Skirting boulders the size of cars, Smith walked the short distance to the open plain. Here, scrubby trees, dead and withered, dotted the landscape. To Smith the sight was beautiful. It meant they'd have heat tonight.
The brush broke easily and Smith was able to tote a good size load of it back inside the cave. Dumping his bundle, he dragged the still unconscious major closer to the opening, but still beneath the overhang. There he started a fire, using flint and tinder. As the flames fanned out to consume the lighter branches, Smith decided to perform another check on West's condition. First, taking some of the smaller twigs, he fashioned a softer place on which to lay West's head. Then he moved on to the exam.
Pupils now reacting normally, pulse and respirations good. Color improving. Pain reflex present. Once the area became warm enough, he gently removed the old dressing, checked the wound and applied clean bandages. No signs of infection or fever, another good sign, Smith thought to himself.
As soon as he was assured that his companion was out of immediate danger, Smith went out to retrieve more firewood. Several trips later, he felt it safe to assume the fire could be maintained all night if need be. Then he set about building a much smaller fire, setting up stout branches to support the pot for boiling water. It wasn't until the steaming instant coffee was cupped between his hands that he finally decided to rest.
That rest was short lived.
West groaned and tried to roll over. Pain flared in Don's chest and he unceremoniously flopped back onto his “bed.” He moaned again and brought his hands up as if in self-defense. Sensing danger nearby, he flailed wildly, only to meet resistance as hands grabbed his forearms. He jerked an arm free and felt his fist connect with something solid. It didn't deter his attacker. Once more he was restrained.
“Relax. You're safe,” he heard a gentle voice assure him.
West willingly complied with the suggestion. He had no strength to fight back anymore. Agonizing pain rolled in from all points of his body. His mind wanted to withdraw from it by sending him back into deep darkness, but Don fought back. Instinct told him he needed to regain control. He did so, slowly but surely.
Forcing his eyes open, he saw a blurred image hovering above him. Confused, he tried to recall what had happened. As he shifted, agony pierced deep into his shoulder and then he remembered. The cavern, the pod creatures attacking him, the scaled wings, and Smith shooting him. Smith! That accursed troublemaker had done it to him again.
The blurred figure shifted out of sight. He closed his eyes to reorient himself. It took him a moment to realize that something was covering his body–a survival blanket. He let his hand drop by his side and felt another blanket below. Prying eyelids open once more, he found his vision improving.
The face came back into focus. He grimaced. It was Smith all right, looking battered, filthy, and bloody, but alive. Anger surged through Don's veins, giving him strength he never would have had under similar conditions. He wanted to put his fingers around Smith's neck so badly he could taste it. His good arm started to rise, hand outstretched. He almost had it around Smith's scrawny neck.
Wide-eyed with shock, Smith backpedaled. “See here, Major, have you lost your mind? What little there was of it to begin with!”
Don arose further, murderous darts flying out of his eyes. And then it hit him.
He could see Smith clearly in natural light. The scent of fresh warm coffee enticed him to inhale deeply. As the feverish fog dissipated, he noted the small camp Smith had set up, and the burning bonfire that bathed him in glorious heat.
Amazed, West let his jaw drop. “You actually did it!” he exclaimed in amazement. “You got us out of there! How?”
Rather than answer that particular question, the doctor offered West his own half-empty cup of coffee. Don took it in his shaking hand and found that it, like the injured arm, refused to cooperate.
Rather than belittle him, Smith simply clasped his hand around West's and brought the now steady cup up to the major's lips. West downed the still-warm liquid in several gulps. Satisfied, he waved Smith off. The coffee was followed by a lukewarm plate of mushed rations but, to the starving man, it tasted like a gourmet chef's best creation.
“How long?” he queried in the midst of gulping down a mouthful of mud brown, pureed who-knew-what.
While Don finished his meal, Smith had opted to sit by the fire, knees drawn up to his chest. When he heard West's question, he arched one eyebrow wryly. “How long what?” he asked in a tired, raspy voice. “How long have we been lost in there? How long were you unconscious? How long did I have to haul your sorry carcass behind me?” Before West could answer, Smith plunged on, “And to think you were concerned about being the one to carry me out. I don't mind informing you that you weigh a ton! Robinson had better conjure up an expeditious rescue because I've no intention of dragging you one step further!”
A frown marred West's handsome features. He stared at Smith for a considerable length of time, his thoughts jumbled. He wanted to rail at the doctor for having shot him. Perhaps he still would, but there were questions as yet unanswered.
“How long?” he repeated more firmly.
Smith heaved a condescending sigh, but didn't look at his injured companion. “I have no idea. After a while, time lost all meaning. Since the days are a bit longer on this odious planet, I expect we were entombed for the equivalent of at least ten planetary hours–give or take an hour.”
“So you recently found the exit?”
Smith nodded. “Yes, not too long ago.” What he was really thinking was that if West hadn't gotten in the way of the shot, they would have made it out much quicker.
What West was really thinking was, “I can't believe this pompous idiot shot me and won't even apologize.”
Neither of them said what was really on their minds and they sat in total silence for a while.
Smith continued to tend the fire, accepting the labor only because he wanted to stay warm. West used the opportunity to rest. He began making plans for assembling the radio, but found concentration difficult. Before he realized it, he'd dropped back off to sleep.
Exhaustion had already overcome the doctor. After stoking the fire, he'd leaned back against the fire-warmed rock wall and instantly succumbed to the desire to sleep. In fact, he was so physically drained not even the encroaching cold woke him. Instead, he'd curled himself up tightly into a ball and shivered through haunting dreams of silver vines, scaled wings, laser blasts, and walls of ice.
“Smith!” a voice called, cutting painfully through the doctor's numbed mind. Lights flickered behind his closed lids as adrenaline raced through his aching body. He groaned as he tried to sit upright. Taking mental inventory, he realized there wasn't a place on his body that didn't hurt. His ankle throbbed unmercifully. Just shifting it brought excruciating pain.
“Smith, wake up!” the voice called again. “The fire.”
“Coming,” he muttered through chattering teeth.
Smith practically needed to pry his eyelids open, but finally they complied on their own. Stifling a despondent moan, he noted that the fire was down to burning embers.
He dragged his weary body to the small pile of kindling, threw some pieces into the embers and stirred the coals with a stick. At first the kindling seemed to do nothing at all, but suddenly it caught and Smith immediately stacked several larger branches on it until he'd worked up a decent fire once more.
Nearby Don was attempting to roll over onto his side. He'd just about succeeded when a wave of dizziness sent him crashing back down.
Limping over, Smith crouched down. “Don't move. Whatever you've got planned, it isn't worth ruining all my fine efforts at first aid.”
Gingerly Don touched the bandages, noticing the pain was subsiding somewhat. “The communications equipment has to be assembled so we can try sending that message,” he explained between panting breaths.
“How noble,” Smith chided. “You're weaker than a newborn babe. How do you propose to get yourself up there?”
A perfect white smile flashed across the major's lips. “You really want to know?” He waited for Smith's hesitant nod, then he noted the doctor's wide-eyed expression.
Suddenly Smith's head dropped down and he gave it a bewildered shake. “I presume you intend to send me, don't you?”
A self-satisfied light filled the major's eyes. “Yup. You seem to have everything under control. Besides, you said it yourself; I'm in no condition to do it.”
“You do realize I haven't got the foggiest notion of what to do with that contraption.”
“Don't worry, I'll explain it carefully. You just do what I tell you and everything will work fine.”
“Major, let's face facts,” Smith pleaded. “I am in no condition to perform the arduous task of mountain climbing. Perhaps we should reconsider. Ignite a signal fire and pray that the smoke draws attention. Surely Robinson hasn't ceased searching for us.”
For a moment, they gazed at one another. Don took in Smith's disheveled, battered and fatigued appearance. A momentary feeling of pity for the older man welled up in him. Don was most certainly better adapted for the chore ahead of them. They both knew it. But Don was forced to acknowledge the truth.
“Look, doctor, I'd go in your place if I could, really. But my left arm is still virtually useless.” He interjected as much sincerity into his voice as he could. “I know this isn't much consolation, but you've done fine so far. You and I both know you could have left me back there, but you didn't. You toughed it out. And you can do what still needs to be done. I believe that.”
“I wish I possessed that same confidence in myself,” Smith whispered as he stared up at the rocky walls surrounding them, then let his chin drop to his chest for a moment of quiet contemplation.