“Get back!” Ralph hollered.
Fire suddenly tore into Norman’s leg. Dropping his torch, he crumpled to the floor as bolts of agony shot all the way up into his belly. He cried out, mouth open for a moment in a silent scream, then a high-pitched whine escaped his lips: “Shhhiiittt!”
Ralph was instantly at his side, dragging him back toward the shadowed wall. “Goddammit, Norm, what did you think you were doing?”
Norman was not in the mood for a discussion of his shortcomings. With teeth clenched against the pain, he stared down at his right leg. A thick wetness soaked through the knee of his khakis. The room began to spin.
“You caught a ricochet,” Ralph explained. He pulled off his shirt. “Why did you step from cover?”
Norman groaned and waved an arm toward the gap in the roof slabs. “I wanted to be sure—oh, the hell with it—I wasn’t thinking.” His face squeezed tight as Ralph gently examined the wound. “It’s not like I tossed handfuls of bullets into campfires when I was a kid. But I guess with my army training I should’ve known better than to break cover.”
“I don’t think it hit any major arteries,” Ralph said. “I don’t see any spurting, but your knee is all shot to hell. I’m gonna have to wrap it tight to support it and to restrict any further seeping.” Ralph took his own shirt, a thick flannel, and shredded it into strips. Taking a scrap, he touched Norman’s leg. “This will hurt.”
“Then let’s not do it,” Norman said sourly, grimacing.
Ralph frowned at him.
Norman sighed and waved him closer. “Oh, go ahead. Just do it.”
Nodding, Ralph took his leg and bent it up. Norman’s knee exploded with pain, like a stick of dynamite going off inside. But worse was the sick grate of bone on bone. Norman gasped, tears in his eyes. “Do you even know what you’re doing?”
Ralph just continued to work, ignoring his agony. He wrapped his scraps of flannel shirt several times around Norman’s knee from thigh to mid-shin. “Back at the University of Alabama, football players were always banging up their knees. If nothing else, I know how to place a quick support wrap.” Ralph finished his handiwork with a final firm tug, cinching the wrap tight.
Norman’s fists clenched; he writhed slightly. It felt like something with huge claws had clamped his knee. Then it was over.
His torturer scooted back. “That should keep you from dying.”
Norman wiped the tears from his eyes. The pain subsided. “Great bedside manner, Doc.”
Ralph eyed him a moment, worry creasing his brow as he studied the photographer. Finally, he glanced back toward the entryway. It was quiet. The bullets had long since stopped popping in the fire. “Now the bad news. We need to get out of here. My stunt’s not going to keep those monsters away for long.”
Norman glanced to the doorway. Pieces of the shredded and scattered mummy smoldered beyond the threshold, while distantly, spats of flames still dotted the stone floor. But at least the exit was open. He nodded and raised an arm. “Help me up.”
Ralph stood, then used a muscled forearm to pull Norman from the floor.
Gasping from the movement, Norman was careful to keep his weight off his injured leg. Once up, he tentatively leaned on his heel, gauging the amount of pressure he could withstand. Pain throbbed, but the support wrap kept his knee immobilized. Norman hobbled a few steps, leaning heavily on Ralph’s wide shoulder.
“Can you make it?”
Norman glanced up. Sweat beaded his forehead from this small exertion. He felt queasy from the continual throbbing in his leg. He offered Ralph a sick grin. “Do I have any choice?”
Overhead, something stirred. Claws again scrabbled on the rock. It sounded as if one of the beasts had hidden up there, but now with the streets quiet again, it was slinking off. The two men stood immobile, straining to listen, waiting to be sure the beast had moved away. Silence for ten full counts.
They dared not wait any longer. Where there was one, others might soon follow. “Let’s get out of here,” Norman said.
Ralph collected the torch from the floor. He fanned its embers into a brighter flame, then stepped beside Norman. “Grab my shoulder. Lean on me.”
Norman didn’t argue, but he held the man back for a moment. His voice serious for a moment. “If we get in trouble… leave me.”
Ralph did not answer.
He squeezed the larger man’s shoulder harder. “Did you hear me?”
“I don’t listen to fool’s talk.” Ralph raised a palm toward Norman’s face.
“Oh, don’t go Oprah on me, Ralph. I’m not talkin’ to the hand.” Norman pushed Ralph forward. They stumbled together toward the door. Norman kept speaking to distract himself from his pain. “I’m not saying you should throw me to the monsters as bait and hightail it away. I’m just saying… let’s be practical. If we get in trouble, leave me in some cubbyhole and run. Put those ex-football player legs of yours to use.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Ralph muttered. He helped Norman ease through the low door.
Norman straightened, and the pair cautiously entered the street. The avenue was strewn with flaming bits of cloth. It looked like a war zone. “That was more of a show than I expected.”
“But at least it helped chase those things off,” Ralph said.
Norman glanced up and down the street. Ralph was right. There was no sign of the monsters. “Thank God.” For the moment, they were safe.
“C’mon,” Ralph said. “Let’s get the hell away from here.”
“Anything you say, boss.”
Ralph set off with Norman in tow, their pace slow but steady. Soon they had left the smoldering remains of the mummy behind. Only a small pool of light cast by the stubby torch marked their progress. Norman had wriggled free his flash and held it ready, prepared to scare off any stragglers with the blinding light if necessary. At one-minute intervals, he also strobed a quick series of flashes to indicate their current location for Sam or any of the others to follow.
Of course, the flashes of light also gave away their position to the cave beasts, but it was a calculated risk. With Norman injured, they needed help, as in big guns, and that required a signal.
Norman lifted his flash and spat a series of blinding bursts toward the ceiling. “I feel like a goddamn firefly.”
Ralph frowned, discouraging any conversation. They were already enough of a target.
Norman frowned at his companion’s unspoken scolding but stayed silent, biting back a quip. He knew Ralph was growing more and more nervous. The large man had begun to pause, glancing quickly over his shoulder, as if he sensed something was tracking them.
Norman never heard anything, but his head now pounded continually. Still, he knew Ralph was mistaken about one thing. If they were being tracked, it wasn’t a few whispered words that drew the creatures. Norman studied his leg. Blood seeped slowly from between the folds of the wrap. Considering the lack of light, he suspected the beasts’ other senses were keen. I’m a meal on the run, Norman thought morosely.
Silently they continued onward, aiming for the gold statue. No attack came, but the cavern had grown strangely quiet. Only the occasional howl sounded from somewhere within the depths of the cavern. Ralph’s shoulder became more and more hunched and tight under Norman’s grip.
Finally, Norman slowed. By now, his skull felt two sizes too small, and his steps had become dizzied. “I need a rest break,” he whispered.
“Already?” Ralph hissed, eyes wide on the surroundings.
Norman let go of Ralph’s shoulder and hopped to a nearby tomb wall. “Just for a few moments.”
Ralph scowled and swung the torch closer to Norman. The frustration in the large man’s face waned to worry. “Shit, Norman, you look like crap.”
“Good, because that’s exactly how I feel.” Norman slid down the cool stone wall and sat on his rump.
Ralph crouched beside Norman, his eyes back to surveying the length of the street. “It can’t be much farther.”
Norman bit his lower lip, then spoke the words he had been trying not to say for the past few minutes. “Ralph, you need to go on alone.”
He shook his head—but not before hesitating a moment, Norman noticed. “I can’t leave you here.”
“Yes, you can.” Norman forced as much false cheer into his voice as possible. “I’m gonna crawl into this tomb, cuddle up with the homey here, and wait for you to fetch that Texan with that big rifle of his.”
Sighing, Ralph pondered his words. “Maybe…” He shoved to his feet. He even took a step away. Then he suddenly swung back. “Fuck that! You didn’t leave me back at the river, and I’m not leaving you now!” Ralph held out his torch. “Take it!”
Norman grabbed the flaming brand. “What are you—?”
Ralph bent down and scooped up Norman under both arms, ignoring his squawk of protest. “I’ll carry your ass out of here if I have to.”
Norman squirmed a moment, then relented. “Let me down… if you’re that determined, I can manage a little longer.”
Lowering him back to his feet, Ralph hissed in his ear. “I don’t want to hear anything else about abandoning you.”
Norman grinned, inwardly relieved that Ralph had refused to leave. “And I didn’t think you cared.”
Ralph’s brows bunched. “Just get your crippled ass moving.”
Norman hopped a step forward, while Ralph’s grip held him steady. “I hope you’re right that it isn’t far to the statue.” Moving another painful step forward, Norman noticed Ralph hesitate. Ralph’s hand remained clamped to Norman’s upper arm, but he wasn’t following.
Ralph’s grip spasmed tighter for a moment, then relaxed.
Norman turned. “What’s the holdup?”
His hand fell limply from Norman’s shoulder. Ralph fingered weakly at his thick neck, disbelief on his face. Blood poured over Ralph’s fingers. The large black man reached for Norman with his other hand, pleading. “R… run!” Ralph gurgled.