Monday, November 01, 2004

John stepped clear of the very last of the thick underbrush and flashed his hand again down to his belt and tucked his blade away safely where it would not be disturbed till he needed it again. Calculations ran through his head. They were at the very least a day away from Wicker. If the party really was in trouble, he found it very unlikely that they would make it there in time. He found him simultaneously wishing for what his calculations indicated was highly unlikely. He hoped that if they were in trouble that they could indeed hold out till he could get there.

He pressed forward faster and harder than before, he was jumping obstacles and he was limiting his speed only so that he wouldn’t have to stop to catch his breath. He was traveling without saving any reserves for a return trip. Push till the very end and you’ll succeed. It was something he learned very young. That often the odds seemed to be tipped by belief. He had a very private collection of drives from his travels with stories about the phenomenon of belief and reality. No one else knew about them, and maybe he was wrong to keep them to himself, but they really weren’t what they were looking for. They were all just a private interest of his.

After that, Gabby seemed to get quiet. She continued to keep a fair pace with him, he might have talked to her, if he hadn’t felt that he deserved to know the message as soon as possible, not well into the march on the way to the problem. She might have even needed him to talk to her. She certainly didn’t seem to be handling this well at all. Of course, she might have just been worried about Bobby. He could never tell with her, she liked to play games and he wasn’t big on the idea of playing about serious issues, at least, not this serious. After a while he stopped paying attention to her all together except the occasional moment that she walked up next to him as she caught up and captured his attention. She could talk to him if she needed to talk.

He continued to contemplate the possibilities with Wicker. The more he thought about it, as the hours passed, the more logical it seemed that it was good news, not bad. It had to be. Why would they even bother sending out a signal if it was bad news? They’d be dead and that was that. The more he thought about it, the easier it was to logically ferret out that everything was good and that Wicker was just excited about a big find. Something they needed help excavating. The easier it got to reason along that train of thought though, the harder it got to believe it. John couldn’t help it, but his gut simply demanded that something was wrong today.

It was a couple of seconds before he realized that Gabby had stopped catching up with him. He threw a rapid glance over his shoulder to sneak a peak and see if it was just his imagination. But sure enough, she was gone. One thing after another after another, things just would not seem to go right. How long had it been since he’d last seen her? Ten minutes? And hour? He didn’t know, but all he could do was hope it was soon and turn around. It couldn’t be anything but trouble. She wouldn’t have just wandered off on her own. She was way too smart for that.

John started to double back; listening and looking so hard he was worried he would trick himself into seeing things that weren’t there. The first sign he saw, he hardly believed. He should have seen it moving forward. Maybe would have seen it if he hadn’t been so busy worrying about things he couldn’t do anything about yet. He cursed at himself under his breath for being so careless when he saw that they were indeed the tracks of a trainman.

John sprang up and started running. He put all his effort into it. Speed was more important than endurance right now, he knew, and his hand flashed to his belt and the lethal blade was in his grip in a blur. He jumped over logs and dodged hanging limbs as he ran back along the path, his eyes peeled. As best he could tell, there was only one of the vagrants in the area. Maybe the murderous rat of a man had a spot near where they’d passed. Maybe he’d crawled out and followed them. Maybe her. Taken her when he was plodding along, leaving her behind. He felt the knife crying for blood; maybe he would give it just a little, maybe a lot. It really all depended on what was happening when he found her.

***

John came within view just as Gabby was getting knocked to the ground. John grunted as he kicked harder at the ground, propelling himself forward with every ounce of strength his muscles possessed. His nostrils flared when he was only fifteen paces away and the trainman struck her across the face. John’s vision when dark red and his grip tightened around the handle of the knife. He was only six paces away when his target’s fist struck the second time, and he felt the whole world slow down. When that violent fist was raised up above Gabby for a third strike, John’s knife buried itself into the offending shoulder and drove his knee into the assailant’s sternum, tumbling him down onto the ground nearby with such force that it ripped the knife out of the tender flesh and sent a splash of blood across the leaves below. Gabby only groaned and rolled over.

John slowed enough to control the swing of his left foot as it careened forward with his toes curled up, exposing the balls of his foot to connect with that sternum with a force that made whatever pain his impacting knee inflicted vanish in a brand new wholly enveloping pain. He heard the distinct crack of a fracturing bone, reality came rushing back as the world sped back up and his grip loosened off his bloody knife. John felt wind rushing back into his lungs as though he hadn’t taken a breath the whole time. He fell to his knees over his helpless opponent. The bastard was rolling over and coughing, his eyes were watering and his moans were coming in uneven sobs. John had broken him in less than a second.

He reached a hand down and gripped those teary cheeks between his fingertips and tilted till the watery eyes were looking into his own. What he saw there was the mark of all he despised. He saw fear, fear of losing life. His knife would be doing the world a favor by slitting that taunting throat right now and letting that fear drain out all over these leaves. It only took a second before John had control of himself again, he hated when his mind drifted in that terrible direction.

“ I’m going to let you live “, John spoke firmly as he looked within those wet panic-stricken eyes. “ You don’t deserve it, right now. You are a waste of human life, hiding in the shadows and killing for food. I know what you are, I know what you eat, and I know that if I leave you right this moment, broken and crying, you’ll probably die here. But maybe you wont. Either way, you’ll be too weak to hurt anyone for a very long time. So if you don’t find another way to eat, you’ll die. “

John leaned closer, he saw the man’s eyes widen further. There was such a stench on that pig’s breath that John had trouble. However, the stench made what he was going to say next that much easier, “ or maybe you’ll get stumbled on by someone else and find that you’re the fish. “ With that he slammed his hand forward, pounding that nasty head into the ground and coaxing another cry of pain from those scabbed lips before standing up and walking back over to Gabby who was starting to come back to her senses. She didn’t look at all well though. Her face had been bashed pretty badly and she had a clear limp. He’d seen her take knee to the chest. It must have hit hard in order to bring someone as strong as he knew she was down. He inspected her and noticed that bruises were already beginning to show around her face, and they were nasty ones.

“ You don’t look so hot. Do you need a minute? “

She took a few breaths, and didn’t answer. Her eyes were focused on the ground as best as they could. Gabby felt her head spinning and her ears ringing and she didn’t even hear John talking to her. It was almost a full minute before she could lift her eyes off the ground and she felt the blood come back to her cheeks. She looked at John, and he was talking, but she couldn’t hear a word he was saying over the ringing. She did let him help her up and start walking her in the direction that they had already been heading when it had all happened without even noticing that was the way they were headed.

She tried to think, but it just wasn’t happening. The volume on the whole world was turned down and she was alone. Like she was alone to say whatever she wanted, but she didn’t have anything to say, and there was nothing but silence in her head; silence, and the ringing. John kept talking to her. He hadn’t stopped since he’d helped her up off the ground, but she only noticed when she looked at him that his lips were always moving. Even when she did start to hear him, she didn’t hear words. It was like he was background noise. He was the noise that the woods should have been, but they weren’t right now. Like most everything else, she was almost totally unaware of the woods.

They went on like this the rest of the day. It was dark before she was talking back to him. You got used to this sort of thing. People just aren’t used to almost dying, even when they see it all around them. He expected that maybe someday he would be the one walking around dazed. He really hoped that someone would be there for him, talking the whole time to try and pull his focus back to reality.

They finished the evening talking about lots of nothing at all. It was one of the things he was good at. He could do it for hours on end. He set up most of the camp, he didn’t bother with the third tent, it was pretty clear it wouldn’t be needed. Tonight, unlike most nights, would be for sleep. Even for him. He felt relieved that the trainman hadn’t fought back, both relieved that he had been able to let him live, he also wondered if maybe he shouldn’t have. The fact that he might very well have killed by leaving his opponent lying on the ground coughing blood and with a broken sternum exposed for any one or anything to finish off didn’t bother him at all. When John walked away, there was still every chance in the world for survival, and that’s what he was most concerned with.

He didn’t put up a fire that night, feeling that it would be best not to draw any attention at all to their location. He didn’t know how safe they were, having moved slowly all day, he’d had plenty of time to study the ground and be much more careful than he had been that morning, and he had seen nothing, but Gabby was in no condition to deal with the potential. If John had been totally honest with himself, neither was he, but all the same, he was smart enough not to start a fire. The two of them slept soundly all night long, and John even woke up before dawn and kept watch, letting Gabby sleep an hour past dawn. When she finally did wake up, aside from some serious stiffness and painful bruises, she was as good as new.

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