Summary: Mulder combines a 'vacation' with investigating reported sightings of ghosts and people disappearing without a trace and ends up finding more than he bargained for. When the trip turns deadly and Mulder fails to appear for work, Scully and Skinner must find him before time runs out.
The last breath of winter hadn't yet left the mountains of northern Arizona in early May. The stars shimmered like diamonds scattered across the clear sky and the dense woods echoed with a cacophony of night sounds
crickets, frogs, and creatures on the prowl for food. To the young couple sitting near a blazing campfire with their small tent in the background, these woods were like home. Both rugged individualists and just recently married, Jack and Helen Winger settled down after having cleaned up the late supper dishes and tried to outdo one another with who could tell the scariest stories. Much to their delight, the chill pine scented air and the shadows cast by the campfire enhanced the creepy effects of their stories.
Helen laughed when Jack finished one story, an uneasy laugh that attempted to hide just how successfully he'd managed to scare her this time. He wasn't fooled by her laughter but was a good sport and didn't tease her.
"Okay, it's my turn," Helen enthusiastically rubbed her hands together and sat closer to the fire, the yellowish light from the flames dancing in her eager eyes.
"Not before I answer nature's call," Jack smiled as he stood, stretched, then quickly grabbed a roll of toilet paper and a small shovel and headed into the dark woods.
"Don't you want a flashlight?"
"What for? I don't need to watch myself."
"Yeah well, I know why you're going now. You're afraid I'll scare the crap out of you."
"Not to worry, my dear. I just did it to myself!" he called back as he disappeared.
She laughed and relaxed, stoking the fire while waiting for him to return.
She thought she heard something up in the sky and looked up. There was a low hum off in the distance. For a moment, she wondered what it could be, then decided it was probably a small airplane and shrugged while pulling her jacket closed. Then she heard something rushing through the woods behind her. Jumping to her feet and glancing at their shotgun perched by the tent, she tried to see what it was.
There was nothing for a moment. She heard it again over toward where Jack had gone.
"All right, Jack, quit playing games. Come on back into camp," she relaxed again, realizing he was probably trying to scare her by sneaking up on her. "Jack, come on, this is not funny," she added when there was no response.
Something crashed through the bushes in the direction Jack had disappeared and Helen instinctively grabbed the shotgun. The woods had grown eerily quiet. No more comforting sounds of crickets chirping or small creatures scurrying about.
"Jack? Are you all right?" she called, the shotgun ready. "Jack, answer me. Did you fall or something?"
The rustling sounded farther away now.
Still no answer from Jack, she grabbed a flashlight with her left hand and, holding the shotgun across her left forearm with her finger on the trigger, she shined the light on the trail where Jack had gone and cautiously headed into the woods.
"Jack? Come on, you're beginning to scare me now...There, I admit it. You tell the best stories, okay? Is that what you were waiting to hear?" her heart was hammering so hard she thought it would burst through her chest.
Something hazy appeared to her right. Startled, she dropped the flashlight and aimed the shotgun at whatever it was. It seemed to hover in the woods, very hazy, very large, and very menacing looking, almost like some indistinct cross between a bear and a man. She couldn't make out exactly what it was, but she felt threatened and she knew it wasn't Jack and that was all she needed to know at the moment. She fired at it and it disappeared as quickly as it appeared. She pumped the shotgun and prepared to shoot again. The apparition was gone. Still watching the woods, she squatted down and picked up the flashlight and nervously shone it all around. There was nothing there. Her heart was pounding loudly in her ears and she fought panic at what may have happened to Jack, for he would have appeared by now if he could.
"Jack? Where are you?" her voice was shaky and timid now as she licked dry lips and resumed searching for him. She found a trail of toilet paper, as if Jack had slowly unwound it in order to find his way back to camp. But she knew better than that. Jack would never venture that far from camp and he always knew his way back. The toilet paper went up into the trees as if someone had tossed the whole roll up there. She looked up at it, then shone the flashlight on the ground again.
"Oh my God! Oh my God! JACK!!" she screamed.
Nearly a month later in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Building in Washington D.C., Special Agent Fox Mulder put down the Winger file, sat back, put his feet up on his desk, and steepled his fingers by his lips as he thought. It was early Monday morning before most of the day shift arrived including his partner, Special Agent Dana Scully. When they weren't busy on a case, Scully liked to arrive for work just like "normal" people do, especially lately. Mulder was nearly always much earlier. He enjoyed the quiet time and usually used it to read files that pertained to an upcoming case or simply prepared his own case...like the Winger file.
He'd come across it late Friday afternoon while Scully was out of the office and became interested in it enough to take it home to read. He returned to work early the next morning and spent hours looking for similar files he thought he remembered seeing regarding happenings in the same area. Unknown to his partner, Mulder spent the entire weekend putting things together and coming up with a few exciting theories, all of which he knew his partner would scoff at.
Mulder wasn't afraid of his partners ridicule, he was used to it and most of the time he even welcomed it and took it in the spirit it was meant. But lately their relationship had become somewhat strained. Scully had become introspective and distant. She'd even initially refused to take a case he'd been working on before being told by the Bureau that he had to take a week of vacation time. Ascertaining, once having embarked on his "spiritual journey" to Memphis, Tennessee, that Scully had indeed gone out on the case, he'd thought everything was all right. Until he called her at the hotel they usually stayed in and she just bluntly told him there was no X-File to the case and that was that. When she'd said she had to go, he'd jokingly asked if she had a date. She hadn't answered. Assuming she had dropped the case, Mulder cut his vacation short and went back to Washington D.C. to work on it on his own time to make sure all avenues of investigation had been explored. It! wasn't really that he lacked confidence in Scully's abilities so much as he didn't feel she had the same dedication as he did toward finding all the answers in this particular case because of her reluctant attitude when he suggested it in the first place.
The fact that she'd almost been killed didn't help matters. He was worried about her and she seemed to resent it. He knew it had to appear to Scully that he'd lacked confidence in her, something she had accused him of during the phone conversation while she was in the hotel. Mulder could almost understand why she would feel that way. When she'd gotten out of the hospital, he had hoped everything would return to normal. It hadn't. He found himself feeling frustrated and confused and angry because she had gone completely out of character and nearly gotten herself killed. And in his frustration he'd said things he knew were hurtful but couldn't stop himself. He remembered his statement to her before leaving on the forced vacation that perhaps it was a good thing they would be separated for a while. Now he realized that the abbreviated vacation may not have given them enough time apart. They needed more breathing room.
Glancing at Scully's side of the room, Mulder sighed, put his feet down and leaned forward to study the road map spread across his cluttered desk. But his thoughts strayed back to Scully. He thought about the price she was paying and had paid for her involvement in the X-Files with him. How many times she'd come close to being hurt or killed, how she'd been abducted and disappeared for several months, and how her sister had been mistakenly killed in her place. Whereas even that terrible loss hadn't deterred her from the X-Files and her own quest for the "answers", Mulder felt a nagging sense of guilt in himself lately. Both of them had paid too high a price, yet they doggedly kept going.
Taking his glasses off and rubbing his tired eyes, he thoughtfully chewed on the inside of his mouth a few moments. Then he pushed the play button on a small tape recorder and listened again to Helen Winger's statement about what happened that night in the woods.
"Why did they take Jack? Why didn't they take me too? Why him and not me?" her sobbing voice declared.
Mulder pushed the stop button and looked at the clock. Then he abruptly stood, grabbed his jacket, and headed out of the office.
Knowing Skinner often showed up for work early, Mulder went to Skinner's office and found him pouring a cup of freshly made coffee near the vacant desk of his secretary.
"Agent Mulder? A little early, aren't you?" Skinner motioned his head toward the coffee and, though the aroma was enticing, Mulder declined the offer of his own cup. Skinner looked at him a moment, then simply went into his office knowing Mulder would follow. Mulder quietly shut the door after him and watched as Skinner sat at his desk.
"What can I do for you?" Skinner set the cup down and began shuffling a small stack of papers.
"Well sir, I'd like to take a vacation...effective today," Mulder stood uneasily on the other side of the desk.
"Vacation?" Skinner stopped what he was doing and looked at Mulder, unable to keep the surprise from his face.
"Yes sir. I...I didn't really finish the last one and they're still after me to use more of my vacation time and, since there's nothing urgent on my desk now, I just thought this would be a good time to take a week off," Mulder said in one breath, trying to act nonchalant while avoiding Skinner's piercing and suspicious dark eyes.
"Is everything all right?"
"Does Agent Scully know about this?"
"Um, actually no. She hasn't come in yet. In fact, she might welcome a week off too... but I really can't speak for her."
Skinner moved some papers aside, noticing how Mulder was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, deliberately looking only at Skinner's desk.
"And the only reason you're going on such short notice is because there's nothing urgent going on and the Bureau is after you to use more of your accumulated vacation time," Skinner flatly stated without taking his eyes off Mulder.
Mulder nodded and briefly glanced at Skinner's face.
Skinner sipped some coffee again and wondered what was really going on. He had noticed some kind of strain between Mulder and Scully lately but attributed it to both of them being tired. Neither one of them had ever voluntarily taken a vacation as far as he could remember. The fact that Scully was not aware that Mulder was asking for a vacation only made Skinner more suspicious about the present nature of their partnership. Looking at Mulder though, he saw the exhaustion and strain from dealing with a series of stressful cases lately and slowly set his cup down.
"Do you have anything in particular planned?" Skinner once again resumed sorting the papers on his desk.
Knowing he'd just gotten his vacation, Mulder allowed himself to relax a little.
"Just getting away for the week," he vaguely answered.
"All right. See you next Monday morning."
Mulder nodded his thanks and quickly left the office.
Skinner watched Mulder leave and stared at the closed door a moment. He suspected Mulder was up to something and that bothered him. Deciding there really was nothing he could or wanted to do about it, he picked up a pen and started working.
Mulder returned to the basement office, made some phone calls, and gathered up the files and notes he'd taken. Trusting his photographic memory of the files, he was stacking them just as the door to his office opened. Knowing it was Scully by the subtle scent of her perfume, Mulder set the files to the side of his desk without looking up, then folded the large road map and slipped it into his jacket pocket. Realizing she was just quietly standing across from his desk, he finally looked up to find her staring at him. Judging by the curious expression on her face, he suspected Skinner had already spoken to her. He continued to tidy up his desk and waited her out.
"Mulder, are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Why?" Mulder decided he wasn't going to make it easy for her.
"I just came from Skinner's office. He told me you were taking a week's vacation and said that I can have the week off, too."
"That's nice. What are you going to do?" he casually asked as he continued to put a few things away in preparations for leaving.
She didn't answer right away, but kept watching him, noticing how he kept himself busy to avoid looking at her.
"Mulder, what's going on?"
He finally stopped what he was doing and looked curiously at her.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that for as long as I've known you, you've never willingly taken a vacation. Even the last one not long ago wasn't your idea. It was forced on you. In fact, I didn't think the word vacation on even in your vocabulary."
He smiled and shook his head.
"There's a first time for everything...Vacation. Has a nice sound to it. I think I'll add it to my vocabulary."
He could tell she still wasn't satisfied because she kept watching him.
"Well, are you going to take the week off?"
Scully stared into his deceptively innocent hazel eyes a long moment and pondered what was really going on behind them. Was this Mulder's way of getting her to take some time off? Had he noticed how tired she was? Did he think this was the only way she would take some time off? Or did he just want to get away from her? God knows she hadn't been as warm and friendly with him since his last attempt at a vacation had occurred. She remembered his statement to her then, that perhaps they just needed some time away from each other. Was this what he was doing? Was it for himself or for her? Unable to discern the answers to her questions in his eyes, she glanced away and shrugged a little.
"I must admit I'd like to, but this is so sudden. I haven't really had time to think about it...Yeah, I think I will. I need to spend some time with my mother...What are you going to do? Where are you going?"
"Now it wouldn't be a real vacation if I told you that," Mulder smiled and headed for the door.
"Mulder, come on. What are you going to do?"
He stopped with his hand on the knob and gazed at her. He thought he'd detected a hint of worry in her voice, like she didn't want him to leave her. But he didn't find the worry in her eyes, just a kind of detached curiosity. Had they really drifted that far apart?
"I like the sound of camping. Being in the great outdoors, getting in touch with Mother Nature," he reluctantly admitted, hoping that would appease her. He opened the door and started out of the office, noticing she was following him.
"Mulder, you're not going back down to Georgia to look for Big Blue, are you?" she tiredly chided him, referring to the mythological prehistoric lake monster that had been one of their cases.
"Nope, not Big Blue," Mulder kept walking.
"Then it is something, isn't it? You're not really going on a vacation, you're going on some wild goose chase," she stated with certainty.
"I hear wild geese taste pretty good...But then, I'm not much into that kind of hunting. See you in a week, Scully. Enjoy your vacation."
She watched him disappear around the corner. Strongly suspecting he was on a case that for some reason he did not want her to know about, she briefly debated going back to their office to try to find what was important enough for him to want to take a rare vacation. Was he ditching her again? Had he heard something about Samantha? Her heart skipped a beat and she started after him a few steps. But she stopped. No, Mulder was not behaving as if he'd heard something about his sister. She would have been able to detect that in his eyes. There was definitely something going on, but suddenly she was too tired to care. Realizing her strange behavior was being observed by other agents wandering around the hall, Scully headed for the elevator.
"Okay Mulder, you want to be on your own...you got it," she muttered to herself.
By noon, Mulder was on a commercial flight to Phoenix, Arizona. He was already dressed for camping
worn heavy duty hiking boots, thick comfortable socks, faded bluejeans, white cotton T-shirt, and a long-sleeved denim shirt. Once there, he learned that the connecting flight to Flagstaff was being delayed and that it would take as long waiting for that plane as it would take to drive up there. Restless to be doing something, he rented a car, loaded his camping gear into the trunk, and drove to Flagstaff.
Arriving late in the afternoon, Mulder went shopping in the scenic city for the rest of the things he'd need for five days in the woods. Professional courtesy would have required him to check in with the local law enforcement agency, but he was technically on vacation and wanted to do this on his own. He did, however, try to find Helen Winger. He was told by one of her close friends that Helen had gone back east for a while to be with her family. He would have liked to talk to her to see of she had anything to say that wasn't in the police reports.
Having everything he needed, Mulder gazed at the mountains where he was headed then at the rapidly setting sun. He knew he would be traveling remote roads and could easily get lost at nighttime, so he decided to stay in a motel for the night.
Up at dawn on Tuesday, Mulder grabbed a quick breakfast at a nearby all night diner then drove north toward the Arizona-Utah border. The roads gradually became more narrow and more isolated causing him to feel as if he had left all of modern civilization behind and was completely alone. More than two hours later, he stopped on a secluded dirt road as close to his destination as he believed he could drive. Parking the car off the side of the road, Mulder slowly got out and stretched while looking at the woods all around him. They were dense and beautiful, crowded with aspens, sycamores, and pine trees, the ground covered with thick undergrowth and decomposing leaves from last fall.
He took a moment to inhale the sweet pine and acrid humus scents and sighed contentedly. Then he popped the trunk open, locked the door, and pocketed the keys. While securing the tightly rolled up sleeping bag to the heavy backpack, Mulder noticed how very quiet everything was. It was so peaceful, so relaxing. He removed his holstered pistols from the backpack and checked to be sure they were loaded and the safety was on before clamping the larger caliber pistol to his belt at his right hip. Then he knelt on his left knee so he could wrap the smaller caliber pistol in it's special ankle holster around his right lower leg just above the boots and underneath his jeans. He'd become accustomed to wearing the second weapon and saw no reason to stop now. Next came the canteen of water which he clamped to the belt at his left hip. Grabbing one more item from the backpack before closing it up, Mulder held the small compass out and oriented himself in the direction he wanted t! o take.
He took a moment to stare up at the steep incline while contemplating just how heavy his backpack would become the longer he walked. The compass was on a string of rawhide which he put over his head and hung from his neck. Then he bent over and did some toe touches to stretch the tight muscles in the back of his legs, turned from right to left as he straightened, and pulled one foot at a time up behind himself to stretch the front of his legs. Satisfied that he was about as warmed up as he could patiently wait to be, he glanced all around once more. Picking up the backpack and closing the trunk, he braced the backpack against the trunk of the car and shrugged into it. Securing it comfortably on his shoulders, he then headed into the woods.
The heat from the late morning June sun and the exertion from carrying the heavy back-pack soon had him sweating and panting. Though he considered himself to be in very good physical condition from his conscious efforts to run and swim as often as possible as well as play impromptu games of basketball and racquetball at the FBI gym, Mulder was dismayed to realize he wasn't in the type of physical condition necessary for a long uphill hike over rough terrain. He needed to take breaks more frequently than he had planned and it was putting him behind schedule. During those times, he would sit and drink some water or snack on something while breathing in the varied scents of the woods. The sense of being alone in the great outdoors rejuvenated and soothed him more than he could have imagined was possible. He didn't allow himself to think about anything, wanting simply to absorb his surroundings and experience the moment.
It was slow going all the way as he hiked up the side of the rough mountain through thick woods. Finally, as the sun was rapidly sinking that evening, Mulder found a spot that would be a good place to camp and shrugged out of the backpack, letting it drop to the ground with a heavy thud. Grimacing as he stretched sore shoulder muscles, he gathered some wood and set about preparing camp. Soon he was cooking a quick meal over a blazing campfire. Food never smelled nor tasted better than after a long exhausting day hiking in the outdoors. Mulder's aching muscles reminded him of how tired he was, so he cleaned up the dishes, packed them away, and sat on his rolled out sleeping bag. He pulled off his hiking boots and massaged his aching feet a moment before laying back and gazing at the fire.
It sure seemed strange to him that he had not run into other hikers during the day. He was, afterall, in a national park. Although he was in the very deepest part of the park, he believed there were dedicated hikers, like the Wingers had been, who would venture this far. It was also the beginning of the tourists season, yet he had seen no indications that anyone was around.
He thought of the Jack and Helen Winger file. What had happened to Jack? What was this ghostly apparition Helen reported seeing? How could a man simply vanish, leaving a pool of blood on the ground that mysteriously tested out inconclusive on lab reports? The lab technicians reported that the blood had apparently been exposed to something that altered its composition so completely as to make it impossible to identify it as human blood. They were just barely able to identify it as blood at all. And it didn't alter the fact that Jack Winger was missing.
Mulder's thoughts drifted to the last time he was in this area of the country. When he was in the desert land of northwestern New Mexico and had almost died. The World War II veteran Navajo code-talker, Albert Hosteen, his son, grandson, and several men found Mulder where he'd apparently managed to escape being incinerated in a buried railroad car. A secret car where Mulder had found the mummified remains of apparent aliens with marks on their arms indicating some kind of experimentation or vaccination. Evidence that had to be destroyed once it was learned Mulder had found it, even if it meant killing him along with it. To this day, he believed they had succeeded.
Mulder had vague memories of being beyond death, in some kind of ethereal world where he talked to his recently murdered father and the dead man he'd once referred to as Deep Throat. Both convinced him to fight to return to the world of the living. Now, as he lay on his sleeping bag and the hard lumpy forest ground, he realized that whereas it was his main purpose to discover what had happened to Jack Winger, it would be nice to have time to reflect upon the Navajo healing ceremony that had centered around keeping him alive...or as he came to believe, bringing him back from the dead. There had been an incredible sense of peace once the ceremony was concluded and he found himself longing to feel that way again.
Listening to the crackling campfire and night sounds of the woods, Mulder realized just how sorely tested his faith had become lately. He'd even found himself smiling at how ridiculous he'd felt when he wanted to believe there really was a prehistoric lake monster known as Big Blue. How could he hope to maintain some sense of objectivity if he was so gullible? The lake monster had turned out to be a man-eating alligator. Scully had been gentle with him. She didn't tease him too badly.
Some of Albert Hosteen's philosophical ideas came to mind and he just concluded that he would have to do this more often when he heard the mournful wail of a coyote...and some-thing else. Remembering what Helen Winger had described, Mulder briefly sat up with his hand on his pistol and wondered what the something else could be.
Before coming here, he'd thought about calling Albert Hosteen and asking for a guide through these strange woods, but he'd remembered that Navajos believed in ghosts and witches and wouldn't want anything to do with this kind of hunt. What had Albert called them? Chindees, that's what ghosts were. Albert had said the Navajo believed in chindees who would haunt the living. They could appear in human form or as owls, coyotes, a bear, a whirlwind, or an indistinct dark object and they can change form or size right in front of a witness. Albert told him the Navajo believe that spotting a chindee was a sign of disaster to come. Could this have been what Helen Winger saw? She hadn't reported seeing the "apparition" after Jack had disappeared. At any rate, he could not ask for native help hunting a possible ghost, so he was on his own. Sighing when he realized nothing was out there, he settled into his sleeping bag and was soon asleep.
When Scully got home the first day of her unexpected vacation, she stood in her empty apartment a few minutes wondering just what she was supposed to do. Conflicting feelings and thoughts tumbled through her mind. Damn Mulder for not giving her any warning so she could make plans! But then, she had the impression this was not really a planned vacation for Mulder either, but a spontaneous one. What on Earth was Mulder up to now? Where was he and what was he doing? Had he so completely lost confidence in her that he felt he had to pursue a case on his own time, much as he had not long ago when she'd almost been killed? He'd tried to make up for it by getting her a desk and nameplate, but the distance in their relationship still lingered like a bad taste.
She closed her eyes and shook her head. No, she was not going to think about Mulder now. Whatever he was doing was of his own choice. He'd given her this time off and she was not going to spend it worrying about him. She would use this time away from him and the X-Files to get things done that she'd been putting off for a long time.
Scully went to her bedroom and stripped off her nondescript work suit and got into com-fortable sweat pants and a T-shirt. She busied herself around the apartment, but soon grew restless. Thinking a moment, she picked up the phone.
"Dana? Where are you? Is everything all right?"
"Everything is fine, Mom. Look, I got some unexpected time off and...I was wondering if you're free for the rest of the week?"
There was a long pause.
"Unexpected time off? Is Fox all right?"
"Yes, Mulder is fine," she sighed. "He...decided he wanted a vacation this week...So, how about it?"
"Well, what do you have in mind?"
"I thought we could drive to that lake we used to stay at when I was a kid. You know, where we'd rent a cabin and Dad would be home and we'd spend a week or more there?"
"Dana, I haven't been there in years. And those cabins are usually reserved as much as a year or more in advance."
Scully sat heavily on her couch, deeply disappointed.
"But I know someone I can call up there. We've kept in touch over the years. Let me call her and see what I can do."
Mrs. Scully could sense that this vacation meant a lot to her daughter. She could hear the fatigue in Dana's voice and sensed that all was not well between Dana and her partner...or could it be something else? Dana sounded so...depressed, and that wasn't like her.
"That sounds great, Mom. I'll be waiting for you to call back," Scully smiled and hung up, staring at the phone. Her thoughts drifted to Mulder again. She shook her head, stood, and grabbed some medical journals she'd been wanting to read for a long time.
Arizona - Utah Country
Breaking camp later Wednesday morning than he'd planned, Mulder rechecked the compass, shouldered his backpack, and started walking uphill again. He had to stop frequently to take off the backpack and loosen his sore shoulder muscles. Nothing happened that day, though he always kept an eye out for any of signs of ghosts that had been reported in the files.
Once again he was surprised that no one was around. He'd spotted plenty of wildlife, deer, elk, squirrels, rabbits, even a fox one time, but no people. The weather was beautiful, sunny, not too warm, not too cool, and for that he was grateful. He hadn't brought along a tent, knowing it would simply be too heavy to carry along with everything else. By late afternoon he was tired, hungry, dirty, and sweaty, eager to find another stream where he could freshen up. He'd already crossed several but never stopped, wanting to get as close to his destination as possible.
Finally, when he was feeling like he couldn't take another step, he heard it before he found it. A beautiful trail of rushing water through the lush woods. Mulder found a relatively clear area that would be a good place to camp for the night and eased the backpack off, dropping it next to the trunk of an aspen and looking all around. Wiping the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his damp shirt, he went to the stream and touched the clear cool water then splashed some of it on his face. It felt so good, he immediately started unbuttoning his shirt while returning to the backpack. Rummaging through it, he got everything he'd need for a shave and a bath. He quickly got out a set of clean underwear then looked all around and listened a few moments to be sure he was really alone while removing both guns, the canteen, and the compass. Thus assured, he finished taking all his clothes off and grabbed the small bar of soap, the wash cloth, a towel, the disposable razor, a s! mall mirror, and travel size can of shaving cream.
He set everything down on the bank of the stream except the bar of soap and the wash cloth and gingerly stepped into the cool rushing water. Tingling shivers sped up his legs and throughout his body as he walked toward the center of the stream where it was about ten inches deep and where the brilliant warm sunshine filtered through the trees. Mulder chose that spot to slowly squat down, holding his sensitive privates to ease the shock, and sat on the smooth stones beneath the water. It didn't take long for the shivers to subside and his body to adapt to the temperature of the water. Soon Mulder was splashing the water all over his body and laying back so it could rush through his hair and over his face, savoring the sensation of being all alone in the universe. Then he sat up and vigorously soaped and scrubbed all the dirt, sweat, and grime of the past two days from his body and scalp. Once all rinsed off, he grabbed the shaving gear and proceeded to shave. He had cons! idered not shaving, but somehow felt cleaner doing it.
Midway through shaving, Mulder caught his breath and froze, his skin prickling with the feeling that he was no longer alone. Someone was watching him. He slowly moved the mirror so he could see behind him while glancing around in front. There was nothing there. Everything was still and quiet. Not liking the way he was feeling, aware that he was naked and his weapons were out of reach, Mulder quickly finished shaving and got out of the stream. Grabbing the towel he'd draped on a nearby tree branch, Mulder wrapped it around his waist, went to his backpack, and casually picked up the larger pistol, releasing the safety. Then he slowly stood and peered all around into the woods.
Maybe it was a bear. He'd heard they were in these parts. Maybe it was a fellow hiker who was too embarrassed to announce himself while Mulder was naked in the stream. But if that was true, where was he now? Something rustled the undergrowth to his right and he spun his weapon around, his heart pounding. A fat rabbit rushed deeper into the woods, oblivious to how close it had come to being killed. Sighing, Mulder slowly lowered the pistol and looked all around once more. Nothing. There was nothing there.
Still feeling uneasy, Mulder put the safety back on and set the pistol down, then proceeded to towel himself dry and quickly dressed. Pushing his damp hair back from his face, he gathered the dirty clothes, stuffed them into a separate pouch in his backpack, and put away all the other bath things. He draped the wet towel and wash cloth over some branches, then gathered wood and prepared to start a campfire, the whole time glancing around from time to time to be sure he was still alone.
Soon he had the fire going and was busy heating up a can of cheese ravioli. One less can of food to carry around, he thought while stirring the thick red sauce and fat squares of cheese stuffed pasta. Every once in a while he would hear something moving in the woods, but it was always some small animal venturing too close to the campfire. Mulder's sudden movement was enough to send the little creatures scampering back into the woods.
The sun sank below the rim of the mountains and Mulder put his jacket on against the cool night air. The bath had refreshed and relaxed him, the food had warmed him inside, and the fire warmed him outside. Still remembering that strange feeling that someone was watching him, though not sensing it now, Mulder kept his pistol close by. He studied the detailed road map he'd shoved into the backpack and estimated he should be where he wanted to be tomorrow. Folding it and returning it to the backpack, he lay on his sleeping bag and gazed up through the branches of the nearby trees, watching while the stars slowly became more visible in the darkening sky. They appeared so close that he reached up to touch them.
He thought about Scully, wondering once again what she'd decided to do with her unex-pected time off. A smile briefly creased his face at the memory of the surprise in her blue eyes when she'd confronted him about the vacation. But the smile slowly disappeared as he remem-bered how tired those eyes had been and how close she had recently come to being killed.
His eyes fixed on the bright star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. It alternately flickered bright and dim through the Earth's atmosphere. Scully was like that, he found himself thinking. A bright spot in his life. Radiant, warm, sometimes cold, but always there. It seemed lately, however, that her inner light was dimming and he didn't understand why. She seemed distracted, preoccupied, less patient with his wild theories and explanations. Instead of vigorously refuting them, she appeared almost resigned to them as if just going through the motions and along for the ride.
He'd gotten her a desk and a nameplate thinking rather childishly that such superficial gestures would pull her out of her strange mood. But they hadn't appeased her as he'd hoped they would. Could the price she was paying for her involvement with him and the X-Files finally be getting too high? Was her mood a way of telling him that? Was she on the verge of quitting? She had said several times that she didn't know how far she could follow him. Was she finally getting close to drawing the line? His stomach twisted at the thought. He rejected the idea. Scully was paying a price all right, she'd been abducted and possibly experimented on, her sister had been killed, and she'd almost lost her life numerous times because of the X-Files. But she'd told him recently, after the incident with the tattooed killer, that the X-Files were her life...just as they were his. Scully was not a quitter. She was just tired, he told himself. She needs to rest, to be away from him an! d the X-Files for awhile, and this vacation was a good idea for both of them.
With those thoughts in his head, Mulder turned and got more comfortable, making sure the pistol was where he could get it quickly. Soon he was asleep.
All day Thursday, while still hiking up the mountainside, Mulder had the persistant and uneasy feeling he was not alone. He kept his right hand near his pistol while watching the woods, but he never saw anything.
In the afternoon, Mulder was suddenly startled when a man with a casually aimed semi-automatic rifle appeared from behind some bushes. Mulder almost stumbled and fell, quickly making sure to keep his hand away from his pistol when he spotted the automatic weapon. He suddenly felt very very cold.
"What're you doing here, Mister?" the man gruffly asked, intently staring at Mulder a minute then glancing down at the pistol at Mulder's waist.
Mulder looked at the man with long graying brown hair tied back in a ponytail, graying moustache, trimmed beard, and intense dark eyes. The man was of average height and wiry build, and wore green camouflaged Army clothing and black laced up boots.
"Just...passing through," Mulder tried to remain calm as he held his hands out more so the man could see he wasn't going to go for his pistol and quickly glanced around to see if there were any others. It appeared the man was alone.
The man studied him.
"Passing through, huh? You lost?"
"No, sir. I don't think so." "You don't think so? You're on private property, Mister. Didn't you know that?"
"No sir, I didn't," Mulder looked around again, the thought never occurring to him that there was private property up here. "I...I'm sorry. If you'll just point me in the right direction, I'll be glad to get off your property and be on my way."
The man appeared surprised that Mulder kept calling him "sir" as he assessed Mulder's worn bluejeans, boots, long-sleeved shirt, and backpack.
"You ain't from around here, are you?"
"No sir, I'm not."
"You all alone?"
Mulder didn't want to answer that.
"You should be more careful where you go all alone, Mister. Some folks in these parts shoot first and ask questions later." The man stared right at Mulder.
Mulder swallowed and briefly debated asking why this man hadn't shot him first, but decided against tempting fate.
"Thanks for the warning...and for not shooting."
"Oh, you don't know for sure that I still won't, man...What are you doing here?"
"Just hiking and camping," Mulder forced himself to relax a little. Despite the man's threat that he could still shoot him, Mulder suspected the man was simply going to satisfy his curiosity before letting him go.
"Mind if I take this off?" he asked, indicating his backpack.
The man shrugged, not moving the aim of his rifle.
Mulder slowly took it off and set it down. If things turned ugly, he didn't want to be encumbered by the backpack.
"A little off the beaten path, aren't you? You ain't on national park property now."
"I must have missed the sign."
The man kept studying him. Mulder wondered if he was one of those Vietnam veterans he'd heard would move to remote places like this after they'd learned they could no longer safely function in society. He suspected this may be the case with this man. There was something about the way the man looked at him with suspicious yet haunted eyes, as if Mulder reminded him of someone.
The man apparently came to a decision and pointed off to his left.
"Over that way, about six klicks. Follow me, I'll take you there so's you won't get lost again...and so's no one will shoot you." The man then surprised Mulder by turning to walk away, thus indicating he trusted Mulder not to shoot him in the back.
"Um, I don't suppose you'd want to take a shorter route?"
The man kept walking.
"Guess not," Mulder quickly shouldered his backpack once again, reluctantly accepting that he'd just have to go a round-about route to his destination.
"Got a lot of stuff there, man. How long you been camping?" the man asked about a half hour later.
"Not long. Less than a week," Mulder panted while trying to keep up.
"What are you really doing in these parts?" the man had stopped and was looking point-edly at Mulder.
Mulder was trying to catch his breath and wasn't sure what to say for a moment, noticing the man did not appear winded or tired at all. Then decided honesty would be best.
"I, uh, heard rumors that there was some kind of ghost creature attacking people in an area not far from here."
The man stared at him, his expression not changing.
"Yeah, have you heard anything about it?"
"I hear all kinds of things around here." The man shrugged and started walking again.
Mulder instinctively suspected the man knew more than he was telling.
"You some kind of college professor or something?" the man glanced over his shoulder after another half hour had gone by.
"Aren't you afraid of being out here all alone?"
"Aside from accidentally trespassing on your property, should I be?" Again the man stopped and stared at Mulder.
"This is pretty wild country, you know." "Well, I mean, I know there are bears and other wild animals around here but...have you heard about this ghost creature?"
"Like I said, I hear all kinds of things." The man resumed walking.
They didn't speak again for nearly another hour.
"What you gonna to do if you come across this so called ghost creature?"
Mulder's suspicions rose.
"Are you saying there really is such a creature?" "Out here you hear all kinds of stories, man. You see things...You sometimes think you see things no ones ever seen before and you can' t explain them. I learned long ago that anything is possible...You ain't out to kill anything, are you?" he stopped again.
"No, I don't want to kill anything, but something or someone may be killing or kidnapping people. Three people are missing."
"You a cop?!" the man raised his weapon to his hip threateningly.
"I...I'm on vacation," Mulder cautiously stammered as he once again held his hands out. But he could see that didn't satisfy the man. "Okay, I'm an FBI agent on vacation."
"FBI?! I thought those disappearances were being investigated by the local smokies."
"I'm sure they are."
"Then why ain't you with them?"
"I told you, I'm on..."
"...vacation, yeah, yeah, so you keep saying...There's something mighty spooky about you, Mister." The man finally lowered his weapon and shook his head before resuming walking.
Mulder smiled, shook his head, and followed.
"Have you seen the ghost creature? Can you tell me anything about it?"
"What have you heard?" the man countered.
"Well, I have to admit, everything I've heard sounds an awful lot like a ghostly Big Foot, but he's supposed to be up in Washington State or Oregon. Never heard of him being spotted down here. Never heard of him killing people either."
"Tell you what I heard, man. I heard those folks got mauled by a bear or a mountain lion or some other such creature. I heard they were poor dumb city slicker tourists who had too much to drink or sniff or smoke and thought they knowed everything there was to know about camping from watching too much TV. I even heard one made the mistake of trespassing on private property and got shot!" the man had turned and was looking at Mulder.
Mulder glanced uneasily around.
"Has it been six kilometers yet?" he chanced asking, thinking he was being teased but not sure enough to laugh.
This time the man chuckled and actually relaxed a little.
"You ain't so bad for a Fed, Mister."
"Mulder. Fox Mulder."
"Fox? You part Indian or something?"
"Not that I know of."
"Well, I don't know that your name will help you much around these parts. We got another couple of klicks to go...Fox."
"Mulder. Most people just call me Mulder."
"Wonder why...Most people call me Mad Mac. Go figure." He shrugged and walked on.
Mulder realized, as they walked, that Mad Mac hadn't answered his questions about the creature. Mad Mac. In what way was he mad? Mad as in temperamental? Or mad as in crazy? Mulder suspected it could be a little of both. Which meant that any information he got from Mad Mac should be suspect. He even realized that Mad Mac could have something to do with the disappearance of those people. Mad Mac or any of his neighbors could have easily shot the trespassers and buried them somewhere around here. But then, how would the sightings of a ghost creature be explained? For some reason, Mulder's gut instincts were that Mad Mac had nothing to do with the disappearance of Jack Winger or any of the others.
Finally, Mad Mac stood still and looked around, his gaze stopping on Mulder. There was a haunted expression in his eyes for a moment again before he quickly looked away. Mulder wondered what that was all about.
"You should be safe from the creature called man for now. At least, the ones who live around here. Just head on up that way for about another six klicks or more before going west toward the area you're looking to get to. That'll keep you off private property."
"How do you know where I'm going?"
Mad Mac didn't answer.
"You never did tell me what you plan to do if you ever come across this so called ghost creature...real or not," Mac stared at Mulder.
"I won't harm it if it doesn't harm me."
Mad Mac considered this a moment.
"They say the fox is a pretty smart and wily creature. Use some of that...Fox...and you should be all right."
"Thanks...Mac," Mulder nodded, not sure what Mac meant.
Mac looked like he wanted to say something else but decided not to. He walked past Mulder and disappeared into the woods as quickly as he had appeared. Mulder sighed, looked up the mountain, shifted his backpack, and walked the way Mac advised him to. But as he walked, he kept feeling like someone was watching him. He stopped several times and whirled around in the hopes of catching whoever it was, but there was never anyone there. Could Mac be stalking him? Or perhaps one of Mac's neighbors? What if it really was a simple matter of the hikers being killed for trespassing and the killers merely burying them to avoid any entanglements with the law? It was possible. Mulder shook his head. It just didn't feel right. There was something else going on in these mountains. The nagging feeling that he was being watched stayed with him as he kept moving.
The backpack grew heavier and he stopped to rest while munching on some crackers and an apple. Studying the road map, he believed he was in the general area where people had either been killed or had disappeared and where some witnesses claimed they'd seen a ghost creature rushing through the woods. But the detour had put him behind schedule. He wouldn't get to the Winger site until tomorrow at this rate, which really wouldn't leave him much time to investigate. Hopefully, the fact that the return trip was all downhill would mean it would take only half as long to cover the same distance.
Putting the map away, he spotted some cliffs in the distance with what appeared to be caves. He'd check them later. He got up, shouldered the backpack yet again, and walked for a few more hours before stopping to camp for the night.
Believing he was fairly close to the areas he wanted to investigate, Mulder set the back-pack within some bushes, checked the canteen on the belt around his waist to be sure there was plenty of water, and walked in a wide circular pattern to see if he could find anything that may seem out of place. He found evidence of what he thought were plenty of deer tracks and some smaller animal tracks. He even found several trees whose trunks bore the scars of bears sharpening their claws. But nothing that struck him as unusual.
It was rapidly getting dark, so Mulder headed back to where he'd left his backpack. Once there, he quickly got another campfire going, cooked a small meal, and settled on the hard sleeping bag covered ground for another night beneath the stars. He was beginning to miss his couch. Being sure his pistol was handy, his thoughts drifted to Scully again. What was she doing? Was she getting rested? Was this week away from one another a good idea? His eyes felt heavy, his body felt heavy, and he was soon asleep.
Up at the crack of dawn on Friday morning, Mulder skipped breakfast, made sure the fire was completely out, shouldered the backpack and, glancing all around again, headed toward the cliffs. Perhaps if he got to a higher vantage point he could see if there was anything unusual about the area.
It was afternoon before he was standing on higher ground overlooking where he'd been the previous days. He set his backpack down, got out his small binoculars, and scanned the area. He stopped at one point. There was a clearing several miles away. It didn't look quite natural. Almost as if something had torn down a small area of the woods. He tried to find a house or anything that would suggest it was private property. There wasn't a house or a shack or even a park lookout tower that he could see from his vantage point. So he returned the binoculars to the backpack, shouldered it, and headed for the clearing.
While on the way, he found the ashes of an old campfire. Walking all around it in an in-creasing circle, he found some white substance that he believed was toilet paper that had gotten wet and had dissolved into a biodegradable clump. Remembering the Winger file, he realized this must be where Jack Winger had disappeared. He looked up at the trees and saw a few white clumps still clinging to the branches. Exploring the whole area, not finding anything else unusual, he resumed walking toward the clearing.
The sun was low on the horizon before Mulder found it, surprised that it was farther than he thought it would be. Instantly fascinated and excited, he stood at the edge of the small area where there was a burned circular pattern to the woods appearing as though it had been crushed by something. He'd seen these kinds of patterns before, both in reports and during previous investigations.
Mulder removed his backpack and quickly rummaged through it, taking out a small camera, a pair of latex gloves, and some small evidence bags he'd thought to bring along for just this very reason. Finding the sharpened pencil and a small notepad in an outside pocket of the backpack, he tucked them in his shirt pocket and walked all around. He took pictures of the general area first. Then he set about taking samples of the soil and burned trees, putting them in the small evidence bags and labeling them. He made sure to take pictures of where he was collecting the samples and made drawings and comments in the small notepad. There were no animal tracks in the area and no insects, which he felt could indicate some kind of radiation. While briefly wishing he had a Geiger counter, he remembered something and looked at his compass. His heart skipped a beat. Just as he suspected, the needle was going crazy. He smiled. He'd seen that happen to a compass before and it was alwa! ys near suspected UFO activity.
All kinds of questions filled his head. Why a UFO would land in the middle of nowhere was obvious to him. But why did it? What was it after? Where did they go and what were they doing? How long had it been since they landed here? There was no new plant growth, so could it have happened only recently or did radiation prevent the plants from taking root? Could the UFO have had something to do with the missing people? And why wasn't there anything about this clearing in the police reports? Could it have been aliens that had appeared ghostly and bear-like?
His imagination took all kinds of twists and turns. He wished he had more time to explore and investigate the area. Pulling out the map, he tried to locate where he was and compare it with the sites of other disappearances. All of them were within a short distance of this location. Now he was convinced he would have a legitimate reason to ask Skinner for more time to investigate the area once he got back to Washington D.C.
Mulder worked around the site until it was almost too dark to see anything. He'd meant to start heading back down the mountainside. There wasn't much time left to get back and catch his return flight. Deciding he would just have to finish gathering evidence in the morning, Mulder picked up his backpack and returned to the Winger campsite.
He was curious about what they'd seen. Maybe whatever it was would return if he camped there. So, using a flashlight to gather wood and set up camp, he soon had the fire going near the same spot as the Winger's campsite and settled in for a long night.
Mulder thought about his plans for the next day to finish gathering evidence on what he believed was a UFO landing site and look around for other locations of reported disappearances. If he did all that, there was no way he would be able to get back to Phoenix in time to catch his flight. Gazing at the dark woods and listening for anything unusual, he decided he would call Skinner as soon as he could get to a phone and ask for another day of vacation. The Bureau should be ecstatic that he would be using up another day of his accumulated vacation time. Skinner might not be, but that was a risk Mulder was willing to take now that he had so much evidence.
The days excitement and all the hours of hiking weighed him down with fatigue and his eyes drifted shut despite his desire to stay awake. Soon he fell asleep with his pistol in his hand. Hours later he was startled awake. Blinking, he stared at the woods, searching for whatever had awakened him. There was nothing out there. A chill breeze stirred the branches of the trees and bushes, but that was the only sound he heard.
He was just about to reach for more wood to toss onto the fire when he glimpsed some-thing in the distance. Slowly standing, Mulder stared at what appeared to be some kind of hazy, transparent figure floating in the woods about thirty yards away. It was hard seeing it through the dense woods, but he had no doubt it was there. Stepping away from the distracting campfire, Mulder released the safety on his pistol and kept staring at the figure, his mouth open in amaze-ment.
The ghostly figure just kept hovering. Mulder, breathing faster and heart wildly beating, quickly glanced all around to see if this was some kind of trick or if there were more. There was nothing. Just him and the ghost. He slowly stepped forward to see what it would do. It did nothing. So he decided to try getting closer to get a better look at it.
The shape of the thing began to change. Mulder stopped. It looked like a huge bear standing on its hind legs, very menacing, very intimidating. Mulder watched it, pistol ready, though he grimly realized that if it was a real ghost, the pistol was useless. Then very quickly the ghost rushed deeper into the woods.
"Hey!" Mulder shouted before thinking and ran after it. Stumbling over dead wood, Mulder lost his footing and fell with a grunt. Quickly getting back up and looking all around, the ghost was gone. He stared into the woods and waited a few minutes while catching his breath, but it didn't reappear.
Sighing, Mulder slowly returned to his camp and added more wood to the fire before settling down on his sleeping bag again. Still holding on to his pistol, he spent the rest of the night alternately dozing off and waking up to stare at the woods. The ghost never reappeared.
Assistant Director Skinner was sitting at his desk reading agent reports when his private door opened. Looking up to see who had come in without knocking, Skinner momentarily held his breath as he watched the tall haggard faced man approach his desk. The stale odor of cigarettes reeked from the man's rumpled business suit. Forcing his expression to remain neutral as he sat back, Skinner stared at the man who slowly lit up a cigarette and exhaled a cloud of smoke over the desk.
"I understand Agent Mulder isn't here," the smoking man stated, his cold blue eyes staring right into Skinner's dark eyes.
Skinner didn't say anything.
"Where is he?"
Skinner found it interesting that the man didn't know where Mulder was or that it took him this long to realize Mulder was gone.
"I'm not aware of any cases you sent him to investigate. So, where is Agent Mulder?" the man insisted on knowing, his eyes never straying from Skinner's.
"Agent Mulder is on vacation."
"Vacation...I find that hard to believe." The man smugly smiled and took another puff on the cigarette. "Agent Mulder doesn't take vacations."
Skinner sighed and shuffled some papers on his desk.
"Where did he go?"
"Go? I wouldn't know that. It's his vacation," Skinner looked at the man again.
The smoking man stared for a long moment at Skinner, as if contemplating whether or not Skinner was telling the truth.
"I see." The man finally sighed, a confident grin creasing his face while only partly stubbing his cigarette out in an ashtray on Skinner's desk then leaving the room.
Skinner stared at the door a moment then at the smoldering cigarette. Feeling angry for reasons he wasn't sure of, Skinner stubbed the cigarette completely out and waved the smoke away.
"Mulder...whatever you're doing, I hope you watch your back," he muttered, having brief-ly debated trying to find Mulder before the smoking man could, but knowing he had no legitimate reasons to do so. He gathered the reports and straightened them and tried to concentrate on reading them again. But his eyes strayed to the closed door and the utter contempt he felt for the man who had gone through it.
It was Friday night and Dana Scully couldn't believe her week was nearly over already. Her mother had succeeded in getting them a cabin at the lake Dana remembered so fondly from when she was a little girl. The owner of the small resort had a cabin that was being refurbished and offered it for their use as long as Dana and her mother didn't mind people working on the cabin during the day. Dana didn't care, she just wanted to get out of Washington D. C.
The open air, the quiet beauty of the lake and the surrounding trees acted as a balm for her spirits, soothing the nagging worry she had about the nosebleeds she had begun getting lately. Convinced she was just tired and overworked, determined to forget the eerie statement Leonard Betts had made about her having what he needed, Dana immersed herself in catching up on reading and spending time with her mother.
Every once in a while she would catch her mother staring worriedly at her. She knew her mother wanted to know what was bothering her, but until she had some answers, she didn't really want to concern her mother with speculations. She had a doctor appointment set up for the following week to check into the bloody noses just in case she was anemic or something. It was the "something" that occasionally nagged at her. It made her look at things almost as if it would be the last time she saw them. Whenever she realized how morbid her thoughts were becoming, she'd shake herself out of her reverie and force herself to get busy doing something. Most often she would take long walks along the lake shore or hike the trails in the woods.
She hadn't really thought about Mulder all week. She didn't allow herself to think about him now except to hope that he had found whatever he was looking for. Closing her eyes, feeling the breeze from the lake wash across her with a gentle touch while she lay on her bed, Dana fell asleep.
"Mulder!!" she gasped hours later, sitting up and staring blankly into the darkness.
"Dana? Dana? Are you all right?" her mother came into the room and turned on the small night lamp by her bed. "Dana! Honey, your nose is bleeding."
Mrs. Scully grabbed some tissues from the box on the night stand and handed them to her daughter. Dana's hands were shaking as she dabbed at her nose and tried to stop the bleeding.
"Dana, what is it? What happened? Why is your nose bleeding?" Mrs. Scully gently pushed Dana's sweaty hair from her face and looked into her daughters frightened eyes.
"Nothing, Mom...Just...just a nightmare, I guess," Dana stammered, looking away from her mother and grabbing some more tissues.
"You shouted Fox's name."
Dana looked sharply at her mother, trying to remember what had scared her. Was she dreaming about Mulder? Had something happened to him? She shook her head, noticing the bleeding had almost stopped.
"I...don't remember what it was about. Probably some case Mulder and I were on a while ago. It's nothing to worry about."
"What about the nosebleed?" "Um...allergies. Remember when I used to get them as a little girl? I guess there's something in the air up here that's triggering them again," Dana quickly explained, tossing the bloodied tissues into a nearby small waste can.
Realizing her mother was still quietly staring at her, Dana managed a reassuring smile.
"Mom, I'm all right. Please don't worry so much about me, okay?"
Still sensing something was bothering her stubborn daughter, Mrs. Scully also understood that unless Dana wanted her to know what it was, there would be no way she could get it out of her. She smiled back and kissed Dana's forehead.
"Let me get you a warm wet washcloth so you can clean your face."
The nosebleed stopped, her face washed and her mother now gone back to her own bed, Dana lay staring at the open window and listened to the lapping water of the nearby lake. What had the dream been about? Was Mulder all right? Had something happened to him? Was something about to happen to him? And what about these persistent nosebleeds? Shaking her head, not wanting to think about either of them, Dana sighed and tried to go back to sleep.
The sun had been up for a couple of hours Saturday morning before Mulder jerked awake and cursed at sleeping so late. Time had been wasted he could ill-afford to lose, so he quickly made sure the fire was completely out, gathered all his things together, and returned to the suspected UFO landing site. Once there, he spent several more hours detailing the location of every sample he took. Having used his second roll of film, he removed it, placed it in a plastic evidence bag with the first roll and put it in his shirt pocket. Then he reloaded the camera with his last roll of film so he could take more pictures. Reluctantly shouldering his backpack when he was finished, aware that he had better get going if he was to find a phone in time to ask Skinner for one more day, Mulder stared at the strange site a minute then headed into the woods as quickly as he could. He had a long way to go and he was glad it was all relatively downhill.
Remembering that another location of a disappearance was on the way down but a mile or more from the route he'd taken to get where he was, believing he'd still be able to make good time going down the mountain, Mulder decided to take the detour. It wasn't difficult finding the site. Mulder got his camera out and spent a short time taking pictures and searching for any evidence that might have been overlooked. Finding none, noticing it was already afternoon, Mulder hurried on.
Having no idea just how far he'd gone that day, it wasn't long before Mulder was camping for what he hoped would be his last night in the woods. While staring at the campfire after a quick supper, Mulder couldn't shake the creepy sensation that something was about to happen. The feeling that he was not alone again was suddenly stronger than ever. He'd put his jacket on against the chill night air and kept his boots on this time. Moving away from the fire, Mulder held his pistol ready while listening closely for anything not in rhythm with the natural woods sounds he had grown accustomed to over the past week. Could it be the ghost creature returning for a second night in a row?
Just as he was dozing, something woke him with a start. He noticed that the fire had died down. Strongly sensing something was nearby, he decided against adding more wood to the fire and slowly got up from his sleeping bag. Cautiously walking away from the fire so he could see into the pitch black woods better, Mulder squatted down by a tree and strained to listen.
The woods seemed unnaturally quiet. Something was rustling the bushes both to his right and to his left. His heart started pounding as he raised his pistol, released the safety, and stared all around. Could it be some wild animals stalking him? He didn't think two animals would work in conjunction with one another by approaching from two different directions. Wolves hunted in packs but for some reason Mulder didn't think these were wolves. He held his pistol ready while staring all around and listening.
Nothing happened for what felt like a long time. Then he heard a humming sound up in the sky. It sounded like the drone of a small plane over in the direction of the clearing. He looked up through the tree branches but saw nothing but stars and a few wisps of clouds.
Something rustled through the woods to his right and he brought his pistol up to fire, but nothing was there. He began to sweat from the tension. Keeping his back to the large trunk of the tree, he stood as still as he could. Then there was something to his left! He turned to aim his pistol at it. Thinking his eyes were playing tricks on him, he blinked and stared at the ghostly form floating in the woods.
Something was behind him! He spun around just in time to see a massive paw, claws extended, streaking toward him and instinctively put his right arm up to protect his face. It felt like knives were ripping through his jacket sleeve and shredding his skin. Crying out in pain, he almost dropped his pistol but managed to bring it up and fired blindly several times as he scrambled away from the tree. Not waiting to see if he hit it, Mulder got to his feet and ran away from the camp.
His heart was pounding so loudly, he couldn't hear if the creature was following him. He glanced around but could see nothing and kept running until his lungs felt as if they'd burst. Tripping over something and falling, Mulder stayed down, pistol still gripped tightly in his hand, and tried to catch his breath while listening as hard as he could. All was quiet again. His right forearm felt as if it was on fire and he could feel the blood soaking what remained of his sleeve. Still worrying about whether or not the creature was following him, he remained very still and continued to listen.
There was noise coming from the direction of his campsite. It sounded as if something or someone was tearing the place apart. Remembering his backpack was there with all the evidence he'd so painfully gathered, Mulder started to get up, desperately wanting to go back and stop whatever it was. Then he remembered the rolls of film in his shirt pocket and quickly pat the pocket to be sure they were still there. They were. At least he had some proof.
Panting, sweating, and grimacing from the burning pain in his forearm, Mulder unsteadily held his pistol and stared at the dark woods. It was a good ten minutes before everything became quiet again. It wasn't until the natural sounds of insects and creatures in the woods returned that Mulder figured it would be all right to take care of his arm. Feeling exposed, Mulder crawled into some nearby bushes, its thorns tugging at his clothes and scratching bare skin.
He froze when he heard something. Very slowly turning, pistol ready, Mulder peered through the thorny branches. His eyes widened when he thought he could see something just eerily hovering in the distance and appearing to be looking all around. Blinking his eyes to get the stinging sweat out of them, he tried to get a better look when the thing simply disappeared. Not sure what to believe, Mulder wiped his eyes with his jacket and stared at the woods again. There was no more sound, no more ghostly vision. It was as if none of it had happened.
The piercing thorns quickly became unbearable, so Mulder crawled out of the bushes as quietly as he could and sat down by a dark cluster of trees. After listening for a few more minutes, he set his pistol down between his legs and flexed his cramped fingers. Then he slowly and quietly removed his jacket, gritting his teeth against the pain the movement caused. His fingers shook as he unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt sleeve and peeled it back to examine the wound. It was too dark. He couldn't see it. Biting his lower lip, he reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a Swiss Army knife every camper would bring along on a trip like this. Going by feeling, he managed to cut his shirt sleeve off at the shoulder and cut the cuff up a little further.
Mulder felt for his canteen, relieved that he still had it. Removing it from his belt, he un-capped it and sparingly poured some of the water over the injured arm, sucking in his breath from the searing pain. Setting the canteen between his legs next to the pistol, he then proceeded to use the cut sleeve as a bandage to wrap around the wound as tightly as he could. Feeling cold, he shakily tied the makeshift bandage with his left hand and his teeth, closed and pocketed his knife, and carefully put his jacket back on. Then he recapped the canteen and slipped it onto his belt again. Picking up the pistol with his left hand, cradling his right arm across his chest, he peered at the darkness and listened for them.
Them? Why was he thinking it was more than just some kind of creature he'd barely caught a glimpse of? Then he thought he could hear voices in the direction of his camp. Perhaps some campers heard the noise and came to investigate? Logically, they should call out to see if anyone needed help. There was nothing but quiet again.
Cradling his injured arm tighter across his chest, feeling the sticky wetness of blood on his right hand, he kept his pistol ready and tried to get as comfortable as he could. He kept thinking about his backpack and all the evidence. Had it been destroyed? Should he try to get back to the camp and retrieve whatever was left? No time. There was simply no more time. The first course of action had to be getting out of the woods alive so he could return and collect more evidence later. He settled down and tried to rest.
"You sure have been quiet lately."
Dana Scully jumped at the sound of her mother's voice and tore her gaze from the lights reflecting off the dark smooth surface of the lake to look at her.
"I brought you some hot chocolate. There's a bit of a chill in the air tonight," Mrs. Scully sat next to her daughter on the porch of their cabin.
"Thank you, Mom," Dana accepted the cup with both hands and sipped it, feeling its warmth spread inside her body. She smiled at the memories the rich hot chocolate brought to her.
"Penny for your thoughts."
Dana smiled more and returned her gaze to the lake.
"I was thinking about Dad. About how he used to treat me just like one of the guys and take me fishing out there. We would spend hours in the boat fishing, not saying anything, yet... it's almost as if...as if we just knew what each other was thinking, you know? Then we would suddenly start talking about silly things. He would call me Starbuck and I would call him Ahab and we would joke about Moby Dick being in the lake...I miss him."
"I do too."
Dana looked at her mother's sad face and reached out to give her mother's hand a gentle squeeze. Mrs. Scully held Dana's hand tightly a moment and forced a smile.
"I'm glad you have such fond memories of your father."
"Oh, I do...I have lots of them. He may not have been home as much as we would have liked, but when he was home there was never any doubt how important we all were to him." They sat in silence for several minutes.
"Mom, do you think Dad knew?"
"Do you think he knew he was...dying when he had that heart attack?"
Mrs. Scully looked sharply at her daughter, then looked at the lake.
"Yes...I think he knew...There was something in his eyes as he looked at me when it started."
"Was he afraid?"
"I can't really say, Dana...Knowing your father as I did, I would say that what I saw was not so much fear for himself, but fear of what his death would do to all of us. It was as if I saw everything he was feeling in that moment...No, I don't think he was afraid of death."
Dana stared at her mother a long time before returning her gaze to the lake.
"Dana, what's wrong? What's going on? Why did you want to come up here with me?"
"Mom, I told you. It was the first place I thought of when I learned I was going to have a vacation. I just wanted to get away from everything and this place holds so many nice memories. And you and I haven't been able to spend much time together since...since Melissa's death."
"But I sense you are uneasy about something. Does it have anything to do with your nightmare last night? When you shouted Fox's name?" Dana looked at her mother in surprise. How could her mother know that she had not been able to get Mulder off her mind all day? That deep in her guts she couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong with her partner of more than four years. Several times she had been tempted to call Mulder to see if he was back yet. The only thing keeping her from doing so was the feeling that Mulder would think she was some kind of mother hen or something. She shook her head slowly and sighed.
"I'm just so glad we came here, Mom. I hope you are enjoying it as much as I am."
Realizing Dana was not going to say anymore, Mrs. Scully squeezed her daughters hand a moment before letting go and sat quietly as they both finished their hot chocolate.
Just before dawn on Sunday, Dana woke up gasping, sitting straight up in bed, her face shimmering with sweat.
"Mulder," she breathed, her heart beating rapidly with concern. Something was definitely wrong. She could sense it, but how could she explain it to anyone? Swinging her feet over the edge of the bed, she looked around the small bedroom and sighed. They would be packing very soon and heading back home. Once she was there, she could call Mulder's place and see if he was back from his vacation yet. That would settle things once and for all.
When dawn came Sunday and still no more noise and no indications that anyone or anything was looking for him, Mulder slowly stood and looked around. He reached for the com-pass at his neck and discovered it had apparently been ripped away. Now he felt lost. He turned toward the rising sun. At least he knew that had to be east.
Feeling disoriented from nearly two nights without real sleep, Mulder clicked the safety on his pistol and awkwardly put it back in its holster at his right hip. Then he rubbed his eyes with his left hand and looked at his right arm. The sleeve was soaked with blood, there was dried blood all over his right hand, and his arm felt hot and throbbed painfully. He didn't want to take the makeshift bandage off until he could find some water to clean his arm with, so he looked around a moment and decided not to go back to his camp. There was still the possibility that something or someone could be waiting for him there. He headed away from the camp and past the cliffs in the hopes of getting closer to his car.
A couple of hours later, he came upon a stream. Staying hidden in the bushes, he studied the surroundings while catching his breath. Deer came to the stream to drink and casually walked away, so he decided chances were pretty good no one else was around. Staying close to the bushes, he cautiously approached the stream, sat down beside it, and slowly took his jacket off. Then he unwound the makeshift bandage on his forearm. But the blood from the wounds had dried to the sleeve. Not sure the clear looking water was really clean, Mulder decided to use it anyway, figuring his arm was already infected. Gritting his teeth and holding his breath, Mulder leaned forward and dipped his arm into the cold stream, keeping it under the water for as long as he could tolerate it. The water loosened the sleeve from the wounds and he peeled it off. He sucked in his breath as he looked at the wounds for the first time. His arm appeared worse than he imagined it would, red and swollen,! skin torn in three diagonal lines through the meaty part of the forearm nearly to the bone. The fourth claw apparently only bruised his arm. He dipped his arm into the water again. The coldness felt good and helped numb the pain while at the same time sending shivers rippling throughout his body. He rinsed the bandage out and used it to clean away as much blood as he could. Then he sat back, gradually unbuttoned his shirt, and took it off.
Sweating now from the renewed pain caused by moving his arm while reaching into his jeans pocket to get the knife, he opened the blade and cut the dry left sleeve off his shirt. His arm was bleeding again, the warm blood dripping onto his jeans and the soft ground. He wished he had his small first aid kit with him. Anything would have been better than what he was trying to make do with. Once the left sleeve was off, Mulder knelt by the water again and held his breath as he put his arm into the icy coolness to wash it off one more time. Then he quickly wrapped it with the cut off sleeve, once again tying it with his left hand and his teeth, pulling it as tightly as he could stand.
The effort left him sweating and trembling with exhaustion. He sat back and closed his eyes and tried to calm his pounding heart. Then he looked all around at the endless dense woods, absolutely no idea where he was. Glancing up at the sky, he was dismayed to see clouds slowly moving in.
"Shit Mulder! What have you gotten yourself into this time?!" he quietly muttered as he slowly put what remained of his now sleeveless shirt back on, buttoned it with shaky fingers, then took a drink from his half-empty canteen. He stared at his canteen a moment, then at the stream. The water looked clean, but was it? He didn't have anything to purify the water now. Should he risk refilling the canteen? Quickly taking another drink, he capped the canteen and decided not to take any chances. The idea of getting diarrhea from contaminated water was no more appealing to him now than the risk he'd already taken by putting his injured arm in it. Mulder reached for his jacket and put it on.
Slowly standing and listening as he looked around, Mulder put the canteen on the belt at his waist and made sure his pistol was still holstered. Once again cradling his injured arm tightly across his chest, he crossed the stream and headed in a southwesterly direction toward what he hoped would be Mad Mac's property. If Mac was there, Mulder hoped he wouldn't decide to shoot first and ask questions later this time. But Mac had taken him miles out of the way and Mulder wasn't really convinced he was heading in the right direction.
Hours later, the solitude that had felt so welcome when he was bathing in the stream what seemed ages ago felt painfully lonely now. He truly felt as if he were alone in the world
except for whatever had attacked him. Yet strangely enough, he was distracted by the desire to be able to stop and bathe in a stream again to feel clean and free once more. No time for that now. He had to keep moving.
Late in the afternoon, Mulder came upon a small cabin in the woods. He squatted down and waited for about ten minutes, observing the cabin to be sure no one was there before feeling it was safe to approach it. It was locked up but Mulder had no trouble breaking in. Apparently it was someones hunting cabin for there were stuffed animal heads on the walls and animal skins on the wood floor. There was a small kitchen area with a sink and water pump, a dining table with two chairs, a fireplace, couch, stuffed chair, and to one side was a bunkbed. It was all dusty and smelled musty and dank, indicating it had been a while since anyone had been there.
"All the comforts of home," he mumbled while looking all over for any kind of com-munications equipment. There was none. Opening cabinets in the kitchen, he found a small first aid kit. Taking it down, he opened it and found sterile gauze pads and a roll of gauze, bandaids of various shapes, antibiotic creme, a small bottle of iodine, several safety pins, and a tightly folded triangular sling. The bare minimum to even qualify as a first-aid kit, but it was better than nothing at all.
Mulder pumped the handle for water with his left hand. It sputtered and spat, then dirty water shot out. Playing a hunch, he kept pumping and sure enough the water became clearer. Having run out of water from his canteen hours ago, Mulder was incredibly thirsty now. Pushing aside the fears he'd had before about contaminated water, he held his left hand out to catch some and tentatively sipped it. The water was a little gritty but surprisingly good, so he pumped again and drank more. Looking behind the dusty curtains under the countertop where the sink was, he found a stainless steel bowl and some small towels. Setting the bowl in the sink and the towels nearby, Mulder pumped more water, rinsed the bowl out, then filled it up.
Carefully taking his jacket off and setting it aside, Mulder winced at the sight of the blood-soaked bandage and fumbled to untie the knot. Just as he feared, the bandage was stuck to his arm with dried blood. He gritted his teeth and held his breath as he slowly put his forearm into the bowl of water to soak the bandage off. The water gradually turned pink then red as he moved his arm around to hurry the process.
Picking at the bandage with his left hand, he was able to pry it off the wounds without tearing the scabs too badly. His eyes watered from the pain and from the inflamed nature of the wounds. They had to be infected. Sweat dripped from his nose and chin as he finally got the makeshift bandage off and looked closely at the ugly tears in his forearm. The two middle ones appeared pretty deep, definitely in need of stitches. They oozed blood as he emptied the soiled water from the bowl and refilled it with clean water. Then he grabbed a nearby dusty bar of soap and vigorously soaped his hands. His left hand all sudsy with the gritty soap, Mulder bit his lower lip and applied the soap to the wounds in an attempt to clean them out as much as possible. It wasn't exactly an antiseptic but it was better than nothing, he kept telling himself as his eyes teared up again and he grimaced and hissed from the pain.
Having soaped the wounds as much as he could stand, Mulder plunged his arm into the water again and leaned heavily against the counter to catch his breath. His head was spinning and his legs felt weak as he closed his eyes, feeling the tears flow down his cheeks. He wiped his cheeks on his shoulders and pulled his arm out of the water. The blood flowed more freely now that he had aggravated the wounds.
Picking up a towel next to the sink, Mulder dabbed his arm dry and held the towel tightly to the wounds. Then he looked at the small bottle of iodine and winced at the childhood memories he had of the stinging antiseptic being applied to scraped and bleeding knees. He remembered how it made the scrapes seem to pucker up and how hard he would fight not to cry louder. With a wound like this, coming from an unknown creature, Mulder knew he had to do everything he could to keep the infection at bay or at least fight it off a while longer. So he picked up the small bottle of orange medicine, held it briefly in his shaking hand and, biting his lower lip, he opened it. Even the sharp tangy smell of it evoked unpleasant childhood memories as he set it down and slowly removed the towel. Holding his injured arm over the sink, Mulder picked up the iodine and held it suspended over the wounds a moment while gathering the courage to beat back those memories and face the inevitable p! ain. Holding his breath, he tilted the bottle and watched it pour as if in slow motion onto his arm.
"Ahhhh!!! Shit!!!!" he cried out when the medicine hit the open wounds and poured down his arm. His whole body began shaking as he forced himself to keep his arm over the sink. There wasn't much iodine in the bottle, so it didn't take long for it to empty. New tears poured down Mulder's cheeks while he panted and waited for the stinging to go away. "Damn!" he breathed, his eyes closed tightly and his legs feeling wobbly.
The worst of the pain slowly fading away, Mulder opened his eyes and shakily dabbed at his arm with the towel. Then he opened the tube of antibiotic creme, squeezed some onto the deepest looking wounds, and spread it around as well as he could through the blood that continued to ooze out of them. Wiping the blood and excess iodine off from around and under his forearm once more, he tore open several gauze pad packets with his teeth and firmly placed them over the wounds. They quickly became bloodied, but he couldn't do anymore about that. He unwound the roll of gauze and wrapped his arm as tightly as he could in the hopes of stopping the bleeding. By the time he'd finished, he was exhausted and once again leaned against the counter, panting. He wanted to sit down but was afraid that if he did he wouldn't get back up.
Shaking, he emptied the stainless steel bowl and filled it one more time. Holding his right arm clear, he used his left hand to wash his face and got his hair all wet. He felt his unshaven face a long moment, trying to decide what his next step would be. Food. There had to be some food somewhere. Face and hair dripping water, Mulder looked through all the cabinets and came up with several cans of beans and peaches. A strange combination to him, it was nevertheless food, so he grabbed his jacket and stuffed as many cans as he could into the pockets. His arm was aching terribly now. He found a small bottle of aspirins. There was something about aspirin thinning the blood and causing more bleeding, but the pain he was feeling overwhelmed any concerns about that. Briefly checking the expiration date on the bottle and finding it was still good, Mulder quickly took three of them and stuffed the remainder in his shirt pocket.
He gazed around the cabin again, eyes lingering on the bunk beds and wishing he could just lay down and sleep for a few hours. Instead, he grabbed the wool blanket from one of them, rolled it up, and set it aside. Remembering his canteen was now empty, Mulder refilled it with water from the pump, wishing he had another canteen because he didn't know when he would find more water. He would just have to hope he could either find Mad Mac again or he could get to his car before running out of water and food. Then he took what was left of the antibiotic creme, gauze pads, and the triangular sling and put them into his shirt pockets. It wasn't much, but he was going to do his best to keep the wound clean and fight the infection while on the way down the mountainside.
He'd been in the cabin long enough. It was too logical a place to hide. Hide from what? He wasn't sure, but he wasn't about to argue with his gut instincts. Mulder gingerly put his now heavy jacket back on, grunting from the pain of forcing his throbbing arm through the torn and bloodied sleeve, and picked up the rolled blanket. Peering through the partially opened door to make sure he was alone, he quickly stepped out and headed into the woods once again, hoping he was going in the right direction.
Darkness fell quickly and completely. Mulder got a sick feeling in his stomach that he was getting nowhere. He should have seen something recognizable by now and nothing looked familiar. Hiding among some thick bushes, Mulder used his knife to pry open a can of beans and quietly ate.
"Some vacation," he muttered when he was finished eating and folded his arms across his chest. "Skinner is going to love this one. Lost in the big bad woods." He unrolled the blanket and pulled it over his shoulders. His arm felt hot and still throbbed. He'd taken more aspirins but they only took the edge off the pain. Touching his warm face, he wondered if he had a fever.
What if he couldn't get to his car? He'd already missed his flight back to Washington D.C., and it didn't look like he was going to get to a phone anytime soon to call for help much less ask for an extension on his vacation. He had no idea how close he was to the car, but he suspected it was still a long way off.
He thought of Scully. Where was she? What was she doing? Had she spent time with her mother this past week? Would she even miss him if he didn't show up for work tomorrow morning? What if he couldn't get out of these woods before the infection he was convinced he already had made him delirious with fever? How long would they wait before trying to find him? Realistically, no one would probably even miss him for another day or so. He hadn't told anyone where he was going. He hadn't even used his real name for the flight out and for the rental car. He didn't want anyone following him in case he was on to something.
"Oh, you were on to something all right. No one is going to believe you were attacked by a ghost," he whispered as he stared at the black woods. "Spooky Mulder just took off on his own again. What else is new?"
Sighing, Mulder curled up on the ground and tried to have positive thoughts. He'll make it out of the God forsaken woods. He was just very tired now. Things will look better in the morning. He imagined the expression on Scully's face when he'd tell her about his adventures in "Sherwood Forest". Then his stomach twisted. What if Scully didn't come back? What if she really was burned out with the X-Files and him and decided it was time to transfer to another job? He shook his head, thinking it must be the fever talking. Scully will be there. She always was. She wouldn't let him down. Closing his eyes, he tried not to think about anything but getting back to his car.
Arriving at her apartment in Washington D.C. Sunday night after taking her mother home, Scully dropped her things and checked the messages on her answering machine, hoping one would be from Mulder. None were. So she picked up the phone and called his apartment. She got his answering machine.
"Mulder, it's me. If you're there, please pick up the phone," she waited, but nothing happened. "Mulder call me when you get in, okay?"
She hung up and stared at it thoughtfully. What should she do now? The feeling that something was wrong was stronger than ever, but she was at a loss as to what she could do about it until the next day when and if Mulder showed up for work. Sighing heavily and muttering curses at her partner, she got busy unpacking and doing laundry and preparing to return to work in the morning.
"Scully!" Mulder gasped, startled from sleep. He froze a moment, letting his eyes roam over the woods as he tried to remember where he was. His whole body felt stiff and he moaned from the aching pain moving his arm caused as he slowly sat up. Rubbing his eyes with his left hand, he glanced all around. The sky was gray and overcast, the woods damp and unfriendly looking. The scent of impending rain was in the air.
What day was it? Monday! What time? Mulder quickly looked at his watch. It was 6:45 a.m. local time. That would be 8:45 a.m. in Washington D.C. Scully should have already report-ed back to work. She might not become suspicious about his whereabouts for another few hours, but she should soon. IF she was there. He shook his head. Once again he was not going to allow himself to dwell on such thoughts.
Everything was eerily quiet. For whatever reasons, he sensed that there was something back in the direction from which he'd come. What could it be? Should he investigate or should he keep moving on? One glance at his right hand decided him. His fingers tingled and felt hot. His whole arm midway up to his shoulder seemed to radiate an internal heat. There was no time to check anything out. He had to get to help or risk losing his arm. Keeping the blanket over his shoulders, Mulder started downhill, glancing around from time to time because, once again, he couldn't shake the feeling he was not alone. Perhaps it was Mad Mac, he realized and stopped. No, it didn't feel like Mac. It felt like danger. He moved on.
He came upon some steep ravines he remembered skirting a few days ago. They were too steep to try to go through without the risk of falling and hurting himself further, so Mulder had to go around them. His head felt hot and his vision would blur every now and then to the point where he would have to stop for a few minutes and rest. He was so tired, but there was no time to take it easy. He had to keep going.
The sky stayed overcast but no rain came yet. Mulder estimated it was afternoon when he came to a halt and suddenly felt cold. There was an empty bean can over by a cluster of trees. He shook his head.
"No, no," he quietly hissed as he picked it up. Angrily throwing it down and looking all around, he almost sobbed at the realization that he had nearly wasted the whole day going around in one big circle while trying to get past the ravines. Taking a few unsteady steps to a small boulder, Mulder sat heavily down and hugged his injured arm to his chest. What was he going to do now? He felt so totally lost and empty inside. Taking a shuddering breath, he blinked and looked around. Stay focused, that's what he had to do. It had been at least 24 hours since he'd cleaned his arm. It was time to change the bandage. That would give him time to rest and decide which direction to try again. It was important to take care of his arm as much as possible and to keep moving.
Glancing all around again, Mulder pulled the blanket from his shoulders and shrugged out of his jacket to look at the bloodied bandage. Very slowly, he unwound the gauze and peeled it off the gashes. They looked bad, but not as bad as he feared. Though his arm was swollen and felt hot, the bleeding had stopped. The puffy gashes were slimy with a mixture of blood and the antibiotic creme and smelled oddly sweet and medicinal. Mulder wiped away as much as he could before applying more. His fingers were shaking from exhaustion and fear. The antibiotic creme would not be enough to completely stop the infection, and there was very little left. He could not afford another 24 hours in these woods.
He used the last of the gauze pads and rewrapped the wounds with the triangular sling. Then he put his jacket back on and pulled the blanket over his shoulders again. Grabbing his canteen, he resisted the urge to pour some water on his hot and sweaty face, instead taking a long drink with a few more aspirins. Then, still needing to rest a while, he opened a can of peaches and forced himself to eat. Not really hungry, Mulder knew how important it was to keep up his strength. Resting another ten minutes after finishing the peaches, Mulder stood and headed as near to southwest as he could figure.
Just before dusk, Mulder heard something and instinctively ducked into the dense foliage. Holding his breath while remaining as still as he could, he spotted two black clad figures armed with automatic weapons walking slowly and quietly about 25 yards away. He couldn't see their faces because of black helmets and because their backs were to him. One signaled to the other as they both stood very still and listened. Mulder's heart was pounding so loudly he was afraid they could hear it. He'd seen men similarly dressed before
when he'd gone to investigate the reports of a crashed UFO in Wisconsin and had been apprehended by Commander Henderson's men; when they were coming after him as he was investigating a ship he believed was part of a UFO salvage operation; and again when he'd found an abandoned missile silo he believed harbored an alien ship. How could they know he was here? Or did they? Was it possible they were here on other business? Business that could answer! some of Mulder's questions about who they were and who they were working for, as if he didn't already suspect. These people were trained professionals, very dangerous. They could have killed him before and he didn't think they'd hesitate to kill him now if they could find him. He watched as they cautiously moved on, obviously listening for any unusual sounds and looking for anything that seemed out of the ordinary.
When they were out of sight, Mulder allowed himself to breathe again and spent the next minute pondering what he should do. Should he try to stay in the area and find out what they were doing here? Or should he get as far away from them as possible? As much as he wanted to do the former, his throbbing arm reminded him he needed to get medical help as soon as possible. So he waited until he was sure there was no backup team following and slowly left his cover to continue down the mountainside. The going was slow because he hid every time he thought he heard something or thought he saw the strange men approaching. But they didn't and he kept moving, praying more than ever that he'd run into Mac.
Then he saw two men in the distance and quickly ducked for cover. They were looking right at him, or so it seemed. He broke out in a sweat, praying they hadn't seen him. The men spread out but didn't go away. Apparently they were guarding the perimeter of whatever they were assigned to. Mulder kept waiting for them to leave, but they stayed where they were, scanning the woods. He had no choice but to stay where he was. Every move he made was agonizingly and deliberately slow so as not to attract the guards attention. He glanced around for a better hiding place. There was none and, even though it was now very dark, he dared not risk making noise to try to move on. Uncertain whether the commandos, which he'd decided to call them now, were looking for him or were simply there to make sure no one discovered what was going on in these woods, Mulder settled back and listened. Every once in a while he could hear a low murmur, as though they were periodically reporting in.
It was Monday night, Scully should know by now that he was missing and perhaps in trouble. But how would she find him? He hadn't used his real name for traveling. Scully would figure it out. She'd done it before when he went to Puerto Rico. She would know what to do. Mulder closed his eyes, realizing just how much he had come to depend on his partner...and friend. He could only hope she somehow knew just how much he needed her now.
Early Monday morning, Scully went in their basement office appearing relatively rested but worried. Just as she feared, Mulder wasn't there. He was usually in well before she got there. Resisting the coldness that gripped her stomach, she clung to the thought that perhaps he was somewhere else in the building and would be back in a little while. She got busy seeing what kind of things were waiting for her and what she'd missed over the last week.
Returning to their office a while later, she still found no signs of Mulder. She asked around and no one had seen him. Then she got a message that Skinner wanted to see her and Mulder in his office, and the coldness returned. That blew her theory that Skinner may have given Mulder a small assignment to do on his own. She quickly picked up the phone and called Mulder's home. All she got was the answering machine again. Not sure what to do about it, she reluctantly went to Skinner's office wondering what she could say to cover for her partner this time.
"Where's Agent Mulder?" Skinner asked when he looked up from his desk and noticed she was alone.
"I'm...not sure," she tried to appear natural and unworried as she sat on the chair before his desk, her hands tightly clasped on her lap.
"You're not sure?" Skinner looked sharply at her.
"No, sir. I haven't seen him yet."
"Are you saying he hasn't come in?"
"I don't know. I tried calling his home but all I got was his answering machine. Is it possible he's already working on a case?"
"Not that I know of. I haven't seen him either. In fact, that's why I wanted this meeting. So we could discuss what's come up while you two were on vacation."
Not sure what to say, Scully remained silent. "Has anyone seen him?"
"Well, I asked around and...no one has seen him." "Do you have any idea where he could be?" Skinner then remembered the visit by the cigarette smoking man the week before and his stomach felt tight. Could that have something to do with why Mulder wasn't in yet?
"No, sir. He didn't tell me where he was going on vacation...Maybe he missed his flight or it was delayed or something...Assuming he flew somewhere. Or maybe he had car trouble. There are all kinds of possibilities," she offered, a part of her resenting having to cover for her partner yet again, but the bigger part becoming more and more alarmed by his absence.
Skinner thought this over a minute, noticing the worry in her eyes that she was unsuccessfully trying to hide from him.
"Okay, it's not yet noon. We'll give him a couple of more hours to report in. If he doesn't show up, I suggest you do whatever you can think of to find him and get him in here," Skinner had to hope his sudden concerns for Mulder were wrong. He knew he had to take the conservative approach toward finding Mulder.
"Yes, sir," Scully quickly stood and left his office.
Skinner looked at the now empty ashtray on his desk. 'What the hell has Mulder gotten himself into this time?' he sighed heavily.
Scully returned to the basement and stood staring at their empty office for a moment, trying to remember the last time they were together and what she was doing. He had been acting very mysterious, but then when wasn't Mulder mysterious?
He was putting something that looked like a folded map in his suit pocket, and he was setting aside a file or two on his desk. She went to his desk and noticed there were several files on it. Picking them up, she started looking through them. She gradually began to realize what Mulder must have been doing on his "vacation". They all pertained to missing or believed killed persons in the woods of northern Arizona and southern Utah by some reported ghost creature. Just the kind of thing Mulder would be interested in. But why didn't he talk to her about these files if he was interested enough in them to want to check them out? And why use his vacation time to do it?
She sat down and stared at his cluttered desk, gathering her thoughts together. They hadn't exactly been getting along lately. Mulder's humor was more biting and hurtful and he was behaving more as a business partner than as a friend. Not that he hadn't tried to be friendly, he had simply picked the wrong time to do so. He really didn't understand what she was going through. Could that be why he'd chosen to handle this case alone? Scully closed her eyes a moment and sighed before shaking her head. The last time Mulder had drawn the line for her involvement in a case, he'd ended up almost frozen and dead from some kind of strange retro-virus.
"Mulder, what have you done? What kind of trouble are you in this time?" she whispered as she sat forward again and worked at formulating a plan for what to do. Then she noticed the tape recorder slightly buried under some papers. There was a cassette in it. Playing a hunch, she rewound it and pressed play.
"Why did they take Jack? Why didn't they take me too? Why him and not me?" Helen Winger's voice sobbed. Scully turned the tape off, feeling briefly cold. Where had she heard that line before? It was the same question she'd heard Mulder ask over and over after having nightmares about his sister. Why did they take Samantha? Why not him? She began to think she under-stood why Mulder felt compelled to check this case out. But why alone? Why not take her?
She grabbed the Yellow Pages, looked up the airlines, and started calling to find what flight Mulder took, hoping he'd used his own name. No luck. There were no passengers named Fox Mulder on any flights to Phoenix, Arizona last Monday or Tuesday. She stared at the phone a moment. Then she quickly picked it up and dialed an airline again.
"Yes, this is Agent Dana Scully of the FBI. I believe we spoke earlier about a passenger named Fox Mulder?...Could you check your manifests again for a George E. Hale instead?...Yes, H-a-l-e...Thank you, I'll hold."
After two more calls and nearly an hour of patiently waiting, she confirmed that a George E. Hale had indeed flown to Phoenix, Arizona a week ago. She sat numbly staring at the phone a minute. It wasn't like Mulder not to at least check in if he knew he was going to be late. It was policy and, whereas he never hesitated to bend the rules, that was one rule he was pretty good about. Still desiring not to become unduly alarmed yet, Scully went to Mulder's apartment to see if he'd left any messages for her on his computer.
The apartment looked, felt, and smelled hollow and empty, like it hadn't been occupied in over a week. She turned on his computer and used all the codes he knew she would use but couldn't find any messages. She checked the answering machine and there were no messages from him. Exasperated, she glanced at her watch and noticed it was almost time for her to report to Skinner again. What was she supposed to tell their boss? That Mulder was off on another one of his weird trips chasing ghost creatures in the woods of Arizona? Skinner probably wouldn't have any trouble believing that. He knew Mulder almost as well as she did. Glancing around one more time, she left the apartment and returned to their office. Asking around when she returned, no one had seen Mulder yet.
Skinner could tell instantly that Scully had had no luck finding her partner.
"He hasn't reported in," he said with certainty while glancing at the files she was carrying.
"Um, no sir."
"Do you have any idea where he could be?"
"I found these files on his desk that I believe he was looking at before he left. They all pertain to reported missing persons, believed to have been killed, in the northern Arizona and southern Utah woods. The files span a period of about fourteen months. Three people are missing and the only two witnesses swear that they saw some kind of ghost-like creature hovering near where their friends, and in one case husband, disappeared," Scully handed him the files, relieved to at least have something she could show her boss.
"A ghost creature?"
"That's what the witnesses reported. After each incident a massive search was conducted. No one was found and no real evidence confirming the witnesses stories was found either. The police even checked the witnesses against the possibility that perhaps they had killed the people reported missing, but ruled it out based on lack of evidence."
Skinner scanned the files and thought a moment.
"Do you think Mulder went out there on his own to investigate these sightings?"
"He mentioned something about camping," Scully vaguely answered.
"Why would he use his own vacation time when he could do this on the job?"
"I've been thinking about that...and I'm not really sure," Scully avoided looking directly at him. The more time Mulder was missing, the more she was feeling irrationally responsible.
"What have you done to try to find him so far?"
"I called the airlines and learned that Mulder had taken a flight to Phoenix exactly one week ago. I also learned that he'd rented a car once he got there. He was supposed to have returned the car last night, and he was supposed to have been on a return flight last night also."
"Do you think something is wrong?" Skinner once again remembered the cigarette smoking man's visit the week before.
Scully hesitated answering his question. She couldn't tell him about the nagging feeling she'd been having the past couple of days that something had happened to Mulder. She wanted and needed proof.
"I believe Mulder would have reported in...to tell us about any delays in his return...if he could," she slowly and carefully stated.
Skinner gazed into her eyes and she didn't flinch.
"What do you want to do?"
"I think perhaps we should alert the local authorities that he may be missing and ask them to look for his rental car. I took the liberty of marking on this road map the locations of the reported missing people. I believe I have an idea where Mulder may have gone," she unfolded the map and placed it on Skinner's desk so he could see where she placed the marks.
"Looks like pretty remote country. No roads beyond this point," Skinner noted while studying it. "Do you think there's any possibility that Mulder could simply be lost?"
"If that were the case, then we should try to find him. Like you said, it's pretty remote country. There's also the possibility that...he could be hurt."
Skinner gazed intently at her a moment then glanced at the time.
"He's only been missing half a day. The police out there won't want to search for the car until Mulder has been missing for more than 24 hours," he mused.
"Excuse me, sir, but we have no idea how long Mulder may have been missing. Some-thing could have happened to him yesterday or two days ago or any day of his vacation," she restlessly pointed out, obviously not wanting any delays.
"All right, call the local police and have them look for the car. With any luck, maybe Mulder simply had car trouble and is stranded on one of those roads," Skinner finally conceded. "Leave these files and the map with me. I want to study them closer. Oh, and call me no matter what time it is when you hear something."
Scully nodded and left.
She called the Flagstaff Police Department and explained the situation, telling the officer to call her at the office or at her home number any time during the day or night if they found anything about Mulder.
It was three in the morning when her phone rang, startling her awake where she had finally drifted off to sleep on her couch by the phone.
She immediately knew it was a long distance call and turned on the nearby lamp, for some reason feeling a sense of dread about what the man was going to say.
"This is Agent Scully."
"This is Officer Gravis of the Arizona Highway Patrol. Sorry to wake you up but I was instructed that you wanted us to call no matter what time it was."
"Yes, yes, that's all right. Have you found Agent Mulder?"
"No, but we did find the car he rented. It's locked up and looks like it hasn't been driven for a while. We checked the mileage against the rental agency's record. It corresponds with about the amount of mileage it would take to get from the Phoenix Airport to its present location. There are no signs of Agent Mulder."
Scully felt a chill as she rubbed her tired eyes and tried to think of what to do next.
"Agent Scully? Do you folks back there want us to start a search for Agent Mulder?"
She hadn't told them what Mulder was doing there. She'd only told them he was there on vacation and hadn't reported back to work.
"No, not yet. I need to talk to my supervisor first. I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Thank you for all your work and your co-operation."
"You're welcome. He's probably all right. Folks get lost around here all the time. They usually turn up a day or two later all embarrassed about causing folks to worry."
She got up and looked at the clock. Dare she call Skinner in the middle of the night? Where could Mulder be? There was no doubt in her mind now that he was in some kind of trouble. Maybe even hurt and unable to get help. She wanted to get on a flight to Arizona as soon as possible. Remembering that Skinner lived alone now and that he had said to call no matter what time it was, she took a deep breath and called him. He was instantly alert and listened as she repeated what the Arizona officer had reported. There was a brief pause when she finished.
"Agent Scully, I think it would be best if we investigated Mulder's disappearance our-selves, in view of the evidence you've found for why he's out there."
"You mean the fact that he was investigating an X-File?"
"That's right. I suggest you start packing. Do you have a backpack and camping gear?"
"As a matter of fact, I do," she glanced at her closet where she had just recently put away her camping things.
"Good. Pack it all up and wear comfortable camping clothes and boots. I'll book us on the first available flight to Phoenix."
"Excuse me, sir, but...may I ask why you want to go along?"
"I don't think this is a trip you should make alone," was the only excuse Skinner would give her.
Within hours they were boarding a plane for Phoenix. It would be several more hours before they landed. The whole time Scully was hoping that when they got there someone would report that Mulder had been found...alive and healthy.
Mulder waited several hours in the darkness where he was hiding, listening for the com-mandos the whole time. Somehow he knew that when it got lighter in the morning, his place of hiding was not going to be good enough. He wanted to move to a more secure place as far from the commandos as he could get. Occupying his thoughts by counting out what he thought was at least an hour or more without any signs or sounds that the commandos were still in his immediate vicinity, Mulder slowly edged himself out from the bushes and crouched down. Still hearing nothing, he walked as quietly as he could away from where the commandos had last been sighted. The moon was peeking through the clusters of clouds, occasionally helping Mulder see better where he was going. He was hoping to make it to a cave or some place where he could hide out until the men left.
At one point he tripped and fell heavily to the ground. He heard something click like a weapon being armed. Then he thought he could hear running footsteps. He scrambled under some large boulders and squeezed into a crevice. To his horror, he caught a glimpse of one of the men cautiously looking around through night vision goggles. Mulder pressed himself as far back from the edge of the boulder as he could, staying in the shadow cast by the moonlight and praying he wasn't disturbing some rattlesnakes favorite resting area. The blanket that had been wrapped across his shoulders was splayed out on the ground and showing beyond the crevice. What if the commando saw it? Mulder's heart raced as he started reeling it in inch by inch, stopping each time he thought he heard something. When the blanket was completely in the shadow of the boulder, Mulder sighed and wiped the sweat from his face.
It seemed like hours before he felt it was safe enough to sneak another peek. All was quiet. The man was gone. Glancing around as best he could, he decided it was a good place to stay a while, so he forced himself to relax and closed his eyes. Overcome with exhaustion, he briefly fell asleep.
At dawn on Tuesday, Mulder cautiously came out of his hiding place and looked all around. There were no signs of any commandos in the area. He felt his unshaved and grimy face and ran his tongue over unbrushed teeth before looking at his injured arm which had started tingling during the night, almost as if it were falling asleep. There was no use worrying when there was little he could do about the injury at the moment. Being sure to stay in the shadows, he sat back comfortably and drank some water from his canteen, wishing more than ever that he could shave, brush his teeth, and wash his sweaty body. Strange how one misses those amenities that are taken for granted every day. Starving, he pulled out a can of peaches from his jacket pocket, and tried to open it. His arm was still tingling, but the tingling seemed to slowly go away as he forcefully moved it around and flexed his fingers. He quietly ate while staring at the woods.
He thought about Scully again. How long had it taken for her to start worrying about him yesterday? Had she already checked to see where he was? Would she think to look for his favorite pseudonym of George E. Hale on the passenger manifests of the airline?
Remembering her mood and attitude recently and his brief fear that Scully may have finally reached the point where she could no longer follow him, Mulder again shook his head and pushed the chilling thoughts away. Scully wouldn't abandon him now. Whatever was bothering her, she would find a way to tell him about it in her own good time. It was simply inconceivable that she would not report back to work, even if it was to tell him and Skinner that she wanted to leave the X-Files.
Pushing the thoughts away even further, Mulder drank some water and shook the almost empty canteen. Time was being wasted just sitting there. Soon he would be out of water and his arm certainly was not getting any better. There was no more clean gauze to replace the bandage around his arm. It was time to try putting some distance between him and the commandos. Gripping the blanket tightly around his shoulders, Mulder stood and moved slowly, careful to stay within easy cover. He looked everywhere to be sure the commandos weren't around. Several times he was startled by a deer suddenly bolting away, but he didn't see the commandos anymore.
Hours later, he had to admit he was hopelessly lost again. He had no idea where to go to find Mac's property and get some help. But he did find a stream where he quickly washed the grime from his face and head, the whole time keeping an eye on the woods for any signs of the commandos. Drinking the last of the water from his canteen, Mulder stared from the canteen to the stream and back, debating on whether or not to risk drinking the water. His face felt hot and flushed with fever and he was still thirsty. Licking the water that was dripping from his still wet face and hair, feeling there was really no other choice, Mulder plunged the canteen into the rush-ing water and filled it. Then, being sure no one was around, he crossed the stream and moved on into the woods.
It wasn't long before he stopped, the hair at the back of his neck standing. From the corner of his eye he saw something black moving in the woods. Quietly rushing over to a fallen tree, Mulder scrambled under one of its larger branches, thankful that the sky was still overcast. There were two men looking around. Both were in dark clothes. Mulder wasn't sure they were the commandos. It was too hard to discern through his feverish eyes, but he wasn't going to take any chances. As he sat in the protective cover of the fallen tree and nearby bushes, Mulder prayed Scully had already come looking for him.
Earlier that day, while Skinner got their luggage, which consisted of two large backpacks with sleeping bags attached, Scully checked the car rental agency.
"Mulder still hasn't returned with the rental, sir," she reported when Skinner joined her.
"All right, I have us booked on a commuter flight to Flagstaff. Let's go."
By mid-morning local time, they had arrived in Flagstaff, rented a car, and drove to the police station. They were greeted there by a junior officer who informed them he was to lead them to the location of Mulder's car more almost two hour's drive away. Skinner and Scully got into their rental and followed the officer's lead.
"How long have you and Mulder been working together now?" Skinner casually asked after nearly an hour had quietly gone by.
"About four years," Scully cautiously answered, wondering what Skinner was thinking.
"Do you have him figured out yet?"
Scully studied him a moment and detected a slight grin.
"Not completely," she admitted, gazing out the window.
Skinner didn't say anything for a while again.
"I suppose you're wondering why I wanted to come along."
"In a way, yes. You could have assigned another agent to accompany me."
"Not one that Mulder trusts."
Scully could sense that being one of the few people she and Mulder felt they could trust most of the time was something Skinner felt proud of.
"Trust comes hard when you do the kind of work Mulder and I do."
"I understand. The way things are in this world now, it's very difficult to trust anyone."
"Do you? Trust anyone?"
Skinner thought for a long minute.
"Very few," was all he would admit.
When they got to where Mulder's rental had been found, an Arizona Highway Patrol car was parked nearby and two officers and a civilian were waiting. Skinner and Scully both assumed their arrival had been radioed ahead of them.
"Are you the FBI agents?" the senior officer asked.
"Yes, we are. I'm Assistant Director Skinner, this is Special Agent Scully."
"Assistant Director? This missing agent of yours must be pretty important for you to be here, sir," the officer observed.
"Do you have anything new for us, Officer....?" Skinner ignored the comment.
"Gravis...No sir. We took the liberty of searching about a mile up that way just in case he managed to find his way this close, but there are no signs of him. Are you sure you don't want an all out search?"
"No, not yet."
"Probably a wise decision for now. There are folks up there, like Donny here, who live on private property and they won't like all kinds of strangers nosing around again. Right, Donny?"
They looked at the average sized wiry man with curly brown hair and suspicious blue eyes standing silently in the background with a shotgun resting in the crook his arm. Donny didn't say anything, just stared at the FBI agents, briefly glancing at the pistols on their hips.
"What do you mean, again?" Scully wanted to know.
"About a month ago there was a reported missing person. We had an all out search going and had to trespass on private property belonging to Donny and other people like him. They weren't too happy about that.
"Anyway, I suspected you folks might want to try to find your missing agent on your own, so I took the liberty of hiring Donny here to guide you. That way there won't be any misunder-standings among the locals and you two won't end up as lost like your agent," Gravis matter-of-factly said.
"Appreciate that," Skinner dryly said, suspecting there was more going on here than was being explained.
"Just tell Donny about where you think your man may be and he'll see you get there safely. Good luck. If you need anymore assistance, just ask."
Skinner, though suspicious was relieved that the officers got right to the point and wasted no time. He watched them leave then looked at Donny. Skinner assessed him as being a loner who obviously didn't talk much and was not one to mess around with.
"Let's get our packs out of the trunk, Scully," he went to their rental and opened the trunk. He took the two backpacks out, then reached into his own pack and took out the map he and Scully had worked on during the flight.
"We think this may be where Agent Mulder was headed," Skinner looked at Donny after laying the map open on the trunk of the car. Donny finally came closer and studied the map. He frowned when Skinner pointed out the area.
"Any particular reason he was heading there?" Donny's voice was surprisingly deep for a man of his average stature.
"We're not exactly sure why," Scully lied, thinking she could smell a slightly sweet odor on his breath that reminded her of marijuana. Was this man going to be a reliable guide?
Donny looked at her and she was sure he could tell she was not being honest with him and could even read her mind. But he shrugged and glanced in the direction they would he headed.
"That's pretty rough terrain. Hope your boots are broke in," he commented and walked toward the woods.
Skinner refolded the map and tucked it into his shirt pocket, then they both shouldered their backpacks. When Donny could see they were ready, he went to a tree and picked up his own much smaller and lighter appearing backpack, tossed it on, and started walking. Skinner and Scully quickly followed.
Donny set a brisk pace that soon had the two agents puffing and sweating, but neither of them said anything. They were eager to find Mulder. After a while, Donny discreetly slowed down so they weren't breathing quite so hard anymore. Just as Scully was going to ask if they could take a break, not only to get the heavy backpack off but to relieve herself, Donny stopped and looked all around.
"We'll take a break here," he dropped his backpack and went into the woods.
Skinner and Scully looked at each other with relief before dropping their own backpacks. Scully excused herself and found some heavy bushes to hide behind. Skinner also went his own way. Once finished, they all sat around and had something light to eat.
"How long do you think it'll take to get there?" Scully asked while massaging her aching calf muscles and stretching her cramped back.
"Be a while. Maybe late tomorrow, maybe the next day," Donny replied.
Both Scully and Skinner sensed Donny was tense about something, for Donny kept glancing at the woods and listening. Not sure if they should ask, they kept quiet. Soon they were walking until daylight gradually faded and Donny stopped and quietly announced they were going to camp for the night.
"It'll be a cold camp."
Scully understood what that meant. No fire. She looked at Skinner.
"How come?" Skinner wanted to know.
"Strangers in the woods. Unwelcome strangers. We been keeping an eye on them. They seem to be either protecting something or after something. Don't know for sure which," Donny quietly explained as he studied them now.
"What could they be protecting? Who would they be after?" asked Scully.
"Might be after your agent," Donny shrugged.
"What makes you think that?"
"He's the only other stranger around here and they didn't come until after he got here."
"Have you seen Mulder?"
"Your agent? Nope, but I heard he was here."
"Who told you?"
Donny was restless and clearly didn't like being asked so many questions.
"Friend of mine."
"When was this? How long ago?" Scully anxiously needed to know.
"Last week some time. Your agent was lost and my friend helped him find his way. Haven't seen either of them since."
"What do these other strangers look like?" asked Skinner, once again remembering the visit in his office by the cigarette smoking man, dreading what Donny might say. Donny looked right at him.
"Commandos? What do you mean?"
Donny heard Scully's sudden intake of breath and noticed the way Skinner's expression froze. He kept his gaze on Skinner.
"Black uniforms, black helmets, black face covers...automatic assault weapons. Pretty heavily armed," now he was looking at Scully, who appeared pale and worried. "You know who they are, ma'am?"
She looked at Skinner a moment, her skin crawling with a sense of urgency, just knowing deep inside that Mulder was hurt.
"I don't know who they are, but we may have run across people like them before...if they are the same people."
Donny patiently waited for her to go on.
"There might be more going on here than we thought," she quietly managed to say while looking at Skinner.
Skinner thought this over a moment. He didn't want to talk about it in front of Donny, though.
"If that's so, then Mulder could be in real trouble," he did, however, admit.
Scully swallowed and nodded, fighting down the chill and restlessness to keep on looking for Mulder even in the dark.
"These people, they're dangerous?" asked Donny, for the first time gazing right into Scully's eyes.
Realizing Donny was probably worried about his own people in the woods, Scully said, "They are to us...and possibly anyone who gets in their way."
"Dangerous enough to kill?" Donny persisted.
"There have been times when we felt like they would have killed us if we hadn't gotten away. Other times they simply took us into custody and kept us away until they'd either moved or destroyed the evidence we were seeking."
"What kind of evidence might that be?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you," Scully reluctantly stated, feeling she'd already said too much.
Donny didn't like that, but he didn't say anything more for a while as they all settled down beside their backpacks in a circle and ate cold food.
"I'll take the first watch," Donny said after he'd finished.
"Do you think they're out there now?" asked Scully, looking into the incredibly dark woods.
"They're farther up. Haven't seen them this far down, but I don't want to take any chances," Donny stood, checked his shotgun, and walked away a few yards.
Scully looked at Skinner, barely able to distinguish his face.
"What do you think it could be? Why are they here?"
"You would know more about that than I do, Scully. What do you think?"
"I think Mulder may have stumbled onto something he was totally unprepared for. He could be in bad trouble if those men get a hold of him."
Skinner nodded, gazing into the woods at Donny, wishing he knew for sure if the cigarette smoking man had anything to do with this.
"He's probably worried about his family," Scully said after several minutes.
"I would be too, but I get the feeling his family knows how to take care of themselves. Otherwise, why would he be here with us?...Better get some sleep, Scully. It sounds like we have a long hike ahead of us tomorrow."
Mulder didn't sleep at all Tuesday night. His arm kept throbbing and tingling and he couldn't get warm. He kept imagining he heard someone walking nearby and was too afraid to look and be sure. Suspecting he was growing more feverish from the injury to his forearm, he decided just before dawn to try once again to get help. But before he could move, he spotted two commandos in the distance apparently setting up position. They stayed there all day. Frustrated and not willing to risk being caught during the day, Mulder had no choice but to stay where he was. He dozed off and on and tried not to think about how dirty and itchy and uncomfortable he was.
When night came again, he still had to stay put because he could hear the men roaming around the woods nearby. Once in a while it sounded like they were reporting in over some kind of radio.
Scully and Skinner were up before dawn on Wednesday. They decided not to waste any time getting started and settled on munching granola bars while they headed into the woods. They were going in a northerly direction toward where they suspected Mulder had gone
to the location of the reported missing persons and the sightings of the ghost creature.
The walking was hard and slow going. Scully found herself lagging behind the men and pushed herself to keep up. Then she felt something warm flow over her lips and recognized the taste of blood. Quickly putting her fingers to her nose, she found them covered with blood. The men were still walking ahead, so she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed it at her nose while trying to keep up. To her dismay, Skinner glanced back to see where she was and noticed what she was doing. He came back to her.
"What is it? Are you all right?" "Just a bloody nose, sir. Probably from the altitude and from allergies I have," Scully nonchalantly shrugged. "There, it's stopped now. We can keep going."
Skinner kept looking at her.
"I'm fine. Come on, we have to find Mulder."
Skinner watched her as she walked past him and joined Donny. Unsure what to think about the bloody nose, Skinner decided to keep an eye on her.
They walked all day with no signs of Mulder or the commandos Donny had warned them about. Donny once again insisted on a cold camp for the night.
"How soon will we be there now?" Scully impatiently asked him while finishing another cold meal.
"We'll be pretty close by mid-morning. I suspect we could fan out a little then and look for any signs he's been this way," Donny avoided looking at them when he spoke. After a few minutes, Donny went further into the woods to keep watch.
Scully absently felt her nose while gazing into the black woods, wondering where Mulder was or even if he was still out there. Could he have been taken or killed because of whatever he'd come here to investigate? How would they ever know if they can't find him? Once again the mental tug-of-war raged inside her, furious at her partner for taking off on his own, yet worried sick that he could be injured or worse.
Exhausted from the long hike and from worrying, she got as comfortable as she could and was soon asleep.
Thursday morning came and Mulder realized he hadn't heard the men for several hours. Perhaps they were finally gone. He slowly slipped out from hiding and looked around. No one was there. Something crawled on his neck and he quickly swatted it off, then noticed there were insects on him. Gasping, he stomped his feet and brushed his clothes off then vigorously ran his hand through his hair to get all the bugs off. His heart was pounding once again, his right arm dully aching from the sudden movements. Not wanting to waste anymore time, he gazed up at the cloudy sky to see where it was lightest, then headed in what he hoped was a southerly direction.
Mulder was now desperate to get out of the woods. He'd been in them for over a week now, he was exhausted, hungry, dirty, smelly, injured, and he just wanted to get home. Not being as cautious as he had been the days before, but doing his best to be as quiet as possible, he began to feel like he was making good time and getting far enough away from where he'd seen the commandos to feel more safe.
Finding a stream, Mulder knelt by it and washed the sweat and gritty dirt off his face then drank. He'd been hurrying and he was out of breath and very hot. He looked all around. The woods were quiet and nothing looked familiar. He wasn't sure what to think about that. Still feeling hot and sweaty, remembering how it had felt to have the insects crawling all over him that morning, he scooped water over his head and got his hair all wet in an attempt to not only cool down but get anymore bugs off. Then he sat back against a tree and reached into his pockets for more canned food. There was only one can of beans left. His stomach ached with a hunger that strangely made him feel nauseous at the thought of food. How can you hunger for food and be repelled by it at the same time, he wondered? But once again, he knew he had to keep his strength up, so he swallowed and forced himself to open the can, silently swearing he would never eat beans again once this was all over. ! His injured arm still felt tingly, as if there was something crawling under the skin. He wanted to scratch it, but the bandage was in the way. Shivering now from being cold, he pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders and ate.
While resting, Mulder looked down at his clothes. They were filthy with dirt, dried blood, and damp from his recent attempt to get clean. They reeked of sweat and the dank woods smell of bitter decomposing leaves and moss covered tree barks. Blood stained his shirt, several buttons were missing, and the exposed part of his T-shirt was smeared with dirt. He wished he could strip them off and take a bath in the stream. Wished he had soap and toothpaste and shaving cream and a razor. Wished he had deodorant and clean clothes. He wiggled his tired feet in his boots and felt the socks sticking to them, crinkling his nose at the thought of what his feet must smell like by now. And wished more than anything that he had a fresh pair of socks. If only wishes could come true at times like this, he sighed. When he felt rested enough, he set out again. It was still overcast and threatening rain, so he did the best he could to keep going in the same general direction. He would! even welcome one of Mac's friends shooting at him first if he could just find someone to help.
A short time later, in the middle of the afternoon, Mulder stopped when he sensed some-one was near. Turning and looking all around, it was only luck that had him spot the man in dark clothing aiming an automatic weapon at him. Was it one of Mac's friends? Mulder inhaled sharply and instantly decided against standing still long enough to find out. Shedding the blanket, he started running for cover just as automatic weapons fire exploded the dirt and trees around him. Ducking as he ran, staying near trees for cover as much as possible, he decided it probably wasn't Mac's friend. Stopping behind a large tree, Mulder tried to catch his breath as he glanced around it to find out who the man was while pulling his pistol from its holster at his waist. His right hand was useless, so he had to hold the pistol awkwardly in his left hand.
Just as he feared, it was one of the commandos. And he wasn't alone. There were at least two more converging on Mulder's location. His chest tightened as he glanced around and started running again. They fired at him, hitting closer and closer. Mulder dodged and zigzagged, making himself as difficult a target as he could. He jumped behind a fallen tree trunk and aimed his pistol toward where he had come from. Just as he hoped, the men were apparently confident he was unarmed because they didn't try to hide as they ran after him. Mulder carefully sighted down the unsteady pistol, gripping it tightly, and fired several rounds. One of the men gave a surprised grunt and fell. The other men fired at Mulder as they went to their fallen comrade. Thus occupied, Mulder took advantage of their distraction and ran again.
"Wait. Did you hear that?" Scully stopped and listened.
Skinner also listened.
"It sounds like automatic gunfire," he commented as he looked up ahead.
"Yeah, that's what I thought. It's pretty far away. What do you think?"
"Any possibility some of your people are target shooting?" Skinner asked Donny, who shook his head.
They all listened some more.
"It's not consistent enough for target shooting. It's too sporadic. And someone just fired a small caliber weapon," Skinner decided.
"Let's go find out."
They hurriedly headed toward the gunfire, all of them with their own weapons ready.
Mulder was running alongside a ravine, breath puffing out rapidly, sweat dripping down his face, hoping he was putting some distance between himself and the commandos. They hadn't fired on him in the past few minutes. Maybe they were still tending their wounded comrade. Then a bullet just missed his head and hit a nearby tree. He slowed down and turned, spotting one of the men running toward him. Mulder fired his pistol several times to get the man to stop or slow down, then started running again.
Something hot thudded into the inside of his right leg at mid-thigh level, making him cry out in pain as he reached down to grab it. The movement caused him to lose his balance and he plummeted down the side of the steep ravine. He lost his gun as he tried to protect his head with his arms while rolling over and over to the bottom. His head struck something, causing his breath to whoosh out, and he was dazed as he finally came to a halt on his stomach. He tried to get up but couldn't. Blood poured from a gash just at the hairline of his forehead and into his eyes. He unsteadily tried to clear it from his eyes to see if the men were still chasing him, inadvertantly smearing the blood into his eyes even more.
Someone picked him up and roughly pushed him beneath a large rotted tree trunk. Mulder was about to cry out in pain but a hand smelling like leather and gun oil clamped over his mouth and held him still. Mulder remembered he still had the pistol by his ankle and was trying to think of a way he could reach it while whoever it was held him down.
"Do you see him?" someone gruffly asked from high above Mulder's location.
"No. Didn't he go down right about here?"
"I think so...Come on, I want to get that son-of-a-bitch!"
"We already got him. Let him rot." "That ain't our orders. We're supposed to..."
"I know what our orders are! Come on, Pete's hurt bad. We gotta get back and help him...Come on!!"
Mulder thought he heard them leave but whoever he now realized was protecting him didn't move for several long minutes. Still dazed and blinded by his own blood, Mulder felt close to passing out. He could barely move as he felt whoever it was slowly remove the hand from his mouth, ease off him, and turned him to his back. Then he felt something being tied around his forehead to stop the flow of blood.
"Head wounds always do bleed a lot," someone softly grunted.
"Mac? Is that you?" Mulder perked up when he thought he recognized the voice.
"The one and only. Who the hell else would it be, Fox?" Mac quietly asked as he poured water from his canteen onto a handkerchief and wiped the blood from Mulder's eyes.
Mulder blinked several times, reaching to his eyes with his shaky left hand to finish clearing them. Blinking a moment, he was finally able to open them and looked at Mac.
"You don't know how much I was hoping to run into you again," he smiled with relief as he caught his breath.
For some reason this seemed to touch Mac, for his eyes went all soft for a moment. Then he frowned and glanced around.
"Who the hell did you get all pissed off, man?"
"I was hoping you could tell me."
Mac grunted again and looked at Mulder's arm.
"Are you hurt anywhere else?"
"My leg. I think I've been shot," Mulder hissed from the pain moving his leg caused.
Mac quickly spotted the hole in Mulder's jeans at his right thigh welling with blood. When he touched it, the pain was so excruciating, Mulder grabbed Mac's arm tightly to keep him from touching it again while trying real hard not to cry out and alert the commandos to their location.
"That bad, huh?"
Mulder curtly nodded, sweat beading on his face, the numbing adrenaline rush from before obviously wearing off.
"Well, I got to slow down the bleeding somehow. I'm gonna take your belt off," Mac proceeded to unclip the empty holster and the canteen from Mulder's waist, unbuckled the belt and slipped it out of the loops of his jeans. "Got to make a tourniquet. It's gonna hurt...You got some kind of leather wallet or something?"
Mulder nodded, fumbled into his inside jacket pocket, and pulled out his FBI badge and identification wallet. Mac took it, stared impressively at it a moment, then looked at Mulder.
"Okay now look, this is gonna seem kinda like something out of an old John Wayne movie, but it really works. I don't want you biting your tongue or breaking your teeth or shouting out, so I'm putting the corner of your ID wallet between your teeth and I want you to bite down on it."
Mulder stared disbelievingly at Mac.
"Wish I was...This is gonna hurt like a real son-of-a-bitch, man...Think of it this way, whenever you flash that fancy badge of yours at someone and they see those teeth marks, they'll see you're a man with true grit," Mac smiled at Mulder. Mulder closed his eyes briefly, not believing what he'd just heard. Then he opened them again when he felt the leather wallet on his lips. He looked up and saw in Mac's eyes just how serious he really was.
"Just as long as I don't end up with an eye patch...and no one calls me Rooster," Mulder commented as he opened his mouth and bit down on the soft leather, suddenly feeling his muscles tighten with fear.
"You don't look like a rooster...You're already a fox, remember?" Mac smiled as he kept glancing up to be sure the commandos had not returned. Belt in hand, he looked at Mulder.
Mulder reluctantly nodded.
Mac slipped the belt under Mulder's thigh just above the wound. He then tightly folded the wet handkerchief he'd used to wipe the blood from Mulder's face and slid it under the belt at the pressure point he remembered being taught long ago. Slipping the end of the belt through the buckle, he gently positioned the buckle right on top of the hankerchief, then checked to be sure Mulder was really ready. Noticing Mulder was gripping the leaves with his hands and was holding his breath, Mac tugged the belt tight. The sudden movement caused Mulder to spasm and arch his head back as his muffled cry filled the air and he quickly passed out.
"Was kinda hoping that would happen," mumbled Mac as he finished tightening the tourniquet just enough to slow the bleeding then took a knife from a shoulder scabbard he wore and cut Mulder's jeans clear of the wound to get a better look. He shook his head and sighed as he stared at Mulder's pale face. "Not good, man, not good. We gotta get you out of here."
Mac cut the jeans all the way around then down the length past the cuff. Pulling it open, he spotted the small holster and pistol strapped to Mulder's lower leg. Briefly smiling and shaking his head, he pulled the cut jeans leg away and cut it so he could wrap it around the wound. Working quickly and quietly, Mac tied the makeshift bandage snugly then checked the color of Mulder's lower leg and for a pulse to be sure it was still getting enough blood. Satisfied that it was, he gently removed the ID wallet from Mulder's mouth and tucked it into his pocket. Picking up his own rifle, he glanced all around.
"Be right back," he whispered.
Mad Mac slowly and carefully scouted the area to be sure the commandos were gone before returning to Mulder. Then he set his rifle down and quickly tucked Mulder's empty gun holster and canteen in each of his oversized thigh pockets and looked all around to be sure he wasn't forgetting anything. Satisfied that he had everything, he lifted Mulder over his shoulder, again picked up his rifle and headed through the woods toward the cliffs.
"Did you hear that? More small arms fire then it stopped," Scully came to a halt, panting and sweating.
"Sounded like a firefight," commented Skinner, who was also breathless and sweating.
They looked at each other, both knowing it could be Mulder but hoping it wasn't. They quickly and cautiously resumed hiking in the direction they'd heard the gunfire. But because the gunfire had stopped, they were soon no longer sure where to keep going. Scully looked all around. There was no indication of anyone but themselves being in the area.
"What do we do now?" she asked after a minute, her heart aching with the need to do something.
Skinner looked at Donny. The gunfire hadn't been in the direct route but was several miles off. Could it have been Mulder or some drunken locals having fun shooting things up?
"We stick to our original plan and keep looking," he finally decided when he could see Donny had no suggestions.
Scully agreed and also looked at Donny. He was clearly unhappy about what was happening, but he nodded in agreement and they kept walking, their weapons still ready.
Mac was breathing heavily but didn't stop nor did he complain about the heavy burden he was carrying. He knew he had to get Mulder to a safe place soon. He'd been watching the strange and dangerous looking black clad men hunting for Mulder since early that morning. He'd noticed that Mulder was apparently hurt and suspected he would make a mistake sooner or later and would need his help. And he couldn't let Mulder know he was watching for fear the men would spot him also. Relying on instincts he'd honed to perfection a long time ago, Mac now kept moving, trusting he would sense if the commandos were nearby.
Finally, after what must have seemed like hours, he approached a small cave opening set among numerous other caves in the side of the cliff. Stopping just long enough to peer at the woods and be sure no one was around, Mac took Mulder into the cave. It was pitch black inside but Mac knew this cave like the back of his hand. Turning to his left, he pushed through a blanket covering another opening and groped along the wall until he found what he wanted. Carefully bending over and setting Mulder down, Mac leaned Mulder against the cave wall so he was sitting up, then lit the flashlight. The flashlight flared instantly with the strong scent of kerosene and lit up the inside of the cave. Mac walked around the cave to be sure it was still unoccupied. Sometimes bears would venture into it and mess things up a bit. He was relieved that wasn't the case now. Lighting several other torches then jamming his flashlight into a pile of wood for a campfire, the cave soon had a warm glow about it. Mac checked Mulder to be sure he was still breathing then picked him up again and lay him on a thick sleeping bag set near the campfire. Then he went to the back of the cave and returned with several pillows and a blanket. He carefully propped up Mulder's head and shoulders with the pillows and covered him with the heavy wool blanket.
Mac returned to the back of the cave several times for all the things he believed he'd need to take care of Mulder. Making several trips to fill a few pots with water from a little waterfall trickling down the wall of the back of the cave, he soon had a kettle of water suspended from a tripod over the fire for boiling, and a pot of water for coffee.
Once he had everything the way he wanted it, Mac washed his hands with a bar of soap and returned to look at Mulder's wounds. After quickly checking the injured leg to be sure there was still adequate circulation, he decided to look at the filthy, blood-soaked bandage on Mulder's arm. Untying it then prying at it carefully by using a wet cloth between the bandage and Mulder's skin, Mac finally got the bandage off. What he saw surprised and alarmed him. He stared at Mulder's face a long moment, then got up and once again went to the back of the cave. Returning, he knelt by the fire and poured some of the hot water into a cup. Then he sprinkled some herbs from a small leather pouch into it, stirred it with his finger, and set it aside.
Kneeling by Mulder's side, he set another leather pouch and a small bowl down then gently cleaned the three ugly wounds with water. Then he uncapped a small bottle of hydrogen peroxide and poured some over the wounds, watching them sizzle and bubble a moment before dabbing them dry. Holding the leather pouch up toward the ceiling, Mac chanted a few words in another language then took some powdery stuff from the pouch and poured it into the small bowl. He added some water from the cup into it and stirred it to make a dirty mud-like salve. Using his fingers, he then carefully spread most of the salve onto the three angry looking wounds, the entire time quietly chanting a song. Satisfied that he'd done the job right, Mac then carefully wrapped the arm in a clean bandage.
He sat back a moment and wiped the sweat from his face on his rolled up shirt sleeves as he looked with concern at the unconscious, feverish appearing FBI agent. Sighing, he turned his attention to the leg wound. As soon as he touched it, Mulder jumped and began to wake up.
As he slowly came to consciousness, Mulder tried to open his eyes but they felt glued shut. He started to reach up but something soft and wet and cold dabbed at his eyes causing his heart to skip a beat as he sucked in his breath.
"Hey, take it easy, it's just me. You got some blood on your eyes. I'm washing it away," Mac calmly said in a soothing voice.
Mulder recognized Mac's voice and instantly relaxed, laying still while Mac cleaned his eyes and face. The air felt cool and damp and enclosed, it smelled like dirt and coffee. He could hear water boiling, a warm fire crackling nearby, and the distant sound of water trickling and splashing. He could feel pillows under his head and something soft like a sleeping bag underneath him on the firm ground. Cave. He must be in a cave now, he thought.
"You can open your eyes now...Here, drink some of this," Mac held the cup with warm herbal water in it to Mulder's lips.
Mulder blinked his eyes, sniffed, and made a face as he refused the foul smelling water.
"I know it don't smell so good, but it's medicine you need, so just hold your nose if you have to and drink it all down," Mac sternly insisted.
Mulder still couldn't see him very well, but surprisingly did as Mac told him, the whole time making an awful face.
"Oh God! That smells like piss and probably taste as bad," Mulder breathed, licking the inside of his mouth in an attempt to get the bitter aftertaste out.
"You did good, man," Mac smiled and sat back on his legs.
Mulder finally got his vision in focus and stared at Mac.
"Thought I'd dreamed you were here," he whispered.
"Tell me you have better dreams than the likes of someone like me, man," Mac teased as he set the cup down.
Mulder smiled and glanced around.
"Where are we?"
"Cave. Place I found a few years back. I return to it now and then just to get away."
"Away? Away from what?" asked a surprised Mulder.
"There are just some things you can't get far enough away from, you know?" Mac wistfully said with a haunted expression flashing over his face before he could look away a moment. "I've got all kinds of bandages and such stuff here, but all I got for pain is aspirin or Tylenol."
"I'll take whatever you have."
Mac pulled a plastic bottle from one of his many pockets and shook out four Tylenols, figuring the extra dosage wouldn't hurt, not with as much pain as Mulder was obviously having. Mulder took them with a cup of water Mac held for him.
"I gotta look at your leg, man," Mac frowned.
Mulder grabbed Mac's arm to stop him, afraid of the pain he knew would come. Mac looked sympathetically at the fear in his compelling hazel eyes until Mulder slowly let go and nodded.
Mac pulled the blanket off and moved closer to Mulder's leg. He tried to remove the blood-soaked jeans bandage as gently as he could, but every touch caused excruciating pain. Mulder gasped and shook all over when Mac decided to just quickly take the bandage off instead of prolonging the agony. Mac was startled by Mulder's severe reaction to a mere touch and placed his hand comfortingly on Mulder's chest while waiting for the trembling to stop.
"Are you all right?"
Mulder was panting and sweating, unable to keep tears from his eyes as he tried not to cry out.
"What...what is it? Why does it hurt so much?" he gasped. He'd been shot before and didn't remember ever feeling pain like this.
Mac focused on the swollen, puffy, and ugly wound oozing blood. It didn't look good.
"There's no exit wound. The bullet is still in your leg. Probably lodged against the bone. Maybe even broke it. That could be causing the pain," Mac pondered as he looked all around the wound without touching it. Not liking the way Mulder's exposed and bloodied lower leg appeared, Mac reached for the tourniquet and looked at Mulder.
"Hold on, this is gonna hurt," he warned and wasted no time loosening the tourniquet. He almost stopped what he was doing when Mulder convulsed, cried out, and slumped into un-consciousness, but forced himself to keep going, amazed that his hands were now shaking. The bullet wound surprisingly didn't start bleeding more, which concerned Mac. He kept the tourni-quet on and got a larger bowl of water. Using the same cloth he'd used to wash Mulder's face, Mac set about washing all the blood off Mulder's lower leg so he could get a better idea how it appeared. He had to be sure it was getting enough blood. He removed the small holster with Mulder's gun in it and set it aside, then removed Mulder's boot and sock. Once he was done, he checked the reflexes. They were sluggish but still there.
Then he poured the hydrogen peroxide over the bullet wound, watched it bubble and sizzle a moment, and gently wiped the peroxide and blood from around the ugly hole. He picked up the bowl he had used earlier with the remaining salve in it. Holding the bowl up toward the ceiling of the cave and mumbling a few indistinguishable words, Mac began a soft chant and applied the salve to the ugly wound, generously spreading it around. Then he tore open a large dark green Army issued packet, took out the thick sterile bandage with tie strings, and placed it over the freshly cleaned and salved wound. Wrapping it around Mulder's thigh, Mac tied it as tight as he felt was safe.
Checking Mulder's breathing and pulse, Mac finally sat back and again wiped sweat from his face. He was still shaking and decided he'd done enough for now. Resting a few minutes, he then set about making some food and drank some coffee. Calmer now, Mac tenderly attended to the gash on Mulder's head right by the hairline. It didn't appear too serious, though it wanted to bleed a lot. Pinching it together and putting a butterfly bandaid on it, Mac wiped Mulder's feverish unshaven face clean again then sat back and waited for him to wake up.
The Tylenol and tea must have helped for Mulder was sweating off the fever. It was more than an hour before he began to stir. Grimacing from inadvertently moving his leg, Mulder slowly forced his eyes open and found Mac.
"How long was I out?" he whispered, his mouth dry and feeling woozy all over.
"Not long. Are you hungry? I got some soup here."
Mulder could smell the soup. He wasn't sure if it smelled good or not or if he was hungry or not.
"Hope it isn't bean soup."
"Bean soup? Nah, it's chicken noodle soup, man. Just what your mama ordered," Mac joked as he sat near Mulder with the bowl of soup and a spoon. More calm now, Mac set them down and propped Mulder up a little more, then he gave Mulder a spoonful of soup. Mulder slowly ate, not really tasting it.
"You don't have to feed me like a baby," Mulder sighed frustratingly as he reached for the bowl, surprised that his right arm felt so weak. Deciding it was because of the injury, he simply held the bowl unsteadily with his left hand and drank the soup.
Mac was glad Mulder still had an appetite, though Mulder was beginning to look a bit flushed and feverish again.
"Looks like a bear tried to get you," Mac speculated as he glanced at Mulder's right arm.
"Don't know what it was...Didn't get much of a look at it. I just ran like hell," Mulder grimaced and handed Mac the empty bowl.
"Want some more?"
Mulder shook his head and lay back.
"You were lucky. Bears can run pretty fast," Mac commented a minute later.
"Don't think it was a bear."
"What do you think it was?"
Mulder closed his eyes and tried to remember what it was.
"What day is this?!" he opened his eyes and anxiously looked at Mac.
"Thursday...just before midnight."
"Thursday...Mac, there's a chance some people may be looking for me."
Mac stared at Mulder a moment.
"Besides the commandos?"
"What do you know about the commandos? And...what makes you think they're looking for me?"
"Don't know nothing about those black dudes, man. All I know is they don't belong up here with peaceful folks like me and my neighbors...So who's gonna be looking for you?"
"My partner. I was supposed to be back at work earlier this week."
Mac thought a moment.
"I'll keep an eye out for him."
"Her? You got a female partner?"
Mulder nodded and shrugged, wincing from some bruises he must have gotten during his fall.
"Must be part of the women's lib movement or something, I suppose," Mac grumbled. "What's she look like? Hell, never mind that, man. Wouldn't be any other woman prowling about these parts. Will she be all alone?"
"I doubt it."
"Well how many do you think are gonna miss you?"
"Not many. Probably only one other person with her."
"Yeah, I heard that about the Feds. They like to operate in pairs so's they can get their stories straight."
Mulder raised his eyebrows inquiringly and watched Mac move some things closer to him.
"Look, man, I hate to do this to you, but I got to go get some help for you. You belong in a hospital. Since that bullet is still in your leg and it may be broken, it wouldn't be a good idea to try to move you all over the place. I can see the pain is already pretty bad."
"I was just going to suggest that to you," Mulder nodded, fighting down the burning pain radiating from his leg yet feeling cold all over at the thought of being left all alone in the cave.
"Okay, well, I got everything I figure you'll need right within reach here. Here's plenty of water, some crackers and dried fruits, and more wood for the fire. Just toss it on when the fire starts getting kind of low."
"Mac? How come you're helping me?" Mulder chanced asking, fighting the chills that persisted on spreading throughout his body.
Mac looked at him for a long moment, noticing how pale Mulder was and that he was beginning to shiver. He shrugged, reached for the blanket he'd used earlier and pulled it over Mulder again.
"Guess I'm just a sucker...You're gonna be all right, you know."
Mulder looked uncertainly at him, welcoming the warmth of the blanket. Then to his surprise Mac got a strickened expression on his face for a second.
"Mac? What is it? What's wrong?"
"Nothing...Just remembered something, that's all...Maybe I'll tell you about it some time. Well, the sooner I get my ass in gear the sooner we get help for you, man. Shouldn't no one bother you here, but just in case...." Mac handed Mulder a large caliber pistol. "All loaded and here's some extra ammo. I reckon you know how to use it. It'll be more effective than that little pea-shooter you had on your leg."
Mulder stared at the gun a moment, glancing at Mac, who had gotten busy by the fire, and wondering if they were thinking the same thing. If Mac didn't get back for a long time, was this his way of giving Mulder an alternative to a long slow and painful death?
"Hope I don't need it," Mulder finally muttered as he lay the pistol on his stomach after trying to glance at his leg.
Mac nodded curtly and dipped his finger into the water to see if it was hot enough. Appearing satisfied that it was, he poured a small amount into a cup and brought it to Mulder.
"I want you to drink some more of this, all of it if you can."
"What is it?" Mulder suspiciously asked as he smelled it. "Aw, not more of that awful smelling stuff!"
"It's an old Indian remedy for injuries like you got. I know it don't smell to almighty good, but it'll help the injuries heal and it'll make you more comfortable...Guess you're gonna have to decide if you want to trust me," he added, seeing Mulder hesitate.
Mulder gazed at him a long moment, then drank some of the herbal tea. It was still bitter but somehow not really that bad this time. Mac kept offering it to him until he drank all that was in the cup.
"Drink a cupful about every four hours or so," Mac set a second hot coffee pot next to the cup Mulder had just used. "It's very important cause I don't know just how fast I can get back with help. This stuff should take the edge off the pain and even help you sleep. But I'm warning you now, don't drink more than a cup every four hours. Do you understand?"
"Okay, look at your watch. Can you see what time it is?"
Mulder checked the watch on his left wrist and nodded. The hands were the kind that glowed in the dark so he could see them.
"It's 11:55...is that morning or night?"
"Night. So what time do you drink more?"
"Um, about 4:00 or so."
"That's good enough. It's very important you remember not to drink more before then, no matter how much pain you're in. Do you understand?"
Mulder closed his eyes and nodded, feeling a strange kind of numbness wash over his body that caused the pain to just barely ease up.
"Okay, it's also important that you drink as much water as you can...to replace the fluids you're sweating off. Here's a couple of canteens," Mac indicated them next to the coffee pot.
Mulder glanced at everything and nodded again.
Mac looked at him a moment longer. He already knew Mulder wouldn't have an adverse reaction from the medicinal drink since he had already had some earlier without ill effects, but he was uneasy about leaving it for Mulder to self-medicate. Too much of it could cause severe side effects. Not knowing what else he could do though, feeling the urgency of getting Mulder to a hospital, Mac picked up his rifle and quickly left. Mulder looked around at his surroundings.
"Just what I needed. A nice, cozy, air-conditioned cave with my own fire and some home brew," he mumbled, trying not to think about just how dangerous his situation was. He tried to look at his leg again, but whenever he moved it the pain bolted up his leg like lightening, threatening to make him pass out. He concentrated on keeping his leg as still as possible. Drinking water from one of the canteens so as to get rid of the aftertaste of the herbal tea, he studied the cave a moment and sighed. "Looks like you thought of everything, Mad Mac."
Mac moved as quickly as he could through the dark woods. Several times he had to stop for a while when he sensed a commando patrol wandering around. He'd restlessly wait for them to move on, then he'd sneak away as soon as he could, always trusting his instincts to warn him of another patrol. Being mostly downhill made his progress much faster.
By early evening, not having heard anymore gunfire nor seen any signs of Mulder all day, Donny spotted something in the woods. He wordlessly stopped Skinner and pointed ahead. Skinner could see something also and they all cautiously approached it, glancing around as they did so.
"Looks like someones camp," Skinner quietly commented as he looked at the ashes of a campfire and at the remains of a backpack scattered all around. Scully was sifting through some of the things, looking for clues as to whose backpack it had been. Then she picked it up and looked inside. Her face blanched and her breath caught.
"Sir? It's Mulder's," she quietly showed Skinner the airline tag that had been tucked inside with 'Fox Mulder' and his address written on it.
Skinner noticed how pale she looked but he also noticed she was quickly trying to regain her composure as she set the backpack down and searched the area for any other clues.
"You might want to take a look at this," Donny called from a short distance.
They went to him and he pointed at some dark stains on a tree trunk. Scully looked closely at it and once again had to struggle to keep her composure.
"Blood?" Skinner unnecessarily asked.
"Maybe it's animal blood," Skinner said, but neither of them believed it.
"It looks as if someone ran off this way...Let's look a little farther," Donny suggested.
Scully and Skinner found tracks that could only be Mulder's size eleven and a half boots and followed Donny.
"Looks like he hid in here a while," Donny stopped at the bushes.
"More blood," Scully sighed, taking out her flashlight to study the area closer. "Where could he be?"
The three of them looked all around.
"It's getting too dark to keep looking for now. Let's go back to the camp and see what we can put together," Skinner reluctantly suggested.
"Do you think we should? What if whatever attacked Mulder returns?" asked Scully.
"I don't think it will. This happened a few days ago, maybe even longer. It don't look like anything has been here since. We can look for more tracks in the morning," Donny appeared quite uneasy about being there.
They continued to search the area as they returned to the old campsite. Scully found some clothing and thought she recognized one of Mulder's shirts. There were empty plastic evidence bags strewn around. Upon closer examination she could see that something used to be in the bags. Mulder had apparently found something he felt was worth further investigation. Whatever it was, though, it was gone now. Too dark to keep looking, they all sat down for another cold evening meal.
"What do you think happened here, Agent Scully?" Skinner quietly asked while eating.
"I don't know. These are definitely Mulder's things. I'm pretty sure those were his boot tracks. Everything seems to point to the premise that something attacked him, injuring him, but he managed to get away...There's no telling how badly hurt he is, but there didn't seem to be that much blood," Scully worriedly speculated as she tried to see into the dark woods. They all sat quietly for a long time, listening to the woods. They decided to take turns staying awake.
Scully was so restlessly worried about Mulder she could hardly sit still. Her feelings alternated between genuine alarm and concern and ridiculous anger that he had once again placed himself in danger. Did he know there was something more going on in these woods than mere sightings of some kind of ghost creature? Did he know there was a chance the mysterious and deadly commandos might be in the area looking for him? Why were they here and how did they know Mulder would be here? Or were they really after him at all? Could it have been a mere co-incident that they were here at the same time as Mulder? What were they doing here then? Had they shot Mulder? Was he even now laying unconscious somewhere, helpless and dying? She shook her head and sighed. How many more times could she keep going through this? Was it time to firmly draw the line and tell Mulder she would no longer cross it? Was it time to leave him to his relentless often dangerous quest for the illusive ! truth?
Scully stared into the black woods and listened to the night sounds. Any other time, this would be peaceful and restful to the spirit. Not now. Not without knowing what was going on with Mulder. With these thoughts, she lay back and tried to sleep.
It was Skinner's turn to keep watch. He quietly stood and went to find Donny, when he sensed something was out in the woods. Releasing the safety on his pistol as he slowly moved on, debating whether or not to alarm Scully, Skinner was stopped when someone held a gun to his head.
The small office was illuminated by only one desk lamp and the soft haze of heavy cigarette smoke drifting in the air when the phone rang. A hand reached for the phone and picked it up.
"Yes?" a man's voice inquired and listened. "You still don't know for sure it was him?...What do you mean you lost him?...Are you sure your men shot him?...You found blood but no body...How could he just disappear?...It's none of my concern that one of your men was wounded. I thought you said these men were professionals," the voice was becoming more agitated. "If it was him, he was dead once before and came back. Unless there's a body, he's not dead now, do you understand me? Find him!"
"Don't move. Don't say a word," a man harshly whispered.
Scully sensed something and quickly sat up, reaching for her gun. She thought she heard a voice in the woods not far from camp. Slowly and quietly getting up, she approached a shadow holding an automatic rifle at Skinner's head. She caught the musty scent of smoke from a campfire, a hint of coffee, and the wild smell of the woods while raising her pistol and aiming it at the shadow. Just as she was about to issue a warning, the shadow whispered,
"Don't neither of you say anything. You're being hunted. Grab what you can and follow me," the shadow of a man then lowered his weapon.
"Just..." Skinner began but the man put his hand over Skinner's mouth.
"If you want to get out of here alive, you'll shut up and get moving now!" the man coldly whispered and moved his hand away from Skinner's mouth.
"Where's Donny?" Skinner glanced around for their guide, not sure he could trust this man.
"Don't worry about Donny. Come on!"
Skinner looked at Scully and nodded, instinctively deciding they'd better do what the man said. She lowered her pistol, then they both grabbed their backpacks and followed the man into the dark woods as quietly as they could. The man led them to a spot where they could still see where they had just been camping and signaled for them to squat down and watch. Nearly five minutes went by before they heard several spats sounding like silenced guns and saw the ground kick up around their sleeping bags. Then several dark figures stood in the middle of the camp and looked around. They appeared to talk for a minute, though Skinner, Scully, and the strange man couldn't hear what they were saying. Then they slowly spread out.
The man touched them and nodded for them to keep following him. He didn't have to tell them to keep quiet. The man kept a pace that was almost too fast for Skinner and Scully to keep up with. Since it was close to dawn they were gradually able to see more and more of him, noticing he was wearing Army camouflaged clothing, carrying an automatic rifle, and wore a shoulder scabbard for a wood handled knife. The man never looked back to see if they were being followed, almost as if he trusted his instincts to know if they were. He stopped and signaled them down. Skinner knew the motion as the same kind used in the jungles of Vietnam and strongly suspected this man was a veteran. The man appeared to listen, then signaled for them to get deeper into the foliage. They nervously sat as quietly as they could for what felt like a very long time before the man relaxed.
Scully noticed the man was staring at her. In the growing dawn light, she was able to see he had long graying hair, gray streaked beard and moustache, and intense dark eyes. His ruddy complexion and high cheekbones hinted at the possibility of mixed heritage. He looked away and seemed to listen a moment, then looked at her again.
"You must be the fox's partner," he quietly stated and tossed a wallet at her.
Both Skinner and Scully became instantly alert as she opened the wallet and saw it was Mulder's FBI identification and badge.
"He said you'd come looking for him, but he didn't tell me how pretty you are."
"Where is he?" Scully tried to contain her excitement.
The man indicated the cliffs in the distance.
"Pretty bad. Shot by those men out there. You know why they're after the fox?"
For a moment Scully thought he meant a real fox, then she understood he was referring to Mulder. She shook her head.
"No, I don't. Where was he shot?"
"His right inner thigh. I got him in a safe place. Follow me." The man started to get up but stopped and looked at Scully again. "You got a hat or something?"
Scully didn't understand for a moment until she realized the man was staring at her red hair. Understanding instantly, she removed her backpack and dug around until she came up with a black baseball cap with white FBI letters on it. She showed it to the man.
He wordlessly took it and ripped off the white letters, tucking them into a pocket before handing the cap back to her. Scully proceeded to pull her hair up as best she could and tightly put the cap down over it. The man nodded and looked at Skinner's sweaty bald head. Skinner didn't need anymore prompting as he also pulled a baseball cap out of his backpack, ripped the FBI letters off and put it on. Satisfied, the man got up and headed into the woods. Skinner and Scully didn't hesitate to follow, forgetting all about how tired they were just moments before.
After more than an hour, the man signaled them down again. He was looking into the woods but they couldn't see anything. The man had a worried expression on his face for a moment. He glanced around, found a place he thought would offer better cover and led them to it.
"Them men seem to want the fox mighty bad. They keep looking for him," the man whispered when they were settled in.
Scully looked toward where the man indicated and caught her breath. It was the first time she and Skinner actually saw the men Donny and this strange man had spoken of. The man stared at her.
"You know them?"
"I've seen men dressed like that before," she hesitantly said after glancing at Skinner first.
"Mulder and I encountered men dressed and armed like that a couple of times," Scully was careful to whisper so the men wouldn't hear them.
"They try to kill you then?"
"We don't know why they're here now, though."
The man just stared at her suspiciously a moment. Scully looked right back at him and didn't say anymore. The man finally shrugged like it was none of his business.
"Why are we just sitting here? We've got to get to Mulder," Scully restlessly complained.
"They got us cut off for now. We got to wait until they clear out of here."
"How do you know Mulder?" Skinner wanted to know.
The man put his fingers to his lips to silence them as he stared at the commandos slowly moving through the woods. They stayed where they were for nearly an hour after the men disappeared before the man felt it was safe enough to continue on. The man was tireless as he walked through the woods, always heading toward the cliffs. Scully wondered when they would get there as the sun gradually passed into afternoon.
Mulder slept fitfully throughout the very long night. He felt hot for a while and cold for a while. He tried to eat but nothing tasted good. He forced himself to drink plenty of water as well as the bitter herbal tea, careful to remember the time since the last dosage.
Mulder stirred restlessly, the sleeping bag he was laying on growing harder and more uncomfortable by the hour. Everytime he tried to get more comfortable, pain would shoot up from his leg with such force that it took his breath away as he tried not to cry out, leaving him panting and trembling. He suspected the herbal tea was just barely keeping the pain and the fever under control as long as he lay still. Every time he'd drink more, he'd break out into a sweat as it lowered the fever and cooled him down. At the same time he'd notice a narcotic-like numbness spread throughout his body that would take the edge off the pain.
He couldn't tell what time of day or night it was except by looking at his watch. But after sleeping or passing out, he lost track of whether it was nine in the morning or nine at night. Where was Mac? What was taking him so long? How long should he wait before trying to get help on his own? Then he laughed and realized just how impossible that was. He looked at the powerful gun Mac had left him and contemplated possibly having to use it if no help arrived. The thought of dying a slow agonizing death in a remote cave that could end up being his own personal mausoleum was not a pleasant one.
His thoughts kept returning to his partner and friend. Had she been able to piece together the files and where he was? Was she really on her way here as he'd told Mac she was? Or had she drawn the line and would no longer follow him? Had she reached the limits of her endurance for the dangerous life of being assigned to the X-Files and Fox Mulder?
His heart raced and his stomach knotted at the thought that she might not be coming. She'd asked him several times how far he was willing to go and had stated that she didn't think she could follow. When had been the first time she mentioned drawing a line? Mulder gazed at the fire. Yes, he remembered now. It had been a couple of years ago when they were checking out a wild story by a CIA agent named Ambrose Chapel about alien clones called Gregors. Scully hadn't believed it, had reiterated their caution about trusting no one, but Mulder had needed to verify it. Scully had said something about drawing a line beyond which she didn't think she could follow and he had said they all drew their own line. In that case, he drew it for her. He couldn't risk her life for what had become a very personal mission to find his sister. But she had followed. She had saved his life. She was always there when he needed her.
Had he been taking her for granted? Could that be why she'd been in such a strange mood lately? She'd said her life was at a stand still as long as she was involved in the X-Files. How had she said that? His feverish mind flashed back to their office and Scully sitting solemnly at his desk after having refused an assignment.
"You were just assigned here. This work is my life!" he'd declared as he forcefully shut the file drawer.
"And it's become mine," she had responded, quickly looking away from him. "This isn't about you, Mulder. Or maybe it is inversely, I don't know. I feel like I've lost sight of myself. It's hard to see, let alone find in the darkness of covert locations. I used to think we were going in circles, but we're not. We're going in an endless line. Two steps forward then three steps back...While my own life is standing still."
"Well then maybe it's better that we get away from each other for a while," he'd then said to her before leaving on that first aborted vacation.
Mulder shook his head, not wanting to remember the empty look in her eyes as she was saying those things. Had she really reached bottom? What was it she'd said later in his office after she'd gotten out of the hospital?
"Not everything is about you, Mulder. This is my life."
Mulder opened his eyes and gazed back at the fire. Perhaps Scully had decided to get on with her life now that she'd had time to think about it. Perhaps this time, like he had done two years earlier, she had drawn the line for him. Tears welled in his eyes, surprising him with the intensity of the emptiness he now felt inside.
His hand tightened around the handle of the pistol Mac had left him, a part of him amazed at how snug and comfortable it felt. He briefly fingered the trigger, not daring to look down at it resting on his stomach. How much longer should he wait? Would he be able to....? he didn't want to complete the thought. Relaxing his finger and just holding onto the handle for the sake of having something to grip, Mulder sighed and tried to be hopeful. His leg spasmed and he gasped before passing out.
The man quickly led Skinner and Scully up the exposed side of the mountain and into a cave, stopping at the entrance and signaling them on in while glancing all around to be sure they hadn't been spotted. Thus assured, he then led them toward a dim glow in the wall. They heard a painful gasp just as the man pulled the heavy blanket aside to reveal the inside of a dimly lit cave.
Scully spotted Mulder immediately. While pulling off her backpack and taking off her cap, she rushed to Mulder's side and quickly checked to be sure he was still breathing and still had a heartbeat. Her breath caught when she saw the large caliber pistol nestled in the palm of his hand and resting on his stomach. She pried it loose from his grasp and looked up at the man, a flash of anger in her eyes that contradicted the coldness gripping her heart at the moment. She didn't want to even think about what Mulder would have done with the weapon as she tossed it aside, wanting it as far away from him as possible.
"He's alive," she set her backpack down, pushed her sleeves up, and, forcing back the fear she was feeling at the sight of how pale and weak Mulder looked, began a quick examination while the man added more wood to the dying fire and Skinner watched. "Burning up with fever...Superficial head wound...Bruises and abrasions...What's wrong with his arm?"
"Bear or something grabbed him a while back," the man vaguely stated, impressed with her abilities.
Deciding not to bother with the less critical appearing arm wound yet, Scully focused on the tourniquet and made sure it wasn't too tight. She checked the circulation to Mulder's lower leg and, satisfied that it was sufficient, she slowly began to remove the bandage. Her touch caused Mulder to jump and suck in his breath.
"Mulder? Mulder, can you hear me?" she looked closely at his pale face and smoothed his furrowed brows with slightly trembling fingers.
He appeared to be trying to open his eyes and finally did. He looked up at the ceiling a moment as if deciding whether or not he was imagining he'd heard her voice.
"Mulder, it's me, Scully. Skinner is with me along with a man who found us."
"That...would be Mad Mac," Mulder managed a weak smile and looked at her, his glazed eyes slowly growing wider.
"Scully!" he breathed, a relieved smile on his face as he closed his eyes and struggled with his emotions. She'd come! She hadn't abandoned him as he was beginning to fear she would! Just like the Agent Dana Scully he always knew and trusted, she'd put the pieces together and come looking for him. The pure warm emotional relief he was feeling washed over his entire body and threatened to overwhelm him.
"Mulder, what is it? Are you all right?" she worriedly asked, surprised by his reaction.
Mulder fought with his emotions a moment longer, then opened his teary eyes and looked at her. Though her face was sweaty and dirt smudged, her red hair damp and pushed back behind her ears, and her forest green cotton shirt showed spots of sweat and dirt, she'd never looked more beautiful to him.
"What the hell took you so long to miss me?" he gently chided her, smiling.
Scully relaxed a moment, relieved that he was back to the Mulder she knew.
"It's all your fault, you know. You didn't tell anyone where you were going, remember?"
Mulder didn't say anything, but briefly closed his eyes then looked at her again.
"You said Mac found you?"
Scully looked at the man who had guided them.
"That be me. Folks around here call me Mad Mac, but Fox here likes to just call me Mac. Guess he don't want to believe I'm mad," he stoked the fire but kept a protective eye on Mulder.
"Mad as in mad at someone, or mad as in..."
"Crazy? Some would say both," Mac shrugged at her.
"Mac, this is my partner, Scully," Mulder was slowly becoming more alert and feeling the pain in his leg more acutely as a result. Then he noticed Skinner standing behind Scully. "What brings you to the lovely woods, sir?"
"Couldn't let Scully come alone," was all Skinner would say.
"Mac, this is Assistant Director Skinner...my supervisor," Mulder tiredly breathed, the intense heat and pain from his leg spreading and growing stronger.
Mac studied Skinner a moment as if not sure he could trust him.
"Mulder, I know it hurts now, but I've got to look at your leg," Scully touched his arm.
"You don't let me look at your legs," he weakly joked with fear in his eyes before nodding.
Scully forced a reassuring smile and proceeded to gently remove the bandage from Mulder's thigh.
"What the hell is this stuff all over the wound?!" she exclaimed, her mouth open as she stared at what appeared to be bloody mud covering the wound.
"Now take it easy there. I don't have anything here for an injury like that, so I had to improvise," Mac defensively said, glancing worriedly at Mulder.
"Improvise?! You put mud on it! Are you crazy?! If it wasn't infected before it's definitely..."
"No it ain't and you might want to keep it down a bit," Mac quietly and urgently stared at her for she was alarming Mulder.
Scully looked down at Mulder, who seemed to have gotten even more pale than he was before as he stared at her apprehensively. But she was so upset at what she was seeing, she had to hold her breath a moment to control her anger before looking right at Mac.
"What is it?"
"An old Indian remedy. It was all I could think of to do. It's kind of a...medicinal, um, herbal salve. Nature's remedy. I learned it from the local tribal medicine chief a long time ago."
"Mulder, it's all right...I was...I was just caught off guard. I...have to clean this...salve off to get a better look at the entry wound," Scully stammered, still trying to control her anger.
Mulder stared at her a long moment, then nodded again.
"I need to wash my hands," Scully looked at Mac.
He quickly got up and went to the back of the cave, returning with a small bowl of water and a freshly opened bar of soap. Glancing past him toward the back of the cave while she washed her hands, Scully accepted the offered hand towel and dried her hands. Then Mac gave Scully a gauze pad that had been soaked in water.
"I need this sterilized," Scully held it back.
"This water was boiled before I left him here. It's as sterile as you're gonna get until I can boil some more," Mac informed her.
She hesitated a moment, looking into his dark eyes and seeing only honesty. She took the pad and gently started to clean the mud-like salve from Mulder's leg, but the moment she touched him she was surprised by how violently Mulder reacted. He cried out, his left hand beating on the ground a moment before passing out.
"Mulder!!" she quickly checked his breathing and pulse.
"What is it?" Skinner knelt beside her.
"I'm not sure," she breathed, her heart rapidly beating. Assured that Mulder was all right for now, she tried to calm her heart and returned her attention to the wound, carefully cleaning it with the wet gauze pads Mac competently handed to her.
The minute she saw the bullet hole, she sensed something was wrong. The wound was very swollen and blood oozed from a rather jagged looking hole. She instantly wondered what kind of bullet would make such a hole and noticed with dismay that there was no exit wound.
"Scully?" Skinner asked again.
Scully shook her head and sighed as she studied the wound.
"I'm not sure without an x-ray. I've never seen an entry wound quite like this before...My guess would be the bullet was a ricochet. It deflected off something and hit Mulder...It could be the bullet is either resting against the femur or it could be lodged in the bone. His leg could be broken and the bullet or bone fragments could be pressing against the nerves...There's quite a hematoma here. At least the femoral artery wasn't hit like his left leg had been a few years ago."
"You a doctor or something?" Mac asked.
"Yes, I'm a medical doctor," she stated as she got her backpack and grimly took out a medical bag. "I brought this along just in case."
She took advantage of Mulder being unconscious to probe the wound further, surprised that even unconscious he could feel pain as he moaned and feebly reached with is left hand to stop her before becoming still again.
"Bullet's got to come out. The pain will kill him if it don't," Mac commented with concern.
Scully looked sharply at him.
"We need to get him to a hospital as soon as possible."
"I knowed that when I found him, Doc...You got some kind of communication device so's you can call in the troops and get them commando fellas out of here?"
Scully looked at Skinner who pulled out a cell phone.
"Don't think that will work out here, man," Mac shook his head as if he couldn't believe they didn't have something better.
"I'll go to the mouth of the cave and see if I can get a clear signal anyway," Skinner got up and left. He had to try.
"You gonna take that bullet out before the pain kills him?" Mac bluntly stared into Scully's eyes.
She sensed he wanted her to save Mulder just as badly as she did as she tore her gaze from his intense dark eyes and stared at her partner. Mulder's face was very pale and clammy looking, a mask of pain even in unconsciousness. He was fighting shock and she knew how dangerous that was. But she also worried that the shock of surgery under these conditions could kill him.
"I need x-rays so I can see exactly where the bullet is," she stubbornly but hopelessly muttered as she looked at her inadequate medical supplies.
"I don't see no x-ray machine around here," Mac sensed she needed to be pushed.
"You don't understand! The bullet could be pressing against a nerve or even an artery. If I touch the nerve I could cause paralysis and if I nick the artery he could bleed to death!"
"And if you don't do nothing he'll die from the pain. Come on, Scully, if you're this man's partner then you two have probably saved each other's lives more than once. Ain't that the way things are when you got the kind of work you got? What's one more time? You got the tools and the skills to save his life. You best not waste much more time before using them," Mac angrily argued.
Scully stared at him a moment, knowing he was right. She began getting things out of her medical bag and once again sighed at how meager they were. She hadn't been prepared to have to perform surgery, but she did have some painkiller, basic surgical tools, an antibiotic, syringes, and bandages. She knew Mulder all too well not to have come prepared for some kind of medical emergency with him.
"Okay, can you boil some more water so I can have plenty to clean his wounds?"
"Gettin' it now," Mac went quickly into action, grabbing a kettle and a large coffee pot and heading toward the back of the cave. He made several trips, always coming back with more things. Scully was wondering again just what he had at the back of the cave. When she looked at everything he was setting out, she was amazed. He had a fair amount of bandages and gauze that were wrapped in the dark green of Army surplus packaging. He had a few towels and a large, powerful appearing flashlight. And it wasn't long before she could smell the delicious aroma of fresh coffee.
While Mac was doing all this, Scully took out two small bottles and two packaged syringes. She stared for a long moment at them and looked at Mulder. Her hand shook as she contemplated what she had to do. Then she filled one syringe with medicine from one bottle and the second syringe with medicine from the other bottle. She capped them and carefully set them aside next to the bottles so she would remember which syringe held which medication.
"He was right. All I get is static. And our friends are still out there," Skinner said when he returned. "How's he doing?"
"Could be better. I have to remove the bullet. The pain is too much for him."
"Couldn't you just give him something for the pain?"
"I don't have anything for that much pain. All I have is Lidocaine, a local anesthesia," she sighed and watched as Mulder slowly began to wake up again. She was concerned that each time he passed out he was getting weaker. And she had no idea how much blood he'd already lost. Then she realized Skinner was worriedly looking at her.
"I didn't expect to have to deal with anything major like a gunshot wound," she briefly explained before turning back to Mulder.
"Mulder, can you hear me?" she gently stroked his bearded face, realizing she'd never seen him go this long without shaving.
He nodded and tried to focus on her.
"Mulder, I have to take the bullet out of your leg."
His eyes widened a moment, then he swallowed.
"You can do it, Scully," he softly said with as much confidence as he could summon.
"Mulder, there are risks."
"I don't...don't want to hear them. Just do the best you can to...stop the pain," he almost pleaded as he tightly closed his eyes when his leg spasmed again.
Scully noticed the thigh muscle tightening as if his body was automatically trying to expel the foreign object that didn't belong there and gently tried to massage them into relaxing. Mulder gasped and almost lost consciousness again as his whole body trembled uncontrollably. When it was over he lay weakly panting and grunting, tears streaming from his closed eyes.
Scully looked at the two syringes and the two small bottles of medication. She wanted so badly to do more for Mulder's pain. Fighting the gripping fear she was beginning to feel again, she looked at Mac.
"Are those clean towels?"
"Everything clean and sterile and ready to use," he proudly stated.
She looked at them and nodded.
She rolled up her sleeves as far up as she could then pulled her hair back and put the black cap on backwards to hold her hair out of her face.
"We'll need as much light as you can get on that leg."
"Got that taken care of. This flashlight has a pretty wide beam and it's mighty bright."
Scully stared at all the supplies a moment to be sure they were as prepared as they could be for any emergencies. Then she looked at Mulder, her heart aching for him as he fought to control the pain.
"Water's boiled," announced Mac as he also checked the coffee pot.
"Take it off the fire and let it cool down," Scully stared at Mulder a moment longer and took a deep breath. "Mulder, I have to explain something to you."
Mulder opened his eyes and focused on her.
"I don't have very much pain medication here. I didn't come prepared for anything this major. All I have is a local pain medicine that needs to be injected at the site of the wound. It will numb it so I can get the bullet out."
She was staring hard into Mulder's trusting hazel eyes. She saw the fear in them. She also saw the complete faith he had in her.
"Nothing to knock me out?" Mulder had to force himself to push the fear of the agonizing pain down so he could speak to her.
Scully shook her head, not wanting to look at him but forcing herself to anyway.
Mulder gazed into her eyes and thought. He understood what she was saying. He didn't like the idea of facing that much pain again, but he suspected once it hit he would be out anyway. Fear and determination burned in her dark blue eyes, lit by the blazing campfire, the knowledge that she held his life in her hands clearly apparent. He wished with all his heart that he hadn't put her in this position.
"Mulder, did you understand what I said?"
"Are you sure?"
He nodded again and closed his eyes, not wanting to make it any harder on her than it already was.
"Just do it, Scully. Let's get it over with."
Scully looked at him a moment longer then picked up one of the syringes and checked the amount.
"Mulder, we're just about ready to begin. I'm going to give you an antibiotic now," she began to unbutton his jeans and unzipped them partway, causing his eyes to widen in surprise. "It has to go into your hip," she explained. She tugged Mulder's jeans down at his right hip and grabbed one of the syringes. Grasping some of Mulder's muscle and skin between her thumb and forefinger, Scully popped off the syringe cap and quickly injected the medicine, then rubbed the spot. Mulder jumped and closed his eyes.
Scully then went to the bowl of water and soaped her hands thoroughly again, accepting a clean towel from Skinner to dry her hands.
"There's a packet of latex gloves in my bag. Get it out and open it but don't touch the latex. These aren't exactly the most ideal conditions to operate under so I want to do all I can to be as sterile as possible," Scully explained to Skinner.
Skinner did as he was told.
She carefully removed one glove and put it on then the other. She returned to Mulder's side and looked at her supplies again.
"There's a brown bottle there...the medium sized one. That's betadine solution. I need one of you to pour some on this gauze pad for me," she picked up a sterile gauze pad and held it out. Mac quickly did as she said. He and Skinner watched as she gently and generously dabbed it all around and on the wound, in the hopes of getting the last residue of the salve cleaned out of it. Mulder shuddered and grunted but didn't cry out.
When she was done, Mulder looked glassy eyed at her.
She thought he may be hallucinating but Mac, having overheard Scully's reasons for not knocking Mulder out completely, quickly knelt beside Mulder's upper body.
"You got that right, man. I think you'll need it again," he gently said and asked Scully where Mulder's ID wallet was.
"In my backpack," she indicated, a confused expression on her face.
"I don't understand," said Skinner.
"Used this earlier to keep him from biting his tongue," Mac took the wallet from Scully's backpack and looked at them.
At first thinking it was a bit melodramatic and that he was kidding, Scully noticed the teeth marks, realized it made sense, and reluctantly nodded. If the pain was too much, Mulder did indeed risk accidentally biting his tongue or his lips. The wallet would prevent that without doing any damage to his teeth or mouth. These thoughts caused her to hesitate. What if she couldn't get the bullet out? What if the pain didn't stop? It amazed her that he'd been able to keep from going into shock all this time already. She didn't want to do anything to risk it now. She was simply damned if she did and damned if she didn't.
Mac saw her hesitating. He suspected she was having second thoughts. There was no time for this. Just as he was about to say something to snap her back to the present, she appeared to steel herself to her decision and looked at Skinner.
"Sir, could you prop that flashlight in such a way that it shines directly on the wound?"
Skinner got the flashlight, looked around for something to prop it on, and found a stool he felt might do the job. Picking up a small piece of wood and setting it on the stool, he positioned the flashlight at a downward angle so it would shine right on Mulder's wounded leg.
"That's good...Now I need you to hold his legs very still. Mac, you hold Mulder's upper body down."
Mulder heard her. His stomach tightened and his heart felt as if someone was gripping it as he looked fearfully at the two men.
"Scully?" he then looked at her.
"Um, you wouldn't consider letting Mac...or Skinner ...punch me out, would you?...I'm sure there must have been...occasions when Skinner would have liked to."
Scully was amazed to see that special glint in Mulder's eyes when he was half-joking about something, and could feel the doubt and emotions threatening to overwhelm her again. She glanced over at Skinner and noticed his eyes got kind of misty before he could look away.
"Mulder, with your luck you'd get a broken jaw," she finally retorted, resolved to follow-ing her instincts on this one.
"What...what about whiskey? Anyone bring some along? I could get drunk just...just like in the movies...I mean, biting the leather might not work too well this time."
They could all hear the worry and fear of pain in his trembling voice.
"I'm sorry, Mulder...no whiskey," Scully sympathetically frowned.
"You...you just don't want to hear me sing a drunken song."
Scully stared at him a moment, struggling to keep her emotions down to a manageable place so she could perform the surgery in a professional manner. Glancing at the others to see if they were ready, she took a deep breath.
"Okay, here we go. Are you ready, Mulder?"
"Wait!" Mac stopped her and turned around looking for something. The others all watched as he picked up a nearby cup and spare coffee pot, sniffed them, tasted whatever was in them and added a little of the sterilized water to the pot. Then he poured some of the liquid into the cup and returned to them.
"I don't know why I didn't think of this before. Fox, when was the last time you drank the tea? Do you remember what time it was?" he quickly asked.
"Um, it was...nine...yeah, nine o'clock," Mulder struggled to remember.
"Are you sure?"
"That means it's been nearly six hours. No wonder you're in so much pain...Here Fox, drink some more of this," he began to lift Mulder's head.
"Hold on! What is that?" Scully suspiciously asked.
Mac glanced at the cup then looked at her.
"It's like an...herbal medicinal tea. It will help with the pain. I left some for Fox when I went to find you. Made the pain a little more manageable, right Fox?"
Mulder winced and nodded.
"Let me see," Scully suspiciously nodded toward the cup. Mac hesitantly held it toward her so she could look at it and smell it.
"Oh God! He can't drink that!" she turned her head from it.
"He already has. You said yourself that you have nothing for the pain. This will help him."
"What is it? Some kind of narcotic?"
Mac didn't say anything.
Mulder could sense his partner's determination to protect him, but he remembered the numbing effect the tea had on him earlier.
"Scully, he's right...The tea made me feel numb all over...Helped me sleep."
Scully looked into Mulder's eyes again and saw his desire to have anything that would make the pain more tolerable. If it was true he'd had the tea before and had suffered no ill effects from it, and if the tea did indeed make the pain more tolerable, how could she argue against that? As much as she hated this unconventional method of treatment for pain, one glance at their primitive surroundings reminded her she really didn't have much choice.
Mac sensed she had given up the fight and helped Mulder drink the tea. Mulder gagged a couple of times, wincing from the pain the movement caused, but he drank all that Mac would give him. Mac eased Mulder's head back onto the pillow and briefly placed his hand on Mulder's forehead. Mulder closed his eyes and waited for the warmth and numbness he'd experienced before to wash over his body.
"How long do we need to wait?" Scully asked after a couple of minutes, worriedly keeping and eye on Mulder's breathing.
Mac was critically watching Mulder. After another couple of minutes, he nodded to Scully.
"Mulder? How do you feel? Is the tea working?"
Mulder didn't open his eyes, but nodded.
Seeing Scully was ready, Mac gently held the corner of the wallet to Mulder's mouth.
Mulder opened his eyes, glanced at the wallet, and looked up at Mac questioningly.
"Afraid you'll still need this," Mac quietly said.
Mulder looked like he wanted to say something, but nodded instead, unable to keep from trembling.
"You hang in there now, Fox, you hear me? Hang on," Mac sternly said with surprising tenderness as if they'd been friends for a very long time.
Mulder gazed fearfully into Mac's eyes a moment, but beat down the fear.
"Mulder...not Fox," he licked his lips and forced a smile.
"You don't call me Mad Mac...I don't call you Mulder," Mac smiled back, but his eyes grew wet and the smile slowly melted away as Mulder briefly closed his eyes and accepted the wallet into his mouth, biting down hard.
"Go ahead, Doc," Mac looked at Scully in such a way that she sensed she better not make any mistakes. Pushing that thought from her mind, she took a deep breath and concentrated on what needed to be done.
Scully looked at Mac and Skinner, both of whom nodded that they were ready.
The room was completely dark except for the small portable television set illuminating it with random flashes of light as the scenes changed on the program being aired. Smoke drifted lazily in the air, occasionally rushing forward as the sound of someone exhaling added more. The dark figure of a man wearing rumpled suit pants, white shirt with sleeves rolled up nearly to the elbows, and tie loosened sat sprawled out on an overstuffed chair. He reached for a glass of scotch on the table next to the chair when the shrill sound of a telephone filled the room. He picked up the telephone.
The man listened and slowly sat forward, the light from the television set defining the haggard appearance of his face.
"You found out for certain it's him?...But you still haven't found him...What do you mean there are other people up there now? I thought you had everything contained...Do you know who they are? Have you seen them?...Well how many are there?...Are you sure they aren't locals who have gotten too curious for their own good?...Where are they now?"
The man abruptly stood and restlessly puffed on his cigarette.
"I grow tired of your ineptitude, Colonel...First you lose Agent Mulder and now you can't find who those other people are. How can people just disappear without a trace up there?"
The man paced thoughtfully and came to a halt.
"Have your men keep looking. Time is running out. I want that area sanitized, do you understand?"
The man slowly replaced the phone and gazed unseeingly at the television set. Then he picked up the phone and dialed a number. There was no answer. Hanging up, he slowly sat back down and thought.
Scully picked up the second syringe, uncapped it, then, pausing only a moment, she in-jected the thin needle right next to the wound. Mulder jerked back and cried out, his agony barely muffled by the leather between his teeth. The pain engulfed him in a burning white haze that pulsed throughout his body and no matter what he tried to do to shake it off, strong hands held him still. She continued to inject the needle all around the wound to numb it as quickly as possible, trying not to be distracted by Mulder's tears or the mucous coming from his nose and the fact that she was causing him so much pain.
Mulder strained against Mac and Skinner, the veins in his throat and on his forehead looking close to bursting as his muted screams continued until the white haze turned black and he went limp. Mac and Skinner slowly eased up. Mac removed the saliva drenched leather wallet from Mulder's mouth and made sure he was still breathing, then nodded at Scully.
"Okay, let's position the leg so I can reach it better," her voice trembled despite her determination to control her emotions as she looked at Skinner, who carefully lifted Mulder's leg and turned it so the inside of his thigh was facing up more. "Not too much. If the femur is broken I don't want to displace it even more. Get that pillow and prop his knee up for support...That's good...Now, could you hold the flashlight more directly on the wound?"
Skinner, thoroughly shaken and his face very pale from what he'd just witnessed, was glad to have something to do as he did everything she asked.
"Mac, I want you to slowly loosen the tourniquet. Let's see how much it bleeds without it," her mind now focused on what must be done, Scully was feeling more in control.
Mac nodded and moved so he could reach over Mulder's thighs to the tourniquet. All three of them stared at the exposed wound while Mac very slowly loosened the tourniquet all the way. It bled a little more but not as badly as they all feared it would. Scully briefly closed her eyes with relief. That meant the femoral artery hadn't been damaged.
"Leave the belt there in case we need it."
Mac let go of the belt and sat back.
Scully picked up a small scalpel and cut into the wound as carefully as she could, all her attention and senses focused on feeling her way into the wound and remembering the physiology of the thigh muscles, arteries, veins, and bone. The wound began to bleed more freely but not alarmingly so yet. She was surprised when Mac used the small tweezers and handed her some gauze to clean the blood away, but she didn't look at him.
"I can't feel the bullet yet," she quietly said as she cut a little deeper then probed inside the wound with her gloved finger. "Wait...There it is, I think...ouch!"
"What? What is it?" asked Skinner as Scully quickly pulled her finger out of the wound. She wiped the blood off the glove and looked closely at it, her face blanching and her heart seeming to stand still a moment at the realization of what may have just happened. She looked at Mulder's leg, then at his face.
"Scully, what is it?"
Briefly closing her eyes and biting her lips, cold sweat breaking out on her body, Scully removed the glove and showed Skinner and Mac the hole in it and the cut on her own finger.
"I need another glove," she forced herself to say as calmly as she could.
"I'm not sure yet! Just...just give me another glove to put on," she didn't want to believe what she was thinking. She hadn't meant to snap at Skinner, but this was Mulder she was working on and try as she may, she could not get that out of her mind. She couldn't help thinking that whoever made it a rule that doctors weren't to operate on relatives or close friends was very wise. But there wasn't time for such trivialities now. Mulder needed her.
To her surprise, Mac wordlessly took her finger, wiped the blood off of it with a small gauze pad, then wrapped a bandaid around the cut. She watched him a moment, realizing he was right. It wouldn't do for her to bleed inside the surgical glove. Then Mac opened another packet of gloves and held it so she could take one and slip her hand into it. Scully did so, then, taking a deep breath, she proceeded to wipe the blood away from Mulder's wound and looked more closely at it.
Mac handed Scully the larger tweezers-like instrument. Scully, again surprised by his knowledge of what she would need, noticed the worried expression in his eyes. Taking another deep breath, she took the instrument and probed the wound until she felt she had the bullet. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Mac gently wiped it away.
"I think I have it," she very slowly tried to get a grip on the bullet. But she hesitated, thinking about what she was attempting to do. Grimly determined to at least try, she minutely pulled on the bullet. The wound began to bleed more. "Damn!"
"What? What is it, Scully?" Skinner once again asked.
Scully shook her head, set the surgical instrument down and tentatively reinserted her finger, carefully trying to feel all around the bullet without actually touching it. Her face ashen, she slowly withdrew her finger and looked closely at the latex. It still appeared intact.
"It's lodged against the bone or in it...I can't take it out," she sighed, her hands shaking from the tension as she sat back and stared at the oozing wound a moment before picking up a gauze pad and applying pressure to stop the bleeding.
"What do you mean you can't take it out? You can't just leave it there! You see what the pain does to him, not to mention the fact that the bullet is causing infection!" declared Mac.
"The bullet is lodged against the femur! If I try to take it out under these conditions I risk causing nerve damage from possibly moving bone fragments around which would result in para-lysis! Or if the bullet or bone fragments move too much while I try to take it out, they could nick the artery and he could bleed to death, just like I told you before!" Scully angrily argued back without raising her voice, almost grateful for a chance to release some of the pent up rage she was feeling about the situation.
Mac looked at her, noticing tears welling in her eyes which she defiantly fought back. He badly wanted her to take the bullet out, but she was a doctor and most of all, she was Mulder's partner and possibly more. She must know what she's talking about. He looked at Mulder's leg, then at Mulder's face.
"What are you going to do?"
Scully was still struggling with her emotions, biting her lips a moment as she stared at the wound which was bleeding more freely now.
"I'm...I'm going to stop the bleeding as much as I can and...we have to set the bone as if it was broken...Keep his leg as still as we possibly can so he doesn't accidentally move the bullet on his own."
"Are you...are you sure you couldn't try once more?" Skinner wanted to know.
Scully looked at him a moment. She'd felt the bullet. She'd felt the bone it was apparently lodged in and knew it could well be splintered.
"No, sir...From the feel of the bullet...I think it's a Black Talon."
At this news, both men looked at each other in dismay. They knew what the Black Talon bullet could do. On impact it spread open much like the razor-sharp bards of an arrowhead. More like the sharp talons of a bird, thus the name. It was designed to cause as much damage to muscles, bones and tissues as possible. It wasn't until that moment that they understood why Scully didn't want to risk pulling it out. She could very well cause more damage to Mulder's leg while pulling it out and do more harm than good. She'd cut her finger on one of the talons.
"I hear that's a mighty powerful bullet. It should have done a lot more damage than he has there," muttered Mac.
Scully nodded, her face still pallid and sweaty.
"That's why I think it's a ricochet. I think it hit a rock or something else and was already spread and spent when it hit Mulder. The hole is larger than most entry wounds, jagged. A Black Talon would not have stopped at the bone like this one did if it wasn't already mostly spent."
Without another word, Scully set about cleaning the wound.
"Let's straighten his leg as much as possible," Scully resignedly said as she held a thick pad over the bleeding wound. Mac went around her, removed the pillow supporting Mulder's knee then grasped his lower leg and, with Skinner's help, straightened it. Scully firmly held the pad to the wound a moment, then removed it. Surprisingly, the wound didn't bleed as much as she feared it would, which was a good sign that the artery was still intact.
"Okay Mac, I need another thick pad and lots of tape."
Mac handed her the sterile pad and quickly proceeded to cut long strips of adhesive tape, handing them to Skinner to hold. With one hand, Scully pinched the wound closed and with the other hand she held the pad. Then she proceeded to tell Mac what to do while the two of them dressed the wound.
"Gonna have to shave his leg to get that tape off the hair," Mac grunted in an attempt to ease the tension.
Scully allowed a quick smile as she had been thinking the same thing.
"Okay, let's wrap that other large bandage around his thigh to hold this in place."
While Skinner shone the light on Mulder's thigh, Mac and Scully finished dressing the wound and sat back a moment to rest. Scully was surprised when Mac picked up a small towel and dabbed at her face to keep the sweat from getting into her eyes.
"You've done this kind of work before," she stated with certainty, staring right into Mac's dark emotional eyes.
Mac only nodded and put the towel down.
"Do...do you have anything we can use as a splint?" she asked after a moment when it became clear Mac was not going to offer anymore information.
Mac nodded, got up, and disappeared once again toward the back of the cave.
Scully checked Mulder's breathing and heart rate, frowning with concern.
"What is it?"
"We've got to get him to a hospital as quickly as possible...He's getting weaker," Scully would not look directly into Skinner's eyes, not wanting him to see just how worried she was about Mulder's condition. She tore open another syringe packet, picked up one of the small bottles she'd used earlier, checked the label then inserted the syringe needle into it. Carefully measuring out a small amount of it, she then injected the medication into Mulder's wounded thigh.
"What was that?"
"A little more antibiotic...But I don't have enough of it for more than another day or so. With a bullet like that lodged in him, he needs massive amounts of intravenous antibiotic treatment. What I have here just might keep it from getting out of control for a while...but not long."
Mac returned with an armful of rags and several long pieces of smooth wood that looked like they had come from a crib. Scully gazed past him to the back of the cave and wondered just what the man had back there. She began to look around at the cave for the first time, but Mulder moaned. Concerned that he would start moving his leg, she signaled for Mac to proceed with making the splint.
"Sir? Could you help Mac with the splint? I want to check Mulder's arm while he's still unconscious."
Skinner picked up the stool and set it near Mulder's right shoulder, positioning the flash-light on it so that it shone on Mulder's arm. Seeing Scully nod her approval, he then helped Mac splint Mulder's leg.
"Splint his entire leg and secure his foot in one position. If the femur really is broken, I don't want him to be able to move any of his muscles," Scully instructed, not noticing how Mac kept glancing at her while she studied Mulder's arm
Scully didn't like what she was seeing. Mulder's arm was swollen above the clean appearing bandage and his hand was also swollen. She picked up a small pair of scissors and began cutting the bandage away. Carefully pulling it off, she was dismayed by what she found. She quickly looked at Mac who stared right back at her. The same salve that had been on Mulder's leg was on the arm wounds.
"His arm was looking mighty bad when I found him. All infected and looking like blood poisoning was setting in. Now I got a lot of stuff in this cave, but I don't have anything to fight an infection that bad by conventional means," Mac hurriedly informed her as he let Skinner take over finishing the splint and knelt next to Scully.
"So you went unconventional and put the same salve on his arm as you did his leg," Scully looked right into his dark eyes again.
"The only thing I could do out here...What's worked for centuries...Indian remedy to control that kind of infection."
"Another Indian remedy?" she was thinking of the tea Mac had given Mulder.
"Don't ask me what's in it cause I really don't know. I had some handy, I did what I was taught, and I put it on the wounds. It looks to me like it's working."
"Working?! It looks like mud! You could have infected him even more!"
"No, ma'am...I swear it's looking much better than it did before."
"Well if you don't mind, I'd like to judge that for myself...Could you bring that kettle of boiled water here and some sterile gauze pads? Thank God you have plenty of them," Scully was angry, but she didn't trust why she was angry. She'd heard about home remedies, holistic medicines, had even been convinced some of them really worked, but what she'd seen on Mulder's arm and leg was just beyond what she would have allowed.
Mac brought the previously boiled water and several gauze pads. He could see her concern and anger but all it did was make him even more determined to do what he knew must be done. While she set about carefully wiping off the remnants of the salve, Mac began making another one. Skinner noticed what Mac was doing, but Scully was totally focused on cleaning the wounds and examining them.
"He needs stitches," she mumbled.
"Can you do that?" Skinner had assumed she hadn't sewn the bullet wound because she didn't have the supplies she needed. Looking again at the medical supplies she had spread out on a sterile green towel, he spotted the needle and suturing thread. Now really curious about why she hadn't sewn the bullet wound, he trusted she knew what she was doing and didn't ply her with questions. He could sense she was only barely hanging on with her objectivity toward treating Mulder and didn't want to distract her.
Scully thought a moment.
"Yes...I have what I need to sew these up...I need another pair of gloves," Scully ripped the soiled ones off and tossed them aside. She reached into her medical bag and took out another packet of gloves, noticing they were the last ones. Not having any choice, she tore the packet open and put the gloves on.
Mac and Skinner silently watched while Scully prepared the needle for suturing. Since Mulder didn't even stir, she didn't worry about injecting the local anesthetic. She set the suturing needle aside and cleaned the wounds thoroughly with betadine, then began meticulously stitching closed the deepest areas of the wounds. Skinner once again held the flashlight so she could better see what she was doing. Soon she was done. She wiped the wounds clean again and was about to redress them when Mac stopped her.
"I gotta put more of this salve on it," Mac stared right into her eyes.
"What? I just cleaned and sterilized the wounds. I'm not going to let you put that filthy stuff on them again," Scully's eyes flashed with anger and her whole body tensed.
"You got to...or he could lose that arm."
"Right now, Mulder stands a higher risk of losing his leg or his life than his arm if we can't get him to a hospital very soon!"
Mac shook his head.
"You don't understand...The type injury he has there on his arm? It's not from no bear or creature you ever heard of. It's gotta be treated in this special way or he could lose it."
"What are you talking about?! What do you mean..."
"Scully! Let him tell you," Skinner spoke up, causing Scully to look sharply at him in amazement.
"Tell me what?!"
"I've heard of injuries like these. I know what they can do. If not treated in the ancient traditions the poison will very slowly spread throughout his body and kill him...Check his arm. Check for paralysis. Go on!" Mac insisted.
"I can't get an accurate feel for paralysis while he's unconscious and you know it."
Mac sighed but kept looking at her.
"You must let me apply the salve."
Scully stared back, determined not to let Indian superstitions put her partner's life at further risk. "Let him do it, Scully."
Her mouth fell open and she stared widely at Skinner in shock.
"Scully, he knows what he's talking about...I've seen it once, when I was a kid and worked on the reservation one summer," Skinner knew what he was suggesting went against everything Scully believed, but his gut feeling was that Mac was right. And he had indeed seen strange ceremonies while working on the reservation one summer when he was a teenager.
"You know what he talking about?! You know what he wants to do?!"
"Scully, you've done all you can for Mulder's arm, right?"
Scully wouldn't answer.
"Mac, when did this injury happen?"
"About four or five days ago."
Scully's breath hissed out as she looked at Mac in disbelief.
"Scully, how long can a man have an injury like that without proper medical attention before it becomes badly infected?"
Scully contemplated Mulder's arm. It should have been much worse looking. It should have been horribly infected by now.
"Are you saying that salve is healing his arm?" she asked Mac.
Scully didn't want to believe it but the evidence was right there in front of her eyes. There was no refuting it. She looked once more at Skinner. Should she trust him? Did he really know what he was talking about?
"I need to sit where you are, Doc," Mac sensed that she was going to let him do what had to be done.
Her lips stiff with disapproval, Scully slowly took her gloves off and moved down by Mulder's injured leg. She was aware that Mac had come over and sat next to her. He held a small wooden bowl up toward the cave ceiling and began a quiet chant. Scully looked at Skinner, who stared unblinkingly back at her, making it clear that he believed she'd done the right thing.
She numbly watched as Mac chanted softly and spread the salve over the wounds on Mulder's forearm. It was all she could do to resist the impulse to stop him. When the stitched wounds were completely covered, Mac proceeded to bandage them. Once done, he closed his eyes and finished the chant. Then he looked at her a long moment.
"I have the sense that Fox has been through some kind of Indian ritual before."
Scully stared at him, trying not to give away anything in her desire to see just how much this man knew about Mulder. But the truth was in her eyes.
"Then he knows what it's like to work with the Spirits and fight for his life...He'll be doing it now," he stared with certainty at Mulder.
"I don't understand. What is it you think is happening here? What exactly do you think attacked Mulder? You said it wasn't a bear. What was it?" the words gushed forth from her in a torrent, demanding to understand what was happening and hating the feeling of helplessness.
Mac looked at Skinner whose knowledge was apparently limited since he didn't speak up or offer any explanations.
"I believe Fox was attacked by what the local tribes would call a...chindee."
"A chindee. What's that?"
"A...ghost or a witch," Mac reluctantly stated, not taking his eyes from hers.
Scully's mouth dropped open in amazement. She looked at Skinner who was keeping his face expressionless. She sighed and shook her head as she glanced at Mulder then back at Mac.
"I don't want to hear anymore. Whatever mythology you choose to believe in is fine, but Mulder is my partner and my friend and if you've done anything to harm him...anything...I'll take care of you myself."
Mac could see in her icy blue eyes that she meant every word she said, so he kept staring unflinchingly at her, refusing to back down.
"I would never do anything to harm Fox," he sternly stated, then got up and went to the fire. A few moments later, Mac was holding a steaming cup of coffee toward her. She quietly took it and sipped. It was strong but it was the best coffee she could ever remember having.
"You did a good job, Doc. I wish you could have taken that bullet out and sewed him up, but I understand why you couldn't," Mac quietly said after having felt Mulder's flushed face and pulse.
"Then you understand why we have to get him out of here as quickly as possible," Scully unemotionally looked at him a long moment, acknowledging that the tension of a few minutes ago had dissipated.
"Yes, I do. But them commandos have other ideas. They're after the fox here. They don't want him to leave. And I suspect by now they are after us."
"How do you know that?"
"I heard them talking once while they were looking for him. Said they were under orders to find Fox Mulder."
"Don't know," Mac shook his head and sipped his own coffee after handing Skinner a cup. "Was kinda hoping you two could tell me that."
Scully and Skinner looked at each other but didn't say anything. Thunder rumbled from outside.
"Maybe that storm will drive them away...I'll go take a look for a while if you don't need me here anymore," Skinner volunteered, suddenly needing to get away from the sight and smell of blood and sweat.
"I've done all I can for now. We just need to wait until he wakes up and get him out of here as quickly as possible," Scully picked up the damp washcloth Mac had used earlier and gently dabbed at Mulder's flushed face.
Skinner glanced at Mac while getting a small pair of binoculars from his backpack, detecting a look of gratitude for his earlier support. Taking the coffee with him, he headed for the doorway and out to the mouth of the cave.
Scully and Mac looked at one another a moment, then Mac got up and busied himself preparing some food. Scully watched Mulder's rapid breathing a moment, reminded all too much of the time in Alaska when he'd almost died. She thought about how many times he'd come close to dying. Except for what happened to him in New Mexico where he believed he had indeed died and come back to life, Mulder had always been within reasonable distance of medical facilities. She looked around at this cave, listened to the rain pounding outside, and thought of how very far away they were from any decent medical facilities now. His life depended on her skills alone with the tools she had on hand. Would they be enough? Would even Mac's unorthodox holistic medicines be enough?
Needing to do something, she set about picking up all the bloodied pads, the discarded and bloodied latex gloves, the torn syringe and glove packets, and her used medical supplies. Mac gave her a paper bag to put them all in and set it aside before returning to his cooking.
Mulder moaned and moved his head. He was starting to come out of it.
"Mulder? Can you hear me?" Scully moved closer and stared at his face.
Mulder tried to lick dry lips and open his eyes. Mac knelt opposite Scully with a cup of water. He gently lifted Mulder's head and put the cup to his lips. Mulder drank a little and Mac eased his head back down onto the pillow.
"I'm still here," Mulder weakly smiled, opening his eyes and focusing at Scully.
"Did you have any doubts?" Scully couldn't resist asking.
"No...not with you holding the knife," he closed his eyes and tried to assess his condition. Something didn't feel right. The pain in his leg was a dull ache now but he sensed it would get much worse.
"Did you get the bullet out?"
Scully couldn't look him in the eye for a moment.
"Scully? What is it?"
"Mulder, I...couldn't take the bullet out," she hesitantly said, looking into his surprised eyes now.
He started to ask her why when she began to explain.
"I think the bullet is lodged in your femur. It may have broken it. That's why you're feeling so much pain. I couldn't take it out without...without risking more damage to your leg."
"What kind of damage?" Mulder felt cold inside.
"Paralysis...possibly nicking an artery."
Mulder kept gazing into her eyes, getting the feeling she wasn't telling him everything.
"So...what happens next?"
"We try to get you out of here as quickly as possible. Get you to a hospital."
Mulder nodded, trying hard to once again beat down the fear and be optimistic.
"When can we do that?"
Scully looked at Mac.
"There's a storm going on outside now. We gotta wait for it to pass over."
"The commandos are still out there...aren't they?" Mulder asked Mac, sensing there was more or they would have begun moving him already.
"Yes...they are. But we're gonna get you out of here, man. I promise you that."
Mulder saw the determination in Mac's dark eyes and found reassurance in them. He closed his eyes and nodded.
"Mulder, I want to check your reflexes now that you're awake. This shouldn't hurt you," Scully moved down next to his injured leg and put her hand on his bare foot. "Can you feel my hand?"
Mulder waited a moment before nodding.
She was relieved because his foot felt cold to her. Just to be sure, she let go of his foot.
"How about now? Can you feel my hand on your foot now?"
Mulder frowned and shook his head, becoming concerned.
"What's on my leg?"
"A splint. I wanted your leg completely immobilized in case it's really broken and also so you can't move it and dislodge the bullet."
Mulder didn't say anything. The pain was getting worse but he was determined to tolerate it as long as possible.
Scully moved up his right side and took his still swollen hand into hers.
"Mulder, I want you to squeeze my hand."
She waited but nothing happened. Frowning, she looked at his hand closely to be sure it was getting plenty of circulation. The coloring looked good, considering Mulder's overall condition.
"What...what's wrong with my right arm? I can't feel it," Mulder worriedly asked, looking from Mac to Scully.
"Mulder, can you move your right arm at all?"
He concentrated on moving it, believing he had, but one look at Scully's concerned expression told him otherwise.
"Your arm will be fine,"' Mac calmly spoke up.
Scully and Mulder looked at him.
"That salve," Scully guessed.
"No, Doc, the injuries. What caused this type of injury is rumored to be poisonous. It slowly spreads through the body and paralyzes it. The salve and chant are the only things I know that can stop the poison from spreading."
"Mulder, what attacked you?" Scully tore her gaze from Mac and studied Mulder.
"I don't know," Mulder was feeling more uncomfortable and tried to shift his body but a streak of pain from his leg caused him to gasp and shut his eyes, panting and gripping the sleeping bag he was laying on.
"Mulder, are you in a lot of pain?" Scully was surprised that the local anesthetic was apparently already wearing off. She glanced at the bottle and briefly debated injecting more near the wound to numb it. But there was very little left and the thought of inflicting that kind of pain on him again turned her stomach.
Mulder gritted his teeth and grunted, trying to stay as still as he could. But a chill ran through his body and momentarily squeezed his chest.
Scully looked at Mac, who seemed to think for a moment, then went to the fire and prepared another cup.
"Are you cold?" she looked back at Mulder.
Mulder nodded. Scully quickly got a blanket and covered Mulder.
Scully felt his head and looked at her watch. It was too soon to give him another shot of antibiotics but she could give him some Tylenol for the fever.
"Mulder, I want you to take these. They'll help bring the fever down," she got the plastic bottle of Tylenol and started opening it.
"No, this will help with the fever," Mac stopped her, returning to them with the cup. "It's a different tea, just for fever. It's too soon to give him more for the pain," he clarified when it looked like she was going to try to stop him.
Once again, against her better judgment and not really having a valid argument against something that appeared to be working, Scully let Mac help Mulder.
"Come on, Fox, just drink it down real fast like and you won't taste it," Mac assured him.
"My mother used to tell me that...She lied," Mulder mumbled as he tried to drink it but began gagging and had to stop. The sudden movement caused incredibly hot searing pain to lance through his body and he hissed sharply and threw his head back into the pillows.
"Take it easy, man....Take it easy," Mac soothed, still holding the cup in one hand and gently smoothing Mulder's sweaty hair back with the other hand while waiting for the pain to pass.
Scully didn't like not knowing what her partner was drinking, but she'd noticed how Mac watched Mulder. There was some kind of connection between the two of them that she couldn't quite pen down. Mac was fiercely determined to take care of Mulder. Such determination was reassuring to her in one way, but the speed with which it happened concerned her. She decided she'd better just keep an eye on Mac.
"You need to drink a little more."
Mulder shook his head, beginning to feel nauseous and like his mind was playing tricks on him. He remembered being out in the woods and wondering if Scully was going to be able to find him. Wondering if she wanted to find him or had simply decided to quit the X-Files, quit being his partner and friend. The thought of it washed over him so deeply that he quickly opened his eyes and looked for her. She was still there for him, large blue eyes very worried.
"Scully...I'm sorry," he quietly said, becoming more confused by his thoughts.
"What for, Mulder?"
"I...I didn't get you a desk before."
Scully was surprised for a moment, then realized it was the fever talking.
"Mulder, I'm staying right here with you. I'm not going anywhere."
"Knew you....wouldn't abandon me," he smiled slightly before falling asleep.
Scully felt Mulder's forehead a moment and ran her hand through his soft hair, wondering what he meant about her abandoning him. Did he really believe she would do such a thing? Why would he think that? Too tired to think straight anymore, she accepted a bowl of steaming hot stew from Mac and hungrily began eating it. But worry about Mulder caused her stomach to ache and she was unable to eat more than a few bites.
Skinner returned to the cave looking restless and frustrated.
"They're still out there even in that downpour!" he muttered as he sat nearby and accepted the bowl of stew Mac silently handed to him.
"You've got to be kidding!" Scully set her bowl down and looked at him, her heart sinking.
"I wish I were...Look, maybe I can go get some help," suggested Skinner.
"Don't recommend that, man. You don't know your way around these woods and like you just said, those men are still out there," Mac looked seriously at Skinner.
"But you know your way around. You could get help," Scully quickly suggested.
Mac glanced at Mulder, obviously not liking the idea of leaving him again.
"Already took care of that," he finally stated.
"What? What do you mean you already took care of it? What did you do?"
"Donny," Skinner stated, staring right at Mac.
"Donny is getting help?" Scully was surprised. "Why didn't you say so before?"
"Because it could take a while and I didn't want to get your hopes up," Mac cautioned, hearing the hope in her voice.
"Why? Why would it take a while?"
"Those men out there...They've been here before. We keep clear of them. Donny will be very careful about getting help to us. He won't want to lead them commandos in here."
"Why doesn't he just call the police? They'll get those men out of here," Scully restlessly argued.
"Afraid not. The police around here aren't as well equipped as those men." "Are you suggesting the police know those men are out here and are too afraid to do anything about them?" Skinner curtly asked.
Scully couldn't believe it. She looked at Skinner, who was gazing steadily at Mac.
"You've encountered them before? When?" Skinner wanted to know.
"About...two months ago."
Scully thought a moment.
"That would be about when Jack Winger disappeared."
"Do you know anything about several campers disappearing?"
"I heard about them. Don't know much about it, though," Mac avoided Skinner's gaze now, making them suspicious about whether or not he was telling them the truth as they watched him pour more coffee into their cups.
"If you don't know anything about the disappearances then how is it you know enough to stay away from those men?" Scully wondered.
Mac looked at her a moment.
"Don't need to be an FBI agent to know when you see that many men equipped with state of the art military weapons you just steer clear of them. They mean business and it ain't ever gonna be good business, man...Donny knows he can't count on the police. Why do you think they had him guide you instead of doing it themselves?"
"But they had massive searches each time someone disappeared," Scully pointed out.
"That they did, but there were a lot of well armed volunteers and those commandos were already gone. They get brave when they know there ain't no opposition...We have to wait for them to clear out like they done before."
"And how long was that?"
"Don't know," Mac shrugged, clearly not liking it anymore than they did. "Could be any day now."
"But we can't wait another day! Mulder needs professional medical care in a hospital now!"
Mac didn't know what else to say to her. He was clearly as frustrated as they were while he stared at Mulder sweating beneath the blanket. He reached into the small bowl of water and wrung out the washcloth in preparation for wiping Mulder's face, but Scully reached over and took it from him. He looked into her angry eyes a moment, seeing in them just how much her partner meant to her and understanding that she needed to feel in control of something again. Without a word, he watched her wipe the sweat from Mulder's face. Then she pulled the blanket down, unbuttoned Mulder's shirt and lifted his T-shirt to expose his bare chest. Frowning at the bruises and insect bites she found there, she proceeded to wipe the sweat from his chest in an attempt to cool him down. Mac offered her a fresh cool damp washcloth and silently took the one she had.
"I'm going back to the cave entrance to keep an eye on things," a restless Skinner got up and left the cave. He'd never felt so helpless. He understood the kind of pain Mulder was in, he knew what it could do. How the pain drained the body's strength and engulfed the mind in a white haze that blotted out all other sensations so that only the pain existed. He could see Mulder fighting valiantly against it. There simply had to be something he could do.
Skinner cautiously approached the cave entrance and looked around. The earlier storm had apparently passed on for all was quiet now, but the sky was still completely obscured with heavy dark clouds turning daylight almost into night. Lightening flashed in the distance and an occasional muted rumble of thunder filled the air, announcing another storm approaching. The humid ionized air smelled of damp trees and mud and more rain.
He looked down at the quiet woods. Everything was eerily still, just like the calm before a storm. There were no animals moving about nor men in black. It was so surreal it was like looking at a picture. Skinner settled down more comfortably and watched the storms steady approach, always keeping an eye on the woods for the commandos. Maybe they had enough sense to seek shelter this time because it looked like a more powerful storm was brewing. It grew even darker outside, creating a heaviness and sense of gloom.
Skinner jumped, thinking he'd seen something out of the corner of his eye. Turning to look, his eyes grew wide and his skin began to crawl. Down in the woods, in a small clearing, something appeared to be just hovering in the air. It was indistinct and almost transparent. He couldn't tell from this distance if it was a man or an animal, though it did look about the size of a large bear standing on its hind legs. Skinner found himself inching closer to the cave entrance to get a better look.
'What the hell is that?' Skinner wondered as he blinked and stared. The ghostly creature moved toward the cave a little and Skinner involuntarily ducked back. He could have sworn it was staring right at him. He got his pistol out and held it ready in case the thing got closer. Now it appeared to take on the shape of a man. Could it be one of the commandos? No, it was definitely not dressed in black.
The ghostly figure appeared to turn its head toward the woods a moment. Then it glanced back up at Skinner, turned, and rushed off into the woods.
Skinner sat up straighter to see where it had gone, but he could no longer see it. Sighing heavily, unaware that he'd been holding his breath, Skinner reached under his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He was dead tired. Couldn't remember the last time he'd had a good sleep. Now he was imagining things. Then he heard a scream. A man's scream.
Skinner looked anxiously at the woods to see what was happening. There was a burst of gunfire and what sounded like shouting just seconds before a flash of lightening and crash of thunder filled the air causing Skinner to jump nervously. The sky opened up and the rain poured down in heavy sheets that splashed back at him. Skinner moved back farther so as not to get wet and stared down at the woods while his heartbeat slowly returned to normal. There was nothing there now. No sounds but the lightening, thunder, and heavy downpour.
Mac and Scully continued to silently work together for a while to help Mulder cool down.
"How long have you two been partners?" Mac quietly asked.
"About four years."
"Been through some scrapes together?"
"You might say that," she checked Mulder's leg again.
"He's a good man."
Scully looked at him, wondering how he would know that.
"Yes, he is a good man...and a good friend. How long have you known him?"
"Me? Not long. Just met him last week when he was lost."
"Mulder was lost?"
"Well, not exactly lost. He knew where he wanted to go only he didn't know he was trespassing on private property to get there."
"That can be dangerous out here, huh?"
"Lucky I found him on my property," Mac nodded.
"And you told him he was trespassing?"
"Sure did. Showed him a safer way to get where he was headed. Didn't see him again until the other day."
"Do you know where he was going?"
"He said he wanted to check out the area where some people supposedly disappeared. Said he was on vacation but it sure looked like he was on a case to me."
Scully didn't say anything for a moment.
"You said you saw him the other day. Was he trespassing again?"
"Yeah, but I think he wanted to. I think he knew he was in trouble from those comman-dos out there and he was hoping his chances were better with the locals...Can you tell me now who those guys are? What they're doing here?"
Scully sat back, satisfied that she had done as much as she could for Mulder at the moment. Fearing she would fall asleep if she didn't stay alert and feeling for some reason that she could talk to Mac, she tiredly sighed and gazed at Mulder while she spoke.
"We've run into them a few times...Sometimes it seems like they want to kill us. Other times they take us into custody and keep us away from what we're investigating until they've either destroyed or removed all the evidence."
"Thought that was against the law. Obstruction of justice or something."
"It is, but we don't know for sure who they are or who they work for. They simply disappear as quickly as they appear. We can't find out anything about them, so we can't do anything about them but hope we can get away alive."
Mac thought about this a moment.
"Those men out there are carrying the kind of equipment only the government would have...Just what the hell are you and Fox into that these commandos always want to stop you from finding out?"
Mulder must have heard their voices for he grimaced and began to stir again.
`"Mulder, can you hear me?" Scully forgot about what Mac had asked and gently pushed Mulder's hair back from his burning forehead while watching him struggle to wake up.
He slowly opened fever glazed eyes and stared at Scully a long minute before he tried to speak. His mouth was dry and she helped him drink some water Mac quickly handed to her.
"Still here...in the cave, huh?" he harshly whispered.
"Yes, there's another storm outside and we can't get you out for a while yet," Scully explained, encouraging him to drink as much water as he could.
"Right here, man."
Mulder looked at him and managed a smile.
"You're still here," he commented.
"You're still trespassing, Fox," Mac quietly said without looking at Scully.
"You know what's going on around here, don't you?" Mulder asked with surprising clarity.
"What are you talking about?"
"Why I came here...The ghost creature...You know what it is."
Mac glanced at Scully and back at Mulder.
"I told you before, I hear all kinds of Indian tales. They believe in witches and ghosts and think they see them all the time. Hell, the Native Americans sometimes kill regular folks they think are ghosts in disguise. Makes it look like accidents. Everyone around here knows that."
Mulder closed his eyes a moment and shook his head.
"It's more than that...There's something else out there...Something the supposed ghost creature is protecting."
"Mulder, what are you talking about?" Scully asked.
"Well, actually, you could be right."
Both Mulder and Scully looked at Mac.
"It's been rumored that there is an old Indian burial ground up around these parts. One of those tales I mentioned is that Indians and other people have reported seeing ghosts around here and they believe the ghosts are here to protect the dead...to protect the burial ground."
"Have you ever seen one of these ghosts?" asked Scully.
"No, no, that's not what's going on," Mulder argued, struggling to keep alert and fighting the terrible weakness he was feeling. "I found what looked like...a UFO landing site...Took samples, but the creature attacked me and I lost the evidence," he was breathing faster and put his hand on his bare chest.
"Mulder take it easy," Scully was worried about how agitated Mulder was getting.
"What's this about a UFO site?" Skinner had just come back into the cave and overheard Mulder.
Scully looked at her boss, noticing he appeared pale and shaken about something. Curious about what was apparently bothering him, she was about to ask but was distracted by Mulder. Mac was suspiciously watching Skinner now. Skinner avoided looking at either of them.
Mulder was fighting to stay awake, the throbbing ache from his leg growing steadily stronger with each heartbeat. He tried to shift his leg but noticed it wouldn't move. Lifting his head, he was reminded of the splint. He lay his head back and sighed.
"Mulder, is the pain getting bad again?"
He nodded and swallowed, then looked at Skinner.
"It's a cleared area in the woods. Not very large...but everything appeared to have...a circular pattern to it...and nothing was growing in it...Compass needle went crazy...Almost like the place had been irradiated...Took samples...The whole thing is consistent with...other reported landing sites in different parts of the world," Mulder started breathing faster again as he tried to tell them everything and fight the increasing pain at the same time.
Scully reluctantly looked at Mac, having noticed Mac was preparing another cup of herbal tea. She didn't know if it was really helping Mulder, but she realized that so far it wasn't hurting him. Mac gazed into her eyes a moment, a slight challenge to her to try and stop him, before getting closer to Mulder and lifting his head.
"Drink some more of this, Fox," Mac softly ordered.
Mulder tried to shake his head, his face scrunched up with pain as he briefly held his breath. He was close to passing out again but didn't want to. He feared that if he passed out he may not wake up.
"Come on, Fox...you need the water and the medicine is helping you. Try to drink a little," Mac coaxed.
Mulder drank a little, gagged and forced his head back against Mac's hand, his eyes closed.
"Mulder, don't fight it. You're weak, you need to rest," Scully told him, feeling a sinking sense of concern as Mac moved his hand away and accepted that Mulder wasn't going to be able to drink anymore.
"You have to find the site...Get new samples...That may be why they're here," Mulder persisted, taking deep breaths and staring at them all.
"Who?" asked Scully while closing his shirt for he was starting to tremble again.
"The commandos. The men in black. I was getting close to the truth again, Scully. Why else would they be here but to stop us again?" Mulder tried to sit up and impress on her how serious he was, but fell back exhausted.
"Take it easy, man," Mac picked up the washcloth and gently wiped the sweat from Mulder's face.
Mulder shook his head and pushed Mac's hand away, struggling against the blackness attempting to overcome him. He could tell they didn't believe him and it frustrated him. After all this time, he still had to fight to convince people of what was right before their eyes if only they'd look.
"Can't...can't sleep now," he mumbled. "Too much work to do...Can't sleep now."
"Mulder...here, drink some water. It's just plain water, not Mac's medicine drink," Scully was worried about how much he was sweating and how little fluid he was taking in.
Mulder at first shook his head, but when she held his head up much the same as Mac had just moments earlier, he drank some water, but not enough to make Scully happy. He looked at her, his eyes still glazed with fever.
"You don't believe me...After all we've been through...They'll be leaving soon. Then the commandos and their bosses win again...I was so close...Pictures! I got pictures!" he remembered and grasped at his shirt. It was unbuttoned and open so he was having trouble finding the pocket.
"Mulder, stay still."
"Scully...pocket...in my shirt pocket...two rolls of film," Mulder was still struggling to find the pocket. "Where are they?! I have them!!"
Scully tried to find them.
"Mulder, I can't find any rolls of film," she searched all his pockets, even his jacket pockets.
He went limp with fatigue and pain.
"Scully?" he was looking right at her. "I was close again...They're still out there. They're nervous about me being here...They're afraid I finally have proof."
"Take is easy, Mulder," her heart pounded as she tried to settle him down. She could see he believed what he was saying and it made her skin crawl with fear.
"You've got to believe me...The ghost creature is just a ruse...or it could even be...." but he was just too weak to go on and collapsed back onto the pillows still mumbling.
Scully felt his face and forehead and was dismayed by how warm he was. She tried to get him to drink more water but he couldn't. Soon he was sleeping.
She looked at Mac and Skinner, both of whom appeared confused. Mac didn't say anything. Skinner looked from Mulder to Scully.
Sensing the two of them wanted to talk alone, Mac looked at Mulder one more time and slowly stood.
"I'm gonna see if that storm is about blown out and if our buddies are still out there. You holler if you need my help for anything," he said to Scully.
She nodded and watched him pick up his rifle and leave.
"Do you believe he saw some kind of UFO landing site or was that the fever talking?" Skinner quietly asked. He'd knelt on one knee and now sat opposite her closer to the fire. Mulder's words chilled him and he welcomed the warmth of the fire.
"I don't know what to think, sir...Do you know anything about what's been happening around here? Anything about this alleged ghost creature?" Scully asked instead, realizing that it had been nagging at the back of her mind why Skinner had chosen to accompany her on this search rather than assigning another agent to help. There was something in the way he asked about the UFO landing site Mulder claimed to have found. And there was something strange about the way he was behaving since he came back into the cave.
"I read the files," Skinner cautiously said after a moment, having heard the hint of suspicion in her voice. "I don't know what to think about the reports. There are inconsistencies, which always seem to be the case with this type of report. That's what makes them X-Files. I just don't know."
For some inexplicable reason, Scully found herself not quite believing everything he'd said. Maybe it was the way he avoided eye contact or the way he looked around at the cave and toward the cave entrance while talking. Was he telling the truth? Was he really there because he believed Mulder trusted him second to her? And why was she feeling this way?
"Well, do you think Mulder is right? Do you think Mac knows more than he's saying about whatever is going on around here?" she tried again, still studying Skinner's every move.
"I wouldn't know," Skinner shrugged, gazing at the fire. He was lying. If what he saw was some kind of ghost creature, as had been reported in the files, then how could a man like Mac, who lived up here, judging by the well stocked cave they were in, not know about them? Still feeling uneasy and unsure about what he saw, Skinner attempted to divert Scully from her questions before she suspected he was lying. "Do you believe Agent Mulder? That he found some kind of UFO landing site?" he asked again.
"I believe he thinks he did," she allowed after gazing at how restless Mulder was getting. "One thing he is right about. There must be something going on around here for those men to be looking for him...and now maybe even us, like Mac said. Maybe Mulder was getting too close to something and, by us being here looking for him, we have too. And they will do anything to protect it, even invent some kind of ghost creature to scare the locals away."
Scully noticed Skinner appeared momentarily uneasy before he looked away from her and at the cave entrance. Once again curious about why he was behaving so strangely, she could only assume that he probably didn't know anymore than she did or he would have said something. Sighing, she got more comfortable and glanced at the cave entrance.
"What do you make of him?" Scully wanted to keep talking. She was feeling very tired and sleepy and didn't want to give into it.
"Mac? Obviously a Vietnam veteran. Possibly a medic who saw a lot of action. Seems to care a lot for Mulder," Skinner commented after thinking a moment.
Scully nodded. It had been what she thought too, based on Mac's medical knowledge and on the Army surplus supplies apparently stashed at the back of the cave. Was this Mac's home? Did he really live here or was this just some kind of retreat from his real home when things got to be too much for him? Hadn't he said something about having private property up here?
"Do you want me to keep an eye on him? You need to get some sleep," Skinner offered.
"No, I better watch him for a while. I'll be fine. You go ahead and get some sleep...I'll take another cup of coffee first, though," she held out her cup.
Skinner took her cup, picked up the rag he'd seen Mac use to grab the hot coffee pot, and poured the strong rich smelling brew into her cup. He was tempted to drink more himself, but he knew he needed to get some rest if he was going to be any help when the time came to get Mulder out of the cave and the woods. He handed the cup across Mulder to her and glanced at her tired eyes. She took her hat off and shook her hair out before sipping the coffee.
Skinner added more wood to the fire, then tried to find a comfortable position to rest in. He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep. He kept thinking about Scully's questions, about whatever that thing had been out in the woods and what the screams could mean, and about the visit to his office a week ago by the cigarette smoking man. Did that man have anything to do with the commandos out there? Were they really after Mulder? If so, how did they know where to find him? Or were they protecting something Mulder accidentally stumbled upon?
Mulder had said something attacked him, the wounds on his arm serving as proof. He'd said he hadn't seen what it was. Mac implied the injuries were inflicted by some kind of superstitious Indian ghost creature. Could that have been what Skinner saw in the woods? Was it a...what did Mac call it?...chindee, yes, was it a chindee? Did it attack one of the commandos, thus explaining the scream and gunfire? Skinner closed his eyes and sighed, knowing there was a real possibility he may never find the answers to his questions. With their first priority being to get Mulder out of these mountains and to a hospital there would not be enough time to investigate the area until later. And he knew very well that where these commandos were involved, any evidence there may have been would be long gone.
"Cold," Mulder muttered a while later, waking a dozing Scully. She noticed he was shivering and quickly got the blanket and covered him up. "Scully?...Dana?"
"I'm right here, Mulder," she quietly assured him as she dabbed his face with the washcloth.
His eyes blinked several times before opening and looking at her. He reached for her hand and held it, needing the physical contact, needing her strength.
"You're a good friend, Dana."
"You are, too," she forced a smile and swallowed the lump that had suddenly constricted her throat, not sure she liked how he was talking or that he was using her first name, which he rarely did.
"Remember the first time we met?"
"Yeah, I found you down in the basement and you told me to come on in, only the FBIs most unwanted were there."
"Are you sorry you got assigned with me?"
"And miss some of the most exciting times of my life?" she tried to tease, her heart skipping a beat at the terrible sadness she saw in his eyes.
"Know what I like about you...You're still trying to be a skeptic...Even after all we've seen together, you still keep trying."
"Somebody has to keep an eye on you," she frowned, wondering what he meant by "trying".
He stared at her for so long that she thought he was trying to touch her very soul.
"You've been a good partner, Dana."
"Mulder, why are you talking like this?" she grasped his hand more tightly and looked worriedly at him.
"Don't want to...leave too much unsaid," he quietly breathed and closed his eyes against the pain a moment.
"You'll have plenty to say when we get you to a hospital and you're spending time recovering."
He shook his head.
"They're waiting for me...Just like before...only this time...this time...." he couldn't continue.
Scully was shocked to see tears in his eyes.
"Mulder, you fight it, do you hear me? You stay alive. We still have a lot of work to do. You said it yourself, you were getting close to the truth again. We need to find the truth, Mulder, and only the two of us can do it, do you hear me? You can't leave me all alone to do it. I need your help," Scully desperately argued, fighting the panicky feeling that was gripping her heart and tying her stomach into knots. "Promise me you'll keep fighting."
"Tired...So tired...They won't let us...."
"Since when do we wait around for anyone to let us do anything? Mulder, if you give up, we'll never find out what happened to Samantha."
The tears tracked a course from the corners of his eyes and down his temples as he opened them and looked at her. Why was he feeling so cold and empty inside? Why was he feeling like he'd already lost her when he could feel the fierce pressure of her hand gripping his and see the determination in her fiery but misty eyes?
"I know you're tired and it's all right to take a rest for now. But we still have a lot of work to do..."
"We?...You...you were going to leave me," a flash of hope nudged at the emptiness.
Scully was surprised and looked at him questioningly.
"What...what are you talking about?"
"Got you a desk...Your own name...Not good enough."
He was clearly losing his train of thought. But then Scully realized what his real fear was. Not so much that he would leave her, but that she would leave him.
"Mulder, you're wrong. I'm not leaving you. I'm not leaving the X-Files. The desk and nameplate don't mean anything. We have a lot of work to do together, Mulder," she emphasized, her heart aching that he was so worried and his eyes were so full of hopelessness.
He stared at her a long moment. Dare he hope she was telling him the truth? His mind wandered, unable to grasp the thoughts he was having, only lingering on the terrible emptiness in his heart and soul. Somehow and for some reason he didn't have the strength to question her and nodded before falling asleep again.
Scully let her chin rest on her chest a moment, having seen his confusion and uncertainty about her words. Sighing, she set his limp hand on his chest, pulled the blanket up to his neck, and sat back.
"That's good. He'll listen to you."
Startled, she looked up to see Mac standing nearby. He came around and sat opposite her next to Mulder.
"I'll watch at the entrance now," Skinner got up, giving no indication he'd seen nor heard what had just transpired.
"Still raining...but I haven't seen any activity," Mac reported.
Skinner sighed and quietly left.
"I don't think he heard me...Who wouldn't listen to you?" Scully asked after studying Mac a minute.
Mac was surprised by her insightful question. He opened his mouth as if he wanted to tell her, but the words wouldn't come and he shook his head.
"You never talked about it to anyone before, did you?" Scully again guessed.
"Where do you get off thinking you're so goddamned smart?!" Mac angrily hissed.
"You were a medic, weren't you? Over in Vietnam," she persisted, glad to have something else to focus her thoughts on.
"So what if I was?"
"You must have been pretty good."
"Not good enough."
She thought about that a moment, pondering how far she should persist.
"So many men died," he sighed heavily, his hands resting on crossed legs. "I did the best I could. I have to believe that now."
"But for a long time...you didn't believe it?"
"You're pretty good, Doc. Are you sure you're a medical doctor and not some kind of shrink?"
"I'm sure," Scully allowed a quick smile and looked at Mulder, who was the real psychologist here.
"That's why I came out here. To be left alone. And it's worked all these years...Those men out there, they're pretty dangerous dudes, aren't they?"
Scully, taken momentarily by surprise at the sudden change in subject, nodded after looking at him.
"And they been after you and Fox for a long time?"
"Not all the time. Only when we come upon something they want to protect or keep a secret."
"You mentioned that before. What might that be?"
"It's a long story," Scully hedged, really not wanting to get into aliens, mutants, and UFOs.
"Yeah, well, don't we all have long stories?" Mac dryly commented, grudgingly respecting her desire not to talk.
"Mulder seems to have become friends with you pretty quickly," Scully carefully observed, desiring to change the subject.
Mac looked at her a minute then at Mulder.
"Yeah, he's all right...Kind of spooky, but all right...He reminds me of a very close buddy. In fact, when I first spotted him in the woods, I thought I was seeing a ghost. He could almost pass as a brother to my buddy. Even has the same kind of personality. You just kind of naturally want to protect him, you know?" Mac had let his guard down and was looking at Scully, a sincere and soft concern in his dark eyes. "Do you know what I mean?"
"Yeah," she breathed resignedly.
"He's had a pretty rough time of it, hasn't he?"
"You might say that."
"Tell me about him. What you think he won't mind, that is."
Scully debated for a moment and shook her head.
"I can't do that. You'll have to ask Mulder after we get him out of here and he's recovering in a hospital."
Mac respected her decision, but kept looking at her.
"You and Fox are close."
She looked sharply at him.
"We're good friends as well as professionals in our field."
"Well, aside from it being none of your business, no, nothing more."
"I thought so," he smiled knowingly in a way that she could not take offense at. "What about you? You been through a lot, too?"
Scully didn't answer. She didn't want to talk about Melissa nor about being abducted and possibly being tested on.
"This person Mulder reminds you of, did you know him in Vietnam?" she asked instead.
"Yeah, we were like brothers...Great buddies...partners. When you think about it, we were kind of like you and Fox here."
Mulder stirred restlessly and mumbled. Mac reached for the wet cloth to wipe Mulder's face. Mulder pushed the blanket off, obviously no longer cold now.
"Samantha?...Samantha!" he screamed and jumped up with surprising strength, his eyes wide open and his left arm reaching out as if he could grab her.
"Mulder, take it easy. Lay down," Scully took a hold of his shoulders and tried to push him back down.
"Let her go! They're taking her! Samantha!" he angrily cried out, his face contorted with rage and determination as he fought Scully and now Mac's attempts to make him lay down. "You've got to help me stop them!...Ahhhh, fuck!" he reached for his leg while sucking in his breath from the pain, but his eyes were still on the vision only he could see. "Please let her go...Take me instead... Please...take me instead," he was weakening, the anger slowly dissolving into helpless tears as he grimaced and started panting.
"Mulder, it's all right. That happened a long time ago. Lay down now before you open the wound in your leg and start to bleed again."
"Scully?" he grabbed her as if seeing her for the first time. "They took you, too. But they brought you back. Why don't they let Samantha come back?"
"I don't know. Please, Mulder, settle down before you hurt yourself."
He kept staring at her then gasped again from searing fire in his leg and collapsed into unconsciousness again.
"Mulder?!" Scully quickly checked his breathing and heartbeat then his leg, making sure his sudden movements hadn't started the wound bleeding.
"Everything is all right," she sighed with relief.
Nothing was said for a long time. But Mac kept discreetly studying Scully and Mulder while he drank more coffee.
"You want to tell me what that was all about?"
"What?" Scully looked up at him.
"Who was Samantha?"
Scully still didn't want to go into Mulder's life with Mac, but all the worry and fatigue was weighing heavily on her and she sighed.
"She was his sister," she conceded.
Mac waited expectantly for her to go on.
"She was taken a long time ago when she was eight years old and Mulder was twelve," she continued, knowing she wasn't really telling Mac anymore than Mulder had cried out in his nightmare. "They never found her."
"Never found her?"
"No," Scully tiredly shook her head.
"It sounds like he knows who took her. Was he there when it happened?"
"Yes, he was, but you're going to have to ask him later if you want to know more."
"What did he mean about them taking you and bringing you back?" Mac persisted.
Scully avoided looking at him.
"That's long story," she finally quietly said.
"Okay, but answer this one question. Those men have anything to do with it?"
"We don't know."
"But you think they might."
"It all happened so long ago. It's very complicated...Can you keep an eye on him a few minutes? I'm going to the back of the cave," she stood up and grabbed the bowl of water with the cloth they'd been using to wipe the sweat from Mulder's face. She needed to get away from Mac's prying question and piercing eyes.
Mac watched her leave, then stared at Mulder's unshaven troubled face. He ran his hand over his own face as if he didn't want to remember something. Mulder opened his eyes but Mac could see he wasn't really cognitive. He tried to get Mulder to drink some of the medicinal herbal tea and was pleased when he did.
"Drink as much as you can, man. You gotta replace all that fluid you're sweating off and this will help you get better. That's it. Drink up," Mac gently coaxed as he held Mulder's head up so he could drink.
Mulder gazed at him as if wondering who he was, then he closed his eyes and fell asleep again. Mac put the cup down just as Scully returned. He covered Mulder with the blanket again because Mulder had started trembling.
Skinner came back in and glanced at Mulder and all around.
"How's he doing?"
"Not good. He's getting worse," Scully worriedly sighed as she set the refreshed bowl of water down near Mulder and settled in the same spot she had occupied before. The packed dirt ground was bruisingly solid beneath her and she wished she could sit on a comfortable chair.
"I haven't seen any activity for the past couple of hours."
"Maybe they left. Maybe we can get Mulder out of here now," Scully dared to be hopeful for the first time in what felt like days.
"It's not yet dark out there. If they are still around we can't chance moving him while it's still light. We need to make sure they're really gone," Mac stated.
"I don't want to wait any longer," Scully determinedly said, a flash of anger in her eyes.
"I understand that. But what good will it do to try and move him while it's still light? We could risk getting us all killed," Mac argued.
Mulder stirred restlessly and moaned. Scully tore her angry gaze from Mac and looked at her partner. Mulder reached up with his left hand and weakly grabbed her arm a moment as if to reassure himself that she was really there, then let go and tried to get more comfortable.
"Scully, I think Mac is right. We need to wait until dark. Why don't you try to get some sleep? You're not helping him by becoming too exhausted to think," Skinner was looking right at her now.
"I agree with your boss, Doc. You need to get some rest if you're going to be able to help us get Fox off this mountain in a few hours," Mac added.
Allowing herself to feel hopeful for the first time, understanding the rationalization of Mac's comment, Scully tiredly nodded.
"I'm gonna get some things to make a stretcher. You might want to keep an eye out for them commandos. Make sure they're really gone," Mac stood and looked at Skinner.
Skinner nodded and returned to the cave opening.
Watching Mac go to the back of the cave, checking Mulder one more time, Scully scooted onto the thick sleeping bag Mulder was laying on and stretched out alongside him. Smelling the dirt and sweat that clung to his clothes, catching a whiff of the strange spicy odor of the salve on his arm beneath the coarse wool Army blanket, she put her hand on his chest in the hopes that she would sense if he needed help while she nestled her head onto her left arm and closed her eyes. Within minutes, Scully was sleeping.
Mulder woke up a short time later. He couldn't remember where he was and stared at the ceiling of the cave then at the fire a moment. Then he felt someones hand resting on his chest and noticed a red-haired woman peacefully sleeping next to him. For a moment he couldn't remember who she was, but then he did and he sighed, resisting the urge to touch her soft hair.
His thoughts were all jumbled up but he remembered that she'd saved his life...more than once. And he'd saved her life several times also. She was taken away and mysteriously brought back near death one time. He remembered the anger he'd felt at whoever had harmed her, the worry that she could die, how much he'd missed having the one person he believed he could trust around every day. His breath caught and his chest constricted as he remembered feeling that way again just recently. Scully was going to leave the X-Files and him. He stared at her as more memories came to him. No, Scully just told him she was not going to leave him. They had too much work to do together. Yes, she'd said "together". That was real, wasn't it? He hadn't just dreamed that, had he?
Deep inside, he believed he was remembering correctly and he realized that just as she had sworn she was not going to leave him, he couldn't leave her. Not now, not when they both needed each other so much. So he fought to stay alive. He fought the terrible pain and darkness that threatened to overwhelm him. But he was getting so tired. He didn't know how much longer he could continue to fight. He had to move. His whole body was hurting from staying in the same position. He needed to go to the bathroom he thought, but he wasn't sure.
Scully felt him move and was instantly awake. His eyes were open and he was looking at her.
"Mulder? Are you all right?"
He looked at her for so long that she thought he was dead and hurriedly sat up, her heart hammering in her chest.
"Gotta move," he finally mumbled and tried to get up but was just too weak.
Heaving a tremendous sigh of relief, she reached up and adjusted his pillows.
He kept moving his left leg and seemed frustrated that he couldn't move his right leg.
"Mulder, try to keep still. I know it's uncomfortable, but it won't be long now and we'll get you out of here," Scully soothed.
"Don't want to leave you."
"You won't be leaving me. We'll all get out of here together."
Mulder grew still and frowned, appearing to be listening to something. His eyes grew wider.
"Do you hear that?"
Scully looked curiously at him.
She didn't hear anything for a moment. Then she did hear a droning sound as if a small airplane was flying by in the distance.
"They're leaving...They didn't get what they wanted this time...But then...neither did I," Mulder resignedly closed his eyes and appeared to have fallen asleep.
Scully looked toward the cave entrance, thinking maybe she should go and see what the droning noise was, but she could no longer hear it. How could Mulder know these things? Once more studying her partner, the fatigue gradually overtook her and though she tried to stay awake, the peaceful quietness of the cave, the sound of the fire burning hotly and oocasionally popping, and the rhythm of Mulder's rapid but steady breathing lulled her to sleep where she sat.
Mac returned from the back of the cave about ten minutes later carrying the stretcher he'd just assembled. He dropped the stretcher and rushed to Mulder's side.
"He ain't breathing!" he declared after putting his hand on Mulder's chest.
At the cave entrance, Skinner had been watching as darkness quietly engulfed the woods. There hadn't been any movements, any sight of the commandos since he heard the scream earlier that afternoon. The sky was still very cloudy and dark but the rain had stopped hours ago.
Then he heard it. A very low droning sound off in the distance. It must be an airplane, he thought, and looked all around the sky. The droning grew closer. Were his eyes playing tricks on him again? There was some kind of black object slowly moving across the sky then hovering over the woods several miles away. Skinner scrambled to his feet and stood in the cave entrance staring at the object. It gradually sank past the treelines.
Skinner felt cold and scared. What could it be? Had he really seen it? Five, then ten minutes went by before he heard it again. Then he spotted it. A large black triangular shaped craft slowly rising from the woods then rapidly disappearing into the clouds, a flash of lightening momentarily giving the craft a more vivid form.
Skinner leaned against the solid cave wall and sighed. This was just too much. What in the world was going on out here? Then he heard Mac and rushed into the cave.
Scully thought she heard something and groggily raised her head.
"He's ain't breathing!" Mac repeated.
Eyes wide open now, Scully quickly lay her head on Mulder's unmoving chest and listened, then sat up.
"He's in fibrillations...Get him flat!" she ordered. "How long has he been like this?"
"I don't know," Mac pulled the pillows out from under Mulder's head so he lay flat on the sleeping bag then quickly straddled his stomach. Feeling for Mulder's breastbone, Mac clasped his hands together and began cardiac massage.
Scully felt Mulder's neck for a pulse, goosebumps prickling on her skin and her face going instantly white when she felt it fluttering almost to a stop. She tilted his head back and made sure his airway was clear, waited for Mac to finish counting out the first series of massages, then pinched Mulder's nose, covered his mouth with hers and breathed in. Mac resumed the cardiac massage. Skinner came rushing in and watched intently, ready to take over if either of them grew tired.
"Come on, Mulder! Don't quit on me now!" Scully muttered between breaths.
Mac listened to Mulder's chest and shook his head as he continued.
"Mulder! Don't' do this," Scully said between gritted teeth, then determinedly breathed into his mouth again.
Mulder still wasn't responding.
"Mulder, don't you dare leave me now," she muttered again between breaths. "We can't let them win...We still have a lot of work to do!...What about Samantha?...We have to keep looking for Samantha!"
She was getting breathless and her voice was shaking. Skinner got closer, ready to take over if she couldn't do it anymore.
Mulder gasped and Scully and Mac stopped, both sweating from their efforts.
"Mulder? Can you hear me?" Scully anxiously felt Mulder's neck for his pulse. "Got a pulse...a pretty good one," she sighed, hearing her own rapid pulse in her ears.
Mulder grimaced and concentrated on breathing, wondering why it felt as if he hadn't done so in a while.
They all watched him closely as he slowly moved his head and opened his eyes, still taking shuddering breaths.
"Mac?...What are you doing?" he quietly rasped.
Mac had forgotten he was still straddling Mulder's stomach and quickly got off. Mulder was confused and focused on Scully, his eyes full of concern.
"Scully...Why is your nose bleeding?"
Scully hadn't even noticed her blood dripping onto Mulder's shoulder. She put her fingers to her nose and looked at them. They were covered with blood. Mac quietly handed her a washcloth and she dabbed at her nose and tried to stop the bleeding.
"Mulder, don't worry about it. It's just the altitude. How are you feeling?"
Mulder stared at her a long moment, then sleepily closed his eyes.
He managed a bit of a nod and grimaced while weakly reaching for his chest with his left hand.
"Why...does my chest hurt?" he asked just loud enough to be heard.
"You stopped breathing. We had to give you CPR."
His eyes opened and he looked from Mac to Scully.
"Tell me Mac didn't..."
"He didn't. I did," Scully cut him off, knowing what he was concerned about.
"Wish I'd been awake for that," he weakly smiled and closed his eyes again.
"If you'd been awake there would have been no need to pound your chest, man," Mac dryly stated.
Mulder smiled and was soon asleep.
Mulder's breathing and heart rate were as strong and regular as could be expected for his condition now. Scully took a shuddering breath and began shaking uncontrollably. Tears came unbidden to her eyes as she studied Mulder's face and took comfort that it had lost that terrible bluish hue and that a pink flush was now returning to it. "Let's...let's get him propped back up."
Skinner and Mac did so.
She checked him over, hands still shaking while unobtrusively trying to wipe the tears from her eyes.
"Scully...are you all right?" Skinner gently put his hand on her shoulder.
She almost flinched away but his touch felt comforting and she needed it. Wanting desperately to maintain her composure, however, she simply nodded and got to her feet.
"I...I need to...freshen up a little," she stammered, avoiding their eyes.
Mac understood what she was trying to say and also stood.
"Right back there," he pointed toward the back of the cave and handed her the flashlight.
Scully didn't look at either of the men, not wanting them to see how hard she was struggling to control her emotions. She took the flashlight and went to the back of the cave. Turning a sharp corner, she heard the sound of water trickling and found a small waterfall. Still trembling from the close call, still struggling to hold back the tears, she cupped one hand under the water and poured it over her face and cleaned her nose free from blood.
While making sure the nosebleed had stopped, she could no longer control the tears. The water acted as a camouflage, an excuse to let the tears go, and she quietly sobbed until she was kneeling on the ground by the water and could cry no more. She was so exhausted from the emotions and the emergency surgery and saving Mulder's life and everything else that had been going on in her life recently. She couldn't even summon the anger she knew was lurking beneath the surface that Mulder seemed to consistently put his life in jeopardy in search of his quest no matter how other people felt about him. She washed her face several times in hopes that the coolness of the water would bring down any puffiness from the tears. Then she simply knelt for a long time and tried to sort through her feelings.
She replayed what she'd said while breathing into Mulder's mouth. "We still have a lot of work to do!" she'd declared. Did she really believe that? She and Mulder seemed to have drifted apart recently, almost to the point where she was having thoughts about asking for a transfer. "Knew you wouldn't abandon me," Mulder had said, more than once. Had he picked up on the thoughts she was having? Did he know she was thinking she might not be able to take any more? Was she really thinking that way at all?
From the time they'd found Mulder she realized his one big fear seemed to be that she was not going to come looking for him. And she had consistently reassured him that it wasn't true, that she would always be there for him, the whole time with an unacknowledged belief that she wasn't being totally honest with him. Now, fresh from coming so close to losing him forever, she was being forced to accept her deepest thoughts. Her declaration to him that they still had a lot of work to do seemed to erase all previous doubts for now. Like it or not, they were in this together and they would remain that way until she found her answers and Mulder found his truths. Saving his life would be her second chance to reassure him of this.
Taking a deep shuddering breath, brushing her hair back with steadier hands now, Scully tiredly stood and started back toward the campfire in the main cave. On the way she spotted something she had not seen before. There were actually shelves of books on the walls. Curious, she went to check them out. They were literary classics for the most part, well worn and well read by all appearances. "Moby Dick", "Two Years Before The Mast", "Ben-Hur", "Grapes of Wrath", and many many more. There were books about Vietnam, books of poetry, and science fiction books. Even several books about Native American religions and holistic medicines. And on one shelf there were spiral notebooks filled with writing. A personal journal, she wondered?
Shining the flashlight around, she found neatly stacked crates of supplies. Canned goods, Army MREs, clothing, other necessities, nearly everything she could imagine someone needing for a long stay was there. It must have taken Mac countless trips to haul all these heavy items up to this cave. And why here? Why had he chosen to live in a cave?
Realizing they would start to worry about her, deciding this was not her business but only Macs, Scully returned to the cave and quickly checked Mulder to be sure nothing had happened while she was gone.
Mac silently handed her a cup of steaming coffee.
"Thank you," Scully quietly said as she made herself comfortable sitting next to Mulder.
"Are you all right, Scully?"
"Yes sir, I'm fine."
"Will Agent Mulder be all right?"
Scully hesitated a moment.
"I don't know what caused that to happen," she frowned, then looked at Mac. "Did you give him more of that medicine to drink?"
"Yes I did a while ago."
"Just what exactly is in that drink?"
Mac was surprised by her tone of voice.
"What are you suggesting?"
"You know damn well what I'm suggesting. If you don't know what that stuff is then how do you know you didn't give Mulder too much? Or that it's not interacting with the drugs I gave him for the pain and infection?"
Mac's face suddenly clouded with anger.
"You be careful what you say, Doctor. I know enough that if he was gonna have a reaction to it, it would have happened almost immediately after he drank it. Besides, he'd had it before and this didn't happen, so I can't explain why he suddenly stopped breathing anymore than you apparently can."
"What about the paralysis in his arm? You said it could spread. Could that have caused it?" she unflinchingly asked, earning Mac's grudging admiration and respect. He'd seen people wither before his eyes when he'd spoken to them like he'd spoken to Scully. He shook his head.
"If that were the case, all the CPR in the world wouldn't have brought him back...Besides, the medicine is working."
"What do you mean?"
"He's been sweating the poison from his body."
Both of them kept looking at one another, each having their own thoughts.
"He just...got tired of the struggle a moment and put it down. We helped him pick it back up again."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Ask him when he gets better," Mac simply shook his head again and gazed at Mulder a moment before going to make a fresh pot of coffee. It was clear none of them were going to rest for a while.
"Do you have any idea what he's talking about?" Scully looked at Skinner.
"I'm not sure...Scully, you're tired. You need to get some rest."
"I'll rest when my partner is out of here and in a hospital," she vehemently stated as she got control of her emotions again.
"Scully, we'll get him out of here and he will make it. Mulder is not a quitter."
Scully stared at Skinner. She didn't even want to refute what he'd just said by reminding him that Mulder had indeed quit for a moment there. She looked at her watch. It would be getting dark soon, then maybe they could make their getaway.
A short time later, Mac gave them both more fresh coffee.
"Where did you learn your medical skills?" Skinner asked, needing to do something to help make the time go by faster.
Mac looked at Scully and remembered that Skinner hadn't been in the cave with them when they spoke of it earlier. He answered a few of Skinner's questions just as he had Scully's, then they all were quiet for a while.
"I'm gonna watch at the cave entrance until it gets dark. Make sure our friends are really gone," Mac stood, picked up his automatic rifle, and left the cave.
"Scully, get some rest. I'll keep an eye on Mulder," Skinner assured her.
Scully shook her head and placed her hand on Mulder's arm. She didn't want to rest, she didn't want to give in to the fatigue.
A short time later, Mac gently woke them both up. He had a worried expression on his face as he looked at Mulder.
"What? What is it?" Scully was instantly awake and quickly examined Mulder. Skinner knelt next to her. Her heart sank as she looked at Mac.
"What is it, Scully?"
"From all indications...Mulder has slipped into a coma...Can we take him out of here now?"
"That's what I came in here to tell you. I haven't seen any activity for hours. I went down into the woods and scouted around. There's no one there. I think we can move out now."
"Then let's not waste anymore time," Skinner got the stretcher and placed it next to Mulder while Scully gathered all her medical supplies and shoved them into her backpack.
With the stretcher ready, all three of them carefully lifted Mulder's heavy body and set him on it. Scully placed his arms across his stomach then covered him with a blanket.
"I think we have everything," she sighed a few minutes later, looking around the cave then at Mac while pulling on her backpack and picking up Skinner's backpack.
Mac had gone around putting some things where he wanted them, making sure the campfire was out, and putting out all but one of the torches.
"Ready when you are. It's going to be a long haul, but the good news is it's mostly downhill. Step out carefully. The hill here is slick from the rain," he warned Skinner as they prepared to lift the stretcher. Skinner nodded and they picked up Mulder and, with Scully lighting the way, they headed out of the cave.
Scully put the last flashlight out and set it inside the cave. Following the men to the cave entrance, she was surprised to see clouds obscuring the stars. She thought the storm had blown over by now. It still looked as if it could storm again. Not wishing to tempt fate, she didn't say anything. Adjusting her backpack and carrying Skinner's, she followed the two men as they cautiously walked down the side of the cliff, occasionally slipping a little but able to somehow keep their balance. While they were busy handling their heavy burden, Scully took it upon herself to keep an eye out for the commandos as best she could in the gloomy darkness. However, after a couple of hours of stopping to rest briefly and going on, it looked like they were indeed completely alone.
Scully was amazed that Mac could even see where he was going, but he skillfully led the way, quietly warning them when they needed to sidestep something or duck down. They took frequent breaks so the two men could rest and so they could continue to keep an eye on Mulder's condition. He still remained unconscious.
During one break, while Mac had gone scouting ahead, Skinner went into the woods to relieve himself when he thought he saw something move in the distance. Quickly grabbing his pistol in case it was a commando, Skinner's heart almost stopped when he spotted some kind of translucent figure hovering in the woods. He began to call for Scully, but thought better of it and kept staring at the ghostly figure. He couldn't tell what it was or what he should do. Then it seemed to take on the form of a man dressed in Native American buckskin clothing. There were two feathers in his long dark hair and he stood proud with his arms crossed on his chest, his face shimmering and indistinct. He slowly moved his right arm and pointed toward the direction they had been heading. Then as quickly as it appeared, it disappeared again.
His skin crawling with fear, Skinner glanced all around to see if he could find it again. It was nowhere to be found. Then Skinner spotted Mac standing between where the figure had been hovering and where he had been standing. Mac appeared to be staring at the same spot before he too slowly vanished into the darkness of the woods. Skinner put his pistol away and wondered once again what the hell was going on in these strange and creepy woods.
"Sir? Are you all right?" Scully asked him when he returned, alarmed by his expression.
"Huh? Yeah," Skinner shortly answered, watching as Mac quietly joined them and got into position to lift Mulder. Mac didn't look at Skinner nor did he say anything.
Even in the darkness, Scully could tell something wasn't quite right with Skinner. He looked pale and shaken. What could it be? Seeing she was obviously not going to be getting any answers from Skinner, she merely followed them when they resumed walking.
"How much longer before we get to a road or something?" she panted when they stopped to rest again in the middle of the night.
Mac looked at her and wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his shirt.
"We're a long way from any busy roads...But we're making fast progress...I figure we could be back at your cars by mid-morning."
"That long?! Isn't there something more we can do? Maybe I could go ahead and get some help. And whatever happened to Donny?" she frustratingly declared while wiping the sweat from her face with her sleeves.
"Don't know. Maybe them commandos got him. And you don't know your way around these woods. All we'd need is for you to get lost."
Scully looked at Skinner. She knew she wouldn't be much help carrying the stretcher. They'd have to take more frequent breaks and that would slow their progress even more. They had no choice but to keep going the way they were.
"Let's not waste anymore time," she sighed and stood.
The men were tired but they sensed her urgency and got up to carry the stretcher. By the time it was getting light, Skinner knew he couldn't take another step. All the breaks in the world couldn't dispel the exhaustion he was feeling. They stopped near a stream. All three of them knelt by it and splashed the cold refreshing water on their hot and tired bodies. None of them wanted to move for a while, but they all knew they simply had to keep going.
It was mid-morning when Mac stopped and listened a moment before signaling to set Mulder down.
"What? What is it?" asked a panting and sweating Scully.
Mac looked at Mulder a long moment.
"Mr. Skinner, how about you checking on down that way a bit? If I'm not wrong we should be just about by his car," Mac pointed down the hill.
Scully got a hopeful expression on her face as Skinner glanced at her then wasted no time going down the hill. She saw Mac look at Mulder again. He reached into his shirt pocket for something and knelt beside Mulder. It was a small leather pouch. Mac muttered some unintell-igible words Scully could scarcely hear, then placed the pouch in Mulder's right hand, carefully closing Mulder's fingers around it. He briefly placed his hand on Mulder's warm forehead and muttered some more words, his eyes closed. Then he looked up at Scully a moment before standing.
"Just a little something to help out. Tell him not to open it unless he's all alone or it'll lose its powers...He's gonna be all right, you know...Now, I gotta go, um...If you'll excuse me?"
Understanding Mac needed to relieve himself, Scully was nevertheless curious about what he meant and why he was acting as though he was leaving. However, she kept glancing where Skinner had gone, eager to get Mulder to help. She looked back for Mac. He was gone.
"Scully! Scully!" Skinner excitedly shouted a short time later as he rushed up the hill toward her. "Mac was right! The cars are right down there. We can get Mulder to a hospital now...Where's Mac?" he panted.
"He went that way," she sighed happily as she checked Mulder. "It won't be long now, Mulder. We'll have you in a hospital soon."
Skinner paced the ground waiting for Mac.
"How long ago did he leave?" he finally asked.
"Just after you went to find the cars. Mac!! Mac!!" she called.
There was no answer.
"We don't have time for this. I'll go see if I can find him," Skinner went off to find Mac.
He returned five minutes later.
"Are you sure he went this way?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. Isn't he there?"
Skinner shook his head.
"I don't see any sign of him anywhere."
Scully couldn't believe it. Why would Mac leave them now?
"Scully, do you think you can help me carry Mulder the rest of the way?"
"What about Mac?"
"He's gone. Come on, we have to get Mulder out of here," Skinner took his backpack from her and put it on then bent down to pick up the stretcher. Without hesitating, Scully picked up the other end and, with some difficulty, helped carry Mulder to the cars.
The two of them managed to get Mulder onto the backseat of their rental car because it was bigger than the one Mulder had rented. Scully held Mulder's head on her lap while looking out the window one more time for Mac as Skinner drove off.
Within one hour, at top speed, they were pulling into a hospital emergency entrance. Skinner jumped out of the car and rushed into the hospital for a gurney. Soon they had Mulder inside the emergency room.
"I'm a medical doctor. My name is Dana Scully. Who's in charge here?"
"I am. Dr. Steven Russell," said a man wearing safety glasses, green surgical scrubs, and appearing to be in his thirties.
While the nurses quickly cut off Mulder's dirty jacket and shirts, Scully told Russell about Mulder's injuries. They immediately focused their attention on the more serious leg wound, ordering x-rays, blood workup, and intravenous medications for the fever and infections. Russell ordered a couple of nurses to carefully remove the crude splint so they could get clear x-rays while another nurse swabbed Mulder's left arm and started an IV.
"Blood pressure is dropping," one of the nurses said.
Russell quickly ordered more medication.
"How long has he been this way? When did you say he was he shot?" Russell asked Scully while the nurses cut the rags that held the wooden splint to Mulder's leg then cut off the remaining clothes and discreetly covered his groin area with a sterile sheet. Russell immediately stepped closer to cut away the bandage, a nurse helping with the tape that was holding the wound closed.
"Um...about two days ago...maybe longer," Scully was confused about what day it was, unable to concentrate on anything but how deathly pale Mulder was. She was getting the sick feeling that something bad was about to happen and couldn't take her eyes from him. She subconsciously listened to the doctors orders and trusted she would know if he wasn't doing something right.
"Did you say earlier that you operated on him and removed the bullet?" Russell asked while examining the wound and listening to his nurses report Mulder's status, occasionally giving more orders for treatment as he dabbed at the blood oozing from the ugly hole in Mulder's thigh. They already had an oxygen mask on Mulder and an EKG connected to pads adhering to Mulder's chest.
"I tried to remove the bullet," Scully clarified, her eyes now riveted on the erratically moving EKG. "He was in such terrible pain I was afraid he'd go into shock and die if I didn't remove it. I suspected it was lodged against the femur and had broken it or splintered it, thus causing all the pain. But once I felt around inside the entrance wound I discovered that the bullet was more than likely a..." Scully couldn't go on for a moment, the realization that Mulder wasn't doing well hitting her hard, her chest tightening so badly she felt like she couldn't breathe.
"More than likely a what?"
Dr. Russell looked sharply at her.
"And where did you do this?"
"In a cave."
"You took a big risk," the doctor stated in a not too unfriendly tone of voice.
"I know. I had just enough medical supplies to make things as sterile as I could."
The x-rays were taken and they resumed examining Mulder while the x-rays were being processed.
"You said some kind of animal attacked him and did this to his arm?" the doctor asked as he examined Mulder's arm while a nurse cleaned it.
"That's what he told us. He said he didn't see what kind of animal it was."
"You stitched it up?"
"I did," she stood next to him and looked at the wound.
"This appears to be almost completely healed. What's this residue on it?" Russell took one of the gauze pads the nurse had used to clean the wound and studied the mud-like residue on it.
"It's an...old Indian remedy," Scully hesitantly said.
Russell looked at her. Before he could comment, the x-rays were back and they were both studying them.
"Well, you were right. The bullet is lodged in the femur. And it does have the configurations of a Black Talon," commented Russell.
"But it doesn't look like the femur is fractured all the way through," Scully pointed at the film.
"No, more like splintered at the site of the bullet. That certainly would account for the extreme pain you described him having...I'd like our orthopedic surgeon to see this before deciding what to do."
Scully nodded and returned her attention to Mulder, who appeared to be struggling to breathe.
"It looks like you did a good job. No evidence of arterial damage, no nerve damage so far. We'll know for sure when we get in there and look around."
"I was lucky," Scully quietly stated, her eyes still on Mulder.
"Doctor! He's stopped breathing!" a nurse declared.
Russell didn't waste any time starting cardiac massage. Scully tilted Mulder's head back and prepared to clear his breathing passage. She expertly inserted a tube that seemed to magically appear in her hands then watched a nurse attach a device to pump air into Mulder's lungs. Everyone was watching the heart monitor, which showed a line jumping irregularly as his heart struggled to keep beating.
"Come on, Mulder," Scully breathed, tenderly placing both her hands on either side of his head and willing him to stay alive.
Russell noticed the electronic paddles of the defibrillator had been quickly set up and reached for them while ordering a nurse what setting to put it on. The nurse set the charger and squirt gel on the paddles.
"Clear!" Russell ordered.
Scully let go of Mulder's head and everyone stepped back a little while Russell placed the paddles at strategic points on Mulder's chest and shocked him. The line jumped then gradually settled down to a more steady rhythm. Russell set the paddles aside.
"No spontaneous breathing," a nurse announced as she resumed forcing air into Mulder's lungs.
Scully and Russell realized, to their dismay, that Mulder was too weak to breathe on his own for now, so it was decided to place him on a ventilator until they could hopefully wean him off as he grew stronger. Russell ordered more medication, Scully listened closely and agreed. They watched to be sure Mulder was stabilizing.
A young male nurse came in with a sheet of paper. Russell quickly scanned it, handed it to Scully, then ordered a blood transfusion. A wave of fear washed over Scully, leaving her feeling weak with despair, but she somehow dredged up the strength to push it back lest Russell decide to have her removed from the emergency room.
"Dr. Pearson is here, sir," a young nurse notified Russell.
Russell ordered a couple of other things then turned to greet a thirtyish-looking female doctor with short blonde hair and soft brown eyes just slightly taller than Scully.
"Thanks for coming down Ricki. Dr. Dana Scully, this is our resident orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Richelle Pearson. We call her Ricki."
Ricki shook hands with Scully, curious about her rugged and dirty appearance but didn't say anything. Instead, she stepped up to the x-rays and examined them.
"Looks like a Black Talon in there," she commented, looking at Scully, who nodded. "Have the police been notified?"
"I'm an FBI agent. So is Mulder."
Both doctors stared at her a moment.
"You're an FBI agent AND a doctor?" asked Russell, his eyes wide with amazement.
"Yes. Agent Mulder is my partner."
"The patient is your partner?" asked Ricki, glancing at Russell.
Scully instantly understood what their concerns were.
"Yes, he is and I know him probably better than anyone. So I can assure you I will be as professional, medically speaking, as I can be. Could we now discuss what the best method of treatment for the injury should be?"
"Dr. Scully, you do realize that we can't plan any kind of surgery until Agent Mulder's condition has been stable for a while and he begins breathing on his own. In his present condition, he's just too weak for the trauma of more surgery," Dr. Pearson stated.
"I agree," Scully sighed, really not wanting to wait any longer but knowing the infection could be controlled now and was not as life threatening as Mulder's weakened condition. He'd already suffered two bouts of cardiac and respiratory arrest. They had to give his body time to recover from them. She looked at the blood transfusion they had going as well as other IV fluids and medications. "How long do you think he'll need?"
"We'll monitor him constantly in ICU. Hopefully, within 24 hours. I don't need to tell you how important it is that we remove that bullet."
Scully closed her eyes tiredly and nodded.
"You look like you could use some rest, Dr. Scully. We'll keep a very close eye on your partner and let you know if there are any changes," Russell promised.
"I'd like to stick around for a while longer, if you don't mind. I'll...stay out of the way," Scully ran her hands over her face and blinked her eyes.
She followed Mulder's bed as he was taken to ICU then gratefully accepted a cup of coffee and a somewhat comfortable chair beside his bed. She knew she should leave and take a shower and get some clean clothes on, but she wasn't ready to leave him yet. Even with more than a week's growth of beard, he appeared so boyish and vulnerable as he lay helpless with a machine assisting his breathing, reminding her of Alaska. She finished the coffee and set the empty coffee cup down, then held Mulder's hand. It felt cold and lifeless.
"It's not your time, Mulder. Not now anymore than it was before. There's too much to do. Your work isn't finished yet and you're the only one who can do it. Don't leave now. Don't even think of leaving now," she softly whispered to him.
A short time later, Skinner came into the room. Scully looked up and joined him near the door.
"How's he doing?"
"We almost lost him again. He's too weak to breathe on his own for now, so he's on the ventilator. We're hoping to get him off it within 24 hours. He'll need surgery on his leg to get the bullet out, as you already know. Then they'll be able to determine what can be done for the damage to his femur...The next 24 hours should tell."
It wasn't exactly the good news Skinner was hoping to hear.
"You look tired. Why don't you go get cleaned up and get some rest? I'll stay here with him," Skinner offered.
Scully noticed that Skinner had already gotten cleaned up and changed. She glanced at Mulder, looked down at her own clothes and could smell the sweat and grime of the past few days on herself, and dully nodded.
"I'll be back in a few hours."
Scully spoke to one of the nurses about getting cleaned up somewhere in the hospital. She found that Skinner had brought her backpack up, so she grabbed it and followed the nurse to the doctors shower room. She didn't think a shower could ever feel as good as this one did. She took her time scrubbing all the sweat and dirt off her body and out of her hair, then just stood in the hot massaging spray until she almost fell asleep. Dressing in clean clothes, she fell on an empty cot and tried to sleep. But as tired as she was, sleep eluded her. After an hour, she gave up, pulled her boots back on and returned to ICU.
Skinner was still there but he was outside the room talking on a phone while glancing at Mulder through the window separating them. He noticed Scully and finished talking, then hung up.
"Couldn't sleep," Scully explained. "Any changes?"
Skinner looked at the nurse in charge.
"I'm afraid not," she said.
Scully looked at Mulder's chart. She was sure there would be more positive changes by now. More than three hours had gone by.
"What's wrong?" Skinner wanted to know, concerned about the frown on her face.
"I was hoping for more improvements. Where's Dr. Russell?"
"He's down in emergency, but I'm told he'll be up here in a little while."
Scully asked her several more questions and made some suggestions for treatment. Since the nurses had been informed that Scully was also a doctor and they should obey her instructions, the nurses quickly complied.
"Are you going to stay here a while?" Skinner felt like he wasn't needed and there were things he wanted to check out.
"Yeah, I'll be here."
"Okay, I'm going to make some more phone calls. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Scully simply nodded, still studying the latest blood tests noted on Mulder's chart.
Almost two hours later, Dr. Russell came into ICU. He was also dismayed about Mulder's lack of progress. No one could figure out why. By then, Skinner had returned and listened to their discussion. He stared for a long time at Mulder, until the two doctors were done talking and had ordered more blood tests.
"Nurse, where are Agent Mulder's clothes?" Skinner wanted to know while an idea was forming in his mind.
"Excuse me, sir?"
"The clothes Agent Mulder was wearing when he was brought in. Don't you put them and anything else he had with him in some kind of bag or something?" "Yes, we do. I imagine it could still be down in emergency somewhere," she said, know-ing that since this was a gunshot injury Mulder's clothes would not be thrown out lest they be needed for evidence.
"Could you have the bag brought here?"
She nodded and left.
"What is it?" Scully curiously asked.
Skinner shook his head and looked thoughtfully at Mulder.
When the nurse returned with the bag, Skinner took it and dumped the belongings onto a chair. He rummaged through them until he found what he wanted. Holding it thoughtfully a moment, he briefly glanced at Scully.
Appearing to think about what he should do for a moment, Skinner went to Mulder and carefully placed the pouch in Mulder's right hand and, as Mac had done before, he closed Mulder's fingers around it. Scully glanced at Russell, surprised he didn't object. Skinner rejoined them.
"Sir, what are you doing?"
"I noticed the medicine pouch in Mulder's hand when we put him in the car. I figured Mac had given it to him before he left?"
"Yes, he placed it into Mulder's right hand the same as you just did. And he mumbled some words for a moment before leaving."
"If my guess is correct, the Indians believe such a medicine pouch will help a patient attain what they call hozra, or harmony. In that way, he will become stronger with the desire to live...I don't really know that much about it nor about the ritual that goes with it. It was so long ago that I was on the reservation."
"You know enough," Russell spoke up. They both looked at him. "He can use all the help he can get. Even something as supposedly superstitious as a medicine pouch. I've seen stranger things happen."
"You approve?" Scully was surprised, then realized something. "Wait a minute, you weren't very surprised when I told you it was an old Indian remedy that helped heal Mulder's arm."
"I've seen it before. It's a combination of nature remedies that really works. But try to convince the medical community about the combination and the method used to apply it. Did you come up with it?" Russell asked Skinner.
"No, it was a man who saved Agent Mulder's life until we were able to get to him. He seemed to know a lot about local Indian culture."
"Was he a Native American Indian?"
"No, he wasn't. He looked like a Vietnam veteran."
"Where is he now?"
"We don't know. He disappeared when we found our cars."
A nurse came in with a tray and proceeded to take another blood sample.
"It looks like it could still be a while. Would you like the nurse to bring you a more comfortable chair?" Russell suspected Scully would want to continue to stay with Mulder.
Scully nodded. Soon she was alone in the room with Mulder, a nurse coming in every fifteen minutes to take vitals and note them. Scully slipped her hand into Mulder's limp left hand and squeezed it, not allowing her fears to overtake her.
Hours later, Scully had fallen asleep, her head resting next to their entwined hands. Mulder's eyes moved and slowly opened. He didn't know where he was. There was something stuck down his throat and pumping air into his lungs and he became frightened. Then he felt a warm presence at his right side and glanced over there. Mac was standing there with a smile on his face. He reached down and clasped Mulder's right hand and the pouch within both his hands.
"You're going to pull through, Fox. The Spirits are with you. They will help you fight to return so you may continue your quest for the truth. Your father was right, the truth lies within you. It is not your time now anymore than it was the first time you made this journey. Your work is not yet finished," Mac softly assured him.
Mulder felt Mac's hands briefly squeeze his own, then Mac backed up and disappeared. He closed his eyes, a warm sensation of peace and contentment radiating from his right hand as he went back to sleep.
Scully sensed something. She slowly woke up and looked all around then at Mulder. Something was different. Standing, she watched his breathing for a moment, then looked at the ventilator, hope rising for the first time since they got there.
Just as she was about to shout for the nurse, she noticed something by Mulder's right hand. She walked around the bed to see what it was. It was Mulder's FBI identification and badge wallet, the teeth marks clearly imprinted on it. Where did it come from? She was sure it wasn't with Mulder's clothes when Skinner rummaged through them. She picked it up and looked inside. The badge and picture identification were missing. Only the wallet was there. Then she remembered. The last person to have the wallet was Mac. She quickly went to the nurses station just outside the room.
"Nurse! I believe Agent Mulder is starting to breathe on his own. Call Dr. Russell right away so we can get the ventilator off...And Nurse? Did you see anyone go into Agent Mulder's room?"
"No, ma'am. No visitors are allowed at this time of day."
Scully stood there with her mouth slightly open, holding Mulder's wallet while the nurse quickly summoned Dr. Russell. She looked all around, but there was no one who looked like Mac. A creepy sensation causing her body to tingle swept over her, making her shiver a moment.
Within minutes, both Dr. Russell and Dr. Pearson joined Scully in Mulder's room. They were so pleased with Mulder's coloring and obvious improvement that they agreed to wean Mulder off the ventilator and remove it. To their collective relief, Mulder almost instantly began breathing on his own. They scheduled surgery on his leg two hours later as long as he remained stable.
Nearly ten hours after the successfully completed surgery, Scully was sitting beside the bed where Mulder lay weak and pale, IV tubes going into his arms, his right leg bandaged and propped up on pillows, oxygen tube at his nose, and heart monitor on his chest. She'd been studying his chart and was allowing herself to believe he really would be all right for the first time since they found him days ago.
She turned to see Skinner standing by the door. She set the chart down and joined him.
"Well, he still very weak. Luckily, the femur was not completely fractured, but it was splintered. They successfully removed the splintered bone fragments and the bullet, which was indeed a Black Talon. He's showing remarkable progress so far. If he continues to do so, he could be out of here in less than a week."
Skinner nodded but she could tell there was something bothering him.
"What is it?"
"I told Officer Gravis about Mac. He claims there's no man in those mountains called Mac or Mad Mac."
"Of course there is! He helped us. He saved Mulder's life. We talked to him. Did you tell him everything Mac did to help us?" Scully was looking at Skinner in disbelief.
"I told him what he looked like, how he dressed, and what we knew about him. Drew a complete blank."
"Well, what about Donny? Mac sent Donny to get help."
"They spoke to Donny. He says he doesn't know anyone named Mac nor anyone fitting Mac's description."
"He's lying. Why would he leave us up there all alone then?"
"He claims he was only leaving us temporarily. That he was worried about his family and wanted to check on them and that he returned to find us gone. He figured we'd found Agent Mulder and returned to our cars," Skinner sighed.
"That's a lie, too! We hadn't found Mulder yet when he left. How could he know we'd be all right or that we'd find Mulder at all?"
Skinner just shook his head.
"This is some kind of joke, isn't it?"
"I don't know what it is. They say they've been around these parts all their lives and they know about the Vietnam veterans and why they're up there. But they claim none of them is named Mac or Mad Mac."
Scully was speechless.
"So, I made some phone calls back east. Found out there was a Thomas MacLeod from around here. Vietnam veteran with a lot of bad baggage from the war. Tried to fit in when he got back but couldn't make it work. Kept losing his jobs, was arrested several times for violent behavior. Then one day he just disappeared. I asked around about him last night and they said they remembered 'Tommy'. That 'Tommy MacLeod' was killed in a forest fire more than ten years ago. No body was found."
"Then how could they declare him dead?"
"Several witnesses claim to have seen him surrounded by fire before he disappeared."
"Was one of those witnesses Donny?"
Skinner shook his head.
"I decided to check out his military records. Honorable discharge, several medals for bravery under fire, two purple hearts, and last known address right here in Flagstaff. Then a copy of his death certificate."
Scully was completely baffled.
"Oh and another thing...Sergeant Thomas MacLeod was not a medic in Vietnam. He was an infantryman."
Scully gazed at Skinner a moment then looked at Mulder.
"He was real, sir. There was no way he could not have been."
Skinner just stood there quietly, at a loss for words to explain what was going on.
"I assume you'll want to stay here and oversee his recovery?"
"Okay, well, I'll be heading back to Washington soon."
"Do you think this Thomas MacLeod was Mac?" Scully needed to know.
"I don't know, Scully. I can't explain it."
"No one can simply disappear without a trace."
"Why not?...It's happened...before," came a weak and raspy voice.
Scully and Skinner instantly went to Mulder, who was struggling to open his eyes. He looked at them and waited for his vision to clear while licking dry lips. His whole mouth felt like dry cotton. Recognizing the all too familiar sensation, he glanced up at the IV and confirmed that he was probably receiving some form of demerol.
"Welcome back," Scully smiled as she got a glass of water with a straw and offered Mulder a drink.
He gratefully drank some, licking his lips and sighing. Then he looked at both of them.
"Guess I'm not dead...Am I all here?" he worriedly asked, remembering his leg and trying to glance down at it. When he saw it all bandaged and propped up, his eyebrows shot up and he winced. "That looks painful."
"Are you in pain?"
Mulder seemed to consider this a moment.
"My chest hurts."
"Well, you tried to check out on us again. We had to zap you back."
"Sorry," he winced again, glad he had no memory of that.
"Just don't do it again."
"Try not to...What about Mac?" Mulder had closed his eyes and drifted off before she could answer his question.
She glanced at the monitors and relaxed. He was just sleeping now.
"Keep me posted on his condition. I'll be back in D.C. by tonight," Skinner quietly began to leave.
"Sir? Thank you for everything you did out there."
Skinner looked at her a moment then at Mulder. Without a word, he simply nodded and left.
Scully knew Mulder would drift in and out of sleep until he began regaining his strength. Several hours later when he woke up again, he noticed Skinner was gone.
"He went back to Washington."
"What's my prognosis?"
"Well, we got the bullet out. The wound was infected, of course, but there are definite signs the infection is going away. Depending on how quickly you heal..."
"I tend to heal fast."
"Well, you're pretty weak and you still have a fever, Mulder. Anyway, depending on how quickly you heal, you could be out of here in less than a week. After that, you'll need to stay home and regain your strength then start some physical therapy. Hopefully, you should be as good as new in about three to five weeks, longer if you don't co-operate."
Mulder looked at his right arm and flexed his hand.
"Seems I remember I wasn't able to move my right arm or hand before."
"You couldn't. You've only recently begun to show signs that the paralysis is going away."
"What caused it?"
"We don't know. It's as if your arm went to sleep for a while and is just now waking up after almost completely healing."
Scully shrugged, not wanting to answer. Mulder saw the expression and decided he'd pursue it when he felt stronger. He closed his eyes, hating how tired he felt, and fell asleep.
The phone rang just as he entered his apartment. He picked it up.
The darkness briefly flashed with a bright hiss as he lit up a cigarette and listened. Exhaling smoke, he slowly sat down.
"I see...Who gave you authority to pull your men out afterwards?...That was not your decision to make. You should have called me...No, your job wasn't finished! Mulder was still out there as well as Agent Scully and Assistant Director Skinner."
As he listened he sat forward in his chair now, the cigarette forgotten.
"Are you sure it's him?...How badly was he injured?...I see...No...no that won't be necessary. I trust your men made sure the area was completely sanitized? You better be right. No further mistakes will be tolerated, Colonel."
He hung up the phone and turned on the television, switching to a news channel. About five minutes later, he found what he was looking for.
"Firefighters are speculating that the latest blaze in the northern Arizona forests was caused by a severe thunderstorm that passed through the area three days ago. They are only now getting the fire under control," the newscaster announced.
He puffed on his cigarette and picked up the phone once more.
"I have a job for you."
A couple of days went by and Mulder grew stronger. To his surprise, there really wasn't that much pain in his leg and he was restless to get up, tired of being on his back, though the nurses were all very solicitous toward him. Scully was almost always there to oversee his care and to help him fill in the long empty boring hours while he was awake. She'd told him what Skinner had learned about Mac. Mulder had listened, appeared surprised, but didn't comment.
"Wonder what's in it," he absently felt his clean shaven face with his left hand while looking at the pouch Mac had left for him in his right hand.
"Mac said for you to open it when you're alone. If anyone else sees the contents, it will lose it's power."
"Maybe I'll look at it later. What about the UFO site I found? Have you gotten anyone out there to check it?"
Scully had been wondering when he would ask about that.
"Afraid not, Mulder."
"There was a forest fire in the area where we were. It destroyed hundreds of acres of woods. There's nothing left."
Mulder lay back, closed his eyes, and sighed. Then he sat forward again.
"What about those commandos?"
"Gone. Just like always," Scully shrugged.
"Scully, they were there for a reason. They were either after me or they were protecting something...maybe even both."
"How would they know you were there, Mulder?"
"Easy. They're watching us. They've been watching us. How long would it take for them to notice I wasn't coming in to work or to learn I was on vacation? All they'd have to do is what you did, check the airlines..."
"Mulder, you didn't use your own name. How would they know what name to look for?"
Mulder had forgotten that and just sat there with his mouth partway open, unable to come up with an explanation.
"Mulder, why didn't you let me in on this one? Why didn't you tell anyone?"
Mulder sat back and sighed again.
"I'm not really sure."
"Does it have anything to do with the way things had been between us before you left?"
Mulder looked at her.
"I...I just sensed that you needed some time alone...And I think I did too," he quietly explained.
Scully looked into his eyes a moment and didn't say anything. But she took his hand into hers and squeezed it gently. He squeezed hers and closed his eyes, suddenly feeling very tired.
When Mulder awoke later, it was night and Scully wasn't in the room. He was kind of glad to be alone. He stared out the black window at the dark silhouettes of the mountains and thought about Mac. Where was he? Who was he? Did they all imagine him? No, that wasn't possible. They'd seen the same man. Mac had saved his life more than once. Why had he disappeared? And would they ever learn the truth about Jack Winger's disappearance?
He picked up the leather pouch, studied it, and made glanced at the door to be sure noone was coming into his room. Mac had told Scully the pouch shouldn't be opened unless he was alone. Mulder opened the pouch and poured the small contents into the palm of his hand. He began examining each little item. There was some orangish fur, a claw, and a canine tooth Mulder was sure had once belonged to a fox; some powdery substance mixed with crushed herbs he imagined had been the salve Mac had used on his arm and in the tea he made Mulder drink; and some sunflower seeds. How could Mac have known about his passion for sunflower seeds? Mulder carefully put the items back into the pouch and closed it, gripping it tightly in his hand.
On the mountain, a lone figure walked through the woods, coming to a stop when he heard a spurt of gunfire not far off. He cautiously headed toward the sound until he saw a body laying on the ground and two men digging a grave. A third man wearing an overcoat was silently watching while dismantling a silencer from a pistol. The body was in uniform, bearing the insignia of a full colonel. It was clearly an execution.
Being careful to leave as quietly as possible, the lone figure headed up the mountain to home. Hours later he stood in front of the cave entrance a few minutes and stared at the smoke from the fire that was gradually being put out. Then he went into the cave and sat by the campfire. He quietly began singing a song very few people would understand. Before him, on a small intricately decorated wool blanket, were some items to remind him of key moments in his life. There were many small things, but the ones he concentrated on now were few. There were two clipped and tied strands of human hair, both of an almost identical warm brown color. He touched one.
"Brian," he softly said, his fingers lingering on the strands a long moment. Then he touched the other one and looked at the items near it...some orangish fur, a small claw, a canine tooth, two sunflower seeds, a badge and an identification card.
Hope you enjoyed the ride.
Dedication: To my hilarious cyberfriends MJ, Jenn, Liz, and Sifaria for encouraging me to write this and for taking the time to read it and give me valuable suggestions. Next year in Vancouver, nuts!! To Lisby, thank you very much for the writing lessons and advice. Also, this story is not meant to be taken factually or literally...what in X-Files is? I do not even begin to pretend to know all there is to know about chindees or Native American Indian rituals, so I am sure those who know better can vouch for the fantasy of these topics in this story. Please simply suspend your beliefs, let loose the imagination, and go for the ride.