Feathered Friend

By R. L. Keller



Of all the lame-brained, idiotic, absolutely asinine stunts you’ve pulled, Crane, this one has to be the all-time stupidest!  Lee almost looked around; it sounded so much like the beginnings of one of Chip’s tirades.  Instead, he gave himself a wry grin – he’d been talking to himself.  Might as well get in a little practice, he admitted.  Chip was going to have a field day over this one.  The head of steam he’d all too quickly build up when he found out might not ever cool off.


It had all started fairly innocently.  Famous last words, Lee sighed heavily.  So many of my vacation disasters start the same way – with Jamison on the warpath.  Geesh.  You’d think he’d learn by now…


Seaview had docked six days ago, after almost a month at sea.  Before that, she’d been out slightly over five weeks, with only a week between the two cruises.  Most of the crew had that week off.  Admiral Nelson had gone to Washington for two days, then spent the rest of the time visiting with old friends in Boston.  Chip had spent most of the time with his family.  Even Dr. Will Jamison had headed out for a few days of fishing.  Lee had originally planned to spend the time with his Mother but there had been a message from her on his machine at home, apologizing that she’d had to leave suddenly to track down a story in Italy, and she’d call him when she got back.  Over the years Lee had gotten used to his only surviving relative’s sudden departures.  As a freelance writer she was always tracking down interesting leads, no matter where they took her.  Lee just shrugged his shoulders, called to cancel his flight, and spent the time in the office trying to unbury himself from the mounds of paperwork that always accumulated.  That fact didn’t get picked up on by the other senior officers until three days into the following cruise, when Lee injudiciously mentioned it after Chip asked about Lee’s Mom.  Chip, of course, had lit into him immediately for not even taking a few days off to relax, whether he went back East or not, and had then promptly ratted on him to the Admiral and CMO.  Nelson, predictably, was fairly philosophical about his workaholic Captain; probably because he himself was an even worse one.  Not so Dr. Jamison, although he took a rather circuitous route to make his point.  After an initial round of grumbling, Jamie had actually kept fairly quiet on the subject until Seaview was four days from her return to port.  But from that point on, he made a habit of ‘reminding’ Lee that it had been far too long since Lee had taken any leave time.  The first day Lee had just smiled at his CMO, basically ignoring the little jabs.  But the closer Seaview got to home, the more pointed the barbs became.  At this point Admiral Nelson and Chip joined the fray and Lee had, in self-defense, finally backed down and agreed to go spend a few days away from the Institute.


“A week – at least,” Jamie had demanded.  “I don’t want to see your sorry face inside the Institute fence for a solid seven days!”


“Not a problem,” Lee had quipped.  “I’ve got enough reports to work on, I can do them at home and don’t have to come in.”  The grin on his face only served to tick off the CMO even further, and got both Admiral and XO involved in the discussion.  Lee quickly found himself badly outnumbered, and grudgingly surrendered to the inevitable.  His friend, Pete Sinclair, had a small cabin in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a few hours East of Fresno.  Since Pete spent most of his time at Logan Sealab he wasn’t there much, and was always telling Lee to make use of it any time he wanted.  Lee supposed now was as good a time as any, and acknowledged he’d run up there for a few days.


“Not a few – seven!” Jamie demanded.  “No less, and preferably even more.  By some miracle you haven’t ended up in Sick Bay these last two cruises.  You can’t even use that as an excuse for getting a break from work.  I mean it, Skipper.  Either you take vacation time, or I stand you down for Seaview’s next cruise.”


“You wouldn’t dare,” Lee threatened, his expression dark, his voice hard.


“Don’t bet on it,” Jamie returned the challenge.


The resulting staring match between the two equally stubborn officers was broken up by Admiral Nelson sidetracking the CMO in one direction and Chip maneuvering Lee in the other.  By that evening the two combatants were back on speaking terms – sort of.  Conversation the rest of the cruise was kept to neutral topics.


But once Seaview was docked and settled in comfortably for what was to be a three-week layover to have some electrical components upgraded, the CMO went looking for his recalcitrant CO.  Nelson and Chip were one step ahead of him, and all four met in the Observation Nose.  Lee had been prepared for battle, citing half a dozen project proposals he needed to go over before feasibility reports could be made.  But once again Nelson and Chip sided with Jamie and Lee was quickly – and almost quietly – ousted.


Twenty-four hours later found Lee carrying boxes of supplies and his duffel bag into his friend’s cabin.  It was fairly small.  Fine for Pete, who was so rarely there anyway.  Living and kitchen areas made up the ground floor, with a staircase along one wall that led to the half-floor sleeping loft above.  Because the mountainous area received heavy snows during the winter, the cabin had been built with a steep peaked metal roof.  The eaves continued down to the ground, making storage areas on each side of the house.  One held lawn chairs and furniture that could be put out on the front porch that faced the small lake the house sat near.  The other was reserved for firewood for the wood stove that was used for cooking, as well as heating the cabin when the fireplace wasn’t enough.  There was no phone line this far up the mountain, but a small gas generator supplied power for lights, a few small appliances, the pump on a small well behind the cabin, and an emergency short wave radio.  Lee wasn’t even sure what the boxes and duffel held that he was hauling into the cabin.  Chip was so convinced that Lee couldn’t pack decently for a week in the mountains, he’d taken so few vacations, that he’d shown up at Lee’s place with the foodstuffs already bought.  Then he’d packed Lee’s bag for him while Lee stayed downstairs muttering murderous threats that Chip better not screw up any of the refits while he was gone.  Chip had just smiled when he’d returned downstairs with the packed duffel.  He’d grabbed Lee’s car keys, saying the sports car was inappropriate for where Lee was going, threw Lee’s bag in Chip’s SUV, which already held the boxes of supplies, and then practically had to throw Lee in as well.


“Oh, and Lee,” Chip had mentioned casually as a very disgruntled Lee started the engine, and reached to clip his seat belt.


“What?” Lee growled, favoring his favorite friend with one of his best command glares.


Chip was, as usual, totally unaffected. It only worked when the two were on duty – any other time Lee didn’t stand a chance.  Smiling broadly, the blond said easily, “Jamie mentioned he was going to have Security watch your house.  I’d strongly suggest not showing your face around here before the full week is up.”


Only a supreme effort on Lee’s part had kept him from turning the airwaves blue with a stream of epithets.  As it was, he slammed the vehicle in reverse, spun the wheels leaving the driveway, and refused to look back as he screamed away.  He had absolutely no idea how he managed to make it out of town without picking up a speeding ticket.  The one saving grace that entire day was his discovery, while unpacking and settling into the cabin, that in amongst the supplies Chip had gathered were two six-packs of beer.  Halfway through the second can, he finally started to calm down, and drank the third for good measure.  While drinking it he started the generator, and brought in a supply of firewood.  It was still fairly chilly at night, this far up the mountain, and warmth from the wood stove he used to heat his meat pie for dinner felt good.  He grabbed a jacket, pulled a chaise lounge out of storage and put it on the deck, and ate watching the sun go down behind the mountains, then crashed early.


What got Lee through the following four days was rising early and taking a run one or more times along the trail that circled the small lake.  There were only a couple other cabins and they were empty at the moment, their owners apparently only using them for vacations.  At least, Lee saw no one else on his runs.  He wasn’t totally surprised.  It was a good thing Pete had given him such good directions – Lee hadn’t even been able to find the lake on his map.  He also realized that even though Chip had confiscated his briefcase, he was able to spend a few hours each afternoon working.  There was still enough information tucked away in his brain to allow him to reconstruct at least a few of the reports he’d been intending to tackle.  Working on them made him feel a little less like the week as a total waste.


But by the morning of the fifth day, nothing was working.  Even the selection of paperback books Pete kept held no appeal.  He’d not slept well the night before and awakened with a headache – not entirely the fault of polishing off the last three beers the night before.  A brisk run around the small lake before breakfast barely had him breathing hard.  There were no more reports he could work on without the data sheets in front of him.  As he forced himself to eat a couple pieces of toast, he considered his options.


It was still a good 48 hours before he dared show his face back at NIMR.  I don’t even want to think about what my desk is going to look like, he grumbled.  See if I open my big mouth again about how I spend my time.  He took a savage bite of toast.  Hell, even that won’t work.  Chip probably has all the secretaries organized to keep tabs on me.  The coffee cup, thankfully made of hard plastic and thankfully empty, went sailing into the far wall.  Oh, you’re going to regret this, Doctor Jamison!


He stalked around cleaning up what little needed it, and tried to think of something – anything – that would keep him from going stir crazy for at least this day and night.  He figured he could leave first thing in the morning, putter his way home – there were a couple parks on the way back to Santa Barbara where he could stop and take a long run to burn off some energy.  Getting home after dark the following day should keep everyone off his six, and he’d be ready to hit his office by 0700 the next morning.  But that did nothing to fill today, and the prospects were decidedly slim.  He caught himself just about to kick the bucket of ashes he’d removed from the fireplace clear across the room, just to give himself something to clean up, and let a sheepish laugh escape.  Guess Tim and Annie are right – I don’t know how to take a vacation.  He carefully emptied the bucket outside.  Maybe if I run twice around the lake, I’ll be tired enough not to tear this place apart like a caged leopard.


Halfway around the small lake, his mind occupied with plans for revenge on both Doc and Chip, he missed seeing the little rabbit that was in front of him until it hopped directly across the path to disappear into the brush toward the lake.  Just about to plant his foot on the poor defenseless little bunny’s back, Lee flung himself in the opposite direction, into the bushes on the uphill side.  Scratched up but otherwise undamaged, and waxing not overly poetic about certain wayward wildlife, he looked around and discovered a small, well-camouflaged game trail headed away from the lake.  Getting up, he could see that it seemed to head up toward a low saddle in the surrounding mountain.  Curiosity combined with severe boredom and he headed up the trail to see where it led, now mindful of running into any more forest inhabitants who might also be using it.  He did hesitate just a moment.  Expecting only to be gone a couple hours, and pass by the cabin at least once, the only thing he had with him was the small knife that remained a permanent fixture in the pocket of whatever clothes he happened to have on.  If he was going to take a serious hike, he should really go back for his fanny pack of supplies, including a first aid kit and water bottle.  Oh, I’ll be fine without it, he reasoned.  It can’t take that long to reach the saddle, and I’ll be in sight of the lake the whole time, and off he went.


It ended up taking longer than expected to reach his destination.  The last part of the climb was fairly steep up to where the saddle started down into the next valley.  Lee stood there for a bit, catching his breath and looking around.  The bottom of this valley was much less densely covered with trees than his side of the mountain, and much more rocky.  Off in the distance to his left he could hear what sounded like a waterfall, and the floor of the valley looked as if it had a stream running through it.  He knew there was a stream that fed the lake coming from that direction, and guessed that both streams began as snowmelt farther up.  On his side it had, over time, created the small lake, and on this side, apparently, continued on to who knew where.  Since it was still barely 1400 hours, Lee decided to work his way in the direction of the waterfall.  If nothing else he could stand a quick drink after his climb, and swiftly running spring snowmelt was usually fairly safe.  Besides, he reasoned, it will kill another hour or two.


Heading directly toward the waterfall was out of the question – there was a shale slide between Lee and where the sound was coming from.  The small game trail he’d been following continued down in the direction of the valley floor toward the stream, and Lee reasoned his best bet was to follow it to the stream, then backtrack toward where he expected to find the waterfall.  It turned out that the trail went through a small section of shale, but nothing that did more than make Lee watch where he put his feet.  Re-entering forest close to the bottom, he was at the stream in minutes.  He paused to take a couple swallows of the clear, icy-cold water, and splash some on his face and shoulders, then headed upstream.  The walking wasn’t bad.  Here and there he had to skirt large rocks, but twenty minutes found him at the base of a pristine cascade that tumbled in fits and starts down a long ridge.  Lee found a large boulder, and just sat and enjoyed the view.  There was a small pool at the base of the last section, which fed the water into the stream.  A few small fish of some sort darted here and there through the pool, dragonflies buzzed around, doing whatever it was that dragonflies do, and Lee brought one leg up, wrapped his arms around it, and rested his head on his knee, just enjoying the peacefulness of the setting.  He heaved a sigh and grinned at himself.  Leave it to me to wait until it’s time to leave, to finally see the peacefulness around me.  But be darned if I tell Chip or Jamie that.  They’d never let me live it down.


It was remaining so still that brought about the highlight of the day.  Lee didn’t hear so much as felt a presence close by.  It was only a moment before a doe poked her head out of the brush on the opposite side of the pond.  She very cautiously looked around, at one point staring straight at Lee, and he willed himself to remain perfectly motionless.  The slight breeze Lee could feel was blowing into his face so it was doubtful she could smell him.  Yet he was so close to the deer he knew she had to know he was there.  But apparently deciding he was harmless, she made her way cautiously to the pond to drink.  Done, she continued to stare at Lee, who remained still, and presently twin fawns emerged from the brush.  The entire time the fawns were in view, Momma didn’t take her eyes off Lee but, as he offered no threat, was content to let the newborns sniff and sample the water, and nibble a few blades of grass.


Movement, not from Lee but a noisy Steller’s Jay in the tree behind Lee, finally broke the ‘spell’ and doe and fawns quickly disappeared back into the brush.  Lee had a few choice words for the obnoxiously noisy bird, and reluctantly climbed down from his rock, startled when he glanced at his watch to discover it was almost 1800 hours.  Oops.  He gave himself a wry grin and hurriedly headed back downstream.  Here in the mountains it got dark almost the instant the sun went down.  He was going to have to hustle.


Which was where the trouble started that had him castigating himself even as he checked quickly to make sure it wasn’t Chip standing there letting him have both barrels.  Hurrying back along the creek, he misjudged a step and fell headlong into the icy water.  Usually so sure and cat-like in his movements, this time he fell badly, banging both knees and getting thoroughly drenched.  Painfully pulling himself over to dry ground, he was still in the middle of berating himself when he felt something running down the side of his face.  Reaching up to brush away the stray bit of water, he was startled into seriousness when his hand came away red.


Just great! he berated himself again.  He started to lean over the edge of the creek to throw a few handfuls of water up to where he finally started to feel pain on his left temple, and very nearly fell head first back into the water as he was hit by a wave of dizziness.  “Terrific!” he grumbled out loud, braced himself on his elbows, and tried again.  It took several minutes.  The water Lee was able to lift by handfuls to the side of his head finally stayed clear, but the pain the icy water created nearly caused Lee to pass out again.  Finally Lee’s fingers came away only slightly tinged pink as he very carefully touched the sore area.  By feel, there was only a small cut, but a two-inch diameter circle was very painful.  He lifted enough water to his mouth to quench his growing thirst, and hitched himself back a bit from the edge of the creek to take a more specific inventory of damages.  Besides the head injury, silently acknowledged to be more than just a bump because of the dizziness it was causing, both knees were beginning to send out messages they’d banged off rocks on the bottom of the creek.  There was no blood staining either leg of his light running sweats, which Lee took some comfort in.  What he didn’t like was the look of his right ankle.  At that point there was little pain, but the instant Lee tried to stand, a shooting stab told him not to be in any big hurry to try that again.  “Oh, just swell,” Lee yelled, and listened as another Steller’s Jay seemingly joined in the harassment.  Chagrined, he spent a couple minutes spotting the dark crested, iridescent blue jay in the trees overhead.  “Yes, Chip,” he named the bird.  “I’m an idiot.”  The bird squawked back, and Lee finally laughed.  “You didn’t have to agree quite so readily,” he told the bird, and started to consider his options.


First things first.  He was obviously not going anywhere rapidly on the ankle, so getting back to the cabin tonight was out.  It was going to get dark far too quickly, and without a light source there was no way he could follow the narrow game trail back into his own valley.  So, stay here tonight.  At least he’d have water.  Next, find some sturdy twigs, or better still some heavy chunks of bark, and stabilize the ankle.  Easier thought than done, it turned out.  But looking around, he finally spotted a downed branch wedged into some rocks about ten feet further down the stream.  Painfully crawling that far, he was able to break off two lengths of about eight inches each.  With his knife he cut the hem off the bottom edge of the t-shirt he was wearing, and used that to secure the two chunks, one on each side of the injured joint.


“What next, Chip?” Lee asked the still obnoxiously chattering jay.  “Yep, you’re right,” and he began to look around for some kind of shelter for the night.  A small shiver went up his spine.  The thermometer outside one of the cabin windows had been reading in the low 40’s each morning as he’d gotten up.  While not near freezing, it was still going to make for an unpleasant night, particularly as thoroughly soaked as Lee was.  He considered making a small fire – his survival-training assured his ability, and there was plenty of brush around.  But it was exactly that abundance that stopped him.  He’d continued to have episodes of dizziness, and a small fire could all too easily become a huge forest blaze if he was even momentarily unable to keep it under control.  Just have to make do without, he admitted to himself.  Although, fried rabbit sounds awfully good about now.  Shaking his head at that thought, then immediately stopping himself as the movement caused another round of dizziness, he chastised himself.  “It’s not the rabbit’s fault you chose to go off with absolutely nothing but a pocket knife, you twit.”  The jay sent down a raucous shack-shack-shack-shack-chook-shack, and Lee gave him a dirty look.  “On the other hand, Chip, fricasseed bird has definite possibilities.”  The jay just blinked at him, and Lee chuckled softly before returning his gaze to his surroundings.  His best option, unfortunately, seemed to be on the far side of the creek.  There were several trees close together, with a fair number of leafy bushes around the bases.  He should be able to crawl in under the bushes and be fairly well protected from the chilly night air.  ‘Crawl’ being the operative word, he mumbled to himself, and headed slowly in that direction to check it out.


He ended up spending several minutes kneeling in the swift, icy water of the creek.  While aware that he should be letting his clothes get as dry as possible before the sun set behind the mountains, the cold gave some instant relief to aching knees and ankle, and he let them soak while he took a few more sips of water.   He soaked a handful of moss he grabbed from the edge of the creek in water before pressing it against his pounding temple, easing some of the pain, if only temporarily.  


Insistent chattering from the jay, still overhead, caused Lee to open eyes he didn’t remember closing.  It took him a bit to realize he’d apparently passed out, his legs and chest in the water, his shoulders and head on the far bank.  The sky was perceptibly darker than Lee remembered and, glancing at his watch, he was disturbed to find that just over half an hour had passed since he’d last checked.  Not good, Crane, he breathed.  Thanks, Chip,” he told the still noisy jay, and finally dragged himself out of the water.  He had to admit that the cold had helped his aching joints.  But his clothes were again thoroughly soaked.  He took the time to wring them out as best he could, but the ringing in his ears was beginning to worsen and he knew he needed to lie down.  Crawling over to the bushes he’d been aiming for, he worked his way several feet inside the area, made himself as comfortable as he could, and closed his eyes.  For a bit there were two jays yakking overhead.  “Doc,” Lee muttered drowsily, “Chip’s doing quite a good job of reminding me just how big a jackass I am all on his own.  He doesn’t need any help from you.”


* * * *


So cold.  The thought instantly presented itself the next time Lee awoke.  Or regained consciousness was the next thought, and Lee opened his eyes.  It was totally dark; the luminous dial on his watch told him it was 0315.  And he was very cold!  He lay there, trying to pull some of the lower branches down around him, deciding that the shivering was probably what had awakened him.  And it was only going to get worse.  It would take the sun being up for several hours before it would begin to send any warmth into the valley.  Lee’s still-wet clothes weren’t helping at all, and a small cough warned of possible further complications from the drenching.  At least Chip is taking a break.  Lee gave himself a grim grin, pulled another leafy branch down and tucked the end under his hip, and tried to go back to sleep.


“Lee Crane, if you aren’t the sorriest excuse for a human being I’ve ever seen…  Get up, you dipstick.”


“Leave me alone,” Lee mumbled, drowsy and disoriented.  “I want to sleep.”


“GET UP!  The day’s a wasting.  You need to get back to the cabin.”


“What cabin?”  Lee couldn’t focus, couldn’t remember where he was or what he was doing.  And didn’t really care.  He just wanted to be left alone.


But for some reason Chip wouldn’t let him.  “Shift your six – NOW!”


Lee finally opened his eyes.  It took him a few minutes but he finally remembered where he was, why he was lying under a bush, and who was screaming.  “Morning, Chip,” he told the still squawking jay, and slowly crawled out of his meager shelter.




“Smart-aleck bird,” Lee grumbled, coughed, and sat with his back against a tree to take inventory.  His head was pounding.  Arms and legs were almost numb with cold.  At least that keeps my knees and ankle from hurting.  But by now he was awake and aware enough to realize that this wasn’t actually all that good.  He worked to shake and rub some circulation back into his limbs, while trying to keep his head from rolling off its precarious perch on his shoulders.  Not an easy task.  The cough, while not too serious at this point, was persistent – a reminder that lying around in cold water was not a good thing.  The jay kept up an almost constant chatter of shack-shack-shack-chook-chook-shack, and at one point did his best Golden Eagle scream imitation.  “SHUT UP!” Lee screamed back, then had to spend a couple minutes holding his head in place.  Ignoring him totally, the jay continued its raucous chattering, but at least there were no more eagle screams.  “There has to be blond hair under those feathers,” Lee growled.  “You listen to me just about as well as he does.”


A grumbling stomach distracted Lee and he glanced at his watch – 0630.  Maneuvering over to the creek he tried to satisfy his hunger with water, then looked around.  He was going to need some kind of sturdy stick to help him walk.  While the pain in his knees was down to a minor ache, his ankle was going to be a problem.  Becca, where are you with that Blackthorn walking stick when I need you?  He knew the ankle wasn’t broken – he could still move his foot.  But he was going to have to keep as much pressure off it as possible.  Still a little fuzzy, he estimated he needed to go another fifty yards or so down stream to find the game trail.  At least he’d done something right yesterday, and had made a small cairn of stones at the edge of the stream to mark the path back over to his side of the mountain.  The trail itself was narrow but he’d had no problems following it the day before, and didn’t expect to have any going back, as long as it was in daylight.  At least I won’t have to worry about how to kill the time before it’s safe to go home, he thought with a wry grimace.  It will take me most of the day to get back to the cabin.


There didn’t seem to be anything in his immediate vicinity to use for a walking stick so he decided to head downstream and hope he found something.  Getting unsteadily to his feet was accomplished with the aid of the tree, and Lee gingerly put a bit of weight on his injured ankle.  Because his shirt binding had been wet when he’d tied the sticks to each side and was now dry, the brace was held tight and secure.  Lee found that if he were very careful, it would actually hold him up fairly well.  Getting back across the creek was a bit of an adventure, and Lee disgustedly had to rest for several minutes after just that short jaunt, his breathing somewhat hindered by a growing tightness in his chest.  But by 0715 he was limping, painfully but steadily, downstream.


He got lucky.  He’d not gone more than five yards when he found a dead sapling about as big around as his wrist, and broke off a six-foot length.  With its help, and with frequent stops to rest the ankle and take small sips of water, he found his marker by 0900.  He’d been concentrating so hard on maintaining his footing, trying to ignore the throbbing in both ankle and head, and making sure he didn’t miss the small cairn, that it wasn’t until he sat down to rest before beginning the trek up the game trail that he became aware of a loud chook-chook-chook-shack-shack overhead.  He didn’t think it could be the same jay, but had no way of knowing for sure.  While fairly shy birds normally, some Steller’s Jays could become so used to humans, around campgrounds and such, that they would get quite bold about coming near and stealing food, a trait that had earned the species the nickname of ‘camp robber’.  It was possible this one had been around humans enough – perhaps in the few cabins in the other valley – to be following him.  “That you, Chip?” Lee asked as good-naturedly as his aching head would allow.




“Just checking.”  Lee forced himself to drink extra water, knowing he’d have none until he got back to the cabin.  While the swift-running stream was probably safe, the lake water might not be.  To splash on his face if need be when he got that far, yes.  But not to drink.  He chose not to spend time making a water container from bark, since he wasn’t that far from the cabin.  He did consider soaking his shirt but, needing it for warmth in the still too cool air, decided against that as well.  A few more sips and he headed up the narrow trail.  He considered the possibility of fashioning a bark water holder, but decided it wasn’t worth the time since in actuality he didn’t have all that far to go.


By 1400 Lee was beginning to amend his earlier thoughts to IF he got back to the cabin.  Added to the fact that he was now going uphill, he’d spent nearly an hour, and a great deal of energy, crossing the patch of shale.  As unsteady as he was, the short stretch of loose rock had been treacherous and harrowing even with the aid of the stick.   He had been forced to use more of his dwindling energy reserve than he’d counted on or could afford.  His decision to not carry water with him didn’t help, and he once again sat berating himself as he tried to catch his breath and ease the growing tightness in his chest.  Running through the list of stupid mistakes he’d made the day before, his litany was interrupted by a loud shack-shack-shack-shack-shack from a tree at the top of the ridge.  “Shut up, Chip,” Lee yelled, then again had to grab his head to keep it from losing its connection to his neck.  “I’m perfectly capable of pointing out what a jackass I am,” he continued a good deal more quietly.  “I don’t need your help.”


Here on the open face of the hillside Lee was exposed to the full sun, unprotected by tree cover until he was close to the top of the ridge.  Part of him almost wanted to return to the stream for water after his work to get across the shale.  The thought of having to do those same last few hours all over again if he did, drove him finally to stand and head once again upward.  The ground was still rocky and hard, but at least it didn’t shift under his feet with every step.


It still took him way longer than he’d planned to reach the summit.  He’d not passed out today – at least he wasn’t aware of any amount of time unaccounted for.  Still, the frequent stops required to rest ankle and head, not to mention the pain in both knees that had returned, and that he was studiously ignoring, ate up the rest of the day.  His cough had persisted, and while not too serious yet, was decidedly annoying.  He was totally disgusted with himself that it was almost 1900 before he once again entered his valley.  “Too much time under water, not enough field work.  Master Chief Bremner sure wouldn’t be happy with me about now.”




“Chip, go soak your head in the lake and forget to come up!”  As hard as it was, he finally had to admit to himself that he was going to have to spend another night in the woods – this time without even water.  He couldn’t remember seeing any berries along the trail the day before, and he wasn’t about to wander through the woods looking for any.  He just couldn’t drag himself any further than he absolutely had to.  The various aches and pains were too much to fight any longer, and it would soon be too dark to travel safely anyway.  Taking comfort in the fact that it was all downhill from there to the main path around the lake, and from that point only a mile or so to the cabin, he found some heavy brush to burrow under. 


As he settled in he took stock.  At least tonight his clothes, while damp with sweat, weren’t soggy from the stream.  He actually wished they were – he could wring them out to quench his thirst.  But he’d stay warmer tonight.  Hopefully.  The further up the mountain, the colder it was likely to be.  But with luck there would be dew to lick off the leaves in the morning.  And tomorrow he’d be back at the cabin.  Tomorrow…  He fell asleep to the sound of chook-chook-chook-shack-shack-chook overhead.


* * * *


He awoke to someone’s wracking cough.  Unfortunately, he all too quickly discovered he was the someone.  His chest was tight, aching deep inside with each heavy hack.  It took him a few minutes to realize that he wasn’t cold, and another few to acknowledge the reason – he was running a fever.




0615. Lee finally checked his watch as he crawled out of his brushy den to a lightening sky.  One piece of good news: he’d been right about the dew, and he spent several minutes licking moisture greedily off the broad leaves of the bushes closest to him.


Shack-shack-shack.  “Up and at ‘em, Buddy.”




“I said, get up off your duff and get moving.”


“Chip, leave me alone.  Can’t you see I feel lousy?”


“Since when has that ever slowed you down?”  Chook-chook.  “You have to get back to the cabin.”


“In a little while,” Lee mumbled, and went back to licking as much moisture as he could from the leaves around him.  Knowing he needed to get moving, and actually doing it, were two ideas in total opposition to one another at that point.  His battered body simply didn’t want to comply with a mind that was fuzzy at best.  Lee was rational enough to recognize the seriousness of the situation: knew he was feverish, knew he needed fluids, even knew he needed to get moving.  But he was fighting a body that was sending out its own strong messages: his head was pounding worse than ever, ankle and knees were also throbbing nicely.  All he really wanted to do was lie back down, his feverishly faulty logic telling him if he didn’t try to move, nothing would hurt so badly.


“Don’t make me come down there.  You won’t like how I get you going.”


“Ah, shut up, Chip.  Can’t you just leave me alone for a change?”


“Not my style, Buddy.  Somebody has to keep you in line.  You sure can’t take care of yourself.  Just look at the mess you got yourself into.”


“This is all your fault,” Lee all but whined.  “If you’d kept your big, fat, mouth closed…”


“Don’t be blaming me, mister.  I’m not the one who can’t be depended upon to take leave time.  I’m not the one dumb enough to take a hike without so much as a water bottle along.  I’m not the one who…”


“SHUT UP!” Lee screamed.  Or at least tried to.  It came out a squeak, punctuated be a round of body-wracking coughs that left him gasping for breath.


“I stand corrected.  I can see that you have everything under total control.”


“Smart-aleck,” Lee finally managed to get out.  He wriggled himself over to another bunch of dewy leaves and went back to licking.  But even that simple movement was extremely painful.  He finally pushed himself back into a sitting position.  “I don’t think I can go any further, Chip.”  This time it was definitely a whine.


“You have to.  No one will ever find you here.  You’re too far away for anyone to hear you yell – even it you could.  That’s debatable.  With the combination of head injury and chest cold, you’re beginning to sound like Kermit the Frog.”


“Feel like a squashed slug,” Lee admitted miserably.


“Tough!  You got yourself into this mess.  You can just get yourself out.  Now MOVE!”


“Okay, Captain Bligh.”


“Compliments will get you nowhere, Crane.”


“Thought you said I was a frog, not a crane,” Lee giggled.  His ears were instantly assaulted by the mimicked sound of an eagle’s scream.  “Okay, okay.  I’m moving.”


But not well.  After the abuse yesterday to the injured ankle and knees, and without the medicinal effects of the chilly water, all three were sending out clear messages that they did not want to be disturbed.  It took extreme effort on his part, and the aid of both his walking stick and a tree, to get himself upright.  At least that put him on a level to reach a few more dewy leaves.  Quenching his thirst as best he could, he used a few more to scrub over his face and neck.  To a continuing litany of insults from Chip. 


“Time’s a wastin’, mister.  Get the lead out.”


“Alright, alright,” Lee muttered.  “Give me a break here.  The dew isn’t going to last much longer.”


“Neither are you, the shape you’re in.  You have to at least get down to the main trail.  Someone might find you there.  Your dried up bones, anyway.  Eventually.”


“Stuff it up a dark place,” Lee grumbled, but he finally headed down the trail. 


He knew the next fifty yards or so would be the worst.  He remembered from his climb yesterday that this part had been the steepest.  No, day before, he corrected himself silently.  Was supposed to be back at work this morning.  “See, Jamie,” he said out loud.  “I even took one more day than you ordered me to.”  He giggled, but it was cut off by another round of heavy coughs, and he almost lost his precarious balance.  Once moving, he chose to ignore the screams of pain coming from both legs and forced them to function, however slowly.  He thought that his knees might even feel better, once he started bending them what little he could.  Or else I’m just getting better at ignoring the pain, he thought as he worked his way ever so slowly down the narrow path.  Good thing.  I couldn’t even crawl along on them.  Be forced to slither like the slug I feel like.


He just about had to, anyway.  He’d almost gotten to where the trail leveled out a bit, and continued at a much more gentle descent, when the combination of another coughing fit and his walking stick catching on an exposed tree root sent him sprawling, again landing hard on both knees.  The scream he sent skyward nearly matched Chip’s eagle imitation.  At least this time his knees landed on soft undergrowth, not rocks.  Lee’s immediate reaction was that it didn’t make a whole lot of difference.  It still hurt like hell!


“Clumsy oaf.”


“Shut up, Chip.  Doin’ the best I can.”


“I was afraid of that.”


“Can’t you just go away and leave me alone?”


“Nope.  Not my style.”


“You always have been a pain in the a…”


“Tsk, tsk, Lee.  Told you before.  Compliments will get you nowhere.”


“Just go away and let me die in peace,” Lee was back to whining.  He laid his head on the ground, unmoving, not sure he had the energy or inclination to ever move again.”




“We’re in the middle of a forest, you dipstick!” Lee raised his head and screamed back.


“Tough tiddly winks!  You’re still in a battle.  One for your life, if you’re not careful.  Half the day’s gone, and you haven’t gotten a fourth of the way back to the main trail.”  Lee finally glanced at his watch and was totally disgusted to discover that Chip was right – it was almost 1100 hours.  “Now move it, junior.  You get any more disoriented, you’re not going to survive another night out here.”


“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Lee acknowledged wearily, and put what little energy he could muster into getting back to his feet.


Once he made it off the steepest part of the trail, the walking did get a bit easier.  But not much.  He was still forced into going much more slowly than he would have liked, no matter how much Chip ragged on him.  He had to stop every so often to rest, but at least didn’t fall again.  However, it was very nearly dark before he finally stepped through the brush and back onto the main path around the lake.  Chip had continued to nag him every step of the way, and now Lee yelled triumphantly.  “There, you dipstick!  I made it.”


“HAH!  So you made it back to the trail.  Told you already – you have to get back to the cabin.  Didn’t you listen to a word I said all afternoon?  The sky is getting darker because there’s a storm coming.”


“Let it rain.  I need a drink anyway.”


“You do not need another soaking.  Not on top of the pneumonia that’s already settling in from your nap in the creek.”


“Didn’t fall asleep,” Lee defended himself.  “Was unconscious.”


“Even worse, you idiot.  Keep walking.  You can do it.  Not that much farther.”


Lee tried to take a few steps but he’d pretty much reached the end of his endurance.  “Not sure, Chip,” he admitted.  “Might just be too far, this time.”


“Nah.  Not a chance.  Made it this far, didn’t you?  Even with all your screw-ups.  One foot, then the other.  Just like walking ‘Tours’ at the Academy.”


“You had much more experience with that than I did,” Lee giggled.


“Most of the time, getting caught trying to keep you out of trouble.”


“And if you’d just left me alone, nobody would have been caught,” Lee countered.


“Totally beside the point.”


“Yeah, right,” Lee giggled again, then leaned heavily on his walking stick to keep from falling as he was hit by another round of coughs.


“Quit changing the subject, dodo, and get walking.”


“I need to go down to the lake.”


“NO!  You’ll want to take a drink of the water, and it might not be safe.”


“Just want to soak my face and shoulders,” Lee continued to whine.  “So hot – all sweaty.”


“And you’re going to have to stay that way.  The rain is coming.  As much damage as it could do if you end up staying out in it all night, it will at least wash off the sweat, and be safe to drink.  WALK!”


“Which direction?” Lee asked as he glanced both directions along the trail.


“How should I know?  You’ve jogged it, I haven’t, yo-yo.  Which direction gets you back to the cabin the fastest?”


“Not sure any more.” Lee admitted, shaking his head and immediately regretting it.  His vision blurred and his knees began to buckle.


“Hold it together!”


“Trying,” Lee answered weakly.


“Now get your ashcan in gear and get moving.  Concentrate!”


Lee took a couple of deep breaths, carefully checked both directions again along the trail, and settled on turning right.


“You sure, big man?”


“No,” Lee admitted.  “But don’t think I was quite halfway around the lake when the rabbit attacked.  This is the direction I was coming from.”


“Good.  You’re using your brain – for a change.”


“No thanks to your harassment.”


“Excuse me?  If it weren’t for me, you’d still be curled up under a bush on the top of the mountain.”


“S’pose so.”


“You know so.”


“S’pose you could shut up, now that I’m this far?”


“Depends on if you keep moving.”


“Deal.”  Lee took a firmer grip on the walking stick and started hobbling along the main trail.


He figured he was about halfway back to the cabin when the first raindrops hit.  He stopped his painful hobbling for a bit and turned his face skyward, letting the rapidly increasing drops strike him, and bring some momentary relief.




“I’m going, Chip, I’m going,” he muttered, mindful of his promise to his friend.  He still kept his face pointed slightly up, trying to catch raindrops.  He’d have preferred to hold out his hands, catching enough to take a decent swallow.  But both hands had a death grip on the walking stick, keeping him upright.  It slowed him down but he kept walking, kept putting one foot slowly and painfully in front of the other, until almost without warning the cabin was in front of him.


Climbing the short flight of steps almost proved his undoing.  There were just six steps, but he’d only managed the first two when another round of coughing shook his whole body, causing his hands to slip on the supporting stick and sending him sprawling forward, his head bouncing off the deck.


“Get up, you lazy bum.”


“Can’t, Chip,” Lee muttered without moving.  “I’m done in.”


“GET UP!  You can’t lay out here in the rain.”


“Why not?  Feels good.”


“INSIDE!  NOW!  We had a deal.”


“Don’t remember.”


“Awful convenient forgetfulness.  You said you’d keep moving if I shut up.”


“You don’t sound shut up.”


“That’s ‘cause you gave up and quit on me.  Come on, Lee.  You can do this.  Crawl up the steps.  Then ten feet of deck, and in the door.”


“Need to rest first.”


“NO!  Rest later, once you’re inside.”


“You’ll shut up again?”




It was a struggle.  Lee didn’t think he’d ever worked so hard to get such a short distance, most of it to a horrible cough that sounded like it was mocking him.  Elbows dug into wood, and inch by inch he pulled himself up the stairs and across the deck to the door.  With extreme effort he reached up and turned the handle.  It wasn’t locked - he’d only planned on being gone a couple hours – and he fell forward.  Not particularly warm, after two nights without a fire going, it was at least shelter.  Lee collapsed totally as his feet crossed the sill.


“Kick the door shut, Lee.  Come on.  You can do it.”


“Done in…”  More coughing hit hard.  “Why can’t you do it for me?”


“No, Lee.  Left foot.  Push the door closed.  Please?”


“I always have hated when you beg.  Like it better when you yell.”


“I know, I know.  It gives you an excuse to yell back.  Please, Lee, push the door.  You don’t want rain blowing in and ruining any of Pete’s things.”


“That’s another thing I’ve always hated about you – you’re always so blasted logical.”


“Someone has to be.  Shut the door!”


Lee was almost surprised when a soft ‘click’ followed his attempt to kick at the door.  Since Chip shut up, he assumed he’d been successful, and finally surrendered to his exhaustion.


* * * *




That wasn’t Chip.  Thunder?  Inside the house?  Could swear I shut the door.  At least Chip shut up.




Damn.  Must be some storm.  Thunder’s loud enough to shake me.


“Lee!  What happened?”


“Ask Chip,” Lee mumbled, and tried to shove the thunder away.  “He always has all the answers.”


“Chip’s not here.  What happened to you?”


“He was a little while ago.  Stupid…”  The storm was making him colder than he already was, and he rolled onto his side, pulling himself into a ball.  “Cold…”


Apparently the thunder was in an amiable mood, because a heavy cloud wrapped itself around Lee.  “Tell me what hurts, Lee.  I need to know.”


Geesh.  Just get rid of one pest, and another one shows up.  “Be okay,” he muttered.  “Just need to rest.”


“There’s a cut on your head,” the thunder insisted.  “How bad did you hit it?  Is your ankle broken?”


“No…fell…be okay.  Just tired….”  He decided he must have been believed because the thunder left him alone. 


Only to start a conversation with the lightning, it turned out.  But something was a little screwy, from what Lee could remember.  His Mom had always told him it was the lightning that talked first, then the thunder answered.  This time they were doing it backwards.


“Nelson calling NIMR.  Nelson calling NIMR.  Over.”


“NIMR here, Admiral.  Read you five by.  Over.”


“I need to talk to Dr. Jamison.  Over.”


“Take a few minutes, Sir.  Stand by.”


Lee clutched his arms around himself.  The heavy cloud that had settled around him had apparently slipped and he pulled at the edges, struggling for even a little more warmth.  The thunder and lightning seemed to be taking a break in their conversation, although there were still flashes of light trying to filter through his closed eyes, accompanied by loud booms of sound.  Rolling into a tighter ball, another layer of cloud settled over him and the thunder, in a slightly softer rumble, urged him to relax; told him he was safe.  He tried to reply but was overcome by a heavy round of coughs.  The clouds were snuggled even more firmly around him before the lightning once again spoke, in a slightly different voice this time.  At least they’re not yelling at me, like Chip’s been doing for two days, Lee mumbled to himself.  Overhead a particularly loud crack of thunder rattled the entire house, and Lee shuddered.  On second thought…  Happily the thunder and lightning went back to conversing with each other in softer tones.


“NIMR calling Nelson.  Jamison here.  What’s he done to himself this time?  Over.”


“Not sure, Jamie.  I found him lying on the floor, just inside the door of his friend’s cabin.  I got him to talk a little – said he fell.  Looks like he dragged himself inside after a hiking accident.  He’s splinted one ankle and has a gash on the side of his head.  From the looks of it, it’s at least a day old, maybe a bit older.  He’s feverish, although not severely so.  But he’s coughing heavily and pretty well out of it.  Looks to me like it might be a combination of exposure coupled with exhaustion.  Over.”


“I always knew he wasn’t safe out without a keeper.”


“You’re the one who threw him off the base.”


“Don’t remind me.  You said exposure.  Is he hypothermic?  That would explain the disorientation.  Over.”


“Possibly, although I don’t think so.  He’s cold, but his clothes aren’t wet enough to have been out in this storm for too long.  My best guess is, from the looks of the head wound, that it’s more likely at least a minor concussion.  Over.”


“How far away is the nearest doctor?  Over.”


“Haven’t a clue.  I damned near didn’t even find the cabin in the first place, and there’s one hellacious storm right overhead. I don’t even want to try getting out of here in the dark.  Over.”


“Oh.  That’s what I keep hearing.  Over.”


“From what the radio was saying on the way up, this is supposed to blow through by morning.  I brought along a beacon, just in case, and there’s a lake FS1 can land in.  Sharkey can fly you up at first light by homing in on the beacon.  Chip can give him a general idea of where we are.  What can I do in the meantime, besides try to keep him warm?    He seems to have done a decent job of binding the ankle.  I hate to mess with it.  What does worry me is the heavy cough.  Over.”


“There’s aspirin in your first aid kit.  Try to get two down him now, and two more in four hours.  Clean up the cut, and bandage it if you think it needs to be.  If he wakes up sufficiently, see if you can get him to eat something warm – maybe some soup.  That should hold him until we get there.  Over.”


“Okay.  I’ll call back if he seems to be getting worse.  Nelson over and out.”


“NIMR out.”


Twice during the thunder and lightning’s conversation Lee started to tell them to just go away and leave him alone – he didn’t need anyone else yelling at him.  Chip was doing a perfectly adequate job of that all on his own.  Both times he’d been stopped by coughs.  Now it seemed they’d finally stopped on their own, thankfully.  Lee pulled his clouds a little closer and tried to go back to sleep.  He’d be just fine by morning.


* * * *


Warm rainwater was somehow getting into the cabin.  Lee didn’t know how, and didn’t really care as it gently washed across his face.  He tried to get a little of it into his mouth to ease his dry throat, and it co-operated by sending a drizzle in slowly.  He flinched as it rubbed across the cut on his temple but the pain was momentary.  Next, the rain ran across his chest and arms.  He wondered briefly what had happened to his t-shirt, but it hardly seemed worth the effort to find out as the water soothed the minor cuts and scratches he’d accumulated.  Legs were also dealt with before the cloud once again wrapped him securely.


* * * *


The smell of wood smoke and the sound of crackling logs penetrated his subconscious.  For a moment, nothing mattered except the feeling of being warm and comfortable, and he snuggled down a little further into the clouds.  But all of a sudden images of the last couple days flitted through his mind.  Dear heaven.  I didn’t start a fire.  Please tell me I didn’t let a fire get away from me.  No!  The storm.  Lightning.  That’s why there’s lights.  It started a fire.  Have to get away…  Nothing was making any sense.  He should have still been lying on the floor of the cabin.  Shouldn’t I?  Blankets?  I’m all tangled up.  Chip, what did you do?  He tried to untangle himself, muttering curses that he couldn’t make sense of what was happening.  But his struggles only succeeded in rolling him off of whatever he was lying on, onto the floor, and triggering another round of coughing.  The fall loosened the blankets from around him, and also jarred his eyes into finally opening.  But the freedom was short-lived as he was immediately gathered against something.  Or someone.  A deep, resonant voice finally started to penetrate the fog.


“Easy, lad.  You’re safe.  Just lie still.”


That’s not Chip, Lee struggled weakly to see who it was, without much success.  The fog was just too thick.  His movement only caused whoever was there to hold him tighter.


“Lee.  Relax.  You need to stay quiet.  You’ll be just fine.” 


The order, and the beginnings of recognition, finally penetrated Lee’s disorientation.  “Admiral?”


“Yes, Lee.  It’s Nelson.”


“How…?”  He listened to the familiar chuckle.


“Let’s get you back on the couch.”


“ ‘kay.”  Lee helped as best as his aching head and body would allow, but he still wasn’t totally convinced he wasn’t hallucinating.  Absolutely nothing was making sense.  Where was Chip?  Why was the Admiral here?  He must be in Pete’s cabin, but…  He finally decided it was too much effort to figure it out.  If he was hallucinating, at least he was warm and comfortable.  He snuggled down against the pillow that seemed to be under his head, and into the blankets that seemed to have replaced the clouds covering him, and let himself relax.


* * * *


Lee was a little more coherent the next time his eyes opened.  Or felt like he was.  At least this time his eyes were focusing better.  But things still weren’t making a whole lot of sense.  There was a soft glow of light from the fire in the fireplace.  Lee was indeed on the couch, which had been pushed a bit closer to the hearth than he remembered it being.  “Are you awake this time?” came from somewhere behind him, causing him to jump, then start coughing again.


“I don’t think so,” he answered truthfully as he got the cough under control, and reached up to touch the pain in his temple the movement had re-ignited. 


The so-familiar chuckle came again, as Lee’s fingers found a bandage taped in place.  “Try not to mess with that, Lee.  I’ll admit it’s not the prettiest I’ve ever seen.  But it will have to do until Jamie gets here in the morning.”


“Jamie?”  Lee was more confused than ever, and he wasn’t sure it helped when the familiar, stocky form of Admiral Nelson appeared from around the back of the couch.


“Here,” Nelson said, and started to hand Lee a mug of something.  Lee hesitated, still unsure of what was real and what wasn’t.  But the arm that slid under his shoulders and helped him into a sitting position felt real enough.  As did the strong shoulder to lean against as Nelson sat down next to him, and placed the edge of the mug against Lee’s lips.  “Drink.”  Again the familiar order in the voice, and Lee found himself complying.  The soup tasted real enough as well, and Lee brought his hands up to help hold the mug, drinking greedily.  “Easy, lad.  Not so fast.  Just small sips for now.  There’s plenty more if you’re still hungry.”


Hallucination or not, Lee was ravenous after two days of not eating.  But he measured his swallows as he tried desperately to put all the fragmented pictures into some sort of order.


“Better?” came softly.


“Not sure,” Lee admitted.  He straightened up a bit more, and turned so he could see the person sitting next to him clearly.  “Admiral?” he asked again.


“Yes, Lee.  I’m not a figment of your imagination.”


Lee shook his head, decided that wasn’t a very good idea just yet, and closed his eyes until the dizziness passed.  Re-opening them, Nelson hadn’t dematerialized; was still sitting next to him.  “What are you doing here?”


“Sort of a long story.  Sure you’re awake enough to hear it?”


“No,” Lee admitted.  “Still want to, though.”


Nelson chuckled.  “Well, I’m sure Jamie would prefer you slept until he can get here, but…  You can thank Chip for my presence here.”


“Chip?”  Lee spun his head around, a move he instantly regretted.  Hands on his shoulders held him steady until he could once again keep the room from spinning out of control.  “Where is he?” he asked, turning much more slowly this time to once again face Nelson.


“Back in Santa Barbara.”  Lee could hear the puzzlement in the Admiral’s voice, see it on his face.  “What made you think he was here?”


Lee just closed his eyes again for a moment and sighed heavily.  “Never mind,” he finally answered.  “You were saying?”


“How ‘bout I refill your mug first?”  Until then Lee hadn’t realized it was empty, and he handed it back as Nelson stood up.


Waiting for the Admiral to return, Lee glanced at his watch, surprised to discover it was almost 0400.  He could hear a steady rain falling on the metal roof, and shivered involuntarily.  He realized a returning Nelson must have seen it as the older man put down the mug momentarily to help Lee prop himself into the corner of the couch and tuck the blankets back around him.  Lee belatedly noticed that his t-shirt had turned into a flannel long-sleeved shirt, and heavy sweatpants had replaced his light running pants. 


Nelson also grabbed a small bottle off the mantle, shook out two pills, and handed them to Lee along with the refilled mug.  As Lee hesitated, Nelson chuckled.  “It’s only aspirin, Lee.  On Jamie’s advice I gave you a couple when I found you.  Dissolved them in a couple tablespoons of the soup,” he added at Lee’s upraised eyebrow.


“Talk to Jamie?”  Lee was still confused.  “There’s no phone here, and cell phones don’t work.”


“Chip told me about the emergency short wave.”


“Why?”  Even Lee recognized the plaintive quality in his voice, and lowered his eyes to the mug as Nelson grinned.


“You drink, I’ll start at the beginning.”


“Yes, Sir.”


“We all knew your imposed exile was up as of this morning.”  Lee knew he frowned, and heard Nelson chuckle softly, but he didn’t raise his eyes.  “When you weren’t back, Chip got concerned.  Jamie tried to tell him you were just pouting…”  Lee did look up at that, but lowered his eyes again in the face of Nelson’s grin.  “But Chip was insistent that you’d have been back unless something was wrong.”  Lee looked up again as Nelson paused, and found the Admiral slowly shaking his head.  “Sometimes I do wonder about you two,” he continued softly, and smiled.  Lee just dropped his eyes again.  “Anyway, there was no way Chip could leave because the technicians were installing the new navigation computer upgrades this afternoon.  He finally convinced me – I learned a long time ago it’s not wise to ignore his instincts – to come check on you.  However…”  Lee looked up again as Nelson paused.  “Your friend Sinclair sure picked an out of the way spot for his cabin.”


“Think it’s because, with so much time spent at Logan, he wants to get as far away from other people as he can, for the few weeks he gets a break.”


Nelson nodded.  “Makes sense.  Well, Chip drew me the best map he could, and I took off.  To make a very long story a bit shorter, I missed a turn because it was getting dark.  Then the rain caught me…”  He shrugged.  “I finally got here about 2300 hours, only to find you passed out on the floor.”


“Hiked over into the next valley,” Lee mumbled, not looking directly at Nelson.  “Took awhile getting back…”  Anything else he would have added was drown in another coughing spell, and he felt Nelson’s hands grab the mug and steady him until it subsided.


“Enough for now,” Nelson said firmly.  He laid a hand on Lee’s forehead as he eased Lee back into a prone position on the couch and resettled the blankets snuggly in place.  “You rest.  Even I can tell you’ve gotten better in just these few hours.”


“Until Jamie gets here,” Lee grumbled.  “Everything he gives me always makes things worse.”  He fell asleep to the sound of the Admiral’s chuckles.


* * * *


Lee awoke to the chatter of a jay outside the cabin, and what sounded like Chip’s voice inside.  “…awake by now?”  No.  The Admiral said he wasn’t here.  Must have been imagining it.


A second jay joined the first in noisily welcoming the morning, and Lee thought he heard Doc’s voice.  “The longer he sleeps, the longer it will be before I have to start arguing with him.”


 As Lee worked to get his eyes to open, there was a chuckle close to his side.  “Too late, Doc.”




The first thing that Lee saw, or thought he saw, was Chip sitting on the edge of the couch at Lee’s side, looking across Lee’s body to something or someone behind the couch.




“Swell.  Thanks a lot, Mr. Morton.  I’ll remember this come next month’s senior staff physicals.”


Lee took advantage of the jay’s distraction to reach out a hand.  “Didn’t touch him, Doc.  I swear,” Lee heard the jay complain, just as Lee grabbed a fist full of feathers.  “AAARRGH!” the jay screamed and pulled away.  Lee used the bird’s momentum to pull him into a sitting position, before a hand grabbed his wrist.  “Hey!” Chip growled as blue feathers turned into blond hair.  “What’s the big idea?”


Lee released his grip and closed his eyes at the dizziness the too swift lifting of his head had caused.  The hand holding his wrist maintained a supportive hold, and a second hand gently but firmly grasped his shoulder.  “Easy, buddy.”  As Lee re-opened his eyes to find himself surrounded by Chip, Nelson, and Jamison there was a loud shack-shack-chook-shack-chook from outside the window, followed by a second, equally loud, chook-chook-chook-shack.  Lee smiled to himself and started to shake his head, quickly realized his mistake, and instead fixed his gaze on Chip.


“Where’d you come from?” he demanded.


“Flew Doc up,” the blond answered simply.


“Thought I heard Sharkey was supposed to do that.”  He looked at Nelson for confirmation, but Chip’s grumbled response brought Lee’s attention back to his friend.


“And let him drive my rig back home?” Chip sputtered.  “Not a chance!  You seem to have forgotten what happened the last time I let him drive it.  He ran it into a telephone pole!”


“Chip…” Lee started, but was cut off.


“And he was only driving it a few blocks.  No way I’m letting him drive it all the way back to Santa Barbara!  And especially since I’ll be towing the Admiral’s car back.”


Lee grinned.  “Hey, cut the Chief some slack.  He was trying to do you a favor, getting it washed and serviced while you were tied up with the auditors.  It’s not his fault those kids weren’t watching where they were going and chased their beach ball out into the street.”


“Still wasn’t about to take the chance,” Chip muttered a reply before Doc interrupted.


“Chip, suppose you go help the Admiral make sure all the perishable stuff is packed up while I give the Skipper another check.  Now that he’s awake.”  The last came out a growl and Chip ducked his head and gave Lee a quick grin before giving up his spot on the couch to Seaview’s CMO.


“Jamie, don’t fuss,” Lee started, knowing it was useless, but saying it anyway.  It was all part of the game that had become so much a part of Lee’s friendship with the doctor.  And no matter how much they sparred with each other, there was no one who had ever been around the two of them for very long who didn’t recognize how strong, deep down, that friendship was.  Lee also knew that if he didn’t give the expected grouse – also part of the game - that he really would worry Jamie, and grinned softly as the CMO’s expression got stern.


“Commander…” Jamie started, and Lee’s smile broadened as he slowly lay back down.  Let the man have his fun.  I deserve it, after this screw-up.  The grin remained as he closed his eyes and prepared to have the doctor poke and prod, and gently care for Lee’s various injuries.


“What are you plotting?” Jamie responded to the grin.


Lee opened his eyes, the grin never wavering.  “Not a thing, Doc.  Promise,” he added as Jamie looked askance, and again closed his eyes.  Not plotting a thing – right now, that is.


* * * *


Without realizing he’d again fallen asleep, Lee awakened to voices coming from the kitchen area.  He sat up carefully and watched as Chip came down the stairs carrying Lee’s duffel.  Admiral Nelson noticed Lee’s movement and walked over from where it looked like he’d been washing out the coffee pot and storing it away.


“Wondered if we’d have to wake you up to leave,” came the gruff yet amused comment.  “Ready to go home?”


“Ready to get back to work,” Lee answered adamantly.


There was a snort from Jamie’s direction, putting a few cups and plates away in the cupboard.  “Not until you can stay awake for longer than ten minutes at a time.”


Lee’s instant glare at the CMO caused the usual reactions:  Nelson grinned, Chip laughed outright, and Jamie just looked smug.  A loud chorus outside the window, however, interrupted any comment Lee might have made, and Lee finally smiled.  “Chip?”


“Yo.”  The blond stopped, just about to go through the back door.


“Was there any bread left?”


“Hungry, Skipper?” Jamie asked, instantly into ‘doctor’ mode.  “We’ve got everything packed up, but there’s nutrition bars on the Flying Sub.  They should hold you until we get home.”


Chip cringed.  “Those things are barely fit for a healthy person, Doc.  It’s positively cruel feeding them to someone who’s already under the weather.”


“I’m fine!” Lee stubbornly insisted.


“At least, nothing 24 hours in Med Bay won’t cure,” Jamie said, just as stubbornly.


Before Lee could respond, Nelson broke in.  “I know the original version of the bars wasn’t exactly appetizing.  But Jamie worked with the Navy nutritionists in San Diego to make them better.”


“He should have worked with the cooking school at UCLA,” came the not quite under the breath comment from Chip, and Lee decided he needed to take back command of the conversation before things got too far out of hand.


“Bread, Chip?” he reminded his friend, with a soft smile that would hopefully defuse any more arguments.


There’s a few slices left – they’re in the box in the rig.”  He motioned out the door toward his SUV.


Lee stood carefully, fending off both Nelson’s and Jamie’s attempts to help.  The CMO had re-taped Lee’s ankle, and it remained fairly firm under him.  Even his knees felt better.  Lee belatedly recognized the astringent smell of Mineral Ice, and cringed.  At least Riley’s not around.  While the jelly-like liniment was a great help to sore and/or abused joints and muscles, it just seemed like every time Lee was coerced into using it on board Seaview, he felt like the younger crewmen, and especially the energetic surfing enthusiast Riley, smirked behind his back.  It’s almost enough to make a man feel old!  Now he held up a hand to stop whatever Jamie was about to say.  Even his head wasn’t so muzzy and he walked, actually quite steadily, toward Chip.  The blond stood aside and let Lee precede him out the door, and together they walked to Chip’s SUV and retrieved the bread slices.  Lee gave his friend an enigmatic little smile but said nothing, tearing the slices into small pieces as he walked a bit farther away from the cabin, and eventually tossed the pieces on the ground under the trees.  They were set upon almost immediately by two Steller’s Jays.  Lee just shook his head and grinned.  “Chip and food,” he muttered to himself, and turned back.  Chip had stayed by the rig, and Nelson and Jamison were watching him from the doorway.


“Feeding the wildlife, Lee?” Nelson asked, puzzled.  “You know that’s not usually a good idea.”


“Yes, Sir,” Lee answered.  “Usually.  Sort of a long story,” he continued with a soft little grin, and headed slowly toward FS1.

Listen to Chip

Photo: National Park Service


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