Chapter 23: Rescue
Morning brought a little improvement in the environmental conditions. Not that the rain and wind had slacked off any, but the improvement lay in that it wasn't getting any worse. It seemed to be at a steady plateau, and while tree branches were crashing down all over the forest and other trees were also coming down, the trunk and branches of the giant old oak were sturdy enough and sufficiently broad enough that the falling branches and trees weren't affecting the huddled group of trainees. The oak branches were like the skeletal framework of a house, and the leaves and other debris tossed on top of it was acting as an insulating 'siding'. Several times that morning two of the guys went out and dragged more of the larger fallen branches up against their hidesite, with the result that it was actually starting to get a little warmer inside the screening greenery.
Cam woke soon after daybreak—Hawk figured this out by the fact that it was light enough for him to see her face twist in anguish. "Hey, easy," he said, and she squeezed her eyes shut, took a few deep breaths.
Her eyes, when she opened them, was glazed with tears of pain but she was conscious and coherent. "Where are we?" she croaked.
"Hiding under the oak that nearly fell on us." It was ironic that the tree they'd been worried about killing them when it fell was actually right now helping them stay alive. "We've dragged more leaves and branches over and it's getting warmer in here. We're still lying next to each other to keep warm, but it's not as bad as it was last night."
"How's the storm?" she tried to sit up, but he prevented her, pushing her back down.
"It's stopped getting worse, so I'm assuming this is the worst it's going to get. It has to be a hurricane; I've never seen a normal storm this bad. We decided last night that there was no way the airlift team would get out here, and there was no way we could get to the airlift point."
"Because of me." She squeezed her eyes shut. "I'm sorry."
"Stop that," he said, but she shook her head.
"Don't say it's going to be okay, because it isn't. The only reason we're trapped out here was because I talked you guys into it. And now you're going to fail because of me." She was clearly feeling guilty about it. "You should have left me and kept going to the airlift point."
"Cam. We're not leaving anyone behind. This is training, not a real combat POW scenario. And we had some perfectly valid reasons for not staying. Yes, in hindsight we should have stayed, but I'm not sure that Broadview would have brought all of us in from the storm."
"No. He wouldn't have. But the only one he would have left outside was me, and the rest of you would have completed the course. Now you're going to fail because of me."
"Why are you so sure that Broadview would have left you outside?" Not that the surmise didn't jive with what Hawk knew of Broadview personally, but he was curious why Cam was so certain she wouldn't receive equal treatment. "Did he say anything in the interrogation rooms?"
"You know we're not supposed to discuss it except with our debriefing officer."
"To hell with the rules, Cam, Broadview wasn't playing by them and after what he did with your hair, I'm not going to play by them either. The moment he violated the rules he nullified the entire rulebook." She was silent. "Cam."
"I can't. I'm sorry."
He struggled not to lose his temper. She was hungry, cold, and hurting, and she wasn't thinking straight. "Why?"
Her voice was a mere whisper. "Because if I tell you, you'll try to bring charges against them on my behalf. It'll be costly and messy and if you get any of the guys to testify they'll lose their careers. Better for me to fail this course than for all of you to lose your careers."
So something Broadview had done to her in interrogation had been clearly outside the rules, and she knew it, and she was going to swallow it silently and take it instead of fighting. "Ranger Arlington. I'm ordering you to tell me what happened."
Her voice was a mere whisper. "I'm sorry, General Abernathy. I cannot comply with your order."
"Insubordination is a dischargable offense, Ranger Arlington."
Her hands clenched around each other so hard the knuckles turned white. "Then I will accept discharge, sir. I cannot violate the nondisclosure agreement I signed."
"What the hell are you protecting that son of a fucking bitch for, Cam?" Warren burst out, unable to stay silent any longer. "What he did to you was outright abuse, maybe borderline torture. You nearly died because he ignored a preexisting medical condition. There were other ways he could have tired you out than PT in a hundred and seven degree heat."
"I'm not doing this to protect him, don't you understand?" She cried, pushing herself up to a sitting position. "I'm doing this to protect you. I'd rather fail this course and be given a discharge than to drag all of you down with me."
"But we don't want to be protected. Cam, after what I saw, after what I saw a commanding officer allow to be done to you—I don't want to be a part of the same military system that lets a personal feud get carried so far that someone could nearly die for it." Ryder was earnestly quiet. "Whether or not you want to participate, Hawk's already said he's going to raise hell about what happened, and I agreed to testify. Warren too."
"We all will," came Lewis's voice.
Cam dropped her eyes and didn't answer, but Hawk could feel the tightness in her body, feel the anguish she was trying to hide. "All right. Talking about this now isn't going to help. Let's just focus on getting out of this alive and we'll worry about what to do later." If he had to he'd shanghai her off to Joe base and see if Lady Jaye and Scarlett could talk some sense into her. Maybe even Liv and Alex; they were experienced at dealing with victims and getting said victims to testify. "Cam; we're relatively protected under here, and it's getting warmer and drier. Do you know any ways of starting a fire that doesn't require tools? At this point I'm even open to rubbing two sticks together if it come to that." Cam cracked a wan smile, though he detected relief at the change in topic. I haven't forgotten, he promised silently in his head. I'll figure out how to get to you. I'm just waiting until we get out of here.
"It's a little more complicated than rubbing two sticks together, but I'm pretty sure we'll be able to manage the trick," she said. "Can you find me two sticks, some tinder—dry grass or something? I know everything seems soaked but some of the larger branches might still have some dry wood left at the core of the branch."
Under her direction they set about enlarging their hidesite by snapping extra branches off the underside of the tree trunk they'd sheltered under, leaving just enough to support the trunk. It opened up more space under the trunk, and a couple of the guys went out again, braving the rain and wind, and piled more fallen branches against both sides of the tree, creating a long roughly triangular inner chamber with 'walls' sloping toward the 'top' of their hidesite—the tree trunk. By the time they came back in, she'd created enough friction with sticks that she had a small but smoky fire going; and it was so welcome that two of the guys turned and went right back out for more sticks to add to it once they dried out in the relative shelter of their improvised hidesite.
Ryder and Demo vanished soon after, and Hawk was just getting concerned when they came back with what looked like armfuls of wet greenery—and everyone cheered raggedly as they recognized the wild potatoes Cam had introduced all of them too, and well as some wild carrot. The potatoes were wrapped in wet leaves and set by the fire to 'bake'; not long, because they were all hungry and the potatoes barely had time to cook before they were eaten, and no one complained. Carrots were eaten raw.
Demo had found a small dirty plastic water bottle out in the woods somewhere, and brought it back full of water from the now swollen creek. He put it as close to the fire as he dared, warming it while waiting for some of the sediment to settle to the bottom, then carefully tested the temperature as he brought it over to Cam. She stared at him suspiciously.
"I wanted to wash your feet, they're dirty and cut and bleeding and you can't afford for them to get infected. And we should check the cuts on the back of your neck, too." She swallowed hard, her eyes misting, and nodded.
Hawk cursed himself for seven kinds of a fool for not thinking of this earlier as Ryder brought a small burning stick over for Demo to see by as he used the warm water to clean the bleeding gashes on the back of her neck, then illuminated the soles of her feet. They looked even worse in the firelight, swollen and cut, with dirt ground deeply into the torn flesh. One deep cut straight across the ball of her foot made her cry out when Demo touched it.
"Oh God, I know it hurts, I'm sorry, Cam, but we have to get your feet clean. When the storm moves past we're going to have to try to get to the airlift site—that's where they'll expect us to head, so that's where we need to be. And it's still a bit of a walk away from here."
"I know," Cam's fists were clenched, her teeth gritted. "Give me that stick." Puzzled, Ryder handed it to her. They watched uncomprehendingly as she shook it briskly to put it out until it was just glowing, and Hawk only understood her intention when she pressed the still-glowing stick to the cut on her foot.
"No—!" But she'd already done it. Her face twisted in a grotesque grimace of agony as she gasped for breath through gritted teeth, but somehow she endured the pain of cauterizing her own foot. The stick finally dropped from her nerveless fingers as she gave vent to a sobbed scream of agony, the only sound she permitted herself before she crumpled into unconsciousness.
"Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," breathed Warren as he crossed his chest, and it wasn't a curse, it was a prayer as the stench of burned flesh filled their little hidesite. Demo grabbed up the plastic bottle and ran back out, coming back a little later with water, which he again placed by the fire, waited impatiently for the sediment to settle and the water to warm a little, then poured it over the cauterized foot. Cam roused then at the feel of the cool water on her foot, and she whimpered a little.
"Don't do that again. Ever. Christ." Ryder ducked outside and moments later they heard the sound of him getting sick just outside their hidesite.
"I'm sorry. I had to. We have to get to the airlift site and I'm going to have to walk. There's no way around it. I have to be mobile."
"Jesus, Cam, no you don't! We could take turns carrying you!"
She rolled her eyes at that. "Oh my God no. Seriously. I'd much rather walk."
"We'll figure it out later," Hawk said angrily. Why did she have to argue so much? "Get some sleep, all of you. We have fire, shelter, we're warm, and for the moment we're safe and we've had a little something to eat." There'd been one potato and a couple of carrots for each of them. Not much, but it seemed to have done wonders for morale; everyone was looking a little more cheerful.
He waited to take his next move until she was sleeping, her breathing even. The he addressed the others in a low voice. "We've taken care of cleaning her feet and her neck, but she's not wearing any pants or anything below the waist and I'm worried she might develop an infection…elsewhere. I was in a POW escape situation earlier this summer, and I got some firsthand experience at looking at, and caring for, a woman's personal injuries, and I want to make sure she's not physically injured." They seemed to understand what he was saying, and turned around, giving him some privacy as he carefully opened her knees and checked her. She didn't seem injured, and she wasn't even bleeding anymore, so he assumed her period was over. There were no cuts, no tears, no obvious damage, and he felt a tiny measure of relief as he closed her legs and arranged her body a little more comfortably on the bed of leaves the trainees had scrounged up for all of them to lie on.
He fell asleep listening to the rain.
He woke suddenly. Something sounded different.
He almost couldn't figure out what it was at first; the sound of driving rain and howling wind had filled his ears for the last—who knew how long, they had no way to measure the passage of time—and the sudden absence of it was deafening in its silence.
Not quite gone; there was still a faint pattering of rain on the leaves and branches that made up their hidesite. But it was the sound of rain drops, not the absolute downpour that it had been, and when he carefully pushed aside a handful of wet leaves so he could look outside, he could actually see darker gray clouds thinning against a backdrop of puffy whiter clouds.
The hurricane had passed.
"Hey. Hey, guys, wake up. Look. The hurricane's passed!" At the sound of his voice eyes opened, blinked sleepily—and then as his words penetrated, they parted the leaves closest to them and looked out, and a ragged cheer rose as they too saw the thinning storm clouds. "We made it!"
Cam woke then, and shared their jubilation. She was standing, slightly shaky but upright, and she was putting weight down on the cauterized foot; a good sign. Not that Hawk wasn't still planning on carrying her, but he had some ideas…
He set two of the trainees to finding two long, mostly-straight branches they could use as carry poles; then he lashed kudzu vine to them, weaving it in and out, between the poles, until he had a sort of makeshift stretcher. By the time they finished it, the sky was lighter than it had been for days, and the rain was now a sort of light drizzle. Cam protested when he picked her up and put her down on the stretcher, but he was not going to accept arguments from her, and he told her so with real fury in his voice. "Get your ass down on that stretcher and stay there!" he thundered, and no one disobeyed him when he used that tone. He was just hoping no one would realize the real reason why he wanted her to stay off that foot; he'd looked at it when he picked her up and even though Demo had tried to clean it, and Cam had tried to cauterize it, the flesh around that deep cut was looking red and raw and swollen, and in his experience when wounds looked like that it meant they were infected. He wanted her to stay off it and keep it clean until a doctor could look at it; the only time he'd seen her truly happy in the entire month he'd known her was when she was dancing, and he couldn't imagine what a blow that would be if that was taken from her too.
The forest, when their little group of eleven people set out with the twelfth on a stretcher between two of them, looked totally unfamiliar. The sun wasn't out—not exactly, but the white clouds in the sky promised that there was sun just on the other side of it. The creek they'd been camping beside had been a swollen, angry torrent; now it was subsiding, muttering a little to itself but burbling a little as it tried to settle back between its banks. As they got to the top of the hill, Hawk cast a last glance back at their hidesite. It had been an unforgettable two days.
Cam might have protested when he'd picked her up, but after he yelled at her, she seemed inclined to stay in the stretcher. She watched from her prone position, checking for navigating indicators and landmarks that would indicate they were getting close to their target site, but as the day wore on and no airlift site came into view along the creek they paralleled, he started to wonder if she was fevered and not sure of her path. They walked all day, following what Cam said was a northeasterly direction, but it wasn't until late afternoon when the glorious red rays of a brilliant sunset finally broke through the last of the stormclouds was he then absolutely sure that they were on the right path.
They'd foraged along the way, and stopped for the night soon after the last golden glow disappeared below the horizon and night started to fall. This time there was more than just vegetables; they'd taken the precaution of taking burning branches from their hidesite fire and carrying it with them, and they were finding plenty of animals that had been caught by surprise by the storm. A collapsed beaver dam, inundated by floodwater, yielded a few dead beavers, drowned when they were trapped by their collapsed lodge, and the meat, however gamy and disgusting they might have thought it before, was going to taste very, very good when they spitted the animals and roasted them over the built-up fire.
Cam was pleased with the beavers but seemed tired, and fell asleep as they were cooking the animals. Hawk was concerned, but he decided to wait until the meat was cooked before he woke her and tried to get her to eat.
There were three beavers, and they decided one would suffice for each team along with the wild potatoes and berries and other edibles they'd scrounged along the way, and Hawk arranged a portion on a wide kudzu leaf before going over to the stretcher and touching Cam quietly. "Cam. Wake up. Cam."
A rustle in the underbrush caught his attention, and he spun, startled. A moment later, like the spirit of some long-gone Native American, a tall shape materialized out of the brush, a man with two long dark braids and an outfit that was a mix of military fatigues and traditional Navajo garb that Charlie IronKnife favored. And beside him, looking absolutely stunned, was Lady Jaye.
He was so relieved to see her that he felt his eyes stinging. "Um...Care for some beaver?"