Starsky's feet were killing him. Walking. It seemed they'd been walking for a month, at least. Stumbling, actually. Even with an arm around Hutch's waist, it was hard for Starsky to place his feet on the uneven ground ahead of him without turning his ankle on the unseen stones or skidding on sand or gravel. The air, which had been pleasantly cool when they'd left the mine, had become hot, hot, dusty nose-clogging hot. Hutch's arm around his back was slicked with sweat where it touched, and though the blindfold over Starsky's eyes blocked most light, the sun pounded on him, inescapable, wringing him out like a dying mackerel.
They were travelling very slowly, he could tell. It felt as though they were going in circles. For all he knew, they were. The way Hutch was moving, he didn't feel much better than Starsky did. And every once in a while Maggie would groan, curse, and the sound of shifting canteens would let him know that she was rearranging the weight she was carrying while Hutch supported him.
It bothered the devil out of Starsky that Hutch and Maggie wouldn't leave him at the mine. They would be making better time if they didn't have to play leader dog in this heat, and they could have sent help back once they got out to the interstate. He complained vehemently about having to wander around out in the sun when he could be lounging in comfort in the mine. But something was worrying Hutch, and he had had his mind set on hauling Starsky along.
"Hey," Starsky said, coughing to wake up his throat. "Hey -- Hutch? There some shade nearby? Let's rest awhile."
"No shade in sight," Hutch rasped, but he stopped and sat down, taking Starsky down with him onto the hot soil. A blade of something sharp jabbed Starsky's ankle, and he yelped and shifted. Maggie clanked down beside them. The chain on the canteen cap rattled. Starsky groped for the canteen as it sloshed near.
"Drink slowly," Hutch warned, putting an arm behind his back. "How are you holding up?"
"Better 'n you, I bet. You sound like death warmed over."
"I feel just fine," Hutch panted, fussing with the bandage over Starsky's eyes.
"Yeah? You sound wiped. And quit makin' like a hen with one chick, will ya? I'm okay, for Chrissakes. Here --" he handed the canteen in the direction of the gasps.
"I'm only a little out of breath, Starsky. Quit imagining things. You're just not used to having to use your ears this much."
"Maybe so," Starsky said, wrinkling his nose. "My sniffer's hyperactive, too. You forgot your deodorant this morning."
Maggie laughed, somewhere close to his left. "None of us smells like a gardenia," she said.
She sounded a lot better than she had yesterday. Her spirits were up, as though she'd ditched some heavy burden. Even her cussing about carrying the rifle and canteens had a healthy bitchiness.
"Hey -- how's our cactus flower today?" he asked.
"So far, so good. How's the mole?"
"Gee, thanks for the compliment. I'm okay."
"How're your eyes, Starsk? Hurt much?" Hutch asked.
"Naw. Not much. Not like last night, anyway. How do they look?"
"I can't tell without lifting the bandage, which isn't a good idea out here. It's damned bright out."
"Yeah, I can feel it. You want your hat back for a while?"
"I have my head covered. You wear it."'
Following Hutch's arm, Starsky groped past the shoulder and felt Hutch's head. A bit of light fabric was tied over the limp, fine hair.
"Hey, Hutch -- you're a Gumbie!" he said, cracking up. "Your brain hurt?"
"Not as much as yours will if you don't shut up!"
"Actually, he looks like Aunt Jemima," Maggie laughed.
Starsky hooted and patted Hutch's head. For the first time since he'd been hurt, he began to believe that they were going to get out of this in one piece. It was hot -- oh, it sure was hot -- but not as hot as it had been yesterday. Probably not much over a hundred. And they were taking their time walking, and had had a good night's sleep, and plenty of water with them now. Besides that, he could feel some of his energy coming back, almost a restlessness. The stinging in his eyes had mostly quit while he'd slept, and early that morning, he'd taken a clandestine peek out from under the bandage. The world was one big blur, nothing but vague shapes and washed-out colors, but at least there'd been something coming in. He wasn't blind. Not yet, anyway.
"Rest stop's over," Hutch said. "Up and at 'em."
"Man, lead me to the nearest swimming pool."
"I thought you hated swimming," said Hutch, pulling him up.
"So maybe I've changed my mind."
"We could bury ourselves in the east face of a dune," Maggie suggested as she clanked to her feet again. "The sand stays cool about six inches under the surface. We could bury ourselves up to our heads, and cover our scalps with the jackets and wait for the cooler hours late this afternoon.
"We've got to keep moving," Hutch said. "Anyway, I don't like the look of the sky up north. Could be in for some rain."
"Sounds terrific!" Starsky said.
"But it'll be noon soon, Ken, and the heat will get worse and -- " Maggie cut off, and there was an awkward silence.
Starsky frowned, getting the distinct impression that something was going on that Hutch and Maggie weren't clueing him in on.
"We'll keep walking," Hutch said firmly. "Let's go."
They seemed to be out of the hills, at least. There were long stretches of flat, concrete-hard ground, where they wove around numerous obstacles with sharp, prickling edges. Shrubs and low-growing cactus, probably. Everything in the desert seemed to have a Don Rickles disposition. Then there would be dunes, soft and wonderfully cool in contrast to the heat-holding flats. But they filled Starsky's sneakers with sand that collected in pockets in the shoes like lumps of hard candy. Being blindfolded, without a vista to distract him, it seemed that all the aches of his body concentrated in his feet. Damned sneakers. Crummy desert. His toes were suffocating, and the ground was like hot coals.
Then they crossed a strip of salt flat -- fortunately, not a wide one, because the salt and silt had hardened after the last rains to a coarse crystallized surface that was jagged and vicious as sharks' teeth. When they'd gotten out of that, Starsky wasn't sure how much of the puddles between his toes was just sweat.
And still they kept moving. Trudging. The sun was burning them right through their clothes, now, and the heat was so tiring that they would all be shaking by the time they sat down for their short rests. They would sit, panting, and pass the canteens around. The water was tap-hot and tasted metallic, but better than champagne. Life. Water was life, here. It gave them strength, it held them together, those little stops to drink, and the drinking became a sort of ritual: Starsky first, then Maggie, and Hutch last. There were relieved slurpings, gasps, a rotten pun or three on any inane topic that came to mind, and they would go on again. They could go on again.
The sun seemed to be blasting down right through the hat onto Starsky's already-blistering cheek, and he was silently fighting little bouts of vertigo when the trio started up the side of yet another dune.
"Yike," he said, as his sense of 'up' seemed to tilt away somewhere. He reeled, going to his knees and pulling Hutch with him. Hutch steadied him, kneeling, panting too.
"Starsk, you okay?"
"Whew. I guess so. Must've got a little dizzy. Can we take a break yet?"
"Pretty soon. There's a wash up ahead, maybe there'll be an overhang and some shade. Not much anywhere else with the sun this high."
"What time is it, anyway?"
"Ten-fifty," Maggie said.
"Hey, Mag? How far do you figure we've come?"
"We're doing all right. I'd guess about five miles."
"Ho boy, that's all?" Starsky's morale plummeted. "That's not even a mile an hour."
"Under the circumstances, it's about right," Hutch said. "If we can keep up the pace, we should be out to the highway by ten tonight." He pulled on Starsky again. "Come on, let's find that shade."
Starsky·got onto his feet by leaning hard on Hutch, hating to do that, but unable to get up otherwise. He could feel the fatigue in Hutch too. Not being able to see where he was going, though, was doing bad things to Starsky's head. It made him feel insecure in new and unnerving ways, because every step (taken into the unknown, each one a risk,) became a double effort: muscle and courage.
"Gee," he said, grasping at a hopeful straw, "maybe we'll even make it to the hearing tomorrow. huh? Won't that surprise Dob-- "
Hutch yanked him down onto the dune, pushing his head against the sand.
"What is it?" Starsky whispered, hearing it.
"Over there -- it's a helicopter!" Maggie said.
"Quick, into the sand," Hutch ordered, starting to throw handfuls over Starsky's back. But the drone was definitely approaching, and then veered their way and buzzed directly overhead, its engine deafening.
Hutch let go of Starsky, scrambling around in the sand. Starsky heard the rifle's safety click. He reached for his own gun, but someone shoved his head down again. The copter was already doubling back, low and menacing.
"Get him into the wash," Hutch yelled, "and find cover." He sprang up to his feet.
Then Maggie was pulling at him, hauling him up, dragging him, stumbling, behind her, running full out in the soft dune, practically yanking his arm from his shoulder. He fought her, frantic about Hutch, but the copter skimmed overhead, throwing sand into the air around them, and Maggie dragged him forward, fear lending her strength he had never suspected. Then they were running down a hard-packed, steeper slope that crumbled under their feet, and Starsky fell flat.
"Up! Hurry!" And she had him up, pulling him onward into the dark. The copter buzzed close again, and now the stutter of a semi-automatic sent spits of dirt across Starsky's shoes. Hutch's rifle answered from somewhere behind. The copter swung away toward Hutch like an enraged hornet.
"Hutch!" Starsky called, but his voice came out a squeak. Maggie gave him a shove, and he went down on hands and knees in fine gravel. The sand between the pebbles was cool and he realized he was out of the sun. The shots, farther away but still deafening, echoed off rock above and in front of him.
"Mag -- what's --"
"Down! Get down!" She jammed him against the rock. "Oh god, oh god!"
Rifles spat at each other over the copter's roar, impossible to tell which shot was whose in the pitched battle -- and abruptly, the shots stopped. Stopped completely. The only sound was that of the hovering machine.
"Ohmigod," Starsky breathed. His mind blanked with horror.
"KEN!!!" It was a scream. Maggie's.
She tore at his jacket -- hands on his holster -- and was up, out into the open, stones flying under her feet.
"Killers! Killers! Lousy sonuvabitch killers!"
The copter dipped, coming their way, and the Baretta cracked.
"Mag -- oh shit -- come back!" Starsky shrieked, scrambling on his knees into the sun. "Maggie -- don't -- "
The machine dove at them. Maggie screaming a madwoman's abuse. Her voice screeched above the din, and she was firing the Baretta -- emptied it -- and the noise of the engine filled creation, close -- too close, veering crazily -- and the sound rose up and slapped Starsky across the skull, rolling him over and over into the rock with stunning force that blasted his ears to oblivion.
For a lifetime, there was nothing: no more sound. No pain. No thought. Only the grit in his face, in his mouth, cool and faintly salty. Not salt. Blood and sand. Starsky coughed, spitting it out, and sat up. He went still, waiting out the pulse that roared in his ears. Sickeningly, his mind flipped back to awareness. He strained his ears for some sound -- any sound. Something was crackling noisily, not far away, and a wall of heat from it seared him more than the sun. There was thick, acrid smoke, making him cough again. The copter. Downed.
Oh thank god was all that he could think for that moment.
He heard her, sobs barely carrying over the fire. Low, deep, heaving sobs. Hysterical sobs.
His legs didn't want to hold him. He crawled toward her.
"Hutch, you there? Mag?
He bumped into her, where she sat in the wash, wailing wordlessly.
"Mag -- where's Hutch? What happened to Hutch, huh? My god -- " he took her arm, shaking her madly, "where on earth is Hutch?"
She sobbed harder, bending down over her knees, oblivious to him. Metal clanked onto stones: the gun, falling from her hand.
Starsky got himself onto his knees. His fingers dug into the ground, dredging up fistfuls of hot pebbles and sand.
Nothing. The burning copter, Maggie's wracking sobs... the smoky breeze. Nothing else.
He did the one thing he could do. The bandage came down over his nose with a jerk. The dazzle stabbed. Light, brilliant flaring white light forced his hands up to cover his face. He dragged them away, holding his eyes open as widely as the swelling allowed, endured the searing that skewered each eye. Tears swam with dark clouds that were probably blood, and he blinked furiously.
"Hutch, answer me!" A cry of pure terror.
He couldn't see. He had no idea where to look. There was the vaguest definition to the stunning whiteness around him, and pale, ghostly veils of color.
He got onto wobbly feet. Blood was making red-grey swirls in front of him, and he wiped his eyes savagely on his sleeve. What good would eyesight be if it didn't work right now? He squinted into the blur, made out a hazy horizon of sorts that rose to his left, descended to his right. It swam, and he blinked harder. At his back, the copter was a flare of orange-gold-grey. Maggie was a lump of watery yellow. Then he spotted the blurry smudge of blue against the mass of beige-white horizon.
"Oh no. Oh no."
His knees were trembling, but he clawed up out of the wash, went down in the sand, crawled more than walked up the dune toward the blue smudge that began to take on human form as he neared. The blur was down, and still.
"Don't. Please. Hutch, don't --" he hardly heard himself, "-- Please. Don't."
Where there should have been a blond head, there was a splash of scarlet. No, no, a red bandana over the hair. Starsky reached him, stopped, unable to make out any detail at all. Everything was a hopeless blur. He bowed his head over the blue form, fingers fumbling to find a pulse somewhere, skimming along the back, which was to him. He touched a soggy torrent all along Hutch's right side.
Pressing his ear to Hutch's back, Starsky could hear nothing but his own terror slamming blood through his ears. He gulped down a breath, held it, trying to stifle his own heart to listen for Hutch's. The pulse rose, then receded. He listened, praying.
"Maggie!" Starsky shouted with all his will. "Get up here!"
His streaming eyes could tell him nothing. His hands, though, told him horror stories. There was blood everywhere, all along the back and side. He couldn't find the source. He closed his eyes, concentrating, probing gingerly. There was a drenched depression in Hutch's side, just at the lowest ribs. The jacket was torn, and under the tear was a hot welling of blood. There was another fountain under Hutch, by the left hip.
Stop the bleeding. Have to stop the bleeding first.
He grabbed at the bandana he'd pulled down around his neck and yanked it off. Not bothering to undo the knot, he made a pad·of it and pressed it to the wound in the side. With his free hand, he found the kerchief on Hutch's head and drew it off, then wadded it and held it tightly to the other wound. Both hands trying to hold Hutch's life in, he was helpless to do anything else.
"Damn you, Maggie, where are you?!"
She was coming. Footsteps softly in the dune and then she was next to him.
"Oh sweet God. Ken?" she said with no voice at all.
"We have to get the bleeding stopped," Starsky said. "Come on, give me your shirt."
"Your shirt, dammit! For bandages. Then help me out of mine."
"WILL YOU HELP ME!"
She took a shuddering breath. "I won't fall apart," she breathed. "I won't. I'm not going to let go."
Her breaths came in gasps, but he could hear her pulling off her shirt. He reached for it, but she pushed his hand down onto the sodden compress.
"I'll do it," she squeaked. She sounded sick. "I'll do it. I'll be okay. You hang onto him. I can see, I'll do it."
The shirt tore. Then she was reaching around Hutch, pulling a strip under his body and tying it around his chest. Particles of sand sprinkled Starsky's sticky fingers.
"Let go with that one," she said. She knotted the strip over the compress, holding it firmly in place. She stuffed more fabric underneath, thickening the pad. "He -- he's hit in the ribs." More fabric tore. She began to tie it around the lower wound. "I think the other one's an -- an exit wound." Her voice faltered. "Davey, I never saw so much blood -- everywhere. I think the bullet went right through him."
Starsky heard her swallow as though she were trying hard not to be sick. He let his breath out through his nostrils in a harshly controlled hiss as the meaning of her words became painfully clear: Hutch was gut-shot. Hutch. Hutch...
"We have to get help," he heard himself say. Was that distant, level voice really his own? It didn't sound like his. It didn't sound nearly as frightened as he felt.
"All right," a voice answered. "I'll go."
Go where? Where?
"Davey, we should move him to somewhere where the sun won't be on him all day."
The sun. Out of the sun.
"Where?" he mouthed. Dizzy. He was getting dizzy.
"I'm not sure. Not in the wash. If it rained near here -- and it could, it's pretty grey up north -- you'd never know about it until the flashflood hit you."
"Mag -- things are all wrong," Starsky said, mechanically scrubbing off the sand glued to his fingers. "I can't think straight. Help me to think straight."
"What should I do?"
"Hutch. Tell me how Hutch looks."
"Just a minute." Her voice shook. She moved closer, apparently leaning over to see. "I -- I think he's in shock. Jesus, I know he is. He looks awful. Uh, let me see... he's breathing very fast, fast and shallow, you can hear that. His pulse -- I can't find a pulse!"
"He's breathing, he's alive," Starsky said grimly. "Check the carotid artery, by the left ear. Sometimes you can't find the pulse in the wrist."
She fumbled for a moment.
"Yes. Yes, there it is. It's so fast -- I can't believe how fast it is, but I can barely feel it. He feels cold -- even with the sunburn --"
Starsky wiped his hands on his jeans and felt for Hutch's neck. The skin was cold. The hairs on Starsky's arms prickled.
"How long can someone live, hurt this way?" Maggie said, voice clinging to a semblance of calm. "If I start now, I still won't make it to the highway before eleven, probably later. It could be hours, more after that, before help would get back here. Davey -- I might not make it at all. If it's raining up north --" Her voice trailed off.
Starsky clamped down on his own terror. "If anyone can make it, you can. Take the water, you'll need it."
"I'll leave half. But Davey. I need to know. Can Ken make it?"
"I don't know." There. It was out. He swallowed the scream building inside him. "It's hard to tell with body wounds. I hope so. Hutch is tough -- " he forced a crooked smile "a lot tougher than you'd think to look at him."
"We should get him into the shade. The sun will start west in an hour, and this side of the dune will be in shadow by two o'clock. Do you think you can help me to move him?"
"Let me try." Getting his legs under him was a chore, and he had to stay still while a wave of giddiness swept through him. "Shit, a couple hours ago I felt terrific."
He positioned his arms under Hutch's shoulders, could hear Maggie by the legs.
"Careful with him -- "
They lifted, but the groan that erupted from Hutch sent a stab of panic through Starsky's chest. He eased Hutch down and bowed over him, cupping the damp head in both hands.
"Hutch! Lie still there, babe, lie still now," he soothed. He felt down the body for the compresses, found them still in place. Brushing along Hutch's arm, he caught the clammy fingers of one hand.
Hutch coughed, a wracking sound laced with agony. His hand in Starsky's jerked with each spasm.
"Whoa, now, take it slow," Starsky crooned, frantic. Maggie moved close and wrapped her arm around his, spread her fingers atop their joined ones.
"Ken, we have to move you, otherwise you'll spend the next three or four hours in the sun," she said.
"We can't move him now, it'll hurt him."
There were only the sharp, catching breaths.
"I don't think he's very awake, Davey. It won't hurt him as much to move him now as it will lying in the sun later."
Instead of carrying him, they slid him down over the sand, and he didn't cry out. When they were far enough down the dune to satisfy Maggie, she left to retrieve the canteens, and Starsky slipped out of his jacket and shirt, re-donned the jacket, and spread the t-shirt over Hutch's face to protect it from the sun. When Maggie returned, he shoved it toward her. She took it without protest.
"You should cover yourselves with sand until the shade comes," she said. "'There are two canteens here, and the rifle. I'll reload it. If you'll give me a clip, I'll reload your gun, too."
Starsky handed her a clip from his jacket pocket, then felt around for Hutch's wrist to take the pulse again.
"Mag?" Hutch's voice was a faint whisper.
"Oh Ken, don't talk. You'll be all right. I'm going for help."
He breathed another name: Starsky.
"Right beside you, partner," Starsky said. "We're gonna make it."
He skimmed his palms over the laboring chest until they closed on each shoulder, pressed with careful affection. "Leave it to you to foul things up. What happened -- fall over the sand in your shoes?"
The tendons under Starsky's grasp knotted, and Hutch coughed horribly. Clinging, Starsky bent nearer, trying to brace him against the suffering, but the initial shock would be wearing off, the full impact beginning to hit.
"Easy, Hutch -- lie still, there. Easy."
"I can't leave you here." Maggie groaned, "not like this. What if -- "
"Never mind what if!" Starsky said. "We need help, and you're the only one who can go for it."
"All right." She sounded shaky, but determined. "All right. I'll go."
Leaning over Hutch's head, she whispered something to him. His gasps were muffled for a moment as she kissed him. Then she sat up and hugged Starsky, surrounding him in a soft anguish.
"Take care of him," she breathed. "I love you. Both of you."
"Mag, honey, the sooner you leave, the sooner you'll be back," he reminded.
Her finger traced the line of his sunburned nose and rested on his lips. He kissed it.
"I'll be back as fast as I can, I swear it. I'll be back."
"You do that. And be careful out there. There may be more of those turkeys lookin' for us. Got your revolver? Okay. It's a long way. Better get movin'. And for God's sakes, Mag -- be careful. We're dependin' on you."
And she was up, one of the canteens sloshing at her hip. Her footsteps crunched away in the sand, and after a few minutes, he couldn't hear her anymore. Then he was alone, sitting on the dune, alone with the rising breeze, the dying crackling of the burnt-out copter, and the short, sharp breaths of the friend lying against him. Overhead, the sun rose to zenith, hidden now and then by scudding clouds. If Starsky could have looked up, he would have scowled. The clouds were canyons -- tall, reaching up in vaulting clumps that flattened into anvils at their crests. A summer storm was brewing, reaching down from the north, one of those rare but vital August cloudbursts that promise survival for the indigenous creatures of the dry lands. For intruders, it was another face of peril in a place where indifferent nature still reigned unfettered.