Bucking like a bronc the dark-green full-ton truck refused to take the snow-covered curve that had once been a rocky, rutted excuse of a forest road. It shuddered to a precarious halt and leaned alarmingly; Jack held his breath and waited for what the truck would do next.
An eternity later, once the stillness of the mountains reestablished itself and the truck had steadfastly remained immobile, did he slowly release a long breath. Gingerly Jack peered out the driver's window and to his relief saw terra firma. He had been so aware that thin air could have been there instead.
It was times like this that he regretted the loss of his trusty Jeep, smaller and lighter. Easier to use on these narrow tracks laughingly called roads. Sigh, it would have gone off this curve like a brick sailing off of a kid's merry-go-round. Yepper, that Jeep was a great snowboard.
Not that he'd expected to even have snow. It was July for crying out loud!
Yet anyone who loved the true wilds of the outdoors knew that anything could and did happen there. Snow in July was just a given at some time, somewhere. It was just his bad luck that it had picked the one day and place he was determined to get away from the SGC, his team, his friends, and enemies, to do a little fishing - just him and the great outdoors.
Damn. He'd checked the weather. Sure there had been a threat of thunderstorms. There usually was this time of year. But one beast of a storm must have brewed up, and brought its own little slice of December with it. The big ones could do that.
Jack knew that it was already too late to outrun the storm when it first made itself known with the booming of live electricity. Still, dammit, he should have left when he first heard it. But no, Jack figured the cold was from the tiny mountain lake, shadowed and hidden most of the day by a rocky crag.
I shoulda known better, he berated himself.
The cold had been the incoming storm and it only got colder once it started rumbling. Then the edge of the storm shot fire at him and breathed not rain, but snowflakes. He'd hurriedly tossed his gear in the truck and thanked his lucky stars that he'd not made camp yet. His pack still lay in the rear seats of the crew-cab.
Getting the big truck turned around had taken time, too much time. Jack knew better than to rush it, so he carefully maneuvered the big vehicle out of the tiny bowl that the lake nestled in. Snow had already started to cover the road, the forest a whirl of white.
Two ridges over the inevitable happened, the tires had lost their grip, being clogged with the unseasonable dry snow, and slid to where he now sat. Thankfully safe for the moment, if somewhat stranded.
Jack leaned back into the warm seats of the pickup and allowed the hammering of his heart to slow to normal. He mulled over his next move.
He decided that staying in the truck would be best; someone would come looking - sooner or later. But, Jack needed to know how stable the truck's position was, staying in it and having it slid further off the road would be an invitation to disaster.
Stepping out, yet not closing the door - afraid to jar the big Ford - Jack studied its position. The front tire, still canted over in an attempt to steer through the corner, had acted like the blade of a road grader. The usual hump of dirt that lined the downhill side of the road was pushed over the edge, an edge that now rested smack against the underside of the truck, just behind the tires. That had been the terra firma he had seen; the tires appeared to rest on the dirt plowed over the edge, but in the swirling snow, he wasn't certain.
He couldn't see much in the near whiteout conditions, but he was sure that it was getting warmer, and no sooner had he thought that than the snow stopped.
"What luck!" Jack muttered and watched as the world opened up.
Even with the thick blanket of fluffy snow Jack recognized the curve, one he had walked back to on many an occasion to pick his way down the steep bank of the outside curve to reach the stream below. The forbidding pitch of the slope from road to water prevented many from chancing the climb down and the long climb up probably prevented the rest. And that was exactly why Jack liked it, the fishing was fantastic, but the difficult appearing climb was a piece of cake to anyone Air Force fit. It all went a long ways towards making him feel alive.
This was one of his little secrets. Anyone down there was difficult to impossible to see from the road without getting out and actually staring down to the water. He'd heard many a vehicle pass on the road, but no one ever stopped - like hiding in plain sight.
The gray of the sky vanished to be replaced with the deep cerulean blue that only the mountains seem to possess. Jack shaded his eyes with a hand, the air warmed instantly with such bright light. And almost immediately the snow steamed and shrank, dissolving into drips and runnels seeking paths downwards to satisfy gravity.
But as with any weather in the mountains this bright interlude didn't last long. Additional dark clouds arrived with a thunderclap that rang Jack's ears as he dived for the dry interior of his big Ford pickup. And just in time, the great outdoors abruptly disappeared in a sheet of glassy gunmetal rain.
"Looks like I'm stuck here for awhile," he groused. Being the practical military man he was he settled down to wait out the storm. The snowstorm hadn't even lasted an hour. How long could this last?
Something jarred him from the slumber the drumming of the rain had induced. Jack's watch told him it was late afternoon, yet it was nearly dark. The whole truck jarred again, his eyes snapped to the rear view mirror and a foot to the brake illuminated a scene he'd only seen on television. Where there had once been the width of the road now stood trees and even as he watched they oozed nearer, jarring the truck again.
Before he could even form an opinion at this happening, one particularly large upright tree charged into view, slammed the truck sideways and tossed him against the door.
Daniel's voice rang out clearly; his fingers wrapped firmly around his hot cup of coffee, a confused expression on his face.
"I do not know. It is not like him to be late. Nor is it usual for MajorCarter and GeneralHammond either." Teal'c's calm exterior didn't fool Daniel; the calmer he appeared the more worried he was. Something was up, and he knew somehow that Jack was at the very heart of it.
As if the mention of his name had been a cue the general briskly approached the head of the briefing room table.
"Doctor Jackson, Teal'c. We have a change of plans."
"Change of plans?" Daniel echoed.
"Why? Is that why Sam and Jack aren't here?" Daniel cut off Hammond's response, getting him a sharp look and no more information.
Just as Daniel figured Hammond was going to lecture him about listening and patience, both short in supply with SG-1's archeologist, Sam burst up the metal-stairway from the control room.
"Major, what have you discovered?"
"Sir, the SF's checked his house. No sign of the colonel or his truck, no sign of him having returned at all, nor that anyone else had been there. Neat as a pin," Major Sam Carter concluded, her breath spent, her cheeks rosy with exertion.
"Did you check his accounts?"
"Yes, sir, no activity. And I did take the liberty of checking the area where you indicated he was to be yesterday." Sam paused to gather more breath and thoughts and continued in a somber tone, "Sir... there was some violent weather in that area and some roads were washed out. And... according to the rangers at the check-in station, the colonel never checked out."
"He could still be there then?"
"That is what the rangers believe," hesitant, Sam appeared to be almost reluctant to continue, "There is a complication..."
Hammond nodded his head in encouragement to continue.
"They can't look for him." At the incredulous expression on the general's face, Sam hurried on. "There is a campground loaded with campers that needs to be evacuated, with all the rain it is being flooded, but the road in was washed out. That campground has priority over one missing fisherman."
"They're just going to forget Jack's out there?" Daniel blurted out in alarm.
"Until the others are rescued, yes," confirmed Sam, giving him a sharp look. She didn't like the idea anymore than he did.
Hammond raised a hand to forestall any further comment.
"You deal with what you can see first, Son," Hammond declared. "It is exactly what Jack would do in their shoes, what I would do."
"Is there nothing we can do?" Teal'c interjected, the big man's obvious calm reassuring. His words telling them all that there is always something that can be done.
"I do believe there is," the general answered, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Major how fast can you round up volunteers to speed up the evacuation?"
"If I can promise them that they get to help find the colonel afterwards, I think we might have to set up a lottery to stop the whole mountain from going," she declared with a huge grin.
"Then arrange it," Hammond paused. "And maybe someone could have a word with the crew repairing the road below the entrance gate? Their expertise seems appropriate for an area with washed out roads. Doctor Jackson?"
Daniel was immediately on his feet. "On it," his feet already clattering down the stairs headed for the elevators.
Hammond turned to Teal'c, who gracefully rose.
"I shall endeavor to aid MajorCarter," he intoned with an inclination of his head.
"You do that, Son," General Hammond gratefully acknowledged.
Alone in the room, he allowed himself to relax for just a moment before standing and heading into his office. He had a few phone calls to make, a few favors to ask.
"That's the last of them, Sir," Sam yelled into her cell phone, hoping to be heard over the whump-whump of the big chopper that somehow General Hammond had arranged. He'd convinced someone at Peterson that rescuing stranded campers was not only great PR, but also terrific practice for a few lucky pilots.
"How soon will we know where to send the volunteers?"
"Any time now," Carter softened her voice; she'd gotten into a habit of yelling to be heard. "The rangers are already checking the road..."
"Sam!" Daniel held up his own cell phone, frantically gesturing with his other hand.
"Sir, gotta go. I think they've found something," Sam cut off any reply Hammond may have made and bee-lined to her teammate. Daniel shoved the active cell phone at her; she didn't hesitate to take it.
Daniel could hear a tinny voice as Sam listened, but it was too low to decipher any meaning from it.
"I understand," Sam checked her watch as the person on the other end continued. "How's twenty minutes? Good." Clicking off the cell, she handed it back to Daniel and activated her own. "Teal'c. It's a go," she ordered, already running for the humvee and driver waiting for them.
Sam wondered at the skill of their driver as he threaded the big machine along the slippery, pot-holed mountain road. Sgt. Tover had insisted they needed a driver and she had gladly agreed when he told her that he was familiar with the roads in the area - very familiar. He had actually winked at her - astonishing.
"Almost there, Ma'am," their eyes met in the oversized rearview mirror, Sam smiled her thanks for the update. The sergeant had been better than his word; he knew every rock in the road and all the shortcuts that could be had. It hadn't been a smooth ride, but with more speed than even she believed possible.
Daniel, who insisted on riding up front, clung white-knuckled to his seat, his eyes glued to the road. She was convinced that he believed that Sgt. Tover wasn't watching the road at all. His hand would unlatch and actually move in the direction of the steering wheel from time to time. She'd seem him do the same with Jack, and how...
Sam's arms shot out as the vehicle stopped short, sliding a foot across the mud-coated road. Men and machines crowded together a scant few feet from the front end of the humvee; their flying arrival had hardly been noticed. Bounding out, she met Teal'c who was pushing his way through the throng towards them.
"Teal'c, how is it going?"
"I am assured that with time the road will be repaired," his voice held a distinct sourness to it. Raising an eyebrow, he elaborated, "Darkness will stop all work."
Sam's eyes shot upwards, checking for the sun and did not find it.
"But, we just got here," angrily interjected Daniel.
"They can't work in the dark, it's too dangerous. The colonel would have our butts if anyone so much as got a hangnail because of this."
Jack didn't have a corner on the stubbornness market, Daniel could be just as bad and when it came to the welfare of any of SG-1 he made mules look obliging.
"Indeed," Teal'c backed her decision immediately and that helped quell the set look on Daniel's face, and with a huff he capitulated.
"Yeah, you're right. We don't want to endanger anyone," he sighed in frustration, all nervous movement, not unlike their missing friend at the best of times.
"Okay, let's detail a guard and get the workers out of here before dark."
Orders were shouted out. Sam tried to tune out the grumbles of rejection. It was bad enough that she felt like she was betraying Jack O'Neill, but to hear others wonder where her loyalties lay was making doing this almost impossible. Didn't they know how she felt? The same way! She'd rather stay and work even in the dark, but it wasn't right to do so. This is what Jack expected of her and she would do it. Command held pain for those who would do it correctly.
Thank goodness the nights were short this time of year, Sam thought.
Daniel mopped at his forehead with his bandana, he couldn't believe that it had snowed enough here to flood the area almost 48-hours ago. The present heat was just a reminder of how fickle mountain weather could be.
Every inch of exposed surface steamed heavily as the excess water evaporated in the bright early morning sun, making the warmth feel hotter than it really was.
They had started back before first light and for two hours now the borrowed road crew operated their loaders and bulldozers while directing as many of the volunteers as possible.
Teal'c had been pressed into service as traffic control, very few drivers did other than as he asked. Loads of rubble and rock made a steady stream to the gapping hole where this part of the mountain shouldered into the small stream canyon.
Sam and foreman of the road crew agreed that it would take most of the day to rebuild the road here; it had to be done right or not at all. Daniel understood this, but he, like everyone else, just wished there was a faster way.
General Hammond's borrowed choppers had found no sign of Jack or his truck the day before or on the two low and slow sweeps of the road this morning. Daniel had gone with them on the first go round. Seeing the tiny lake explained why Jack chose it. A perfect deep-blue jewel glistened up from a dazzling white rock bowl, its edge jagged above a carpet of rich dark-green trees. Who could resist the solitude and sheer natural splendor of it all? Why were all warriors so deep he wondered?
Sudden shouting distracted Daniel from his remembrance of that flight; he followed the commotion and found himself staring down at the stream the road had washed into. If you could call that frothing torrent a stream anymore, swollen with snow melt and the excess of the rains that had followed in that freak storm, it clawed and chewed its way down its canyon in a wave of destruction.
Off a dozen feet to his left, Sam stood surrounded by workers and volunteers; everyone was looking at something down there. Daniel could only see Sam's face; something there didn't allow him to look away. It was a blank slate. His heart started to thump loudly in his ears and he torn his eyes from that deceptive mask his friend wore to find what had shocked her so badly.
Only when the stream forced aside a full-sized, nearly up-right tree with a slap of its watery might did he see it. Pointed up at them was the front end of a dark green pickup, a large dark green crew cab. Just like Jack's. Just like... Oh, my God!
So stunned and mesmerized was Daniel that he automatically plucked out and flipped open his shrilly-chirping cell phone, he even spoke.
The words of the speaker just washed over him, leaving behind no meaning and less comprehension as Daniel continued to watch the plight of the big truck, it literally bobbed like a cork. He remembered how safe the bulk of it had felt the last time Jack had...
"Doctor Jackson? Doctor Jackson! Son, answer me!"
It must have been the 'Son' that got through and with a violent jerk Daniel pulled himself out of the horror he was imagining, to speak.
"General Hammond, we just found Jack's truck."
"That's good, I'm sure Jack would like to have it back."
"Have it back? It's at the bottom of a canyon. We'll be lucky to find Jack at all down there."
"Find him... Son, haven't you been listening? Jack O'Neill has been found, alive and well."
"What? I... I..." stammered Daniel; unable to wrap his head around what Hammond was telling him. Below the big Ford flipped end over end and rolled twice before sticking fast to a couple of wedged trees. How could anyone...
"Colonel O'Neill showed up at the main gate almost a quarter hour ago. I haven't seen him, but I can't imagine the guards making something like that up?"
"Uhh, uh, hold on," Daniel clenched the phone tightly in his hand, spun around and sprinted for Sam Carter. "Sam!"
Sam was sure; she'd never seen stars before. When it clicked just what General Hammond was shouting at her over Daniel's cell phone she saw them. Beautiful sparkles against a black, blacker than space. She felt Daniel's tight grip on her upper arm, her legs refused to hold her up. Then her damned legs refused to push her fast enough along the muddy road to a vehicle - any vehicle. She had to get to Cheyenne Mountain.
Her collision with Teal'c was perfect, she babbled and Daniel babbled, but Teal'c instantly understood and in the twinkling of an eye Sgt. Tover and his humvee appeared. What better than a magic carpet ride, after all there were stars. Tover's fast and furious drive seemed faster than 'gate travel, but still too slow.
Around and around her thoughts circled, he was alive and she felt an overwhelming relief. The same relief reflected in the faces around her, and back from the eyes that constantly checked his passengers in the rear seat.
She'd wished they could have crashed the gate, but this was the SGC they were storming. And with much shouting, brandishing of ID's and hand waving they were finally through.
Sam stonily stared back at the guards and their grinning faces, wondering what kind of payback she could devise for the fun they seemed to have just had by dragging out the check-in. Maybe she should let the colonel in on this, a sly smile erupted and she wiggled back around in a much better mood at that idea.
Grateful for the abrupt stop at arrival, Sam used the momentum to catapult out of the humvee. Teal'c and Daniel were nearly abreast of her as they ran up the dark tunnel, the fastest way down.
"Let me know how the colonel is?"
Sgt. Tover's shout bounced off the dark wall as all three of them skidded to a fast turn into an open elevator, his words heard by no one, because no one was there to hear them.
Their break-neck pace slowed just outside the Infirmary; maybe it was the male bellow of outrage they all heard.
Sam skidded to a stop just inside the doors, Daniel bumped into her as Teal'c ghosted up to stand next to her. She didn't breathe, she couldn't.
And he looked... well, he didn't. Look fine that is. He looked better than fine he looked terrific. He was in very fine form too, sitting on a gurney; swinging those long legs covered in grimy, mud caked jeans. His boots dripped all over what appeared to be an equally mud-caked jacket and wet plaid fleece shirt in a heap on the floor below them.
Mud seemed to be the theme, in his hair, across his face and coated his long fingers that fluttered as his hands waved before Janet Fraiser, all in his vain attempt to escape her tender mercies.
Not often had she seen him in a sleeveless undershirt, must be the fleece, too hot for anything else. Bare shoulders, and an alluring peek at the beginnings of his chest hair. And that long neck of his... Her toes burned painfully, and she gulped. Suddenly he was looking straight at her and smiled that mega-watt version he seldom dusted off. Sam hoped that none of her sexual excitement showed. Damn, why were they military?
Not for the first time she envisioned ripping off his clothes.
"Carter," Jack's jubilant expression, turned quizzical, evaporating any further thoughts of that kind. Double damn.
"Ah, Sir..." Sam stammered, involuntarily she stepped closer to O'Neill, wondering how any man could make mud look like such a fashion statement. Even the two days of bristle threatened to have her mind rocketing down that forbidden path again.
"Where ya been?"
"Looking for you, Jack," interjected Daniel, smiling just as broadly as Jack was, and joined the small crowd eager to check that their friend was really all in one piece.
"Indeed." Teal'c added, not one to be left behind.
"Big fella. So what's going on?"
Sam could have screamed as Jack's smile faded to a puzzled frown, but immediately brighten as the revelation that he was extremely cute in that expression hit her.
"They've been out combing the countryside for you, Colonel O'Neill." When Jack made to stand, Hammond waved him down grinning. "It's good to see you're none the worse for wear."
"Thank you, Sir," Jack replied, displaying that slightly lopsided smile Sam would kill to see more often.
"So," Jack continued, "You did come looking for me?"
"Most of this command has been looking for almost two days," confirmed Hammond as he pulled up a chair to sit and look up at his filthy 2IC.
"Moi?" He looked a little shocked, his hand spread across his chest and wide-eyed. "I was just... a little delayed. Nothing to worry about."
"Jack, your truck went off the road and is laying in a flooded stream that is doing its best to make it into scrape metal."
"Oh." His hand immediately swiped at his face and smeared a blob of mud across his cheek. "Yeah, I guess that would kinda make ya wonder. Wouldn't it?"
Sam watched as Jack noticed the mud now on his hand and how he hunted for a way to get rid of it; finally wiping it down his undershirt, tugging it lower.
"Yes, Sir. It did," Sam yelped, and wished she could have clapped a hand over her mouth, but that would be admitting to too much.
"Tell, us what happened, Colonel," Hammond commanded as he crossed his legs, settling in for what had to be a long and interesting story.
Jack swung his legs up onto the gurney, laid back and crossed his arms behind his head. Giving him more elevation than the flat Infirmary pillow could. He looked relaxed and at ease.
"Ah, well, ya see..."
Jack pushed away from the glass of the truck door, fingering his head. That had smarted.
The big Ford lurched again, and the direction it lurched in was not entirely good. Now broadside to the drop-off it wouldn't take much to push it entirely off the road. And all of that mud, brush and trees were looking for a place where gravity's pull could be relieved; taking the truck too would not be a problem for the wet slide.
He had to get out, and now.
Lunging over the back of the seat he snagged his pack, surprised when it didn't catch at anything coming through the small space it had to squeeze through. Jack then twisted around to crank the window down. It was already dark, but he could still see ground and not space. But would it hold him?
His pack plopped outside and stayed there. Headfirst he followed it.
In the eerie dark false-silence, only the clattering of branches and strange slurping sounds, overridden by the roar of rushing water existed. Standing up was next to impossible in the streaming mud, its pressure threatened to sweep Jack's feet from under him every second. Strapping the sopping heavy pack to his back was just another complication in this day full of them.
Being the consummate commander he was, Jack chose the direction that would not immediately come to mind as neither a safe nor sane one. He struggled straight into the tumble of trees that inched their way across the road toward the dark slash containing the now roaring flooded stream.
Sure, this may sound insane, Jack reasoned. But, getting away from that floodwater seems very sane to me. And with a grin he swung up onto the skirt of matted turf and brush the nearest tree sported around its trunk. It turned out to be a good plan; he made fast progress across the more solid, if somewhat mobile ground.
Walking across it was very reminiscent of the moving walkways that had been popular in large airports in the not so far past. About 300 feet later he came across the edge of the slide and was forced to wad across a dangerous and rapid river of mud. Praying for no rocks, he treated the obstacle as he would any fast watercourse, carefully he placed each foot before lifting the other. It was only ten feet, but felt like ten thousand.
Jack made it eight feet before he discovered his prayer for no rocks hadn't been heard. One slammed hard into his right boot, and knocked him down. He fell face first onto solid rock and automatically he dug his fingers in, tearing flesh and nails as he pulled himself from the cloying grip of the mud.
With only one foot left to pull free, the bushy top of a tree scoured along the outside edge of the slide and set him rolling. A little stunned - actually more than a little stunned - Jack found he was still on relatively safe ground and hadn't been pulled back into the sucking embrace of the slide.
Jack pushed himself up onto hands and knees, breathing raggedly. Getting up was hard, he couldn't tell if was because he carried more than the normal 45 pounds on his back, as his pack was covered in mud and soaked with water. Or, he was really tired. Things like this did make him wonder if he were getting old.
Once he'd actually pulled himself to his feet and moved a dozen yards up the road, away from the curve, he stopped. Just to see what he'd crossed, to see if he could see his truck.
Damn, he liked that truck; he really didn't want to lose it.
Jack wasn't sure what he was seeing at first. After all it was dark and wet flow-y dirt was pretty much the color of dark. But a break in the clouds allowed a few stars to tremble above all the violence, it was against their twinkling brightness that he saw tree after tree shudder and then drop. Just a dark blotch obscuring the stars and in a wink it was gone, again and again.
No matter how much he strained he couldn't hear anything that would match what he eyes saw. The roar of the slide and the stream was all there was to hear.
His face upraised to the stars, they winked out and it began to rain in earnest again. This was so not good and Jack knew he had to move and keep moving. He had to walk out, there was just nowhere he could hole up. He didn't know enough about the place, and he wasn't about to stumble around and get caught up in another slide, or have a tree fall on him.
Keeping to the road was his best bet. So, he began to walk along the less dark stripe in the black hole the world had evolved into.
A hat would have come in handy; the rain ran into his eyes and down his neck, soaking him. Walking now served two purposes, keeping him out of danger's way and warm. An involuntary shiver rippled down his back as a drip slid along the hollow of his spine.
Staying alert was always difficult under conditions like this. Jack kept his mind occupied by trying to place where he was. He knew the curve where his truck wound up was only eight miles from the bridge further down stream and that the road proceeded along the stream for another six miles on the opposite side, there would be another bridge there; that one lead to a campground. Maybe he could get some help there?
From time to time Jack stopped to tip his head back; it was much easier to let the rain fall into his mouth if he wasn't moving. This was a necessity, he wasn't thirsty, but his body would need it. Sure he could have drank his fill while walking, but his equilibrium would be off that way. Stopping was safer, who needed a broken leg? Been there, done that. Besides he didn't have a knockout gorgeous major around that could set it for him.
Thoughts of his 2IC gave him plenty to occupy his mind - maybe too much. That familiar burn below his belly shook him from a daydream involving Carter, dressed in something far less than BDU's - far less even than that cute little tank top.
"Stupid, O'Neill. Knock it off. This isn't the time for it!"
Jack ground to a halt from his too fast pace, he'd been burning up his energy and too damned distracted to be alert to possible danger. He was alone; he had to be more careful.
Taking a calculated chance he moved to the side of the road to shelter under a tree, there he shrugged out of his pack to dig out some power bars and a couple of packets of candies. He needed the calories, and a chance to straighten out his head.
With a bottle of water, he took time to eat one whole bar. Jack didn't want to stay long, the cold ground was leaching his body heat at a rapid pace and that would lower his energy too.
With the food and water bottled stashed in his jacket, within easy reach, he pulled the pack back on and started walking again.
Only a few minutes passed and he realized he'd made it to the first bridge.
Well, what do you know, Jack crowed in his head, libidinous thoughts can have benefits.
Carefully, watching each step, he proceeded across the bridge. He found it whole and intact, a lucky break, since this bridge had been washed out at least twice before that he could remember.
An echoing crash whirled him around a scant hundred feet along the new stretch of rocky forest road. Something dark bobbed next to the bridge, another crash resounded off the forested banks of the road as something else collided with the wooden bridge. With a screaming groan and the hollow splintering of wood the dark shape swept by at a dizzy pace.
Something thudded to the ground at his feet and Jack could hear a few crashes around him in the brush and trees. With a yelp, he found what stuck so close, a shattered piece of wood, a mass of sharp splinters. With a little more ire than necessary he flung the object into the brush to suck at his finger in the vain hope of dislodging the sliver of wood he just acquired.
No going back now, he decided. Not that back the way he'd come was the direction he wanted to go. He was thankful that he gotten across the bridge before it had washed out, and hoped his luck would hold. Briskly he started down the road.
The next stretch didn't seem to take long at all. His hope of finding a warm campfire and friendly compassionate campers was dashed. The bridge here was gone too - so close, yet so far. Even the smell of campfires hung in the slow steady rain. And just for a moment he believed he could see a light across the stream, far back in the trees.
Might as well be the moon, Jack thought, and just as easy to get there.
Determinedly he turned his back on his newest disappointment. From here the road would go another twelve miles to the blacktop highway. He could at least hitch a ride there.
For the rest of the night Jack walked on, each step becoming more difficult than the last, he knew he was running out of steam. He'd have to stop soon and rest. Get some sleep.
He was so tired he bumped into a post. Dumbly it dawned on him that he could see more than just dark shapes in what had become an endless dark and that the rain had died down to a drizzle. But it took a few moments longer for him to see that this was the little turnout just off the blacktop that gave information about the recreation resources available along the forest road he'd just walked down.
He was so close, but he couldn't go another step, he was in real danger of falling flat on his face; something he'd already done. Yesterday? Yeah, yesterday, he'd walked all night long. And the damned pack felt like it weight at least 120 pounds.
The trees around the turnout had been trimmed regularly to keep them from taking over the parking area. Very dense and very water proof, this was a perfect place to get some sleep Jack figured.
Moving to the backside of the large banner sign Jack headed straight for the dense growth, dropped his pack and wormed his way into the wall of vegetation. When it felt dry enough, and warmer too, he stopped. By feel he pulled out his small tent and stretched it out on the ground, he next stuffed his sleeping bag into it. He couldn't stand up; he had to stoop on his knees to avoid impaling himself on the interwoven canopy of dry dead, finger-thin branches of the overcrowded trees.
Methodically stripping, Jack used those dry brittle, and very sharp branches to hang his clothing from, including his shorts. He'd already stuffed a pair of socks, shorts and a t-shirt into the sleeping bag. He really hated the thought of climbing in as mud covered as he was, but he didn't have much choice.
Slipping naked into his canvas and down nest, he found it a real struggle to pull on the dry clothes. But at last he succeeded.
"...And I don't even remember falling asleep. Woke up with a Hell of a backache though." Twisting around to lay on his side, and with a hook of his thumb, Jack indicted his back. "Doc, do I have one of those branches stuck in me?"
Janet Fraiser made a great show of checking, having great difficulty keeping from laughing out loud at his request.
"No, but I will want to check that hand out," and she pushed him back to lie flat on his back.
Obediently, he lay there as she scrubbed it clean and proceeded to work the wood splinter free.
"And," prompted General Hammond, drawing O'Neill's rapt attention from the blood pouring down his finger.
"Isn't much else to tell, Sir, unfortunately I slept the daylight hours away; it was full dark when I woke up. Just packed up and started walking again. It must have been about five miles before I saw any traffic."
"No traffic," sputtered Carter, remembering the bumper-to-bumper snake of trucks during their efforts to find him.
"Nope. It was sometime around ten that night when a guy in a pickup, pulling an old travel trailer, just about ran over me, scared him and me both. He just about put it in a ditch to stop and came running back. He was sure he'd hit me. Gave me a ride for about half way and I helped keep him awake. He offered to drive me all the way, but he needed to get off the road. And I didn't like the idea of him driving back after. Wouldn't want that on my conscience."
"Why didn't you call from his place?"
"No phone; seems that even though he arranged to have all the utilities turned on, no one had done it. So I started walking again," Jack shrugged his shoulders, like it was just something he did every day of the week.
"And that stretch of road is already government property along there. No one and nothing until you reach the gate," Hammond added thoughtfully.
"Yepper, I was lucky to be picked up by one of Siler's boys coming in to do a repair," stifling a yawn, Jack eyed his CO. "Did the coffee urn really blow up?"
Hammond chuckled, "No, but it did fall off its cart. That's why he was called in, he fixed it the last time that happened."
Jack grinned, but didn't attempt to hide another yawn.
Janet tugged at his hand, stitching away; she had been forced to cut the piece of wood out.
"Ouch," Jack softly uttered, and yawned some more.
"Sam, Jack was right there. Right there under our noses all the time," exclaimed Daniel, drawing her attention.
Hammond stood, leaned over O'Neill, and spoke. "Briefing, day after tomorrow, Colonel, get some rest." And left.
Teal'c watched as Daniel and Sam excitedly discussed how close they had been to Jack and on how many occasions.
Each and every one of them was occupied discussing Jack's experiences. It wasn't until Janet's "Oh!" that any of them realized that Jack had fallen silent. In fact it looked as if the colonel had fallen sound asleep, even as his hand was being bandaged up.
"I believe that O'Neill is correct. I shall retire. Good night," spoke Teal'c with a slight blow and a grin. Silently, he too left.
Sam and Daniel just stared at their CO, smiling like fools.
"Go on you two," he's not going anywhere until I say so. "Shoo, go away. Don't let the bed bugs bite," she whispered loudly, flipping a blanket over one very dirty colonel.
Jack immediately grabbed at the covering in his sleep, flipped himself onto his side and scrunched up a little, seeking warmth and comfort for his tired and sore body. Mud from his boots smeared the clean covering of the gurney.
Janet Fraiser pulled a corner of the blanket back across Jack's hip and patted it in place.
"Sweet dreams, Colonel."