Cover Of Night (Chapter 26)

"What the hell are they doing over there?" Toxtel muttered to Teague when the latter walked by on his way to relieve Billy. Goss was taking a break back at the tent, since he was due to relieve Toxtel at midnight. Now was when they settled into routine, and now was when staying alert would become harder and harder.

Teague looked like hell and felt worse, but he was walking, and he intended to take his shift. The lump on his forehead was so big he couldn't get a cap on, but the slightest pressure made him feel as if his head were exploding anyway, so he was just as glad to do without one. The pain had kept up a steady pounding all day, but he'd checked his pupils in his rearview mirror and they were both the same size, so he figured he was okay; he'd just have to tough it out through the pain. He popped a couple of ibuprofen every four hours and that took the edge off, which would have to do.

Teague glanced across at the seemingly deserted community. From where he stood, he could see a couple of bodies lying where they'd fallen. If anything much had happened over there today, he couldn't tell. "What do you mean?"

''You'd think they'd at least try to find out what's going on, but no one's stuck his nose out or yelled."

"Give em until tomorrow," said Teague. '"I figure Creed is getting them organized to try something. They may not wait until tomorrow; they might try something tonight. We'll have to stay alert." He stared across the wreckage of the bridge; he wouldn't have been surprised to see Creed on the other side, shotgun to shoulder and sighting down the barrel at him… Shit, he had to stop thinking about Creed, stop letting himself be mind-fucked. He wasn't stupid, he wouldn't discount Creed, but the bastard wasn't a superman. He was good at what he did. period. Well, Teague thought, so am I.

"I don't like it," said Toxtel. He. too, was staring across the bridge. "They should have been asking what we want."

"Don't forget, my boys have been shooting at 'em even so often. They're probably not all that anxious to stick their heads up. Tomorrow, we shoot only if we see a target."

"Then how in hell are we going to talk to them?"

Didn't these city boys know anything? "As soon as one of them ties a flag to a stick so we know he wants to talk, that's when we talk."

He left then and climbed to where Billy was positioned, the movement made more tortuous because he knew damn good and well that some of those old deer hunters could have their scopes on him, waiting for a good shot. He had to make certain they didn't get the chance, even though he didn't think it likely any of them would have the firepower to reach out this far. But then, he'd been surprised by how close Creed had managed to get last night; he wouldn't let himself get caught twice.

Billy was exhausted, since Teague hadn't been able to relieve him any during the day; he rolled away from the prone rest position he'd held for hours and lay sprawled on the rough ground. "Thank God. You feeling any better?"

"I'm here. Seen anything interesting?"

"I get the feeling there's been a lot of movement going on behind cover. Blake and Troy think the same thing. Sometimes I'd catch a glimpse of something, but never enough to tell what it was And always behind good, solid cover, so I know I wasn't looking at a dog or a cat."

"You fire to make 'em keep their heads down?"

"A couple of times yes, a couple of times no. Goes against the grain to waste ammo."

Teague knew what he meant. He settled with his rifle on the blanket Bill had spread on the ground over some leaves and pine needles to make the long watch more comfortable. His spare battery for the thermal scope was at hand, as well as a thermos of coffee and a pack of snack crackers if he needed to keep his energy up. At least tonight wasn't as cold as last night had been, so he wouldn't be shivering and shaking, which would play hell with his headache.

"Nobody tried to retrieve the bodies," Billy said, sounding troubled. "That bothers me."

"If they're going to, it'll be tonight. They'll have waited for dark."

"They have to have figured we got special scopes, that's how we could hit 'em last night."

"Yeah, but maybe they've worked out something movable they can hide behind. We'll see."

"You going to shoot if they go after the bodies?"

Teague considered the question. "I don't think so. Is Blake already in position?"

"He relieved Troy about half an hour ago."

"I'll radio him. Let them get the bodies. I don't know what they'll do with them, but I don't think it'll be pleasant, having all those dead people lying around attracting flies and turning black. Put a little more pressure on them."

"That it will." Billy stretched, then got into a crouch and worked his way behind Teague, heading toward the tent. "Have fun tonight."

Teague carefully braced his rifle, then turned on the thermal scope and put his eve to it. Last night Trail Stop had been lit with thermal signatures; tonight there was nothing. The houses didn't glow with heat, and none of the brightly lit little figures were running around making perfect targets of themselves. Considering how his head felt, he hoped the night stayed just as quiet as it was now.

Cate checked the glowing hands of Cal's watch, which he'd lent her, since hers wasn't luminous. Eleven thirty. She pulled her blanket more securely over her shoulders and stared up at the cloudy sky, glad the night was cool but not cold. She would have preferred a nice bright moon. too. but her eyesight had long since adjusted to the darkness, which wasn't total. She wouldn't want to walk anywhere; she couldn't see that well, but she could make out darker shapes and shadows. So long as nothing moved, and she didn't hear any crashing sounds, she was good.

Cal slept on his side on the thin pad he'd brought, blanket pulled up to his chin. They were keeping watch, for this first night at least, since they could have been seen working their way toward this location. Cate had the first shift; since the midnight to dawn shift was the hardest, he'd said, he would take that one.

He'd fallen asleep so fast, so easily, that she'd been disconcerted. She wished the light had been sufficient for her to watch him, but she'd had to content herself with listening to him breathe. He'd shifted position once or twice, but for the most part he'd been very still. As nothing happened to keep her alert, after a while she stopped starting at even' rustle, every tiny scratch and scurry, as the night animals and insects went about their business. Instead, she thought about him.

Cal had said Trail Stop was shaped like a paramecium. The odd word had gone around and around in her brain as she followed him down the steep slope toward the river. Cate remembered what a paramecium was, from high school biology, but the word choice alerted her to yet another facet that made up the complicated whole of the man.

The past few days had been one revelation after another, until she felt as if she had to be the blindest, most oblivious person in Trail Stop. Until just a few days before, she had seen him as a sort of nonentity: painfully shy, inarticulate, but able to fix just about anything. He was definitely a jack-of-all-trades, but she'd discovered that while he might be a quiet man, he wasn't shy at all; in fact, he was well-spoken, educated, and decisive. He'd been in the military, about which she knew next to nothing, but evidently he'd been in some kind of exclusive unit.

Everyone else in Trail Stop seemed to have known all this. How could she not have noticed the disparity between the way she had looked at him and the way they saw him? Of course, they had known him far longer, but still – she felt as if she were still missing some big piece of the puzzle, some magic piece that would bring everything into focus.

The thick end of the paramecium slanted downward, which was good for two reasons: it provided cover, and the sharp slant down to the river wasn't as high. On the highest side, the bluff was sheer and a good seventy feet, but here at the eastern end it decreased to a mere forty feet, at a lesser angle, which meant they were able to get down without rappelling. Cal used a short-handled trenching tool to cut footholds in the dirt, and they both went down in a mostly upright position.

That close to the river the roar of the water had made conversation impossible unless they shouted, so she'd concentrated on not falling as they negotiated over jagged boulders. There was no riverbank, not in the sense that people usually thought. At the water's edge were rocks, period: big ones, little ones, rounded ones, and sharp ones. Some were solidly placed, some rolled underfoot. Some were slippery. Some were slippery and rolled, and they were the most treacherous. She'd had to make certain she had a secure grip with at least one hand before placing her weight on any rock. The pace was necessarily slow, so slow that she had begun to worry they wouldn't be able to get to more hospitable ground before dark, but they'd made it to the base of the mountain just in time. Cal had found a protected slope and that was where they'd stopped.

There was no semblance of camping. It was just the two of them, sitting on the ground in the dark, eating muesli from a plastic bag and drinking a little water. Then he'd unrolled the pad and lay down to sleep, leaving her alone with her thoughts.

At midnight she said. "Cal." and just like that, he was awake, without her having to shake him or repeat his name. He sat up and stretched, yawning.

"How did you do that?" she asked, pitching her voice low because sound carried at night.

"Do what?"

"Wake up that fast."

"Practice, I guess."

She gave him his watch, and he strapped it back on his wrist while she stretched out on the pad. She had wondered if it would be as comfortable as it looked. It wasn't. It was a thin pad on the rough ground, and she could feel every root and rock; still, it was better than sleeping on the ground, because it kept the chill away.

She spread her blanket over her as he took a drink of water and sat down where she'd been sitting. She tried to doze off, if not immediately as he'd done, at least within five or ten minutes. Fifteen minutes later she was still fidgeting.

"If you're not still, you won't ever get to sleep," he said, sounding amused.

"I'm not a good camper; I don't like sleeping on the ground."

"In different circumstances – " He stopped.

She waited for him to say something else, but he seemed inclined to let drop whatever he had been about to say, rather than rephrasing it. "In different circumstances – what?" she prodded.

More silence, broken only by a slight breeze soughing through the trees. He was just an indistinct shape in the darkness, but she could tell he'd raised his head, listening for something. He must not have heard anything alarming, because his body posture soon relaxed. His words came softly. "You could sleep on me."

The rush of blood through her body made her feel lightheaded. Yes. Yes, that was what she wanted, what she craved. She heard herself saying, just as softly, "Or vice versa."

He inhaled raggedly, and she smiled in the darkness. It was good to know she could do to him what he'd just done to her.

He shifted his legs, as if he was uncomfortable. Finally he muttered something, stood, and made some adjustments before cautiously sitting again. Cate smothered a giggle. "I'm sorry," she made herself say, though she wasn't at all sorry.

"I doubt it." His tone was wry. "You should have one of these for a little while, just to see how inconvenient they can be."

"If I had one, you wouldn't be uncomfortable."

"I said for a little while. I definitely wouldn't want you to have one permanently."

"I don't need to have one at all." A tiny devil prodded her to add, "Because you'll let me use yours, won't you?"

Another sucked-in breath, and some rough breathing. He said, "Damn it," and stood again.

This time she couldn't hold back a tiny hiccup of a laugh.

"Tucker sounds just like that sometimes," he said. "They don't look like you very much, but sometimes the way they'll say things, or hold their heads – that's when I see you in them."

Just like that her heart squeezed. She hadn't seen her babies since Friday morning, and it was now Sunday night. They were okay, though; that was the main thing. They were safe. And Cal was the only person who had ever said they reminded him of her. If he wanted to change the subject by talking about her boys, she was willing.

"I have a confession to make," he muttered.

"About what?"

He cleared his throat. "I'm the one – uh – I said some things I shouldn't have in front of them."

Cate sat up on the pad, glad he couldn't see her face. "Such as… damn idgit?" she asked suspiciously.

"I hit my thumb with the hammer," he said, sounding incredibly sheepish. "I – uh – said a whole alphabet soup of things."

"Such as?" she asked again, somehow managing to keep her tone stern.

"Well, I – Cate, I was a Marine, if that gives you any idea."

"Exactly what should I be prepared to hear my children saying?"

He gave in, his shoulders slumping. "Do you want the words, or just the initials?"

Uh-oh. If she could recognize what he'd said by the initials, she knew it was bad. "The initials will do."

"It started with g.d."

"And then what?"

"Um… m.f. and s.o.b."

She blinked. She could just hear those words coining out of four-year-old mouths – probably when her mother was in the grocery store with them.

"I heard a giggle and looked around, and there they were, all ears. I couldn't think of anything else to do, so I threw the hammer, jumped up, and yelled, 'I'm a damn idiot!' They thought that was hilarious, especially when I told them 'damn idiot' was a really, really bad thing to say and they should never say it, and I should never have said it in front of them, but that was what you said when you were really mad." He paused. "I guess it worked."

"I guess it did," she said faintly. He certainly knew how little boys' minds worked. They had promptly forgotten the words deemed not as bad, and concentrated on what he'd told them were really bad words. She should count her blessings.

She clapped a hand over her mouth as she shook with laughter, giggling and snorting. In that moment, listening to the sheepishness in his voice, delighting over the mental picture of him swearing a blue streak and suddenly looking into the fascinated faces of two little boys, she tipped over the emotional edge she'd been hovering on – and fell.