Mason poured a trickle of water onto Jared’s bone dry lips.
He had the driest skin either of them had ever seen. The tepid drops lingered in the dusty cracks that lined the limp man’s sagging mouth. His sun drenched and parched face turned towards the source of the water. A pop snapped in his rusty jaw as he sought another taste.
“Careful,” said Erin in an admonishing tone. “He’ll make himself sick.”
With a grim nod, Mason pulled back the canteen. His hand landed on Jared’s shoulder and gave the lean muscle underneath the flimsy cotton shirt dotted with rips and holes, a firm squeeze. Even with the heat of the day hours behind them, Jared skin still felt like fire on his fingers.
“Come on, man,” Mason said quietly.
Erin ringed out her dark blue bandanna again. The drips splattered in the pool filling the base of one of their sifting trays. She laid the damp cloth gently across Jared’s forehead.
Water coursed down Jared’s temples. The drops soaked into the canvas bag they had fashioned into a makeshift pillow and spattered on to the cooling sand.
The tent flap at their backs shifted in the rising night wind. A chilling breeze snuck through the narrow opening and stirred the dry strands of Jared’s sun bleached hair.
“Wendy?” he murmured. His head tossed to one side then to the other, searching with tightly shut eyes.
Erin sucked in a startled gasp. Her hand flew to her mouth in order to hold back any other murmur.
“Jared,” Mason said sternly. He pressed his fingers deeper into Jared’s shoulder.
The other man winced at the pain. His closed eyes tilted down to Mason’s strong hand but at least his dry mouth stayed quiet.
“Try some more water,” suggested Erin hoarsely. She rose to the knees of her cargo pants and leaned over. With a firm hand she pulled back the tent flap further so that the dark night, broken by a pair of kerosene lamps and a blanket of stars, could peer inside.
Whether because of the second round of water, the breath of fresh air, scent of burning oil or simply time away from the glaring sun, Jared finally managed to peel his eyes open. His pale blue gaze fought to focus on the canvas ceiling.
Erin reapplied the bandanna and let her damp fingers linger on Jared’s boiling cheeks. He leaned into to her cool touch.
“Jared.” Mason set the canteen down in his lap, suddenly wishing it held something more potent than water.
At the sound of his name, Jared squinted, obviously trying to focus on the speaker. Mason shifted forward so he hovered over the other man’s face.
Jared managed a swallow down his barren throat. His dusty tongue raked across the canyons on his lips.
“We…we found it.”
Mason glanced over at Erin but she hadn’t moved. She stared intently down at the weak figure spread across the tent floor.
“Can you get back there?”
The question tumbled out of Erin’s mouth and she winced almost immediately. Mason couldn’t bring himself to glare or reprimand her. He had barely kept the same words from launching off his own tongue.
He turned back to Jared, with the same searching stare.
Jared let out a sigh. His shoulder’s sagged into the soft ground. His dry lips began to gape then Jared’s mouth curled into a weak smile. A light, hoarse cackle crawled out of his throat. The hovering pair frowned.
“You want to go back?” Jared stumbled over the words and his chest heaved with the brief question. His ribs contracted in a laugh that quickly descended into a round of coughs that turned him onto his side and brought his knees up towards his chin.
They let him lay, curled and nearly fetal as the hacking slowly subsided.
“The sun got to him,” whispered Mason.
“Maybe…” Erin finally looked up from Jared’s curved body. Her brown eyes were hard and intent. “But we can’t just leave…Not after all of this.”
She waved towards the tent and stacks of boxed excavation equipment. But the motion encompassed more than mere gear. The presence of those they hadn’t found out on the sand lingered within the cramped space.
Wendy leaned against the crate of cameras and film and her white smile grew between her curving ebony cheeks. Meanwhile Derrin chewed on one of his power bars after another witty remark and stared out at the stars.
Mason shook his head.
“You think he’s up for it?”
Erin shrugged. “Maybe in the morning.”
Mason felt his anger rising and heating his voice, but he didn’t care. He lashed out with a pointed finger at the quieting form laying between them. “Erin, look at him.”
Erin sank back on her heels and wrapped her arms around herself. She turned her face towards the darkest corner of the tent.
Mason exhaled and forced it to carry as much of his frustration as he could force out. He shifted his eyes to the floor, giving Erin a chance to deal with the tears running down her face with as much privacy as they could afford. He took up the canteen again and brought it to Jared’s mouth.
“Here,” he said quietly.
Jared gasped at the tiny sip. Mason helped him roll onto his back again. Jared’s chest heaved with the effort but then rose and fell with a bit more rhythm. His strained breaths filled the silence.
Mason watched his own hands fumble with the round canteen and its dangling cap. On the other side of the tent, Erin left dirt streaks down her cheeks.
“Mason?” said Jared, slicing through the tension with unexpected ease.
“Yeah.” Mason leaned forward, searching the burnt face until he was caught in Jared’s icy eyes. Their focused gaze sent a chill down to Mason’s dust and sand covered boots.
Jared’s voice was cold and flat and as serious as either of them had ever heard him speak. “I know how to get there.”