Disclaimer: This story is written for the private entertainment of fans. The author makes no claims to the series' characters by the creation of this story. Constable
Benton Fraser and Victoria Metcalfe belong to Alliance, Paul Haggis, and the geniuses who created due South No infringement of any copyrights is intended. I'm just having fun. NoThe Windhover by --Gerard Manley Hopkins (1845-1889)
Note to the Readers: (A special 'Thank you kindly' to Vicki, my wonderful Beta reader!) This is MY VERSION of what happened between Benton Fraser and Victoria Metcalfe when they first met as told from Ben's view point. MAJOR SPOILERS FOR VICTORIA'S SECRET!!! There is some heavy angst here guys, and it is a love story even if we all know the ending. Be sure to have a couple boxes of tissue on hand. You've been warned! Any and all comments are eagerly solicited!
By: Janice R. Sager
"Northeast you said?"
Ben frowned, shrugging back into his heavy parka as he prepared to investigate
old man Murphy's claim of a plane crash. He knew it was likely a waste of
time, that the old trapper was just hungry for company and gossip. That's why
the Chief had sent Ben after all, because he had more patience with the elderly
man than the others -- and because Ben was the most subordinate of his
officers, having only three and a half years on the force. Still, Fraser's
sense of duty wouldn't let him leave without at least taking a look.
"Yes Sir," the older
man said crisply and waved a thin arm in the general direction. "Skimmed
low over them trees to the south and disappeared over that slight rise about
two kilometers out. Couldn't ha' gone much further than that. Didn't hear no
explosion but I know I heard it crash. Sound carries out here, you know. Glad
they sent you and not that uppity Fenwink boy. No respect that one. I'm
telling the truth this time. I swear it. I'm not completely daffy yet."
"Yes Sir," Ben agreed
with a reassuring smile. He was very tempted to believe the older man, despite
his long history with the Post. The last time Murphy had called in, regarding a
possible poacher, Ben had been able to get him to admit the truth. This time
however, despite two hours of friendly banter, Mr. Murphy insisted
he'd seen a crash. "I'll check it out."
"Give my regards to your
father," the old trapper called after him. "Tell him I said he has a
son to be proud of!"
Ben felt himself blush
furiously and kept his face averted as he lifted a hand in acknowledgment.
There was no way he could pass on that particular message! Besides, his father
had never known Mr. Murphy despite the poor old man's insistence otherwise.
Ben had asked.
Now, he turned his attention to
his footing as he made his way through the half meter of snow that covered the
rocky ground. He should probably put on his snow shoes but if Mr. Murphy had
heard the crash it couldn't be too far away, despite the way sound carried out
in the wilderness. This wasn't the vast openness of the tundra. The rise and
fall of the land southwest of the Rockies would break sound up.
there had been a crash, he should spot it fairly easily from the next rise.
He reached the top and
carefully scanned the broken terrain as his breath plumbed in the air before
him. There was yet another cold front coming in and the temperature was
dropping. He turned his head and adjusted his breathing--
His brows winged upward as he
spotted the glint of sunlight off something reflective. He squinted, trying to
make the broken shape out. It might be nothing more than rocks, but it could
also be the wreckage of a plane half buried in a snow bank. About three
kilometers away. He smiled as he thought of the old-fashioned spyglass his
father carried around and knew sooner or later he was going to have to break
down and buy one of his own. It was certainly more practical then the
regulation issue binoculars he'd left in the jeep.
Frowning pensively now, he
hurried back to get his supplies. If it were a crash, and had happened late
yesterday evening as Mr. Murphy claimed, there was still a chance of survivors.
Ben grabbed up his snow shoes and quickly lashed them in place, then his
rescue pack and walkie talkie. He considered calling it in but decided to wait until he knew exactly what it
was he'd actually found. He didn't need any more ribbing similar to what he'd
endured the last time he listened to Mr. Murphy and spent all day hunting a
non-existent rogue bear. He really should have known better. He simply hadn't
thought to ask to see the carcass of the dog Mr. Murphy claimed the animal had
Ben steeled himself for the
worst and gave the twisted door of the light plane a firm yank. It took a
second such pull to break the grip of ice that had coated the broken metal. He
switched on the incandescent torch he carried and quickly swung it around the
The front windshield had
shattered into the delicate spider web tracery indicative of tempered glass and
bowed inward where it had torn free of the frame. A light dusting of snow had
made its way inside to cover the front seats. There were no back seats,
'though the bi-prop Cessna had once been a six seater. They'd been stripped
out to make room for cargo. A commercial supply plane then, but the area was
empty. Completely empty. That was unusual, he thought, and swung the light
beam all the way to the tail. Even on a return trip a commercial supply plane
shouldn't be empty. They always carried equipment and samples for various
scientists, and mail and supplies for the various small settlements along their
More importantly, where was the
pilot? He should have known better than to leave the crash site, especially
given the weather forecast for the next several days.
Ben frowned in confusion. It
wasn't that bad a crash. The outside of the plane was a mess but the interior
was basically untouched. He climbed inside and scanned the instrument panel.
Only one of the indicators was cracked. He reached out and switched on the
radio. He wasn't surprised to be answered by static but it was the static of
the approaching storm, not the white noise of a failed radio. It was still
working. Another glance to the left of the panel told him that the Emergency
Transponder had not been activated.
Someone didn't want to be found.
He glanced back along the empty
tail section. If they were drug runners, they'd have needed a truck or snow
mobiles to remove the cargo -- unless they'd already made the delivery. Ben
opened the compartment on the floor between the seats, a little surprised to
find the log book still with the craft. He quickly scanned the entries.
The plane was American, out of
Anchorage, Alaska. The pilot was one Walter Meadows. His notes were all
consistent with a typical supply plane, and a rather busy one at that. Ben
knew the entries could be forged but the crash was way off his normal route.
The deviation was too obvious. If such side trips were normal for him, there
should be a visible pattern of inconsistency in his fuel usage but Ben saw
nothing unusual in the man's notes.
Ben's brows came sharply
together as he turned the page and read the last entry. It seemed the plane
had been taken to a repair shop for refitting last week. That explained why it
was empty. But there was no entry concerning its return and check out by Mr.
Meadows. No entry concerning this flight.
Had the plane been stolen?
There was something else here,
teasing the back of his mind-- He glanced at the co-pilot's chair. The seat
belt dangled freely. It wasn't something a good pilot would leave to swing
about the interior of his plane, which meant it had been used. Ben leaned
forward, sniffing the seat.
That's what had been bothering
him. A subtle scent that shouldn't be there. The pilot had a passenger this
trip and it had been a woman. Ben spotted a long dark strand of hair against
the pale leather and picked it up. Very long and permed. She had to be from a
major city, probably Anchorage. No one bothered with permanents in the
wilderness. It was doubtful she was familiar with survival techniques. The
man's experience was an unknown factor. Walter Meadows would know how to get
around but Ben wasn't sure he had been the pilot.
And there was the fact that
they had left the crash site. It would have been smarter to remain with the
plane and try to lie their way out of trouble.
Ben hopped back out of the
plane and studied the tracks he'd noted earlier. They went back along the
fuselage and disappeared into the debris field of their landing. The attempt
at disguise was obvious and futile.
The man was about two meters in
height, maybe ninety kilograms. Ben frowned as he compacted the snow beside
the print, testing it to confirm his judgement. Ninety was light. Ben would
have expected another twenty kilograms, especially if he were carrying a
survival pack. He realized it was quite possible the emergency kit from the
plane had been removed prior to refitting, in which case his quarry was in some
very serious danger indeed, if they were even still alive.
He glanced at the woman's
print. About one point eight meters, he thought, judging from her stride, and
seventy kilograms. Again light. No pack. At least she was wearing snow
boots, but neither of them had snow shoes. That would slow them down.
There was a light dusting of
snow over the tracks, dating them to sometime after the big storm yesterday
evening, which had probably caused the crash, and six o'clock this morning when
a light powder had fallen.
He frowned back toward the rise
and watched the smoke from Mr. Murphy's fireplace snake slowly upward. Why
hadn't they gone there? They must have seen it. If they were really
desperate, they could have stolen the old man's jeep. --No, he remembered now.
The clouds had been quite low yesterday following the storm. It was quite
possible they hadn't seen the telltale smoke from over the rise and four
Ben turned his gaze to the sky.
There was another major storm moving in. He turned back to Mr. Murphy's cabin
and the jeep. He needed to call this in and get his survival gear before he
could set out after them. They had at least a several hour lead and he'd have
to push hard to close that gap. If he wasn't within one hour of them when the
storm broke, his chances of following their trail would become practically
Yet again, Fraser frowned up at
the sky and concentrated on hearing Sergeant MacFerson through the haze of static on the
--got an alert abou
one. The plane is regis--
--suspected to be the wheelman in a major rob--
in Anchorage. They shot a guard and got a--
--han half a million, American. Guard is expected to recover.
-- two part--
--plit up after the job. One of them's dead. The other fled sou--
--ill at large.
No ID on any of them. The FBI traced the wheel--
--airport and the plane you're calling in about. No flight plan--
--end someone out to secure the plane. You're ordered
--ursue and capture. And be careful. They're list--
--armed and dangerous. Don't take chances."
"Pursue and capture,"
Ben repeated, speaking clearly into the pick-up. "Understood. Fraser
"RCMP 149, ou--
Ben was happy to click the
noise off and with a decisive nod to himself, he jumped out of the vehicle,
quickly moving to the tail gate. He'd have to apologize to Mr. Murphy later
for not explaining the situation, but Ben was feeling the weight of each minute
as he wrestled into his heavy coat and survival pack. Arctic gloves and
goggles next. They were tucked away in his belt. He tucked the walkie talkie
into a pocket and zipped it shut. It would be useless until the weather
cleared and that wasn't expected to be anytime soon. Then his rifle. He hoped
he wouldn't need it. He left his Stetson on the back seat and lifted the hood
of his inner coat into place, zipping the neck closed. He left the arctic hood
down. He didn't need it, yet.
He considered what he'd just
learned as he shrugged, settling the backpack more comfortably and securing the
waist cinch. Armed robbery. How much planning had gone into the job? Was the
plane part of the getaway plan or a desperate gamble when everything went
wrong? Was the woman part of it or a hostage?
He turned his frown to the
mountains where the tracks lead. The man might be very good at robbing banks
and stealing planes, but he was an obvious fool when it came to the Yukon.
Only an idiot would attempt the Pass on foot this time of year. The two of
them were headed for more trouble; and if he didn't find them soon, they
wouldn't have any troubles to worry about ever again.
He knelt in the snow, reading the track again. He'd made up about four hours on them.
Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP, frowned at the sky and hitched his pack to a more comfortable ride as he stood and resumed his steady, ground-eating stride. They were still a good four hours ahead of him but they didn't have snow shoes and that slowed them down considerably. The storm wasn't going to hold off much longer he knew. He had to get closer before it broke or he'd lose their trail altogether.
Two survivors of an airplane crash: A man and a woman. One was a suspected wheel man in a major armed robbery in Alaska, the other either an accomplice or hostage. He hadn't figured which yet and the approaching storm precluded calling in to either report his position or ask for further information.
They were traveling in a straight line, probably following a compass and map. If they knew the Yukon, they would have angled off along the base of the mountains and doubled back to Peeler. They didn't and, though Peeler wasn't that small, he knew it didn't appear on most maps. They had to be heading for Fortitude Pass, which spoke of their ignorance of the area. They were also a few degrees off course. If they continued on in a straight line, they were going to wind up in a box canyon. They'd have to double back on themselves and lose time. That gave him a decided advantage. He'd be that much closer. If the storm would hold off for another three or four hours, he might actually catch them before it broke.
He frowned at the track again. If the woman was a hostage, he'd expect her to be in front. She wasn't. The man was in front, the woman behind, single file. Of course, given his deductions concerning her at the plane, she quite probably felt dependant on the man for her survival out here. Ben had seen no evidence of her making a break for it.
Two hours later, Ben was pushing hard and it was beginning to snow, big heavy flakes. The wind was starting to pick up as well. That would destroy the track he followed faster than the falling snow. Still, he didn't think he'd lose them now. He'd managed to close the gap to about two hours and his suspicion that they were headed into the box canyon was almost a certainty now.
He was tempted to continue pushing it but he was starting to get dangerously tired and night was closing in. He wouldn't help anyone if he broke his leg or stumbled into an old bear trap. Nor was he foolish enough to continue by use of a flash light. The incandescent beam could be seen for a considerable distance at night and at least one of his quarry was armed and dangerous. Advertizing his pursuit at this point would be inviting disaster.
No, tempted though Ben was to close the distance by at least another hour, he resisted. Don't take chances, Mark had said, and continuing would be just that. It was time to pitch camp and settle down for the night. The two he pursued would have to camp as well. He could only hope they knew enough to survive the night. The box canyon was deep. They couldn't have gone in and doubled back yet, so even if they managed to sneak by him when the storm passed, he should have no trouble picking up their trail again. The weather forecast before he left the post this morning was for a series of such heavy snows for the next several days, with a possible big blow on Friday.
With a sigh, Ben moved over to the tree line and shrugged out of his back pack. Within half an hour full dark had claimed his camp site and he could barely see his hand in front of his face. The lean-to was built and properly staked, his arctic sleeping bag unrolled and back pack set to secure the tarp across the entrance. In another half an hour, when he was sure the lean-to had a thick cover of snow to block any possibility of light escaping toward the box canyon, he'd dig out the canned heat and fix dinner.
For now, he huddled in the dark, listening to the wind and remembering happier times when he was young and his father would come home for the rare visit, bringing tales of fantastic adventures and dangerous chases. Strange how Ben had always romanticized those exploits, never listening to the occasional comments about how very dangerous, boring and frustrating aspects of such chases could be. His father had warned him when he applied to the academy, speaking bluntly in private about the risks he couldn't and wouldn't discuss before Ben's grandma. The older man had tried to tell him exactly what he was getting himself into. Ben had listened and reassured his father with a smile.
His grandmother had wanted him to attend university in Toronto, study Literature or Philosophy, but even she knew it wasn't the right choice for him. He'd suffocate in the city. Out here things were simple. Well, perhaps not simple but easily understood. The truth was the truth and a lie could kill. Black and white. Life and death. Good and evil.
This was what he wanted to do, living as one with the wilderness and answering the call of justice. His family had been a part of the RCMP before it was called the RCMP, back when it was the North West Mounted Police. His great, great, grandfather had been among the first. It was in his blood. Ben couldn't imagine doing anything else.
The early morning shadows were still quite long as he made his way deeper into the canyon.
Benton had done a quick check of the mouth for exit tracks, stashed his pack and unslung his rifle before he followed them in, staying as close to the east cliff face (and what little cover it provided) as possible. They were cornered and this was the most dangerous part of the job. He fully expected to confront at least a pistol, maybe a hunting rifle. Given the nature of the crime, an automatic weapon was equally possible. They were Americans after all.
He hadn't gotten far before he spotted their camp in the distance. He squatted down behind a boulder and brought his binoculars up. They'd built, or tried to build, a large lean-to against the cliff face. It was pretty much in ruins now but looked like it had lasted the night. He could see foot prints scattered about the area. There would be none if they'd been buried inside it. He thought he saw the remnants of a camp fire as well but there was no evidence of smoke. Nor did he see any movement in the immediate area. He put the binoculars down and dared make his way closer, holding his rifle at the ready. Ten minutes later he stood in the middle of the camp, scanning the scattered tracks with a pensive frown.
Something had happened -- what he couldn't figure out. There were several tracks from the woman, walking about the aborted attempt at a campfire. The tinder had been wet. There was no way anyone could start a fire in any case with the way it had been laid, though he found a couple of pieces of burnt paper and wasted matches where she had obviously tried. He tucked the paper into a pocket to be turned over as potential evidence. It was amazing what forensics could do now a days.
Besides, littering was illegal.
He frowned down at the snow again. The thing that puzzled him was that there was only one set of tracks for the man. They lead directly away from the lean-to and had a dusting of snow obscuring them. That meant the man had left his partner / hostage before the storm had fully let up this morning. Her tracks on the other hand, were sharp and clear, scattered all about the site. He found one or two places where she'd obviously paced back and forth. Then she'd followed the man's tracks, deeper into the canyon. Ben would hazard about two hours after the man had left, or about an hour before Ben had arrived. The man at least should have discovered the true nature of the canyon by now and turned back -- unless he was trying to hunt.
Ben hoped for all their sakes he wasn't that foolish. The storm last night had dropped a good two feet of new snow, this on top a thin layer of powder. He glanced at the heights. The east side wasn't bad, but the west wall had a serious over hang that looked ready to collapse any minute. A single gun shot could well trigger a massive avalanche.
Ben picked up his binoculars again and scanned the surrounding area, knowing full well that his quarry could have already spotted him and ducked into hiding. Still it was harder to hide in the snow filled back country than most people knew. Especially here. The box canyon was in fact nothing more than an ancient crack in the surrounding granite cliff. Very little grew here. Everything was black and white. The slightest hint of color would stand out like an emergency flare.
Ben saw nothing.
The canyon was narrow enough at this point that he should be able to spot tracks on the other side with his binoculars but again he saw nothing to indicate anyone had come back out.
He returned to the tracks and followed them deeper into the canyon, carefully scanning ahead and pausing to listen every few minutes. He didn't relish the thought of being picked off as he made his way toward them. He stayed to the east side, and the cover of rocks when he could. The clouds were moving in again and the hard shadows of the early afternoon slowly faded.
Then he noticed the mist beginning to pour like thick white froth over the edge of the canyon wall ahead. He couldn't decide whether to be thankful or angry. He knew that the narrow canyon would soon be choked with fog, hiding him from his quarry as he moved in closer. But he also knew that they would have a much better chance of sneaking past him on the other side of the gorge. His only advantage was that they didn't know he was pursuing them. Once they turned around, if they stumbled on his tracks at the mouth of the canyon -- Well, that would be another story.
Again what part the woman played in all this nagged at him. If the man were hunting, she should have known to give him more than two hours before dogging his trail. If she were a hostage, she should have been terrified of his reaction if she followed him. Of course it was also possible he had abandoned her. Not knowing what else to do, it only made sense that the woman would follow his trail.
Confusing matters further, however, was the fact that, shortly after leaving the campsite, the man had broken into a run, almost as though he were trying to escape! It didn't make any sense.
Then he heard the voices, the sound echoed against the canyon walls. He could only make out bits and pieces of what the two were saying.
"Its its its a box oxcan can id id iot ot ot ot. . ."
It was the woman who spoke first and she sounded angry. Her following words were lost in the echoes from the other side of the canyon but Ben made out the man's reply
"Eye eye eye ey don't on't on't ant want ant our yoour or oney mon mon money ey ey ey . . ." Ben's brows rose in surprise. Had he said, 'I don't want your money?'
The woman was the bank robber?! Ben realized he'd made a serious mistake in assuming the man was the criminal. The story of their camp site suddenly made more sense.
"Eye eye eye eyll die die eye with ith ith ow ow out t ta you you oo oo oo!" she shouted. Whether the man was a willing partner or not, it was clear he meant to abandon her to the wilderness.
Then Ben heard it, the sound he'd been dreading since their shouting started shaking the over hanging snow ledges. A low rumble that slowly turned into a dull roar. He glanced quickly around, fearing for his own life as he heard the woman's terrified scream. The sharply angled slope above him held steady. The wind had been from the west last night.
He didn't see where the avalanche actually happened. The fog had become too thick by then, but he felt a gust of frigid wind on his face as the roar suddenly died, followed by only the occasional sound of rock skipping on rock as the lightest fragments of the run out settled back in place.
Carefully, Ben made his way further into the canyon. He was still a good kilometer from the back wall.
A Price to be Paid
Ben frowned as he considered the harsh expanse of run out from the avalanche his quarries' argument had triggered. The heavy winter fog had lifted somewhat and he could see all three walls. Nothing moved. It had taken him ten minutes to get back here and the avalanche was considerably worse than he had imagined. The entire ledge overhanging the back wall had collapsed. The couple he had tracked was buried somewhere under more than five square kilometers of snow. It would be summer before anyone could even hope to find their bodies.
"Halloo!" he called out sharply, hoping against hope to get a response. A few more chunks of ice and snow rained down in answer but nothing more.
He sighed sadly.
He'd grown up in the frozen tundra of the Northwest Territories, had joined the RCMP three and a half years ago and had seen the price of stupidity many times. This was only one more.
Ben's head snapped up and he hurried forward, trying to follow the sound. "Keep talking!" he called back. "I'll follow your voice!"
He was answered with a groan. Two minutes later he finally spotted the man's broken body near the base of the cliff, half sheltered, half crushed by a massive boulder. Ben quickly stripped off his gloves and felt for a pulse. The man opened pain filled brown eyes at his touch and fought to focus.
"No," Ben answered, frowning as he assessed the man's situation. "Constable Benton Fraser. Royal Canadian Mounted Police."
"A Mountie?" the injured man repeated and laughed. There were specks of blood in his spittle. "Victoria?" he managed to gasp again.
Ben glanced up and around the frozen expanse of the run out. The fog was closing in again but he saw no movement anywhere.
"I don't know," he answered. "It's possible she got away."
Possible but unlikely, he admitted to himself. Ben knew he was watching the man die and that there was nothing he could do except try to ease his fears. The boulder on top of him was the size of a semi-trailer and had to weigh several tons.
"She's a bitch," the other man declared bluntly. "Promised me ten thousand dollars if I stole the plane for her and got her to Canada. Not my fault the weather forced us down. Said she wouldn't pay. Didn't have no money with her anyway. Said she robbed a bank but her bag was empty. Real winner, huh?" He coughed and swallowed blood. "What a sucker."
"She did rob a bank," Ben confirmed for him. "They got away with more than half a million. She was the wheel man so she wouldn't have the money. Her partners probably had it."
"No kidding?" the man gazed up at him in mild surprise. "To think I was going to abandon her out here. Who said crime don't pay, huh?" He laughed again and then suddenly gasped. He choked and looked panicky for a moment before his eyes suddenly rolled back in his head and he went limp. His last breath bubbled through his lips amid a froth of bright red blood and then he was gone.
Ben closed his own eyes and dropped his head with a defeated sigh. Such a senseless death. Crime might pay, he admitted, but the price demanded in return was far too high. He opened his eyes and gazed down on the pale face of 'Victoria's' partner. He didn't feel any real sympathy for the man. (He realized he'd forgotten to ask his name.) Abandoning someone in the wilderness was the same as murder in Ben's book. Which of the two was the worse criminal?
Ben stood and put his arctic gloves back on, gazing up at the sky to judge the time. About four o'clock, though it was hard to be sure through the heavy cloud cover. He then worked quickly, gathering stones for the dead man's carne. Ben couldn't leave him unburied. Someone would be sent next summer to try and recover the bodies, 'though he doubted that would be possible where the man was concerned. Criminals or not, their families deserved the closure a proper identification and service would allow.
Finishing, he retrieved his rifle and offered a silent prayer before turning to make his way back to Mr. Murphy's and the RCMP post. There was going to be a bit of paper work with this one, especially given that he only had the name 'Victoria' to go on.
He felt strangely -- disillusioned and knew the taste of failure. It was the first time he'd lost someone he was tracking. He knew the feeling was illogical. Everyone lost a fugitive, literally and figuratively, at some point. Despite what American's thought, the RCMP motto was not that Mounties always get their man. He had to wonder if his father would have handled the situation any better?
He smiled wryly and shoved the thought from mind. He had a lot to learn before he would be half the man his father was. It was rather hard sometimes being a legend's son. This case wasn't going to make it any easier. Why only last month they'd heard a report about how Constable Robert Fraser had rescued a polar research scientist who'd been taken hostage by a gang of baby seal hunters when they stumbled on his isolated camp. The details were missing but Ben knew there were five men involved and that his father had saved one of them from a bear attack before he arrested the gang and took all of them back to Alert. Ben would have to ask his father about it when next they spoke on the phone, or his fellow officers at the Post would have his hide! It was a bit much to live up to.
He paused at the mouth of the box canyon to scan the area, drinking in the peace and beauty that was a requirement of his soul. Officers like Constable Fenwink couldn't understand. All they saw was the stark barren expanses, the harsh life threatening conditions and the days of isolation. They were good officers and did their jobs but they belonged in the city, not in the middle of the tundra.
Something caught his eye.
It was red. Bright red. He frowned pensively, thinking it was probably something the two fugitives had dropped on their way in but he shouldn't have missed it this morning He made his way over to it and discovered something much more important: Tracks.
It was the woman he'd been tracking. She'd escaped the avalanche and hugged the west wall of the canyon. She would have escaped him as well if something she wore hadn't snagged on a tree limb. Artificial dye, fifty percent polyester / wool blend. Probably a scarf. She was running.
She must have heard his shout back in the canyon and knew he was after her.
He bent to check the tracks again. About three hours. He'd lost time while burying her partner. A glance at the sky confirmed that another storm would break shortly. He had to get his pack and follow quickly. He still had no idea exactly how much knowledge she had of wilderness survival, or even if she had a map and compass. He'd lost one fugitive today. He wasn't going to lose her as well.
'Victoria', whatever else she might be, was proving to be surprisingly elusive. Ben frowned as he considered the half frozen stream. Her tracks lead in, but didn't come out. She knew he was after her and was doing everything in her power to elude him. Walking in the small stream was an obvious escape measure but also very stupid. It was all of one or two degrees Celsius and snowing steadily. Even allowing for the likelihood that her boots were waterproof, one slip would see the rest of her soaked and she would freeze to death before he could find her.
Ben shook his head and tried to decide which way she would have gone. If he chose wrong, he'd fall further behind and in this weather her trail would be easily lost. He squatted and quickly removed his snow shoes. He lashed them together and slung them over his shoulder, then pulled his knife and cut down an ash sapling, about two centimeters thick, to use as a walking stick. Trimming it quickly, he replaced the knife at his belt and tested the pole.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to proceed slowly. Time was his enemy but wading into the running water wasn't something Ben was willing to rush, even if he did suspect she'd done so at a run. Carefully then, he made his way out to the middle, scanning the bottom for any sign of her passage. It wasn't easy. The water might be crystal clear and only twenty or so centimeters deep, but it was moving swiftly. The rocky bottom held no foot print but-- There. A larger rock had obviously been shoved at an angle into the sand. The water hadn't had time to redistribute the heavy sediment yet. He looked further up stream and found another spot where the base sand had been shifted. He had his direction.
Careful still, he turned and made his way to the opposite bank. If she was headed for the Pass, she'd have to cross to this side eventually. He wasn't going to try to follow her in the water. He'd simply look for where she emerged. Ben figured he was less than an hour behind her or the traces of her passage in the stream would have been harder to find. Still, he'd lost time in discovering her direction. He decided against putting his snow shoes back on as the bank of the stream was quite rocky and he needed to follow it closely.
An hour later, he was beginning to think he'd lost her. There had been no sign of her exit from the stream, which was slowly becoming a river due to the steady fall of snow. It was now a good half-meter deep and more than fast enough to knock a person off their feet. An hour ago, it probably wasn't; but waterproof boots or not, her feet must have become numb from the cold within minutes. It was foolish to risk a fall by sticking with the stream. She had to have left it before this point and he'd missed it.
Silently reprimanding himself, he turned around and started back the way he'd come, wondering if she'd been smart enough to exit on the other side, wait for him to pass and then cross a second time? Given the amount of snow that had fallen and the time he'd lost, it wouldn't be easy picking up her trail again. Not if she'd been careful. His only lead then would be the assumption that she was headed for Fortitude Pass, but knowing that he was after her, she might continue south. Even if Peeler wasn't on whatever map she carried, Whitehorse certainly would be. It was another day or two farther than Faro, but she wouldn't have to cross the mountains to get there; and, of course, there were several outlying villages and cabins in the general area. Ben was beginning to think his deductions at the plane concerning her were vastly inaccurate. 'Victoria' seemed to know quite a bit more about wood lore then he'd given her credit for.
He wouldn't underestimate her again.
Fortunately, the return trip to his original crossing point was much faster than his forray upstream had been. Unfortunately, he still didn't see Victoria's prints. He frowned and headed further down stream. If she'd been smart and not underestimated him-- There they were. This Victoria most definitely wasn't the pampered little city girl he'd taken her for. She'd doubled back on the other side as he'd thought and then gone another hundred meters down stream before crossing: A cleaver trick that had cost him valuable time.
The tracks were mere shadows of what they had been and he figured he'd lost another hour on her. Still, the snow was getting quite deep. Without snow shoes, she didn't have much of a chance of out-running him. He quickly reached up and retrieved his snow shoes, lashing them in place. There was only about an hour of daylight left. They'd both be forced to camp for the night soon. Ben had to close the distance between them again quickly. Come morning, her trail would be completely obliterated and he'd have to cast around to find it again, zig-zagging until he stumbled upon some trace of her. The further away she was, the harder it would be, especially if it were still snowing. Anything more than about an hour would make the search nearly impossible.
She'd learned from her mistakes in the box canyon and managed to build a small camp fire. Ben knelt and put his hand in the spent embers. It was cold but moist. The water from the melting snow on hot embers hadn't had time to freeze. He was again about an hour behind her.
He let out a huff of frustration and shook his head. He'd hunted poachers who knew the north country like the palm of their hand who hadn't been this hard to catch! He'd fully expected to find her holed up in a lean-to. He'd broken camp early, despite the steady snow fall and started his search pattern, keeping it tight so he wouldn't miss her.
And he'd missed her.
She'd broken her own camp, despite the continuing snow, and set out up a rather steep slope. The going was actually easier for her there as the snow wasn't nearly so deep. The trees here were thicker, the ground more uneven. Despite the heavy snow fall, he would be forced to forego his snow shoes and slog along in her wake. It would slow him down.
Three days he'd been on her trail and the closest he'd been was an hour. No, he corrected himself as he quickly stripped off the snow shoes and slung them over his shoulder. He'd been within ten minutes of her at the box canyon, and even closer at the stream, but he'd never known it.
He had to admire her perseverance, but enough was enough! It was now clear she was going to attempt the Pass, and if the weather forecast he'd received at the Post on the morning he'd first set out held true, there was a major blow set to hit late tonight or early tomorrow. Without the proper equipment, she'd never survive.
Ben frowned as he considered the abrupt drop before him. If he hadn't been paying attention, he could well have followed 'Victoria's' path and fallen to his death on the rocks a hundred meters below. Grimly, he stepped closer to the edge, testing his footing carefully before he leaned out and looked over. Victoria's path clearly disappeared over that precipice but he saw no sign of her broken form on the snow and ice covered rocks below. She must have stepped back at the last instant. He edged back and frowned down at the tracks--
The little vixen!
Ben's brows shot up as he considered what his quarry's tracks told him. Not only was Victoria quite elusive but devious as well. She'd meant for him to go over that cliff! Her tracks did not turn around on themselves. She'd walked right to the edge and backed up, carefully using the same prints so he wouldn't know what she'd done.
Apparently, she wasn't above seeing him dead.
Ben followed her tracks back about three meters to where she'd used a half-rotten log and dead underbrush to hide her escape. He had underestimated her again, and this time it had nearly cost him his life. Her tracks lead to a narrow animal track that angled down along the edge of the cliff. It wasn't long and soon turned back to a broad open expanse of snow Ben instantly recognized as Resolution Glacier. The foot of Fortitude Pass lay on the other side.
There she was.
She was about half way up the gentle slope. Maybe four kilometers. Her dark parka was no more than a distant shadow moving slowly across the pristine white surface, but it was still unmistakable. He frowned and lifted his binoculars in place.
She was in considerable danger and didn't even realize it. That untouched expanse of snow was deceptive, especially after the kind of storm they'd been enduring for the last two days. She had no ice ax, no staff to test the snow in front of her. Glaciers, especially this close to the edge, were anything but solid slabs of ice. They were riddled with cracks and crevices that were sometimes a kilometer deep. She was walking across snow and ice bridges that might be less than half a meter thick. He had to stop her before she stepped on one that wouldn't support her weight and she plunged to her death.
"Vic-tor-i-a!" he shouted, enunciating clearly. The cliff faces channeling the frozen river echoed with his cry. He knew his call might very well only spook her, but he had to try. "Stop! Dan-ger! Hid-den cracks! Don't go an-y far-ther!"
He lifted the binoculars in place and watched as she turned back toward him. Her face was half hidden in the thick folds of a red scarf, but he saw anger and panic war for dominance in her eyes. The panic wasn't from what he warned her about. He doubted the words had registered. Only his presence behind her mattered.
It was the look of a deer or elk right before it fled. Blast it all, she was going to run!
He dropped his binoculars and quickly turned back to the forest. It only took him a moment to find a suitable sapling and strip it down. If she were very lucky, she might make it across unscathed, but he knew her chances were slim at best. He quickly cut a second pole and stepped out onto the ice sheet.
His snow shoes gave him a bit of an advantage over her. They would help distribute his weight more evenly. However, he was considerably heavier than she was, especially with his pack. Weight distribution wouldn't make much difference on a thin ice bridge hidden under the snow. Carefully, he anchored the one pole and reached out to firmly probe the snow before him. Then he anchored that pole and stepped forward, bringing the other forward to test the next couple of meters before him. It wasn't perfect, but it was the best he could do. Maybe his actions would speak to Victoria where his words had failed to reach.
He could only hope he reached her before disaster struck.
Ben got about a third of the way out on the ice field when he was forced to leave Victoria's trail. His probe had broken through the seemingly solid surface before him, discovering a hidden snow bridge she'd managed to cross but which he seriously doubted would support his weight. He frowned out across the sea of snow only to see that she was still making a slow, straight line across the glacier. Ben shook his head. The woman was insane -- and more than a little lucky.
He turned to the right, seeking a stronger crossing over the hidden crevice further up the glacier, and plunged his probe firmly into the snow. Suddenly, he found himself falling. Apparently he'd only discovered a thinner section of a snow bridge he was already on. The snow crumbled beneath the probe and only the anchor pole he'd sunk to his left kept Ben from disappearing into the depths that abruptly opened before him. He was left dangling in mid-air by one arm.
His probe disappeared into the blue, grey darkness and his rifle very nearly followed it, slipping off his shoulder. He caught the strap in the crook of his arm and quickly reached up to put both hands on the slender sapling now supporting his full weight. Arctic gloves really weren't designed for this kind of gripping and Ben knew he had to get out of this mess quickly. He managed to find a toe hold with his left boot but it was a temporary help at best. The weight of his pack was dragging him down. He adjusted his grip and then released his right hand, allowing his rifle strap to slide down to his fingers. He then swung it over his head and tossed it into the snow above him. After a great deal of struggling, the pack followed.
That proved to be a mistake.
The weight of the pack hitting the surface of the snow bridge was too much. His anchor pole pulled free and he fell.
For a very long moment, Ben wasn't sure whether he was alive or dead. He'd landed hard, the wind quite definitely knocked out of him and he thought he'd lost consciousness, at least for a few seconds -- or was that the transition from life to death?
The sound of chunks of snow falling about and on him, the feel of it icy cold on his face, the pain of fighting to catch his breath--
He decided he was still alive and opened his eyes to see if he would remain that way.
He had to remove the snow goggles he'd been wearing and discovered he was staring straight up a glowing blue wall of ice. The surface of the glacier was a good thirty meters above him, well beyond reach. It was a miracle he'd survived such a fall.
He closed his eyes and fought panic away. He couldn't help remembering the trapper some mountaineers had found in a similar crevasse last spring. The man had been dead for months by then. Ben shoved the thought away and instead concentrated on assessing his physical injuries. He was surprised to discover nothing more than a few aches and pains. The snow and many layers of clothes, coat and parka had saved him from anything worse. The only real casualty seemed to be the radio in his pocket, now a shattered, hopelessly destroyed mess. Carefully, he sat up and looked around.
He seemed to have fallen into a melt channel of some kind: An old one as there was very little water on the walls or floor. It was like being in a glowing tunnel with a single skylight high overhead.
His rifle stuck up out of the snow not three meters away. And one of the saplings. He removed the broken remnants of his snow shoes and crawled over to them, trying to decide if he had absolutely any chance of climbing out of here. If he had his pack, it wouldn't be a problem, but he didn't. He could see it overhead at the edge of the crack that had swallowed him, one of the straps dangling into the gap. He bent and picked up a chunk of ice. Aiming carefully, he threw it, hoping to knock the pack down to him, but the snow beneath it was packed firm, almost ice itself. It wasn't going to give way.
Damn, damn, da-- Ingrained training from childhood cut off the less than eloquent flow of thought even if it was silent.
He glanced around his prison again, refusing to accept this as his grave. He was only twenty-two. He had a lot of living to do yet and planned to do it! He decided he had two choices: One, go up stream; or, two, go down stream. Down stream was more dangerous as the edge of the ice floe would be more riddled with cracks and crevasses, but there was a greater chance of broken surfaces where he might climb out. At the same time, gravity working on the water which had created this melt channel would be sending him steadily deeper . . . .
He retrieved the broken snow shoes, shouldered his rifle and turned up stream.
Ben didn't get far before he was forced to turn around. The floor of the narrow tunnel simply ended as it merged with another crevasse below. So, down stream it was, testing the footing with every step. His chances of getting out of this weren't looking good. He walked for half an hour, not far really, when he noted an increase in light. A significant increase. Forcing himself to continue slowly, he emerged from the tunnel into an open crevice with sky over head.
It was snowing again and he could hear the wind beginning to blow. If a major storm broke now, he could well be buried alive in here, his body entombed until this part of the glacier reached the melt edge, fifty to a hundred years from now. It wasn't like him to think so negatively, but it was hard to dismiss the very real possibility of this being the place of his demise. He could only think that his father would be rather disappointed in him. The thought irritated him and Ben pressed on, scanning the walls for a point he might hope to scale. Another hour later, he found it.
It was hardly the best place in the world, but he'd simply have to consider it a challenge. He estimated the climb as about fifteen meters. Much better than the thirty he'd faced when he fell. He was surprised to find the tunnel had risen rather than sunk, but that could also mean he was dangerously close to the melt edge. It didn't matter. He had to get out. The snow was beginning to accumulate and it would be dark in another three hours. He wasn't going to find anything better.
Thinking of the rope, pitons and ice ax still attached to his lost back pack, he sat down and improvised with what he did have: The remnants of the snow shoes. He unwound the sinew that made up the webbing. It wouldn't work as a climbing rope, but he might need it later if he managed to get out of this alive. No, what he was after was the hard wood of the frame. He managed to salvage two half meter lengths and quickly used his hunting knife to deftly whittle a sharpened end on each. They weren't ice axes, but they'd have to do.
Turning to the broken wall before him, he paused to determine the best path upward and carefully chose his first anchor point before jamming his spike as hard as possible into the fractured ice. If he chose wrong, and broke the hard wood, he'd have to use his knife. The make-shift spike sank into the deceptive surface of the wall and wedged tight. He pulled himself upward, searching for and finding a toe hold before jamming his other spike firmly into the wall, higher up.
It was a difficult climb, and more than once he brought large chunks of ice down upon himself, threatening to dislodge his precarious hold on the wall of snow and ice. Yet, slowly, he crawled his way upward, one stab, one toe hold, at a time. It was with a sense of great relief that he stabbed over the edge of the crevasse and pulled himself back onto the surface of the ice floe.
For a long moment, he simply lay there, gasping and enjoying the fact that he just might survive the night. However. he knew better than to allow himself the rest his body craved. He'd worked up a good sweat and that could prove dangerous if he didn't keep moving. Time was also a consideration. Spending the night on the ice floe wasn't an option.
He did a slow pirouette to orient himself. He was quite a bit farther down the ice sheet and Victoria was nowhere in sight. Neither was his back pack. Without his binoculars, he couldn't even tell if she'd made it across. Somehow, he knew she had.
His chances of catching her had been drastically reduced; yet he knew he would continue to try, not because she was a criminal, but because he was very much afraid that she would not survive the storm to come. Especially in the Pass.
Shoving exhaustion and hunger aside, he retrieved the pole he'd lashed to his shoulder and chose his path back to the forest behind him. He was too far down on the ice floe to attempt to cross the glacier. He had to go back to his original point and retrieve his back pack. Then he'd find a place higher on the glacier to cross, one less likely to be riddled with cracks. He would make it across, and he would find Victoria.
On the Lee Side of the Mountain
Here. The snow coating the lower branches of the pine wasn't as thick as it should be and there was a shallow valley in the snow beside it. Something had passed this way within the last few hours and Ben didn't think it was a bear. They had more sense than to be out in this kind of weather.
It was snowing heavily and night was closing in. He was going to be forced to stop. The need to catch up with 'Victoria' was like a fire in his blood. She'd lead him a mighty chase, and proven far more capable in the wilderness than he'd expected, but her luck couldn't hold. The situation was getting worse, not better. Ben was no longer worried about losing her trail. Any question of her intentions to attempt the Pass had been erased long ago. No, her life was very much in danger, and that's what kept him pressing on, far pass the time when he should have stopped for the night.
And that's what nearly cost him his life -- again.
Ben knew this area fairly well, having committed the topological maps to memory and walked it several times in the past three years; but he must have misjudged his own position in the dark because he found himself at the cliff long before he expected to.
Suddenly, there was no ground beneath his feet and he was falling. In the dark, he did what Victoria had failed to trick him into previously. He walked right over the edge. His arm snagged a protruding root and he grabbed onto it for dear life, wrenching his shoulder as snow and frozen soil rained down around him. His feet found a small ledge and he clung to the cliff face like a leech.
Twice. Twice! He couldn't believe he'd wound up in the exact same position twice in one day! His father would be shaking his head in amused dismay if he could see Ben right now. 'Never chase a man over a cliff' he'd advised his son on the day of his graduation and, although his father hadn't been speaking literally, that's exactly what Ben had just done!
He paused a long moment, forcing his breathing and heart rate back to normal as he fought to assess his situation. His hand on the root was slipping. Quickly, he reached over his shoulder to where he'd stuck his improvised spikes and grabbed one, jamming it firmly into the permafrost and securing a better hand hold.
Ben looked up and realized he hadn't fallen far. He could just make out the top of the cliff in the dark, about two meters above him, but it was going to be a long two meters. His left shoulder was really burning. It was agony to lift his arm above his head. At least he hadn't dislocated it. He decided on the same maneuver he'd tried before at the glacier. The less weight his arm needed to carry the better, and he didn't have to worry about breaking an ice bridge here. He let his rifle slip down his arm again and flung it above him. Then he fought with his back pack. He chose to hold onto the spike with his left hand and swung the twenty-five kilogram pack with his right. It still put stress on his injured shoulder and pain lanced through him as he tossed the pack upward.
He knew immediately he'd released it wrong. He heard it bounce off the cliff face and fall pass him, disappearing into the darkness and forest he knew to be seventy or eighty meters below.
His grandmother would have been quite impressed if she knew the variety and intensity of the vulgarities that slipped through Ben's mind in several languages. He closed his eyes and was tempted to bang his head against the rock face. Losing his supplies did not increase his own chances of survival any.
First things first. Worrying about his back pack didn't get him up the cliff in the dark. Those two meters were just as dangerous as the thirty he'd climbed earlier. His left arm would not support him when he tried to lift it above his head. If he kept it low, he could manage.
It took him half an hour to reach the top. By then he could barely see his hand in front of his face. Building a proper lean-to was out. He'd have to attempt a snow cave or a bower. There would be no dinner or canned heat tonight. It wouldn't be the first time Ben had faced the wilderness with little more than his wits. His father, grandmother and Inuit friends back in Tuktoyuktuk had taught him well. He had to wonder how 'Victoria' had managed over the past two days without a pack -- or if she was starving on top of everything else? Was escaping really that important, so important that she'd die before turning to him for help?
Maybe she'd had something stuck in her pockets. For her sake, he hoped so.
The snow was a constant veil, shifting and dancing before him, the song of the wind thrumming a warning through the soles of his feet. Ben was pushing hard again. He didn't bother to cast about for Victoria's trail. He knew where she was going and he didn't have the time a search pattern would take. The big wet flakes of yesterday had given way to a smaller, lighter form indicating that the upper temperatures were dropping rapidly. That major blow he'd been told about Monday was moving in and his prey was planning to attempt the Pass. She was committing suicide and didn't even know it.
He had to stop her.
The mouth of the Pass was a narrow cleft. Ben frowned as he approached it and cursed silently as he realized she'd beaten him again. He'd hoped to cut her off. Instead, he found her 'bag'. It was the kind of purse a busy woman of the city might carry, over-large and filled with a little bit of everything, most of which was useless. The black and red leather was half-buried in the snow where it had obviously fallen and spilled open. A black and white, three-by-five photo flapped from under the edge of the strap. He bent and picked it up before it could be blown away, then frowned down at it, wondering if it were supposed to be the woman he was chasing. It was a terrible likeness with her hair blowing in her face. He frowned and pocketed it, knowing it might be needed to help identify her if he didn't find her in time. He saw no sign of a wallet amongst the rest of the debris. Normally, he'd scoop it all up and take it with him, but he simply didn't have the time. The woman's life was at stake. That she hadn't noted the loss of her purse spoke of her likely physical condition. The obscure rut in the snow that marked her passage was no longer straight but meandered drunkenly, side to side. She was hypothermic and possibly delirious. He had to find her, and find her quickly.
Ben pushed on as the wind began to whip around him. A few more minutes and the Pass would be in white-out conditions. He could pass within half a meter of her then and never know it. Even the snow goggles, designed to prevent snow blindness, wouldn't help.
"Victoria?" he shouted over the building storm and struggled through the deepening snow. The wind whipped his words away and he doubted she could have heard him if she were within ten meters. He pressed on, following the nearly invisible hollow of her path along the leeward wall, higher into the barren Pass. He was about halfway to the summit when he found her.
She was huddled in a shallow crag, her dark parka half buried in snow.
"Victoria!" he called again as he struggled the last few meters toward her. He was relieved to see the slight lift and turn of her head in answer. She was still alive.
Ben fell to his knees beside her, quickly taking in the fact that she had unwrapped her scarf and thrown back her hood. She must be in the last stages of hypothermia. Victims were often found nearly naked because their bodies became confused and they felt hot rather than cold. She was near death and Ben would have to work quickly if he were to have any chance at all of saving her. He reached forward to correct the hood but froze when she stuck a gun in his chest.
"Go -- away," she ordered simply.
She was delusional. He'd expected that. He hadn't expected the gun -- 'though he should have.
Ben reached up and removed his goggles and face mask. It was harder to shoot a man when he was looking you in the eye, or so he'd always heard. He'd never tested it before.
"You'll die if I do," he answered her simply, not at all sure she could understand his words. Her gaze locked with his and he watched as she struggled to sort through her disjointed thoughts. He held her eyes as he gently reached up and moved the gun from his chest. She didn't even seem to note it as he twisted the gun out of her numb fingers, activated the safety and tossed it behind him. "Let me help you."
She blinked dazedly as he reached up and brushed the snow from her hair, then replaced the hood and scarf, closing the neck of her parka fully. She shivered slightly, but Ben would have preferred it were she shivering uncontrollably. Her core temperature must be somewhere around thirty-two Celsius. He had to get her warmed up.
He quickly looked around but the weather had gone from bad to severe in the few minutes it had taken him to disarm her, replace her hood and brush the snow from her legs. There was no way he was going to get her down from the Pass in this. This crag was the best shelter he was going to find, but he had to erect some kind of wind break or they'd both freeze to death within the hour.
If only he had his back pa-- He brutally shoved the thought aside. He didn't have it and that was that. He'd have to improvise with what he did have.
The Icy Finger of Hypothermia
Ben unslung his rifle and jammed it into the snow beside the young woman.
"Don't go to sleep!" he shouted over the howl of the wind as he saw her head begin to nod. With sleep her heart rate would slow and her core temperature would drop even more. "You can't go to sleep. Talk to me!"
He stripped off his arctic gloves and struggled to remove his arctic parka. It was the only thing he had to use as a lean-to. He still had several layers of clothing beneath, including a winter coat, and should be alright as long as the storm didn't last too long. The wind was a greater danger at the moment.
"Eric?" the woman called.
"I'm Benton," he supplied, speaking loudly as he knelt and again began scooping snow away from her legs. At least she was wearing an arctic jumpsuit and mukluks over her boots. Frost bite was unlikely. "Whose Eric?" he asked, needing to keep her awake and talking.
Her head nodded forward again and he reached out to shake her. "Victoria!" he shouted.
She jerked awake.
"Don't sleep! Who's Eric? Your pilot?"
She nodded mutely, watching him work to secure the lean-to and create a hollow in the snow to protect them from the worst of the blizzard. Ben suddenly realized she wasn't wearing gloves. She couldn't have gone without them for long, however, as he saw no sign of severe frost bite.
"Where are your gloves?" he asked and had to reach out to turn her face toward him as her attention wavered. "Your gloves!" he repeated. "Where are they?"
She merely frowned in confusion. "Who are you?"
"Benton Fraser," he repeated. "Where are your gloves?"
She shook her head and closed her eyes.
"Victoria!" he snapped. Her eyes flew open. "Listen to me. Stay awake. You have to stay awake."
"You can't sleep," he warned her with a little shake. "It's dangerous to sleep. Where are your gloves?" He took her left hand in his and began to rub her fingers between his palms.
She winced and tried to pull away.
"No," he said simply.
"I know it hurts," he answered. "I have to do it. Where are your gloves."
"They -- got wet," she answered. The pain was helping to clear the fog in her mind. "I threw them away."
Ben frowned sharply and shook his head. Even wet, she shouldn't have thrown them away. The wind was cold enough that the moisture would eventually sublimate and she could have worn them again. He retrieved one of his arctic gloves and slipped it over her fingers before reaching for her other hand. They were much too big for her, but better than nothing.
"Tell me about Eric."
"Are you the --" She frowned sharply and shook her head. "No. He fell through the ice. Are you a trapper or something?"
"Royal Canadian Mounted Police."
"Police--" she repeated, fighting to think around the pain and confusion in her brain. "A Mountie?"
He nodded as he continued rubbing her hand briskly. "Yes."
"You are the one. On the glacier. I thought--"
He nodded, slipping the other glove over her hand. "That was me."
"But -- I saw you fall!"
"And you didn't come back."
She looked away. "I -- didn't know -- who you were."
He smiled wryly and again shook his head. "I think you did," he rejoined and dug into his pants' pocket where he kept an emergency ration of chocolate. "When's the last time you ate?"
She had closed her eyes again and started to drift.
"Victoria!" He shook her again and put the open candy bar in her hand. "Eat this. The sugar will help. When's the last time you ate?"
She shook her head. "Am I under -- arrest?" she asked wearily.
"I'm afraid so. Yes," he answered and helped her lift the candy to her mouth, pulling her scarf aside for her. "Eat," he ordered.
She turned away. " 'Not hungry."
"You need the sugar," he insisted. Sugar equaled calories, calories equaled heat. She needed to eat it. "Come on. It's chocolate. Eat it."
She actually rallied enough energy to give him a momentary glare before she opened her mouth and bit down on the bar he held to her lips. After that he didn't have to force it. The chocolate disappeared quickly.
She shivered again, but still not enough.
"Okay," he sighed, turning his mind to the next necessary step for her survival. "I've got to get you warmed up. Do you understand? You're too cold. If I don't warm you up, you'll die. Do you understand?"
She had closed her eyes. "I'm hot," she complained and tried to pull her scarf free again.
"No," he corrected her, stopping the effort easily. "You're not hot. You're cold. Too cold. It makes you think you're hot. It's hypothermia and it will kill you if I don't get you warmed up."
There was only one way he was going to do that and he didn't think she was going to like it. He started to undo his coat and the flannel shirt beneath it, working quickly so he wouldn't lose too much body heat himself.
"Fire--" she whispered.
"Can't," he answered. "No wood. We're going to have to share body heat. Do you understand? Victoria, talk to me. Wake up!"
He shook her lightly and then more vigorously before her eyes opened again.
"I can't," he told her firmly. "Stay awake. I know you're sleepy but you've got to fight it. Talk to me."
He frowned at her coat trying to decide if the zipper were compatible with his but decided it wasn't. It was one of those plastic, small toothed things. Probably quite fashionable but not very utilitarian. The coat might be warm but it wasn't designed for a survival situation.
"Who's Eric?" Ben repeated his earlier question and reached for her coat. She made no protest as he quickly zipped it open. If he kept her talking, she might not even notice what he was doing. "Your pilot?"
She nodded. "You found him," she sighed. "I heard you."
"He's dead," Ben answered, frowning as he fumbled with the snaps of the arctic jumper. He realized he was probably in the first stages of hypothermia himself. Fine motor control was the first thing to go. He paused to slap his hands firmly together, stimulating circulation.
"What!" Victoria started violently.
"I just clapped my hands," he explained. "What's your last name?"
"Met -- Metcalfe." She frowned down at his hands as he fought with the buttons of her blouse. They were backward, naturally and small, not easy for numbed fingers to negotiate. "What are you doing?" she asked distantly.
"I'm trying to save your life," he answered and gave up the effort of freeing her buttons. He couldn't afford the time. With a deft jerk, Ben ripped the flannel shirt open and did his best to ignore the black lace and pale curves that confronted him. He jerked his gaze away and silently recited the RCMP administration manual as he took her in his arms and brought her body into contact with his, reprimanding himself for the stray thought that acknowledged her beauty and stirred his loins. Her skin was like ice next to his and she jerked in surprised. "It's okay," he assured her, holding her tight. "Relax. I'm not going to hurt you."
"Like hell!" she exclaimed and tried to fight him. He'd expected it and had little trouble subduing her. The fight was a good thing, actually. It stimulated circulation and increased her body temperature. He studiously ignored the feel of her struggles against him.
"It's all right," he assured her, fighting to control her as gently as possible. "Shared body heat is a well known survival technique. I'm not trying anything! Just relax. Relax!"
"Victoria!" he shouted in her ear. "Victoria! Wake up!"
"Jo -- Jolly?" she mumbled.
"Victoria, you have to stay awake," he insisted.
"You're not Jolly."
"I'm Benton," he repeated. "Who's Jolly?"
"I'm cold," she whispered and hugged him as she was wracked by another strong shiver.
Improvement. Ben made sure his coat was tucked firmly around her as he shifted to a somewhat more comfortable position. He was struck by a shiver of his own and ignored the implications. Sharing his body heat with her conversely meant that his own core temperature would be lowered, at least slightly.
A little shivering wouldn't hurt him. The real danger would begin if he stopped shivering.
Across a Thousand Lifetimes
"Victoria, listen to me. This is important."
Ben waited as the woman he held blinked her doe-like eyes a couple of times and focused clearly on his face. Her color had improved somewhat and her skin against his was only cool now, not ice cold.
"You can't go to sleep," he insisted yet again. "You have to stay awake. You're body temperature is dangerously low and if you go to sleep you could go into shock and die. Do you understand me?"
She nodded and for the first time since he'd found her Ben knew his words had penetrated.
"Talk to me," he ordered. "It doesn't matter what you say or what we talk about but you have to talk to me. Understood?"
Again she nodded.
"Did you say you were a Mountie?" she asked, sorting through her confused memories.
"And I'm under arrest?"
He frowned at her, but she glanced away uncomfortably and he had the answer he needed. Hypothermia sometimes resulted in amnesia, but there was nothing wrong with her memory. He suppressed a smile for the transparent ruse.
"I know about the robbery," he told her bluntly.
"Robbery?" she asked. "I don't know what you're talking about."
He nodded. "Ah," he offered simply.
"I really don't know what you're talking about," she insisted.
"If you say so."
"You don't believe me."
Ben cocked his head to the side. "Perhaps because the FBI traced you to that plane. Perhaps because Eric told me you promised him ten thousand dollars to steal it. And perhaps because you told me."
"I told you?"
"I didn't tell you."
"And that means I robbed a bank?"
Ben allowed a small smile to escape. "I never said it was a bank," he allowed softly.
The entirety of the world around their huddled forms had been reduced to sound. Night had fallen and the storm raged on. Only the wind existed; a howling, living entity thrumming through the ground beneath them, shrieking through the crags and crevasses of the Pass, and stealing even the warmth of their breath. They were both shivering uncontrollably now and Ben could only pray that the storm would end before too much longer. His face was buried in her shoulder, her face was buried in his, in an effort to protect that most precious commodity which escaped with each exhalation.
Ben had ordered Victoria to silence when he realized what was happening. He'd managed to warm her a few degrees but her core temperature was still lower than his, or perhaps she was just more susceptible to the effects of hypothermia. In either case, she couldn't afford the loss of heat that talking meant. He'd grown up in the tundra and could tolerate the cold much better than she could.
"I was visiting my grandparents when my mother died," he continued with his life's story. Victoria nodded and rubbed his back, assuring him silently that she was still awake. If her hand stopped moving, he shook her. "My father simply showed up at grand's and--" His thoughts drifted back to the pained confusion of that day. "I rarely saw my father. When I did, it was almost a celebration -- but not that day. He simply came in and ordered me to my room. An hour later, he came in and sat on my bed. I thought I'd done something terribly wrong." Ben shook his head. "I'd never seen him like that. I'd never seen anyone like that. He was -- empty. He didn't cry or even look at me. He didn't say anything. After a very long time, he simply bowed his head and said, 'Your mother's gone Benton. There was an accident. She's gone.' --I was six . . . .
"The next day I flew with him back to Yellowknife. My first time on a plane. I felt guilty because I -- it was my first time on a plane," he repeated. "I didn't understand what death was. I didn't understand that my mother was never coming back."
He went on, rambling into the dark. His only link with reality was the scream of the storm beyond his parka and Victoria's hand on his back, gently rubbing in a constant circle. He knew he had to keep talking, to help them both stay awake. He found himself telling her things he'd never told anyone else, things he'd never even admitted to himself. His mind drifted, and on some level that was still cognizant of their situation, he knew what that meant. He knew he was slowly sinking deeper into the icy world of hypothermia. Time was the enemy and it wasn't something Ben could control. He had to continue, he had to stay awake, until the storm lifted. If they could survive until the storm lifted, they'd make it. Otherwise--
"--I remember the beard, however. My father had always been clean shaven, or well, almost always. There was one summer when he decided to sport a mustache, I don't remember why, but I have a picture of him with it somewhere back home. I remember him saying something about it itching abominably--"
His throat was becoming raw, his voice a hoarse whisper of sound that grated on his own fractured nerves. And his mouth was dry. The temptation to eat, even a mouth full of snow, was becoming a problem. They had no water. Dehydration only worsened the hypothermia they were both suffering from, but he still retained enough cognizance to know eating snow was not an option. It would kill him in a matter of minutes.
A small part of his mind seemed to drift, detached like, in the early dawn hours, assessing and re-evaluating the situation. He'd forgotten how he came to be here, huddled in a mountain crevasse with only his parka as a lean-to, holding a beautiful woman in his arms as one of the worst blizzards he'd ever seen raged around them. He knew the fractured memories were the result of worsening hypothermia. He knew he might not survive. They might not survive. He couldn't remember who the woman was beyond her name.
It was a beautiful name. She had long dark hair and dark eyes and her hands were long boned, like a pianist--
Her hand had stopped moving.
"Vic--toria!" The most he could manage was a harsh croak of sound which barely resembled her name. He shook her. The hand on his back curled into a fist. "Vic-toria. We've got -- to stay awake."
He was so tired. So very tired. Exhaustion. Dehydration. Hypothermia. That small ember of thought which was still capable of reason catalogued the symptomatologies and continued to down grade their chances of survival. He admitted to being afraid, but that part of his mind that sat aside and watched and waited didn't know what the feeling was.
If only the storm would end. There might still be a chance. If he could get up, move around, get them off the mountain. He still remembered how to build a fire. They could melt snow for water, heat it to help warm themselves. . . .
The wind continued to howl beyond their tiny cocoon of fragile protection.
At least there was light now. The night had passed and he could make out the blurred image of Victoria beside him. He shifted position, pulling her to rest atop him. The ground was frozen. It sucked the heat out of them. She had a better chance if she wasn't laying on it. He had to rearrange their coats, so hers was over his now, tucking it beneath his body weight to seal in their warmth. The movement helped. It stimulated circulation. Her hands were now on his chest. The one was ice cold and he wondered vaguely what had happened to the glove he'd given her. He was probably laying on it.
"I can't talk anymore," he offered in a whisper. "You'll have to talk. You have to stay awake. Don't fall -- asleep."
Gently, he took her hand in his and lifted it to his lips. He put her fingers in his mouth, to keep them warm and prevent frost bite. They were too lovely to be destroyed by frost bite.
"Jolly made me do it," she offered against the side of his neck. Her breath was warm and stirred the small hairs there. Her voice was a gentle caress across the scream of the storm without. "We were living together. He said if I loved him-- I don't know if I did or not, but I owed him. I owed him a lot. Not just money. He took care of me when my mother died. If not for him, I'd've been working the streets."
Her story helped to clear some of the fog from his mind as Ben struggled to focus on her words. It was a sad story, and badly disjointed, but he managed to piece it together -- or at least that part of his mind that was still capable of rational thought did.
She never knew her father. Apparently her mother wasn't even sure who he was. They were poor and Victoria had grown up very fast. She was the oldest of two children and, while her mother worked, she took care of Anne. The baby. The favorite. The one with a father. She resented her sister, resented most all of life from the sound of it. There was a -- darkness in her. An almost instinctual distrust of her fellow man that Ben had a hard time understanding.
When her mother died, her step-father would have nothing to do with her and she had fallen in with Jolly. He was a small-time crook with greater ambitions and an eye to easy money, but he took her in when no one else cared if she lived or died.
He didn't sound like much of a man, Ben thought, as the woman in his arms rambled on, defending him more to herself than Ben. She made excuses for his failings, for his occasional drinking and rough handling. By the last, Ben assumed her to mean Jolly had hit her on more than one occasion. He'd never been able to understand why a woman would stay in such a relationship, but with Victoria he did. She simply didn't know of anything better and blamed herself for Jolly's weaknesses. Jolly was the only one who had ever shown her even an inkling of kindness, buying her clothes and jewelry, or stealing them for her. Ben didn't think he'd ever heard a more tragic story in his life.
He lost the details of Jolly's exploits, and probably her explanation of and for the robbery as well. She named the other partner but the information slipped out of his thoughts like quick silver. He wondered distantly, which of the two men had been killed and hoped dispassionately that it had been Jolly. Her words ceased to have any meaning after a time and only the sound of her voice seemed real. She had a beautiful voice. The most -- beautiful --
He wasn't aware of losing consciousness, but he realized her voice had changed. It seemed farther away, softer, deeper, warmer--
He knew he was dying.
She was reciting a poem. Over and over. Her voice danced on the broken rythmn, the hoarse whisper slipped over the archaic words and sang of some ancient truth he couldn't quite grasp.
"I caught this morning morning's minion,
"Kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dappled dawn-drawn--"
The words had no meaning. He couldn't hear them. They slipped like water through his thoughts. There was only the sound of her voice. It was the voice of someone he had known forever, across a thousand lifetimes, speaking to some hidden part of his soul, touching his heart and refusing to let him go. It was the voice of an angel. A voice so beautiful it made him want to cry!
He couldn't stop listening even had he wanted to.
"Ben!" the voice called him urgently.
It was the perfect voice.
The voice of the angel.
The most beautiful voice --
The desperation in her tone forced meaning into the sound, tore away the shroud of peace and the acceptance of death that had embraced him. He swam up through the icy depths, forcing deep slow breaths as his heartbeat thundered in answer to the adrenalin being pumped throughout his system.
Fear followed close on the heels of his confused and scattered thoughts. The shadow of death still loomed large in his mind but Ben had no desire to die. He had to live, so she could live. He couldn't die. He couldn't sleep.
Sleep? He'd fallen asleep -- and he knew it was deadly.
Desperately, he forced his eyes open, forced his sight to focus on the woman above him. She was speaking again, calling him, but the words were drowned out by his own heart beat, pounding -- pounding in defiance. . . .
The name slipped into place like the piece of a puzzle, just as 'Ben' brought an answer from somewhere deep inside -- an answer he couldn't grasp.
He concentrated on her pale lips. They were cracked and dry, the voice that called to him was hoarse and harsh--
It was still incredibly beautiful.
He forced the movement of her lips to sync with the sounds he was hearing, forced meaning into the movement. . . .
"...Over . . . Ben . . . storm . . .over."
Storm? He remembered the storm. He remembered the sound. The roaring wail of the wind-- He blinked. It was gone. Only a gentle whisper of sound greeted his ears.
That and her voice.
He was Ben. . .Benton Fraser. RCMP. His name was the key to a door that held back a flood of jumbled and disjointed memories. He was overwhelmed for a long moment and had to fight the panic of confusion away. He focused on Victoria's voice again, focused on what she was saying.
"The storm is over! Ben, wake up! Please. The storm is over!"
He swallowed around a dry throat and nodded. Necessity answered memory. They were on Fortitude Pass. The storm was over. There was a chance to survive but not if he answered the lure of sleep-- He was so sleepy. . . .
He recognized suddenly exactly how very close to death he'd come. Fear unsheathed its dormant claws and was answered with anger. He was not going to give in! The storm was over and they were getting off this mountain and they would live.
If it was the last thing he ever did, he would fight to live!
A small part of his mind questioned his logic but he dismissed it. He didn't have time to analyze thoughts he already knew to be clouded and impaired with hypothermia. He knew what was wrong. He knew what he had to do.
Ben forced himself to sit up. Was that Victoria who groaned in pain? He blinked against the agony of screaming muscles and saw her watching him with concern. He managed a weak smile, feeling his lips crack even with that slight movement. They had to get down and they had to get water. The adrenaline rush that moved him now wouldn't last forever. They had to move while he could.
"I thought you were dead," she offered quietly.
"Almost," he whispered harshly. "Almost."
Later, he wouldn't be able to remember taking down the parka lean-to, 'though he did remember offering the coat to Victoria. She had refused it, saying he needed it more. She was probably right.
He did remember standing with her and staring up at the Northern Lights, blazing across the heavens in a fiery dance. There was a full moon and the entire mountain was lit almost as bright as day -- but with that clear, cold beauty that only moonlight can cast. He closed his eyes and remembered her voice. He tried to remember the poem but the words were as elusive as star dust. The memory of her beautiful voice alone was enough to warm his heart and set his feet in motion once again.
He didn't remember the trek down the mountain. Didn't remember searching for wood or laying the fire. The first cognizant thought he was able to hold onto was as he was struggling to strike a water proof match. His fingers didn't want to work right. He was relieved to note their pale color. They weren't blue. They weren't blackened or blistered. The tips were on the boarder of frost bite but he wouldn't lose any of them. The fumbling was due to hypothermia, not neural or tissue damage.
He stood and swung his arms violently -- again. Exercise produced heat, and heat was the only way to overcome hypothermia. Pain shot up his arms and legs, like hot knives as his blood forced it's way through constricted blood vessels and reawakened nerve endings screaming for oxygen.
Victoria had cried silently when he rubbed her calves and forearms, but she'd understood and forced herself to move, swinging her arms and flexing muscles that had forgotten how to flex. She was better off than he was, but only slightly.
The fire caught and Ben was careful to move back. It was easy to burn hands and toes that were numb with cold. He glanced at Victoria and made sure she wasn't too close, then he turned and left the fire. Warmth was only the first of their necessities. Next was water. Heated water, warm but not hot, sipped slowly. It would help reduce the effects of their hypothermia better than just about anything else he could do.
Before he could melt snow, however, he had to have something to melt it in.
There were several Birch trees around them. It was a simple matter to find some loose bark and dead grasses and create a couple of small bowls. He scooped them half full of snow and carried them back to the fire. He'd placed a couple of rocks on the fire and now he rolled them out again, carefully. The birch bowls were set atop them, close enough to the fire for the warmth to melt the snow quickly but far enough away to prevent them from catching fire. It wouldn't take long.
He made his way back over to Victoria and handed her several pieces of the sturdy grass he'd found. He also offered her his knife.
She stared at it for a long moment.
"Are you going to run again?" he asked her quietly, reading the question in her own gaze.
She glanced up, startled, her eyes wide with fear and exhaustion, with confusion and regret. Exhaustion won. She shook her head and took the knife. "What do I do with this?" she whispered.
"Tie your shirt back together again," he told her. "You need every layer of clothing you've got under that coat. Be fast and don't get too close to the fire. Make sure you put your gloves back on when your done. Your hands are in more danger from frost bite now that they're warm, then they were when they were cold. I'll see if I can find something for us to eat."
Ben offered the last, more to give her a chance at some privacy than because he thought he could find much in his present condition. Night was closing in again so he wouldn't have long to look. Still, he needed to try and the exercise would do him just as much good as sitting by the fire would. He turned to the forest.
"Ben!" Victoria called after him and he turned back. She licked dry lips. "Be careful," she offered reluctantly.
He nodded, guessing at the cost of those few words. He remembered her story, remembered that she'd never learned to really trust anyone. She was trusting him to save her -- but she didn't like it. He understood, and wished he didn't. He turned back to the forest and wondered if he'd be able to find any Arctic Bramble or Nagoon berry. It was about the right season. There should also be some Wild Columbine around, but he wasn't ready to try digging up roots quite yet.
He had decided on a snow cave rather than a lean-to when he saw the double ring around the moon. Ben had learned at a very early age how to read weather sign. It was part of the required curriculum in Tuktoyuktuk. A lot of new assignee's from the south scoffed at some of the warnings they were given, thinking them nothing more than superstitions -- until the first time they ignored one of them and found themselves caught in a life-threatening situation. A double ring meant high winds.
It looked to be clear tonight and with high winds they could expect the temperature to plummet drastically. A snow cave would afford them greater protection and insulation than a lean-to. Given the amount of snow which had fallen over the past week, Ben had no difficulty finding a suitable snow bank. Digging it out was a little harder. The exercise and warmed water of earlier had largely reduced the debilitating effects of hypothermia. A simple meal would help as well but that wasn't possible. Now, it was the third enemy of the wilderness that reared it's ugly head. Exhaustion.
There was only one cure for exhaustion and his body craved it like a lover. He fought temptation away as he climbed out of the small space and turned to find Victoria again. He was weary enough that he had to double-check himself on the direction of the camp fire. It was about a hundred meters, over a small rise and back in the woods.
"Victoria?" he called as he stepped out of the forest again. She was laying on the ground beside the fire. Ben hurried forward, knowing the ground would suck the warmth out of her like a sponge.
"Victoria," he repeated, giving her a little shake and then lifting her by the shoulders into a seated position.
She blinked her eyes dazedly and started to cry. "I -- I can't stay awake, Ben! -- I can't!"
"It's okay," he assured her. "Just a few more minutes. I built a snow cave. We can sleep there, but not on the ground. It's not far. Can you make it?"
She shook her head in mute despair. It was a good thing she was on the light side. He bent and put her over his shoulder. It wasn't the most comfortable way to do it, but he didn't have the strength to carry her in his arms. He nearly dropped her once as it was.
"Here we are," he sighed, setting her feet on the ground. She swayed and fell to her knees, but that was all right. He knelt beside her and directed her to the opening of the snow cave. "Inside. Get up on the shelf. Heat rises. I'll be back."
Ben left her there, knowing that she was incapable of running even if she'd wanted to, and returned to the camp fire. He thoroughly doused it with snow and collected the birch bowls he'd made earlier. They'd need them tomorrow. Then he paused to survey the camp, half worried he'd forgotten--something but he couldn't think what. . . .
Finally, he shrugged and went back to the snow cave. He'd remember it tomorrow, when he could think straight.
The wind was starting to pick up as Ben got back to the snow cave and made his way inside. Not surprisingly, it was more than dark inside. Feeling his way forward, he found Victoria slumbering on the ledge as he'd instructed. He paused and used his boot to dig up snow from the lower floor to close down the entrance to about twenty centmeters. With the wind blowing, he didn't want to attempt a smaller ventilation space, not when they were both going to be sleeping. He checked the secondary opening, little more than a wide slit mid-way up the bank, with the stick he'd used to create it. Then he turned back to Victoria.
There was no need for the body to body contact of shared body heat here. The interior of the snow cave was anything but warm, however it was above freezing, or soon would be as their bodies and exhaled breath warmed the trapped air. Not much. They didn't want anything greater than about four or five degrees Celsius or they'd have a melting problem. Still, their clothing should be sufficient to such temperatures. They should in fact be quite comfortable, comparatively speaking anyway.
The shelf he'd created wasn't very deep. The size of the snow cave was dictated by the number of people within it so as to ensure proper efficiency of insulation and ventilation: Too large and they'd lose the insulation value of the air trapped between the snow flakes, too small and they'd suffocate on their own carbon dioxide. It wasn't something that Ben normally considered on a conscious level, but given the fact that he was so very tired, and recovering from hypothermia, and hungry, he found himself questioning every decision he made.
Enough of such questions, he decided. He'd done the best he could and would have to live, or die, with that. He gently took Victoria in his arms and scooted himself onto the narrow shelf with her. She fit into the curve of his shoulder as though she'd always been there.
Ben couldn't see her face but he could imagine it. And her voice. He knew he would alway remember her voice. . . .
Victoria Metcalfe was a criminal and in a great deal of trouble. He was duty bound to bring her in -- but none of that changed the incredible feelings that her voice had awakened in his heart. Ben had never been in love before, but he made no mistake of what he felt toward her. It wasn't smart. It didn't make a lot of sense. But there it was. Her gentle words had stolen his heart while they were atop Fortitude Pass, and he'd come down a different man than when he'd gone up. He had no idea what he was going to do about it but he couldn't deny what had happened.
He fell asleep with the memory of her voice whispering through his thoughts and setting his heart afire.
A Taste for Life
Ben felt the woman in his arms stir and relaxed his grip somewhat so she could shift around as desired. Her movement had only brought him to the edge of awareness. He wasn't quite willing to wake up yet but he wasn't really asleep either. That small part of him that was aware had already inventoried the information from his other senses and tied it into his memory: It was early morning, he was in a snow cave with Victoria in his arms, the temperature hovered just above freezing and they had sufficient fresh air. Nothing to worry about.
But she sat up.
That small ember of consciousness frowned and noted the tender kiss she bestowed on his lips. Too fleeting but quite sufficient to trigger a rather pleasant dream sequence.
Then she moved carefully over him, leaving the shelf, and the ember became a fire demanding attention.
Ben blinked his eyes open in momentary confusion at finding his arms empty and turned his head to see Victoria's heels disappearing out the entrance of the snow cave. The last vestiges of sleep fled and he frowned as he considered her possible motives. High on the list was escape. He hadn't forgotten she was a wanted fugitive. Still, an attempted escape would be rather stupid, and Victoria Metcalfe was anything but stupid. Their situation was still quite desperate, though not immediately life-threatening. It was just possible she was going to try and lay a camp fire, maybe melt some snow for water. . . .
He was being painfully optimistic and knew it. Victoria Metcalfe was desperate and frightened. And knowing her history, he was quite certain she was trying to run. Ben was a bit surprised she hadn't tried to kill him while he slept, thus assuring her escape. He'd remembered what he'd forgotten at the camp fire the night before.
He'd given her his knife and failed to get it back.
He gave her about half a minute and then followed her. Sure enough, she'd disappeared into the bush, and according to her tracks, at a dead run. She wouldn't be running if she simply wanted to gather fire wood or needed to relieve herself.
"You're headed the wrong way!" he called out after her. Ben shook his head, hoping she'd stop when she realized she had absolutely no chance at escape. He'd rather not start the day having to chase her down. He gave her five minutes and wasn't surprised when she suddenly reappeared at the edge of the woods.
She gestured to the forest behind her. "I was just -- ah. . . ."
"Relieving yourself?" he suggested, knowing better.
She nodded and lifted a hand to sweep a lock of long russet hair back from where it had escaped her hood. Her gaze dared him to disbelieve her.
"Ah," he offered with a noncommittal nod as he watched her cross the snow covered meadow back toward him. He had to fight to suppress a grin. She was certainly feisty!
She glared at him. "What did you mean I was headed in the wrong direction?"
He turned back to the cliff that loomed to their north and gestured toward it. "My backpack and food supplies are somewhere at the bottom of that cliff," he answered. "I think I can find it. Are you hungry?"
"Starving," she answered and immediately fell into step behind him.
Ben frowned up at the face of the cliff, trying to judge exactly where he'd been in relation to the glacier. They should be pretty close.
"What if it landed in one of the trees?" Victoria asked from behind him, searching the tops of the four hundred year old pines that surrounded them.
"Then we'll get it down," he answered with the simple truth, also studying the branches overhead but not looking for the back pack. Instead, he looked for broken limbs. The back pack was quite heavy. He doubted it would have gotten caught on the way down. Broken limbs were not that unusual but it was fairly easy to date such breaks. He scanned the ground as well as he moved slowly forward but, given the amount of snow they'd had the other night, he knew his chances of spotting it were pretty slim.
"What if we don't find it?" the woman behind him asked as she continued to follow his slow progress forward.
"Then we'll live off the land," he answered off hand. "A person can live like a king out here if they know what they're doing."
"You didn't find anything to eat last night," she pointed out.
"I was too tired and not thinking straight," he replied. "How did you survive four days before I caught up with you?"
"Eric had a small pack of stuff, some pemican and dried fruit, that kind of thing," she answered, walking over to some bushes and peering beyond them. "It didn't last long."
"And when it was gone?"
"We went hungry," she answered bluntly. "It's not like its' the first time I've had to go without food for a couple of days."
"Hmm," he nodded, keeping his eyes on the trees overhead. However, his mind was reviewing the story of her childhood. She'd never said anything about going hungry, but the knowledge didn't surprise him.
"There!" he offered out loud and pointed to where several branches facing the cliff had been snapped or broken quite recently. He hurried forward, scanning the ground now and following the trajectory his pack would have taken. He hopped over a couple of low bushes, which also showed signs of having been struck by something, and started digging. A few moments later and he'd found it. Another few moments, and he was able to tug it free.
Victoria knelt beside him, watching in obvious impatience as he worked the straps. He awarded her an ecstatic grin that said 'I told you so' and kept fumbling with the buckles. He heard her gasp and glanced up again.
She was staring at him. . . .
He lifted his brows in silent question and the spell was broken. She visibly shook herself free from wherever her thoughts had taken her and waved a hand at his back pack. "What all have you got in there?" she wondered aloud.
"Oh, quite a number of things. All the luxuries needed for wilderness survival."
One of the first things he pulled out was a plastic bag of trail mix. A definite luxury he wasn't sure why he'd included. It wasn't regulation, but he silently thanked whatever rebellious motive had inspired him to toss it on top. He zipped it open and took out a small handful before tossing the rest to Victoria. "Eat slowly," he warned her, "or you'll just lose it. We don't have enough to waste."
Ben popped some of the granola, fruit and nut mixture in his own mouth and continued carefully unpacking. The food stuffs were toward the middle.
"It's strange," she commented quietly, frowning down at the bag in her hands. "I should be starving but I don't even feel hungry. . . ."
He nodded and swallowed. "Your stomach has shrunk. Wait until you take your first bite. Your appetite will return."
With a vengeance, he thought as his own stomach gave a very loud growl at being abruptly awakened by something more than water.
Victoria laughed. The sound danced along Ben's nerve endings like a lover's gentle caress and it was his turn to stare at her.
God help him, but she was beautiful, and her voice-- He'd almost convinced himself he'd dreamt that poem she'd repeated over and over as they sat huddled in the Pass. He still couldn't remember the words, though he knew he must have heard it a thousand times. Her laughter assured him it had been no dream.
She suddenly bent forward and kissed him.
His first instinct was to gasp but he didn't jerk away. He couldn't even if he'd wanted to. His muscles were frozen in shock as sensations and emotions he'd never known before thundered into being with the power of an avalanche! It was Victoria who ended the kiss, and if he'd been capable of movement he wouldn't have let her. He continued to stare at her for a breathless time -- until her smile changed and became slightly smug.
His instinct for self-preservation kicked in with that look and Ben forced himself to glance away. Great Scott, what had just happened? He chastised himself for acting like a love struck teenager and fought to focus on the food stuffs he'd finally reached. His heart was racing like a herd of stampeding caribou. She was a wanted felon, for heaven's sake! He had arrested her! He was duty bound to take her in!
Duty and passion warred for a long moment and he was horrified by the stray thought that suggested he could just let her go. That he was capable of such a thought was a shock. He'd lived his entire life in the shadow of duty and honor. His father was a highly decorated member of the RCMP and his grandparents had instilled their own strict sense of morals and values on his young mind after his mother had died. His own mother had taught him the basics of right and wrong -- and letting Victoria go, no matter what he felt personally, was wrong. It went against everything he'd ever learned to believe in.
Ben could do nothing about what he knew she'd already seen in his eyes, but he'd be damned if he would be ruled by it.
He took out the canned heat and cooking utensils, quickly setting to work at melting snow. A lot of what he carried was dehydrated, and there wasn't much left. He'd only packed a seven day supply for one person and he'd used four days of that before finding her.
"We should save some of this," he frowned, laying out the six remaining packages. He also had a small pouch of pemican and two small plastic bottles of orange juice.
Again Victoria laughed, this time around a mouth full of trail mix. "We should," she agreed and obviously knew they wouldn't.
She was right. In the end, their hunger got the better of them and over a period of almost three hours they ate everything he had in his pack. Given their situation it wasn't particularly smart. They were about three or four days from Peeler. He just -- The thought of Victoria as a child going without food, and the knowledge that, except for his lone candy bar yesterday, she hadn't had anything to eat for two or three days. . . .
The food was gone before he was consciously aware of it.
He'd eaten his share as well so it wasn't as if he could blame her. He refused to feel guilty for it, foolish maybe, but not guilty. If they got hungry later, then he'd hunt up something. It might not be as appetizing as reconstituted spaghetti, but it would be nutritious.
It had been worth it just to sit and watch her smile at him as she enjoyed the rather bland tasting rations. She'd treated it as a gourmet meal. He could only hope he'd managed to keep his mask firmly in place as he watched her eat.
He glanced around when he finally realized the meal was over and concentrated on the necessity of cleaning up and repacking the back pack.
"Now what happens?" Victoria asked as she sat back and watched him.
"Now we head back to Peeler," he answered, glancing around to make sure he hadn't missed any of the plastic bags or other trash which didn't belong here.
"Peeler?" she repeated and frowned.
"It's not on your map."
"I don't have a map."
"You lost it?"
She didn't answer and Ben glanced up to find her regarding him pensively. He read the question in her eyes, the fear and uncertainty, and an invisable fist closed around his heart. He knew what she was going to say--
"Don't," he told her simply.
She continued to hold his gaze for several long heartbeats before she finally glanced away, leaving her thought unvoiced.
A Precious Gift
"I didn't have a choice, you know," she told him as they walked.
Ben glanced over his shoulder. It was the first time Victoria had spoken in over three hours.
"I know," he answered and continued breaking a path for her.
Her hand on his shoulder stopped him and he turned to face her.
"You know?" she repeated, confused.
"You told me," he explained. "About you and Jolly."
"I--" She frowned up at him in continued confusion and shook her head. "I don't remember."
"You were boarderline delirious," he apologized for her. "I forced you to talk to me so you wouldn't fall asleep."
"And die," she ended for him. She gave a little nod as she stared up at him. "I remember -- some of it. . . ."
"Do you remember the poem?" he couldn't help but ask, losing a part of himself in her steady gaze.
Again she gave a slight nod. "'The Windhover' by Gerard Manley Hopkins," she answered. "It's my favorite."
She blinked and the spell was broken, for both of them. She shook her head and looked away with a frown, quickly changing the subject -- or more accurately, bringing it back where she'd wanted it to begin with.
"If you know, then why are you taking me in?" she demanded. Her eyes were hard and suspicious when she gazed up at him now.
It pained him to have that look thrown at him and he resisted the urge to take a step back. "I have to Victoria," he offered the unvarnished truth. "You committed a crime."
"And I have to pay for it," she finished with a sarcastic bite. She threw her hood back and tossed her hair to the side with an angry little jerk before she glared up at him again. "You didn't morandarize me, or whatever it's called. You can't use my confession in court!"
"This is Canada, Victoria," he reminded her gently. "We don't have your Miranda Rights here. Our laws are a little different." What she was refering to was called the Caution -- but he hesitated to administer it, thus making her arrest official.
She closed her eyes and he felt as though he'd struck her a physical blow. He bit his lip and tried to offer something that might help.
"It doesn't have to be as bad as you're thinking."
She shook her head and offered a bitter laugh, glancing away. "Right. Tell me another one."
"It doesn't," he insisted. "Turn yourself in. Make a deal to turn States' Evidence, or whatever it's called. You were only the wheel man. They might not even bother with an extradition if they can get the money back."
"I don't know where the money is!" she claimed emphatically. He thought a bit too emphatically but ignored the thought.
"Does Jolly?" he asked.
"Then give them Jolly," he explained. "He can make his own deal."
"He got away?"
"Someone did, besides you. What was the other partner's name?"
"You don't know?"
"I can't remember," he admitted. "I was a bit disoriented as well by then."
"The FBI doesn't know?"
Ben frowned as he considered the pensive light in her eyes. It didn't bode well, but he thought he could convince her of the error of her ways.
"They had no idea of who any of you were -- as of the bulletin that was passed on to me," he offered the truth. "That was six days ago however."
"But I thought you said one of them was captured?"
"I said one got away," he corrected her. "The other was killed. I'm sorry."
"Don't be," she told him dispassionately. "They forced me to do the job with them. Used me--"
"Tell that to the judge," Ben advised -- and then realized how cold that sounded. "Victoria," he sighed and glanced down at his feet, running a thumb across his eyebrow as he fought to offer her some small amount of hope. He glanced up again. "They'll understand. There were mitigating circumstances. You can get out of this, if you tell the authorities everything. Now, what was the other man's name?"
"Eddie," she answered. "Eddie Barstoli."
"I assume he knows where the money is as well?"
"I guess so," she frowned. "Jolly had it when we got separated at the airport. I don't know what the two of them did after that. We were supposed to meet up in Vancouver on the sixteenth."
"Today's the sixteenth," he informed her, dashing any hopes of escape and meeting up with her comrades she might still harbor. He cocked his head to the side, finding part of her story a bit hard to believe. "You trusted them with all the money? You didn't think they might try to cut you out of your share?"
"Jolly knows what I'd do if he even thought about it," she promised coldly and that darkness he'd sensed in her on the Pass was almost a visible thing. She shoved it aside and he blinked, wondering if he'd imagined that look in her eyes
She still shook her head. "They shot a guard."
"He's expected to live."
"How do you know?"
"It was part of the bullitin I got when I reported the plane crash."
She chewed her lip. "They don't know who I am?"
Ben knew where she was going with this and knew he couldn't prevent it. His throat was too tight to speak so he simply shook his head.
"You could just let me go."
Again he shook his head and frowned at the wilderness beyond her so he didn't have to see the pain in her eyes.
She sighed and shook her head. "I'm a fool," she declared bluntly.
Ben lifted his brows in surprise and glanced back at her. Victoria Metcalfe was a lot of things but a fool wasn't one of them.
She offered a mocking smile in answer to his unasked question. "I thought something happened up on that mountain," she told him seriously. "Something special. I guess I was wrong."
"No," he answered tritely, knowing he was damning himself but unable to deny the truth. "You weren't wrong."
He was trapped in her eyes when they turned pleading. "Then why won't you let me go!"
"I can't!" he hissed in pain of his own. He swallowed the harsh sound and forced himself to meet her gaze squarely. "Surrender," he ordered her firmly.
"Surrender?" she repeated, confused.
"Turn yourself in to me, officially," he told her. He reached out and took her by the shoulders, suddenly afraid that even the words would be too much for her and that she'd bolt like a scared rabbit. "Just say it!"
"You already arrested me!" she argued.
"Did I?" he rejoined, giving her the only out he could and still live with himself. "You weren't exactly cognizant then. Are you sure you understood what I said?" His eyes warned her to be careful what she said.
She read his gaze and licked her lips. "--No," she answered hesitantly.
He nodded, accepting the lie. "Then say it. Say you surrender."
"Why?" she asked, obviously wrestling with her desire to escape.
"It's the only way I can help you," he answered emphatically. "You said something happened on that mountain, but was it only me? Was it all one sided -- or do you think you can trust me?"
"Trust?!" she echoed in quiet surprise.
"It's an integral part of love Victoria," he answered softly, feeling a strange sense of vast relief at having stated his feeling so clearly. At the same time he felt like he was waiting for an ax to fall. Was it all one side? Was he an idiot and a fool to fall for this woman? He knew the answer already, but it didn't change how he felt. How she answered, might.
Ben watched her swallow as she continued to stare up at him, her gaze like an unfathomable ocean he could drown in.
"Love?" she whispered.
He didn't bother to answer. His heart was in his eyes and if she didn't see it, or want it--
She swallowed and offered a shaky sigh, as trapped in his gaze as he was in hers. "Alright," she whispered.
"Alright--" he prompted. He still needed the words.
She closed her eyes, breaking the spell and reaching deep within herself to force that which he asked of her up from the ashes of all the times she'd been hurt and betrayed in the past. She opened her eyes and speared the man before her with the intensity of what he'd demanded of her. "I surrender," she whispered.
Ben knew what those two words had cost her. He pulled her firmly into his arms and buried his face in her hair, fighting the urge to cry as he fought with the knowledge of what a fragile and precious gift she'd offered him. Trusting others was something he'd always taken for granted, but it was something Victoria had never learned to do.
"It'll be alright," he promised her as he felt her wrap her arms around him and hold on for dear life. "I'll do everything I can to help you."
"You better," she whispered into his shoulder. He wasn't even sure he heard her right. "If you don't, I'll make you wish I had killed you. . . ."
Rhymes and Reasons
The night sky was crystal clear again but this time there was no wind. Only a slight breeze sang through the leaves and danced among the tree tops in a gently swaying ballet. To the north the Aurora Borealis colored the star spangled sky with its unearthly fire.
"I never get tired of watching it," Victoria commented as she sat with Ben beside the fire, afraid to ask him exactly what it was she was eating.
"Were you born in Anchorage?"
"Seattle," she answered. "We moved to Anchorage when my sister was born. Jimmy worked for an oil company there."
"My step-father," she frowned down at the dark green concoction in her bowl. "Only Anne could call him 'Pop'."
Ben frowned down at his own bowl.
"You must have hated him," he offered dispassionately.
"No," Victoria sighed. "If I'd hated him it wouldn't have hurt so much."
She cast a curious frown at him. "Why?"
"I -- don't know," he shook his head. "Maybe because you never got to have the kind of family I did, that you should have had."
"You grew up with your grandparents," she remembered.
He nodded. "They were strict but I never doubted their love for me. And even though I rarely saw my father, I knew he loved me as well."
"And your mother?"
"When she was alive," he nodded, "yes. At least you had your mother."
"Not really," Victoria answered, turning back to the Northern Lights. "She did what she could, I guess, but Jimmy was her husband and she didn't argue with him. No one argued with Jimmy."
"I imagine that working for a major oil company, he wasn't home that much?"
Again Victoria nodded. "True enough but his presence was still there, you know? I didn't hang around home if I didn't have to."
"Is that how you fell in with Jolly?" he asked, leaning forward and studying her face as she remembered those not so distant times. "Hanging out after High School or something?"
"Pretty much," she answered. "His father was a big wheel. Politics, you know? Turned out he was dirty and got caught. Jolly was eighteen and his mother had died a couple years back so, when his old man was arrested, he suddenly found himself on the street. The guys who'd worked with his father took him under their wing and --" She shrugged. "It was a living."
"And when your mother died, he did the same for you," Ben completed for her.
Again she sighed and looked down. "He was good to me," she claimed, but Ben thought she was trying to convince herself more than him.
"And did you love him?" he asked quietly, remembering her words from before, but he wanted to hear what she thought now. Now that she wasn't half crazed with hypothermia.
She glanced up and speared him with her dark brown gaze again. It was always a shock when she did that, when she gave him that particular look. It was hard and cold, searching for something beyond what she could see in his eyes--
"Like what I feel now, you mean?" she asked bluntly.
Ben felt his heart skip a beat at this back-handed admission but she merely glanced away again.
"No," she continued, unaware or uncaring of his reaction to her words. "I owed him. --I think I told you that?"
He nodded, slipping his own mask firmly in place. She was more than capable of hurting him quite badly, and it wasn't something he wanted her to know. The instinct for self-preservation wasn't blind to who or what she was -- only his heart was that foolish.
"You felt obligated to help him in the commission of an armed felony." He was simply stating a fact, not asking a question, but Victoria frowned over at him again.
"Who's asking?" she demanded quietly. "Benton Fraser or Mr. Mountie?"
Ben felt a muscle along his jaw tick in response to the implied insult in her tone but he wouldn't apologize for being what he was. He was proud to be a Mountie.
"They're one and the same," he answered curtly.
"You think so?" she laughed. Obviously she didn't. "Are you telling me that you've never questioned your duty? Never had to wrestle with your conscious when your superiors told you to do something but you didn't agree with them?"
"It isn't my place to question my orders," he answered dogmatically.
She stared at him for a long moment and shook her head in wry amusement. "God, they've really got you brainwashed don't they! You honestly believe that?"
"I believe my superiors have more experience and information than I possess," he defended himself. "I trust that my orders are based on what is best, as they see it, in any given situation."
"Right," she offered sharply. "And they've never been wrong? They've never let you down?"
"No," he answered unequivocally, knowing it was something she couldn't really understand. "They haven't."
"How long have you been a cop?" she asked, cocking her head to the side as she regarded his staunch expression.
He glanced away with a slight frown. "Three and a half years."
"Ahhh!" she decided with a nod.
He lifted a brow in answer but didn't question that enigmatic response. Three and a half years wasn't long. Apparently, she figured he'd simply been lucky so far.
"They won't let me down in future either," he offered just as firmly.
She only smiled and he was distressed to see pity mixed in with her amusement. "You've got a lot to learn Benton Fraser," she decided and nodded to herself.
"No," he corrected her sadly. "I've just had better teachers than you have."
The following day was quite beautiful. The temperature soared into the fifties and the snow began to melt. This caused a number of problems and made Ben wish for his snow shoes again. It made picking their path through the forest a bit more difficult and the stream that Victoria had crossed four days before was now a small river.
"How do we get across?" she asked, frowning as she took off her scarf and put it in her pocket.
"We don't," he answered, heading up stream. "The head waters are about twenty kilometers south of here. It's actually a small off shoot of the Yukon. We don't need to cross it, only go around it."
"Sounds easier said then done," she thought aloud as she continued to follow him.
He offered the ground before him a smile for her pessimistic attitude. "It drops into a ravine and goes underground about half way up the mountain," he explained, and gestured at the mountain range before them.
"You expect us to climb that thing?" she asked, frowning at the majestic, snow crowned spires of rock that confronted them.
"No," he assured her. "We won't be crossing them. Peeler's only about thirty kilometers that way." He gestured northeast across the swollen waters of the river. The detour will only cost us half a day. We'll be there late tomorrow, as long as nothing happens."
"Can we take a rest stop," she asked suddenly. "We've been walking for hours!"
Ben was a little startled when he realized just how long they had been walking without a break. His mind -- well, his mind had been somewhere else, contemplating the woman behind him. He chastised himself for the inattention. Such distraction could get a person killed out here. He nodded and quickly found a large boulder where they could sit and rest for a few minutes.
He unslung his rifle and retrieved the orange juice bottle, now filled with water, from inside his jacket.
"What happened to my gun?" Victoria asked suddenly, frowning at his rifle.
Ben frowned in turn, suddenly reminded of the moment he'd first confronted her, when she'd pulled the snub nosed forty-five on him. He glanced back at Fortitude Pass. "It's still up there," he answered, chastising himself yet again. "I tossed it in the snow after I took it away from you." He was going to have to put himself on report for that faux pas, he knew. The Chief would probably make him go back and get it before the next major storm, and Ben had to wonder if he'd be able to find that particular crag again. It would be like looking for a black hair on a polar bear!
Victoria just shrugged. "That doesn't hurt me any."
He frowned at her suddenly. "It wasn't you who shot the guard was it?"
"No," she denied quickly. "I was in the car."
That didn't mean the guard hadn't been shot outside the bank, but he accepted her answer at face value. "Who did?"
"I don't know," she shrugged. "Jolly and Eddie just said it happened. That's all I know."
The guard had probably already identified his shooter. Ben dismissed it as unimportant and sipped his water.
"What happens once we get to Peeler?" she asked, opening her coat fully as the warmth of the day penetrated. Ben had removed the Arctic parka long ago and stowed it with his bed roll at the base of his back pack.
He returned her pensive gaze with a calm look that he hoped would be reassuring. "We go to the post and I turn you over to Sergeant MacFerson. He's a good man. You don't have to be afraid of him. Then, I make my statement concerning your surrender and you request legal aide. It's always best to have a lawyer present even if you plan to make a full confession."
"Confession?" she echoed as if the word left a bitter taste in her mouth.
He sighed. "Vicki, you're going to--"
"No!" she interrupted him sharply.
He was surprised at her sudden vehemence, especially given that he hadn't said anything yet! "I beg your pardon?"
"Don't call me Vicki!" she snapped angrily. "My name is Victoria."
"If -- that's what you want--"
"Jimmy used to call me Vicki. Just -- don't do it," she hissed.
His words only seemed to irritate her further. "Do you always apologize for stuff you don't know?"
"No," he replied and frowned as he thought about it. "Well--" It wasn't important. "I was merely apologizing for having upset you. I won't call you -- you know -- if you don't want me to."
"I don't!" she snapped again, and suddenly seemed to sag in on herself. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back, and Ben thought she might actually be fighting tears! "I'm sorry," she offered contritely, forcing herself to meet his gaze again. Ben thought he saw a misting in her brown eyes but she refused to acknowledge it. "I shouldn't have snapped at you like that."
"It's -- quite all right," he assured her, though in point of fact he was badly confused by the intensity of her reaction. He never had understood women very well and this was just another example of his inability to comprehend their motivations.
She suddenly leaned against him and put her arms around his waist. "Hold me Ben," she asked quietly. "Just hold me."
"Of course," he complied readily, still completely bewildered by what had just happened. At least she didn't seem to be angry any more. She nestled into his shoulder and held on tightly while he reached up and stroked her hair, offering her the comfort she seemed to need. Was this because of the talk about Peeler and turning her in? "You don't have to be afraid, Victoria," he offered quietly and pressed a kiss to her temple as he held her. "It'll be all right. I --"
"Shhh!" she ordered firmly without moving from his hold. "Just hold me."
Ben fell silent and did as she asked, not at all certain it was enough, but it seemed to be what she needed most at the moment.
Victoria's voice broke the gentle silence of the night and Ben blinked sharply as he brought his thoughts from the vague and comforting realm of sleep.
"Please. --I don't-- Oh God!"
She sat up suddenly, her cry sending a surge of adrenaline throughout his system even though he'd already determined that she was merely having a nightmare.
Ben sat up and wrapped his arms around her, offering her the comfort and reality of his embrace; but she wasn't awake yet and automatically fought him. He merely held on more tightly.
"Victoria!" he called firmly, her ear only centimeters from his mouth. "Victoria! Wake up! It's only a--"
He gasped, recognizing the cold, sharp feel of the knife he'd given her three days ago as it was suddenly pressed against his throat in silent warning. He would not have been surprised if, in her dream state, Victoria had used it to kill him.
"Let me go," she told him calmly.
"I'm not Jolly," he answered, not sure he should even move.
"I know who you are," she answered and it didn't sound like she was dreaming anymore. "Let me go," she repeated. There was no mistake it was an order.
Ben slowly released her but when he made to move back from the blade, it followed him and he froze again.
It was Victoria who leaned back slightly and regarded him with that strangely dispassionate and calculating look that so unnerved him. He knew he was looking into the eyes of a killer. Not that she had ever killed before, but that she could. Cold, hard, detached-- She was what Jimmy and Jolly had made her, what life had forced her to become in order to survive. The darkness he sensed within her was almost as much a part of her, as the RCMP was of him.
He accepted that fact, and accepted also that she could well kill him right now and escape into the night. They were close enough to Peeler that she didn't need him anymore. She could get to town and disappear again before anyone knew her name -- or they discovered his body.
He knew she was considering it -- and was frightened to realize he still loved her.
Gazing into her eyes was like watching a titanic war as her need for escape raged against her own badly beaten sense of morality. He was helpless to effect the outcome. All the words in the world would mean absolutely nothing to the darkness within her. It was a battle her own fragile love for him would have to win, but Ben wasn't sure it could.
"I don't like to feel trapped," she offered and glanced down to where she still held the blade to his throat.
Was she talking about his holding her when she woke from the nightmare or something deeper?
"Promise me I won't go to prison," she said, glancing back into his eyes again.
Ben refused to look away, though he knew his answer could well mean his death. "I can't do that, Victoria," he gave her the truth.
She blinked in apparent surprise and then frowned. Ben watched as her eyes filled with pain.
"Would it hurt so much to lie to me?" she whispered.
"Yes," he answered gently. "I don't make promises I can't keep."
"And you promise to help me?"
"I promise to do everything I can for you."
"You'll be at the trial?"
"I don't know," he answered again with the truth. "If you can make a really good deal, there might not be a trial."
"And if there is?"
"Then I will do everything I can to be there," he promised.
She dropped her eyes to the knife she'd forgotten she still held to his neck. A single drop of blood traced down the edge slowly to the handle.
"You're a fool Benton Fraser," she sighed and shook her head. With a deft twist of her wrist she flipped the blade over in her hand and offered it back to him, hilt first. "And so am I . . . ."
The weather turned cold again the next day, with a blustery little breeze and a few fluffy clouds skipping low across the sky. The snow which had melted the day before, now turned to ice, forming a thick slippery crust on everything. All around them, the forest creaked and groaned with the weight of ice. Occasionally, a sound like a gunshot would shatter the relative stillness and an overburdened limb would crash to earth somewhere in the distance.
The path they followed was also crusted. Sometimes it would support Ben's weight, other times he'd break through to the snow beneath and sink in up to his thigh. It made travel even more difficult than yesterday, and he knew they wouldn't make Peeler by nightfall as he'd hoped. They'd be lucky to make fifteen kilometers today.
He and Victoria had fallen into an uncomfortable silence when they woke in each other's arms this morning. The incident in the middle of the night wasn't mentioned, and they'd broken camp with an economy of time and conversation. Ben wasn't sure how to break the tension he felt stretching between them, or even if he should try. Victoria was wrestling with everything that had happened; and, at the moment, he wasn't sure she didn't wish she'd gone ahead and killed him. She was frightened and there was nothing more he could say to reassure her. His mind was on trying to find something safe to talk about when he heard the creak and felt a vibration through the soles of his feet.
He glanced straight up as another of those gunshot sounds, more like a small explosion this time, filled the air. Ben instantly realized he'd brought them too close to an ancient red pine. He didn't have time to shout a warning. He simple spun and shoved Victoria out of the way. There wasn't time for him to escape as well.
The limb that crashed down on him was huge. He instinctively raised his hands to protect his head, but he found himself knocked to the ground and inundated with snow and other debris. It all happened very quickly, but it felt like several minutes. He blinked his eyes open to discover himself buried in snow. Fortunately, it wasn't deep and he was able to dig himself free.
"Ben!" Victoria's voice shouted as he fought to shove side-shoot limbs and twigs aside so he could breathe. She raced toward the sound of his movement and was soon helping him shove the tangle of branches aside.
It was then he discovered his leg was pinned.
"Are you all right?" she asked anxiously. "My God! That thing could have killed you!"
"Rookie mistake," he chastised himself and winced as he tried to pull his leg free. "I should have never gotten that close to such an old tree." Water got into cracks in the bark and expanded when it froze, over a period of years weakening such limbs as this. Put too much weight on them, and they came crashing down.
"Are you okay?" she repeated in concern.
"--I think so," he answered after a quick inventory. He was damn lucky and he knew it. "My leg's caught, but I don't think it's broken."
"Caught how?" she asked, bending to watch over his shoulder as he sat up and tried to excavate the snow and debris from around his trapped leg. He was caught at an odd angle, making it hard, and she reached forward with the arctic gloves he'd given her to help as best she could. Ben glanced along the limb, evaluating his situation and realized that a small boulder about three meters away was the only reason he still had a leg to worry about. The limb was the size of a small tree, more than half a meter in diameter and about five meters long. He figured it must weight at least five hundred kilograms.
There was no way they were going to move it. He tried pulling his leg free again but he was trapped at the knee. His calf and boots were too big. From the feel of it, removing his boots wouldn't help.
"Damn," Victoria hissed as she continued to clear the area. "Are you sure it's not broken? Can you move it?"
"Yeah," he answered, moving his lower leg a few centimeters. The pressure on his knee wouldn't permit more. "It's not broken, but I can't pull it free. And I don't think we're going to move this limb."
"What do we do?" she asked with a worried frown.
"We dig it out," he decided.
"With what?" she asked. "I don't remember seeing a shovel in your back pack."
"With my hatchet," he told her and struggled to unsling his rifle so he could get out of his back pack. He handed the weapon to Victoria and ignored the pensive look she gave it before turning and setting it aside. He knew what she was thinking, knew she was still tempted, but if she were going to kill him she would have done so last night. He struggled out of the straps of the back pack and Victoria helped him lift it to where he could reach it. Strapped to the right side was what he wanted. He fumbled with the lacings that held it in place and finally managed to free it. He turned to find Victoria standing about two meters away, frowning at him with her arms wrapped about herself.
"Victoria?" he frowned in turn.
"The ground's frozen," she offered with a shake of her head. She took another step back. "I can't do it."
She was going to run he realized. He read it in her eyes.
"I'll send someone back from Peeler," she promised. "You'll be all right 'till then."
"Victoria!" he shouted and jerked at his knee. She turned and headed for the forest. "Victoria! You'll be running for the rest of your life!" he warned her. "Is that what you really want?"
And she was running, disappearing into the underbrush as fast as she could.
He swung the hatchet again. KaChing! It bounced as it struck the frozen ground, barely biting into the rock-hard soil. Ben couldn't swing it hard enough to be effective at this angle. He'd been working at it for about two hours, ever since Victoria had run off and left him trapped beneath a downed limb.
Ben sighed, breathing heavily, and paused to frown up at the sky. Another storm was closing in. If it was a bad one, he was going to be in some real trouble. He had his back pack and could rig a lean-to over himself. Sitting on the bare, frozen ground wasn't going to help him any but he could survive, as long as it didn't snow too much and the wind didn't turn and come from the north. If it did, he could be buried here. A more serious danger was the possibilty of frost bite in his trapped leg. The same pressure that held him pinned also restricted blood flow. Add to that a good cover of snow, and even his mukluks wouldn't be able to protect him.
He had to get free. That was that. He twisted around as far as he could and swung the hatchet again. KaChing! --KaChung!
"Not having much luck, are you?"
Ben very nearly dropped the hatchet when he heard Victoria's voice behind him. He turned and stared at her, wondering if he was suffering a worse case of hypothermia than he thought. Was he halucinating now?
She was standing about two meters away, her arms wrapped around her in much the same way as they had been just before she ran.
"You came back," he stated the obvious in disbelief.
She merely shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "What if I boil some water. Would that help soften the ground?"
"I doubt it," he answered. "It's too cold and would only freeze, making the situation even worse."
"What can I do?"
"Can you swing a hatchet straight?"
"Is it like a hammer?"
"I can drive an eight penny nail with two strokes."
He lifted his brows in surprise. That kind of thing took practice. "You'll do," he decided and offered her the handle.
She hesitated a long moment before hurrying forward and taking it from him.
"What do you want me to do with it?" she asked, refusing to meet his eyes.
He frowned up at her pensively but kept his questions for later. "I can't swing it hard enough to do any good. You might have better luck. Be careful. It'll bounce."
She nodded expressionlessly, and moved to frown at his leg and the shallow indention he'd managed to create beside it. It was his right leg that was trapped. His left leg was free because there was slightly more room on that side; but, given his position, he hadn't been able to work at freeing his leg from the left side.
"Lay on your stomach," she ordered him, "and spread your legs."
He did as requested, ignoring the feeling of helplessness the position instilled, especially as she straddled his hips.
"I don't suppose I should ask why you came back?" he heard himself offer as she prepared to swing.
KaThunk! He felt the vibration of the blow quite close to his knee.
"No," she agreed. "You shouldn't."
He held his own council after that and remained silent as she worked. Every few minutes, she'd stop and use her hands to brush away the debris. It had started to snow when she climbed off him. She knelt at his side and held out her hand.
"Give me your knife."
Ben glanced up at her and caught her eyes, but he didn't hesitate. He deftly reached for his belt and retrieved the hunting blade without breaking eye contact. Her face was a careful mask devoid of emotion and he couldn't begin to guess what she was thinking. She took the knife without a word and leaned down between his legs. He turned around again and ignored where her left hand rested, supporting her weight as she worked the blade carefully under his knee, finishing the undercut she'd made to free his leg. He felt the ground crumble away and twisted his leg to the side.
"Hold still!" she ordered. "Unless you want to get cut!"
He complied and waited until she sat up again. "Now try it," she said.
He twisted his leg to the side and his knee easily slipped free, but his mukluk got caught. He tried to reach the laces but it was impossible.
It took Victoria another hour to widen and deepen the small trench enough so he could slip his entire leg free. He stood up and tested it. Victoria stood at his side, supporting him. He nodded as it took his full weight with nothing more than a slight twinge.
"I think it's just bruised," he decided.
Victoria nodded as well and offered him back the hunting knife. He hesitated before taking it, knowing the offer signified more than just the return of his blade.
"Thank you," he said, glancing up and catching her eyes again.
"I should have run," she told him stoically.
"I thought you had--"
She glanced away and shook her head. "I'm a fool," she repeated something she'd said about herself before.
Ben frowned and reached out to take her chin in his hand, forcing her to look at him.
"No," he told her firmly. "You are not a fool. You're a frightened young woman who's been forced into a terrible situation and you're confused. But you're not a fool. You made the right choice."
Her gaze dropped to his lips and Ben knew she was going to kiss him. He was more than willing to meet her halfway. He wasn't shocked this time. He reveled in the fell of her lips beneath his, the gentle light sweetness of her touch-- The kiss ended and he gazed down into her eyes, seeing a gentle ember of something behind the dark wall of fear that still held her.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. He wondered if she'd ever said that before and really meant it?
He shook his head, denying the need to apologize. "You came back," he stated firmly. "The rest doesn't matter."
She mutely questioned that assertion and searched his eyes. Ben merely smiled and let her see again that love he couldn't deny, no matter how foolish it was. Victoria was not the cold, heartless woman that she pretended to be. If she was, she would have killed him while she had the chance -- and she certainly wouldn't have come back to help him. She was wrestling with her own soul -- and the darkness within her was losing.
All she needed was a second chance, and he was certain she could turn her life around.
"I'm scared Ben," she admitted.
He nodded his understanding and held her close again, refusing to offer empty words of assurance. A person didn't always get a second chance. . . . He was frightened as well and prayed it would be all right.
Ben did not sleep well that night. In his dreams he saw Victoria swept up in a justice system he didn't understand and spirited away where he couldn't follow. The verdict of an angry jury echoed in his ears. Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! He found himself in a dank, underground prison cell somewhere in the far north, with only the sound of the wind howling outside for company. Victoria came into the cell and there was blood on the front of her prison guard uniform. "You betrayed me!" she claimed and lifted his hunting knife to stab him.
He jerked awake, barely cognizant enough to keep a cry from escaping. It came out as a gasp.
He was in a lean-to. It was the middle of the night and snowing again. And Victoria was in his arms. He had not turned her in yet. She had not been extradited to the US. She had not been tried and found guilty.
Ben closed his eyes and fought to slow his heart as relief replaced the fear which had gripped him.
"Ben?" Victoria called softly, turning over in his arms.
"It's all right," he told her and brushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes. "Just a nightmare. Go back to sleep."
She continued to stare at him, her gaze roaming over the planes of his face, and a small smile pulled at her lips.
"I'm glad I came back," she offered in a whisper.
"Why did you?" he asked without really thinking, remembering only after the words had escaped that she'd told him not to ask.
"--I don't know," she answered. He saw the truth in her eyes, but it was a truth that frightened her. "You made me a promise and I decided to hold you to it."
There was more to it than that, he knew, but it was all she was capable of giving him right now. She'd trusted him once before, when he'd told her to surrender. She'd chosen to trust him again.
He stroked her check where the hood of her coat touched her skin and offered her a reassuring smile.
"I won't let you down," he promised her.
She awarded him a smile of her own, but he saw the shadow of darkness in her eyes again as she told him quite firmly, "You'd better not."
Prayers and Promises
"There," he pointed across the rolling hills from the crest of the rise. In the distance lay the sprawling town of Peeler. Slender threads of smoke could be seen reaching straight up into the clear mid-afternoon sky with the majesty of the Pelly Mountains to the Northeast and the Dawson Range to the Northwest. Peeler sat in a small section of tundra in the heart of what was a very mountainous land.
"You seem happy," Victoria noted, coming to stand beside him and frown at the distant sight.
He glanced at her, knowing anything he might say would be interpreted wrong. He kept silent.
"Not very big is it?"
"The entire population of the Yukon Territories is less than thirty thousand at present, sixty percent of whom live in Whitehorse, the Capital. Peeler is centrally located, making it an ideal location for an RCMP Outpost. I believe we have a fluctuating population of around two thousand and about twenty-percent of that is indigenous, mostly Inland Tlingit peoples," he supplied, leading the way forward once more. "The majority of the population are involved in a zinc mining operation to the north, although there are a few gold and silver prospetors among them, and of course the support infrastructure of any small town, the school, post office, Out Post--"
"Ben," she interrupted his narrative, "I really don't care."
"Oh," he answered, realizing he'd been rambling again. It was something he often did when he was nervous. "Is there something else you'd like to talk about?"
"I think I prefer not to right now, if you don't mind," she answered. "This is hard enough without having to make small talk."
Ben paused and looked back over his shoulder. "It'll be all right, Victoria," he promised yet again. "Make a deal and tell them the truth. You have nothing to be afraid of."
"What if Jolly or Eddie already made a deal, and it's me they want to roast?"
"That's hardly likely, given what you've told me," he shook his head. "You were only the wheel man. Either Jolly or Eddie, which ever one survived, is a much bigger fish than you are. And don't forget that my report will also help. You did surrender. That will count in your favor."
She didn't respond, merely frowned darkly at the snow covered ground before them and kept moving. He turned his attention back to the tundra. The path before her wasn't an easy one, but then neither was the one that had lead her here. There was nothing he could say that would make the next several steps any easier, but he knew that if she persevered, she'd come out the better for it and with an endless choice of paths before her.
They continued on throughout the afternoon, and occasionally Ben would have to stop and wait for her to catch up. Her steps were lagging, from more than physical exhertion, but not enough to require comment. He knew they would make Peeler shortly after dark even at this pace.
"Ben," she called just as the sun was starting to sink below the mountain ridge to their left. He turned to find her paused about five meters behind him. She didn't continue toward him so he went to her. She looked very tired.
"Need a rest?" he asked, knowing they'd been walking for several hours, but the pace was slow and he hadn't-- She nodded. He immediately unslung his rifle and then slipped out of his back pack. He put it down and waved her to it. There was nowhere else to sit except the snow covered ground but he wasn't particularly tired.
"What's that?" she asked, pointing to where a narrow spire rose over the horizon of the next hill. They'd stopped in a small dip in the land and the rest of the town was obscured from sight.
"The steeple of Saint Matthew's," he answered. "The local church. It's shared by the Catholics and Protestants alike. It marks the southern boundary of the town."
She nodded and frowned pensively for a long moment. "Do you believe there's really a God?" she asked quietly. "I mean, like someone who really gives a damn about anything that happens down here?"
He frowned pensively and squatted beside her. "I do," he answered simply.
She turned pain filled eyes to him as the day slowly turned to twilight. "Then why doesn't He hear my prayers?" she whispered harshly. "Why has He never heard my prayers?!"
"I believe He has, Victoria," Ben answered with quiet conviction. "I believe He hears every prayer that everyone has ever offered. But I also believe He reserves the right to say 'no'."
"Why?!" she demanded and he wasn't surprised when she dashed a hand across her check. "Why does He always say 'no' to me?"
Ben shook his head. "He doesn't, but sometimes we don't understand His answer. It isn't always what we think we want."
She shook her head, not really listening. "I mean-- I'm not, you know, a regular church going believer or anything. Most of them are hypocrits anyway. But I'm not a serial murderer or rapist either. I didn't ask to fall in with Jolly. I didn't have a choice. 'He' didn't give me any choice!"
"There are always choices Victoria."
"Like what?" she snapped. "Starvation? Prostitution? Those aren't choices Ben! I did what I had too. It was that simple!"
Ben sighed and looked down at the ground. He fully believed that there had been other options but apparently she hadn't seen them, and pointing them out to her now wouldn't change the decisions she'd already made.
"My Grandmother used to say 'God works in mysterious ways'," he offered quietly. "There's always a reason for what happens, but we very rarely understand what it is until it's too late -- if at all."
She stared at him for a long moment and offered a bitter little laugh. He didn't think she was even aware that she was crying. "God, you're such an idealist. How is it possible that I've fallen in love with you?"
Ben's breath caught in his throat and his heart missed several beats.
She leaned forward and her fingers feathered across his temple, down his cheek to his jaw. "Look at us," she shook her head, another crystaline tear tracing a path down her cheek. "I'm a wanted felon and you're Dudley Do-right. Talk about star-crossed lovers. Romeo and Juliet all over again. Do you think our story will end any better?"
"I don't know," he answered honestly. "But I know we don't stand a chance until you've gotten through this, until you've dealt with the choices you've already made and put your past behind you."
He reached out and gently wiped her tears away, willing his strength into her. She blinked and looked away, glancing back at the steeple in the distance, now a black shadow against a starlit sky.
"Do we have to do it tonight?" she asked in a harsh whisper. She glanced back at him, her eyes pleading.
"I -- don't have anything for dinner," he offered in excuse, knowing he shouldn't even hesitate to take her in tonight but unable to simply refuse her.
"I don't care!" she railed and the tears threatened again. "I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow and neither do you. I'm scared and I don't want to spend the night in a prison cell. I want to spend it in your arms, making love with you. I want to forget about Jolly and the bank robbery, and I want to forget you're a Mountie. I want tonight. If I can't have anything else ever again, I want you and this night. Is that really too much to ask?"
Ben knew he shouldn't even consider making love with her, but it was impossible not to imagine; and, in imagining, not to want it as much-- if not more -- than she did. He found himself kissing her without conscious decision, and found her returning his kiss with a passion beyond imagining. He was lost and knew it.
It might be all they'd ever have, but they would have it -- and damn the consequences.
Chains of Honor
She was crying.
It was silent and her back was to him, but it tore his heart out just the same. Ben stared up at the Northern Lights, dancing in ageless glory across the sky, and added his own questions about the cruelty of fate to those she'd asked him only hours ago. Why, out of all the women on this planet, was it Victoria Metcalfe he had to fall for?
Passion and desire were spent as Ben pulled her closer against him in the already tight confines of the sleeping bag, offering nothing more than the security and comfort of his embrace.
"Let me go," she whispered in the dark.
Her words caused a strange sense of pain in the vicinity of his heart, but he did as she asked, returning his arm to his side and rolling slightly away as he remembered how she hated to feel trapped.
"That's not what I meant Ben," she told him and turned over, rising up on one elbow to face him. "Let me go!" she repeated emphatically.
Her face was largely cast in shadow by the reflected moonlight of the snow, but he could still see the pain and fear that melted her eyes and traced twin crystalline pathways down her cheeks.
Her plea felt like someone had hit him in the gut. Ben closed his eyes as he shook his head. "Don't," he whispered. "Please don't ask me that!"
"Why not?" she cried. "Ben, I haven't done anything wrong, not really and you know it! Yes, I was the wheel man in a bank robbery, but what choice did I have? Jolly needed me. He may not be the greatest of guys, but he was my friend. I helped a friend and for that I'm supposed to go to jail!? Ben, where's the justice in that!"
Ben fought the constriction that was tightening around his throat and wrestled with the terrible pain her words were inflicting. He knew what she said was true. He also knew she had committed a crime. Her partners had gotten away with more than half a million dollars and they'd shot a guard in the process. According to the law, she was equally guilty of the crime. And he was sworn to uphold the law. He'd told her he never made a promise he couldn't keep -- and the oath he'd taken when he graduated from the academy went beyond the power of a mere promise. He was duty bound to bring her in, no matter what his personal feeling in the matter were.
"Ben," she continued, almost begging him now, "you said they don't know who I am. They don't even know my name. You don't have to tell them. I could just walk away! Start over. . . ."
"If you make a deal--"
"Forget the deal!" she snapped. "It doesn't matter what kind of deal I make. I don't know where the money is! If Jolly or Eddie doesn't talk, I'm going to prison and you know it! Can you tell me that my going to prison would really serve whatever you think of as justice?"
He swallowed painfully because, based on what she'd told him, he knew it wouldn't. He also knew that she was right. Unless the authorities in Anchorage got that money back, she was looking at doing time. He wasn't certain how the American justice system worked but it wasn't that different from Canada.
"Let me go!" she whispered.
Ben opened his eyes and stared into the liquid depths of her brown eyes. God, he was tempted -- and that fact alone terrified him. Never before had he questioned his duty. Never before had his heart dictated one thing and his mind and ideals another. It would be so easy -- and so impossible --
If he let her go, he wouldn't just be breaking his oath to the Queen and RCMP but everything that they stood for. He wasn't her judge and jury. It wasn't his place to decide what she had and had not done to deserve punishment.
If he let her go, then he was betraying his own belief in the system he'd sworn to give his life to defend. No matter how great the cost to him personally, he could not do that.
He shook his head and felt tears of his own threaten.
"Who would know Ben?" she pleaded one last time. "No one would ever know!"
"I would know."
Victoria closed her eyes and shook her head in dismay, clearly unable to understand what he was talking about. Given the pain and uncertainty of her background, he really wasn't surprised. She'd never been given any ideals to believe in. After a long moment, she sighed and gazed at him in numb disbelief.
"Is seeing me in jail your idea of love Ben?" she rejoined bitterly. "Will you visit me on holidays?"
Her eyes turned to ice. "If you're wrong, and they put me in prison Ben, I don't ever want to see you again. Do you understand? Don't even bother to write! Your love of duty can keep you warm at night, because mine will be cold as ash.'"
"Victoria--" he whispered in a voice without sound.
"I mean it Ben!" she snapped, turning her back to him once again. "Your almighty duty is more important than our love. And for that I pity you."
Ben knew she was lashing out in fear and pain, but the words pierced his heart all the same. He could not promise that she wouldn't go to prison and he couldn't let her go either. He swallowed his tears and grabbed onto that sense of duty she dared compare with his love for her, but it wasn't like that. His duty was a part of who he was. He could no more cast it aside than he could stop breathing. His course was bound in chains of honor forged in the blood of his father and his father's father. To deny that truth, would be to deny himself.
He stared back up at the kaleidoscope of color that was the Northern Lights and felt a single tear escape his rigid control.
Ben rose before dawn and sat on his back pack outside the lean-to. He couldn't sleep anyway and laying with her. . . . Victoria wasn't sleeping either but he decided against challenging her pretense. He'd give her until mid-morning, 'though he doubted she'd attempt the ruse that long. She'd asked him for the night; and, for whatever it was now worth, he would give it to her. Besides, he wasn't at all certain he could withstand temptation were she to ask him one more time to let her go.
A part of his heart had died when she turned her back on him and vowed that, if she went to jail, she would never want to see him again. He wasn't certain they could make a future even if she didn't go to prison, but her words had ended even the dream. Now, all he felt was empty -- and so very, very alone. . . .
He'd been alone for a long time. Sometimes it felt like that was all he knew, how to be alone. He'd learned long ago to relish the wide open spaces of the Northwest Territories and his own sense of self-reliance. There was a pride in there somewhere, which was neither boastful not humble, that no man could take from him.
But this pain was a new feeling. . . .
No, he corrected the thought. He'd felt this way once before: The day he realized his mother wasn't coming home.
Ben stopped trying to wrestle with the pain and simply let it rage. It would eventually burn lower he knew, but never leave him. It was something he'd have to live with, even as he had to live with the fact that it was self-inflicted. He could have chosen--
No! He couldn't. Not and live with himself. His convictions didn't lessen his pain, but they gave him the strength he needed to bare it. He would do his duty, and he would pray for the best.
And he would survive whatever happened.
Somewhere in the Great Scheme of things, he was sure there was a reason for it. He didn't know what it was, but he had to accept that there was a reason or go insane. There was nothing more he could do. . . .
When Justice and Duty Collide
The sun was still cradled in the arms of the mountains when Victoria rose without a word and moved to stand about two meters away, staring across the snow covered hills to where several thick ropes of smoke snaked into the crystal blue sky and mingled with a gentle breeze. Ben was incapable of breaking that silence and simply hurried about the necessity of repacking the supplies in his back pack. Within ten minutes, they were ready to go and he stood chewing his lower lip as he struggled to find something to say.
Everything had already been said.
"Are you ready then?" he asked lamely.
"No," she answered curtly, without even a glance in his direction. "Does it matter?"
He sighed and shoved the pain aside again. If that had irritated her, he expected his next words would really draw thunder. "I want your word that you won't try to escape when we get into town."
Now, she looked at him, but he met her icy glare without flinching.
"And if I refuse?" she dared ask.
"Then I will tie your hands behind your back and everyone will know you're my prisoner," he answered just as coldly. He wouldn't even give her the option if she were a man.
"I'm supposed to have surrendered, Constable Fraser," she rejoined and turned to start walking in the necessary direction. "It wouldn't exactly 'reflect well' on me if I were to try and run now would it?"
Ben offered another weary sigh and moved to follow her. Her determined pace faltered as they got closer to town and he was soon walking beside her. He directed her down the necessary streets and avoided eye contact with those who recognized him. A few called greetings but most were more curious about his companion. Peeler wasn't exactly a resort town and strangers were easily spotted. It was early enough that the few who were about didn't try to stop them, amd they made it to the Out Post without incident.
Once inside, routine and procedure took over. Fortunately, the holding cell was empty. Grimly, he directed Victoria inside, locked the door and went in search of the Sergeant. The Sergeant found him first.
"Who's this?" Sergeant MacFerson asked as he regarded the young woman Ben had brought in.
"Victoria Metcalfe, Sir," Ben answered stoically. "She was the wheel man in that armed robbery in Alaska. She surrendered to me four days ago."
"Her?" the Sergeant repeated, somewhat surprised to learn it was a woman but he quickly dismissed it. "We got some bad news back on that case. The guard they shot didn't make it. The charges against her now include Armed Robbery and First Degree Murder. She's going to be going away for quite some time. Good work, Ben."
The older man clapped him on the shoulder and smiled -- but Ben felt as if a hole had just opened up under his feet. He stared off into space in shock. He'd never thought to question the assumption he was given that the guard would likely recover.
"Ben?" the Sergeant frowned, seeing the stunned look and glance the younger man cast the prisoner. Ben knew he saw too much and fought to regain his composure, but it was too late.
His friend also saw the look Victoria gave him.
"I see. . . ."
"Sir?" Ben asked, fighting to play innocent and failing miserably.
"Come with me, Fraser," the older man ordered. "We need to talk."
Ben had no choice but to follow.
"John!" Sergeant MacFerson called out as he held the door to the Chief's office open for Ben. He waved the senior Constable to the holding cell. "Get Ms. Metcalfe processed: The Alaska wheel man, and make sure you administer the Caution first."
"Sir?" John frowned in obvious confusion.
Sergeant MacFerson turned raised brows to Ben. "Did you administer it, Ben?"
Fraser frowned and shook his head, prepared for the question. "She surrendered Sir," he answered with a light shrug. "I didn't see the need."
"Ah huh," the other man nodded and turned back to the other Constable. "Just do it, John, and make sure no one disturbs us." He waved Ben on inside and closed the door behind them.
Ben wondered where the Chief was but suspected he was probably down in Whitehorse for some official meeting or other. For which Ben was quite grateful. Dealing with Sergeant MacFerson was going to be hard enough.
"Okay Ben," the older man sighed and leaned up against the Chief's desk. "I take it something happened."
"Something," the other repeated with a significant tilt of his head. "Now, I can wait for your report and try to read between the lines. I know you well enough to know you won't lie, but I think I can also spot those areas where you're holding something back. I can draw my own conclusions, if I must -- or you can save me the trouble and keep me from making some rather ugly assumptions."
Ben closed his eyes and sighed. Yes. The Sergeant had seen far too much.
"Your decision Ben," the older man prompted gently.
Ben glanced up and read the patient understanding in the other man's eyes. He nodded. "Something happened."
The Sergeant folded his arms and waited -- and Ben told him, the abbreviated version anyway. It was more than enough.
The Sergeant nodded, staring at the floor as Ben finally fell silent. "You won't be putting all that in your report, I'm sure," he observed quietly. "I'm equally sure you haven't told me all of it. No Ben." He stopped the younger man from protesting. "It's okay. I don't expect you to tell me all of it. I've been there before myself."
Sergeant MacFerson offered the younger man a weary smile. "Yes Constable," he admitted. "I can still remember what it's like to be young." He sighed and stared back through the passages of his memory. "I was in Moosejaw. She was a runaway. Nothing as dramatic as you've described, but her story got more than a little under my skin. Physical abuse, that sort of thing. She'd stolen some jewelry. I got personally involved. Hell, I got more than personally involved." He paused and gave Ben a significant frown, "and that's as specific as I'm going to get about it. Suffice it to say, I understand more than you think."
"Yes Sir," Ben glanced away uncomfortably.
"Give me your badge Ben."
Ben's head jerked up. "Sir?"
MacFerson merely nodded and held out his hand.
Ben felt himself pale as he forced himself to retrieve his wallet and removed the requested symbol of his profession. Apparently he was to be brought up on Charges of Misconduct. There'd be a Fitness Review Board and he knew they'd dig much deeper than MacFerson had. He also knew he was guilty and could be kicked off the Force for it.
He handed the badge over and stood to attention, wondering if MacFerson had been brought up on charges for his own incident.
MacFerson frowned down at the badge in his hand, tracing the raised boarder.
"Did that hurt Constable?
Ben frowned and swallowed around a tight throat. "Sir?" he asked confused, maintaining his attitude of attention and staring at the wall before him.
"I asked if handing your badge over hurt," MacFerson repeated pedantically and tossed the item in question negligently to the center of the Chief's desk.
Ben swallowed again but his mouth was dry. "Yes Sir," he managed to answered firmly.
"Did turning Ms. Metcalfe in hurt?"
"Don't analyze my questions Ben," the Sergeant frowned sharply. "Just answer them. Did turning Ms. Metcalfe in hurt?"
"As much as turning in your badge?"
Ben frowned and blinked sharply, fighting to maintain his attitude of attention--
"Don't answer that," the other told him even as he wrestled with the question. Ben was glad he didn't have to respond because he wasn't sure he could.
"Did she ask you to let her go? --Answer."
"Did she beg you to let her go?"
Ben closed his eyes for a long moment as the pain of that memory threatened to overwhelm his self-discipline. He snapped his eyes open again and forced the memory aside. "Yes Sir."
"Before or after you made love with her?"
Ben felt himself pale again. He hadn't told the Sergeant that!
"Don't answer that one either," MacFerson instructed concisely and folded his arms again. "You've got it bad, don't you." It wasn't a question. Ben watched in his periphery as the other man sighed and contemplated the hard wood floor beneath his feet. "When's the last time you had your ears checked Constable?
Ben was completely thrown by the non-sequitur. "--Sir?!"
"There are many different kinds of love Ben," MacFerson told him stoically. "But they can be divided into two basic categories. One of them is the wild, overwhelming emotional roller-coaster you're on right now. I tend to think of it as an inner-ear imbalance. Sometime's it benign, just something that passes through our lives to become something else -- if we're lucky. Sometimes's it's an infection. And it can be very serious, even life threatening. It can make you do things you would never even consider doing under normal circumstances. That one isn't healthy.
"The second kind of love," he continued, cocking his head to the side as he lifted his eyes to consider Ben again, "is what your father and mother had. It may have started off as an inner-ear imbalance, I don't know, but that kind of love is more than emotion. It's based on commitment and respect and shared values. It's the kind of love a man might feel for the RCMP, if he wanted to dedicate his life to the force." He cocked his head in the other direction. "Are you understanding what I'm talking about here Ben?"
"Yes Sir," he answered.
The Sergeant nodded. "The first kind can be very seductive and definitely overwhelming, and I am not in anyway saying it isn't just as powerful or real as the other -- but it's important to know the differences. To know if you need to have your ears checked more often. And with that said I'll get off the lectern and let you get back to work. Oh--"
He turned and picked Ben's badge back up. He gazed down on it for a long moment.
"Everything I just said was strictly off the record. You turned her in and that's the bottom line as far as I'm concerned." He offered the badge back and gave Ben a very significant frown. "Don't lose this," he warned quietly.
"No Sir," Ben agreed and deftly reinserted the badge into his wallet as the Sergeant walked past him back into the main office. He closed his eyes and offered a soul deep sigh of relief. The moment he'd been forced to hand it over hadn't been any different than when he'd realized Victoria was holding his own knife to his throat. And the moment the Sergeant gave him back the badge wasn't any different than the moment Victoria gave him back his knife.
Maybe the Sergeant was right and Ben should make an appointment with the local doctor. . . .
It was three o'clock in the morning and the sun was on the rise again. It was mid-summer, and in this part of the Yukon, that equated to only about three hours of darkness: A fact for which Ben was quite grateful.
Ben had spent the last seven days tracking down an over-due pair of hunters when Mrs. James, the wife and mother of the pair, had reported them missing. The man had fallen into a bear pit and broken his leg. His fourteen year old son, though well trained for the wilderness, simply wasn't strong enough to pull his father back to civilization via a travois on foot. They'd been smart enough to hole up and wait for help to find them, but after ten days Mr. James was in pretty serious condition. If the accident had happened in the late fall or winter, Ben doubted he would have found either of them alive.
They were pretty far back in the mountains and it had been impossible to call in a rescue chopper to fly them out. Ben had rigged a travois and set out at a moderate pace, aiming for a high point of land where his walkie-talkie would be of some use.
Now it was simply a matter of waiting. He scanned the horizon to the southwest again, knowing Kari would be coming in from that direction, and resisted the urge to scratch his seven day beard. He'd been too busy pushing himself, and then nursemaiding the two lost hunters, to bother with shaving. When this was over he was going to spend at least an hour soaking in a hot bath. Make that two, he corrected the thought as he finally spotted the flying lights of the Rescue Helicopter against the twilight darkness of the morning sky.
He turned to where the boy knelt beside his father. "They're coming in now," he told them. "Won't be long."
Ten minutes later, he was holding onto his Stetson and using his body as a wind break for the injured father as the rotor wash from the copter swept over them. Ten more minutes and he was waving as the helicopter sped the injured and exhausted pair to the nearest hospital for treatment. He sighed as it veered sharply to the south once more and he was left with the silence and peace of the open wilderness.
Often at the end of a manhunt, he felt a let down. He was quite familiar with PCS or Post Chase Syndrome, but he never felt it after a rescue operation, at least not if it went well. He knew the pair were in good hands and the father stood a good chance of making a full recovery, despite his ordeal. No, no let down this time.
Ben turned back to the south as well. He was about a day out of Little River. He should be able to catch a ride back to Peeler and be filling out the necessary paper work this time Thursday. Well, not this time, he corrected himself. He wasn't in the habit of filling out forms at four o'clock in the morning! He walked over to where he'd left his back pack and knelt to release his bed roll. It was nice enough he didn't need a lean-to but he did need some rest. He'd get a few hours of sleep before heading back at a more reasonable hour. Of course, he'd already thrown his circadian rhythm badly out by pushing himself so hard, so 'reasonable' was a subjective concept.
Ben had finished his preliminary report and was looking forward to his own bed when the Postman walked into the Out Post.
"Ben!" Pete Bishop greeted him warmly. "'Bout time you showed back up. Your mail slot is getting kinda full and everyone's dying to know what's in the box. Who's Victoria?"
Ben blinked in surprise as the name he hadn't heard in several months suddenly awoke an intense pain somewhere deep in his gut. He frowned in confusion and glanced to the incoming mail slots against the west wall where all the Out Post personnel received both their private and official correspondence. On the floor below his place was a long narrow box wrapped in brown butcher paper. He was the center of attention as he quickly went over and picked it up.
He glanced around and caught Sergeant MacFerson's eye.
"Hey, we don't have enough work to do around here?" the older man came to his rescue. "Give the man his privacy. Thomas where's that inventory I asked for last week?"
The Out Post returned to normal and Ben sighed in relief before he frowned at his mail slot. There were several letters there but he recognized the one on top. He'd sent it out three weeks ago. It had been marked 'return to sender' in bold red ink. The pain in his gut moved to his heart as he glanced at the return address of the box he held in his hand-- Sixth Street Jail, Anchorage, Alaska.
They'd moved her and that couldn't be good.
The lawyer he had helped her retain had managed to tie everything up for almost six months. Ben didn't know the specifics of the negotiations waged between Victoria and the prosecuting attorneys concerning her testemony against Jolly, except that it was apparently ugly. Victoria had been instructed to limit her contact with him. Ben was the arresting officer even if he had volunteered as a character witness. He had been horrified to learn that the charges against her included three counts of Murder, one for the guard, one for her partner who'd died as a direct result of the crime, and one for Eric, 'though that one had been down graded to Criminal Homicide as it was tied to the theft of the plane, or Grand Larceny, and not the Armed Robbery. Not being familar with American law, Ben hadn't been aware she could be charged with anything other than Accessory after the Fact. She was facing life in prison and that knowledge twisted a knife deep in Ben's heart. No matter how good a deal she made, he knew she would have to do major time -- and he couldn't see the justice in it. She was being railroaded and there was nothing he could do to help her. The only thing either the prosecution or defense wanted from him was a sworn deposition of events leading up to and following her surrender. He'd been forced to include things he'd rather not remember, such as her pulling a gun on him and her aborted escape after her surrender. He had not been required to testify because there had been no trial.
He retrieved the rest of his mail and headed back to the small tenement he called his own before daring to open the box he carried. Several people greeted him in route and he forced himself to reply politely despite the anxiety he felt. Once in his apartment, he tossed his Stetson onto the bed and moved to the kitchen table where the small black and white photo he'd recovered on the Pass rested. Taking a knife, he slit open the tape holding the paper and quickly unwrapped the package.
It was a florist's box.
He opened it -- and drew in a sharp breath. Nestled in white tissue paper was a dead, black rose. It hadn't died while waiting for his return. Clearly, it had been that way when originally sent. . . .
There was a card. He picked it up and flipped it open.
Ben closed his eyes and bowed his head. He'd failed her. She was very lucky it was only ten years, but they were ten years he's stolen from her. He'd promised her it would be all right. He'd promised her-- He hadn't even been able to be there for her. The Sergeant had made certain he was too busy, and that his request for leave was denied.
He knew why. A part of him even agreed with it. But none of it seemed to matter as he stared down at the picture beside the black rose on the kitchen table and heard her words echo in his mind.
'If you're wrong, and they put me in prison Ben, I don't ever want to see you again. -- Don't even bother to write. -- Your love of duty can keep you warm at night, because mine will be cold as ash.'
Or death, he thought, understanding the meaning behind the rose too well. All she'd needed was that second chance -- If she could have gotten off, she could have turned her life around. Whether he would be part of it or not didn't matter. She would have been free of Jolly and Jimmy and she could have made a new start.
But he'd stolen that from her. He had done his duty -- and for the first time in his life Ben regretted it, regretted it bitterly.
Two days later, a book he'd ordered weeks ago arrived. It was -- almost ironic, as though the world were insisting on rubbing salt in his wound.
Ben finished his reports, gathered his stuff together and with a nod to his colleagues headed home, having completed another day in mindless automation.
He'd managed to talk himself out of his guilt. Logically, he knew he'd done the right thing. It was the system that had failed Victoria, not him. Unfortunately, his heart wasn't listening. He still felt like he'd betrayed her -- and all the words in the world couldn't change the emptiness that seemed to consume him.
He reached his small apartment, knowing he'd passed a few words with several of his neighbors and friends but unable to remember anything that had been said. He removed his Stetson and loosened his tie. Only after he'd made himself a cup of hot tea did he move to sit at the kitchen table, where the black rose Victoria had sent him still rested in it's bed of white tissue next to her picture. He stared at it and the book he'd ordered -- and still felt empty.
Retrieving a knife, he carefully slit open the brown paper-wrapped package and lifted free the gilt-engraved leather-bound book. The paper went in the garbage and he sat once more in the single, high backed chair. His fingers traced the lettering. His nose noted the scent of new leather. His ears recorded the laughter of children outside his window. He dismissed it all and cracked the spine of the large volume to check the table of contents.
A feeling of distant dread rippled across the empty expanse of his soul as he turned the pages and started to read.
(To Christ Our Lord)
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon,
in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the
hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,--the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here Buckle!
AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins (1845-1889)
A tear splashed upon the page and he noted it only enough to move the book aside. He wasn't empty anymore. Her words echoed and re-echoed in his mind. She'd taken his soul to the edge of heaven on the sweep of a bird's wings and now his heart was filled with tears of gold-vermillion. He didn't think it would ever be more than a shattered shell again.
He was caught in an avalanche of pain -- and he welcomed it. Anything was better than the emptiness. . . .
Time ceased to have any meaning as his memory swept him back into her arms and he knew that moment to be lost forever. He remembered her pity when she'd said he had a lot to learn yet -- and his arrogance when he'd answered that he'd simply had better teachers. And her pity again when she had said his duty was more important to him than their love. . . .
She'd been right.
And that truth alone had the power to cut his soul in half. He remembered how she'd begged him to let her go and how easy it would have been. Duty and honor were cold comfort when confronted with the harsh pain of reality. Yes, she had committed a serious crime but there was no justice in her sentence. She'd been forced by circumstances beyond her control to help a friend. He could argue the right and wrong of it forever but in the end it was Victoria who had to pay -- and continue to pay for the next ten years. All his grandious ideals and good intentions couldn't overcome that one fact. The black rose in it's bed of white tissue paper mocked his pain, symbolizing the death of her love for him. Her pain and anger weren't something that would pass in time. He'd become nothing more than another man who'd made her a promise and betrayed her. For that, he knew, she would never forgive him.
He suddenly stood and closed the box.
And then he threw it in the trash. . . .