Steadman opened his file drawer. U.S. Geological Survey maps were stuffed in the back. Steadman found the one he was looking for and spread it on his desk. He located the road and calculated where the cabin would be. There was no use going out there again, not the way he’d done it before. The road was clearly visible from the cabin and they’d have fifteen minutes warning.
Coming in from both sides would be better. Posting someone at the top of the hill to watch would help. There was access the way the road snaked around the other side, the same way he’d gone with the binoculars.
Who to get was another problem. It was likely to be a large operation–twenty men at least–and Steadman didn’t know what he was dealing with. It would have to be a coalition, Steadman decided. Loggers and mill men. He’d have the mill executive, Ranson, there too.
And the FBI–what to do about them? Ignore them, Steadman decided. They’d disappeared anyway. Maybe they’ve given up. Not likely, Steadman reasoned. He wouldn’t let them get the best of him. This is your jurisdiction. No interstate commerce involved. Besides, no crime has been committed, except maybe by the FBI itself.
Steadman leaned back and looked out the window. The protesters still gathered on Main Street. Less vocal now, war-weary, they passed out their leaflets and tried to engage the townspeople in argument, but their voices sounded tired and their rhetoric had softened. “Good kids” were what some in town were calling them, though Steadman couldn’t go along with that. For one, he wouldn’t admit he was that much older. For another, he saw in some of their faces a look of frustration and anger. They had accomplished nothing in pursuit of their cause. “Educating the public” hadn’t taken place, no trees had been saved. The news media had long-since abandoned the scene in favor of more sensational news.
Steadman took a minute to study each face, figuring who’d be the most trouble.
Raymond Beck, Steadman chuckled. The FBI agent joined the group, held a sign aloft and shouted at passing vehicles.
Your tax dollars at work, Steadman thought bitterly. Reminded, Steadman turned back to the map and his plans to take the suspects into custody.
This is crazy. A bunch of civilians tramping around in the woods with guns. Somebody is likely to get hurt and it would be your responsibility. Just to make a couple of arrests–four to be exact. On what charge? Steadman didn’t know.
“Okay,” Steadman said out loud. “I’ll try one more time.” Forget contingency plans, Steadman decided. Self-fulfilling prophecy anyway. You can wing it if you have to.
“Where are they?” Steadman demanded when he reached Scott’s cabin.
“Out in the woods,” Scott replied. “They ran when they saw you coming.”
“I have to speak to them,” Steadman said firmly. “You go get them.”
Scott considered. He had trusted Steadman once. The result was the interview with the FBI.
“Otherwise I’m going to have to come out here and make arrests,” Steadman warned.
“On what charge?” Scott asked.
“I’ll think of something,” Steadman replied.
Scott held up a hand for Steadman to wait. Scott walked into the woods.
“What does he want?” Xavier called from behind a tree not far into the forest.
“Ask questions,” Scott called back.
Yula and Tenner appeared.
“Do you believe him?” Xavier asked.
“We should kill him!” Tenner burst out. Yula gasped.
Scott noticed Xavier didn’t. “He knows too much. So does he.” Tenner pointed directly at Scott. “No contact! Those were our orders!”
Tenner stepped forward. He’s going to kill you with his bare hands.
Scott backed away.
“I’ll tell him,” Scott said simply and hurried back to the cabin.
“No dice,” Scott said to Steadman.
“Now listen here!” Steadman started to say.
“Hey, go ahead and ask them!” Scott pointed to the woods. “See if you find them. See if they want to talk.”
“I’m coming back with dogs and deputies,” Steadman warned.
“Go ahead,” Scott offered, calling Steadman’s bluff.
“Give it a try. And think up a charge while you’re looking, why don’t you?”
Steadman sized Scott up. We don’t have to be enemies, do we?
“What’s going on here?” Steadman asked softly.
“I told you.”
“That was the truth,” Scott said sincerely.
The sun felt hot on the top of Steadman’s head. He ran his fingers through what was left of his hair. He felt old, very old. Martians and environmentalists and people from the future. Why can’t you just to do your job, be a human being, live life and maybe enjoy it a little? When did you take on the responsibility of the whole world?
“I know how you feel,” Scott said softly. “I feel the same way.”
Steadman figured maybe Scott did. He turned and started down the hill alone.
That night, the sickness started. Scott heard Xavier staggering to the door, coughing his lungs out. Scott started to rise when Tenner stopped him.
“She will go,” he said, and quickly Yula was out the door.
What is there between Xavier and Yula? Scott wondered. Is she his daughter? The possibility shocked Scott. Must think of everything. People. Understand people. Isn’t that what Lorraine railed at you about? Good with machines, good with causes, but when it comes down to individuals, single human beings, you haven’t a clue.
Scott listened. Xavier sounded like his lungs would burst. But there was another sound too. What is it? Yula.
Despite Tenner, Scott stood and went to the cabin door. There they were, lit by the moon, Xavier bent double coughing, Yula sneezing repeatedly.
“Are you all right?” Scott called to them.
Tenner rushed past, heading for the woods, his hand over his mouth, ready to vomit.
“What is this?” Scott asked.
Yula shook her head and fought off another sneeze. Guilt swept over Scott. You’ve poisoned them somehow. What did you cook for dinner? What did they eat at home where they came from? Something microwaved maybe.
“Come inside,” Scott said. “You’re better off.”
Scott pulled Xavier and Yula into the cabin. He closed all the windows and the door. He lit the kerosene lamp and started the camp stove. Xavier slid down the wood wall, still coughing. How long can he keep this up?
Scott kicked the fire around and poured water on what was left of it. Keep the smoke down. Yula sneezed. They’re dying. Scott filled a pan with water and put it on the stove.
“A person better go see about Tenner,” Yula said between sneezes. She started for the door.
“No, he’ll come back,” Scott told her. “Stay. You shouldn’t be outside. That’s what’s doing this. You’re allergic.”
Yula stared at Scott, searching his brain. She could tell he wasn’t sure. Think positive, Scott told himself. Yula wasn’t buying it. Scott felt violated. Mind-rape, lady. I don’t like it.
“Tell him I can’t help it,” Yula protested to Xavier between sneezes. There was panic on her face.
I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I apologize. We’re one. Your thoughts are my thoughts. I want it that way.
She got the message.
“Bring him over here.” Scott gestured to Xavier.
Yula helped Xavier to the camp-stove.
“Breathe,” Scott ordered.
Xavier bent over the pan of water. Steam already rose from the surface. Xavier began to breathe. Either the steam or the steady breath did it. Xavier’s cough stopped.
“Someone would say it’s magic,” Yula exclaimed, looking at Scott with wonder in her eyes.
“Just steam,” Scott replied. “He’ll be better.”
“Native folk-medicine,” Xavier laughed cynically until his cough started again.
The cabin door creaked open. Tenner stood sheepishly in the entrance.
“Close the door,” Scott ordered. Without argument this time, Tenner did as he was told. “All of you, breathe the steam.”
They all huddled around the tiny camp-stove, inhaling the water vapor. Scott, suddenly tired, aware for the first time it was the middle of the night, fell back onto the floor. He rested, staring up at the ceiling. He looked at his watch. 1:37.
Should have been a doctor. That’s what your mother wanted. She was the best. Stick you in the bathroom, turn on the hot shower and the sink at the same time, let the steam fill your lungs. Was it the vapor or the fact your mother cared? There was little caring, Scott knew, most of the time with his mother. Well, okay, he’d tried to make it up with Kathy, even if he hadn’t with Lorraine. Call them tomorrow.
Xavier sat back on the floor. His coughing had stopped again. His face was flushed from the effort.
“We don’t have much time,” he said gloomily.
Scott sat up on one arm.
“You’re allergic,” Scott said. “That’s all.”
“So you’re a doctor now, too?” Xavier challenged.
“That’s right. Johns Hopkins. Residency at Cedars Sinai.”
“We’re sick,” Xavier said.
“No!” Xavier shot back. “Viruses, bacteria, micro-organisms we haven’t been exposed to before. We’re like your Indians, that you killed with your diseases,” Xavier said bitterly.
Scott realized Xavier was right. He tried to swallow but couldn’t. He stared at Yula’s face, lit softly by the glow of the camp-stove, her face wet from the steam, soft wisps of vapor curling around her chin.
“No,” Scott whispered. “It’s just–” “She sneezes, he vomits, I cough,” Xavier said roughly.
“We don’t have the same disease.”
Scott started to say something, but Xavier was coughing again. Scott put his head down on the hard-wood floor.
To the doctors. Tomorrow. Three different places. Emergency rooms, where there won’t be too many questions. Yula could be your wife. Use your health insurance.
“Tell him no,” Yula said to Xavier. “Tell him we can’t go to the hospital. We’d be discovered.”
“But why? You look like anybody.”
“Explain we use less oxygen,” Yula said. “That’s why the mountains don’t bother us. And we’re used to more ultraviolet radiation from the sun. A person should show him.”
Xavier placed his arm flat against Scott’s. Even by the flickering light of the camp-stove and the kerosene lamp, it was shocking how pale Xavier’s skin was.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Scott told her. “They won’t look that hard. They’ll give you antibiotics, make sure you pay your bill and send you on your way.”
“One could mention antibiotics might kill us,” Yula said.
“We don’t know. Besides…”
“What?” Scott asked. The look of terror on Yula’s face wasn’t good.
“We would become more exposed. That’s why we avoided contact,” Xavier explained.
“With me…” Scott realized.
“Yes,” Xavier replied.
“You mean I…?” Scott started to say and answered his own question. No kissing… You gave this to them, Scott. Filthy, germ-ridden animal. Scott covered his face with his hands. You killed her.
Scott looked at Tenner. What’s that look in his face? Fear. That’s it. The boy’s scared. Damn. Scott looked at Xavier.
For once the old man looked his age. And Yula looked older too. She was Earth Mother again, protecting them from harm, making sure they survived. Scott screwed up his courage. It’s up to you. You alone. With her maybe. But don’t count on her. Don’t count on anyone. You alone.
An old fear grabbed Scott and shook his body. Where does it come from? From Kathy. Responsible for her life. Her protector. But then he’d felt like a man. A father. The prince in his daughter’s eyes. Because he knew he could do it. This…Scott didn’t know.
copyright 2007 Brenda H all rights reserved
[tags]Brenda H, sci-fi, science-fiction, fiction, thriller, novel[/tags]