River of Lost Souls

Written by Gallagater and Charli Booker
Comments? Write to us at 7j4him@prodigy.net; charli.booker@netzero.com

‘We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish
bowl.’ Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here

* * * * *

"Vail."

Jack rolled his eyes then stared at the spoon he was holding up in the air between them. He jiggled it, admiring the way the shiny, red gelatin caught and refracted the light.

"Jackson Hole."

Carter approached, carrying a lunch tray, and sat down across from him and next to Daniel.

"Squaw Valley."

The Major glanced over at Daniel, then at Jack. "Don’t tell me . . . he’s at it again."

Jack let the spoon drop, causing heads to turn as the metal clanged noisily against the side of the dish causing red gelatin to fracture and wobble onto the blue tablecloth. "What do you mean, again?" His elbows on the table, he rubbed both his temples and stared at his second in command. "Try still."

Carter grinned and stabbed at her salad with a fork. "You might as well give up, Daniel. He’s never going to tell you."

Daniel sighed. "But why not?"

Lowering his hands to the table, Jack clenched his fists and forced a tight smile. "And if I tell you, you’ll leave me alone? Just like that?"

"Yes." Smiling, Daniel nodded and leaned towards Jack. "Just like that. I’ll never mention it again."

"You won’t, say . . .," Jack cocked his head, clearly thinking, "follow me? Call me?"

Daniel frowned. "What? No. Why . . . why would I do that?" He glanced at Carter as if for confirmation. "I would never do that."

Carter snorted and Jack pushed himself to his feet. "Of course not, Dr. Jackson. You would never do that."

Daniel watched as Jack sauntered out of the mess hall, then he stared over at Carter who was devouring her salad like she hadn’t eaten in days. "Why would he say that? Does he really think I’d follow him?"

Covering her full mouth with her hand, she choked back a laugh.

* * * * *

Hammond pushed his chair away from the briefing table. "So, Colonel, I hope you plan on enjoying your time off."

Jack smiled broadly. "Yes, sir. That’s the plan."

"Going to your cabin, I take it?"

"Not this time, General."

"Well," Hammond glanced around the table at the other members of SG-1, "wherever and however you spend it, you all deserve it. I’m just glad things have worked out so that you can take some much needed vacation time. It’s not often that you get two weeks off. Teal’c, may I assume you intend to visit your son?"

The Jaffa regally lowered his head. "Indeed, General Hammond."

Carter smiled at Teal’c, then looked over at the General. "I’m going to hang around for a few days, if that’s all right, General. Then, Dad is coming for a nice, long visit."

"Yes, Jacob mentioned that the last time I saw him. What about you, Doctor Jackson?" Hammond studied the young man, who was closely watching the Colonel. "Any plans?"

"Hmm?" Daniel flinched, then glanced at the General. "Oh. No, not really. I thought I

might . . . I thought I’d work on some translations that a friend of mine faxed to me from a dig she’s working on, and I volunteered to give a lecture at the Academy, but other than that . . .," he glanced back at Jack then at Hammond. "General, don’t you think it would be a good idea if we left each other telephone numbers? Ways to get in touch? You know, just in case."

"In case of what, son? Are you expecting trouble?"

"Well, no."

Jack smiled over at Hammond, who gave Daniel a fatherly grin. "I don’t think that will be necessary, Doctor. I’m sure if something comes up, we’ll manage just fine."

"But . . ."

"You’re dismissed."

Daniel bit his lip, frowning. "Yes, sir." He rose from his chair, looking across the table at a smug Jack. "Hawaii."

Jack shook his head. "Oh, please. Give me some credit."

"Colonel," Hammond had stopped in the doorway to his office, "I’d like to speak with you a moment before you leave."

* * * * *

He was softly humming as he slid his card to access the elevator.

"Jack!"

"Crap." He’d thought he was home free. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets and bounced on his toes in a futile attempt to hurry the car. As his two younger teammates trotted down the hallway to stand beside him, he sighed heavily and finally, regrettably, he looked at them. Daniel was grinning, oddly resembling a spectacled Cheshire cat. Carter looked . . . interested. "What? What is it, now?"

"I figured it out."

At the risk of creating more problems, Jack slid his card again. "Is that right? Well, good. I’m very happy for you."

"I’ll just bet you are, Jack."

Daniel was wearing a big ass grin. In return, Jack planted a tired smile on his own face. "Well, I am. Ecstatic. Really."

"Aspen."

Jack snorted softly. "What?"

Carter’s sudden smile nearly blinded him. "He thinks you’re going to Aspen."

Jack looked at her, wondering what kind of perverted fun she could possibly be getting from Daniel’s obsession. Answering his own question, he sighed. It wasn’t enjoyment but an odd sense of desperation that provided the impetus in this game of ‘Where’s the Colonel.’ He’d hardly had two minutes to himself in the last month. Ever since SG-1's little trip to Shape-Shifter World, P7S-441, his teammates had been obsessed with dogging his every move. Unfortunately, no matter how many times he tried to reassure them that getting left behind to watch Lieutenant Tyler’s back was far from the worst thing that had ever happened to him, his team refused to budge in their concerted guilt and efforts at redemption. Then, just when he was beginning to see signs of a reprieve, they had managed to Gate through a freakin’ sun and get some of their best people blown up in a stupid dispute with the locals. Apparently, going postal with the natives in the presence of your subordinates did nothing to alleviate any concerns they may have for you.

But starting now he was on vacation, and Jack was not going to think about anything except snow and sun and bed. For two entire weeks, he was not going to be responsible for anyone . . . maybe not even himself.

"Daniel, let me put this as succinctly as possible: No."

"Are, too."

"Not."

"Too."

"Aahh!" Jack held up a hand, bringing a premature end to the verbal sparring match. "I repeat: N-O. No. I am not going to Aspen. Truth be told, I’d rather spend nine days in . . . in Purgatory than spend them in Aspen with a bunch of hoity-toity rich folks who don’t know the meaning of the words ‘Homer Simpson.’" Finally, the elevator arrived and he stepped inside, punching the button for Level 11.

"Come on, Jack. We just need to know you’re okay."

His need to be alone outweighing any sympathy he might have felt, Jack leaned against the back wall of the elevator and looked at them. Carter had forced a tight smile on her face, but Daniel was frowning and staring back at him.

Just as the doors began to slide shut, Daniel’s face lit up. "The Virgin Islands!"

"See you in two weeks, Dr. Jackson." The doors closed on Jack’s soft laughter.

* * * * *

Durango wasn’t an easy town to access. Maybe that was one of the reasons Jack liked it. This time of year, it would have been wisest to take a puddle jumper flight out of Denver directly to the small airport on the outskirts of Durango. Or, he could drive Interstate 25 to Walsenburg and then head west on Highway 160.

But Jack had never professed to be wise. Besides, for the last two days he’d kept a close eye on the weather forecasts, so on the appointed day he had no qualms as he tossed his suitcase and winter gear into the back of the Ford and headed south towards Pueblo. Once there, he turned west onto Highway 50 and aimed the big pick-up towards Salida – Big Horn Sheep country – where he hung a hard left and arrived at Monte Vista in time for a late lunch.

Before leaving town, he topped off the gas tank and stocked up on chocolate bars and trail mix – even an unwise man knew it was better to be safe than sorry. It was between Del Norte and Pagosa Springs that the real mountains reached the tarmac, but Jack was more than ready. Entering the steep canyon, he eyed the flashing sign which reported the possibility of ice but no chain law restriction. He slipped the truck into four-wheel drive and smiling to himself, he shivered at the sight of the Rio Grande churning its way down from the Continental Divide. He didn’t know how it was possible, but the water even looked frigid.

Shifting the truck into third gear, he eased his way up, into the heart of the mountains. Surrounded by pristine snow, forested slopes and exposed rock faces, Jack felt adrenaline thrumming through his veins. It was with regret that he drove past the Wolf Creek Ski Area, consoling himself with the fact that this time tomorrow he’d be careening down the slopes at the Durango Mountain Resort. He allowed himself a soft chuckle at the thought of how he’d fooled Daniel. Up until a couple of years ago, the Resort had been known only as Purgatory. It still was to the locals.

Nine days in Purgatory. . . . Jack laughed again as he eased his way around an eighteen-wheeler that was straining its way past the sign for the Continental Divide. Now, it was downhill all the way. Sitting higher in his seat and flipping on the wipers against a brisk snowfall that was swiftly coating the western slopes, Jack shifted into second gear and let the engine hold itself back, keeping his foot off the brake.

By the time he pulled into the town of Pagosa Springs situated at the base of the mountains, Jack was tired and thirsty and couldn’t have been happier. It was a clean shot to Durango, then on to Rockwood, which was just north of town and south of the Resort. There, he’d rented a house for eight nights. Hidden from sight just off of Highway 550, Rockwood sat near the banks of the Animas River and against the rails of the Durango & Silverton narrow gauge train – a secluded haven located somewhere between Purgatory and paradise.

* * * * *

The drifts on either side of the highway gave silent testimony to the claim that this was indeed Colorado’s highest snowfall region. Fortunately, the plows had done their job and the road was clear. Munching on a handful of trail mix, Jack eyed the snow, feeling excitement and anticipation building. God, he needed this: time away from work, his team, and the pressures of command. He was so looking forward to his most pressing decision being whether he should have it with, or without, fries. Flicking aside a raisin, he wondered why that particular fruit was a given in trail mix? Any benefit it had to offer couldn’t make up for the fact that it was way too much like snacking on rabbit poop, or a fistful of beetles - one taste sensation he’d rather not ever have to repeat.

Jack flung the remaining snack back in the bag, deciding he could wait until he hit town to eat. It was better than the direction his memories were scurrying and he wasn’t going to let anything screw up the next nine days. Diplomacy had never been his strong suit and between dealing with those damn narrow-sighted Asgard on the High Council and the superstitious folks of K’Tau, he’d had enough of that consular crap to last a lifetime. Thor was okay as far as your garden variety Roswell grays went, but Freyr and the rest of the High Council could use their vast intelligence to figure out where to shove their benevolence. Actually, as far as Jack was concerned, the only good thing to come out of that whole fiasco was Daniel’s reaction to the ‘little gray butts’ comment.

Through the intermittent flurries, Jack spotted the ‘Welcome to Durango’ sign. Only a couple of miles to go. His grin dimmed momentarily as he drove past the Wal-Mart on his left. The mega-store had been there a few years now, and he still hated it as much as he had the first time he’d laid eyes on it. Damn. Another sign of the times, even here. It pissed him off. This was a sidewalk, Mom and Pop kind of place, unique and poky. And even though Durango was a college town, and it was just as common to see dreadlocks and ‘earth muffins’ sipping herbal tea as it was to see cowboy hats and gun racks, Superstores just didn’t belong here. It was wrong on so many levels.

Thankfully, the river-front park and his first glimpse of the Animas helped to restore his good humor. At least the river was unchanged. Jack shook his head wryly. Time and Wal-Mart might wait for no man, but the river flows on. Reaching the junction, Jack debated whether to go straight to Albertson’s and stock up on groceries, or to eat first. His stomach settled the debate with a noisy growl. With a chuckle, he drove past the high-priced tourist traps with their parking lots full of SUV’s, Land Rovers and Hummers, and headed down Main Street.

The Diner was all that the name implied. Heads turned, checking out the newcomer, as the bell above the door announced his arrival. The honest smell of greasy burgers, grilled to perfection, permeated the room, causing his stomach to grumble again.

"Welcome, hun, sit down anywhere you can find a seat." The cheerful waitress tossed Jack a smile as she refilled the coffee cups of the customers seated at the counter, trading friendly banter with the locals as she went.

Opting to leave the tables for couples, Jack made his way to an empty stool towards the end of the counter. Nodding in response to the grunted greeting of an older man sitting to his left reading the local paper, Jack snagged a menu.

"Now, what in the world are you looking at that thing for, sweetie? Sirloin - medium rare with mushrooms, hashbrowns - covered and smothered, side salad with Ranch, hold the Texas toast." She pushed a brimming cup of black coffee towards him. "You know you always get the same thing every time you’re here. Don’t let your coffee get cold."

Several nearby customers snorted as Jack obediently picked up his coffee and took an appreciative sniff. "Smells good, Gayle."

"It tastes even better. Drink up while I get your salad." She looked over her shoulder and yelled towards a wiry apron-clad man grating fresh potatoes onto the sizzling grill. "Kill the cow, Owen - make it bleed - cover it with fungus - wrap the spuds in a stinky blanket."

Never looking up, the man calmly lit a cigarette, as he reached into the cooler. "Aye, I got it," he muttered around the butt.

"I see Owen’s still with you." Jack’s eyes smiled over his cup as he sipped the strong brew.

Gayle plunked down a bowl of greens covered in dressing. "Owen’ll never leave until the day he goes back to the sea and the only chance of that happening is if Admiral Faragutt himself needs a chief cook on the USS Colorado." Jack joined in the easy laughter surrounding her comment. "Eat up, Jack. You’re too skinny," she said evoking another round of laughter.

"Yes, ma’am." He obeyed the order, setting down his coffee cup and reaching for his fork. Spearing a huge bite of lettuce, he shoved it in his mouth as Gayle topped off his coffee. "Good," he mumbled around his fork.

Giving him a nod and a smile, Gayle moved towards the register. "Hang on to your wallet, Hugh. That crowbar you got stuck in there isn’t going to go anywhere till I can figure up your bill."

Jack grinned as he licked salad dressing off his thumb. Yeah, some things never changed.

* * * * *

Shoving the empty grocery box into the closet, a contented sigh escaped. The last of the groceries were put away and he was unpacked. Jack walked over to the fireplace and bent down to poke at the embers a bit. He watched the sparks dance, sending a shower of fireworks around the andiron and hearth. The heat caressed his face as he stared into and beyond the flames. Tomorrow he’d hit the slopes, but tonight he was enjoying the warm comfort of the fire and the quiet solitude of the woods. He smiled as the coyotes sang their evening sonata. Their eerie wailing raised the hairs on his arms even as he sat enjoying the song.

Jack walked over to the front door and stepped out onto the small porch. It was too dark to see it, but less than a hundred feet away the sounds of the Animas sang a duet with the coyotes. This was one of the reasons he came here, to this place, to listen to the sounds of nature. His Granddad would have loved it here. Jack could almost picture him standing in the river, teaching him the art of fly fishing for trout. Scolding him for being impatient. ‘Failure, Boy, is the best seasoning for learning.’

The cold was biting through his flannel shirt when Jack bid the river and his memories goodnight and stepped back into the warmth and cheer. It was early, but he caught himself yawning. Before shutting the door, he allowed himself a moment to wonder what his team was doing. He was here to relax and get his mind off work. It had been far too long since he could simply take his mind off the SGC. Far too long.

The couch was comfortable. Jack leaned back, his long legs stretched towards the crackling fire. He thought for a moment about getting up and going to the bedroom to dig out the book he’d packed, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Siddhartha was going to have to wait.

‘Siddhartha stood alone like a star in the heavens. . . .That was the last shudder of his awakening, the last pains of birth. Immediately he moved on again and began to walk quickly and impatiently, no longer homewards, no longer to his father, no longer looking backwards.’***

And Jack dozed. Granddad would have seen the wisdom in Herman Hesse’s words.

* * * * *

Buried beneath an avalanche of quilts, Jack awoke to the sound of birds chirping a noisy good morning chorus. He stretched, glad that the bed was long enough for his tall frame to enjoy a comfortable night’s sleep. Wrapping his arms under his neck, Jack cradled his head, enjoying the sound of the birds and the gurgle of the river.

"If you didn’t leave that window open like that, it wouldn’t be so damn cold in here."

Jack grinned. "It’s just open a crack and I like to listen to the river at night."

"Shut the window and turn on the faucet in the bathroom. Running water’s all the same and it’d be a hell of a lot warmer in here." Playing with the hair on his chest, she frowned as Jack laughed out loud.

"You love the river as much as I do." One long arm unfolded and drew her closer. "Besides I can warm you up, if you’re cold."

Her answer was buried in a lingering kiss.

"That’s even better to wake up to than your coffee." Jack sat up on the side of the bed as if trying to weigh the advantages of a day on the slopes over a day under the covers.

Making the decision for him, Gayle swatted his bare butt playfully with the back of her hand. "Get a move on, Jack. I have to get to work and open the Diner. And you have a slope with your name on it. Hurry up in the shower and I’ll fix us some breakfast before I leave."

"Pancakes and links?"

"And scrambled eggs with cheese if you get a move on," she laughed. "You’re too skinny."

Jack moved into the bathroom. He shouted over the noise of the shower, "My ski equipment still at your place?"

"Where else would it be?" She walked into the bathroom and sat on the stool awaiting her turn. "I had the Martin kid get everything ready, but you’ll probably want to pick up some more wax."

"Got it last night."

Gayle nodded even though he couldn’t see her through the steam. She watched his filmy image through the fogged shower door as he ran the soap over his lean body. "So how long you going to be in town for this time?"

"Little over a week. I thought if you weren’t busy maybe we could get dressed up and go to Sweeney’s for dinner sometime this week."

"That’d be fun. I haven’t been there in ages." She watched as he reached to shampoo his hair. "You’re going to dress up?" she laughed.

His voice was indignant, making her laugh again. "What? I brought good jeans."

"It’s a date then. Now get out of that shower if you want breakfast." She stood up to make room for him in the small bathroom. "You still got the key to my place?"

Jack stepped out of the shower. Reaching for the towel Gayle held out, he quickly dried off and wrapped it around his waist. Bending down, he kissed the tip of her nose. "Yes, ma’am, I sure do."

* * * * *

Jack stood on the small porch, a cup of steaming coffee cradled in his hand. During the night, while he and Gayle had danced an age-old dance and slept the sleep of the satiated, several inches of new snow had silently blanketed the valley and the surrounding mountains. The steep slopes, the rugged cliffs and the rock-strewn river were softened by the billowing layers of white powder. Insulated by the pristine brilliance of the new-fallen snow, it was hard to imagine that anything existed, had ever existed, beyond the reach of the rushing waters and genteel pines. Even the smoke from the chimney seemed reluctant to leave, choosing instead to linger along the surface of the river in the form of a fragrant cloud.

It was a harsh reality and difficult to believe that the overwhelming beauty of this place harbored death and destruction. But staring up at the muted colors of an early morning sky, Jack knew that more than the sun lurked within the shadows of the looming mountains.

"You cleaned off my car. Thanks."

Jack smiled over at Gayle, who exited the cabin in a rush of warm air that smelled of sausage and coffee and something unidentifiable. Jack wondered briefly if it was the scent of them – the essence of a comfortable, subdued passion. Bundled in a parka, hat, gloves and knee-high Sorels, Gayle’s form was as indistinct as the shrouded landscape. He stretched an arm around her waist and tugged her close, pressing a cold smile against her warmer one.

"You, sir, are an officer and a gentleman."

He groaned softly and rested his forehead against hers. "How long have you been waiting to use that line?"

She laughed softly and rocked against him. "A really, really long time." Looking up at him, she studied his face and ran a glove-thickened finger along his cheek. "You look tired, Jack." A moment later, she added, "Something’s happened, hasn’t it?" She hadn’t really expected a response and she didn’t get one. Staring at him a moment longer, she smiled and pulled away, crossing the porch and looking out over the river as she walked. "I’m jealous. It’ll be great skiing today."

"Come with." He regretted both the sound of his loud voice and the invitation as soon as they breached the quiet morning air.

"Can’t. I’m late as it is. Besides," Gayle opened the door on the dented Cherokee and smiled back at him, "you ski alone."

It was said without rancor and Jack raised his mug of now-cold coffee to cover an embarrassed smile of gratitude that she was letting him off the hook. He swallowed loudly as she got into the car, wishing he was better at putting into words what he was feeling. Hell, he’d settle for even knowing what he was feeling. The motor churned and caught, idling roughly. He hesitated, then brushed snow from the railing, set down his cup and stepped off the porch, approaching the vehicle. Seeing him, she lowered the window.

Jack leaned his head down, peering in at her. "Will I see you tonight?"

Gayle smiled and eased the gearshift into reverse. "Do you want to see me tonight?"

He looked at her face, pale in the early morning light, and wondered what it was about her that he found so appealing. She was good in the sack, but it was more than that. Even he wasn’t that shallow. Maybe it was because life had knocked the wind out of her sails much like it had his own. First in the form of an overbearing father who’d taken advantage of her willingness to take care of him, and next in the form of an abusive husband. The father was dead; Jack didn’t know what had become of the husband and he wasn’t going to ask. What he did know was that she’d willingly walked away from a corner office and a six-figure job back East somewhere in order to sling hash and drive a beat-up Jeep with more miles on it than the Stargate. He frowned, studying the tiny lines around her eyes and the small scar running along the bottom edge of her left jaw, lasting momentos from the men in her life.

"Jack, are you okay?"

He smiled as he realized what it was that continued to draw him back to her each winter: It was the fact that she’d been beat up and knocked down, and she’d still managed to come out on top. Battle weary and visibly scarred, she’d persisted until she found a peace so complete that the feeling emanated from her very pores. She was an aphrodisiac and kelno’reem all wrapped up in an ugly, pea-green parka.

"Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. And yes, I’d like to see you tonight. Sweeney’s? Eight o’clock?"

Gayle shook her head and smiled seductively. "How ‘bout we eat in?"

* * * * *

Thirty minutes later, bundled up for the slopes, Jack pulled the cabin door shut behind him and stomped through the snow drifts towards his truck. At the last minute he veered to the right and, stumbling over the railroad tracks which lay buried in the snow, he made his way towards the river. Fifteen feet beyond the tracks, he stopped at the rim of the gorge. Bracing a gloved hand on the white bark of a leafless aspen tree, he cautiously leaned out over the edge and stared down at the rushing waters. Cold year-round, the waters now, at the height of winter, were absolutely frigid. Even from twenty feet up, his breath fogged in front of him as warm air met cold and the noise of the wet turmoil below drowned out all other sound.

Flowing past the small town of Silverton, over thirty-five miles to the north, the Animas rushed around the base of Kendall Mountain and wound its way through the steep canyons of the San Juan Mountains, gathering volume and speed as it went. Laying in bed at night, listening to the churning of the powerful current, Jack often imagined that he could hear the voices of the old prospectors who had followed the river to its source in their quest for buried riches.

As if he were searching for signs of ghostly trespassers, Jack looked to the north. He could see only a short distance up-river as the glistening, sheer rock walls twisted and turned, accommodating the surrounding mountains. As far as he could see, large boulders, smoothed by centuries of rushing water, littered the surface of the river. Today they were snow-covered, easily recognizable, but Jack knew that with the spring runoff they would retreat beneath the surface, playing silent, deadly games of chance with hordes of kayakers.

Turning to the south, Jack watched as the river careened against a steep, rocky wall a few hundred yards past the cabin before veering sharply to the east. At the bend in the gorge, the train tracks emerged from the drifts and crossed the river by means of a trestle. The wooden framework seemed flimsy, set as it was against the backdrop of the surrounding cliffs. It didn’t look like it could possibly accommodate the thick layer of fresh snow that covered it, let alone the one hundred and forty tons of steel, water and coal that comprised the old narrow gauge railroad that ran from Durango to Silverton during the summer months.

The very same train that in the 1800's had hauled ores and miners now transported tourists by the thousands, and as much as he detested the thought of the wilderness being raped by the curious, Jack could understand their need to ride the rails. A solitary blast of the lonesome whistle and a single belch of black coal smoke was enough to mesmerize even the most stoic adversary.

Because he vacationed here in the winter, the train had passed this far north only a handful of times during Jack’s sojourns. The last time was two years ago. Jack had stood on the deck of the cabin and had offered a casual wave to the smiling faces as he’d watched the train’s passing, simultaneously loving what it represented and hating what it had become. Even now, part of him longed to see the metal beast with its huge plow shoving the deep snow aside as it chugged its way through the mountains. But another part of him, the part that was weary beyond words, was thankful for the solitude.

Leaning heavily against the tree which anchored him, Jack followed the flow of the river with his eyes, losing his thoughts amidst the tumbling waters that disappeared behind the rim of the nearest mountain. He took strange comfort in knowing that further south, several miles away, the same water would thunder its way through the narrow, rocky gorges at Baker’s Bridge and then level off as it meandered almost haphazardly through the Animas Valley before diving into the heart of Durango.

Without warning, a cold shiver ran through him, breaking his trance and offering a not so subtle reminder that the disastrous mission to K’Tau was a thing of the past, its events as irretrievable as the water flowing past his feet. Pulling his cap lower on his head and pushing himself away from the edge of the deep crevasse, Jack plodded silently towards his truck. As he left the ever-rumbling river behind him, he tried not to dwell on the fact that the Goa’uld and men like Malchus seemed to be everywhere he turned. And always they were at odds with good people like Elrad and with peace-loving, shape-shifting aliens.

* * * * *

After stopping by Gayle’s and picking up his skis, Jack headed up the mountain to the Resort, where he spent most of the day on Legends and Dead Spike runs. They were rated ‘more difficult.’ More difficult than what, he wasn’t sure. More difficult than when he’d been ten years younger? Yes. More difficult than dodging staff blasts and high-tailing it to the Stargate with a buttload of angry Jaffa on his six? Uh . . . no. Either way, a foot of fresh, dry powder made the skiing fun and invigorating, and the cold wind on his face as he plummeted down the slopes cleared his mind in a way nothing else could.

His cheeks reddened by the sun and the cold, it was nearly 1500 hours when Jack sat on the deck outside the small grill at the base of the mountain munching on a thick, slightly under-cooked buffalo burger. He stared up at the busy slopes, watching the small, bright spots zipping down the mountainside, growing in size and taking on human form as they neared.

His hunger temporarily sated, Jack pushed away his plate and leaned back in his chair, quietly surveying the crowded restaurant and the congestion around the lift a few hundred feet away. Maybe it was nothing more than a matter of bringing his work with him, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. He took a sip of warm Irish coffee and glanced over at the table nearest him. A young couple with two small children was having lunch, the mother trying to squeeze in a few bites for herself between cutting sandwiches and dividing fries and cleaning up spilled drinks.

Jack downed the last of his coffee and stood, zipping up his parka and grabbing his skis and poles. Glancing at his watch, he decided to make one final run before heading back to the cabin. Slowly, resisting the urge to look over his shoulder, he made his way through the crowds to Grizzly Lift. He wanted to check out Cathedral Tree Way. Earlier, he’d heard a young man telling his buddy that it cut over to Legends and that despite being short, it was one of the better runs on the front side of the mountain.

Cathedral Tree Way: that had been his goal. But when he hopped off the lift and headed downhill, Jack made a split second decision at the first junction. Instead of taking a left he went straight, fully aware that he was headed down Bull Run. At the top it was rated ‘most difficult,’ but the bottom two-thirds was Double Black Diamond - experts only. Jack knew that, but he wasn’t worried. He was an expert skier and he’d just spent the better part of the day getting his ski legs back under him.

Yeah, he wasn’t worried a bit.

* * * * *

"Holy crap." Tossing his socks and insulated underwear into the corner of the small bathroom, Jack pulled himself upright and hobbled over to the tub. It took a fair amount of cussing and groaning to ease his long frame down into the steaming water. Scooting his butt against the end of the tub, he was barely able to get his swollen knee under the surface of the water. "Oh, shit."

Shutting his eyes, he grasped the edges of the porcelain, waiting for the pain to recede. It

didn’t . . . not much anyway. Eight nights, nine days, and he had to blow out his knee on his first day on the slopes. Fraiser had warned him to take it easy. She’d very diplomatically reminded him that he wasn’t as young as he thought he was, and that SG-1's last few missions had left him physically and mentally exhausted. Damn! He hated it when she was right, and now she was going to have his hide. What had he been trying to prove anyway? Well, truth be told he hadn’t been trying to prove anything, except that he wasn’t being followed. He’d figured that if someone was on his trail, he could lose them on Bull Run. Well, he’d lost something all right.

Jack soaked until the water turned cold. By the time he pulled on a pair of sweats and hobbled out to the kitchen, it was dark and Gayle was pulling up outside. As she shuffled her way through the snow to the porch, Jack quickly swallowed a Darvocet tablet from the prescription bottle he’d found in his shaving kit. It was a little past its expiration date, but he figured it had to beat aspirin.

Gayle began shrugging out of her parka almost before she had closed the door. "Hi." She smiled over at him as she tugged off the tall boots. "How was Purgatory?"

"Great. The powder was perfect."

"Yeah, that’s what people in town were saying." In her sock feet, she moved over beside him and kissed him on the cheek. He slipped one arm around her and rested his other hand on the counter in order to keep his balance. "Hey," she sniffed his breath, "do I smell alcohol?"

Jack grinned and pointed to the open bottle of wine and empty glass sitting on the small kitchen table. He’d downed two glasses an hour ago while he’d painfully worked his way out of his ski pants and boots.

"Hmmm." As she rummaged in the refrigerator, he limped towards the sofa in front of the fireplace. Clutching a cold beer in one hand, she grabbed the wine bottle and his glass, and followed him into the living area. "You’re hurt."

"Just a twinge." Biting his lip and groaning ominously, he sank onto the sofa.

"Dammit, Jack. Your knee again?" At his grim smile, she shook her head and settled on the floor near his feet. "Did you at least get it checked out?"

He accepted the glass of wine from her and took a hearty swig. "No need. I just twisted it."

"You’re a stubborn ass. But I don’t suppose I’m the first person to tell you that."

"It’s been mentioned. Hey," he dropped a hand onto her shoulder, "how was your day?"

Eyeing him closely, she sipped her beer. "Despite the crappy segue . . . guess what some tourist asked me today."

Jack chugged his wine, emptying the glass, then holding it out for a refill. "No telling."

Grinning, Gayle filled his glass. "‘Excuse me, ma’am, but can you tell me something? When do deer turn into elk?’"

He chuckled, his voice ringing hollowly in his ears. "You’re kidding. No one’s that stupid." Gayle merely watched as he downed half the wine in one swallow. "So, what’d you tell him?"

"When they reach Wolf Creek Pass, of course."

Jack laughed, slopping the remainder of the wine over the side of his glass. Wiping his hand across the wet stain on the aging sofa, he vaguely wondered if his awkwardness had something to do with the mixture of drugs and alcohol. "Did he believe you?"

"Not at first. Not until a couple of the boys told him I was a part-time waitress and a part-time consultant with the Forest Service."

He dabbed at the wet spot with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. "God, you guys are brutal. I’m surprised you didn’t take him snipe hunting."

Gayle grinned, quietly observing his pathetic attempt to clean up the mess. Then, setting down her beer, she idly picked up the book laying on the coffee table and studied the spine. "So, are you Siddhartha? Trying to blend with nature?"

"Thought I’d give it a shot."

"Hesse was always a bit too philosophical for me. Kind of like Ayn Rand with a splash of sex."

"Speaking of which," Jack nodded towards the book in her hand, "you’re mentioned in Chapter 6."

"Yeah?"

Holding his empty glass in one hand, with the other he took the book from her and turned to the passage he’d been reading earlier today. Holding it aloft, he squinted his eyes and read aloud. "Much he learned from her red, smart mouth. Much he learned from her tender, supple hand."

"Sounds about right." She laughed when he tossed the book at her. "Isn’t there something in there about him being a boy when it came to love?"

"I thought you said you hadn’t read Hesse," he softly slurred.

"Pay attention. I said he was too philosophical. Therefore, I obviously have read him."

Jack grinned and closing his eyes, let his head drop back against the sofa. "Obviously."

Already dozing, he barely flinched as the glass was pulled from his hand and warm breath brushed his cheek. "Why, Colonel, I do believe you’re quite drunk."

* * * * *

There was a hollow indentation telling him her pillow had been used, but no lingering body heat. God, he barely remembered staggering from the couch into bed last night. He had vague notions of Gayle’s arm wrapped firmly around his waist, guiding him between the sheets. From there only snippets of memories remained: her head on his chest; a slender arm thrown protectively over his stomach; his fumbling attempt to coerce his fingers into undoing those damn tiny buttons on her nightgown; a soft laugh and her hand over his, stopping his groping efforts with an order to go to sleep; closing his eyes against the pain in his knee and relaxing because she understood. Understood and was giving him permission to not perform, to not do what was expected, to not be the Colonel.

The cabin isolated enough to not need shades for privacy, the room was bright. Jack squinted in the sunshine. He couldn’t remember when he’d last slept so late. Groaning as his knee declared war with his bladder, he debated whether he stood a chance at winning a temporary siege. He surrendered as his bladder sounded a trumpet call informing him just how late he had slept and that the conditions of his surrender were non-negotiable.

A small piece of paper propped up on the opposite night stand drew his attention. Stretching across the bed to snag the note, Jack buried his face in Gayle’s pillow, inhaling her scent - that musky, smokey smell that was as much a part of the Diner where she spent her days as the coffee she poured and the gossip she shared. It was a comfortable smell - earthy and unpretentious.

Her handwriting was neat, the writing of someone who had spent years taking down orders.

Good morning, sleepyhead. Breakfast is on the stove. Heat it and eat it. Call Doc Tucker if your knee isn’t a lot better, or stop in at the Diner around noon. He’ll be there having his lunch. Don’t overdo. That’s an order, Colonel. Give me a call if you need anything, or want to get together tonight. You know the number, but in case you’ve forgotten, it’s on the advertisement for the Diner on the calendar in the kitchen.

Gayle

P.S. ‘You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.’ And that means go and be good to yourself today, Jack. You deserve it according to Hesse. See you tonight?

Jack grinned, the irony of the quote not lost on him. Trust Gayle to choose that particular sentiment. Rocking himself to his feet, he grimaced as he tested his knee. Not too bad. It’d been worse. Wrap it up with an Ace bandage and he should be good to go. Even if Bull’s Run and the other Double Black Diamond runs were out, he was confident he could handle the Blackburn or Poet’s Glade runs with little trouble.

Limping towards the bathroom, Jack was eager to hit the slopes.

* * * * *

His mind on white powder and the anticipation in freedom of speed, Jack nearly missed the sound of the kitchen chair as it scraped over the wood floor. He debated briefly whether to go get his sidearm before determining who was in the cabin with him. It wasn’t Gayle; he’d just spoken to her on his cell, making plans to meet at Sweeney’s for a late dinner. Daniel? If Daniel had somehow followed him here after the seven unanswered messages he’d left on Jack’s voice mail, then maybe the Beretta wasn’t a bad idea.

"Morning, Jack."

"Maybourne, you’re eating my sausage."

"I’m not going to touch that comment." He smirked at the disconcerted look on Jack’s face as he speared another link and chewed with exaggerated relish. "Help yourself to the coffee. I just made a fresh pot." He pushed another mug in Jack’s direction. "You never were much good until you’d had your coffee."

Harry raised his own mug and took a long swallow. "It’s good, Jack. Sit down and relax. I left you some eggs." He ignored Jack’s scowl and polished off the last of the biscuits.

Silence stretched between them, before Jack shrugged and snatched the mug. Limping to the stove, he filled his mug and sniffed the hot liquid with begrudging appreciation. Ignoring the eggs, Jack glowered as he spun another chair around and straddled it. "So who’d you steal the coffee recipe from, Maybourne?"

"It’d surprise you, if I told you." Leaning back easily in his chair, Harry smiled, letting out a contented belch as he picked his teeth with his thumbnail.

"I seriously doubt it."

"You really want to know?" When Jack refused to answer he added mockingly. "I’m wounded, Colonel." His smile widened as Jack raised an eyebrow.

"Just shut the hell up and get your ass out of my chair. You know where the front door is? Or did you slide in through the sewage pipe?"

Harry laughed. "Ouch. So, who’s your new galfriend? She as good in the sack as she is at cooking? She’s not much of a looker. Not the type you usually go for." He stopped as Jack stiffened, the irritation on his face flaring to anger.

Coffee sloshed, staining the tablecloth, as Jack jumped to his feet. "Get out!"

Realizing he’d gone too far, Harry held up a placating hand. "Sorry, Jack. Sit back down and relax. I didn’t realize you were so sensitive. No more talk about your little . . ."

"I said, get out. Get out of my cabin and out of my life or I swear to God I know places around here where they’ll never find the body until the Spring thaw."

Unable to stop himself, Harry cast a quick glance out the window at the snow-covered landscape. He gave a nervous laugh. "You’re not serious. Jack . . ."

Moving to the door, his body rigid with anger, Jack narrowed his eyes. "Out."

* * * * *

Jack was flying halfway down Blackburn before his anger began to cool. He ignored the message his knee was sending as it throbbed its opinion of his choice of trails, but the physical challenge of the slope was all that kept him from carrying out his threat to kill that bastard, Maybourne.

It was a perfect day and this side of the mountain, which hosted the bulk of the more challenging runs, was far less crowded. The isolation suited Jack’s mood as he pushed harder, demanding more of himself. This was why Purgatory drew him back. Few places stirred him like this one: crisp, clean air with enough bite for a junkyard dog, and so sharp that Carter’s doohickies would have labeled it a different element from the artificial stuff they breathed in the mountain; skies so blue they would have had to invent a whole new color to add it to Merrin’s box of crayons; and space, miles of wide open space - heaven for a man who spent much of his life inside the belly of a mountain. The list was inexhaustible: the vivid colors made him feel more alive - the white of virgin snow against the dark evergreen, the forests of aspen - or ‘quakies’ as the locals called them; the rush of pitting himself against the mountain, stretching himself to that edge - flying on the brink of disaster - tasting the ambrosia of adrenaline coursing through his veins, living and reveling in that life.

And Daniel had had the nerve to suggest he’d pass this up to lay in the sand, slathered in coconut oil, while scantily clad beauties paraded up and down the beach. Well, okay, he’d give Daniel points for the scantily clad part, but for sheer beauty and excitement - give him the snow-clad peaks of Purgatory.

By late afternoon, Jack was tired. His anger had diminished to a dull irritation and he even allowed himself the luxury of wondering what in the hell Harry was doing here. His overwhelming desire to murder Maybourne had calmed to the point of merely wishing he could kick that little weasel’s ass off the side of Dante’s Peak.

Checking his watch, Jack decided to call it a day. He’d been pushing hard and was ready for a bite to eat and a warm drink before heading home. He was ready for that soak in the tub and a quiet dinner out with Gayle. And if Maybourne so much as stuck his twitching little rat nose anywhere near the cabin, he was going to carry out his promise and shoot the slimy bastard.

The lodge was crowded. A frazzled mother struggled to break through the swathed cocoon shielding her child from the cold as the little girl announced loudly that she ‘had to go.’ Jack nodded to a trio of cuties who relaxed near the bar looking very much like they spent more time getting dressed for the lodge than they spent on the slopes. His greeting elicited a round of soft giggling and as he limped over to the bar to grab a drink and place his lunch order, he overheard a suggestive comment about his ski pole. He smiled to himself. He was getting too old for the kind of slalom skiing these gals had in mind.

Moving over towards the fire, Jack snagged a comfortable chair under the watchful, glass-eyed gaze of the stuffed buffalo head mounted above the mantle and sat down to relax until the waitress brought his sandwich. He raised his mug in salute to the slaughtered beast before he settled in to stare into the blazing fire, enjoying its heat soaking into his tired muscles. Taking a sip of his Irish coffee, Jack fought the temptation to close his eyes. Go ahead, Jack, fall asleep and drool into your drink. That’d be a turn on to the barstool babes.

"Orange? Gee, Jack, I’d have pegged you for more the Air Force blue sweater kind of guy."

The voice was the alarm clock he never needed. It jolted him awake causing the hot liquid he’d been sipping to splash on his pants. "Ouch," he yelped. Shooting a glare towards the man relaxing in the chair across from him, Jack rubbed the wet spot. "Dammit, Maybourne, that’s hot."

Harry simply smirked and raised his own drink in a mock toast, enjoying Jack’s muttered curses.

"Have a good day, Jack? You’re a hard man to follow. Snow, slopes, skiing . . . did you ever think about vacationing somewhere warm?" When Jack refused to answer, Harry continued his monologue. "Still, I have to admit this place is unusual. I was sitting in that little diner where your girlfriend works, having my lunch, when some guy walked down the street leading a giant cow. The really weird part was that no one acted the least bit surprised."

Jack thought of the huge Brahma, complete with gold tipped horns, a local man often led through town. It gave the tourists a hell of a shock which caused no end of amusement to the townsfolk. "That cow’s a bull and it’s Horney."

"Aren’t we all?" Harry loosed a loud laugh with a nod towards the gals who were obviously checking out some guy’s ass as he paid for his drink at the bar.

Jack shook his head, pissed that he’d fallen into Maybourne’s trap to draw him into the unwanted conversation. Figuring he’d already stepped into the pile of bullshit with both boots, Jack cocked his head and simply shrugged.

Harry leaned forward. His voice suddenly took on a low, serious tone, setting off Jack’s alarms. "We need to talk. We have a problem."

"We have a problem?" Jack laughed softly. "The only problem I have at this particular moment is that you’re blocking my view." He sipped what remained of his coffee and nodded his thanks to the waitress who set a plate on the table by his chair.

"I’m serious, Jack."

"So am I. Seriously . . . you’re blocking my view." When Maybourne didn’t respond, Jack placed his cup next to the plate. "Harry, I’m trying - very nicely I might add - to tell you to get the hell out of my life. But if that’s asking too much of you, you can start by getting the hell out of La Plata County. I hear Wolf Creek’s nice this time of year." Maybourne didn’t move. "Go stand close to an edge."

"Are you done?"

Jack picked up his sandwich, glanced at Harry, glanced at the sandwich, and dropped his lunch back onto the plate. "Apparently."

"BP6-3Q1."

Frowning, Jack glanced around the crowded lodge. No one seemed to be paying them any attention. Even the trio of ski bunnies had turned their attention elsewhere. He shrugged. "If that’s your room number, I’m not interested."

Harry scowled. "Think bugs, Jack. Big, ugly bugs that like to bite big, ugly friends of yours."

The blank look he shot Maybourne was not an act. The only bugs he could think of were Replicators. But what would-

"I seem to recall that this friend of yours was quite," Maybourne chose his next words carefully, "transformed by the whole event. In fact, I tried to take him to see someone about it, but your friend pulled an O’Neill." Harry smiled and gestured at their surroundings. "You know, disappeared into the wilds. Well, tried to anyway."

Shit. Teal’c. The asshole was talking about when Teal’c had been stung by that big, honkin’ mosquito and Maybourne had tried to haul him back to NID headquarters to be ‘studied.’ Just the thought made Jack mad all over again. It was a not so gentle reminder of exactly with whom he was dealing: a convicted traitor, a scum sucking tenant of the seventh level of Purgatory.

"Well, now that story time is over . . ."

"Oh, that was only the beginning, Jack." Harry reached over and picked up the sandwich. "You going to eat this?"

"You just touched it, didn’t you?" He sighed at Harry’s questioning look and rubbed a hand over his leg. It throbbed with his pulse, slowly swelling inside the Ace bandage. "Help yourself."

Already chewing, Harry leaned forward and lowered his voice. "We took blood samples before your friend escaped."

"And?"

"And, it took a while, but apparently some progress has been made. Biological warfare . . . ain’t it a bitch?" He took another bite, carefully watching for any reaction.

Jack’s only response was to frown and shift his weight.

Harry seemed disappointed. "Well?"

"Well, why are you telling me this? I mean, you got what you wanted, right?"

Setting the remainder of the sandwich on the plate, Harry looked slightly wounded. "I never meant for . . . I never wanted this. I honestly thought we could use whatever we learned against the Goa-," he stopped, glancing around, then lowering his voice. "I thought we could use it to fight our common enemy. I never thought . . .," he slammed a meaty fist onto the arm of his chair. "Dammit, Jack, they’re planning to test it on humans!"

Jack signaled the waitress for another coffee, letting his eyes briefly alight on two middle-aged men who’d appeared about the same time Maybourne had. Looking oddly out of place, they’d been sitting across the room near the windows nursing cold drinks.

"That still doesn’t answer my question: Why tell me this?"

Maybourne’s attention was riveted on Jack. He looked desperate, an emotion Jack wasn’t used to seeing on the man who kept insinuating himself into Jack’s life. "I need your help."

Jack smiled at the waitress, discreetly trading the steaming mug of coffee for three ten-dollar bills. "Keep the change." After she’d thanked him and left, he sipped the hot drink. "So tell me, Harry, how did you find me?"

"Huh? Oh," Maybourne shrugged, "simple. You come here every year about this time. Meet up with your little bimb-," he shot Jack a look. "Um, you meet up with your girlfriend, spend a few days on the slopes, a few nights in the sack. If you must know, it was a single overnight delivery that gave you away. Three years ago. You did a pretty good job of covering your tracks. Driving your own vehicle, paying cash . . . even for that expensive piece of art from that gallery down on Main Street. But then you arranged to have them ship it to an aging aunt back in Minnesota." He smirked. "After that, it was easy. You’re a creature of habit, Jack. Surprised your team doesn’t know that by now."

Jack smiled at him grudgingly. "Speaking of habits, do you make a habit of bringing friends along with you?" As Harry’s face paled, Jack laughed softly. "Don’t tell me you’re losing your touch." When Harry didn’t respond, Jack sipped his coffee again. "Well, think I’ll mosey to the men’s room. When you lose the company, you know where to find me."

* * * * *

Jack laced up his hiking boots, trying to ignore the unhealthy warmth in his right knee. He glanced at his watch. He was supposed to meet Gayle at Sweeney’s in less than an hour. Just enough time to clean the freshly fallen snow off his truck and make his way down the mountain to the north edge of town and the restaurant. Grunting softly, he stood up and slipped his wallet, loose change and a handkerchief into the pockets of his good jeans. Glancing in the mirror, he had to smile. Grey turtleneck, black pullover sweater and jeans with a crease – the Durango equivalent of black tie. He ran a hand through his hair and frowning at the results, limped across the room and grabbed his parka, gloves and hat.

Slipping into his best North Face parka with a nylon swish, Jack opened the door to a snow-encrusted Harry Maybourne. Before Jack could utter ‘get the hell off my porch,’ Maybourne had darted inside and shut the door behind him.

"Jack, thank God." His teeth chattering and dropping fat, wet clumps of snow in his wake, Harry stumbled over to stand in front of the fireplace. Pulling off his gloves, he rubbed his hands together and turned to face Jack who was still standing by the door. "I think I lost them."

"You think?"

"I’m pretty sure."

"Dammit, Maybourne, if you lead them-"

"I lost them! I lost them!"

Fury written in the hard lines of his face, Jack stared at the shivering traitor.

"I’m almost positive," Harry added.

Jack tossed his hat and gloves onto the sofa and slipped out of the parka. "You know, you’re supposed to be on the lam. So shouldn’t you be, I don’t know, running off somewhere?"

"Jack, will you just shut up and listen to me! I need your help."

Shaking his head in disgust at himself and his ‘guest,’ Jack limped to the kitchen and set the percolator on the burner. He’d help the guy warm up, but by God, the asshole would settle for reheated, day-old coffee. As Jack rinsed out a cup, Harry settled down on the hearth in front of the fire. The coffee heating, Jack limped to the bedroom and tossed back the blankets on the corner of the bed. Reaching under the mattress, he pulled out his Beretta, checked the clip and chambered a round. From the night stand, he removed two extra clips. Making his way back to the kitchen, he shoved the clips in his front pocket and tucked the 9mm in the waistband at the back of his jeans. Then, he poured Harry a cup of the strong, barely warm coffee and made his way back to the living room. As Maybourne curled his hands around the mug, Jack eased himself onto the sofa.

"Now, who’s after you and why?"

"My ex-employer and because I found out about the little experiment they have planned."

"So, it hasn’t happened yet?"

Harry sipped the coffee, grimaced, then shook his head. "No. But it’s scheduled to commence within the week."

"Where?"

"Armenia."

Jack thought he’d heard incorrectly. "Where?"

"You heard me."

"But . . . why? That makes no sense."

"It makes perfect sense. There’s political unrest. Assaults, raids, arrests. At this point, U.S. involvement amounts to encouraging dialogue between the opposing factions. Who would think to point the finger at us if there’s any evidence of a biological agent being used."

Jack rubbed a hand over his face. No way Harry would make up something like that. Besides, it was obvious the guy was scared. And Harry Maybourne didn’t do scared . . . not often . . . or well. "So how’s it going to come down?"

"I’m not sure. All I know is, it’s going to be introduced into the general population. They’re interested in determining its kill rate."

"Shit." Bad enough that someone would use such under-handed tactics on soldiers, but what could possibly justify using it on civilians - women, children, the elderly? Jack’s mind was racing. What was the most efficient way of stopping it? Obviously, he couldn’t do it on his own. Neither could Harry. It would take the type of muscle that came from exercising favors, not physical prowess. Should he go straight to the top? Start with the President? If so, he risked getting caught in the quagmire of Washington politics. "How sure are you of this?"

"Sure enough that-," Harry was silenced by Jack suddenly lifting a fist into the air.

Quickly, Jack switched off the lamp next to the couch and dropped to the floor. His knee shooting silent protest up into his groin, he crawled across the room, stopping next to the door. Looking over, he saw that Harry had vacated his seat by the fire and was crouched beside the window to Jack’s left.

With a practiced move, Jack drew his Beretta and switched off the safety. Pressing himself against the wall, he stared at the door. Just when he’d begun to think that he was imagining things, he saw the knob twist slightly as if someone were testing to see if it were locked. In that split second, Jack made the decision to go for the element of surprise. Without a sound, he jerked the door open with his free hand, startling the stranger who was standing on his porch and launching himself at the man’s mid-section. They hit the snow-packed porch with a grunt of dispelled air.

Definitely military. It was a distracted sort of thought that evaporated as the guy drove an elbow into his stomach discouraging Jack from dwelling on it further. Funny how you could assess things like that even in the middle of a fight. Not some desk jockey. This guy had probably seen some action. Jack scrabbled for a neck grip, but unlike his own bare essentials for the well dressed Arctic look, his assailant was prepared for the weather and there were several layers of padded clothing between Jack and inflicting damage.

They were on the ground, tamping down the snow as they rolled back and forth. The guy’s goose down armor was giving him a definite advantage. Jack’s knee in his gut, which should normally have taken him out, had done nothing more than elicit a harsh grunt. This was so not right. Why hadn’t he left his parka on when Harry showed? A better question was, why in the hell hadn’t he slammed the freakin’ door in Maybourne’s face when he’d dragged his sorry, slimy ass up on his porch in the first place? This whole thing was Harry’s fault. He was getting his butt kicked out here in the snow when he should have been in town with Gayle enjoying some good company, good food, booze, and a little live entertainment, followed up later tonight by some even better live entertainment between the sheets. Damn you, Harry. Why does trouble attach itself to you like a tick, but I end up getting the life sucked out of me?

An elbow against his nose drove thoughts of Harry’s penchant to attract trouble from his mind. Blobs of crimson spotted the virgin snow. Jack grabbed the yarn ball atop the assailant’s gaudy knit hat as he fought for a purchase of hair. Wrapping his fingers tightly around the strands, he yanked down and to the left as hard as his awkward position would allow, at the same time bringing the heel of his right hand up to strike under the man’s chin. There was an audible click as the man’s jaws snapped shut.

His weapon had to be close. Harry’s buddy here had managed to disarm him like some rookie kid in his first fight. It was just another reason for him to be pissed at Harry. His wrist was aching like a son of a bitch where this guy had cracked it repeatedly on the steps until the gun had slipped from Jack’s fingers and was lost beneath the drifts. He’d be lucky if he’d even be able to hold a ski pole, if and when he got back on the slopes. Jack rolled towards the porch, hoping to feel 9mm of cold comfort pressed flat against his shoulder blades. No such luck.

Before Jack could take further advantage of the momentary sway, he caught the flicker of movement near the snow-covered bulk of his truck. Dammit, a second perp. Where the hell was Maybourne? If that sorry worm had disappeared and left him holding the bag, he was gonna be so dead.

In the moment Jack turned his head, his opponent regained his bearings. Jack yelped as a fist clipped his ear. The sound was muffled as Jack suddenly found his head shoved down into the snow. Caught in mid-yelp, Jack struggled to rid himself of a mouthful of snow. A heavy knee between his shoulder blades and two gloved fists against the back of his neck held him within the cold grasp. The son of a bitch was trying to suffocate him!

It would have been easy to panic as the flakes bit his skin and clogged his airway. No doubt that was exactly what this asshole was counting on. Panicked people made easy targets. He had learned that lesson a long time ago in a frozen field.

* * * * *

He was shivering, more from nerves than the cold. Major Cox’s butt ugly face scowled so close that every word bathed Jack in spittle that was warm when it hit his cold skin. ‘O’Neill, what the hell’s the matter with you? You afraid of a little ice and snow? I thought you were a northern boy. What are you going to do when we drop you behind Russian lines and you have to survive by avoiding detection in a snow bank for a day or two? You gonna panic then, boy?’

‘No, sir!’ Opening his mouth was asking for an open target for the spit missiles the Major was still launching. He’d barked the answer, confident in his own infallibility.

And then he learned just how fallible he could be when he was entombed in a frozen grave and the grim reaper wore the uniform of a Special Operative Major.

Cold weather survival training - those cocksure remarks he’d made while they all sat playing poker in the warmth of the barracks were coming back to haunt him. The comments to harass Frank, a southern boy, born and bred, who claimed he’d never seen snow until he was twelve and then, when he finally did while visiting a cousin in Knoxville, it had barely covered the grass.

It’d been fun seeing the shades of concern hiding behind Cromwell’s bluster when Jack had told him about the danger of his tallywacker being frostbitten while taking a pee when out in the field, and the painful treatment involved if there was any hope of saving it. He’d gone into great detail, the other guys backing him up with tales of dickless teammates they’d served with over the years, while Cromwell’s wide-eyed stare belied his brave words. God, Frank had been easy back then.

But there wasn’t anything easy about this. Being buried alive beneath God only knows how much snow to simulate being trapped in an avalanche. Yeah, simulate his ass. This wasn’t like the movies, where being rescued amounted to sticking a convenient ski pole through the snow and waiting patiently for the ski patrol to dig you out and carry you to the lodge for a hot toddy.

It was dark and cold. The kind of cold that penetrated the heavy winter gear he was wearing because it came from the inside. It was the kind of cold that made thoughts of laying on the beach in Florida a close second to the dream, when you were fourteen, of making out with your sister’s best friend while she was babysitting next door. It was the kind of cold that came with the knowledge that if you didn’t get your ass moving you were going to run out of air and die in this frozen hole and they weren’t going to have to bury you, because they already had.

He’d seen the instructors dig up guys when panic had caused them to freeze. Okay, that was a bad choice of words. Somewhere deep down inside he figured if it happened to him, they’d probably haul him out, too. But somehow along the road, his fear of dying had taken a backseat to his absolute terror of failing and being forced to face Cox. Stir in the knowledge of what Frank was going to say when he passed and Jack washed out, add a healthy dose of pure stubborn cussedness, and you had the makings of what it took to survive.

* * * * *

Jack let himself go limp, the exact opposite reaction that the would-be assassin obviously expected. He felt the man’s grip relax slightly. It wasn’t much but it was enough, and he twisted hard and drove his knee into the guy’s groin. Apparently he’d hit upon the Achilles’ heel in the guy’s goose down armor based on the way his hands were clutching his jewels and his bug-eyed look of internal distraction.

Ignoring the fire which ignited his entire leg, Jack clambered to his knees and clasping his fists together, his elbow delivered the coup de grace to the base of the man’s neck.

Leaving the man laying in an ungainly heap, Jack crawled over to the porch, searching through the ruined drifts until his numb hands wrapped around his runaway weapon. He checked over his shoulder. His perp was still down. Where was the second guy? And where the hell was Maybourne? He hadn’t heard any gunfire so apparently the rat bastard hadn’t been shot. Too bad.

Jack was shaking. The adrenalin rush from the fight was fading, leaving him suddenly aware of just how cold it was. Keeping close to the cabin wall, he slowly moved up the steps towards the door which was still standing ajar. Cautiously, he scanned the area before edging around the doorway and into the cabin, the Beretta held in front of him.

It was quiet. Too quiet. His instincts were screaming at him. Limping, he moved silently towards the bedroom where the door stood partially open. Through it, Jack could see part of the room. The bed; that picture of mountains hanging on the wall which he kept meaning to take down and shove in the closet because it was so asinine to have a picture like that paling in the shadow of the real things; the window. . . . He’d go around the cabin and use the window.

The decision came a fraction of a second too late as the bedroom door swung open and a heavy body slammed against him. Jack’s precarious balance collapsed as his knee proved to be the weakest link. He rolled to his stomach, knowing he was too late to get off a shot. The man was already thumping down the steps of the porch.

"Maybourne," his voice sounded loud in the silence, "get your ass out of that closet and get that bastard before he can try again."

"There’s no need to shout, Jack. I can hear you." Harry moved towards the door, pausing to cautiously peer around the frame. "By the way, there’s still a ‘No ask - No tell’ policy, so I’ll just keep it to myself you ordered me out of the closet." He smirked at the look on Jack’s face. "You gonna be okay?" he asked in sudden seriousness.

"Just go." Jack’s face was grim. "And, Harry, if you let that guy get away, I’ll give you a lesson on the difference between a bull and a steer."

Harry grinned and checked the area again. "I love it when you talk dirty, Colonel." And with that, he moved into the yard.

Jack groaned aloud as he struggled to get to his feet, his knee threatening to buckle and send him crashing again. Using the wall as support, he limped to the door. His man was still down. Harry and the second man had moved out of the yard towards the woods. Jack caught a glimpse of yellow flashing against the dark green of the pine trees. Damn, Harry was a sitting duck with that bright target he was wearing. He might as well have a bullseye pasted to his butt.

There was another flicker of yellow nylon, further away this time and a sense of movement off to the right towards the gorge. "Shit. The river." Jack was running towards the woods using an awkward, limping gait. He wanted to shout a warning, but it would have been pointless. The sound of the Animas drowned out any noise his approach was making, but impartial judge that she was, it also covered the noise from the others. With a sick feeling that comes from experience, Jack moved towards the gorge knowing that he was too late.

The river, the same river that lulled him to sleep, had become a beast demanding to be fed. Harry was on the ground, his arms wrapped around the neck of the second man. As Jack moved towards the pair he had to admit that for a desk jockey slimo crook, Harry wasn’t doing too bad in the fight. The stranger’s howl was swallowed by the river as Harry bit down on the fleshy part of the man’s hand.

Jack limped closer. "Harry . . ." And he watched, helpless, as the pair rolled towards the edge, hung there for a frozen moment and then disappeared together.

His knee forgotten, Jack ran to the edge. Like an enormous yellow fishing bobbin, he could see Harry popping up and down out of the current as he was swept downstream. A second dark head followed him. As he stood there, the current spun Harry and for the briefest moment Jack could see the fear and panic on his face. Then, like a cat playing with a mouse, Harry was tossed again and swept away, any shout for help battered beneath the rocks.

Jack ran towards the cabin. He needed his parka and winter pack. If there was any chance of finding Harry alive, he’d have to follow the river on foot. His mind already on the gear he’d need, Jack was startled by a sharp sting which hit him in the shoulder. Dropping down he spotted his man, alive and well, a rifle in his hands. Glancing at his shoulder, Jack saw a small red feather decorating his black sweater. Shit, make that a dart gun, he thought, as he yanked out the offending dart and dropped it on the snow. It was a tiny thing, not much of a dart at all.

There was no time for this crap. Harry was being pulled further away by the second. One shot and the NID man crumpled into the drifts, his arms sweeping in wide arcs as he died, a snow angel bound for Hell. His gun still aimed on the fallen stranger, Jack stumbled through the snow to the man’s side. Warily, he picked up the dart gun and gave it a toss over the edge and into the river, then he fumbled for a pulse with a shaking hand. It was unnecessary - a neat bullet hole blossomed with already chilling blood in the center of the man’s forehead.

Grunting with the effort, Jack rose to his feet, shoving the pistol in the waistband of his jeans. Hurriedly limping to his pickup, he reached in the back and retrieved the backpack that contained his winter gear then awkwardly ran into the cabin. Forcing himself to remain calm, he took the time to pull on his parka, hat and gloves, and slipped the backpack in place. Finally, he glanced around for his cell phone. It was gone.

Cursing, he knelt on the floor and ran a hand under the edge of the couch in case the phone had been knocked from the end table where he’d last seen it. Nothing. He quickly looked around the room. "Shit."

Much as he needed the damn thing, time was wasting. Maybourne could already be dead and if he wasn’t, he was well on his way. If Jack was going to be able to save him, he had to act fast. Every second counted. Giving up on the phone, he darted out the door and off the deck.

The moon had not yet cleared the eastern ridge of the mountains, but the starlight and the snow together provided enough visibility that Jack could save the batteries of the flashlight that he knew was buried safely within the pack. Breathless, he followed the rim of the gorge southward, keeping a constant eye on the rocky ground in front of him while searching the river for signs of the bright yellow parka that Maybourne had been wearing. Saying a prayer of thanks for Harry’s poor sense of fashion, Jack slipped and stumbled his way over the rocky ground.

The adrenaline in his system leveling off, his knee began to seriously throb and every other step was an exercise in balance as the joint threatened to collapse under his weight. Soon, however, he found an awkward rhythm and within minutes he reached the train trestle. He carefully stepped across the narrow set of tracks and followed the bend in the river, now heading almost due east.

Eyes constantly scanning the river and the rocks beneath his feet, Jack listened for any cries for help, but the only things he could hear were the sounds of the river, the swish of his nylon coat, and his own loud, gasping breaths. He suddenly realized that his face ached from more than the cold and his nose was totally plugged. Hopefully, it was merely because it had been bloodied and not because it had been broken, but it was hard to tell.

At one point, he reached a rocky outcropping and crawled out on his stomach, searching the river below. He thought he saw a face floating amongst the smaller boulders lining this side of the river, about twenty feet downstream. Just as he was planning to make his way down for a closer look, the moon popped over the horizon, revealing nothing more than an orange mitten, swollen with water.

Jack pushed himself upright and yelled in agony as pain shot through his wrist. On his knees, he groaned, cradling the offending limb. It didn’t feel broken, but his assailant had definitely done something to it. Staggering to his feet, he continued his quest.

It was nearly twenty minutes later when he saw the body. It was tangled on a log that jutted out from the river bank. There was no need to climb down and inspect it; Jack could tell from here that the man was dead. It was obvious from the angle of his head that his neck had been broken. He also knew it wasn’t Maybourne. This man was wearing a dark blue parka.

Jack pushed onward and had hardly gone ten steps when he spied it - a bright yellow bundle bobbing against a boulder on the far side of the river. Shit. Jack searched for a place to crawl down to the riverbed. While the bank on the far side was nothing more than a gentle, snow-covered slope, this side was steep and jagged with rocks. He wished now that he’d crossed the trestle to the other side, but it was too late and too far to backtrack. Picking the best of a bad selection of paths to the bottom, he began his descent.

Twelve feet above the surface of the gurgling water, his knee and wrist aching and a strange light-headedness assailing him, he reached an impasse. Caught on the apex of a car-sized boulder, there was nowhere to go but back up or straight down. He searched to the sides for a foothold or handhold; there was nothing but smooth rock.

Gasping for breath, he limped to the edge and looked down. Beneath him, at the base of the boulder, was a small strip of fine gravel approximately four feet wide, then the river. Offering a silent prayer, Jack sat down and began lowering himself over the edge. His feet hanging over empty space, his backpack snagged on something. Panting, shifting his weight from side to side, the pack suddenly sprang free and he was falling.

He hit with both feet and a loud grunt as the air was pushed from his lungs. Agony flared from his injured knee and he toppled forward, his face and hands landing in the shockingly cold water. Momentarily stunned, it took him an agonizing handful of seconds before he could push himself up and back. Sucking in a deep, painful breath, he fell back on the narrow strip of gravel.

Oh, God. The water was absolutely frigid. Burning pain seared across his face and despite the gloves, his hands felt singed. Trembling, Jack hurriedly fumbled to remove the gloves and gasped as his hands emerged, along with a trickle of cold water. He rolled to a sitting position and shoved his freezing hands inside his jacket, against his sweater. Grimacing, he looked across the raging current.

Maybourne’s body was still lodged against the boulder. The man was probably dead. Despite the futility of it, Jack yelled anyway. His voice died away under the thunder of the water, and the yellow coat bounced. Shit. As much as he hated the guy, Harry didn’t deserve this.

Groaning, Jack pulled his hands from his jacket and forced himself to his feet. Shivering, squinting against a wave of dizziness, he studied the form across twenty-five feet of white water. "Dammit, Harry," he muttered, then watched, stunned, as a bright yellow sleeve lifted and attached itself to the boulder. "Harry!"

The cold momentarily forgotten, Jack knelt down on his swollen knee and shrugged off the pack. Cold-numbed fingers fumbling with a flap, he pulled out a coil of nylon rope and looped it around a nearby boulder. Trying to keep an eye on Harry, who had begun to thrash and fight against the cold water, Jack’s fingers struggled to form a knot. Finally, cursing, he completed the task and moved to the edge of the river, holding the coil of rope.

"Harry!" The figure thrashed, but finally Jack could see Harry’s pale face in the moonlight as Maybourne turned, searching out his voice. "I’m going to throw you a rope! Tie it around you!"

Maybourne shouted something, but his weak cries were drowned out by the sound of the water. Awkwardly, Jack slung the end of the rope across the river. It landed a few feet behind Harry, who didn’t even see it. Jack retrieved the cold, wet rope and tried again. On the fourth attempt, the rope slapped across the boulder to which Harry was clinging, but the man’s feeble attempts to grab at it were futile and he managed only to jeopardize his already precarious hold on the rock.

Trembling, his hands aching from the cold, Jack retrieved the rope a final time. "Son of a bitch." Biting his lip, he struggled into his backpack and tucked his wet gloves inside his coat. Then, pulling the soggy rope around his waist, he tied a crude knot, and prepared to enter the cold water.

He stood on the bank for a full minute trying to steel himself against what he knew was going to be instant agony. This was stupid. Ignorant, stupid and he knew better. But Harry was dying. It would take at least an hour, probably longer, to backtrack to the trestle, make his way across and head back downstream to Maybourne’s position. Time Harry didn’t have. He’d already been in the water too long; even as Jack tarried, he could see the man’s struggles and his grip weakening.

"You bastard." With an angry growl, Jack leapt into the water.

Nothing could have prepared him for what awaited him.

The cold hit with all the subtleness of a direct hit from a Zat, instantly numbing him and shutting down his systems. As the water closed over his head, he desperately fought the urge to take a deep breath. His heart, lungs and insides clenched, and his muscles locked. His skin burning and his closed eyes stinging, he was at the mercy of the heartless current. It tugged at him, clawing at him with frigid fingers. Powerless, he let himself be carried away by it until he hit the end of the rope and was flung back towards the bank, away from Harry, his body slamming into a jumble of rocks lurking beneath the surface.

Still in shock from the sudden cold, it took a moment for the impact to register. When it did, he groaned and began to fight. Despite his instinctive desire to crawl towards the nearest shore, he struck out upstream and on a diagonal to the current. Gasping for breath, swallowing icy froth, he battled beneath the weight of his water-logged clothing and the pack he couldn’t afford to be without.

Twice he went under, his strength ebbing as the cold seeped to his core. On the third dunking, his feet touched bottom. He kicked with everything he had, launching himself towards the eastern bank. Coughing, shivering, his thoughts sluggish, he crawled across the rocks and dropped onto the snow. Laying on his side, he felt the water he’d swallowed settle hard and cold somewhere deep inside. His teeth chattering, he opened his eyes, momentarily confused as to where he was and what he’d been doing.

Then he spied Harry, just a few feet away. Groaning, Jack pushed himself onto an elbow and awkwardly shrugged out of the pack. Coughing, he crawled on numb hands and knees back into the shallow water. After several tries, it was obvious his hands weren’t going to cooperate enough to latch onto the yellow parka. Finally, he hooked his arms under Harry’s armpits and around his chest and pulled. The two men fell back onto the snow-covered slope with a grunt.

Jack didn’t realize he was dozing until he was awakened by a soft cough. Harry? He forced his eyes open and found himself staring at a motionless yellow parka. Jack coughed. Shit. Not Harry. Himself.

He had to move.

His body aching, his chest growing tight, he lay there, despite knowing that to do so meant death.

He had to move.

He coughed again, deeply.

Haul ass, O’Neill.

He could almost see Major Cox’s butt ugly face and feel the spittle as the man yelled, ‘Move or die, soldier!’

Groaning, feeling strangely warm despite being soaked and laying in several inches of snow, Jack forced himself to a sitting position. He was shaking. Not shivering so much as trembling. But that was good, right? He needed to do something. What? The cabin? They should go to the cabin.

"Harry," his voice was ragged and speaking reawakened the cough. "Harry." Reaching out a shaky hand, he slapped at Harry’s shoulder. The man groaned weakly but there was no other response.

Okay. Not the cabin. What? Trying to dislodge the confusion which permeated his brain, Jack looked around him. The river, snow, rocks, his backpack. Wait . . . his pack. Fire. Shelter.

He crawled to the pack. With numb fingers, he opened the flap, unzipped the inside pocket and began emptying the contents. He used the knife to cut the rope from around his waist, then shoved the knife and the magnesium bar into a pocket on his parka and unfolded the small shovel. Gasping, he squinted at their moonlit surroundings and finally crawled away from the riverbed to a spot in the leeway of a small grove of trees.

With tremendous effort, he clumsily cleared the snow from a small circle until he reached frozen ground. Finished, he pulled the knife from his pocket and forced himself to his feet. His knee buckled and he hit the ground with a grunt. Shit. He’d forgotten the knee. Trying again, he managed to shift his weight to his good leg and hobbled to the nearest tree. Once there, he stripped several layers of bark from the tree and lurched back to the bare spot he’d cleared. Glancing at Harry, who still hadn’t moved, Jack dropped to the ground and began to peel the bark into small strips to form a bird’s nest to use as tinder. His hands were trembling and his fingers were numb, and the job took twice as long as it should have, but he finally had a sufficient pile.

Forcing himself to his feet again, he began gathering dry branches until he had what he hoped would be enough to last a few hours. Sinking down by the fire pit once more, he fumbled the magnesium bar out of his pocket. Holding the blade of the knife against the bird’s nest, he struck it with the bar and was hit with an intense cramping in his stomach.

Dropping the knife and the bar, Jack curled up and clutched at his stomach. Oh, God. What the hell? Breathing through the pain, wondering what he’d done to himself, it was several minutes before he could pick up the tools and try again. On the third try, the tinder caught an errant spark and held it. Gasping and trembling, Jack carefully breathed life into the small curl of smoke, then fed the flames until he had a roaring fire.

His stomach muscles cramping again, although not as badly as before, he crawled to the pack. No way could he dig a snow cave. Not in the shape he was in. Using the knife, he cut the strings which secured the lightweight sleeping bag to the pack. He dragged the bag near the fire and unrolled it.

Bent almost double, he clutched his stomach and eyed Harry. There was nothing for it but to drag the man to the fire. Cursing, biting his lip against the pain which engulfed his abdomen, he forced himself to Harry’s side. When he rolled the man onto his back, he wasn’t sure Maybourne was even alive. The man’s lips were blue and he was deathly pale. Jack felt for a pulse but his hands were shaking so badly he wasn’t sure if what he felt was Harry’s feathery pulse or the tremors of his own hands.

"Damn you, Maybourne, you better be alive cause I’m gonna shoot your slimy ass." Jack tugged on the unconscious man and yelled as pain shot up his injured wrist. Cursing, he adjusted his grip and dragged the man, centimeter by painful centimeter, close to the fire. "You bastard." He tugged Harry next to the sleeping bag.

It took nearly twenty minutes for Jack to divest Harry of his wet clothes . . . all but the briefs. No way in hell was he going to spoon a naked Maybourne. The man could fucking freeze to death first. Jack rolled Harry into the sleeping bag then, coughing, he lay back on the snow. He needed to get out of his own wet clothes, but first he’d just rest a minute.

* * * * *

Sweeney’s was a nice change of pace. Different enough to make her feel like she was treating herself, but not so highbrow that Gayle felt uncomfortable in her black slacks and argyle mock turtleneck. A baby grand graced the corner of the bar and gave the place a touch of class, far removed from the jukebox at the Diner. It was cozy and romantic, the perfect atmosphere for her mood.

Gayle sat at one of the tables spread out in a comfortable semi-circle around the massive fieldstone fireplace. The lights were dim, allowing the crackling fire to provide a natural ambiance to the room. Her toe kept time to the easy beat of Celine Dion’s ‘The Prayer.’ Jack had given her his copy of Andrea Bocelli’s Sogno CD and she had nearly worn it out. ‘I pray we’ll find your light, and hold it in our hearts. When stars go out each night, remind us where you are . . . Let this be our prayer, when shadows fill our day, guide us with your grace. . .’ Her mind filled in the haunting Italian segment of the lyrics as she hummed along softly. Gayle didn’t have to understand the words to appreciate the music as she stared into the depths of the firelight reflected in her wine.

The piano player switched effortlessly to Mariah Carey’s ‘Hero’ as Gayle sipped the house Merlot. Normally she wasn’t much of a wine drinker, but tonight it fit her mood. She alternated between watching the fire and the piano player. She didn’t know him, but that didn’t surprise her. He was the right age to be one of the college kids who came and went with the semesters. Too bad she hadn’t kept up with her piano lessons from Miss Cantmeyer. Maybe she’d be making money tickling the ivory instead of slinging hash. Funny how she still remembered the lady’s name after all these years. ‘Keep your fingers rounded, young lady, as if you were holding a baseball.’ And therein lay the problem. Gayle had made it absolutely clear that she’d have much rather been holding a baseball and playing shortstop, instead of practicing ‘Twinkle Twinkle.’ Miss Cantmeyer had finally had enough and suggested that piano might not be her instrument of choice. Raising her glass slightly, Gayle took another sip and saluted the piano player’s unknown teacher for the patience to endure those early years.

Jack was late. Gayle munched on another garlic bread stick and traced the pattern in the tablecloth with her fingernail. She corralled the maverick breadcrumbs into the swirl of green paisley and glanced through the menu again. She wondered briefly if he’d fallen asleep, but even as she thought about walking over to the pay phones by the restrooms, she rejected the idea. He’d be here any minute. Sure as she dialed the number he’d walk in and catch her impatiently making the call. Then he’d tease the hell out of her for the rest of the evening.

They’d talked just before she’d left work and Jack had told her that he might have a friend drop by, so not to worry if he was a little late. That was kind of weird, because as far as she knew, in all the time Jack had been coming to Durango, he’d never once had a friend over to his place. It wasn’t that he wasn’t friendly or well liked by folks here ‘bouts, it was more that he guarded his privacy like it was something rare. He seemed to treasure his solitude. She’d never really given it much thought, but maybe it came from his military life and being under the scrutiny of others so much. The fact that he willingly shared his time off with her gave Gayle a warm feeling that had nothing to do with the wine.

Jack rarely talked about himself. She knew he was from Minnesota by way of Chicago, that he loved classical music, skiing, and red meat, liked strong coffee, and had definite preferences in bed, but was willing to experiment. But the things she’d learned were by observing, not because Jack opened up one day and gave her the ‘This is your life, Jack O’Neill’ tour. Gayle snorted into her glass. Like that was ever going to happen.

Nope, the things she had learned were by observing. Like the fact that he was a good man with a wicked sense of humor that crossed the border into warped occasionally, and incredibly sensitive hands that took care of her needs and had helped her to realize that men’s hands could be used for something other than hurting. He had baggage; she’d caught enough mumbled phrases at night to put two and two together. But hell, who didn’t? And neither one of them was looking for permanent. Maybe that’s why it worked between them. They were comfortable, like a pair of faded jeans you couldn’t bear to toss. Not the most romantic of analogies, but truthful. And if there was one thing Gayle had learned over the years - truth fit a lot better than fantasy in her life.

"You ready for another drink, hun?"

God, it was weird having someone else wait on you when you made a living doing it for others. Gayle nodded and finished the last swallow from her goblet. If Jack didn’t hurry, she was going to fill up on breadsticks and wine.

She wondered who this mystery friend might be. She didn’t think it would be someone he worked with. Jack rarely talked about work, but his vague comments had led her to believe he didn’t tell a lot of people where he was when he came here.

It was snowing again. Gayle could see thick flakes swirling past the window. Pretty, unless you had to be out in it. Then it became something you learned to grin and bear if you were going to survive here. A couple of winters ago, a movie crew had shown up to film a beer commercial complete with convertibles and tanktops. The locals had laughed about it for days as they’d watched the beleaguered crew wire fake leaves in all the trees on Main Street, and then they’d spent endless hours dusting off the trees and the sidewalks every time a squall would dump a new blanket of snow on the set. Just thinking about it now made Gayle giggle. Oh yeah, she was definitely beginning to feel the wine.

Looking at her watch, Gayle was surprised at how late it was getting. Something had to have kept Jack. For the first time in ages, she cursed the fact that she didn’t carry a cell phone. If she had, Jack could have called her to let her know he wasn’t going to make it. Oh well, so much for a romantic evening out. He’d probably left her a message on her machine at home.

Gayle signaled the waitress. "I think my friend’s been held up, so I’m going to go ahead and order." She pointed to the Cobb Salad and ordered another glass of wine. Her choice of wine and entree was probably a major faux pas. Not that she cared one iota. That was another reason she and Jack hit it off, some rules were made to be broken, especially stupid ones.

* * * * *

There was something which struck a chord on a base level when it came to waking up next to someone. Something that even in his groggy, semi-awake condition Jack could appreciate. He didn’t have to open his eyes to covet the waves of warmth rolling off Gayle’s smooth skin. Spooning up closer, Jack wrapped his arm over her bare shoulders, allowing his fingers to trail onto her chest, gently caressing the soft tufts of hair.

Hair?

Okay, the brain might not be processing on all cylinders and excuse his French, but holy freakin’ cow!

According to Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion every action had an equal and opposite reaction. Carter would have been so proud that he actually knew that. Except she would have been too busy laughing her ass off to tell him so as she watched two grown, nearly naked men twisting and turning, doing their best to escape the confines of a sleeping bag simultaneously. Only to end up face to face, straining against the stitches to keep from touching.

The Stooges Gone Slash reaction was mercifully brief. And within those seconds it took Jack’s battered brain cells to start functioning, he found himself staring way too close for comfort into Harry’s befuddled baby blues.

"Jack?"

"Harry?"

Okay, nonchalant was good; after all, he was trying to save their half-frozen asses. But, oh geesh, his knee was freakin’ touching Harry Maybourne’s bare leg, for cryin’ out loud. Harry coughed, causing Jack to attempt to wiggle further away. The zipper of the bag pressed along his spine.

"Care to explain?"

"Let’s get out of this damn bag first. I can’t talk like this, Maybourne."

Harry shrugged, obviously confused.

Jack squirmed around, cursing at the sharp pain that shot through his wrist as he struggled to reach the zipper. Harry lay absolutely still as Jack grunted his way back around. "Just stay put. I need to get more fire wood. There’s no need for both of us to lose the heat." Gritting his teeth, Jack tried to ignore the pain shooting through his knee as he ignored the zipper escape route and simply wormed his way out via the mouth of the bag.

He yelped as he crawled into the snow, his bare shoulders plowing furrows in the powder surrounding them. "Dammit!" He was too pissed to notice that for once in his life Harry was laying low and keeping real quiet. Before he’d climbed into the sleeping bag, Jack had staked their clothes on the lee side of the fire. Hopefully they’d had time to dry. Shaking, he leaned forward and snagged his pants. The sweater was still damp, but the coat was passable. Harry’s things were pretty well dry and Jack tossed the lot, none too gently, over to him. He ignored the colorful bitching coming from inside the sleeping bag as Harry struggled into his clothes. Jack blinked, trying to clear the fog clouding his vision as he struggled to tie his boots. What the hell? His coordination was for shit. With a muttered curse, aware that Harry was watching him struggle with the simple task of tying his laces, Jack gave up.

The sun was just climbing over the mountains, reflecting off the snow and making his eyes water. Rubbing his eyes, Jack grimaced. He was getting too old for this shit. He hurt all over. Looking around, lines of discomfort etching deeply into his face, Jack used a fallen tree trunk to lever himself upright.

"Shit!" His voice echoed off the canyon walls.

Harry’s eyes widened and he stared up at him. "Jack?"

Jack had the sudden urge to kick the little weasel, bag and all, into the river.

* * * * *

Gayle drove carefully through the fresh blanket of snow covering the long gravel drive to Jack’s place. Last night, she’d made it home without a problem, despite the snow and the wine. There was no message blinking on her machine which pissed her off a little at first, but she was too tough to allow being stood up to send her crying in her pillow.

She’d puttered around the house a while, picking up a Grisham novel she’d been reading, but found that the words were just that - words. Laying the book aside, Gayle’d flicked through the channels, more for something to do than out of any real interest. The ski report promised excellent powder. That would make Jack happy. She was glad. Despite the fact that she ought to be pissed at him, Gayle couldn’t help but smile at the pleasure he’d get out of fresh powder on the slopes. She’d toyed with the idea of taking a day off and hitting the slopes herself, but even as she thought about it, she knew that wasn’t going to happen. Tomorrow, she’d drive in to the Diner just like every other day and harass the customers and yell at Owen. She liked what she did. It might not seem important in the scheme of things, but it was honest, she did it well, and it made her happy. How many people could say that?

Just before midnight, she’d given up the pretense of not worrying and had picked up the phone. If she woke up Jack, he could cuss her out, after she gave him an earful. And if his friend turned out to be a woman and she was interrupting something, well all the better. She let the phone ring for a long time before hanging up.

Gayle had gone to bed, but sleep was a fleeting thing. She found herself dozing fitfully, afraid she’d miss the phone ringing. Twice, she’d gotten up and padded into the kitchen on the pretense of getting a drink of water only to find herself listening to the empty ringing of an unanswered phone as she dialed Jack’s number.

Just before dawn, she’d finally fallen asleep only to have the alarm blare out the odious message that morning had arrived. Gayle awoke tired, bleary-eyed and with a headache remnant of too much wine and too little sleep. Her grandma’s wedding quilt thrown over her shoulders, Gayle stumbled into the kitchen to start some coffee. She’d eyed the phone tentatively. If Jack had gone bar hopping with his pal, he wouldn’t be in any shape for an early morning call. Well, he’d just have to get over it if she woke him. Besides, everything she knew about Jack, albeit extremely limited, told her that this wasn’t a simple case of bar hopping and hangovers. What little sleep she’d managed had been filled with fragmented nightmares of car wrecks and deep snow on treacherous mountain roads. "Dammit, Jack. Where the hell are you?" There was no answer.

She’d decided to drive over to the cabin on the outside chance Jack had hurt his knee worse and was unable to get to the phone. She was grasping at straws, Gayle knew, but she also knew she’d never be able to go to work without checking.

The long drive showed no signs of recent travel. The unbroken snow crunched under her tires. Jack’s big truck sat undisturbed. New snow decorated the roof and hood. Peering through the fogged windshield, Gayle shuddered, oblivious of the heat pouring out in waves around her. Something wasn’t right. There was still the possibility that she was about to embarrass herself if she barged in and Jack was entertaining a guest, but her gut feeling was telling her something else was going on. Something was terribly wrong.

Suddenly, Gayle was seriously spooked. Stopping the Jeep, she debated whether or not to turn around and leave, maybe drive into town and get the deputy. But what was she going to say? ‘My friend stood me up for dinner and now it looks like he may have slept in.’ Not damn likely.

Gathering her courage, Gayle parked next to Jack’s truck and walked over to the porch. Her footsteps sounded loud to her as she crunched through the snow towards the porch. She had a key, but on the outside chance that this was one colossal misunderstanding, she knocked tentatively. The snow had stopped and there was no wind. The sun was casting a pink glow across the snow as it peeked over the mountains. Gayle could hear the Animas through the aspen grove. She shivered again. The river sounded angry.

Knocking again, this time a little louder, Gayle turned and looked towards the snow-covered railroad tracks running just this side of the grove. In the early morning light she almost missed it - the drifts almost covering it: red - out of place in the natural white; skin the color of the snow; unseeing eyes staring at her; a perfect dark circle in the forehead; a frozen look of surprise.

Gayle’s screams rose above the sounds of the river.

* * * * *

"Jack, slow down, dammit!"

His head pounding with each step, Jack staggered on. Screw Maybourne. They had to reach the train trestle. They had to . . . go somewhere. They had to be . . . somewhere before . . . well, soon. Stumbling over a rock hidden beneath a thick layer of virgin snow, Jack cried out as he was thrown to his knees.

God, his knee hurt. Why did his knee hurt so bad? And his wrist? Moaning, he dropped onto his side, clutching the injured arm to his chest. And why was it so bright here? So white?

Panting loudly, Harry Maybourne dropped without ceremony onto the snow next to Jack. "Geesh, Jack," he coughed loosely, "what the hell you trying to do? Kill me?"

His head throbbing from the glare of the sun off the snow, Jack squinted over at the man beside him. Why was Harry here anyway?

"I’m not kidding, I think I’ve got pneumonia." Maybourne coughed and rubbed his gloved hands together. "Did you hear me? I said I . . .," and then he looked at Jack. "Shit. You look like hell."

Feeling angry, Jack pushed himself to a sitting position and glared back at Harry. His head hurt and . . . he felt sick. And hot. It was too hot here. Glad he’d donated his grey turtleneck to Harry, Jack pulled off his gloves and tossed them aside, then worked to rid himself of the pack. It was too heavy and he was going to be sick.

"What’s wrong?"

Grunting softly, Jack fumbled with the clasp on the pack. Puke. He was going to puke and his shoulder burned. It itched.

"Jack?"

With a swish of nylon, the pack dropped from his back and, injured wrist forgotten, Jack clumsily grabbed the zipper on his coat and yanked. Within seconds, he was free of the coat but before he could dig at the burning itch of his shoulder, he was on his hands and knees wretching. But he had nothing on his stomach, not even the river water he’d swallowed the night before. Earlier, before they’d broken camp, Harry had eaten one of the MRE’s from the pack, but Jack had felt . . . funny. Hungry, but not hungry. Now, he wished he’d eaten just so he’d have something to satisfy the clenching, heaving muscles.

"What the hell’s wrong with you?"

Jack groaned and looked at Harry, consumed with a sudden need to drive the palm of his hand into the man’s nose, forcing fragments of bone into the front of his stupid, ignorant, pea-sized brain. Simultaneously frightened and thrilled at the very thought of murdering Maybourne with his bare hands, Jack shivered and the mood passed, gone as swiftly as it had arrived.

His hands trembling, Jack sat back and hugged his knees to his chest, wondering why it was so friggin’ cold and why his shoulder burned. His teeth chattering, he closed his eyes against a wave of dizziness and shoved a hand inside his sweater, rubbing the offending joint. Something light settled across his back, then a hand touched his forehead.

"You’re burning up. You should have told me you were sick."

Jack jerked away from the other man’s touch and clutched at the coat Harry had draped around him. "I’m not sick. I just," he rubbed harder at the itch on his shoulder, "I don’t feel so good."

"What’s wrong?"

Eyes closed, Jack gritted his teeth and rocked, one hand frantically digging at the itch on his shoulder. "How the fuck am I supposed to know!"

His yell echoed off the snow-covered landscape, bouncing back at him. Mocking him. Jack opened his eyes. A blurry Maybourne was sitting a few feet away, staring.

"What?" Suddenly tired, his muscles aching, Jack stopped rocking and pulled his hand from his shoulder, rubbing his face. "My head hurts," he mumbled to himself.

"Did you hit your head?"

"Huh?" He blinked over at the other man, then frowned. "Why are you talking to me?"

"Okay, Jack, you’re starting to freak me out. So, just quit it."

Jack giggled drunkenly and slumped over to one side. "Oh, God."

"What’s wrong?" Maybourne scooted closer, but kept an arm’s length from the downed man, studying his pale, sweaty face. Jack’s teeth were chattering loudly and he was shaking all over. Tentatively, Harry reached over and eased the coat back over Jack’s shoulder. At the movement, Jack flinched. "What? What’s wrong with your shoulder?"

Jack shook his head, but didn’t answer and only stared when Harry got brave and tugged on the neck of Jack’s sweater. Glazed, brown eyes closely watching his every move, Harry exposed Jack’s left shoulder to the bitterly cold air. Grimacing in sympathy, he frowned down at the raw wound that was revealed. While the injury itself was small, Jack’s entire shoulder was swollen and the skin around the puncture wound was red and inflamed.

"What happened?" It didn’t look like a gunshot wound and there was no evidence that Jack had been bleeding. "Did you fall on something?"

Jack shook his head, looking pale and sleepy. "Shot."

"No, Jack, I don’t think so." Leaning closer, Harry rolled a groaning Jack enough so that he could look at the back of the man’s shoulder. No exit wound. He rolled him back onto his side and eased the sweater in place, pulling the coat around Jack’s shivering frame. "Maybe something bit you."

Nearly unconscious, Jack repeated, "Shot."

"I’m telling you, I’ve seen gunshot wounds before and you have not been shot."

Eyes closed, Jack smiled and rolled his head. "Not gunshot."

"Well, if not a gunshot, then wha-," but Harry stopped, his face blanching. Oh, shit. No. "Jack, what were you shot with? Was it a dart?"

"Red," Jack blinked up at Harry, "feather."

Oh, shit. A dart. A freakin’ dart. Harry Maybourne suddenly felt something a lot colder than the Animas River flood through his veins.

* * * * *

Long after Gayle’s screams stopped echoing through the narrow gorge, her heart continued to hammer in her chest. She stood on the deck staring over at the pale white face with the blood red mark in the center of its forehead and all she could think about was who would want to kill Jack O’Neill.

Sobbing, tears running unchecked down her cheeks, Gayle forced herself to do the hardest thing she’d ever had to do. Harder than burying her father and admitting to herself that the man hadn’t loved her so much as he’d used her. Harder even than ducking her ex-husband’s blows and struggling to anticipate the vagaries of his unavoidable rages. Harder than walking away from a Wall Street job, a penthouse apartment and a mulish cat named Vera to buy a Greyhound ticket to a new life out west. Whispering Jack’s name over and over like a mantra, or perhaps a dirge, she stumbled down the porch and over to the body. Then she collapsed in a boneless fit of relieved agony when she saw milky green eyes and coal black hair that framed soft, round features.

"Oh, God." Thank you, thank you. Feeling a surge of guilt at the gratitude that swamped her in the presence of the stranger’s corpse, she pushed herself to her feet and ran to the cabin, suddenly fearful that her relief was premature. Jack could be inside, dead or wounded.

Screaming Jack’s name, Gayle searched every inch of the cabin. The only things out of place were a half-empty cup of cold coffee sitting on the hearth and Jack’s cell phone which was laying on the hardwood floor just beneath the front window. Spying it, she felt herself inch once more towards panic. Jack always had his cell phone. Always. He bitched and moaned about it but he always checked the caller i.d. whenever it rang, even though he’d never answered it a single time when she’d been with him. She picked it up and glanced at the LED display - thirteen missed calls. Four would be hers.

Flipping open the small phone, Gayle’s fingers danced over the caller history. She was right. There were four calls from her home phone, two from two different sources, and seven from the same telephone number. A seven-one-nine area code. Colorado Springs. Acting purely on instinct, Gayle dialed the number. On the eighth ring, just as she was getting ready to hang up and dial nine-one-one like she should have done in the first place, a man answered.

"Well, it’s about time!"

Gayle took a deep breath and held the phone with two hands, trying to steady her trembling. "Who is this?"

"Uh, who is this?"

"I’m Gayle. Gayle Miller. I’m a friend of Jack’s."

"Well, Gayle Miller, I’m Daniel Jackson. Also a friend of Jack’s. Now, would you mind telling me why you’re calling me on Jack’s cell phone?"

Despite the man’s abrupt manner, his voice sounded kind and Gayle had to struggle to keep from crying. "Jack’s in trouble."

* * * * *

When Jack opened his eyes, Maybourne was sitting a few feet away, huddled against the backpack and looking over his shoulder at something Jack couldn’t see.

"Harry," Jack’s voice was shaky and weak, but it was still enough to cause Maybourne to flinch and swing around to look at him.

"Shit, Jack. You scared me." He glanced back over his shoulder again, then scooted closer to Jack.

"What . . ." Jack gasped softly and tried again. "What are you looking at?"

"I thought I heard something. Something big."

Jack grimaced against a raging headache and arms trembling, he forced himself up onto one elbow. "Animal."

"Yeah, well, that’s kind of what I was afraid of."

Suddenly, Jack realized that his Beretta was clutched tightly in Maybourne’s right hand. "You’ve got something that belongs to me."

Harry coughed deeply, then glanced at the weapon and at Jack. "You were a little out of it. Somebody had to protect us from getting mauled by a bear."

"Bears are hibernating, you ignorant shit. Now, give it back."

"I . . . I think I should hang onto it, Jack."

"Harry-"

"No kidding. You were acting weird."

Groaning, Jack sat up. He felt oddly short of breath and he hadn’t even done anything, and his head hurt. Crap. Now that he thought about it, his head really hurt. Bad. He rubbed his eyes with a hand that was shaking.

"Jack, I think you got shot with that drug."

"What . . . drug?" He tried to shrug out of the thick parka, but Harry kept pulling it back up on his shoulders as soon as Jack pulled it off.

"The experimental drug. You said you got hit with a dart and look at you. You’re white as a ghost, you were sick, and you passed out on me. Hell, you were talking out of your head."

"And you talk out of your ass. What’s your point?" Jack gave up on getting rid of the coat and instead concentrated on ignoring the feeling of something hot and liquid crawling beneath the surface of his skin. Frowning, he shook his head.

"Jack?"

He looked up, squinting at the grove of Ponderosa pines just over Harry’s right shoulder. He thought he heard something. Tilting his head, Jack strained to hear over the pounding of his headache.

"Jack, we have to get out of here while you can. I think we should get you to-"

"Sshh!"

Harry coughed, trying to smother the sound with his sleeve. "What?" He nervously followed Jack’s gaze, his grip on the sidearm tightening. He looked back at Jack, wide-eyed. "What is it?"

"I hear them." Jack knew they were moving through the trees, surrounding him and Harry. Did they honestly think he couldn’t hear the clanking of their stupid metal heads? Freakin’ ignorant Jaffa! "They’re coming."

"What? Who?" Harry pointed the pistol at the trees, sweeping it from side to side. "Jack, what is it?"

Forcing himself to his feet, moaning at the pain spiking up his leg, Jack stumbled backwards, towards the river and away from the trees.

* * * * *

"General, there doesn’t appear to be any obvious signs of forced entry. We’ve searched the perimeter and the immediate area, but haven’t found much to go on."

Gayle sat in the corner of the room hugging herself as she watched the flurry of activities around her; her untouched cup of coffee, long abandoned, sat on the table next to her. It was late afternoon and she was exhausted, mentally and physically drained. She wanted nothing more than to escape to her house, run a hot bath, make herself a large rum toddy, and cry herself to sleep. Okay, the crying jag was a distant second to waking up next to Jack and discovering this whole episode was just a horrid nightmare.

After Daniel had finished grilling her for the why’s, where’s, and what for’s, most of which she’d been unable to answer, he had ordered her, actually ordered her, to stay put and not do anything until he called back. He’d mumbled something that sounded like he had to get the general, leaving her staring slack-jawed at the phone as it went dead.

Scant minutes later she’d nearly dropped the phone as it rang. The caller, identifying himself as General George Hammond, had run through his own set of questions that left her reeling. A general, she had spoken to a general.

But now, after a brutal day of questions with no answers, Gayle sat temporarily forgotten. There was a tall blond woman with legs made for ski pants, the kind Gayle would have cheerfully killed for, except under the circumstances that observation seemed best kept to herself. She’d heard the woman referred to as Major Carter and Sam. Sam suited her. She seemed efficient and had a no nonsense air about her that bespoke military command. And yet, under that, Gayle could sense a compassionate nature that seemed at odds with her profession. Throughout the afternoon, Gayle had watched and listened as Sam had periodically called in to report to the General Hammond that Gayle had spoken to this morning.

A quiet man named Murray had arrived at the same time as Sam Carter. Gayle had never been near a man who exuded such strength. It wasn’t just that he was a big man, though God knows he was. His strength was more than that. It seemed to be a part of who he was from his very core. He had little to say, at least verbally, yet his entire being seemed to bespeak his concern for Jack. Gayle decided quickly that Murray was a very good man to have on your side.

The third person who had flown in from Colorado Springs was Daniel. Daniel struck Gayle as the younger brother type. Not that she’d ever had a brother, younger or otherwise, but it was a role which seemed to fit him. She wondered briefly if he and Jack had the same type of relationship.

One thing was certain, these people obviously cared about Jack which made Gayle feel better. Since she’d left the city and cut herself off from the ties that had held her, she’d pretty much been on her own. An occasional Christmas card to a distant cousin was her extent of a family reunion. For some reason, she had figured it was the same for Jack, but it was pretty obvious she’d been wrong. These people cared. It was written all over their professional manner. Gayle blinked away a sting of tears. Jack was a lucky man.

Daniel had gone into town with the deputy and was trying to identify the body. A shudder shook her frame. A body. Dammit, things like this didn’t happen here. In the city, sure. Unfortunately, she had been as calloused as the next person when the news anchors had tag-teamed reporting the murders of the day. But this was different. It was personal. Here in Durango, there’d be the odd accidental death: the skier on Purgatory, the unwitting rafter during the summer who bet his life against the Animas and lost. Sad, but not unexpected. This was frightening. Murder. She could barely wrap her mind around the word. She’d never seen a gunshot wound before, but there was absolutely no doubt that that was what she’d seen as she had gazed down at the partially buried corpse. She was no virgin when it came to violence, but this, well, just the thought of it frightened the shit out of her.

She fought against the welling of tears that threatened to overflow. Oh God, Jack, what’s going on? Where the hell are you?

* * * * *

His hand was clutched to his chest, blood welling through the clenched fingers. "What the hell’d you push me for, Maybourne?"

Harry had been limping behind Jack, doing his best to forget how damn cold and miserable he had been for God knows how long. Now he stopped and simply stared at the angry man who had been leading them out of this mess.

"I said, what the hell did you push me for, you little mole pecker?" Jack’s voice rose, echoing off the canyon walls.

Harry coughed, clearing his throat before he answered. "I didn’t push you, Jack. I’ve been right here behind you, freezing my ass off in this stupid snow you love so much. You know that." Drops of crimson fell, decorating the snow like holly berries. "What’s wrong? Did you cut yourself?"

"Like hell! You pushed me into this fucking thorn bush." Jack took a threatening step. "You did it. You pushed me, you little shit."

"Now, Jack," Harry backed away, keeping a safe distance between them, "you know that’s not true. Let me see your hand."

"Bite me, Maybourne. I’m not giving you a chance to do more damage."

Harry grimaced as blood smeared across the front of Jack’s nylon parka. "Don’t be an ass. Let me wrap up that cut, you moron. The last thing we need is you bleeding to death out here in the wilderness." He edged his way closer, holding out his hand, as if placating a stray dog. "Come on, Jack. Give me your hand."

Suspicion written in his every movement, Jack glared, but slowly extended his hand. Blood dripped steadily from a scratch across his palm.

"Damn, this is nasty, but it shouldn’t be bleeding this bad."

"How the hell would you know? When was the last time a desk jockey like you had to perform first aid in the field, Maybourne?"

Harry’s snorting laugh was swallowed by a round of deep coughing. Jack watched without comment as the man fought to catch his breath. Finally, his eyes tearing, Harry answered, "Oh, the stories I could tell you about splinters. They’d give you nightmares." He grinned when Jack gave a begrudging chuckle. "We need to wrap this with something."

"Brilliant, Sherlock. Got anything in mind."

Pleased that Jack seemed to be lighting up, Harry pointed to the pack. "Got anything in there that would work? What does the brilliant Daniel Jackson use when you get your ass in hot water when you’re off world? I’m sure . . ."

Harry suddenly found himself flat on his back, looking up at a sky dominated by a pair of furious, bloodshot, brown eyes. "Don’t talk about my team, you son of a bitch. My team is off limits to scum like you. You got that, you slimeball? Or do I have to make a believer out of you? Huh, Harry? You want I should make you believe?" With a calmness that was frightening, Jack wrapped his bloody palm around Harry’s throat, his fingers digging into the soft flesh.

Harry grabbed Jack’s wrist, fighting to break the hold. His eyes bulged in panic. "Jack, for God’s sake, let go. You’re going to kill me." The words were garbled as he fought for breath.

"My team’s off limits." Jack bore down. Harry had stopped his mad struggling and his eyes were glassy with unshed tears. Slowly, Jack released him then settled back on his heels, watching to see what Harry would do. "They’re my team. You tried to hurt them. Hurt Teal’c. Took him away to experiment on. Can’t let you. My job to protect. Can’t . . ." His words dribbled off into indecipherable mumbling as he scooted across the snow, distancing himself.

Harry groaned and rubbed his throat. "Geesh, Jack. What the hell . . .?"

Jack’s back was to him. As Harry rolled over and slowly sat up, Jack completely ignored him. "Jack? You okay?" It seemed a rather foolish question considering the man had nearly killed him a few moments ago, but the rigid posture was setting off alarm bells. Jack was rarely still. "Jack?" There was no answer. Slowly, Harry crawled through the snow to Jack’s side. The man looked like death warmed over. Pale, the only color in his face the flush of fever on his cheeks, Jack was staring glassy-eyed at the droplets of frozen blood on the crust of snow. His lacerated palm continued to drip steadily. As Harry watched, a slow trickle of blood leaked from Jack’s nostrils to add its own pattern on the frozen canvas.

"I can feel it." The words were whispered . . . hoarse. "It’s in there. I trusted you to keep it away from me, but you didn’t." Jack turned to face Harry with resignation. He appeared completely unaware of the blood dripping down his face.

"What, Jack? What is it you feel?"

Haunted eyes stared unseeing. "The snake. It got me, Harry. I can feel it moving around inside. It hurts - bad. I keep hearing it. It wants me dead."

"Don’t be stupid. You haven’t been Goa’ulded!" Harry resisted the impulse to reach out and shake Jack’s shoulders, fearful that it would trigger another attack. "Snap out of it, Jack. It’s the virus, not a snake. Think. You’ve got to fight this thing. How would a snake survive in all this snow? Answer me that."

There was a slow blink. "Snakes don’t like the cold?"

Harry almost gasped with relief. "Damn straight, they don’t. Remember Hathor’s Goa’uld? You froze that sucker and killed it."

Jack shook his head, sending a rainbow of blood arching across the snow. "Classified. How’d you know about that?"

For the first time, Harry grinned weakly. "Oh, never fear, Colonel, I have my sources." His grin widened as Jack snorted. Rubbing his neck, he watched Jack carefully for his reaction. "You know you’re scaring the shit out of me, don’t you?"

Jack gave a weak smile through his bloody mask, shutting his eyes as his head bowed. "Yeah, me too. Think you can give me a hand with this bleeding, if I promise not to go postal on you?"

"I’m going to hold you to that." Harry reached for the pack and began to rifle through the supplies. "Jack?" He jumped, the pack torn from his grasp as Jack melted bonelessly to the snow. As Harry stared, the blood pooled and froze around the still form. A trickle joined its twin as blood began to seep from between Jack’s parted lips. . . .

* * * * *

"The prints on the coffee cup - are you ready for this, Sam - are Harry Maybourne’s." Ignoring the muffled curse, Daniel went on. "Janet confirmed the match."

"Did she get us any information on the body yet?"

Daniel glanced at his notepad though it was clear he had the information memorized. "Captain Thomas Hildebrane, Special Forces, currently assigned to Nellis."

"Damn. He’s NID?" Sam frowned as she processed the new information. What the heck’s the NID doing out here?

Daniel gave a noncommittal shrug. "Where’s Teal’c and . . .," he paused.

"Gayle?"

"Yeah, Gayle." He moved over to the stove, frowning when he discovered the coffee pot was cold.

"Gayle went back to her house. She left her number if we needed her for anything. Teal’c’s still out scouting." She looked away. "Daniel, I’ve got a really bad feeling about this. Maybourne, and now the NID. The Colonel’s in trouble."

Daniel crossed his arms and stared at the vastly interesting architecture of the floorboards. "I know, Sam. But we’ll find him. At least we know he’s on this planet." His weak grin melted away. "At least that narrows the search."

Sam smiled and shook her head. "Guess you’re right. Looks like it’s getting dark out. Guess we’re stuck here for the night. Hopefully something will turn up in the morning." They shared a glum glance. Obviously neither were happy about the forced passivity. "Okay, I’ll flip you for the bed. Whoever wins the toss has to cook?"

"So the winner gets a good night’s sleep, but has to cook?"

Sam nodded. "I guess we could drive into town for something but . . .," she hesitated.

"No, Jack could come home, or call or something. We need to be here. I’ll cook. I think I can manage bacon and eggs."

"Sounds good." Sam reached out and gave his forearm a squeeze. "Thanks, Daniel."

"Better wait until you taste it." He blinked and turned away. "We’ll find him, Sam."

Before she could answer the cabin door opened and Teal’c stepped in, stomping the snow from his boots. Sam moved towards him. "Teal’c, I’m glad you’re back. Since it’s getting dark, we’re going to call it a night and start again in the morning."

"Major Carter, I believe I have discovered a piece of the puzzle to O’Neill’s disappearance." He held out his hand.

Sharing a glance, Sam and Daniel moved closer. There, dwarfed in the massive palm, lay a tiny dart with a red feather.

* * * * *

"We’re . . .," Jack stopped. Squinting against the gold light of a sinking sun, he looked around. He’d been going to say that they were going in circles. But to be perfectly honest, he wasn’t sure.

"We’re what?"

Head pounding steadily, Jack turned and looked at the man behind him.

"What?" his companion panted.

Jack frowned at him. The guy was bowed down under the weight of a backpack. He was leaning over, hands on his knees, and he was breathless and pale. The man looked up at him.

"Jack, your nose is bleeding again."

Lifting a trembling hand to his face, Jack wiped his nose and felt something warm and wet smear across his cheek.

"Damn." The man struggled his way out of the backpack and dropped it onto the snow, then approached Jack somewhat cautiously. "It’s bleeding bad. Will you let me help you?"

Jack gave what he hoped was a kind smile. "Yes."

"Good. Sit down before you fall down, okay?"

"Okay." Jack sank heavily to the ground, smiling despite the spiking pain in his head and a hot throbbing in his knee.

"Tilt your head back."

He did and nearly gagged at the sudden, coppery taste in the back of his mouth. His head really hurt. Really, really hurt, but the other man’s cold fingers felt good on his face. "Why are you helping me?"

The man snorted softly and wiped at Jack’s face with a cloth. "I’m just an old softie, I guess."

Jack grinned.

"God, Jack, your gums are bleeding again, too."

"Are we friends?"

"Huh?" The man coughed, reached for something in the pack, then looked at Jack and chuckled. "You’re kidding, right?"

"So . . . we’re not friends?"

The man stopped wiping at his face and stared down at Jack. "You’re serious." Looking around them at the trees, the man shivered before turning back to Jack. "What’s my name?"

Crap. Jack knew the guy was going to ask that. He hated when he couldn’t remember a name. Faces he was great with, but names. . . . Jack studied the man’s round face. Looked at the eyes. He knew he’d seen the guy before, but hell if he could remember when or where.

"Holy shit," the man mumbled. "Harry. My name’s Harry Maybourne."

"Harry," Jack repeated quietly. His headache flared, causing him to flinch. "Harry, what’s wrong with me?"

"You’re sick. In fact, why don’t you lie down for a minute?"

"Yeah. Okay." Jack allowed Harry to help him lean back against the pack. "I’ll feel better in a minute, right?"

Harry smiled and fastened Jack’s parka up around his neck. "Sure, Jack. You’ll feel better soon."

* * * * *

"Well?" Daniel said.

Sam closed her phone, breaking the connection, and turned to look at her teammates. Teal’c looked more intense than usual and Daniel looked tired but sleepless - the same way she felt. Sam glanced at her watch before responding; it would be daylight soon and at most, they’d each gotten a few hours of rest.

"Well, that was Janet. The General’s not had any luck getting any information out of the NID. Surprise, surprise."

"They are not claiming responsibility for O’Neill’s disappearance?"

Sam smiled at Teal’c, who was sitting in a chair at the small kitchen table. "They’re not even admitting that they know a Captain Hildebrane. So, no, they’re not taking responsibility."

Daniel wandered over to the stove. "Anyone want to lay odds on men in dark suits showing up to help us with the search?"

"Then we leave before they get here."

Filling the old-fashioned percolator with water, Daniel slid in the filter apparatus and began spooning in coffee. A lot of coffee. "So what else did Janet have to say?"

"Other than the fact that she’d bet her next paycheck that the Colonel was the one who shot Hildebrane?"

Daniel stopped what he was doing and looked at her over his shoulder.

Teal’c merely arched one eyebrow. "One shot between the eyes. The man dies instantly." Looking at Daniel Jackson, the Jaffa smiled slightly. "It is O’Neill’s way."

At Daniel’s frown, Sam cleared her throat. "Yeah, well, that and the fact that the bullet obviously came from the Colonel’s 9 mil. As for the dart . . .," Sam sighed as the two men looked at her. "First, as Janet pointed out, there’s the possibility that no one was even shot with it. I mean, after all, it was just laying there in the snow. Right?"

Teal’c nodded, then added without emotion, "Yes. There were boot tracks, but because of fresh snow, it would be difficult to ascertain to whom the tracks belonged."

"So, it could have been Maybourne." Daniel sounded hopeful.

"It could have been. Or," Sam sank down in a chair next to Teal’c, "it could have been the Colonel or it could have been neither."

"We should have the dart examined."

"We will, Teal’c."

Daniel set the percolator on the stove and turned up the flame beneath it. "The question is, why a dart? Assuming it belonged to the NID, then . . . why? Why not just shoot to kill?"

Sam picked up a small jar of something green and chunky, studying the label. "Maybe they did. The dart could be something as simple as a tranquilizer or something deadlier than any bullet."

Growing pale at her comment, Daniel wandered over and sat down across from them. "What? Drugs of some kind?"

"Janet said it could be anything. A virus, a biological agent, something as simple as an hallucinogen, anything. She also said something else. She said it could even be something alien." Sam glanced at her teammates. "What if she’s right? I mean, this is the NID we’re dealing with."

"Sam, we have to find him. The sooner, the better. But, where do we start?"

"The river."

Sam glanced over at Teal’c. "The river?"

"The local authorities located two vehicles, apparently those used by the NID and by Harry Maybourne. O’Neill’s truck remains here. If O’Neill left on foot, he would follow the river or the train tracks."

"So, which way do we go?" Daniel got up to check the coffee pot. "Upstream or down?"

Teal’c didn’t hesitate. "Assistance lies downstream."

"Then downstream it is, as soon as it’s light." Sam hefted the small jar in her hand and chuckled softly, causing the others to look at her as if she’d lost her mind. Grinning, she held up the jar. "Leave it to the Colonel to find green chili salsa with a name like ‘Religious Experience.’"

* * * * *

Something woke him. Other than shivering, he didn’t move. He lay there, curled in on himself, seeking warmth that was sorely lacking, and he listened.

There. Something soft. Repetitive. An animal? A human whisper?

Slowly, Harry Maybourne lifted his head and glanced around, surprised to find that it was morning. Darkness had fallen swiftly and with a finality that was frightening. After a full day of following in the wake of a staggering, sick, quite possibly dying Jack O’Neill in the middle of the freakin’ outback in subzero temperatures, Harry had discovered something extremely unsettling: there were worse things than Leavenworth.

Last night, kneeling within the meager halo created by their only flashlight, the sound of the river a mind-numbing, never-ending presence, Harry had struggled for nearly an hour to light a fire. But the wood was too damp and wouldn’t catch. Wrapped inside the sleeping bag, trembling as he drifted somewhere between reality and la-la-land, Jack had attempted to explain what Harry was doing wrong, telling him not to try to light the wood but to light a bird’s nest. When Harry stiffly but politely explained that he didn’t think finding a bird’s nest any time soon was in either of their futures, Jack had gotten pissed and told him he had to make one. At which point, Harry had shouted something about Jack’s lineage and had thrown the stupid, worthless magnesium bar at his stupid, worthless companion. The small metal bar had thunked quite satisfactorily against Jack’s forehead, and the guy hadn’t even flinched. The end result had been a long, cold, dark night.

Now, staring over at a pale, sweaty, half-dressed Jack O’Neill, Harry felt guilty. The man was sitting on a snow drift at the base of a spindly pine tree, staring straight ahead, rocking himself, and talking very softly. He was barefoot and bare-chested, his sweater draped over a low hanging branch and his parka packed full of snow and propped against a dead tree. The wound on Jack’s shoulder was red and swollen, and in addition to the traces of blood which were smeared around his nose and mouth, he was now sporting a dark bruise just over his left eyebrow.

"Jack?" Trying desperately to quell the urge to cough, Harry eased himself onto his hands and knees. "Jack, buddy, what are you doing?"

Dark eyes slowly turned, aimed at him but not focusing. Jack’s blue lips moved.

Shit, the guy was going to freeze to death!

"Come on, Jack," slowly pushing himself to his feet, Harry inched his way towards the other man and tugged the sweater from the tree branch. "You’ve got to get dressed. You’re going to freeze. Where are your shoes?"

Jack smiled grimly. "Oh come on, come on, oh what a state I’m in," he whispered.

"What? Where are your shoes, Jack?" Then Harry spied them. They were turned upside down over two sticks that were jammed deep into the snow. Harry retrieved them, finding a sock neatly balled up and stuffed into the toe of each boot. Seems that even off his rocker, Jack O’Neill was a neat freak.

Harry approached slowly, never knowing what mood Jack would be in from one minute to the next. But this morning, Jack seemed oblivious to his presence and if not oblivious, at least apathetic. It seemed today Harry Maybourne was nothing but an insignificant fly on the wall of Jack’s padded room. With a shiver and a head-rattling cough, Harry sat down in the snow. "Okay, Jack, we’re going to put your shoes on."

As Harry grasped a cold, nearly blue foot and began trying to pull a sock over it, Jack softly repeated the same line, again and again. "Oh come on, come on, oh what a state I’m in."

"Well, can’t argue with that." Harry grunted, marveling at how difficult it was to get socks on someone else and wondering how the hell he was going to manage the sweater. "So, Jack, where to today? You going to walk me in circles again? Maybe we should just wait here. You know, sit down and let the bears and beasties come to us. Speaking of which, I heard something last night. It sounded huge and was walking through the trees just over there. Then a few minutes later, I heard it bellowing like a freakin’ banshee. What do you think it was?"

Jack rocked and mumbled, but didn’t answer. Harry admired the sock on Jack’s right foot and reached for the boot.

"You’re a lot of help, O’Neill." Struggling with the tongue of the boot, Harry glanced at Jack and mumbled to himself, "Just great. I’m stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with a flipped out killer on my hands."

Jack froze and went silent. Harry straightened, watching him closely. Brown eyes studied him, blinked, and studied him some more.

"What? What is it? Can you hear me? Come on, Jack, I could use some help here. This is a little out of my league."

Jack smiled. "Stuck here, in the middle of nowhere, with a headache, and a heavy heart, well nothing was going quite right here, and I'm tired, I can’t play no part."****

"Huh?"

"Oh come on, come on, oh what a state I’m in. Oh come on, come on, why won’t it just stay here?"

Lyrics? The guy was spouting lyrics to him? Oh, geesh. His heart racing, Harry hurried to finish dressing O’Neill.

* * * * *

Gayle Miller lay on her side staring out the window at the barren landscape revealed by a new sun. It seemed colder, harsher than it had been just a day ago. She wondered if it was her imagination or if the landscape that she loved had really turned on her. Or maybe it was just that life had caught up with her. Maybe that Darkness she’d left back East years ago had finally made its way out West. Yesterday, it had caught up with her and it had begun . . . commencing with stripping from her one of her sources of joy.

Glancing at the clock, Gayle thought about getting up. She thought about showering and dressing and getting ready for work. After all, it was just another day, right? Groaning softly, refusing to cry, she rolled over, turning her back to the cold. Shutting her eyes, she waited and she dozed.

* * * * *

"Tracks."

Harry stopped the mind-numbing shuffle he had adopted. He was too damn tired to even think beyond following the snaky trail Jack was plowing through the deep snow. Forcing himself to look up, he strained to hear what Jack was mumbling. Probably just those freakin’ lyrics he seemed to have stuck in whatever was left of his brain. It was hard to hear anything beyond the incessant noise of the river and the wind sweeping through the surrounding groves. It was probably nothing. The poor bastard was slipping fast. That virus was a real bitch. One of the worst Harry had ever had the misfortune to observe, and he’d seen some beauties during his days at Nellis. Maybe it was because this one was so up close and personal. Maybe it was because he felt guilty about dragging Jack into this mess. His chapped lips cracked as he snorted at the irony. He could just imagine what Jack’s comment would be to his concern over guilt, or the lack thereof. ‘You should have guilt tattooed across your ass, Maybourne, not on the left cheek, not on the right, but smack dab in the middle.’

Jack had stopped and was slowly shaking his head. Harry could see drops of scarlet violating the white. Dammit. His nose was bleeding again. Forcing himself to move around in front of the taller man, he scowled as splatters of blood hit his parka, red on yellow - ketchup on mustard. For a long moment, he watched the ketchup weave a slow trail downward before he shook his own head in disgust.

"Jack, hold still. You’re making it worse." Reaching in his pocket, he dragged out the blood encrusted remains of his t-shirt. Fraiser would probably have his balls for using the unsanitary item. Hell, like he had much choice. It was getting hard to find a relatively clean spot on the rag as it was. Holding the ragged material up to Jack’s face, Harry pinched his nostrils, trying to steam the flow. He watched Jack’s wan features carefully, ready to dodge any resistance, but this time the man seemed oblivious to his presence.

Harry could only hope he was doing the right thing. Medical procedures of any kind were way out of his comfort zone. He’d pretty much forgotten those few things he’d been taught a lifetime ago in Basic. Unfortunately, the way it looked, Fraiser wouldn’t have to worry about his sanitary practices with first aid. Jack looked like a walking zombie. Hell. He’d seen healthier looking corpses. It was more than his pale, drawn features. His eyes - his eyes were what disturbed Harry the most. He’d seen Jack’s eyes communicate many things over the years, although he had to admit anger and rage were usually the base. But now, those dark eyes were flat - dead - just waiting for the rest of the body to capitulate and give in to the inevitable. A cold chill that had nothing to do with the weather coursed through Harry’s body. He shuddered.

"Tracks." The word was muffled through the folds of gory cloth.

Harry frowned. "Tracks? What’re you talking about, Jack?" The dark, dead eyes gravitated towards Harry’s face, but drifted off at the last moment to rest somewhere over his shoulder. Irritated, and feeling guilty because of it, Harry waved his free hand in front of Jack’s face. "What tracks? Animal? Vegetable? Mineral? The first letter is?" There was no reaction and for a moment Harry fought with the overwhelming impulse to slap the slack features. "God, Jack, you are such a pain in the ass." His voice rose in frustration as he surrendered to temptation and shouted at the unresponsive man. "Why don’t you just go ahead and admit you’re a dead man walking? Save us both the time and trouble and just give up and die, you stubborn ass. Just get it through that hard Irish skull of yours that it’s over and neither of us are going to get out of this one."

Knowing his words were having no effect, but feeling better for saying them aloud, he lowered his voice. "Somehow, I didn’t think I’d end up as lunch for wolves and bears. Kind of thought I’d retire someday, on some little tropical island." He looked around at the frozen landscape. "Yeah, well, someone’s got a sense of humor, huh?"

He loosened his grip on Jack’s nose as harsh coughing caused him to double over. Finally depositing his own mucus coated offering on the snow, he eyed the soiled area with disgust. "Shit." Shaking his head, he looked into Jack’s slack face. "Come on, Jack. I’ll lead for a while."

* * * * *

Daniel stopped, reached for his glasses, and used the thumb of his gloves in a half-hearted attempt to wipe clean the fogged lens. He’d done the same thing every quarter of an hour with little success. "So what makes you think we’re on the right track?"

Only the fact that the same exact question had been cruising through her cranium for the past hour or so kept Sam from snapping at Daniel. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him he sounded like a kid asking, ‘Are we there yet?’ Then she realized she was feeling a pretty childish urge to snap at Daniel when he was only vocalizing her own thoughts. It was nerves. That and the fact that none of them had gotten more than a mediocre amount of rest. She had lain awake in the big bed in the cabin and stared at the ceiling as tandem scenarios played out in her mind. Try as she might, she’d been unable to come up with one which would pacify her concerns and allow her to relax enough to sleep. The Colonel had once labeled Maybourne a trouble pimp, always looking for the unwary to hustle his wares. She’d laughed at the time and refrained from comment, although privately she thought the Colonel was being generous in his description. In her opinion, comparing Maybourne to a pimp gave pimps a bad rap.

They’d been more or less following the river for the last couple of hours. It was tough going. Hard. Slow. At times, Teal’c was hard pressed to find a safe path, much less a well established trail. One glance down the canyon wall at the white foam cascading over the boulders was a constant reminder the fate that awaited them should they stumble. The visibility fluctuated between poor and non-existent when unexpected squalls screamed through the canyons and gave the impression of swarms of crystallized killer bees bent on immobilizing foolish interlopers. Thankfully, the snow squalls hadn’t lasted long. Travel was miserable and treacherous enough without them.

"Sam, tell me again why the General didn’t order an aerial search?" Daniel shouted to be heard above the river and whipping wind. He waited as Sam pushed through the snow and moved up next to him.

"We can’t, Daniel. Between the weather and the terrain an air to ground search wouldn’t be effective. There’s too many deep canyons. Even if they have a fire going, no one would ever spot them."

"And we stand a better chance because?"

"Because we have the determination and will to find O’Neill, Daniel Jackson."

His companions shared a sideways glance. "You’re right, Teal’c. ‘In mighty enterprises, it is enough to have had the determination.’"**

Teal’c nodded. "Indeed." He gave a rare smile of reassurance before turning to once again lead the way.

Sam gave Daniel’s arm an encouraging squeeze. "We’ll find him."

Daniel nodded and turned to follow Teal’c .

They struggled on in silence until Sam stopped and shouted above the ever present noise of the river. "Daniel, Teal’c, wait a minute." She waited impatiently as the men carefully made their way back. "Guys, I’ve been thinking. We’ve come pretty far without any sign of either the Colonel or Maybourne." She gestured towards the steep, icy sides of the canyon dropping into the river. "This side of the canyon is too steep to get down to the river if we need to. The opposite side looks more accessible. If the Colonel was anywhere near the river, that’s the side he’s going to come out. It’s just logical, especially if he was wounded." Noting Daniel’s grim expression, she hurried on. "I figure we can either keep going the way we are, which doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much, or we can go back and call for reinforcements. They can continue the search on this side and we’ll start searching along the opposite bank."

"I concur, Major Carter." Despite his calm demeanor, Teal’c’s concern was obvious to the others.

"Lead the way, Teal’c," Daniel added.

Back to square one, Sam thought, as she stepped into line. Glancing down at the fury of the river, a shudder ran through her. Square minus one if you went in there, Colonel.

* * * * *

There was something he had to share. Something important. It could be that he was supposed to tell the guy in the dirty yellow coat the important thing. But he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t be sure. Jack had a vague feeling that he was in a bad place. That there was someplace he needed to be. Something . . . somewhere . . .

If he could only get around the pain that was nearly blinding him, he figured he would remember with no problem. But as it was, it felt as if there were naquadah miners trying to use pick axes to break through his skull. Naquadah? What the hell? Jack stumbled to a stop and silently watched the yellow coat disappear over the next rise.

He was hot and thirsty, so thirsty. His mouth tasted of stale copper, but he couldn’t work up enough spit to rid himself of the taste. Nine days he’d been trying to get back to his unit. Nine days since his chute had opened late and he had hit the desert floor. He was going to die if he didn’t find water soon. The canteen was empty. He was hurt. His shoulder was hurt bad. He didn’t have to look at it to know the wound was serious. The sand was blowing again, stinging his eyes, making it hard to breathe, hard to see beyond the white swirl in which he was trapped. If the Iraqi’s caught up with him, he was dead.

As Jack stood there, fighting to determine in which direction Kuwait and his safety lay, he thought he heard the whisper of water calling him - just beyond those trees. Water? Trees? They didn’t belong here, did they? Crap! He was hallucinating again. Oh God, please don’t let the water be a mirage. He knew he was bordering on begging, but he figured God wasn’t talking. He just couldn’t take much more. He’d failed. He could feel his body shutting down. If the water was part of a cruel prank of Mother Nature, then he was dead and the Iraqi’s had saved a round of ammunition.

Stumbling forward, Jack focused on the sound of the water, the water he was ready to sell his soul to reach.

"Jack, I found it!"

Jack frowned, pausing as the voice rose above the call of the river. He could see it now. His salvation, calling him, awaiting his arrival. He took another step.

"Dammit, Jack. Stop. I found the tracks."

He stumbled, dropping painfully to his hands and knees. So close. He had to reach it.

"Jack!" the voice was shouting at him, calling him, trying to keep him from reaching his goal.

He was crawling, ignoring the fire ripping through his shoulder. Ignoring his hands and knees, sending waves of pain through his limbs as the hot sands burned. He was close. A few more feet and the fire would be quenched.

He was reaching for the water, ready to throw himself into the cooling depths, desperate to sink beneath the surface and purge himself of the flames consuming him, when he was blindsided. Rolling onto his back, Jack fought to free himself of the heavy weight pinning him.

"Stop fighting, you stupid jerk. I’m not going to let you go until you settle down."

Jack could taste blood. They’d found him. It was over. He was dead - worse than dead. Obviously, they were going to have some fun with him before they killed him. He glared weakly at the soldier pinning him.

Oh God, it was hot. He couldn’t let them take Carter. He had to stop them. The bastards had shot him. God, his leg was on fire. He moaned, fighting against the heaviness on his chest. Apophis. That son of a bitch had more lives than a cat. And now he was playing with Carter and Jack couldn’t do a damn thing to stop him. Hurt, it hurt so bad. Blood of Sokar. Filling his mouth, clouding his mind.

"Jack, please, you’re scaring the shit out of me. I can see the trestle. We’re almost there. All we’ve got to do is figure out how to get up to it and we’re so out of here. Can you even hear me, O’Neill? I said, you are not going to leave me behind now. Not after everything we’ve been through."

All a lie. "Charlie? No guns." Blood. He could see the blood, smell it. He tasted it on his lips, on his tongue. Charlie’s blood. "No!"

Harry pitched forward, landing heavily with a grunt as Jack’s body arched. He lay in the snow, horrified as dark blood erupted from Jack’s mouth. It was over in a moment and as Harry watched helplessly, Jack crumpled and was still. Staring at the silent figure laying on the bank of the Animas, he wished he had enough tears to cleanse his soul.

* * * * *

"I have you, Daniel Jackson." Strong arms reached up to steady the ropes as his feet touched the surface.

Daniel smiled his appreciation, grateful to be on firm ground. The trestle was above them - far above them - spanning the canyon. The shear walls, combined with the power of the ancient river, gave him a feeling of being insignificant, small, and very, very young, which struck him as odd since he had spent a lifetime in the presence of the ancient. He felt like an interloper of the highest degree. It was an uncomfortable sensation. Moving to one side, Daniel unhooked the climbing harness and ropes, and stood silently as Sam skillfully made her descent. "‘El Rio de las Animas Perdidas’ - The River of Lost Souls," he whispered. His throat tightened. The Animas was living up to her name.

He stared across the frigid water, marveling at the power of the storm driven snow. It dampened all sound, muffling everything, and hid the opposite, steep bank of the river from view. Wiping at his glasses once again, Daniel fumbled with the sleeve of his coat and squinted at his watch. It was nearly five o’clock; it would be dark soon. He felt a surge of restless annoyance at the fact that they had wasted an entire day. By the time they’d wandered the far bank of the river and then headed back to call in reinforcements, it was nearly too late to begin a search. In fact, the local Sheriff had tried in vain to stop the team from leaving the cabin, insisting the search wait until dawn. But the man had a lot to learn about the members of SG-1. First of all, they were none of them virgins when it came to walking headlong into the path of adversity, and second, they didn’t leave a team member behind. By the time Sam had educated the Sheriff on those finer points of team dynamics, even the Animas seemed a bit cowed. But not any longer.

"Daniel Jackson."

Startled, Daniel realized that Sam had descended and was shrugging into a large backpack. Teal’c was holding out an identical pack for Daniel. Grunting softly, he slipped the heavy frame onto his back. Not knowing how far or how long they’d need to go, assuming that they were looking for one or more possibly wounded men, they had packed accordingly. Hunched under the weight of the pack, Daniel looked over at Sam and Teal’c and nodded. "Ready."

Without another word, Daniel and Sam fell in line behind Teal’c, who cut a determined path through the driving snow.

* * * * *

"Hey, how you doing?"

Weary beyond words, Jack opened his eyes. Maybourne was leaning over him. "Harry?" God, was that his voice? It sounded weak and pathetic.

"Yeah, Jack. How are you feeling?"

He licked his lips and wished he had a drink of water. Blinking, he felt sleep nudging him. "I’ve been better." He tried to raise his head to look around, but the effort was too exhausting. "Where are we?"

Harry coughed deeply and wiped sweat off his forehead with a shaky hand before replying. "We’re not far from the train trestle, Jack. I could see it just up the river, maybe a couple of hundred yards."

"Why . . .," Jack groaned and blinked rapidly, fighting off a swarm of little black dots that threatened his vision. "Why didn’t you go?"

"It’s at the top of a steep cliff, Jack. There’s no way I can get you up it, and no way you can climb. Besides, in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s snowing like a son-of-a-bitch." Harry chuckled softly, the sound more frantic than humorous.

Jack frowned. He hadn’t noticed that it was snowing, but now that Harry mentioned it, he could feel the cold flakes stinging his skin wherever they touched. He flinched, gasping. "Harry?"

"What?"

He was cold. He was cold but his skin was burning. Wherever the wet snow touched, a finger of flame ignited. "Where . . . am I?"

Harry didn’t answer.

Jack felt a strange sort of energy building. He needed to move. He had to move but his body hurt. His knee, his shoulder, his wrist - they were the worst. And his head. God, the inside of his head was like ice. But the pain was everywhere. It was inside him. He needed to escape it; he needed to run, but he was weak. So instead, he trembled. "Aagh!" He cried out and arched his back, needing to rid himself of the pain and the burning and the urge to move. Because he didn’t want to move. It would hurt too much.

"Jack, please. Please don’t do this." Harry’s hands dropped limply onto Jack’s shoulders in a meager attempt to still his shaking. "I’m tired, Jack. I can’t do this any more. Please."

He was sorry. He didn’t mean to be like this. He wanted to help. He wanted to tell Harry to go on without him. He wanted to explain how to make a bird’s nest - show Harry how to strip the bark just so in order for the spark to ignite so the flame would take to the kindling. He wanted to teach him how to build a snow cave and heat the snow for water. How to make a snare. How you could catch a single rabbit and live off the carcass for days. He had much to teach him and he wanted to do it. He really did. And he wanted to cry - because it hurt so bad and he didn’t know where he was and Gayle was waiting on him. He had to get to Gayle. Without a single promise being uttered, they were always there for each other. But he had let her down. He had let Harry down. And his team. And those men who’d died in the explosion on K’Tau. He should have pulled the trigger. He should have killed the bastard Malchus.

Groaning, Jack fought against himself. He struggled weakly, gagging at the coppery taste in the back of his throat. He saw nothing but white and flashes of yellow and red. Almost blindly, he reached out for something that always seemed to be just beyond his grasp. Finally, warm hands grabbed onto his own, anchoring him. His breathing harsh and rapid, blinking against a cold, wet dampness that continued to drift into his eyes, Jack clutched at the hands in desperation.

"Help me," he whispered.

"It’s okay, Jack. I’m here."

He trembled, his entire body plagued with tiny, dagger-like spasms, and he swallowed copper and coughed, the movement causing the pain inside his head to throb intensely. Jack cringed, worried that his head might explode. If it did, the one helping him would probably be killed as well. He didn’t want that. "Don’t . . . leave me."

"I won’t." And the warm hands changed into warm arms that wrapped around him. He sighed and trembled as he was pulled against something firm and warm and safe. "I’ll take care of you, Jack."

He would sleep. Just for a little while. Then he would call Gayle and tell her how great she was and how much she meant to him.

* * * * *

They’d traveled less than twenty minutes after leaving the base of the cliff when Daniel Jackson stumbled into the broad, solid form of Teal’c. Mumbling an apology, Daniel pulled off a glove and swiped at the frost forming on his glasses.

"What is it, Teal’c?" Sam moved up alongside them, squinting through the thickening snow.

"Sshh." The large man closed his eyes and turned his head slightly, obviously listening. When his eyes opened, he looked directly at Daniel. "I hear voices."

"Jack?" Holding his breath, awaiting Teal’c’s answer, Daniel suddenly realized just how much he missed his friend. It was hard to believe Jack had only been missing a few days. It seemed like at least a week. God, the guy was such an ass. Daniel grinned, barely able to contain his excitement.

"Perhaps, or perhaps it is only Harry Maybourne."

Daniel was disappointed. Not that he wished bad on Maybourne but . . . well, if it was a choice between Jack O’Neill and Harry Maybourne, then he guessed he did wish bad on Maybourne.

"There’s one way to find out. Which direction?" When Teal’c pointed in front of them and slightly to the left, Sam took off and soon disappeared in the thick veil of snow.

* * * * *

Staring blankly at the television screen, Gayle hung up the telephone. She’d talked to the Durango Police Department, to two different deputies at the County Sheriff’s office, and even to Jeff, one of the reporters at the Herald. No one had any news about Jack. Hell, she’d even tried to get in touch with that General Hammond out of Colorado Springs and had to tried to drive to Jack’s cabin. All to no avail. The first she couldn’t locate, and the second had been roped off to anyone but officials from the local law enforcement or the military.

So she stared at the television screen, waiting for word that a body or bodies had been fished out of the Animas. She waited to see a cold, pale Jack O’Neill being bundled into the back of a waiting ambulance, glancing at the television camera with the hooded eyes that she’d immediately noticed the first time he’d stepped foot in the Diner so long ago. It was a look she’d recognized - the look of an animal who’s been wounded and hunted and backed into a corner more times than it can count, and now that animal is just waiting for the next round of torment.

Curling her legs up on the sofa, tucking the fleece throw around herself, Gayle smiled as she realized that it had been ages since she’d seen that look on Jack’s face, or her own for that matter. Funny . . . she could go for an entire year without seeing him and never missed him. She’d think about him, wonder what he was doing, hope that he was happy and safe, but she’d never missed him. Not once. Until now.

Suddenly, before she knew what was happening, Gayle was sobbing. Crying her eyes out and cussing like a sailor. Cussing Jack for getting in trouble, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for ever coming here in the first place. But mainly, she cussed herself and her stupid emotions, because when she’d left Stephen and the beatings behind, she’d sworn no man would ever make her cry again.

"Damn you, Jack." She scrubbed her hands over her face and glanced over at Chester, Vera the cat’s mangy replacement. "What are you looking at? Ain’t you ever seen a girl cry before?"

Chester purred loudly in response.

Feeling the tears welling up again at the animal’s obvious sympathy, Gayle tossed a pillow at him. "Just leave me the hell alone!"

* * * * *

Harry Maybourne was sick. He could feel the fluid building in his lungs and the fever that had clawed at him when he’d awakened this morning now had him in a firm grasp. He knew he should be colder, thirstier and hungrier than he was, and the weakness that had settled in his limbs was worrisome. He was willing to bet the pension he’d lost that he had pneumonia. Still, that was the least of his problems.

His main problem was limp as a rag and staring up at him. Harry was pretty sure that Jack O’Neill was dying. Worse, he thought that Jack knew it, too, at least in his more rational moments. Like now. The man was panting softly and was ghostly pale. The small stream of blood that Harry had repeatedly wiped from Jack’s nose had finally stopped, only to be replaced by a bloody froth that bubbled out of his nostrils and from between his blue-tinted lips. The dark eyes that typically glittered with life were dull and flat. He stared down into them now, then clutched Jack’s lean form in a tighter grip.

Harry had done some real shitty things in his life, but sitting here watching Jack O’Neill slowly leak away his life’s blood was one of the worst. Especially since it was his own fault. He should have handled this himself.

"I’m sorry, Jack. I should never have got you involved in this. I . . . I’m sorry."

Wincing, Jack weakly lifted a hand and patted Harry’s glove. "S’kay."

"No, it’s not okay, dammit! And just," Harry coughed deeply, "just stop being so nice about it. It’s freaking me out."

Jack forced a tired, bloody smile.

"I mean it. You’ve got to . . . I don’t know, hold a grudge or something. It’ll make me feel better." Harry shook the man gently. "Okay?"

Groaning softly, Jack blinked as if fighting back sleep. "Pr-promise," he whispered.

"Good, because I don’t-"

And suddenly Jack arched his back and gasped loudly, his hand clutching at Harry’s sleeve.

"What? Jack, what is it?"

But Jack didn’t answer. He couldn’t. He could only struggle for breath.

* * * * *

Harry could only assume fatigue and worry had finally gotten to him when he saw the shadowy figures emerge silently from the swirling snow. He’d finally cracked up and was hallucinating, which was a bite because he’d made a promise to Jack and he’d be damned if he was going to take the easy way out and escape Jack’s death through delusions. This time, he vowed. This time, Harry Maybourne was going to step up to the bar and pay his tab in full. He wasn’t going to let Jack die alone. He owed him that much. Harry turned away from the images and with his eyes glued to Jack’s frightened face, he tightened his grip around the trembling shoulders and waited.

The hand on his shoulder barely registered, but he scowled at the woman’s voice. "Colonel Maybourne? Thank God, we found you."

These damn illusions were really annoying. Harry hunched closer, using his body to shield Jack’s face from the driving snow as best he could while he struggled against the coughing fit that was fighting to escape.

"Colonel Maybourne? Sir, please let me see the Colonel. I need to try and help him."

Harry shook his head and hunched protectively over his charge.

The hand removed itself from his shoulder and Harry heard murmuring voices that melted in and out of the wind whipping around them. "Take it easy, Jack," he whispered. "Just relax and try not to fight. Deep breath. Just one."

A dark figure squatted on the other side of Jack. "Colonel Maybourne, you must allow Major Carter to attend O’Neill."

Harry gave in to the losing battle as he buried his face against Jack’s chest and allowed the hacking cough to consume him. Strong hands gripped his shaking shoulders as he fought to catch his breath, tears washing his fever-flushed cheeks.

"We are here to help O’Neill. Please allow us to aid you, as well."

Slowly, Harry focused on the dark face. "Teal’c? You’re real?"

"Indeed." Without breaking eye-contact, Teal’c’s voice rose above the howling winds. "Major Carter, I believe Colonel Maybourne is now ready for your assistance."

Harry felt strong arms wrap around him, supporting him, pulling him away. He panicked as his fingers loosened their grip on Jack’s parka; struggling weakly, he lost contact. "No! I promised." His struggles drained away, replaced almost immediately by a high tide of exhaustion.

"Daniel, bring me that med kit and then help Teal’c."

Harry blinked hard, trying to clear his vision from the drunken waves that were overwhelming him.

"Rest easy, Colonel Maybourne. We will protect O’Neill and you, as well, if you will allow us."

Wide, anxious eyes, partially hidden behind fogged lenses, suddenly floated into Harry’s line of sight. "My God, Teal’c, Jack looks awful. Maybourne, what happened?" The voice was filled with fear and anger, demanding answers to mysteries only he could solve.

Harry blinked again, shaking his head which caused the vertigo to reach Hitchcock proportions. Swallowing the sweeping nausea, he fought to focus, to pull himself together. "Darted." The hacking cough was back. "Virus . . . NID . . . he’s dying."

"No! No, he isn’t!" Harry’s head bobbed as Daniel shook his shoulders, punctuating his statement with his anger. "You’re a lying son of . . ."

"Daniel Jackson, desist this action. It will not aid O’Neill and we do not know the circumstances."

Daniel’s hands dropped in surrender and his head bowed. Harry, suddenly devoid of the support - albeit dubious help - lost his battle and tilted as Don Quixote’s windmill having been vanquished by the winds of misfortune sweeping round him. He was unaware of Teal’c reaching out and gently guiding his unresisting form into the warmth of a sleeping bag.

* * * * *

"Teal’c should be back with help in another couple of hours."

"I hope Jack has that long, Sam." Daniel absently poked at the fire with a stick, sending sparks flying. The firelight reflected off his glasses.

Sam gently checked Jack’s forehead. "He’s still pretty hot, but it doesn’t seem to have gotten any worse. I wish I knew what to do. I hate feeling helpless."

Daniel nodded and continued to taunt the fire with his stick.

"He’s dying."

Sam and Daniel jumped at the croaking voice, giving testimony to their taut nerves. "Colonel Maybourne, you’re awake. How are you feeling, sir?"

If he’d had the strength, Harry would have chuckled. Only in the military could a soldier have the utmost contempt for a superior officer and still sound completely respectful. Carter knew how the game was played even though he was no longer an officer, superior or otherwise. "Warm. For the first time in two days, I’m warm. Thanks." He snuggled deeper into the sleeping bag cocoon. "How’s Jack?"

"Not good. He hasn’t woke up since we found you." Daniel’s angry thrusts at the fire gave leave to his emotions behind the words.

Harry watched the sparks rise high over the flames, scattering and disappearing in the darkness.

"Good thing. It’s better he doesn’t."

Anger hotter than the campfire flamed across Daniel’s face. "What the hell does that mean, Maybourne? You’re glad Jack’s in a coma? What kind of a pitiful excuse for a human being are you?"

"Daniel." The single word held a basketful of warning.

Daniel glanced at Sam, then shifted around so that he was facing the man lying next to him. His stubborn expression brooked no denial. "We deserve an answer, Sam."

Harry sighed deeply, closing his eyes, trying to ignore the burning in his chest. "Jack’s a lucky man . . .," a deep cough shook through his frame, ". . . to have people who care about him." Blinking away the tears the cough had brought on, Harry caught the glance between Daniel and Sam. "I need to explain." A terse voice interrupted him.

"Damn. Jack’s bleeding again, Sam."

"I’ve got him, Daniel. Help me tilt his head. We don’t need him swallowing the blood. You just hold him up. That’s good." She was on her knees, her teeth gritted in concentration, oblivious to the cold and snow surrounding her. "Come on, Colonel, hang on. Teal’c went for help, and Daniel and I are right here with you. It won’t be long until dawn, sir. Then we can get you out of here."

Harry closed his eyes again, relieved Jack was in good hands, hands of people who cared about him. He acknowledged a vague sense of shame that he felt such relief that it wasn’t he who was fighting against the flow seeping from Jack’s nostrils and gums. His hand felt around for the bloody rag he’d thrust in his pocket. Proof that he’d been on the front lines of this battle. That he’d proven himself. But he was tired, so tired, and he didn’t want to watch the battle anymore. He had no desire to see Jack lose. That may have branded him the worst kind of coward, but the fact was he just didn’t care anymore. Too tired. Maybe in the end this is what Jack would have wanted. At least he’d die with his friends. ‘Not a concession you’ll ever get,’ a small voice needled. ‘You’ll die alone and unmourned.’

"Maybourne, what’s causing this? You said it was a virus. Okay, Daniel, ease up on the pressure and let’s see if it’s stopped yet."

Carter’s voice, brought Harry back from the path of self-pity he was traveling. "I don’t know what it is, Major." He took as deep a breath as his fluid-filled lungs would allow. "BP6-3Q1."

Daniel blinked, hesitating briefly. "The planet where Teal’c was bitten by the bug."

Harry managed a weak nod. "My sources told me the NID has been experimenting with a variant of a virus they created from Teal’c’s blood samples we took before he disappeared."

"Oh my God," Sam’s face revealed the helpless horror that she and the rest of the team had felt knowing Teal’c was a living time bomb, slowly ticking towards the time when the menace he carried would start a chain reaction that would destroy Earth. She glanced down at Jack’s blood-stained features. "But the symptom ology is wrong. Teal’c wasn’t bleeding."

Irritation colored his voice as Harry snapped, "The base, Major! That’s what they used for a base. Obviously, they’ve combined it with something else. They plan on using it as a biological weapon." He closed his eyes as harsh coughing made breathing a luxury and talking an impossibility.

Daniel and Sam stared mutely at each other. Jack shuddered in Daniel’s arms. Steady streams of red cut a swathe down the face white as the snow surrounding them.

* * * * *

Harry half expected it to be MP’s when the door opened, but then ever since he and Jack had transferred from the podunk hospital in Durango into Fraiser’s clutches in Cheyenne Mountain he’d anticipated his arrest and return to prison. Not a pleasant thought, but then he’d learned long ago that if you played with matches long enough, sooner or later you were going to get burned. So far, there’d been no word on Jack. He didn’t know if that was a good thing, or a bad. Fraiser had been conspicuously absent. Not that he was complaining about his medical treatment. Warner had done a damn good job. He was feeling a thousand percent better.

He figured if Jack was still alive he’d be in ICU, and Harry refused to accept that he wasn’t until he heard it first hand from Hammond, Fraiser, or one of SG-1. He could have asked Warner or one of the endless line of nurses that cared for him. But, in as near a superstitious reaction as Harry ever remembered having, he found that he couldn’t. Couldn’t ask three simple words: ‘Is Jack alive?’ Looking down at the handcuff running from his left wrist to the metal railing, sealing his fate and his future, he wondered if he’d find out the answer to his question before he was hauled off to Leavenworth, or if not knowing would become part of his punishment. Perhaps one of the hardest parts.

Harry didn’t know whether to be relieved or scared shitless when Teal’c entered the room and quietly walked up to his bed. "Jack?" Dammit, the tremor in his voice sounded pathetic, even to himself, but if Teal’c was here to take him to lockup, maim him, or even tell him O’Neill was dead and he was here to seek revenge, then by God he wanted to know. He had to know. "Teal’c, how’s Jack?"

"O’Neill lives."

Harry sank back on the thin pillow and stared at the ceiling. "Thank God." It was a whisper, but it was enough. Even the Jaffa Cliff Notes version was enough.

Harry’s attention was suddenly directed towards his wrist as Teal’c moved around the bed, silently produced a key, and with a quick motion unlocked the handcuff.

Dark eyes sent a silent message that Harry scrambled to decipher. Slowly, he rubbed his wrist, relishing the freedom. "Teal’c, why the hell are you doing this? You helping Jack or the others, well, that’s a given. But me? Not that I’m complaining, but the last time I saw you at Nellis, you threatened to dismember me."

"I have not forgotten your past indiscretions, Colonel Maybourne; however, it is obvious to me that for the past few days you have attempted to give aid to O’Neill and in doing so, kept him alive long enough for help to arrive."

"I had . . .," Harry began before a stern look silenced the interruption.

"You remained with him when you could have chosen to abandon him in order to increase the chance to save yourself. While this does not exonerate your prior mistakes, it shows that on occasion you are a man of honor and in this instance, you acted selflessly."

Harry picked up the call button, unwilling to meet Teal’c’s eye. Polishing the bed’s previous occupant’s fingerprints from the shiny surface with the corner of his blanket, Harry wondered if Jack had been the last to use this particular bed. Shooting a sideways glance at the tall Jaffa silently staring down at him, he cleared his throat. "On occasion." He smiled mockingly, regret flashing briefly on his face. "Teal’c . . . ah, well . . . thank you." He blinked at the sudden stinging in his eyes as he cleared his throat a second time. "Just do me a favor and don’t let it get around. It blows the whole convicted traitor image."

The corner of Teal’c’s mouth quirked. "As you wish." He nodded regally and walked silently towards the door. Without turning back he added, "Colonel Maybourne, the stairs are rarely patrolled at this time of night."

Harry stared at the call button tightly clenched in his fist. Slowly he opened his fingers allowing it to land on the blanket. He shook his head. "I’ll be damned."

* * * * *

The room was dark, the only light a greenish and ironically unhealthy glow cast by the bank of monitors which surrounded the bed. The man on the bed itself might have been dead; in fact, Harry would have sworn to it had it not been for the bleeping machines which testified otherwise. Cautiously looking over his shoulder, Harry slipped inside the room and shut the door. Slowly, almost reverently, he approached the bedside.

Upon closer inspection, Jack looked worse, if anything. His skin was pale to the point of appearing transparent, much like a tiny baby’s fragile skin, and he was covered with a fine sheen of sickly sweat. At a glance, Harry counted five tubes that were running either into or out of Jack’s body. In addition, electrodes with tiny little wires were attached to his chest, there was something clipped to the end of one finger, and an oxygen mask covered the lower half of his face.

Afraid of bumping against something vital, Harry carefully leaned over the bed. "Jack?" he whispered. "Jack?" The only response was the soft, rhythmic blip of a machine. "Well, in case you can hear me, I just wanted to say that I’m sorry I got you mixed up in this. If it hadn’t been for me, none of this would ever have happened." He stared down at the slack features of Jack O’Neill. He was glad that Jack was alive, but he wondered if it was going to last. The man looked dead already. Studying him, looking at the limp, totally unresponsive man, Harry decided that, oddly enough, there was something scarier than an angry Jack O’Neill. This Jack was far more frightening; just looking at him raised the hair on the back of Harry’s neck. "Jack, I . . . I’m going to make this right. I don’t know how, but I will. You have my word."

Not sure what else to say, Harry started to pat Jack’s hand then decided against it. Somehow it seemed too personal; touching Jack now when he couldn’t protest, couldn’t pull away, would be an intrusion on the man’s personal space. Smothering a cough, Harry backed away from the bed and left the room.

With his departure, the room once again settled into a hushed semi-silence. Machines beeped and clicked, liquids dripped, and oxygen rushed through a small tube with a soft, moist hiss. From a darkened corner of the room there was a soft sigh and Daniel Jackson stepped out of the shadows. Forcing his eyes off the closed door, he approached Jack’s bedside. Without hesitation, he reached out and did what Harry Maybourne couldn’t - he took Jack’s limp hand in his own and he stood vigil.

* * * * *

Janet Fraiser tapped on the door, then opened it at the brusque ‘enter’ that leaked out around the edges of the metal barricade. She shut the door behind her and approached the large desk. Closing his laptop, the General looked at her with a distracted glance.

"Oh, Doctor. I’m glad you’re here. Sit."

She settled herself across from him, smoothing her skirt across her knees before placing the file on her lap. "General."

"So . . . I take it you have something for me."

"Yes, sir."

"Good, good."

"The lab finished their analysis of the substance on the dart."

"And?"

Janet frowned, still angry. After having considered it, she had come to the conclusion that she was capable of setting aside the Hippocratic oath - at least long enough to do what needed to be done if she were ever confronted with the men who sat in labs developing drugs and viruses to be used against other human beings.

"Doctor?"

She shook herself mentally and ran a hand over the file on her lap. "Sorry, General. Based on what little information Colonel Maybourne could provide before his . . . escape, Doctor James and his team were able to break the substance down into two basic components. The first was a virus engineered to attack the blood cells. We can only hazard a guess, but its creators most likely were trying to create a virus that attached itself to the white blood cells, altering human DNA and causing the cells to-," she glanced up at the General and stopped mid-sentence, smiling at the slight frown of concentration creasing his forehead. Unlike the Colonel, she knew the General would sit without complaint through whatever she told him before politely asking her to explain it in simpler terms. Janet quietly sighed and shifted in her chair; they were tired - her, the General, SG-1, the researchers in the lab.

"Continue, Doctor."

"Sir, in layman’s terms, the main component of the drug appears to be an attempt at creating a virus that would cause the blood itself to change."

"The main component. What about the other component?"

Janet suppressed a small shiver. "The other is a common drug: phencyclidine. It was an intravenous anesthetic developed in the 1950's. It was taken off the market when patients experienced psychotic reactions and is now only manufactured illegally."

He nodded, silently indicating she should continue. When she hesitated, he leaned his elbows on his desk. "What’s wrong?"

"Sir, you might recognize phencyclidine by its street name." Janet swallowed and watched the General closely. "PCP."

Hammond’s face went pale and she saw his jaw muscle twitch. "Jack was given Angel Dust?"

Janet nodded and watched as the General’s hands closed into tight fists. It was the only sign of the intense anger she knew he must be feeling.

"Why?" he spat it out and only after she began answering did she realize it had been a rhetorical question.

"I’ve been thinking about that, and I have a theory." At his nod, she continued. "The virus quotient of the substance attached itself to the white blood cells, which the body uses to fight against infection. In turn, those cells mutated. Their basic DNA code was altered, resulting in accelerated cellular activity. Those cells then began attacking and destroying the red blood cells and platelets. Unfortunately for Colonel O’Neill, the mutation in the cells’ DNA structures caused them to die before the process of mitosis could complete itself. Meaning, the cells died without producing more, identical cells. The result was that the Colonel began suffering from . . . well, an engineered form of aplastic anemia, if you will."

"To what end, Doctor?"

"Think about it, sir. If you were developing a virus to be used in biological warfare as Colonel Maybourne suggested, why would you want to increase the body’s ability to fight off infections or foreign bodies?" At the General’s blank look, Janet scooted towards the edge of her seat. For some unexplainable reason, maybe a need to confirm that her theory had merit, she wanted him to reach the conclusion for himself. "Look at it this way: when we perform a kidney transplant, or a heart transplant, why do we lower the patient’s immune system?"

"Well, obviously, so that the person’s body won’t reject-," he stopped, frowning slightly. As she saw the realization dawn on him, he looked her in the eye. "The Goa’uld."

Janet gave him a grim smile. "Yes, sir. You inject the host’s body with the drug and it begins to attack the ‘foreign substance.’"

"And the PCP?"

She shrugged. "I’m not sure."

He seemed to consider it. "Perhaps they were trying to disable the host, giving the virus time to do its dirty work."

Janet thought about it. "You may be right, sir. Under the effects of the anesthetic, the host would be disoriented and confused."

"Would it have worked?"

She heard the hope in his voice. "Possibly. But from the tests we ran on Teal’c’s symbiote years ago, it’s obvious that the effects of anesthetics on it are, at best, minimal."

"What about the virus portion of the drug?"

"Unless the symbiote were able to fight off the effects of the PCP and halt the progress of the virus, it would kill the host. As for the symbiote . . .," Janet shrugged. "While the theory might have been sound, the virus was flawed in that the white blood cells died off too quickly."

"Dammit!" the General muttered, a fist striking the desk with mute force. "Why test it on humans?"

Janet dipped her head. He knew the answer as well as she did: because its creators wanted to know if the virus would work and they had no Goa’ulds at their disposal. In their warped minds, what was the loss of a few humans in the fight against the Goa’uld? But who was to say they’d stop at using it on Goa’ulds? Why not use it against all enemies?

"How’s he doing?"

When she glanced up, the General had relaxed. He was staring at her, looking older than he was. "We’re in the process of giving him a transfusion in an attempt to compensate for the low blood cell and platelet count. Because of the problem with his white blood cells, he’s at high risk for infection. We’d already started with antibiotic therapy due to a mild case of pneumonia. We’ll continue with that and I’ve put him in isolation. His other injuries were minor: bumps and bruises, a sprained wrist and a sore nose. The puncture wound from the dart has been a bit troublesome, but the antibiotics seem to be helping. His knee was the worst. Apparently, he injured it and because the PCP acts as a pain killer, he damaged it further in his attempt to rescue Colonel Maybourne."

"But he’ll recover?"

"It’ll take a while for him to fully recover his strength, but yes, sir. Barring any complications from infections, he should make a full recovery."

Hammond nodded, rubbing his neck with one hand. "Thank you, Doctor. Keep me informed."

Janet rose to leave.

"Oh, and Doctor?"

She glanced at the General, who seemed to be fighting back a smile.

"Please stop referring to him as ‘Colonel Maybourne.’ No matter what he was, the man is a convicted traitor, an escaped convict."

Janet grinned. "Yes, sir."

* * * * *

He could hear the river. It was muffled, but it was there. He relaxed into the bed, enjoying the sound of the rushing waters just outside his window. Drifting back into sleep, he heard the added sound of Gayle puttering around in the next room.

"Colonel, can you hear me?"

Eyes closed, he tried to move in the bed, straining to hear the Animas and Gayle over the intrusive beeps and the strange voice prodding at his consciousness.

"Colonel O’Neill?"

No. He was tired. Too tired.

"Ann, get Doctor Fraiser." Another sound - harsher, metallic - threatened the peace and quiet of the mountain morning. "Sir, you’re in the infirmary. Doctor Fraiser is on her way."

Jack frowned, wishing the stranger away. Without knowing how or when it happened, he slipped down into the welcoming arms of a waiting dream. Gayle was standing on the deck of his rooftop observatory, smiling happily and waving at him. Teal’c and Daniel were rowing a small, inflatable raft down the river that formed his backyard, a legless, armless Harry Maybourne propped on the seat between them. Carter, sitting on the steps of his deck, chugged beer from a bottle then laughed loudly. Jack was manning the grill, trying his best to hold two live, struggling trout in place over the smoking coals.

". . . you to open your eyes. Sir?"

He groaned softly.

"Colonel, it’s Doctor Fraiser. I know you can hear me and I know you want to sleep, but I really need you to wake up for me. Just for a second, then you can rest again."

He didn’t want to. He wanted to be left alone. That’s why he’d gone on vacation in the first place.

"Come on, Colonel. Don’t make me get out the nasty penlight."

He wished she’d go away. Just go away and leave him the hell alone.

"Now, was that a nice thing to say?"

What? It took everything he had, but he finally managed to open his eyes. Blurriness greeted him. Grey blurriness that somehow managed to move continuously to the right in a slow, dizzying wave. Groaning, he tried to swallow, and squinted in an attempt to focus. A pale blob moved into the center of the greyness.

"How do you feel?"

"What’s . . . going on?" he whispered.

"You’re at the SGC, sir. What’s the last thing you remember?"

Good question. What was the last thing he remembered? He closed his eyes against the blob and the blurriness, and thought about the question.

"Colonel?"

"Thinking."

"Okay. Take your time."

He felt someone lift the sheet and hands were skimming over his chest, then something brushed his knee. He tried to assess what was wrong, where he’d been injured, but it was difficult. Everything felt disconnected - he knew certain parts of him were hurting but at the same time, a strange sort of tingling numbness enveloped him like a second skin.

"Well, Colonel?"

He flinched away from the edge of drugged sleep. Oh, crap. He was supposed to meet Gayle at Sweeney’s. With deadened hands, he pushed at the bed, trying to ease himself up. Dull pain throbbed through his right wrist and more pale blobs appeared and hands were suddenly pushing against him, holding him down.

"Let go," he breathed.

"Just relax, sir."

He squinted up at the strange voice and struggled in vain.

"Colonel?"

Doc? Breathless and exhausted, he relinquished the fight and relaxed back onto the bed, giving in to the hands checking tubes and wires, lifting sheets, moving his limbs. He was powerless to stop them, so he merely closed his eyes against the nausea induced by pale blobs against a backdrop of wavy greyness.

When he opened his eyes, the greyness had solidified into the out-of-focus ceiling of the infirmary, the pale blobs were gone, and he had the impression that days had passed since he’d last awakened. Blinking, he struggled with how he’d gotten here, tried to lift his head to look around, and failed miserably in both endeavors. Geesh. Doc had outdone herself this time. He felt hung over, limp and weaker than he could remember ever feeling.

"Jack?"

One of the pale blobs reappeared, leaning over him, and it took a moment for him to realize that he was staring up at Daniel in scrubs and a surgeon’s mask. He frowned.

"What’s wrong? Are you in pain? Should I get Janet?"

"Operate?"

"What?"

"Did you," he tried to lift a hand to point at Daniel’s attire, but gave up, "operate?"

There was a soft chuckle and the corners of Daniel’s eyes crinkled. "No, Jack. You can relax. I didn’t operate on you and I have no intention of ever doing so."

"Daniel?" Feeling a strange sense of desperation, Jack reached blindly for the other man, for something real and solid. As his fingers closed around a slim wrist and Daniel’s other, gloved hand wrapped itself around his own, Jack closed his eyes, inhaled deeply and then coughed. "Sorry."

"For what?"

He blinked slowly, thinking about it. Finally, he shrugged. He wasn’t sure. The room felt funny. He felt funny. As if it or he were slightly out of phase. This must be how a Reetou felt.

Daniel leaned closer, the majority of his face obscured behind the mask. "Reetou? What about the Reetou?"

Jack shook his head. Nothing. "What’s with . . .," but already exhausted, he merely pointed vaguely at Daniel’s face with his free arm.

"The mask?"

He nodded, his eyes sliding shut despite his best efforts to keep them open.

"You’re in isolation, Jack. You were shot with a dart. Do you remember?"

No. He didn’t. But he would certainly remember if he had been. He shook his head again, slowly. "Harry . . . fell in."

"Yes. He did. He fell in the river. But he’s . . . he’s fine now." There was a short pause and the hand on his own tightened. "Do you remember fishing him out?"

Fishing? He hadn’t been fishing. He’d been skiing. Downhill. Then he blew his knee and he got a little drunk and Janet was going to be pissed and so was Gayle because he was pretty sure he was supposed to call one or both of them. Two women. Both mad. "As hatters," he mumbled dreamily.

"What?" Daniel chuckled softly. "Jack, can you stay awake a minute? Janet’s on her way." When he didn’t answer, there was a gentle tug on his hand. "What were you saying? What’s an ‘as-hatter’?"

"Mad." God, he was tired. "I lost . . . the phone."

"Jack, you’re not making any sense. Do you know where you are?"

He was floating. His body was floating and if it weren’t for Daniel holding onto one hand, he’d float up into the grey clouds. Grey. Snow was in the air. "Purgatory," he whispered. This was Purgatory.

* * * * *

"More coffee, Hank?" Not bothering to wait for a nod of affirmation, Gayle topped off the cup and tossed a couple of creamers on the counter. "There you go, hun." Setting down the pot, Gayle walked over to check on an order. Normally, she would have shouted across the diner at Owen with some good-natured harassment that they both enjoyed. But somehow, since she’d come back to work she just didn’t have it in her to be demonstrative. Owen never said a word, neither did any of the regulars, but Gayle could feel their eyes follow her when they thought she wasn’t looking.

She hated it. She wanted her life back - her everyday, boring, damn life. God, what she wouldn’t have given to turn back the clock before that day. She’d called, but there was no answer at the cabin. Jack’s cell phone went unanswered and for some reason she couldn’t bring herself to leave a message. Once she’d even tried his home number, something she’d never done in all the years she’d known him. But when Jack’s voice ordered her to leave a message, tears had choked her, making speech impossible. She’d given up and gently laid the phone in its cradle.

The need to know something - anything - forced her to drive up to Jack’s cabin, knowing that she’d probably be turned away before she ever got close. But the area was ominously silent as she pulled up next to the cabin, her body trembling from fear and nerves. Jack’s big truck was gone, even the tracks where it had been parked had vanished, victim to the snowdrifts. No yellow tape, no deputies, no Air Force personnel, nothing.

Almost nauseous, Gayle had slowly pushed open her door and walked across the silent yard. She stopped at the bottom of the steps, her eyes drifted over the clean snow . . . to the spot. Tears pricked her eyes as she stared at Nature’s undisturbed work - clean, unspoiled. There was no indication on the surface that this peaceful scene had been the setting for the violence she had witnessed. No indication of what lay beneath the surface. Tearing her eyes away, Gayle had slowly made her way up the steps onto the porch.

The door was locked. She knew that before she tentatively turned the knob. Using her glove, she’d rubbed the frosted window. Leaning close, trying to keep her breath from fogging the panes, Gayle had peered into the darkened cabin. Even in her paltry perusal, Gayle knew the cabin was empty. All traces that Jack had ever been there had been removed. It had been swept clean as if Jack had never been here, as if this were all some elaborate bad dream. Suddenly feeling as if she was losing her mind, as if she had made up all of this, Gayle stiffened. Her ex-husband had accused her of that so often, had drilled into her head that all their problems were because of her. For a moment Gayle stood there, lost in the pain of the past, her chin trembling against old accusations. Fleeing memories and the ghosts of a past long buried, Gayle raced back to the sanctity of the Jeep.

Her call to the local authorities had been no help - a gag order they called it. The military had left orders that they weren’t to pass on any information. She’d wanted to slap the smug ‘I know something you don’t’ look off the deputy’s face. As she left the office, she promised herself if the bastard ever came into the Diner he’d be sorry.

Gayle had sworn in frustration when she realized she didn’t know Daniel’s number or even where he lived. Short of calling every Daniel Jackson in the entire Colorado Springs area she could think of no other way of reaching the man. She nearly worked up her nerve to do it anyway, until it occurred to her that working with the military, Daniel’s number would in all likelihood be unlisted. She’d run into another dead end.

She’d gone back to the Diner, seeking peace in the familiar routine, and lay awake nights staring up at the ceiling, buried beneath the wait of the unknown.

"That’ll be $4.25, Dave." Gayle’s eyes drifted over the headlines of the Durango Herald, the man had folded and laid next to the cash register as he fished through his change.

Unidentified Man’s Body Found in River’

Gayle felt the blood drain from her face as she ignored the proffered money and reached a trembling hand for the paper.

"Gayle? You okay, honey?"

Ignoring the man’s obvious concern, Gayle stared at the headline, unable to untangle the jumble of words of the article. "Owen, I’m going to get some sugar out of the storeroom." She knew the words didn’t have a hope of camouflaging the tears that were fighting to escape. She knew Owen’s eyes were following her, but she couldn’t hear if he’d answered. Crushing the paper against her breast, she walked calmly into the small storage area, gently closed the door, and slowly slid down the wall until she was sitting, her knees pulled tightly against her chest. The paper balled in her fist as she leaned her head against her knees and sobbed.

* * * * *

‘A dead jackal was lying on the sandy bank, and Siddhartha’s soul slipped inside the body, was the dead jackal, lay on the banks, got bloated, stank, decayed, was dismembered by hyaenas, was skinned by vultures, turned into a skeleton, turned to dust, was blown across the fields.’

He could so empathize with the jackal. But in this case, the hyenas wore nurses uniforms and the vultures were members of his team circling his bed, watching his every move.

He wondered where his copy of Siddhartha had gone. He vaguely remembered laying it on the coffee table next to the couch at the cabin. Maybe Gayle had picked it up. Damn, he hoped she’d gotten his ski equipment and had taken care of it for him.

"And after we didn’t hear from you for several days, I’d about given up and then out of the blue this Gayle woman called. I’ve got to say, Jack, it surprised . . ."

"Gayle called you?"

Daniel stopped his previously uninterrupted monologue and gave a Jack surprised look. It was the first time all morning Jack had responded verbally, spending the time instead, rotating between dozing and staring at the ceiling silently. "Er, yeah, she must have used your cell phone and hit recall." He added, a hint of disapproval in his tone, "That’s how we knew you were in trouble."

Jack didn’t respond, leaving the accusation laying unchallenged as he processed the new piece of the puzzle.

"She seems like a nice person." Daniel looked at Jack, an air of curiosity surrounded his cautious statement.

"Who?"

"Who?" Daniel snapped in exasperation. "Who were we talking about, Jack? Gayle."

Jack gave Daniel a sharp glance before returning to his focal point on the ceiling. "She is."

Daniel forced a long-suffering sigh. "Jack."

"Daniel." Jack gave a neutral side glance.

"You’re probably still feeling pretty bad." Daniel stared at the bag of crimson dripping steadily into one of the tubes. He sighed again when it was obvious no answer would be forthcoming. For long moments, the soft beeping of machines was the only sound in the room. "I finally figured it out." Braving the silence, he continued. "Purgatory. The name of the ski lodge, right? One of the deputies mentioned it."

"Daniel, will you please just shut up and fill me in without all the personal commentary and running narratives?"

Daniel blinked in surprise. It was rude, downright nasty, but it was the first unsolicited comment Jack had offered since he’d come out of his coma-induced sleep. "Okay," he said slowly. "What do you remember?"

"Not a hell of a lot." The words were scaly with frustration as Jack searched his memories. "Maybourne," he said at last. "Maybourne, needed something. Something important." His brow furrowed with frustration. "Dammit, why can’t I remember?"

Daniel watched, quickly wiping away any traces of pity from his face before he answered. Jack hated pity worse than anything. The best way to help his friend now was a straightforward report of what they had been able to pull together. Despite what some people might think, he was perfectly capable of doing succinct. "It was the NID," he began softly. The quick intake of breath told him he had Jack’s complete attention. "According to Maybourne, they planned on using an experimental virus on the civilian population of a remote area in Armenia."

"Sons of bitches!" Jack struggled to sit up, his volatile efforts setting off alarms from his guardian machines. "Daniel, help me get up. I’ve got to inform Hammond."

Daniel had leaped to his feet and had both hands pressed firmly against Jack’s chest. Only the hodgepodge of tubes kept him from a crack across the face as Jack’s arms flailed. "Jack, relax! You’re going to hurt yourself. Calm down. Hammond already knows." As Jack collapsed onto his pillow, deflating like a stuck balloon, he repeated, "He knows."

They were interrupted by a flurry of nurses responding to the call of the alarms. Daniel melted against the far wall and Jack lay silently as leads were reattached and various tubes unkinked.

When they were finally alone once again, Daniel crept over to the bed, nervously fingering a label on the blanket. His entire demeanor spoke volumes of just how hard it was to see Jack like this, how hard this had been on both of them. "General Hammond contacted the President, but by the time the operatives arrived at Nellis, the virus had been destroyed by some unknown person or persons."

Jack’s eyes were hooded as he asked carefully, "Did this unknown perpetrator think to destroy the files as well?"

A grin answered his question before Daniel replied, "Ah yes, actually. It seems the computer lab at Nellis was attacked by a rather nasty virus and several critical files were irreversibly contaminated."

"Sweet."

Daniel watched the harsh lines on Jack’s face relax. "So anyway, according to Maybourne, you got in the way of this virus by way of a dart gun. He wasn’t sure, but he thinks you trailed him downriver after he fell in."

Jack nodded, his face grim. "I shot the guy who had the dart gun," he said slowly as pieces fell into place.

"Yeah, that’s what we figured." Daniel ignored Jack’s frown. "Maybourne told us you went downhill pretty fast and within two days you were pretty much out of it." He smiled disarmingly at Jack’s scowl. "Harry said you led him in circles and that you came close to being eaten by a bear, or Sasquatch, or something."

Jack gave a weak snort.

"General Hammond sent Sam, Teal’c and I in to find you. By that time, the local authorities were already involved. With the bad weather conditions, an aerial search was impossible so that slowed us down. The locals wanted to wait until the weather improved. They were worried about the danger of losing more people with the poor visibility." His voice dropped and he looked at the far wall. "I think they figured we were too late to help anyone who’d gone into the river and it was better not to risk more lives trying to retrieve bodies." Daniel paused, leaving much unsaid, not trusting himself in the emotional thin ice upon which he was skating. Clearing his throat, he went on. "We lost a day searching the opposite side of the Animas. By the time we figured out you had to be on the east bank, it took us the rest of the light to hike back to the trestle and repel down."

"You repelled off the trestle?"

Daniel couldn’t help but smile at the disbelief in Jack’s voice. "What? You doubt my repelling abilities?"

"Never, Daniel," Jack agreed dryly. He gave a weak grin which Daniel shared. "Then what?"

"Then what . . . what? Oh, yeah, well it took us next to no time for Teal’c to lead us to where you and Maybourne were. Seems, despite everything, you had led the way back to the river and the trestle." His voice softened. "That’s pretty amazing, Jack." When his friend didn’t reply, he continued the narrative. "Teal’c went for help, and Sam and I did what we could for you and Maybourne."

"Harry was sick?"

"Yeah, he had a pretty wicked case of pneumonia by the time we found you."

"Damn. I should have . . ."

"Should have what, Jack?" Daniel interrupted angrily. "You were dying when we found you. Dying! It’s a miracle we were able to stabilize you long enough for the rescue team to get there the next morning." His voice lowered and he looked away. "I was afraid you’d die while you were in that sled when they were extracting you from the canyon. I was afraid you’d wake up and think you were alone and die thinking we had left you."

Jack’s hand - pale, bruised, trembling - squeezed Daniel’s and for the moment neither spoke.

"They got you to the local hospital and did what they could and then we brought you home. That’s generally what happened, start to finish."

"My stuff?" Jack’s voice was tired. It was clearly taking an effort to keep the conversation going.

"It’s all at my place. You should have seen Teal’c’s face when Sam explained what the skis were for and how you used them." Daniel smiled.

"I’ll bet. How come Gayle didn’t just keep my ski equipment? There wasn’t any use in you guys hauling it back."

"Gayle? But why would . . . we never even thought about . . . ." Daniel fumbled, clearly at a loss.

"You didn’t see her?"

"Well, no, not after the initial questioning. I guess she left and went home. We never gave it a thought after we found you."

"And, of course, there’s a gag order on the whole situation."

Daniel wasn’t quite sure why, but he recognized the dangerous tone in Jack’s voice. "Of course," he said slowly.

"So as far as she’s concerned, I’m either still lost or dead somewhere. Is that right?"

"Jack, I’m sorry. We didn’t think. I’ll go call her right now. Do you have her number?"

Jack’s face was flushed, but Daniel couldn’t be sure if it was fever or anger. "Get out, Daniel."

"But . . ."

"Now."

* * * * *

Jack was shaking. He was sick and he was pissed, and the last time he’d had the shakes this bad he’d been wearing a nickle-sized scar on his temple, had been recently drilled through the neck by a snake, and had very nearly been freeze-dried.

Leaning against the wall, a trembling hand braced on the chair that Carter had vacated only moments before, he stared over at the rumpled sheets of the hospital bed and wondered what the hell he was doing. Why wasn’t he in bed? He knew he should be. Every movement, every weak, hesitant breath of air, told him he should be flat on his back. What was he thinking?

He wasn’t sure. But then, to be honest, he wasn’t sure of much of anything - what he’d had for dinner or whether he’d eaten alone or with one of his teammates; what day it was or how long he’d been here. Hell, other than the fact that she’d laughed, he couldn’t even remember what Janet had said earlier when he’d asked to go home. All he knew was that Gayle wasn’t answering her telephone.

And she thought he was dead.

That thought, along with looking at the call history on his cell phone and seeing the number of times she’d tried to call, spurred him into action. Biting his lip, thinking only about how he’d feel if he were in Gayle’s shoes, he buttoned up his shirt and cracked open the door. He’d already called for a car and driver to meet him topside - just one of the advantages of being the 2IC - and he’d purposely timed it so that he’d make his escape while his team was occupied elsewhere and the nurses were changing shifts and going over charts. Saying a silent prayer of thanks for all those times when butt-ugly Major Cox had hauled Jack’s sorry ass three miles outside camp in the middle of the night and had made him sneak back in undetected or suffer the consequences, Jack slipped out of the infirmary with no one the wiser.

By the time Kathy Posten, the nurse assigned to Colonel O’Neill for the graveyard shift, suspected that her flyboy had flown the coop, Jack had slammed the door to the dark, nondescript sedan and was limping up his driveway. By the time his escape had progressed from mere rumor to outright fact and a groaning Janet Fraiser rolled over in bed and picked up the ringing telephone, Jack’s pick-up was halfway between Pueblo and Walsenburg.

* * * * *

Gayle Miller had checked out. She’d disappeared over a week ago somewhere within the dark and gloomy storeroom in the back of a dingy diner. She’d gone inside, shut the door, and nearly an hour later someone resembling her had stepped out and taken her place.

The imposter who worked in silence alongside Owen, the stranger who filled Hank’s coffee cup and set steaming plates of freshly-shredded hashbrowns, fried eggs and burnt bacon in front of Herb and Norm was a mere shadow of the real Gayle. And they missed her. These regular guys who’d found Gayle’s presence anything but ordinary - they longed for the return of the real thing. In fact, just this morning Lester had leaned over and whispered to Herb: ‘Will the real Gayle Miller please stand up.’ Despite his smile, neither men had thought it was funny.

Little did they know that the woman who waited their tables bore a striking resemblance to a woman named Brenda Stuart, a woman who years before had worked for one of the largest brokerage houses on Wall Street. A woman who’d been married to a handsome, successful attorney named Stephen. A woman who, despite the fact that she seemed to have it all, had lived in constant fear.

There was no way they could know that, but they knew that Gayle Miller had checked out. It was the little things that made it obvious: the halting, almost awkward movements; the dark circles under her eyes; the absence of her smile; and the fact that words like ‘hun’ and ‘sweetie’ were no longer a part of her vocabulary. This gal was nice enough, but she didn’t hold a candle to their Gayle.

They also knew the reason Gayle had left them: the Colonel. Seems Gayle had gone missing right along with him. They’d both been MIA ever since the mess upriver a few weeks before when the military had passed through Durango like a silent, rabid predator on the scent of an easy kill. In the cold days since, Uncle Sam might have thought he’d shut down the grinding of the rumor mill, but word on the streets was that Gayle’s Colonel was toast. He’d bought the farm. Drank the river down.

As to the identity of the man whose body had snagged on the rocks near Baker’s Bridge last week, there’d been no official word. And there never would be. Even they knew that. But Norm had heard from his cousin Marty - who was a neighbor to old Doc Bender, the veterinarian who owned the property where the poor, unfortunate soul had washed up - that the man in question was a tall, lean, middle-aged man. And as far as the boys knew, only one of those was currently missing.

It was a shame, too. While Gayle was the only one who really knew him, they’d all taken to the quiet, unassuming Colonel who visited them each winter. And so they felt bad for Gayle and they showed it by over-tipping, or just by tipping on a regular basis in the case of Hank, like maybe they were trying to ransom the old Gayle back from this pretender. Only problem was, the pretender hadn’t seemed to notice.

Right now, she was squatting down behind the counter, searching in vain for the box of paper napkins that she’d shelved just yesterday. When the bell above the door jingled, Gayle knew without looking that all of the customers in here had turned as one to check out the newcomer. She used to find it funny, refreshing in a familiar sort of way. Now, the mere thought of it wore her out.

"Uh, Gayle, there’s someone here who . . ."

Blinking hard, Gayle remained on her knees and grumped, "Give me a break, Norm, I’ll be with them in a minute." She rubbed her eyes. She was tired and wished she’d just called in sick. Last night was the second night in a row that she’d spent in her Jeep, staring blankly at Jack’s cabin. It was stupid. She knew that. But she couldn’t help herself. All night, she’d kept thinking that maybe he’d just show up. Maybe she’d doze off and when she woke up, the lights would be on, there’d be a fire in the fireplace, and Jack would be standing in the doorway, gazing out at her with that sexy, half-smile of his.

"Don’t hurry on my account, ma’am."

At the soft words, her knees failed her and she sank the rest of the way down onto the warm, sticky linoleum, her heart hammering wildly in her chest. Biting back a smile, squeezing back a wash of tears, she steadied her nerves before standing up. Hank, Norm, Herb and Lester, all her regulars - even Owen - were staring at her with shit-eating grins plastered across their faces. Ignoring them, she casually brushed a layer of salt from the counter top then pulled the menu from his long fingers.

Her voice threatening to break, she mumbled, "What in the world are you looking at that thing for, sweetie?" As he smiled up at her, she called out the order to Owen. "Let’s have three eggs facing the sun, burn the bacon and hashbrowns, and smother the buttermilks. Oh, and roll some pigs in a blanket, Owen, this boy needs some meat on his bones."

The hand that set the cup of coffee in front of him trembled slightly. Almost tentatively, Jack touched her wrist. "You always know what I want."

Finally, Gayle allowed herself to laugh softly, relieved when she saw that the boys had turned away, offering them the best privacy they could under the circumstances.

"God, Jack, you look . . . are you okay?"

He nodded, but she knew it was a lie. He was pale. Far too pale. And he was thinner than she’d ever seen him. He looked fragile.

"You’re too skinny, Jack." And this time she meant it.

"I thought you could fatten me up."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." Jack smiled when a plate mounded with steaming food was set in front of him. He nodded at the cook. "Owen."

"Good to have you back, Colonel. Real good."

"Good to be back." As Owen disappeared into the kitchen, Jack looked up at her again. "I’ve rented a little cabin on the river and I hear the skiing’s not too shabby this time of year."

"So I’m told." She smiled at him and surrendering to the need to touch him, reached out and brushed at a wild strand of grey hair. "Your coffee’s getting cold."

"Yes, ma’am." He picked up the cup, his hand trembling far worse than her own. "Hey!" He replaced the cup without drinking from it.

She couldn’t stop looking at him - sick, obviously wounded, but alive. "What?"

"Ski with me."

"Are you sure you’re up for it?" She had to grin at the boyish look he gave her. "Seriously."

"Seriously?" At her nod, his smile wilted. "No," he admitted. "I just thought . . . it’d be nice to not ski alone for a change. You know?" He shrugged.

"Yeah. I know."

Gayle watched as Jack picked at his food with a shaky fork. "So maybe we could just, I don’t know, sit in front of the fire. Maybe listen to some music. Read a book or two."

"Siddhartha?" She never thought she’d look forward to reading Hesse.

"No. No, I think I’m done with Siddhartha. At least for a while." He dropped the fork onto the plate and stared up at her. "Any suggestions?"

Gayle studied the tiredness that seemed to have become a part of him, and she suddenly realized not only how little she knew about him, but how much she wanted to learn. Feeling a rush of gratitude for this second chance, she heard herself saying, "Did you know Louis L’Amour used to rent the rooms above the Diamond Belle Saloon? That’s where he wrote a lot of his novels. He said the sound of the place inspired him."

"Yeah? That place down the block?"

She nodded. "Owen just gave me a whole grocery bag full of L’Amour’s books."

"Westerns, huh?" Jack looked down at his plate and picked up a strip of bacon. Biting off a small piece, he slowly chewed, deep in thought. "A whole bag?"

Gayle nodded again. "It could take a while."

Jack smiled. "My thoughts exactly."

As the bell over the door rang, Jack picked up his cup and joined the boys in looking towards the newcomer.

Gayle grinned, her greedy eyes on Jack’s handsome profile as she called out, "Welcome, hun, sit down anywhere you can find a seat."

_______________

*The Spaniards called it ‘El Rio de las Animas Perdidas’ – The River of Lost Souls. To the locals, it is simply known as ‘The Animas.’ Carving its way through the heart of the majestic San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, the Animas River has formed chasms several thousand feet deep. Perhaps the very souls for which the River was named are inching their way towards the depths of Hades.

**Sextus Propertius

***Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

****Lyrics from ‘Help Is Round The Corner’ by Coldplay

The End



Authors’ Note: Since Judy lives in the deep South where humidity is recognized as an indigenous life form and Charli resides about five miles from the sun it seemed natural that as our sweltering, overheated thoughts approached meltdown, we should escape any way we could - hence a snowstorm in July. As Jack would say, ‘Cool.’ Hope you enjoy. It’s Snowtime!

© July 2004 They're not ours, although a rumor, started by us, claims that they'd like to be. Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret productions, and Gekko Productions. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money exchanged hands. No copyright infringement in intended. They don't earn us a dime, just new friends and some time away from RL, a chance to escape the heat and make Jack sweat rather than us. That's entertainment! The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the authors. This story may not be posted elsewhere without the consent of the authors.


Back