago at a site in Mexico as a sign of a very early wave of settlement."
Blair nodded. "I think even among anthropologists there's a certain reluctance to think of the people of twenty thousand years ago as being advanced enough to have a proper culture - all evidence to the contrary. I mean, there's that new theory that the land bridge wasn't the only way people reached America - that close on twenty thousand years ago some Europeans reached America by boat. Some of them see the words 'Stone Age' and think of some of today's Stone Age cultures that have been pushed into such inhospitable areas that it takes them all their time to survive, let alone produce anything like the artifacts we sometimes find. Just who they think produced those if not Stone Age cultures, I can't imagine."
"I knew I was preaching to the converted," Stoddard laughed. "Anyway, my current second-year class is surprisingly open to the idea of archaeological anthropology, so I've arranged for them to visit the dig. I know it's early in the university year, but they'll be shutting up shop for the winter at the end of October, and I want to include material from it in this year's schedule.
"I need another qualified adult along, and the Chancellor agreed that you were the best person - that is if you agree."
"I'm interested, certainly - what exactly is involved?"
"Well, it'll be a three-day trip. It's too far to get there, do justice to the site and get home again in one day, so I've decided to use one day to get there, one day there and home on the third day. We'll be seeing some excavation work, which may or may not produce anything while we're there, as well as seeing some of what has already been discovered - a few bone tools, some stone artifacts, some animal bones showing signs of having been butchered, a couple of burials."
Stoddard nodded. "Only fragments, of course. Both were young children."
"Sometimes you'd wonder that the race survived, there are so many child deaths in Stone Age cultures." Blair thought for a moment. "The class does know they aren't going to be seeing anything actually spectacular?"
"Oh yes, I made sure of that."
Blair rubbed his thumb over his lower lip. "I'm definitely interested, Eli, but I'll have to check with Jim - he might need me at the PD. When are you planning on going?"
"Not until next week - leaving mid-morning on Tuesday."
"I'll check with Jim tonight and let you know in the morning."
Jim's truck was already there when Blair arrived home. He ran up the stairs, unsurprised to see the door open for him.
"Chief." The word was full of quiet affection. "Dinner'll be ready in about ten minutes."
"Right." As Blair headed for the bathroom, he added, "I had an interesting day today. Tell you about it over dinner."
Quarter of an hour later, as they began their meal, Jim said, "So what happened?"
"Eli asked me to go with him on a field trip next week. Tuesday to Thursday. The class he's taking is big enough that he needs another qualified adult along."
"Three days? That's quite a while for a mid-semester field trip."
"Yeah, but it's a couple of hundred miles away, and the roads aren't very good - it's probably at least a five-hour drive. They'll see something on the Tuesday afternoon, have a discussion in the evening, have all day Wednesday at the dig and get home again early Thursday afternoon."
"So are you going?"
"I told him I'd need to check with you first. I'd certainly like to go - partly because it should be interesting, and partly because I think I owe Eli one - and Chancellor Konoe - for getting me another chance at my Phd. There aren't that many people at Rainier Eli could ask without inconveniencing someone, when you think about it. But if you think you'll need me, then I'll tell him no."
"I'll miss you, Chief. But I think you should go. Just make sure you take your cell phone... fully charged! And stay out of trouble."
"Jim, how much trouble can I get into on a university field trip to a well-organized dig?"
"Knowing you... plenty!"
It began to rain during Sunday night; a heavy, unrelenting downpour that even by Cascade's standards was extreme. The rain continued unabated through Monday, and the enthusiasm of the class that met on Tuesday morning at Rainier was certainly dampened - literally as well as metaphorically - by it.
Jim dropped Blair off at Rainier with two bags; a duffel bag containing clothes and the sleeping bag he would need for the trip, and the smaller backpack that was his ever-present companion. Jim had personally - and unnecessarily - checked that Blair's cell phone was fully charged, and that it was safely in the backpack.
The bus was already there, with Stoddard checking off names as the party assembled. He exchanged a few words with them before turning away to check in two more students.
"Remember to phone tonight, tomorrow night if possible and when you're on the way home," Jim reminded his partner.
"I promise," Blair said.
Jim ruffled Blair's hair, his touch gentler than it looked. "Enjoy yourself."
The bus driver slid Blair's duffel bag into the trunk beside the dozen or so that were already there, and Blair climbed on board and slipped into a front seat while Jim returned to the truck - it was altogether too wet to stand around.
It wouldn't have surprised Stoddard if Bob Gemmell had failed to turn up although the class had been warned that not only did he plan to incorporate material from it in that year's work, they would be tested on the trip as well, the mark to count towards their final grade for the year; and he had already decided that the bus would leave exactly on time. If habitually-five-minutes-late Gemmell was late, he would be too late. If anything, Stoddard was half-hoping that Gemmell would be late enough to miss the bus; the trip would certainly be more pleasant without him.
Gemmell was on time, however; only just, though he was not the last. He joined the party with an extremely sullen look on his face, almost as if he felt he was letting himself down by being on time. Stoddard ignored that with the same apparent ease with which he ignored all the boy's late arrivals. He noted, however, that Gemmell took a seat by himself, and nobody called to him to join them; nor did the student who was last aboard - "Sorry I'm so late, Professor; there was an accident and the direct road was closed. Dad had to take a longer route." - show any sign of wanting to sit beside him.
It confirmed what Stoddard had already realized: nobody in the class liked the football jock, not even the three others from the team also taking anthropology.
He did a quick final check on the number of students on the bus and nodded to the driver. Blair exchanged a last wave with Jim as the bus drove off, and Stoddard sat beside Blair with a faint sigh of relief now that the trip was finally under way.
Only the first hour was driven at a decent speed; when the bus turned onto the side road that led - eventually - to the dig, its speed slackened considerably. The narrow and barely used side road was in serious need of repair, and the passengers were bumped uncomfortably as the bus climbed higher and higher.
Blair was relieved to realize that by the sheer chance of sitting where he could wave goodbye to Jim, he was now on the uphill side of the road; when he glanced forwards - which he was carefully trying to avoid doing most of the time - he was aware of how steeply the hillside dropped away from the road, how far down it was to the river that flowed along the floor of the valley they were following.
Finally they reached the head of the long valley, and the ground leveled off a considerable amount. After a while, the bus turned up another side road, even worse than the one they had been on. The surface was badly broken up - this 'road' was really only a potholed track. The bus slowed to a crawl, going at little more than walking speed.
It was probably no more than ten miles from the end of the road to the dig, but it took nearly as long to cover it as it had taken to drive the rest of the way.
They were met by a thin man who was so short that he made Blair, as he left the bus with Stoddard, feel reasonably tall. The students, after looking at the continuing downpour, decided to remain in the bus till they were told they should leave it.
"Howard!" Stoddard shook Meechan's hand. "Blair, this is Howard Meechan - Howard, Blair Sandburg. A few years ago, Blair was one of my best students - he's working now for his PhD."
"Nice to meet you, Blair." They shook hands. "Sorry about the weather - if you'd come last week, it was nice and dry and you would've had the chance to see a lot more."
Blair grinned. "You can't live in this area without getting used to the rain... Eli says you have some twenty thousand year old remains here?"
Meechan chuckled. "Well, we're hoping so, but we need to get a bit more evidence before we can make a positive claim about that." He glanced at the older man. "I see what you mean about 'best student', Eli. He's barely here, and already he's asking questions! You'll see something of what we've found as soon as you've had a chance to get settled and something to eat."
They called the students off the bus and Meechan led them to two big tents. "Dormitory accommodation, I'm afraid," he said. "Men in this one, women in the other. I've arranged for two of our women to sleep in with the girls, Eli, as we decided."
The actual dig covered a fairly wide area; the part currently being worked on was shielded from the elements by tarpaulins draped over long poles. Even so, rain water was running along the ground and seeping in under the covers, making the actual working area unpleasantly muddy.
"We're not really doing much digging in these conditions," Meechan said apologetically, "but I do have a couple of volunteers to show you how we go about the work."
The group watched as two young men carefully troweled away the surface soil; one of them suddenly said, "Ha!" - and reached for a notebook, did a quick sketch and scribbled a few words, then picked up what looked like a piece of antler. He looked up at the watching students.
"You're in luck, being here when we found something," he said, holding it up. "As you can see, this has been worked."
The antler had a thin slit and narrow groove carved around the one end. "This probably used to be the handle for some kind of knife. The blade would have been made from a thin piece of bone rubbed along one side to make a cutting edge, with the two bits held together by a cord of some kind, possibly sinew. If we're really lucky, the blade is around here somewhere as well."
The students passed the artifact around, some of them looking at it more closely than others. Blair noticed that Gemmell watched as it was handed around, but when it reached him, he passed it on with only a cursory glance, then he continued to watch as it moved on.
Hmm. He already knew that this was Eli's problem student; it seemed that the young man might have more problems than Eli had guessed. He made a mental note to mention it to the older man.
During the evening he had the opportunity to see what Stoddard meant when he said that this class was very open to the idea of archaeology as a means of investigating anthropology; for as little as they had actually seen, the discussion session went well, most of the students clearly happy to discuss what discoveries like the knife handle could mean. As a result of this, Blair found he had no chance of having a quiet word with Stoddard about anything, as both men were pulled into more than one conversation about the site and its potential. He noticed however that several of the students who spoke with Stoddard made no attempt to speak to him, and he guessed that his 'reputation' was known and his opinion distrusted by at least some of the class. It was something he just had to accept.
Dinner was better than Blair had expected; dig cuisine was often very basic. Stoddard chuckled when the younger man commented on it.
"Howard likes his food," he said, with a sly glance at his friend. Meechan simply grinned, ignoring the obviously affectionate tease.
Blair's phone call to Jim was of necessity very short, since there was no way he could get privacy without also getting very wet. "Hi, Jim - yes, everything's fine and what we've seen has been interesting - a bit wet, it hasn't stopped raining. See you!" Commenting on people's responses when there was a chance they might overhear wasn't, after all, the best of ideas.
The next day, wearing their still-wet clothes from the day before in order to keep one change of clothes dry, they made their way through the unceasing downpour to the big tent where the artifacts that had already been uncovered were carefully cleaned and stored, and Meechan explained in detail what each item was. The students took notes - all but Gemmell, who continued to appear utterly uninterested, but Blair, still watching him when Gemmell thought himself unobserved, recognized in him a hunger for the information that he was apparently ignoring. At some point, he decided, as well as mentioning his thoughts to Stoddard, he must have a word with the young man.
Meechan and the other investigators working with the finds were all patient and helpful, answering the many questions posed to them. At last, as the questioning seemed to be dying down, Gemmell said in a very bored voice, "But what use is any of this? Does it really matter to anyone what happened twenty thousand years ago?"
There was a moment of dead silence, then Professor Meechan said quietly, "All knowledge is useful, young man. Astronomers say that Earth is overdue another big asteroid like the one that killed off the dinosaurs, volcanologists say the gigantic volcanic field of Yellowstone is overdue another massive eruption - either of those could leave Earth suffering from a several-year-long winter with the sun unable to penetrate the resulting dust clouds, and that would trigger another ice age. Civilization as we know it could die literally overnight. If there is a record somewhere of the sort of life early man lived, what kind of tools he made, how he made them - even if it's just inside the heads of anthropologists - it would make it easier for the survivors of that sort of catastrophe to remake civilization because they wouldn't have to reinvent everything, including the most basic tools, from scratch.
"And on that note, I think it's time for lunch."
As the students, accompanied by the on-site anthropologists, began to make their way out of the tent, Blair watched Gemmell and once again noted that he was being virtually ostracized by the others, who clearly considered his question out of order. Then he turned to join Stoddard and Meechan, in time to hear Stoddard saying, " - that. Gemmell is something of a problem student; I really don't know what to make of him."
"It's amazing how often a group you're talking to will have someone who delights in asking a question like that. I'm sure you have one or two standard responses that defuse that sort of 'prove your point' question."
Stoddard grunted his agreement as the three men made their way to the tent door. "I sometimes wish the sports students didn't have to get academic credits as well. Though three of the others are football players too, and they work hard enough in class."
"You do have a good class there, though - apart from that one."
"I'm not so sure," Blair said quietly. "Were you watching him at all, Eli?"
Stoddard shook his head. "Not closely."
They left the tent and began to move briskly towards the mess tent. "It seemed to me - "
Blair broke off as Stoddard's foot slipped in the mud and he fell awkwardly, landing with a yelp. He twisted into a sitting position and sat looking up at his companions.
"You all right?" Blair asked.
"I hurt my ankle."
The two men helped Stoddard to his feet and supported him to Meechan's tent. There, Meechan carefully eased off Stoddard's shoe and ran assessing fingers over the injured ankle. "Just sprained, I think, but you'll want to see a doctor to make sure when you get back to Cascade."
"You don't have a medic on site?" Blair asked. "You're a long way from Cascade if anyone were hurt."
"Usual thing - several of us are fully qualified in first aid," Meechan said as he began to wind a support bandage around the injured ankle.
Stoddard forced his foot into the shoe and fastened it loosely. "It'll do," he said, "but Blair, I'll have to ask you to do most of the running around for me for the rest of the trip."
Blair grinned. "No worries - as an Australian colleague of Jim's would say."
The incident, however, had interrupted the conversation, and none of them thought to resume it as they went to eat.
During the afternoon, the students who wanted to try digging were given a brief opportunity to do so. Most did, though two of the girls decided they didn't want to get muddy and Gemmell, as always, stood back refusing to participate.
By the end of the day it was clear that several of the party weren't just interested, they had already decided that they would like to pursue this aspect of their subject; despite the weather. Stoddard told Blair that he considered the trip to have been an unqualified success.
They boarded the bus the following morning with obviously mixed feelings; some were clearly sorry to be leaving already, others had enjoyed it but had seen as much as they wanted to, at least in the rain, still others who had enjoyed the trip well enough were obviously relieved to be getting back to Cascade where they could change into totally dry clothes. Blair simply made sure that he claimed a seat that would be on the uphill side of the valley road.
Just before the bus left, Blair phoned Jim.
"Hi, it's me. Everything OK? - Yeah, we're just leaving. We should be back in Cascade by about two, but I'll phone again when we hit the main road. That should be at one or thereabouts. See you."
The bus bumped slowly down the track, sliding occasionally in the mud, and the entire party breathed a sigh of relief when it eventually reached the valley road, which despite its potholes at least had the merit of being more or less surfaced.
They were about two hours from home, making quite good time down the long valley road, when without warning the engine cut out. The driver coasted to the side. He checked the engine, and shook his head.
"What's wrong?" Stoddard asked.
"Dunno," the man answered. "I'm not much of a mechanic. I'll have to call for the shop maintenance truck." He reached for his radio; and got no reply.
Blair took his cell phone from his pack, and dialed Jim. Nothing. He looked at it; no service. Damn! They were in a 'dead' zone, where it was impossible to make or receive a call.
"What's happening?" one of the students asked.
The driver shrugged. "I'm the driver, it's my responsibility to get you home... I'll have to start walking."
Blair said slowly, "It's pretty lousy weather, and it's a long way to the main road. Your chances of someone picking you up are nil - we haven't seen any other vehicles on this road at all, in either direction, either day.
"I promised to phone home when we reached the main road. When he doesn't get a call by around one, my roommate is likely to come out here to check up on the bus. Come to that, when you don't report back, won't someone from the bus company drive out to see if there's a problem?"
"They'll call out the Highway Patrol to check on us," the driver admitted.
"Then I suggest you just wait it out with the rest of us."
They settled down for a long wait.
Blair turned his attention to the hillside beside the bus - there wasn't much to see, but it was better than looking forwards and seeing the potential drop on the other side of the road. There were tiny streamlets trickling down and into a ditch - muddier than he would have expected, he realized. A sudden movement caught his eye; a wolf stood on the hillside just above the bus, gazing upwards intently; then it turned and looked straight at him. Nobody else seemed to be aware of it... and then he realized that he could see the hillside through its body.
It was... It had to be his spirit guide, and it was telling him... Danger!
Even as he realized that, the wolf took a few steps back the way they had just come, then paused and looked directly at him again, just as a small shower of fairly liquid mud slipped down the hillside and into the ditch. And then he knew...
"Eli, we're in the path of a landslide!" he gasped. He pulled himself to his feet. "Everyone, get out of the bus! Now! As soon as you're out, start going back up the road, as fast as you can. Hurry!"
"Come on," someone groaned. "It's still raining, man."
"Do it!" Stoddard didn't waste time asking Blair how he knew. He glanced at the driver, who had clearly heard Blair's comment. "You go first. Lead the way."
Blair moved to the doorway and literally pushed the students out. Finally, only Stoddard and he were left - and near the back of the bus, Bob Gemmell, sitting defiantly as if to say, 'I'm not doing anything you tell me.'
"Oh, good!" Blair said. "You're a lot bigger than I am - you can help Professor Stoddard. Well, come on!"
Gemmell sat still. "I don't have to do anything you tell me. Or Stoddard either. It's dry in here."
Blair said quietly, "The ground above us is liquefying. It'll give way soon. Trust me, I know."
"Like you knew about sentinels?" The insolence in the boy's voice could have been cut with a knife.
Blair drew a deep breath. "All right," he said quietly. "Stay in the bus if you want. As you die, you'll have the comfort of knowing that you're still dry. Come on, Professor." He looped his backpack over one shoulder and helped Stoddard down the steps of the bus.
As they reached the ground, Gemmell joined them. "You mean that?" he said, his face white.
"Do you really think I'd push everyone out into the rain for a whim?" Blair snapped. He looked back up the road; the wolf was standing there, clearly impatient, clearly worried, and the students on the road above them weren't hurrying all that much. "Help Professor Stoddard - please. We need to find somewhere with a solid surface above us, and I think I know how to find one." He turned and as the wolf began to run, he followed it.
He soon reached the bus driver who had given up on trying to speed the youngsters up, and was simply concentrating on keeping them moving without saying anything to panic them; the wolf ran on past the leading students for another hundred yards or so, then turned uphill.
"Come on!" Blair yelled. "Run, dammit!" He peered uphill; the wolf was standing beside a dark shadow some fifty feet above the road, a shadow that he realized was a hole - a cave! Talk about luck... "There's shelter up there! Come on - move!"
The word 'shelter' was enough to speed up the wet students. Blair scrambled up the hill with the first ones, pushed them into the narrow entrance, dropped his backpack inside, slithered back down to the road and ran to where Gemmell was half-carrying Stoddard, who, teeth gritted, was resolutely trying to ignore the pain from his twisted ankle but was clearly unable to put much weight on it. The driver ushered the last of the students off the road and up the hillside, then hesitated, looking back at the three men.
"Go on!" Blair called.
The driver hesitated a moment longer, then started up the hillside, understanding Blair's meaning; the students should have at least one older person with them to take charge if necessary.
Blair took his place on Stoddard's other side and between them he and Gemmell practically carried the injured man up the last part of the road, then together they dragged him up the muddy slope. Just as they reached the cave, a shower of stones rattled down from above it. It was too narrow for all three to enter at once; Blair pushed his companions in, but before he could follow them one of the bigger stones glanced off his shoulder and slid down his arm, hit the ground with a dull squelch then rolled on downhill, slowly at first because of the mud but gaining speed as it traveled on. He gasped at the sudden pain; knocked off balance by the blow, slightly disoriented by the shock of it, he teetered for a moment on the point of falling, then felt hands grabbing him and pulling him forward; he fell on top of whoever had yanked him into the cave - he later discovered that it was one of the football players - and a moment later the light at the cave mouth disappeared as with a deafening rumble a long stretch of the hillside finally gave way.
The noise seemed to go on forever.
As the sound finally died away, there was a long moment of silence, then someone said, "We're trapped!" There was near hysteria in the voice.
Blair lifted his head and looked around; and could see nothing. The cave mouth was clearly completely covered by landslide debris.
"But we're alive," he said quietly.
"How did you know that... that..." someone tried to ask.
Blair thought faster than he had ever done in his life. "Well, I have a bit of a problem with heights, so I was watching the hillside - not much to see, but better than looking over the drop on the other side - and I saw the cave just before we stopped - actually, I think it could be an old worked-out mine. Then I could see the water running down the mountainside getting muddier and muddier. It was a guess, but a pretty educated guess, that it was all getting so wet there'd be a landslide, and the cave was the only possible shelter."
He pushed himself to his feet. His arm and shoulder were hurting, but not with the degree of pain that meant a break. "Whoever that was who pulled me in - thanks."
He paused for some seconds as he took several deep breaths, then he went on. "Anyone know where my backpack is?"
"I have it," someone said.
"Right. If you go into it, you'll find a flashlight. Be careful you don't drop anything out of the pack, though."
A few seconds later, the light went on. Blair crossed to it. "Good." He retrieved his pack. "Is everyone all right? Nobody's hurt?"
"You're the only one who was hurt." It was the driver. "Everyone else was safe inside. How bad is your arm?"
"I think it could be a lot worse, thanks... er...?"
"Joe Liddiard. I've got a first aid qualification - we have to have one in my job. If whoever has the light would shine it over here..."
Blair scrabbled in his pack and produced a small first aid kit. Liddiard grinned. "Is there anything you don't have in there?"
Blair laughed. It was a little strained, but he knew the sound would be good for morale. "Well, I don't have a kitchen sink. Seriously, I've done a lot of traveling, Joe. There are some things that live in this pack. Apart from a couple of notebooks, pretty well everything in here has survival value."
Liddiard was already checking the injured arm. After a moment he turned his attention to the contents of the pack. He shook his head in awed disbelief at the range of things in it.
He took out a small bottle of water and some cotton wool, which he used to wipe the worst of the mud from the injured arm. Then he selected an antiseptic wipe from the kit, tore open the wrapping and used it to finish cleaning the mud and blood from Blair's arm.
"That was a pretty sharp stone," he muttered as he looked at the bleeding gash running several inches down Blair's upper arm. He checked the contents of the kit again, smeared some antiseptic cream over the gash and bandaged it. "Not perfect, but it should help," he said.
Blair returned the kit and the depleted bottle to his pack. "Thanks. Now I hate to say this, but we need to put the light out. Everybody sit down, make yourselves comfortable. Well, as comfortable as possible. Give me the flashlight."
Someone whimpered as he switched the light off.
"The batteries have a limited life," he explained. "We need to preserve them as long as possible."
"What's the point? We're just going to die in here!" There was near panic in this voice.
"There'll be someone looking for us in another two or three hours," Blair said calmly. "Guaranteed. Someone is bound to come looking for the bus when we don't arrive back in Cascade, and they can't make radio contact with it."
"But they'll find there's been a landslide, and they'll think we're all under it."
"Ah well, that's the other thing. Anyone notice the guy who dropped me off at the bus?"
"Yeah. He's a hunk!" Unsurprisingly, the comment came from one of the girls, and Blair's lips twitched.
"There's no way he'll give up looking until he finds me."
"How can you be so sure?" That was Gemmell, but this time there was genuine curiosity in his voice.
"Because we're friends. And incidentally - if I were the one in Cascade and he was the one here, I wouldn't give up till I found him."
Blair looked around; saw a wolf-shaped gleam of light that moved deeper into the cave then stopped, looking back. He thought for a moment, then said slowly, "You know... does anyone else feel a draft? I can feel air moving, and I'm wondering if there's another way out of this place." He scrambled to his feet. "Let's give it a try. If I'm wrong we won't be any worse off than we already are, and we can always come back. Can someone help Professor Stoddard?"
"I've done it so far. Might as well carry on." The words were ungracious, the tone rather less so.
Gemmell. Blair nodded to himself. He wasn't completely sure what had happened, but he had heard Stoddard murmuring, "Thank you" to the awkward student once they were safely in the cave and the noise of the landslide had died away, and he suspected those two words had been some sort of catalyst.
"Joe, would you bring up the rear, please? And Professor, if I'm going too fast for you, just tell me... everyone ready?"
Blair turned towards the wolf, which trotted off in front of him. Afraid that if he shone the light forwards he would lose sight of the glow from the spirit animal, he directed the beam backwards to give the best light for as many people as possible, with his mental fingers crossed that he wouldn't trip over anything as he walked.
The cave led steadily uphill, its floor fairly level, and it remained quite narrow, half-confirming his suspicion that it was indeed an old mine. He hadn't seen any obvious rubble outside it, but that meant very little; in his haste to get inside the tunnel he had taken no time at all to examine the terrain outside it; and anyway, when the road was made or just possibly extended, assuming it had originally been made for access to the mine or repaired at any time, piles of already broken rock lying near it would certainly have been used.
He was never quite sure afterwards how far they traveled, but slowly, so slowly that at first he thought he was imagining it, he realized he could see a gleam of light beyond the wolf. He had just positively decided that yes, there was light ahead of them, when a student who was walking just behind him said, "Is that light up ahead?"
There was an excited babble. Blair let them talk for a minute, then said, "We don't know for sure that it's a way out, remember."
The comment silenced them, but only briefly; the students continued to chatter as they walked on, more briskly now that they could see something ahead of them; once the light was clearly visible to everyone, Blair switched off the flashlight again.
They reached the end of the tunnel, and found themselves in a big cavern. It was only dimly lit - though after the darkness of the tunnel it seemed quite bright - because the light was coming through a big hole in the roof of it, some twenty or twenty-five feet above their heads; a pile of earth and rocks under it showed where at some time in the past part of the roof had collapsed. The pile of earth was wet from the rain that was finding its way through the hole; at the side of it was a small pool where the rainwater was gathering.
Blair looked up at the hole and shook his head.
It was indeed a way out; but there was no way to reach it.
Jim Ellison glanced at his watch for the tenth time in as many minutes, then glared at the cell phone lying on his desk.
It was nearly half past one; for the past half an hour he had been expecting the phone to ring, and he was beginning to worry. Why hadn't Blair phoned yet?
He was reluctant to call his partner; Blair had promised to phone when the bus reached the main road, and he hesitated to do anything that might indicate that he doubted Blair's word or say to Professor Stoddard that he felt a need to check up on what Blair was doing. And yet...
Finally reaching a decision, he reached for the phone and hit the speed dial for Blair's number.
The mobile phone you have called is either switched off, or it is out of range.
Jim frowned. There was no way the phone was out of range. It would be typical of Blair to forget to switch his phone on, except that he had phoned just before they left the dig; although it was perfectly possible he had switched it off again to preserve the battery. It also didn't explain why he hadn't phoned; he might sometimes be forgetful, having spent so much of his life not having to worry about letting anyone know where he was, but he wouldn't deliberately break a promise.
He heard a soft growl, and glanced around. His panther sat near the door, tail twitching; as he watched, it got up and padded over to the door and stood there as if waiting for him.
Something was wrong; he was now sure of it. There was no other explanation for the panther's appearance. Jumping up, he headed for Simon's office; he knocked and stuck his head around the door.
Simon grinned. "This is to tell me you're leaving to pick up Sandburg, right?"
"No, Simon, this is to tell you I'm heading off along the road Sandburg should be on to look for him. He should have phoned about half an hour ago to tell me they were off the mountain road and on the main road again. He hasn't phoned, and I can't reach him."
"Have you tried Rainier? They might know something. Maybe the party's staying on another day."
"Blair phoned about nine, just as they were leaving. It shouldn't have taken more than four hours for them to get back to the main road. Simon, you know what those mountain roads can be like, and with the rain, hell, part of the road might have been washed out. If it was, there's no way a bus could turn - and I wouldn't like to try backing up any distance on one of those roads."
"If something like that had happened, don't you think the kid would have phoned?"
"If he could get a signal. There are a lot of dead zones in the mountains. Do me a favor, Simon, would you? Contact Rainier, get them to check with the bus company to see if they've heard anything. Meanwhile I'm heading off on the road they took - thank god I got Blair to show me on the map where he was going."
"Jim, are you sure he showed you the right place?"
"He told me the name of the place, and I checked on the route," Jim growled. "But anyway, he's better with maps than he'd have you think."
"Forty miles in the wrong direction?"
"That was simply confusing right and left, and I'm not convinced it wasn't his instincts telling him something that time. In this case, there was only one possible road. Let me know what you find out, Simon, and I'll phone you if I can - I'll certainly have phone contact for about an hour, possibly up to two, but," he repeated, "there could be dead zones once I get onto the mountain road."
He was aware of the panther padding in front of him as he hurried to the elevator; by the time he reached the garage, however, it had disappeared.
Jim checked his gas, delayed long enough to fill the tank, then stopped at a store near the PD to buy a bottle of water and a couple of packages of sandwiches. He ignored the speed limit once he was out of Cascade and on the open road; though for a while he still half hoped he would soon see the missing bus coming towards him, he had no real expectation of it; by the time he reached the turn-off, he no longer had any doubt that there was definitely a problem.
Just as he swung the truck onto the mountain road, the cell phone rang. Jim pulled to the side of the road and grabbed the phone.
"Simon. Neither Rainier nor the bus company have heard anything, and the bus company wasn't able to make radio contact with their driver."
"OK. I'm onto the mountain road now, and there's still no sign of the bus. It should have been here by one, and it's almost three now. Something has definitely happened to it. I hope it's something as simple as part of the road washed away."
"Or even a breakdown. We've contacted Highway Patrol to check it out since the bus company can't get a response either, but it's at least an hour behind you."
Jim put the phone down and drove on at a speed that showed total disregard for the truck's springs.
About three-quarters of an hour later, he saw the brown scar of a recent landslide ahead of him, and cold terror gripped him. He took a deep breath, stopped the truck and reached for the phone.
He wasn't quite in the dead zone; the signal was poor, but the phone made contact.
"Simon, there's been a landslide. I haven't reached it yet. The bus got to the dig, so it's got to be more recent than Tuesday. I don't know if the bus is stuck on the other side of it, or..." He swallowed. "I'm going on... I think I'll be out of contact in another two or three minutes so don't look for another report from me for a while."
"I'll let... crackle... know."
"Right." He put the phone down and drove on.
It seemed to take forever, but in reality it was only few minutes later that he reached the edge of the landslide and stopped a few yards short of where the road disappeared under a bed of mud and rock. A long stretch of the mountainside had broken away several hundred feet above the road, and from there down to the valley floor a long way below was a tangled mess of rock, mud and broken trees, fanning wide as it went and damming the river that flowed through the valley; but it had happened long enough previously that there had been time for the flooded river to form a small lake, overflow and resume its course.
A spot of color about half a mile further up the valley and close to the river caught his eye; he focused on it.
"Oh, god!" he whispered.
It was the bus - or, rather, what was left of it. The rain must have washed away the mud it had undoubtedly collected as it was swept downhill or it would have been indistinguishable from the rest of the debris of the landslide. He concentrated harder, ignoring the risk of zoning as he struggled to see whether there were any bodies in or near the wreckage. Although he failed to see any, he knew that didn't mean there were none. The conditions were extreme, even for a sentinel's abilities.
With an effort, he pulled his attention back from the wreckage, not sure how long he had been in a near-zone as he struggled to look for bodies. There was no obvious way to get safely to the destroyed bus on foot. Any search would have to be by air.
He tried the phone, but was unsurprised when he failed to get a signal; looked at the road; realized it was impossible for him to turn the truck safely; and remembered his own words to Simon. 'I wouldn't like to try backing up any distance on one of those roads'.
Well, the truck wouldn't be quite as bad as a bus... but he was going to have to back down the road quite some distance before he could phone.
He kept the truck close to the uphill side of the road as it crawled backwards. He had lost track of time, but suddenly he remembered that there was another vehicle following him; he had no idea how long had it taken him to get back to this point, and spared a second to glance at his watch.
It was nearly five.
The other vehicle had left at some point between half past two and three o'clock, when it had been roughly an hour behind him... He had almost certainly been going a good bit faster, but even so, it must be catching up on him by now.
He edged around a fairly long bend; behind him was a relatively long straight stretch. This would be a safe place to stop. He tried the phone again.
The signal was still weak, but he made contact.
"Ellison. There's been a major landslide, and it caught the bus."
"Saw it clearly. Even without using my sight it was quite obvious what it was. I couldn't see any bodies, but at that distance... Anyway, the quickest and safest way to check it will be to drop searchers, maybe even a dog, by helicopter, but it'll be dark too soon for a helicopter to fly in tonight. The Highway Patrol car hasn't caught up with me yet but I don't think it can be far away now. See if you can stop it from coming any further; I had to back up to where I could get a signal and I'll have to back up a good bit further before it's safe to turn."
"I'm going to leave - Hell. Too late to stop the Patrol car - it's here. Get back to you." He dropped the phone and jumped down from his truck, waving to the other vehicle to stop, although there was in fact no way it could get safely past his truck.
The driver leaned out. "You Detective Ellison? You reported a landslide?"
Jim nodded. "The road's destroyed. The bus was carried down almost to the valley floor."
"God. What about the kids in it?"
"That I don't know. Couldn't get close to the wreckage. It was pretty clear what it was, but I didn't see any sign of movement, and at that distance trying to see bodies was impossible. I've been in touch with my boss, reported what I saw. There's no point in you even trying to go any further; there's nothing you could do. Any search for bodies is going to have to be by air."
The man nodded. "I'll need to report in myself, but -" He broke off as his radio crackled into life. "Patrol Charlie."
"Latest report is that the road's closed by a landslide that caught the bus."
"Yeah, I'm speaking with Detective Ellison now."
"Seems like there's nothing that can be done from the road. Return to base, but leave a 'road closed' sign at the junction with the main road."
"On my way." He looked at Jim. "You going back too?"
Jim shook his head. "I'll leave my truck here - backing it once down this road is once too often - but I can go up there again on foot. Maybe there's nothing I can do, but my partner was on that bus, helping out - I have to try."
The driver nodded, understanding, then began to make his way slowly backwards down the road.
Jim returned to his truck and dialed Simon again.
"It's me again. The Patrol car is returning to base. I'm going back up to look for a way to start searching; I'll be out of phone contact."
"Yeah." Jim thought about it for a moment, then shoved the phone into his jacket pocket, and turned to walk back up the road.
It would be dark soon; but he decided he had time for a quick reconnaissance... Then he would return to the truck to sleep, and first thing in the morning he would be ready to set off again in search of his guide. His friend. His partner.
There were the remains of several small mine carts standing beside one of the walls, as well as some totally rusted lengths of metal and some rotting planks - final confirmation that this had indeed, at one time, been a mine. There was nothing to indicate what had been mined; it appeared to have been totally stripped of whatever it was before being abandoned.
The students settled in small groups close to the walls of the cavern; Blair, Stoddard and Liddiard formed their own group; Bob Gemmell settled down on his own, not too far from the 'adults', and leaned back against a rock, staring up at the roof, a distant look on his face, his attitude screaming, "Stay away from me!".
Stoddard said, very quietly, "Thanks for taking charge, Blair; I know it's just a sprain, but my ankle is hurting enough to make me feel a bit sick. The last thing I feel like doing is taking charge of the situation, and - well, I knew you could do it. Now - you said Ellison wouldn't give up searching, and I know you meant that, but have you considered the odds of his finding us when we're stuck in here?"
"On the face of it, they don't look good, I know, but remember, Jim's... a very stubborn man," Blair replied as quietly, glancing almost absently at Liddiard before continuing. "A lot is going to depend on if a search finds the bus - that would give him a starting point. But," he raised his voice slightly, "we've got air, we've got water," he indicated the pool, "and we can survive quite a while without food."
"How long can we survive without food?" It was one of the girls, sitting close enough to hear the comment without looking as if she was eavesdropping.
Blair grinned. "As long as we have water, at least a month, possibly six weeks. Just look at it positively - it'll be a good way to lose weight."
There was some nervous laughter at that, for the girl making the comment was pencil thin.
"The point is, we're all alive, and there's a reasonable amount of hope that we'll be found." He shivered. "All right, we'll be cold, too. Can't be helped."
They fell silent, a silence that was interrupted when one of the students came over to them. "Professor... Mr. Sandburg... what do we do about the toilet?"
"Somewhere as far away from our water supply as possible," Blair said. He pointed to a corner of the cavern. "It's fairly dark over there; that'll give as much privacy as possible, and it's downhill from the water. Everyone -" He raised his voice. "That corner can serve as a toilet. Yes, I know it'll smell, but a nasty smell won't kill us." And it might just attract Jim's attention, he thought.
"You said a water supply, but we don't have any cups," one of the girls said.
"Hands were invented before cups," Blair told her, "but who said we don't have any cups?" He reached into his backpack, and produced a small folding cup. Beside him, Stoddard chuckled quietly.
They settled down again in a stillness interrupted only by some of the party heading, one at a time, for the 'toilet corner'. A faint smell of urine began to permeate the air.
It was getting dark in the cavern, though through the hole in the roof they could see that it was still reasonably bright outside, but even there the light was fading.
It was going to be a long night.
Standing at the edge of the landslide, Jim studied the valley, pinpointing the position of the bus and calculating where it had left the road. Tomorrow, he decided, he would climb along the mountainside above the point of fracture until he was directly above the bus, and then start searching.
Everyone on the bus could be dead, he knew, their bodies lying here and there under the rock and earth as they were tossed out of the bus when it was swept downhill; but he didn't think the panther would have shown itself in the way it had if his guide had died.
If only the rain would stop, he could begin searching immediately; but it would be too dangerous in the dark on a steep, wet slope. He would do Blair no good if he injured himself. If only the panther would reappear and lead him to Blair. But it clearly considered it had done its duty by letting him know he should come out in search of his friend.
Reluctantly he turned and made his way back down the road to his truck as daylight failed.
He choked down a sandwich, forcing himself to eat despite his total lack of appetite, then with nothing else to do in the dark but sleep, he closed his eyes.
He found it difficult to sleep, however. He was confident Blair was alive, but he knew that finding him would be far from easy.
Resolutely he blanked his mind, closed his ears to the persistent rattle of rain on the roof - was it never going to stop? - and at last fell into an uneasy slumber.
He woke unrefreshed in the half light of the dawning day, cold, aware of a night of near-nightmares but unable to remember any of them.
Once again he forced himself to eat, and washed down the unwanted sandwich with a long drink of water; then he set off up the road again.
At least, he noted with some relief, the rain had finally eased to a light drizzle.
Nobody in the cave slept well either.
They were all wet, cold, hungry and uncomfortable, and not tired enough to sleep in the face of those discomforts. They abandoned the illusion that they were resting when the morning light began to creep into the cavern, and sat up, resuming their little social groups. One by one they crossed to the toilet corner; the smell of urine intensified.
So far, nobody had touched the pool of rainwater; now Blair went to it and dipped out a cupful of water. As he drank, he saw the 'euww!' expression on the face of the girl who had asked about food, and looked directly at her.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"I didn't think you really meant us to drink that!"
"What's wrong with it?"
"It's... it's... it's dirty! It hasn't been treated. It has to be full of germs!"
"It's pure rainwater," Blair said. "As long as everyone continues to pee in the corner over there, there's nothing in here to contaminate it."
Stoddard limped over to join him. "Mr. Sandburg is right, Sally. This water is perfectly pure, perfectly good." He took the cup from Blair and also drank a cupful. Nobody else bothered. Blair shrugged, left the cup sitting beside the pool, and returned to his earlier position, knowing that when they were thirsty enough, the students would drink. Stoddard made his way to the corner to relieve himself, then came painfully back and rejoined him.
A few moments later, a quiet, tentative voice said, "Professor, Mr. Sandburg..."
"Yes, Bob?" Stoddard asked.
Gemmell ran nervous fingers through his hair, then glanced up at the hole in the roof. "I... I think I can get out of here."
The two men looked at each other. "You can?" Blair asked. "I wouldn't have thought it was possible."
"It won't be easy, but..." He hesitated. Then, with a glance at the other students to make sure they couldn't overhear, said quietly and with obvious difficulty, "Dad used to play pro football, but he had to quit when he was injured. In his book, only men who work with their muscles or are into sports are real men, and successful sportsmen are better paid. Men who aren't either of those, men who work with their minds, are wimps. Soft.
"He was going to relive his career vicariously through my older brother and me.
"Only my brother hated football. He wasn't athletic at all. He skipped the classes, took extra art instead - he had real talent. When he found out, Dad threw Danny out. Told him artists were all fags, and he wasn't having any fags in his house. Then he set out to make sure I'd 'be a man'. He got it into his head that the best way to do that was to discourage me from doing well academically, force me to concentrate on sports.
"I really do enjoy your classes, Professor, but if Dad found out he'd half kill me. I have to pretend, deliberately misbehave to get snarky comments on my reports, get marks just high enough to pass but not high enough to look as if I've got brains. Danny had brains, you see."
"Brainy and artistic meant wimp. And wimp meant... gay, huh?" Blair muttered...
"Was Danny gay?" Stoddard asked, his voice gentle.
"I don't know. I was only twelve when he left, so how could I know? I never saw him with a girl, but that doesn't mean anything - you'll never see me with a girl either, and I don't think I'm gay. It's partly because nobody likes me, but mostly because Dad says I'm too young yet to think of going out with anyone. I'm only allowed out at night for practice.
"I'm on the football team, and I'm quite good, but I hate it, the competitive element, just as much as Danny did. What I do enjoy is climbing, pitting my ability against the rock, pushing myself all the time to get more and more skilled - but before Dad would even let me do any climbing, I had to show him what was meant by extreme climbing and persuade him that I wanted to go in for that 'real he-man stuff'." There was just a trace of mockery in his voice.
"It won't be easy," he repeated, serious again, "but I think there's a possible route up there - for someone like me who knows what he's doing."
"Safety margin?" Blair asked. "If you find you can't do it? That it isn't possible?"
"I might manage to climb back down. I might fall. But if I can do it and get out, it's our best chance."
Blair and Stoddard looked at each other. "I don't like it, Bob," Stoddard said. "You'd normally have ropes and things for safety, wouldn't you?"
"Yes. I'd normally be wearing a rope and carrying the weight of a lot of pitons and karabiners, using them to secure my position. The extra weight is more of a strain on the fingers. If all I'm carrying is my own weight, that'll make a big difference. Look, Mr. Sandburg, you have a notebook. If I write in it that I'm doing this on my own responsibility, against your wishes, Professor, that should keep you clear if I do fall."
"That's not what's on our minds, Bob," Blair said quietly. "We just don't want to see you fall and get hurt."
"You can't stop me. I'm over eighteen. I can make my own decisions." The defiance was back in his voice. "And frankly, I don't want to die in here."
Stoddard said slowly, "Blair, I know you're convinced that Ellison will find us, and I don't doubt your faith in him, but if Bob thinks he can do this, I think we should let him try."
Blair looked up at the hole in the roof for a moment, then as he returned his gaze to Gemmell, he grinned. The wolf was standing beside the wall, reared up on its hind legs, forepaws resting against the wall as high as it could reach. It turned its head and stared straight at him. The message was absolutely clear.
"Go for it!" he said.
Gemmell removed his jacket and put it down beside Blair's pack. Blair nodded... "I'll remember to pick it up. And Bob - I'm sure you'll do it." He reached into his backpack, took out his cell phone and switched it on. "With luck, once you get out you'll be high enough to get a signal. Speed dial one will get you my friend Jim Ellison. Two will get you Captain Banks, Cascade PD. If you're not high enough to get a signal, go higher."
"Right." Gemmell pushed the phone into his pocket and turned to the wall.
As the student began to climb, Liddiard said softly, "Are you two quite sure about this? You didn't even get him to write that disclaimer. If he falls, I'd guess that father of his will sue you both, and Rainier, into bankruptcy..."
"We'll have you as a witness that he volunteered and refused to listen to our advice, Joe, won't we?" Stoddard asked quietly.
"Well, of course, but..."
"But your testimony won't be needed," Blair said. "He'll do it."
Despite his certainly, however, despite the ease with which Gemmell was moving up the wall, he found it difficult to watch; he could understand the fascination of watching something dangerous, but even so he found it almost impossible to watch someone he knew even as casually as this putting himself into danger. The other students watched, fascinated, not knowing exactly what Gemmell was planning, but realizing it was dangerous.
Gemmell had chosen a route that, while relatively close to the hole, wasn't the part of the cave wall that was closest to it. When he was almost at the roof he paused and looked towards it, studying the rock carefully, able to see more clearly the handholds he had only been able to guess at from below. He moved upwards two or three more feet and paused again; they he reached out and gripped a handhold, and swung free from the rock wall, all his weight for a moment hanging from the fingers of one hand; then his other hand made contact with the roof. Once again he moved steadily, swinging with no obvious hesitation from handhold to handhold.
The distance involved was actually not great; it was only a few seconds - that seemed like an hour to the watchers - before he swung his legs up and hooked one knee around a chunk of outcropping rock. From there it took him only a few seconds more to straighten up and climb on out of the hole.
"Yes!" Blair exclaimed, though he chose not to join in the yell of relief from the other students.
Gemmell's head appeared a minute or two later. "The phone worked," he called down. "Mr. Ellison's on his way here right now."
Blair grinned. "Of course he is," he murmured.
Jim made good time back up the road to the edge of the landslide, then began to scramble up the hillside. The footing was treacherous, and he was unable to make the speed he would have liked, but eventually he found himself level with the top of the slide. He began to make his way carefully along the uneven ground, staying several feet above the fracture line, concentrating, alert to the danger of the earth giving way under his weight.
When his phone rang, it took him a second to change the focus of his concentration. He pulled it out. "Ellison."
"Hello. Mr. Sandburg told me to call you... "
"Sandburg! Is he all right?"
"Yes. He... he..." The caller seemed uncertain of what to say.
"It's all right. Take a deep breath. Now. What happened? Where are you? Is everyone okay?"
"The bus broke down. Mr. Sandburg realized there was going to be a landslide, but he'd seen where there was a cave quite close. He got us all off the bus and into the cave, but we were trapped in there. I've done some climbing; I was able to climb up to a hole and get out, but nobody else can get out without ropes."
As he listened, Jim's eyes were searching the mountainside in front of him.
"I think I can see you - stick a hand above your head and wave, would you? Yes, I can see you."
"You probably can't see me at all, but you're on the skyline from where I am," Jim told him, cheerfully lying. "I'll be with you inside - oh, quarter of an hour."
He hit Simon's number, anxious to give his boss the good news as quickly as possible.
"There's a helicopter on its way. It should be there in the next half hour."
"Good. It's definitely a rescue now, not a search."
"Wha - "
"I just got a call from Blair, via... it had to be one of the students. The bus broke down, but there was enough warning of the landslip for them to get off it in time and find shelter."
"So he said, so can you let Rainier know?"
"Will do. Keep me informed."
"You got it."
Jim thrust his phone back into his pocket and moved on.
It took some time to get everyone out of the old mine and taken by helicopter down to the main road, where by then a bus waited to take them back to Rainier. Blair insisted on Stoddard going with the first group; Jim waited with Blair, who pointed out that as Stoddard's official assistant he had to wait till last and make sure everyone was safe; then Jim had to be dropped off to retrieve his truck, but insisted that Blair take the helicopter and join the bus.
"And make sure you go to hospital and get your arm checked!"
"Yes, Mom." Blair deliberately injected a resigned note into his voice, but he knew that his arm needed proper attention; Liddiard had done the best he could in a difficult situation, but the injury was aching badly now and Blair knew it was probably infected. It made sense to get it properly seen to.
Jim was nearly back to Cascade when his phone rang. He pulled off to the side of the road.
"Hi, Jim. Just to let you know, we got held up a bit at Rainier. I'm on my way to the hospital now - Eli, too - and I'll wait there for you to pick me up, OK?"
"OK. I'll pick up some clothes for you at the loft, then come on to the hospital. How are you getting there?"
"Eli's girl friend is taking us."
"Right. I'll probably be there before they've finished with you - Girl friend? You've never said anything about Stoddard having a girl friend."
Blair chuckled. "I didn't know, and when you think about it, it's none of my business."
Jim rang off and restarted the truck.
They picked up takeout on their way back to the loft. While they waited for it, Jim said curiously, "Eli's girl friend? I thought at his age he'd be a confirmed bachelor, pretty well set in his ways."
Blair grinned. "Actually, he's known her for years - come to that, I've known her for years. Lesley's about forty, maybe a little older. She's an anthropologist too, been on most of Eli's expeditions over the last fifteen years - I'd guess they've been dancing around each other for a long time, and now that Eli's settled, it's only a matter of time before they get married."
Once home, they settled down to eat.
"So Chief - what exactly happened?"
"The wolf warned me, showed me the way to the old mine... but we were lucky it was there. But you know, Jim, I'm so angry, and Eli is furious - Bob Gemmell, the boy who climbed out of that hole..."
"He's always been an awkward student, Eli said, but he sort of explained why when we were trapped. Well, his father was there waiting with the other parents. Eli made sure he knew what Bob had done, how much we appreciated it... The bastard didn't even tell Bob he'd done well. All he did was snarl, 'You're playing in an important game tomorrow, you'd better not let this ruin your chances of doing well.' Bob... went right back into his 'couldn't care less about anyone' shell."
"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," Jim muttered.
"Something Dad used to say to me... Go on."
"It was pretty clear that everyone who heard didn't think much of the man's attitude, and Eli's going to do what he can, but Bob... He's a decent kid at heart, but what chance does he have of staying that way if that's his father's attitude?"
"Blair, it was my Dad's attitude too. Are you saying I'm not 'decent at heart'?"
Blair put down his plate. "No, Jim. But you're a sentinel. Even as a child you had that instinctive urge to 'serve and protect'; it saved you from being brainwashed into the 'winning is everything' mould. Bob isn't a sentinel. I don't know what will save him."
"Well," Jim said, "from what I've seen of Stoddard, he'll be doing some brainwashing of his own, now he knows the score. You said once he was your mentor."
"He did not too bad a job with you."
Blair looked thoughtful as he remembered Professor Buckner's assessment of how he had been at sixteen, and chuckled.
"Yeah," he said. "Maybe Bob does stand a chance, at that."