"Is the engine supposed to make that sound?"
Skip held tight to the stick of the little Piper, trying to ignore his sweaty hands and the tremendous pounding of his heart. He didn't answer Murphy's question, but he did shoot a sideways glance at Andy sitting in the co-pilot seat. The look on his cousin's face was enough. Andy knew they were in trouble.
"Skip?" Murphy persisted, leaning forward from his place behind Andy.
"Sit back, Murph," Lee advised quietly and tugged the thirteen year old's arm to pull him away. The two of them had drawn the long straws, losing the front seat to Andy.
Andy's calm tone seemed to give Skip strength. He swallowed hard and shook his head.
"No, it's not s'posed to make that noise. Somethin's wrong." He chewed on his lower lip nervously and spared them all a worried look.
As if to emphasize his words, the engine coughed and sputtered noisily, then was suddenly silent.
For a long moment, there was no sound in the cramped cockpit, and Skip wondered briefly if his cousins could hear his heart thumping wildly. He knew he was a good pilot - his teacher had told him so often enough and had assured his parents that there was nothing to worry about. He had taken to flying with a natural aptitude and that couldn't be picked up in books. But no amount of skill could restart a dead engine.
Skip fought panic, but had to swallow hard before he could speak again. Even then, his voice sounded odd to his own ears.
"I think we're goin' down, guys."
He heard clearly Murphy's sharp intake of breath, but other than that, there was no sound from his companions.
The plane dipped. Skip could no longer spare any of his attention. He gripped the controls, his eyes focused on his instruments.
Best glide... best glide.... best glide.... His teacher's words echoed in his head like a mantra. He could do this. He'd practiced it several times. The plane wouldn't just drop out of the sky. If he did what he was supposed to, he could make a reasonably safe landing.
"See anything that looks like a road?" he asked Andy in what he hoped was a calm and steady voice.
Andy stared out the window and shrugged. "Maybe some old horse trails.... it's all pretty flat."
Skip glanced up from the panel to make his own assessment. He sighed and figured they just have to make a try for the smoothest spot. He searched for a moment, then made a choice and headed the plane in that direction.
He was gaining confidence now. He knew they were going to make it. He was going to handle this and get them all safely on the ground. He flashed Andy a grin.
Suddenly everything went wrong. The plane lurched violently, then pitched on its side. Skip struggled for control, but couldn't get level. In one moment, they nose-dived. Skip could hear his cousin's frightened voices, but all he could see was the ground coming up rapidly and he knew... they were going to die.
"I'm sorry!" he yelled to them, still straining with the controls. "I'm sorry!"
The ground loomed large and...
Skip bolted up in bed, his heart pounding, his chest heaving raggedly. It took only a moment to orient himself. He was in his own bed, Melanie sleeping soundly beside him.
He took a deep, steadying breath, slipped out of bed and quietly made his way to the bathroom. He turned on the tap, leaned over the sink and generously splashed water on his face.
He felt the hand on his back as he reached for the towel.
Skip turned to see his wife standing there, sleepy but concerned.
"Aw, Mel, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you up."
She smiled and reached out to wrap her arms around him. "Maybe you should talk to somebody?" she suggested.
Skip felt his eyebrows shoot up and he pulled back a little. "You mean a shrink? Mel, I don't need a shrink."
Melanie smiled knowingly. "I didn't mean a psychiatrist. Why not just tell the guys what's been happening. You know, you didn't start having these dreams until you all decided to take this trip."
Skip shook his head. "The last thing I need is for those jokers to have something else to kid me about."
Melanie frowned. "What do you mean, something else? Have they been giving you a hard time?"
Already Skip wished he'd kept his mouth shut. His cousins' ribbing was just that, good-natured teasing. But his wife wasn't going to be put off. He sighed. "They've just been joking a little about the last time I flew them somewhere." He hoped he sounded off-hand enough so that Mel would let it lie. He didn't succeed.
"Addison Carmichael, you were only 16 when that happened and had only been flying a few months. Plus it was nearly 25 years ago. And if they can't see that..."
"Melly, Melly," Skip interrupted smoothly. "They're just kidding." He pulled her back into his arms. "You know they would never do anything on purpose to make me feel bad." He kissed her forehead and grinned. "Besides, I did have to make an emergency landing and I did strand us all in the desert."
"But you didn't crash. It wasn't your fault that idiot didn't keep enough gas in the tank. You saved their lives that day."
"They know that." He chuckled. "'Sides, if they really didn't trust me, they wouldn't be gettin' in the plane with me."
Melanie relented and returned her husband's smile. "Well... okay, but if you keep having these nightmares, I'm going to call them all and tell them to put a cork in it."
Skip laughed and kissed her again. "You got a deal. Go on back to bed. I'll be there in a minute."
She squeezed his hand, but did as he asked.
He heaved another sigh and turned to stare at his scruffy reflection in the mirror. He hadn't been completely honest with her -- but then, he hadn't been completely honest with the guys either. Maybe that was why he was having the bad dreams. Maybe he should just come clean and tell them the real reason he wanted to go to the ruins.
But no, they'd never agree to it. He could talk them in to a little cultural trip to Chaco Culture Park to do some hiking and look at the ruins, but he just knew if he told them the real reason, they'd pack him off to the looney bin.
"I know this place is small," Lee announced, trying not to spill the contents of the three Styrofoam cups he carried, weaving around the well-worn tables and chairs in the cracker box waiting room. "But you'd think the whole darn airport would have more than one coffee machine."
Murphy grabbed the steaming cup in the middle, moving aside his gear from the seat it had occupied in the space-starved area set off for private planes.
Andy laughed and snagged the drink on the right. "We thought you went to South America to get the beans to grind."
"That would have been quicker." Lee began emptying the white creamer bubbles, sugar packets and stirrers from his pockets, carefully setting aside three specific little plastic straws, one shorter than the others. "Had a strong sense of déjà vu wandering through here." Lee grinned at his Denver cousin, knowing they all knew he was referring to their last Santa Fe airport adventure earlier this year in search of their not-so-beloved uncle.
"Shouldn't of," Andy began, pointedly not looking at Murphy. "It's not like we're here on false pretenses, with very important details not included so we'd show."
Murphy tried not to laugh, doing some ignoring of his own by changing the subject. "Think it was a good idea to let the Skipper pack all the provisions? Remember the year all we had camping was Tang and peanut butter?"
Lee shrugged. "It's not like we had much choice. I couldn't bring much from Washington."
"I took care of it," Andy assured his companions. "I called Mel. She shopped and packed for us."
"I knew there had to be some reason to keep you around, Andy," Murphy praised.
"Terrific idea. I think we may all owe you our lives," Lee seconded.
Murphy shook his head. "No, I think Skip owes you his life. We probably woulda killed him."
"In my business ya gotta learn survival skills. Maybe you two could learn a few things from me." Andy's grin grew larger, acknowledging their professions were far more dangerous.
"Maybe, but I think we have far more serious matters to attend to." Lee's manner grew mock-grave, nodding towards the table. He picked up the three straws he'd set aside and showed them to his friends.
Andy drew in a deep breath. "Shot-gun," he announced quietly and not-as-seriously as he wanted to.
Lee closed his palm around the indicators of their fate, moving and shifting them while the guys tried to follow the shorter one's journey. Finally he held out his fist with the stirrers sticking out at odd angles and lengths.
"'M I interruptin' anything? Looks mighty important." Harry Broderick stood at the doorway, observing the obvious ritual.
"Harry," Lee greeted. Shifting the straws absently to his pocket, he stepped forward to greet the older salvage-man.
Andy joined them. "Didn't know you were joinin' us, Harry."
"Great to see you," Murphy added.
"Ol' Skip didn't tell ya I was comin'?" Harry frowned a little. "Hope you don't mind an old man taggin' along?"
"Course not." Andy scooted around their table and pointed to a chair for Harry to take. "It's always fun to have you join us."
Murphy glanced towards the door expectantly. "Speaking of Skip...?"
"Oh, he's just filin' flight plans, gettin' maps" Harry paused, then leaned forward and winked, indicating he was in on the joke. "and other non-essential stuff like gasin' up the tanks."
A humph escaped Andy's lips before he could stop it.
"Yeah," Lee began, looking slightly uncomfortable. "I was thinking we should maybe lay off giving Skip grief about that."
Murphy chuckled appreciatively. "Mel got to Amanda," he stated firmly. "And I'll bet Cait, too."
"There's a problem?" Harry asked in confusion.
Murphy shrugged. "Extreme vagueness was all Sherry got and instructions not to let on to Skip that Mel had called."
"Okay." Harry nodded, obviously not understanding why, but he knew Melanie well enough to know there was a good reason.
"Don't everyone look so down," Andy declared, grinning widely. "It's not like there won't be plenty of other things we can't hassle him about."
"Exactly," Harry agreed. "Now, let's get back to whatever you boys were workin' on when I showed up."
"Nothing important," Murphy said. "We were just deciding on who'd be sitting co-pilot, but you're more than welcome to it, seein' as how you're a flyer yourself."
Harry laughed. "Ah, Shot-gun!" he exclaimed delightedly. "Thanks, but I'm takin' the back. Nappin's a very important activity when ya get to be my age," he sagely advised. "Now, where does one get a good cup of coffee in these parts?" he asked, peering around the small room.
Lee sighed. "I'll get you a cup. I'd like a little more exercise before we're cooped up in the plane," he answered.
Their flight had been smooth and uneventful, and Skip could feel the tension easing out of his shoulders. No matter how much he'd tried to tell himself he was being foolish, he hadn't been able to completely overcome the sense of foreboding about this flight. He wasn't ordinarily a superstitious kind of guy, but he'd practically managed to let this trip send him over the edge.
Now, though, with most of it behind them, that incredible weight was lifting and he was finally able to relax a little and enjoy his cousins' company. He leaned back in his seat and flexed his fingers, not realizing until now just how tightly he'd been gripping the controls.
Skip glanced over at Andy in the co-pilot's seat. It had taken him a while to get over that, too. The fact that, with the exception of Harry snoozing in the back, the rest of them were sitting exactly as they had the last time, had to be merely a coincidence. There were, after all, only five of them in a six seater plane. There weren't too many combinations to choose from.
He smiled and gave Andy a nod.
"Yep. I feel just great."
A simple comment, but Skip could swear he saw his cousin exchange a covert glance with somebody in the back. It was quick, and he'd almost missed it, but it was there.
His smile faded a bit as he wondered why the guys were acting so strange. He'd expected more of the same good-natured jokes and wise-cracks that's he been getting for weeks while they'd been preparing for the trip. Today, though, on the day he'd thought it would be the worst, there'd been nothing. Were they purposefully avoiding the subject of their last flight? Why?
He took a deep breath and mentally shook himself. This was stupid. There was no way they could know about the nightmares and insecurities that had been plaguing him. Maybe the subject had just worn thin. Whatever the reason, he supposed he should count it as a blessing. He'd been wishing they'd let it drop -- now that they had, he should enjoy it.
"So how much further?" Lee inquired, leaning forward to catch Skip's attention.
"Not too much longer," Skip replied.
"I've been looking at these maps," Murphy chimed in. "I don't see a municipal airport anywhere nearby the park." He lifted his blond head from the unfolded map in his lap. "We're not going all the way to Farmington, are we?"
"Aw, Skip, you wouldn't do that to us, wouldja?" Andy groaned. "We might as well've driven."
Skip laughed and shook his head. "Would I do somethin' that dumb? Don't answer that." He glared in mock-anger at Andy, then grinned confidently. "I know a guy -- he's got a private field."
"A guy?" Lee's face grew skeptical.
"He's okay," Skip assured them. "He comes very highly recommended.
"So you don't really know him," Murphy concluded.
"Well... no, I... " Skip sputtered defensively. "Well, we talked on the phone a lot and..."
"Now, don't fret, Skip," came Harry's slow drawl from the back seat. "I've been here a time or two. Gordon's field is there and he's okay."
Grateful for his partner's vindication, Skip smiled. "It's just a place to land anyhow. And I arranged for an SUV to be there for us when we get there. Gotta be able to get to the campsite."
In the ensuing silence, Skip breathed a sigh of relief that his cousins hadn't pushed any more. Though he planned to eventually fill them in on the real reason he wanted them here, he wanted to be far enough involved in the trip that they couldn't turn around and go back home.
Before too much longer, Skip spotted the small private airstrip and his all attention was focused on his landing. They made it down without any problems, although a little bumpier than Skip liked. The runway was old, and a bit overgrown.
As they climbed out of the small plane and stretched out the kinks of the 2 hour flight, Skip caught sight of a dark green Ford Expedition parked off to one side of the rundown house. It looked like everything was working out. Skip grinned at his companions. On the whole, he was quite pleased with himself.
His confidence faded along with his smile when he saw the two people coming out to meet them. One of them he didn't know. He was a young man, dark-haired and serious looking. The other he knew all too well. The bad thing was, his cousins knew him too.
"Kolchak!" Lee blurted in surprise. "What's he doing here?"
The older man in the wrinkled suit and the faded straw hat was beaming at them.
"Hey, there Skip. Glad to see you all made it okay. We were startin' to think maybe you'd changed your mind." He gestured to his companion. "I musta told Fox, here, a hundred times about that little escapade last spring." He glanced at the younger man and took in the annoyed look on his face. "Oh, sorry 'bout that. Mulder, I meant Mulder." He held out his arm to indicated the new arrivals. "This here's the folks I've been talkin' about. Skip Carmichael, Harry Broderick, Lee Stetson, Murphy Michaels and Andy Travis. This is Fox Mulder, from the F.B.I."
"F.B.I.?" Andy exclaimed. "Skipper...?"
All eyes were on Skip and he swallowed hard, forced what he hope was a casual smile, and shrugged his shoulders. "Hey, uh, did I ever get around to tellin' you what we were gonna do while we were camping?"
Skip back-pedaled from his four companions until the porch's railing stopped his progress.
"Could you 'scuse us just one minute," Harry asked politely of Fox Mulder and Carl Kolchak.
"Sure," Kolchak replied smiling, but not moving one bit.
Mulder nodded, retreating to the safe distance of the only shade tree within miles in the front yard. Close enough to still hear what was going on, he was far enough away to appear he was minding his own business, while studying his possible new allies. His profiler-mind had already started to classify these men.
"How could I have surprised you, if I'd told you," Skip carefully attempted. Mulder noted the winning grin that might have worked on any other audience, on any other day, but was not playing well here and now.
He'd known of Addison "Skip" Carmichael's participation, pulling his FBI file before leaving Washington. Though it turned out to be not so much Carmichael's file as it was Jettison Salvage's, which included former World War II veteran pilot, Harry Broderick. The Bureau had been keeping track of Harry from the minute he'd started hiring ex-aerospace and NASA workers in the late '70's -- and had really sat up and taken notice when rocket fuel expert, Melanie Slozar, and ex-astronaut, Skip Carmichael, were added to the line-up. Special Agent Jack Klinger was immediately assigned to their case. And then they went to the moon
Mulder had carefully read Klinger's reports that began as outrages at the audacity of these people, but they'd slowly transformed into almost letters home about his friend's adventures. The last notation concluded they were no danger to national security and no further investigation was required.
Mulder realized these two former military pilots from very different eras may not be a threat to the country, but they weren't harmless. Harry's war record hinted at an Intelligence background -- and he was well connected in all the right places. Skip's service record overflowed with decorations and commendations -- when not in trouble for being a bit of a maverick.
He lost track of the argument briefly while he reconsidered agreeing to Kolchak's insistence on including the man -- which apparently meant his friends as well. Though how they were connected was still something that stumped Mulder.
"I would have packed better if I'd known we were heading into one of yours -- and Harry's -- schemes," Mulder overhead Stetson accuse, regaining his attention. The implications and emphasis on the word "packed" had not been lost on the Agent.
Lee Stetson. Mulder's status with the FBI had immediately raised the other man's competitive hackles .-- a response Mulder knew well -- indicating a "Company Man". Though not FBI -- especially not with such a spy-like name. He had to be CIA, NID -- possibly Agency. He'd introduced himself as a security consultant and Mulder recognized it for the cover it was.
Mulder also realized he was under the same covert scrutiny he was giving -- there was no hostility, just definitely being sized up. An almost smile lit the young agent's face -- here could be someone he could trust to watch his back.
"Why don't you just throw me in a cave now and get it over with," Murphy Michaels declared, confusing Mulder completely.
Not that this man was much of a mystery -- P.I. from Denver. It suited him. Though if Skip had been any closer, he would have almost certainly gotten an elbow in the stomach when he'd proudly announced the man had helped set up the famous Remington Steele Detective Agency in Los Angeles. That information bothered the detective, though Mulder couldn't figure the reason.
"Just once I'd like to know the plan before I'm dragged into it," Andy Travis added to the argument, rubbing absently at his head.
Then there was Shaggy -- Mulder had already renamed this supposed radio programmer. His down-home accent and mannerisms were just a little too good.
Ex-Military, Private Eye, Spy Radio Programmer. It just didn't work. Black Ops crossed the Agent's mind but he'd have to give it more thought.
He still couldn't quite get a handle on how all these men fit together and if they were a team of some kind, why hadn't Carmichael just told them. What could have brought these very different people here to the Chaco National Park if not the file Mulder wanted help with.
Mulder instantly regretted he wasn't on official FBI business, with all the research access that entailed. But he was on his own unofficial on "vacation".
He'd been pushing hard for permanent assignment to investigate unusual cases the Bureau had nicknamed the X Files. He'd accidentally stumbled upon the cabinet containing the files earlier that year and they'd called to him -- like he'd spent his whole life preparing to solve these mysteries.
But he'd been stonewalled at every turn, including a few not-very-veiled threats about career-killing assignments. Then he came upon the information that had brought him here -- and he wondered again if he should have involved Carl Kolchak, let alone Carmichael and his associates.
"Now let's just listen to what Skip has to say," Harry soothed, glaring a little at Kolchak as he just smiled and continued to listen in on their conversation like he'd been a welcome participant.
Mulder took the cue and rejoined the group, hoping these strange people would be able to help him solve this buried case.
"Tell me again why the F.B.I. guy is here?" Andy complained in an undertone. It was merely the latest in a seemingly endless stream of complaints, meant for only Skip's ears.
Skip repressed an exasperated sigh. It wasn't in his nature to easily anger, but the Expedition was crowded with seven grown men, plus camping equipment, the A/C wasn't working properly, and the ruts and bumps in the dirt road leading to the ruins weren't helping matters. Andy's "poor sport" attitude was wearing thin.
So maybe he'd been a little sparse with the details of this venture, but it was still going to give them all a chance to have a little "guy time" before the hordes of relatives descended upon the ranch for the annual reunion. They'd just have a coupla extra "guys." It wasn't like they hadn't invited friends to their little mini reunions before.
Feeling very much picked on, Skip chose to ignore his cousin's grousing. He stared out the window at the passing scenery -- or rather what passed as scenery in this rocky desert, and his thoughts soon left the unpleasant atmosphere inside the SUV and began wandering ahead, to what they might find at the ruins.
He knew Harry had scoffed at the idea of an alien spacecraft. When Kolchak had first approached them with his story about a ship going down in the middle of a National Park, Harry's salvage instincts had kicked into high gear, but it wasn't little green men Harry was after -- it was great big green dollars. Harry had his own theories about what had crashed and Skip knew his friend and partner believed it was some kind of experimental government prototype that had gone down. Finding it would be worth a lot to somebody, and Harry wanted to be sure that Jettison Salvage was there to cash in.
Skip wasn't sure what he himself believed. He knew Kolchak was a bit of a kook, had thought his reference to a "friend with the F.B.I." had been just a ruse -- something to give himself a little more credibility in their eyes -- something to help persuade them to come along on the expedition. But here was this Mulder guy, full of facts, figures and an almost child-like excitement about aliens and abductions and secret files. There was an integrity about the guy, so that even if you couldn't quite admit you believed what he was saying, you were at least pretty damn sure he believed it.
In any event, it was going to be an interesting few days, to say the least. He knew Lee and Murphy would eventually start talking to him again, and that Andy couldn't stay mad at him forever. Once they reached the park and set up camp, things would probably settle down.
"Hey, Skip," Harry called from behind the wheel. He'd somehow ended up driving, with Kolchak in the navigator's seat. "There's a trading post up ahead in Nageezi. That's the last stop 'fore we get to our camp site." He darted a glance in the rearview mirror and caught Skip's eye. "Any reason ta stop?"
Skip pulled a well-worn list out of his shirt pocket. "Yeah, Harry. There's a few things we gotta pack in... firewood for starters."
"That might come in handy," Andy muttered, but Skip could see the humor in his cousin's face and knew he was on his way to being forgiven.
He grinned broadly. "Only if you want some of my world class s'mores."
Andy shook his head, but allowed a smile to appear. From the other window, Mulder leaned forward, his face puzzled.
"You think we're going to have any time to sit around the campfire roasting marshmallows?" he asked incredulously. "We'll be lucky to find that ship before the government gets there and tries to cover it all up."
Andy frowned in bewilderment. "Aren't you the government?"
From the middle seat, Lee coughed conspicuously. Mulder shot him an odd look, but gave Andy and Skip a small, half smile. "Not so you'd notice," he answered enigmatically.
Skip didn't know how to reply to that remark, so he said nothing. They'd had enough experience with Lee and his work to know that there were many branches and agencies that represented the government. Not all of them worked in harmony with each other, or even for the same ends. Maybe that's what Mulder was referring to. Skip could easily understand why the F.B.I. might not agree with their agent's penchant for chasing aliens.
He didn't have much time to ponder this mystery. Before too long, Harry pulled into the parking lot of the Nageezi Trading Post. The men piled out, anxious to stretch out cramped muscles. As Skip jumped down, he noticed Murphy stumble a bit before grabbing hold of Lee's arm to keep his balance. The grimace on his cousin's face told them all that his leg was hurting.
"You okay?" Lee asked in concern.
Murphy rubbed self-consciously at his left thigh. "I'm all right," he tried to assure them. "Just cramped up from the trip."
Lee didn't look convinced, but he didn't argue. Skip certainly hoped Murphy's leg hadn't chosen this week to act up on him. There were a lot of unknowns up ahead of them and he didn't want to have to worry about anyone getting hurt.
"Last one to set up their gear cooks dinner," Skip declared, kicking at the small pebbles that littered the ground around the fire pit. Grinning suddenly, he stopped and surveyed his handiwork, satisfied.
"What's he doing?" Mulder asked Lee as they both watched the strange dance.
Lee shrugged. "Being Skip," he explained, as if that were enough. He moved off a little to start his own shelter.
"No boulders in my back tonight," he muttered to himself, popping his tent out of the nylon case and expertly maneuvering the rods and fabric into place.
"You always say that, Skipper," Andy teased.
Murphy laughed. "And then you complain the rest of the trip about rocks."
"Scoff if you will." He disappeared into the tent and it shook and shifted for a minute. Skip emerged and scooted the structure several inches to the left, ducking back in, shimmied around a little and then came out again. "This is perfect." He pulled out the stakes and began anchoring his tent.
Harry suppressed the laughter at his companion's antics as first Murphy and then Andy tried to disrupt their cousin's "perfect" location by shifting the tent without getting caught. He knew the absolutely angelic looks of innocence assumed within seconds of discovery had come from decades of practice with each other and was heartened the angry words of earlier were gone.
He carefully shot a look over to where Mulder stood, noting immediately the impatience the young man tried to hide. He obviously wanted to begin searching and saw no point in this nonsense.
Frowning a little, Harry wondered how much having a government employee along might mess up any salvage rights or finder's fee. He had no intention of sharing his discovered treasure with this stranger just yet. First he needed a plan -- which meant he had to ditch Mulder and Kolchak.
"Need some help, Harry," Lee offered after setting up his own tent.
Startled out of his reverie, Harry grinned. "Thanks. 'Preciate it, Lee." He picked up his gear and the two men began construction.
"Seems our new friend is a bit anxious to get going," Lee observed, nodding toward Mulder who had finally begun his own night's shelter.
"He's just young," Harry countered. "He'll learn patience in time."
"He'll also learn to keep a better eye on you," Lee added.
"Now what's that s'pposed to mean?" He tried to look offended but his eyes shown with delight at the accusation.
"You were talking to that store owner a pretty long time," Lee accused. "All Mulder and Kolchak got out of him were vague Indian tourist nonsense."
Harry chuckled. "Anyone else notice?"
Lee shook his head. "Andy was still too annoyed at Skip, and Skip and Murph were loading supplies." He glanced over at the agent. "Mulder was watching me and Kolchak found some kid selling mystic maps to the ruins. No one was paying attention to Harry but me."
The junkman's eyes lit up. "Guilty as charged." He cleared his throat, leaning closer to Lee. "Did you see the picture over the register?"
"Army buddies? World War II?" Lee asked, not sure he remembered exactly.
"Not just any army buddies Navajo Code Talkers," Harry stated, impressed. "Those boys saved me and my squad more times than I care to count. We got to talkin' old times and he told me the rumors have it all wrong."
"He knows what's going on?" Lee whispered, shifting slightly to put his back to the rest of the group.
"Nope," Harry began. "But he did say there's somethin' wrong out there -- not even the locals know what exactly. Most folks who've seen stuff don't know what they're seein', but" Harry pulled a scrap of paper just barely out of his jacket pocket for Lee to see. "He told me where not to look and what not to look for."
"And you don't plan to tell our guests," Lee surmised.
"Not just yet." Harry sighed. "Don't know how well we can trust 'em."
"What's your plan?" Lee asked.
Harry winked, and strode forward. "So, everyone ready to get the lay of the land?" he announced. "Thought we could do a quick hike into the ruins and get an idea 'fore it gets dark."
"Great," Mulder agreed. "Let's go."
Harry slapped Lee on the back. "We'll just save our little pow-wow with the boys for after dinner," he quietly explained so no one else would hear.
* * *
They'd been on the trail for over an hour, hardly what Skip would call a strenuous hike. The path was paved, an easy walk, forming a loop around a large group of the pueblo ruins. Mulder had taken the lead, with Kolchak eagerly at his heels, but the pace he'd set for the group now had the older man lagging behind, breathing heavily.
"You should quit smoking, Carl," Mulder called back over his shoulder. "I did two months ago. It really makes a difference."
Skip could hear Kolchak muttering something about thirty years making more of a difference, and he chuckled. He was glad the rest of them, including Harry, were keeping up with the energetic F.B.I. agent. He had the feeling that even if the man hadn't given up this particular vice, he'd still be running circles around them all.
The ruins they'd seen so far had been interesting, though Mulder hadn't given allowed much time to appreciate them. They'd seemed in need of some TLC, though. Graffiti artists had struck the old dwellings, and ignorant tourists had done their share of damage, removing a lot of artifacts that Skip was sure were collecting dust on shelves in many an American home.
But the neglected cultural treasure wasn't the reason they were here, and Mulder at last took a turn off the paved trail and headed into the more wild, rocky hills. Skip felt a thrill of excitement at the possibility of finding an actual alien space craft. All his life he'd been fascinated with the search for extra terrestrials, but it was an interest he'd keep mostly to himself. NASA had barely tolerated him as it was, he'd never wanted to give them any legitimate reasons to end his career as an astronaut. Not that it'd mattered in the long run. They'd managed to drive him away anyway.
He shook off these morose feelings. This was long past history. What mattered was the adventure ahead of them. With any luck, he'd have plenty of stories to share with Mel and the kids.
With the way more challenging, Skip made sure he kept an eye on Harry, but his partner seemed to be doing okay. Kolchak was still with them as well, though definitely bringing up the rear. They trudged along for some time, the slight incline growing steeper as they went. After about a half an hour, Mulder suddenly called a halt. Both Harry and Carl found convenient boulders to perch on, catching their breath.
"There's a fork in the trail here," he announced, studying what looked like a crudely drawn map, his glance moving between the paper in his hand and the two divergent paths. His mouth twisted slightly as he pondered which way to go.
Harry abruptly got to his feet and made his way to stand beside the agent. Harry looked a bit weary, but there was still a spark in his eye that made Skip take notice. They'd been friends for a long time. Skip knew when Harry was up to something.
"Guess the best thing to do is split up," Harry suggested reasonably. "There's enough of us to make two teams."
"I dunno, Harry," Skip started to object, but a look from his friend squelched his protest.
"That sounds like a plan," Lee chimed in, backing Harry up.
Now Skip knew something was up. Lee was almost too eager to agree. But he kept quiet, trusting his friend and cousin.
Mulder was at last, reluctantly conceding there was no other way. Before he said another word, Kolchak was at his side, apparently on the agent's team. Mulder gave the reporter a wry smile.
"I'm with Lee," Murphy announced emphatically.
"Me too," Andy added.
Now all eyes were on Skip, waiting for his decision. He looked at both groups, torn as to what to do. He didn't want to leave his friends, but he glanced over at Mulder and all his instincts told him that this man would be the one to lead him to aliens. Besides, there was just the two of them. It didn't seem fair to split so unevenly.
"Weellll" he drawled. He caught Harry's eye, the slight nod of approval, and made up his mind. "Guess I'll go with the away team." He flashed his cousins a grin. "Last one to the spaceship's a rotten egg."
"You sure it was a good idea to let Skip go off with them?" Andy asked Harry, concern evident in his voice.
They'd been hiking their branch of the trail for nearly half an hour, most of it in silence, but obviously they'd all been thinking plenty. Harry knew these men were all close, but Andy and Skip had been friends longer than any of them. It was natural he would worry over Skip. He sought to alleviate his fears.
"Skip'll be just fine," he vowed confidently.
"How can you be so sure," Murphy inquired suspiciously.
"Because the trail they took doesn't lead anywhere but back to the ruins," Lee stated with a wink at Harry.
Harry merely smiled at their barrage of questions. Finally, he held up a hand to quiet them.
"I know we're on the right trail. We'll find that ship not too far ahead. I have it on good authority." That was all he was willing to tell them.
They walked in silence for a moment, then Andy spoke up again.
"Then why didn't you just tell them and we could have all come this way. Why go to all the trouble..."
"He didn't want to share," Murphy concluded. His eyes narrowed. "You didn't want Mulder or Kolchak around when you found it, right?"
"Let's just say that we have different reasons for findin' that ship," the older man admitted.
Andy still didn't look convinced. "But why send Skip with them."
Harry shrugged. "If we'd all gone they'd gotten suspicious. 'Sides, Skip really wants to see an alien. He thinks Mulder can show him one. I wasn't gonna argue."
Andy seemed to be considering, trying to figure out how indignant he should be on his cousin's behalf.
Harry decided to elaborate, to put the man's mind at ease.
"If Skip came with us and found just a plain ol' Air Force jet downed up here, he'd be darn disappointed. This way, maybe he can enjoy his adventure... least for a while yet."
"Skip's okay," Lee stated, putting an end to the debate. "Let's just make sure we don't have any unwanted excitement."
"Amen," Murphy agreed so fervently, that they all laughed.
"How -- how much further are we going to take this trail?" Kolchak breathed the words out heavily, exhausted by the unused to activity.
Mulder started to consult his map, but was interrupted.
"Don't worry, we'll be back where we split up soon," Skip advised, discouraged. He'd begun to suspect their trail double-backed a while ago, but voicing it out loud would almost certainly make it come true and he hadn't been ready to admit that.
Mulder stared intently at the paper in his hand. He lifted his head, then returned his attention to the page, twisting and turning it every which way to make it match the surrounding landscape. "That - can't - be," he attempted to argue.
"We just did one very big, ole circle. See." Skip pointed to some of the mountains and then the corresponding position on the diagram.
The F.B.I. agent disgustedly shoved his guide away, not even bothering to fold it. "Then I guess we have to follow the rest of the group up the other path."
Skip shook his head. "It's gettin' late and we're not equipped for these mountains at night," he explained flatly. "We're tired and hungry and it's gonna get real cold, real soon. We need a plan and a fresh start in the mornin'." He turned and started down the path at a constant plod.
"He's wrong," Mulder argued. "If we wait any longer"
"No, he's right," Kolchak said resolutely. "Getting lost and hypothermia won't get us anywhere."
"He's right," Carl re-stated before beginning his own weary descent towards their start point.
Mulder watched them both for only a second, disappointment warring with resolve across his features. He kicked angrily at a stone and watched it hop parallel to the path before he followed.
* * *
"I'm great," Harry complained. "I can keep goin'."
Murphy plopped onto a large stone, absently massaging his leg . "But I'm exhausted, Harry -- sit."
The junkman finally complied, claiming the flat boulder opposite Murphy's. Lee sank slowly to the ground while Andy practically threw himself down.
"It's getting late," Murphy observed. "We'd better hit camp."
"Camp?" Harry sat up, preparing to argue.
"Mountain's too unpredictable at night, Harry." Murphy scanned the immediate area. "Terrain's getting rougher and we're losing daylight fast."
Harry only nodded, slumping a little at his disappointment.
"We'll get an early start tomorrow and come prepared," Lee assured him.
"Yeah," Harry agreed. "But how we gonna rid of Mulder and Carl tomorrow?"
Andy laughed. "C'mon, Harry. You'll find some goose for 'em to chase. You're the master at schemes."
"'Spose you're right," Harry agreed, finally smiling.
"A few more minutes and we should go," Lee stated, running his hands through his sweat-dampened hair, trying to get it to behave.
Murphy stretched out his leg, then stood slowly on it, testing.
"Murph?" Andy frowned in concern.
"Just a little sore." The detective put a little more weight on it. "Fine," he reiterated, stopping as something caught his eye. "Are there ruins this high up?"
Lee shrugged. "Don't know. Harry?"
"Could be," Harry advised. "Skip did most'a the research."
"Look at what you're sitting on, Harry." Murphy pointed to the boulder. "Could be an altar." He surveyed the area. "Whoa"
"Find something?" Lee called. He stood, joining his cousin. "Another trail?"
Murphy nodded. "One someone's taken a lot of trouble to hide." He craned his neck. "They've tried to hide it up to a couple of dozen yards that way."
"Guess we have our starting point for tomorrow," Andy announced.
"Yeah" Harry's voice trailed off. "Maybe we could sneak out later tonight?" he suggested.
"We'll talk on the way to camp," Lee announced, obviously ready to talk them out of that idea. "Let's get going. I'm starved."
Skip sat staring into the campfire, his plate of stew mostly untouched. He couldn't help the keen sense of disappointment he was feeling at the moment. Not only had the trail his group had taken turned out to be nothing, shortly after they'd returned to camp, Harry and the guys had come trudging back without success.
Andy came over and plopped down beside him, nudging him in the ribs.
"Hey, Skipper, where's those s'mores you were promising."
The corners of Skip's mouth lifted a bit, but that was all. "The stuff's in the cooler," he informed Andy, with the implied suggestion that if he wanted them, he could make them himself.
Andy didn't move though. He sat in silence for a time, joining Skip in contemplating the fire. Finally he reached down, picked up a stick and slowly poked at some of the embers.
"It's only the first day, ya know," he said softly. "No tellin' what we'll find on that other trail tomorrow."
Skip nodded absently, aware Andy was trying to cheer him up. "You're right." He sighed heavily. "I just have this feeling like we're not gonna find anything."
"There's something up there," Mulder stated firmly from across the fire. "My sources were definite that something crashed up in the hills here."
"You mean the sources that drew you that map?" Lee asked as he came over to join the discussion. Mulder started to bristle, but Lee held up his hand apologetically. "Sorry, I didn't mean it like it sounded. I'm just tired."
"You'll have to cut him some slack." Murphy sat down stiffly next to Lee, and rubbed absently at his leg. "He left his pregnant wife back in Glorieta... along with his tact," he added with a grin.
"Ha, ha," Lee shot back. "In case you've forgotten, this is our second baby. I'm not worried about Amanda."
Talk quickly turned to family matters -- wives, kids and work -- and when Andy at last got up and fetched the makings for s'mores, Skip found his spirits lighter. This was really what the trip was all about in the end. Spending time, catching up, renewing the old ties that time and miles had never been able to break. It wasn't long though, before everyone was ready to turn in. Tired from the trip out and the hike, tents and sleeping bags took on an appeal they never had in the daytime.
Soon after the flurry of activity that went along with bedding down for the night finally ended, Skip lay in his tent, listening to the sounds of the night and the soft snores from the other tents. Andy was right. There was still the unexplored trail, not marked on Mulder's map. There was no telling what they might find up there. There was still the possibility they could find what they'd come for -- well, what he'd come for. And even if Harry was right, and it was only an experimental aircraft, at least they'd have the fun of salvaging it. He heaved a happy sigh, turned onto his back and promptly groaned. The sharpest rock he'd ever felt somehow had ended up poking him between his shoulder blades.
"Not funny guys!"
They started early the next morning, each man eager to get started, but for vastly different reasons. For Lee, Murphy and Andy, more interested in the time they were spending together than anything they might find at the end of the trail, getting a jump on the heat of the day was the motivation that got them out of their tents at first light. For Harry, it was the pure anticipation of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He couldn't wait to find his salvage.
Mulder, on the other hand, was a man on a quest, a modern Galahad, searching for his own version of the Holy Grail. He needed to find the ship to prove there was a ship. Whatever happened after that really wasn't important.
Kolchak was a different matter. Kolchak believed there were aliens as fervently as Mulder, but Skip wasn't sure his motivating forces were quite as pure as the young agent. Carl was a reporter to his very soul and finding a spaceship would definitely be a boost to his much-maligned journalistic reputation. And if there were a few bucks in it as well, what could that hurt?
As for himself, Skip wasn't certain where he stood. He had to admit the thought of having a close encounter was thrilling to think about, but when he tried to envision what would happen after that, he kept coming up blank. He supposed it was something they'd have to figure out when they came to it.
They'd hiked steadily for a good hour before they reached the half-hidden path Murphy had found yesterday. They stopped for a brief rest, letting Harry and Carl catch their breath. Skip regarded Harry and could see more than lack of oxygen was bothering his partner. He knew his friend well enough to read his face. Harry was working on a problem, worrying it in his head, and Skip had a flash of insight. Remembering how quick Harry was to split up yesterday, he realized suddenly that Harry didn't want too much company around when they found the ship. Or maybe it wasn't the number of people, it was the kind of people he didn't want.
It wasn't hard to figure why. Mulder was government - maybe on the fringe, but still government, and Harry would have no use for him while trying to salvage government property. And Kolchak was... well, Kolchak. Harry tolerated the man for the occasional tip, but he wouldn't want him nosing around a big find.
"We'd better get going," Mulder urged, with an anxious glance at the sky. "Looks like a storm's brewing."
Skip looked up and for the first time noticed the heavy, black clouds piling up against the mountains. He could have sworn they hadn't been there a half hour ago.
"Man, this could be a doozy," he observed.
"Then let's get a move on," Lee instructed, waving them to their feet.
An ominous crack of thunder accentuated his words, as they started again, only now on a much more rocky and slippery trail. Skip could see at once that if it rained very hard at all, this place could become treacherous. He unobtrusively maneuvered himself so he was behind Harry, ready to lend a helping hand if it was needed. Even as he did, he felt the first big drops of rain hitting his head.
It didn't take long before they found themselves in the middle of a downpour, and very soon Skip's predictions about the trail had become reality. The steep path now ran with rivulets of muddy water, making the rocks slick and balance a precarious thing. More than once, Skip caught Harry's elbow as the older man lost his footing.
"Man, we gotta get out of this," Andy exclaimed as another burst of thunder boomed deafeningly.
"I don't exactly see any Holiday Inns around," Skip quipped, wiping wet hair out of his eyes.
"What's that up there?" Murphy was pointing to a cluster of rocks just off the trail.
Skip squinted through the rain and could barely make out what looked like a lone group of ruins. What they were doing away from the rest of them, he couldn't say, but right now he didn't care. "Let's head that way," he agreed whole-heartedly.
Lee took the lead and they hurried toward the stone dwelling. Halfway there, Murphy slipped on the muddy footing and went down hard on his left knee. Even though he tried to muffle his pained outcry, Skip knew his cousin had hurt himself fairly badly. Lee and Andy both slid beside him as Murphy struggled to his feet. They each took an arm and helped him up, but he had to lean heavily on Lee as he limped the rest of the way to the shelter.
As they helped him lower himself to the ground, a soft groan escaped and Skip knew their little adventure has just turned ugly. But his worry over his cousin was suddenly overshadowed by the exclamation of wonder that came from Mulder. Skip turned and saw the agent standing in the middle of the hut, staring at the walls in open mouthed astonishment.
Skip shifted his gaze and his own jaw fell. Mulder's flashlight illuminated walls that were covered with drawings and symbols, obviously ancient and not attributable to modern day artists. Most of them Skip couldn't make heads nor tails of, but in the middle was a distinct outline of a triangular-shaped space ship and a wide-eyed alien.
"Skip!" Lee called. "Skip! Snap out of it! I need the first aid kit."
The ex-astronaut had immediately pulled his own flashlight, drawing closer to investigate. The annoyance in Lee's voice finally penetrated his astonished mind. "Right, uh, sorry." Kneeling beside his injured cousin, Skip tugged off his pack and rummaged for the plastic box, handing it to Lee.
"Shine the light over here," Andy directed. The fall had ripped a large hole in Murphy's jeans, exposing the raw knee that needed tending. Andy grimaced as he pulled at the fabric's edges to get a better look.
Several quick, bright flashes in the barely lit domicile momentarily blinded Lee as Kolchak snapped picture after picture with his cheap camera.
"Hey!" Lee shielded his eyes. "Stop that."
"What?" Kolchak asked obliviously.
"They'll be plenty'a time for that later," Harry counseled. "We gotta take care'a Murphy first."
Carl opened his mouth to object but caught sight of the young man's leg and just nodded agreement. He turned away and moved closer, rubbing at one of the pictures with his fingers.
Lee blinked several times to clear the spots. "It might be broken," he said, gently feeling the knee for fractures.
Murphy shook his head. "Not broken," he hissed through clenched teeth. "I know broken," he added before anyone could object.
"Good." Lee cleaned and sterilized the injury. "And the good news is it's just badly scraped. How're your hands?"
"The same," Murphy answered.
Skip squinted at the chemical ice pack he held, trying to read the minuscule printing in the semi-darkness. "Anyone know how to use this thing?"
"Here." Murphy took the package and expertly broke the seal that allowed the chemicals to mix and freeze. A small sigh escaped his lips, the coolness helped to instantly relieve the already painful and swollen joint. "I'll live," he declared, a little embarrassed by all the attention.
"Sherry'd kill us all if you didn't." Andy laughed in relief, he sank to the ground next to his cousin.
At Murphy's pronouncement, Skip's attention returned immediately to the structure they were in. He slowly wandered to where Mulder and Kolchak intently scrutinized their discovery. He pulled out his own little instamatic and snapped off a few quick shots.
"Hey, the rain's stopped," Lee advised from the entry. He stuck his head out further. "And the skies clearing off that way."
"Uh huh," Skip barely acknowledged, he reverently touched the triangular shape and then pulled away immediately. "This is proof," he quietly stated. "Proof." His face lit up.
Lee just rolled his eyes and began his own investigation. "Oh my gosh, and this is even more incredible," he exclaimed, drawing the three alien-hunter's attention. "It's the Jamaican Olympic Bobsled team." He pointed to the picture that looked like four men in a sled, complete with runners. "And here's a Jackalope."
"Skeptic," Carl dismissed, returning to the creature who matched the Roswell descriptions.
"Lee, c'mon," Skip almost pleaded with his cousin. "This is just too similar."
The ex-spy threw a glance over his shoulder at his own discovery, then relented. "I know you want to believe, Skip, but that's not proof."
"What about the conspiracy to keep people outta here?" Kolchak threw out. "Someone didn't want us to find this place."
"This is pretty outta the way and well-preserved," Harry surmised. "Prob'ly Park Rangers didn't want tourists messin' and damagin' things like they've done below."
"Quite possible," Murphy added, dabbing at his now not-bleeding wounds with more antiseptic wipes.
"The water's stopped running down the mountain. Why don't we keep goin' to see if we can find what we came here for and we can return on our way back," Harry suggested.
"Yeah, you can return to pick me up," Murphy said.
"Can you walk?" Andy asked.
Murphy nodded. "But I'd rather save it for the hike down -- keep icing until then."
"Sure? We don't have to go on," Lee offered.
"No, go find Skip's spaceship. I've got shelter here if I need it and I'm fine." His eyes pleaded with Lee to humor their cousin.
"Okay." Lee took one more look out the door. "Everyone ready?" He lead the way on the nods.
Skip slowly followed. Staring after the walls of the hut, then he gave a smile to Murphy as he nearly tripped out the entry.
* * *
"Well, it's a debris field," Lee observed, the bits of metal and fabric littering the landscape could be nothing else.
Andy picked up a small circular object. "Any clue?" He lifted it up for everyone to see.
"Droids?" Skip joked.
Harry held out his hand for the piece. "Naw, nothing I've ever seen in an aircraft."
"This is it," Mulder declared enthusiastically. "We've found it."
Carl snapped away with his camera, almost tripping on something buried in the ground.
"I'm sorry, Skip," Lee stated softly.
Lee held up a small sheet of metal. "Property of U.S. Air Force," he read to his disappointed cousin.
* * *
"Damn it," Mulder murmured dejectedly. He reached out and Lee handed him the piece of wreckage. Without another word, he walked away from the rest of the group.
Not interested in the small stuff, Harry had moved on, farther up the hillside, and disappeared briefly over a small outcropping of rocks. In a few moments Skip could hear him calling excitedly. He reappeared at the top of the rise, waving wildly.
"Skip... hey, Skip, come see what I found."
Skip, Lee and Andy jogged up the trail, leaving Mulder to his own thoughts and Kolchak happily snapping photos of metal and bits of nylon fabric hanging eerily from a lonely willow.
As they reached the rocks, Skip found himself gazing down into a small hollow, Harry was standing there beaming at the long fuselage that had half-buried itself into the one stretch of grass on the rocky ridge. It was pure luck for Harry that the craft had found this spot. If it had plowed into any other place on the mountain, it would have been smashed to pieces, left nothing worth salvaging, as evidenced by the rest of the wreck spread out father back.
"That's a pretty big piece," Lee observed curiously. "Wonder why nobody's found it before this."
"Maybe nobody was looking for it," Andy suggested with a shrug.
Skip shook his head. "Then how did Mulder find out about it?"
They stood and silently watched Harry as he did a thorough search of the craft. Ordinarily he would be down there in the thick of things, but he held back. Things just didn't all fit into place, something didn't make sense, but he couldn't put the pieces together yet. He could tell by the set to Lee's jaw that his cousin wasn't totally buying their good fortune.
Harry finally made his way back toward them, a huge grin from ear to ear.
"There's some awful purty equipment in there," he advised Skip. "Most of it looks intact."
"Sounds great, Harry," Skip replied, trying to dredge up some excitement for his partner's benefit.
Harry wasn't fooled. His grin faded slightly. "Aw, now, Skip, don't feel bad. It's still a good find." He turned to the ship and waved his arm in a sweeping gesture. "Gonna have to get a team up here. Not much we can do by ourselves."
A distant crack of thunder brought all their eyes to the sky.
"We should head to camp," Lee stated. "I want to get Murphy off the hill before it rains again."
"Guess our little adventure's over, huh?" Andy asked hopefully.
Skip chuckled. "Looks that way. We can break camp in the morning and I'll fly you guys to the ranch. Mel and I'll probably come back and help Harry some."
When they reached the first circle of debris where they'd left Mulder and Kolchak, they found the two men deep in conversation. Kolchak was shaking his head in exaggerated denial.
"You're nuts, Fox-boy. Why would anybody go to all that trouble...." Carl stopped when he heard them arrive. "Something interesting up there?"
Harry's face was unreadable. "Just more of the same. "We're gonna head on back to camp."
"I want another look at those ruins," Mulder told them. "I may stay there tonight."
Kolchak didn't say anything, but he shook his head, disgust showing plainly on his craggy face.
A wry grin broke out on Mulder's face. "Carl here thinks I'm crazy or paranoid... or both."
Skip looked at Kolchak incredulously. "Geeze, Carl, and I thought you had the corner on those markets."
"Very funny, Carmichael," was the reporter's only comment.
A stone hut hidden in a mountain in the middle of a thunderstorm wasn't the most comfortable of places to spend a few hours, but Murphy was at least thankful he wasn't underground. If the natives that made these shelters used anything to cover their doors and windows, they'd long ago disappeared. As a result, Murphy now had as much fresh air as he could ask for.
Glad he'd thought to stick an extra t-shirt in his pack, he'd been able to change out of his wet shirt. He couldn't do anything about his pants, but he didn't really care at this point. He was more concerned with his leg and the throbbing in his knee.
After everyone had left, he'd examined his injuries more closely. The scrapes on his hands were minor, but the one on his knee was a bit deeper. He didn't think he'd need stitches. What he was more concerned with was the wrenching it had taken and the jolt he'd given his entire leg. He certainly didn't want to end up being packed into camp like so much baggage.
The growling in his stomach took his mind off his leg and he rummaged into his pack and pulled out an apple and a granola bar. He finished the bar in two bites, then chomped into the apple and leaned his head back against the cool stone wall, letting the juice run down his throat. He closed his eyes, not meaning to let himself fall asleep.
He woke up quickly, startled out of sleep by something he couldn't name. He sat up straight, wondering why it was dark, but the low rumble of thunder told him the clouds must have returned. He struggled to his feet, listening intently, wondering if he'd just heard the distant sound of his cousins returning. But his ears didn't pick up anything and he limped to the doorway, straining to see anything in the near vicinity.
There was nothing but rocks and mud and tufts of long grass, bending in the breeze that had kicked up. Murphy shivered and tried to convince himself it was just from being in wet jeans. He stepped back into the shelter, flicked on his flashlight and shone it around the walls. The ancient drawings looked eerie in the weak light and he avoided the little figure that he wished looked more like Marvin the Martian.
He sat down on the floor, this time facing the door, and rubbed at his aching leg, wanting nothing more than to be at the ranch with Sherry and Tommy. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy Skip's little expeditions, but sometimes he wished his cousin could think of activities that were a little less thrilling... camping in the backyard came to mind.
He didn't know how long he sat that way, but when he finally heard the sound of Skip singing "The Ants Go Marching" loudly and slightly off-key, he breathed out a heartfelt sigh of relief. Never had anything sounded so good.
Their luck held and the rain never materialized. They returned to camp without any trouble, slowed only by Murphy's hobbling gait. Soon the fire was going and hamburgers were sizzling. Andy had volunteered to cook. Skip dubbed himself assistant and the two of them were bickering happily over what made up the best burger.
Exhausted, Kolchak and Harry had stretched out on their sleeping bags to wait for dinner and Carl was now snoring loudly. Mulder sat in one of the camp chairs, his thoughts far away. Lee was doing his best to administer a better quality of first aid to Murphy's knee than Skip's hiking kit had allowed. It wasn't easy to work over Murphy's constant protests that he was fine.
Inexplicably the clouds had scattered, leaving a clear night sky that soon filled with a bright field of stars. As the burgers were served, the group ate in companionable silence. Even Kolchak had dragged himself out of his tent to eat his fill of camp food that always tasted better outdoors than at home.
"I'm staying here," Mulder announced abruptly, to no one in particular. "I want to check out that hut again."
"Alone?" Murphy questioned sharply.
Mulder merely shrugged off the detective's concern. He'd never worked very well with partners, saw no need for one now.
"I'll stay with ya, Fo... uh, Mulder," Kolchak volunteered happily.
"Uh... you really don't have to do that," the agent assured the other man, but Carl either didn't take the hint or chose to ignore it.
"Naw, I wanna get some more shots of that alien on the wall."
Mulder looked like he was getting the bad end of the deal, but appeared too well-mannered to just tell the reporter to go jump in the lake.
"Well.... okay. Guess I couldn't stop you."
Skip watched the exchange with mixed feelings. He wanted to go back to the ruins too, but Mulder seemed to definitely want to be alone. Besides, he'd promised the guys he'd fly them to Santa Fe. Well, maybe when he and Melanie returned to help Harry, he could get a better look at those ruins. He leaned his head back and gazed up at the stars for a long time.
From his position in the back, Lee could see the sulking profile of Carl Kolchak in the front passenger seat. Lee suppressed a chuckle. Someone had to return to the plane with them or the three remaining men would be left without transportation.
All of them had, almost as though it'd been practiced, crossed their arms at the suggestion and waited -- glaring at each other and not about to give any indication of volunteering. Though stubborn, the tabloid journalist eventually had no hope against the older, more experienced Harry Broderick and younger, iron-willed Fox Mulder. Unsuspecting Carl had been blind-sided when his two rivals had, with some kind of unspoken, telepathic agreement, ganged up on him with logic and he'd blinked first.
At least he'd get to return to the ancient site after his long, round trip. Lee felt bad for Skip who'd wanted desperately to stay. His disappointment at their big adventure ending without a marvelous discovery weighed heavily on his spirits, but he took very seriously his obligation to his injured cousin and never complained about his having to leave.
And poor Murph -- Lee knew his friend well enough to know he felt responsible for terminating their trip early.
Andy had crowed a little about this "nonsense" being over, but seemed a little sad at it ending so soon. He'd got into the Expedition, tilted his hat over his eyes and had only occasionally contributed to the little bit of conversation.
Lee's feelings were mixed -- he wouldn't have minded remaining, but being with Amanda drew strongly at his heart -- especially with her pregnancy so advanced. Not that he didn't always want to be with her -- but there seemed to be some biological need for him to be her protector at these times -- or maybe he just always wanted to be with her and it was a great excuse.
He twisted towards the back but stopped before he actually asked Murphy -- again -- if he needed anything. His usually good-natured cousin's patience was wearing very thin on the subject and if he'd had to assure anyone -- even just once more he was "fine" -- Lee thought he might loose it. Instead he just smiled and nodded to his cousin, turning forward again before Murphy could say anything.
"Almost there," Skip sing-songed cheerfully a couple of times to his captive audience once he spotted the house in the distance.
"'Bout time," Carl groused.
Lee could hear Murphy behind him shifting around and could just imagine he was preparing to exit the vehicle with the least amount of delay or help.
Kolchak barely waited for Skip to stop the Ford before he leapt out.
"Pop the hatch," he called on his way to the rear.
Andy pushed back his hat and followed the reporter.
"Good to meet up with you again, Andy." Carl flung a sleeping bag and tent at a startled Andy's face, then continued unloading the rest, dropping the small amount of gear they'd brought with them unceremoniously to the ground. "Hey, Lee. Thanks for a great time," he declared, the words falling out faster and faster. "Skip, always a pleasure. Murph, take care of that leg." He patted the latter on the shoulder, grabbed the keys from Skip, stopping abruptly. A frown shadowed his eyes as he faced them. "Be careful, guys," he added emphatically. Waving a final good-bye, he got into the front driver's seat and drove off, leaving the four in a cloud of dust.
"You, too, Carl," Skip called after, shaking his head at the man's hurry and the oddness of his parting words. "I'll just go and check on gas and stuff." Skip threw a thumb back over his shoulder. "Can you guys get the gear loaded?"
He'd directed it toward Lee, but Murphy just harrumphed and grabbed whatever was close and hobbled towards the plane.
"Skip!" Andy chastised, shuffling the canvas duffle he still held to a better position to carry.
"What?" Skip replied. "I didn't say anything. He's just bein' oversensitive."
Lee forestalled any argument. "Let's just do this," he instructed, picking up as much as he could to follow his cousin, glad they'd left most of the provisions and supplies behind.
Skip nodded and headed for the main house while Andy dragged his stuff to their small aircraft.
From the side of the house where the plane was secured, Lee watched as Skip pulled a note off the door, then head back to the pile of gear to carry his share to be loaded.
"Problem?" Lee asked, indicating the paper Skip had shoved in his shirt pocket.
"Nope," he answered. "They were called away but they gassed up the plane and they'll bill my card." Skip stepped himself up to the cockpit door, opening it, he pulled out a clipboard. "I'll do the pre-flight while you-guys-finish," he directed.
Lee just nodded. The statement had come out stilted from Skip trying to be careful, but Lee'd heard Murphy chuckle a little, a sign his mood was lifting a little. Lee took it as an indication for a good trip home after all.
* * *
"Everyone set?" Skip called. Taxiing out onto the dirt runway, he built speed and took the plane up. He studied the instrument dials when he felt a slight hesitation in the acceleration. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary but it seemed exaggerated this time. Skip kept a worried eye on the control panel for a time before relaxing.
Satisfied, he drew his attention away to see if anyone had noticed, relieved at the realization no one had. Then he glanced to Andy next to him. Somehow, without discussion, they'd again taken up their original places in the airplane and Skip was just realizing it. Apprehension gripped him for a second time. Were they purposely trying to drive him crazy?
He shook the thought from his head -- he was not going to keep doing that to himself. The pre-flight checked out -- twice on the gas tanks -- and the plane was ready he was ready.
"Please keep your hands and legs inside the vehicle at all times," he announced to his passengers, trying to lighten his own mood.
"How 'bout my head?" Andy asked. "Ya didn't say anything about my head -- or my cheeks," he added evilly, pantomiming rolling down his window.
"For all our sakes, the moon will not be out today. Got that?" Lee threatened, laughing.
"You are such an old stick-in-the-mud," Andy declared.
Skip ignored them. "To your right, you will see a whole lotta sand and nothingness." He tilted the aircraft just a little in that direction. "To your left, you will see the same, with a dash of scrub brush thrown in." They angled a bit to the other side.
Murphy grinned lopsidedly. "Are we there yet?"
"If anyone thinks they can be a better tour guide slash pilot, speak up now," Skip challenged. Encouraged by their silence, he continued. "We have now reached cruisin' speed and height with clear sailin' all the way back to Glorieta."
"Too bad there isn't a runway at the ranch," Murphy mused absently.
"I'm sure we can get ol' Jake to build us one," Andy advised. "In fact, I'll just have a little talk with him when we get back." Andy peered over his shoulder and winked.
"The day Uncle Jake allows you to suggest anything for the ranch" Murphy stated what they all knew.
Skip shook his head at the vision that began playing there, but was brought to reality as the plane hitched a fraction to the left. He frowned a little, expertly compensating for the pull.
"Ya never know. He may just leave the whole place to his favorite nephew one day," Andy continued spinning impossible, silly speculations of the future.
"And cement mixers can fl..," Skip's theory was interrupted as they jerked hard to the left. "It's okay," he immediately declared, once again tweaking the dials for control. "It's probably an updra" The engine began sputtering, coughing once more before stalling.
"No!" Skip commanded out loud, his nightmare playing out in reality. "No! Not again!"
"Skip?" Lee called.
Fighting the controls, Skip didn't have time to answer. He'd done this before. He'd do it again. Glide the plane in and land safely, it'd work. It had to work!
But the hard lurch to the left again told him differently. "I can't straighten out." He barely noted Andy next to him, fists white, clenched against the dash. "We're gonna hit hard! Brace yourselves!"
The horrible sound only twisting metal makes was the last thing Skip heard after the spiraling plummet.
There was a part of Mulder that felt bad for not waiting for Kolchak to come back, but he squelched that little bit of integrity, wondering idly how much of his honor he would eventually sacrifice for the X Files. It certainly hadn't taken long before he'd disregarded his promise to Carl and was accompanying Harry Broderick up the hillside.
Harry was an anxious as Mulder, though for vastly different reasons, and they would separate once they reached the stone hut they'd sheltered in the previous day. Harry would go on to the downed military plane, leaving Mulder to peruse the ruins. Mulder had a gut feeling that those drawings on the walls were important and would lead him to some hidden truths.
He hadn't said anything to Harry, but he also felt strongly that the airplane had been a ruse. It was too carefully placed, too convenient. If a plane had crashed up in these rocky hills, odds were it would have been smashed to bits. That big piece of fuselage was just too good to be true. It was as if something had happened up here that would draw people's attention, and somebody put something up here they wouldn't mind being found.
No, he had no interest in the plane. True, the spaceship he'd come looking for wasn't here, but Mulder was certain he'd found something just as revealing.
"There's the hut up ahead," Harry pointed out. "I'll stop here a bit with ya, rest my feet."
Mulder glanced at the older man. He looked a bit winded, but not too bad on the whole.
"You be okay for the rest of the hike?" he asked, trying not to sound too concerned.
"I'll be fine," Harry assured him with a warm smile. "I'm just not so spry anymore and doing this two days in a row wore me out some."
Mulder returned the smile. Harry's honesty and friendliness were contagious.
"If you say so."
The walked up to the hut, Mulder in the lead. The sun was hot and bright today, so flashlights weren't necessary, but Mulder was equipped with a lot of different recording equipment -- from his own small camera, to sketch pads, to special paper to do rubbings.
As they walked into the shelter Mulder's eyes instantly moved to the wall with the alien - and he stopped in his tracks, his mouth open. Harry nearly ran into the back of him.
"Whatsa matter?" he asked, then grew quiet when he saw what Mulder did - or rather what he didn't see.
The drawings were gone. The entire wall had been etched clean. He didn't know how they'd done it, but there was no trace left of the things they'd seen yesterday.
He walked trance-like to the wall and reached out a hand to touch it. He had to convince himself of the truth. The stone was rough, like it had been sandblasted.
Anger abruptly replaced his disbelief.
"Damn it!" He threw his backpack to the ground in disgust. "Damn it to hell!"
He glanced over at Harry, who looked like he wasn't quite sure what had happened.
"They covered it up," he explained harshly. He wasn't mad at Harry, but the man happened to be here and Mulder needed to vent.
"Don't you get it?" he demanded, his voice rising with his the heat of his indignation. "You're only seeing what they want you to see. The plane never had anything to do with this. We weren't supposed to find this."
He turned back to stare at the blank wall, and a cold thought crept into his mind. Kolchak!
"Harry, Carl took pictures."
Harry's face suddenly looked far older than he was. When he spoke, his voice trembled. "Skip did too."
Lee couldn't remember why he was upside down. It hurt to think, but he still tried to clear his head. He could feel the pressure around his middle and slowly realized it was his seatbelt, and that it was the only thing holding him in place.
It came back to him in a rush.
We crashed... my god, we crashed...
He turned awkwardly and saw Murphy in much the same predicament as he was, but his cousin was stirring. At least he wasn't dead.
"Murph?" Lee's voice sounded raspy and he cleared his throat and tried again. "Murph, you okay?"
"Hmmm? Lee?" Murphy blinked into awareness. He met Lee's gaze for a moment, then his eyes took in the rest of their surroundings. "Andy... Skip?" he murmured, still dazed.
"I don't know," Lee answered. The cockpit was obscured from his view by pieces of wreckage and some of their camping gear that had fallen forward. He fumbled with the catch on his belt, braced himself for the drop and landed ungracefully on the ceiling. He reached over to help his cousin. "Let me get you down, then I'll check on them."
There was a ugly gash along Murphy's cheek. It was bleeding, but what concerned Lee more was the disorientation that spoke of a head injury. Lee's hands were trembling slightly as he tugged at Murphy's restraints. He had trouble getting his hands to work right.
"You're bleeding, Lee," Murphy observed in a voice still laced with confusion.
Lee swiped his arm across his forehead and saw the smear of blood there, but he knew he wasn't hurt too badly. He glanced up at Murphy and gave him a reassuring smile.
"Yeah, well, if that's the worst I get in a plane crash, I'll count myself lucky."
Murphy's belt finally gave way, and Lee staggered under his full weight as his cousin dropped from the seat with a groan. Lee shifted Murphy to see if he could stand, but the injured leg buckled and Murphy clung to Lee for support.
"S-sorry, Lee," Murphy panted with the effort.
"Hey, no problem, cuz.."
He helped Murphy slide down the curved wall and settle onto the roof.
"You all right for now?" he asked, concerned for Murphy, but worried he hadn't heard any sounds from the cockpit.
Murphy nodded once. "Go find 'em, I'm fine."
Lee squeezed his cousin's shoulder in quick reassurance, then turned and began trying to move the debris that blocked his way.
The plane appeared to have been bent in the crash and Lee found it almost impossible to get through the metal and fiberglass that cut him off from his cousins. His only headway was to create a small space he could see through. It wasn't much and he could only distinguish part of Andy's shoulder and arm dangling from the seat. Skip had apparently managed to unbuckle his belt, for he was lying in a heap under the control panel. Lee couldn't tell if he was breathing or not.
"Skip! Skipper, are you okay!" There was no response and Lee shifted, trying to get a better vantage point. "Andy? You all right?"
He thought he heard a sound then, and he strained to hear better. There it was, a definite moan. Then Andy's arm moved slightly and the moan grew louder, followed by a sharp hiss of pain.
"Andy?" Lee called again, hoping his cousin was coming around. "Andy, can you hear me?"
"Mmmm... wha... ah!"
"Andy, try not to move too much," Lee advised, fearing Andy might be seriously hurt. "Wait 'til I can get to you."
Lee moved away, certain he wasn't going to get through. He made his way back to Murphy. The detective looked more alert, was sitting where Lee had left him, rubbing at his leg.
"They okay?" he asked, his worry clear, through his own pain.
"Andy's moving around, but he sounds like he's hurting." He hesitated only a moment, but it was enough for Murphy to pick up on.
Lee clenched his jaw. "I don't know yet. He wasn't moving from where I could tell." Lee glanced around the topsy-turvy interior of the plane. "I'm going to try and get to them from the outside. It looks like the window's broken. You be okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. I might even be able to help you." He made as if to get to his feet.
Lee shook his head, stopping him halfway. "I don't need you collapsing out there."
"I mean it, Murph..." Lee emphasized. "We don't know how bad off they are or even where we are. We may have to do some hiking. Save your strength for when I really need you."
Murphy didn't look happy, but he sat back down. "I guess you're right," he reluctantly agreed. But don't keep me in the dark. Let me know what you find in there."
"You bet," Lee promised, then moved to the door.
Fortunately it was clear and Lee was able to get it open after a couple of shoves with his shoulder. He stepped onto the ground and took a moment to stare at their surroundings in amazement.
The plane had come down in the middle of a rocky hillside. It was either pure luck or some expert maneuvering by Skip that had kept them from being smashed to bits. The main body of the plane was basically in one piece, if flipped. The wings were bent and one was severed, but it was the cockpit that Lee was interested in.
The glass had shattered and Lee used the tail of his shirt to knock away a few jagged pieces that remained. His path clear, he climbed part way in, trying to assess the situation.
Andy hung from his seat, his long hair obscuring his face, but Lee could see him holding his right arm close to his side protectively. There was blood on his sleeve, which didn't bode well.
"Andy?" Lee called and was relieved when his cousin stirred at the sound of his voice.
"Lee? That you?" Andy's voice was weak and filled with pain.
"I'm right here. You okay for a bit while I get Skip out?"
"Mmmmm, yeah. He okay?"
"I'm checking right now. Hang tight."
"Uhhh, very funny," Andy murmured and Lee smiled at his unintentional humor. At least it got Andy's mind off his pain.
Lee now turned his attention to Skip. He climbed further into the cockpit and reached down to Skip. He felt his cousin's neck. The skin was clammy, but there was a pulse there. Lee let out the breath he'd been holding.
"Skipper... C'mon Skip," Lee coaxed, trying to get some kind of response. He heard the faintest of groans, but took heart from it. He did a quick once-over, checking for broken bones. He didn't feel any, but he was out of his meager first aid league when it came to determining internal or spinal injuries. What he could see was a good size lump on his head and lots of superficial cuts from all the flying glass.
He ducked out and scanned the area, looking for something that could pass as a stabilizing board. He found nothing outside, so he trotted around to the door and climbed inside.
"You get 'em," Murphy asked at once.
Lee shook his head. "Skip's out cold. I gotta get him first, then I can cut Andy loose. See anything I could use..." He interrupted himself when he spied a seat back that had come loose and was lying at his feet. "This'll do." He grabbed the seat and took it outside.
He went around to the rear of the crash, where the impact had popped open the cargo hatch and most of their camping gear was scattered. It didn't take him long to locate a section of rope and he scooped it up and brought his makeshift emergency items to the front of the plane.
It took him some time, but he at last had Skip fastened moderately securely. He only hoped he wasn't causing him more harm than good as he pulled him out of the plane. He dragged the unconscious pilot around to the side, where there was a small bit of shade. Not wanting to leave Skip alone, Lee helped Murphy outside to watch over their cousin. Only then did he return to Andy.
"Your turn," he called as he once more crawled into the damaged cockpit.
"'Bout time," Andy answered weakly. "How's ev'rbody else?"
"Skip's still out," Lee informed him. "Murphy's with him. Let's worry about you now. Where you hurt?"
Andy took a moment to think. "Uh... my arm is killin' me and I got a whopper of a headache."
Lee chuckled at that. "I don't think being upside down helped any."
With Skip out of the way, Lee was able to get completely inside and reach Andy from a better angle. He could at last see his face and Lee winced at the number of bleeding cuts there. Andy looked like he'd gotten much more of the glass than Skip, but it was his arm and shoulder that seemed to be his worst injuries.
After some careful stops and starts, Andy at last was freed and out of the plane. He had a few moments of dizziness, but was able to walk upright. Lee helped him sit next to Skip's prone body. Only then did he allow himself to stop and rest, to join the others in the relative comfort of the small shade the side of the plane offered.
Maybe it was delayed shock, or the adrenalin wearing off, but he found himself trembling and he leaned his head back against the fuselage and allowed himself to close his eyes.
"Lee! Lee!" Murphy called frantically. "Wake up!"
"Uh," Lee mumbled groggily.
"C'mon, cuz," Andy implored. "No rest for the wicked."
"What?" Lee blinked several times, confused for a moment. But the sight of Skip unconscious, then Andy's and Murphy's condition sent a rush of adrenaline that woke him up instantly. "I'm sorry."
Relieved, Murphy slowly let out the breath he'd been holding. "Now we both know I can get these other two outta here by myself, but I just can't manage three of you." He tried to smile assurance to the ex-spy but only managed a wane imitation.
"Guess we can add concussion to your list of injuries," Andy stated.
Lee nodded grimly. He'd only meant to close his eyes for a second -- he couldn't afford to do that again. With the injuries his cousin's had sustained, he had to keep it together if they were going to make it out of this alive.
"The plane should have a first aid kit," Lee began. "And water." He stood and re-entered the wreckage. Rummaging around he discovered a large medical box jammed under what had once been his seat -- with a little tugging, it finally came loose. He also located one of the canteens and slung it over his shoulder.
Lee found Murphy maneuvering over to Skip to examine the unconscious man for injuries. "Here." He handed the canteen to Murphy.
"I haven't found anything broken yet," he advised gratefully, taking a swig.
"That's something at least." Lee ran a hand through his hair. "I'm going to try and immobilize Andy's arm."
Andy looked up at the announcement. Lee could see his cousin realized what that meant and saw him gearing up for the experience.
"You've done this before?" Andy asked.
"My practice dummy is alive and doing well to this day," Lee assured. "Murph, let me know if you need help with Skip."
"Right," Murphy acknowledged.
He handed the water to Andy and began working on him, fighting the headache that increased by the minute. It didn't take long to realize Andy's arm was broken.
* * *
Lee wiped the sweat from his forehead, trying to conceal the fact his own head injury had started bleeding again. Not that it was serious -- the jagged cut just wouldn't stop oozing. What did worry him was the huge bump he discovered behind his left ear. He was pretty sure this was what was giving him most of the grief and he was grateful when Murphy had checked out his cut, the detective had missed it. His friends had far more serious injuries than he'd received and they didn't need to be worrying about him.
Skip's persistent unconsciousness continued to be the worst, but Andy's arm came in a close second. It'd taken what seemed forever to get just the basic first aid to everyone.
"I was thinkin' we need a plan," Andy's announcement broke into Lee's thoughts. "Anyone know how fast we were flyin'?"
"Not sure. Why?" Murphy asked.
Andy moved slightly, grimacing in pain. "If we can figure that, we'll know where we are." He squinted off to the horizon. "I think I can fix the radio and call for help," he suggested hopefully.
Lee frowned, unsure if his cousin had really seen what remained of the front of the plane, but he finally nodded agreement. "Can you make it into the cockpit?"
"I'll need help," he stated.
Lee stood slowly and reached out a hand to help the radio programmer to his feet. Andy cringed again as the barest movements jarred the damaged arm, but between the two of them, they got him into the plane. It took almost all of Lee's remaining strength but he finally pulled the radio out of its brackets so Andy could work on it.
"I can do the math on our location if you have problems," Andy offered. "I have to calculate playtimes all the time at work."
"I think Murph and I can manage." Lee searched for Skip's maps and log. They'd survived inside their netted pocket and Lee found them quickly.
Sitting next to Murphy, Lee rubbed at his neck -- the headache was traveling. He popped a few more of the aspirins they'd found in the first aid kit.
"If this doesn't work, we'll have to try to find a way out," Murphy whispered.
Lee shrugged. "Give him a chance," he said. "And if it doesn't work, we travel at night."
"And how do you expect to do that?" Murphy asked, his doubts coming through with every word.
Lee managed a real smile. "You said you could get those two out -- I'll just hold you to it," Lee stated matter-of-factly.
Murphy gave a small laugh, then got serious. "We're hundreds of miles from anywhere."
"Murph, we can do it because we have to," he declared with passion. "We have no choice."
"Here goes nothin'," Andy said quietly. He'd done what he could with the radio, then jury-rigged a battery. Flipping the switches, he picked up the mic. "Mayday. Mayday," he called, waiting. Only static answered him. "Mayday. We were in a small 6-seater airplane and have crashed. Best guess at coordinates are" He pulled open Lee and Murphy's notes and read them to whoever he prayed was listening.
"Do you think it's working?" Murphy asked.
Andy jiggled some switches, shaking his head. "It might be sendin' but it sure as hell isn't receiving," he informed. "Don't know if we're gettin' through."
"If no one shows up at dusk, we have to get out of here," Lee announced.
"Mayday! Mayday! If anyone's receivin' us, we aren't hearin' you. If no one shows by nightfall, we'll be travelin' in a south-easterly direction from the wreck. Mayday! May--" He stopped abruptly when his makeshift battery died.
"Don't know 'bout you, but the fingers on my good hand'll be crossed for awhile," Andy stated, hoping he sounded upbeat.
Skip opened his eyes and found the cockpit dark, the red emergency lights on the panel casting an eerie glow. He couldn't see a thing outside the plane, not the sky, not stars -- nothing but a black emptiness.
The crash! I couldn't hold it. We crashed.
It came back suddenly. Panicked, he turned to his right, then let out a relieved sigh. Andy was there, looking like he was sleeping. His head leaned against the window at an uncomfortable angle.
"Hey, you're gonna get an awful crick in your neck, cuz," Skip laughed. He reached out to touch his cousin's shoulder and Andy's blond head lolled lifelessly, the momentum brining his upper body forward. It came to rest upon the instrument panel.
"Andy!" Skip cried out in terror.
He rose out of his seat and spun around to face the back. Murphy and Lee sat slumped in their seats.
"Lee! Murphy! You gotta be okay, c'mon guys, wake up!"
He slipped into the back, touched Lee's wrist. It was cold and lifeless.
God, no! Please, don't let this be happening.
He turned to Murphy, and nearly screamed when he saw a 13 year old's unseeing eyes staring at him in an unspoken accusation.
"No! No! You didn't die, I landed the plane... I landed the plane, damn it, I didn't kill you!"
He retreated, knocking into the front seats, nearly stumbling over them in his attempt to run from this horrible scene.
"I'm sorry." The words tore from his throat in a broken sob. "I'm sorry... I'm sorry..."
"Skip? Skip, wake up."
The voice sounded so much like Lee's, but Skip knew Lee was dead. He'd killed him -- he'd killed them all.
"C'mon, Skipper, ya gotta wake up now."
That had to be Andy... but how?
Skip opened his eyes, blinking at the brightness of the desert sky. Suddenly Andy's face leaned into his field of view. First there were two Andys, then they merged into one, the face he knew so well. Skip stared at him in disbelief.
"You're not dead," he croaked hoarsely.
Andy grinned. "Not the last time I checked."
Skip closed his eyes, ignoring the pounding in his head. Suddenly, he opened them again, fear gripping him. "Murphy, where's Murphy?"
"Right here, cuz," came the prompt answer, and Skip tried to turn his head to find his cousin, but, for some reason, he was having trouble moving. He let out a small groan at the effort.
"Hey, Skipper, don't do that."
Murphy moved into view, and Skip found his cousin was the right age again, and very much alive. He breathed out in relief.
"I'm sorry," he whispered fervently. "So sorry."
"Sorry?" Andy echoed questioningly. "You sure ain't got anything to be sorry for."
Skip closed his eyes again, seeing once more the image of his nightmares. "For all this," he answered raggedly.
"Now wait a minute," Lee broke in. "You probably don't realize it, but you did a heck of a job of bringing us down."
"He's telling you the truth, cuz," Murphy added. "You found the only patch of ground in the middle of a mountain of rocks."
Skip's eyes widened at that.
"Way I see it, you saved our butts," Andy concluded in a tone that brooked no further argument.
Skip remained quiet, trying to believe him. As he did so, other things focused into shape in his mind. He frowned in confusion.
"Why can't I move?" he mumbled thickly.
"Oh, don't worry 'bout that," Andy assured him with a smile. "Lee's just practicing first aid for his merit badge."
"Yeah," Murphy agreed. "He needed a volunteer, and since you were the only one unconscious, you got the job."
Skip couldn't keep back a slight, lopsided grin. "Chickens," he accused.
"Well, they didn't get off scott-free," Lee informed him with a laugh. "I got to practice on Andy's arm and Murphy's head. They certainly complained a lot more than you did."
"Guess there's somethin' to be said for being knocked out." He flexed his fingers and shifted his feet. "Seems like I'm workin'. Ya think you could let me loose."
Lee took a moment before he answered, then he set some conditions. "You were out for quite a while," he told him honestly. "We'll take it slow. If you feel any pain, you let me know."
"You got it," Skip agreed. Slow sounded good to him. His head really was pounding, and his cousins' faces occasionally blurred together, but he didn't want to tell them that. He could see they were already worried about him.
One at a time, Lee released the ropes that held Skip immobile. As he gingerly moved his legs and arms, he discovered several places that hurt, but nothing critical. He supposed he would have some colorful bruises for a while. When Lee at last came to his head, Skip held his breath. Then, very slowly, he turned to the left.
He stopped, closed his eyes tightly. Not because his neck hurt, but because the movement had sent the world reeling and his stomach churning. The vise around his head tightened up several notches.
"Skip, you okay?"
His cousins' voices were full of fear. He wanted to assure them he was fine, but it took a moment to regain his bearings.
"I'll be... all right... jus'... just gimme a minute."
After a time, things settled and he took a chance to open his eyes. Seeing three very worried faces, he tried his best to smile, but had to settle for a weak imitation.
"'S'okay, guys... just tryin' not to toss my cookies."
"Guess you go to the top of the concussion class," Andy observed, obviously trying to keep the mood light.
"Just stay still," Lee advised. He patted Skip's shoulder. "We're all taking it easy for now."
Calvin Yazzie slammed the palm of his hands down hard on the table, rattling his ham radio equipment. He was certain he'd picked up a call for help, but it hadn't been clear. And over an hour had gone by since he'd heard it. He'd tried everything he knew to boost his system and frustration had set in.
Finally admitting defeat, he reset to monitor calls and flopped on his bed. Apart from a EMS response to a single car rollover out by Josh Gordon's air strip, there didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Still the distress call bothered him. It hadn't sounded phony. The guy had seemed in real trouble.
Calvin sighed. So little ever happened in this forgotten corner of the earth. He'd hate to think he was in on the one exciting event in years and he'd botched it. He'd never hear the end of it. But to report the call and have it turn out to be nothing...
Drumming his fingers on the mattress for a good five minutes, he finally made up his mind. He got off his bed and reached for the old rotary phone.
"Sheriff Kai, please."
Lee wiped the grease from his hands onto his jeans and glanced once more at the rapidly setting sun. He'd wanted to get started at sunset, but with the shape everyone was in, that was looking less and less likely. Neither Andy nor Skip were in any shape to travel and Lee wouldn't think of leaving them here alone. The thought of heading out by himself wasn't too appealing either. He didn't know the country -- had no idea where to find water. His own headache had subsided somewhat and was now just a dull throb, but he wouldn't want to be by himself if it acted up again. Dying in the desert wasn't how he'd ever imagined cashing it in. But staying here didn't promise much either. Between the heat, the wind, the dust and the ants, he'd about had his fill of this part of New Mexico.
The need to do something had driven him to look at the plane's engine. He was more than curious about why they'd crashed. He knew Skip was too skilled a pilot for it to have been an error on his part. Something had to happened to the craft itself. The engine was as good a place to start as any.
It hadn't been easy. The nose of the plane had sustained the most damage, and the engine was pretty trashed from impact. He wondered how the guys from the NTSB every figured out what caused a big jetliner to crash. He was just about ready to call it quits, when he spotted something that didn't look right.
"Hey, Lee." Murphy walked up to stand beside him. "Find anything?"
"Don't know yet." Lee glanced at Murphy. The cut on his face had been bandaged, but there were bruises coming out, and his eye was black now. His limp was so pronounced that Lee added Murphy to the list of "unable to travel." "How's it going over there?"
Murphy's eyes grew dark with concern. "Skip's out of it again. I'm really worried about him."
Lee's jaw tightened at the news. Skip had been lucid for a time, but for the last hour or so had been slipping in and out of consciousness. That couldn't be good. He bent back over the engine, pulling at a group of electrical wires.
"What about Andy?" he asked.
Murphy shook his head. "Trying to pretend his arm isn't killing him," he reported. "We're out of Tylenol... not that it was doing him much good anyway. What are we gonna..."
The faint sound stopped him mid-sentence. Both men stood staring up at the sky. As the sound grew louder, it became more recognizable.
"Helicopter!" Murphy shouted joyfully.
At the same time, Lee took note of the wires he was holding and a feeling of dread overtook him. It was an instinct honed over years of field work.
"We gotta get away from the plane," he stated in a tone that wiped the grin from Murphy's face.
His cousin didn't waste time asking questions. He had implicit faith in Lee's sense of survival. He followed without hesitation and Lee strode over to the door of the plane. Andy and Skip were inside, sheltered somewhat from the direct sun and the persistent stinging ants that had turned up everywhere.
Without a word, Lee scooped up Skip's limp form and draped him across his shoulders. Murphy and Andy followed, hurrying as fast as their injuries allowed.
They didn't have a lot of places to hide, or a lot of time to get there, and barely made it to a large group of boulders, before a large, black helicopter appeared and hovered over the wreckage of their plane.
"Lee," Andy hissed urgently. "Why are we..."
Lee gave him a sharp gesture to be quiet. He watched intently as two helmeted figures dropped from the chopper and began combing through the wreck. All their gear was searched and tossed aside, until one of them held up something he'd gotten out of Skip's duffle bag. The other man nodded crisply and then they waved at their pilot.
The copter came down expertly and stayed only long enough for the men to climb aboard. Then it soared off and disappeared over the horizon.
"What the hell was all that?" Andy asked breathlessly.
Lee pulled back from where he watched the entire scene and glanced at Skip, who's head was being cushioned in Murphy's lap. He shook his head slowly.
"I wish I knew. But I don't think we accidentally crashed."
Murphy's head snapped up at that. "What do you mean?"
Lee's gaze moved between Andy and Murphy, wanting his cousins to know how serious a situation they were in.
"I found some wires that looked like they'd been cut. Somebody arranged our accident."
Lee sifted through the debris of the supplies left by their visitors, confused. Those men had to realize he and his cousins weren't too far away but they'd left them alone. Apparently witnesses weren't a problem, just the evidence they'd invaded the crash site to retrieve made that category. In his former profession he'd heard the rumors Black Ops were one thing, but operations like this He shook his head. Only the most paranoid really believed in them they were something of a boogie man to scare agents into behaving. Lee would be rethinking a lot of things.
He picked up Skip's backpack and examined the contents, wondering if he could figure out what should be there -- not sure Skip was even up to trying to remember. He surveyed the crash site, darkness was almost completely upon them now and it was starting to get chilly.
He slung the bag over his shoulder and grabbed the first aid box, a few blankets and water. Lee had insisted they all find a better defended location in case they were revisited. He'd gotten Skip up to the new location while Andy and Murphy aided each other -- almost making one whole person between them. Once situated, Lee had returned to the downed craft to retrieve the meager supplies they had.
Rejoining the others, Lee plopped down beside Skip. He'd come around again, and seemed more lucid than he'd been in quite a while. He was still laying flat, though. His attempts to sit up had only produced more bouts of nauseating dizziness.
"Any idea what they might have taken?" Lee asked.
Skip dug through his backpack, careful not to exert himself too much. "Naw," he finally stated a little frustrated. "I I I'm still pretty fuzzy."
"Don't sweat it," Lee advised, placing comforting hand on his friend's wrist. "They didn't hurt us is what's important."
"Yeah, but they didn't help us either," Andy fumed. "We need rescuin'!"
Murphy leaned a little closer. "They weren't flying a search pattern," he observed. "They seemed to know almost exactly where we were."
"The SOS It's possible," Lee speculated. "If they'd thought we could have survived the crash, they'd have gotten here sooner."
"Maybe that means someone else got it too." Andy voice filled with hope. "Hey, anyone hear anything?" He held up a hand and strained for the sound he thought he'd just heard.
The sound of automobile engines slowly became clearer and then the search lights started to crisscross the landscape a ways to their right.
"Lee, do we keep hidin'?" The hope in Andy's voice had turned to suspicion.
Lee wondered the same thing, then made a decision. "They don't know where we are," he declared. "That means a search party Why don't I just go get them," he stated with a laugh. Standing he began to jog in the direction of the lights, relief flooded him. This ordeal was almost over.
* * *
Checked over and re-bandaged by the rescue team to prepare them for the rough ride to the hospital, the cousins were loaded into the vehicles.
"You were real lucky," Sheriff Kai advised. He'd just returned from the wreckage. "Another coupla yards and you'd be pancaked."
"Well aware of that, Sheriff," Lee agreed. "Skip here's the best pilot around." Lee grinned widely, heartened when Skip returned the smile for the first time since he'd regained consciousness. His cousin had been loaded into a stretcher and placed in the back of the sheriff's station wagon.
The lawman shook his head. "Took a closer look at those wires."
"And" Lee asked, already knowing the answer.
"I'm no expert, but there was definitely some tamperin'," Sheriff Kai stated. "I'll have my deputies"
"My camera!" Skip cried suddenly. He struggled to sit up, but couldn't quite make it. He lay back down with a grimace. "Lee, they took my camera! With the pictures in it!" he continued. "We gotta get it back."
"Skip, calm down," Lee soothed. "We'll worry about that later."
The sheriff frowned. "A camera?" He scratched at his head. "We had an SUV wreck earlier -- some crazy reporter," he supplied.
"Reporter?" Lee asked, having a pretty good idea who it could be.
"Yeah, a real nut job." Kai waved to his men to began the trip home, nodding to Lee to get into his own car in the front passenger side. "Been rantin' and ravin' about aliens in black helicopters and cameras and proof and well, just all kinds of nonsense." He started his engine, pulling into line behind his deputies. "We've got him locked up for observation at the local looney bin."
Lee caught Skip's eye, glad when he realized Skip understood the implications of the situation and would not be making Carl's mistake. He settled into the seat and let his mind relax for the first time in what seemed days. He'd be back with Amanda soon. His last thought before he drifted off was of how beautiful his wife was.
Skip lay propped up on pillows on the old couch. He was the last to be released from the hospital and he was certainly glad to be here at the ranch. He'd told the doctors he was fine, but they insisted on keeping him for observation, until they were certain he was not going to experience any complications from his rather severe concussion. So he'd suffered through the uncomfortable bed, the nightly visits from nurses intent on waking him from the rest they all kept telling him he needed to recover. And then there was the food.
Granted, the first day he was there, he was still pretty nauseous and the thought of eating held little appeal. But after that, what they tried to feed him wasn't fit for human consumption. Now, at last, he could look forward to some good home-cooked meals. He could tell from the wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen, his mother and aunts were outdoing themselves.
Everyone else was pretty much recovered. Lee, having come out of the crash the least injured, seemed to be just fine except for a few colorful bruises. Murphy was still sporting a black eye and a noticeable limp, but seemed on the mend. Andy's right arm was casted, carried in a sling, and some of the cuts on his face had required stitches, but he too, was doing well. They' also had to endure a lot of teasing from family members, including their wives, about having a crisis before the reunion actually started.
Skip sighed and rubbed at his eyes. He still had the lingering vestiges of a headache, but at least he was home, mostly in one piece. The adventure was over.
They'd heard from Harry about what he and Mulder had found at the hut. Disgusted, Harry had decided not to salvage the plane. He didn't want the government to think he'd bought their diversion. Skip smiled at his partner's sense of honor.
"Hey, faker," Andy came in from the kitchen, where he'd been pestering the cooks for free samples. He carried a couple of rolls in his hand and as he sat down on the other end of the couch, he tossed part of his booty to Skip. "Feelin' better?" he asked around a mouthful.
Skip nodded, too busy with his own snack to talk. When he swallowed the wonderfully warm bread, he raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Where's Lee and Murph?"
Andy shook his head. "They took off at first light. Didn't say where they were going. You hear from Kolchak?"
Skip smiled. "Yeah. He's okay. He's mad about his camera equipment."
Andy propped his feet up on the coffee table. "I don't think I'd believe it if I hadn't been there. When those guys showed up in that chopper..."
The sound of footsteps interrupted him and they both looked up to see Melanie coming in, a big smile on her face. She came right over to Skip, bent down to plant a kiss of his forehead, then perched on the arm of the couch.
"You feel up to some company?" she asked, including Andy in her question.
Both men nodded, and Skip could tell by the twinkle in his wife's eyes, she was up to something.
"Good," she stated. "Lee and Murphy drove out to Nageezi this morning. They brought back a friend they thought you two might want to meet."
Skip exchanged an inquiring look with Andy. He knew Harry and Carl had both gone back to California and Mulder had returned to D.C. He had no clue who might be coming to see them. He could tell Andy was stumped as well.
He watched curiously as Lee and Murphy walked into the living room. Between them came a young, Native American boy who couldn't be much more than 12 years old. He wore his hair long, in the traditional braids of his culture, but the Aerosmith t-shirt he wore with his faded jeans, spoke of an all-American teen.
"Guys," Lee began with a grin. "I want you to meet Calvin Yazzie. We owe him big time."
"Oh yeah?" Skip asked, impatient for Lee to spill the rest of the story.
Murphy took pity on them. "Calvin's the one who picked up our Mayday. If it wasn't for him, we'd still be out there working on our tans."
Andy sat up with interest. "How'd you get our signal?"
Calvin shrugged shyly. "On my ham set. I got it rigged to pick up all kinds of stuff, even if it's faint."
Andy's eyes lit up, recognizing a fellow radio fan. "No kiddin'? You put it together yourself?"
Calvin nodded and Andy motioned him closer.
"Scoot over, Skipper, you're hoggin' the couch." He pushed his cousin's legs out of the way, so there was room for the boy to sit between them.
The rest of them laughed at the look on Skip's face.
"So much for being injured," Skip pouted, but he moved his feet and sat up a little straighter to make some space. "I guess Andy has a new best friend."
Mel bent down and kissed his nose. "Don't worry, honey," she smoothed. "I'll still play with you."