After the meal, West cleaned the small bowl and utensils with a generous handful of glittering sand, then rinsed them out with a small amount of their precious water supply. Rather than risk Smith wasting water, he cleaned up the doctor's things as well.
The chronometer showed the passage of forty-five minutes by the time the two men were once more on their way. With warm food and drink in them, they made good time for the next mile until the walls tightened in again.
What to do? mused West. Go first and risk losing Smith behind me? Or put him ahead and be forced to slow to a crawl because he's too timid to charge onward.
Ultimately Smith decided for them. He stopped at a particularly narrow point and peered around a curve in the way. Without hesitation, Don slipped by him and assumed the lead. Behind him, he heard Smith mutter about “The perils of throwing caution to the wind,” but the older man reluctantly tagged along just the same. Smith might be a lot of things, but he was no fool. There was nothing to go back to and the doctor knew it.
They trudged on single file for an even longer period of time. When Don's battery pack failed, he replaced it with one from Smith's pack. The spare flashlight he left tucked safely inside in case their present one was accidentally damaged. The corridor drew tighter about them, and a sense of claustrophobia began to set in. Intense discomfort led Smith to resume voicing a continuous stream of complaints about everything from the frigid temperature to the inept leadership of the major.
West felt his tolerance levels falling, but fought for control. He wasn't about to waste his breath telling the doctor to shut up. If anything, Smith would make sure he complained more vociferously than before.
Soon after, it became difficult to pass between the walls. In some places they had to carefully squeeze past unyielding stone, sending the packs through separately. Smith moaned and groaned as he slid his stocky frame through a particularly narrow spot.
“Told you to go on a diet, Smith!” Don laughed maliciously as they slung the packs back on. “This is what you get for cleaning off your plate every meal and helping yourself to seconds to boot!”
Glaring mightily at West, Smith hissed, “Are you accusing me of being a glutton, Major?”
“I call 'em like I see 'em!”
“Indeed! Major, I warn you, my patience is wearing thin,” Smith replied in a particularly grating tone of voice. He drew himself up to his full height, bringing him eye to eye with the younger man. The hard, combative gleam in them reflected back at West.
For a split second, Don actually thought Smith was riled enough to take him on, but that was all. A bluffing expert, that's what Smith was. He'd puff himself up, posture and bellow a bit, then expertly extricate himself from the situation. Whenever Don raised the ante by drawing up his fists, Smith invariably backed down.
“Pity I can't take you up on your challenge, Smith. But I'd only wind up having to drag your fat carcass the rest of the way.”
Smith harrumphed scornfully. “Perhaps I should remind you–yet again–that I'm not the fathead that got us into this?”
That tore it. Don had had enough. Angrily, he shoved Smith into the rock wall. The equipment in the pack rattled under the impact. To West's utter amazement, Smith shoved him back, continuing to glare at his opponent. The vapor from their breaths swirled angrily between the few feet separating them.
Anger surged. West had been cheated out of this opportunity too many times in the past. He no longer cared about possible consequences.
The major threw a quick jab in the doctor's direction and was astounded to see Smith not only duck in time, but draw back a clenched fist. Don saw the blow coming but he was wedged into the tighter area and had little room to maneuver. A right cross connected solidly with his cheek. The padded glove did little to dissipate the force. Don's head rocked sideways. As he recovered, he drew up both hands for protection and sought the opportunity to return the offense in kind.
Years of frustration were finally going to be vented. This is going to feel good, West thought as he feinted.
Smith shifted sideways as much as the tight quarters would allow, but he wasn't fast enough to avoid the blow to his midsection. He grunted as the air whooshed out of his lungs. Almost falling to one knee, he waited for Don to close in for the kill. He saw the major's feet approach and instantly heaved an uppercut right under West's chin.
A whirling kaleidoscope of stars circled inside the major's brain. Once more West went on the defensive as he fought to clear his mind. Years of combat training came to his aid. He was alert in seconds. This time he was also more wary. For a cowardly, out-of-shape, sniveling older man, Smith packed one heck of a punch.
Who'd have believed it? he mused as he feinted again and waited for an opening. Come to think of it, no one will believe it, he amended silently. Pity I didn't have a camcorder!
Don dropped his pack onto the sand. The other pack quickly followed suit.
By Don's feet, the flashlight sputtered, apparently jarred by being dropped. Smith made the mistake of glancing at it. It cost him. A large square fist connected below his chin, snapping his head back. He felt his knees buckle, but somehow found added reserves of strength and regained his footing. Pain swirled around him like angry hornets. He hated this part of it. Hated it enough to always play the pacifist. But for once in his life, he hated something more than the discomfort.
His thoughts raced through a host of uncomfortable memories–of the major taunting him, badgering or threatening him. Fear of being hurt had always shoved back the rage. At least it had in the past.
As fury swelled, Smith's last fears dissipated in an almost audible pop. With an angry howl, he rushed West, but not before taking a shot to the temple.
Half-conscious, Smith collided with the major. Together they crashed into the wall, rebounded and fell into a heap on the sandy floor whereupon they proceeded to roll around like school kids in a brawl. Punches connected with bone. Punches landed on the walls, drawing further howls of pain. As West's discomfort levels grew, so did his respect for his opponent. But that respect didn't stop him from popping Smith every chance he got. Heavy blows pummeled West's side and face when Smith was lucky enough to get a clear shot.
Finally West heaved his body around and landed squarely on top of the panting, glazed-eyes doctor. Fresh blood was flowing, but Smith seemed oblivious to it. Don drew back his arm, about to deliver the coup de grace, and found himself hesitating. Pounding a sniveling, conniving worm into the dust was one thing. Plastering a downed opponent who gave as good as he got was another.
Still, Smith deserved it, if only because he'd almost gotten everyone else killed nearly fifty times over in the last three years. Yeah, the heck with fair play.
Unconsciously his arm was tensing up, his fist rock-like beside his ear. Just as his punch started to drop, he felt a round object jab his side.
“I think not, Major,” growled Smith through bloodied lips.
Don didn't need to look down to know that a laser pistol was pointed at his ribs.
He stared into Smith's eyes, finding them cold and determined. “Coward's way out,” he told Smith disdainfully.
Those blue eyes remained fastened on his, but, surprisingly, he felt the gun leave his side.
Instantly Don backhanded the pistol away, yanked his own weapon free, then virtually jammed it up Smith's nose. They glared at each other for what seemed like eons before West gave voice to his thoughts. “Do that to me again, Smith, and, believe me, I'll put a quick end to your miserable life.”
Rather than the cringing he could have expected, Smith simply snarled, “Watch yourself in the future, Major. You might get more than you bargained for!”
Suddenly the meager light in the cave winked out of existence. With a muffled curse, Don withdrew his weapon, holstered it and groped for Smith's pack. After locating it, tripping over the doctor in the process, he found the spare flashlight.
Muttering more oaths, he hastily turned it on, expecting the worst–a gun trained on him. Instead, he found Smith resting against the rock wall, gingerly rubbing his jaw.
The doctor squinted at the harsh light, but made no effort to retrieve his weapon, which lay on the floor within easy reach. Instead, Don bent over and scooped it up and jammed it into his holster belt. Then he towered over Smith. “Get up!” he ordered. “We're moving out!”
Irritably, West wiped a persistent trickle of blood away from his nose. Now, not only was he angry, he was bruised from head to waist. His mood darkened further. Perhaps he should have killed Smith when he had the chance. Then they'd never have to worry about his mischief-making ever again.
Smith staggered to his feet, bent over, spit out sand and blood, coughed twice and reached for his pack. But instead of shouldering it he yanked out the smaller canteen and took a sip of the cool water, then another long drink. It was only after he'd had his fill that he repacked the canteen and swung the pack up.
A stifled groan echoed in the small chamber as the weight of it settled onto Smith's back. Other than that, he made no comment.
Without warning, West withdrew the spare pistol from his belt and leveled it at Smith's chest. His eyes were dark, cold pools.
Though the major couldn't see it, Smith shivered fearfully. The doctor recognized the look. Nausea flared up, making him sick, but he fought it down. Groveling in public gave him a chance to weasel his way out of almost any problem, but no matter what, in the private environs of this cave, he was not about to grovel before West.
Still stone-faced, West abruptly flipped the laser pistol up, caught it sideways and tossed the weapon at the doctor.
With a startled expression on his face, Smith caught it single-handedly. Questions floated on the air between them, but West merely turned his back and began to walk away. The doctor hastily reholstered his gun before jogging to catch up.