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Since the Ocean's Black

How Hard Can a Mountain Be . . .?

 

by K.T. Weltch

 

"I'm sorry for holding you up, Jay. I really appreciate the lift. Trying to get a commercial flight out at this late date would have been impossible." Admiral Harriman Nelson smiled at the young man next to him at the controls of the Cessna. The sun was setting before them, casting its light through the cockpit and setting the Admiral's hair aflame in its glow.

"A little different than the flying sub, I'm afraid," Jay Rogers laughed a bit ruefully.

"But a lot better than driving! With FS-1 undergoing repairs and most commercial flights booked up, we were fortunate to catch a lift with you. Usually we're a little more organized, but this was an emergency trip." Nelson glanced back to his Captain, Lee Crane, in the seat behind him and grinned to notice he was asleep. "It's also been a tiring trip."

The pilot's smile reflected his sympathy; "One thing the military teaches you is to catch sleep whenever you can. Was your trip successful, Admiral?"

Nelson glanced out of the side window, squinted against the light of the setting sun, and watched the tall trees of the California wilderness flow under them. "Yes, it was, Jay. The information that we're bringing back is classified, of course. I'm sure as a former military man you will understand that I can't discuss it too much. Let's just say that our government was extremely pleased with the information that we brought back from our last cruise."

"The cruise that damaged FS-1."

The Admiral nodded. "Yes, and a few of the crew as well. We lost two good men out there. There are quite a few that would go to great lengths to stop the transfer of this information."

Jay made some adjustments on the instrument panel and frowned, a line creasing up between his dark brows. Another quick adjustment caused the Admiral to look at him in concern.

"Is there a problem, Jay?"

As if in answer to the Admiral's question, the instrument panel began to light up in angry red warning lights. The nose of the little craft dipped down and the drone of the engines changed in pitch. There was an exclamation from the back seat as Lee Crane woke up to the sounds of a plane in trouble.

Jay was now working frantically to compensate for the spluttering engines. The plane was beginning to go into a stall and there wasn't going to be anything he could do about it short of getting out and pushing. "Admiral, call in a Mayday, we're going down! I'll keep her up as long as I can. Help me look for some place as clear as possible to land; this thing feels like a ton of bricks in my hands!"

"Mayday, Mayday, this is Cessna 2143. We are declaring an emergency, Mayday, Mayday!" The plane dropped sharply and Nelson braced himself against the inevitable. "There, Jay, through those trees!"

Jay banked the plane sharply as he spotted the opening between two tall pines. "Hold on!" There was no sound from the engines at all as they glided past dusk-shadowed trees. The underbelly of the Cessna screamed against smaller trees and a wing caught hard and pulled them sharply to the left. Then they were down, tearing through young trees and underbrush, digging up dirt and rock with a deafening screech. The wheel hit a larger rock and threw the plane onto its left side, breaking the front glass and spraying the inside with debris. The plane came to rest abruptly, the three inside it too shocked to speak.

The Admiral was hanging from his straps above the pilot. He had smashed his leg against the side panel and his knee was on fire. Jay, below him, was beginning to moan softly, but there was no noise at all from the back seat. "Lee . . . are . . . are you all right?" His voice sounded hoarse in the stillness. "Lee?"

"Ad . . . Admiral? I . . . I think I'm in one piece. You?" Lee sounded muffled.

"Only slightly damaged, I think. We need to get to Jay and I can't seem to get these blasted straps loose! Can you move?"

What was left of the plane began to rock as Crane struggled to free himself from his restraints. Then came a grunt as he fell against the side on the ground.

"I need to get behind you, Admiral, to see if I can open the door. Got it!" Lee pushed through the dented passenger door and angled his way out. He placed one arm around his Admiral and while Nelson grabbed the door casing and pulled, Lee unsnapped the belts holding him. The cool evening air was tainted with the smell of burned wires and fuel. There was no time to lose. The Captain jumped back into the craft and Nelson leaned as far in as he could, ready to offer assistance. It only took moments for them to have the pilot free. Crane laid him as carefully as possible on the stony ground and turned to lend the Admiral a hand. He eased his friend down next to the injured man on the ground, "Jay?" he checked his pulse, frowning.

"This . . . wasn't suppose to happen . . . they said they would . . . give me time. I . . . don't know why . . . I don't know . . ." He grabbed the front of Nelson's shirt with a bloody hand. "Admiral . . . they did something to the plane . . . it wasn't supposed to happen . . . I had . . . time . . . they said . . . I had time." His breathing became more labored. "Get out . . . Admiral . . . they'll . . . come." He gasped and let go of the Admiral's shirt, leaving a crimson smear. His last breath was a sigh.

Both men were silent for a moment, shocked by what they had heard. Nelson looked up at the Captain kneeling above them. "We can't wait for anyone to rescue us, Lee. We can be pretty sure that whoever comes first won't be here to rescue us! Get the briefcase with the reports, we can't leave those behind, and check for anything we could use."

Lee quickly got to his feet, "You think they're after the briefcase, of course. If they brought the plane down, they won't be far behind."

"You're entirely right, and I'm afraid that I am going to be more of a liability than help. My leg is already beginning to swell; no, we don't have time to look at it now. We need to get as far away from here as we can, as quickly as possible!"

Lee pulled him up and steadied him as Nelson balanced himself on one foot.

"It will be fully dark soon. Getting down this mountain in the dark should be interesting. How are you at maneuvering through a blackout, dragging a full grown liability behind you, Lee?" His lips twisted in pain as he attempted to set some of his weight on the injured leg.

There was enough light to see Lee smile slightly in an attempt at humor. "Admiral, I maneuver Seaview through the darkness every time we take her out. We'll get through this!" As he returned with a bundle under his arm they could hear the sound of a distant engine. "Come on, sir, we need to move!" He put his arm around Nelson's waist, fear giving him an extra strength that almost carried him. They headed off toward the thicker trees in a frantic three-legged race to safety.

Under the overhanging branches, it was almost completely black. The Admiral's heart jumped, as there was the sound of an explosion behind them. Crane grunted in satisfaction. "A little distraction -- I started the wreckage on fire. It should take them a few minutes to check on that."

"Good thinking, Lee," the Admiral panted.

It seemed to the Captain that they were making an incredible amount of noise; branches slapped them in the face and underbrush caught at their clothes like claws in the night. Then the ground seemed to disappear before them and they were falling, a confusion of arms and legs. The shale was a natural slide, sending them past trees and bushes. Lee didn't even know when he lost the briefcase, but he felt the Admiral pulled away from his arm with the force of the fall. They ended at the bottom of the sharp incline in a shower of broken stones.

For a moment neither moved, then rock shifted as the Captain began to move about frantically looking for his friend. His fingers sifted through the broken pieces of shale -- cutting them in his haste. "Admiral, are you all right? Admiral!"

"Here, Lee, I'm here."

Crane could hear the sounds of the Admiral moving about in the fall of rocks. As he found him in the darkness, Nelson was just sitting up and trying to ease his leg into a less painful position.

"Are you all right, Admiral?" Concern shook Lee's voice as he steadied the Admiral with an arm around the shoulder.

"Except for the leg, I'm probably as well as you are, Lee. Did we lose the briefcase?"

The darkness was like a blanket before the Captain's eyes as he tried to spot the case. "I haven't even got clue where to look, sir. I lost it at the top; the contents are probably spread all the way down this hill. It'll take me a while to look. Will you be all right here?"

"Of course I will, Lee. Just hurry!" The Admiral leaned back, wincing as he tried to ignore the sharp pieces of rock under his back. It seemed like hours before the sounds of cascading stones announced Crane's return. "Did you find it?"

"Yes, but only a couple of the other things I brought from the plane. The rest will be as good as an arrow pointing our way when daylight comes. We'll need to hurry. I did find one thing, or rather it found me, and I tripped over it. It's a long stick -- it should help two blind men to find their way in the dark." He slid his arm around the Admiral's waist, pulling him to his feet, and steadied him as he swayed for a moment. "Think you can make it, Admiral?"

Nelson grunted in pained amusement. "I don't think I have much of a choice. Unless we can find a place to for me to hide while you go get help. It would be much easier for you to do this by yourself. Actually that sounds like a good plan at this point!"

"Forget it, Admiral, there is absolutely no way I will leave you here or anywhere else on this mountain. Let's move!"

"I could make it an order, Lee."

The Captain turned to look at the other man, feeling his presence beside him. "We wouldn't want a mutiny right here, would we? As long as I move, you move. Besides, the only safe way I could leave you behind is to kill you; you know as much about what's in that briefcase as any man alive. So short of bashing you over the head, I take you with me!" He pulled them both forwards, probing in front of them with the stick.

The Admiral snorted in amusement, "At least I won't have to think about discipline later; it's going to be punishment enough to pull a man-sized growth attached to your side down this hill."

For what seemed like hours they labored to push ahead, but the pauses were frequent. It was during the last one of these that the Captain noticed a sound in the distance. "Admiral, do you hear that? It sounds like water."

"Water," he spoke through gritted teeth, "A drink would be good, but I don't think I'm up to fording a river."

"Maybe not fording it, Admiral, but maybe following it. Most people build along water. If we could find a house somewhere we could get help." Crane knew that was the first priority; he knew the Admiral wouldn't be able to do this much longer. He could feel fatigue pulling at him as well; goodness knew how the older man was continuing to push on -- pure Irish grit, he assumed. They moved forward, their progress inhibited by a stand of thick young trees. The noise was louder now. It was beginning to sound like a fairly large flow of water. If only it had a shoreline to follow instead of a steep drop. The safest way would be to leave his companion and explore their options, but Crane was afraid he wouldn't be able to find him again. He probed carefully with the stick, tapping his way through the inky blackness. The Admiral staggered beside him. "Admiral." He eased him down onto the damp grassy soil. "Admiral, we've made it to a river. Rest a few minutes, then we'll see where this flows."

"Lee," the Admiral's voice was a whisper in the night. "Lee, do you have a knife?"

"Yes, I do." He dug into his pocket. "What can I do?"

"If you could cut my pant leg, I think it would help."

The Captain slid his hand down Nelson's leg, wincing at the feel of the flesh tight against the fabric around the knee. "This isn't going to be easy, Admiral -- in fact this is going to be extremely painful."

"Just do it, Lee." The Admiral gasped in pain as the knife slid past his injured knee, but the Captain could feel some of the tension ease from the leg. "Thank you . . . thank you. You know, of course that we can't keep this up much longer."

"With luck we won't have to. We've come a long way, Admiral, and in California, where there's water, there are people."

"You know that those who are following us will be thinking the same thing."

"Well then, we'll have to be careful, won't we," Crane said firmly. "Very careful! Come on, Admiral. If we stay here too long neither one of us will be moving." He shifted his arm around and lifted the Admiral to his feet. The footing was much easier here along the river. Erosion had smoothed a way for them, creating a natural path. The Captain glanced up, some part of his mind enjoying the stars filling the velvet expanse above them. It was a moonless night, but the stars provided some light here in the open, giving at least a contrast between dark and darker. Lee could hear some coyotes singing in the distance. He wasn't worried, since he knew they were shy animals that wouldn't attack humans. But it was a lonesome call and, along with the Admiral's labored breathing, gave no comfort.

For more than an hour they traveled along the river. Increasingly he was taking the Admiral's weight. He knew his friend had been right; it wouldn't be long before they would have to quit. Maybe they could find a place to hide. The briefcase banged with irritating rapidity against his leg where he had tied it and the Admiral felt like a thousand pounds. One step; then the next. He kept thinking: one more step . . . one more step. His mind took up a rhythm: one more step. He was so busy thinking on this that he almost missed the light gleaming dimly in the distance. When he spotted it he nearly dropped the Admiral.

"Admiral, look!"

"What . . . what?" Nelson's voice was a thin thread. "I don't . . ."

"It's all right, don't worry, it's all right," Lee whispered back, as comforting as possible. Incredibly, the last half-hour seemed as long as the whole journey. As they approached the glow around the cabin ahead, Lee eased the Admiral down against a neatly stacked rack of firewood. "Wait here, I'll check it out." He sat the briefcase down behind the wood and quietly moved around the side of the cabin. After the darkness they had come through, the area seemed ablaze with light. Lee hugged the side of the house as he moved toward a side window.

The cabin contained two men and one woman. Two looked as if they belonged here and one didn't. With a sinking feeling Lee knew who he was. The Admiral had been right -- they had thought of this as well. He held his breath, easing back away from the window, but the air was expelled with force as he felt the cold tip of a barrel against his neck.

"Would you like to come in, Captain?"

"If I have a choice, I'd rather not!" He raised his hands slowly.

"I'm afraid you don't. We've been waiting for you, but where is the Admiral?" The man looked as dangerous as his weapon -- dark and menacing.

Crane was rapidly weighing his options. "I had to leave him on the mountain -- he was too badly injured in the crash. He's old enough, and in his condition I doubt that he's alive -- it was either leave him or we both die."

"That would be unfortunate for you, Captain. That would make you extremely expendable. It would also make me very angry, I might not even make it easy when I kill you. I need some compensation for my time." The man motioned with his gun for Lee to move toward the front of the house.

Lee moved slowly, thinking of every plan he could come up with. There was a heavy thud behind him and his adversary dropped to his knees and then onto his face at Lee's feet. The Captain scooped up the gun and looked behind the man on the ground.

The Admiral leaned against the stick in one hand and dropped the four-inch-thick piece of firewood from the other, "Old, huh?"

Lee laughed softly. "I was trying to put him at his ease. There's one more inside."

"I believe you can handle this, Lee -- something about the element of surprise." The Admiral leaned against the house, fatigue weakening his limbs. "I'll try to get his attention at the back window."

Lee moved quickly around the cabin. His main concern right now was the safety of the two people inside. He also knew that the Admiral was dangerously exhausted. Time was his enemy now. It wouldn't be long before the man in the cabin would begin to wonder about his companion.

He ducked beneath a front window and quietly stood beside the door. There were voices inside. A woman's voice said in husky whisper, "Why don't you let us go? We'll just be in the way. We can go now, we won't cause any problems."

Another voice this time, mocking her fear. "Lady, don't remind me that you're in the way. My friend outside is a specialist at taking care of people that are in the way. You and your hubby, Tommy boy, just do as you're told and things will go fine. All we're waiting for is a delivery."

Her husband asked haltingly, "And after . . . that?"

The sound of a harsh laugh reached the Captain. "I'd hate to cut the party short, but we'd just have to leave everything for someone else to clean up."

There was a gasp and a sob from the woman as she said, "You're going to kill us aren't you! How could you do such a thing!"

"Lady, as the saying goes, 'you're in the wrong place at the wrong time.' You just happen to be the first place along the river. It's nothing personal. We're here to make a collection. If you do everything you're told, who knows; maybe we'll let you live."

Lee listened carefully. He hoped the Admiral hadn't collapsed behind the house. A moment later there was the sound of breaking glass and something hit inside the cabin. The Admiral was still with him.

Lee threw open the door and hit the floor in a roll. The gun in his hand was steady and set at a point between the other's eyes. In one of the man's hands was a drawn pistol and in the other, a four-inch-thick piece of wood. There was no doubt at all who would win in this confrontation. Both the wood and the gun fell at the enemy's feet.

****

"How are you feeling, Admiral?" Lee Crane asked as he stepped to the side of hospital bed, trying not to touch anything in the room that made any medical beeps or buzzes.

The Admiral shifted aside books and papers spread out over the bed and smiled a welcome. "Fine, Lee. You look a little better yourself than the last time I saw you."

"Sleep, Admiral, the therapy of the exhausted. How is the knee?"

"They tell me it's repairable -- far be it from me to argue with medical science." He motioned to the paperwork around him. "I thought I would try to catch up with a few proposals while I'm a captive in here. Lee, did you get a chance to talk to the couple in the cabin? I've been worried about them."

Lee pulled over a chair and made himself comfortable. "Yes, I did. They were pretty shook up, but I think I managed to calm them down. They said they don't get a lot of company out there in the wilderness." Lee laughed. "I think they were glad when the last of us left. As soon as they opened the door to those two they knew they were in trouble. It seems that they recognized the type, but they hadn't seen too many like them since they'd moved from New York City to get away from the high crime rate!"

The Admiral grinned in appreciation. "There goes the neighborhood! It's a shame we couldn't tell them just how important those documents were we were carrying, Lee. It might have made them feel at least a little better."

"Well, umm, that's something I really debated about telling you, Admiral." He fidgeted in his chair, looking with apparent interest at his nails.

The Admiral eyed him suspiciously, knowing his Captain well. "Yes Lee?"

"You remember when we fell on that incline? The one with the all that wonderful sharp shale?"

"Yes?"

"It popped open that briefcase like a professional locksmith. At least half of those documents were missing when we could get them someplace safe to examine."

"What!" The Admiral let out a roar that had at least one nurse checking around the corner to see if all was well. It wasn't, of course. "Lee, you can't mean that!"

"I'm afraid so. We've got several agents out retracing our route. At least the papers we lost were useless by themselves. Of course, so are the ones we have left. How is your memory, Admiral -- can you remember everything you read in that report?"

The Admiral laid his head back against the pillow, "I think I'm having a relapse." He sighed heavily. "I think I'll be able to put together the information. By the way, I don't think I've had the chance to thank you for hauling me down that mountain, Lee. A lot of men would have left me there."

The Captain smiled, his dark eyes warm as he looked at his friend. "Not a chance Admiral. I can just imagine facing the crew if I didn't bring you back. If I can't navigate down a simple mountain, how would they ever trust me to set a course for Seaview again?

"Well as soon as I can get out of here, you can set any course you want, Lee. Maybe this time we'll wait for a commercial flight. It will be a while before I'll accept a lift from anyone. In the mean time hand me that notebook, I have some memory work to do!"

 

The End


Copyright 1998 by K.T. Weltch


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