Disclaimer: These are not my characters and I make no profit from them.
Thanks to Owl and Cheri, betas extraordinaire.
Author's Note: In the first episode of the third season, "She Ain't Deep but She Sure Runs Fast", Milt and Mark set off for a back country tour with Milt's pilot friend, Buzz Bird. Unfortunately Buzz suffers a fatal heart attack in mid-flight and crashes his small plane in the wilds of Oregon. Miles from nowhere and with not much in the way of supplies, the two survivors encounter Taylor Walsh and his band of backwoods ruffians, bound and determined to rob and kill every man who invades their territory. With two hunters already dead, Mark sets a trap for the homicidal mountain men while Milt leads them into it. Once Walsh and his remaining companion are captured, it's only Mark's quick intervention that prevents the judge from bashing some heads. In the epilogue, the guys are seen leading their prisoners into a small town, with only some humorous touches to indicate the passage of time.
A Walk in the Woods
by L.M. Lewis
Hardcastle had taken back the gun. Mark assumed the rear position in the procession. They were headed northwest—opposite the direction of their goal, the far-off town of Myrtle Creek—but they hoped to gather some necessary supplies from Walsh's stash of stolen goods.
Now that the adrenalin had worn off, Mark realized he was hungry. He'd spent the morning digging at a frantic pace and there'd been nothing to eat since they'd stumbled across the hunters' camp the day before. Everything they'd scavenged from there had been lost in the river.
Their prisoners were sullen and only minimally cooperative. Walsh didn't even bother to threaten, though his glower said plenty about what he was thinking as he and his companion were marched toward their camp.
From what had nearly happened back at the pit, it had to be evident to their prisoners that the man holding the gun had limited patience; still Walsh didn't seem inclined to be cowed. He stalked along their return path with the body language of a born predator. Even unarmed he looked dangerous.
Mark had already made up his mind to curb his usual mock-adversarial relationship with the judge. Walsh's type would expect the guy in charge to be an unchallenged top-dog. What Hardcastle accepted as cheerful bickering, Walsh would perceive as fatal weakness.
It was high noon before they straggled into the pirates' former lair. Hardcastle had been starting to wonder if Walsh had somehow misled them. He was also starting to doubt his wisdom in having let Mark dissuade him from killing the man on the spot. The other guy seemed a born follower and would probably be manageable, at least at the point of a gun, but Walsh was like a coiled snake even now. How the hell they were going to walk him the hundred-some miles back to civilization didn't bear thinking about.
Step one was seeing that he was restrained, at least now while they weren't walking over uneven ground. They found some rope among the scattered camp supplies and sat both their prisoners down, one to a tree.
That accomplished, he still didn't trust Walsh enough to take his eyes of him. Mark seemed more than willing to do the foraging.
"Cans," he shouted over his shoulder after a few minutes. "Beans. No opener. No, wait, here's one."
He held it up. Hardcastle spared him a look.
"One of those space-age deals." Mark glanced over at Walsh and company. "Kinda fancy for a back-to-nature guy."
"Booty," the judge spat.
Mark came over, cans cradled in one arm, spoons and can-opener in the other hand. He dispatched the lids and passed the first can over, then settled himself down cross-legged on the ground, next to the rock the judge occupied. He dug in enthusiastically, pausing only after the first couple of spoonfuls.
"I don't think I ever really appreciated beans before," he sighed.
"What all did you find?" Hardcastle had set the gun down, carefully and near to hand, and tackled his own can.
"Not much yet. I quit looking after I got to these," Mark mumbled thickly around another mouthful. He swallowed and continued on, "Spam would be nice."
"Gettin' fussy already."
"No, beans are good, but Spam is . . . well, Spam."
There was no denying that. The judge even allowed himself a small smile. It might have included a certain amount of teeth-baring, for Walsh's sake, but it was the first time he'd felt like smiling in a while.
That he could even consider being amused, with a hundred or more roadless miles ahead of them and two dangerous prisoners in their custody, was something of a tribute to the guy sitting at his feet, relishing a can of cold beans. It had occurred to him, sometime during the first twenty-four hours of this disastrous trip, that Mark was entirely out of his element in the wild, but also that the kid adjusted to these weird turns of events faster than anybody else Hardcastle knew.
He heard him scraping the bottom of his can. Hardcastle glanced down at the man and then jerked his chin toward the prisoners. "Suppose we ought to feed these two?"
"They had breakfast, I'll bet," Mark sniffed. "I'm still a couple of cans behind." He was on his feet again. "Gimme a sec."
The second round included no Spam, but there were granola bars and a tin of sardines. "These are for you," Mark said, holding the tin out.
Hardcastle took it, inspected the label, and slipped it into his shirt pocket. "I'll save it for a special occasion."
"Like when you're starving?"
"Something like that." Hardcastle smiled serenely and accepted one of the granola bars. "Courses."
"Like Chez Maurice." Mark didn't bother to sit down this time, but returned to his foraging, granola bar consumed in two bites. "A little steak tartare would be nice," he said over his shoulder. "I'd even eat it raw right now."
Eventually he'd scrounged up six more cans of beans, two of corned beef hash, a couple of chocolate bars, and half a bag of marshmallows.
"All that's missing is the graham crackers." Mark eyed Walsh with a look of rapidly declining respect.
That was one of the problems, Hardcastle thought. It was next to impossible to get Mark to stop playing with fire—history of burns or not.
"Not much else," Mark nattered on. "There were a couple of guns, but they're smashed up. No spare ammo anywhere. Looks like they trashed the place before they took off after us."
Hardcastle scratched his nose and jerked his chin in Walsh's direction. "He won't admit it, but we had him scared, to spike his guns like that. Probably dumped the rest of the ammo, and everything else useful, over in the river. Must've been worried we'd cut back around 'em somehow and end up armed."
"Well, there's this." Mark held up a bright red pocket knife, one of those fat and complicated ones. "It's got a little saw and everything. Look—even a corkscrew. Might be useful."
"Might be evidence." Hardcastle held out his hand and Mark passed it to him. He studied the monogram etched into the side, an overly-elaborate 'L.S.' "Must've belonged to one of the guys they killed," he added with sudden sobriety.
"Well, we can use it while we're taking it in to the authorities."
Hardcastle nodded and stowed it in his pocket.
"Untie them and give 'em something to eat," he said brusquely. "Then we'll shove off." He looked up at the sun, now well past the zenith in their little clearing. He thought briefly about making camp here: build a fire and just wait to be found.
No—even if Buzz had filed a flight plan, there was no guessing whether they'd still been on it when they went down, and now they'd deviated further still from that course. With four men, only a few days' food, and winter coming early in the mountains, sitting still was a recipe for disaster.
A little more than a week on the trail—when there was a trail to be on—and they'd settled into something of a routine. The food had been doled out in ever-decreasing amounts. Hardcastle was probably right about that—the doling. Mark might have been inclined to make one last semi-decent meal of it. In some ways it was harder, he thought, to be hungry when you knew there was something left to eat. The sardines went last, but they went.
He consoled himself with the notion that at least the makeshift pack he'd slung over his shoulders was getting lighter. The furs still weighed some, though. Might need 'em, Hardcastle had said. The cans were empty, saved only for drinking from. Now the two men were sitting, in the gathering twilight, their prisoners once again secured for the night.
"What are ya doing?" The judge asked curiously.
Mark had finished rummaging in the pack and had what he needed out.
"I'm tired of carrying 'em. Can I borrow that fancy pocket knife?"
The judge passed it over. He made a face as Mark unrolled the first fur, measured off a span and hacked at it. He repeated the process several times then pulled a piece of twine from his pocket and unraveled it.
"You keep sayin' it's gonna get cold," Mark groused quietly, "and how if we don't keep moving we're gonna get snowed in." He held two pieces of fur, front to front, and started poking holes about an inch apart down one side of them. "I figure why should we just sleep on these when we can wear 'em, right?"
"You just wanted to come up with a way to get me to carry half," the judge grumbled, "that's all."
"More than half," he said. "I'm a coyote." He held up the fur he was working on. Then he pointed to one of the larger ones still on the ground. "You're a bear."
He grinned and started threading twine through the holes.
Hardcastle thought that was maybe the last time he'd seen the kid smile. Low on food was one thing, but the next day the canyon walls closed in. They were forced to backtrack. The judge caught a superior look from Walsh and realized he'd known all along that this particular passage had been futile. He swallowed his anger. There was no point in wasting energy on it.
Their new route forced them up, climbing high onto the rocky cliffs that ran alongside the narrowing gorge. They had no more water than they'd been able to carry up from the river's edge, and in the sweaty work of climbing, that small supply was gone the first day. It was a choice of turning back to spend a winter in the damaged camp, or forging on. They didn't debate it. One foot in front of the other had become their routine as well.
Now, a day later and with no water in sight, the judge thought they might have made the wrong choice. Dry coulees intersected their new route at irregular intervals, impeding their progress. By nightfall the new misery of thirst had driven away even hunger.
"I'll take the first watch," Hardcastle said firmly.
Mark didn't argue with him. He merely nodded wearily and without comment. He curled up on his side, the lumpy pack beneath his head, and seemed to drop into an exhausted slumber almost at once.
Hardcastle edged back against a tree, sitting across from the prisoners. He'd long since given up feeling any sympathy for them. He'd caught Walsh trying to saw through the ropes with a sharp rock two nights ago and had no doubt that if the man ever got the jump on them he'd return none of Mark's mercy.
Now the man was staring beadily at him in the deepening twilight. Staring was Walsh's favorite pastime and Hardcastle had made something of a hobby of it, too. It was getting so that he knew every whisker on Taylor Walsh's face.
"I figure you got maybe twenty hours."
Hardcastle twitched at the sudden rasp of the man's voice. It was rare for either of them to waste words on the other. He found his second glance going to McCormick, who seemed already deeply asleep. Good—if Walsh had picked tonight for a rant, Mark might as well not have to listen to it.
"You figure that, too, city boy?"
Hardcastle almost had to stifle a laugh. He had twenty years—or even a bit more—on the mountain pirate, and the idea of being mistaken for a city slicker was even more absurd. He didn't bother to correct him, though, since he'd gotten one fact out of three dead right. The judge knew none of them would see another sunset without water.
He edged just a bit closer to Walsh, cocking his head confidentially.
"You know," he kept his tone matter-of-fact, "you want to give some thought to not letting us take any more wrong turns. 'Cause if I start thinking I can't get you to justice, I might just cut out the middlemen," he gave a nod toward the sleeping McCormick and added, "'specially if my friend over there isn't around to tell me not to."
There, he figured that had done double duty—giving Walsh pause about the profit in slowing them down, and convincing him that taking McCormick down first would be a dangerous notion. At the very least it had shut the other man up for a while.
He settled back for a long, hard stare.
Mark woke to a brilliant cold light, the moon, illuminating their cliff-side camp in other-worldly hues. He had one moment of amazement before his parched mouth and aching muscles registered. He pushed himself up off the hard ground. He was numb in all the places that didn't hurt. Hardcastle turned slightly, and seemed to be studying him.
"My turn," Mark whispered harshly, pointing up. It seemed odd how quickly he'd gotten a feel for the passage of time in the wild. The full moon overhead meant midnight, or thereabouts. Half the night was gone. "You should've woken me."
"I was gonna," Hardcastle croaked. His face was gray in the narrow spectrum of the night, as if a harbinger of things to come.
He edged over, prying the gun from the older man's stiffened fingers and giving him a firm nudge in the direction of where he'd just come from. The ground was a little warmer there if no softer than anywhere else. He watched the older man settle in, lowering himself slowly.
Mark could feel it, death inching in all around them. It was only a matter of time before giving up would become the easier path.
He caught a small movement from the corner of one eye and turned his head. It was Walsh, who'd done no more than blink once, slowly, the glint in the man's moon-crazed eyes now fixed on him unrelentingly.
Snakes do that with mice, Mark thought absently.
But to Walsh he merely nodded. He eased himself into a less uncomfortable, cross-legged position. He was wide awake now, the gun gripped lightly. He heard a deep, sonorous snore from Hardcastle, who must've been out almost as soon as his head was down.
He smiled at Walsh, though he felt his lips crack at even this slight effort. He'd made a habit of this lately, since it seemed to annoy the man.
This time his prisoner didn't even waste a second blink. Mark shrugged slightly and leaned in just a little. "Whatdaya think?" he rasped quietly. "Him or me first? I bet you figure if you take him down, you'll have a second or so while I decide what to do about it, huh?"
Walsh said nothing. One eyebrow might have gone up just a fraction.
"Well, don't count on it," Mark assured him huskily. "I never make the same mistake twice, and I already figured out that not letting Hardcastle finish you off was a bad idea." He fingered the gun and managed another grim smile.
It didn't matter what he believed himself, only what he could convince Walsh that he believed, and in this case he thought he'd killed two birds with one stone. He hoped he'd given the man something to worry about—it might wear on him a little—and at the same time he'd made him reexamine the notion that Hardcastle was the more dangerous member of the team. He was, of course, but that made it even more important that Walsh not know for certain.
Hardcastle groaned as he turned over. Someone was jostling him. It wasn't necessary. The first movement he'd made had brought him fully conscious and aware that he'd gone to sleep on a rock.
Mark was staring down at him. "You 'kay?"
Just that, no more, as if any more syllables would be too much effort. It didn't take a mirror to know why he was asking. McCormick's own eyes were sunken and his face gray beneath the sunburn and bristles
No food and no water made departing easier. All they had to do was untie their prisoners and start walking. He took over the gun. Mark went to deal with the knots.
He seemed to be fumbling clumsily but eventually got Staller loose. He turned to Walsh, obviously moving slowly. He had the man shift to the side to bring his wrists within easier reach.
What happened next was a little confusing, or maybe the judge wasn't thinking too clearly. There might have been a moment of inattention, then suddenly Walsh was in motion. Mark grunted and fell back—or was pushed—and the other man was on his feet, with the tree and McCormick between him and the judge's gun.
No one would say he was moving fast, but it was fast enough to get him down into the nearest ravine before Hardcastle could gather his wits. Mark was back on his knees.
"You okay?" the judge asked worriedly as he dragged himself to his feet and motioned Staller to stay absolutely still.
"Uh-huh." Mark rubbed his head. He turned back to the other man and refastening his wrists, apart from the tree and in front of him. It was done with much more efficiency than he'd shown a few moments earlier.
"Okay, let's go." Mark staggered upright, yanking Staller with him. He held the man at arm's length and gave him a grim look. His voice dropped to a raspy growl. "One sound, one wrong move, and we'll leave you behind, probably gagged. We might come back or we might not. Trust me, it'll be worse than getting shot."
He shoved Staller ahead of him in the direction that Walsh had taken off. Hardcastle hustled to catch up.
"We're gonna waste energy hunting him?"
"You bet," Mark had lowered his voice to a whisper but was now far more animated. "I figured Mr. Backwoods Guy is still in his territory—you saw him yesterday smirking when we hit that dead-end. He's just as thirsty as we are and he must know every spring and crick in these parts. All we had to do was set him loose and let him think we're too tired to follow him.
"But he'll turn back. We'll lose ground."
"Nope. It's a day and a half to water in that direction. I'm betting there's something closer. I hope there is. Besides, he went the opposite way." Mark pointed up the coulee. "Let's go."
"We've still got the gun, and he's just as tired and hungry as we are—tireder, I'll bet," Mark said with a grim optimism that seemed unwarranted. "We each got almost six hours of sleep. I kept him awake the whole time I was up and I figure you two had one of your stare-downs."
"You know about those, huh?" Hardcastle frowned in chagrin.
"Who could miss it? If looks could kill, it'd be me and Staller hiking back to civilization by our lonesomes. But it's okay if you went for the record last night."
"We mighta." Hardcastle grimaced. He pulled up short behind Mark, who'd yanked Staller to a sharp stop.
"Shh," Mark said, in even less than a whisper. Hardcastle nestled the nose of the gun into Staller's back to reinforce that.
Mark pointed silently off to their left at some loose dirt and a toe-hold kicked into the wall of the ravine. They climbed up and out and stopped to study their surroundings.
They'd left the rocky edge of the river canyon behind and were now in the woods. There was no one in sight but they could make out a narrow path through the undergrowth—slightly easier going than the alternatives. Mark frowned, looking down at further scuffs in the soil.
"He's not doing a very good job of trying to lose us."
Hardcastle shrugged. "He's used to being the hunter—not the prey."
"I know, but . . ." Mark shook his head doubtfully and set out.
Abandoning the canyon to take this path might lead them entirely astray, but at least for the moment it was headed south, and nearly directly. If it hadn't been for that, and the slight downhill trend, Hardcastle thought they would have lost heart.
As it was, after less than an hour by his estimate, they broke through into a high mountain meadow. There were still no signs of water and now the path had vanished into scrubby grass and low outcroppings of rock.
"There." Mark pointed ahead to a spot about ten yards distant. This time it was more than scuffs in the dirt. There was clear evidence of a little digging. It was nothing so ambitious as Mark's pit, but rather a fist-sized hole.
"What . . .?" He trudged over to it, looking down in mystification.
"Looking for water?" Hardcastle suggested wearily. The thought now dwelt with singular importance in his mind. He realized he wasn't processing things very quickly.
"No, maybe food, though." Mark cast a sharp look at Staller who said nothing. He turned and scanned the rest of the field. There were two more dug-up places visible from where they stood, one with several holes. "Yeah." He walked toward the farthest one, where three holes had been started. There was a stick lying next to them and in the area nearby were more plants growing—rosettes of long thin leaves from a central point.
"What are they?" Mark asked.
Staller twitched, staring down at the foliage. "Camas," he muttered.
The man looked reluctant to speak, and glanced around as though he were worried about being overheard. He finally nodded once and said, "The roots."
Mark reached down and picked up the stick, tossing it to Staller with one sharply uttered word of instruction. "Dig."
He went at it. Thirst hadn't completely obliterated their hunger, especially if there might be some moisture in the food. He had an even dozen of them free within a few minutes. Mark was studying their find—lumps somewhere between an onion and a garlic in size and shape, with colors ranging from brown to black.
"Do they have to be cooked?" Mark asked.
"Better that way, but you can eat 'em raw. More water in 'em like this." Staller said, picking up one and splitting it with his finger. The inner part was white. He popped one piece into his mouth, chewed voraciously and swallowed, then shoved the other part in as well. There were no apparent untoward effects.
Mark grabbed the one nearest to him, biting into it cautiously but then smiling as he chewed. "Not bad."
"What about this one?" Hardcastle nudged one of the darker ones toward Staller.
The man looked down with no particular concern. He shrugged.
"They varies some. No harm in 'em."
Mark reached down for it and felt Hardcastle's hand latch onto his wrist like an iron band.
"Not unless you eat 'em," the judge said, "those dark ones." He spoke with a quiet intensity that sounded like anger distilled down to its cold essence.
The grip loosened. Mark lost his balance and staggered back, spitting out what he'd already had in his mouth, half-chewed.
"Poison?" he gasped.
"Just the black ones, looks like," Hardcastle said, pushing those two to the side. "I was in the reserve for a while after the war. We had a major who was real serious about survival training. Used to make us go out in the back country and try and rustle up grub. That was in California. Lots of stuff's different down there—I don't remember any camas you could eat, but I do recollect one of the enlisted men fetching back a whole helmet full of those black ones. The major pitched a fit when he saw him throwing them in the pot. Called 'em 'death camas'—said they were worse than strychnine."
Mark swallowed hard, looking down at the bulb he'd bitten into.
"I guess those are all right," Hardcastle said encouragingly.
"Well, he's eating 'em, right?" He gestured toward Staller, who wasn't eating anything anymore but had gone almost as ghastly pale as if he'd been poisoned himself.
"Hard to tell 'em apart when they ain't in flower," Staller muttered in half-apology.
"Till you get 'em out of the ground, seems like," Hardcastle said impatiently. "But maybe you were just figuring you'd eat around the bad ones and see what happened to the city boys. Tell you what. Let's take the ones that look okay, and we'll give you a little piece of each before we eat 'em—that sound fair?"
Mark quickly gathered up everything that wasn't obviously dark and even hastily finished eating the one he'd started, hunger and thirst apparently winning out over native caution. When he'd finished stowing the rest of them in his pack he said, "We oughta push on. He might not leave as much of a trail now that he's done trying to kill us."
"Who says he's done?" Hardcastle asked. "You sure letting him run off was a good idea?"
"No," Mark admitted. "An idea, yes—a good one, who knows?" He looked around the meadow and finally turned to Staller. "You got anything to contribute? It's not hot, but if we stay out here in the sun, we won't last long. If we're gonna die, you'll die first. Simple as that." He was flatly ignoring the penetrating look Hardcastle was giving him.
Their prisoner licked his lips nervously again. He seemed surprised to not be dead already. "It's a wet meadow in the spring—that's why the camas grows here. Might still be some water if we go downhill from here."
The other two scanned the surroundings. It was hard to see which way might be downhill. Hardcastle finally pointed away from the direction that they'd come.
"Maybe the grass is a little taller that way. Might be we've gotta go up some before we come down."
They started out again, trudging, and finally crested the small hill. The far slope led down to another copse of trees. They trudged on, finally reaching the edge of that woods. They paralleled it for a while before encountering yet another faint pathway.
Hardcastle studied for a moment and said, "Another deer path. It's still going down, I think."
Mark nodded once and this time stepped out in front.
"Wait a sec," the judge plucked at his sleeve as he moved past. "How'm I supposed to shoot Walsh—or this guy, for that matter," he gestured off-handedly with the gun in Staller's direction, "if you're in the way?"
"How am I supposed to see any tracks Walsh mighta left if we let Staller go first?"
"Me first, with the gun," Hardcastle suggested firmly. "You in back." He bent down and picked up a club-sized piece of wood. "If you need to take him out, do it the old-fashioned way." He handed the wood over.
Mark accepted it without comment. He been doing that a lot lately, Hardcastle realized. Probably some sort of resolution about presenting a unified front to Walsh and his pal. It was weird, though—one more out-of-balance thing.
They fell into marching order and headed into the woods. Hardcastle watched the ground as carefully as he could, in-between bouts of scanning the underbrush for a potential ambush. Once or twice he thought he made out some crushed vegetation—though the ground in general was too dry to show tracks. And as they went on, the aggravating, nagging thirst occupied more and more of his attention.
Which is why it took him by surprise, Mark reaching past the prisoner and tugging his elbow with a solemn, "Shh."
He froze and looked around, suddenly alert again.
"There, hear it?" Mark said softly.
He didn't, not for sure. It might have just been the breeze in the higher branches of the pine and aspen, but there was a new eagerness to his step when they started up again, and within another hundred yards they could make the sound out with more certainty.
He'd seen cows do it when kept from water too long and suddenly coming on a creek, the mad dash and scramble. They were only slightly more dignified. They shed all caution that Walsh might be in the vicinity and fell to the ground at the creek's edge, dispensing with containers for the moment as they scooped handfuls, finally dropping their faces to the water to drink directly.
Mark sat up first—he had the pack and in it their two small water bottles and the collection of empty cans. He passed out the latter, one to a customer, so they could top off in a more leisurely fashion.
Hardcastle had tasted nearly as good a couple of times after the heat of battle, but none he could say was absolutely better. He drank until his teeth ached from the cold and his stomach felt like sodden lead. It was only then that he remembered the roots they'd gathered. McCormick was already pulling them out, laying them on the pack. There'd been twelve and—minus the two that had been judged poisonous and the two that had been eaten—eight remained.
The larger ones were actually clusters of bulbs, one having split into many. It was easy to pull most of them apart, which he did, separating a small piece from each and offering them one at a time to Staller.
Their prisoner didn't protest this treatment. He also didn't hesitate before consuming the first piece, or any of those that followed. As soon as the first had been consumed, Mark handed over the rest of that bulb to Hardcastle saying, "I had one already."
"This one's big; we'll split it."
Mark's only disagreement was a frown, but again he failed to launch an argument. The bulb was split and shared out. Hardcastle bit into one of his pieces. It was crisp and slightly sweet, but again it was hard to tell how much of his approval was rooted in hunger.
"Mmm," he mumbled.
"Yeah, not bad." Mark eyed the dwindling supply. "I wish we'd stuck around and dug up some more." He glanced up the way they'd come and then at Hardcastle. "Can we back-track?"
The judge had been staring fixedly at something on the opposite bank of the creek. He heard Mark repeating himself and this second time he answered only with a pointing finger.
It was half a shoe-print in the damp dirt between two rocks, just the edge of a sole, really.
Mark sat back on his haunches, shaking his head. Then he leaned forward and dropped his voice to a whisper.
"I don't suppose you might want to just let him go for now."
"Not indefinitely," he amended swiftly as Hardcastle shot him a sharp look. "Just long enough for us to get ourselves saved and send back a search party for him. Does that make sense?"
"He might turn on us—hunt us down," Hardcastle protested.
"We still have a gun, and he doesn't. We'll still have to take turns watching Staller every night, so we'll know if he tries to sneak up on us—though Walsh hasn't shown much loyalty up till now." Mark didn't bother to keep his voice low this time. "Looks like aside from the one gun, we don't have anything he needs."
"Then if he wants to stay out here, especially with winter coming, he'll have to find someone else to prey on—someone who won't know what's hit them till it's too late."
Mark sighed at the likely scenario.
"And we let him go," Hardcastle added pointedly, "so it's kinda our responsibility to get him back, wouldn't you say?"
"I suppose." Mark stared at the ghost of a footprint. "It's just a lot nicer with him not around, ya know?"
"Yeah, but we can't just let him run loose."
Mark nodded reluctantly, but it looked like a little more than his recent and unnatural unwillingness to disagree.
"But we'll have to keep pushing on," the judge conceded. "We won't follow if he doesn't keep heading about the direction we wanna go anyway."
Mark brightened slightly and nodded again with more enthusiasm. Hardcastle half-smiled. It was amazing what a little water and some roots could do to the younger man's disposition.
Once they'd dispatched the camas they moved on, through the afternoon and into the deepening shadows. Their creek, which Staller had no name for that he was willing to admit to, didn't appear to be meandering toward the larger river they'd abandoned. Its course was also more west than south and its downward slope was steepening. This might have been a plus, but the path alongside it had disappeared, which suggested even the deer knew there was trouble ahead.
"We won't be able to follow it much farther," Hardcastle said with gloomy certainty.
Mark had already slipped a couple of times and now held up, clutching a small pine trunk. Staller dropped to his haunches and waited patiently for further directions. He'd become less nervous and more resigned with the passage of the day. Maybe he was hoping for his rescue to come after nightfall.
"We should drink up, here, and fill the bottles, too," the judge pointed to the creek, now rushing through its narrower course. "Then we'll cross over and head south. Might have to work our way back up some."
"Follow the ridge?" Mark asked.
Hardcastle nodded. There'd been no response from Staller, pro or con, which was just as well, in the judge's opinion. He was too tired and still too hungry to try and sift through whatever the man might've said.
The creek crossing was wet, cold, and dicey, with even Staller having trouble, though they'd briefly unbound his wrists. The three of them got wet to the knees, and Mark had even managed to sit down in it at one point.
"This one's fast and deep," he said bitterly, when they'd finally managed to scramble out on the far bank.
"We should walk a little more. It'll help you dry off and we've still got some light," Hardcastle said encouragingly.
What light they had didn't last long in the woods, and the place they picked to call it quits for the day had nothing to recommend it except that they could stop walking there. Of the three of them, only Staller's mood seemed to brighten some with the coming of twilight.
"Maybe we should both stay up," Mark said, eyeing the encroaching darkness cautiously.
Hardcastle gruffly replied, "No." He softened it with, "Can't go without food and sleep. Lie down. You can take second watch."
Mark was already complying, further evidence that the judge was right. He'd seen the younger man starting to shiver almost as soon as they'd stopped moving. Now he was gathering some dried leaves and vegetation into a mound for whatever it was worth as insulation.
"I still got a match." Hardcastle felt his pocket and the little foil-wrapped packet he'd stowed there. "I can make a fire."
"No," Mark muttered, "save it. Like you said, this is nothing compared to what it'll be like if we don't get out before winter sets in. Besides, a fire'll let Walsh know where we are—and you won't be able to see him coming."
The last couple of words had been mumbled around a yawn. It was only a few minutes before Hardcastle heard the first snore.
Mark opened his eyes to the first gray light of morning, a cool, overcast day with tendrils of fog in the lower places. The forest around them looked primeval. He lifted his head and then turned toward Hardcastle with an accusatory stare.
"It's morning. You didn't wake me."
"Nothing happened," Hardcastle assured him.
Mark glanced over at Staller, who'd managed to droop over onto his side, despite his bonds.
He transferred his gaze back to the judge. "Uh-uh, you didn't get any sleep—that happened."
"I wasn't tired."
"The hell you weren't. We agreed, didn't we? We split the watch and both get some rest."
"I was thinking," Hardcastle replied, with surprising calmness. Then he sighed. "You're right, it's a heck of a lot more peaceful with Walsh gone."
"But we're still hoping we run into him again, huh?" Mark shook his head. "You lie down for a while. You at least need an hour or two." He scooted over and reached out for the gun.
Hardcastle handed it to him and moved into the spot he'd had just vacated, with the pack as his pillow. Mark watched him settle in, then transferred his gaze back to Staller, who was starting to stir.
The prisoner blinked, and wrenched himself up from the awkward position he'd fallen into. He took another look around him as if he were surprised to find it was morning.
"Looks like he's not coming," Mark said mildly. Then he mused on, "A sidekick's lot is not a happy one. You picked the wrong guy to hook up with. It's always The Cause first and people second, with ones like that."
Staller said nothing but the disappointment in his expression spoke silently. He let out a long hard sigh and fidgeted slightly against the ropes.
"Okay, just a sec," Mark said, stuffing the gun in the back of his plenty loose waistband and going around to unfasten the bindings.
Staller grunted his thanks and got up stiffly. Mark followed him a little ways off and let him do his business. They were still within sight of their bare-bones camp. Staller turned back, but stopped again before he'd gone even a few yards.
"Those," he said, the first words he'd uttered that morning, "you can eat 'em. The roots at least."
Mark looked at what he was pointing at—a fairly ordinary-looking patch of ferns.
Staller nodded and crouched, digging a little so the plants would come out intact. He pulled up three bunches that looked identical to Mark's eye.
"Never ate 'em raw," Staller said.
He laid the first two plants on the ground and went to work on the third, knocking some of the dirt off until the roots were well exposed. They looked like half-curled brown fingers. He pulled one off and rubbed it on his pants then took a bite of it, munching for a moment before he looked up and said, "A little dirt never killed nobody."
Mark reached for the bunch he'd just eaten from and pulled off a piece for himself. Staller was right; they didn't have the water to waste. He rubbed most of the dirt off with his thumb and looked at the root consideringly. He'd never heard anyone talk about 'death ferns'. He took a tentative bite and chewed, then followed it with another.
"Not bad. Not as good as those things yesterday."
He reached for the other two clustered roots and pulled off one piece from each, handing them to Staller, who did his duty as taster. Nothing untoward was seen to happen to the man, except that he gazed wistfully at what was left.
"Anything else you wanna point out?" Mark asked.
Staller stood slowly, wiping his hands on his pants. "Saw some sweet cicely in that field yesterday," he said with some regret. "If'n we hit some open country again, could see more. Gotta be careful with that, though—bears a strong likeness to the hemlock."
Mark nodded sagely. Even he knew about hemlock.
"Hey," he looked around, "how 'bout mushrooms?"
Staller frowned. "Not that many of 'em that kills a fella, but it only takes one. If we're gonna start eatin' them, you can go first."
Mark smiled grimly and shook his head, then another thought occurred to him. "Where do pine nuts come from?"
Staller gave him a look of disbelief. "From pine cones, whad'ya think?"
"Well, we've seen some of them, haven't we?"
"But what you're gonna get from most of 'em ain't worth the bother of pryin''em apart."
"Oh." Mark's expectations fell.
"Maybe we'll come across some sugar pine," Staller said, half to himself. "They'd be worth it . . . the sap's good, too. Not many left, though." He lifted his head and looked around slowly. "You wouldn't've starved out here back when," he said quietly. "There was gooseberries and currant-bush, and salmon berries, and all the pine nuts you could want. The streams all ran wild and there was fish in 'em."
"So you just figure you'd kill everybody who comes up here, and it'll all go back to like it was?" Mark said impatiently.
Staller frowned. "I guess somethin' like that. Ol' Walsh used to say we'd save it, make it God's own country again."
"Trust me, guys like Walsh, they think they're God. They make the rules and everyone else is just there to take orders."
"Like that ol' buzzard you follow around?" Staller said curiously. "You kin or somethin'?"
"Huh," he grunted. "Figured you was." Staller frowned again. "Me and Walsh is cousins."
"He's not coming back." Mark took a sudden sharp satisfaction in pointing it out.
The other man remained surprisingly calm. "Yeah," he said, lifting his head, "I kinda got that figured, too."
They wandered back by a circuitous route to where Hardcastle was still napping. Along the way Staller found another patch of ferns and, in a small sunny spot where a tree had toppled, something he called yampah.
"What's it like?"
"Carrots, sort of. Wrong time of the year to be pickin' it but . . ." He shrugged and took a bite of one of the roots.
By the time they returned to their starting point, Hardcastle was rolling over, and opening his eyes.
"Breakfast," Mark announced, "heavy on the roots, hold the berries."
Staller dumped the half-armful on the ground and hunched beside it, ready to demonstrate the safety of everything again.
"It's okay," Mark said with a cavalier wave of his hand. "There aren't any death ferns you know of, are there?"
"You find any licorice ferns?" Hardcastle asked as he struggled back to a sitting position.
"You know about this stuff, Kemosabe?" Mark scratched his head.
"That one, yeah—had some once and it tasted pretty good. Kinda sweet."
"Well, this ain't them." Mark divvied up the haul. Staller looked surprised to be getting his fair share. "We got some kinda regular fern, and—" Mark squinted at the other thing and then at Staller. "Whad'ya call this one?"
"Yampah," Mark nodded. "Like carrots—only not as good."
"Wrong time of year," Staller apologized.
Hardcastle gave both the younger men a questioning look, but that didn't keep any of the three from starting in on their part of the spoils. It was all polished off with efficiency and after that they finished what was left in the water bottles.
Mark watched Hardcastle climb wearily to his feet. "That was a pretty short nap," he observed.
Hardcastle took him by the elbow and led him off a little ways from where Staller still sat. Then he dropped his voice and leaned in.
"I'm thinkin' if I'd left you two alone together any longer you'da been swapping recipes."
Mark shook his head slowly and even managed a smile to go with what came next. "This one's not so bad. He says Walsh did the shooting—the guy back at the hunter's camp and the one who saved our hides."
"And how many others? He was just an innocent bystander for all of that?"
"Walsh is his cousin. His dad ran off and his mom passed away when he was still in high school. Walsh brought him out here and taught him everything he knows."
"How to be a pirate."
"Okay, yeah," Mark admitted, "but also how to tell the camas from the death camas. You gotta admit that's useful. I think he really bought into all that stuff that Walsh was selling, about saving the land and all that."
"He helped Walsh hunt us down. He was ready to help kill us. Yesterday you were ready to kill him if it looked like we weren't gonna make it."
Mark looked not-quite properly chastised. He glanced back at Staller, who was well out of hearing range, then he sighed.
"I know what I said yesterday, and you know once in a while I say stuff for, um, effect. Yesterday he was still thinking Walsh would come back for him. I think he's gettin' the idea that his cousin's left him in the lurch. If we manage this right we might even get a cooperative witness out of it."
"Now you not only have us back to Myrtle Creek, but you're thinking ahead to the indictments and the trial?"
"We're not just doing this for our health, are we, Hardcase?" Mark shook his head and handed the gun back. Then he signaled to Staller, who'd been picking through the remains of the breakfast fixings to make certain nothing had been overlooked. The man lumbered to his feet.
"Rope his hands in front of him," Hardcastle said harshly.
Mark didn't protest, thought he half-suspected they'd started an undiscussed game of good cop, bad cop. He also hoped Staller wouldn't overlook anything edible along their path because he had to watch his step a little more closely.
They continued on along the westward side of that ridge for three more days, finding only the occasional trickle of water. As for food, even Mark could now spot the one or two safe items that made up their insufficient calorie intake. Hardcastle saw his attention to that subject become increasingly single-minded.
For that reason they continued their established marching order: the judge in front, armed with the gun, then Staller, then Mark with a potentially lethal-sized stick. Hardcastle figured he was the only one still interested in Walsh and willing to watch for signs of him.
He had to admit that their remaining prisoner no longer seemed much of a threat. The stick would be plenty sufficient to deal with him even if he doubted that McCormick had much willingness to use it anymore.
Both the younger men had been losing more weight than they could afford, and even the sure-footed former mountain pirate occasionally stumbled. But it was McCormick who worried Hardcastle the most. He'd run out of notches on his belt, and seemed to be moving slower with each passing day. The limp, which had never really gone away since they climbed out of Buzz's crash plane, was now more pronounced.
On the late afternoon of the third day they'd spent traversing the ridge, they were completely out of water once again. It didn't seem as if it would be as much of a problem this time, though. After a run of unusually dry weather, the storm clouds were moving up fast behind them from the north. Hardcastle halted his troop and studied their surroundings. It looked as though the best they'd be able to do this time was a shallow overhang of rock—an undercut formed by some past river.
He hoped it was long past. It would be a bad thing to camp in a spot that channeled runoff. He mentioned this to McCormick but got not even a flicker of concern.
"Okay, we'll stop here," Hardcastle decided.
This time Mark merely nodded and sank down. They'd eaten what little they'd found today as they walked. Staller plopped down, too, and no one bothered to transfer his tethered hands to their usual nocturnal position behind his back. Hardcastle merely motioned him to a spot against the far wall of their little shelter. There the man dropped over onto his side, staring listlessly for only a few minutes before his eyes sank shut.
"I'll take the first watch," the judge said as usual. "Gimme the pack."
Mark blinked once, as if any change from the routine was too complicated to fathom.
"I need those cans," the judge explained. "Looks like we're due for some rain."
"Ahh." Mark nodded, finally showing a spark of comprehension. He scrabbled in the pack and pulled out the nested three and then the others.
Hardcastle gathered them up and moved them well out from under the ledge. "There, that oughta do it." He settled back in against the wall.
"Too bad the dishwasher's broke," Mark muttered quietly.
Hardcastle jerked suddenly and cast him a sharp glance, then another one, just as quick, in Staller's direction. The other man seemed not to have heard, his eyes still shut and his breathing even.
As for Mark, he was sitting, slumped slightly, staring dully at—or more likely through—the cans.
"Hey, kiddo, you with me here?" Hardcastle said gently
Mark's gaze stayed fixed on the cans for a moment longer, then he blinked once and refocused, transferring his stare at the judge.
Hardcastle reached out and touched the back of his hand to the younger man's forehead—McCormick flinched slightly. He felt a little warm to the touch but the judge thought maybe it was the coldness of his own hands.
If not a fever, then maybe just fatigue—and since rest was the only available comfort right now, Hardcastle ardently hoped he was right.
"Lie down," he coaxed.
Mark seemed to have to think about that one, too, but eventually eased himself horizontal, his head resting on the nearly empty pack. But his eyes didn't close. The staring continued, this time along with a frown."
"What's the matter?" Hardcastle asked, with some trepidation.
"Shoulda brought the shovel."
The judge grimaced. It was a non sequitur, but he thought he knew where it had come from.
Mark muttered on, as if even he recognized he might not have made himself clear. "You said one of us would have to bury the other."
"Might," Hardcastle interjected sharply. "Might have to—that's what I said."
Mark blinked again, and half-shrugged, still lying down. "Okay . . . but we don't have one—a shovel."
"I don't think we're going to need it," the judge said stoutly. "We've come this far—"
"How far do you think we've gone?" Mark asked with a sudden increase in focus.
"Oh," Hardcastle tried to muster up a convincing lie, "maybe halfway,"
Mark looked like he was giving that some thought.
"Okay," he finally replied, though the tone suggested he was just humoring an old donkey. Then he frowned again.
"I'm not gonna kill him, even if I know we can't make it. I know I said I would but—"
"I knew you wouldn't," Hardcastle said gently.
"But if he survives, he'll go right back to killing people."
"I thought you said Walsh did all of that."
"He'll go looking for Walsh. If Walsh wants to hunt people down, Staller'll help him. He's a sidekick. That's what sidekicks do."
"Not all of 'em."
"No . . . I suppose. But if he does, it'll be our fault, letting him get away—my fault. I'm the one who let Walsh get loose."
"It won't be our responsibility anymore." The judge kept his tone calm and reasonable. "We'll have done our best—both of us. That's all anybody can do."
There was a long silence. Hardcastle thought maybe Mark had finally fallen asleep. He peeked out from under the ledge, trying to see if the clouds had finally obliterated the stars. He heard Mark shifting again and the younger man spoke.
"Okay." It was distant and weary and still unpersuaded. He plodded on. "I just wanted you to know, I'm not going to be able to kill anybody else." His frown looked permanent.
"Don't forget to wake me up halfway through," he added. Then he rolled over, facing the back wall of their little shelter, and said nothing more.
It wasn't much more than an hour that Hardcastle sat thinking about the conversation, before he heard the wind pick up and then the first drops of rain hitting the cans. He had to rescue one of the smaller ones that had been blown over, and he was just contemplating putting a stone or two in the bottom of each when the sky opened and the rain turned into a hammering downpour.
It wasn't even necessary to wait for the cans to fill. They'd managed to select a spot that was next to a new-born freshet. It cascaded down the rocky surface and ran alongside their shelter with more volume than a tap turned on full. As much as he regretted disturbing McCormick such a short way into much-needed sleep, once one of the cans was filled he nudged the younger man.
"Water," he said, holding it out as he reached for another empty one.
Little prompting was needed. Mark took what was offered and drank half of it down while still propped on one elbow. Then he, in turn, poked Staller, who opened his eyes groggily. The can was passed to him. Two more were shared out, and after that they all took turns with the drinking and filling. By the time the storm let up and the water had slowed to a trickle, they had both bottles and all of the cans topped off.
Staller curled up in his previous spot and went promptly back to sleep, but Mark stayed sitting.
"It's not time to trade places yet?" he asked.
"Uh-uh—barely two hours. You ought to get some more sleep."
The younger man seemed far more alert than he had earlier but he at least followed the recommendation to lie down.
Still apparently wide awake, he said, "Halfway, huh?" as if their earlier conversation had ended just a moment earlier. "You think so?" There was a hint of willing optimism in his inquiry.
"Yeah, probably. And it's all downhill from here. You'll see."
Mark shook his head, half-smiling, and closed his eyes,
He woke up feeling damp and chilled. The clouds must have passed through and in their wake brought a cold snap. He could make out Hardcastle's silhouette in what little light there was from a waning quarter-moon.
His friend was fixed, immobile, like the granite wall of their shelter. It was almost impossible to connect this man with the one who had been shot and nearly killed only seven months earlier. Or maybe that was the connection. Hardcastle never gave up. No barrier was insurmountable and against all odds he would persevere.
Mark moved slightly, trying to get some feeling back in the arm he'd been sleeping on. The judge turned his head. "You awake?"
"It's my turn," he scolded mildly.
Hardcastle looked up at the sky. "Just about, I guess." He waited for the younger man to scramble up and then handed over the gun, unprotesting.
"Happy birthday," he added matter-of-factly.
"Huh?" Mark frowned. "It is?" His forehead corrugated. "How do you know?"
The judge shrugged. "Just is." He shifted himself—in slow, stiff increments—back toward the pack and Mark's reasonably flat, former sleeping spot. "We left two weeks before your birthday, and that's how long we've been out here."
Mark stared at him in some astonishment. He tried to count back through it all and gave up somewhere around the first time they'd run out of water. That might have been only two days, but it had seemed like a week all by itself.
"Okay, I'll have to take your word for it . . . I'd say I feel a year older, that's for sure." He quirked a smile. "Whadya get me?"
Hardcastle surveyed their surroundings wearily and sighed. "Haven't had much time to shop."
"It's okay," Mark said. "I'll take a rain check. You can buy me a steak when we get back . . . maybe two." He reached out and patted the other man's shoulder then shoved gently. "Lie down, get some sleep."
Mark passed the rest of the night in uneventful solitude, as usual. Having his thirst relieved had revived his hunger. That, and the steadily increasing chill in the air, kept him awake.
It must have impeded the others' sleep as well. It was barely dawn before Staller was stirring, and even though he'd had a lengthy head start on Hardcastle, the older man was soon awake, too. No one said much. They drank again from the cans—more from a sense of emptiness than from any remaining thirst. It was quickly decided that what remained could be dumped. The woods around them glistened with pockets of water trapped in every stony depression and curled leaf.
They took up their tramp, this time following the flow of the water. Mark only had eyes for what was before him—pointing out various promising-looking plants and getting a solemn shake of the head from Staller each time.
By midmorning, though, the green canopy under which they'd made their way for the past four days was becoming slowly less oppressive. The sun warmed things slightly where it pierced through, and the way appeared even lighter up ahead. Eventually they stepped out into true sunlight.
It was another meadow. This one must have been at a lower altitude than the last one; the grass was taller and still had hints of green. There was no pretense of marching straight through. Mark and Staller spread out and were searching. Hardcastle tagged along with the prisoner to discourage any thought of escape.
"Here," Mark hollered. He'd dropped to his knees and was using a stick to prod the ground at the base of what he thought was a camas.
Staller turned and headed in his direction without waiting for an okay from his keeper.
"Yeah," he said eagerly as soon as he was close enough to see what Mark had excavated. "It's a good one."
Hardcastle came lumbering up and all three men were now scouting this more promising area.
"Here's a couple!" Staller said, from where he now knelt. "Must be four of 'em."
Mark didn't pause from his own hunt to acknowledge Staller's find. "Another one," he announced cheerfully.
Hardcastle reached over and tapped him on the shoulder. When he didn't look up right away, he reinforced that with a low but firmly whispered, "Look here."
Mark finished yanking up the second of his two bulbs and glanced at him impatiently, then down at where he was pointing. His expression stayed puzzled. The judge was standing over a dug-up spot, a small excavation with freshly turned soil.
He looked up at the empty-handed judge and said, "Don't eat 'em until Staller tries 'em. That's the rule, remember?"
"'Course I do," the judge said irritably. "I made the damn rule, didn't I?" Then his voice dropped to a harsh whisper. "I didn't dig anything up."
Mark stared back down at the disturbance in the soil. "But—"
"Somebody else has been digging here, looks like," Hardcastle muttered softly, glancing over his shoulder. Staller was still deeply engrossed and paying them no mind.
"Mighta been an animal," Mark suggested hesitantly.
"Maybe, but whatever did it, it looks recent."
"What are the odds?" Mark said in quiet doubt.
"Why not? He ran into the same problems we did—just moving a little faster, that's all. Maybe a half day ahead of us, might be even less." Hardcastle looked around. A predatory gleam had returned to his eye.
"Can we at least sit down and eat, first?"
Hardcastle turned and headed back toward Staller. Mark gathered up his findings and trotted after him.
The two younger men spread out what they'd gathered on the trunk of a fallen tree near the far edge of the clearing. Mark straddled it, sat down, and started counting them up hastily.
"Fifteen," he announced, prying off a small piece of one of the larger bulbs and handing it up to Staller who stuffed it into his mouth.
Not waiting for any further approval, Mark split the rest of that bulb in half and turned to hand one part to Hardcastle. The older man's sudden grim expression was an unexpected shock.
Mark started to frame a "What—?" and then realized Hardcastle was looking past him. He wasn't able to track a more precise trajectory of that gaze before the older man suddenly raised the gun and a buffeting report rent the air.
The muzzle had been so close to his ear that Mark was temporarily deafened. He was vaguely aware that the judge was talking, saying something to him, but there were no discernable words above the muffled ringing. Still, the man shook his shoulder, as if that would somehow help, and from lip movements alone Mark figured out that he was being asked if he was all right.
"Yeah," he said. It was weird to know he was saying it but not be able to hear himself properly. "What the hell—?" He wasn't able to hear that either but Hardcastle must've. Mark felt the grip on his shoulder tighten and an insistent pushing motion turned him to his left, still straddling the log.
He swallowed once, his throat suddenly drier than it had been the night before. The splattered head of the snake lying just behind the log was no longer identifiable, but even without the head the thing was nearly three feet long, with the distinctive markings and tail of a Western rattler.
It took a moment for Mark to realize he could hear Hardcastle's voice—muffled but understandable.
"Sorry I startled you like that. It was coiled up right beside your leg."
"I didn't hear anything."
"Them kind don't always let ya know," Staller said, stepping over the log to get a closer look.
"Guess not," Mark said bemusedly. Then he shot a sharp look at Hardcastle. "How much you think it weighs?"
The judge shrugged. "Two, maybe three pounds."
Their prisoner was hefting it. He gave the estimate a confirmatory nod. "Take off the skin and gut it—that'll leave two pounds, I reckon." He frowned, "Oughta cook it, though. Never 'et 'em raw. They can make ya sick that way."
Hardcastle looked around the clearing for a moment, then patted his pocket and nodded once.
"We'll need to get a little wood together, and some tinder. I'll do that." He glanced down at Mark, who was rubbing his ear and rising slowly. "Here," he passed him the pocket knife, "think you can get it ready? Staller can probably give you some pointers."
Mark looked at the knife and then the snake. He understood the sub-text. Hardcastle didn't want the other man getting his hands on any sharp objects.
"Yeah, okay," he said to both the asked and the unasked questions.
Hardcastle had misgivings about the whole idea of starting a cooking fire, but he'd actually heard Staller's warning elsewhere—raw rattlesnake wasn't a good idea. Yet the idea of passing up a couple pounds of protein at this juncture was unthinkable. He left the two younger men to deal with the kill, and went to work gathering suitable wood.
It didn't take long. Despite the previous night's drenching, there was still enough deadfall to have cooked a grizzly instead of their far less ambitious project. He returned with a load, and an additional pocketful of bark, twigs, and wisps of cottony seeds.
Mark, under Staller's tutelage, had already made substantial progress. Everything that wasn't officially meat, bone, or skin, had been deposited in one of the larger cans and the skin was now being stripped off. After that was done, they cut the remains into six pieces, adjusting the lengths slightly to compensate for the variances in girth.
Hardcastle arranged the fuel to his liking, with the most fragile of the tinder immediately to hand. He sat back, extracting the foil-wrapped matchbook with its one remaining match. His hand was shaking, something he hadn't noticed before—just a fine tremor, really. He looked up at McCormick, who was suddenly staring fixedly at something else.
"Maybe you should do this," the judge suggested, with unaccustomed hesitance.
Mark glanced back at him. "Uh-uh," he said sharply. His expression was unreadable but his words were very certain. "I'm the one who's always breaking 'em—snap the heads right off. And those are the wooden ones. Nope. You're better at this. Just go ahead—you've done it a million times."
The judge frowned back down at the fragile matchstick, then sighed and scraped it against the cover. The flame sprang to life, looking perilously feeble against the challenge of igniting imperfectly dry wood. He was well aware of the intense interest of the other two men. He moved the small flame under the tinder—twisted strands of seed fluff. It was touch and go for a moment and he thought he might have miscalculated—if this stuff was not as flammable as it appeared, or even if it burned too rapidly, the endeavor would fail.
They held their breath, as if the sympathetic magic might ward off any untimely gust of wind. The strand caught, a fragile new flame blossoming, producing enough persistence of heat to catch the edge of a small sliver of punk wood. He added a series of birch-bark scraps, slowly and with great care, and finally laid the first twig across the whole thing.
He heard Mark take a breath but didn't take his own eyes off what he was doing, now gently propping further bits of bark and twigs where they would do the most good. It was a fire, but in miniature, and far from steady. Left alone it would be out in a minute or so, with no chance of reigniting it. One twig too many or one too few, one sudden collapse of his careful arrangement, and they'd be staring at a small pile of charred tinder.
But nothing collapsed, and he started to breath easier. A finger-sized piece seemed to have caught, and now he could add in more of those.
Staller, at least, seemed more confident. He glanced back at their prospective meal, arrayed out on the log. "Sticks—to roast 'em on," he said. "That'd be the easiest. Skinny greenwood."
He and Mark wandered off. Hardcastle didn't point out the lack of precautions to prevent escape. It was obvious that Staller wasn't going to run away from the prospect of a real meal. They returned soon enough with what was needed, skewering the first three pieces with ruthless efficiency and propping them against the log.
Their campfire was slowly becoming respectable. Hardcastle looked up at the smoke, gray wisps against the mountain blue sky. If Walsh had been within hearing range of that gunshot, this would now act as a locating beacon. He still said nothing to McCormick—Staller was too near at hand, sitting with his back against the log, staring, mesmerized, into the novelty of the flames.
It was Mark who asked several times, pensively, if they could commence with the cooking. It took what seemed like a long time before Hardcastle was finally satisfied with the fire's reliability. Nothing was trusted to mere propping up. Each man held his own stick, as if they were dealing with extra-large reptilian marshmallows. The camas were nestled into one of the cans, and placed close in by the flames as well.
"How long?" Mark asked Staller.
"Kinda like chicken," he replied.
Mark nodded. Since they had no timepieces, the question had been merely academic and it was obvious that McCormick was ready to risk whatever hazards raw rattlers presented rather than put off eating much longer.
Staller finally pulled his back, touching it tentatively and then deciding, through some criteria that wasn't evident, that enough was enough. It might have been that valuable juices were starting to drip off the piece, wasted on feeding the fire.
The other two men followed suit. Hardcastle let his cool for a moment, but Mark bit in, ignoring both heat and bones. He chewed with a look of utter contentment. The judge had taken his own first bite, as well—a slightly more careful one. It was a blissful moment and it took two more bites before he could force himself to slow down and savor the taste.
"Better than spam?" he asked Mark.
"Way better." The younger man grinned. "Better than a strip steak with all the fixin's."
The mention of side dishes seemed to bring the now-neglected vegetables back to mind. Staller poked into the contents of the can with a stick then rotated it so the other side was nearest the fire. But done or not, it was obvious that as soon as the meat was consumed they'd want the second course.
Mark finished first. He turned and reached for one of the three remaining raw chunk, skewering it. He stared at it thoughtfully before placing it over the fire. "I thought we should cook these, but try to save 'em for tomorrow—or maybe just later on."
It was obvious that later on was rapidly becoming no more than an hour from then. He was looking for the judge to buck up his moral resolve. Hardcastle frowned, licking the last of the rattler juice off his fingers and reaching for his own second piece.
"You never know," he said philosophically, "might go bad."
"Grizzlies might smell 'em," Staller said, with surprising enthusiasm. "Best not to have any food lying around where there's grizzlies."
That settled it. The second set of pieces was roasted and dispatched and by then the camas met Staller's unspoken specifications. The can was spilled out onto a rock and Hardcastle used one of the sticks to do the divvying. They were eaten while still hot enough to be hard to handle.
"Hey," the judge said, after a moment or two of further unspoken reverie, "There's nothin' really wrong with snake guts, is there? I mean, they're kinda like tripe, only smaller, right?" He'd addressed this to Staller.
The mountain man glanced down at the can. All the entrails together made up perhaps six ounces. He shrugged and took the water bottle Mark was offering. He topped off the can's contents and put it into the fire.
Then Mark pulled the second water bottle from the pack. They sat back, passing it around. After so many days of practically nothing, even such a modest meal made Hardcastle feel surprisingly full and he found himself smiling contentedly. He saw his own expression mirrored on McCormick's face.
"Don't say I didn't get ya nothin' for your birthday," the judge chided gently.
Mark grinned. "You still owe me that steak, though." He looked back at the fire, now crackling merrily with the flames curled around a decent-sized hunk of wood. He added, in a tone that suggested he wasn't joking, "Best birthday ever."
"Better'n last year," Hardcastle muttered, having been thinking—ever so briefly—about their misguided trip to Atlantic City, with Mark in pursuit of his ne'er-do-well father.
The comment had slipped out unconsidered, and as soon as he heard himself say it, he cringed inwardly. But, to his surprise, there was no hesitation before Mark nodded his agreement, still staring at the flames.
Steam was starting to rise from their entrail concoction. They took it out of the fire, let it cool for a few minutes, and then split the contents into three cans. Mark looked at his dubiously, but not so dubiously that he failed to take a cautious sip from the broth. It must've met with his approval because he dug in with a couple of fingers and consumed what he retrieved unhesitatingly.
Staller simply tipped his back and quaffed it. The gelatinous mess hardly required chewing. Then he leaned forward slightly.
"If'n we want, we can take the fire with."
"Huh?" Mark asked, disturbed from his postprandial reverie.
"I just need a couple of them cans—a big'un and one that's littler."
The cans were unpacked and handed over. Staller nested one inside the other. He filled the space between them with dry loose dirt, only a little ways up, then he carefully centered the inner can.
"A little dirt keeps it from moving around inside, but too much and the heat goes right through," he explained patiently. "It's how you take coals somewheres if'n you wanna move a fire and you got no shovel."
Mark nodded and even Hardcastle looked mildly impressed.
Staller turned back to the fire, putting his construction down and taking up two of the greenwood sticks. He scraped under the logs, in amidst the heart of the fire, until he found some coal–like chunks, surfaces rippling in orange that rapidly faded as he pulled them free. He used the sticks in narrow parallel to scoop them up and deposit them in the can.
"Might work, might not," as if he didn't intend to be held responsible for any failure.
This time Hardcastle nodded. He knew this project would slow them down. The thing would need careful tending if it was to succeed. It might be that Staller was hoping, too, that a campfire would attract Walsh. But the prospect of a fire—and the reverse prospect of having used their last match and not making it over the final ridge before snow set in—made the judge abandon caution and bestow his approval.
He'd even concluded that Staller would have to be in charge of it. He seemed to know what he was doing, and he was the only one not currently carrying something else. If he decided to suddenly hurtle it at someone, it would hardly do more than cause some momentary discomfort . . . and then he'd shoot him, probably.
It was an uncomfortable thought, the idea of shooting their increasingly helpful prisoner. Hardcastle was glad he didn't have to share this newfound doubt with McCormick. He masked the disturbing emotion with a grimace, which he hoped would pass for impatience.
The other two men were fussing with the fire-carrier. Mark had cut off a strip of cloth from the edge of the pack. Staller wrapped it around the outer can, providing extra insulation, and then picked the thing up gingerly.
"You two 'bout ready?" Hardcastle asked.
He got nods from both of them. Mark turned to scuff the fire out. There was no point in disguising their passing presence any further; an experienced tracker like Walsh would make out the traces anyway.
They crossed the meadow's length, heading downhill and southward and finally entering the woods that stretched into the valley below. It was tough going there. Hardcastle suspected there was a stream at the bottom, not that they were desperate for water again just yet, but the way might be easier down there and it would at least help them keep their bearings.
An afternoon's passage got them only deeper into the woods and twilight came earlier on account of it. Mark had been hinting at pulling up for a while. The third time Hardcastle stumbled over an unseen fallen trunk he agreed. It was strictly pro forma, since they were already halted, with him trying to untangle himself from his fall and Mark at his side lending a hand up.
"Got a ledge here," Staller said. He was standing a little ways off, parallel to the route they'd been following.
The other two men edged down to what on closer inspection appeared to be a shadowy void. Hardcastle swallowed and suppressed a shiver. They'd obviously been only a few feet away from a lethal fall.
Mark seemed to have the same notion. He muttered something under his breath that might have included the word "donkey". Hardcastle smiled. It was a strange relief to know that even if his outer behavior had changed, the kid was at least still thinking normally.
"Think we're due for more rain tonight?" The judge squinted up through the trees, trying to make out anything useful in the small patches of dark sky.
"Dunno," Mark said, "but there'll probably be more shelter down there." He pointed over the side of the precipice. "Easier to keep the fire going."
Staller had already put the can full of coals down. He broke a dead branch from a pine and stuck the far end into the can holding it there for a few moments. When he pulled it out the end was now burning with a steady, resin-fueled flame. He asked no permission before reaching out for one of the smaller trunks that grew up from somewhere further down and swinging himself out onto it, scooting down, one-handed.
"Whatcha doin'?" Hardcastle asked, realizing he sounded grumpy but not particularly threatening.
Staller apparently took it in stride, not even pausing in his downward progress as he announced, "Jes' checkin' it out."
He held his small torch at arm's length, to cast more light. They could all now see that the slope wasn't straight down, but rather a series of weathered ledges—the ancient bed of a far more ambitious river.
"There," Mark said, pointing out a series of ersatz steps that looked doable. He picked up the can and hustled over to them, Hardcastle in his wake. They hurried; Staller's light was flickering unreliably in the evening breeze.
It was perhaps twenty feet down, and the last part was a drop from nearly head-height. Staller slithered down the trunk and met them there, taking careful repossession of the can as Mark handed it down to him.
Once they were all at the bottom, they could see this was only a much larger ledge with a cave-like depression under-cutting the wall. It was their shelter of the previous night writ large.
"All this and a fire, too," Mark said with some amazement.
"We need to get it restarted." Hardcastle frowned. The light had failed them completely.
"Pinecones." The shadowy figure that was Mark held up something else shadowy that must have been the pack. "Picked some up along the way." He reached in and pulled one out. "I figured they'd burn good and there might not be so many lower down.
Staller grunted his approval at this modicum of woodcraft from one of the city boys and they felt their way carefully back a little ways into the even darker recesses of the cave. A flat place was cleared and the twigs and branches they'd come across were set aside.
All three sat, Staller putting the can in front of him. He arranged some twigs and dried leaves until it suited him. Mark handed over the first cone, which he set inside the can. He left it alone for a few minutes, then blew onto it, hard and fast. There was nothing at all at first, and then a sudden small whump as the whole thing seemed to catch at once.
Staller used two sticks to fish it out quickly. From there the tinder was ignited—the whole process much faster and less dicey than their noontime fire. Mark handed over more pinecones, one at a time, to encourage the slightly larger piece of wood Staller had added. These were taken without comment, and no one seemed to notice that their prisoner was more-or-less in charge of the operation, with no apparent plans to tie him to a tree anytime soon.
And even that anomaly soon took a backseat to the fourth pinecone—an unusually long one.
Staller held out his hand to receive it, eyes still on the fire, but as soon as he closed his fingers on it, he looked sharply down, opening them again.
"Where'd you get it?" he asked with more than casual interest.
Mark shrugged. "Along the path—a ways back. I figured the smaller ones'd burn better, but I grabbed a couple of these, too. Why?"
"Sugar pine." A smile struggled with a frown on Staller's face. "I musta missed it." He shook his head. "Godawful big tree—hard to miss. Mighta been a ways off from where we was walkin'. I was keepin' my eyes on the coals," he added in embarrassment. "How many more we got?"
Mark dumped out the pack near the fire. Staller sorted through them, setting the long cones aside.
"Four," he looked up, pleased.
"You can eat them?" Hardcastle asked, having caught on to the other two's excitement.
"The nuts," Mark said, also smiling.
"Put 'em in at the edge of the fire," Staller advised. "We'll roast 'em some, get the pitch off."
They were placed near the embers and were soon blazing. When that died down, and the tips of the cones were glowing red, they knocked them out of the fire's reach and rolled them in the dirt.
Staller picked the first one up, gingerly tossing it from hand to hand until it had cooled. Then he pounded it, end on, splitting it. He passed it over to Mark and started on the second one, which went to Hardcastle. The third was his, and he demonstrated how to push the seed out from the broken surfaces.
"The shells'r soft. You can chew 'em up jes' like that." He popped two in his mouth and munched.
They imitated his actions. The process was slow but satisfying.
"Like popcorn, but better," Mark said, cheerfully searching for further prey in the recesses of his cone.
They picked through them and then shared out the fourth one. After that it was time to gather more fuel for the fire. Mark and Staller went out a short ways, letting their eyes adapt, and gathering up enough dead wood to feed it through the night.
Hardcastle listened: Staller describing the sugar pine in more detail with Mark asking a couple of questions and paying close attention to the answers. Where there was one, there might be more. It was the sound of hope, with a feeling that they had crossed the divide in more than one way. It was amazing what a little food would do and McCormick was a natural-born optimist.
The judge turned back to the fire, giving it all some hard thought. He'd already made his mind up in some ways. Staller's help in finding this campsite was still a puzzle. He half thought he ought to ask him about that directly but, no, that would give the game away.
The two eventually returned, burdened with awkward armfuls—mostly sticks with a couple of larger pieces.
"Ambitious," Hardcastle said, but he didn't complain when Mark built the fire up a little. The temperature was dropping and there looked to be a hard frost tonight. He was glad they'd made it down to this lower altitude.
Staller had settled down off to one side, upwind of the fire. Hardcastle considered his options again. They'd gone several nights without bothering to restrain the man. Changing the system now would probably raise his hackles. Besides, he hadn't done anything uncooperative. In fact, he'd been a model prisoner.
And McCormick would object, maybe not out loud, since he was being the model sidekick, but he'd want to know what was up. Hardcastle couldn't explain his suspicions, not without increasing the risk.
So Staller was permitted to curl up off to the side, unhindered. Hardcastle settled back, the gun in his lap. McCormick fed a few of the larger sticks into the fire, burning off the smoke and producing a sudden increase of light. He sat down next to the judge, not looking in any hurry to retire for the night.
"You oughta lie down," Hardcastle said casually. "You got a shift coming up and neither one of us got much rest last night."
Mark said nothing for a moment, then gave him a very pointed look, leaning in and murmuring, "What's up?"
Hardcastle frowned, glancing over at Staller. If it was that obvious . . .
As if he was continuing a mind-reading act, Mark shook his head, tight and brief. "Don't worry, it's pretty subtle. I didn't know you could do subtle." He was still almost whispering.
Hardcastle snorted quietly, then leaned back toward the younger man. "Saw a couple of footprints this afternoon."
"Yeah, well," Mark continued sotto voce, "we knew Walsh passed close to here—the pulled-up camas—"
"And then this spot. Kinda ready-made for a camp, don'tcha think?"
Mark looked as though he were giving that some thought. He finally admitted grudgingly, "Yeah, maybe, but just because they mighta used it before—"
"All I'm saying is," Hardcastle lowered his voice even as it became more insistent, "if Walsh is lookin' for us, he won't have to try very hard to find us here. And the attacker's always got the element of surprise."
Mark stared out into the darkness more intently.
"I think you oughta get some rest," Hardcastle finally added.
"You're kidding." Mark's glance yanked back to Hardcastle but his voice stayed quiet. "How?"
"Okay, at least pretend to sleep. We don't want to look too ready for him."
Mark grudgingly nodded to that one. He scooted away from the fire, but took one of the larger sticks with him. "Wake me, okay?"
It wasn't clear if he meant "if anything happens" or "for my turn at the watch", but either way it was at least a hint that he thought he might fall asleep. In truth, from what Hardcastle had seen, McCormick could sleep almost anywhere and through almost anything.
The judge smiled and half-turned away from the fire, letting his eyes readjust to the darkness. The smile faded quickly enough as his original concerns crept back in on him, out of the surrounding shadows.
Mark awoke, immediately aware of the passage of time, from the chill air and the diminution of the fire, now only a mound of embers. He moved, stiff and slow, and Hardcastle turned, equally slow, to nod a greeting.
"'Bout time to switch?" Mark asked quietly.
"'Bout," the judge agreed, looking alert but worn.
"Any trouble?" Mark whispered cautiously as he edged over toward where Hardcastle still sat.
A shake of the older man's head was the only answer. Hardcastle handed over the gun and reaching past him, retrieved the stick and handed it to him as well.
"Just in case," he said wearily. Then he crawled toward the pack and stretched out.
Mark watched him settle in. His willingness to hand over the sentinel duty with no argument was further evidence that the journey was taking its toll. All the optimism that a few ounces of meat and a handful of pine nuts had generated was hard to summon up in the middle of a frosty night. He sighed, stretching his own legs which cramped a little.
In the quickly descending silence he tried to keep himself alert. He considered getting up and pacing, but that would be an unnecessary expenditure of calories. Instead he puttered with the fire, breaking small sticks and feeding them in one at a time. The resultant flames were a small enough bulwark against the darkness, but at least they made him feel less alone—less isolated.
He was trying to recollect the map that had been hanging on the wall inside the hangar at the Myrtle Creek airfield. It seemed like a lifetime ago. He'd studied it with only idle curiosity at the time. He thought about Hawaii, and drinks in coconuts, with little pieces of pineapple skewered on a tiny plastic cutlasses. It might be better than rattlesnake and pine nuts but he couldn't remember such things clearly enough to be sure. He looked over at Staller and wondered if Hardcastle would throw him to the legal wolves if and when they ever got back to civilization.
He was in the middle of that thought, and frowning pretty hard because he figured he knew the answer, when he heard a soft sound out to his right. A footfall? No, more like something falling lightly from a tree—a pinecone, he supposed. He was staring hard in that direction, trying to pierce the gloom out beyond his small circle of light, when something struck hard against his other shoulder, slamming him to his side.
He didn't have time to shout before he was struck again, this time his face, a roundhouse blow. He was blurrily aware of someone else shouting, though. It was Hardcastle's gruff voice, hollering at someone not to mov—Staller, not the guy who'd jumped him, Mark figured. He scrabbled for the gun but it was already too late; Walsh had it and was stepping back, grinning like the Devil incarnate lit from below by the dwindling fire.
From a flurry of violent motion to a now near-silent tableau. Mark heard his own harsh breathing but nothing more than that. His face, which had been momentarily numb, was now starting to throb, and in that pain he could count the beats of his flustered embarrassment.
You screwed up.
Walsh had the gun leveled at him. Mark studiously avoided looking in Hardcastle's direction, as though he might somehow focus Walsh's attention away from him as well.
He could see Staller, also on his feet now, and standing back beyond his cousin. He heard him mutter, "Took you long enough."
Walsh's grin segued to a flash of a scowl, boding invisible ill to the man behind him. Mark took advantage of the momentary distraction pushing himself up a little and letting one hand come to rest on the stick he'd kept as his back-up weapon.
"Uh-uh," Walsh said. "Let it be."
"You're tellin' me there's some chance you aren't gonna shoot me if I do as I'm told?" Mark drawled grimly. He watched Walsh's hand on the gun as his own hand tightened on the stick. He had no illusions about relative force here. This whole thing had become an exercise in distraction—to give Hardcastle room to maneuver in the hopes that at least one of them would have a chance to get away. But Walsh had anticipated that thought, too.
"You move, he's dead." That was obviously directed at the judge.
Mark spared him a quick look from the corner of his eyes. He had his own stick, a heavy one, but was still out of range.
"Listen, Walsh," Mark started up, back on the distraction offensive, "you got what you came for. There's nothing else here. Ask Staller; we've been starvin'. All you're gonna be doin' is wasting bullets on us."
"Uh-uh," Walsh shook his head, "you two's crafty. And him," Walsh jerked his head in the judge's direction, "he's the kind that don't give up."
Maybe it was the challenge—the phrase had barely left Walsh's mouth before Mark saw a blur of movement: Hardcastle charging directly across the fire with Staller shouting a warning.
Mark watched Walsh's gun-hand hover between two targets and then realign itself with him—all so fast that his own meager weapon had barely left the ground before he saw the man's trigger finger clench followed by a muffled 'oomph' as Hardcastle swung his stick round and caught Walsh upside the shoulder and chest, knocking him to the ground.
The gun had fallen free. Mark came suddenly unstuck and grabbed for it, flooded with a sense of relief. Staller had been stepping forward to help Walsh but now froze. He hadn't seen what Mark had: Walsh's finger unmistakably squeezing the trigger of the piece, and the look of momentary bafflement on the man's face, as nothing had discharged, right before the judge had clobbered him.
Hardcastle let Mark carry on the charade with the gun. He pointed a finger at Staller and gestured for him to join his cousin, face down on the ground. Somehow it didn't surprise Mark that Hardcastle only had to reach into his back pocket to produce the ropes. He tended to Walsh first, but Staller was bound with equal thoroughness, after which both men were ordered to their feet and each back against a tree, where further attachments were made.
Mark couldn't criticize Hardcastle's attention to detail, and it was only after the last knot was tied that he permitted himself to lower the gun. It was a good thing that the judge was done, though, because the tremor had become pretty annoying by then.
"You okay?" Hardcastle asked, finally taking a seat next to him.
Mark frowned at that, put the gun down completely, and wiped his hands firmly on his jeans. That seemed to help some. It might have even steadied his voice. There wasn't all that much tremor there, either, when he said, "The gun jammed."
"Nah," Hardcastle said with a smile that was probably meant to be reassuring. He was patting his shirt pocket, the one that had previously held the matchbook. Then he reached into it and scooped something up. He held his hand out, slightly cupped. There was practically no light to see by, but Mark heard the familiar dull rattle of brass-wrapped lead.
"I took 'em out earlier."
Hardcastle reached down for the gun and reloaded it, probably by feel. Mark was glad the fire was nearly out. He was certain the expression on his face was not one he wanted to share with the man who'd just saved his life. Chagrin and disappointment didn't seem like the right response.
But there was no hope for concealment. As soon as he'd finished with the weapon, Hardcastle turned to the fire, using the stick to shepherd the scattered coals back together, then blowing on them as he added a few more bits of kindling. He soon had it blazing again, and by its light Mark was certain his mood would be apparent.
"You didn't trust me," he said flatly. A couple weeks of broken sleep and near-starvation had stripped away all the nuances.
"Huh?" Hardcastle looked up from what he was doing. He seemed surprised, even momentarily confused, as he took in the expression on McCormick's face. "Oh," he said mildly, "you mean the gun?"
The man could be utterly aggravating when it came to not getting things.
"Of course that's what I mean," Mark said heatedly, temporarily forgetting his good intentions about maintaining a united front.
Hardcastle, fortunately, seemed incapable of taking offense. In fact he seemed singularly pleased to have their full quota of prisoners back in custody. He shook his head, still smiling slightly.
"It wasn't a matter of not trustin' you, kiddo. I toldja the attacker always has the element of surprise, didn't I?"
Mark nodded, feeling puzzled.
"And we knew Walsh didn't have a gun. Worst possible thing would be him getting his hands on ours, right?"
Mark nodded again, but thought if this was some kind of pep talk, he wasn't gonna go out there and win one for the Gipper anytime soon.
But Hardcastle was undeterred in his explanation.
"See, it's kinda like being a prison guard. You never arm the guys who are down there with the prisoners, right?"
Mark had to acknowledge the truth in that.
"Same here," Hardcastle went on. "If Walsh got the jump on us, and got his hands on a loaded gun, it was all over."
"And you figured he'd get the jump on me, or I'd hesitate or something," Mark answered bitterly. "Looks like you were right."
"I took those bullets out before my stint of guard duty," the judge pointed out calmly. "It was just safer that way. You happened to be the guy he snuck up on. Coulda been me, just the same."
"You probably would have plugged him."
"Maybe," Hardcastle said doubtfully, "or he would have whacked me over the head with a rock, grabbed the gun and shot us both. This way we had a chance to fight back, no matter what."
Mark sighed. "Makes sense, I suppose."
"'Course it does. You just have to think about it a while." Then he frowned. "He slugged you pretty hard. You sure you're okay?"
Mark nodded. The truth was, it hurt some, but he'd be damned if he'd admit it with Walsh sitting right over there. He changed subjects abruptly.
"I think everything's under control now, so you oughta get back to sleep." He looked up at the not particularly informative sky—overcast again. "It'll be morning in an hour or two."
"Wake me up, first light," Hardcastle said as he lay down. "We're gonna make a couple big pushes—get over that next ridge and we're almost there. Got it?"
"Uh-huh. Go to sleep." Mark shook his head and smiled. It was another pep talk from a guy who always expected the winning play even when it was fourth and long. Hardcastle was a born optimist.
Morning came clear and cold again. They'd kept the fire going but now there was no question of handing a can of coals to Staller.
"It'll slow us down," Hardcastle said.
He hated to admit it out loud, but he also thought guarding Walsh—even with a loaded gun on their side—was a two-man operation, and neither of them could afford to be preoccupied with anything else.
To his surprise, and with only perfunctory regret, Mark agreed with him. There was a sense of urgency to their efforts now. The cold was an ever-present reminder that the next precipitation would likely be snow, yesterday's barely adequate repast was not likely to be repeated, and Walsh would only become more dangerous as they got closer to civilization and a chance to hand him over to the authorities.
On the other hand, the passage was more open. They were following a smaller stream at its fall ebb, with hard-packed sand in most places and dry rock in others.
As for Staller, the formerly helpful semi-reformed pirate was now back to his sullen self. It didn't seem likely that he'd be pointing out any more edibles, even if he and Walsh were starving right alongside their captors. Hardcastle caught Mark eyeing the man with wary disappointment.
"You're not the only one who made that mistake, either," Hardcastle leaned over and muttered to the younger man as they walked along in one of the more open spots.
Mark raised an eyebrow.
Hardcastle shrugged. "Now you know how I felt with Beale. And this guy, well, I'd been thinkin' that last couple of days that there was some hope for him and maybe he was mostly just along for the ride when he was with Walsh."
"Just goes to show you," Mark said bitterly.
"I think he's a follower. If he'd had the right person to follow from the start, he mighta turned out okay."
"You mean you," Mark said. "Yeah, maybe."
Hardcastle gave him a puzzled look. "Me? I wasn't the one who was gettin' him to fly straight. That was you."
"Hmm. Yeah," Mark glanced ahead at their two prisoners, "looks like one of my projects, all right."
"You can't help it that you only had him for a week and Walsh has been feeding him poison for years. Anyway, like I said, there's only so much you can do. Look at Beale."
Mark seemed to accept that, though whether it was true belief, or merely being weary of the conversation, was hard to say. Indeed, it was only the easy down-slope, with nothing to hinder them, that made it possible to maintain their steady pace.
It was mid-afternoon when Hardcastle halted. He had to reach out and snag Mark by the arm. The younger man had been walking—trudging—one foot in front of the other, oblivious to nearly everything.
Now he blinked, as though he'd been awakened from sleepwalking, and said, "What?"
Hardcastle pointed at the sun, now dropping south of west. Those parts of the riverbed that still carried water glittered with golden glints from it, almost blinding.
"It's trailing off to the west," the judge said. He scanned up the canyon slope on their left. "Been doing that the last few miles. It's takin' us out of our way."
Mark stared at him dully.
"We need to head south if we're aiming for Myrtle Creek," Hardcastle explained patiently. "This is the first place that looks like it's climbable."
Mark finally seemed to get the message. He lifted his eyes to take in their new route.
It wouldn't have been particularly challenging to a couple of well-fed and well-rested day-hikers, but as things were, it looked as if it might be touch and go to Hardcastle. From McCormick's heavy sigh it seemed he was thinking along the same lines.
He didn't register any complaints but merely set the pack down and pulled out the two bottles, stooping to fill them from the river. He filled four cans, as well, handing them out and taking the last one for himself. They'd been drinking steadily as they went, trying to fill the void of hunger with the only available substitute.
The cans and bottles were re-stowed and they changed course without ceremony. It was a steeper climb than it had appeared, or maybe it was just the consequence of hunger and fatigue. The judge was panting hard and twice had to stop and lean against one of the rocks that projected from their canyon wall; even Walsh seemed done-in by the time they reached the first leveling-off place.
They rested there a while, after which they had only enough time to ascend partway up the remaining slope before they lost the light. There was no discussion about it; they simply sank down, more or less in the same place, when it got too dark to see their way. Who had decided first, or whether there'd been any conscious decision at all, wasn't clear.
There would be no cheering fire and no food. Their only shelter was the trees they leaned against. Mark broke out the water bottles and passed one to Walsh and Staller, but that was the limits of the democracy. After that he bound them both securely.
Hardcastle was vaguely aware that he wasn't contributing much to this effort—just sitting and watching as McCormick moved slowly through those chores. He'd taken a swig from their bottle but even thirst seemed like a dim and removed concept.
Mark returned to his side and dropped back to the ground. He took the bottle and drank deeply, then passed it over with a nudge.
"Huh?" the judge said, and then, staring at what remained, he added, "Nah, maybe oughta save some."
Mark shook his head and put the bottle in Hardcastle's hand. "Drink," he said a little more insistently. His eyes narrowed and he looked away briefly, murmuring, "No point in dying with anything left." He sounded calm and resigned.
Hardcastle looked down at the bottle in his hand. He took one more swig from it and then capped it decisively. Maybe sitting down and drinking a little had helped. Maybe it was the reawakened notion that he'd gotten McCormick into this pickle so he damn well better get him out. He suddenly felt more focused.
"We'll get over this ridge in the morning." He waved hand and bottle into the darkness toward the slope above them. The meager contents sloshed. "Downhill all the way after that, you'll see."
He did not feel as confident as his words. He had a vague recollection of the terrain map on the wall of the little airport hangar in Myrtle Creek, and having eagerly scanned the ground on their flight out, but that had been weeks ago, and the worm's-eye view was an entirely different thing.
No matter, Mark had cocked his head, as if he were giving Hardcastle's credo some consideration.
"Okay," the younger man finally muttered, "one more push." There was a definite emphasis on the 'one'.
The evening breeze picked up. McCormick shivered.
"Lie down," Hardcastle advised. "I'll wake you."
Mark did as he was told, curling around the pack right there where he was, still shivering. Hardcastle supposed they might have gathered some brush or leaves to sleep on, but there wasn't that much loose vegetation up here and they'd been too tired to give it any thought. Now it was too dark. It was going to be a cold night.
He cast a glance in the direction of the prisoners, placed, as always, far enough apart to prevent conspiracy. Staller's eyes were already closed, his head tilted back against the tree. Walsh stared, as usual. Hardcastle no longer cared.
Mark felt a hand on his shoulder, intruding into a dream that had consisted entirely of walking. He hadn't known where he was coming from, or where he'd been going, but the hand was a relief—a signal to stop. He opened his eyes, half expecting to discover he'd been asleep on his feet.
By clear, cold starlight alone he could make out the edges of Hardcastle's features but his eyes were sunken, deep and black, just the shadowy voids of a skull. It was like wakening from one nightmare into another, and Mark shook the sleep from his head in a vain attempt to make this one pass as well.
"Are you okay?" It was the judge's voice, weary, and in a gravely register, but blessedly normal.
Mark nodded in dull relief.
"Good, you were making some sounds. I thought maybe you were in some kinda pain or something."
"Nightmare, maybe," Mark admitted grudgingly. "My turn?" he asked, pushing himself to a sitting position.
"Yeah," Hardcastle said. "Don't let me sleep past first light. We're gonna get over that ridge today."
"Okay," Mark nudged him down, "sure—dawn."
He yawned and shivered. He stowed the gun in his lap and tucked his arms in as he huddled against Hardcastle's back to reduce their combined surface area.
He felt no sympathy for Walsh and Staller, sitting isolated against their individual trees. He had only a deep-seated desire to hand them over to someone else's keeping—he was tired of the responsibility. Even from this short distance he couldn't tell if Walsh was awake or asleep. That question was answered only a moment later, when he heard the man's voice, reaching out from the darkness.
"It ain't one more ridge . . . ain't even just two," he taunted in a soft, breathy rasp that was almost a hiss. "You'll never walk outta these mountains alive."
Mark never had a chance to reply. He wasn't sure he had any answer to what was his own deepest fear. But it was only a fraction of a second before another voice cut in, overriding Walsh's.
"Aw, will ya shut the hell up," Hardcastle barked, sudden and sharp like a drill sergeant who wasn't taking any backtalk from one of the recruits.
And, miracle of miracles, Walsh seemed to have no retort. It was as if the judge had turned over a stone—everything beneath it had gone skittering off. The judge grumbled something that was mostly inaudible and shifted around, now facing McCormick though still on his side.
"Oughta kept my mouth shut and let him run his," he said, in an almost subsonic growl. "Kinda cheers me up, hearing him fuss like that. It's the surest sign that we're making some real progress—him being unhappy." There was no expression to be seen down in the shadows between them, but Hardcastle's satisfied tone sounded genuine.
Feeling a little foolish, Mark muttered, "You mean I shouldn't've let him get to me, huh?"
"Nah, you just weren't all the way awake yet. He had a head start on you. The staring doesn't work so good without some moonlight. He was just trying out on you what he couldn't sell me a couple hours back."
That ought to have compounded the embarrassment, but something in Hardcastle's matter-of-fact comments lifted Mark's spirits. This was not the conversation of people staring death in the face. He smiled, though he was certain Hardcastle couldn't see it.
"You're supposed to be getting some sleep," he reminded the older man. "We've got some climbing to do in the morning."
"All you do is nag," Hardcastle muttered, and then there were some more shifting noises. "First light," he reminded, and then he fell silent.
As if to confirm that all was not lost, almost before Hardcastle's susurrate snoring began, there was a just-perceptible increase in light. It was far too little to be the sun, and at first Mark thought it was his eyes finally accommodating, but there'd been nothing to accommodate to until now. A crescent moon was just peeping over the mountains to the east.
He shook his head. By his own observations he calculated first light at only an hour or two from now. The donkey had stood half-again as much guard duty tonight. He was inclined to let the man doze until second light, at least, and he was willing to take the heat for that.
Hardcastle woke to the bright sun blazing between the branches of a pine—much light, but no heat.
"Damn it," he muttered, blinking a couple times and shading his eyes as he tried to figure out what was what and why he was still lying flat on the ground when they ought to have been on the trail a good hour already.
"'Mornin' to you, too," Mark greeted him huskily. He was still sitting cross-legged but it was obvious that he'd already been up and about. There was a small pile of pinecones on the ground next to him, ordinary-sized ones, not the behemoths of a few days back.
He'd obviously been prying them apart. The results were far from impressive, but it was a testimony to the younger man's fortitude that he'd amassed a tidy little pile of diminutive pine seeds, maybe half a decent handful. They were piled on the flat bottom of an inverted can.
"Breakfast," Mark said. "No orange juice, though." He picked the can up carefully and brushed half the seeds into another can, then passed it over. "Kinda sharp. I tried one," he admitted guiltily.
Hardcastle looked down at the scattering in the bottom of his can. "How long you been at this?" he asked curiously.
"Since it was light enough to see there was a pine tree. Wish I'd tried it a few days ago." He scowled over at Staller. "He said it wasn't worth the effort."
Hardcastle dumped the meager offering into the palm of his hand. He considered eating them one at a time but finally just popped the whole collection into his mouth. He chewed. A little gritty—the cones were half-open and the soil in their camp was loose and dry.
Mark followed his example, chewing thoughtfully, as though to savor it.
"Not bad," Hardcastle announced appreciatively.
"Not much," Mark replied philosophically. "Hey, can we finish off the water now? I promise I won't be morbid about it."
Hardcastle cracked a smile. There was something heartening in the younger man's calm attention to routine in what was now extreme peril. He rustled in the pack for the bottle and passed it over. Mark took a reserved swallow and passed it back.
The judge polished the rest off and then looked up at the sun again. "Time to go."
Mark nodded and staggered to his feet, bent for a moment with his hands on his knees, as though just the sudden change of position had been too much. Then he reached down and offered Hardcastle a hand up and they both stood there getting their balance, still achy and cold.
The prisoners did worse. Even Walsh was walking stiffly, though Hardcastle thought there was a chance that he was faking an element of disability to put them off their guard.
They mustered up: prisoners in front, hands unbound for climbing, Hardcastle with gun directly behind them, and Mark in the rear with his pack and stick. In this order they began their ascent, slowly and laboriously. The judge heard Mark stumble once, in a steeper spot—a clatter of gravel and a grunt.
He ordered the two up front to halt, and was only able to spare a quick look back and an anxious, "You okay?"
"Uh-huh." Mark was up a moment later, leaning on the stick which was now transformed from potential weapon to cane. It didn't matter much at this point, since the uphill grade could almost be better accomplished as a crawl.
They continued on like this, with only the thinning of the trees to show any progress, for what seemed like most of the morning. The sun was past the zenith when the judge finally noticed that the grade was lessening, and soon almost evened off. That didn't last long before there was a downward slope, gradual at first, then becoming steeper. Mark caught up with him, leaning hard on the cane now.
"We're over," he said quietly.
As far as Hardcastle could tell, that was true, but as for further determinations, the view was a disappointment. The trees on the southern slope of this ridge stood thick and there were no scenic vistas to be had.
"What now?" Mark said, still quiet. It was as if he'd used everything he had to get to this spot, and now was utterly at a loss as to what to do next.
"Down," Hardcastle said, keeping it simple. "If it's the right valley there'll be a logging road down there somewhere." He gestured into the nearly impenetrable forest that stretched out before them.
At least it was down, and mostly not at an unmanageable angle of descent, though several times they simply hung onto the trunks of small trees, stretching out until another was nearly within reach, then letting go. Their progress was fairly rapid this way, and Hardcastle tried not to think about what would happen if they reached the bottom of this slope without encountering the promised road. Even if there was at least a creek down there, he thought Mark's spirits might be broken. If there was neither road nor water, he believed even his own will to go on would be extinguished.
It did not pay to contemplate the hopeless. He bent his mind to more immediate concerns—simply staying on his feet. That was what he was doing when he realized they'd come to a dry gully. There was a sudden upslope of at least forty-five degrees before them. They'd all halted, as though such a change in geography was outside the scope of their imaginations.
It was Mark who moved first, using two hands to dig in with the cane and limp up. He hadn't got too many steps before he froze again, except for his head, which turned slowly from right to left and back again. It was an indicator of Hardcastle's exhaustion that he simply waited patiently for the report.
It was hard to read McCormick's expression as he turned, facing back down into the gully, but the few words were clear enough.
Hardcastle stood stock still for a moment longer, then he saw Walsh tensing, as if to run. Mark's shouted warning came simultaneous with the judge swinging the gun up and level.
"One move and I shoot."
There was no indication that Mark intended to interfere this time. Walsh froze, clearly rethinking his options. Hardcastle gestured with the gun, this time indicating the other two should climb. They did, and once they were up alongside McCormick, the judge made his own ascent. Mark extended a hand down to help him up the last few steps and then he was standing in one of the ruts of what was obviously a dirt road.
Somehow he thought there ought to have been a little more ceremony to it than Mark merely asking, "Which way, Kemosabe?" but, in truth, it was a good question. A mistake now could still be lethal.
He gave it some consideration. There were weeds growing between the two ruts as though the road saw minimal service.
"We're still east of town," he finally said, with more decisiveness than he felt.
That was enough for McCormick, though, who gave Walsh a little shove in the correct direction. Staller was less recalcitrant; at this point even jail might sound like a fair deal if there were food and water included. He stumbled along without prompting.
They hadn't gone very far when Mark strayed over to the far side of the road, staring down into the deep, grassy gully on that side. A few more yards and he veered off suddenly, dropping down the precipice with no explanation. Hardcastle felt slow and was still trying to figure out what was up when the younger man shouted back, "I thought so."
"You thought what?" Hardcastle asked peevishly.
"There's some water down here. Just puddles." He was now hidden in the taller weeds.
It was perhaps the only thing that could have galvanized the entire group, even Walsh. They turned as one and staggered down the steep slope.
"Careful," Mark said, apparently hearing the herd's approach, "Don't step in it."
Hardcastle realized the ground was spongier here, though there was nothing yet that could be made use of for drinking. He was still keeping one eye on Walsh, but parted the weeds ahead and stepped down on a swath of them firmly so he could see what Mark was up to.
The younger man was down on his knees, unmindful of the glorious dampness. Calling what was there a puddle was doing it too much justice. There were a few spots where water glistened slightly with a rusty hue, nowhere deep enough to scoop up, but the rest of it was just sogginess.
He had the fancy pocket-knife in his hand with—curiously—the corkscrew opened up. Hardcastle again had a fleeting notion that McCormick had lost his grip but, no, he'd also taken several of the cans from the pack and now was boring a set of holes into one side of the first one, about an inch from the bottom.
Finishing that to his apparent satisfaction, he put the tool aside and the can into the marshy ground, leaning on it hard. As it sank in, water began to seep through the holes, trickling into the can at a steady rate.
"Who taught you that?" the judge asked, reaching down for another can and the pocketknife.
Mark looked up at him, a grin on his cracked lips. "Necessity," he said enigmatically.
Hardcastle smiled and shook his head. He hastily punctured two more of the cans and passed them over to the prisoners, giving them something to keep them occupied.
By that time Mark's was filled to the holes with a few ounces of water, discolored but otherwise clear. He took a swig and passed it up to the judge in trade for the knife, then punctured a fourth can and went back to work.
They were at it for the better part of an hour. The water, which had tasted better than fine at the outset, had a bitter edge to it by the time they'd finally slaked their thirst, and once captured in the bottles, it looked untrustworthy.
Mark scanned the orangey tint and, with typical human ingratitude, said, "I hope we make it to Myrtle Creek before we get thirsty again."
Hardcastle was eyeing it with equal speculation. "It's like wine, I think—gets better the longer you wait."
"We can take some home with us," Mark said, "try it with the Thanksgiving turkey. See what you think of it then." He shoved the bottle back into the pack.
It had been that comment, issued casually with a tone of no particular irony, that finally convinced Hardcastle they were going to survive. They would take life up where they'd left off almost month ago, though they might never be quite the same.
Hours later, when they spotted the first sign denoting the outskirts of Myrtle Creek, it was almost anticlimactic. The only evidence of Mark's weariness was that he dropped the pack, right then and there at the foot of it.
"We can come back for it," he said practically. "I'm tired of carrying it."
Hardcastle frowned, but didn't argue with him. He did bend over and rustle through it for a moment, finally pulling out the pocket knife.
"Evidence," he said solemnly, and slipped it into his pocket.
And then they sauntered the last half mile into town, with their reluctant prisoners in tow.