Blood Ties 10
Blood Ties 10: A Dish Served Cold (5/?)
By Dawn

Great Smoky Mountains
8:26 a.m.

He'd just finished tying his boots when the cabin door opened, then shut with a resounding bang that rattled the pictures on the walls. Mulder craned his head over the back of the couch to find Grey standing with arms folded and a thunderous expression on his face.

"Grey? What's wrong? Are you having trouble with the spare?"

"No, I'm not having trouble with the spare." Grey spoke through tightly clenched teeth. "There is no spare."

"What?" Mulder stood and crossed quickly to his brother. "What do you mean, no spare? It was right there on the back of the truck; I saw it myself."

"Oh, there's a tire there all right. It just doesn't happen to have any air in it. Which makes it damn useless, now doesn't it?" Grey sucked in a long slow breath and released it, tucking his chin to his chest and massaging the back of his neck.

Mulder eyed him for a moment, then tugged open the door and strode outside. He stood next to the crippled vehicle, hands propped on hips, waiting for Grey to join him. "Let me get this straight. We're stranded out here, surrounded by nothing but mountains, forest, and wild animals, with a truck that has two flat tires and a radio that doesn't work. We've got enough canned goods to last two--maybe three days, if we ration them, three-quarters of a jug of fresh water, and two beers. And it's roughly twenty-five miles to the nearest town."

Grey flashed him a toothy grin. "I'd say that about sums it up. You know, you're real good at that, little brother. Must come in handy on the job."

Mulder's eyes narrowed. "I'm serious, Grey."

His brother chuckled, moving close enough to prop a hand on Mulder's shoulder. "I can see that. Look, the situation is bad, not hopeless. According to Mark, there's another cabin about eleven miles from here. It's rugged terrain, but if we stick to the road-- such as it is--we shouldn't have too much trouble."

Mulder chewed his lip, only slightly mollified. "You're forgetting one thing. What if Mark's neighbor didn't drive up to enjoy the great outdoors this weekend?"

"Not a problem. The guy is retired; he lives up here year 'round. Mark says he's kind of the grouchy old hermit type, but decent enough once you get past his bluster."

Mulder's eyebrows soared. "A grouchy old hermit? Living alone in the mountains? Isn't that a little cliché?"

"Maybe hermit is a little extreme. The guy keeps to himself, that's all." Grey waved his hand at the jacked-up truck squatting sullenly on the gravel drive. "I'm sure, considering the circumstances, he'll be willing to give us a lift into town--or at the very least, the use of his radio."

Mulder's gaze shifted from Grey to the car and back again, lips compressed to a thin line. Finally, he sighed. "Eleven miles, huh?"

As if he'd managed to transfer his morose mood to his brother, Grey smiled cheerily. "We should make it to Chris Peterson's cabin by early afternoon. With any luck we can still get to town and back before nightfall."

"Chris Peterson? The hermit's name is Chris?" Mulder's voice dripped disbelief.

"Yeah? So? Is there a problem?"

"The problem is that grouchy hermits are not named Chris. They're named Jed, or Zack, or Jeremiah."

Grey stared at him, then snorted indelicately. "Guess his mama wasn't in class the day they discussed that rule. Now why don't you grab your backpack and we'll hit the road. Or we could continue to stand here and waste daylight discussing Mrs. Peterson's choice of a name for her son." He grinned toothily at Mulder before sauntering into the cabin to collect his own pack.

By the time they struck out for the Peterson cabin the sun had risen above the treeline and the air had turned from frigid to comfortably warm. The dirt road, fit only for rugged vehicles such as Grey's SUV, was deeply rutted in some spots and almost completely nonexistent in others. After only a mile both of them had shed their sweatshirts, and Grey's sweat dampened hair had begun to curl defiantly around his ears and the nape of his neck.

"You know, I hate to sound negative," Mulder mused, shifting the straps of his pack to settle it more comfortably on his shoulders, "but this trip of yours hasn't exactly gotten off to a stellar beginning."

"This trip of mine?"

"Yes, yours. You're the one that couldn't wait to get us out in the middle of nowhere communing with the wildlife, Nature Boy."

Grey clutched his chest. "I'm wounded. I thought we were having a great time. What about that hike through the woods yesterday? And that gourmet meal you concocted last night? I saw the way you were soaking up the peace and quiet and all those stars before we went to bed."

"Yeah, until I almost stepped in pureed fox." A flicker of disappointment passed across Grey's face, disappearing so quickly Mulder wasn't positive he'd seen it. He sighed. "Hey, I did enjoy all those things. But you have to admit, we've had more than our share of bad luck."

Grey opened his mouth as if to argue, but shut it with a shrug. "Guess I can't dispute that point. Look at it this way--we've paid our dues. I mean, what are the odds that a run of bad luck like we've had is gonna continue?"

"You forget, I investigate the supposedly improbable," Mulder replied dryly. He stopped and shoved his fingers through damp hair, brushing it back from his forehead. "Wait up a minute, I need some water."

"Just don't drink too much. We've still got a long way to go."

Grey took a few swallows from his own canteen and proceeded to adjust his baseball cap, idly scanning the surrounding forest. Two squirrels chased each other through the treetops at breakneck speed, leaping from branch to branch. A woodpecker worked furiously on the trunk of a large oak, beak tapping rhythmically. A sparkle at the periphery of his vision caught his attention and he turned, squinting through the tinted lenses of his sunglasses as he struggled to make out the source.

The answer hit him like a freight train and he reacted without stopping to think.

"Fox, get down!"

He launched himself at his brother, the distinctive crack of a rifle piercing the air a split second before they both tumbled down the embankment into a shallow ditch. A second report followed immediately after the first, kicking up dirt and gravel at the side of the road, and then an unnatural silence blanketed the forest.

Grey remained motionless for a moment, sprawled across Mulder, who had landed on his right side. His heart thudded wildly in his chest, and his brother's short, sharp pants for air seared his neck. Slowly, cautiously, he tipped his head up until he could look into Mulder's white face.

"That was gunfire."

"I noticed." Mulder spoke through locked teeth.

Grey frowned at the tension in his brother's face and voice. "You all right?"

"Not entirely."

"Not entirely? What the hell does that mean?"

"It means I'm still breathing, but I think that streak of bad luck we were talking about isn't over yet." The sarcasm was forced and Mulder's attempted smirk turned into a wince.

Grey quickly rolled off his brother's body but kept his head down. "You're hit? Where?"

"Right leg, above the knee." Mulder struggled to prop himself up on his elbows. He made it halfway before his face twisted and he grunted in pain, collapsing onto his back.

"Easy, easy. Lie still for a minute and let me check things out." Grey's voice was calm, reassuring, but his eyes betrayed him.

Hands traveled carefully down Mulder's thigh, pausing a few inches above the knee. A tug and the sound of ripping cloth. Mulder stared up at his brother's face--jaw set, lips compressed to a thin line.

"How bad is it?"

Grey's eyes met his for only a moment before sliding away. "Brace yourself. I've got to check for an exit wound."

Fingers slipped under Mulder's knee and... White-hot agony shot through his leg from hip to toes, wrenching an involuntary cry from his lips. His eyes slammed shut, sparks dancing across the lids, while a rushing sound like the surf on a windy day filled his ears. Grey's voice, at first nothing more than an insistent buzz, gradually resolved into words.

" sorry, Fox, I had to know. Stay with me, little brother. That's it, c'mon back."

Mulder blinked, wrestling with a tongue turned thick and clumsy. "Still in there."

Grey grimaced. "Yeah. Most likely in the bone, which is why it hurts like a son of a bitch. But then, I don't have to tell you that." He cautiously lifted his head high enough to peer out of the ditch, panning the forest. "We've got to get out of this hole and into the cover of the trees. If we stay here we're sitting ducks."

Mulder licked his lips. "I was hoping we could chalk this up to a hunter with bad eyesight. You think it was intentional?"

"Whoever it is had a high-powered scope trained on us. I spotted the reflection right before he fired." Grey slipped his pack off his shoulders and rummaged through it, pulling out a clean tee shirt. With his pocketknife he tore the fabric into several large strips. "You're bleeding like a stuck pig. I've got to try to slow it down or we'll be leaving a neon sign for him to follow." He paused. "That means putting pressure on the wound." A slight tremor spoiled the matter-of-fact tone.

Mulder met his gaze without flinching. "Do it."

Grey nodded, giving his brother's shoulder a squeeze. He folded one of the cloth strips into a square, laid it over the wound, and with a last, apologetic glance, pressed down firmly.

No sparks this time around. An explosion of pain so intense Mulder thought the top of his head might blow off before darkness blotted out the distress in Grey's face.

He surfaced dizzy and disoriented, the need to vomit nearly overwhelming. Everything around him bounced and swayed so whenever he attempted to open his eyes, the nausea tripled. His head throbbed, his leg was on fire, and someone was swearing a blue streak. A gunshot, then two more, and the bouncing became a gut-churning lurch.

"Oh, God, I'm gonna puke."

Mulder wasn't sure if he said it or thought it, but his brother's voice, tense and breathless, cut through the haze.

"Hang on, hang on...almost there."

Snapping and rustling sounds preceded the brush of leaves against his dangling arms. Mulder abruptly realized he was hanging upside down, in a fireman's carry, over Grey's shoulder as his brother jogged through the forest. Icy droplets of water pelted his cheeks when Grey tromped through a small, shallow stream and then scuffled awkwardly down a steep slope. Despite caution, about five feet from the bottom Grey tripped on a root and nearly lost hold of him. Mulder's head plunged precariously toward a large rock before Grey regained his balance, cursing under his breath.

Just when Mulder was certain neither his stomach nor his leg could endure another minute, Grey's frenetic steps slowed, then stopped. He eased Mulder gently to the ground, propping his upper body against the trunk of a large tree, and peered into his eyes.

"Hey, little brother. How you doing?"

Mulder stared blearily at him. My leg is killing me and I just spent the last five minutes slung over your shoulder like yesterday's garbage. How the hell do you think I'm feeling?

He opened his mouth to retort, but instead lunged to the left and proceeded to lose every bit of the breakfast Grey had prepared that morning. Each twist of his gut provoked a corresponding spasm in his injured leg until he was doubled over, panting and whimpering helplessly.

Cool fingers at the back of his neck, a strong arm curled around his middle, supporting him. When the violent cramping in his stomach eased, Grey held the canteen to his lips so that he could rinse his mouth, then settled him back against the tree. Mulder shivered helplessly as his brother dampened a scrap of cloth and wiped his face.

"Where are we?" The words jittered and trembled as badly as his body.

Grey stripped the pack from his shoulders, dug out the discarded sweatshirt, and helped him slip it on. "About a half mile north of the road. This seemed a good spot to stop and get our bearings." He reached over to brush an errant lock of hair off Mulder's sweaty forehead. "We got problems, Fox."

Mulder's mouth twisted. "You think?"

Grey reached into Mulder's pack and pulled out his Sig, holding it so that Mulder could plainly see the weapon was missing its clip. "Seems like some practical joker made off with all our ammo. We've been set up, Fox. And by someone who knows what he's doing."

Mulder's jaw dropped. "How...?"

Grey shrugged, his mouth set in a grim line. "Last night when we were out stargazing? First thing this morning when we were looking over the truck? I didn't check my weapon before we left the cabin, did you?"

Mulder tucked his arms tightly against his body, miserable. "Didn't think I needed to. Everything was still in my pack from when we hiked yesterday. I just filled my canteen."

"Yeah. Me, too." Grey swore and chucked the weapon back into Mulder's pack. "I should've known better. You never start out on a major hike like we were attempting without taking inventory of your pack."

Mulder ground his teeth together to prevent them from chattering. "C...cut yourself some sl...slack. It's not like we c...could've predicted some nut would be t...taking potshots at us."

"Yeah, well, the idea is to be prepared for anything," Grey muttered. "I sure as hell know that."

He dug through his own pack and produced a small first aid kit. Mulder looked down at the blood-soaked bandage tied around his leg, swallowed hard, and glanced away.

"I wasn't the top of my game...when you were hauling my ass out of that ditch...but I thought I heard shots."

"You heard right." Grey gingerly cut away the bloody cloth with his knife. "Our friend started firing the minute I lifted my head. Nearly took it off." He opened a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and paused.

"I know, I know. Got to be done." Mulder tipped his head back against the rough bark and stared up into a spray of yellow leaves that undulated gently in the breeze. "What's the plan anyway? Back to the cabin?"

"It would be closer." Grey flushed the wound with antiseptic and blotted with a clean gauze pad, holding Mulder's leg steady when his brother's body turned rigid. He continued to speak softly and slowly, flinching slightly when the fingers of Mulder's right hand buried themselves in his shoulder. "Problem is, it'd put us right back where we started--literally and figuratively. We've got no radio and no transportation, Fox. And you need a doctor."

Grey packed the wound with fresh gauze and bound it with more strips from his tee shirt. By the time he'd finished, Mulder was panting as if he'd run a marathon, drenched in sweat and wracked with tremors. Grey set aside the kit and moved between Mulder and the tree with his brother body pulled against his chest, soaking up his warmth.

"Easy, Fox. Deep breaths."

After several minutes Mulder's trembling abated and his frantic gulps for air slowed. "Let me get...this straight. We're still heading...for Jed's place?"

It took a moment for the joke to register, then Grey chuckled quietly. "Don't see what choice we have. That grouchy hermit's our best hope for getting out of this mess."

Mulder let his head drop against his brother's shoulder. "Grey... Maybe you should go without me. I could wait here...for you to bring help."

Grey stiffened. "No way. I'm not leaving you for that psycho to hunt down. You've got no weapon and you're damn near helpless, Fox. We stay together."

Softly, little more than a whisper. "I'm not sure I can make it, Bubba."

Grey's reply was rough. "You don't have to. We will. Together."

"Then consider this. Whoever's behind that rifle...went to a lot of bring us here. He's going to do...anything he can to...prevent us from reaching Jed."

Grey cranked his head to look into his brother's face. "What are you saying?"

"That I don't think...our run of bad luck...was luck at all."

Grey stared at him. "The radio? The flat tires? You think he was behind all that?"

"Don't you?" Mulder tried to shift position, groaning when it only succeeded in sending a spike of agony through his leg. "He's got us right...where he wants us. Whoever he is...he's thorough."

"All the more reason not to split up."

Grey eased Mulder forward and stood. He meticulously replaced the contents of their packs and slung them both onto his shoulders before squatting down beside his brother.

"We need to move. You ready?"

Mulder gave him an incredulous look, then nodded. Grey slid his hands under his brother's armpits and lifted, steadying him when he wobbled like a newborn colt. He slipped Mulder's right arm over his shoulder and looped his own around his brother's waist.

"Okay, we'll take it nice and easy. Cutting straight north through the forest instead of taking the road will trim at least three miles off the trip, but it'll be rough going. Just holler when you can't keep up and we'll take a break, relax a few minutes."

"Sure. I'll bring the wine and cheese." Mulder ground the words out through his teeth, blinking against the blackness hovering on the edge of his vision.

Grey snorted and started walking, supporting his brother so that he could keep most of the weight off his injured leg. "If this is your idea of a party, little brother, next time you can leave me off the guest list."

Mulder concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and remained silent, conserving his strength.

Continued in Chapter 6