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The Aftermath.

I'll fetch a doctor. You can tell him your troubles."

She walked away.

Somehow, he pushed himself up onto one elbow. "Girl."

She stopped and looked back.

"You tell anybody - 'bout me now - I'm dead. I mean it."

She turned her back on him and ducked into the scrub oak.

As long as he was propped up, he uncorked the canteen and took a long drink of water. It almost came back up. He fell back on the soogan and, shivering, dragged the Russian under the blankets with him.

The last thing he saw was a gray squirrel scampering past over fallen leaves.

* * * * * * * * *

A fire crackled behind him. That seemed all right until he remembered he hadn't been able to gather the strength to build the fire. He rolled over slowly, cautiously, his mind too fouled and befogged to remind him to put his hand on the Russian. His back hurt when he lay on it, but it didn't seem to matter. He knew it ought to, but it didn't seem to.

He turned his head. He could just make out the girl's shadowy form. It was black night and she was back from the fire, down at the end of his log. She had fallen asleep sitting up, with a blanket wrapped around her. Her head was propped on her fist, her hair, catching gleams from the fire, tumbled over her shoulder.

* * * * * * * * *

She was there in the morning, too. She didn't say a word, just fetched him a cup of strong coffee when he woke. She met his questioning gaze with a straight, tight-lipped glare. There was frost on the ground, too.

"What day is it?" he asked, when the coffee had seeped warmth into him.

The look she gave him was curious. "November third."

"One day, then," he muttered. "You shouldn't be here, child. It's dangerous for you to be here."

She sat back on her heels. "You called me that again, Brin. I told you about that." She lay her palm against his forehead. "I don't think you're going to die, but you're still hotter than fire."

He couldn't argue. He couldn't even stay awake.

* * * * * * * * *

With his first thought, he knew she was gone. With his second, he wished she wasn't.

It was mid morning. The ducks were conversing in the reeds near the edge of the pond. The squirrel was checking for missed acorns, above the camp.

A note was propped up against his canteen, weighted with the Russian, in handwriting swift and spiky.

Your fever broke. Your wound looks well. Rest should do you now. Can't make any more excuses to be from home or they'll wonder. I baked bread. Good luck. It is November 4.

She hadn't signed it. It looked as if one corner had been dunked in coffee. The date was exciting.

He sat up. He felt like overcooked greens but, for the first time in 2 days, he wasn't dizzy. The bread was in oil cloth, lying between him and the fire on a folded blanket. He broke in to the flat, crusty loaf and ate slowly, washing it down with fresh water from the canteen. It stayed down. He began to smell and hear again, and notice sounds beyond the contented muttering of the ducks. He could hear the horse and mule cropping grass, though they were out of sight. He sighed on general principles.
He policed his camp and his person with what seemed like incredible slowness. There wasn't much to do and it took a long time to do it. When it was done, he lay down and slept again, with the Russian in his hand and the carbine along his leg. Habit.

* * * * * * * * *

He had just finished eating the last of the bread and some side meat, and drinking coffee laced with tinned milk, when they came down the trail. He listened for a few moments. Two, coming on foot, trying to be stealthy. He waited until they'd nearly reached the cup's level floor, then got to his feet and silently faded back - something at which he was quite good - behind the oak, toward the ducks. The Russian was in his hand.

He waited.

It took them a while to work through the scrub oak, so they were a long time in coming into the open, pistols in hand.

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