Disclaimer – I don't own them, I just borrowed them. Numb3rs and its characters are the property of those that created them. No copyright infringement intended. No financial reward gained. All real organisations are used in a fictional sense. Original characters and the storyline are mine however.
A/N: In the Green Valley Lake area 105 homes were lost in the recent fires – this story takes place after my earlier story "Wildfire" where very few homes in the area were damaged.
Don Eppes made his rapid way up the familiar trail. Since the whole episode at the mall last Christmas whenever he'd felt the need to get away and unwind he went hiking. He'd been to various trails in the mountains above LA but seemed to return to this area on a semi regular basis. Maybe it was because he knew the local Sheriff, John Towers of Green Valley Lake and his excellent Sunday night roast or maybe it was just the scenery, fresh and green as it recovered from the wildfire quite a few months back. The forest was recovering just as he had recovered from breaking his leg after a tree fell on him. The tree had had some assistance but that was another story. His leg was fully healed, although on cooler nights in his tent he was sure he could feel the plates and screws.
Reaching the top of the ridge he turned west and headed towards Little Green Valley. It was formerly a YMCA camp but the US Forest Service had restored the valley, allowing limited camping. Because of his late start it wasn't long before dark when he reached the clearing. Working quickly and efficiently he set up his two man dome tent and prepared his fire in the permanent fireplace. Digging out a well seasoned saucepan he poured in some tinned stew and placed it onto the fire.
Barely half an hour after he'd arrived he was sitting back nursing a coffee whilst his dinner heated. He might be away from the pressures of work back in LA at the FBI Field Office but he couldn't forgo his caffeine fix. It was one of those self heating lattes that Megan was so fond of, the same type that Charlie had played with at the office a while ago demonstrating one of his theories. Not as strong as he would like even if it claimed to be double-shot, but it was hot and convenient and quicker than waiting for water to boil on a campfire. Besides which he only had one saucepan and he was hungry as well as caffeine deprived.
Despite the addition of the stimulant into his system he felt relaxed. Out here he was just plain Don Eppes. He didn't even have a gun, he'd left that locked up in Sheriff Tower's safe. He still had his badge and ID but it was tucked well away inside his backpack where he was unlikely to come across it unless he dug for it. His cell phone was likewise buried, the unit useless as there was no reception here on the southern side of Green Valley Lake.
It was just him and the mountain, unless he encountered other hikers. He'd seen two today at one point away in the distance on another ridge. The trails in this area branched off from the main trail up to the ridge but some crossed over each other further along making it difficult to tell which trail the other hikers had been on. Despite his own rapid pace he'd not caught up with them and that suited him just fine.
His plan was to overnight here, sleep in and take a relaxing walk around the meadow before heading back down to the trailhead. He was then going to drive over to the Sheriff's for roast dinner and spend a few hours regaling his son Max with the latest stories from the FBI. Max had plans to join the bureau when he got older. That was also just fine with Don, Max was a good kid and had his head screwed on right. He might be a fan of the old black-and-white movies but he understood that was all make believe and that the real world was different. With a small town Sheriff as his father he had a good understanding of the real world.
After eating his heated dinner Don crawled into his sleeping bag and despite the early hour he was asleep within minutes. The quietness of the forest and lack of possible distractions or dangers allowed him to relax completely.
Don realised that the voice had repeated itself several times before he was finally awake enough to notice it. Someone was outside the tent. Opening his eyes he saw that it was still dark, a glance at the luminous face of his watch showed it to be just after 11pm.
"Hello?" The male voice repeated, accompanied this time by his tent being shaken.
"Coming." Don responded.
He kicked his way out of the sleeping bag and grabbed his maglite flashlight. He undid the zipper and pulled the two sections apart so that he could see out before actually leaving the tent. The flimsy material wasn't any protection but he would make do with what he had. In the moonlight he could make out a young man sitting back on his heels just an arms length away. A girl was lying beside the embers of the fire. Both looked to be about eighteen years old. The girl was slender and the kid looked like a jock. Don crawled out and stood, the kid likewise rising to his feet.
"Can I help you?" Don asked. This was the last thing he expected, visitors in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere.
"My girlfriend's hurt." The kid said. "She twisted her ankle earlier and we've been trying to make it back to the campground to get help."
Don looked them both over, they weren't carrying packs nor did they have flashlights or any other equipment. Clearly they were not prepared to spend the night out in the forest. "You'll have to rest up here for the night. The trail is too dangerous in the dark." The moonlight was bright enough out here in the meadow but in amongst the trees it wouldn't provide enough illumination to allow for safe navigation of the trail.
"Could we borrow your flashlight?"
Don glanced at the maglite in his hand before looking back at the kid. He seemed to be in a hurry. "Even with the flashlight it will be too dangerous, especially with one busted ankle. You're better off waiting for morning."
The kid looked towards the inky blackness of the tree line. He conceded the point reluctantly. "I guess you're right."
"You can stay here. I'll get the fire going again."
"Thanks." The kid moved over to his girlfriend's side. "Do you have anything to drink or maybe to eat? We haven't had anything all day."
All day? Don thought that a little odd, to be this far out meant but carrying no equipment meant that they had planned a day hike and who didn't take lunch with them? But it didn't really matter. They were hungry and thirsty and he had some excess supplies. Don set about bringing the fire back to life, feeding it more kindling. A few minutes later the camp was filled with a warm yellow glow from the flames. He set his saucepan full of water onto the edge of the fire to heat. He pulled his pack from the tent and retrieved the first aid kit.
"Let me have a look at that ankle." Don asked moving around the fire to where his unexpected guests were sitting. The girl obediently extended her right leg. "My name is Don Eppes. And you are?"
"Tammy. And this is my boyfriend Andy."
He gently pulled the running shoe and sock from Tammy's right ankle. It was swollen but in the bright light of the flashlight didn't seem discoloured. Don dug into the kit and came up with a sturdy bandage which he started wrapping around the ankle to provide support.
"There, that should help. Looks like it's probably just a sprain." Don declared. "How did you do it?"
"Slipped on some loose rock just up the trail." Andy answered. "We sat and waited for a while hoping someone would come by but no one did. We decided we had to head back down."
"I've got a car down at the campground. I'll drop you at the doctors in Green Valley Lake in the morning." Packing away the first aid kit he missed the glance that passed between Tammy and Andy.
"That sounds great, thanks." Andy said after a slightly longish pause.
"No problem." Don put the kit away and pulled out some instant coffee and another tin of stew. "I hope you don't mind sharing the mug, I only brought one."
Andy accepted the mug and jar of coffee. He mixed up a cup adding a generous portion of condensed milk from the tube offered.
Talkative pair, Don thought a little sarcastically. Although being the middle of the night and not really feeling all that talkative himself he felt that some information exchange was called for considering the circumstances. "So, where are you guys from?"
"We-" Tammy started but stopped, glancing at Andy.
"We're from Green Valley Lake." Andy supplied. He'd seen Don's slight frown at Tammy's hesitation and turned back to his girlfriend. "It's alright, Tammy. He's not an axe murderer so it doesn't hurt if he knows where we live."
"Too many horror films, huh?" Don remembered being Andy's age. A horror movie was the best movie to take a date to, but on the down side they did tend to spook some girls afterwards.
Andy favoured him with a knowing smile. "Where are you from?"
"LA. Just come up for the weekend. I like to squeeze in a little hiking now and then."
Andy nodded. "Nice up here. Even we locals go hiking a lot."
Don thought that explained their lack of preparedness. The two were familiar with the trail and would just go hiking on a whim. Their familiarity with the area would lead them to complacency and hence no equipment. Although the running shoes that Tammy had been wearing were a little out of place. But then again, kids did whatever they felt was best whether or not it was actually the best thing. The joggers were probably the latest style or something.
The stew started bubbling away, the process helped along but the small amount of hot water Don had left in the pot after Andy had made his coffee. The water helped to increase the portion size so that the one can would stretch to feed both of them. He handed the saucepan over along with a fork and a spoon. He really wasn't prepared for guests, carrying just the minimum in cutlery. When they'd finished he rinsed the empty pot and prepared to go back to bed. He felt a little guilty at crawling back into his sleeping bag but it was a warmish night and they had the fire after all.
It was barely light when he woke. The sound of metal against metal startled him for a moment before he remembered his guests. It sounded like and yes, smelt like, someone was making coffee. It was earlier than he wanted but considering that the girl was likely to be in some pain from her ankle he got up. He rubbed his hand over his hair, glad now that he'd opted for the buzz cut recently. No bed hair. Don rapidly packed his sleeping bag into its microscopic bag and looked around for his pack before remembering that he'd left it outside after putting the first aid kit back into the lower section. He unzipped the tent and climbed out.
"Morning." Andy replied. "Coffee?"
"Thanks." He accepted the cup and automatically sniffed before drinking it. It was strong, good. "How's the ankle?"
"Sore." Tammy answered. "I didn't get much sleep."
"I'm not surprised. We'll be back in town soon enough." He hoped that the doctor's rooms had an after hours number on the door. Failing that Sheriff Towers should be able to arrange an EMT.
Don set about preparing breakfast, so called instant porridge that took five minutes to cook once the water was boiling again. He poured his own portion into his cup and gave his guests the saucepan. He finished his first and started breaking down and packing away his tent. He glanced at his watch, he'd been up for all of twenty minutes and now they were ready to leave the meadow.
With Andy's help Tammy made a reasonable pace along the trail, helped somewhat by the mostly gradual descent after they left the ridge. The steeper sections slowed them down as they had to work a bit harder to ensure their footing. But still they made it down quicker than Don had expected. They reached a small clearing not far from the final descent to the campground and the parking lot. Don suggested that they rest up whilst he checked out the trail ahead to see just how much further they had to go.
He soon discovered that he had been right, they weren't far from the final descent. Barely a couple of hundred yards further along he rounded a bend giving him a view down into the Green Valley Campground and the parking lot at the head of the trail. He saw a Sheriff's department 4WD along with a second car and a US Forest Service truck. Something looked to be up but with the manpower waiting down there they could only help him get Andy and the injured Tammy down to medical assistance quicker. Don turned and backtracked to give them the good news.
"Rest here." Don said when he reached the pair.
"But we're nearly back at your car." Andy objected.
"The Sheriff's down there with some men. He'll be able help us get Tammy to the doctor." Don turned and started to head back towards the trail head.
"No, stop!" The voice was accompanied by a clicking sound.
Don knew that sound, there was only one thing that sounded like that. He stopped and took a breath. How did these things keep happening to him? He slowly turned to face the gun and the young man that held it. "What are you doing?"