The malpais - "badlands" - had earned their name. A hundred or so square miles of hardened lava that was just barely negotiable on foot, if you were careful, and on horseback only if you were stupid enough to risk it.
Lon Porter had lead Vin Tanner right into the heart of this Godforsaken place, where not even weeds tried to grow. The sun blazed in a cloudless sky overhead, the black rocks under his feet absorbing its merciless heat. This was the worst kind of hot - no water, no shade, and the heat flowing into you from both above and below.
Vin usually appreciated natural surroundings, no matter how rugged, but he hated this place. Ugly, black and barren as far as the eye could see. Porter had lead him here on purpose, which meant he knew the country. He knew that following a trail where a man could walk without leaving footprints, where there wasn't a twig or blade of grass to be disturbed, was next to impossible.
Still, Vin had managed to find enough evidence of Porter's passing that he'd stuck with the pursuit. A cinder here and there turned so that its unweathered side was exposed, an insect crushed by a foot or hoof, and then, the jackpot - a pile of fresh horse droppings. Porter wasn't far ahead of him.
Buzzards circled in the distance, waiting for something to die. Vin figured it was too much to hope that it was Porter they were waiting on, but the trail did lead in that direction.
He kept a loose rein on his horse, letting the animal find its own footing in the treacherous terrain. But as he neared the spot where the buzzards circled overhead, the gelding balked at following him, and he had to coax it forward. Something had spooked it, probably the scent of whatever was dying up ahead. Vin trained his spyglass on the spot, trying to make out what was there, but the sun was blinding, and the magnifying lens amplified the effect. If he didn't squint, his eyes hurt, if he did, he couldn't see through the damned thing.
No matter, whatever it was would still be there when he reached it.
The unnerving thought occurred to him that no one knew he was out here. He and Chris and Buck had ridden out after Porter when JD had recognized him from a wanted poster and had tried to arrest him. He had resisted, but JD, being JD, hadn't even considered waiting until he had someone backing his play to try and take the outlaw in.
Porter was a brute of a man, tall and heavy set. He'd taken the little guy down with one solid blow, and the fact that there were witnesses was the only thing that had kept him from putting a bullet in the kid. JD's most serious injury had been to his dignity, but Porter had escaped, and had evaded them so successfully that they'd had to split up to cover the possible directions he might have gone.
Vin had picked the trail that most likely would lead to him. He was the best tracker, and so had the best chance of finding him. He'd be more careful than JD had been about confronting Porter if he caught up with him. He wouldn't be able to take the outlaw in a fight any better than JD had, and there were no witnesses out here if Porter decided to put a bullet through his head. He'd already killed a priest - it was what he was wanted for. Nothing would stop him from killing Vin Tanner.
Vin scanned the horizon with his spyglass. He should have been able to see for miles in every direction, but the heat made the air shimmer and distorted his view. At least there were no outcroppings or ridges where Porter could be waiting in ambush.
His horse whinnied plaintively and tried to stand its ground. Vin had to coax it forward with soothing words and a gentle tug on the reins. He was trying to calm the animal when he saw the reason for its distress. The buzzards were circling another horse as it lay on its side on the blistering surface of the lava flow. It had to be Porter's horse, and it probably wasn't dead yet, or the buzzards would have been on it, not circling.
Wariness and a feeling of unease sent a shiver down Vin's spine despite the searing heat. If the horse was Porter's, where the hell was he?
The sense of foreboding intensified as Vin got closer and saw that the horse was still saddled, Porter's meager supplies still lashed to it. He couldn't blame the man for not wanting to lug a heavy saddle in the oppressive heat, but he'd left his canteen and bedroll, too.
A pain-filled snort came from the injured horse. What kind of a man would leave an animal to die slowly like that?
Vin left his horse standing where it was. No point in having it panic and running off on him.
A gruesome sight awaited him, and it took him a few moments to figure out what had happened.
The lava flow appeared to be a continuous sea of rock, but he'd seen spots where the surface had caved in, revealing the hollow pockets covered by a thin crust that could not be distinguished from the more solid surface. One of those pockets had given way under Porter's horse. The animal had either managed to crawl out, or, more likely, hadn't fallen all the way in - the hole looked too small to accommodate the horses' girth. Whatever had happened, the animal had hung itself up on the edge of the resulting crater, where the freshly broken edge was as sharp as glass, and had disemboweled itself. It had dragged its entrails behind it as it had scooted along the surface on its side in a vain attempt to escape its pain. Vin hated Porter for leaving the poor beast in that condition.
He unholstered his sidearm and discharged both barrels into the animal's head, ending its misery, and then stepped carefully around the gutted animal to peer down into the hole.
He hadn't really expected to find Porter there, so it was a jolt when he did. He reckoned that considering the circumstances, he could forgive the man for not putting his horse down, since Porter appeared to be dead, too. He was trying to think of a way to make certain of that fact when a sharp, cracking sound made him flinch. It sounded like gunfire, but he was only allowed an instant to realize that it was the rock beneath his feet snapping apart.
He dropped his gun the instant he felt himself falling, and reached out to grab something - anything - that would stop his descent into the pit that was Porter's grave. He felt the sharp rock slice into his forearm, but there was no pain, not even when he hit the bottom a dozen or so feet down, and his ankles twisted under the impact.
The pain came slowly as he untangled himself after landing in a dazed heap just inches from Porter's corpse.
He knew fairly quickly that he wasn't badly injured. His arm was gashed and bleeding, but it wasn't an excruciatingly painful wound, and binding it closed with his bandana helped. The twinges of pain in his ankles and legs passed quickly, and he didn't think anything was broken or even sprained.
That didn't mean everything was okay, though. He looked upward at the rim of the hole he'd fallen into. If he reached up as far as he could, it was still a couple of feet beyond his reach, and it might as well have been a hundred yards.
He looked around for a foothold - anything he could use to boost himself high enough to reach the edge, but there was nothing. The walls surrounding him had never seen the light of day, and were without the cracks and irregularities that came with weathering.
He wasn't prone to panic. Never had been. So he took his time trying to reason things out. Porter was in an upright sitting position against the sheer wall. If he climbed onto his shoulders, it might make him tall enough to grab the rim and pull himself out. He nudged one of the dead man's hands with his boot. The flesh was stiff and unyielding, still in the stages of rigor mortis. He supposed he had that to be thankful for. Eventually, the body would go limp again, and would not support his weight as easily.
Still, he hesitated before stepping on the dead outlaw. Somehow, that just didn't seem right. The thought of staying down in that hole with him, though, managed to make up for any misgivings he might have had.
He planted his right foot on Porter's left shoulder, and made a vertical leap for the edge of the hole. He missed his target on his first attempt. Then on the second, the third and the fourth. He wasn't even coming close, missing by a good 4 or 5 inches each time, until he was panting from the exertion.
This was not good.
His only hope was to somehow position Porter's body so that it would give him the added reach he needed, but he wasn't sure if even that would work. Just getting his fingers to reach the rim wasn't enough. He'd need to be able to at least get his forearms out so he could pull himself up the rest of the way.
He had avoided really looking at Porter up until then. He'd killed before, but actually looking at the dead had been a problem for him since... well, he wasn't going to start thinking about that right then.
Porter was even more gruesome a sight than his horse. The animal had apparently killed him with its hind hooves in a frantic attempt to get itself out of the hole. There was an imprint of a horse shoe right in the center of Porter's forehead. What Vin had though was long hair turned out to be Porter's scalp, cleanly scraped from his skull so that it rested on one shoulder. His lower jaw had almost been kicked clean off his face and now hung loosely by a strip of cheek, the semi-circle of Porter's teeth dangling above his chest like misplaced dentures. Its supporting structures gone, Porter's tongue was a protruding blob against the background of the mangled flesh of his neck.
Vin had managed to ignore the smell of fresh blood, but when he realized that Porter's clothes were drenched in it, and that the severed jugular vein that had spurted his life out like a fountain was plainly visible amidst the carnage, he almost puked.
He had to force himself to touch Porter, lifting the outlaw's stiffened form by his blood-soaked gunbelt and trying to turn him over. Bent like it was at a 90-degree angle, Vin hoped he could somehow wedge the corpse against the wall so he could climb onto Porter's back.
But there was precious little room to maneuver in the tiny space, and Porter outweighed Vin by at least 50 pounds. Exhausted and dizzy from the heat, and drenched in his own sweat mingled with Porter's blood, Vin was still not ready to concede defeat when he realized that the rigor mortis was wearing off and the corpse was becoming pliable again. Using what was left of Porter to get out just wasn't going to work.
He sat down to rest in what little space wasn't taken up by Porter's body, but that ghastly, mutilated countenance staring at him from just a few inches away sent a sudden rush of terror through him.
It was irrational, he knew. Porter was dead. He couldn't do anything to him.
But, it was going to be dark soon.
Not town dark, where lights burned in the occasional window. Not campfire dark, where you could feel safe in a small circle of reassuring light. But desert dark, where the light of the moon - if there was a moon - would cast a ghostly glow over that bloody, mangled head. He closed his eyes, but that didn't do any good. He could still see it. Still knew it was there.
He thought about screaming for help, but that was just fear talking. No one would hear him, and he'd only be wasting his breath.
It was a funny time to worry about his horse, but he did. There was no water around for miles, and he wondered how long the poor animal would stay nearby before its thirst forced it to go looking for a drink. The thought that he didn't have any water, either, tried to enter his head, but he blocked it out. There was just no point in wasting energy on something he couldn't do anything about.
Besides, the situation was far from hopeless. He was pretty sure Chris would look for him. Buck, too. Hell, all six of the others that he had come to think of as his own personal "we" would notice when he didn't come back. Even a few of the townsfolk might miss him. On the other hand, the Malpais were a forbidding place. It was possible no one would think Porter had been stupid enough to try to cross them, or that Vin Tanner had been stupid enough to follow him.
And it was going to be dark soon.
At least it wouldn't be so hot. With no air circulating down into the hole, it was like an oven, and the dry desert air was sucking the cooling layer of sweat right off of him. He was thirsty, but he was going to have to ignore it. At least hunger wasn't going to be problem. He was distantly aware that he was sitting in a sticky puddle of Porter's dried blood, and the smell of it was everywhere. His stomach wouldn't have been able to handle food even if he'd had any.
He rested his head on his knees, his face turned sideways so he could keep an eye on Porter.
Sometimes, they moved, even if they were dead.
His heart began to pound with an old, long-buried terror, and he struggled so hard to force it back down out of his consciousness that he stopped breathing. He didn't realize he had until he found himself panting for breath, try to replace the stale air in his lungs with the fetid air that smelled and even tasted of Porter's blood.
Sweat-soaked strands of hair fell over his face and he let them cover his eyes. It blurred his vision and let him try to pretend he wasn't looking at That Thing in the hole with him.
But it stared at him with its closed eyes, that gaping maw that had been Porter's mouth screaming silence.
It scared the shit out of him.
There, he'd admitted it.
Now what was he going to do?
How long could a person go without sleep, Vin wondered? It was a sure bet he wasn't going to do any sleeping as long as he kept company with the remains of Lon Porter.
He'd spent the entire night wide awake, his heart pounding every time he looked at that mangled face, the outlines of its horrendously ripped flesh enhanced by the half moon hanging in a cloudless sky. And if he didn't look at it, a cold, crawly feeling crept over him, along with an overpowering sense that Porter was going to somehow rise up and come for him and...
And what? He was being stupid, Vin knew that. Porter was dead, nothing but meat and bone. He couldn't do anything but sit there and rot.
Funny thing about fear, though. It didn't necessarily need to be based on anything real. Before the night was half over, Vin's guts were tied in a knot with fear. Fear of nothing. That Thing couldn't hurt him. He kept saying that to himself over and over, but it didn't do any good. He was wound up so tight that it physically hurt. His head pounded with fatigue, and there was an achy feeling in his chest and stomach that wouldn't go away.
He wondered what the others would think if they could see him, cowering like the little kid who...
No, he wasn't going to think about that.
Screw the others. If they were in his spot, they'd be just as scared as he was.
Well, maybe not Chris. Buck had told him how Chris had found his family, their bodies burned and twisted so that only the size of what was left made it possible for him to tell which was his wife and which was his child. They'd had to sew the corpses into blankets so they could carry them to their graves without pieces dropping off along the way. Any man who could endure that horror wouldn't be bothered by some decaying outlaw, would he?
Nathan? He'd be studying the process of decomposition. Taking notes. But, when it was dark, he'd be afraid. Stuck in this hole, he'd be afraid. Nathan knew what it was to be imprisoned, even though it hadn't been physical walls that had held him. Vin had seen the scars on his back, the reminder of a savage beating given to a 13-year-old boy who had decided he'd had enough of being trapped. Yeah, Nathan would be scared.
Josiah... maybe he wouldn't be. Hell, Josiah would be talking to Porter's ghost, and maybe not even noticing that the guy's face was falling off. The big difference between Vin and Josiah was that Josiah didn't care if he died. He figured you just went on afterwards, just in a different form. Vin wasn't so sure, and he liked the form he had now just fine Be nice if he was two feet taller, though, he laughed to himself. Dying didn't scare him, but it wasn't something he wanted to do just to see what it was like.
He was cold.
He knew the temperature could drop 30 or 40 degrees at night in the desert, but in the heat of the day, he'd left his jacket tied to his saddle. He pulled his arms close around himself, trying to contain his body heat. It was hard to believe that earlier, when he'd been trying to move Porter's body, he'd felt like his blood was about to boil out of his head. He'd be hot again, tomorrow, too, but for now the night air cut into him, chilling his bones and making his already-tense muscles ache and stiffen.
He'd still be down here, only he'd be more thirsty, and the stench that was beginning to emanate from Porter's body would get worse. For now, it was just the smell of clotted, rotting blood, which was bad enough, but tomorrow, in the heat, the body itself would begin to dissolve. It would darken and bloat with the gases of decomposition. He'd seen buffalo corpses bloat until the hide split, the innards spewing out in a putrid, liquified gush. Buffalo leather was a lot tougher than human skin...
Don't think about that.
Were they looking for him? The others?
Probably not. Not yet, anyway. Buck and Chris would ride back to Four Corners empty-handed and then, when they didn't find him there, would start arguing about where to look for him.
How were they going to find him, anyway?
His horse had probably left a long time ago. Porter's horse would be picked clean by noon the next day, and maybe even the bones would be carried off by coyotes. They'd even eat the saddle and tack if they were hungry enough, and coyotes usually were.
His gun was up there somewhere, but there was no way to know if it was in the open, where someone might see it. And besides, it was relatively small and flat.
Whoever was looking would scan that expanse of black rock and not see a thing that told them he was down in this hole...
He picked up his hat. He hadn't actually been wearing it, because it had fallen off when he fell in and he hadn't seen much point in putting it back on. He stood up, his legs stiff from the cold and from sitting curled up like he had been. Reaching up as high as he could, he tossed the hat out of the pit, and hoped that the wind wouldn't catch it and carry off.
Something touched his leg.
He looked down and saw Porter's bloody head, the white of the flayed skull glistening in the moonlight, leaning against his calf.
His logical mind knew it was nothing more than post-mortem muscle contractions that had caused the upper half of the body to pitch forward. But the sudden wave of panic that washed over him was like a punch in the gut. An involuntary yelp escaped him and he flung the corpse way from him with his foot. Its back smacked the wall of the pit and the head tilted back slightly on the nearly-severed neck, like it was looking up at him. Another muscle contraction caused Porter's left arm and knee to rise slightly, and Vin thought his heart was going to explode in his chest.
Breathe... he told himself. Calm down. It can't hurt you.
But the very air he took in was rank with the smell of decaying blood. It nauseated him and he gagged. Nothing came up - it had been too long since he'd eaten anything. It was just as well. He didn't need to add the smell of his own puke to the stench.
He pressed himself as hard as he could against the wall opposite the body, trying to put as much distance between himself and That Thing as he could. In doing so, he noticed that the rocks were wet with pre-dawn moisture. He needed the water, but he had to force himself to turn his head slowly away from Porter in order to lick the precious dew off the rock walls. The rocks tasted salty and burnt, and the few drops were nowhere near enough to satisfy him, but he'd survived on as little before.
Survived. How long did he want to live if nobody found him? How long would it take him to die if he really wanted to?
He absently toyed with the sawed-off holster still strapped to his hip. Too bad he'd dropped the gun.
Porter was still wearing his piece, but it was saturated with blood and gore. He didn't want to touch it. Not yet.
The sun was coming up, and the rocks began to dry off so quickly he could see the water evaporating before his eyes. He sat down again, feeling a little more relaxed now that it wasn't so dark anymore.
He was so tired, but he fought the urge to close his eyes. If he slept, he knew exactly what he'd dream about. It was clawing at the back of his mind trying to get out, and he couldn't handle that particular demon and Porter both.
They would look for him.
They had to.
The buzzards wouldn't come down into the hole after Porter. They were stupid birds, but they had enough sense to know that if they dropped down into that small space, they wouldn't have enough wing space to be able to fly out.
They looked down at the feast that was just beyond their reach, as if they resented Vin for not taking advantage of the free meal.
Vin called them names, shouting at them, wanting them to leave and fly in circles in the air above him so that someone would see them and maybe have the sense to investigate. But they just stood there, craning their scrawny necks to look at him like gawkers at a sideshow.
Then, the ants came, and unlike the buzzards, they didn't hesitate to march down the sides of the hole like some miniature raiding party. There were hundreds of them, the big, red ones, the ones that the Mexicans called "hormigas del diablo" -- ants of the devil. Vin tried to sit perfectly still, hoping they'd crawl over him and go away. Most of them did, but some of them crawled into his shirt and up his boots, and, discovering they were trapped in his clothing, stung him.
There was a reason they were called ants of the devil. It was hellishly ironic that their bite, though harmless, resulted in a good two or three hours of excruciating pain, and just one bite was enough to make you willing to sell your soul to the Devil to end the torture.
Vin didn't know how many bit him. By the time they retreated to their mounds to escape the mid-day sun, he was in such agony that despite the heat, his skin had gone cold and clammy, and he was shaking uncontrollably. He must have passed out at some point, because when he found himself curled up on the muck-covered floor of his dungeon, he didn't remember lying down. Most of the blood that had pooled there had long since dried, but the stench of it that close to his nose was next to unbearable. Still, he couldn't bring himself to move. He wouldn't have thought it was possible to be in so much pain and still be conscious.
He tried to stay calm. He'd been stung before. He knew the pain would pass eventually, but God, it hurt. He panted and shivered violently, the responses of his overwhelmed nervous system beyond his control.
Through the haze of torment, he became aware that he could hear something. A voice. Not speaking but humming. A sort of low, droning hum that had no pattern to it, but unmistakably a human voice.
His heartbeat quickened with relief that someone - anyone, because at that point it didn't matter if whoever it was wanted to put a bullet in his head - was so near that he could hear them plainly.
He struggled to his feet, his skin on fire from the ant bites. A small whimper caught in his throat before he could stop it, but the humming continued without interruption. Whoever it was had to be close enough to hear him, but, they hadn't...
He was about to shout for help when he realized the humming was coming from right there in the pit.
What the hell?
Near delirious with pain, he tried to sort that puzzle out. He wasn't humming, He knew that. He knew he wasn't imagining it, either.
He let his ears guide him to the source of the peculiar sound, and his heart sank when he realized it was Porter.
The outlaw was rotting inside, and the resulting gases were escaping through the gaping hole that had been his throat, causing his very dead vocal cords to vibrate.
The corpse was moaning.
Vin covered his ears, but he still heard it.
"SHUT UP!" he shouted at Porter.
The droning whine continued, as Porter looked up at him. His eyelids had shrunk back so that his dead, opaque eyes were visible. The dangling lower jaw formed an obscene caricature of a grin where his mouth would have been, like the outlaw was laughing at him. Laughing at his fear, his pain.
And the moaning went on... and on... and on...
Pain and fear had stimulated Vin's nerves well beyond his threshold of endurance. His heart was pounding so hard, he honestly believed that were it not for his shirt, he'd be able to see it beating.
It was also slowly dawning on his disoriented mind that this meant there was no one else. No one had found him. It was still just him, and Porter.
Porter kept moaning, and grinning at him with those misplaced teeth, like he was proud of this little joke..
"Shut the FUCK UP!" Vin screeched at him, and in a move that stemmed more from reflex than any planning on his part, he swung a kick at the outlaw's head.
The skull flopped to one side, twisting the neck so that it fell against Porter's chest, upside down and still looking at him. The moaning abruptly stopped, but the blow Vin had delivered had opened the windpipe all the way so that a rush of reeking air escaped from the corpse's putrefying lungs.
The pit filled with the horrid, suffocating stink of it. Vin's eyes burned and his empty stomach heaved painfully.
He heard someone screaming and was surprised to realize it was him. Embarrassed, he promptly shut up, only to find himself giggling like a fool. What the hell was so damned funny? He sure as hell didn't know. Maybe he was laughing because if he didn't, he was going to cry. Goddamned sissy.
He tried to force himself to calm down, but it wasn't possible. He was still hurting too much.
Dazed with pain and half-crazy from fear and exhaustion, he was dimly aware of a rustling sound above him.
At least he'd scared the buzzards off.
Vin sat against the rough rock wall riding out the pain from the bites. He had discovered that movement of any kind didn't ease it any, and only wasted his energy, so he just lay there, perfectly still, and hurt. At the beginning, the pain was like holding your hand in a pot of scalding water and not being able to pull it out. But gradually, it began to subside, and when it was somewhere around the level of a bad sunburn, he began to think straight again.
This was not necessarily a good thing, because this was the second day they had done this to him and, he realized they ants would be back, and they'd do the same thing to him the next day, and the day after that until he got lucky and died.
How much longer would that be? How long had it been? Three days now? Or four? Two nights. He knew how many nights. Night time was the worst, because he couldn't see Porter that well. He could only hear as a contracting limb shifted slightly, or more of that foul gas escaped, now making a sound that was thin and reedy because his voice box was as rotten as the rest of him.
The smell was probably worse, too, but he didn't know for sure. He was so saturated with it that it had become almost normal.
The one other mercy granted him was that the afternoon sun didn't reach the bottom of the pit, so it wasn't beating down on him. But enough of it hit the walls that the heat absorbed by the black rocks turned the pit into a dark inferno. The dew he'd lapped up on the two mornings was enough to keep him alive, but he was too dehydrated to sweat, and he knew he was dangerously hot. Lying perfectly still was the best thing.
It wasn't hard. What else was there to do?
He squinted at Porter's corpse. It was covered with flies. Where had they come from? There could not be a fly for miles around, but let something die, and they materialized out of thin air. His nerves were so on edge that their monotonous buzzing infuriated him.
A few of them hovered near him, but for the most part, they seemed to know that Porter offered more rewarding possibilities without the danger of being swatted.
His arm hurt. He'd forgotten he'd cut it until he looked down at it and saw his bandana wrapped around it.
He untied the cloth and tried to pull it back, but it was glued to the wound by dried blood and pus, so it was a slow, tortuous process. Pulling the cloth away reopened the wound, and pus began to drain from it. He'd had an infection like that once. And old curandera had put a poultice of moldy bread on it. It had stunk like a son-of-a-bitch, but it had worked.
No bread, moldy or otherwise, in this place.
He hadn't really missed food. The company didn't do much for his appetite. But he felt weak and sick, and he didn't know if it was because he was sick, or because he was just too damned hot, and hadn't eaten in three days.
A couple of flies discovered the draining wound on his arm and landed on it. The little fuckers would lay eggs in the wound that would hatch into maggots in a matter of hours. That would be just lovely, wouldn't it?
At least there hadn't been any flies... that other time...
"NO!" he shouted to himself, forcing that memory back where it belonged, where he didn't have to think about it, or see it in his mind or even know it happened.
He yanked his knife from his boot and scraped it down the length of the wound on his arm, clearing away the pus and the scab and making it bleed again. It hurt like hell, but maybe the blood would wash out the infection. He wiped the knife on his pants and squeezed his arm below the elbow, as if that would stop the pain in his forearm from traveling upward. The blood flowed copiously down over his wrist and hand and he watched, fascinated, as it puddled on the rock in front of him, filling in the little holes in the porous lava with red.
Porter watched, too, his eyelids having fallen completely open on his upside-down head, his rotting eyeballs protruding as they tried to drop from their sockets. He was swelling up like a balloon, the buttons on his shirt threatening to give from the strain, his pants legs stretched tight over spongy, decaying flesh. The gases of decomposition that could n't escape from his chest were staying trapped in his innards.
He should move the body. Turn it so its swollen belly faced away from him.
On his hands and knees, he crawled over to the dead outlaw. It was only 3 or 4 feet, but it seemed further as the sharp rock scraped at his hands and knees like sandpaper.
He grabbed Porter's shoulders, and tugged at them to reposition the body, but the flesh was soft and squishy underneath the outlaw's bloody shirt, and the pressure of his hands caused fermented fluids from the disintegrating corpse to seep through the fabric and cascade over his palms and fingers.
He flung the abomination away from him, and then sat staring at his hands. The foul pink-tinged wetness on them was beyond vile, and all he could think of was getting it off of him. He looked around desperately for the bandana he'd discarded earlier and when he found it, he scrubbed viciously at his hands trying to wipe off every trace of the corruption. But it felt like it had soaked through his skin, and into him, and the very horror of it made him rub harder until his hands were red and burning from the friction. He couldn't get the smell off, that was the worst.
He threw the bandana at Porter and retreated as far as the tiny space allowed. He drew his legs up against his chest and covered his head with his arms, scarcely noticing that the re-opened gash was dripping blood into his hair.
He wanted this to go away.
He'd do whatever it took, just please please please let him be anywhere but here.
Vin, you dumb-ass. You're gonna die here. You're gonna die here, and you're gonna rot just like Porter, and when they find the two of you a hundred years from now, they won't even know which of you is which. They'll just laugh when they wonder at how you could have been stupid enough to have ended up here.
He laughed at that. Laughed until he was sobbing.
Stop that! Crying won't bring her back, and I don't have time for this shit. Quiet now!
Stupid hole. Stupid dead Porter.
He looked up at Porter's swollen body, the head now dangling precariously from a strip of rapidly deteriorating flesh.
"Yeah? Well, you just wait 'til your head falls off, and see how funny that is," he answered Porter's mocking upside down stare. That struck him as amusing, too, and he started laughing again, softly, because his throat was too parched for a real laugh.
He let his head drop back to his knees and rest there. The pain from the ant bites was almost gone, but he was so hot and so tired...
How had he gotten out of that hole?
The others. He knew they'd find him. Chris and Buck, they wouldn't leave him and not come back. They said they'd be back in a week, and they would.
It was cold in the cabin. It had snowed during the night, again. The fire was almost out. He'd almost let it go out. Stupid Vin. If it went out, he'd be in trouble because he didn't know how to start a fire, only how to keep it going.
More wood. That's what he needed.
He climbed onto a chair to get his coat down from the hook by the door. The snow had almost covered the cabin's only window, and he saw his refection in it. His hair was blond again. Why was that? He hadn't had blond hair for a long, long time. It had turned brown, like hers.
He looked back at the still figure in the bed. "I'm gonna fetch some wood," he said, and jumped down off the chair with a thud that made her flinch, made her open her eyes. She tried to say something to him, but she couldn't hardly talk any more, and he didn't want to get close enough to try to hear her. It smelled bad. He wished she didn't smell like that.
He pushed up the latch on the door and went outside and forgot to close it. The cold wind whipped at his hair and stung his face and hands. His legs were cold, too, because his pants were wet. He was afraid to go out to the privy alone in the dark. His knew there were big, black snakes in it that came out at night, because his cousin told him that. But there was no one to go with him, so, he didn't go, and he'd wet his pants. Maybe if he didn't say anything, she wouldn't notice and he wouldn't have to sit inside wrapped in a blanket while she washed his clothes and waited for them to dry by the fireplace.
It was hard work hauling the logs back to the cabin. Most of them weighed almost as much as he did. Some of them, he couldn't even pick up. Finally, he was too cold and didn't want to get any more wood. He counted the small stack of logs. One two four five seven. That should be enough.
He picked one up and hefted it onto the waning embers. It fell into the ashes with a loud plop that sent cinders flying everywhere and he jumped back, startled. There was sharp crackling sound as the sap ignited, and a hiss as the remnants of snow melted and fell into the fire. The log was engulfed in flame, but it was just a tiny flame, one that looked like it could go out at any time. He picked up another log, determined to be more careful this time. He lowered the log carefully over the other one, very slowly so he didn't drop it...
Ow ow ow ow ow! He dropped the log and pulled his hand out of the fire.
He wanted to cry, but if he cried, he'd have to admit he'd burned himself, and Grandpa would spank him for messing with the fire.
Except grandpa was gone. He'd be back in a week.
Vin didn't know how long a week was.
He started to cry.
She reached out her arms to him. He wished she would get up, wished she wasn't sick. He wished his grandpa was there, because he didn't know what he was supposed to do.
He walked over to her, but she scared him. Her face was so white, like the snow outside. And there was that awful smell, like something inside her was rotten. Her neck was swollen and red, and there was a sore on it that had eaten its way from the inside out. How bad did that hurt? He bet worse than his hand did, and that made him cry even harder.
He crawled into the bed with her, but he kept his back to her so he didn't have to see that sore, or smell that stinky breath she had now. She wrapped her arms around him, like she had done lots of times before, only now they didn't hug him close. They couldn't. She was too sick. Too sick to hold him, and, he sensed, too sick to stay with him much longer. That scared him, a sharp, empty hurting kind of scared that was the worst thing he'd ever felt.
It was still cold in the cabin, but she was so hot...
He felt her kiss the top of his head, and he stopped crying, even though his hand still hurt so bad. His crying was just making it worse for her, so he had to stop being a baby and shut up.
There was a small pitcher of water beside the bed, and her white, white fingers picked up a corner of the blanket like it was as heavy as iron and dipped it in the water, then placed the wet cloth on his hand. It didn't make all the pain go away, but it felt better.
He'd been awake almost all night, making sure the fire didn't go out, and he knew he should stay awake and watch it, but he couldn't keep his eyes open any more...
But he had to... he had to. If he didn't, he was going to fall back into that hot, dark hole because he wasn't really here...
He forced his eyes open. Something wasn't right. Everything was the same, but something wasn't right.
She was still. The sound of her raspy, labored breathing had stopped.
She was still holding him, but her arms were... funny... now. Cold and hard, like.... he didn't know what.
He tried to wriggle out of them, but she held him and wouldn't let go.
He didn't like this.
He struggled even harder, pushing against her crossed arms that were as stiff as wood, squeezing his head between them and feeling the cold, unyielding flesh against his face when he got stuck there.
He tried twisting, pulling, even kicking his legs as panic overtook him.
I don't like this I don't like this let me go!
He was sobbing with terror when his head finally popped free and he fell to the floor.
He got up slowly. Afraid to look at the bed and afraid not to.
He knew what dead was.
She was dead.
She lay there with her arms positioned as if she were still holding him, like that frozen squirrel he'd found once.
Her eyes were open, like the squirrel's had been, but she couldn't see him, not any more. Not ever again.
He backed away from the bed, his chest thumping like someone was inside it with a hammer.
He had to hide from this, but there was nowhere to hide. The cabin only had one room. Sometimes, he'd hide under the bed, and she'd pretend she didn't know he was there, but she really did... There was no way he was going under that bed, though. Not now.
His grandpa's bed was just a pallet on the floor, but he went to it anyway and pulled the worn blanket around himself.
She was dead.
Grandpa would be back in a week, but he didn't know how long a week was.
He pulled the blanket over his head.
And he wanted this to go away.