Jim grasped the arrow shaft and pulled it out of the fallen buck. The barbed arrowhead tore flesh as it came free, bringing a gush of warm blood with it. The buck was already dead; it felt nothing. Jim drew the knife from his thigh sheath and straddling the buck he reached down and slit its throat. There was no spurt of blood from the artery; that only happened if the heart was still beating, but Jim instinctively jerked back to avoid the non-existent spray. Blood poured slowly from the buck's neck, draining into the soft loam of the jungle floor.
He tugged on the buck's legs to roll it into a clearer space, then cut a long slit across its stomach from the anus to the bottom of the ribcage. He proceeded to gut the carcass, pulling out the stomach and intestines before the stomach gasses could spoil the meat. He left the discarded innards for whatever scavengers would be attracted by the smell of blood. After a moment's thought, he decapitated the buck and left the head, too: he had no use for it and the carcass would weigh less without it. He glanced around, but saw no predators except himself. He crossed the clearing and cut some vines, which he used to tie the buck's legs together. Finally, he sheathed the knife and hoisted the buck onto his shoulders. Weighed down with his kill, he started back up the slope toward the Chopec village. Even with the parts he'd left behind, it was heavy and before long he was sweating with the effort.
There were many reasons he shouldn't have come out to hunt alone, but Blair had been occupied and no one else offered today. Jim thought only about his sentinel ability, and decided he didn't really need company to help him with that. He hadn't considered that he'd need help dragging this thing back to the village.
As he crossed the first stream, some sound caught Jim's attention. He stopped walking, alert for danger. The normal sounds of the jungle wouldn't have grabbed him in this way. Whatever he heard, it was something out of place. Jim frowned in concentration, the weight of the buck on his shoulders temporarily forgotten as he sought that distant sound. It was a simple matter to cut through the ambient sounds, though he recalled a time when he would have struggled to do this, even with Blair's help. He looked up. The canopy above was so thick he could see nothing of the sky; nevertheless his sight helped to direct his other senses and he quickly identified what had alerted him. The sound was a helicopter somewhere to the east.
Jim tensed. A helicopter meant people from the urban world, and that meant danger: potential danger to the tribe; inevitable danger to Jim. The outside world believed he was dead, but it would only take one person to recognise him as the infamous American serial killer and the life he had built for himself here would be destroyed. Jim didn't want to bring that kind of trouble to the people he loved. The helicopter was to the east...and getting further away. He relaxed. Perhaps there was no danger. There was a logging camp in the next valley; most likely the chopper was heading there.
It increased his need to get back to the village, though. His attention still on that distant helicopter, Jim started to walk again. His foot slipped on the streambanck, unbalancing him. Jim's leg twisted on the uneven ground and he fell. The weight on his shoulders dragged him down, preventing him from stopping his fall. White pain knifed through him as he landed in the stream with the buck still on top of him.
The stream was little more than a trickle of water, but even that could hold dangers here. Jim felt the weight across his back and water soaking into his pants. He tried to lift himself up, but he could get no purchase with his feet. Just trying sent pain shooting up his leg. How badly was he hurt? It was the knee, but in this position Jim couldn't tell what was wrong. He struggled to get his hands under him, braced his body and pushed hard against the ground. Pain forced a cry from him, but the buck carcass rolled off him. Using his arms, Jim dragged himself out of the water onto the stream bank.
Jim lay on his back for a moment, panting from the exertion. This could be really bad. If he couldn't walk because of the knee, he might be stuck here for a long time. Someone would find him eventually: there were good trackers in the tribe and Blair would make sure they searched. But the dead buck would attract interest from predators...and there were a lot of predators in the jungle.
Jim checked the knife at his thigh, and the arrows at his back. They were still there; he wasn't defenceless.
Now for the knee. Jim pulled himself into a sitting position and examined his knee. His pants were torn and there was blood, but not much. The pain he felt, though, wasn't minor. He ran his hands over the knee. He could feel the beginning of swelling. He tried to straighten the leg and had to stifle another cry of pain. Something was torn or broken in there. He wouldn't be able to walk on it.
Jim turned to pull the buck carcass out of the water. Whatever else happened, he was going to get his kill back to the village. Game was scarce lately. People were not starving, but they had all gone hungry some days. Jim's first duty was to the tribe that had taken him in. Without the Chopec, he would be dead now, or rotting in prison. He would not return from his hunt empty handed. He managed to haul it out of the stream. Then he turned his attention back to his own situation. Where was he? How far from the village?
The pain in his knee was getting worse. Jim tried to reach out with his senses to get a clear idea where he was, but he couldn't focus his senses through the pain. He needed Blair's guidance to help him concentrate. Blair's touch could relax Jim, his voice was an anchor. Without them, Jim was literally lost.
Blair swung his machete, cut through the strangler fig's vines and reached in to yank the tangle of greenery out of his way. He glanced back at Moquin to make sure the young man was still with him and then plunged ahead.
When Blair approached the Chopec hunters about Jim's absence, he was afraid he was worrying prematurely, but they had already been preparing to head out and search for their sentinel. That made Blair even more worried. He wanted to accompany them, but he wasn't much of a woodsman and knew his tagging along would slow them down. As the hunters left the village, Moquin had come to Blair and asked him why he didn't search also.
"I'm not a very good tracker," Blair answered honestly. He had found a place among the Chopec. He understood their culture and language and they welcomed him, for Jim's sake at first and later for his own. But Blair was still a city-boy at heart and some of the skills that came so naturally to these people seemed beyond him.
Moquin would not accept Blair's answer. "They are trackers," he said, pointing at the departing hunters. "They can follow Enqueri, but you will find him faster. I will go with you."
"How can I find him faster than the best hunters in the tribe?" Blair protested.
"You will," Moquin answered with unshakeable confidence.
Since Blair really did want to be out there searching, he allowed Moquin to persuade him. They gathered supplies and headed south, a different direction from the trackers. In a way it did make sense. The trackers would have to retrace Jim's steps and Blair had been hunting with Jim often enough to know that would take a while. Jim never walked in a straight line. If there was some way to go directly to wherever Jim was --
-- lying hurt, even dying --
-- or dead --
-- don't think that! --
Blair paused at the streambank. It was just a trickle of water, really, one of hundreds that appeared in the rainforests and disappeared just as quickly. The depth of the gully suggested this stream might be more permanent than that, though. The flow of water over time eroded the thick jungle loam and the bottom of the streambed was rock. Blair gazed up at the thick canopy of trees and vines above them, uncertain what to do. It was getting late and darkness fell quickly in the jungle. Blair wasn't sure he would ever get used to that, after a lifetime living in Cascade where evenings came in slowly and even at midnight the city was never truly dark. In the jungle, the dense canopy kept the light levels low during the day and when night fell it came quickly, and not even the moon and stars penetrated. Jim's sentinel vision allowed him to find his way even in that complete darkness, but Blair lacked Jim's advantage. And it wouldn't help Jim if Blair got lost, too.
"Which way?" Moquin moved up to Blair's side.
Blair shook his head. "I don't know." It wasn't dark yet, but evening was fast approaching. They should go back. Where was Jim? Frustrated, Blair burst out, "This is stupid! I don't have a compass in my head pointing to Jim!"
But Moquin only smiled. "Not in your head." He tapped his chest; your heart, the gesture said. "Which way, Chief?"
Chief. They all called Blair that, in English: Jim's affectionate nickname for Blair had become his tribal name, though many of the tribe didn't know the meaning of the word they used. Blair looked down at the gurgling stream of water. A green and brown leaf bobbed near his foot and he bent to pick it up. Blood on the leaf rubbed off onto Blair's fingers and he felt his heart begin to beat faster.
"Moquin?" Blair showed him the leaf. Then he took off upstream without waiting for Moquin's response. That leaf hadn't fallen naturally; it had been torn from its plant. It was a plant Blair recognised: the Chopec healers used it as a poultice for minor wounds. It couldn't be a coincidence that Blair found it now, here.
"Jim!" Blair called. He knew Jim might not be close by, but he also knew that Jim could hear him, even if Blair couldn't hear his response. Jim would know Blair was looking for him. He was alive, but hurt: that connection mattered.
The stream led him up a steep incline and Blair was grateful for Moquin's help climbing up. At the top he found several more bloody leaves caught in the matted vines at the water's edge. "Jim!" he called again, a little desperately.
"Jim!" Blair ran toward the sound of his partner's voice, heedless of the uneven ground.
Blair saw him. Jim was wedged into the space where a tree trunk had split into two halves, curved apart in a V shape. Jim held a knife in one hand and with the other he pressed a handful of leaves to his knee. In the tree above him hung the gutted and headless carcass of a deer.
It was so like Jim to think of saving the meat before himself.
"What happened?" Blair demanded, in English. He crouched beside Jim.
"Busted my knee." Jim gave a crooked smile. "No E.R. out here."
"Like I could take you to an E.R. anyway," Blair chided. "Let me see." He eased Jim's hand and his improvised poultice away from the injured knee. He saw a gash on the outer side of the knee, but while even a tiny cut carried a risk of infection, Blair didn't worry about that. The healers at the village could handle infection, and in an emergency they could trade for Western meds. But the knee itself was purple and swollen. Busted wasn't an exaggeration. Blair had no way of knowing how bad the injury was. The bone could be broken, muscle or ligaments torn...he didn't know. One thing was obvious: Jim couldn't walk.
"What were you doing hiding in the tree? What if we'd missed you?"
"There was a jaguar around here. I couldn't run, so I got into a defensible position. It was the best I could do."
Blair stared at him. Jim spoke so confidently, but Blair knew him better than that. Jim had been frightened. Of course he'd never admit it aloud, but Blair understood. Which meant that more had happened than a jaguar wandering by. Had it attacked Jim?
"We'll get you home, Jim," Blair said, his look telling Jim he expected the full story later. "Don't worry."
"I know you will, Chief." Jim's fingers stroked Blair's hand as Blair tentatively examined the knee.
Blair smiled in response, but could not be distracted. "We'll have to carry you back."
"The buck, too," Jim insisted.
Blair sighed. "There are only two of us, Jim, and you - "
"The tribe needs it," Jim pointed out.
Blair straightened up and reached down to help Jim stand. He gripped Jim's elbows and pulled while Jim used his good leg to get himself upright. Jim yelled in pain. It had to be bad for Jim to cry out like that. Blair looked into his eyes, worried.
"Jim, if we need to carry you, we can't carry the buck too."
Jim scowled at him. "I'll walk, damn it! What do you think I am?"
A stubborn, stubborn man. "Fine," Blair answered, since it would do no good to argue. "Give me your arrows. I'll try to brace that knee." He undid his belt, a long strip of soft leather, and knelt on the ground. "You'd better hold onto the tree," he advised Jim, then switched to Quechua. "Moquin, can you carry that buck without help?"
"I can," he agreed solemnly.
Jim could see the fires of the village ahead, but they still had a long way to go. He was leaning heavily on Blair on his left side and on an improvised crutch on his right. Night had fallen and though Blair was carrying a torch they were relying more and more on Jim's senses to navigate the jungle. The problem was, Jim couldn't rely on his senses when he was in more pain with every step.
Finally, he could go no further. "Chief, I've got to stop."
Blair stopped walking at once. "Jim?" He shifted a little so he could look up at Jim, though there was so little light Jim didn't think Blair could see him. "I know you're hurting, man, but we can't help you until we get home."
Jim knew that. "I just need to rest for a moment."
"Okay." Blair simply stood, allowing Jim to lean on him.
Grateful, Jim let his good leg and Blair's shoulder take all his weight. It didn't stop his knee from hurting, but it did bring a little relief. He looked for Moquin, who was bringing up the rear. "Moquin, the village is close. That way." He pointed, and Moquin's eyes followed his gesture. The young man had great night-vision. "Can you make it alone?"
Moquin nodded. "I can."
"Then go. Bring help."
Moquin adjusted the weight of the buck across his shoulders and moved past them. Blair gave him the torch as he passed. Jim watched the bobbing flame for long enough to see he was going in the right direction, then he sank to the ground, giving into the pain at last. His injured knee throbbed, each beat of his pulse a fresh agony. He tasted iron on the back of his tongue. Sparks flared behind his eyes when he closed them. Jim gritted his teeth to keep from crying out again, but he knew it was a losing battle. He felt the heat of Blair's body touching him, but it no longer helped. All Jim could feel was the pain in his leg. He drew in breath through his teeth and if he could have spoken, he would have begged Blair to cut the leg off just to stop the pain.
Blair held him close; he was speaking in a soft voice but the words might as well have been Chinese. The tone, though, that was something familiar to Jim. He allowed Blair to hold him, accepting the comfort while he concentrated on breathing in and out. Jim had been hurt before, but this seemed worse. He began to wonder if he would be able to walk again.
Eventually, the sense of Blair's words began to filter through to him. Blair was telling him to focus, that he could use his senses to lessen the pain. Just treat it like white noise.
Blair seriously overestimated Jim's control. White noise was easy: it just took concentration to cut through it. Pain was different. Pain took over, dulling Jim's other senses and stealing his focus.
Which was why Jim didn't see or even smell the jaguar until it was almost too late. Its eyes gleamed in the darkness behind Blair. Its muscles bunched, prepared to leap.
Jim grabbed Blair and pulled him close, out of the jaguar's path. Taken by surprise, Blair resisted enough to drag them both off-balance. Fresh pain burst within Jim's leg as he rolled them over, covering Blair's body with his own.
Claws like knives sliced through Jim's tunic into the flesh of his back. The weight of the hungry cat crushed him, and Blair beneath him. The sharp scent of cat musk was suddenly overwhelming.
"No!" Blair cried, finally understanding what was happening. Trapped beneath Jim, he could do nothing to save them.
The jaguar snarled. Jim struggled to rise, to get it off his back, but in his weakened state he had little chance. He felt the jaguar's hot breath on his exposed neck and knew it was about to sink teeth into his neck, severing his carotid and crushing his spine...
He heard the twang of a bowstring and the swoosh of an arrow. The jaguar jerked with the impact and fell.
With Blair's help, Jim lay down on their bed platform. The drink the healer gave him had helped with the pain, but it also filled his brain with cotton candy. The cuts on his back from the jaguar's claws had been cleaned and treated. The healer treated the knee, too, but told him they would just have to wait and see how it healed. Jim took that to mean there was little to do about it. If they were in the city, he could get an x-ray, surgery even...but that was not an option for him.
It had been a long day and he was exhausted. But there was one more thing he had to do before he could sleep.
Jim patted the bed beside him. "Going to join me, Chief?"
Blair smiled, leaned over and kissed him. "Where else would I sleep?"
"You know, we should talk about Moquin."
Blair nodded, pulling off his shoes. "That was an amazing shot. He saved your life, Jim. I'm not going to forget it." Blair slid into the bed and pulled the woven blanket over them both.
"Chief," Jim persisted, determined to say what he had to say before sleep took him, "it wasn't amazing. It was impossible. To make that shot in the dark, Moquin had to be able to see as well as I can."
Blair got up on one elbow and looked down at Jim, frowning. "But he's not... Are you saying Moquin's a sentinel? Why would he hide it?"
"I don't know," Jim admitted. Moquin had hung around Jim from the day he came to the tribe after Blair engineered his escape from custody. Then, Moquin was a teenager and Jim had taken his constant presence as a kid's fascination with an exotic stranger. Maybe Moquin had been hoping Jim would recognise the gift in him...but, no, that didn't add up. A sentinel was valuable to the tribe; there would be no reason to hide the gift. Unless... "Blair, didn't you tell me once that some people are only part sentinel? Just one or two senses?"
"There are people with one or two hyperactive senses, usually taste and smell, but there's more to being a sentinel than that. They aren't sentinels, Jim."
"But, if that's what Moquin has..."
Blair nodded. "It could be."
"You need to help him. Find out." The tribe needed a sentinel and if Jim's knee was permanently busted, maybe Moquin could be it. Even if he had only part of the gift.
"I will. Tomorrow." Blair cuddled against Jim's side and laid his head on his shoulder.
"Love you, Chief," Jim mumbled.
Blair whispered a reply, but Jim didn't hear it. He was already asleep.
~ End ~