Bracken's eyes flew open when the sound of the 357 Magnum split the silent night. He woke abruptly, confused by the unexpected noise, unable at first to identify it's source. Then he realized it came from the crash site. It was from the same general direction.
Damn! There are survivors and at least one is armed.
This complicated everything. No easy way now of taking supplies or commandeering the aircraft, if there was an armed survivor on board. It could even be a cop or a FBI agent, hot on his trail. Bracken laid back down. There was nothing he could do about it now, except come up with a plan before daylight, before he started his search for the crash site.
At least the gunshot had confirmed his suspicion that they were close by; and he still had the element of surprise to his advantage.
Sunlight filtered through the trees, and early morning dew glistened on the grass and leaves. Had this not become `the vacation from hell', Hutch would have enjoyed watching the sunrise. As it was, though, all he could think about was the throbbing pain in his leg, and how badly he needed to relieve himself. Any hopes Hutch had of turning this into a pleasant, relaxing trip to commune with nature and convert his partner into an avid outdoorsman, had gone down in flames just as surely as the Cessna had.
Starsky, now resting peacefully, had slept little after the bear made his exit. Hutch knew his partner was exhausted from the events of the day before.
Was it really only yesterday?
In spite of his limited experience in wilderness survival, Starsky had rallied to the occasion and not only rescued Hutch and treated his injuries, but had found them shelter and food, then protected them from a dangerous predator.
Hutch looked over at Starsky as he slept, and knew he was fortunate to have such a man as his friend. He also knew that Starsky would take whatever desperate measures necessary to keep them alive. Hutch decided he could wait a little longer before trying to get out of the sleeping bag; let Starsky catch a few more minutes of shut-eye. Most likely, they would be stranded here until a search party could locate them. And right now, he wasn't even sure anyone knew they were missing.
Hutch lay quietly, waiting for Starsky to wake up. Gazing at the stand of pines nearest their campsite; he noticed a slight movement and flashes of white and tan moving among the trees. He eased himself up, then reached over, and gently prodded Starsky's shoulder. "Starsk!" Wake up!"
"Mmmm.... Yeah...what?" Starsky bolted upright. "What is it?" Hutch tried not to laugh, but Starsky was a comical sight with his hair standing out in every direction and his eyes blurry with sleep.
"Looks like we have more visitors." Hutch nodded toward the tree line.
Starsky scrambled out of his bedroll and grabbed the gun with his left hand while rubbing his eyes with the right. Prepared for the worst, he held his breath until the intruders came into sight. A graceful doe and her two small fawns foraged the undergrowth and bushes for fresh berries, oblivious of the two men watching them from a distance. Starsky slowly lowered the weapon.
"Now honestly, Starsky, don't they make you appreciate the beauty of nature?"
"Yeah. Sure do. And the most beautiful thing about 'em is, they don't have claws or fangs." Hutch rolled his eyes, but silently conceded Starsky had a point.
The two of them sat quietly, watching the agile female and her little ones until the doe sensed their presence and signaled the others to follow. They quickly retreated into the dense forest. By then, Starsky and Hutch were both wide-awake and ready to begin the day.
Hutch stumbled backwards as he tried to get to his feet.
"Whoa, hold on a minute. Let me give you a hand." Starsky hurried to prevent him from falling. Once they were upright, he draped Hutch's arm across his shoulders, and slowly helped him walk a short distance to a more private area. With only the crude, homemade splint, and no crutches to support him, it was soon apparent Hutch would not be able to walk even short distances without assistance.
"Just call when you're ready to come back," Starsky told him, then returned to the cave entrance, and waited. Within a few minutes, Hutch called out for his help.
"Well, that pretty much rules out our trying to hike out of here," Hutch said, once he was seated on top of the sleeping bag again.
Starsky went about the task of loosening and readjusting the bindings on Hutch's splint. He noticed the swelling had gone down a little, but the flesh was still dark with bruises, and looked extremely painful. "I told you, I can go for help."
"No offense, but you know you don't have greatest sense of direction. Remember, you drive—I navigate. And you haven't spent much time in the woods. You're out of your element here, buddy." Hutch winced as Starsky manipulated the splint to offer more support to the broken bone.
Even though Starsky knew all that was true, he still felt a little defensive. He hated it when Hutch criticized him. "Oh yeah, well, I thought I was doin' pretty good out here. Granted I'm no Daniel Boone, like you, but so far we're still alive."
"Now don't get your nose out of joint. All I'm saying is, I don't want us to split up. Starsky, you may not realize it, but this forest covers over one and a half million acres. There are bears, mountain lions, coyotes, poisonous snakes, even herds of wild horses living here. I know, because I checked into this place pretty thoroughly when you suggested we take this trip."
Hutch paused, waiting for Starsky's reaction. When there was none, he continued. "Now, I don't know about you, but I'm not thrilled at the prospect of having a run-in with any of the above by myself. One of the basics of survival is 'safety in numbers'. Besides, we only have one gun for protection. Which one of us keeps it? Have you thought about that?"
Hutch took Starsky's silence as a sign he was getting through to him. "Furthermore," he continued, "I hate it like hell, but I'd be literally helpless here without you. So why don't we sit down and try to figure out a plan?"
The possibility that Hutch may be feeling a little insecure and afraid hadn't occurred to Starsky. He was so hell-bent and determined to get them out of this mess, he hadn't considered Hutch's perspective on the situation at all.
"Okay, pal—when you're right, you're right. But right after breakfast, I'm gonna go back down to the crash site and find my gun. What do you think our next step should be?"
"To begin with, throw my duffel bag over here. I picked up a map of the Klamack National Forrest at the airport. Maybe we can get an idea of where we are. There are bound to be a number of ranger stations throughout the park. We need to determine if we're anywhere near one."
Starsky's face lit up with a typical Starsky grin. He felt more optimistic now than he had since the airplane went down. He knew together, he and Hutch would find a way out of here alive. Starsky tossed the bag to his partner then decided to gather some firewood. Even though the sun was shining brightly, there was still a chill in the morning air. He was hopeful the wood had dried out a little since the rain stopped last night.
He began picking up twigs and branches that lay in abundance around the campsite.
Once Starsky had a small fire going, he went back to where Hutch sat on the sleeping bag with map spread out before him, trying to determine their location.
"How about some breakfast?"
"Sure. Sounds good." Hutch looked up from the map. "I don't suppose you have any granola bars in that sack of poison, do you?"
"As a matter of fact, Blondie, I threw a couple of 'em in just for you. I don't know how you can eat somethin' that tastes like it's made outta cardboard and tree bark, but here you go." With a smug expression, Starsky tossed two granola bars to Hutch.
Always looking after me, aren't you, partner? Hutch thought to himself.
"We gotta find some water," Starsky said, tearing open a bag of Fritos. "I don't know about you, but I'm dyin' of thirst here."
"I don't wonder at it. Good grief, Starsk—Fritos for breakfast?"
"Someone else hogged all the granola bars" Starsky teased.
Hutch munched on the breakfast bar as he flipped open a brochure he'd taken from the duffel bag. "Says here there are '152 miles of rivers, creeks and mountain lakes contained within the borders of the national forest'. Surely you can find us some drinking water not far from here."
"Mmm...I thought you said we shouldn't split up," Starsky said between bites. "Aren't you still worried I'll wander off and disappear from the face of the earth?"
Hutch reached into the emergency kit and pulled out a compass. "Not with this. You'll just need to make sure you don't go too far from camp and don't lose track of time. That's the best way to measure your distance."
Hutch passed the brochure to Starsky; "According to this, the park is divided into six major ranger stations. Even so, with over a million acres to cover, they'd have to be really spread out. Who knows, maybe we've lucked out and we're near one already."
"Nah, not likely. Think about it. If we were near a ranger station, someone would have seen us go down yesterday and checked it out by now." Hutch knew Starsky was right. They should assume the worst and stick with their plan.
Seth Carter had just arrived at work and set his thermos bottle on the console when John McGinnis came up and clapped him on the back. "Good news, Seth."
"Good morning, John. What kind of news?"
"Well, actually it's good and bad. You know that distress call you thought you heard yesterday? You were right, a small plane is missing. Flew out of LA yesterday morning and never arrived at the ranger's station located on the Klamath River. No one has heard from them at any of the six ranger stations up there."
"And this is the good news?" Seth ran his fingers through his hair, a habit he had when he was worried or upset.
"Well, yeah—compared to what else I have to tell you. I don't know how familiar you are with that area, but it's pretty hard to find someone up there because of the size of that forest. Furthermore, the route they were flying takes them straight across two major wilderness areas, Trinity Alps, and Marble Mountain. The only inhabitants there are the wildlife."
"Where were they scheduled to fly into?"
"Flight plan said Yreka. They were to hook up there with a fishing party, lead by one of the local Indian guides. The fellow I spoke with at the airport said the guide waited an extra two hours on them, but they never flew in and there was no message to the control tower about the flight being cancelled."
"Oh, man... So we've probably got some fly-boy and a group—how many?"
"Two. Two fellas out of LA."
"So we've got a pilot and probably two middle-aged, tie-wearing businessmen, who most likely have never been any closer to a forest than Griffith Park, down somewhere in a wilderness area. I'm waiting, John—what's the good news?"
"Well, I was thinking—if we verify their departure time; map the flight route, then check the records for the exact time you heard the may-day, we may be able to calculate about a 200 mile radius for search and rescue."
Seth exhaled a deep breath. "Talk about long shots...." The two men stood in silence for a few seconds, thinking about the odds of their being able to help the three unfortunates. "Why haven't we picked up anything from their transponder?"
"Maybe damaged when they crashed—maybe too much interference from the trees and mountains. I don't know. Once we narrow it down, the search and rescue team can focus on one area; maybe they can use some sort of equipment to amplify any weak signals transmitting in that area."
Seth ran his fingers through his hair again, as he weighed their options. "Well, it's all we've got. Maybe it's enough to get NTSB's attention."
"Sure you're gonna be okay here by yourself?" Concern etched Starsky's face as he prepared to leave. What if something happened to Hutch while he was gone? What if he had complications from that lick on the head?
"Starsk, I've already told you three times, I'm fine. But I still think you should take the gun with you. You're more likely to need it than I am." Starsky's second search of the crash site had uncovered what was left of his missing duffel. The bag had burned in the crash; the heat warping the barrel of the Smith & Wesson so badly it would be of no use to anyone.
"Oh, terrific. You had to remind me again that I could be eaten alive by a bear or carted off by Bigfoot or somethin', didn't you?"
Hutch couldn't help but laugh. Starsky was making jokes, but Hutch knew him well enough to recognize there was a touch of real apprehension in his voice. "You'll be fine. The gun is just a precaution."
"And you think I'm gonna leave you here as bear bait? Get real. You can't even run for your life if somethin' decides to have you for a snack. The gun stays with you."
"Starsky, be logical. You're far more likely to come up on something without warning, than I am to be attacked in broad daylight here in our camp site. Take the damn gun—don't argue."
Although he wasn't happy about leaving Hutch without protection, Starsky couldn't deny the validity of the argument. He slipped the holster over his shoulder and placed the gun snuggly into place.
"Sure you don't need me to help you over to the bushes again? I mean, I may be gone quite awhile."
"I'm sure. I'll be fine. Now, do you have the canteens?"
"Let's set our watches. I've got 11:36 a.m. Now, you're going to turn around and come back in an hour, agreed?"
Starsky picked up the fishing cap and plopped it on Hutch's head. "Listen, Blondie, I really don't like leavin' you here alone when you can't even walk to the john. I wish there was another way."
"I know. Me too." Hutch pressed the compass in Starsky's hand then closed it into a firm handshake. "Be careful, partner." A moment of silent understanding passed between them.
Starsky turned to leave, calling back over his shoulder. "If any beautiful ladies show up, keep 'em entertained till I get back."
"Watch out for snakes!" was Hutch's parting shot.
Starsky made his way through the dense forest, taking to heart Hutch's warning to watch for snakes. His eyes swept from side to side, wary of any predator who might be prowling the woods. He had been walking almost forty-five minutes, and not a sign of water anywhere. Starsky wondered how there could be 151 miles of water in this forest and not a drop of it within an hour's walk from where they were camped.
How the hell are we gonna get out of this one? In the middle of nowhere, nothin' decent to eat, no water, no radio, no medical attention for Hutch...
Starsky absently reached up to scratch his head and discovered Hutch's bandana still secured over the gash in his forehead. He hadn't even thought about the injury since Hutch insisted he bind it with the bandana. Even though the folded bandana had proven to be a good, thick bandage, blood had seeped through the fabric and crusted over, adhering it to his skin. Well, that should feel terrific coming off.
Lost in thought, Starsky didn't hear the rushing water right away. Slowly but surely, he became aware of it in the distance. He stopped and listened for a moment to get his bearings, then turned to his right and ran through the trees toward the sound. Oh, and what a beautiful sound it was!
The closer he got the louder the roar. This was no babbling brook. This was major water. As Starsky broke through the trees into a clearing, he saw that he was standing at the top of a waterfall. Plenty of cold, crystal clear water, cascading several hundred feet to the rocks below; but getting access to it would be tricky.
Starsky's heart fell as he realized he'd have to maneuver his way across a trail of wet, slippery rocks and boulders to reach a pool where he could fill the canteens. Even if he'd been a good swimmer, there still would have cause for concern. The treachery wasn't in the water, but on the rocks. He stood there, trying to figure a safe way to approach this; but there was none. And the longer he thought about it, the more nervous he became.
Damn! We can't survive without water. Finally, he reached the inevitable decision to meet the problem head-on.
Had he not been exhausted from the lack of sleep, and rundown from the lack of food and water, Starsky may have thought of taking off his sneakers and avoiding the contact of wet rubber on slippery rocks. But he didn't; he just heedlessly started his trek across the slick trail.
He wasn't in deep water when it happened. Because two of the stepping stones were further apart than an easy width of his stride, Starsky decided to jump across. The minute his front foot came down on the rock, it flew outward, causing him to tumble rearward, falling flat of his back; and with a resounding slap, his head hit a moss-covered rock.
Hutch was beginning to worry. Starsky was due back thirty minutes ago. He looked at the watch again. Make that 35 minutes... Damn it, Starsk, where are you?
Hutch had felt uneasy as he watched his partner head off through the trees that morning. But they really didn't have many options. They couldn't last another day without water; and who knew how many days they would be stuck here?
The pain in his leg was throbbing again. Hutch wanted to take another Tylenol, but figured he should save them for later. So he decided to try and take a nap, knowing he probably wouldn't rest until he saw Starsky coming through the woods with the full canteens.
Where are you, Starsk? Please be safe.
The three hours that his partner had been gone seemed much longer. Hutch had time to think about all that had happened the past few months. He knew that he couldn't have survived it without Starsky. The mere fact that Starsky had used his hard-earned savings to finance this trip, knowing full-well that he would hate spending a week in the woods, was but one more example of the lengths Starsky would go to for their friendship. Now, he'd have to play nursemaid and savior, as well.
The stinging tingle of guilt flooded Hutch as he remembered his reaction when he discovered Starsky in Gillian's apartment, kneeling beside her body. Starsky had clearly been shaken, his face white, his hands unsteady. Even so, Starsky had tried to spare him the pain of learning Gillian was a prostitute. And when his friend had no alternative than to tell him the truth, Hutch lashed out at Starsky—accused him of lying, of not liking Gillian, of jealousy. God, what he'd give to be able to take those words back!
Guilt was a painful emotion. Hutch squeezed his eyes tightly shut, trying to block out the memory of hitting his best friend, punching him so hard he stumbled backwards and fell. And what had Starsky done? Gotten up from the floor and embraced him, offering to take another punch if it would relieve Hutch's pain. Starsky had held onto him then and they had both cried. They cried for Gillian, they cried for what would never be. They cried for the emptiness Hutch would face in the coming days.... It would forever be etched in his memory. He had lost his lover that day, but at the same time, had been reminded of the powerful bond of friendship he and Starsky shared.
Hutch was roused from his thoughts by the sound of approaching footsteps. Thank God. He's back, Hutch thought, breathing a sigh of relief.
Hutch raised up on one elbow, waiting for Starsky to come into view. But instead, a tall, thin man with straggly, light brown hair entered the clearing. He was dressed in jeans and a black turtleneck pullover. Tied around his waist was a light-weight parka. His only visible possession was the medium sized, green back-pack he wore. Hutch was startled, not expecting to see another human being out here.
"Hello there," the stranger called out, as he approached. Although the man was smiling and seemed friendly enough, there was something about him that instinctively disturbed Hutch.
"Hello," Hutch answered back.
"I...uh...I was hiking and thought I saw smoke coming from this area. Not many hikers out here. Thought I would check it out." He came closer, stopped by the fire, then noticed the home-made splint on Hutch's leg. "Looks like you've had an accident," the stranger said, stating the obvious. He looked past Hutch, searching for other survivors. Hutch thought the man's steel-gray eyes were cold, with an emptiness about them.
"Yeah, our plane went down yesterday morning—just over there," Hutch nodded in the direction of the crash site.
"Oh, man, that's too bad. You're lucky to be alive." There it was again...that note of insincerity. Hutch's inner voice told him not to trust this man, not to tell him everything. What was he doing here? The 'detective instinct' kicked in.
"So, where's everyone else?" The stranger's eyes scanned the area, obviously believing Hutch wasn't there alone.
Not certain why he did it, Hutch answered, "No one else made it. Pilot was killed on impact, and I was his only passenger."
Surprise flitted across the other man's face. "Sorry to hear that." He turned in the direction of the crash and was quiet a moment.
"Not that I could tell. Almost everything was destroyed." Hutch shifted his weight to relieve some of the pressure on his injured Leg, and in doing so, concealed the duffel bag containing their meager rations.
"I'm sure glad you happened along." Hutch said, not letting on he was already suspicious of the stranger.
Rather than respond to that, the other man asked, "Have you got any food or water here? I sure could use a cold drink right now."
That seemed an odd question to Hutch. The man was wearing a back-pack. If he was a hiker, why hadn't he brought provisions with him? "No, I'm afraid not. This was supposed to be a short flight. Frankly, I was just going to ask if you could spare me some water."
"Sorry," was the only response.
Hutch continued, "I was expected at the Klamack River Ranger Station yesterday. Where did you hike from? Are we near a ranger's station?"
The stranger stood there fidgeting for a few seconds, then turned to look over his shoulder toward the charred remains of the airplane. "I, uh, I came in from the south," he answered vaguely. "Haven't seen any ranger stations nor any other campers or hikers. You sure you don't have any food here?"
"Didn't you bring your own?" Hutch asked, suspicion building by the moment.
"Oh, yeah, sure. I uh...just used it all up. Been out here quite awhile." The stranger was evasive, avoiding eye contact with Hutch. It was then Hutch noticed the shoes. He was wearing loafers. Who ever heard of a hiker in loafers?
"What's your name?" Hutch asked.
"Bracken, Joe Bracken. I'm from Sacramento. In the insurance business.
Careful, Hutchinson, he's a phony...
"Ken Hutchinson, LA. I'm an investment broker." The lie rolled off Hutch's tongue. He had learned long ago that sometimes it was safer not to tell people he was a cop until he knew more about them. And this guy definitely didn't ring true. "I flew up here to do a little fishing." At least that much was the truth.
"Uh, listen...Hutchinson, is it? I think I'll go down to the airplane and see about that radio, if that's okay with you." Bracken smiled as he spoke.
"Sure. That would be great. I'm going to need help getting out of here. If you can't get the radio to work, you can at least send someone back for me." Hutch didn't know what this guy was up to, or why he wanted to search the crash site, but Hutch was in no position to object. He'd just play along for awhile.
Bracken's gaze moved down to Hutch's broken leg and the home-made splint.
"How did you manage to do that by yourself?" Obviously Bracken hadn't bought Hutch's story about being the only survivor.
"Wasn't easy. But you'd be surprised what you can do when you have to." Hutch knew it was a lame comeback, but it was the best he could do on the spur of the moment. Bracken stared at him for a few seconds, as though weighing Hutch's words, deciding if they were true. Finally, he nodded, then turned and walked toward the crash site.
As soon as the man was out of sight, Hutch removed the sack of food from his duffel bag, dragged himself to the back of the cave, and hid it in a crack between two large rocks. He then leaned a couple of the sticks of unused firewood against the crack to further conceal the food. It went against Hutch's nature to not share their rations, but there was something about this man that alerted Hutch's instincts that he was trouble.
Where the devil was Starsky? He was now more than two hours late getting back. God, how he hated this waiting! He was worried sick about his partner; weak from hunger; his leg hurt like hell; and now he had to worry about some jerk who obviously wasn't what he presented himself to be. Hutch only hoped Bracken didn't guess that he was a police officer until he could figure out what the guy was up to.
Bracken made his way to the crash site. His hopes of commandeering the airplane and repairing it were abandoned when he saw how little was left of it. Man! How did this Hutchinson guy survive? And that ridiculous story about setting his own broken leg—what does he take me for, an idiot? No, there's someone else with him. But where? Why is he lying to me about being here alone? And who has the gun that fired last night? There were too many unanswered questions.
Walking through the debris, Bracken occasionally stopped and examined personal items and damaged airplane pieces, hoping to find something useful. The radio was trashed. He found pieces of it scattered over the crash site, large and small chunks that could serve no purpose. There wasn't enough of it left for a radio technician to assemble, much less someone with his limited knowledge. Frustrated and disappointed at what he had found, Bracken hauled off and kicked a scrap of the radio several feet, venting his rage at yet one more thing that wasn't going to go according to his plans.
Bracken walked around the plane until he came to the large panel that Starsky had used to cover Carl Parks' body. When he lifted the sheet of metal, he was assaulted by the stench of the decomposing corpse. Just as he started to drop the panel back in place, he noticed a small piece of bright yellow paper poking out of the pilot's jacket. It looked like an invoice, or maybe a flight requisition. Bracken pinched his nose closed with one hand and used the other to fish out the paper before stepping away from the makeshift grave.
It was a flight requisition, alright—signed by the pilot, Carl Parks and two passengers, Detective Sergeant Kenneth Hutchinson and Detective Sergeant David Starsky of the LAPD.
For the second time in two days, Starsky woke dazed and confused. He heard water rushing all around him and the fingers on his right hand were cold as ice from dangling over the rocks into the frigid water. Blinking several times to try and clear his vision, Starsky stared at the azure blue sky above, waiting for the world to come into focus.
Where am I?
He tried to sit up, but the pain in his head was excruciating. Slowly, his memory began to clear. He could feel rocks beneath him. Now I remember...the rocks above the waterfall. His head was pounding. Not again. How many times can this hard head of mine get bonked before it finally cracks open?
He tried it again, this time more slowly. He felt dizzy, but moving at a snail's pace, he finally sat upright. By now, the back of his clothing was wet and soggy from lying on the damp rocks with the frothy water churning around him. He reached up and touched the back of his head and found it was bleeding, but not as badly as he expected. He realized that the knot where Hutch's bandana was tied at the back of his head must have cushioned the blow.
Starsky sat there for several minutes, allowing the dizziness and nausea to subside. The last time he felt like this, he had gotten a concussion in football practice. Terrific. Now both sides of my head are bashed in. At this rate, 'bout the only way I'm goin' home is in a body bag.
He blinked several times and finally focused well enough to see his watch.
Starsky couldn't believe it; he'd been unconscious for over two hours. He knew that Hutch must be pretty worried by now. According to their plan, he shouldn't have been gone more than two hours total.
Starsky cupped his hands together and splashed cold water on his face to help clear his head, then he drank until his thirst from being deprived of water for the past forty-eight hours was quenched. Unsteadily, he squatted down and filled both canteens and started carefully trekking his way back across the slippery rocks. Watching the water crash over the top of the falls reminded him that he could have easily been swept away and ended up at the bottom, either dead, or too badly mangled to climb out of the water.
Upon reaching dry ground, Starsky's weak legs gave way and he sank down on the grass and tried to regain his composure. He wondered to himself if this hell would never end. Why on earth had he ever suggested this stupid vacation? He and Hutch were safer being shot at by the bad guys than they had been on this damn fishing trip.
Looking up at the sky, Starsky noticed the sun had moved to the west while he was unconscious, and figured he'd better start back to camp as fast as he could. He was worried about Hutch being left alone for so long. Starsk dragged himself up and headed back through the woods in the direction from which he had come.
It seemed to Hutch that Bracken had been gone a long time. It was a mystery why the man was so interested in the crash site, and even more puzzling why he was posing as a hiker, when he obviously wasn't one. The street shoes, the absence of basic camping supplies, and the evasive answers to Hutch's questions all added up to one conclusion: he had something to hide. If he was running from someone, it was most likely the authorities. Hutch had a bad feeling about this whole turn of events. He was lost in his thoughts we he suddenly saw the stranger approaching from the woods again.
"Find anything useful?" Hutch asked, trying to sound casual.
"Nothing. You're right, the radio is a total loss and just about everything else was burned."
Hutch noticed that Bracken again scanned the area, as if he was looking for something—or someone. "Tell me again how you managed to get so far from the airplane with a broken leg, 'Detective' Hutchinson" he said, watching closely for Hutch's reaction.
If he hoped to see shock or fear in Hutch's face, he was disappointed. But there was something in the tone of Bracken's voice when he said 'detective' that made Hutch's blood run cold. He sensed that this man would kill him in the blink of an eye; Starsky too, for that matter.
Don't tell him about Starsky. This psycho may ambush and kill him before you can even warn Starsk he's here, Hutch's inner voice was telling him. He didn't know what Bracken was involved in, but he was certain it couldn't be anything good.
"I made this splint out of scraps I found at the crash site. Once my leg was secure, I dragged myself over here to the shelter of these rocks."
"Uh-huh. You dragged yourself several hundred yards over trees, stumps, briars, and all the other garbage? Built that fire too, I guess—all with a broken leg." Bracken stood there absently stroking the three-day stubble on his unshaven chin. Hutch didn't answer. The man already knew he was lying; what was the point? Hutch was disgusted with himself for getting caught with his guard down.
"You must think I'm a real dumb-ass," Bracken drawled, a sarcastic smile curling his lips slightly. "Now, why the hell are you really out here—detective?" He pronounced the word with such vehement distaste it sounded profane. "You may as well tell me. Were you looking for me?"
Hutch's instincts had been right on the money. This creep was a criminal on the run. "I don't know what you're talking about. I am a detective, with the LAPD, but I don't have the slightest idea who you are and there wasn't anyone else with me except the pilot." Hutch looked him square on, eyes never wavering. "I was on vacation, just like I said. Fishing." He thought for a split second that Bracken believed him.
"Bullshit!" the man bellowed. His calm fašade disappeared without warning. "I want the truth, and I want it now! Where's the other one? Did he go for help, or is he lurking around here somewhere?"
"Like I said, I'm alone—I don't know who you are—and I don't know why you're here." Hutch's voice grew louder and less controlled. "I just want to get the hell out of this God-forsaken wilderness, see a doctor, and have a decent hot meal."
The stranger reached over his shoulder and pulled off the backpack. He set it on the ground and nonchalantly opened it up as he talked. "Well, if you don't want to cooperate, you narrow my options, don't you, Detective Hutchinson?" Reaching into the backpack, he pulled out a Smith & Wesson, much like Starsky's gun that was destroyed in the crash.
Hutch fought hard to keep a passive expression on his face, in spite of the apprehension that coursed through him when the gun was leveled at his head. "Look, what do you want from me? I'm stranded here; it's not like I can chase after you through the forest. Hell, I don't even know how I'm going to get out of this place, much less pose a threat to you. Just clear out now."
"Brave words, Detective Hutchinson. Now where's the other one? I know there's at least one other cop here." Bracken tossed the crumpled flight requisition at Hutch.
"I even know his name is Starsky. There's only one dead body back there, so where is Starsky?"
Bracken pulled the hammer back on the gun. "Are you going to answer my questions? If you're smart—you will. You were tracking me, weren't you?"
"No, Bracken—or whatever your real name is—we weren't here looking for you. I don't even know what you've done! Why don't you just put the gun down and walk out of here? Whatever you've done, you don't know what trouble is until you kill a cop."
Damn, if only I'd kept my gun...Starsk, where are you?
"You're only hurting yourself by being so uncooperative, pig. There are plenty of ways to get answers. I don't have to kill you."
Without warning, Bracken drew back his foot and viciously kicked Hutch's broken leg. There was no time to react. By the time Hutch knew what was happening, he was consumed by pain so intense, he nearly passed out.
"Ready to talk now, Hutchinson?" A sadistic grin contorted Bracken's face. He hoped the cop didn't talk too soon; he was enjoying this. Before Hutch even had time to take a deep breath, Bracken cruelly stomped down on the injured limb. This time, Hutch was unable to prevent the scream that tore from his throat as he felt the already mangled bone pierce his flesh.
"So, where is he, pig? Wanna talk now?"
Hutch doubled over in pain, unable to speak; unable even to scream out again as the agony ripped through his body.
Bracken laughed cruelly, reveling in the power he felt over his victim. "This is much better than blowing you away. And I'm sure I can keep it up longer than you can." He drew back his foot again to continue the assault, when suddenly he was tackled from behind with such speed and voracity, the wind was knocked out of him.
Starsky didn't stop to ask questions, but struggled to wrest the gun from the other man. As the they rolled on the ground with the gun between them, Bracken saw the face of his attacker. The rage and hatred revealed in the stranger's flashing blue eyes was unmistakable.
"You son-of-a-bitch, I'm gonna kill you," Starsky ground out through clenched teeth. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Hutch doubled onto his side in agony, one spasm of pain after another bombarding him. At that moment, Starsky knew that he wanted to kill this man more than anything he had ever wanted in his life. His anger was so all-consuming, he was oblivious of Hutch's Magnum as it fell out of the holster and was knocked out of reach.
Starsky rolled over, pinning Bracken between his knees, pushing the hand that held the assailant's gun above their heads. Bracken used his free hand to pound Starsky's head, hammering his fist into the gash on Starsky's forehead, opening the wound again. Starsky could feel the blood trickling from beneath the bandana. His head was throbbing, and the force of the impact caused his vision to blur.
They rolled across the ground again, each trying to gain the advantage, each grappling for control of the weapon. Starsky struggled to hold the gun arm above Bracken's head while using his left hand to strike a blow he hoped would knock the man unconscious. Already injured, and weak from the loss of blood, Starsky faltered for a split second. Bracken took the advantage and jerked the gun hand free. With a tremendous push, he broke away from Starsky, leveled the gun at the detective, and fired.
Starsky rolled to the left, almost avoiding the bullet; but he wasn't quite fast enough. A searing pain raked across the top of his right shoulder, stopping him cold. Bracken scrambled to his feet and stood above Starsky, weaving back and forth from exhaustion. He looked down at the wounded cop, a hideous grin twisting his face. He raised the gun and pointed it directly between Starsky's eyes.
"I'd keep you alive for a little while and have some fun; but your friend, Hutchinson, over there is plenty of entertainment. The two of you together might be harder to handle. So I guess this...." The discharge of the 357 Magnum was the last sound Bracken heard before the slug blew away a large portion of his skull.
Starsky was shocked as the blood and skull fragments sprayed across him. He barely had time to turn his head aside. The lifeless body collapsed in a mass at his feet. Starsky raised his head and looked straight across to see Hutch sitting on the ground, the Magnum clenched tightly in both hands. His eyes were frightening—dilated—void of all emotion. He sat there, just holding the gun straight out in front of him. No movement to lower it. No words—not a sound.
Starsky crawled past the corpse to his partner. When close enough, he reached out, carefully placed his hand over Hutch's, and eased the gun down. When Hutch's grip still didn't loosen, Starsky spoke softly, almost a whisper, "Hutch, you okay? Hmmm? Can you look at me, buddy?"
Hutch didn't respond, so Starsky used his other hand to gently turn his partner's face toward him. The same blank, expressionless eyes met his.
"Hutch, it's me—Starsk. It's alright, buddy. He's dead; he can't hurt you anymore." Starsky's voice was thick with emotion.
At first, Hutch didn't seem to comprehend, but slowly, Starsky thought he saw a flicker in the dazed, blue eyes, a tiny sign of recognition. Hutch lifted his hand tentatively and touched Starsky's shoulder, where the bullet wound was bleeding.
"Starsky? You're hurt," Hutch whispered.
Starsky smiled. "It's okay, buddy. Just a graze. I'll live."
Hutch released his vice-like grip on the Magnum and his whole body seemed to deflate. "I was afraid you were dead," he said, barely above a murmur. His eyes swam with tears, as fatigue, pain, and stress from all they had endured the past two days, engulfed him.
Seeing Hutch was close to his breaking point, Starsky pulled him close, resting Hutch's head against his shoulder, then sat silently, giving them both time for the adrenaline to recede. Starsky realized had he been a few minutes later, Hutch would undoubtedly have been dead. That frightening reality was almost more than he could bear to consider.
Gradually, Hutch seemed to regain his composure. "Look at us," he said, laughing weakly. "We're one hell of a sight. Glad Dobey's not here to see us now. Between my busted leg and your shoulder, we can't even help each other."
"Now, there's where you're wrong, Blintz. When have we ever been in such bad shape we couldn't help each other? Huh?" Starsky was laughing too, tears of relief and exhaustion streaming down his cheeks. "At least we're alive—and I found us some water!"
Once the dam holding back their pent-up anxiety gave way, they were both overcome by giddy laughter, which neither seemed able to control. In reality, they were teetering on the verge of hysteria, but were too wearied and too weak to realize it.
Hutch was resting now. It had been a horrible ordeal. Starsky had done the best he could, but he was worried. Hutch had been in a great deal of pain while Starsky cleaned the wound where the bone had gouged through the skin. Fear mounted in Starsky as Hutch reminded him with no uncertainty how dangerous the open fracture could be. They both knew if not treated within forty-eight hours, the open wound could become a host for a deadly infection that would attack the bone marrow. If this happened, the best they could expect would be amputation. The worst—death. Starsky bandaged the area carefully with the last of the gauze, then re-positioned the splint, trying not to damage the leg any further. Then he secured it with strips of bandages cut from a clean T-shirt he found in Hutch's duffel bag.
Despite his own pain, Hutch had fussed until Starsky let him examine his shoulder, which luckily, turned out to be only a graze. Hutch helped him wash the wound, and apply a T-shirt bandage, which Starsky held in place until the bleeding stopped. Satisfied that Starsky wasn't going to bleed to death, Hutch finally took two of the quickly dwindling Tylenol.
Starsky looked over at his sleeping partner now, relieved that Hutch was finally able to rest. He quietly eased away from the campsite and dragged Bracken's body deep into the woods to discourage scavengers from prowling near them after dark. He returned before Hutch woke, and tiredly sank down on his sleeping bag to rest for a little while.
The evening sun dipped low in the sky, casting odd shadows in all directions. Starsky forced himself to his feet, his body just one big ache. He felt like he'd been run over by a truck, but knew he needed to start a fire before dark to discourage the bear and other predators from coming into their campsite. He went about the task of gathering enough wood to last them through the night, and had a friendly fire blazing before the sun set.
Hutch woke slowly, immediately aware of the throb in his leg. He raised himself up on one arm and saw Starsky sitting a few feet away, his tired face outlined by the campfire.
"Hey, buddy, you okay?" Hutch said.
"Yeah, sure. How about you? You hungry?"
"Yeah. Even that beef jerky sounds pretty good now. What I really want though, is a drink of water."
Starsky took the canteen and some of the beef jerky to Hutch and plopped down beside him. "Hutch, this vacation really stinks. Next time, we'll go to Vegas, okay?"
Hutch smiled to himself. "Sure, Starsk. Fine with me."
They sat quiet, exhausted, eating their meager meal.
Starsky lay near the cave entrance. He watched the fire pop and crackle, tiny sparks catching on the air currents, spiraling upward into the darkness. He was tired and sore, but grateful the pain in his shoulder had eased up. In the distance, he'd already heard the lonesome howl of the coyote twice, so he wasn't taking any chances on letting the fire go out.
Lying behind him, Hutch had succumbed to a restless sleep. Rationally, Starsky knew that he wasn't to blame for what Bracken had done to Hutch today, but he still felt rotten he hadn't been there to stop him. Now, he was bound and determined not to let anything else bad happen to Hutch.
In the quiet of night, Starsky had plenty of time to think about just how desperate their situation had become. He knew that Hutch's physical condition was tenuous, at best. If his leg became infected, Hutch would die without adequate medical attention.
Mired in guilt and anxiety, Starsky was quickly becoming discouraged. He was usually the optimist of the duo, but he was now finding it increasingly difficult to keep up a good front. Because he knew that Hutch was depending on him to get them home, Starsky resolved to do whatever necessary to accomplish that end. Obviously, Hutch was in no condition to travel, nor could he be left alone to fend for himself while Starsky went off in search for help. It was Catch 22. He just hoped that by now, someone realized that the plane was missing.
Starsky could have kicked himself for not telling anyone back home where they were going. He had made up that cock'n'bull story about winning a sweepstake and had glossed over the details so Dobey couldn't check it out. Now, here they were in the middle of nowhere and nobody even had a clue where to look for them. How many times had Hutch turned to him in his best Laurel and Hardy voice and said, 'Another fine mess you've gotten us into, Stanley'? Starsky smiled to himself. This time you're right, Hutch. It's a fine mess alright...
He fought sleep as his eyelids grew heavier. Gotta stay awake...gotta keep the fire goin'...gotta look after Hutch...That was his last thought before fatigue won the battle.
Haunted by fever-induced nightmares, Hutch was agitated, thrashing about and fighting to free himself from the sleeping bag. He mumbled incoherently, and called out loudly, first for Gillian, then for Starsky—arguing with some unseen demon, as the fever raged through his body. Tears streamed from his bloodshot eyes as he relived the scene in Gillian's apartment. Starsky woke up with a start and scrambled on hands and knees to where Hutch lay. He reached out and touched Hutch's face, and discovered he was burning up with fever.
"Calm down, buddy. I'm right here. Come on, Hutch, you gotta be still now."
Hurriedly Starsky grabbed the bottle of Tylenol and forced two pills and a sip of cool water past Hutch's lips.
Starsky's heart was pounding and he felt a cold knot of fear in the pit of his stomach, realizing that while he was sleeping, Hutch had taken a turn for the worse. Starsky kept talking, trying to calm him, trying to penetrate his delirious dream world. Finally, in desperation, he wrapped his arms around Hutch and held on tightly to restrain him from doing further damage to his leg. Starsky was surprised at how strong Hutch was as he fought to hold him still. Finally, Hutch tired, and the fight drained from his body.
Once he stopped struggling, Starsky eased him back down and fetched what was left of their precious water supply. He patiently coaxed Hutch to take a few sips, hoping it would help cool the fever and relieve the delirium. Then, not knowing what else to do, Starsky soaked his handkerchief with water and used it to wipe Hutch's face.
"Ma used to wipe my face with a cool cloth when I was sick," he said, as much to himself, as to Hutch. He smiled as memories of childhood experiences flooded his mind. "I remember when I had the measles, she must'a done this for hours. Every time she thought I was asleep, she'd try to slip outta the room. But I wouldn't let her." Starsky wet the cloth again and repeated the process many times throughout the night. He kept up the one-sided conversation, hoping the sound of his voice would somehow reassure Hutch while floating in a dream world only he could see.
After awhile, Hutch quieted and drifted into a peaceful sleep and Starsky began a vigil which would last until daylight.
When Hutch woke up the next morning, he found Starsky sitting in an upright position, leaning against the rock wall. His right hand was resting on Hutch's head. Hutch's whole body ached and his mouth felt like sandpaper. At least the intense, burning heat that consumed his body the night before seemed to have lessened. Even so, Hutch was still weak from the fever and the lack of nourishment.
He quietly eased from beneath Starsky's hand and unzipped his sleeping bag. He vaguely remembered Starsky forcing cool water past his parched lips last night. Or was it a dream? Then he saw the empty canteen lying beside Starsky's leg. In his left hand was the still-damp handkerchief.
They had made it through another night. Hutch could see dark smudges under Starsky eyes, the result of too little sleep. He still had Hutch's bandana tied around his head; his hair matted with leaves, dirt, and dried blood. Hutch could see where the bullet had grazed Starsky's shoulder yesterday—more dried blood, evidence of inadequate cleansing and lack of medical supplies.
God, he looks pitiful! And what's he do? Sits up all night taking care of me. Hutch smiled to himself and shook his head in amazement. Starsky was such an enigma. His tough-guy image fooled most people; but those closest to him knew his capacity for kindness and his undying loyalty to those he loved.
Lost in thought and still slightly out of sync from the fever, Hutch was afraid the sound he heard was only in his imagination. But then it grew louder—just a hum at first—then louder, and closer. He consciously listened now, trying to identify the source. Through the fever induced haze, Hutch slowly recognized the sound.
"Oh, my God...oh my God! Starsk, wake up! Wake up Starsk! I think I hear a helicopter!" Hutch was shaking Starsky and yelling at the same time. "Wake up!"
Startled from his sound sleep, it took Starsky a few seconds to comprehend what Hutch was saying. Then he was on his feet, rushing out into the open, scanning the sky for a glimpse of the craft they could both hear so nearby.
"The fire, Starsk! Throw some more wood on the fire!" Starsky reacted instantly and began throwing twigs and sticks on the smoldering fire. At first, it didn't catch, but when he scooped up an armload of dry leaves and tossed them onto the coals, the flame leapt to life and restarted the campfire.
The were like two school boys—Starsky danced around, flapping his one good arm, calling out to the search team, while Hutch joined in by urging him to 'yell louder, add more wood, jump up and down more!'
The chopper passed them by unseen, and appeared to move away from them. Starsky ran after the aircraft, but no one seemed to notice. Hutch's heart plummeted at the prospect of being so close to rescue, then abandoned. Desperate to keep them from leaving, Hutch barked out more orders. "Starsky! Come back here and throw more wood on the fire!"
Realizing that he was getting nowhere running after the helicopter, Starsky rushed back to the sparse campfire and frantically threw more fuel on the flames. They both watched the sky anxiously. Starsky thought he saw the helicopter hover in one area for a few seconds—move away—then return.
"They see the plane!" he shouted to Hutch. "They see the plane!" By now, the campfire was blazing pretty good. Smoke billowed upward, catching the attention of a paramedic onboard the helicopter.
"There they are!" he shouted over the rotor blade noise. "See them? Two men, on the other side of that stand of pines. See? There—by those rocks." The pilot pulled the chopper in a wide circle and started toward the plume of smoke. He grinned as he watched a scraggly looking fellow wearing dirty clothes and a red bandana tied around his head, jump up and down like an Indian doing a rain dance.
"I think those guys are ready to go home," he said, laughing at Starsky's gyrations.
"They're comin' back, Hutch! They're comin'."
"I see they are, buddy. I think we're going home." Hutch's eyes closed briefly and sighed with relief. It looked as though their ordeal was about to come to an end.
Starsky turned and looked at him. Neither said a word, but the meaning was clear. They had made it. And they had made it together.
Captain Dobey held the door open as Starsky maneuvered the wheelchair into the control tower booth. Hutch was secretly enjoying being chauffeured around; even though the chair was lightweight enough he could have easily handled it himself. He was sporting his 'lucky' fishing cap, and in his lap was a gigantic basket laden with exotic fruits, gourmet cheeses, and a variety of nuts and hand-dipped candies.
Seth Carter and John McGinness both turned and looked up as the trio entered their workspace. They hadn't the slightest idea who these guys were, but they had never seen a gift basket of that proportion before, so their interest was immediately piqued.
Dobey took the initiative and introduced himself. "I'm Captain Harold Dobey with the LAPD. Are you two Carter and McGinness?"
That's right," Seth answered. "I'm Carter and he's McGinness."
A smile passed between the two detectives, both thinking how many times they had introduced themselves in a similar fashion.
"Yeah, well, I'm Starsky and he's Hutch." Starsky couldn't resist.
Smiles wreathed the faces of both air traffic controllers. They recognized these names immediately. "Man, are we glad to see you guys alive," Carter said, while extending his hand to greet the three policemen. McGinness followed suit.
"I brought my detectives here to thank you personally," Dobey said seriously.
"I don't think 'thanks' is adequate for what you two did for us," Hutch said earnestly. "We've been told that you were responsible for initiating a search for our plane. Otherwise, we probably would have died before anyone even missed us."
"Just doing our jobs," Seth said, modestly.
"And doin' 'em damn good, too!" Starsky added with enthusiasm. "Hutch is right. You don't have any idea the shape we were in by the time they found us. My partner here was just hours from developing an infection in that leg and the doctors told us it could have been fatal. If we hadn't been picked up when we were, he may not have made it. I wanna say thanks for pushin' the panic button."
"You both look like you've been to Hell and back," McGinness joked, although in reality, he thought it was a pretty apt description. Both men were bruised and scraped up like they'd been rumbling somewhere in a back alley, and Hutchinson's leg was in a cast from the ankle to above his knee. "We're just glad you both made it."
"We wish we could have gotten to you before the pilot died," Carter said, his voice strained with remorse.
Hutch hastened to reassure the air traffic controller. "Listen, Carter, our pilot died on impact. My partner checked him out before he even dug me out of the rubble. No one could have saved him." Hutch could see his words seemed to relieve some of the hurt in Seth Carter's eyes.
"He's tellin' it like it is," Starsky added. "He went through the front of the cockpit, Carter. No sign of a pulse. I think maybe his neck was broken when he hit the glass. The autopsy results haven't been released yet, but I've seen a lotta traffic accidents, and that's what it reminded me of."
A hush fell over the small group for a few seconds, then Dobey steered the conversation back to a happier topic.
"These two are a pain in the butt sometimes, but they're still the best detectives in my precinct, so I came along to thank you too, for going the extra mile. I've talked to your supervisor, and cleared it for you both to be off tomorrow afternoon. We're having a little awards ceremony in your honor for the part you played in locating these two renegades."
The two air traffic controllers were at a loss for words. "No need to thank us, Captain, we were only doing our job," Carter finally mumbled self-consciously.
In reality, it had taken some pretty aggressive follow-through to convince the authorities that a plane had gone down. But they had done it, despite the sketchy evidence; and they had plotted out a surprisingly accurate location of the search area.
"By the way," Starsky poked Hutch's shoulder, "are you gonna give 'em the basket, Turkey?"
"Oh, yeah...uh...this is from Starsk and me. We didn't really know what you'd like, so we told them to put a little of everything in here."
Seth Carter blushed noticeably as he and John thanked them both and removed the huge basket from Hutch's lap. After visiting another few minutes, the two controllers had to return to their stations and Dobey, Starsky, and Hutch headed back to LA.
As Starsky fired up the engine of the Torino, Dobey helped Hutch get settled in the back of the car, then climbed into the passenger seat up front.
"Starsky, I'm going to sit up here so we can discuss in detail, this so-called sweepstakes trip of yours. I want to know where the hell you won that prize! And why no one knew where you were going! Furthermore, how did you get stuck with that relic of an airplane?"
Starsky looked in the rear view mirror in time to see Hutch duck his head to conceal his laughter. With an `I think I'm gonna be sick look' on his face, Starsky swallowed hard and said, "Now, Cap, I can explain all that—"
"Well, that's good. Because I'm all ears and we've got about two hundred miles of explaining time available! But if you think I'm going to buy some lame...."