Starsky was trudging up the incline, watching where he was putting his feet on the uneven ground. He was clutching the straps of the backpack as if they could hold him on firmer footing. So it was that he heard rather than saw Hutch collapse in front of him.
"Oh God, Hutch!" Starsky nearly screamed the name of his partner as he saw the unconscious figure in front of him. Shrugging out of the harness, he carelessly dropped the pack on the ground. He never noticed that the plastic cork popped out on one of the water bottles as it hit the ground. It probably would have made no difference to him in his worried state of mind.
Turning the blond over on his back, Starsky knelt beside him and sitting down on the ground he held him. "Hutch, Hutch, Hutch." He kept repeating his partner's name as if it were a litany. Hutch finally responded with a moan and a twitch of his hand. He pushed Hutch off his lap at that response and crawled over to his fallen pack. He muttered a few esoteric oaths that Hutch would have been interested to hear out of his partner. He wouldn't have thought that Starsky was that well versed in French, Spanish, and Yiddish.
Starsky now had a partner unconscious on the ground and two half-bottles of water. The percentages for their survival weren't exactly in his favor, he decided. If he were placing any bets, it wouldn't be on them being alive next week or even tomorrow. However, his natural optimism pushed him to carry one water bottle to his buddy and dampen the tail of his shirt to wash the pale face. After washing off the sticky sweat from Hutch's face, he wet the shirttail again and put it in Hutch's mouth.
As he was starting to wet the shirt again, he heard shots. He jerked the cloth away from the bottle and looked back behind him down the faint trail they had been climbing. Then it dawned on him the shots were distant but coming from the direction of the road. He had to find out what was going on, but he didn't feel easy just leaving Hutch unconscious and unprotected. He looked around—there was small group of shrubs and what looked like small cedars about fifty yards away.
Grimacing, he lifted Hutch by the shoulders and carefully dragged him to the meager shelter provided by the close-growing vegetation. He left his partner as comfortable as possible for the moment. Returning to the fallen pack, he took out the down sleeping bag. This plus the water bottles he took back to Hutch. He spread the sleeping bag on the ground and rolled Hutch onto it. He didn't cover him since he fully expected to be back before the desert night chill set in. He carefully positioned the water bottles close to Hutch's hand. He went back to the pack and carried it up to the unconscious man then put it so he would be protected from sight. Using a broken branch from one of the trees, he placed it so it hid as much of Hutch from sight as possible. Breaking another branch, he tried to wipe out the obvious signs of his dragging the man up the hill. It didn't work quite as well as the movies would have you believe. Starsky gave up on it, noting that their tracks were very visible to begin with in the night. And by the time it was light, he hoped they were far from the area.
Checking his gun as he descended the hill, Starsky tried to memorize the apparent landmarks. He decided that most of the country around here looked very much alike. He was going to have to be very careful not to get lost. Walking cautiously through the clumps of trees and underbrush, he hurried as much as possible. He didn't want to leave Hutch unattended for long.
Eventually Starsky began to see the road that they had left behind in their rush to get away from the Slades. He warily made his way up on a slight ridge above the road and followed it toward where he thought he'd left Erica. Shortly he saw Eric wandering around through the bushes and kicking at various rocks. Of the vehicle he had been driving, there was no sign. Starsky assumed that Erica had taken it on to the cabin, leaving Eric to find them. He didn't know what the shots were all about, but Eric had his gun out and was looking at the ground. Probably he was trying to find their tracks. It would have been easy to have taken out the hood at that moment, and Starsky was very tempted. However, he just wasn't the kind of person who could shoot someone in cold blood.
Having a hunch he might regret it later, he slipped back down the ridge to his own trail. He thought briefly of trying the movie trick, but was too worried about Hutch. He decided to make the best time he could up the faint trail. Any hint of light on the horizon was quickly disappearing, and he was worried he might miss Hutch's hiding place in the dark. There was no moon which was to their advantage in the long run, but to his disadvantage at the moment. He found himself jogging and then running faster up the slope.
For long, scary moments, he thought he had taken a wrong turn. Then he saw the muffled form through the sagging tree branch. Puffing with his effort, he slowed down and walked up to Hutch and began stripping the camouflage away. He was worried that Hutch might have gotten worse after he left. However, he was snoring slightly and turned on his side. The water bottles were moved and one was lower than it had been. Starsky took a moment to relax and take some deep breaths.
Sitting down on the hard ground by Hutch, he took one of the water bottles and drank it dry. Looking at the other bottle, he was starting to be concerned about the water supply. But he was just too tired to think about it now. He scooted over on the sleeping bag and held Hutch in his arms. Sleep struck the exhausted man quickly.
Starsky would never know what woke him in the dim predawn. After he was awake, however, he could hear the growl of an internal combustion engine toiling not too far away. He froze and listened harder. Hutch was awake also—Starsky could feel him stiffen beside him on the sleeping bag.
Reaching for his gun, Starsky slid out from under the drooping tree branch. Luckily the cedar tree was a form of a conifer and the broken branch still held its color thus it didn't draw attention to its dying condition that a deciduous tree would. Noticing the pack lying in plain sight, Starsky shoved it back to his partner under the tree. He gestured for Hutch to stay where he was then he began slipping down the slope, trying not to disturb more gravel than was absolutely necessary. He slowly began emerging from the copse, crouching over to make his movement less noticeable. He slipped clear to the ground and slid on his belly to the crest of the slight rise in front of him.
Cautiously he raised his head over the very low ridge. He could see in the shallow valley below, the blue pickup climbing the rise across from him. At least it was going in the wrong direction for the moment. He crawled on his stomach back to where he left Hutch. It was an unpleasant, scratchy trip over small stickers and through prickly sage brush.
"Hutch, I think we'd better get out of here. They're across the valley from us. And it's not much of a valley."
"Yeah," Hutch answered as he began rolling up the sleeping bag before coming out from under the shelter of the cedar tree.
Starsky leaned into the sparse shelter and fumbled around for the dried food package. He unwrapped some dried fruit, some jerky, and pulled out a cellophane packet of trailmix. He handed these to Hutch, saying, "I think you'd better eat this as we travel. I don't want you passing out on me again."
"Uh... yeah...," Hutch answered taking the small packets from him. "What about you?"
"I ate something before you woke up," Starsky lied, thinking of the very small supply of dried foods. He would wait until he just had to eat. Hutch needed it worse than he did with his head injury and twisted ankle. He needed to keep up his strength. There was little else that Starsky could do for him, so he would do this much. It was a measure of just how sick Hutch was that he didn't notice the blatant lie. He should have noticed that Starsky wasn't awake before he was and that he hadn't been up and couldn't have eaten anything. This worried Starsky more than he would admit even to himself.
Hutch nodded. It was a measure of his preoccupation with his throbbing head and ankle that he didn't hear the lie in Starsky's voice.
Tying down the sleeping bag, Starsky shouldered the pack, careful to leave his pistol in his belt instead of the shoulder holster. He still wasn't pleased to stick a loaded pistol in his belt, but he didn't see any other way to have his hands free for climbing and balance yet have the weapon convenient. He tried one more time to arrange the straps of the holster and the rack of the backpack. It just didn't work.
Hutch looked at Starsky with dilated pupils. His blue eyes were nearly black. "Are we ready?"
"Yeah," Starsky said, leading the way up the hill weaving his way between the trees. He was trying to keep the trees between them and the far rise.
"Any idea of where you're going?" Hutch's voice was raspy and unnatural. Starsky didn't want to think about Hutch's injury right now. He couldn't afford to.
"No. Right now, all I want to do is get away from the Slades. I don't think you're ready for a confrontation right now. And we don't have much in the way of ammunition. This thing," and he gestured to the gun in his belt, "has only four shells in the cylinder, and I couldn't find any speed loaders or spare ammunition on Erica."
"You're right. I'm not fit to wrestle with that kitten yet; it'd win paws down." Hutch was aware enough to try and lighten the mood with some levity. Hutch was pale and wan, the bruises on his face were a sharp contrast to the rest of his complexion. His cheek and temple were mottled with violet and blue splotches.
"I just want to put distance between them and us," Starsky said as he slipped out from the trees and began studying the ridge across the valley where he thought the Slades must be by now. He could see the blue pickup sitting on top of the rise, but couldn't make out where its passengers were. Wishing for even a cheap set of binoculars, he squinted into the slowly rising sun.
Leading the way, he continued up the gentle slope, trying to keep the cover of the trees and shrubs between them and the ridge across the narrow valley. The ground was rocky interspersed with the occasional cactus or tuft of hardy buffalo grass. Hutch slipped and slid on the shale and rocky outcroppings; even unburdened, this trek was difficult for him. Starsky was concerned, but knew that it was a death sentence to even hesitate. He stopped and lent an arm when the slope gradually became steeper. Finally they stumbled to the top of the hill. Starsky looked back and could see the sun still glinting off the windows of the pickup. At least there was more distance between the truck and them. There was some satisfaction in that.
Hoping not to silhouette himself and his partner on the crest of the hill, he led the way through some small cedars then started down the other side. Walking became easier as the topography of the area leveled out. Now there was only short stubble of grass and ground hugging prickly pear cactus to trip them up.
They walked and stumbled for hours as the sun rose higher in the sky, resting only when they could walk no longer. The sun was a molten globe that tormented them and beat down on their faces without mercy.
Starsky couldn't find any sign of pursuit, but the itching on the back of his neck told him that the Slades hadn't given up. With any luck, the Slades had wasted time going in the wrong direction. If that were the case it would be the first bit of good luck they'd had since leaving Albuquerque.
Just as Starsky was about to collapse for another uneasy rest period in an especially heavy thicket, he was startled to come out of it to find himself teetering on the edge of a steep ravine. It had seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Looking around there was no hint that anything this deep would be in this stretch of ground. Perhaps this could work to their advantage. At least he wouldn't have to worry about them being outlined against the skyline. And it was deep enough that there was some shade along the rocky walls. The only problem was getting down into the thing.
Turning back to Hutch, he watched as the other man shambled toward him. From the glazed, fixed eyes, Starsky knew he was going to have to find a place for Hutch to rest. He reached a hand out and stopped him before he could walk off the edge of the cliff.
"Uh...," Hutch muttered then seemed to see the deep gully before him. Shaking his head, he slowly sank down against a boulder rising out of the rim of the cut in the landscape. "I don't think I can go much farther."
"Yeah, buddy, I know." Starsky sank to the soft sandy soil beside Hutch. "We need to get down into this thing." He looked at the pale complexion of his companion. "Think you can do it. Then we'll find someplace you can rest and maybe there's some water down there someplace."
"Got to, don't I?" Hutch's voice grated. "Just let me rest a minute, then I can go on."
Knowing that the other man was nearly at the end of his tether, Starsky patted him gently on the shoulder. "Yeah, we can rest a while. In fact, I'll scout around and see if I can see any signs of civilization while you rest. Maybe I can see a ranch house or something. Why don't you have a drink and see if you can eat some of the rations while I'm gone."
Hutch nodded and relaxed into the unyielding rock. The rock was almost comfortable and provided some shade.
Rising, Starsky shrugged out the backpack and noted that the other water bottle was nearly empty. He put it close to Hutch's hand.
"Don't think that's a very good idea. I don't think I can keep much down."
"Drink something so you don't dehydrate."
"Okay," Hutch said, reaching for the half empty water bottle.
Starsky turned away trying to quell his own thirst. He was saving all the water that was left for Hutch but it was pure torture. Walking out of the trees, he looked back the way they had come, but couldn't see any sign of pursuit. Then he glanced around at the land spread before him. To the west, the Rocky Mountains loomed menacingly. Back toward the east, he could see only unending plains. He scanned the horizons for telephone poles or any indication of man's hand on the land. It was as if he were one of the pioneers exploring the country with Pike or Kit Carson. Eventually as his perceptions adjusted to the huge expanse, he could discern a fence staggering down a far hillside. But that was the only indication that he hadn't stepped back two hundred years.
The sky was glaring cobalt blue with an occasional hawk riding the thermals. He couldn't see any sign of lake or stream, which is what he hoped for more than finding a road. It was either turn back to where they had come from or drop into the ravine and hope they could get up the other side. And he had thoughts that there might be shelter and water in the ravine. Somehow, it seemed right to enter the canyon. In his mind, it beckoned as a savior. Making a decision—a decision that could kill them or save them, Starsky turned and walked back to his companion.
Hutch heard him coming and began struggling to his feet. He swayed momentarily until he found his precarious balance. He reached for the backpack but Starsky was there before him.
"I'll get it. Save your strength."
"Right." Hutch didn't say anymore. He was concentrating on staying on his feet. Starsky watched him with concern, but couldn't help what had to be done. It was either keep going or wait for the Slades to catch up and kill them. He slid the backpack on his shoulders and shrugged it into place.
It was nearly an hour of slow hiking before they found a place on rim of the ravine that looked negotiable. Starsky left the backpack beside a boulder and helped Hutch down the steep track. He tried to make jokes about mountain goats, but Hutch wasn't laughing—and neither was he if the truth be told. He left Hutch in the shadow of the canyon wall and scrambled up the crumbling shale wall to get the backpack with the small amount of precious water.
Once back on the ridge, he looked around suspiciously for their enemies. He couldn't see the truck, but that might only mean that the Slades were on foot and following them. Grabbing up the backpack, he slipped and slid back down the side of the small gorge. He looked back at their tracks and was pleased that, to his unpracticed eye the shale didn't look that badly disturbed.
Hutch was starting to get up as he came back to his partner's meager shelter. Putting the backpack over his shoulders, he checked his gun to see it hadn't been dislodged in the scrambles up and down the wall. It seemed satisfactorily jammed between himself and his belt. He shifted the weapon to a marginally more comfortable spot on his waist. All the movies with guys going around with guns jammed in their belts didn't take into account the rough edges of the sight and trigger guard, plus the weight of the thing. Real guns were heavy plus the metal sight was gouging holes in his skin.
Starting up the canyon, Hutch took hold of the backpack Starsky was wearing to steady himself as they walked the uneven trail the last rainstorm had left in the bottom of the ravine. Starsky constantly scanned the top of the canyon, turning his head and craning it over his shoulder. Walking the floor of the gully had advantages and disadvantages. From a distance it would be hard for the Slades to spot them, but if the enemy saw them from above, the enemy had the advantage of the high ground.
Shortly after the sun had slipped out of the ravine, leaving a chill in the air, Starsky thought he might have found a way up the other side. Hutch was leaning heavier and heavier on the backpack and Starsky was about mad with thirst. After studying the boulder-strewn bluff, he rejected it. There were no handholds, and he didn't think he could get both of them up the incline. He was just too tired and worn out. He hated to admit it, but he didn't know how much farther he could go. His tennis shoes were full of sand and his feet were burning from contact with the earth. How Hutch was managing, he didn't want to think about. He had had to stop a time or two for him to simply collapse in the dust, be sick to his stomach, and once to catch his balance as the dizziness caught up with him.
Just when he wanted to grab the last of the water which he had been rationing out to Hutch all day, they came around a curve in the ravine. About fifty yards ahead, Starsky saw the end of the road. Discouragement nearly overwhelmed him at that moment. The deep gully closed up and ended—ended in a box canyon. His eyes swam for long moments as he contemplated trudging back down the way they had come—Hutch wouldn't make it, he was sure. Hell, he wasn't sure he could. It probably was their only way out—back the way they had come. It was so depressing to have walked all this way and not have made any progress. There were probably places to climb out of the canyon, but he had been too exhausted to notice them. Somehow, he had been sure that walking in the ravine would solve his problems. It had been stupid, but he knew now. However at the time, it had seemed so logical; they could travel and not be easily seen from a distance by the Slades.
Just as he was about to turn around, Hutch slid to the ground with a moan. He had made no complaint all day. He had only drunk water when Starsky had forced it on him. He had gotten whiter as the day went on. He wouldn't speak of the pain it must be causing him to continue the journey. He knew, as well as Starsky, he had no choice. But it was breaking Starsky's heart to watch it.
Slipping out the pack and letting it fall on the ground unheeded, Starsky reached for his partner. This time Hutch was dead weight. He was completely unconscious. That settled it—they could go no farther this day. He didn't even consider leaving Hutch and searching for help—in fact, it never crossed his mind.
Taking what was left of the water, Starsky generously poured it out on the tail of his shirt which he ripped off then wiped Hutch's forehead. Not wanting to waste a drop of the precious stuff he slid the still damp cotton into Hutch's mouth. Hutch was semi-conscious and sucked greedily on the cloth. Pillowing Hutch's head on the pack, he decided that he should look for some cover for them before he collapsed himself. He was of the opinion that it was only a matter of time before the Slades found them or the sun and thirst did their work for them.
Leaving Hutch, he staggered farther up the canyon. He was reasonably sure he hadn't missed any likely spots to climb out of the trap that the ravine had become. He kept walking just to make sure that this was a box canyon—that the back wall was indeed solid. He wondered if the canyon merely took a hard turn and only looked like the back wall was blocked. But as he got closer to this one, he could see that a box canyon was aptly named. This one had walls that went up steeply on three sides about fifty feet high, making back the way they had come the only exit as he had expected. He started to turn around when his feet sank into the grass beneath them. He frantically pulled his feet up, wondering what kind of trap nature had set for him. His feet squelched—he studied the ground and was fascinated to watch water fill in his tracks. He looked closer and his eye followed the water back to a dark overhang under the cliff.
Suppressing a yodel of delight, he leaped toward the dark spot under a heavy overhanging rock. It was water—a spring—he flung himself into the wonderful wetness. Diving down head-first into the muddy bank, he flopped on his belly and drank an enormous amount of water without taking a breath. Then he ducked his head into the water finally coming up to shake like a spaniel. Suddenly he remembered Hutch only a few yards back, but not sharing in this miracle. Taking a few more quick slurps, he rose and never noticed as he raced back down the ravine that his sneakers were half off his feet.
"Hutch, Hutch, you'll never guess what I found!" Starsky nearly shouted as he shook himself like a big puppy all over his prone companion. Hutch had rolled over on to his stomach to be sick once more.
"It's raining," Hutch muttered as he pushed himself back up against the pack. The few minutes rest in the cool of the evening had refreshed him even with the bout of nausea he had experienced. However, he was still somewhat incoherent.
"I found a spring—do you hear that, a spring!" Starsky was nearly dancing as he scrambled around to help Hutch to his feet and grab the pack in his other hand. He felt like Hercules. He could conquer the world now that he had had a drink. He couldn't have imagined how wonderful a drink of water could be even a few days ago. With Hutch leaning on him but not as heavily, they staggered drunkenly up the ravine to the damp area and then finally to the spring. Hutch did as Starsky did by dipping his upper body into the shallow bowl that held the water briefly in check before it disappeared into the sand farther down the canyon only to disappear into the thirsty ground once more.
Looking around, Starsky could see the difference in vegetation in the area. Now he could see the heavier grass, larger bushes, and in general a greener aspect. He had been too far gone to notice that sort of thing. Now he began looking with a keener eye at the canyon. Far up toward the top of the cliff, he could see something. It looked like it had been painted on the rock. He edged closer and then saw the stylized figures of an ancient Indian rock drawing. He forgot what the guide at one of the many National Parks they had stopped at had called them—petrosomething. The colors had probably faded, but they had been somewhat sheltered in the overhang so the blues and yellows were easily discernible. His eye followed the paintings inward and saw that there was an opening in the cliff face. It was a small cave.
He glanced over at Hutch filling the water bottles. His face was starkly white against the bruising. He needed rest and needed it now. There was no way he could continue back down the way they had come. Starsky had made a drastic mistake that might cost them their lives by entering a ravine that ended in a box canyon—yet it was that same box canyon that might save their life. However, it still could cost Hutch's life even if the Slades didn't find them. Hutch needed a place out of the heat of the day and the chill of the night. Perhaps a night of rest and he'd feel up to starting back down the canyon and looking much harder for a way out on the rim opposite of the one they had come down.
He wondered if it were possible or was he seeing things. He walked to the base of the cliff and stared upward. Yes, it was hard to spot, and he'd have never seen it if the fading sunlight hadn't been just right to catch the color of the ancient paintings. He began scrambling up the shale and clay wall. With some effort, he made the fifty or so yards only being slightly out of breath. He leaned over the edge of the entrance to the cave. There didn't seem to be any angry inhabitants that were going to be viciously upset at his invasion. He slid farther in and saw that the cave went farther back than the fading sunlight would let him see. But what he saw was encouraging. He found the floor sandy and relatively smooth. It wasn't damp, and he still didn't see any sign of any animals currently residing in the cave.
He backed out and unceremoniously slid down to the bottom of the ravine. Hutch was sitting against a rocky outcropping and looking worse than before. His hair was still damp from the drenching in the spring. He was breathing shallowly and had his eyes closed. He didn't notice that Starsky had returned and didn't seem to have much interest in what Starsky had been doing.
Putting his hand on Hutch's shoulder, Starsky gently said, "Hutch, get up. We've got to get up in the cave I've found."
Mumbling almost incoherently, Hutch said, "No, you go on without me. I can't walk any more. I just can't. I've tried not to hold you up... but leave me and get help...."
"I'm not going to leave you and now I don't have to," Starsky said slipping his hand under Hutch's arm and bodily lifting him up. "I have found a place to hide—for now anyway." He hustled Hutch to the base of the cliff. Then from beside him at first then behind him, he nearly carried Hutch up to the cave by force of will alone. He crawled into the cave first then pulled Hutch up beside him.
"See home sweet cave—just for the two of us," He nearly sang the words out to his partner who was completely unappreciative of his efforts.
Hutch looked around his surroundings numbly. He settled back against the wall and shut his eyes. His eyelids were blue with exhaustion and illness. Starsky wasted no time in climbing back down the slope and gathering up all signs that they were in the area. He tried to mash out the tracks around the spring, but didn't think it would matter much. The signs of their passage were visible, but only up close. He still tried to cover up what he could with a stiff tree branch, but didn't have much hope of doing any good. He just hoped that the Slades would miss the ravine all together or would think they had gotten out of it at some point. If they stayed up on the rim, the tracks wouldn't be blatantly conspicuous or so he hoped.
Once back in the cave, he broke out the sleeping bag first. He unrolled it then helped Hutch to wrap up in the soft warm down. Hutch was shivering and probably developing a fever or something. He rummaged around and found the dried rations. Now the dried rations began to look wonderful. He drank deeply and without inhibition from one of the water bottles. Then he munched on some dried apricots, a strip of jerky, and a handful of nuts. It may not have been gourmet cooking, but nothing in the world tasted better than the plain water with dried food and nuts. He scooted over next to Hutch and tried to get him to eat something. He shook his head then tried a bit of apricot. Starsky felt like a mother bird feeding her one chick. But Hutch did manage a little more to drink and to eat some of the fruit. He refused the nuts and jerky entirely.
The day-long hike without much to eat and drink began to hit Starsky. Removing the gun from his belt, but remaining fully dressed, he slipped into the sleeping bag with Hutch and pulled him close. He lay long moments savoring the closeness then slid into sleep without noticing when it came to him.
The next morning Starsky was startled into full wakefulness by the crack of gun shots. Gun shots that weren't very far away. Hutch was slower to wake up, but he looked blearily at the dimly lit opening in the cave.
"Stay here while I take a look," Starsky whispered as he groped in the darkness for the gun which he had carelessly left somewhere beside the sleeping bag. Cursing his own stupidity, Starsky hurriedly scrambled out of the warm comfort of the sleeping bag and searched in earnest for the gun. Eventually he found it under the folds of the bag. He checked its load as he slipped toward the cave entrance.
As he neared the aperture, he could dimly hear a frightened voice. Before doing anything, he grinned back at his partner and gestured toward the outside. Hutch nodded his understanding that Starsky was going to reconnoiter the area and investigate the screams.
Being careful not to disturb any shale or sand, he tried to peer down into the floor of the canyon. Leaning on his elbows with the gun clutched tightly in his left fist, he listened for the voices to erupt again. There were no more shots to be heard. But the voice or voices, he couldn't tell which, were suddenly strident. Then he recognized the shrill tones of Erica, but couldn't understand any of the words.
Then he heard a loud piercing scream followed by, "Eric! God damn! Son of a bitch!" There was silence for long moments, then the voice erupted again, "Eric, help me!"
Cautiously Starsky slid down the incline on his belly, looking for any sign of movement. Slowly he rose to a crouch and tiptoed down the ravine. Slinking behind a large sage, he listened for any sounds. The silence was mind numbing—all the small creatures that rustled in the brush or dirt had been frightened into stillness. His senses were attuned to any noise as he shifted out of his hiding place. High above him in the gleaming cobalt sky a hawk keened its loneliness or hunger, but nothing else broke unnatural hush. Still moving with discretion, he glided down the miniature gorge, moving under the overhang when he could.
Another piercing scream shattered the unnatural tranquility of the atmosphere. Starsky froze as the sound ricocheted off the clay walls around him. More screams resounded against his ears then became a whimper.
"Erickkk," echoed eerily with almost a pleading quality, then gun shots again rang into the morning.
Starsky looked up the sides of the canyon and spotted a place he thought he might climb. It was unnerving to feel so vulnerable from above. With less caution than he had used previously, he scrambled up the crumbling cliff face. Panting as he surfaced, he noted that there was a large cactus near him. Sliding on his stomach, he pulled himself into the protection of the prickly bush.
Moaning came from directly to the west from him, as well as the peculiar heavy breathing. Raising himself to his hands and knees, he still couldn't see anything. Finally he stood, feeling distinctly exposed beside the meager shelter the cactus had provided.
Listening acutely for any other sounds but the already identified gasping breaths, he moved between the cactus and sage, hunting for the source of the noise. It was farther than he had expected from the sounds he had heard. Going down into a small depression in the landscape, he came upon the source of the shooting and screaming. Erica lay on her back, staring at his figure bearing down upon her.
Covering the woman with his gun, he looked around the area for her brother. He wasn't immediately apparent, but what was apparent was the cause of her shooting and screaming. Twitching and quivering only a few feet from her body was a large diamondback rattlesnake, or so he assumed. She had obviously shot it innumerable times, but still it spasmed with a seeming life. Occasionally there was a movement of its tail which gave off the distinctive buzz of its species.
"Eric," the woman muttered and thrashed in the sand. "Oh where are you, you bastard?" Starsky then noted that she had ripped open her slacks and there was a large swelling just above the ankle. Like himself, she was only shod in sneakers which he now saw might not be adequate footwear for traipsing around this area. The woman was sweating and seemed to be in shock which he could understand. Looking around the surrounding landscape, he couldn't see the blue pickup anywhere, but he assumed that Eric wasn't far away. Erica seemed to think he was nearby from her shooting and shouting. As he started to step closer, she raised her weapon and in a perfectly lucid voice said, "Get away from me, cop."
Backing away carefully, he never lowered his gun but decided against making any threatening moves. There was a clatter in the short sage bush beside him, then he heard the sharp report of a gun. He dropped to the ground and looked around. On the rise to the south was Eric with a rifle. Eric was a good quarter of a mile away and behind him was the blue pickup. Starsky scrambled backwards as quickly as his prone position would allow. There were more cracks from the rifle, but none of the bullets seemed to do more than kick up an occasional dust cloud in front of him. Luckily Eric did not seem to have a scope on the rifle or he was a terrible shot, Starsky thought, as he slid behind a large sage bush. There was silence from the rifle for a long time then he could hear the truck motor revving in the distance.
Taking a that as a cue, he rose to his feet and began running up the hill back toward the safety of the ravine. He crouched behind the large cactus on the lip of the gully and watched the truck make slow, rough progress across the deceptively rugged countryside. At a glance the vista seemed to be smooth and featureless, but on closer inspection the area was a mass of small ditches and sturdy hummocks of hardy vegetation.
Hiding behind the cactus, he saw that the truck wasn't going to be able to make it the entire way to Erica, but close enough to make the neighborhood distinctly uncomfortable for him. He started to slide down the steep slope but stopped in mid-slide. There in the distance was a wandering line of telephone poles. Somehow in the confused exhaustion of the previous afternoon he had never noticed them. The quelling of the truck's engine reminded him of his unprotected position squatting on the edge of the gorge. He continued his slide and scrambled to his feet, panting from the combination of exertion and nerves. But there was also hope in his mind. They weren't completely isolated from civilization. Where there were telephone poles, he told himself, there were telephones, and where there were telephones there were people.
Trotting almost happily back up the canyon, he was startled when Hutch stepped out from behind the large sage that Starsky had used for cover on his outward trek.
"Damn, Hutch, you scared me out of ten year's growth," Starsky squeaked.
"Here I was worried sick when I heard more shots, and you come back nearly singing," Hutch said disgustedly.
"I think our friend, Erica, was bitten by a rattlesnake. And that'll keep them both so busy, I think they'll forget all about us," Starsky paused for breath but didn't pause in his strides back up the ravine toward the shelter of their friendly cave. "I saw a row of telephone poles!" He nearly danced around his partner in his excitement.
"So you saw some telephone poles?" Hutch answered, hard pressed to keep up with his partner.
"Don't you understand—telephone poles! Where there's telephone poles, there's telephones and where there's telephones, there's people," Starsky voiced his earlier thoughts. "And where there's people, there's gotta be civilization."
"You thought civilization had disappeared?"
"Well, I hadn't seen any for so long—I wondered."
Hutch shook his head and followed along behind Starsky, who went a few more steps then stopped and turned to look at Hutch searchingly.
"How are you feeling?"
"The head seems to be a lot better, and I managed this walk on my ankle with no problem," Hutch answered quietly.
Starsky came back to Hutch and clutched him in his arms. "God, Hutch, I was so worried about you for a while."
Hutch hugged back then said, "We'd better get under cover in case Erica's snakebite isn't really a snakebite, and they come hunting us again."
"I think she was hurt real bad," Starsky responded, slightly chastened, turning to walk back up the canyon more circumspectly. Hutch followed, hoping Starsky was correct. He'd had enough of being chased through the wilderness. Once more at the boxed end of the gulch, both men took a few moments to scrub at their bearded faces and drink long gulps of water. The heat was once more making itself known as the sun reached toward its apex.
With their make-shift baths completed, they climbed into the small cave to get out of sight and out of the oncoming heat. Hutch was flushed with exertion by the time he reached the cave and collapsed onto the sleeping bag.
Fondly Starsky watched Hutch as he snuffled into the down then his muscles relaxed. He certainly wasn't ready for another race across the prairie. Starsky decided to let him rest while he kept watch on the entrance to the cave. Ducking his head under an overhang, he went back to the opening. His vision was limited to the spring, the top of the opposing wall and a short distance down to the next bend in the gully. He slid down to a prone position and watched the unmoving landscape. It was deadly boring, but long hours on stake-outs had partially prepared him for the tedious exercise. Eventually the heat and the boredom took its toll on him. The physical and mental exertion of the past few days manifested itself in him dropping off to a light doze.
The sun was glaring in his eyes when he next woke. Feeling the need to answer the call of mother nature, he surveyed the region around the cave opening and scoured the opposite rim with his eyes. There didn't seem to be anything but a few birds to disturb the silence of the canyon. He turned back to watch his sleeping companion for a few minutes. Hutch seemed to be resting comfortably so he discarded the idea of disturbing him. He wouldn't be gone long.
Slithering down the slope he cautiously walked down the gully examining the rim of the canyon over his head in both directions as he moved. There didn't seem to be anything or anybody in the area. He stopped and relieved himself beside a large cactus. Then he continued on down the dry wash until he found where he had crawled out earlier in the day. Struggling up the shifting incline, he gripped tough roots and dry, crackling branches of desert plants before he once more topped the edge of the wash. Slowly and cautiously he gained his feet as he looked at the surrounding countryside. The setting sun cast a red glow in the western horizon, turning the purple mountains that loomed in the west an almost friendly pink streaked with darker red and orange.
Looking around constantly, he walked back to the site of the early morning's confrontation with the Slades. His now well-battered tennis shoes made soft crunching sounds on the earth as he followed his trail from yesterday. He looked down the gentle slope and saw the ground was disturbed with indistinct tracks leading away from the scene. Off to one side he saw the twisted sinuous body of the snake. Going closer, he bent over and studied the scaly creature. He couldn't identify various varieties of rattlesnakes, but this was a monster of the species, he decided. It was nearly four feet long and at the narrowing end of its length there were a half a dozen buttons. He remembered hearing that rattlesnake meat was delicious and tasted something like chicken. He was a bit tired of dried hiking rations, but not desperate enough to try this.
Straightening up, Starsky glanced around the area again. He could see for miles in all directions. Once more he located the line of telephone poles marching across the landscape. Making up his mind, he turned back the way he had come with a much lighter heart. The Slades seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth and good riddance to them.
It was easier to slide down the slope into the gully than climbing out. He trotted back to the spring. Stopping briefly, he knelt and drank the crystal clear water. Then he splashed his face. Taking the tail of his shirt, he soaked it in the water and made an attempt to clean his teeth of the furry feeling engendered by not having access to a toothbrush for days. Then he used the other tail of his shirt to wipe his hands and face. Feeling much better, he turned his attention to the cave that had been their refuge in a dark time. The paintings in overhang seemed to be of a brighter color this evening although the overhang was now in shadow.
Climbing back up the loose, shifting shale, he gasped as he observed the empty cave. The backpack still leaned against one rocky wall and the single sleeping bag was rumpled, but empty. Of Hutch, there was no sign. He couldn't have missed him in the narrow gulch, could he?
"Hutch," he croaked, feeling the fear well up in his throat like bile from a bad taco. Clearing his throat, he tried again, "Hutch, where the hell are you, buddy?"
"Back here, Starsk," came a faint, hollow-sounding voice.
Looking around the cave, Starsky couldn't see where "back here" was. Then he saw something flickering on the rear wall of the cave. Quickly rising to his feet, he hurried toward the light. When he reached the wall, he saw a narrow passage going off to the left. Entering it, he turned sideways since he didn't think he'd fit otherwise. He didn't take any precautions, but rushed through the opening as fast as possible. His chest scraped on the jagged walls in a couple places. He wouldn't notice the shallow scratches until later. He would wonder about them briefly then dismiss them as trivial.
Gradually the shimmering light got brighter as the passage widened. Then he rounded a corner into a much larger room. Sitting on the floor holding a crude torch was Hutch, and he was staring down at a musty pile of some strange debris.
Hutch turned his head and looked up at his partner as Starsky's tennis shoes made a scraping sound over a nearly buried rock. Then he went back to studying the lumps in front of him. Starsky glanced around the dimly lit cavern. He took a step back and tripped on the same rock, when he saw the skeletons leaning against the walls. He sat down hard on the floor, suppressing a scream, but not a grunt of pain and surprise. He couldn't take his eyes off the one skeleton that was closest to Hutch. It had on a breast plate and lying beside it was a bell-shaped tube of some sort. His intellect was identifying the breast plate as distinctly Spanish Conquistador equipage and the tube as a musket—so rusted as to be nearly unrecognizable.
Clearing his throat, he was once more unsure of his voice for an entirely different reason. Scrambling to his feet, he noticed amused blue eyes watching his movement.
"Bit startling, isn't it?" Hutch said as Starsky gained his balance. "This is even more so." Hutch gestured with his hands to the bags in front of him. The lumps were now bags, Starsky could see as his eyes adjusted to the wavering make-shift torch. He wondered what could be more startling than the grinning skeletons lining the cavern walls.
He crept forward and glanced down at what his partner was pointing to—there in the fluctuating torchlight were bright yellow glints. He leaned down and saw that the bags were cracked and deteriorating leather around gleaming golden uneven disks. With a shaking hand, he reached for one of the top coins for that was what they were—gold coins. Not like modern coins punched out in machines, all identical. Each one of these had a personality and shape of its own.
He didn't pick up the coin, but only brushed it with his twitching finger. Then he looked up at Hutch who was grinning widely at him. Behind Hutch, nearly hidden in the shadows was another skeleton and beside it was a long staff topped by a cross. The shadow of the cross occasionally was limned by the torch. It seemed to hover over the bags of gold.
Finally squatting down beside Hutch, he said, "What the hell is all this? And how did you find it?"
"I had to take a leak and didn't want to slide down that hill again. So I thought I'd go to the back of the cave. When I got there I saw the passage," Hutch said as he looked up at the ceiling. "You didn't come back for a while so I made a torch out of some of the plants outside the cave and came exploring. Speaking of that, I think this one has about had it."
"Let's get out of here," Starsky affirmed. "This place is spooky." It was more than spooky, Starsky wasn't sure the fellow holding the cross approved of him.
Hutch nodded and started to get to his feet. Starsky rose easily from his crouch and helped Hutch to his feet. Clinically Starsky noted that Hutch's color was much better and he didn't seem dizzy. He momentarily forgot the gold in his concern for Hutch's welfare.
Glancing behind him occasionally, Hutch led Starsky back down the narrow passage into the front room of the cave. Starsky turned back to the skeletons—it almost felt as though their eyes were watching and evaluating him. Starsky didn't like it; he didn't like it one bit. Hearing Hutch sliding through the narrow passage, Starsky gave a slight bow to the figures that were fading into the darkness and hurried to catch up with Hutch.
Once back in the front cavern, they searched through the supplies and made themselves a light meal.
"How do you think that gold got hidden back there?" Starsky said, gesturing to the rear of the cave as they sat down and began to nibble on their meager rations and sip some tepid water.
"I think I know. Before we made this trip I did some research and got interested in the legends of the southwest. You know, things like the Flying Dutchmen Mine and stuff like that. I was reading about legends of the Conquistadors and came across one about a lost shipment of gold for the paymaster in Santa Fe. The gold was shipped from Spain to New Orleans and was supposed to be brought across country accompanied by two priests and a detachment of cavalry. Eventually one priest managed to get to Taos and told a story about being attacked by hostile Indians then being chased for days until their horses gave out. He mentioned something about leaving the other priest and some of the wounded soldiers in a cave," Hutch paused. "In a box canyon. Strangely the priest could never lead a rescue party back to the cave. There was speculation at the time that it had been a conspiracy to rob the paymaster. It was never proven, however."
Starsky gave an inarticulate gasp.
"You mean, you think we've found this lost payroll gold?"
"I do. It's even more conclusive—the priest said the cave had Indian painting over the door."
Starsky nodded, "Yeah and how much gold did this priest say was lost?"
"About three hundred pounds," Hutch said casually with a sparkle in his eye.
"We're rich! My God, we're rich," Starsky nearly shouted to the ceiling of the cave. Then quieted as he remembered the disapproving stares of the inmates of the rear cavern.
"Of course, we're going to owe Uncle Sam a nice chunk of it, I think." Hutch speculated as he bit into another piece of dried fruit.
"But it's lost Spanish Gold—Uncle Sam didn't even exist when it was lost," Starsky countered.
"We'll have to check this out before we even touch one coin," Hutch said. "Anyhow, it seems like we've had some sort of guardian angel since we found this cave—water and Erica getting bitten by a snake. Somehow, I hate to disturb those folks back there. And besides, we can't carry it out with us now."
"Ah, Hutch, usually I'm the superstitious one!" Starsky quipped, then stopped as he noticed Hutch's solemn mien. "Do you really think there's something around here protecting us?"
"You weren't back there when I found them. It was weird—I dunno—almost like I was expected."
"That's the concussion talking," Starsky said, shaking his head and leaning toward Hutch to grasp him on the shoulder. "Let me look at your head." He wouldn't admit to anyone how he felt those last few moments in the room with the gold and the skeletons.
"There's nothing wrong with my head where this is concerned. I just know what I felt and how I felt while I was sitting there," Hutch was emphatic in his reluctance to let Starsky look at his wound.
But Starsky was insistent. He crouched and examined the side of Hutch's face in the dimming twilight. Yes, there was a lot of bruising which wouldn't completely go away for a couple of weeks, but the swelling of the cheekbone and brow was reduced considerably. In Starsky's opinion the rest had done Hutch a world of good. However, they hadn't gotten that much rest, he thought. Perhaps there was something to what Hutch was saying—naw.
"Think you can try to walk out of here tomorrow?" Starsky said, trying to put his uneasy thoughts out of his mind.
"I think so."
"Good, I don't think I want to spend too many more nights in this cave no matter how benevolent you think our resident spirits are."
"I agree. I don't want to push our luck."
"I've an idea," Starsky said, pushing to his feet. "There's still some daylight left. Let's go down to the spring and have a good wash before we try to get some more rest."
"Yeah, I could go for some sort of a wash. Too bad there isn't any shaving gear."
"And I suppose you'd like a beer, too."
"Now that you mention it...." Hutch was rising to his feet and once more Starsky was struck with how much better Hutch looked as opposed to the previous day. God, had it only been a day since they had stumbled upon this cave and the spring? It seemed like an eternity ago.
Later sitting on a rocky section of the pool's edge watching the lengthening shadows, Starsky watched Hutch finish up his skimpy bath and then shiver. Thinking to himself he'd better get Hutch back up to the down sleeping bag, Starsky reached for his own filthy socks and sneakers. Grimacing, he pulled them on after shaking out the residue of sand and dust. It would be wonderful to be back in the hotel in Albuquerque, he thought. The room hadn't been luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, but now it seemed a palace. Maybe he'd just settle for a change of underwear and socks, he thought as he stood up.
Hutch shivered again as he slid his tattered shirt over his head, so Starsky said, "Let's get back to our penthouse, partner." He gathered up the remains of his shirt. There wasn't much left, but he'd need something to protect him from the sun tomorrow.
"Good idea. It is getting a bit chilly. Amazing how much it cools off when the sun goes down."
Climbing back up the slope to the cave, Hutch managed on his own. Starsky followed and was thrilled that Hutch was no longer experiencing the weakness, nausea, or dizziness. He couldn't quite explain the change, but he didn't care. It meant they could start out for civilization the next day.
Once back in the cave, they did some basic housekeeping chores. The newly-filled water bottles were stored toward the back of the cave where it was cool so the water would taste fresher in the morning. They snacked on the rapidly diminishing supply of dried trail mix, fruit, jerky, and nuts. It may have been nourishing, but it was quickly growing dull. Starsky found himself dreaming of tacos and hamburgers. Even week-old, stale pizza would be ambrosia right now.
The cave was quite dark by the time they had eaten their light meal, so there was little to do but spread the sleeping bag for the night. Kicking off his shoes, Starsky slid in beside Hutch who was already tucked up on his side. Pulling as much of the top cover over himself, Starsky took the lean form into his arms. Facing each other and holding tightly, they allowed themselves a lingering kiss. Starsky ran his hands over the bony back of his beloved friend and partner. He lightly clinched the firm ass. Hutch was reciprocating. Neither had the energy nor the will for more than simple foreplay. Hutch might have been feeling a lot better than the previous days, but he wasn't up to anything more than comforting his companion. Literally, Starsky thought, smiling at his own inadvertent pun. For that matter, neither was he.
Without much further thought, he dropped into the dark abyss of sleep. Hutch followed in short order. Neither stirred from their cocoon through the night. The tension of the preceding days and nights led to an exhausted slumber. It was the early morning sun peeking through the entrance to the cave that woke them the next morning. Hutch, facing the opening, groaned and shifted his weight which woke his bed mate up.