This story first appeared in the zine, The Eyes Have It #8 (1996). Comments on this story can be sent to:firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
Hutch whistled while he unloaded his gear from the car. He had been looking forward to this weekend for a while now, a chance to get away from the smog and pavement and into nature and fresh air for a few days. He had tried to talk Starsky into joining him, but after their last foray into the wild, Starsky was reluctant at best, and all Hutch's persuasions were fruitless. He supposed if he would've sincerely asked his partner to come, Starsky would have given in, but he didn't want to lay that on his city-loving partner. Starsky just wasn't made to be a nature boy.
Hutch breathed the pine-scented air deeply. A few more weeks and autumn would begin, but now the lazy last days of summer still filled the woods with lush greens intermixed with clumps of wildflowers. Memories of his grandfather's farm were brought on by the scents and sights, and he could already feel the tensions of the week flowing out of him. It was too bad his partner didn't gain the same revitalization from nature that he did.
He checked his hiking boots and secured his pack before locking the car and, without a backwards glance at the nearby lodge or the parking lot, set off for the hills and forest.
It was a little late in the afternoon to be starting a hike, but Hutch had resisted the thought of waiting till early the next morning, eager to get started. He figured that if he made good time, he would reach his goal by dusk: the bottom of one of the trails that climbed up to the highest peak in the area. Then he'd be able to start up the trail first thing in the morning. In the meantime, he had some walking to do.
The sunlight filtered down through the trees, putting spotlights on the occasional squirrels and small animals that darted away at his coming. Miles away from anything bigger than a deer, Hutch thought happily. As much as he loved the city and felt at home there, he often longed for the absence of people and buildings, the dirt and corruption of mankind. There was just something so pure about a place untouched by his fellow men...
A sound suddenly caught his attention from behind him and to his left. He paused for a moment to listen to it, and it stopped too. Curious, Hutch began to move again, slowly, listening. It was there again. It sounded like footsteps, heavy ones. He stopped a second time abruptly, and the steps stopped as well. Following him, no doubt about it.
Hutch's ruminations on nature disappeared as training took over. He wished suddenly that he hadn't left his gun behind, but it was sitting back home in his closet. He'd have to make do without. Hutch took another few steps forward, then abruptly whipped behind a tree and around it, facing back the way he came.
The black shadow that had been following him made no attempt to hide, advancing a few steps to stare at him curiously.
Hutch blew out a sigh of relief and laughed. It was only a large, short-haired, black dog, he couldn't tell what kind, but with a collar and wide, thoughtful eyes. Mild, very blue ones. Obviously someone's pet, but what was it doing out here in the middle of nowhere?
The dog continued to watch him, then moved to just a few feet in front of him.
Hutch held out his hand toward it and whistled softly. "Here, pup. Here, pup, I'm not going to hurt you. What are you doing out here? D'you come to make friends?"
The dog approached him without hesitation, nuzzling his hand and then rubbing against his leg.
Hutch patted the lean side, then reached under the dark head for a tag. There was none on the faded and ragged collar. The dog looked up at him with soulful eyes, and Hutch found himself melting in response. Somehow they reminded him of his partner when Starsky was begging for something. He never could turn down eyes like that.
"Well, boy, looks like it's just you and me. You can tag along if you want, and we can try and find your owner on Sunday, huh?"
The dog wagged his tail in agreement and fell easily into step beside him. Hutch grinned again. Strange, but he felt much better with the presence at his side; he'd obviously gotten too used to having a partner. Even if this one was a little better groomed than his usual companion.
The pair of them continued to walk for the next two hours. Occasionally, the dog would move ahead of them to do a little scouting or sniff curiously at something, but in general it stayed close to Hutch, as though trained to do so. Hutch finally stopped wondering about it and just enjoyed the company.
They made it to the base of the hill just as the setting sun began to turn the sky pink. There was a stream nearby, and Hutch took a drink before he began to move around, setting up the camp. The dog settled down to watch him as he took out and raised the little lean-to, and unrolled his sleeping bag. Then Hutch set up a campfire and began to gather wood for it.
The dog continued to watch him for a moment, then got up majestically and padded away. A moment later, he returned, carrying a stout branch in his mouth.
Hutch stared at him with surprise for a moment, then laughed. "Good boy," he said approvingly, patting the dog on the head as he took the stick. The dog looked at him for a second almost intelligently, then moved off again to retrieve another piece of wood. Between the two of them, there was a decent pile of wood within minutes. Then the dog sat down again to watch as Hutch set to lighting the fire and took out the cookware.
A half-an-hour later, dinner was served, and this time the dog hung back patiently, watching and waiting till Hutch motioned it closer. Then he came willingly and dug into the plate of food Hutch set out for it.
Hutch sat back and watched the dog while he ate his own dinner. In all seriousness, it really was odd how much the dog reminded him of Starsky. He wasn't sure why, if it was the patient and constant near-presence, or just those deep blue eyes that seemed to be hiding a whole collection of thoughts. He grinned at the thought. Hutch could just imagine his partner's reaction at being compared with a dog. Or rather, Hutch had once teased him with just that, and all he got back was a languid, 'better me than you.' Hutch was the practical joker of the two of them, but Starsky could usually give as good as he got. The memory made him laugh, and the dog looked up at him curiously for a moment before returning to its food.
After they were both finished eating, Hutch rinsed the plates in the stream and put everything away, then settled back to watch the fire. The dog came over and lay down next to him, and Hutch scratched it absentmindedly behind the ears. A few minutes later the dog moved forward, and, watching him intently, laid its head cautiously on Hutch's leg. Hutch grinned his okay at it and moved down to rub under the dog's collar.
He didn't know how long they sat there, each comfortable in the other's presence. Strange, Hutch mused, when he was growing up he had been the consummate loner. Oh, he had been liked well enough, and had had some good friends, but most of all he liked going off by himself, out into his grandfather's barn or into the woods under a wide-spread tree to just sit and think. He had liked the peace.
But somewhere along the way, that had changed. He wasn't sure when exactly, but he had a good idea why. Hutch had learned to share his space, and then his life with someone in a way that he had never been able to with Vanessa. Having a partner you could trust was more than a reassurance -- it became something you depended on and got used to, until being alone no longer seemed as desirable as it once had. Sure, he and Starsky spent quite a bit of time apart, and sometimes he even craved a little solitude. But usually, being with his partner was refreshing, often consisting of no more than sitting in silence together, enjoying the other's presence. And now he felt strangely alone when that presence was gone.
The dog shifted on his leg and looked up at him dolefully, as though it knew what he was thinking, then lay back down. Hutch continued to scratch it thoughtfully in long strokes down the lean, black side. Yes, he definitely enjoyed the company. Not that it was quite the same, he added wryly, but it still made him feel better.
The next morning promised as much sunshine and beautiful weather as the day before had had. Hutch woke up and stretched lazily before abruptly recalling his companion of the night before and quickly looking around for him. The dog lay by the fire just a few feet away, curled up facing the tent as though guarding it. Hutch smiled at him.
"Hey, boy, glad you stuck around."
The dog seemed to grin back at him and the tail thumped on the ground a few times.
Hutch got ready quickly, packing up the equipment and his bedroll and dousing the smoldering ashes thoroughly. With a last look around, he set off, the dog ever-present at his side.
They made good time going up the hill. The trail was just steep enough for a good workout without being completely exhausting, and when they reached the peak around noon, the view made every bit of it worth it. They came out onto an outcropping that afforded a good 180 view and a steep drop in front of them. Hutch settled down near the edge to take a break and a long look around.
The dog had stayed steadfastly at Hutch's side, and now it eased down beside him as if to enjoy the view together. Hutch sat and just looked. The whole of the forest was visible from the top, stretching off to the north and west, while the edge of the city was visible to the east. Ought to come up here more often, he thought ruefully, maybe talk Starsky into coming next time. He would love to see this.
They sat in easy companionship, enjoying their achievement, until Hutch noticed the sun was making good time above them. As much as he liked it up there, he didn't particularly want to climb down in the dark. He quickly undid his pack and pulled out his canteen and some bread and jerky for a brief lunch. The dog looked up with interest, and Hutch offered him some of the meal, which was heartily accepted and quickly eaten. Then Hutch paused long enough to pack everything away carefully again and prepare to begin their descent.
As he stood up from the pack and took a step back to swing the load onto his shoulders, his foot settled on some loose pebbles that began to roll, taking his foot out from under him. The dog began to bark a furious warning, and Hutch, unbalanced, tried to plant his other leg on firm ground to regain his footing. He was too near the edge, however, and the ground began to give way under him. Panicked, he grabbed out at anything he could grasp at to keep himself from going over the edge, but the sparse shrubbery was not enough to hold his weight. Then he was falling.
He landed with a sickening wrench, and lost awareness.
Hutch could feel something wet on his face, but he didn't want to wake up, not really. He knew on the other side of waking was pain and trouble, and he didn't want to deal with it. Much better to lie there and drift.
But the wetness and movement was insistent, and there was something in him, too, that rebelled against inactivity and giving up. So he finally forced himself out of the drifting haze and back into dismal reality.
The first thing Hutch noticed was the pain, all throughout his body, but most of all in his head. It took a few moments of concentration until it settled a little, allowed him to think. That was when he noticed that his face was still wet. He opened his eyes cautiously and stared at the fuzzy, concerned pair of deep blue eyes. Set in a black hairy face. He began to move his hand up to pet the big dog hanging over him, worriedly licking his face, but the pain of movement drew him up short, and he settled for a slight smile and a quiet, "Okay, boy. I'm awake already."
The dog sat back a little to look at him, and Hutch looked up, trying to clear his vision and figure out where he was and what had happened. He saw the ledge above him, perhaps 15 or 20 feet up, remembered slipping over it, but how had he survived? And where was he? It cost a lot to turn his head, but then at least he could see that he and the dog were on an outcropping, a little wider than his outstretched body. Below that was a drop of hundreds of feet. He hadn't made it with much of a margin for safety.
The thought of getting up was pretty grim, but Hutch didn't see any choice in the matter. He grit his teeth against the pain and nausea and slowly began to push himself up. The dog advanced again and pulled at his jacket, trying to help him up. Hutch groped for his collar and let the big dog do most of the work, but he was already exhausted by the time he was sitting upright, and the nausea was suddenly overwhelming. He almost fell over as he began to be violently sick, retching until long after his stomach was emptied.
When his system calmed down a little, Hutch leaned shakily back against the outcropping wall. The dog, who had been watching him warily, came over and leaned gently against him, providing support and warmth. Despite the heat of the late afternoon, Hutch felt cold and he leaned gratefully against the sun-warmed fur of the dog. Before he knew it, he had dozed off again.
It was evening before he woke up. Hutch couldn't tell exactly when, he didn't have his pocket watch with him, but judging from the chill in the air he figured it to be an hour or two after sunset. His head, though still aching miserably, felt a little clearer and the dizziness and nausea were manageable. It was time to try and take stock of the situation.
It didn't look good. Trapped out on a ledge, with not a single person within miles. Sure, he'd be missed the next day, but it could take days, even weeks for them to find him hidden away there. And with the little water and food he had, above him on the ledge...
A sudden thought made him sit up a little. He had fallen down on the ledge, but the dog had not -- how had he gotten there?
At his stirring, the dog sat up and moved back a little, watching him again with those intelligent eyes, as if wondering about the next move.
Hutch stared back at him. "How on earth did you get down here, boy? You didn't jump, did you?" He doubted it, it would've been dangerous, even for a dog.
As if in comprehension, the dog moved over to the far side of the outcropping, and then, to all appearances, stepped off of it into thin air and disappeared. Hutch started forward in surprise, only to see the big, black head reappear again and pant happily at him. Hutch slowly moved his reluctant body forward, half-dragging and half-crawling, until he was almost to the edge of the ledge. There he could see that the dog had actually stepped behind a rock that concealed a ledge that seemed to wind upwards back to the top of the cliff. A way back.
Hutch grinned at the dog tiredly. "Good job, boy," he whispered. He had the way now, all he had to do was somehow get his body to cooperate and get him up there. That wasn't going to be easy.
He brushed absently at a tickle at his ear, and his hand came away bloody. Hutch stared at the red stickiness in surprise and growing realization. He should have figured -- the pain, the dizziness and the nausea, and now blood from his ear all added up to a fractured skull. Not the best prognosis before a hike of many hours that stretched ahead of him. He mentally shrugged it off; wasn't as if he had much choice.
The dog reappeared again, and Hutch realized with a start that his companion had been away for several minutes. Dangling from the dog's teeth was Hutch's canteen, the strap bitten through where it had been attached to his pack.
Hutch stared at him in amazement. "Clever boy," he said, and gratefully took the offered canteen. The water made his stomach a little queasy again, but it stayed down and the wetness felt good on his throat. Hutch leaned back to try and pull himself together a little.
The dog wasn't content to just watch anymore, though. It came up to Hutch and impatiently nudged at his hand.
"Ya' want me to get up, huh?" Hutch made a tired face. "Don't know if I can, boy."
But the dog wasn't taking no for an answer and continued to push at him urgently.
Hutch finally sighed and took hold of the faded collar. "Okay, okay, I get the message. You know, you're pretty stubborn. Remind me of someone else I know. You're gonna have to help me, though."
He could have sworn the dog grinned at him for a moment. Then it dutifully went to work, alternately pushing and pulling until Hutch was more or less on his feet.
The world seem to be swaying gently and his head felt like it was going to come off. It's no worse than the day after one of Huggy's parties, he tried to tell himself. And if you don't do this, Starsky's going to kill you. The thought of his partner was reassuring. Yes, he was going to get out of this, if for no other reason than because his partner would get a kick out of having all his paranoias about nature proved right. Not to mention that that idiot would get himself killed within a week out on the streets by himself...
The dog was already moving off, looking back at him at every step to make sure Hutch was following. Hutch sighed deeply, then stepped away from the wall, steadied himself, and followed.
After a half an hour of stumbling and twice falling, they finally made it back to the top. Hutch staggered the last few feet to his pack and collapsed gratefully on the ground beside it. He didn't think he'd be able to walk another step if his life depended on it. Ha, ha.
He fidgeted with the pack for a few minutes, his fingers not wanting to work right, and then it took some time to find the remains of his food. He split it again and offered some to the dog, but this time the dog wouldn't take it. Hutch looked at him blearily. "Whatsamatter, aren't you hungry?" he mumbled. The dog just lay down and looked at him serenely.
Hutch was surprised at the selfless gift, but he finished off the food by himself. Then he drank a little more water and had strength enough to dig out his blanket and curl up with it before unconsciousness claimed him.
Starsky glanced at the clock for the third time in as many minutes, and he felt the uneasiness gnaw even more at him. His terminally punctual partner was already 45 minutes late, and the calls to his house had met with no response. It could always be something as simple as a flat tire, but then Hutch would've called...
His phone rang and he pounced on it. "Starsky! Oh, Cap'n. No, he's not here yet... Haven't heard from him and he's not at home... No, haven't called them yet, was about to do that... Okay, yeah." He punched the button for another line and called up Information to get the number for the lodge Hutch had gone to.
It was already mid-morning before Hutch woke again. The dog lay beside him, curled against him, keeping him warm and sheltered. As soon as Hutch began to move, the head came up, the warm blue eyes evaluating him. "Mornin' boy," Hutch said softly.
His head still hurt as fiercely as the day before, a fact that would have worried him if hadn't had so much else to deal with. Like still being miles from civilization. "Rocks and trees," he muttered grimly to himself. "Pretty place to die."
The dog turned and growled at him. Hutch put up his hands in apology. "Okay, okay, I didn't mean that. We'll get out of here somehow. Any ideas?"
The dog, mollified, bent over to duck under his arm and pull at him again. "I thought you'd say that," groaned Hutch.
He abandoned the pack, hanging on only to the canteen and his blanket, and pushed himself up unsteadily. His nose was dripping blood this time, and he angrily swiped at it. He didn't need any reminders.
As he tried to straighten, he suddenly cried out and folded over. The dog, concerned, turned back to him and whined a query.
"S'okay," Hutch whispered, more to himself than to his companion. "S'okay. S'okay." He sank back down to his knees and curled up for a moment, trying to bring under control the pain that was eating through his middle and that brought tears to his eyes. There was something else wrong, inside of him, something more than just his head injury. It wasn't fair! The deck had already been plenty stacked against them, wasn't that enough?
The dog was nosing at him, worried. Hutch tried to clear his head from the haze of pain long enough to think. No choice. He had to try and go. To just stay there would be almost certain death, and he couldn't give up, not while he had any strength left. Determinedly, he slowly unthreaded his belt from his jeans and tied it to the dog's collar. "Okay, boy. You're gonna have to get us out of here, okay?" he whispered into the silky black fur. The blue eyes contemplated him seriously, and waited for him to gather himself.
Hutch slowly pushed himself up again, this time not trying to straighten out. He pulled the blanket around himself as tightly as he could, he felt so cold even in the midday sun, and with the other hand he held on to his makeshift leash. The dog set off resolutely, Hutch stumbling along behind him.
Starsky was pushing the Torino as fast as he dared go on the winding road out of town, heading for the lodge. They had not been much help there when he'd called, but after invoking the authority of the department, he had gotten someone to run out and check and indeed confirm the presence of a battered LTD in the parking lot. After that, it hadn't taken much to get permission from Dobey to go look for his missing partner. He had already called the local rangers, and they would have a search team out, too. You and your rocks and trees, he grumbled to his absent partner. This is probably all a trick to get me out here. At the moment, he would've given anything if that was all it was.
Hutch tripped on a root again, this time falling to the ground. The world went a passive black for a moment and he let it; it was either that or dealing with pain that he couldn't bear anymore. The fire in his middle was fiercer and it felt like someone very large was squeezing his head until it would burst. His body was also becoming increasingly uncoordinated, and he just couldn't muster the strength to make it move forward any more.
The dog came up to him and nudged him questioningly, then licked his face in worry. "I can't, boy... I can't keep going." He brought up his hand and dragged it through the thick fur, trying to reassure both of them. "You go for help, huh? Go find someone and bring 'em back here, I can't..." Hutch's voice trailed off, worn out, and his mind began to wander. He was supposed to be somewhere now, they'd be waiting for him. Oh, Starsky, that's right. Starsky would miss him, he'd come looking. It woulda been great to see him again. Hutch could even face the hopelessness of the situation if only he weren't so alone. Resolve crumbled, and the tears finally came.
Unnoticed, the dog slipped quietly away.
Starsky veered sharply into the lodge parking lot and was already opening the door as he parked. The LTD wasn't hard to spot, sitting alone at the edge of the lot near the woods. The sight of the solitary car made him swallow hard. Hutch was here, somewhere.
After a quick look at the LTD turned up nothing helpful, Starsky turned towards the lodge. He was already pulling out his badge as he ran into the building, and he thrust it under the nose of the man at the desk. "Detective Sergeant Starsky, LAPD," he slapped the ID shut as the man looked at it, "I called you earlier about a missing officer."
"Yes, I remember, Sergeant Halverson, wasn't it?" The man looked nervous.
"Hu-tchin-son," Starsky corrected tersely. "That's his car out there, at the edge of the lot."
"Yes, well, Sergeant, you see, a lot of people park on the lot before setting off to go backpacking. Unless they actually stay here with us, we have no way of knowing who they are or where they intended to go."
Starsky nodded in frustration. That wasn't news to him. "All right, but could you give me some idea of where people usually hike to around here?" He raised his eyebrows encouragingly.
The man began to relax a little; this was more familiar ground. "Well, it depends if they want to do some climbing or if they just want to go exploring in the woods. We also have a lake nearby that some people make for..."
"Terrific," Starsky muttered. Then, louder, "Say, do you have a map of the area? Something that would show the trails?"
"Certainly, Officer." The man moved off and returned a moment later with a folded map.
"Oh, and could you tell me what radio frequency the local rangers are on?"
That took a little more time, but he got the information. "Please let us know if we can be of further help," the man said over his shoulder, turning towards a customer.
"Yeah. Uh, thanks." Starsky was already halfway to the door.
Outside, he paused a minute to look around. He was trying not to admit to his frustration at his situation. The truth was that there was a lot of ground to cover and a lot of more experienced people to cover it than some city boy raised in Brooklyn. This was completely out of his element. He made a face and strode over to the car to spread the map out on his trunk and try and figure out something.
He was so absorbed in the map, it startled him when something big and black bumped his hand. Starsky jumped, already reaching for his gun, then relaxed at the sight of the dog. Big and black, but with incredibly blue eyes. Starsky smiled at his paranoia, and with a distracted, "Hi, boy," patted the dog idly while he returned to the map.
But the dog was insistent. It poked his hand again, and again stepped back to study him. Starsky looked up at him, puzzled, and the dog shook himself. The belt that was tied around his collar clattered against the pavement at his side.
Starsky, frowning, bent forward to take a closer look at the belt, the dog obediently standing still and letting him. Starsky suddenly sucked in his breath, a shiver going down his back. The belt was Hutch's, he knew it.
He crouched down in front of the dog and took its face in his hands, meeting the placid blue eyes. "You know where he is, don't you, boy? You know where Hutch is? You gonna take me to him? You do that and I'll buy you the biggest steak dinner you ever had."
The dog pulled away and took a few steps toward the forest, then stopped and turned to look back at Starsky.
Starsky grinned at him. "Okay, boy, hold on a minute, I'm comin'." He ducked into the Torino for the radio, then he hurried after the dog who was disappearing into the forest.
Hutch lay shivering, lost somewhere in a mist of timeless pain and confusion. Memories, good and bad, filtered through, faces of friends, family, foes that seemed to be talking to him, but he couldn't quite make out the words. He cried as he watched his brother come home from Korea in a flag-draped coffin, and felt the pride of a big brother as his sister got married. There was the fear of lying trapped under his car in the canyon, and the incredible relief of Starsky's arrival. But that was nothing compared to the joy and solace of a few simple words, 'I think your friend's going to make it.' Starsky. It was amazing how much comfort that simple name gave. He basked in it.
Warm fur brushed against him again, and Hutch pulled himself back to reality enough to wrap an arm tiredly around the soft body and bury his face in it. "Knew you'd come back," he whispered to it.
It took a moment to distinguish the reality from the dream, but he knew that voice, smiled at it before he could even put a name to it. Safety, security, sanity. Starsky. What was Starsky doing there?
"Starsky." It was an incredible effort to make the one word audible, and it came out as half a cry, half a sob.
Starsky was at his partner's side in a moment. Hutch looked a mess, shivering and curled up in a blanket, blood on his face and in his hair and dark circles around his eyes. Starsky was afraid to touch him, but he reached out gently and smoothed back the tangled hair.
"Hey, partner, how you doin'?" he asked softly.
Hutch was trying to focus on him but was apparently having trouble doing so. He finally gave it up and his eyes drifted shut, but he reached out and found Starsky's hand. " 'Been better," he murmured.
"Really." Starsky was trying to check him out without moving him too much. No broken arms or legs, and from the way Hutch moved, it didn't seem to be a spinal injury. "You wanna tell me what trouble you got yourself into now?" He began to feel Hutch's side for cracked ribs.
"Fell and hit my head," Hutch answered in the same light vein, then abruptly cried out as Starsky's probing fingers pressed on his abdomen. The mists were beginning to close in again and he fought to keep himself from drifting on it. He wanted to remain there with Starsky.
Starsky saw. "Come on, Hutch, stay with me. Concentrate on my voice, okay? Thatta boy. I'm not goin' anywhere but then you gotta stay, too." Internal injuries, probable skull fracture. How am I gonna get you outta here?
Hutch was flushed and shivering, and Starsky pulled off his jacket to wrap it around his friend, then, still not letting go of the hand that hung on to his, he turned away and spoke into the radio for a few minutes.
The news wasn't encouraging. They could wait there until the rescue team found them, but with only an approximate location, that would take some time. They would be bringing a helicopter to land at a nearby clearing, and if Starsky thought he could make his way there, he was advised to try and move his partner there for airlifting out. Otherwise they were to just stay put and wait to be found. Not much of a choice.
Starsky turned back to his partner. "Hey, buddy." The blue eyes fluttered open again, stared at him fuzzily. "You think you can walk a little bit if I help you? We gotta make it to the clearin' so they can pick us up."
There was no hesitation, the trust was too strong for that. Just a slight nod and Hutch began to struggle to sit up.
They had almost forgotten the dog, but the animal had been hanging back to watch them, and now he moved forward to help. Hutch smiled at him weakly and held on to him as both Starsky and the dog moved to lever him up.
Once Hutch was on his feet, he was able to steady himself against his partner, and the dog padded in front of them to take up the lead position again. Starsky watched at it in surprise, but Hutch just shook his head. "S'all right, he knows where he's goin'." His voice was weak and slurred but determined.
They slowly began to walk, and it was the longest walk of Starsky's life. He could remember trying to move under the agonizing influence of Bellamy's poison, but it seemed to hurt worse now to hear his partner's harsh breathing and to feel him weakening with every step. Hutch belonged in intensive care, not hiking through the forest. "You and your stupid trees," he finally muttered in annoyance.
Hutch snorted in amusement, then cringed at the pain it caused in his gut. Starsky caught the reaction and held him a little tighter. "Just a few more yards, huh? This dog seems to know where he's goin' -- he got me to you, didn't he? And the rangers said the clearin' had to be close, so just keep it up a bit more, okay? We'll make it together." He was talking more to himself than to his partner, who once more seemed to have lapsed into a stupor, but it made him feel better. Maybe it made Hutch feel better, too.
Hutch wasn't worried. He felt above it all now, the pain, the jostling, the fear. Somehow Starsky had always been able to do that, but never as much before as now. Perhaps it was the utter impossibility of his partner appearing there, in the middle of the forest, just when Hutch needed him most. If Starsky could do that, he could do anything, and Hutch had no doubt that his partner would get him out of this one. He was just so tired...
The sound of the helicopter blades was the first sign that they were getting close, followed by the sunlight flashing through the trees, reflected off the metal body as it descended. Starsky almost cried his relief. He wasn't sure how much longer he could have kept this up, Hutch nearly unconscious and barely making any effort to help them along now.
They broke into the clearing and suddenly somebody was taking Hutch away from him and getting him onto a stretcher, beginning first aid, while another talked to Starsky. His head swam with all of it, and someone finally seemed to notice that, too, and directed him to the co-pilot seat, explaining that there wasn't enough room in the back for him to be with Hutch. He could understand that, but he wanted to see him one more time, not wanting that frightening deadness at the end to be his last image of his partner.
He could hear Hutch calling him, and he pushed his way over to crouch down by the head of the stretcher and gently take his partner's hand. He was relieved to feel some return pressure this time. "Yeah?" he asked softly.
"Look after the dog, willya? Saved my life..." The blue eyes were still having trouble focusing on him.
"Sure, I'll take care of it. You worry about gettin' better, okay?"
Hutch's mind was beginning to wander again, but he grinned faintly. "Uh-huh. See ya..."
Starsky grinned back. He didn't doubt it anymore. "Yeah." They were moving Hutch into the helicopter now, so he carefully disentangled Hutch's hand and laid it back down on the stretcher. Then he stepped back to give the medics room, and looked around the clearing.
The dog was nowhere in sight.
Starsky frowned. The animal had moved off to one side when they had entered the clearing, but he had been sure the dog had been sitting there, watching. Starsky quickly circled the clearing, calling and whistling, but to no avail. The dog was gone, as silently as it had come.
The pilot was calling him, and Starsky reluctantly gave up the search to get on board the helicopter. He wasn't sure what he was going to tell Hutch.
"Hey, partner," Starsky stuck his head in the door cheerfully.
Hutch's face brightened at his arrival. "Starsk! Come in!"
Starsky came all the way in, relieved to see Hutch's color coming back. It had taken a lot of rest and time before his friend was even able to stay awake and coherent long enough to talk to him, but Hutch was making definite improvement now.
Starsky thrust the plant he had brought into his partner's hands. "Brought you somethin'."
Hutch looked at in surprise. "Hey, Starsky, that's great. It looks just like the one you knocked over last Christmas."
His partner fidgeted in embarrassment. "Yeah, well, figured I owed you for that one." He folded himself into the chair by the bed, his station of late.
Hutch laughed and set the plant aside, then sank down into the bed to enjoy his friend's company. Even half in and half out of it as he had been recently, he had still felt the absence.
A sudden thought came to him, one he had meant to ask before but hadn't had the chance. "Say, Starsk, what ever happened to the dog? Is he with you?"
Starsky grew distinctly uncomfortable. "Well, you see, I tried to hang on to him..."
Hutch's smile disappeared. "You lost my dog?"
His partner flushed even more. "You don't have to say it like that! I tried to find him, but he just disappeared, soon as they got you on the helicopter. It was weird, like he knew you didn't need him anymore or somethin'."
Hutch wasn't mollified. "You lost my dog."
Starsky was getting flustered. "Would you quit sayin' that?! Look, he's not your dog; I did find out who he belongs to." He pleaded silently for a chance to make amends.
Hutch glowered at him silently.
Starsky took that as a confirmation. "See, the lodge owner told me all about it. Seems there was this old-timer living out in the woods a few years back, and he had this big, black dog. The old man wasn't very friendly though, so everyone kinda left him alone and didn't see either of them much. Then, three years ago, a ranger found the old man dead in his cabin, heart attack or somethin'. Only the dog was gone, and they couldn't ever find him. Lodge owner says he never heard of anyone seein' him since, but it had to be him."
Hutch had been listening with interest despite himself, and now leaned back into the pillow with a sigh. "Huh. That's really something, Starsk. You know that dog saved my life? Probably a couple of times. It was...almost like he was there to look out for me."
Starsky's voice, when it came a moment later, was strangely subdued. "Yeah, well, there's one more thing."
"Yeah?" Hutch looked at him again, curiosity having completely replaced the annoyance.
"The dog had a name. The lodge owner told me that the old man never bothered to get it a tag, but everybody in the area could hear him callin' for it sometimes." Starsky met his partner's eyes and grinned sheepishly. "His name was 'Davey.'"
The grin slowly faded.
Hutch stared at him for a long moment, Starsky returning the gaze steadily, thinking the same thing. Hutch finally said, very softly, "Oh."
There was just nothing more that needed saying.
Written in 1996