This story is an amateur publication and does not intend to infringe upon copyrights held by any party. No reproductions without permission. Originally published in the Starsky & Hutch zine Penal Code, in 1988. A longtime fan generously donated digital scanning, typing and proofreading for the archive. Enjoy!
Terri Beckett, with Chris Power, is the author of TRIBUTE TRAIL. See www.speculationpress.com for details! Comments about this story can be sent to: kmankatz@CandW.ky
"I don't believe this. Starsky, do you believe this?"
"Do I believe what?" came the mutter from the slouched body of his partner.
"We're out of gas."
"No, we're not. We just filled the tank."
"We're out of gas. See for yourself."
Starsky sat up and fixed him with a cool blue stare, then looked at the gauge. As Hutch had done, he tapped it...this time the needle did not budge. "Empty." he said, disbelievingly. "It can't be. We've only covered about fifty miles. It's stuck."
"It was. It's not now."
"Jesus H..." Starsky sighed, and slumped back in his seat.
"Well, what?" Plainly Starsky was not disposed to be helpful. "Whose idea was it to take a short cut anyway?" He shifted, reaching under his seat, and produced a flashlight from among the objects in the rack there. "Why am I always surprised to find anything where it should be in this hunka junk?" he asked rhetorically, opening the car door and vanishing briefly. When he reappeared, brushing the dirt from his jeans, his attitude was less than amiable. "We're out of gas," he said, "and do you know why?"
"Tell me." Hutch was in no mood for guessing games.
"We been over any bumps recently?"
"You may not have noticed, but this road is all bumps."
"Really? Well, a while back, we musta hit a biggie. Since then we've been pollutin' the environment with Premium. The fuel-line's gone."
"Busted. Ruptured. Smashed." And with a gesture of finality, he reached over and switched off the ignition. "We're not going anywhere tonight."
"Shit!" Hutch voiced both their feelings. "Ten-thirty at night, and we're stuck on a logging trail in the middle of nowhere..."
"Where nowhere exactly?" Starsky was using the flashlight to study the map. "C'mon, Marco Polo, you were supposed to be navigating."
"Somewhere along this stretch," Hutch pointed out. "We would have hit Red Bluff in about an hour, then I-5 and homeward bound."
"Terrific. Let's see who we can pick up on the radio."
It took a while, and some dial-twiddling, before a static-laden voice acknowledged Starsky's repetition of their 'Zebra Three' call sign. "McCloud, receiving your signal, Zebra Three."
"McCloud?" Starsky cocked an eyebrow at Hutch. "Should I ask him to ride out and rescue us?"
"Not that McCloud, meathead. Must be some kinda freak reception though, the way it's breaking up. I don't think we're in range."
''The hell with that, they can hear us can't they? Okay, McCloud this is Zebra Three, L.A.P.D., requesting assistance, over."
"Specify assistance required, Zebra Three."
"Well, in words on one syllable, we're broken down out here in the middle of nothing, and we'd maybe like someone to come pick us up so's we can get home."
There was a crackling pause. "Roger, Zebra Three. Your position, please?" Starsky opened his mouth, but Hutch snatched the mike from him and read out the map references. With a hissed "Will you PLEASE...!" Starsky took the mike back as McCloud resumed transmission.
"Sorry, Zebra Three, but you're way out of our territory. We'll contact the nearest Ranger Station and get them to send someone out to you, ASAP."
"Yeah, well, how long is that likely to take?"
"Maybe by first light."
Hutch repossessed the mike. "We'll be waiting. McCloud, can you contact Captain Dobey, Metro Division, L.A.P.D. and let him know what's happened?"
"Can do, Zebra Three. Over and out."
"First light," Starsky snarled at the dead mike, batting it off the seat. "That's gonna be six hours at least. Shitshitshit."
Hutch dug into his pocket. "Well, we don't have a choice, Starsk, so we might as well make ourselves comfortable. Heads or tails?"
"Tails," Starsky guessed gloomily. Hutch tossed the coin.
"Heads. Sorry, pal. I get the back seat."
"If you can find it under all that junk," his partner said sourly as Hutch climbed over the back of the driver's seat into the rear of the LTD, dislodging an assortment of unidentified items as he did so. There was a further clunking before he stretched out, long legs up on the back of the passenger seat. "Are you through back there?"
"Fine. G'night, Starsk."
Several minutes of squeaking leather and creaking car seats followed as Starsky tried to fit himself comfortably into the front seat. Once done, the silence was short-lived as the dome light pierced the blackness and the door opened letting in a blast of cold air.
"Starsky, where the hell are you going?"
"I forgot to brush my teeth."
Hutch was on the verge of sleep, his mind ticking back over the day: Maybe Starsky had reason to be pissed...if we'd driven straight back down Route 97 from Klamath Falls instead of me deciding to take the scenic route, they'd be home by now. But shit, if you have to use your weekend off to ferry a con on extradition back to Portland...then surely you're entitled to take a little of the trip home for yourself...As justification it didn't help much. But there was nothing to be done about it now except accept the fact that Sunday night was going to be spent in a chilly wilderness.
The drowse receded. Where the hell is Starsky? He squinted at his watch. Half an hour? Surely even Starsky couldn't get lost between the car and the nearest tree. God knows there's enough around. Groaning, he sat up and peered outside. Darkness. He craned forward and switched on the lights, and the narrow cones of white light cut into the black night. But there was no sound, no movement.
"Starsky!" Hutch stuck his head outside. "Where the hell are you?" No answer, not even an insulting reply to the effect that Hutch and the National Geographic spent hours in the john together.
"Well, if this is a joke, I'm not fallin' for it. If he thinks he's gonna get me out there playing tag among the trees..." He slumped back in the seat. It was quiet, a light wind was sloughing softly through the tops of the pines. Hutch sat up. "Starsk?"
Nothing. He sat there, counting to ten, mentally devising a series of tortures for big-city idiots who can't walk ten yards without getting lost. After that he started to think the worst. He rooted out the flashlight, and went outside.
It was pitch black and overcast. And it was starting to rain. That clinched it... Starsky would NOT be horsing around in the wet. The powerful beam swung in a searching arc. "Starsk?" Can you hear me?" Methodically he circled the car in a widening spiral. Drops of rain shone briefly like rods of glass in the sweep of the flashlight. Huge trees walled the road on either side, swallowing it fore and aft. Hutch made another, wider sweep, calling his partner's name. The footing increased his anxiety...it was becoming downright treacherous. "Starsky!"
A sound from the left, a rustle. Hutch moved in that direction as fast as he dared, and the flashlight picked out the gloss of wet black leather. "Starsky!" he yelled in relief. "I thought 'Bigfoot' got ya'. Where the hell...?"
Abruptly all lights went out. And the darkness split apart his skull.
* * *Starsky shifted his position for the umpteenth time, trying to ease the cramped ache of his arms and shoulders. A maddening trickle of something was drying slowly on his right temple and cheek, and it itched... He wanted to wipe it away, and because he couldn't it assumed dimensions of ridiculous importance. The darkness had lightened around him, very gradually, into grey gloom, and he could now see the whole of his prison, for all the good that did him. It. appeared to be a cellar of sorts, about six feet square. The floor and walls were packed earth, light filtering down from the cracks in the ceiling.
His head still ached, but without the pounding viciousness of his first awakening. Really got caught with your pants down this time, Davey-boy... He had no way of knowing how long he'd been here but it must be way past dawn by now. He thought about Hutch, asleep in the back of the LTD. McCloud would have gotten a Ranger Patrol out there by now.
He rested his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. Sooner or later, Hutch'll turn up, even if he has to take the place apart tree by tree. Just let it be sooner...A square of light opened in the ceiling, and something large was dropped through it, to land with a winded grunt.
"I was kinda hoping you were gonna show up," Starsky said. "But I was kinda hoping it'd be with the Seventh Cavalry."
Hutch, getting his breath, struggled with difficulty to his knees. His wrists like Starsky's, were tied expertly behind his back. He was muddy and the blond hair sat in wild dishevelment. "You okay?" he wanted to know.
"I've had better days. You?" Starsky answered.
"I'll live." They were shoulder to shoulder again and even that contact was a boost to confidence. "I don't suppose you have any idea what's going on?"
"Hoping you could tell me. Did they teach you anything about knots in the Sea Scouts?"
Working by touch alone, with fingers numbed by restricted circulation, it was going to take a hell of a long time, Starsky knew. The knots were slippery with sweat and blood, and there was no give. He felt a fingernail rip and cursed.
"Take five, I'll try yours.
""Uh-uh, I'm getting somewhere, I think. How come," he said casually, "that Clint Eastwood never has any trouble? I remember in 'A Fistful of Dollars'... or was it 'The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly'...?"
"Leave it, Houdini," Hutch said quietly. "We're going to have company any time now.
He was right.
* * *"Detective Sergeant Kenneth Hutchinson. Detective Sergeant David Starsky. Los Angeles Police Department. Pretty far from home, aren't you?"
There didn't seem to be an answer for that.
"The lieutenant's asking you a question," a voice said behind them. Neither man turned to look. The room they were in was about as basic as it gets, furnished only with the chairs on which they sat, and a folding table behind which stood a man in combat uniform. There were several others similarly dressed.
"We heard," Hutch said shortly. "What about it? And what's the idea? Abduction is a felony in any state. Kidnapping two police officers...hell, you'll be lucky to get away with twenty-to-life."
The man behind the table smiled, brushing the two IDs aside with the back of his hand. He had the kind of eyes that crinkled at the corners, as if by smiles...the kind puppies and children trust on sight.
"Our patrol picked you up in Sector 5," he said mildly. "That's off limits. Now if you were who you say you are, you'd know that. So what were you doing there? That's the Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question. Which one of you is going to answer it?"
Starsky and Hutch looked at each other. Hutch acknowledged the fractional eyebrow twitch Starsky sent him and shrugged. "We took a prisoner from L.A. to Portland on an extradition order," he said. "We were on our way back when the car broke down."
There was silence.
"In Sector 5." The lieutenant smiled again. Starsky decided he didn't like that smile.
"Yeah, in Sector 5," Starsky cut it. "A fuckin' dirt track masquerading as a road." He felt his vicious mood building and knew Hutch was close behind. "Listen, Mister, like my partner said, kidnappin' two police officers isn't gonna get you any awards for The-Man-of-the-Year. I don't know what game you and your pals are playing and I don't much give a shit, but I'll tell you this for nothin'...WE ain't playin'..."
Then he was shaking his head as if trying to clear a hornet's nest out of his ears, and licking blood from the corner of his mouth. The man who had hit him stepped back.
"You've got a smart mouth, boy," said the lieutenant softly. "From here on in, you speak when spoken to."
"I ain't your 'boy'," Starsky spat, regardless of the warning. It wasn't a smart thing to do. Hutch's shout was choked off by a rifle barrel across his throat, forcing his head back so he could only watch as the first blow hit home. Starsky let out a grunt of pain as he hit the floor and two of their captors closed in.
"All right," the lieutenant's voice rang out after what seemed an eternity. One of them hauled Starsky up and dumped him urgently back on the chair. He was breathing in ragged gasps, hunched forward, his teeth clenched. "We can be polite," the lieutenant continued, the same smile unwavering, "Like now, or we can get rough. We can hurt you pretty bad without damaging anything...and we don't want to damage you...so you get to choose. The hard way or the easy way. Let's have the real reason you two came up here."
Hutch shook free of the pressure on his throat, and looked at his partner. "Starsk?" he said anxiously.
"Tell the man," Starsky instructed, indistinctly.
Hutch took a breath. "We were escorting Vincenzo Cannelli from L.A. to Portland. We delivered him. We started back. Thought we'd take a diversion through Lava Beds National Park and Glass Mountain. We ruptured the fuel-line on the road. It was too dark to start walking..."
"Stubborn bastards, aren't you?" The barrel of the M-16 was hard across Hutch's throat again. "All right, you want it that way. But how long are you going to stay stubborn after your pal here starts to scream?"
The two men in fatigues closed in and Starsky sat up ready.
"For God's sake, what do you want me to say?" Hutch choked out. The two moved a pace back from Starsky at their commander's gesture. "I told you what happened. You want me to make something up?"
The interrogation was interrupted by the arrival of another man, carrying what Starsky recognized as the armaments from the LTD. "Tank's empty, sir. And the battery's dead. They couldn't have used the radio."
"Maybe you are telling the truth." The lieutenant checked his watch. It's now oh-seven-hundred hours. You get until thirteen-hundred, then we start the hunt."
"Hunt?" Hutch echoed.
"Sure. Just like it was every time the DMZ shifted, and we had to beat the bushes to flush out Charlie. Kinda hate to break up a set, but that's the way we play."
The lieutenant met Starsky's eyes, piercingly blue above the proverbial smile. Starsky hoped his own eyes registered the barely controlled rage that was building...and something more, recognition. Deep down Starsky saw it, knew where it came from...and something very old, presumed forgotten, locked into place.
"See ya' around, pal," Starsky said softly to his partner.
* * *"What do you mean, they're not here!" Captain Dobey, 250 pounds of irritated policeman. "They asked you to call me last night. I got the message this morning. They managed to break down somewhere between Perez and McCloud, and a Ranger Patrol was supposed to pick them up at dawn. Now you tell me they're not here?"
"The car is there, Captain. A Ford LTD, about three years old, right? But there's no sign of your men. We had a report from the Ranger Station right after they found it. The car has a broken fuel line, they must have been losing gas over the last twenty miles or so. We figured they may have started walking out, maybe wandered off the trail..."
"Hutchinson, maybe. Not Starsky. No way."
"Captain Dobey, I can only tell you..."
"I'm telling YOU, son, you better have some better answers real soon! Because I don't like two of my men coming up missing and I don't buy that story about the moonlight stroll!"
He slammed the phone down, simmered for a moment, then dialed again. "Get me the Chief's office. I don't care if he is about to go play golf...I want to talk to him. Now."
* * *Ten feet off the ground, in the cradling crouch of a tree, the quarry roosted, taking stock.
David Starsky, cop, street-wise detective, had no place here. No reference points, no bench-marks, no aids to survival in a hostile environment. But survival is an instinct in the human race and man has been a hunter for millennia. There were skills he could call on, bred into blood and bone for over five thousand years...and others, far more recent.
Survive. The memories, the training drilled into him, were seven years in the past, submerged under the weight of experience since. It had taken him three months, on his return from 'Nam to bury what he had seen, known, done during his thirteen month tour of duty. It would never be forgotten or exorcised completely, but at least he could bury it where it wouldn't poison his life. Now...now he was digging it up.
It would have been incorrect to say that he'd recognized the lieutenant or his men...he didn't. But in another way, he did. He knew what they were. He'd smelled that smell on a hundred LZ's, seen that look in a thousand eyes, and he knew their madness for what it was. What he knew would be his ace in the hole, his weapon against them...what he knew would mean the difference between life and death.
But his physical condition was first priority. He was sore in more ways than one, and wild as a wolverine. The savagely methodical working-over hadn't damaged him seriously, but it had hurt him considerably. It still did. And just because there were no bones broken, that didn't mean that he could skip blithely on his way like a spring lamb. It was more likely to be a stagger.
Since he'd been dumped out here, blindfolded and disoriented, mid-morning, he'd been walking, loosening up the abused muscles, and now he was in a position to do some hard thinking. A pigeon's nest had provided him with breakfast, and raw eggs were okay if you swallowed 'em whole without tasting them. Prairie oysters. Hutch's standard cure for a hangover.
Hutch. The pain of loss was sharper than any of his injuries. He concentrated on it, purposely, until it blunted to a kind of bruised ache under his ribs. He couldn't afford to let it get to him. Couldn't spare it the time. There would come a time, though. That much he promised himself. What he knew, and his ability to survive would get him through. He had to believe that. He had another reason to make it, too. He wanted to get them. To make them pay.Vengeance is mine. If Hutch didn't make it...
The sun was climbing, strengthening enough to warm some of the wet chill from his clothes. Hardly the best outfit for hiking, but what choice did he have? He climbed down, skidding a little on the soggy leafmold, and oriented himself by the sun. If he headed this way, he should hit a road, or at least a watercourse. Follow either one, and there's a good chance you'll hit some kind of habitation. Is that what they'll expect me to do? They'd been in 'Nam. Probably Long Range Recon. They were usually the craziest, or if you weren't to begin with, you were when...you came back. "Okay, so you played tag with the VC, so did I, and you never knew who was the hunter and who the hunted. This time, you bastards, I know."
As he made his way downhill, the vegetation changed gradually, the smaller trees and dense underbrush giving way to redwood and the thick carpet of ferns and bracken beneath, breast-high in places, showering him with hoarded wetness distilled from the night's dew. Bad country for hunting... it was next to impossible to move quietly, or even to see very far. But what was a disadvantage to him, must be equally difficult for them. The leaf canopy overhead was so thick that the sun only penetrated in thin dapples. He was moving through a diffused green twilight world, as strange and alien as the bottom of the sea.
Give me a city street any day...at least no one can sneak up on you though a brick wall.The situation still had the flavor of unreality, the feeling of a waking nightmare. Things like this didn't really happen, except on TV or in the movies.
But crazies like Manson didn't exist, either, and traffic cops don't get blown away for stopping some nut for a simple moving violation. "Oh, this is real all right." His stomach growled, he worked to ignore it. "Man, what I wouldn't give for a nut and raisin chocolate bar right now." Instant energy. That's why they packed them in C-rats. Weird the stuff that got in C-rats. But we ate it.Something rustled faintly to his left, and with the lightening reaction of the hunted animal, he ducked into the sheltering ferns, crouching with ears straining, heart thudding.
Nothing. A drift of wind, or a bird in flight, or the passage of some small animal. He let out his caught breath slowly. He felt lopsided without the familiar weight of the automatic and shoulder-holster...defenseless. Naked. It was a bad feeling.
Quit thinking that way. Think like a victim and you become a victim.The rustle came again, closer, and runnel of sweat trickled the length of his spine under his shirt. He froze, every sense prickling.
When in doubt, run like hell.He gathered himself into a sprinter's crouch. Ready...steady.
He launched himself forward, exploding through the ferns like a spooked stag, running. Then there was a crack behind him, something sang past his ear like an enraged hornet. He threw himself flat, then scrambled up, sneakers sliding on pine-needles and crushed fern. It didn't matter in what direction he ran, the primal urge was to get away, evade the hunt, escape. It wasn't the reaction of reason.
The headlong flight came to abrupt end as several things happened at once. The ground seemed to disappear from under his feet, and as he twisted frantically in midair to avoid the inevitable fall, something slammed into his upper arm, just below the left shoulder, with force enough to spin him even further off balance, sending him into a tumbling, helpless, sprawling slide down a steep bank, unable to halt or even break the impact of his fall. Fortunately, the water did that.
He floundered in the icy stream, the shock of it at least snapping him back to reality. Shot. I've been hit. The water wasn't very deep, and he lurched into the cover of an overhang provided by ferns and tree-roots. From above, they wouldn't be able to see him. He hoped. His arm throbbed, a hot numbness, not really pain yet. That would come later, he couldn't check it, or even see how much it was bleeding. He was soaked through, and wet was wet. His fingers found the bullet rip, but further exploration made him bite down on a sudden flaring pain. Leave it...He could hear the sounds of the hunters: whistles, signals, the noise of passage through undergrowth. Footfalls. A muttered curse. He shrank closer under the overhang, crouching until the ripples lapped his chin. The flow wrapped him like frigid silk, leeching away any warmth, winding around him like a shroud, freezing him, making him one with its gelid chill. The footsteps came closer, passed almost directly overhead then paused. He couldn't feel his injured arm now, couldn't feel anything much, muscle and sinew locked and cold. Jeez-us, so cold! "Nothin'," said a voice, shocking in the forest quiet. "Musta headed downstream. We'll pick up the tracks where he comes out." Not if I can help it. He waited. Time slowed, stilled, became non-existent. But at last there were no sounds, only the rustle of the wind in the leaves, the chuckle of the water, and the chattering of his own teeth. He forced cold stiffened muscles into reluctant motion, wading to a clear section of the bank and dragging himself out of the water. The effort took all the remaining strength from him. Pain, fear, survival instincts, all faded with his consciousness, into the numbing dark.
Pain and his own shivering woke him, but it took a while before he knew he was awake. His reality seemed little different from the haunted dreams. That was the way it took you, sometimes, out in the bush...waking and dreaming were part of the same unending nightmare.
The valley, high in the mountains barely ten miles from the Laosian border, had a name. The hills had numbers, mostly. Sometimes they had names too, ones that were grim reminders of battles fought. Hamburger Hill, Bloody Ridge. Maybe the gooks had other names for them, but on the maps, in the funny papers, the hills just had numbers. It was difficult to tell where one ended and another began. The trees grew tall and thick, yesterdays trail vanished overnight into the wet green.
A Shau. 1966. Eight months into the thirteen month tour of duty and he was a boonie-rat, numba-one-point-man for his platoon. Breaking trail through the highland bush, routine patrol, no huhu. Didn't know (did anyone ever know?) Charlie was poised for a push. He never saw the start of the ambush...everything happened behind him, including the explosion that took out the slack-man. Private First Class Anthony 'Packman' Pacelli, age 19 and festooned what was left of him all over the trees. The insane rattle of the 51's and the explosions of the mortar rounds and frags turned the forest into a screaming hell as he hit the dirt, not even knowing if he was alive or dead. Until it was over...
All fucked up.He got to his feet, shook his head in a vain attempt to clear the fog from his brain, and tried to get his bearings. Where to go? Like A Shau...follow the yellow brick road. Or the river. Whichever comes first.
Somehow, Toto. I don't think this is Kansas anymore.Someone giggled feebly, but he ignored it, pushing through the sodden greenery that cloaked the water's edge. The shivering seemed to have eased as he moved on, but the pain in his arm, (shrapnel from a frag?) began to increase to compensate, and his knees threatened to fold at almost every step. Add to that night was falling, the swift darkness without twilight. But he couldn't afford to stop and wait until morning, because if he did, he wouldn't get up again. Keep moving. If you want to make it back to the world. Keep moving. He was soaked through, but that was s.o.p. Paradise was to be clean and dry and have a pair of fresh socks every day. It was an idea as far from the present state, as the far side of the moon, but it was something to think about, to take his mind from the savage throbbing in his arm, and his exhaustion.
Survive. He found the spark of hatred and whipped it to a flame. Survive. Show the murdering bastards that David Starsky doesn't go easy. It wasn't totally clear who the enemy was, but that didn't matter. What mattered was the hatred, the drive that pushed him on, kept him going through the long hours of the night, unsure where he was anymore, who he was fleeing from, or when. A Shau or Northern California...1966, or 1974. It was all one.
The shots, when they came, were just before dawn, dislocating his remaining reasoning completely. He was back on the track they called "Highway 548," and the VC were all around. "Dee-dee mau! Get the hell out of here!" He ran, crashing headlong through the dripping brush, blind and panicky, until he halted against the bulk of a tree and without the impetus of his flight, found that he couldn't summon enough effort from his muscles to move him further. He slid to the base of the trunk, pain vibrating from fingertips to shoulder joint, tangling in his chest and making it hard to breathe. But just being still helped. And after a while he was aware of other things. Hunger. Thirst. Particularly thirst. He'd lost the river, and he had to find it again. He needed water.
He found it by sound. The flow quickened over a slope, then spread into a wider stream on a valley floor. Mist cloaked everything, thick and grey, and almost tangible as cotton. He trusted it to hide him, too, as he stepped from cover and knelt to drink.
* * *
Dobey stood by the abandoned Ford, looking at the silent forest. Those trees had the secret, the knowledge of what had happened. And they weren't telling. The young Ranger finished his radio call and walked to join him. "We can try dogs, Captain, but the trail's gonna be cold by now."I can tell you one thing. They didn't just decide to go for a stroll. This is an unmarked police vehicle, and standard equipment for these babies includes shot gun, radio, tear-gas grenade,s and a bunch of other stuff you don't normally take on a moonlight picnic. There's nothing here. What does that suggest to you?"
"They took it all with them?" The boy hazarded a guess, and knew from the expression that he should have kept his mouth shut. "I guess not."
"Right. So who did take it? And why? They called in at 10:45. Between then and what? Four-thirty next morning? They disappear without a trace? Will you tell me how that happened?
The Ranger shrugged. That was a mistake, too. He straightened up. "Folks get lost up here all the time, Captain."
"Tourists, maybe. The occasional hunter, maybe. But they get lost in the forest, damnit, not vanish into thin air out of a broken down car!'
"The rain washed out any tracks..." The Ranger heard himself about to deliver yet another excuse and changed tack mid-sentence. "Captain Dobey, this isn't L.A. We have over seven thousand square miles of virgin forest here, and we can't even begin to comb even a part of it. This summer alone we had nine reports of missing persons. Three of them turned up. The other six...
"SIX?" Dobey cut in. "Man, what the hell have you got up here? A Sasquatch?"
The young man stared at him stiffly. "That's one theory," he said. "And we don't automatically discount anything, because we don't KNOW."
"That's for sure. Okay, so let's see what you DO know, and what kind of search we can get put out for my boys."
* * *The so-called Survival Courses Hutch had been on, from the days of summer camps and scouting right up to the Police Academy, had never been as rigorous as this, and certainly not as potentially deadly. Equipment, food, maps, compass, all the paraphernalia without which Homo-2Oth-century-Sapiens cannot exist in the wild, was denied him this time. He had what he stood up in, and what was inside his head. The latter would have to save his life.
When he'd started out, a large part of him wanted to find Starsky. An equally large part knew he wouldn't be able to. They'd hardly have dumped the two of them anywhere near each other, and besides, Hutch didn't know where to start to look. No...there was only one course of action. Get help. Get help and come back and take this place apart, tree by frigging tree, until he found Starsky and these crazy bastards who had re-invented the game of tag.
If he could get back to the LTD... He knew approximately where they'd broken down. If he stuck to heading west, southwest, he should hit the road. Or A road. So orienting himself by the sun, he set out.
Nightfall found him crossing a ridge that dropped down into a shallow valley. Seemed like a good place to halt, except that a halt was not necessarily the best idea right now. Time was up, they'd be on his trail by now, and more than anything he wanted to put distance between him and them. Correction, more than anything, he wanted to find Starsky.
Strange, how that dependence seemed to have crept up on him in the few years since they'd met. Hadn't really noticed when it started, but now...it was like half of himself missing. The emptiness at his side was unignorable. How that relationship had come about he wasn't sure, or when or even why. It was enough that it had. He didn't want to do without it now. That he was, and not by his own choosing, rankled.
Right now he couldn't do much about it. But he would, he promised himself. It was one more thing to add to the tally against the weird bunch who'd orchestrated the situation.
A shot brought his head up like a frightened animal. Far off, but definitely a shot. A surge of adrenaline flooded through his blood, making his skin prickle. Instinct said run, but his own common sense told him that panicked flight was what they wanted. While he kept his head, he had a fighting chance. Okay, they wanted him to run, so he wouldn't. He'd hole up overnight instead.
There was a creek in the valley, in the winter it would be full of swift brown flood water, but now it was shallow-spread between deeply undercut banks. It was the kind of place Hutch wanted. Sheltered from above, he could be out of sight unless anyone explored the stream bed itself. He found a dry place floored with a drift of fine sand, and tucked himself as far back as he could. He was asleep as soon as he put his head down.
The rustle of movement and the sharp crack of a branch brought him instantly awake, alert, heart pounding. The forest was swathed in thick mist, grey and dense and wet. The creek bed was almost invisible. But there was a figure crouched out there, midstream, a darker blot on the shifting mist. By some angles he wasn't sure it was there at all.
Instinct said 'freeze'. But Hutch knew that the hunter would have supplies, food, weapons. And his possession of them would lessen the odds against him in the bargain. He slid out of his lair, silent as the mist, knowing that the sound of water would mask some of his movements, and advanced on the motionless figure, kneeling, as he now saw, with his back to him. He was perhaps five paces away when the quarry started to get to his feet, and Hutch abandoned caution and threw himself headlong, hitting the man in the middle of the back with a shoulder charge a pro-footballer would have applauded, sending them both into the stream. A hand clawed for his throat, and he was holding a double armful of wild animal, but now he was face to face with his victim, and no longer fighting.
"Starsk?" he said in disbelief, realizing belatedly that Starsky was still struggling like a cornered bobcat. He seized both arms above the elbow, pinning them, and hauled Starsky to his feet. "Starsky, damnit, it's me!"
Starsky's eyes cleared briefly before his face contorted in pain. Hutch was holding him upright, unaware of putting excruciating pressure on the tender wound. Starsky closed his eyes and folded at the knees.
Hutch steadied him, shifted his grip, and lifted him easily. Back in the shelter of the overhang, he eased his burden down and knelt beside him. "Starsk," he said. "Partner am I glad to see you." Starsky lay slack and unmoving under his hands, and Hutch eased the leather jacket open, checking for injury. The shirt beneath bore rusty stains, and as he explored the left shoulder, discovered why. The ridged and sticky flesh of the upper arm told its own story. "S'okay," he said softly, knowing Starsky couldn't hear him but still wanting to reassure. "You'll be okay now..."
Dazed eyes flickered, focused on his face. "Hi, Hutch," Starsky croaked, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to see him there.
"Hi, yourself. What in the hell happened, Starsk?"
"Been running with the wrong crowd." Starsky was testing his reflexes, finding out which parts of himself he could rely on. From the look on his face, most of him seemed to hurt.
"No, the arm."
"Lucky shot." He tried to sit up, made it half way. "Don't worry about it, it's okay."
"It's okay? So why do you get green and buckle at the knees when I touch it?"
"It's okay when you don't touch it," Starsky amended.
"I better take a look at it..."
"No way!" Starsky made it all the way to a sitting position this time, propping himself against the earthen wall. "You want to practice your first aid, go find a rabbit with a busted leg. The only guy who meddles with this has to have M.D. after his name."
"Sure. I'm still gonna have a look."
He was as gentle as he could be, but after a few minutes Starsky glared at him. "I always thought you had kinky tastes, but I never knew you were a sadist. Quit pussyfooting around with it, will ya'?" And with considerable difficulty, he dragged his arm out of the jacket sleeve. Silent, Hutch slit the shirt sleeve up, and peeled it back. The material was stuck and matted down into the wound in places and the exposure caused not only pain, but fresh bleeding.
"Starsk. That's infected," he said softly at last.
"So what else's new?" Starsky, eyes closed, breathing audible, wasn't trying to hide his pain. "Sure it's infected. I told you not to look," he said as an afterthought.
Hutch didn't respond to that. He helped his partner out of the shirt, ripped the intact sleeve off, and went to soak it in the stream. Returning with it dripping, he worked to clean the injury until he could get a clear idea of what damage there was.
The bullet wasn't in there, thank God. Entrance and exits plainly visible. Might not have hit the bone. But the first sign of a massive infection was already evident. Puffy flesh, discolored, and painful with a yellowing black center amidst a serous ooze. Starsky looked pale, like he's lost a lot of blood but thankfully the injury wasn't bleeding much now, just where the sleeve had stuck and when the blood clots were disturbed. Hutch decided against disturbing them further. Priority was to get Starsky medical help and as soon as possible.Right, I'll just whistle for a cab. He did as neat a job as he could on the bandaging, using the cannibalized shirt and fixing a makeshift sling to hold the arm immobile, but there was little more he could do and he knew it. Starsky was shivering before he was finished with the chill from being wet and probably delayed shock. Hutch took off his own outer shirt and put it on him, then snugged his jacket around his shoulders, pulling his own off to put over him in front. He got a mumble by way of acknowledgment, but the hazed blue eyes were more than half closed by now, and Hutch did nothing to keep him awake. You need all the rest you can get, along with a lot of other things I can't get, like food, warmth, antibiotics... worrying is counter productive. Try thinking instead. Hutch hunkered down next to his sleeping partner, stared at the mist, and thought.
* * *Death in life. Nothing illustrated that paradox better than the jungle. The incredibly lush green flourished on rotting vegetation, dying in its turn to nourish another generation. And he was alien here, he didn't belong, and the jungle conspired to make him know it. Saw-edged grasses that slit exposed flesh like razor blades. Fungal infections that rotted the flesh from the bone. Parasites that got a hold and feasted on living tissue, fevers that wasted, debilitated, killed. Dysentery. American, go home.
when Johnny comes marching home again...ah, Johnny, I hardly knew ya...Death in a hundred disguises. Bloody, screaming, sudden. Sniper's bullet, mortar shell, fragmentation grenade. Booby trap. Bouncing Betty'll blast your balls to kingdom come before you know what's hit you. Bamboo splinters spiking the trail, smeared with excrement. Slow agonizing death from galloping gangrene. Or you might simply go crazy...crazy enough so they noticed and Section Eight'd you back to the World. But that meant REALLY crazy. It was normal to be a little whacko. It was the only way to stay sane.
Ghost voices sang, mourning whispers like the wind through defoliated branched, rustling through elephant grass and bamboo. Marching cadences. I don't know but I been told, Saigon pussy's made of gold. They probably have sung songs like that throughout history. Johnny, I hardly knew ya.And the electric ice of the psychedelic sounds that era spawned, sounds that somehow fitted with the weirded-out, fucked up looking glass land that was Viet Nam. Hendrix, Dylan, The Cream. Searing noonday scorching the red dust of the base camp, or sheeting monsoon rains, the music spoke. Paint it black... Heavy mist like water flowing downhill to collect in the hollows, blurring edges, blunting sharpness. A landscape of island hills rising out of it, soft focus like a surrealist photograph of a painting on a Chinese screen. You couldn't see the beauty of it until later, if there was a later, and if the part of you that knew and responded to beauty wasn't stifled, numbed or dead, from humping up and down the numbered hills, hacking a path through the bush. yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, because I'm the meanest motherfucker in the valley. Don't fear if you hear a foreign sound, it's all right Ma, I'm only sighing.
If my thought dreams could be seen, it's all right Ma, I'm only dying.Bravado. Empty boast. But you had to believe in it, in yourself, or it was the end. My only friend, the end
of our elaborate plans, the end
of everything that stands, the end no safety or surprise, the end
I'll never look into to your eyes again.He heard someone sob, felt the weight on his chest, pinning him, and fought to throw it off but he was trapped and couldn't even cry out.
"Hold it down, Starsk, for God's sake!" A frantic whisper.
He got his eyes open, saw blue eyes looking into his, tasted the sweat of fear on the palm of the hand clamped over his mouth. Hutch. the end, sang the voices, fading.
"You back with me, babe?".
Starsky managed a nod, and Hutch's hand left his mouth, but he stayed where he was, pressed close, and Starsky could feel the tension in his body. Listening with every fiber, every sense. But Starsky could hear nothing. "What's happening'?" he whispered at last.
Hutch relaxed a fraction. "Heard shots. Not close, but coming this way. Then you started having a nightmare or something, and I was scared they'd hear you."Nightmare. "Don't need any more nightmares, we're right in the middle of one," he grunted, and Hutch gave a very small grin.
"Right. How do you feel?"
"Better. Some." And to his surprise it wasn't a lie. The sleep, however brief, had helped. And knowing Hutch was okay, being with him, was an incalculable plus. "How long was I out?"
"Couple of hours. You could use some more rest while you can."
As a suggestion, it had much to recommend it. "Thanks, but another attack of the horrors I can do without. We got plans to make, partner. Like what the hell are we going to do to get out of this one?"
Hutch looked at him. "Got any bright ideas?"
"You can move your butt off my belly, for starters. You tryin' to compromise me or what?"
That earned him a real grin this time as Hutch obeyed. "Sorry. Plans?"
"Where were you heading?" Starsky managed to get himself more or less propped up in a sitting position. Even that made his head swim. He didn't want to consider how he was going to be able to walk.
"Following the water. Downstream. Seemed like a good idea at the time. You?"
"The same. And that's just what they expect us to do. They're good. Vets. Hutch, we can't beat them at their own game."
"Well, they've sure got all the advantage."
"But we got one ace up our sleeve."
"Yeah, by now Dobey'll have every rescue-team from the Marines to Howard-the-Duck looking for us." Hutch's teeth showed startlingly white in his shadowed face as he picked up on Starsky's train of thought. "So we give 'em something to look for."
"Such as?" Starsky asked, flogging a fever-hazed brain to grasp what Hutch was getting at.
"High ground. This is prime timber country. There'll be fire-watch around the clock this time of year."
"Ohgod. You're going to play Hiawatha and send up smoke signals."
"Can you think of a better way of advertising where we are?"
That was unanswerable. The fact that any kind of signal would also tip off the hunters as well as the hoped-for-search-party didn't seem worth mentioning. Nor the objection he had to being accidentally barbecued in a forest fire. So he just said, "High ground?"
"If we head back the way I came, there's a ridge leading up to a bluff looking out over the valley. Starsky. . .you gonna make it? It's not going to be easy."
"Do I have a choice?"
"You could stay here."
"Sure, and maybe robins would come and cover me with leaves. I'll make it."
* * *Mist. Heavy, clotted, yet ephemeral. Wetness beading on foliage shedding the distilled weight of it onto already sodden clothing. He was no longer sure which bit of him was most uncomfortable. yea though I walk Every step was an effort. The uncertain footing of pine straw, dead wood and leaf mold. Moist smell of it, pungent with rot. through the Valley He no longer knew where he was going, in which direction he was heading. It was enough to keep walking. of the Shadow A continuous glacial shivering gripped him, contrasting oddly with the slick fever sweat that oiled his skin, glued the shirt to him, ran stinging, bitter into his eyes. of Death His foot skidded out from under him, ankle wrenching agonizingly, and he lurched. A steadying grip kept him from falling.
"Starsk?"yet I will fear no evil A different reality reclaimed him, and he was no longer alone.
"Take five, babe. Catch your breath, huh?"
"Sure. M'okay. Give me a minute..."
Hutch let him ease down against a tree taking advantage of the respite to unkink his own cramping muscles. He wasn't sure how far they'd come since they had left the stream, but Hutch said they needed to make the ridge before the hunters realized what they were doing and moved to cut them off. At this rate, they weren't going to make it.
That was defeatist thinking. Starsky's uneven breathing steadied to an easier rhythm, but he kept his eyes closed, mouth shut...clamped down in a tight-willed iron control. It was all he could do. Even though Hutch was safe now to let go in front of, neither of them could afford that luxury now. Not now, and they both knew it. It was enough that he accepted what little help Hutch could offer.
"How ya' doing?" Hutch asked quietly.
"How do I look?" his eyes opened slowly.
"Terrible." Hutch smiled, trying for a measure of reassurance.
Starsky made a small sound half between a sob and a crack of laughter. "Yeah, I bet. Did I ever tell you that you're a regular ray of sunshine?"
"Can't say you ever did," Hutch told him. "Ready?"
"As I ever will be, I guess."
* * *Night when it came seemed endless. With no moon, no stars, and the thickening mist, it was impossible to keep moving. Hutch found a modicum of shelter in the lee of a fallen tree, where the roots had pulled clear of the thin soil and formed a shallow dip. Starsky made no comment whatever about the accommodation. He simply curled up, head on knees and was unconscious. Hutch sank down next to him, grimacing as a jagged root dug into his spine. His gut twinged with hunger. God, what I wouldn't give for a steak right now. I'd even settle for a corn dog... Thinking about food wasn't going to produce any out of thin air. He resolutely put the longing in the back of his mind. Maybe he'd be able to forage something come morning. The dark closed in, isolating them in a tight circle of false security. Hutch, fighting to stay awake, wondered about other possible victims of these killers. Who had they been? Hikers...tourists...maybe even other hunters. He wondered how long they'd lasted before Death had snared them like rabbits.
He must have dozed, because a quick tense motion to his right snapped him out of it, heart hammering. Starsky was crouched against him. Hutch got a hold of him, felt the tremors. "Starsky?" He dared not raise his voice above a whisper. "Take it easy, boy. We're okay..."
A pause, then a long shudder. But Starsky nodded, without speaking, Hutch felt the motion and gave his good shoulder a squeeze. Just so long as Starsky knew he wasn't alone, the nightmare, whatever it was, seemed to lose its power.
"We movin' out?"
The mist wasn't appreciably lifted, but there was a lighter hint in it now, and surely dawn couldn't be far off. "Yeah. May as well, I guess."
At last there was some sun. It struck strongly between the thinning trees as they climbed, providing pools of welcome warmth after the night's dank chill. It would be difficult to say if Starsky looked better, Hutch reflected, but he didn't seem worse, and certainly was more alert and able to function, not the zonked-out zombie of the previous afternoon. He caught himself actually believing that they might make it.
"Hutch." Starsky halted suddenly, head cocked, listening. Hutch froze...then he heard it too.
"Shit. They're ahead of us," he groaned, and with only the ridge to cross now, before they reached the bluff. Luck had just run out.
"He. One man." Starsky was crouched against the masking bulk of a tree, ears pricked. "Stay down." And he was crawling forward, belly to ground, silent as a snake. Hutch obeyed and waited, breath caught and heart thudding. His partner reappeared, inching backwards. "Yeah. One. Looks like he's settling down for the day."
"There's two of us."
Hutch stared at him for an instant. Then grinned. "Right."
No further words were needed. The rapport was total...no different from the way they worked out on the street, a complete non-verbal empathy. The hunter, hearing a sound to his right was decoyed in that direction, and never even saw what hit him.
"That was too damn easy," Starsky said, breaking cover as Hutch knelt beside his victim. "You kill him?"
"No. But he'll be out for a while. What' re you talking about, too easy? They didn't expect us to head this way. He was just a flanker. The others will still be watching the road."
"Maybe." Starsky was checking through the man's pack, swiftly and economically appropriating what they could use, discarding the rest. "But I got a bad feeling about this. We need to cross that ridge and get into open ground. I want to be able to see what's comin' at us."
He had a point. Hutch helped him gather their booty into a haphazard bundle and stow it in the backpack, which Hutch slung over his shoulder. Starsky took the rifle, checked it quickly, picked up the handgun and tossed it to him.
"M-11. These boys got firepower. That'll stop an elephant at a hundred-hundred fifty yards."
"Gives us an edge. Let's go."
They began the assent again, leaving the enemy securely gagged and tied to a large tree. The traverse was not easy by any standards, without a trail to follow, and it was nearly sundown before they made the final scramble up the high crown of the bluff. The rocks and sandy, thin soil supported little growth besides grass, the slopes around were patched with dry brush and scrub. Not much cover for the attackers on the approaching sides, north and west. The south and east were pretty nearly sheer drops into the canyon below.
"Deja vu," said Starsky, sitting down heavily.
"Huh?" Hutch was unpacking.
"Butch and Sundance. Remember? The posse got 'em cornered on that cliff an' they had to jump?"
"I think I know how they felt." He leaned back against a rock, closing his eyes. He looked suddenly, shockingly, tired. Bruised-dark smudges under both eyes. Hutch's hand on Starsky's arm roused him. "What?"
"Nearest thing to chicken soup our friend carried. I kept the fire shielded and it's out now." Hutch held out an enamel cup, contents steaming and slightly fragrant.
Starsky drank like he had never tasted anything so good, even if it was only meat concentrate diluted with water. "So what other goodies we got?"
"I made a quick inventory. Ammo for the rifle, and the pistol, not too much of either. I guess they don't carry more than a couple days supply. Two water canisters, almost full, oh, and a hip flask of something that tastes like Old Sheep Dip. Couple of candy bars, first aid kit, bowie knife."
"How'd you think I started the fire, dummy? Rubbed two dry sticks together?" But the grin took the sting out of the words, and Starsky grinned back.
"Wouldn't surprise me. Okay, Butch, whadda we do now?"
"I want to see what I can do for your arm while the light lasts. Then you get some sleep while I take the first watch."
What followed was a hideously painful time that seemed far longer than the fifteen minutes he actually took to clean and re-bandage the wound. The slug of Old Sheep Dip he'd given Starsky didn't have much in the way of analgesic qualities and by the time Hutch was through, Starsky was acting giddy, complaining of nausea and on the verge of passing out. Starsky tried very hard to produce his old insouciant grin and a thumbs-up sign to reassure him, but the effort was a pretty grotesque sight. He shook his head at the water he was offered. "I'd only get sick." he muttered. He waved off Hutch's hands when he tried to wipe away the sweat from his face. "Just lemme rest a while."
Hutch watched as very gradually the tight pinched expression relaxed as Starsky finally slept.
When Hutch woke him it was fully dark and the moon was high and three-quarters full, washing everything in silver, endowing every bush, every hump, with dense black shadow that could hide anything.
"Wanted to let you sleep, but I'm ready to fall on my face."
"So get your head down, blondie."
The white light leeched all the color away, Hutch's hair was a ghostly tangle, his face ivory, like old bone, fleshless. White Knight, flashed through Starsky's mind, crazily. Pale rider on a pale horse. He shuddered. "Go on," he said, dismissing the apocalyptic vision. "Get some sleep."
Exhausted as he was, Hutch must have been asleep almost instantly. Starsky turned his full attention to the hillside. Nothing moved. Everything seemed held still, as if in pause between one breath and the next, frozen in time. Nothing ever changed, the illusion claimed, nor ever would. He had seen that illusion on the paddies, in the mountains, in the jungles of 'Nam. Had seen the illusion shatter into bloody violence in the space of a heartbeat.Moon River, wider than a mile. No, that was hardly fitting for the situation. Bad Moon Rising was more like it. The sense of deja vu grew stronger, but this time it had nothing to do with a movie. How many LZ's had his fire team manned outside the perimeter, listening for the enemy to make a move? Some nights nothing happened, and you sat in the dark watching, listening, nerves stretched until it was your turn to sleep, and the unseen stars wheeled slowly overhead until dawn. Like now. Other nights it was like you'd staked out your own private corner of hell. Night time fire fights were the worst. He couldn't remember details of any one incident, all were merged together in nightmare. Couldn't even remember which one had yielded him the Purple Heart. He could remember getting it though, waking up to find it pinned on his pillow. A present from the Tooth Fairy. And the Bronze Star, later.
He couldn't remember what he'd done with them, and for some obscure reason that troubled him until he recalled his mother laying them reverently away in the bureau drawer, as proud of them as he had been until he got back to the World and discovered their true value. Killer's insignia. Currency of Death.Pariah. Is that how it is with you, Lieutenant? Did the World flip you out, or were you dinky-dau to begin with? They don't understand, do they, how it could be good out there, because you were doing what you were told to do and doing it well, and you're living every minute, and the guys with you were 100%. You trust them with your life, and they trust you with theirs. There's nothing closer than that. Not parent, or wife, or child. Blood-brothers.
I know, man. I've been there.And now we're trying to kill each other. "It's all fucked up."
He didn't realize he'd spoken aloud until Hutch mumbled an interrogative. Then he realized also that the sky was paling, flushing with the colors of false dawn: violet, rose, lemon and jade. There had been nights, in 'Nam when he hated to see the sun come up. But somehow, it always had.
"They're out there." He could not have said how he knew that, but he did not question it. That sixth sense had saved his ass too many times to doubt it now. Hutch, keeping low, joined him at his vantage point.
"Any idea how many?"
"Five. Maybe. Or more."
"You sure know how to start the day off right."
Starsky found a chuckle from somewhere. "I try. I think it's about time for your arsonist act, buddy-boy."
The wind blew lightly from the valley behind where the bluff dropped sheer. Hutch soaked twists of rag with the alcohol from the first aid kit, wadding in clumps of dry grass. Now he draped the first of these home-made incendiaries over a length of stick, and struck a match. "Cover me," he instructed tersely. As Starsky laid automatic fire down the slope, Hutch threw the flame to whip in an arc like the tail of a comet to landing in the sea of grass below. Two more followed, then another. The first pale, hesitant flame rose ghostly in the strengthening light, then danced upward, feeding and spreading. Then the first of the return shots cracked past them. Starsky hauled Hutch down beside him behind the sheltering rocks. His sixth sense telling him something else...they had been tracked here, after all. Driven this way like game for the kill. Here, on the killing ground, the final confrontation.
You are some crazy fuckers...all of you. We survived the same trip to hell and you have to bring it back to the World with you. I buried all that shit with the coffins I draped and loaded into the bomb bays. I buried it man; why 'd you open the box and let the stink out?
* * *"McCloud control." The radio operator stifled a yawn and put aside his coffee and danish. "Call sign. Over."
"Firewatch," came an excited crackle. "Tower 14. We got smoke in Sector Nine."
"Hold." The operator flicked switches, patching the caller through to Ranger Headquarters. "Okay, let's have it, Fourteen."
Dobey, red-eyed from lack of sleep and hours of checking typescript under artificial light, was chewing his way through a torpedo sandwich when the call came over. He swallowed the mouthful. "Forest fire?"
The young Ranger on duty was already at the map. "Timber country, Sir. Section Nine. That's here," he pointed it out. "First alert we've had there in years. The top of the bluffs here are regularly cleared in a controlled burn off. It's all scrub and small brush this time of year.
"That's it!'' Dobey snatched for the phone. "Christ on a kayak, that's gotta be it! Control, get me the Chief. I want helicopters and patrols out in Section Nine on the double! What for? To get my boys outta there, that's what for!" The torpedo sandwich sat forlornly on its plate, neglected.
* * *Hutch was swearing softly and obscenely, a profane catalog that at any other time would have had Starsky's unqualified admiration. So far he hadn't repeated himself once.
They couldn't afford to waste ammo on automatic fire, and the rising heat from the scrub fire was distorting vision. The drifting smoke didn't help, either. Hutch was using the M-16 with precision, but it wasn't exactly proving effective.
Starsky cradled the Ingram M-11, three and a half pounds of handgun fully loaded, with perfect balance, precise sights, and a range that was astonishing. And with a 20-rounds-a-second punch that was not designed to slow down or scare, but simply and purely to kill. Even if the M-16 failed them, Starsky was certain he could get at least three of their attackers, if they came at a run.
"Where the hell did they get a hold of that piece?" Hutch muttered, wiping sweat from his eyes.
"Picked it off a corpse, maybe. They do that all the time. Just like us."
He blinked. "What?"
"You said...forget it. How do you feel?"
But before he could answer, there came a whining crack, very close and rock-splinters stung his cheek and shielding hand like needles. When he dared to lift his head he saw an unmoving huddle, face down in the dusty grass, blond hair filled with blood.
Inside his head, something shifted painlessly, like a circuit closing. Deja vu. Damn it, you tell a new dude to keep his fuckin' head down, but does he listen? He lifted the rifle from the slackened fingers, fitting the stock to his good shoulder. Radio's out. May have got in a call for React or Medivac before they took him out, but who knows? Maybe my luck just ran out, too. Maybe this is Starsky's Last Stand.Starsky's Last Stand. It had quite a ring to it. And it was gonna be a fight to rival the O.K. Corral, the fictional one, anyway. Someone was moving down there, going for position. He drew a deep breath, held it, sighed and squeezed the trigger in one smooth action, and the man dropped and did not move. Howdya like THOSE apples, Charlie? The wind was changing, pushing the smoke from the fire back up the hill in clouds, a choking pall. Sight splintered and ran liquid as his eyes teared at the irritation, lungs constricting. Someone shouted something, and he could hear a weird pounding, thudding noise. All right, you motherfuckers, you wanna try an' take me? Come on! He came up on one knee, and the M-11 sprayed a scything sweep of death down the hill. He saw two more go down, one of them screaming, and there were others but running back, pulling out, and the whickering roar in his ears no longer the racing of his own pulse but louder, accompanied by a wind that flattened the grasses. He turned, and saw the choppers coming in out of the sun.
* * *Interstate 5 isn't renowned for its scenic beauty. Hutch glanced again at the silent man in the passenger seat, still looking drawn, left arm in a sling.
Starsky hadn't said much at all, he realized, since they'd both woken up in Red Bluff's hospital; himself with a concussion from the bullet crease in his scalp, and Starsky with...well that was the puzzle. The bullet wound hadn't caused any major damage. But they'd talked about 'combat stress syndrome' and a couple of other things that hadn't sounded very good. Even Dobey had been evasive. Hutch didn't have all the answers he wanted, and that bugged him.
"Did they tell you when they wanted us back for the hearing?"
"Nope." Starsky shifted in his seat. "Soon as the lieutenant and his boys are fit to plead. Those that are left, anyway."
"Dobey said the Veteran's Administration would be getting involved. I guess that means there'll be a competency hearing first."
"I guess," Starsky agreed distantly.
"Padded cells all around. Best place for them."
That got a reaction. "Oh, f'Christ's sake, Hutch!" Starsky snapped, and when Hutch stared at him, the blue eyes were bright with emotion. "I was THERE!"
"Sure. And you're not crazy. Well, mostly you're not," he added, with a grin. Starsky did not return the smile.
"'Nam affected different people different ways. What do the shrinks call it? 'Delayed Viet Nam Stress Syndrome'. That's why some vets are hooked on hard drugs or doin' time for violent crimes, or running looney tunes in the forest..." he broke off, his voice bitter. "Sorry, what am I getting mad at you for? 'Cept I TOLD you that the wilderness was a dangerous place, Hutch."
"I thought you were talking about poison ivy and shit. You know, lion's and tigers and bears."
"Yeah, well you forgot about the most dangerous animal of all." Starsky's mouth twisted. "There but for the grace of God..."
That hurt. Hutch had cherished the illusion that he knew his partner, knew what made him tick. Now there was a whole area that he didn't know at all, couldn't know fully, because it was an experience never shared. When Starsky had been in Viet Nam, he'd been newly-married, and in college. Safely deferred. A pretty wife, a home and career all mapped out. He took a risk and voiced his thought. "If you want to talk about it anytime..."
The deep blue eyes were on him, seeing him and not ghosts from the past in a place he could not even imagine. "Tell you what," said Starsky softly. "Next time we get days off, we'll split a couple of six-packs and get stinko and I'll give you the inside dope about what you saw on TV, okay? You won't like it much," he added barely above a whisper.
No, but if I know, then I can begin to understand, and maybe help. "You got a deal," Hutch said lightly. Starsky settled back in his seat, and Hutch thought he saw the faintest suspicion of a smile.
"Take us home."