Copyright 2004 by Texbard
For disclaimers, see Chapter 1
"We're too exposed here." Kennedy scooted forward toward the rock they'd been sitting on earlier. The pain was incredible, and spots danced in her vision. She felt dizzy, and her stomach twisted with waves of nausea. "I … god it hurts." She gritted her teeth and kept inching along.
"Kennedy. Honey …" Carson scrambled after her, watching the trail of blood left behind as her lover moved along the ground. "Take it easy." Another shot rang out and Carson yelled in surprise, as it ricocheted off a cactus that was much too close for comfort. "Alright, let's move, then." She placed an arm around Kennedy's waist, helping her scoot along, until they were in the shelter of the rock.
"Augghhhhh." Kennedy groaned and shifted to her back. Her leg was covered in blood, and her t-shirt sleeve was soaked as well. "Get the first aid kit out."
Carson quickly removed both their fanny packs, and untied the sweatshirt from around her own waist, tucking it beneath Kennedy's head. Despite her deeply-tanned face, a gray paleness was creeping beneath the surface. Her eyes looked a tad vacant, and her jaw was set, tense with pain. "Need to stop the bleeding." She removed Kennedy's flannel shirt, untying it and retying it above the leg wound. "Honey, I need to pour some water over this and clean it up enough to see what's going on."
Kennedy nodded silently in compliance and looked down, clamping her jaw shut as Carson uncapped a water bottle and cool water ran over her leg. She didn't think she could hurt any more, but found out that wasn't true. It was like digging into the wound with a knife, and she whimpered, tears leaking from the corner of her eyes.
"Sorry, honey." Carson gently wiped the blood and water away. She breathed a sigh of relief. "Looks like the bullet just grazed your leg here. Lots of blood, but no bullet hole. Just … a really deep scrape-looking cut. It's already starting to slow. The bleeding is, I mean." The gash ran along her outer thigh from front to back, right below the edge of her shorts. The hem was soaked in more blood, and her leg shook slightly, twitching as Carson gently probed the muscle.
"Tighten the shirt a little bit, just in case." Kennedy's breathing was shallow, her voice hoarse with the effort of containing the screams her body desperately wanted to release.
Carson moved, rising up slightly, and another shot whizzed past her head. She dropped to the ground and felt a hand clamp over her mouth, Kennedy's right one. "I know," she whispered as the hand was removed. "Need to keep quiet so they can't track us too much." She quickly re-tied the knot in the shirt and wrapped her leg in gauze, then looked up toward her lover's shoulder injury. It was obvious the wound was at the back, and equally obvious there was no exit injury in front, as far as she could tell. "Honey, need to roll over on your side so I can check this one out."
"Get your pocket knife and cut the shirt away some, if you have to." She rolled over, bracing herself, hearing the snick as Carson unzipped her pack, and the slight click of the knife as she opened it.
Carson started with the soaked sleeve, slicing up toward her shoulder until she had cut clear through the neckline. She slowly peeled the front down to reveal a relatively clean sports bra. She carefully cut the bra strap and pulled it down. "No injury in front. Honey, your shirt is stuck to your skin in the back. If I pull it down, it's gonna probably hurt. Kennedy. I don't know if I can …"
"You can." She closed her mouth, determined not to scream, focusing instead on a lizard that sat a few feet away on the rock, its black beady eyes blinking and its tongue darting out, testing the air. She felt the tug at the material, followed by something akin to fire. If someone had pressed a live coal against her skin, she figured it couldn't have been much worse. Her body jerked in pain, but she remained quiet otherwise, closing her eyes as tears squeezed out of them.
"Oh." Carson drew in a breath. The back of the sports bra and most of Kennedy's shoulder blade was covered in blood, and a fresh seepage continued to pour slowly from a large ugly bullet hole just below the top of her shoulder. "I … I think the bullet's still in there. You're still bleeding. Should I try to clean it?"
She leaned over for an answer, and saw tears streaming down Kennedy's face. "Oh, honey." She swiped them away, hearing one sob of pain. "Can I …?" She shifted, getting the dark head into her lap, feeling Kennedy's right hand curl around her calf, squeezing it for all she was worth.
"Just pour water over it for now. We need to figure out a way to get away from here before we do much else." She braced herself again, trying not to move as the cold water lanced through her. "Cover it with one of those large water-proof bandages."
"It's still bleeding pretty good." Carson tore open the bandage and dabbed around the edges of the injured skin, trying to clean off a big enough spot to apply it. "Don’t think the bandage is gonna last long."
"S'okay." The dark head shook slightly, as Kennedy felt beads of sweat break out on her forehead. "If we crawl along below this rock, we can stay out of sight for a bit, at least until we get close to that little rock ridge over there." She gestured with her right hand. "Tree line's too far away, but if we can drop down below the edge of the riverbank, maybe we can get away from them."
Carson took both fanny packs, belting one above the other. She glanced over at Kennedy, who was watching, a grim determined expression planted bravely on her face. The fact that there was no protest at her carrying both packs told her exactly how much pain her lover was in. She tied her sweatshirt back around her waist, and got around behind the longer body, determined to place herself between Kennedy and whoever was up there above them. "You ready to crawl?"
"No, but let's go." It hurt like hell, and every time she moved her left arm or leg, pain shot through her entire body, forcing tiny puffed whimpers from her lungs. She felt Carson's hand at her back, comforting her more than anything. Crawling slowly over rocks, brush, and the occasional bug, they gradually reached the ridge in question, the one spot they would be exposed until they could get behind it.
"How do you want to do this?" Carson placed a hand at Kennedy's back, feeling her lungs heave with the effort of breathing.
"You go over first, and be ready to pull me if I can't make it." She turned as much as she could. Despite the exertion, Carson's face was pale, her eyes full of fear. "Go on. You can do it."
Carson touched her face once, then leaped forward, staying low to the ground. As Kennedy moved behind her, another shot glanced off the ridge a few feet away. She reached out, grabbing handfuls of Kennedy's clothing, pulling her behind the ridge with her. She heard a cry of pain and rolled over, allowing the dark head to rest against her stomach for a moment. Her fingers automatically combed through sweaty locks, and she traced a high cheekbone with her fingertips. "Sorry."
"No," Kennedy croaked out, trying to catch her breath. "You did good, but we need to keep moving. I figure they must be pretty far away, or they would've caught up to us by now."
Carson's hand dropped casually beneath Kennedy's back. She was careful not to press against her injury, but could feel fresh warm blood seeping through the tattered remains of her shirt. She pursed her lips inward, trying hard not to cry. Kennedy's pallor had increased, and she could see an artery just below the surface of her skin, at her neck. It quivered erratically, beating much too fast. She reached down, just below her breast, feeling her heart pounding against her hand. "How are you doing?"
"Me?" Kennedy grimaced. "I'm doing fine."
"Liar." Carson sniffled once, drawing in a deep breath to try to calm herself.
Kennedy laughed lightly, stopping when it hurt too much. "Sweetheart, we've still got to get to the river. You ready for that?"
"I am." Gray eyes gazed steadily into blue. "But I can't stand watching you hurt."
"Don't have a choice. We can't stay here." Kennedy shifted, forcing herself not to react as daggers shot down her leg. "Look, let's get to the riverbank and re-group, alright?"
"Alright. But let's go slow." Carson stroked her head and carefully moved, helping Kennedy get to her stomach for the long crawl ahead. It was hot, and her throat was parched, and she could only imagine what her lover was going through. She felt like a big baby, unable to buck up like she should. How could she be there for Kennedy if she couldn't even pull herself together? She sniffled, warm tears tracking down her cheeks as they slowly reached the bank and slipped over the side into some blessed shade.
It was cooler there, a breeze drifting up from the water's surface. A large bird lofted overhead in a lazy circle, too high to determine if it was an eagle, a hawk, or a buzzard. Carson shivered at the prospect of buzzards, and frowned, her determination renewed. Neither she nor Kennedy was going to become buzzard bait, not if she could do anything to stop it. "Now what?"
"We keep going down river, back toward camp." Kennedy closed her eyes, feeling her heartbeat in her ears. "Need some water, please." A water bottle reached her lips and she sucked at it. Even swallowing hurt, and she could feel both wounds still bleeding. Looking down, she could see blood around the edges of the gauze Carson had tied over her leg. She dared not think about how much blood she'd lost, or how much she was still losing.
"Honey, we can't crawl all the way back to camp. It would take days." Carson cradled her head in her lap, resting back against the red and brown dirt.
"You could hike out for help." Kennedy found her hand and clasped it to her chest, I could hide away somewhere until you get back.
"I can't leave you." Carson shook her head violently. "I won't. We just have to figure out something else."
"Alright." Her head felt light again, and she swallowed several times, blinking to clear her vision. "Let the river work for us."
"Huh?" Carson stared down at the brownish-blue flow. It was swift, but not so fast that it would pull a person under if they had a life preserver. Unfortunately they had nothing but their fanny packs, and those would only add weight, not help the situation.
"We find us a good solid branch and hang on, and let the water carry us down stream back toward camp." Blue eyes darted around, spotting a thick growth of brush down by the water. "Something from there might work. Think you can pull a big branch loose from there?"
"Gotta get us down there first." Carson looked up at the edge of the bank, afraid that at any moment their shooters would appear and they'd have nowhere to hide. "Honey, can you belly-crawl down there and get out of sight while I work? I can help you get down there."
"Let's go." Kennedy shifted and they mostly slid down the scree that coated the side of the bank. Rock slivers nicked sensitive skin, and both women were covered in scrapes by the time they stopped beside the water. Carson braced a booted foot at the base of a long branch and gradually twisted it, working it a bit. Finally, she stomped on it with all her weight and it snapped. It was mostly dead wood, much easier than if it had been fresh and green.
"Will this do?" She dragged it around for Kennedy's perusal. Bloodshot blue eyes gazed at it, and she nodded. "Kennedy." Carson knelt down next to her. "You've got to be able to hang on once we get in the water. Can you do that?"
"I've got one good arm. Sure." She lifted the arm in question, wiggling her fingers in proof. "We've got no choice, really."
Carson nibbled her lower lip and looked up at the bank. She sensed they were running out of time, and she nodded once, committing herself to getting them to safety. "Alright. Let's do this thing then."
Kennedy managed to sit up, scooting along on her behind to the very edge of the water. Carson went in first, dragging the branch with her, and helping her lover get her right arm wrapped firmly around it. She wrapped herself around Kennedy, bracketing her with both her own arms, to help her keep a hold. With all her might she pushed away from the river bottom, kicking until suddenly the water picked them up and they were floating downstream. She briefly prayed there were no water moccasins in the river, and rolled on her back, holding Kennedy against her, between her body and the branch. "Hold on, honey. I'll try to keep a watch out for help."
Kennedy laid back, her head against Carson's shoulder. The water was incredibly cold, but it felt good, numbing some of the pain in her leg and arm. Truth be told, she was barely hanging on to the branch, her body weak as a newborn colt. She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling the warm body behind her, and giving up her trust that Carson would take care of her.
The floated along, the current quickly carrying them away from the danger zone. As they rounded a bend, Carson looked up and saw two figures standing on the bank, not too far from where they had gotten into the water. They were two far away for her to make out facial features, or even determine gender. She could see them gesturing, obviously angry, and she figured they must have been pretty far away to take that long to get to them. She shuddered, as another shot rang out. She had no idea if they were within range, and she quickly ducked down, pulling both of them as much under the branch as she could, without going completely below the surface.
In a few more minutes they rounded the bend and were no longer in sight. She breathed a sigh of relief and surfaced again, hearing Kennedy groan at the movement. "Sorry, honey." She pulled her closer, turning enough to keep an eye on where they were going. She had no idea how far they had hiked that afternoon, and judging from the angle of the sun, they only had a few more hours of daylight.
Now she had time to feel the cold, and fervently hoped she would be able to tell where to try to pull out of the water. She looked up and saw the beginnings of trees way up ahead on one side, and realized they had a very long way to go to get back to La Clocha. She also realized that their shooters might have a vehicle and be expecting them there, if they had followed them out.
She thought about that. When they left La Clocha, they were the only tent pitched. What if no one else showed up to camp for the night? It was remote there -- not the most popular area of the park by a long shot. Worse, what if they arrived at camp only to be greeted by the very people trying to kill them? She suddenly realized she didn't know who was a friend and who was an enemy. She couldn't flag anyone down on the bank, lest she be accidentally drawing the attention of the ones they were trying to escape.
What to do? It was late afternoon and the sun was beginning to sink lower. Already partially in shadows, the water was getting colder. She guessed it to still be several miles back to La Clocha. The river was moving, but not fast enough. She weighed her options and sighed, angling them toward the Mexican side of the river. As if in answer to a prayer, she spotted what appeared to be a cave, or at least a deep alcove in the tall rock walls, and she kicked toward shore, hoping to land so they wouldn't have to travel far to reach it.
"What's going on?" Kennedy had drifted in and out of awareness, her body shivering as a fever set in, her system trying to fight the foreign object imbedded in her shoulder.
"Shhhhhh. I'm getting us to shelter. We can't go back to camp tonight, honey. It's too far and too dangerous." Carson reached shallower water and found her footing, helping her lover float for as long as possible.
Her mind was too addled to argue, and Kennedy merely accepted the answer, stumbling ashore supported by Carson's body and arms. She managed to stay on her feet, limping in whatever direction Carson led her. She fuzzily realized it was the best decision. She couldn't last much longer in the cold water, and she had no strength left for walking, much less swimming.
At last they began a short climb up to the area Carson had spotted. It was indeed a deep alcove, not quite a cave, but it was sheltered overhead and on three sides. Carson guided her far back into the shelter, helping her lay back against the back wall. Their clothes were soaked, and she quickly removed the fanny packs and her sweatshirt, once again placing the soaked garment behind Kennedy's head. She also removed as much wet clothing as she could, until Kennedy was in her underwear and ruined sports bra. She was shivering, goose bumps dancing along the dark skin, and her teeth chattered.
"Hold on. I’m gonna build us a fire." She stumbled out of the cave, blindly gathering every bit of brush she could and dragging it back to the cave. She made a ring of rocks and built up the wood and twigs as best she could, before locating the flint and striker, grateful she had it, since it wasn't affected by water. After several strikes, a spark hit the tinder and she blew on it softly, sheltering it with her hands, smiling as it began to grow.
"Kennedy, honey, let's get you over here by the fire." She helped her lover scoot over a few feet, and rested back against a boulder, with Kennedy's head in her lap. "Guess we need to give your wounds a proper cleaning, huh?"
"N … n ….. need to get it out." Her teeth chattered, and she reached for the fanny pack nearest her, crying out softly at the pain of stretching her body.
"Be still." Carson stroked her head. "What do you need?"
"Get the bullet out. Don’t want it shifting and going deeper. Too close to my heart and lungs." She gestured toward the pack. "Tequila."
"You want me to do surgery?" Carson's voice was incredulous. "Kennedy, I can't do that."
"You can." Her voice was weak, and she coughed, clearing some water from her sinuses. "You can feel it -- it's a bump right under the surface. Sterilize the knife with the fire first, though, and get out the tequila."
Carson buried her face in her hands, which trembled at the prospect. She felt a touch to her leg, Kennedy's right hand caressing her skin. "I'm afraid I'll make it worse."
"You won't." Weak fingers tugged at the leather belt. "Need this too. Now. Get me drunk and take advantage of me." She managed a small chuckle.
Carson choked out a laugh, which turned into a sob, and she wiped her hand across her eyes. "Tell me exactly what to do, first."
"Get me drunk. Then sterilize the knife. Pour some of the tequila over the wound, then use one of the alcohol pads from the first aid kit, if they aren't ruined. Dig out the bullet." She coughed again, moaning at the pain of the action. "Oh, god. Maybe you should just get my Glock out of my pack and shoot me instead."
"You brought the Glock?" Carson grabbed for Kennedy's pack, opening it and digging to the bottom, retrieving the gun. "Thank goodness."
"I was kidding about shooting me," Kennedy eyed her warily.
"Not going to shoot you, but by god no one had better try to come after us." Carson checked the gun to make sure it was loaded. "'Cause they won't be so lucky." She set it aside, within reach. "Alright." She stroked the dark head. "Dig out the bullet, and then what?"
"Pour more tequila over it, swab it down, squeeze a bunch of that antiseptic cream into the wound, and sew it up with the needle and thread in the first aid kit. Sterilize the needle good first, though." She reached up feebly, touching Carson's face. "I trust you, sweetheart. You have to do this or I'm going to be really sick by morning. Fever …" her voice trailed off and she shivered, her skin clammy from lack of clothing.
Carson found the flask and propped her lover up, getting a few shots of the amber liquid into her, reserving the rest for the task ahead. She held the knife to the fire, watching as blue eyes became quite glazed. Kennedy giggled once, and then whimpered as pain shot into her arm. "Belt." Leather was pressed between her teeth, and she bit down, her good hand squeezing Carson's leg as she rolled over on her stomach. The tequila was doing it's job, for the most part, but she wasn't nearly as out of it as she wished she could be.
Carson took a few breaths and peeled back the bandage, watching fresh blood flow from the bullet hole. She poured the tequila over the wound and heard a muffled scream. The alcohol pads were ruined, so she tossed them aside, glad they had a fair amount of liquor left. "I'm so sorry I have to hurt you like this," she whispered. Gritting her teeth, she carefully prodded the wound, feeling Kennedy's body jerk at the touch. As she probed a bit deeper, she could hear muffled cries, and feel blunt nails digging into her calf as Kennedy held on. "Got it." She felt the knife hit something hard, and dug under it, slowly working it out. A bit of metal appeared, and blood began to flow freely over her fingers and the knife, spilling over her hand and down Kennedy's back, pooling on the rock beneath them.
She grasped the bullet, a rather large one, and worked it out. She studied it briefly before carefully depositing it into a baggie to save for the police. Kennedy was shaking continually, sweat beading up all over her skin as she applied more tequila. Carson used the antiseptic cream, filling the wound, and then sterilized the needle, quickly sewing up the ragged hole left behind. She could feel the pop of skin as the needle pricked it, and each time she drew the thread through, Kennedy jerked against her. "Almost done, honey."
Kennedy could barely breathe, the pain was so great. She buried her face against Carson's lap, glad for the belt between her teeth. Her lungs hurt from one long continual silent scream, and fire raced across her back, stabbing pain radiating all over her body. At last she faintly heard Carson say "all done." And she relaxed, rolling on her side, her head still in Carson's lap.
Carson's face was covered with tears, as was her own. Carson carefully gathered her up, cradling her as they both cried. She spit out the belt and Carson picked it up. She'd bitten clean through, a neat row of teeth holes clearly visible in the firelight. "Don't ever make me do that again," Carson sobbed out.
"Clean my leg, then it'll be over." She shifted again. There was nothing dry to use for bandages, but with her shoulder sewed up, at least that bleeding had been stopped. Her leg was another matter. She didn't think she'd survive another round of stitches, and hoped a thorough cleaning would do. "Come on. One splash of tequila and some more cream, and we're done."
Carson sniffled and quickly took care of her, flinching in sympathy when Kennedy did, the alcohol setting her leg on fire. "Here. I think I've got one bit of dry gauze here in the middle of this roll." She cut away the wet material, and did indeed have just enough dry left to wrap the leg a couple of times. She moved away long enough to lay all their clothing and everything in the fanny packs out by the fire to dry, stripping down to her underwear as well. She was thankful it wasn't as cool as the day before, though she feared what the night might bring.
She wrapped up in Kennedy's long wet flannel shirt, and put her boots back on, long enough to go out one more time and gather as much dry brush and fire building material as she could find, piling all of it near their chosen sleeping spot. The sun was setting, and the temperature was starting to drop. It was going to be a long night, and she trudged back into the alcove, scooting back and getting Kennedy situated so she was lying back against her, as much of their bodies in contact as possible. The fire was warm, and she salvaged a couple of damp trail bars, ripping one open with her teeth, unwilling to let go of Kennedy with one hand.
"Time?" A sedate voice drifted up, and blue eyes blinked silver in the firelight.
"Sundown." Carson leaned over, kissing her forehead. "Drink." She held up the water bottle and Kennedy obeyed, sucking down a healthy portion of water.
"Cold." She shivered, trying to curl into the body under her.
"I know." Carson wrapped herself around her as much as she could. "Better?"
"Yeah." She blinked, her focus not quite on target. "Love you," she crooned, still slightly tipsy.
"I love you too," Carson blinked away fresh tears. "You hungry?" She held up a trail bar.
Kennedy turned green at the smell, and pushed it away. "No. Just … tired. Hurts."
"Sleep now, if you can." At least one of them should get some rest, Carson reasoned, and it wasn't going to be her. She glanced over at the Glock. "We'll figure out what to do next in the morning."
Her system overrun with pain and alcohol, Kennedy blinked lazily, rolling a bit until she was resting on her right side, her body still stretched out against Carson. She laid her head back against Carson's chest and closed her eyes. Her head was throbbing, as were her shoulder and leg. She knew she had a fever, and that she was probably not completely coherent.
She heard a rustling noise and looked toward the opening of the alcove. Carson moved beneath her, picking up the Glock. They both gasped as the white buck appeared in the entryway, stopping and staring at both of them for a very long moment before he seemingly faded from view. "Did you see him?" Her voice drifted upward.
"Yeah." Carson's heart beat faster. Maybe it was a sign. A good one, she hoped. She looked around, reaching for some more brush to feed the fire, when something in the very back of the alcove caught her eye. "Hang on." She slipped out from under Kennedy and crept back on all fours, the roof overhead too low for her to stand. It was a tarp, rolled up and tied with twine, resting against the back wall, half hidden behind a rock.
She unrolled it and studied it. It was a bit musty-smelling, and dusty, but otherwise in good shape, not ridden with any bugs and without so much as even one hole. She looked up and out into the night, wondering if it had been there all along, and the buck had come by to point it out to her, or if it had somehow magically appeared. She closed her eyes. "Thank you sweet Jesus. Or whoever provided this," she hastily added.
It wasn't a sleeping bag, but it was a layer against the chill. She scooted back over to Kennedy, situating them as before, and then drew the tarp over them, sneezing as the dusty smell reached her nostrils. Dust she could live with a lot more easily than hypothermia. She felt Kennedy finally begin to relax and quit shivering, and after a long while, felt the even breathing of sleep.
She looked around. They had a fire, food, water, and now a blanket. She sighed unhappily, comparing the current cave to the one from the night before. Her thoughts turned sober, as she remembered that someone out there wanted one or both of them dead. Who was it, and why? Drunken rednecks who decided to shoot at human beings, or someone who had actually tracked them from who knew where? She double checked the location of the Glock and relaxed back against the rock as much as she dared, determined to keep watch until dawn.
"Where'd they go?" Rick sat partway up from his perch behind a large live oak tree. He shaded his eyes, peering toward the riverbank.
"Considering Shea isn't walking, not far." Sam stood, brushing red dust off his jeans. "Let's go take a look."
"I knew you wanted to scare them, but holy crap, this sure went down differently than I figured it would." Rick retrieved a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, tapping it against his palm before he opened it and pulled one out, cupping it with one hand while he lit it. Smoke trailed up around his head, drifting over the tree branches.
"Yeah, well believe me, it didn't turn out how I expected it to, either. What a fucking mess." Sam followed suit, briefly eyeing one joint he had hidden in his pack next to the legal tobacco. There would be time for that later, after they hiked back out. The sun was sinking, casting long shadows over the tops of the hills, making strange patterns on the dips and curves of the landscape below. A chill ran down his spine, and he looked around, then cautiously slid down the steep slope to the edge of the river, making sure to stay hidden behind the ridge between them and the higher outcroppings above them.
Rick came tripping down to join him, and both their mouths dropped open. Down river, they spied Carson and Kennedy and their tree branch, floating swiftly away on the current. "I'll be damned." Sam spat out a wad of chewing gum, watching it land in some brush below the edge of the riverbank. "Get back, before they see us." He tugged Rick away from the bank.
"We'll never find them, not unless they go back to their camp." Rick tossed his ball cap to the ground in disgust. "And this was just starting to be fun."
Sam resisted the urge to slap him up beside the head. "I think they've been scared enough, and luckily, I don't think they've seen us. Could get us in a whole lot more trouble than we ever bargained for, if they did. This has turned into a damned cluster fuck, you idiot."
"This was your idea!" Rick stepped back, mindful of Sam's larger size, but he wasn't quick enough. A large fist picked him up by the shirt collar and twisting it tightly around his neck, as Sam's face contorted in rage.
"Nothing happened here today, you got me? Nothing!" He shook Rick and let him go, watching as he fell to the ground in a coughing fit.
"Damn, man." Rick rubbed his throat. "I'm on your side here. No worries." He waved a plaintive hand in the air.
"One word to anybody, and you'll regret it." Sam kicked savagely at a rock, watching it roll and tumble down into the water.
Rick stood up, picking up his hat and gathered his dignity about him. "Let's get out of here. This place is starting to give me the heebie jeebies."
"Lucky you didn't get your fool head blown off." Sam snorted and took off down the trail, occasionally looking back up and over his shoulder toward the hills. "Gonna be dark before we get back to the road."
"We gonna wait for them at their campsite?" Rick caught up with him, but stayed out of reach.
"No. We are going to go back to town, get cleaned up, and go to Armadillo Flats." Sam's eyes rolled. "Are you stupid? You saw the blood. Shea's hurt bad. Last thing we need is to be seen anywhere near their tent or their truck. We weren't here today. Do you get that?"
"I get it," Rick muttered. They were too out in the open for his tastes, and he unconsciously hunched over, tucking his hands into his pockets. His sweat-soaked shirt was sticking to his back, and he could feel the sunburn at the back of his neck. He pulled his ball cap further down over his forehead and kept his head down, wishing they were closer to the trees.
They neared a rise on the trail and a shot rang out, sending both men scrambling for cover. "What the hell?" Sam belly-crawled to the riverbank and eased over the side, with Rick following quickly behind him. His head poked up just enough to take a quick look around, before he ducked down again. "Dammit!" He looked down river, spying two tiny figures and some brush floating in mid-stream. He squinted, just making out Carson and Kennedy as they slipped around a bend out of sight.
"Now what?" Rick hunkered down well below the bank's edge, rolling over and grimacing as he inadvertently sat on a small spiny cactus.
"Somebody else wants those bitches out of the way. Let's lay low, and just hope they don't want us out of the way as well. Come on." He nodded toward the water. "Best we hike from down here for a while. And hope like hell none of those damned touring companies come along with people able to ID us."
"What about Pete?" Rick followed him down nearer the water.
"What about him?" The terrain was rough where they were, the ground littered in loose rock in all shapes and sizes, dried caked mud flats, and tall fall-dead grasses. He stumbled, almost falling, and released a string of curses.
"Well, when Pete hears his sister was attacked, don't you think he's going to put two and two together and nail us?" A dragonfly darted in his face, and Rick swatted at it, almost tumbling into the water in the process.
" I'll take care of him, when and if I have to." Sam's eyes narrowed. "Far as I'm concerned, he was with us today, wasn't he?"
"Wasn't he?" Sam whipped out his hunting knife, brandishing it around in an arc for Rick's benefit.
"Whatever you say, man." Hiking was difficult with legs that felt like jell-o. "I just wanna go home and forget today ever happened."
"That would be a very good idea." Sam tucked the knife back into his boot and picked up his pace, racing with the sun to reach civilization.
"Carson?" A hoarse voice carried feebly in the light of shimmering coals.
"Right here, honey." She stroked the dark head, trailing her fingertips across a warm forehead.
"Cold." She coughed and cried out, as the motion pulled at the stitches in her shoulder.
"Here." She pulled the tarp more snuggly around them, cursing at the ruined bottle of ibuprofen she'd found in her fanny pack. The pills were mush, drowning in brown river water. "Is that better?"
"Yeah." Kennedy shivered, her teeth chattering before she clamped her jaw firmly shut.
"Just a second." Carson eased out from beneath the covering and crept over by the fire, adding some brush to it and stoking it until it lit up, filling the small space with warm light. She felt their clothing, sighing with relief when her fingers met with dry material. "Thank you for dry desert air." She gathered up everything and quickly helped Kennedy into her shorts and Carson's own t-shirt and sweatshirt, placing the over-sized flannel shirt over all of it. The t-shirt and sweatshirt were a little big on Carson, and blessedly fit Kennedy without squeezing against her injured shoulder.
It was getting cooler outside, and Carson donned her own shorts and the remains of Kennedy's t-shirt. She got both of them into their socks as well, and crawled back under the tarp, arranging herself so that she was once again wrapped around her partner, Kennedy lying back against her under the musty canvas. Carson's arms were covered in goose bumps, but under cover it wasn't quite so bad, and Kennedy's apparent fever unfortunately added to the warmth.
"What about you?" Kennedy stroked a bare forearm with her right hand. "You need to put on one of these shirts."
"I'm fine." Carson pulled her closer and felt around for the water bottle. "You need to stay hydrated."
"Yeah." She sucked at the spout, closing her eyes as the cool liquid slid down her parched throat. "Maybe that'll help replace some of the blood I lost." One blue eye opened and rolled upward, followed by the other eye. Her vision was a little blurred and she blinked, Carson's face coming into better focus. "You think I lost very much?"
"No," Carson lied. "Hot-blooded as you are, you had plenty to spare, Stud."
Kennedy produced a brief pained chuckle and reached up, touching her face. "Don't feel much like a stud right now." Her thumb brushed Carson's cheek. "Some birthday, huh?"
"Might have to celebrate it a little late." A few tears trickled down her cheeks and Kennedy caught them, swiping them away.
"Every minute with you is a celebration." Silver-blue eyes cleared for a moment, shining up in the darkness. "My last day on earth, I want to spend it in your arms." She felt light-headed and closed her eyes again, snuggling up as she felt Carson pull her closer, until her head was against Carson's shoulder. "If I died right now, I'd die happy."
"Don't you go talking like that." Carson's chest felt so tight she couldn't breathe for a very long moment. "No dying allowed. Not now. Not next week. Not fifty years from now. You are going to grow to be old and gray, you hear me?" She was shaking, and felt Kennedy's grip tighten around her forearm. She looked down, watching several expressions flit across her lover's fevered face.
"That'll take a long time." Kennedy smiled, pushing the pain aside. "You've seen Pa. Not much gray there yet. It's in our genes."
"You'll be beautiful with gray hair." Carson stroked the hair in question, pushing sweaty bangs off her lover's forehead.
"So will you." Blue eyes closed, soaking in the comforting touch. The ground was a little less hard beneath her legs, and the cold somehow a little less so. She concentrated on Carson's warmth against her body, and the gentle sound of her breathing. She rolled a little, until her ear was against Carson's chest. A firm steady heartbeat reached her hearing and her hand drifted up until she could feel it as well.
"Ah, but that will be a long time too." One hand covered Kennedy's. "Blondes don't show their gray until they have a whole lot of it."
"So you really think I'm going to live to be old and gray, huh?" The dark head tilted up, and she opened her eyes, focusing on Carson's face, so close in the dark.
"I know you will." She found a smile, and almost lost it as long fingers reached up, touching her lips for a brief second, before Kennedy's hand dropped back down beneath the tarp, coming to rest on her arm again.
"If I do. If I survive this …." She swallowed, a motion visible even in the low light. "Will you promise to hang around and grow old with me?" Sad earnest blue eyes locked with surprised gray ones, as her thumb brushed against the baby-fine hair on Carson's forearm.
A very soft sad, little happy yelp escaped, almost like a puppy whimpering, and Carson blinked, scattering tears down her cheeks. "I promise." She leaned over, kissing Kennedy's forehead.
"Good." Kennedy's eyes drifted closed and she groaned a little, as an odd jabbing sensation stabbed through her shoulder. A slight smile lingered, though, and she felt Carson resume stroking her head. "Gotta go out for a little while now. Tired."
"Sleep, honey. I'll be right here when you wake up." Kennedy's breathing deepened, and the fire crackled, sending sparks shooting and drifting up into the darkness. Way off, a coyote howled, and Carson gazed steadily beyond the alcove's entrance, pondering her options to get help.
She was floating down river on a raft. It was warm and sunny, and the water babbled merrily, carrying her along at a comfortable pace. Kennedy lay on the raft across from her, wearing a swimsuit that was probably illegal in a dozen states, and a come-hither smile that made her want to crawl over and wrap herself around all that dark smooth skin covering that incredibly long lean body.
Carson smiled and cat-stalked across the raft. Just as she reached her, Kennedy rose up, with the sun shining behind her, creating mahogany highlights in her dark hair. As she stood, a cracking noise rang out, and Kennedy dropped to the raft, covered in blood.
No. Carson tried to scream and couldn't.
She jerked awake, her heart pounding in her chest, and her t-shirt drenched with sweat. She shivered, both from cold and dampness, and from the lingering tendrils of the dream. She looked down and remembered that at least part of it wasn't a dream at all -- the bad part. Kennedy was resting against her, her right side tucked up against Carson's stomach and legs, keeping her weight off her left arm and leg. "Damn." Carson scrubbed her eyes with her fists, blinking into the inky blackness. The fire had died down, but she was loath to crawl from under the tarp to build it back up.
Kennedy appeared to be resting peacefully. A little too peacefully. Fear clutched at Carson's throat, almost closing it, and she delicately placed her hand just below Kennedy's nose, not touching her, but close enough to feel shallow breathing against her skin. She sighed in relief, and then frowned. The part of her outside the tarp was cold, but underneath it was blazing warm.
She carefully pulled aside the collar on Kennedy's flannel shirt and felt the skin at the back of her neck. She was burning up hot, and her skin was dry. "Honey, not good," she whispered. Kennedy stirred and mumbled, almost as if she heard her, and she reached out with her left hand, crying out in her sleep in pain. The hand came to rest on Carson's knee, and Kennedy's eyes blinked open for a moment.
"Carson?" Her voice was that of a frightened child, and even in the darkness, her confusion was evident.
"Right here." She touched Kennedy's forehead, pushing her bangs aside. Her head was warm too, and Carson reached over, locating their water bottle. "Drink."
Kennedy sucked feebly at the water, as if it were taking great effort. "Where are we?" She pushed the bottle away, yelping again as pain shot from her shoulder down her arm.
"Same place." Carson stroked her hair. "Just waiting for dawn so I can figure out what to do."
"Do about what?" Kennedy shifted. "Ouch." She grew still. "Hurts all over."
"I know." Carson forced herself to speak calmly, realizing her lover didn't remember everything that had happened to them. "Honey, you remember getting shot?"
"Shot?" Kennedy rolled over a little bit, so she could see Carson better, but weariness overcame her, and she closed her eyes. She remained silent for so long, that Carson had decided she either didn't remember or had fallen back asleep. "Oh yeah, shot." Her eyes fluttered open again. "You took care of me."
"Yeah." She sniffled, and felt Kennedy's fingertips against her leg under the blanket, and then her hand curled around Carson's thigh, a comforting gesture, that made her release a tiny relieved laugh, along with a few more sniffles. It was absurd that she was the one being comforted.
"It's okay, Carson." Kennedy's voice bore more clarity, and she continued stroking her leg. "We're gonna be okay. You're doing real good."
"I should probably check your shoulder, since you're awake. Make sure it's doing okay." The distraction of purpose, of something to do, drove back a dam that had threatened to break since Kennedy was first shot. She knew at some point she'd probably lose that battle, but as long as she could stay focused on the next step, it was easier. Carson found the flashlight and folded back the tarp. Kennedy immediately shivered as the cool air washed over her very warm body.
"Fever?" She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry again.
"Yeah, I think so." Carson carefully got the sweatshirt up and over the injured shoulder, and then unbuttoned the flannel shirt, sliding it down enough to peel the t-shirt underneath it up. She shined the light at the stitches. The skin around it was puffed and red, the stitches pulling angrily where the wound had swollen up. Still, it was dry, no sign of drainage or blood, and she couldn't decide what to do.
"Hurts." Kennedy felt gentle fingers trail across her back below the wound. "Feels like it's pulling."
"It is pulling. I think, maybe …" she located the tiny scissors in the first aid kit, and carefully snipped the outermost stitch on each end. A little bit of clear drainage leaked out, and she thought the lack of color was probably a good sign. "How does that feel?"
"A little bit better. Some of the pressure is gone." She swallowed and felt the water bottle pressed to her lips again. This time she drank much more vigorously, realizing she was probably dehydrated from fever. Her brain felt fuzzy, and around the points of severe pain at her shoulder and leg were concentric circles of more dull pain, that radiated out and gradually dissipated. She was freezing inside, and doing her best to hide that, since there was not much Carson could do about it, except … "Fire?"
"Oh, yeah." She carefully scooted out from beneath Kennedy, and crawled over to the fire ring, building up the pile of tinder and brush. She got a small blaze burning again and scrambled back over, pulling the tarp back over them as Kennedy lay down, this time with her head in Carson's lap. "Better?"
"Yeah," she lied. She was so cold that the fire couldn't touch her. There was no more clothing to be had. "Maybe if we both get completely under here we can get really warm."
They got re-arranged, with Carson lying fully horizontal at last, her head resting against the daypack, while Kennedy lay on her stomach with her body draped on top of Carson, her head against her shoulder. Carson tucked the tarp around them and felt their shared body heat begin to warm the thin layer of air beneath the covering.
"Mmmm." Kennedy's eyes closed. "You sleep too. Fire will keep the critters away."
Carson waited, feeling Kennedy drift off. The utter solitude of their situation pressed in on her. In the morning she would pull out the map and figure out exactly where they were, but at that moment, she felt as if they were a million miles from civilization. It was dark, and cold, and somewhere out there, someone wanted them dead. The fire might keep the four-footed predators away, but it was the two-footed ones she was worried about.
She was weary--lack of sleep, lack of proper food, and the extreme stress and physical exertion all combining to make her entire body feel like a lead weight. She had to stay awake, and thoughts of Starbucks flitted through her mind. A hot mocha latte sounded like heaven, both for the warmth and the caffeine. Her coffee bags were back in the truck, along with the mug to drink the coffee from.
It was easy to imagine monsters at the edge of the alcove -- shadows thrown by rocks and brush becoming bears and wolves to her tired imagination. She shook her head to clear it, and forced herself to sit up just a little bit, lest she did fall asleep. Sleep wasn't an option until they were somewhere safe. A great yawn almost popped her jaw out of joint, and she groaned, feeling like an old woman.
She'd already fallen asleep once, she realized, remembering the raft nightmare. A raft. Her mind wrapped around that idea. Maybe she could find enough branches to pull something crude together and float them out of the wilderness to safety. She hoped that somewhere a ranger was making rounds, and they would be missed. Though she wasn't sure how much good it would do, since no one knew which direction they'd hiked out from their tent site. Still … if they were missed, hopefully they'd be looked for.
She closed her eyes for as long as she dared, sending out a little prayer that God, or the Great Spirit, or someone, would look over them and see them safely home.
"Great!" Sam circled the truck, kicking a completely flat tire. "That's just great." He turned, facing Rick, who was leaning against the side of the pick-up, nursing a cold beer. "You want to tell me again how it is the spare tire is missing?"
"Not missing," Rick drawled between sips. "You just kicked it. That is the spare. Had a flat last week. Just hadn't gotten around to getting a new one yet." He tilted the can back and felt it slapped out of his hand. "Hey!" He stepped aside a little, out of Sam's reach. "That was only half-empty." He watched remorsefully as the amber pale beverage foamed out of the can and was quickly soaked up by the parched desert.
"You managed to pack a cooler of beer, but not a spare tire?' Sam snorted in disgust, and glanced westward toward the setting sun. They had taken one of the unimproved back roads between La Clocha and Sierra San Vicente, where they'd seen Kennedy and Carson, so as not to be seen on any of the main park roads. The road had proven to be dried in deep ruts after the recent rains, and somehow they'd blown the tire there in the middle of nowhere.
"Well …" Rick opened the door to the extended cab and reached inside, digging through the ice chest for two more beers. He tossed one to Sam, who caught it and opened it, downing half of it in a few gulps. "…. We gonna walk on out tonight and hope we can catch a ride at Rio Grande Village?"
"No, you idiot." Sam sneered at him, wondering how Rick had survived childhood. "It's too far. We're going to sleep here tonight, and then we'll have to hike the back road all the way in tomorrow -- pretend we came hiking in from the other direction, and we're gonna call Doug and see if he'll come get us."
"What about my truck?" Rick whined.
"We'll get Doug to bring you a tire, but we'll have to drive the long way around to come fix it, and hope no one goes nosing down this road looking for those bitches between now and then. I hate sleeping in that truck -- too damned cramped inside."
"Got a tent and sleeping bags," Rick offered. "Got all my camping gear behind the front seat."
Sam shook his head. "You got beer and camping gear, but no spare tire." He finished his beer and crumpled the can in his fist. "Figures. Okay …" He looked around. "We can't risk camping at La Clocha, and that's the closest site, so let's see if we can find a spot hidden in the trees down there. "No fires, got me?"
"Got you. I'm not stupid." Rick missed Sam's rolled eyes, as he ducked into the truck and pulled out his camping equipment.
Soon they had pitched the small tent in a shady spot, and threw together a dinner of beef jerky, potato chips, beer, and trail mix. There was little to do but stare at each other, and very little to talk about. As it grew dusky, the temperature began to drop, and they both donned sweatshirts they'd tossed in the truck that morning. After a while, alcohol and the salty dinner led to extreme thirst. Rick stood and retrieved a water bottle from the tent, but it was almost empty. "Damn."
"What?" Sam lit a cigarette, drawing deeply from it and exhaling through his nose. He contemplated his joint, but decided he wasn't in the mood to share.
"Water's almost gone." He crawled back in the tent and came back out with a small water filtration device. "Need to take a leak." He stood back up. "I'll head down to the creek and get us some more water while I'm at it."
"Fine. Go on. You gotta be good for something." Sam waved him off, and grinned as soon as he was out of sight, pulling out the joint after all, lighting it and drawing the smoke into his lungs with pleasure. It would be gone before Rick would be back.
Rick trampled sullenly through the trees, mumbling under his breath. "'Gotta be good for something'." He mimicked Sam's voice, as he shoved branches aside, walking almost blindly in his anger. "Treats me like I'm stupid all the time. I'm half a mind to walk out of here tonight and leave him to die of thirst. Would serve him right."
He moved on, and after about a half mile, reached the creek, where he skidded down the slippery embankment, and bent down, carefully filling the bottle with fresh clean water. A rustling noise sounded up stream, and he stopped, growing completely still, then slowly and silently crept behind a rock, listening. He heard nothing else but birds and the babble of the stream, and finally resumed his task. "I'm gonna have the willies from this day for a while, I do believe." He finished filling the bottle and started making his way back to camp.
It was almost dark, and he regretted not bringing a flashlight. "Hope the rattlers are all burrowed in for the night." He watched the ground carefully, making slow progress in the dimming light. He stopped about fifty yards back from the campsite, and set the water down, and stepped behind a large tree to take care of business. As he was zipping up, the crack of gunshot rang out, and his heart leaped into his throat. A second shot shattered the night air, and he automatically dropped down on his belly, mindless of critters.
The shots had come from the direction of the campsite, and he listened intently, barely breathing, and hoping his gray sweatshirt was dark enough to blend into the night. Slowly, he belly-crawled toward camp, a few feet at a time, stopping at intervals to listen. His own breathing sounded loud to his ears, the fear making hearing difficult.
Finally, several yards from the campsite, he heard two male voices, speaking low. He grew completely still, determined to spend the night right where he was, if necessary.
"You sure that one's dead?" A gravelly voice carried through the air to Rick's hiding place. He couldn’t see the campsite at all, and hoped he could trust his ears to tell him if anyone started walking his way.
"Yeah." A higher voice answered. The accent was definitely not from West Texas, or Texas at all, for that matter, and Rick tried to place it. "Thought there were two of them."
"So did I."
Rick heard a rustling and realized they were digging through the tent.
"Where d'ya think he is?" High voice grew closer, and Rick quit breathing completely.
"Beats the hell out of me," gravel voice also grew closer, and Rick realized if he looked up at all, he'd probably see the two men, who sounded as if they were standing only a few feet away, just at the edge of the trees.
"Do'ya think he'll be back tonight?" high voice started to move further away.
"Looks like camp was pitched for two, so, yeah, maybe we should wait for 'im. I don't like him being out there." Gravel voice followed high voice.
"You sure they saw us?" High voice sounded tired.
"I'm not sure, no, but we can't take any chances." Gravel voice grew muffled, and Rick heard the sound of the tent being unzipped, followed by the jingle of the truck keys. "Let's wait in that beat-up piece of shit truck. I've had enough of this stinkin' fresh air for one day. Hell, it'll make a good hiding place."
Rick waited, listening as the men walked uphill to the truck. It was a fair walk, but finally, he heard the slam of the doors, and he released a long breath, realizing his insides were shaking. Carefully, he turned, and belly-crawled back to the creek. It took a long time, but at last he felt safe enough to stand.
He thought about everything Sam had said.
Sam was dead.
He snorted. "Who's the smart guy now?"
So … Sam had said they should avoid the ranger stations and being seen in the area, because of Shea and her friend being shot at. But now someone had shot Sam. It seemed reasonable to Rick that he could hike to the ranger station and get help. He could get a ride home and sleep in his own bed.
He took off toward the river, avoiding the trails in favor of the tree line.
The pale fingers of dawn crept inside the alcove, reaching out and touching two miserable figures huddled together beneath the musty tarp. The fire had burned completely out, and there was precious little left with which to re-start it. Carson lifted the water bottle and tipped it up, taking only a few swallows as she realized it was almost empty. Kennedy stirred, her bloodshot eyes blinking open as she tried to remember where they were.
She moved and winced, yelping as the motion pulled at the stitches in her shoulder. “Ouch.” She felt Carson’s hand on her head, stroking her hair, and she closed her eyes, soaking in the comfort. “Feel like a big baby.”
“You feel a lot cooler than you did last night.” Carson herself felt like she’d been run over by a truck, her back and neck muscles screaming in protest at sleeping on the hard rock in a partially upright position for most of the night. What little bit of that time she’d actually slept was debatable. “I think your fever’s broken.”
“Fever?” Most of the night was a forgotten blur, and Kennedy frowned, trying to pull the pieces of her memory together. “Must’ve been pretty out of it.”
“Eh.” Carson extended her legs, trying to stretch without jostling her lover. “Not too bad, considering. Now I’ve got to figure out how to get us out of here. I’ve been hoping they’d find our empty campsite and the truck, and come looking for us.”
“If the rangers have been doing their jobs.” Kennedy’s throat was parched, and she looked around, spying the water bottle still in Carson’s hand. “Can I have some of that?”
“All of it.” Carson held it up and waited until Kennedy emptied it. “Gonna go down and filter us some more, and see what it looks like out there, and maybe see if there’s any sign of anyone looking for us."
“What side of the river are we on?” A thought settled uneasily into Kennedy’s head, and she rolled to her back a little bit more, careful not to put any pressure against her left shoulder. “Mexico or U.S.?”
“Mexico.” Gray eyes looked down, meeting blue, reading the troubled expression there. “Why?”
“Sweetheart, they won’t come looking for us here.” Kennedy tried to sit up, and managed to get propped partway, resting on her right forearm. “No jurisdiction.”
“So we’re on our own to get home?” Carson’s shoulders slumped, and she blinked at the sting of tears, determined not to make things worse than they already were. She covered her face with her hands and released a long trembling breath. “Thought getting us out of that river was the best thing. Maybe it was the worst.”
“You did what you had to, Carson.” Kennedy forced herself further up, gritting her teeth to hide the pain of the small effort involved. “I was so cold. And so were you. And those guys …” She shifted, scooting back and leaning against the rock behind them. “There were two of them, right?”
“Yeah.” She uncovered her face, swiping at one eye and catching the moisture that threatened to leak out and spill over. “They were too far away to really tell anything more. Could’ve been girls. Or one of each.”
“Just can’t figure out who would’ve been after us.” Long legs extended out cautiously, pain shooting down Kennedy’s left leg from the spot where the bullet had grazed her. She reached over and carefully pulled back the tarp, then worried at the gauze with her right hand, bending in an awkward position to reach it. “Ouch.” She slipped the bandage down and studied the wound.
It didn’t look as bad as the day before, if she recalled, scabbed over nicely with no signs of infection, although there was still a fair amount of swelling, and she could tell just from looking there would be a nasty scar when it healed. “Looks like these legs are gonna be a little worse for wear. Might not be a loveable as they were before,” she halfway joked, glancing sideways at her lover.
Carson scooted over, touching a tanned face and urging eye contact. “You listen to me.” Her voice was no-nonsense earnest. “I don’t care about all that. It's not what matters to me. Fifty years from now you’ll still be just a beautiful in my eyes, as you are right now. You … you …” her head dropped down, and her chest rose up and down with a great shuddering sigh. “You scared me last night. Talking about dying and all that. I … just don’t you go dying on me anytime soon. I’ve been through enough death in this lifetime. One more will kill me. So … just … don’t.”
Dying? Kennedy was stunned. “I don’t remember much of last night,” she confessed. Not entirely true. She did remember one moment with vivid clarity – one that basically amounted to a very convoluted proposal of marriage. Ah, well. Time to discuss that one later. First things first. “I was in so much pain, from that very first shot. I … I’m sorry. Carson?” She reviewed Carson’s words and mentally kicked herself. Her parents. Oh, god. The blonde head was still ducked, and she tilted her own head, seeing a tear drip down and land on Carson’s leg. “Oh, sweetheart.” Grateful Carson was to her right, she pulled her close, until Carson’s head was resting on her shoulder.
The dam finally burst, and Carson began to sob, her body shaking as all the fear and worry of the past eighteen hours came rushing to the surface. “How … how am I going to get us out of here?” She sobbed some more, sniffling as she tried to get her emotions under control. “I can’t carry you. I can’t swim us both across the river. Your leg … how far could you walk? And the fever … if it comes back. And people out there shooting at us. And we have almost no food …” She felt a kiss to the top of her head, and sniffled, as the tears began to abate. “I’m scared. I know I need to be strong for us, but damn it, honey, I’m scared and I don’t have any answers. None.”
“Shhhh.” Kennedy ignored the pain, and rocked them both a little bit, feeling the shaking body she held begin to grow still. “One step at a time. Can you go get us some water?”
“Yeah.” Soulful gray eyes peeked up, and blinked, sending a few more tears down her cheeks. Kennedy leaned over and gently kissed them away.
“We still got some trail bars?” She kissed Carson’s forehead for good measure. The blonde head shook affirmatively. “Then we have breakfast. Get us some water, and then we’ll talk about our next move, okay?”
“Okay.” Sheepishly, Carson got up, taking the water bottle and filter with her, and she exited the alcove.
“Be careful.” Kennedy thought about the shooters. “Keep you head down.” Carson nodded and Kennedy watched her go, waiting a few minutes and gathering her courage. Cursing, she pushed herself up, one slow inch at a time, until she was on her knees. It hurt like hell, darts of pain stabbing her all up and down her back and leg. She forced herself to stand, shedding a few tears of her own as she tried to rest her weight on the injured leg. “I couldn’t just go and skin my knees like a normal person, could I?” She hobbled forward a few steps, stopping as vertigo threatened to take her down. “No. I had to go and get myself shot. Whoa …” She wobbled and waited, making herself look at the wall in front of her, rather than closing her eyes or looking down. “Must’ve lost more blood than I thought.” She took a few more steps, still feeling light-headed. “Or maybe my blood sugar is way off.”
“Kennedy?” Carson’s voice called from outside. “I think there’s a problem across the river. It’s … oh.” She entered the alcove, spotting her now-standing lover. “Hey. Can you walk?”
“We’ll find out.” She managed a few more steps. “What’s the problem?”
“Fire. The woods down river, between us and the campsite. I think there’s a fire. Tough to tell exactly what’s going on, but too much smoke for it to be just a campfire, I think.”
Kennedy absently accepted the full water bottle, drinking for a long moment, her eyes closed in thought. “Let’s take a look.” She draped her right arm across Carson’s shoulders and hobbled to the entrance of their little sanctuary. Staring eastward, she shaded her eyes against the rising sun, and squinted. “I’ll be damned.”
It was still early dawn, and sure enough, in the pale pink light of morning, smoke billowed up from the far-away treetops. They were upwind of the mayhem, and she sniffed the air, detecting just the faintest acrid scent, something she might not have readily noticed if she hadn’t seen the smoke. “Well …” she shifted her weight so that most of it was on her right leg, bending her left knee slightly. “Good news is, that tract of woods is pretty small, so even if it were to burn down completely, not much chance of it spreading to the rest of the park. Bad news is, the truck and all our stuff is at the end of it at La Clocha, so if they don’t get it under control, we may be vehicle shopping in the near future.”
“But it’ll bring out some park rangers, won’t it?” Carson watched as the smoke increased, blowing across river on the light steady breeze.
“Oh, I imagine park rangers, the sheriff’s department, and every volunteer fire department for five counties around.” It had been a long time since Big Bend had seen a forest fire. A very long time – she vaguely remembered a small one when she was in junior high school, and her father and Parker going down to the park to help fight it. She’d been left behind, despite vigorous protest that she was strong and able-bodied enough to help. She sighed, wishing she felt that way at present.
“So if we can get down that way, maybe someone will see us from across the river?” Carson peered up at her hopefully. “How far do you think that is?”
“Mmm. Four miles, maybe?” She tested her leg, standing on both feet. Four yards seemed impossible to traverse without excruciating pain, let alone four miles. “Piece of cake.”
Carson could see the tense jaw line, and a body so stiff it made her hurt just looking at her. Even Kennedy’s words were measured, as if she was forcing herself to speak normally, holding in any noise that might give away her suffering. There was no point in calling her on the ‘piece of cake’ comment. They couldn’t stay where they were for much longer. “Let’s eat some trail bars first, honey. Fortify ourselves a little bit.”
“Carson, if I sit down, I may not get up again today, so if you don’t mind …” she gestured toward their things, still lying beside the cold fire ring. “We can eat while we hike out.”
“Okay. Let me get the packs together.” She started for their belongings and felt Kennedy’s hand on her shoulder, and turned.
“Just get everything you can in one pack. We can replace the other. No sense in you carrying two of them, when you’re going to have to help me as well.” She leaned back against the wall, closing her eyes as another wave of dizziness washed over her. The rustling of nylon reached her ears, and the snick of a zipper opening and closing a few times. She heard a muffled curse followed by a mumbled ‘stupid, stupid, stupid,’ and raised an eyebrow, waiting to see if any help was needed. Instead she heard a frustrated breath, followed by more rustling, then light footsteps as Carson approached, carrying her boots.
“Gotta get these on you.” She stooped down, helping Kennedy into her socks and the sturdy hiking boots. She tugged at the laces and rested her hand on a trembling left calf, feeling the tension in the leg. She looked up at closed eyes, and a face contorted in pain. “Sorry.” She finished up and stood. “Found these hidden in an inner pocket of your pack,” she apologized, holding out a bottle of perfectly-dry ibuprofen. “Didn’t know there was another pocket in there, waterproof at that – guess I missed it last night. All that pain.” She peered sorrowfully at her lover, seeing a slight bit of light returning to tired blue eyes.
“Forgot about ‘em myself.” She picked out four of the tablets, popping them in her mouth and swallowing them all at once with a long swig of the cool water. “Probably a good thing. Might’ve used ‘em all up last night, and they’re gonna come in handy today, I think.”
“You gonna be okay to walk?” Carson nibbled her lower lip, safely pocketing the precious bottle of drugs in a zippered pocket of her shorts.
“Yeah. Got no choice.” She reached out her right hand and watched Carson’s slip into it, giving her a little tug until their bodies came into contact. She ducked her head and brushed her lips across Carson’s, just long enough for a proper ‘good morning.’ She pulled back, pursing her own lips inward, watching Carson’s eyes flutter open.
“Happy birthday,” Carson whispered, rather unhappily.
“Hey …” Kennedy kissed her again. “You’re here with me. That makes it happy in my book, any day.”
“I had such a nice day planned …” a sad voice trailed off.
“Day’s not over yet.” Kennedy pushed resolutely away from the wall, resting her hand on Carson’s shoulder. “Let me know if I put too much weight on you.”
“Okay.” Carson dug in her pocket and pulled out a trail bar, ripping it open with her teeth and breaking it in half, holding a piece up for Kennedy to nibble on. She watched the tan face turn ashen for a moment. “Not settling well?”
“Nope. And I don't want the ibuprofen to come back up.” They were moving downhill toward the river, and each step on her left leg was excruciating. She suspected the twisting sensation in her stomach had more to do with pain than illness. “Maybe in a little while I’ll try again.” She felt weak, her limbs rubbery as she lifted one foot at a time. The thought of hiking four miles in hope of finding a ranger and rescue was daunting. The thought that if they didn’t find one they might have to walk all the way to Rio Grande Village was enough to make her cry, if she thought about it too hard, so she didn’t.
“Gotta keep your strength up.” Carson took a bite of the bar, glad for the tiny bits of chocolate chip mixed in with granola and raisins. It was something small to be thankful for, but she focused in on it, allowing the chocolaty taste to linger on her tongue before she swallowed.
“Throwing up would make me feel decidedly weaker than I already do, sweetheart.” She draped her arm fully across Carson’s shoulders, her hope fading as she realized there was no even terrain to be had for as far as she could see. “Don’t worry,” she said to herself as much as to her lover. “We’ll be fine.”
They walked on in silence, Kennedy due to physical misery, and Carson’s of a more emotional variety. The sun was already warm, beating down on them. The sweatshirt and flannel shirt were both shoved into the pack, leaving Kennedy in Carson’s snug t-shirt, and Carson in the tattered remains of Kennedy’s blood-stained and torn one. Her black sports bra peeked out where the shirt had been cut, and she could feel the sun warm on her skin. At least, she reflected, their sun screen was still intact, and she stopped once, spreading it over both of them, careful to avoid Kennedy’s leg injury.
“How’s the shoulder?” She capped the lotion and zipped it back into the daypack.
“Hurts, but at least I don’t have to walk on it.” She thought about that as they continued to maneuver over rough loose shale and scrubby desert flora. It felt like a crater had been dug out of her shoulder, and judging from the sharp pain when she moved at certain angles, she suspected a bone may have been nicked or cracked as well. A sling might have been prudent, but just the thought of anything rubbing against the wound made her hurt. As long as she was certain nothing was broken, she preferred to keep the arm loose.
“Hey.” Carson’s voice caught her attention. “What’s that?”
Something large floated by on the river a little way below them. Something large and dark green. “Stay put.” Carson scrambled down the bank to the edge of the water, watching as the object went on past. “A raft! Empty!” She ran downstream a ways, but the water carried it too swiftly for her to keep up. After giving brief chase, she gave up and climbed back up to Kennedy’s side. “Damn.”
That about summed things up. Kennedy hugged her to her right side just a little, before they moved on. “Wonder how it got away?” She ventured.
“’Cause I wasn’t fast enough.” The utter dejection was evident, earning her another side-hug.
“No, I mean from whoever had it upriver.” She looked downstream but the raft was already a dot on the water. “No way anyone could’ve caught that. Nice try, though.”
“Maybe someone tied off last night and didn’t do a good enough job of it.” Carson finished off her half of the trail bar, stowing the other away in hope Kennedy would want it later. She drank from the water bottle and held it up for her lover to do the same.
Kennedy swallowed, still feeling dizzy and nauseous. “Probably so.” She forced herself to keep moving, though the urge to simply lay down right there on the spot was almost overwhelming. Her leg continued to hurt with each step, and the sun was soaking through the t-shirt, making her stitches itch and throb at the same time. She glanced at her watch. It was 8:00 a.m. They’d probably traveled a quarter mile, and it had taken half an hour. She did some mental mathematics and sighed.
Four miles was going to take eight hours at that pace, assuming she didn’t collapse first.
Continued in Chapter 8
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