By R. L. Keller
Admiral Harriman Nelson hung up the phone in his office at NIMR with a combination of bemusement and bewilderment on his face, not quite sure how to handle what he'd just heard. He turned his chair to gaze out the big window to the ocean beyond and absentmindedly reached into his shirt pocket for the pack of cigarettes that lived there. He growled softly as fingers hit nothing but cloth – he'd recently given in to Dr. Will Jamison's nagging and, while not giving up smoking, had at least agreed to leave the pack in his desk. Uttering a few unkind mutterings about Seaview's CMO, and someone Nelson considered a very good friend and a very trusted and valued employee, he lit up, blew a mouthful of smoke irreverently in the direction of Med Bay, and went back to watching his beloved watery view as he contemplated the recently ended phone call.
It had been from one of his oldest and best friends, Admiral Jiggs Stark, head of ComSubPac. That friendship had recently been tested when it came to light that actions Stark took early in his career had ended up affecting the life of Seaview's current captain, Cdr. Lee Crane. Nelson had been unaware of Stark's involvement in the death of Lee's father and, when those revelations came to light, Nelson had used all the pressure he could bring to bear to make Stark admit to Lee what had happened, and why.*
As mad as he'd been at the time, it hadn't taken him long to calm down – although he'd let Jiggs stew in his own juices for a few weeks before allowing the topic to drop. Lee, once the truth had finally come out, had accepted Jiggs' explanations with his usual calm and hadn’t said another word on the subject except to spend some time with his mother, explaining to her what had happened so many years ago. Nelson suspected that Lee's best friend, and Seaview's XO, Lt. Cdr. Charles P. Morton, better known to his friends as Chip, hadn't been quite so fast to let Lee totally ignore what had happened.
Nelson had known that Chip was angry when the full story started to come out. But he'd chalked it up to the fact that they were all worried that Lee had, first, disappeared, and then had turned up injured. He'd realized just how angry the younger man was the night before Will released Lee from Med Bay. He'd stopped in to check on Lee before heading home and ended up standing quietly outside the partially open door of Lee's hospital room, shamelessly eavesdropping on the diatribe going on inside. Both men were speaking softly so Nelson wasn't able to hear the entire conversation. But he could hear the power behind Chip's words, a sign of just how emotional the blond was. He ended up walking away without interfering. He could hear enough of Lee's part of the conversation – when Chip would let him get a word in edgewise – that Lee was allowing his best friend to get the rant out of his system, but was also carefully reminding Chip that Stark hadn't had a lot of options at the time.
Nelson took a long, slow draw on the cigarette. He'd kept a close watch on both young men over the next weeks. Lee had gone east to welcome his mother home from Africa and tell her the truths that had been buried for so long. Will hadn't been happy letting Lee out of his sight even that short time – Lee was still recovering from the injuries he'd received. But he had only been gone a few days. Now, four weeks later, Lee was back on full duty and everybody seemed to have put the incident behind them. Oh, Nelson had seen a few hard looks cross Chip's face. But they left as rapidly as they came – usually because Lee could be seen making a quiet comment.
Nelson made a quiet comment of his own, not nearly with the underlying humor that Lee used toward his XO, and took another long drag on the cigarette. The one person who apparently hadn't returned to normal was Jiggs Stark.
Nelson had, over the last few weeks, heard rumblings from several directions that Jiggs was acting very…un-Jiggs-like, for want of a better term. Loud, blustering, overbearing. These were all terms, along with a few less polite ones, used with frequency about his old friend. But in most cases they were also said with a fair amount of respect as well. Jiggs didn’t get to his position of power by being a ‘yes-man’ and sucking up to his superiors. He’d earned every promotion he’d ever gotten with hard work, knowledge of and competence with procedures, and an unflagging sense of duty. He wasn’t always easy to get along with and work around, but no one questioned his abilities to do what needed to be done.
But lately, if the rumors were to be believed, Jiggs was apparently questioning himself. Nelson hadn’t noticed it, the few times they’d spoken since the night in Med Bay when Jiggs had finally confessed the whole story about what had happened so many years ago. But he’d called Jiggs this morning to discuss some joint war games that the Navy wanted Seaview involved in – one of what Nelson considered the necessary evils of maintaining relations with the regular service. Among other things it allowed Nelson to ‘raid’ the ranks for men to serve on the giant submarine. What Nelson had been too busy to notice before, he paid special attention to now – subtle hints in Jiggs’ speech pattern, a barely noticeable pause or two that did, in fact, hint that Nelson’s friend was not the gung-ho, ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead’ leader that was Jiggs’ usual persona.
The buzz of the intercom interrupted Nelson’s ponderings and he glared at it a moment before punching the button. “Yes, Angie?” he got out fairly pleasantly.
“Admiral Bench on line three for you, sir,” came the calm voice of his PA. “He didn’t say what he’s calling about – just said that it was personal.”
“Probably a personal invite to some stupid meeting at the Pentagon,” Nelson muttered, but he told Angie to put the call through, and reached for the phone as it rang mere seconds later. “What’s up, Matthew?” came out with only a minor growl.
“Harriman,” another old friend of his started without preamble, “have you talked to Toby Wild in the last three weeks?”
The question caught Nelson by surprise. Wild had attended Annapolis with he, Jiggs, and Matt Bench, but had put in his twenty years and retired to pursue his passion for archaeology. Nelson hadn’t heard from him for almost a year, and that had been a quick dinner in Los Angeles one night when Toby was giving a guest lecture on Mayan architecture at UCLA. There was a muttered oath at the other end of the line when Nelson related that, and he sat forward slightly. “What’s up, Matt?”
There was a long sigh. “Maybe nothing,” Bench admitted. “You know how Toby gets.”
Nelson snorted. “Oh, yeah,” he agreed.
“He called almost a month ago,” Bench continued. “Had a burr up his six about one of the crystal skulls.” Nelson allowed a phrase to erupt that he was fairly sure most of NIMR’s personnel didn’t know that he knew. “Yeah,” Bench agreed. “However, it wasn’t the skull that was his primary focus.”
“Oh, really,” Nelson muttered, unbelieving. Nelson had had his fill, over the years, of crystal skull legend and lore. Most of the stories told of thirteen skulls, carved from solid quartz crystal, which originally came from Atlantis and were scattered around Central America, to be re-united in the end times – whenever that was. There were Mayan legends about crystal skulls that claimed they didn’t make them but were used by Mayan priests in ancient rituals. But Nelson, along with a great many other people, had serious doubts about the legends.
Nelson’s thoughts were interrupted when Bench continued. “Toby has apparently uncovered evidence…” Nelson snorted and his friend sent him a humorless chuckle before continuing, “that the story behind the most famous of the skulls, the so-called Mitchell-Hedges skull, is a cover-up.”
“Not a whole lot of people actually do believe that story,” Nelson grumbled, and Bench agreed. The story went that archaeologist Fredrick Mitchell-Hedges had been studying the Lubaantun ruins in what is now southern Belize. His stepdaughter supposedly found the skull in 1927 on top of one of the pyramids on her 17th birthday. This particular skull had an articulated jaw, and it was found approximately three months later. The problems with that agenda started because the announcement of the find, and the first pictures, didn’t appear until the 1940’s, although both Mitchell-Hedges and Anna stood by their stories until their deaths. Testing in 1970 proved that the skull and jaw were indeed carved from the same piece of quartz crystal. And no metal tool marks could be found on it. That was doubly important because the skull was carved without regard to the natural axis of the quartz, something almost unheard of by modern carvers because of the crystal’s propensity to fracture if not handled carefully. Each piece of the puzzle just added fuel to the mystery surrounding this particular crystal skull, and spilled over to speculation about the others so far found. “So,” Nelson got back to business, “what does Toby think he’s discovered?”
It was Bench’s turn to snort. “I suppose we shouldn’t be so skeptical. He has made several important discoveries.”
“True,” Nelson was forced to agree.
“Anyway, I don’t know how much you know about the excavations at Lubaantun.”
“Next to nothing beyond its connection to the skull,” Nelson admitted.
“Got an earful,” Bench growled, and Nelson chuckled softly. Bench muttered something decidedly impolite, Nelson chuckled a little harder, and Bench got back to the story. “One of the idiosyncrasies of the site is, as opposed to so many of the Mayan sites, there’s been almost no carved stones discovered there. Toby called them something.”
“Stalae?” Nelson offered.
“Sounds about right,” Bench told him. “How the blazes did you come up with that?”
“Haven’t a clue,” Nelson admitted.
“Apparently Toby’s been studying the very few found there, now housed at the Peabody Museum at Harvard, and he’s convinced that he’s found a reference to a so far undiscovered site southwest of Lubaantun.”
“Somewhere I read that, from satellite imagery, it’s estimated that the jungles may be hiding up to four thousand so far undiscovered ancient sites of one sort or another in Central and South America.”
“That many?” Bench’s voice was incredulous.
“I’ve been known to be wrong,” Nelson admitted.
“When?” Bench muttered. Nelson just chuckled. “So, Toby took off three weeks ago to look for this place. He took a satellite phone with him and said that he’d check in. I haven’t heard a thing and I can’t reach the number he left me.”
“Surely he didn’t go by himself,” Nelson sputtered.
“Told me that he was taking at least two of his students with him, and I gathered that he was picking up one or more locals as guides although he wasn’t specific about that,” Bench told him.
“How long did he think he’d be gone?”
“Not sure he knew,” Bench admitted. “But we have mutual friends at the university. They haven’t heard from him, either, and he’s due back for lectures in just under a month. They called me, and I’m passing the buck. Buried in budget hearings.” That last came out a snarl.
Nelson sent a commiserate mumble. “I suppose you’re expecting me to go down there and find him?”
“You have more resources to do that than I do,” Bench told him.
“Harrumph,” Nelson muttered. But he understood why Bench had called. The three men, along with Jiggs, had watched each other’s backs all through Annapolis, and beyond. You didn’t just ‘forget’ those kinds of friends, no matter what. “I’ll see what I can do,” Nelson told his old friend.
“Appreciate it,” Bench told him with feeling, and they both hung up.
Nelson went back to staring out the broad window, another cigarette lit totally by habit. He didn’t necessarily have the time, either, to go crawling through the Belize jungles. But, if push came to shove, he could find the time. Seaview wasn’t scheduled out for the next three weeks, having just gotten back from a milk run to re-supply the sealabs. Nelson had planned on spending the time in the lab but there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be postponed. Almost unbidden his other ‘problem’ reminded him of its presence and, as he sat pondering the separate issues, a slightly evil grin started to appear on his face. He let the thoughts that had come coalesce a bit further before reaching once more for the phone and dialing an internal NIMR extension.
“Jamison,” sounded officiously in his ear.
“That bad a morning already?” Nelson asked Seaview’s CMO, and a major force at Med Bay when Seaview was in port.
Will snorted. “As if you didn’t know,” he grumbled. “I ordered that stubborn, bull-headed captain of yours here first thing this morning for his final check-up before totally clearing him, and he still isn’t here.”
Nelson glanced at his watch – it was almost 1020 hours. “Oops,” he muttered. “But I thought that you’d released him to full duty.”
“Under supervision,” Will admitted. “The last cruise was easy. I know he’s still getting the occasional headache – especially if he overworks himself. And we both know how likely it is that he won’t overwork, given the opportunity.” Will wound down and sighed heavily. “He’s probably just fine,” he admitted. “But with his track record…” His voice trailed off.
Nelson gave him a sympathetic murmur. “So, you wouldn’t advise he spend a week or so prowling through the Central American jungle?” he asked carefully.
There was an immediate growl. “NO, I will not authorize him cleared for ONI to ‘borrow’,” Will practically shouted.
“Actually,” Nelson admitted, still carefully as he could tell the doctor was now totally ticked, “It’s not ONI who wants him. It’s me.”
There was a long enough pause that Nelson was giving serious consideration to how far off his own next physical was, and if Will would have time to calm down by then. “I’m coming over,” Will finally muttered, and the phone was slammed down.
Nelson squirmed slightly, stabbed out the cigarette, and emptied the ashtray. This did not appear to be a good time to antagonize his CMO! He told Angie that the doctor was on his way over and to send him in as soon as he arrived.
He didn’t have a long wait. Will stormed through his door, slamming it shut behind him. Nelson decided that the best defense might be to try and sidetrack him, at least momentarily. “So, what happens if Lee shows up while you’re over here?” he asked, plastering a grin on his face as he relaxed back into his chair.
“Harrumph,” Will muttered with a glare. Nelson almost laughed, so well had the doctor copied Nelson’s own version. But it did, apparently, have the desired effect, and Will settled heavily into one of the chairs in front of Nelson’s desk. “Told Esther to watch the front door for him, and if he came in to toss him in an exam room and sit on him ‘til I get back.” Nurse Esther Hale, USMC (Ret) had become Will’s not-so-secret weapon when it came to dealing with recalcitrant senior officers. But Will finally sent his boss a small grin, in the face of Nelson’s continued broad smile. “What’s up?” he asked his boss.
Nelson spent some time explaining his second phone call before sending Will a sheepish smile. “But that’s not the total explanation,” he admitted. Will sent him the expected raised eyebrow. “I think I have another problem. Well,” he admitted, “not me. But I have this feeling that I need to step in and…” He hesitated, not sure how to explain the feeling he got from the earlier call. Will, sensing Nelson’s sudden unease, didn’t push.
“Had a call from Jiggs earlier,” Nelson started, and then paused again. He wasn’t sure now that he could explain to Will. He barely had a grasp of things himself.
Will relaxed and helped – he could see that Nelson wasn’t sure how to continue. “I gather that you finally let him off the hook for what happened with Lee’s father.”
Nelson nodded. “Lee was right – he really didn’t have any other choice, given the circumstances.” Will nodded. “However…” Nelson paused, and again Will didn’t push. “I’m not sure Jiggs has let himself off the hook.” Will raised both eyebrows, and Nelson smiled. “You know Jiggs – old Navy to a fault.”
“Oh, yes,” Will agreed. “And irritated to his limit that he can’t bluster his way past Lee’s quiet confidence.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Nelson agreed. Both men chuckled softly. “But I’ve gotten little hints, from people who have dealt with Jiggs in the past six weeks, that…” Again he hesitated, and shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s like…almost like he’s lost confidence in himself. Like… Oh, I don’t know,” Nelson finished with a flip of his hand.
“Like he’s afraid to make a decision that might have that far-reaching, detrimental effect on someone else?” Will asked softly. He’d seen it before. Men – and women – who’d been forced by unthinkable situations to make decisions they found it hard, later, to live with. Somehow, however, he’d never have thought that would be a problem for the gruff admiral.
“It’s a little weird,” Nelson admitted.
“So…?” Will prodded gently.
“So,” Nelson started, stopped, and shrugged again, “I have this hair-brained idea to take Lee and Jiggs with me to go track down Toby. Maybe, if they spend some time together…” His voice trailed off again.
“Lee’s ability to ignore him will totally destroy Admiral Stark’s ability to give orders?” Will offered with a grin. It broadened in the face of Nelson’s glare.
“Not what I had in mind,” Nelson growled. “However…” his voice and a heavy sigh admitted that possibility.
Will shook his head. “Not likely,” he told his boss. “But, if he is having a few issues at the moment he might be unwilling to be around Lee that closely for awhile.”
Nelson sent him a sheepish look. “I sort of thought that I wouldn’t tell either that the other one was coming until it was too late to turn back,” he admitted.
“Help,” Will muttered softly. “And just how do you plan to manage that one?”
“Haven’t quite got that worked out yet,” Nelson admitted. “And there’s also another piece of the whole mess.”
“Chip,” Will guessed. It was Nelson’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “His continued mutterings have not gone unnoticed,” Will admitted.
Nelson sent his CMO a fond smile. While Will always claimed to be nothing more than a simple Internist/Emergency Medicine Specialist, his skills went far beyond. He wasn’t always obvious, despite Lee’s mutterings that Will was a pushy mother hen who spent way too much time getting into people’s – namely Lee’s – face about health issues. But Will watched over his charges with an eye to any and all problems that could affect their ability to do their jobs both physically and mentally. “Caught a few of his rantings, I gather,” Nelson said.
Will rolled his eyes. “Hard not to, unfortunately. Lee, bless him, obviously understands Chip’s need to get it out. It’s actually been kind of fun to watch. But the rants have gone on a bit too long to be healthy for either young man, at this point.” Nelson nodded. “Chip needs to finally let go of that anger – for his own good,” Will ended with a frown.
“So, I add Chip to the party,” Nelson told him.
Will nodded. “And hope that you can get Admiral Stark back in one piece.” He cringed. “Chip seriously ticked…” He didn’t finish the thought but both he and Nelson shuddered. “Sounds like I’d better go as well,” Will volunteered himself. “When do we leave?”
Nelson shrugged again. “As soon as I can figure out a way to shanghai our going-to-be-reluctant traveling companions.” He shot Will a look. “You sure you want to come along?” Will, while an extremely competent doctor, wasn’t always adventuresome when it came to leaving NIMR or the boat.
Will met the look full on. “You want to deal with three potential powder kegs on your own?” he countered.
“Two,” Nelson corrected. “Lee won’t be a problem.”
Will nodded. “I agree. But I was counting you!”
* * * *
Three days later found Will in decidedly unfamiliar territory – in more ways than one. Even the intervening days had had their share of uneasy moments.
It started within an hour of leaving Admiral Nelson’s office. He’d returned to his own office, sat down at his desk, and started a computer search for where he was apparently headed. His plan was to put together a list of supplies he’d want with him to cover whatever potential disasters could possibly befall the travelers. It was a long list! And he’d had to hurriedly turn off the computer screen and bury the list on his desk when Lee finally made a grumbling appearance just before 1200 hours. Will immediately recognized Lee’s ploy – arrive at lunchtime and Will would hurry the exam so that Lee wouldn’t be tempted to skip the meal. Will, however, was far too familiar with Lee’s efforts to circumvent the doctor and, maintaining an easy smile and affable countenance, put the continuing-to-grumble younger man through a thorough exam, gently pushing Lee to make sure he, Will, was comfortable that the head injury Lee had suffered in Chile was completely healed. About halfway through the exam Lee, always extremely perceptive, started to give Will a puzzled look, obviously wondering why the doctor was being so insistent. A bit of a light bulb, so-to-speak, went off when, almost finished, Nurse Hale popped her head in the room and notified both men that Admiral Nelson was requesting Lee’s presence in his office. Lee sent Will a particularly penetrating look but Will was smart enough not to accept the challenge. He simply finished what he wanted to do and sent the younger man on his way.
He never did fully hear what had transpired in Nelson’s office; Nelson had merely called him and told him that both Lee and Chip had been told that they were headed for Belize, Will in tow. Chief Sharkey would take them to Punta Gorda, on the southern coast of the Central American country. They would take a local bus to the Mayan site of Lubaantun, and there they would be met by a local guide who had information on Dr. Wild’s proposed path. He’d obviously told Lee something along the lines of using Lee because he was – unfortunately, from too many ONI missions – familiar with making his way through that kind of environment. Nelson did say that he’d asked Will to go in case Wild had run into medical issues. Will didn’t learn how Nelson had coerced Chip into going until they’d reached the port city and were off-loading their bags. Will started to gather up his packs and the blond beat him to them.
“I’m your official packhorse for this trip, Doc,” Chip told him, almost cheerfully. Will had sent him a look, but Chip gave him an almost imperceptible shake of his head as he flashed a quick glance at Lee.
“What he means is,” Lee nonetheless interpreted, “the Admiral didn’t trust me out without a keeper.” Lee’s voice was light, and Will could easily read the sparkle in his eyes no matter that the words were a complaint.
Will decided to egg it along. “Obviously I’m along because he knows better than to turn you two loose on your own.” Chip glared at him, but Lee’s instant chuckles had even the blond smiling. “Okay, packhorse,” Will continued. “But I’m not so helpless that I can’t carry some of my own gear,” and the three of them sorted everything out. Will’s backpack wasn’t much smaller than the other two men’s were, but Lee and Chip made sure that they got as much of the heavy items as they could and left Will the lighter stuff.
As they sorted out who got what, Will saw Lee take two smallish handguns out of a cleverly hidden compartment in the bottom of his duffel bag, and he and Chip hid them carefully in their backpacks. Lee saw him watching and sent him a quick smile. “Belize gun laws are a little...restrictive,” he said by way of explanation. He glanced at Chip. “Do not, under any circumstances, get caught by officials with that in your possession. It's unmarked and can't be traced back to NIMR.” Neither Chip nor Will questioned where Lee had gotten the guns. It was usually better not to know such things. Once everything was repacked they caught the local bus to San Miguel, as Nelson’s instructions had said. From where they were dropped off it took them about twenty minutes to walk to the archaeological site.
* * * *
In the meantime Admiral Nelson had his own plans to make. He knew that dragging Jiggs out of his office was going to take more than a little effort, not to mention a fair share of underhanded guile, so he started by putting together his own list of supplies for both men that he dispatched Senior Rating Kowalski to quietly put together. Normally he’d have had Chief Sharkey do it but he was too afraid that the talkative COB would blab something to his passengers during the trip down in FS1. There was going to be explosion enough when the two groups met – he didn’t want any premature fireworks. He called Matt Bench back, knowing that the man had connections up the wazzoo, and Bench happily arranged for a private flight for Nelson and Jiggs to Belize City. Nelson called one of the local tour companies and set up that they’d be met and driven to the Mayan site, everything timed so that Nelson and Jiggs would get there approximately an hour before Will and company. The tour company could, and did, supply Nelson with two locals who would help schlep supplies and had knowledge of the terrain.
Nelson also called in a favor from a friend at NASA and had several satellite photos of southern Belize faxed to him. A quick glance didn’t immediately offer any suggestions as to Toby’s intended target, but Bench’s comment that he’d said ‘southwest of Lubaantun’ at least gave him a direction to start. He’d just have to hope that they ran into locals who had seen Toby, and that they were somehow able to pick up his trail. The person at the travel agency assured him that the local guides would do some canvassing prior to Nelson’s arrival amongst their friends in the business to see if they could pick up any leads.
That part organized, Nelson set about hijacking Jiggs. That’s about what it was going to take. He decided that a frontal attack, without letting Jiggs know that he was coming and thus have time to build up a defense, was the wisest move. He made sure that he had everything else in order, loaded his car with the supplies, and drove to San Diego.
He was immediately concerned, and understood why the rumors were beginning to circulate, when Jiggs seemed almost happy for an excuse to get away from his high-profile, high-stress, job as ComSubPac and head off to Belize on a moment’s notice. Oh, there was the expected outburst of “I’m far too busy to just up and traipse off into the jungle after Toby.” But Nelson could also read the almost relief in Jiggs’ eyes when he listed off all the meetings that he didn’t dare miss to go off on Nelson’s wild goose chase. “Wild archeologist chase,” Nelson corrected him, and smiled as Jiggs glared at him for the horrible pun. But there wasn’t the expected force behind the glare and it was a slightly nervous Nelson who got Jiggs pointed south.
He was even more nervous as he waited in front of one of the pyramids at Lubaantun. Jiggs was continuing to put up objections but they lacked any real emotion and strength of will. The two guides, Antonio Lohayza and Cesar Espata, meeting them right on schedule, had actually had a bit of luck. One of their buddies had been contacted by Toby for information on the territory due west of Jalacte, which was a village southwest of Lubaantun. The guide hadn’t been able to tell Toby much – he’d never been to that area. But at least it did seem that Nelson et al would be headed in the right general direction.
“What the hell…” Jiggs sputtered next to him, and Nelson looked up from the satellite picture he’d been studying to find Lee, Chip, and Will had joined them. From the expressions on the two younger men’s faces they were having something of the same reaction. Once more Nelson took the offensive and waved the men over, at the same time telling Jiggs somewhat offhandedly that, “Great, the rest of our party is here right on schedule.” He was actually glad that the glare Jiggs sent him this time was full of honest indignation. But he just ignored it and welcomed his officers, introducing them to the guides and getting them caught up with what intel he had. He saw Lee give Will a look that said only too clearly he’d settle with his CMO later for his part in the conspiracy. But he also knew his young captain well enough that any actual fireworks would be minimal, and no doubt laced with the kinds of banter most of the two men’s ‘battles’ usually turned into.
It was Chip’s reaction that both surprised and worried Nelson. And he saw both Will and Lee send the blond a look. The brief one Chip sent Nelson had the Admiral believing a few stories Sharkey had told him but that he’d thought the COB had embellished. Chip was the absolute master of the poker face, and maintained a calm exterior aboard Seaview that went a major league way to keeping the crew calm in those moments of absolute chaos that could, and unfortunately did, break out every so often. The crew knew better than to tick him off, particularly by not following proper procedures and protocol, but even then he was fair with discipline aboard the sub, and never vindictive or cruel. But Sharkey had shuddered a few times when relating some of Chip’s not-so-controlled moments. Nelson had never given it much consideration because, as long as things were running smoothly, he stayed out of that end of running the boat. John Phillips had never mentioned a problem. Curley Jones, Seaview’s first COB, hadn’t had any issues bothersome enough to make Nelson aware of them. And Lee was perfectly capable of reining Chip in. If anything, Chip’s occasional tantrums were usually directed at his long-time friend, and Lee dealt with him just fine.
But this… A glance at Lee had Chip bending to the supplies for a moment; when he stood back up his face was totally back under control. Almost. And Nelson was quick to notice that the focus was not himself – although Nelson knew that he wasn’t totally immune – but Jiggs. And another quick glance showed that Jiggs was perfectly aware of Chip’s animosity. The blond would bear watching! Nelson knew that Lee had arranged to arm both himself and Chip surreptitiously, as bringing firearms into Belize was strictly forbidden. Nelson had also carefully packed a weapon, but his was for firing tranquilizer darts. The two guides were both legally armed with small rifles since their jobs took them into territory occupied by not always friendly animals. They both also carried serious-looking machetes for getting through thick areas of underbrush in the forest and had extras for Lee, Chip, Nelson, and Stark. Oh, Nelson admitted quickly, Chip would never do anything to actually hurt Jiggs. But… Nelson would keep an eye on things. And he could tell that Lee and Will were thinking pretty much the same thing.
It didn’t take everyone long to settle down, go over the rest of the intel, and take off. Nelson smiled to himself as Lee instantly made the acquaintance of the two guides and started an easy conversation about the territory they’d be headed into. He caught Will watching the younger man as well, a smile semi-controlled on his face, when Lee’s eyes swept the party several times as everyone prepared to leave the mostly touristy site of Lubaantun and head off into the wilds of backwoods – so-to-speak – Belize. Lee was quietly but efficiently taking charge of the expedition just like he took charge of everything around him. It was never heavy-handed. It was just Lee’s way. Nelson watched him start to get the group organized, no matter that it was Nelson’s ‘party.’ He did glance at Nelson but the Admiral merely took the opportunity to go over the maps of the area with Lee and show him the satellite maps. The two guides were included in that conversation. Neither had any personal knowledge of hidden Mayan sites in that area but admitted that they hadn’t, actually, been there.
As they were ready to head out, Nelson took a good look at the group. He wasn’t at all surprised to see Chip immediately pitch in to get the group organized into what he felt to be the best line of march. Lee had already set himself the job of walking forward with the guides. Then Nelson and Stark. Nelson sent Chip a quick grin as his XO nudged him verbally into Chip’s chosen order. Nelson did, quickly, tell Jiggs to fall in with him – he saw Chip all but ignore Jiggs and assumed that the younger man was still trying to get himself under control and didn’t want to risk any conversation with Stark at this point, obviously unhappy with Nelson’s subterfuge in setting up this adventure. Chip did send Nelson a quick nod, acknowledging Nelson’s dealing with Jiggs, before sending Will after Jiggs and giving himself the tail position. It caused Nelson another hastily buried grin – Chip had everyone in his sights, where he could keep tabs. As always, Nelson felt himself blessed that he’d been able to snag the young man away from the regular Navy and have him as XO – on the boat or not!
The hike started relatively easy. Lubaantun sat on a ridge so for the first part they headed downhill, the terrain fairly easy and open. Once they reached the valley they followed a tributary of the Columbia River into the deepening tropical jungle, keeping to a generally southwest heading. They tried to follow animal trails where they could, assuming that Wild and his party would have done the same thing as the walking would be a bit easier. They were, however, aware of the animals that had made the trails in the first place, keeping an eye out for the more hazardous ones – namely peccary and jaguar – and alert for the creepy-crawly ones, like venomous snakes. Nelson kept them entertained with bits of Mayan culture and civilization, asking questions of their guides to fill in his less-than-complete knowledge. The guides seemed happy to be included in the conversation; Nelson got the feeling that they were probably most often ignored by the people who hired them – a shame as they obviously had a great deal of local information to share. It made the journey, at least this early part of it, go so much more companionably.
For everyone but Jiggs Stark. He was absolutely furious. Well, at least he thought that he should be, after being out-maneuvered by his old friend. He wanted nothing so much as to sputter and shout at Nelson, and demand to be returned to somewhere civilized so that he could make his way back home. However… He’d been forced by recent incidents to take a good look at himself, and he wasn’t overly happy with what he’d seen. When push came to shove he could fall back on old platitudes of, ‘he’d done what needed to be done at the time.’ But had he? Had he really had no other choices when making decisions that affected the people under his command? And, as he’d risen in rank, had he given enough thought to those men and women, or had he simply assigned them to the ranks of ‘they’re there to do their jobs as ordered.’
For awhile after that horrendous trip to NIMR after Nelson’s return from Chile almost seven weeks ago he’d tried to put the whole trip, and the story behind it, out of his mind – if he ignored it, it would crawl back into the hole he’d relegated it to so many years ago. But it wouldn’t crawl away. It kept coming back to haunt him whenever he had a decision to make. And, as Commander of Submarine Forces, Pacific, that was a lot of decisions. He absolutely hated that he was becoming indecisive and hesitant. That was so totally not him! He tried to bluster his way through the daily routines but he was having more and more trouble. He was sleeping less, drinking more, and had actually grasped at the straw Nelson dangled in front of his face as a way to get away from all the frustration. Now that he was here all he wanted to do was sputter at Nelson, but found that he didn’t want to go back home, either.
He absolutely hated traipsing through anything that didn’t resemble a military base, let alone be walking through a jungle on the lookout for snakes and spiders. He for sure didn’t want to be around the other men in the party. Putting up with Harry was one thing. The two strong-willed men had always surprised those around them by being friends instead of bouncing off of each other like same ends of a magnet. Oh, they butted heads all too often. But they’d still always shared a friendship and respect for each other despite their occasional arguments.
But he’d always had a problem with Crane that had absolutely nothing to do with how the man’s father had been killed. Crane… Jiggs huffed at himself. He wasn’t used to men of lower rank not instantly doing as he ordered. That was their place, dammit! He practically growled out loud. Crane… He was forced to take a deep breath. Crane didn’t disobey. Not really. He simply didn’t take orders blindly. While it galled Jiggs no end to be…not challenged, he was forced to acknowledge. Merely required to explain his reasoning behind the orders. And if Crane had a different interpretation of the existing conditions, negotiation was required. It drove Jiggs crazy! And Harry to chuckles every time it happened, which ticked Jiggs off that much more. He didn’t understand how Harry, a man as dedicated – and stubborn – as he was, could accept Crane’s challenges so easily. And yet… When push came to shove, Jiggs was forced to admit that Crane didn’t challenge without reason. His decisions were based on taking care of those charges, both mechanical and human, placed in his command to the best outcome possible. And if it meant going toe-to-toe with whomever stood in his way to accomplish those goals, so be it.
Jiggs had watched Crane today take quiet control of the two groups of men once they met up. It wasn’t done with outright orders so much as it was with confidence in his ability to master the challenges presented to him. He’d carefully stayed out of Jiggs’ face, leaving that chore to Harry; oh, Jiggs had seen the looks passed between the two – Crane calm and Harry almost amused, which further irritated Jiggs. But he was forced to admit that nothing Crane had so far done was in the least incorrect. And, he was forced to admit as well, Crane was in no way challenging, or even bringing up by look or word, the events of their last meeting. He’d accepted Jiggs’ explanation and that seemed to be the end of it. Jiggs suddenly wished that he could be that forgiving, and sent a quick nod Crane’s way that no one else needed to see.
But there was a grunt – of some sort – behind him and he glanced back to catch Morton glaring at him. The younger man’s eyes changed immediately to studying the surroundings but Jiggs got the feeling that he’d seen Jiggs’ small gesture. Heaven only knew how he’d interpreted it, but apparently it wasn’t totally how Jiggs had meant it and he was once more instantly ticked. But a loss of concentration caused him to stumble. Crane halted immediately and Nelson turned to offer him a hand, which he waved off. He mumbled something about needing to pay more attention, which Harry grinned at, and everyone continued walking.
More mindful of where he was putting his feet, Jiggs still let the blond run through his mind. He’d never known how to read the man. He was always correct in his address, the few times Jiggs had run into him before he’d left the regular Navy to join NIMR. Been usurped right out from under Jiggs’ nose, actually, and Jiggs had wasted no time yelling at Harry for that maneuver. Harry hadn’t even bothered to apologize – he’d just given Jiggs an incredibly smug look. Jiggs had Morton pegged for an upper echelon supply position – the man could organize a herd of cats! But Jiggs could also appreciate that Harry had seen the same thing, and knew that Harry valued the man for more than just those skills.
Jiggs had been surprised, that night in NIMR’s Med Bay, to see the level of emotion Morton had exhibited. Somehow he’d always thought that the man was…well, not without emotions, Jiggs admitted. But sort of…just there. In the background. Some of what he’d seen that night could be easily explained because of his friendship with Crane. Jiggs knew, of course, that the two had been friends since Annapolis. He’d harassed Harry because of it, telling Harry that they’d be his ruin someday because it would interfere with their ability to command. He’d had to admit he was wrong, and suffer Harry’s insufferably smug look once more. But he’d still, obviously, not gotten Morton’s character right. Something else you’ve screwed up, you old goat, Jiggs told himself. Where had he gone so wrong, reading people? Or, he had to admit, had he just stopped trying – the higher in rank he rose, the less he had to care who he ticked off. Whatever it was, he knew that ‘something’ had to be done. He just had no idea what!
Chip was thoroughly and totally torqued! He understood why Admiral Nelson was worried about his old friend Toby Wild and wanted to go after him. He understood why Nelson had included Lee – the man, because of ONI, was familiar with traipsing through jungles. And he could easily understand why Nelson had then included he and Jamie. With Lee, both were likely to come in handy. For entirely separate – or not so separate, actually – reasons. But why did Nelson have to include that idiot Stark?
Well, Chip was forced to admit, Stark wasn’t an idiot. Chip could, and did, think of a long list of other names for the man, however. While Nelson kept himself in good physical condition, Stark didn’t seem in shape for anything more strenuous than sitting behind his desk and bellowing orders. He certainly didn’t seem up to this type of covert mission – which was exactly how Chip was now treating the hike. As much as he detested Lee’s continued involvement with ONI, the Navy’s intelligence agency, Chip was willing to accept that it made sense, from a strategic point of view, to treat the search for Nelson’s friend as exactly that. Stark would only slow them down, and that wasn’t even taking into effect that the man was a jerk and would cause nothing but tension within the group.
Chip shrugged. On the other hand, except for some initial grumbling, directed at Nelson when the others had first walked into the clearing in front of the entrance to Lubaantun, Stark had pretty much kept his mouth shut. Chip didn’t expect that to last – Stark, when he was anywhere Chip had encountered him, rarely shut up! But he also knew that Lee was fairly adept at countering the overbearing admiral’s frequently snide commentary. Nelson had been known to put Stark in his place, the times he’d been present when Stark had tried to badmouth Seaview’s crew. Chip was willing to keep his mouth shut. For now. But they weren’t on the boat, or doing anything even remotely ‘navy.’ Stark better watch his mouth; if he didn’t he, Chip, wouldn’t hesitate to watch it for him!
Lee knew that Admiral Nelson was up to something. Heaven only knew what, and he wasn’t about to ask. Lee was pretty sure that Jamie was in on it, whatever ‘it’ was. But Lee had, over the last few years since coming to NIMR, gotten fairly adept at rolling-with-the-flow, as it were, around Nelson. Lee had quickly given up trying to figure out how the older man’s genius mind worked and had concentrated on merely trying to keep everything around him as under control as possible. It was rarely an easy task, but Lee did the best that he could.
Lee wasn’t thrilled with Stark’s presence – the man had an uncanny knack for plowing through any situation without regard to how anyone else was already handling it. Stark simply didn’t seem to believe that anyone below the rank of admiral knew their six from a hole in the ground when it came to making decisions. At least Nelson always seemed to be able to keep the man from being a total jerk. And in this case Nelson had even sent Lee a couple of almost conspiratorial glances when Stark wasn’t looking, indicating to Lee that he need not worry about Stark’s presence – that Nelson had things in that direction under control. Lee wasn’t about to let his guard down – Stark had proven in the past just how easily he could create absolute chaos. But Lee did have faith in Nelson, and that went a long way to easing some of Lee’s anxiety over just what, really, was going on.
Lee did know that he’d have to keep an eye on Chip. He was a little surprised that his long-time friend still held such animosity toward Stark. On the other hand it was that same long-time friendship, and the fact that Chip still saw himself in the big-brother role to Lee, that was no doubt behind Chip’s continued contempt for what Stark had done. Lee had tried to get Chip to let it go – that Stark really didn’t have any options. But Chip was ticked that, once he learned who Lee was, and especially since Lee had come to NIMR, Stark had still continued to keep the whole affair a secret. It had done no good to point out to Chip that, because of the continued need to keep the long ago action under wraps, Stark hadn’t really been in a position to come clean. But Chip remained indignant and Lee continued to let him rant, hoping that Chip would eventually get over his anger.
Now, with Chip and Stark stuck together for who knew how long, Lee would need to be vigilant. He knew Chip well enough to not fear for Stark’s continued health. But they were off-boat, in totally civilian circumstances. His friend would bear watching.
Lee called a halt for the day just after 1800 hours. There was still some daylight left. But here, even though the jungle had not completely closed in as yet, it would get dark early. They’d reached a fairly flat, open spot near one of the small streams that meandered through the area. After a quick consult with the guides, who Lee had continued to kibitz with all afternoon, it was decided to set up camp for the night. A small, well-banked fire was started, and Jamie assigned to boiling a pot of water to fix the MRE’s – military ‘Meals Ready to Eat’ pouches that both Lee and Nelson had deemed the easiest way to carry food for the trip. The guides carried some local supplies of fruit and staples, and all shared with the rest. Bedrolls were spread out under several tarps close to the fire for protection from nocturnal prowlers. They were carrying several light tents, but all agreed that with the weather being mild there wasn't a need to set them up. The jungle quieted from the daylight cacophony of birds and monkeys into the softer, nighttime rhythms of insects and rustlings in the brush, and everyone called it an early night. Lee garnered quick smiles from the guides as he assigned a rotating night watch between he, Chip and them. Nelson tried to add himself to the rotation but Lee waved him off, telling him he’d keep Nelson and Stark in reserve for later in the hike, depending on how things went and how long they were out here. Stark had grumbled something under his breath and Chip frowned, but Nelson snorted and sent Lee an easy grin, which Lee readily returned.
Another day’s hike brought them close to the small village of Blue Creek. The guides told them that there were about forty or so families living there, mostly farmers of mixed Ketchi Indian and Mopan Mayan descent. They said that it was a fairly peaceful place, but there had been minor disagreements occasionally with five Mennonite families that held land close by. Nelson wanted to check to see if anyone had seen Wild’s party, but didn’t want to stir up any trouble, so they decided that the entire party wouldn’t enter the village. The guides assured Nelson that a good many of the villagers spoke English as well as their native tongues, which would be helpful, but Nelson took Antonio with him while the rest of the party set up camp for the night on the outskirts of the village. They returned with both food for the evening meal, and news – Wild had indeed passed through the village nearly three weeks previous. No one seemed to know quite where he was headed, or had heard anything about him since. But at least Nelson knew that they were on the right track for the time being.
Nelson and Stark speculated, sitting around the fire, just what might have happened to their friend. Antonio and Cesar knew of no hostile natives in the area. There were occasional skirmishes between the armies of Belize and Guatemala over where the actual border was, and stopping people from wandering back and forth. Lee raised an eyebrow and Cesar explained.
“Belize has imposed a fee for crossing out of the country,” he told them in excellent English. Both guides spoke with an accent, but Cesar’s was slightly less noticeable than Antonio’s. Lee figured that it was because Cesar was a few years younger than Antonio, who was close to Lee’s age, and had probably learned English a lot easier.
Nelson nodded at Cesar’s comment. “That would definitely cause issues – not agreeing on an exact border.”
“Could Wild have run afoul of the army?” Will asked.
It was Antonio’s turn to supply information. “I checked before you arrived,” he answered Will but looked at Nelson. “There was no word of any trouble with Americans anywhere in southern Belize.
“Thankfully,” Nelson told him with feeling, and sent him a nod. “I’d checked as well. What I do wonder about is the satphone.”
“Even out here in nowheresville,” Chip said, “it should work just fine.” He immediately realized how that had come out and sent an apology to the guides.
They both smiled. “With the exception of the scattered villages,” Cesar told him, still a broad grin on his face, “you would be very correct. Nothing much out here but jungle.”
“But Belize is actually one of the worldwide centers for satphones,” Nelson added. “The whole country has good coverage.”
“Unless the phone was damaged or lost,” Lee speculated.
Nelson nodded. “Always a possibility,” he agreed.
“I don’t suppose either you or Matt gave any consideration to the fact that Toby simply doesn’t want to be found?” Stark muttered at Nelson.
Nelson sent him an indulgent smile. “Actually, I said much the same to Matt.” He shrugged. “He said that Toby had specifically told him about the trip so that someone knew where he was. Well,” he amended, “sort of, anyway.” Stark grunted. “But he told Matt that he’d stay in touch at least once a week. When Matt heard nothing after that, he first called the university to see if they’d had any calls, and then called me.” His only answer was a muttered ‘harrumph’ from the other admiral. He caught the other three Seaview officers have to quickly bury grins. Even Chip had a half grin on his face ever so briefly. Nelson didn’t even bother to hide his own smile, almost more to that bit of relaxed attitude from his XO toward Jiggs than Jiggs’ own opinion of the situation.
What he did do was pull out the satellite photos of the area and, using a flashlight, study them once more. He was a bit surprised when Lee also pulled out his light but held it under the map, shining up. Nelson sent him a raised eyebrow.
Lee shrugged. “Sometimes it helps,” he offered. Nelson grunted but went back to studying the map.
“Here,” Nelson said softly, and pointed to what looked like a small abnormality in the otherwise thick jungle more north than south of their present location. Lee looked from Nelson’s left, still holding his flashlight under the photo, while Stark came closer to look from Nelson’s right.
“I don’t see anything,” Stark snarled. But Lee was nodding. He took a small twig and pointed it out. Stark stared harder – mostly at Lee. But Nelson was still smiling softly and Stark went back to looking at the map. “Jungles shouldn’t have straight lines,” he finally muttered.
“Precisely,” Nelson told him. “It’s faint. But that’s exactly what it looks like.”
“You think that’s what Dr. Wild found?” Lee asked.
Nelson shrugged. “With Toby, who knows?” he admitted. “But it’s just as good a place to start as any.”
Lee took the map and showed it to the two guides. There was some quiet discussion between the three before Lee looked at Nelson. “It’s not exactly south-southwest of Lubaantun. More due west.”
“Which could have been Toby’s way of hiding where he was going – the archaeology world is just as cutthroat, if not more so, than a lot of fields of research.”
Lee nodded. “Antonio says that there’s a lot of uncharted jungle right in that area.”
“I have never talked to anyone who has been there,” the guide added. “Could be anything hiding out there.”
“Oh, goody,” Will muttered.
Chip, sitting next to him, nudged his shoulder. “Where’s your sense of adventure, Jamie?” he teased the doctor.
“I get quite enough of that on the boat, thank you,” Will growled at the blond, to a combination of grins and grimaces from the other Seaview men.
“We can’t exactly go walking through the jungle yelling Toby’s name,” Stark grumbled to Nelson. But Nelson saw Lee give the other admiral an almost quizzical look, probably from the lack of Jiggs’ usual bellowy bluster.
“No,” Nelson agreed with a sigh. It was starting to appear like this was becoming more and more a fool’s errand – at least as far as finding Toby. It was a little too early to make assumptions about the rest of his somewhat harebrained idea.
“While the jungle can cover tracks all too quickly,” Lee offered, “if he went through there, there should still be some sign at least three weeks later.” There were nods from the guides. “We’ll just have to hope that we pick up some kind of indication.”
Nelson nodded. “We’ll use the line,” he indicated the photo Lee still held, “as a focus, and try to find it. If we run across some other indications of Toby’s presence we can adjust from there. Who knows?” Nelson grinned. “Maybe we’ll find an ancient site all on our own.” His sudden enthusiasm was not exactly met with equal opinion from the others. Lee and Chip both frowned before quickly regaining a neutral expression, and Will momentarily looked skyward as if seeking divine intervention. Nelson’s grin turned slightly sheepish, remembering times when his forward charges had caused ‘issues’ of one sort or another.
He decided that it might be advantageous to change the subject, and turned to the guides. “It looks like, from the map, that we’ll be headed into the Columbia River Forest Reserve. Or right close to it. Will that be a problem?”
“No, Admiral,” Cesar told him. “As long as we are just hiking, or passing through, there should be no problem. Antonio,” he glanced at his partner, who was nodding, “and I have the proper documents, if we are stopped for any reason. While it is not exactly where we thought that we would be heading, it should still cause no problems.”
“Thank you for that foresight,” Nelson told them openly.
They both smiled broadly. With a quick look at each other, Antonio continued. “We are quite used to sudden changes in tourists’ plans.”
“But Admiral,” Will asked, “if that’s where your friend headed, why did you find information in the village that he’d been this way?”
Nelson shrugged. “More misdirection, perhaps?” he offered. “I’ve spent a lot of time studying those satellite photos. There’s just not a lot of jungle in the direction Toby indicated that hasn’t been at least sporadically explored. Jalacte,” he named the village close to Guatemala’s border, “has been a fairly busy trading point for a long time.” The two guides nodded agreement to that statement. “It just makes more sense that, if Toby found information leading him to an as yet undiscovered Mayan site, one, it would be near Lubaantun, as he indicated; and two, it would be out in the booneys.” He sent a sheepish look at the two guides. “Sorry. An American expression meaning in the middle of nowhere.” The two locals grinned and nodded. “While heading through the village of Blue Creek would take him to some pretty wild territory,” he cringed at the bad pun as Lee and Chip both grinned and Will snorted. He glanced at Jiggs, who seemed to be studying his hands and appeared not to have heard the bit of silly, “it takes him further and further from Lubaantun. The area to the west gets into heavy, unexplored jungle much more rapidly.”
“And the villagers said that they didn’t actually know which direction he headed, once he left?” Lee requested confirmation. Nelson nodded. “Then one direction is just as good as another, and this one makes more sense.” With that they all settled in for the night, a guard rotation in place.
Nelson gave a brief thought that Jiggs might be withholding information – his non-reaction to Harry’s pun was unusual. But Nelson shrugged it off. Everything about Jiggs’ reaction to things of late was ‘off’ – this was just another example. Nothing that his old friend had said or did gave any indication that he had any knowledge of Toby’s recent actions. Until or unless there was, Nelson was willing to chalk the whole thing up to more of Jiggs not being Jiggs.
* * * *
The following morning the party turned north, and about noon of the day after entered the town of San Antonio where they found rooms and showered and rested until taking off again the next morning. Nelson checked in with NIMR – he wasn’t surprised to find that Angie had things well in hand, although Chip and Will seemed a bit disappointed not to have a good reason for calling off the trip. Lee, as usual, accepted the information without comment. Jiggs seemed equally disappointed that ComSubPac was getting along without him as well, about which Nelson carefully controlled his expression. While Jiggs was being far too quiet this trip it didn’t seem advisable to tick him off and give him the opportunity to head home; especially as they were, actually, at a point he could catch a local bus and do just that.
Apparently the two guides hadn’t been idle. Not only had they acquired a good supply of fresh food, they’d gathered a bit of intel in the process. It seems that there had been a small party of foreigners seen in the region at about the time Toby would have come through. There wasn’t a lot of information - it was a small group of four or five, no real nationality identified except ‘foreigners’, and no real idea of where they’d gone. They just appeared, one of them had purchased supplies without indicating why the group was there, and they all disappeared again. It was some validation to Nelson that they were on the right track – but not much.
Leaving San Antonio the next morning, Nelson pointed the group north and slightly west. More study of the map had indicated that a slightly circuitous route might make for some slightly easier walking as they headed into more dense forest. It also seemed like the heavier cover decided to prove its reason for existence. While so far the group had enjoyed fairly good weather, halfway into the morning a light drizzle started to fall and gradually turned into a steady rain. The heavier forest had its advantages – the thick canopy overhead did collect a fair amount of the moisture. But no one complained about stopping a bit earlier than they had been, getting a carefully banked fire going and tarps tied up to give even more protection over the small tents they also set up this time.
With a little extra cooking time the guides produced an exquisite-tasting stew using dried meat that re-hydrated as it cooked in the liquid made thick with fresh vegetables they'd picked up in San Antonio. Belly's full and mugs of strong coffee in hand, peace prevailed around the fire, each man in his own thoughts.
Suddenly the quiet was broken by the cry of a jaguar, way too close to the camp. Even the two guides jumped at the sudden invasion of the quiet evening. Nelson glanced around sheepishly as the others were doing the same. “This is his territory, after all,” he told the group.
“They are pretty shy and should not bother us,” Cesar told everyone.
Antonio looked thoughtful. “Unless this one is old, or injured. It would look for an easy kill,” he said seriously.
“No sleeping on watch tonight,” Lee told him, and everyone nodded.
“Just see that you get some sleep,” Nelson told Lee firmly. He knew his captain only too well. Lee was just as apt to stay up all night. Not because he didn't trust any of the others. It was just that he tended to want to personally see to the safety of those around him.
As both Chip and Jamie also sent him stern looks, Lee nodded. “Yes, sir,” he answered quietly with a sheepish grin of his own. It changed to a frown when Jamie snorted softly and Chip continued to stare at him. “What?” he grumbled at his long time friend.
But it was Nelson who answered. “Your track record speaks loudly at such times as this,” he told Lee with a slight grin.
Lee continued to frown, but anything that he might have answered was interrupted by another scream from the large cat, thankfully sounding a bit further away this time. Everyone let out a soft sigh and then looked around at the others, nodded, and made ready for an early bed.
* * * *
Will was not overly pleased. He kept his thoughts to himself; he knew that it would only cause discord within the small group if he spoke what was bothering him. But he kept even closer watch on his impetuous young captain than he had been.
The heavy rain of yesterday had abated somewhat overnight but there was still a steady drizzle in the air. The small game trail that Antonio had found the previous day, headed for the most part in Nelson's chosen direction, was muddy enough to be slick, and everyone was having to watch their step. But it hadn't kept Will from noticing Lee reach up almost absentmindedly to rub his right temple every so often. Those who didn't know him well would probably not even have seen the quick, light, gesture. But to Will it was apparent that Lee was fighting a headache.
Will suspected that, even after being admonished to get enough rest the night before, Lee hadn't slept well. Will had to admit that he hadn't, either, since the jaguar had continued to make it's presence known nearby. So he was willing to cut the younger man some slack. But he would keep an eye on Lee just the same. He was, for the most part, comfortable that Lee had recovered fully from the traumas he'd suffered in Chile. This trip wasn't what Will would have recommended for his continued good health. On the other hand, Will snorted softly to himself, the man could create havoc fixing a kitchen sink! Will chuckled silently. Well, he was forced to admit, that isn't quite true. Lee Crane was no klutz. But in any given situation, no matter how innocuous it seemed on the outside, the young man would make sure that he put himself between whoever was with him and whatever danger, however remote the possibility, that he could perceive happening.
Will realized that he wasn’t the only one who was watching Lee closely when, the next time that Lee made the quick gesture to his temple, there was an almost growl from behind him. He glanced back and found Chip frowning deeply. He sent the blond a nod to show that he’d seen the potential problem, but then added a very quick shake of his head to warn Chip to keep quiet. At least for now. Lee was still moving comfortably, carrying his backpack with an ease that Will envied. Now was definitely not the time to challenge the man.
He was still turned slightly so didn’t see exactly what happened directly in front of him. But he heard the after effects, and figured that anyone within fifty miles probably did as well. Quickly turning forward again he had to immediately stop or he’d have stepped on Stark, face down on the muddy trail. He heard – and prayed that he was the only one who did – Chip’s sarcastic mutter of “All hail the Mighty Lard of the Jungle.” He sent the blond an uncovered grin before immediately controlling his expression and turning forward again. Given the volume of Stark’s opinion relating to a variety of topics Will assumed that the admiral was unhurt. He shared a very quick grin with Nelson – carefully over Stark’s back – and wondered briefly if his boss had heard Chip as the two offered the other admiral a hand getting back to his feet. The expression on Stark’s face made Will quickly let go of the arm he’d grabbed once Stark was once more standing.
Not so Nelson. With a barely contained grin he started wiping off some of the clumps of mud stuck to Stark’s clothes. “Gotta be more careful, Jiggs,” he teased his old friend, “and watch where you’re putting your feet. Lee can tell you all about the hazards of face-plants in the mud on jungle trails.” He sent his young captain a look that Lee returned with slightly lowered eyes at that reminder of one of Lee’s slight miscalculations.** “Did you hurt yourself?” Nelson once more addressed Stark.
“I’m just fine, Harriman,” came out in a growl so harsh that Will found himself taking a small step back even though the comment itself caused him to send Lee, the absolute master of that phrase, a slight grin. Nelson didn’t even bother hiding a quick smile, and there was a soft snort from Chip. Stark briefly stiffened but gave himself a shake. “Let’s get moving,” he ordered.
Nelson sent him another teasing grin but nodded. “By all means,” he agreed, and the men once more started walking. Will kept an eye on Stark but the admiral didn’t appear to have injured himself with his misstep.
Nelson found himself having to watch where he put his own feet as he worried about his old friend. While the initial outburst had been ‘typical Jiggs’, the almost immediate backing off was definitely not. Nelson had been prepared to spend several minutes needling Jiggs so that the focus would be on him and not a ten minute outraged diatribe on what they were doing out here in the first place. It worried Nelson to see Jiggs this unbalanced – he was much more used to the man blustering his way through whatever stood between him and what he thought was the right way to handle whatever situation he found himself in. His acquiescing so easily – on everything this entire trip – was beginning to unnerve Nelson ever so slightly.
He also wondered if there had been ‘something’ that happened between Will and Chip. As Nelson turned at the sound of Jiggs’ fall he’d seen Chip’s lips move. And the expression on the blond’s face had not been pleasant. He made a mental note to ask Will when he had the chance. So far Chip had been fairly under control. But Nelson was all too aware that he still needed to be watched.
But his attention was refocused as Lee suddenly called a halt and turned slowly in a circle, listening intently. “Lee?” he finally broke the silence that had fallen while all the men watched the strange maneuver.
“Not sure, Admiral,” Lee finally said. “I just…” He gave himself a shake and finally looked at his boss. “Thought I heard something.” He shrugged. “Guess not.”
Nelson sent the younger man a grin even though Lee’s body language said all too clearly, to anyone who knew him well, that he was still highly alert about something. Nelson had learned to trust that sense, be it sixth or sixtieth, that Lee had the ability to tap into. Now he decided to see if he could get Lee to relax a bit – he’d also noticed the several seemingly offhand movements to his temple. He was somewhat surprised that Will hadn’t yet commented on them and wondered if maybe that’s what Chip had been muttering about. “I don’t think we need to worry about the jaguar. Jiggs’ outburst has to have scared away anything within ten miles.”
Lee grinned broadly but quickly controlled it as there was a snorted ‘something’ from the other admiral. “Yes, sir,” Lee still said, the smile evident in his voice, and once more the group moved forward.
Nelson noticed that Lee still remained on alert, evidenced by his carefully controlled body movements. But he didn’t stop again until about an hour later, when the trail they’d been following opened into a small glade. Very evident in the opening was the remains of a campfire. “We’re on the trail of someone,” Nelson observed helpfully. It earned him another muttered snarl from Jiggs, and he egged it on by smiling broadly as everyone walked up to the banked ring protecting the fire pit. Lee and the two guides gave the entire area a going over but whoever had made the fire hadn’t left any other evidence. They did decide that it was a good place for them as well to spend the night, and quickly set up camp.
As Lee was finishing his meal Chip, sitting at his left, gave him a nudge. “What?” Lee challenged the blond, but softly. Nelson was entertaining the group – well, mostly the guides as everyone else had heard them before – with tales from his earliest years in the Navy.
“That’s my line,” Chip sniped right back although he, too, kept his voice low. “What’s got you on edge?” Chip had been keeping close tabs on his friend. While Lee had quit making the small movements to his temple Chip could easily read the signs of tension in Lee’s body.
Lee didn’t even bother denying it. “There’s someone out there. Or something,” he amended. “I can feel them.”
“Any idea where?” Chip easily accepted Lee’s statement. He’d learned early on not to discount Lee’s ‘feelings.’
Lee shook his head. “But we’re being watched,” he said with conviction.
“Lee?” Nelson had noticed the quiet conversation going on between his two young officers and, with the end of his current story, decided to see what had them both so intense. However, also knowing them so well, he came at it sideways. “Time for a story from you?”
It caused Chip to hiccup to bury a snort, and Lee to frown – he wasn't much of a storyteller. At least about himself. “No, sir,” he answered, keeping his voice controlled. “Just discussing how much further to your straight line in the forest.” While he was on edge, he had no wish to worry everyone else. Not yet. Not until he knew for sure that there was something to actually worry about.
Nelson didn't believe his captain for an instant. Lee's body language was far too determined, and Chip wasn't far behind. He also knew that Lee was far too good a reader of maps not to already know the answer to his question. But Nelson had no wish to screw up whatever was behind Lee's attempt at subterfuge. “If we make as good progress as we have been, another two days. However, I suspect that the closer we get, the harder it's going to be getting through the forest. I don't think that we'll be able to count on any convenient animal trails.” While he didn't challenge Lee openly, he did point a bit of an eyebrow at the younger man.
Lee merely nodded. He was pretty sure Nelson wasn't buying what he was trying to sell. It was a bit of a game the two played on occasion – each knowing that the other wasn't coming clean about 'something', and trying hard not to be the first one to give in. “And if we don't find anything to indicate that your friend's been there?”
Before Nelson could even open his mouth to answer there was a muttered snarl from Stark. Nelson sent a quick look the other admiral's direction before answering. “Guess we cross that bridge when we come to it,” he admitted. Looking around, he added, “Getting late. We'd better turn in.”
“Yes, sir,” Lee agreed. “I'll take first watch.” This time the snarl came from Chip.
“I'll stay up with you for a bit,” the blond added, surprisingly softly for how stiff he was holding himself. Lee knew better than to argue, and merely nodded.
Nelson sent the pair a penetrating look but both younger men met it with ease. And Nelson got sidetracked anyway by the groan Jiggs couldn't bury as he stood up. At his raised eyebrow, Stark muttered an “I'm fine.” He frowned when all four Seaview officers had to bury smiles. “Guess I stiffened up a bit from when I tripped, once I sat down,” he added almost under his breath.
“Understandable,” Will jumped in before Chip could make a comment, as he appeared ready to do. Will had a feeling that it wouldn't be anywhere close to politically correct. “I'll grab you a couple Ibuprofen from my pack,” and he headed for his small tent. Nelson goaded his old friend just enough to take the pills when Will returned, and the three older men settled in for the night. Nelson sent Lee one more quick look but when Lee met it openly, Nelson surrendered and followed Stark into the tent they shared. Cesar assured Lee and Chip that he would take over the watch shortly after midnight, and he and Antonio also crawled into their shared tent.
Lee and Chip were both silent for the next bunch of minutes, each deep in their own thoughts. They'd gathered enough wood when they first set up camp, laying it out close enough to the fire to help it dry out even more, so that they could easily keep the small fire going all night. The rain had let up, at least for the time being, but the forest around them was extremely damp.
Eventually Lee got up, stretched, put another piece of wood on the fire, and started to walk toward the forest on the far side of the fire, away from the tents. He was stopped by a flat, solid, “No,” from Chip.
Turning, he sent the blond a frown. “No, what?”
“No, you're not going to 'just take a look around'.”
Busted, Lee told himself. Chip knew him too well. But he still tried to talk his way out of it. “What makes you think that's what I'm going to do?” Chip just stared at him, not even bothering to answer, and Lee surrendered. Sort of. “I wasn't going far.”
“I would prefer that you didn't become cat food. Or worse,” Chip muttered.
Lee couldn't resist. “What's worse than cat food?”
Chip finally surrendered as well. “Leaving me to deal with two admirals all by myself.”
Lee snorted, then got thoughtful. “Might be worth it,” he teased his old friend, but snickered at the glare Chip sent him.
It was Chip's turn to get thoughtful. “Still out there?” he asked so softly that it was basically just mouthed. Lee's nod was equally subtle. “Damn,” Chip buried in a covered cough. But he sent Lee a raised eyebrow. “You seem more relaxed,” was his observation.
Lee shrugged and sat back down. “For whatever reason, I don't sense active hostility. But I don't know why,” he added in an almost puzzled voice.
Once again, Chip trusted Lee's 'feelings.' “Works for me,” he told Lee. While they both remained alert for any signs of trouble they, and their watch, remained quiet.
* * * *
Apparently it stayed quiet for the guides as well after they took over. Chip wasn't too sure how much sleep Lee got, but once he was assured that his friend was no longer so on edge about who or what was or was not keeping tabs on them he crashed hard. So hard, in fact, that he was mad at himself when he finally woke up and discovered that Lee wasn't in the tent. He glanced at his watch – it wasn't that late. But he hurried out only to find Lee standing by the fire, coffee mug held in both hands. It was raining hard again and Chip was happy that they'd brought so many of the light but extremely effective blue plastic tarps. He walked up to the fire and poured his own mug of coffee, and was just about to ask Lee if he still felt that they were being watched when Jamie came out of his tent and headed immediately toward the smell of coffee. The two younger men shared a quick grin.
“Not quite up to Cookie's morning standards,” Chip warned the doctor. He and Lee both decided that they didn't want a translation of the mutterings the older man made before drowning them in a long pull on his own full mug of the dark brew. Chip was once more gearing up to softly question Lee when Nelson emerged from his tent about the same time the two guides did. The coffee pot was quickly emptied, and Chip watched Lee start making another batch. He'd barely set the pot on the fire when Stark practically crawled out of the tent he shared with Nelson and they all had to listen to the other admiral's opinions about empty coffee pots. Nelson pointing out all too cheerfully that if Jiggs hadn't been the last one up there might have been some left from the first potful only turned Stark's expression darker, but at least he momentarily shut up. Chip had to turn his back – he was having a hard time controlling his own face and knew that a smirk now would only make matters worse. While he could care less about Stark, Nelson, and especially Lee, would not be overjoyed. But he listened carefully as Nelson started talking to Lee. The guides began fixing breakfast as Nelson commented on the lousy weather, thinking that with the nice camp set-up they had, it might be a good day to just stay hunkered down.
“No, sir,” Lee respectfully but firmly told his boss, and Chip turned back around. “I know that it’s not fun but we need to keep moving.” Nelson pointed an eyebrow at Lee, glanced at Chip as if to ask if the blond knew why Lee was being so adamant, and then re-focused on Lee. “The faster we find your friend,” Lee continued, although Chip could read all too well that his friend was merely trying to present a logical reason, “the faster we can get out of here and go home.” Chip figured that Nelson also read his captain only too well as Nelson looked hard at the younger man for an extended moment before finally shrugging.
“Point taken,” Nelson told him, although Chip got the distinct impression that Nelson was thinking back to Lee and Chip's quiet but intense conversation the night before. He seemed ready to press Lee for more but Stark interrupted him.
“For once I agree with your boy, Harriman,” the admiral grumbled almost begrudgingly. “We've come this far – let's get this fool's errand over and done with.” Chip was mildly surprised that Stark didn't even make the term he normally used for he and Lee sound as derogatory as he usually did.
Nelson momentarily took his gaze off Lee. “You’re sure that you don't want to rest a day? You were really sore last night.”
Chip had to quickly bury a snort and once more turn his back as Stark practically snarled at that reminder of his oops the previous day, but not before he saw Jamie have to bury a grin as he glanced at Chip. He knew that the doctor had heard his extremely irreverent comment the day before. He was just glad that apparently no one else had! “Better if I keep moving,” Chip heard Stark admit. He turned back around and noticed that even Lee was sending the older man an odd look. Nelson wasn't even trying to hide a smile.
“True,” Nelson agreed.
Chatter was light as they started breaking camp. Chip did see Nelson watching Lee rather intently as they sat down to eat a quick breakfast. But Lee was choosing to ignore the looks, although he continued to stay alert to the sounds in the trees around them. The heavy rain had most of the animals seeking shelter of their own apparently, so Chip heard very little. They left the tarp over the fire for last, and packed up everything else using it for cover. Once it came down the rain quickly squelched the fire and the group of men once more took off.
They had a surprise waiting for them. Instead of the forest becoming thicker, the trees started to thin somewhat. While they did indeed lose the game trail they'd been following, the ground cover became more grass and fern fronds and walking was actually a bit easier. Wetter, for sure, as everything was soaked without the heavy layer of tree canopy over them. But Chip felt better since he wasn't feeling so closed in, and thought that he detected a little less tension in Lee's shoulders as well.
They stopped to eat a quick lunch under a small grove of trees. Nelson looked around as he ate, a look on his face that Lee and Chip were familiar with. Something was piquing their boss' interest. It was not always a comfortable situation, depending on what Nelson ended up getting them involved in because of it. The two younger men shared a look but it was Stark who questioned his old friend. Apparently he, also, was familiar with the look. “What kind of trouble are you about to get us into, Harriman?” the admiral growled.
“What?” Nelson sent Stark a totally innocent expression. “What are you talking about, Jiggs?”
“That look,” Stark told him. “Every time I see it all hell's about to break loose.” Lee and Chip had to quickly bury snorts of laughter.
Nelson sent them both a bit of a chagrined look before turning back to Stark. “I was just postulating about why we're suddenly in more open forest.”
“Any number of reasons,” Stark muttered. “Old forest fire. Tree disease. Hell, just luck of the draw,” Stark basically blew him off.
Nelson nodded. “Agreed. But,” he added somewhat smugly, “it could also be that at one time this area was cleared for farming. Meaning, there could have been a Mayan village, or larger, nearby, and the forest is just now in the process of reclaiming the land.”
“I know of no ruins in the area,” Cesar informed the group.
“Your straight line on the map, Admiral?” Lee asked.
“One can hope,” Nelson told him with a twinkle in his eyes. Lee and Chip shared another glance between them, and Nelson sent them a slightly sheepish look as even Will chuckled.
“Your enthusiastic approach to anything new precedes you, Admiral,” the doctor teased his boss. “Although I think that this is a first. Unknown Mayan ruins?”
Nelson shrugged. “Always have loved learning about new things,” he admitted.
“Harrumph,” Stark snorted, and all four Seaview men grinned.
About an hour after their lunch stop Lee left his forward position with the guides, letting them set the course, and waited to walk back with Chip. The blond instantly recognized the set of Lee's shoulders. “Your 'feeling' is back,” he said softly, not making it a question. Lee just nodded. “I hope that you're not thinking about a sudden lone ranger,” warning Lee not to leave the group.
“No,” Lee confirmed. “Just think that an extra rear guard is a little more appropriate right at the moment.”
“Understood.” Chip tried to listen for anything that might have set Lee's 'feelers' quivering but all he could hear were the sounds they'd been hearing from the beginning: lots of birds. He remembered reading, or watching, something once about how birds would call differently if they were sounding an alarm. But as far as he could tell they sounded just like they had been. And if that was alarm-mode it was probably he and his group who they were upset about.
He was concentrating so hard that when a new sound suddenly penetrated the area all too loudly he jumped and stopped dead. Lee chuckled at him but Chip saw several others jump as well.
“Howler monkeys,” Nelson identified the new sound - low-pitched, guttural, loud, and almost scary. “Wondered why we haven't heard them before now.”
“We hear them more often in slightly more open forest, like this,” Antonio told him. “Not so much in the heavier parts of the jungle.” He shrugged. “But they go where they want,” he added with a grin.
“I wish they'd give a guy a little warning,” Chip muttered.
Lee chuckled again. “That was their warning.” Chip sent him a glare but it only caused Lee to grin more broadly, and the group once more continued on.
The howler monkeys kept the group on edge most of the afternoon but, about an hour before they’d been stopping for the night, the group hit another section of thick forestation. They left the monkeys, as well as the heavy rain, behind as they entered the heavier cover. But by then everyone was so thoroughly soaked that they took the first opportunity they found, in a small glade, to set up camp for the night and get a fire going.
Chip had continued to divide his attention between keeping an eye on Lee, who had remained on high alert all afternoon, and trying to determine what was keeping his friend that way. He’d failed miserably at the latter, which ticked him off. While he was perfectly willing to admit that Lee had much more experience keeping himself alive in these kinds of surroundings, it still bothered him that he couldn’t detect even one single thing that was different from any of the previous days. He did notice, as he and Lee and the guides got busy tying up tarps and setting up tents, that the constant tension had taken it’s toll on Lee, who wasn’t moving with his normally easy strides. He was also, off and on, closing his eyes ever so briefly, another signal to those closest to him that he was fighting a headache. Chip realized that both Nelson and Jamie were aware of it as well, and geared himself up for the battle of wills that he knew was about to happen.
He didn’t have a long wait. The first round was fired as everyone sat down to eat. Before filling his plate, Jamie walked over to where Lee and Chip were standing waiting their turn at the pot of stew the guides had produced and tried to hand Lee several pills. Lee merely glared at the doctor. To his credit, Jamie did his best not to start an argument. “Skipper,” he said with an ever so slight smile on his face, “ignoring that headache won’t make it go away. I know that you know what these pills are, and I know that you know they won’t do anything other than take the edge off. Please?” he added, and held his hand a few inches closer to Lee. Chip bent down, ostensibly to re-secure a tent peg but it was mostly to cover a snicker. When he looked up, Lee was glaring at him. But Jamie hadn’t moved, and Chip sent his long-time friend a nod as Lee relented and took the pills, quickly washing them down with a swallow from the canteen Jamie was holding in his other hand. Nothing more was said on the subject and everyone sat down to eat.
It was Nelson who fired the second volley, as Lee got ready to assign the rotating guard positions for the night. “It’s time Jiggs and I took our turns,” Nelson interrupted him as he started getting everyone sorted out. Lee tried to wave him off but he spoke a little more firmly. “No, Lee.” The tone of his voice had even Chip sitting up a bit straighter. “Tonight you and Chip take a break.” His voice softened ever so slightly. “We can do our fair share.” He grinned slightly as there was a mutter from where Stark was sitting, next to him, but it was too low for Chip to make out what the other admiral said. However, the penetrating look Nelson was sending Lee never wavered, and Lee surrendered. At least outwardly. Chip got the distinct impression, watching Lee’s body stay slightly stiff, that the battle might not yet be over. However, the look returned as everyone else headed for their tents. Lee hesitated just a moment and started to open his mouth. But all that eventually came out was a soft “Goodnight, sir,” and Lee crawled inside the small tent that he shared with Chip. The blond let out the breath that he hadn’t realized he was holding, sent a nod toward Nelson, who finally smiled, and followed Lee.
* * * *
Jiggs thought that he’d barely gotten to bed when something shook his shoulder and he snorted awake. The ‘something’ turned out to be Harriman’s hand and he grumbled to his friend. “You couldn’t have brought along a few more lackeys? That’s what the navy made junior officers for, so we could get our sleep.”
Nelson chuckled. “You’ve gotten too soft, Jiggs. I remember when we could stay up for three straight days and nights and still have enough energy to lick a pack of Marines.” His grin broadened as Jiggs merely growled something under his breath. “You need to stay in better shape, Jiggs. Exercise more. It invigorates the soul.”
“My soul is perfectly happy parked behind a desk,” came out waspishly. But Jiggs none-the-less crawled out and took his post by the fire. It was just after midnight; Nelson had stood his three hours. One of the guides would relieve Jiggs at 0300. Thankfully. There was a nearly full pot of coffee on the small fire, and Jiggs settled in for his turn on watch.
He wasn’t quite sure why there needed to be a guard posted. Oh, he understood about the jaguar. Not to mention all the other jungle wildlife. And he supposed that, as long as there was an open fire, even nicely banked as it was, someone needed to keep tabs on it. But why him! Harriman and his stupid trip! When they found Toby – IF they found Toby – Jiggs was going to rip him a new one for causing this confounded mess in the first place!
An hour later, the coffee was gone and Jiggs was feeling restless. The rain had stopped, at least for the time being. Everyone had laid wet clothes close to the fire but under the tarps, to hopefully dry out by morning. Jiggs walked around, turning things over to let the other sides dry better, then walked around the small clearing. As boredom continued to set in he walked a little further away, into the first few feet of jungle. Glancing back, he thought about grabbing the rifle that had been left out for whoever was on duty to use if necessary. There was also a machete close to the fire, to use for whatever. But he was only going a few yards and wouldn’t need either.
The night wasn’t quiet – not totally. When Jiggs stopped complaining and actually listened, there was an almost comfortable peacefulness to the night sounds. A bird high overhead, a bush rustling as something skittered further away into the dark. Jiggs was reminded of summer evenings on his grandparents’ farm in upstate New York. A city kid, the country was an amazing place for a child. He’d learned how to milk a cow – and decided rather abruptly that he preferred his milk out of the bottles left on his doorstep by the delivery guy! But feeding the chickens and gathering the eggs was kind of fun. And playing hide-and-seek in the rows of corn with his brothers. Jiggs stood quietly, letting the memories of a more peaceful time drain him of his anger and disgust at present circumstances.
Two things happened so fast that he didn’t even have time to think, let alone react, until it was all over. First, the sudden invasion to his pleasant memories by the realization that there was a snake barely six inches in front of his right foot, coiling to strike. And second, a bare arm swinging a machete materializing next to him that beheaded said snake, leaving the head laying against the toe of his boot and the body writhing in its death throes. Jiggs finally took a breath and followed the arm back to its owner.
A bare-chested Chip Morton glared at him. “You shouldn’t have left the camp,” he practically growled. “And especially unarmed.” That came out in Morton’s best Command style. Jiggs had never heard that particular tone in Morton’s voice and for an oh-so-brief moment it took him back to when he was a brand new ensign assigned to his first ship after graduating Annapolis. He’d promptly gotten lost and unfortunately been found, far from where he was supposed to be, by the ship’s COB. Master Chief Hardy had not been fond of Annapolis weenies, as he called them, in the first place, and a small shudder ran through Jiggs’ body at the memory. It instantly turned to righteous indignation at now, as an admiral, being given an order by a lowly lieutenant commander and he tried to glare at Morton. But the blond merely drove the point of the machete into the ground, all too close to Jiggs’ leg for comfort, and stalked off back toward camp. Jiggs took another glance at the snake, grabbed the machete, and quietly followed. By the time he got back to the fire the flap on the small tent Morton shared with Crane was just folding shut. Jiggs felt another shudder go through his body; he was actually a little surprised, given Morton’s current attitude toward him, that he’d come looking for him once he apparently discovered Jiggs missing. Or that he hadn’t just let the snake bite him – he’d certainly displayed that kind of anger towards Jiggs. With hands shaking far worse than he cared to admit, Jiggs made another pot full of coffee and sat down once more by the fire, the machete right next to him.
Chip wasn’t sure what had disturbed his sleep. He sent a quick glance at Lee but the dark head was settled firmly against the small pack of clothes he was using as a pillow. Now wide awake, Chip moved carefully so as not to disturb Lee and exited the small tent. He glanced at the fire but there was no one sitting there. Looking around, he just got a glimpse of Stark’s back disappearing into the edge of the jungle. Chip grunted softly, just as happy not to have to deal with the obnoxious admiral for the few minutes he needed to relax his mind before going back to sleep.
Five minutes later Chip had calmed down from whatever had disturbed his sleep, only to have his sensors start twitching because Stark had not yet returned to camp. Chip had assumed that he was just stepping off for a moment. As Chip realized that both the machete and rifle were still in camp, and with Lee’s recent ‘feelings’ beginning to ring loudly in his ears, he grabbed up the machete and headed quietly in the direction Stark had gone.
His choice of weapon had been an easy one. He had no wish to wake the entire camp with an accidental shot if he was merely over-reacting. But he almost regretted it. He hadn’t gone more than ten yards before finding Stark – and instantly realizing the danger that the admiral seemed oblivious to. In less than a split second Chip took in the fact that Stark’s eyes were skyward when the danger was directly at his feet. If Chip yelled, Stark would jump, enticing the already coiled snake to strike. Chip had no idea what kind of snake it was, but he wasn’t about to take the chance that it was a harmless, non-poisonous, variety. Silently he took one step forward, to Stark’s right side. He only meant to slap at the snake, knocking it away from Stark. But in the millisecond it took him to assess the situation and take the step, the snake took aim on Stark’s leg. Chip swung harder and faster than he originally thought he could manage and totally by accident caught the snake right behind its head, severing it. In the next millisecond the realization of what almost happened hit Chip and the combination of adrenaline and emotion threatened to overwhelm him. He managed to mutter something – he wasn’t sure later just what – but there was no way he was going to break down in front of his personal nemesis. With a deep breath he slammed down the machete and stalked back to camp. Once back at the fire he started to shake, and crawled back into the tent before Stark could catch him.
“Huh?” Chip’s entrance disturbed Lee and his head came up, although Chip had a feeling that Lee’s thoughts were probably still as fuzzy and unfocussed as his voice.
“Everything’s fine, go back to sleep,” Chip tried to say casually. While he knew he’d had little success keeping the stress out of his soft order, Lee appeared not to notice the very unusual tone in Chip’s normally so controlled voice and his head returned to his makeshift pillow.
Chip forced himself to lay totally motionless, both to avoid disturbing Lee any further and to try to get himself back under control as he let the last few minutes play back through his mind at a much slower pace than it had actually happened. He realized fairly quickly that he’d reacted totally on instinct – see danger, neutralize danger. It went completely against his nature. He was always the planner, the one who thoroughly plotted his course in advance of moving forward. He was constantly on Lee’s case because he thought his friend didn’t take enough time to assess a situation before taking action that all too often put him in harm’s way. And yet, he had just done exactly the same thing.
As he worked to get his breathing back to a normal level from the temper-driven high of the previous several minutes he was forced to admit that he’d been driven to act entirely by instinct. While recognition of the danger had passed through his thoughts, if ever so briefly, he simply did what he had to. And as he started to finally relax, almost unbidden into his thoughts came the realization that Stark, all those years ago, had probably done the exact same thing. In a very stressful, life or death situation, he’d acted instinctively. His focus had been to get those around him away safely. Once Lee knew the whole story he’d almost instantly understood and accepted Stark’s actions. As he lay there staring at the ceiling of the tent, Chip could admit that half a dozen times in the intervening weeks Lee had tried to explain that to him. But he hadn’t been ready to hear it. With 40-40 hindsight, all Chip could see was what he perceived as Stark’s inability to see that there had been other options, when in actual fact decisions had to be made in the same kind of split-second timeframe that Chip had just had to deal with. As badly as he wanted to stay angry at Stark, he felt the disgust he’d hung on to since that night in Med Bay slipping away.
Sleep, however, proved elusive. He tried to lie as still as possible so as not to disturb Lee, but then got concerned that Lee was too quiet. He very carefully reached a hand out and gently brushed Lee’s forehead, breathing a soft sigh when there was no sign of fever. The way Lee had been pushing himself, Chip would not have been surprised if there was more going on than a headache. Chip was grateful that Nelson had thought to bring Jamie along – if anyone could get Lee to behave it was the normally soft-spoken but underneath tougher-than-nails physician. Chip smiled softly to himself. And when that doesn’t work, Lee’s navy training goes a long way to making him obey a direct order from Nelson. Settling back down, Chip prepared to endure a sleepless rest of the night, his thoughts still inundated with things other than his own rest.
He heard the soft sounds of Cesar taking over the watch at 0300 and another sigh escaped thinking that, since he wasn’t going to sleep anyway, he might as well get up and let the guide get his sleep. But he figured that it would just cause a scene when it was discovered. He knew that Jamie was behind grounding Lee for the night and he figured that the doctor was keeping his eyes on Chip as well. Then he ended up creating a scene, of sorts, anyway. Falling asleep shortly before time to get up, he awoke with a start at the sound of voices and ended up crawling out of his tent at the same time Stark did, only to discover that everyone else was up.
Nelson immediately targeted the other admiral. “Jiggs, did you cut yourself last night?” At Stark’s growled negative, Nelson pointed to one of the machetes. “Cesar found blood on that when he took over the watch.”
“My fault,” Chip started to explain.
Jamie all but yelled at him. “You cut yourself?” and the doctor started his direction.
“Chill,” Chip ordered him but he was barely meeting anyone’s eyes, keeping his head mostly down. “I got up during the night, took a short walk, and ended up accidentally killing a snake. Didn’t mean to,” he told the guides. “It was probably harmless. It just…startled me.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Stark send him a look, which he chose to ignore. And he saw Nelson send a glance between the two, apparently noticing Stark’s look. Happily, he chose to stay silent about it as well.
“You don’t know what kind it was?” Nelson asked Chip instead, letting him off the hook – at least for the moment.
Chip shook his head. “Didn’t stick around to make its acquaintance.” The comment dragged a quick snort out of Lee, and even Nelson and Jamie half-smiled. Stark had his back to the conversation, studiously ignoring it. Chip was just as happy – that part of the story he’d rather not have to get into.
“Did it rattle at you?” Lee wanted to know. “There’s a form of rattlesnake in these parts.”
“No rattle,” Chip assured him. “That much I know.”
“Where were you?” Antonio, the older of the two guides, asked him.
Chip took a second to get his bearings. “That way,” he pointed. “Probably around the base of that tallest tree you can just see.” Antonio nodded and headed in the direction Chip had indicated. Chip headed for the fire and the coffee pot. He was halfway through his first cupful when the guide came back, an incredulous look on his face.
“Barba amarilla,” Antonio told Cesar.
“Yellow beard,” Lee translated.
“Fer-de-lance,” Nelson translated the translation.
“Very neatly beheaded,” Antonio continued with a nod. “You have handled a machete before,” he told Chip, his voice holding a good deal of respect.
“Got lucky,” Chip mumbled.
“You were very, very lucky, then,” Antonio told him. “If you had been bitten you might not even have made it back to camp.”
“They’re that deadly?” Stark broke his silence.
Nelson nodded. “Nasty,” he confirmed.
Chip shivered involuntarily then, to cover it, headed for where he’d left the clothes he’d been wearing the day before by the fire to dry. He folded up the jeans since he’d pulled on a dry pair the night before, but slipped the shirt over his head and put on the light jacket. He heard Lee snicker softly and sent the brunet a raised eyebrow.
Lee obliged, although his comment was sent more toward Nelson and Jamie. “Our fastidious XO is looking a tad scruffy, don’t you think?” Both older men grinned.
Chip sent his friend a scowl. “Have you looked at yourself recently?” he muttered.
Nelson decided that Lee was just trying to get everyone sidetracked away from the snake – whatever was going on with that, and he had every intention of needling Jiggs because obviously the group wasn’t being told the whole story. For now, however, he’d follow Lee’s lead. “I have to admit, Chip, that your usual sartorial spiffiness is not in evidence. And that’s not even mentioning that Lee’s dark beard, from not shaving, does look a good deal better than your blond fluff.”
Chip sniffed, actually happy that the conversation had switched topics. But he did have a reputation to uphold. “Actually, I was thinking that Lee was looking a little demonic.”
“You’re just jealous because you could never grow a decent beard,” Lee cut him off with a sneer. Nelson’s chuckles had both younger men finally getting back to business as breakfast was eaten and the camp broken down.
So far, even in the thicker parts of the jungle, walking hadn’t been difficult. But today that changed; the rain held off but the jungle closed in and both guides were forced to use machetes to cut their way through the undergrowth. Nelson, walking behind them, knew that they were both being careful as well to watch out for wildlife, especially the slinky type, and kept a careful lookout as well. Because of the slow pace all the men were fairly close together, and Nelson held off trying to get answers out of Jiggs about what had happened the previous night.
Chip was walking as usual at the rear of the line, Lee again staying back with him and listening intently to the jungle around the group. For a while Chip tried to tell what had Lee once more on edge but all he could hear was the ‘thwack’ of machetes clearing a path. He was trying so hard to keep from walking on Jamie’s heels, so slow was the group moving, that it took him by surprise that Lee had at some point disappeared. “Stop!” he called forward, then faced back the way they’d just come. “LEE!” he growled loudly.
“Where’d he go?” Stark demanded.
If I knew that I wouldn’t have yelled, Chip muttered to himself, but otherwise stayed quiet.
“Chip?” Nelson took a shot at getting an answer.
Chip sent his boss a quick flick of his eyes, but shrugged and returned to staring at their back-trail. “He’s been convinced that someone – or something – has been following us,” he finally told his boss.
“The jaguar?” it was Will’s turn to question the blond.
Chip shrugged again. “He didn’t know what it was.”
“If it was a jaguar,” Antonio offered, “I doubt that anyone would have heard anything.”
“Uhm,” was Nelson’s agreement to that comment. “How long ago did Lee disappear?” he again questioned his XO.
“Not sure,” Chip admitted. “I just now realized that he wasn’t behind me.”
Suddenly there were several shouts coming from back down the trail, only one of which sounded in any way like Lee. Everyone ran in that direction, Chip in the lead.
If Chip hadn’t been so angry at Lee for disappearing in the first place he would have been more appreciative of his friend’s skill at traversing the thick jungle undetected and make his way to where he obviously came up behind the group of four men he now held at bay with a machete in one hand and a rifle in the other. Chip quickly glanced at Antonio and Cesar but both men were still carrying their weapons. All he could do was shake his head at Lee’s ability to so quickly disarm one of the group of strangers and apprehend all of them. As Nelson started demanding answers everyone – including Lee – started talking at once. Nelson yelled for quiet, then pointed at Lee.
“They’ve been following us, sir,” the younger man answered simply.
Nelson’s glare settled on the stranger closest to him. “Why?” was his loud demand.
But it was a different man, one in the center of the group, who answered. “I’m Dr. Adam Abernathy, from the University of Arizona. I demand to know why this man,” he gestured toward Lee, “attacked us.” His tone was one of outraged indignation.
“And I demand to know,” Nelson’s voice was even louder and angrier, “why you’ve been following us?” When no answer was immediately forthcoming, his voice got lower and more threatening. “Well?” was accompanied by a look Chip had only a couple of times seen on Nelson’s face – thankfully!
It apparently undid one of the younger men in the group. “We got lost…” he started, but was cut off by Abernathy.
“Shut up, Williams, I’ll do the talking. I and my students,” he indicated Williams and the man standing next to him, “are on an expedition to track down an undiscovered Mayan temple. Our guide,” he waved a hand at the man standing closest to Lee, “got turned around. We were merely re-orienting ourselves when this man,” he waved at Lee, “assaulted us.”
“Surely it doesn’t take three days of following us to re-orient yourself,” Nelson sneered, disgust dripping off each word. “What you really mean is, you were following Dr. Toby Wild, trying to horn in on his expedition,” Nelson growled. A quick flick of Abernathy’s eyes was enough to affirm Nelson’s assessment, but the man’s expression remained defiant although he stayed silent. “Lee, who had the rifle?” Lee nodded to the man closest to him. Chip could only describe he and the other as yet unnamed man as ‘muscle’. Both were American by looks, but nothing about them even remotely suggested students. Nelson glanced at Antonio. “I’m aware of how difficult it is to obtain a gun permit in Belize for non-residents. What is the penalty for carrying a weapon without the proper permits?”
“Immediate incarceration in Hattieville prison,” Antonio answered, shuddering involuntarily. “It is very primitive. The last person I knew of who was so charged was there for over two months before there was even a hearing on his case. Then he was fined ten thousand American dollars for the gun alone, and more for the ammunition, and remained in prison until his fines had been paid, at which point he was expelled rather forcefully from the country.” Antonio shuddered again. “He was lucky that he had friends who could pay his fine or he might still be there.”
“We certainly wouldn’t want anything like that to happen to Dr. Abernathy and his group, now would we, Lee?” Nelson’s sarcasm had Chip quickly burying a snicker.
“Of course not, sir,” Lee answered calmly. Before anyone could do more than blink he dropped the machete, unloaded the rifle, and smacked the firing mechanism against the nearest tree trunk hard enough to bend the weapon into an unusable piece of junk before once more picking up the machete. “These should fit your rifle,” he told Cesar, and held out the shells to the younger guide. Chip saw the two ‘muscles’ tense, but hold their ground. When Chip looked, they were both staring at Antonio and Cesar, carrying their own rifles seemingly casually, but obviously at the ready. No one else said a word during the action, although Abernathy looked ready to spit nails.
“Now,” Nelson continued, “it would only be proper of us to offer you aid in returning to civilization, where perhaps you might obtain a guide with more expertise to aid you in your search. Cesar?” he sent the younger man a glance.
“It would be my pleasure to escort these men back to San Antonio. I do not wish them to have a bad experience in my country.” Chip admired the young guide’s quick uptake on getting rid of the group.
“As it will only take a couple of days,” Antonio interjected, “I am sure that they would like to reciprocate our help and redistribute what is in their packs.” Chip saw Lee grin at how easily the two guides jumped in to ‘take care of’ the intruders.
“A very nice gesture, indeed, for your rescue,” Nelson chided Abernathy, “by sharing what you won’t be in need of for your return to San Antonio.” While it was obvious that Abernathy and his hired goons weren’t thrilled, there wasn’t much they could do about it - especially as the student, Williams, happily assisted Chip and Nelson in quickly sorting through the packs. Nelson found a small handgun in one of them, which he tossed to Antonio along with an extra clip of ammunition. “No problem turning those in to the authorities when we get back?” he asked the guide.
“Not at all,” Antonio assured him. “I can just say that I found them on the trail, in a discarded backpack. This is a very unforgiving part of the country for people who come unprepared.” He shrugged. “A most unfortunate, but not uncommon, occurrence.” There was a snort from Stark – Chip had almost forgotten the man’s presence, so much had he been concentrating on the other group of men. He also gave an ever so brief thought to just who Cesar and Antonio really were. They had, until now, been nothing but proper local guides. But they sure had been quick to fall into Nelson’s chosen role for them with this new development. It led to thoughts of how quickly they had accepted and adapted to Nelson’s other changes in direction. Chip shook his head – there were some things he’d rather not have answers to.
It appeared that Lee might be wondering the same thing, however, from the expression on his face as Cesar headed the band of interlopers back toward San Antonio, with him walking carefully at the rear of the group. But before Chip could ponder that issue he had another one to deal with. “Just what the blazes did you think you were doing, taking off like that,” he challenged Lee, walking up to him and practically growling in the brunet’s face.
Lee half-grinned as there were a variety of snorts behind the blond, but he answered seriously as he knew anything less would just infuriate his friend all the more. “Exactly what I did,” he told Chip calmly. “Discover the danger, assess it, and neutralize it.”
Before Chip could blast him into the next time zone, as his expression all too openly alluded to, Nelson entered the conversation. “And you couldn’t possibly have let any of us know that ahead of time?” he challenged.
Lee’s expression was open as he shifted his gaze to his boss. “Didn’t want to take the risk of warning them, sir,” was his simple explanation.
“Harrumph,” Nelson growled, and Lee’s expression went ever so slightly sheepish. But he still met Nelson’s glare head on.
“You were right when you said archaeology was a cutthroat profession,” Will broke the sudden silence. “I don’t want to think what those thugs Dr. Abernathy,” and he made the title sound decidedly disgusting, “had with him would have done if they’d actually caught up with your friend.” Nelson nodded, and seemed to get himself back under control. His glance at his CMO was much milder than what he’d been sending his captain. “Are you sure Cesar will be okay,” Will continued.
Nelson’s soft chuckle confirmed Chip’s earlier thought, but he stayed quiet as it was Antonio who answered. “He will be fine,” the older of the two guides assured Will. “He has our sat phone. By now he has used it to call ahead, and someone will be coming to meet him. Do not worry that those men will bother us further.”
“Doesn’t mean that they were the only ones to try and poach on Dr. Wild’s possible discovery,” Lee theorized. “We’d better get back to tracking him down.” Reluctantly acknowledging that not so pleasant thought, the group once more got moving.
With one less guide, Lee and Chip took turns with Antonio whacking a way through the thick underbrush. It was tough enough going that they were trading off about every ten minutes or so. It was during one of Chip’s turns, as he sweated and grunted through a heavy section of brush, that a stray thought hit his brain and he chuckled softly to himself. Or, thought to himself. Behind him he heard a snort but wasn’t sure who had uttered it as he stopped, turned, and sent the rest a sheepish, lopsided grin.
“You find this amusing?” Nelson asked him, a stern look on his face slightly muted by a sparkle in his eyes, as if he’d read Chip’s mind and knew what had caused the blond’s odd reaction.
That observation caused Chip to answer a bit more openly than he might otherwise have. “Just finally getting a little revenge on those mutant plants we’ve had to deal with on occasion.” It caused a shudder or two on the other Seaview officers, but they also finally smiled as Chip went back to thwacking branches.
But another problem quickly presented itself. It became apparent during Lee’s next turn with the machete – to those who knew him only too well – that he was not at his best. Will wondered, silently, if ‘something’ had happened while Lee was out of their sight. Nelson wasn’t so silent. “Lee,” he challenged his captain when Lee, after an extra hard swing at an especially recalcitrant vine, stood still for a moment longer than seemed necessary.
“I’m fine,” came the automatic reply, although Lee kept his back to the rest of the group.
“My turn, anyway,” Chip stepped up to his friend. He was just as worried as Nelson and Will but was trying to avoid the confrontation he could see brewing.
Lee shook him off and pointed up. “Looks like we’re just about to an opening of some sort. A couple more feet,” he assured the blond. Chip looked doubtful but didn’t argue. And Nelson and Will also remained quiet as Lee took several more swings of the machete before he suddenly broke through into the open. Sort of, anyway. The group found themselves on a game trail. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief as it seemed to be headed roughly in the direction they wanted to go. Lee started to once more walk back with Chip, but Chip wasn’t taking any chances and kept Lee in front of him on what turned out to be a fairly wide trail. Lee sent him a nod and an ever so slight smile, acknowledging Chip’s self-appointed role of not letting Lee out of his sight again. The grin turned momentarily hard as Lee muttered to himself about the ‘big brother’ Chip tended to be on occasion, but it quickly went back to a grin as Chip pointed an eyebrow at him. While Lee didn’t always appreciate the position Chip had quickly established for himself all those years ago at Annapolis, their strong bonds of friendship allowed for what could have become a major conflict between the two – especially now as Chip served under him aboard Seaview. Lee rarely fussed because he knew the reasons behind Chip’s actions.
The group hadn’t gone more than half a mile on the trail when it suddenly opened into a small glade. The trail itself took a sharp turn to the north, but the rainforest in the direction the men wanted to go was once again a bit more open and everyone heaved another sigh of relief. Nelson also decided that, since they didn’t know what lay ahead, they’d camp here for the night and get some rest after their less than pleasant day. They should only be about half a day’s walk from their target of the straight line on the map, assuming that the walking remained easier than it had most of today.
Lee expected to be instantly set upon by Jamie, after allowing the headache he’d been fighting to momentarily interfere with his turn at whacking underbrush. He wasn’t disappointed, although once again the doctor came at him a bit sideways and merely offered him pain pills and water as he and Chip started setting up tarps and tents. A quick glance at Nelson, who was intently watching the interchange, had Lee quickly and quietly downing the meds. While he’d never openly admit it, his head was really pounding. They placed the tents as far to the side of the small glade away from the trail as they could – it was apparently, from its width, a well-used path. A small fire was started in front of the semi-circle of tents, and between them and the trail. No one complained about the early end to the day’s hike, a quick meal, and even quicker retreat into the tents. Antonio volunteered for the first watch, with Nelson and then Stark taking their turns. A firm look from Nelson had both Lee and Chip refraining from any argument to that schedule and the group quickly settled in for a good night’s rest.
Jiggs was roused from a restless sleep by a jaguar screaming way too close to his tent for comfort. The smell of skunk, and the rumble of ‘something’ – a combination of snorts, barks, and a multitude of running feet - were strong enough to feel like they were shaking the ground. “What the…” he growled. He started to get up when an all too human yell, followed by a scream of pain, had him moving faster than he had in way too long a time.
The sight that greeted him outside the tent was every bit as chaotic as his imagination had rapidly dredged up. A herd of at least a hundred – and probably a lot more – peccaries was running at great speed down the trail. The wild pig-looking animals were fairly small – the adults were less than two feet high at the shoulder and about four feet long, with lots of youngsters mixed in. But the adults also possessed nasty-looking tusks. As they came to the small glade they fanned out before once more jamming into the trail on the other side. Jiggs saw Antonio, along with Crane and Morton, forming a line of defense between the fire and the tents, yelling and screaming for all they were worth. A second glance showed Jamison kneeling next to a fallen body right behind the other three. The only one missing being Harry, Jiggs scurried to the body’s other side just as what seemed to be the last of the herd thundered past, apparently startled into running by the jaguar.
The fallen body was indeed Harry. As Jiggs reached his side, Jamison was running skilled hands swiftly over Harry’s body. Harry was trying to push the doctor away and sit up, and Jamison was just as insistent that he remain quiet until the doctor could determine how badly he was hurt. Jiggs almost smiled at the power in the doctor’s voice but the gentleness of his hands, and helped by restraining his struggling friend.
“Jamie,” came from behind him. Crane had half-turned, dividing his attention between the trail and Nelson, as was Morton. Antonio was maintaining a watch on the trail.
“Nothing so far life threatening,” the doctor answered, reaching for one of his bags.
“I’m fine,” Nelson grumbled, once more struggling to sit up. Jiggs heard both Crane and Morton snicker softly, and Jamison actually growled.
“Do not even try that line,” the doctor spoke slowly and succinctly, and Jiggs watched Harry change his glare to an expression of chagrin.
“What happened?” Jiggs asked, hoping to sidetrack Harry while the doctor started to treat the injuries he’d found.
“Me being an idiot,” Harry muttered. Jamison shook his head, but helped Harry sit up long enough so that he could check the Admiral’s back. The light from the fire, and the flashlight Crane was suddenly holding, showed bloody spots in several places on Harry’s legs as well as one just above his belt buckle. Harry grunted as Will made him lay back down, and Jiggs helped him off with the jeans he was wearing. Skin was gouged in four places that Jiggs could see – two on Harry’s lower left leg, one on his right thigh, and the one on his belly, all bleeding. Will immediately grabbed a handful of compresses, and he and Jiggs held them in place over the wounds. Jiggs noticed the light from Crane’s flashlight wiggling slightly and realized that the commander’s hands were shaking. He knew that there was a strong personal connection between Crane and Harry and had harassed his friend unmercifully because of it, saying that that, coupled with the friendship shared between Crane and Morton, would be Harry’s ruin. So far he’d been proved wrong but he still didn’t totally approve. The light steadied and Jiggs looked up to find Morton now holding the flashlight, and Crane knelt down next to Jiggs and helped hold the compresses firmly against the open wounds. Will went back to assessing the damage, starting to clean the wounds and putting on bandages. Between grunts of pain and not quite smothered oaths as Will disinfected the wounds, Harry started a much more explicit explanation.
“Heard the jaguar. Smelled what I thought at first was a skunk.” Jiggs nodded, mostly to himself. That’s sort of what the peccaries smelled like. “Like a plebe, I was standing in front of the fire when the first of the peccaries charged into the clearing. I think I surprised it as much as it surprised me. The quick look that I got, these were White-Lipped Peccaries. This particular variety isn’t exactly known for backing down from anything.” Jiggs just shook his head – leave it to Harry to pull that fact out of his Nobel-prize-winning brain. “I was watching it hightail down the trail when several more appeared.” Harry had to take a second to get his breathing back under control as Will splashed a dose of antiseptic on the belly wound and prepared to put in a few stitches. “The next thing I knew, a couple of the beasts charged me about the same time I heard yelling and was grabbed and hauled behind the fire.” Jiggs saw Crane send his boss an almost shy look – he’d seen Crane do that before and it always threw him a curve. It was an unusual expression on a man in his position of command. Harry tried to grin at his young officer, but to Jiggs it looked more grimace. “Thank you,” Harry told Crane.
When Crane didn’t answer, Morton did. “The jaguar woke us both up. I wasn’t big on tackling a skunk, but when Lee went charging out of the tent I figured that I must be missing something.”
“Smelled that particular smell before,” Crane finally muttered, and Jiggs sent him a look. He knew, of course, that Crane still ran missions for ONI – much to Harry’s disapproval. Jiggs was learning – if somewhat slowly – to not underestimate the younger man’s eclectic list of talents. “Knew just how aggressive they can be.”
“They have been known to kill jaguars,” Antonio added. “If one of their band is attacked and injured, the rest will turn and attack the intruder. I apologize,” he added with genuine feeling. “I should have insisted that we make camp further away from that trail.”
Jiggs watched Harry shrug off the statement, grunting once more as Will started in on the first of the leg wounds. “If I’d have kept the fire between me and them, this,” he waved a hand at himself, “wouldn’t have happened.”
“Well, now that it has…” Jamison started to grumble.
“I’ll be fine.” Jiggs welcomed a more normal sound to Harry’s voice. “A little sore,” he continued, as Jamison looked ready to do some muttering of his own.
“A lot sore,” the doctor corrected him. “There’s no way you’ll be fit to travel for at least a full day. Maybe longer – you lost more blood than you apparently think you did.”
“We’re less than half a day from our target.” Jiggs almost held his breath as Harry glared at the doctor. Harry wasn’t a man you argued with – and won.
“I don’t give a rip,” Jamison glared right back. “You’re not going anywhere until I say so.” Jiggs had to bury a snort of his own as the doctor emphasized his point by smacking an antibiotic-laced bandage on the gouge on Harry’s thigh that he was working on, causing Harry to suck in his breath.
Lee and Chip exchanged quick looks, and it wasn’t lost on Nelson. He wasn’t sure why he was so surprised at Will’s stubbornness – he’d stood back many a time and watched the doctor put his two strong-willed senior officers in their place. He sent his CMO a small nod of acquiescence and looked at Jiggs. “You take off in the morning with the others,” Harry told his friend.
Before Jiggs could even sputter a reply, Crane stepped in. “No, sir. I’m not leaving you and Doc alone.”
“We can’t afford to waste any more time,” Nelson countered.
“I’ll stay behind,” Jiggs broke into the building argument. “I think I still know how to defend a position.” Jiggs knew that last came out in a sneer, and he expected Harry to laugh at him.
But instead, Harry just shook his head at Jiggs. “No, Jiggs. You have to go. Toby’s already been followed. He doesn’t know either Lee or Chip and might have trouble believing or trusting them.”
Chip had been watching Lee and thought that he knew what was going through his friend’s brain. There was no way Lee was going to abandon an injured Nelson, no matter how safe he might be or who was left to guard him. So, Chip did the only thing he could think of to do. As much as it went against every bone in his body! “How about a compromise,” he offered softly. “Lee, you stay here with Jamie and the Admiral. It makes sense, with that headache you’re still fighting.” Chip knew that he was going to regret that jab but he was willing to use whatever weapons he had at his disposal. “Admiral Stark, Antonio, and I will take off first thing in the morning and see what we can find. Between Antonio and GPS, we shouldn’t have any problems meeting back here once we determine what that straight line is – hopefully with Dr. Wild and his party in tow.”
Chip wasn’t at all surprised at the looks instantly shot his direction at that proposal and very carefully maintained a neutral expression. He could only imagine what was going through Nelson’s and Jamie’s minds, but Lee’s thoughts were written only too plainly across his face. There was complete silence, even from Stark, until Nelson finally broke it. “Sounds like a workable solution to me,” he said simply, although the expression on his face was one Chip didn’t see very often – one of subtle doubt. Chip almost let a small grin show, that he’d been able to surprise his boss that much. But he did at least partially acknowledge it with an ever so quick tilt of his head.
“Now that that’s settled, will you please lay still and let me finish putting bandages in place?” Will muttered at Nelson, which effectively got everyone back to the business at hand. Chip caught half a dozen little looks sent his direction as he and Lee maintained a watch, along with Antonio, until Jamie had Nelson settled back in his tent. Lee’s look was long and hard as the pair also settled in for what was left of the night, and Chip finally sent his friend a grin. “While I could care less,” he said softly, “the Admiral would be ticked if I didn’t bring Stark back in one piece.” The statement finally caused Lee to smile.
“Thanks,” however, was all Lee told him. It was enough, between the friends.
Chip wasn’t sure how much Lee slept the rest of the night but he barely closed his eyes. The jaguar made its presence known several more times, always fairly close to the tents but behind them in the forest, away from the fire. Chip wondered silently if perhaps it had made a kill of a small peccary, that being what had stirred up the herd, and also what was keeping the jaguar so close. He hoped so – it meant the big cat wouldn’t need to go hunting anything else for a while. He wasn’t sure if jaguars carried their kills up into trees to eat, and wasn’t about to go find out.
He wasn’t thrilled with his first look at Nelson when the older man crawled out of his tent the next morning. Chip was just finishing his second cup of coffee, and was glad that Jamie had been adamant that his boss not be going anywhere for a while. Chip couldn’t remember the last time that he’d seen the Admiral look so bad. He was trying to put on a brave front but was noticeably in pain, and his hands shook as he accepted the coffee Lee instantly poured for him. Chip had to quickly turn his back as Jamie started fussing over their boss, and noticed Lee struggling to keep a grin off his face as well. The pair might mutter long and hard at the doctor when he got in their faces about medical issues, but they both did honestly value Jamie for his skills as well as his patience. And it was actually kind of fun to see the doctor ‘aimed’ at someone other than them! Chip sent Lee a quick wink, and smiled when Lee had to bury a snicker in a not well disguised cough.
Chip understood only too well that Lee was struggling with wanting to be in two places at once – watching over a damaged Nelson and continuing the hunt for Dr. Wild. He wanted to reassure Lee that he, Chip, had the second part covered, leaving Lee to only have to worry about the first. The pair shared another quick nod before turning to help prepare breakfast.
After some discussion it was agreed to leave the tents where they were and for the three leaving to only carry their bedrolls and one tarp – hopefully they wouldn’t be gone long enough to need anything more than that. They decided to carry supplies enough for three days, just in case, so everyone’s backpacks were lighter when they left. They each carried a machete, Antonio had his rifle as well, and Chip still had the small handgun hidden in his pack. He had no idea if Antonio knew about it or not, and wasn’t about to ask. As Chip hadn’t been paying a whole lot of attention to the map Lee gave him a quick catch-up, and both knew that Antonio was comfortable with that part as well.
The jaguar let loose a rumbling snarl as the three men prepared to set out. “Don’t get eaten,” Lee ordered Chip, faux-sternly.
“You’re the one it seems to be hanging around,” Chip sniped back. “Must be a female.” Jamie muttered something too low to be understood, Nelson chuckled, and Stark gave his head a quick shake as he started to follow Antonio away from the camp. Chip once more took up his position at the tail end of the line.
Thankfully, as they’d hoped, the walking stayed fairly easy. Not totally – the rainforest did once more close in on them. But they were still, with only a few turns to avoid major growths of underbrush, able to stay on a roughly straight course, and about 1300 hours came to what they all assumed to be the ‘straight line’ on the map. Unfortunately it wasn’t in any way, shape or form an ancient Mayan temple, but instead a simple escarpment of rock. Stark choked off what started out as a string of expletives.
While Chip secretly agreed with Stark’s opinion, he tried to remain objective. “I suppose that we’d better scout around, just in case.”
“Harry will shave our tails if we don’t,” Stark muttered. He sent Chip a look that said only too clearly that Chip better not repeat that crack. Chip merely nodded, not committing himself to keeping the comment from going any further, and they started to walk around the base of the escarpment. Antonio commented that it was, indeed, a bit of a puzzle what such a wall of rock was doing here, seemingly standing on its own, while the ground anywhere near was for the most part pretty flat. He did say that there was some mountainous land not that far away, but still this escarpment was an anomaly. The tree cover kept them from seeing much of the top. Or, for that matter, much of the bottom. On general principles, Chip took a second to study what rocks that he could see. While he couldn’t be sure, the rock wall appeared to be a natural formation. Nothing stood out as being man-made, at least to his untrained eye. The sides were completely obscured so there was no way at this point to know how the ground was shaped beyond the wall of rock. The trio headed left, just because there wasn’t any pressing reason to go right first.
The shot came without warning, and without any clear idea which direction it came from except that it nicked Jiggs’ left shoulder. He dropped to the ground, as did both Chip and Antonio. “Sir?” Chip asked quietly.
“Just a scratch,” Jiggs growled, although he was also almost whispering. “Did you see where it came from?”
“Not a clue,” Chip admitted.
“I think…” Antonio started, but was interrupted as another shot landed barely a foot to his right. All three men slithered as best they could to the left. Chip had a good look at Stark’s shoulder but the admiral had apparently given an honest assessment. At least, Chip didn’t detect any major bleeding.
“That way,” Antonio pointed toward the end of the escarpment that they’d been headed for.
“You saw someone?” Jiggs demanded.
“Unfortunately, no,” Antonio told him. “But I am sure that is where the sound came from.”
“Rifle.” Jiggs’ certainty of that came easily through even that one word.
“Yes,” Antonio confirmed. “Very similar to mine, I think.” The guide’s rifle wasn’t monstrous, but sufficient for what he might need it for in the wild country he often found himself in.
During the brief conversation Chip had retrieved his small handgun and tucked it into his waistband at the small of his back. “You two hang here,” he told both Stark and Antonio. “I’ll backtrack a bit and try to work my way around behind whoever’s taking potshots at us.”
“I’m in charge here,” Jiggs ordered.
“Fine,” Chip immediately acquiesced. “What’s your plan?”
Jiggs was severely tempted to smack the insolence out of the younger man’s voice. Fortunately, logic and leadership kicked in before temper. It almost surprised him – it had been far too long since he’d felt this comfortable in his own skin. “You’ve got twenty minutes before we follow you,” he ordered with a glare.
“Aye, aye, sir.” Chip kept his voice carefully neutral. He didn’t bother with a salute – he wasn’t sure he could pull it off correctly, under the circumstances. Instead, he shucked out of his backpack, sent Stark a quick nod, and took off.
Chip wished immediately that he’d paid more attention to how Lee had been maneuvering through the territory instead of trying to figure out what sounds had been triggering Lee’s ‘ninja’ senses. Well, he admitted to himself, that hadn’t worked out so well, either. Unfortunately. He did the best that he could at keeping low, keeping quiet, and keeping sufficient cover between himself and the escarpment while working his way in a large semi-circle to hopefully come out behind whoever was objecting to their presence.
As he figured he was well past the line of rocks he carefully wiggled forward, toward what should be whatever was behind the formation. The ground had risen slowly as he worked his way around, which he’d been expecting. What he wasn’t expecting was the sight of what gave the appearance of a whole lot of dirt mounded against, and falling away from, the backside of the wall of rocks, giving the whole thing the illusion of having been man-made. From the amount of vegetation growing on the mound it hadn’t been done any time recently. Probably at least a hundred years, he was telling himself when, without warning, his head exploded and everything went black.
* * * *
As each minute passed, Jiggs’ temper came closer to the boiling point. How dare Harry’s upstart XO challenge my authority, he steamed silently. Probably figures, after that mess with the snake, I’m an incompetent ashcan! He snorted softly. We’ll see about that. No way is a lowly lieutenant commander going to give me orders. That’s what junior officers are there for – to do what they’re told to do, and his fist slammed the ground. Antonio sent him a quick look as they hunkered down, trying not to give away their location and still stay on the lookout for anyone who might try to sneak up on them. Jiggs took a deep breath, shook off Antonio’s unspoken question, and worked hard to get himself back under control.
Ever since he’d had to come clean about what had lead to Crane’s father being killed he’d been questioning his ‘right’ to send others off to do things that he might not want to do himself. What gave him the authority to order others into possibly dangerous circumstances? Why was he so much better than they were that he could make life or death decisions for someone else? And yet… Military life was different than other professions. People who chose the lifestyle expected to be given orders by superior officers. And the nature of the beast meant that they were often asked to put themselves in harm’s way in the pursuit of protecting others.
Jiggs sighed heavily and gave his head a shake. Why had he suddenly forgotten that? Yeah, Harry had all but ripped him a new one for keeping quiet all those years. But it hadn’t actually been any of Harry’s business! What right did he have to be ticked, even if Crane was one of his ‘golden boys’? The mission hadn’t involved Harry in any way. Consequences be damned. Jiggs had to physically stop himself from once more driving his fist into the ground. It’s my job to make decisions for the overall best outcome. I can’t be responsible for each individual involved. It doesn’t work that way! He was disgusted with himself for having forgotten that!
Again he sighed heavily. However, he admitted, I’d better make sure Morton doesn’t get himself killed. Harry will make my life so miserable that I’d have to retire. And damned if I’ll let that happen! He glanced at his watch. The twenty minutes were up and there hadn’t been a sound from either Morton, or whoever had fired at them. Time to go find out what the blazes was going on.
He’d almost forgotten about Antonio. When he finally stopped condemning himself for his faults he realized that the guide was watching him closely. Jiggs frowned. “Just an old man reminding himself what an ashcan he can be,” he grumbled softly, causing Antonio to send him a quick grin.
Jiggs had almost forgotten that as well. “Just a scratch. The bullet barely nicked me.” He shrugged. “We need to go find Morton.” Antonio nodded. They both tucked their backpacks, along with Morton’s, under some brush and slithered off in the same direction Chip had headed earlier.
All was quiet as they slowly worked their way around to the side of the escarpment. Jiggs was all too aware that he wasn’t nearly as quiet as he’d like to be, emphasized by the glances Antonio kept giving him. It only added to the disgust Jiggs was feeling about himself and he vowed, once he was back on base, to start taking better care of himself, exercising more and getting into better shape. He could only imagine what Harry would have to say when he found out – and Jiggs had absolutely no doubt that Harry would find out. Nothing much – about anything – got past his old friend. The man had friends everywhere. Now, if he’d just not have them in the boondocks! Jiggs grumbled to himself as he followed Antonio as best he could through the underbrush.
As they started to approach the side of the…whatever…they’d found, the ground started to rise and the underbrush grew denser. Jiggs was letting Antonio take the lead. He gave an ever so brief thought, now that he was back in charge of himself, that he should also be in charge of this portion of the mission. But he’d caught the subtle shift in relationships that had occurred when they’d apprehended Abernathy and his trained goons. He wasn’t sure why he’d been surprised – Harry always did have a talent for thinking outside the box, so to speak, and throwing a curve into everything he did. Jiggs had never quite been able to keep up, and there had always been that slight competitive edge between them. For a long time he’d thought that Harry had snagged first Morton, and then Crane, out of his chain of command just because he knew that it would torque Jiggs. Jiggs did come to realize that Harry valued both for the same talents that Jiggs saw in them – but he wasn’t about to ever admit that to Harry!
Antonio suddenly stopped his forward crawl and Jiggs had to bring himself back to the present in a hurry. The guide was staring ahead of their location and, Jiggs realized slightly belatedly, listening intently. Jiggs tried to detect what had alerted the man. He didn’t hear or see anything at first – just what he’d been seeing and hearing for far too many days now. But he was just thinking that there was a slightly different rustling off to his left when suddenly Antonio jumped up, yelled ‘something’, and fired his rifle. Jiggs thought that Antonio had fired into the air, meaning to frighten more than injure, especially accompanied by the yell. But suddenly there were several answering shots that were definitely not into the air. Antonio was hit in the leg and Jiggs caught another round almost on top of the first one on his left shoulder, this one deeper into his flesh, and involuntarily he let out a string of epithets worthy of a master chief, ending with a very loud “Who the hell are you?” as he flung himself one way and Antonio the other.
There was immediate silence. Jiggs had his right hand clamped over his new wound, which was burning and bleeding, and was watching Antonio inspecting what damage had been done to his lower left leg, when there was a soft, questioning, “Jiggs?” that came from the same direction as the shots.
Jiggs felt his already worked-up temper flare even higher. “Toby?” he growled with all the power his stars had earned him over the years.
There was some muttering that Jiggs couldn’t make out. He shared a look with Antonio as they could hear someone moving toward them. Antonio had his rifle at the ready but maintained his silence, as did Jiggs, while they listened to steps cautiously coming closer. Again there was a questioning, “Jiggs?” This time Jiggs recognized the sound of Toby’s voice, and sat up.
“Yes, you old goat,” Jiggs snarled. “Stop your shooting!” Moments later two people came into view, both armed with rifles similar to the one Antonio carried. One was his old friend, the other was a woman, probably in her mid-twenties, who Jiggs took to be one of Toby’s archaeology students. “Who the hell did you think we were,” Jiggs demanded, “to shoot first and ask questions later?”
“We were being followed…” the woman started, before Toby cut her off.
“You’re hurt,” Toby blurted out.
“Ya think?” Jiggs muttered, and stood up. “What’s going on?” he demanded in his best ‘I am an admiral’ voice, sharing his glare between the two. “And what have you done with Morton? If you’ve killed him…”
“Six feet, blond…” the woman started. Jiggs nodded. “I...ah…”
“He’s back in camp,” Wild interrupted again. “Come on, let’s get you there as well, and treat your wounds.” He sent Jiggs a look. “I’m sorry, but after we discovered who was following us…”
“Some dude named Abernathy,” Jiggs growled.
Toby nodded as he helped Antonio to his feet, and then led the way back in the direction he and the woman had come. “A professional adversary that I, unfortunately, allowed to overhear my plans. But…” he sent Jiggs a questioning look, “what are you doing here?”
“A fool’s errand,” he muttered not quite under his breath before speaking a bit louder. “When Matt Bench couldn’t reach you by sat phone, and no one at Harvard had heard from you, he got worried.”
“When I realized that we were being followed I turned it off, and then stomped on it to totally break it. I was afraid that’s how Abernathy was keeping tabs on us, even though we’d gone out of our way to mis-direct him.” He sent Jiggs another look. “And everyone else. We thought.”
“Blame Harry,” Jiggs muttered.
“Harry? He’s with you?” and Wild looked around.
“Back about half a day’s travel,” Jiggs told him just as the group entered a small encampment. There were three others already there, two men about the woman’s age by a small fire, and one closer to Wild’s age puttering around the base of what was apparently the backside of the escarpment. Jiggs could now see that it looked like someone, obviously a very long time ago, had pushed dirt against the rock wall – or maybe built the rock wall expressly for the purpose of pushing dirt against it. He really didn’t care one way or the other. There was also a small mound of humanity, with blond hair, trussed up and gagged, laying on it’s side, unmoving. “Morton,” Jiggs yelled, and glared at Toby.
“I gather that he’s with you,” Toby said sheepishly.
“One of Harry’s officers,” Jiggs confirmed.
“Oh, sh…” the woman exclaimed. She sent Jiggs a look of total embarrassment. “I…ah…sort of cold-cocked him with the butt of my rifle when I caught him sneaking up on us.”
“Why didn’t you just shoot him like you tried to do with us?” came out of Jiggs’ mouth before he could stop it. She turned bright red, opened her mouth but nothing came out, and instead headed to untie the blond.
Toby finally took charge. He introduced everyone as he had Jiggs and Antonio sit down by the fire and, along with one of the others, started checking and dressing the men’s wounds. “Gillian Brey,” he nodded toward the woman, “Mike Dorsey and Phil Banks,” he identified the two younger men, “are students of mine at Harvard. Dr. James Hill is a colleague who’s been down here before with me.” There was a groan from Morton’s direction and again the woman went bright red as she checked his head. She tried to help the blond sit up but apparently Morton wasn’t quite ready to return to consciousness – he rolled over and was once more still. “I gather Matt called Harry?”
Jiggs nodded as Toby taped a bandage in place on his shoulder. The bullet had gone straight through as had, apparently, the one that hit Antonio. “He called Harry to see if he’d talked to you. Once it was decided that you were missing,” he sent Toby another glare, “he asked Harry to come find you.”
“But…” Toby sent his old friend another puzzled look. “How did you get involved?”
Jiggs frowned. He wasn’t exactly sure himself how he’d let himself be hornswaggled into coming along, it had happened so fast. He was finally starting to understand what had led Harry into dragging him along, but he sure wasn’t about to admit that to Toby! “Long story,” he finally said, almost self-consciously, and then covered it with another glare.
“How come Harry’s not with you here?” was Toby’s next question, so Jiggs spent a few minutes hitting the highlights of the trip so far.
“So,” he finished, “did you find what you were looking for?” He didn’t particularly care but it was a way to change the subject.
Toby shrugged. “Not really,” he admitted. “There’s something about this,” he tossed a hand at the mound of dirt, now covered with brush, “that suggests it isn’t natural.” He shrugged. “But we’ve come at it from all directions and can’t find a thing. There doesn’t appear to be tool marks, or markings of any kind, on the rocks, and we’ve found nothing to indicate that this is anything other than a mound of dirt. We were just about ready to start back when we discovered that we had been followed – again. We thought that we’d ditched Abernathy, but…” He got a firm look on his face. “We for sure didn’t want him finding this.” He sent Jiggs another apologetic look. “We really did only mean to scare you off.”
“What about him?” Jiggs waved a hand at Morton just as there was another moan from the blond.
Ms. Brey answered, still kneeling down next to Morton. “He got close to our camp before I heard anything.” She didn’t quite turn so red this time. “It was my turn on guard duty – I whacked him before I really thought about what I was doing.” She looked down at Morton, then back up. “He’s really a naval officer?” Her expression turned almost sick.
“Lt. Cdr. Charles Morton,” Jiggs confirmed. He looked at Toby. “Harry’s XO aboard Seaview.” Ms. Brey’s expression really did turn sick at that. “How hard did you hit him?” Jiggs growled at her.
“Pretty hard,” she admitted. “He scared me, getting that close before I saw him.”
“I’ll live,” was mumbled, and Morton carefully rolled over onto his back. “Lee’s never going to let me live this down – taken out by a graduate student.” The disgust was clearly evident in his voice although he allowed Ms. Brey to help him sit up, and did send her half a smile.
“Sorry,” she told him shyly.
Chip tried to shrug, decided that wasn’t such a good idea right at the moment, and looked around, noticing Stark’s and Antonio’s bandages for the first time. He sent the woman what he hoped was one of his better command glares. Apparently it lacked something in translation, although Dr. Wild did catch the intent.
“You’ll have to blame me for their injuries, I’m afraid,” he admitted. “We searched you but you didn’t have any I.D. We figured that Abernathy had somehow managed to follow us, even though we thought that we’d lost him.”
“In my backpack,” Chip told him, and looked at Stark.
“With ours,” he said, tossing a hand toward Antonio. “Tucked under some brush back where you left us.”
“I will go get them,” Antonio offered. “It is too late to start back to Admiral Nelson today.”
Everyone agreed to that logic. There was some concern as to the gunshot wound in his leg but he assured everyone that he was okay to travel that short a distance. By morning, he told them, he’d be ready to go. Dorsey and Banks went with him to retrieve the packs. Jiggs would have liked to call Harry and let him know what was going on. And, to make sure Harry was mending okay. But since Toby had destroyed his sat phone that was out of the question. Toby and company started breaking down their camp that evening. Jiggs could tell that he was still troubled by the enigma of the escarpment but couldn’t justify staying any longer – especially now that Harry and company had come looking for them.
His own injury all but forgotten, Jiggs spent the rest of the afternoon and evening ruminating over the events of the last nine days. He wasn’t quite ready to assimilate everything that had happened – not just yet. He did admit that, once again, Harry had been one step ahead of him. He could cheerfully smack his old friend upside the head! But he also admitted that he’d probably buy him a bottle of Glenlivet instead. After telling him, in no uncertain words, what he thought of Harry’s tactics! When they were once more alone. Definitely not during however long it took them to get home.
He shook his head as he sat by the fire that evening. And Harry will no doubt just look smug, like he always does when he outsmarts me, Jiggs admitted silently. He thought back to that night, in NIMR’s Med Bay, when Harry had forced him to come clean about what had happened so many years before. Harry had been fierce in his insistence that Crane be told the truth. And in retelling the tale, something inside Jiggs had caused him to doubt decisions he’d made so many years ago. Even when Crane seemed to accept what had happened, Jiggs was no longer so sure.
He glanced over to where Morton, obviously still suffering a significant headache, was flirting softly with Ms. Brey. He suspected Harry’s fine hand in whatever was going on there, as well, but it was an enigma that he had no intention of tackling. He’d never been able to figure Morton out and therefore had just blustered his way through any time they’d been together. He did think that he had a better grasp of Morton’s loyalties to Harry, and especially to Crane. There was still something…disquieting about the man. Maybe he’d just spent too many years around Crane, learning to ignore superior officers!
Jiggs snorted softly to himself. And, he admitted, at himself. Obviously both younger men had spent too many years around Harry! He was going to be so glad to get back to San Diego – he was more than ready for his own turf, his own chaos!
* * * *
“Hold still, Admiral,” Will fussed, “or I’ll never get these stitches out.” They’d been back at NIMR almost a week, and Nelson’s injuries from the peccaries were healed just enough to be itching madly. Will had finally consented to remove the several stitches he’d had to put in to close the most serious of the wounds – the one just above Nelson’s belly button. But the man’s wiggling wasn’t making it easy.
“I’m trying,” Nelson growled, but held himself as still as he could until Will had clipped out the stitches and rubbed the area with an antibiotic cream that would also ease the itching – at least for awhile. As Nelson sat up and started buttoning up his shirt he glanced at the doctor, across the small treatment room washing his hands after stripping off his gloves. “Talked to Jiggs this morning,” he said casually.
Will took the bait, turned, and pointed the expected eyebrow at his boss while he dried his hands. “And…?” he encouraged.
Nelson grinned. “Apparently I interrupted him reaming out one of his sub captains for screwing up some part of the recent war games.” He chuckled. “Gawd, was it good to have the old, irascible, bad-tempered Jiggs back again.”
Will grinned back. “I suppose that means you’d better not repeat what Chip called him.” It was Nelson’s turn to raise an eyebrow, and Will obliged. “When Stark tripped that day, Chip muttered something about ‘hail the mighty lard of the jungle’.”
Nelson laughed so hard he had to momentarily hold his stomach. “No,” he admitted, once more under control – sort of. “Missed that one.” He still couldn’t quite control his snickers.
“You ever hear what happened with the snake?” Will asked.
Nelson shook his head. “Jiggs refused to talk about it. Chip?”
“Same thing,” Will told him. “At least, as far as I know. Lee, I understand, has asked him repeatedly but he won’t budge.” He grinned. “Of course, Lee also teases him about how he got the concussion, so…” He shrugged.
Nelson chuckled again as he slid off the treatment table. “Poor Chip. He’s constantly on Lee’s case about coming back hurt from ONI missions, and he can’t get himself back in one piece, either.” Both men grinned. “I do, however, keep expecting a request for leave time from him so he can fly back east.”
Will chuckled. “He did hit it off with Ms. Brey.”
“Hit being the operative word,” Nelson told him.
“In several different definitions,” Will agreed. He shook his head. “Whatever happened, mission accomplished?”
“I think I just got lucky,” Nelson admitted.
“However everything happened, I’m just glad to have everyone back to normal,” Will told his boss with feeling.
“Amen,” Nelson agreed, and each headed back to their offices.
* see Jigsaw by R. L. Keller
** see The Code by R. L. Keller