Pud jerked awake, almost sitting up completely. His mind reeled from the aftermath of the memory. The memory turned nightmare. One of too many nightmares that never left him, and never would. Time would not conquer those months he'd spent in that filthy hovel that had been converted into a cell.

It was a miracle he'd survived at all.

It took a moment for him to realize he wasn't a prisoner, even though his chest and neck burned the same way it had for months after that interrogation. He took several deep breaths to help calm himself as he listened to the sounds coming from outside the tent. From the waning light, he could tell the sun was going down. Had it been morning, the air would have had a distinctly different smell. A fresher, perhaps wetter scent caused by the low ground fog or dew.

He clutched his chest as he spasmed in pain. His fingers encountered the makeshift bandage. Someone had brought him here. Someone had tended to his injuries.

A memory of a kind face floated in his mind's eye. "My name is Billie."

He looked around at the interior of the small, dome-shaped tent. At the duffle bag sitting to one side of the sleeping bag. As far as he could tell, she was alone. Her female scent was everywhere. The absence of a male was tangible.

The wind shifted, and the odor of meat cooking wafted to him. He tried to clear his throat, but coughed instead. He was too dry. He needed to find something to drink.

He tried to ease out of the bedroll, when a wave of dizziness overtook him. Lying back down, he tried to fight the nausea that accompanied it, when a shadow appeared on the doorway. A woman's head peeked past the flap.

"I thought I heard you awaken. Would you like some water?"

"Please?" he croaked.

The head disappeared. Shortly thereafter, the woman crawled into the tent. She carried a bottle of water, which she handed to him, and a lantern. Pud managed to rise up on one elbow and drank almost the entire contents before pausing to catch his breath. He cleared his throat.


"You're welcome."

She placed the lantern on the ground, then sat cross-legged, putting as much room between them as she could in that cramped space. Pud watched as she adjusted herself as she sat down, and he immediately surmised she had a gun concealed somewhere on her person. Most probably at her back. He took his time sipping the remaining water.

"Billie, right?"

"Yeah. Billie Crowne. And, no, it's not short for anything. Just Billie."

She smiled, and he stared at her in surprise. She was tousled, wind-burned and sunburned, with no makeup whatsoever, and she apparently hadn't taken a bath in a few days. Her blonde hair that hung in two braids over her shoulders needed shampooing. But he was amazed by how pure she was. As if she belonged out here. As if roughing it in the middle of the swamp and marshland came naturally to her.

"You said your name was Patrick," she stated. She expected him to reciprocate.

"Patrick Davies. Friends call me Pud."

She almost laughed. Before she could ask, he explained. "Patrick Ulysses Davies. P-U-D."

"All right, Patrick. Until I get to the point where I feel I can trust you, I'll keep it a bit more formal." She reached behind her and pulled out a snub-nosed Ruger. From the way she held it, he could tell she was well-acquainted with the weapon. He watched as she flicked off the safety, then placed it on her knee, the barrel facing him. It wouldn't take but a split-second for her to grab it and fire if she felt threatened.

He glanced up into her eyes. "Smart move," he commented.

She was genuinely surprised by his remark. Apparently, she must have thought he would try to cajole her out of using it.

"Well, you never know what you might come across out here in the middle of nowhere."

He drained the bottle of water, replaced the cap, and set the empty container on the ground beside him. "I guess you're wondering about me."

"The thought had crossed my mind, yes."

Sighing, he lightly tapped his chest. "Thanks for this, too."

She shrugged with one shoulder. "It's the best I could do, under the circumstances. You're lucky you didn't take a bullet."

That surprised him. His expression must have given him away, as she grinned and nodded. Reaching into her vest pocket, she removed a small plastic container with a lid and tossed it to him. It landed on the ground beside him. Pud laid back down again, but didn't reach for it.

"You had a shitload of that in you. I got all I could find, but it made mincemeat out of your chest, not that..." Her voice trailed off, and her cheeks flushed slightly. He sensed why she'd hesitated. She'd seen his scars. He started to reply when she took a deep breath and continued.

"You need to see a real medic before you catch something and it becomes infected. Can you walk?"

Pud gave her a solemn shake of the head. "I don't know. I'm feeling a bit woozy. On top of that, my body is telling me it needs to rest. How far would we need to go?"

"A couple of miles. I have a boat anchored just on the other side..."

Her voice trailed off, but not because she stopped talking. As he slowly sunk into blackness, the sound of her words lulled him to sleep. Into blissful sleep that, hopefully, would not end with another episode of night sweats.