Daichi slumped into Jiro, trying to maintain his balance as they limped along. His left foot barely touched the ground, yet even that much caused him to gasp. Those exhalations worried Jiro more than anything. His father had always silently borne any pains, a trait Noboru and Jiro had always tried to emulate. The broken leg must be worse than was apparent. He had to find some way to send a distress signal to Wodan, but only after he found shelter for his father.
“Do you know a good place to hide?” Jiro guided his father to the southwest, hoping to avoid the white panther den. “A place the Malsain won’t find us?”
His father grunted. After a few more steps, he replied, “The Malsain destroyed the ship?”
“Blew it up.”
“Everything is destroyed?”
“Nothing left. Knew what they were doing.”
Daichi wheezed as they continued forward several more paces, his injuries clearly exhausting his strength. With each step Daichi slumped more, which sent jolts through Jiro’s wounded right arm. Jiro closed his eyes and turned his head to the side, away from his arm as if not looking might ease the pain.
He tried to check for signs of the Malsain, but he could not search and support his father at the same time.
“There’s an outpost,” his father said.
Hope coursed through Jiro. Were there other hunters there? Or at least communication equipment? Why hadn’t his father mentioned it before?
Jiro waited for his father to elaborate. When he didn’t, Jiro prompted him, “What outpost?”
Of course it’s East, Jiro thought. I’ll just rendezvous with the Malsain and we’ll all go together.
Daichi collapsed, dragging Jiro down. Jiro tried to brace himself and hold his father up, but lost his balance and dropped to his knees. His father fell face first on the ground and groaned.
Jiro’s arm flared in agony and his vision swam. For a second all thought vanished. He gasped and moaned, wishing the pain would knock him unconscious so he wouldn’t feel it. After thirty seconds of panting, Jiro remembered what had just happened and his eyes flew open.
“Dad, are you okay?” Jiro grabbed his father’s arm.
Daichi made no effort to rise.
“Dad, we’ve got to get you up. We need to find shelter.”
Daichi slowly rolled over onto his back. “I can’t go any farther.”
“I’ll help you,” Jiro said, reaching again to pull his father up.
Daichi swatted listlessly at Jiro’s hand. “I haven’t the strength. You’ll have to go without me.”
“No!” Jiro shook his head adamantly. “I’m not leaving you.”
When Jiro had found only blood stains where he had left his father earlier, he had feared he’d never see him alive again. Now that they were together, he could not bear to split up. He didn’t want to be alone, especially with the Malsain surely tracking them.
“No choice.” Daichi’s face was pale and slick with sweat. “My leg. Something’s wrong.”
The admission made Jiro sick. “What’s wrong? What can I do?”
“I need help from a doctor, Jiro,” Daichi said. “You can’t carry me, and the outpost is too far.”
“I could try–”
“No, Jiro,” Daichi insisted with what little strength he had left. “You have to get to the outpost and get help. If you don’t leave now–”
He left the rest unsaid, but Jiro knew what he meant. Involuntarily, he glanced down at his father’s leg and realized it was swollen and discolored, as if from internal bleeding. They had no way to stop that.
Jiro scanned for some place to hide his father, but nothing looked promising. He could build a lean-to, but it would be difficult with one good arm. Plus, he’d have to hope the Malsain didn’t spot it before he returned. Unless–
“Dad, let’s get you over to this tree.”
Jiro slipped his arms under his father’s and half lifted half dragged him. Each tug made him feel faint, his right arm throbbing, but he gritted his teeth and pulled his father over to a large cedar tree. He then propped his father’s head on his pack.
After that Jiro gathered vines and uprooted small bushes, which he used to hide his father. An effective camouflage.
The rogue Malsain would track them before long. Probably already on the trail. Jiro had done everything he could to protect his father. The most important thing he could do was find that outpost.
“Dad, will you be alright?” Jiro was still afraid to abandon his father.
“Go,” Daichi said.
Jiro had one last idea. He pulled out the medical kit from his pack and retrieved the pain pills. “Dad, take these.” He forced a pair between his father’s lips.
His father swallowed. Jiro then opened the canteen.
“Drink.” He placed the canteen to his father’s lips. Daichi gulped the water down, then opened his mouth a second time. Jiro poured a little more in, which his father also drank. Jiro waited for him to open his mouth a third time, but he didn’t.
“Do you want more?”
“Please Jiro, go,” his father said.
Jiro took a couple of swings from the canteen. The white panthers’ cave was southeast, and he hoped they didn’t come prowling, but he had nothing else with which to ward them away. Maybe the encounter with the Malsain had driven the panthers farther away.
Jiro slung his pack over his left shoulder. He grabbed his rifle, then regarded it. They only had one. His father was defenseless while he could at least run, and he had his knife. He set the rifle against the tree by his father’s head. “I’ll be back soon, dad. I promise.”
“No,” his dad said, eyes stern peeking out from the foliage burying him. “Take the rifle.”
“You can’t protect yourself.”
“Take the rifle,” his father repeated. “They’ll be after you.”
Jiro nodded reluctantly, unable to reply or disobey his father. He retrieved the rifle, but set the canteen in its place, along with the knife from his pack. The only thing he could do for his father now was find the outpost.
Actually, there was one other thing he could do. He retraced their steps north.
(Part 6 coming next week!)