Continued from Chapter Four
Klesh sprinted through the darkening woods of Rabbit Basin chasing after his wounded cousin Tse-e, who bawled like a frightened infant as he ran. Fool. His sniveling, along with the scent of fresh blood, would bring long-toothed cats down on them both. And they had enough trouble already -- the appearance of the strangers, the encroaching forest fire, the loss of their gear.
The strangers were mystifying. The woman -- Li-chi Tse-gah, Red Hair -- seemed to possess supernatural powers, like those of a vengeful Spirit. Somehow she had wounded Tse-e, knocked the burning club out of his hand from ten paces away. Klesh’s ears still rang from the thunderclap that blasted from her pointed fist. It was the loudest sound he’d ever heard. More deafening than any lightning strike or falling tree. How had she made such an extraordinary noise?
Red Hair’s angry male companion was equally perplexing. He wore odd, close fitting hides that looked and felt like eel skin, black as a moonless night and as smooth as a woman’s cheek. The coverings on his feet were peculiar, too, solid on the soles and laced with rawhide. He was beardless, like a boy who was attending his thirteenth or fourteenth Mastodon Feast, yet he had been a formidable opponent, too strong to be a mere boy.
Both of the strangers had defended themselves like trapped bears. They babbled in an undecipherable way. Were they speaking the language of Spirits?
Twenty paces ahead, Tse-e was no longer running like a startled elk. He hiccoughed as he tried to suck air into overworked lungs. The men had traveled a considerable distance, well beyond Third Rabbit Pond, desperate to escape the otherworldly strangers.
“Tse-e!” Klesh called to his cousin. “Ta-akwai-i! Stop!” Out of breath himself, he slowed to a walk. The trail was swampy here, clotted with poisonous moonseed vines and prickly bullbriars. The hazy quarter moon provided little light. Luckily, their path was a familiar one. Klesh and Tse-e had spent three summers in Rabbit Basin, fishing sticklebacks, trapping beaver, and hunting sloth. They could easily find their way, even after nightfall.
Klesh glanced over his shoulder at the southern horizon. The forest fire glowed there like the red bellies of stickleback males during mating season. The smell of smoke was strong. He guessed the fire would raze the forest in the basin before midnight, spreading both east and west to the surrounding hillsides. Eventually, the flames would burn themselves out at the tree line, halted by the rocky, treeless ledges and scant snow-cover that still clung to the higher elevations.
The men needed to move upland soon if they were going to escape the blaze.
“Tse-e!” Klesh shouted his cousin’s name again.
This time Tse-e did stop and wait, all the while blubbering about the evil red-haired Spirit woman, his words nearly incomprehensible.
“Stop howling like a stuck badger,” Klesh demanded when he caught up to his younger cousin. He grabbed hold of Tse-e’s arm to examine his wound.
The hole went clear through, like a spear wound. It still bled, although not too much; congealing blood was beginning to seal the injury on both sides. Good thing. There was nothing to wrap around it. They had been forced to abandon their packs and camp supplies back at First Rabbit Pond.
“You will live.” Klesh roughly released Tse-e’s arm.
“I am scared,” he whimpered. “You should not have kidnapped Li-chi Tse-gah. She is a Spirit. She and her male protector will kill us.”
“You are talking crazy. She is not a Spirit,” Klesh said, hoping it was true. “I touched her. I smelled her. She is a woman. Just a woman.”
“But what about this?” Tse-e held up his hand. “How did she do this if she is just a woman?”
Klesh had no answer for that. He’d neither seen nor heard anything like it before -- not in any legend told during Prayer ceremonies, nor in any account of a Shaman’s dream journeys. There were countless Spirits, some helpful, most not. All possessed varied magical powers. But to be able to wound a man with nothing but a clap of noise? It seemed impossible, even for a Spirit.
The man -- Li-chi Tse-gah’s angry companion -- was clearly not a Spirit. He had bled like an ordinary clansman when he was struck. He fought for air when he was nearly drowned. He used his fists to defend himself. He was just a jealous mortal, nothing more.
The memory of Li-chi Tse-gah’s companion angered Klesh. The man had prevented him from mating with Red Hair. And it had been many moon cycles since he had lain with a woman. Although Li-chi Tse-gah was odd looking, she smelled female and felt as sleek as tanned doeskin beneath his hands. Lifting his fingers to his nose, he sniffed them, searching for a trace of her scent. Yes, she still lingered there, and breathing her in stirred his groin.
Desire churned in his gut. He would have her. If not today, then soon. He would return to kill her possessive mate, and then take her for himself. Reaching beneath his beard, he grasped the pouch that hung from his neck, fingered its soft hide. He could feel Red Hair’s shiny totem tucked inside. It was his now. Just as she soon would be.
“We have more serious concerns than a strange red-haired woman and her jealous mate. We must climb to higher ground before the fire reaches us.”
Tse-e looked past Klesh’s shoulder at the encroaching fire. “Maybe that is the work of the Red Hair Spirit, too,” he said, his eyes filled with terror.
“Don’t be foolish. The morning thunderstorm brought the fire. You saw the lightning yourself.”
“Maybe Li-chi Tse-gah caused the lightning.”Klesh lost all patience. “Maybe yes, maybe no, it does not matter. We must go. Kut. Now!” He shoved past Tse-e, heading upland. “Tehi. Hih-do-nal!”
* * *
“Let’s go, Mulder.” Scully waited on the beach, impatient eyes aimed south at the fire.
Mulder shouldered the hunters’ packs and was about to search their collapsed tent. “They might have left something we can use.” He folded back the enormous hide that had once served as the shelter’s roof. Underneath it, fallen bone supports lay in a jumble. The bones were massive. Probably mastodon or mammoth, judging from their size.
Dirty fur hides carpeted the floor between piles of foul-smelling food. Mulder picked through the stores for anything that might still be edible. It had been hours since they’d last eaten and he was hungry again -- evidently, raw snake didn’t stick to the ribs. He lifted a half-eaten bird carcass, causing a blizzard of maggots to rain to the floor. “Jesus. And I thought *my* leftovers were bad.” He tossed the carcass back onto the pile.
Scully approached, coming to stand behind him. “Mulder, what are you doing? There’s no time for this.”
“I’m ready. Which way do we go?”
“Away from the fire.”
“Very funny. I guessed that much.” He looked north, across the lake, which reflected the yellow glow of the approaching fire. Then up at the hills to the east. “I think we should head for the mountains.”
“I think we should stick to the lake. We can always crawl in it for protection if the fire overtakes us.”
He eyeballed the lake again and grimaced at the flames that were mirrored in its smooth surface. “We might end up trapped. And the smoke is going to be thick down here in the basin.” God, why did it have to be fire? He’d rather face ten saber-toothed tigers or a hundred four-toed Cro-Magnons than one itty-bitty forest fire. He nodded at the hills. “We should be fine up there, if we can get above the tree line.”
She studied the mountains, barely visible in the twilight, and considered his line of reasoning. “I don’t know, Mulder. It looks pretty far.”
“Then we better get going.” He fished his flashlight from his pocket and gave it to her. “You lead.”
She hesitated, glanced again at the lake, but in the end turned toward higher ground. Mulder snagged the hunters’ two spears from beside the shelter and followed after her.
“We aren’t going to get lost are we?” she asked, aiming her beam at the ground.
“Just keep walking uphill. How lost can we get?”
She pivoted to spotlight his face.
“What?” he asked, with a shrug. “I’m serious.”
“That’s what scares me.” She resumed hiking. “You have no idea how to navigate the woods after dark, do you?”
Hell, he couldn’t follow a map in broad daylight. But as long as they kept the fire to their backs and headed for high ground, they were golden, right?
“When have I ever gotten us lost, Scully?”
“1994. Steveston, Massachusetts. Ring a bell?”
“Oh.” The Kindred. Jesus, sometimes her memory was as good as his. “That doesn’t count.”
“Why doesn’t that count?”
“The map was misleading.”
“I was right about Comity, wasn’t I?”
“Home of the horned beast.”
“Something like that.”
“Mulder, as I recall, there were only two choices in Comity: right turn, left turn. Fifty-fifty chance.”
“But it was *my* fifty that was right.”
“Not according to the map.”
“Well, there’s a lesson in that -- we obviously do better without a map. We’ll be fine.”
“Oh, right. I forgot, you were once an Indian Guide.” She didn’t sound any more convinced now than she’d been six months ago when he’d told her that.
Why had he told her that anyway? To impress her? To avoid admitting that he and his father had never shared a single, normal, father-son pastime like playing catch or becoming Indian Guides?
“I have something to confess, Scully. I was only *sort of* an Indian Guide.”
“Well...I wanted to be one.”
It was impossible to see anything beyond the narrow beam of the flashlight. The smell of smoke was getting stronger -- the air was already saturated with specks of floating ash that prickled Mulder’s sinuses and scoured the back of his throat. He picked up the pace, herding Scully ahead of him as they scrambled uphill. The ground slanted steeply beneath his boots. He could feel blisters forming on his feet and ankles. Damn, he wished he hadn’t left his socks back at the cave. Even if he hadn’t put them on, he should have stuffed them into his pockets. Too late now. The wet leather of his boots was rubbing his feet raw and his socks were long gone.
Despite the hour, the sky lightened as the fire advanced. Unlike sunset, this light flickered, flowed, stalked the forest. It consumed giant pines, cedars and oaks, hissing and crackling as it ate its way north. The awful noise made Mulder think of vampires eating their death shrouds.
Jesus, he hated fire. He had tried to face that particular fear during the L’Ively case. And although he’d managed to save the Marsden children from a fiery death, he hadn’t succeeded in conquering his dread of fire. The smell of it, its aliveness, still caused panic to well up in him in a way nothing else did.
He had told Scully his fear stemmed from a childhood trauma, a time when his friend’s house had burned, and he’d spent the night in the rubble keeping looters away. The story was true, up to a point. What he hadn’t told Scully was how the fire had started in the first place.
It had happened in 1975, two years after Samantha disappeared, the last weekend in September. His best friend Paul Sanderson lived only a short bike ride away, over on Menemsha Cross Road. Paul’s parents were out of town for the night -- they’d taken the ferry over to Quisset to visit relatives -- so Paul asked Mulder over to keep him company, play a little b-ball and watch TV. Mulder leapt at the chance; things were volatile at his own house. His parents fought constantly. About Samantha. Other things. It was a relief to get away from the tension, if only for one night.
The evening had started out fine. Great in fact. The boys played basketball until sunset, and then came inside to watch TV and gorge themselves on everything Mrs. Sanderson had left in the fridge -- including Mr. Sanderson’s beer, which they drank while watching an episode of Starsky and Hutch.
“You sure we should be doing this?” Mulder asked, taking a second can from Paul’s outstretched hand.
“Fox, if they didn’t want us to drink it, they shouldn’t have left it out where we could find it.”
Buzzed on two beers and starting his third, Mulder found himself relaxing for the first time since Samantha’s disappearance.
“Feelin’ good, buddy?” Paulie asked, laughing. Mulder nodded and laughed, too, while Starsky’s red and white Torino chased bad guys into another alley on the TV. “I got something to make you feel even better, man.” Paulie rose from the couch.
He was gone for only a few minutes before returning with a stash of marijuana. He proceeded to roll them each a joint, which they smoked while they finished off the beer. Mulder wasn’t sure how many joints they’d smoked by the time the Sanderson’s sofa caught fire, but at that point they were too stoned to care. Until the heat became ungodly and the smoke so thick they could barely find their way to the door.
The entire house was destroyed, burned flat in what seemed like minutes. Paul was hospitalized for smoke inhalation and some minor second-degree burns. Both boys were questioned by the police, and Mulder told them the truth...up to a point. He said they’d been drinking beer and smoking. He neglected to mention that they smoked marijuana and not cigarettes.
Bill Mulder had been livid when he found out about his son’s involvement in the fire. Mulder still wondered if that night was the final blow to his parents’ failing marriage. Three months later, his dad moved out of their Chilmark house to West Tisbury. Mulder blamed himself, and for years he had nightmares about being trapped in burning buildings.
How could he tell Scully all that? How could he explain his sense of culpability, failure and remorse?
The truth was, he couldn’t, any more than he could bring himself to tell her about his dismal, never-an-Indian-Scout relationship with his dad. He wanted her to see the best side of him, not his many phobias, failings and psychoses. He may chase mutants for a living, but where Scully was concerned, he wanted to be a normal guy. Not her “out there” partner, Spooky Mulder, but the kind of man she might possibly fall in love with.
“Fire’s getting closer,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. They’d been climbing for three-quarters of an hour, and now a wall of flames rose from the forest about 200 yards behind them. “Are we going to make it?”
“We’re gonna make it.”
Mulder placed his palm between her shoulders and propelled her forward, lengthening his own stride. Fiery snowflakes sifted down from nearby trees. Evergreens were turned into giant torches when flames leapt from branch to branch, burning ever closer. The blaze was quickly overtaking them and its heat felt like the breath of Lucifer on their backs.
The sound of charging hooves startled them both. They turned to see several oversized deer-creatures stampeding through the forest, running for their lives from the blaze. The animals were large, muscular, and crowned with enormous flat, branching antlers, which stretched an astounding seven or eight feet across. Long-legged like moose, but with the faces of elk, the panicked beasts headed straight for them.
“Look out!” Scully pulled him out of their path and took refuge behind a tree. The stag-moose galloped by, nostrils flaring, eyes wild with fear.
“Jesus,” Scully hissed, as the beasts disappeared into the forest’s shadows.
Mulder’s heart hammered and his fear ratcheted up another notch. “Let’s go.” He snagged her arm and towed her in the direction the moose had gone. Above their heads, upper branches caught fire. Embers rained to the ground.
Scully covered her mouth and nose with her hand, trying to filter out smoke and ash as she ran.
Mulder saw her struggling, heard her choke. He dug into his pocket for his handkerchief. “Here. Put this over your mouth,” he said, raising his voice to be heard above the escalating roar of combustion. Needle-laden branches snapped and popped. Limbs cracked and crashed to the ground in an explosion of sparks. Scully took the handkerchief and quickly tied it over her face to mask out the smoke.
Sizzling sparks dripped earthward. Several landed in Scully’s hair, singing it before Mulder could brush them away. He dropped the spears and packs, and shed his leather jacket to drape over her head as protection against the falling debris.
“Mulder...” She tried to return the jacket to him.
He shook his head and bent to retrieve the packs and spears. “Keep going. Hurry.”
Just then an overhead branch let go and plummeted, spraying sparks and pluming smoke. It pinwheeled as it fell, bringing other blackened limbs down with it. Mulder heard it crashing through the canopy and looked up in time to lunge at Scully, knock her to the ground, and shield her with his body.
The branch detonated when it hit the ground beside them, creating a ball of flame that surged over Mulder’s back. He gasped, sucking in a scorching breath as he raised his arms to protect Scully’s head. Intense heat blasted him, seared his ears, the backs of his hands. Sparks bit holes into his skin and clothes.
Jesus, he felt as if he was back at the Sanderson’s, the house falling down around him. Only this time there was more at stake. Scully lay beneath him. He could feel her trembling as they waited out the hellish, fiery wave.
The fireball roared past and the moment it dissipated, Mulder leapt to his feet, hauling Scully up after him. He grabbed the packs and spears; she retrieved the fallen flashlight. Together they raced uphill, dodging smoldering debris, squinting against the billowing ash.
“Not much further,” he shouted. Or was it? Up ahead the trees had that stunted, bonsai look of alpine vegetation. The ground was becoming rockier, the soil thinner. Surely they were nearing the tree line and the top.
“Up there!” Scully pointed to where a wide stone outcropping lay blanketed beneath a dwindling drift of soot-covered snow. Several massive boulders balanced on the granite ledge, and a narrow crevice appeared to snake between two of them, offering possible shelter.
Sprinting out from beneath the burning trees, Mulder quickly crossed the bald mountaintop with Scully in tow. The wind was brisker out in the open, the air fresher. And the boulders were even bigger than they had looked from the woods. The giant stones stood like humpbacked mastodons on the uppermost ridge, forming a crevice between them just wide enough to squeeze into.
“Go!” he urged, propelling her into the fissure.
She slithered between the boulders. Mulder pushed his way after her. Inside, her flashlight revealed a narrow, curving corridor.
“Does it get any wider?” he asked, feeling pinched between the giant stones.
She aimed her light and shuffled a few steps forward. “Yeah, I think so.”
The gap widened to five or six feet, providing sufficient room to sit and wait out the fire. The shelter offered no overhead protection; it was open to the sky. Mulder could see the moon, hazy behind a veil of passing smoke. He let the packs and spears drop to the ground beside his feet. Jesus, he felt winded. Couldn’t seem to catch his breath. He tried to clear his throat, but it felt raw and swollen, and his chest ached with every inhalation.
“You okay, Mulder?” Scully tugged the handkerchief from her face, exposing her concerned frown.He felt dizzy. His stomach roiled. He bent at the waist, stood with hands on his knees, and tried not to throw up.
* * *
He sank to a sitting position, dodging the beam of her flashlight. “I’m okay.” A raspy cough rattled his chest.
She squatted next to him and shined the light in his face, causing him to squint and scowl. “Smoke inhalation can be very serious, Mulder.”
“Scully...” His voice was hoarse and his lungs wheezed. “I’m fine.”
She ignored his assurances and checked him for signs of heat injury -- singed eyebrows, burns around and inside the nose, the mouth. “Open,” she ordered, aiming her light at his clenched jaws. Begrudgingly he obliged and she peered at the back of his throat. The tissue was irritated, swollen. Clearly he was having difficulty breathing. She timed his rapid, shallow breaths, and took his pulse, which was racing. “Do you feel sick to your stomach?”
“How about confused, sleepy, irritable?”
“All three. Maybe I’m premenstrual.” He glared at her and pushed the flashlight away from his face. Then a fit of coughing overtook him. Lungs raling, he tugged at his tight-fitting turtleneck and gasped for air.
To relieve the pressure on his neck, she helped him pull the shirt off. His skin felt dry and hot, and looked ghostly pale. His arms trembled. He was going into shock. Edema and particulate matter in his upper airway were causing hypoxia. What he needed was a hyperbaric chamber or at least a non-rebreather mask, and that’s what she would have prescribed if they’d been in a hospital. But here, the best she could do was sit him in a semi-reclining position and monitor him.
She untied the handkerchief from her neck and passed it to him so that he could cough into it.
Please, be okay, Mulder, she silently urged.
She crawled behind him and sat with knees bent, a leg on either side of him. “Lean back.” She pulled him toward her until his head rested against her breastbone. His chest muscles heaved as he worked to suck in air. “Try to relax,” she said, massaging his chest with her palm.
Please, be okay. Please.
Edema would likely worsen over the next six to twenty-four hours. She hoped the injury was limited to his upper airways rather than extending distally. Images of tracheobronchial and alveolar damage haunted her. Jesus, even if he survived asphyxiation, it was possible, even probable, that he would develop pneumonia in a day or two. Increased airway resistance coupled with decreased compliance and a large dead space, plus pooling of secretions, meant bacterial colonization and ensuing infection...and here they were without antibiotics.
Gently stroking his face, she could feel the small burns that pocked his cheeks and chin -- tiny pinholes caused by burning ash on his unprotected skin, all because he had given her the handkerchief, which now lay crushed into a ball beneath his curled, sooty fingers. Its once-white fabric was spotted with carbon coughed up from his lungs. His lips already appeared bruised from cyanosis. He stared dully straight ahead.
She reached for his jacket, which lay on the ground beside them, and spread it over his bare chest to keep him warm.
Please, please, be okay, Mulder.
“I feel...” -- panting breaths sifted in and out of his lungs -- “like crap.”
“You’re going to be fine.”
He suddenly groaned, rolled over and vomited beside her right knee.
“Sh-shit, Sc-ully.” He choked as his stomach heaved. When he was finished being sick, she drew his head gently back against her chest. He inhaled with effort. “S-s-sorry.”“It’s okay, Mulder. It’s okay.” She rearranged the jacket over him and ignored the pool of vomit beside her. Stroking his hair with one hand, she tucked the other beneath his coat, laying her palm on his chest to monitor his breathing. His heart hammered beneath her hand. His chest rose and fell with halting effort. She rubbed him reassuringly. “You rest. I’ll be right here.”
* * *
The faint smell of smoke tickled Klizzie's nose. It wasn't coming from the hearth, she realized, waking from a deep sleep. It was outside the lodge. She recognized the smell of burning black spruce, loblolly pine, pin oak, hemlock, and other trees. Somewhere there was a forest fire.
She rolled over in her bed of bison hides. “Dzeh?” She whispered her mate’s name, not wanting to wake the whole Clan. His place on the skins was empty. All around her, soft snores filled Toh-ta Lodge. Coals still glowed in the hearth, illuminating the lodge’s curving bone supports, its skin ceiling, and its sleeping occupants. Dzeh’s Clan. Her family now, too, for the past four years.
Throwing back the furs, Klizzie rose to her feet, and after a quick look around, she slipped quietly from the lodge.
Outside, the air felt cool on her bare skin. She wore only a short skirt of furs and, of course, her totem pouch, which hung from a thong around her neck, resting reassuringly between her breasts. A fog of mosquitoes instantly surrounded her, whining in her ears. They could be intolerable at this time of year, and made her eager for the upcoming summer when the Clan would move to Tabaha Lodge on big Turkey Lake, where bats fed on the pesky insects and it was possible to stand on the shore in the evening and not get chewed to bits. There would be heaps of fresh blueberries, supplejacks, and currants. And fish, turtles, freshwater clams, frogs. Lots of big game, too. Plenty of food and fresh water and a chance to stay in one place for longer than a sunrise or two. Best of all, there would be new babies. Chuo’s time was near. Dibeh was pregnant, too.
And maybe Dzeh would plant a child in her womb this season. After all, Klizzie was eighteen Mastodon Feasts old. Many women her age already had two or three babies. Some even more. She clutched her totem and whispered a quick prayer to the Spirits.
Recently, she’d heard speculation that she was barren, cursed because of her relationship with Klesh, her scarred cousin. She prayed this wasn’t so, although she knew it might be the truth.
Klizzie had been with Dzeh for four springs now and still she had not produced a child. She worried that he would take another mate if she didn’t become pregnant soon, a woman who could fill his lodge with many strong sons and beautiful daughters. Dzeh was nine Mastodon Feasts older than she was, and had already been waiting a long time for offspring when he took her to be his mate. His patience was bound to wear thin at some point.
Crossing the quiet campsite, passing the shelters where cousins and uncles slept, Klizzie found Dzeh leaning against a large, gnarled shagbark that overlooked a section of open grassland. He faced west, watching the distant mountains. A faint orange-yellow glow backlit the hills.
“What is it?” she asked when she stood beside him.
Dzeh was tall for a clansman. His beard was long, the color of bison hide, and his shoulders were marked with the tattoos of his clan. He was a good hunter and wore the teeth of his first kill -- an enormous she-bear -- in his pierced ears. A silvery wolf skin covered his broad, tan back. His eyes were filled with kindness whenever he looked upon her.
“Forest fire,” he said, keeping his voice low. “In Rabbit Basin.”
“Will it come this way?”
“No. It will stop at the mountains.” He embraced her with one muscular arm. Smiling down at her, he said, “But it will force game our way. We will have an easy hunt tomorrow.”
Before she could respond to this good news, he pushed aside her long hair and bent to nuzzle her bare neck. She loved the slight musky scent of his skin and the coarseness of his beard against her smooth cheeks.
“Dawn is a long way off,” she whispered, wanting him to lay with her, out here in the open while the others still slept in the lodge.“Then we shall have to find a pleasant way to pass the night,” he said before his mouth descended on hers.
* * *
“Just an old fashioned love song...” Scully sang for what must have been the millionth time -- “playing on the radio...” She cradled Mulder’s head in her lap while he dozed.
It was morning, 6:03 a.m. according to her watch. The night had seemed to last forever. She’d turned off the flashlight hours ago to conserve its batteries, but then felt frightened by the dark. Funny, she’d never been afraid of the night before, not even as a child. But here, death loomed as large as those panicked Pleistocene beasts that had charged through the burning forest last night. The grim prospect of being left alone in this frightening universe grabbed hold of her thoughts and hung on tenaciously throughout the long, dark hours, making her teeth chatter and her arms quake. To lose Mulder...
Please, God, no. Don’t take him. Please.
His breathing remained shallow, uneven, and each stalled breath portended to be his last. At one point, shortly after 3:00 a.m., when his chest suddenly refused to rise on its own, she angrily rubbed his breastbone and begged him not to die.
“Don’t leave me, Mulder.” Her massaging fingers coaxed another lungful of air into him. “Please, don’t leave me here alone.” It was enough for the time being -- his breathing resumed. Thank God. She hadn’t wanted to resort to CPR. Although her lungs were free of particulate from the fire, she’d been exposed to carbon monoxide. The CO would still be present in her own system and would likely poison Mulder further if she attempted to give him mouth-to-mouth.
What seemed like an eternity later, he was breathing a little easier. His cough still lingered, however, and it shuddered his chest now. His eyes fluttered open.
“I’m here.” She combed his sooty hair away from his forehead, surreptitiously feeling for fever. Again.
“Thought I heard singing.”
“Must’ve been a dream. I don’t sing, remember?”
“Oh.” He made an effort to clear his throat. “We didn’t happen to...pass a Mickey Dees last night...did we?”
“You feeling hungry?”
“Mm. Could eat a super-sized Egg Mac-Mastodon.”
That was a good sign. Too bad she didn’t have anything to feed him.
“Maybe our cavemen friends prepared a picnic,” she said, eyeing their packs.
She reached for the nearest one, trying not to joggle Mulder too much. Snagging its rawhide strap, she drew the bag to her and opened it. “Looks like we might be in luck. There are two...correction...make that *three* dead squirrels in here, and,” -- she dug deeper -- “flint for starting a fire. Tah-dah!” She held up the stones for him to see.
“Your turn to skin dinner,” he said between coughs.
“Fair enough. I need your knife.”
She searched his jacket. When she found the knife, she gave him a fleeting smile, then extricated herself from behind him. She removed and folded her own jacket and tucked it beneath his back to elevate his shoulders as much as possible while she was gone. It would actually be better if he sat up, but she wasn’t altogether sure he could stay that way without falling over while left alone.
“Don’t go anywhere,” she whispered, bending close to his ear, adjusting the jacket beneath his neck and head. She planted a gentle kiss on his temple.
His skin felt warm. Too warm.
Reluctantly, she gathered the squirrels, and left to prepare breakfast.
Outside, she found herself at the edge of a no man’s land.
“Oh, my God...” She looked down into the blackened basin where a series of small, muddy lakes dully reflected the dawn. All around the water, the land was charred black and smoke rose up from the burnt ground like ghostly fingers. Scorched, fallen trees, stripped of their leaves, crisscrossed the ground. There were no bird calls. No whine of insects. Only the hiss of cooling embers. And the desolate stink of lost life.
“What a difference a day makes.” Mulder’s voice, husky, almost unrecognizable, came from behind her.
She spun to see him propped against one of the boulders, legs shaky, the skin of his face and chest pale and sweaty beneath a veneer of soot. His dirty hands dangled loosely at his sides.
“You should be lying down.”
“Feels better to stand.” He cleared his throat and spat a mouthful of dark mucus onto the ground. “We should go.”
“Go? Where?” She turned again to face the razed valley. The fire had burned itself out for the most part, but the basin wasn’t passable. A few golden flames still licked the northernmost region. Ash and blackened vegetation stretched from the eastern mountains where they were standing all the way across to the western range. The bowl of land was fogged with smoke.
“Other...?” She looked back at him, unable to make sense of what he was saying.
He hooked a thumb behind him toward the rising sun. “East.”
“But, the field is that way.” She pointed south.
“Field?” Now he looked confused.
“Where we first arrived. We have to go back, Mulder.”
He nodded once, and then said nothing, evidently reluctant to explain something he understood but she still failed to grasp. His face was pinched with fatigue. His hands quaked. He looked filthy and hungry and thirsty and maybe sadder than she’d ever seen him. Yet he waited patiently, allowing her the time she needed to come to her own conclusion.
They weren’t going back to the field.
She craned to see it from where they stood, but it was too far away, somewhere beyond the basin and the waterfall and the ravine, grayed with ash, no longer recognizable.
They weren’t going home. Not now anyway. Not soon.
The idea was crushing. Fighting back tears, she pivoted to face him, prepared to rail against his infuriating acceptance of their predicament. But when she met his miserable, weary gaze, she realized he was in no condition to do battle. Her arguments would have to wait. Mulder was sick and getting sicker. She composed her angry expression. “You need water. I’ll scout ahead while you stay here and rest.”
“And have you wandering out there alone? No way. Not with Conan around.”
He shook his head. “Never mind. We’re not separating.”
“Mulder, you shouldn’t be on your feet. You’re in no shape to walk and you’ll just end up making yourself sicker. This is no time to try and prove how macho you are.” She wanted to add that male emergency patients outnumber females two to one for preventable and neglected injuries, and that a little common sense right now could make the difference between life and death.
“We are *not* separating.”
“No!”Like it or not she was going to have to accept his wishes. “Fine. But I’m carrying everything. Wait here while I get the rest of our gear.” She set the squirrels at his feet while she went to collect the spears, packs, and jackets. Returning a moment later, she handed him his shirt, which he put on. Then she offered him one of the spears. “Here. Lean on this.”
He took it, then paused to survey the ruined valley. When he spoke, his voice was as brittle as the landscape. “I haven’t given up on going home. You know that, don’t you?”
It relieved her to hear him say the words. “I know. Come on.”
They started off, slowly rounding the giant boulders, heading east and walking side-by-side, taking their time so that Mulder wouldn’t become too winded.
The view from the mountain’s eastern slope couldn’t have been more different than the charred basin they were leaving behind. Trees were sparser here. The slope was more gradual, and a good portion of the hillside was covered with a fresh, green meadow. Big horned sheep grazed on acres of grass, giving the land a polka-dotted appearance. Down in the foothills, perhaps a mile or more away, a narrow lake lay nestled in a verdant, forested hollow, its blue water sparkling beneath the morning sun, reminding Scully of how very thirsty she felt.
“Think you can make it to that lake?” she asked.
“Sure. Wanna race?” His voice sounded too thin to be convincing. He looked ready to drop where he stood.
He needed water and food and rest if he were to have a fighting chance against infection.
“No racing. Just watch my back.”
His focus slid to her backside. “I’d follow that anywhere, G-Woman.”
She appreciated his attempt at humor, knowing how much pain each breath must be causing him. “So that explains why you always let me lead,” she said, starting downhill.“You’re on to me.”
“And all this time I thought you were just being polite.”
The meadow smelled wonderfully sweet, belying the seriousness of their situation. A spring breeze blew gently from the south, causing the grass to undulate in great, green waves. Bumblebees bounced between flowers, drowsily dodging Scully’s legs as she waded through knee-high blossoms. Fat sheep cautiously eyed the newcomers from a distance, but kept on grazing.
Mulder stumbled along a step or two behind Scully. He was leaning heavily on his spear, using it for balance. After thirty minutes of hiking, his face was deeply flushed and when he coughed, his lungs sounded clogged and wet.
“Still gonna cook our breakfast, Scully?” he asked between bouts of choking.
“Sure. Squirrel is my specialty.”
“I didn’t know that.” Air scraped in and out of his lungs. “Tell me something else I don’t know...about you,” he challenged.
His request made her think about her snake dream, which she had no intention of discussing. Not now. Probably not ever.
“Melissa and I once found a dead squirrel in the road in front of our house. It must have been hit by a car, because it was pretty flat. Missy dared me to skin it, cook it and feed it to Bill and Charlie in a sandwich.”
“I did skin it. But that’s as far as I went, much to Missy’s disappointment. She kept the squirrel’s tail for a while though. Hung it off the back of her bicycle seat.”
“How old were you?”
“I don’t know. Seven or eight.”
“Slicing and dicing even then.” Mulder was walking very slowly. Every breath seemed to take enormous effort. His lips were a frightening shade of purplish-blue and his face was slicked with sweat.
Scully moved to his side and wrapped an arm around his waist for support. “No more talking, Mulder. Lean on me. We’re almost to the lake. Try to make it a little further.”
The water was so close. Another five or ten minutes and they’d be there.
“Sc-scully, I...can’t...” His knees buckled. “Gotta rest.” He sank to the ground, pulling her down with him.
His decline seemed to be happening incredibly fast. The fire had been only hours ago, and yet here he was, already overcome by fatigue and shortness of breath. The damage to his airway must have been worse than she realized. Either that or his injured lungs had been infected by some virulent Pleistocene uber-bug.
Guilt settled over her. He was sick because of her. He had risked his life when he used his body to shield her. He must have sucked in lungful after lungful of scorching debris while she lay tucked safely beneath him.
Exhausted and gasping for air, he laid down to rest. Trying to help him get comfortable, she noticed tiny ripe berries dotting the ground all around them. Strawberries! Thousands of them, growing in between the meadow grass.“Mulder, look! Fresh berries.” She picked one to show him, only to find he had lost consciousness.
* * *
Klizzie sat cross-legged on the ground outside the hut and deftly plaited her hair, weaving in fresh sweetgrass and bone beads. It fell nearly to her waist when it was not knotted into dozens of tight braids, and it would curl like moonseed vine if left hanging free. Thanks to the peccary fat she worked into her scalp after each washing, her dark tresses glistened like the hide on a new foal. Many seasons ago, her mother had shown her how to perfume the fat with flower blossoms, cooking them together before applying the sweet-smelling oil to her hair. Klizzie thought of her every time she mixed clover or vetch into the melting fat. She missed her very much and wished she were still alive.
“Hurry up, Klizzie,” begged Gini, Dzeh’s eight-year-old sister. Gini squatted beside her, watching her braid her hair. The girl held a pretty carved comb Dzeh had given to Klizzie after their first mating.
Gini resembled her older brother in many ways. They had the same full lips that quirked up on one side whenever they smiled, which was often. Their brows had the smooth curve of owl feathers and the left one arched higher than the right when they showed surprise or doubt. Their eyes were the color of hazelnuts and shone with candor and kindness.
Klizzie’s heart felt satisfied whenever she looked at Dzeh. He wasn’t like the other men in the Clan; he treated her more like an equal than a woman. He was attentive and thoughtful. And smarter than most. A good hunter, too. She was fortunate to be his mate.
“You fetch the baskets, Gini. I am almost finished.”
The girl jumped to her feet and scurried into the lodge. In three heartbeats, she returned carrying two pine needle baskets, perfect for collecting strawberries. Klizzie planned to scour the western slope this morning, picking as many ripened berries as possible before the bears arrived to eat the rest. Every year it became a contest to see who would get the delicious treats first -- the Clan or the bears and birds.
Strawberries would taste perfect with the moose meat Dzeh and the other hunters had brought home after the forest fire. He’d been right; the fire had pushed plenty of game their way, making it easy for them to spear three large stag-moose. The younger boys had captured several fat rabbits, too, which they put into blackhaw cages to eat once the moose meat was gone. Now there was plenty of meat to cut up and cook, and more hides to clean and tan.“Ready?” Klizzie asked, seeing that Gini was anxious to get going. When the girl nodded, Klizzie took her hand. “Then let’s go pick some berries.”
* * *
For a day and a half Mulder had drifted in and out of consciousness, his breathing becoming more and more labored. The initial airway occlusion from edema and endobronchial debris had made his lungs ripe for infection. His fever continued to rise.
Scully examined him every few minutes, checking his pulse, his breathing, and his temperature, which she could only guess at by placing her palm against his fiery skin. When he was more lucid, she tried postural drainage and clapping his chest, hoping to clear his lungs at least a little. When he was unconscious, she went down to the lake where she removed her shirt and soaked it with cold water. She carried it back to him, dripping wet, and squeezed a few drops of water into his parched mouth. Then she would press the cold, wet shirt against his brow, cheeks and neck, trying to cool him. Several times he responded by mumbling in a disoriented way, begging her to loosen imaginary restraints on his wrists and to please, please believe him.
She guarded her emotions against his suffering by treating him as a patient, not as her partner, her best friend, her only companion in this entire frightening Ice Age world. Concentrating on his symptoms, she tried to detach herself from her feelings for him.
As the hours wore on and night fell, however, she lost her detachment. She’d been without sleep for two days. Mosquitoes harangued her incessantly and her arms grew exhausted from swatting at them, fanning the air above Mulder to keep them from bleeding him dry, too. A sporadic breeze puffed across the field, brushing through the grass, sounding like hushed voices. She imagined she heard them whispering her name. Then she imagined the voices were Mulder, calling to her for help as he breathed his last breath.
Not knowing what else to do, she talked to him. From 2:00 a.m. until sunrise, she babbled non-stop about anything and everything she could think of. Eventually she came to the subject of her dream about the snake.
“Mulder, the day we ate the snake I had a dream, a nightmare really...you brought me a dead snake, only when I touched it, it wasn’t dead any more, it came to life, and I ate it. I know it sounds Freudian, *is* Freudian; the snake is...was...a symbol of...I think...of our sexual relationship...the one we don’t have. The snake made me pregnant...impossible of course...for a whole bunch of reasons. I didn’t have a baby in the dream...I gave birth to another snake...or maybe it was the same snake, I don’t know. You were there, but I once read somewhere that all the characters in our dreams are just varying aspects of our own personalities, which means that you must have been me...not that it matters. I don’t know what the snake meant...uh, the snake I gave birth to. At first I thought it might mean that having a sexual relationship with you would end badly. But I don’t really think that. I don’t.”
Mulder coughed, but didn’t wake.
“You were wrong yesterday, Mulder. We’ve had motive...or at least, *I’ve* had motive. My feelings for you haven’t changed -- not from traveling through time or from some sort of genetic regression process...”
She rubbed circles over his heart with her hand. How could he not know she loved him?
“Mulder, you once saved me with the strength of your beliefs. You and I...we have so much left to do. I don’t believe you’re ready to die. Not now. Not here.”
By mid-morning Mulder’s fever burned even hotter and his lungs rattled with every agonizingly slow breath. Scully began to pray, out loud and on her knees.
“God, please don’t take him, please. I need him more than I ever have before. He is my only ally here, my only hope. I can’t lose him.”
Perhaps God wasn’t listening or He had other more pressing things to do because Mulder’s chest stopped rising. His heart stopped beating. The sun became too bright in a too blue sky, the smell of strawberries too strong and the drone of bees too loud as Scully felt for his pulse and found none. She bent over him, placed her mouth over his and blew into his lungs. Once. Twice. Still no pulse. Straddling his motionless body, she began chest compressions.“Damn it, Mulder! Don’t you dare die! Don’t leave me here alone! Mulder? Please!”
* * *
“What is that?” Gini asked, stopping in her tracks and cocking an ear. She had been skipping ahead of Klizzie along the narrow lakeshore path that led to the strawberry fields. “I hear someone crying.”
It was true. A woman’s cries came from somewhere up ahead. Whoever she was, she sounded grief stricken.
“Let’s go see,” Klizzie said. She took the lead, hurrying toward the cry, but sticking close the trees where they might hide in the shadows if the sobbing woman turned out to be a stranger and not a member of the Clan.
They quickly came to the edge of the strawberry fields where they could see a red-haired woman crouching over an unconscious man about forty paces upland.
“Who are they?” Gini whispered, sounding both afraid and curious.
“Hush.” Klizzie put a hand on the girl to hold her back. “I do not know.”
“Is the man dead?”
He looked dead, even from this distance. His skin appeared bluish and his eyes sunken in their sockets. The red haired woman straddled his waist, while tears streamed down her face, which was badly bruised; she shouted at the man as if angry and pounded his chest. Klizzie wondered if this man had been the one who had given her the black eye and the swollen lip. Maybe she killed him because he beat her. Suddenly the woman bent forward and covered the man’s mouth with her own, as if kissing him. His chest rose once before she sat upright and again pushed her fists into him.
“What is she doing?” Gini asked.
Klizzie had no idea. Maybe the woman was crazy. Grief sometimes made people do strange things. Klizzie felt certain she would lose all common sense if Dzeh were to die.
“Should we help her?”
Should they? They didn’t know this woman or the dead man. Strangers could be dangerous. And what could be done anyway? If the man was dead he was dead and only the Spirits could help him.
But the red-haired woman appeared so desperate.
“Come on,” Klizzie said, leading Gini out into the field, her legs shaking and her stomach feeling knotted, the same way she had felt when Dzeh’s mother lay dying three seasons ago, her stillborn baby taking her with it to the Spirit World. Even Dzeh had cried the night his mother’s spirit flew away.
Klizzie and Gini slowly approached the red haired woman who seemed blind to them as she continued to shove her fists against the dead man’s chest. When they stood only six or seven paces away, Klizzie cleared her throat and asked in as strong a voice as she could muster, “Can we help you, Sister?”The woman looked up in startled surprise and slowed her frantic pounding. Tears streaked her bruised cheeks, pooled in her heartbroken eyes...eyes that looked as if her spirit wanted to fly away, too.
* * *
Klesh and Tse-e crouched behind a clump of blossoming fire cherries overlooking the strawberry fields. They quietly watched Red Hair squawk over her dead companion, while that troublemaking Klizzie and Dzeh’s little sister stood by with stunned looks on their faces.
“It appears Li-chi Tse-gah has lost her protector,” Klesh gloated, keeping his voice low and fondling the pouch he wore around his neck. He grinned at the feel of Red Hair’s totem tucked inside. His widening smirk deepened the scar on his left cheek.
“What are you going to do?” Tse-e asked.
“Take her for myself as payment for the supplies we lost.”
“What about Klizzie and the girl?”
“They are of no consequence.”
“But they could bring Owl Clan down on us.”“You worry too much, Tse-e,” Klesh sneered. “The Clan will not care about this woman. She has no kin here. She is alone now and will be grateful to tend my hearth and share my sleeping skins.”
Continued in Chapter Six
Thank you, Dr. “Guts,” for helping me sound as if I know what I’m talking about in this chapter. Your medical expertise was invaluable and I can’t thank you enough for generously giving up your nonexistent spare time between doctor duties to beta “The Mastodon Diaries.”
See The Mastodon Diaries Dictionary for an explanation of the paleo-indian terms and names.