TreeLine Series (iii)
With thanks and apologies to Pet Fly, and proceeding under the assumption that forgiveness is easier to ask than permission ...
As always, for Aly.
Montane -- The zone in mountainous regions where the influence of altitude results in local climates that are significantly different from those in the adjacent lowlands and alpine areas.
~ ~ ~
Blair quickly finished tucking in the flaps of the box at his feet and headed for the door where Jim stood waiting, backlit by the afternoon sun, arms full of freshly chopped wood. He swung the screen open and held it while Jim entered. The smell of pine and sweat created an invisible and sweetly pungent aura around him, and Blair breathed deeply of it, and watched as Jim stacked the cut lengths next the wood box with deliberate care. Necessary, as the box itself had been filled two trips ago.
"I think you can stop now," Blair said, smiling slightly.
Jim straightened and brushed the front of his sweatshirt free of bits of moss and bark. "New guy is going to need plenty of wood next spring, Chief," he said. "The stuff stacked out on the porch over the winter won't be dry enough to burn for a while."
"I know," Blair replied. "Are you ready to take another box out to the truck?"
"Yeah. What time is it?"
Blair looked out the door and squinted into the sun, gauging its placement over the mountains. "Maybe three?" he answered.
"Maybe?" Jim rolled his eyes and looked around. "Where's my watch?"
"I think you left it on the table."
Jim scanned the tabletop, reached out and claimed the timepiece. "Shit. Three forty." He wiped the perspiration from his face and neck with one hand. "What else is left?"
"Nothing to pack, except the food and bathroom stuff, and dirty laundry. But I still have to treat the septic tank and empty the reservoir, then run the taps out so the pipes don't freeze. Tarp the woodpile outside, close the shutters ... a few other things."
"Not your fault," Jim said ruefully. "I'm the one who was late getting up here. But it means we won't get you back to Cascade and settled at Simon's place before midnight." He bent to pick up the box Blair had taped shut. "Door?"
"Sure." Blair held the door again and Jim hefted the box in his arms and headed off down the hill toward the truck. Blair stood in the doorframe and looked after him, and carefully allowed his heart a moment of honesty.
That truth had been made clear to Blair with every visit Jim had made. He had taken over the supply runs while Simon remained unable to drive, but now they were weekly instead of once a month. Every Saturday morning the blue and white truck appeared in the cabin's small turnaround. Jim brought groceries and books and treats and news; and always returned to Cascade the same day. Blair treasured the visits and the gifts ... and the departures too. He could not yet handle anything more. Somehow Jim seemed to know it and, uncomplaining and undemanding, still spent ten hours on the road every seven days.
This trip would be the last and, in some ways, the hardest ... for both of them.
And harder still, because of a late start. The wrap-up of a difficult case had delayed Jim's departure, and yet the man had arrived as promised, with boxes and tape and steaks and beer and strength and an unpresuming smile, ready to help shut down the cabin for the winter and bring Blair back to Cascade.
To Simon Banks' house.
Winter meant that the fire tower would be shut down, and Blair would have to leave the mountain. Jim had asked him once, hesitantly, to come back ... to come home ... to the loft. Blair had managed a shake of his head, and Jim had not mentioned it again. He had accepted without question Blair's decision to move in with Simon until he could find a place of his own, and unhesitatingly offering his help in closing up the cabin and bringing Blair down the mountain.
Startled from his thoughts, Blair swung the screen open and Jim came in, arms full with one last load of wood. He stacked it carefully and straightened. "What next?" he asked.
He was weary. It showed in his posture, in the lines on his face, in his eyes. Blair looked at him, and thought of all that lay behind and between them. "How about a beer?" he offered, hoping his voice didn't sound as wary as he felt.
"Sounds great," Jim said absently, looking around the room, "but it's a long drive back tonight, and I'm already bushed. We're not even gonna have time to make dinner. How about tomorrow? I'll come over to Simon's and we can--"
"What if...?" Blair's throat tightened and he swallowed hard.
Jim looked at him, questioning. Blair tried again.
"What if ... you stayed here ... tonight?" The tightness eased a bit, and his voice felt stronger. "What if you stayed here?" he said again. "We could finish the chores, cook dinner, have a few beers ... say goodbye to the cabin, you know? And ... sleep. And leave in the morning. Less stuff to pack that way, right? Safer, too? Um ... unless ... unless you have to do something else tomorrow? Be somewhere else?"
"No," Jim said, slowly. "I don't have to be anywhere else."
"Well, then ... stay."
They stood looking at each other for a long moment, but it was Jim who moved first, toward the door again. "I'll just ... ah ... get to work on the woodpile. Get that tarp tied down."
"Okay. I'll get the rest of the place in order and box up the food ... what we're not going to eat tonight, I mean. And ... ah ... I'll get another bed made up. It'll be on the floor...."
~ ~ ~
The wind woke him, and Blair lay still in the darkness, listening to the gale harangue its way through the stunted trees and broken rocks on the hillside and beat against the wooden walls of the cabin. It was a bleak sound, and it chilled his heart as it chilled the mountain. The season was turning ... winter was coming.
"You all right?"
His heart jumped at the quiet voice, and then he remembered. Jim. He searched the darkness and saw a shadow standing in front of one of the windows. Blair couldn't see his face, but he heard the worry in the man's voice.
"Fine. Just ... the wind. You?"
"Storm coming up," Jim replied, and turned his face back toward the glass.
Blair climbed out of bed, pulled his robe tight around him, and limped across the floor to stand behind Jim and peer over his shoulder. Snow was dancing in the darkness, driven like white comets up the hill, whirling in wild arabesques as the wind beat against the cabin walls and was forced back on itself beneath the broad roof of the porch.
"Bad?" he asked.
"Don't worry. I smelled it coming; there's a tarp over the truck bed. And I borrowed chains from Pete. The wind will keep the road clear until we hit the treeline. It might be dicey for while after that, but I'll get you ho-- ... to Simon's ... all right."
Jim turned away from the window then, and looked down at Blair. "You're freezing. Go back to bed." He reached out for Blair's shoulders, caught himself, and brought his hands back down to his side. Blair thanked him with a half-smile, pulled his robe tighter, and turned away. When Jim stayed by the window, Blair stopped and looked back at him.
"You need sleep, too."
"I think I'll watch for a while."
"Go to bed."
"You can't not do this, can you?"
"You have to, don't you?" Blair said, glancing toward the window. "Even out here in the middle of nowhere, where there's nothing to guard, you have to be a sentinel."
The ghost of Jim's face let its eyes meet Blair's in the dark mirror of the window. "Wrong on all counts, Chief."
"Yes. 'A sentinel is a sentinel as long as he chooses to be.' And this isn't the middle of nowhere, and I *do* have something to...." Jim's reflected gaze turned away from Blair and met its own eyes in the dark glass. "Maybe you're right. Go back to bed."
"Jim?" Blair's voice was shaky, and so was his resolve, but he had to ask.
"What are ... what do you...?"
A long breath clouded the window, and Jim watched it dissipate, then faced Blair again. "Come on, let's get you warm." He reached out and asked permission with his eyes, then put his hands lightly on Blair's shoulders and moved him gently across the room. Blair hesitated and then allowed it. He limped carefully across the dark, bare floor, letting himself be guided, letting himself feel the warmth of the palms cupping his shoulders. Unresisting, he climbed into the bed and let Jim draw up the blankets. He tugged his pillow into place, and a glint of silver caught the light of the oil lamp on the table.
Jim reached out one finger toward the glimmer but did not touch it. "Thank you," he whispered.
Blair lifted his hand and let the sleeve of his thermals fall away from his wrist. "I never take it off," he said.
Jim did touch the bracelet then, lightly, carefully. His fingertip traced the golden hand and, one by one, brushed lightly over the petroglyphs that encircled it. Blair turned his palm up and the white scars beneath the silver ghosted into view, and Jim pulled his hand away as if burned, then reached for the blankets and drew them snugly into place.
"Go to sleep," he said quietly, and stood.
The shadows shivered and suddenly, reality shifted. Uncertainty clouded the room around Blair like vapor; it blurred his vision and left his heart reeling with sick vertigo. For a moment he was back in his cell again, but with Jim standing before him as he had been in Blair's most desperate dreams ... tall and grave, limned in light, a dark angel come to take him home.
A gust of wind shook the cabin and the flame of the oil lamp flickered as a finger of draft found its way down the chimney or through some unguarded crack in the walls. Jim's shadow flickered too and the moment passed, leaving Blair shaken. The returning light illuminated no unknown truth, but it did cast a sharp shadow of consequence. Fear took him ... fear of facing a choice when he had had no choices for so long, and fear of another loss on top of unbearable losses already suffered. And so he did what he had always done in the face of fear ... he flung himself forward into it.
"Jim?" he whispered, and swallowed hard. He tried again, and his voice was stronger this time. "Jim."
And he pushed the covers away, and reached out one shaking hand.
Silver touched with gold glinted again in the lamplight, and that light touched blue eyes schooled to dispassion, sparking doubt and kindling hope ... and more.
And Jim's hand reached out slowly, carefully, as if it were one wild thing approaching another, and with great gentleness folded itself around Blair's.
Blair tugged lightly, and a soft sound came from Jim, and then he was on his knees, eyes still questioning. A hesitant smile brought him up onto the bed, and another whisper of his name drew him into it.
Outside the wind flung itself against the cabin and the stunted trees huddled around it. But the mountain stood strong; the gale blew with wild frustration over its sheltering shoulders and went spinning off into the troubled sky, leaving its burden of frozen rain to fall hard on the bare hillside. The draft of that fierce passage drew warmer air up from the forests that stood tall on the lower slopes. The sleet melted at its touch and trickled in chilly rivulets into the eroded hollows of the earth, a gift of the tall trees to their emaciated brethren struggling above the treeline. The water soaked into the soil and followed their roots down, deep into the bones of the mountain, and the trees seemed to sigh in the waning wind as they drew the rainwater up into themselves, holding its nourishment in their withered limbs against the day that spring would come.
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