The chase, at this point, isn't nearly as exciting as the name would suggest; not when their prey has become little more than an afterimage, hidden away somewhere, beyond the horizon that on some days seems to be growing further and further away.
They ride from dawn to sunset and a bit later than that when the road allows it. If possible, the pace is stricter than when they were still on the race, or perhaps it's just the stress, the exhilaration that comes with the awareness that too many things, the most important things, are finally – hopefully – within reach.
Sometimes, while they run, Diego will jump off of the saddle, to relieve Silver Bullet's back of his weight or to burn off the adrenaline surging through his veins, or both, and dash ahead among trees and rocks, more animal and monster than man.
He has seen the scenery change and repeat itself countless times in these months: valleys to mountains to rivers to towns to cities from state to another state, rinse and repeat. He has no particular opinion of the Americans, except that they aren't much different from the British, who feel entitled to put up airs and treat the former like worthless bumpkins merely because their country has a longer history of crushing the weak and the foreign underfoot. Miserable countries and miserable people, and Diego wonders, vaguely, from what miserable corner of these lands Hot Pants came from. Sometimes, during lunch or dinner or any random stretch of awkward silence between them, really, his eyes fall on her profile, blunt and perpetually coiled like a snake in a scowl, and he tries to guess, then, if Hot Pants is trying to rise above the wretchedness or if she is right where she belongs. Diego can never find an answer, not even a maybe that feels a bit like the truth, and it doesn't matter, there is no reason why it should.
For a while, it continues like this.
The accident happens on a morning that doesn't stand out much against the brief row of those that they already saw coming and going together, apart from the weather, which is a bit nicer.
They are brewing coffee like the day before, and the one before that, when something unusual happens and the battered pot clatters onto the dust and hot water splashes across Hot Pants' fingers and palms, her wrists. Darker splotches bloom on the knees of her black trousers, too.
She gasps. There are no screams, she only gasps. Her lower lip is white and washed-out pink beneath the press of her teeth as she holds her breath.
There is something sliding down Diego's forehead and his back and his own palms and it takes him a long moment to realize that it's sweat.
He's cold, freezing, frozen and unable to move and yet he can feel the back of his sweater clinging to his shoulders. There is a lump lodged in his throat and there are also words he feels he should say, even though they are words he doesn't know. Diego tries to swallow but his tongue is sandpaper, and too thick to allow him to. He's going to choke on his own tongue. On the words he can't say.
He can't look away.
This is all very stupid, Diego thinks, staring at the blisters that blossom on Hot Pants' hands. This is all very stupid and it has got nothing to do with me. There must be something wrong with me.
But after Hot Pants hisses, water, get the water, she has to stop him from pouring all they've got left until the next river onto her hands.
"You look terrible," she says. There are tears in her eyes.
Diego is sure she won't shed them. He has seen that look before; he knows what it means. He feels sick.
Hot Pants' gaze lingers a bit too long on his face – she must know, or suspect something – before she announces her decision to get up with a sigh. Gets Up's quiet request for attention and perhaps a treat goes unheeded while Hot Pants searches one of the satchels attached to the saddle, pinching things between the tips of her fingers like they're poisonous.
There is a word, maybe a curse, that rolls out of her lips, half-formed and unintelligible, when a roll of bandages slips away and out of the satchel. Diego manages to catch it before it follows the coffee pot into the dirt-and-pebbles mesh in what is nothing more than a stroke of pure luck: his body feels too unsteady, to move as it should.
"Sit down," he says, and he sounds tired. "There's no way you can wrap those around your hands on your own."
Waves of dust and dead leaves rise up in the air. The wind howls, making the blood in their ears roar louder. Their eyes sting.
I have done it before lingers between them.
Hot Pants sits down in silence. She offers up her hands in a gesture that in another place, at a different time, would come off as innocent and trusting.
Diego takes one into his own. The reddened, peeling skin and the blisters make him want to throw up, but he doesn't move, he doesn't shift or say anything. He's not sure he could, even if he wanted to; not when he's horrified at how easily doing this comes to him after so many years. Hot Pants' palms are larger than the ones in his memories, her fingernails flat and square and boyish: hands that belong to whatever is left of a child who climbed trees and brawled and ran across fields with bruises on her knees. They are hands that he has never known before. Diego thinks again, there must be something wrong with me.
"Say," Hot Pants' voice is low but steady, but distant. She sounds empty. Younger. She, too, must be lost somewhere far away, in a place and a time that don't exist anymore, with her own ghosts. "Say," she croaks. "Would you have done anything for your mother?"
The hold around her palm tightens. It hurts.
It's gone a moment later though, and then Diego's shoulders look smaller, as if he's shrinking under the weight of faded out places and faces and words; mysteries Hot Pants can vaguely guess.
"What kind of question is that?"
This time it's the dirt that Diego can taste on his tongue: the wind is still strong and he wishes it would also drown out their voices, at least. He has no way to avoid this; he can't deny, deny, deny, because she already knows everything, all those things no one else but him should.
"If it were to save your life—Would you have let go of her, for that?"
Ah. Ah, so that's what it is. She's looking for some kind of salvation, to lessen her burden whatever it is, to chase away the ghost that is eating away at her heart, a ghost whose face or name Diego doesn't know, has no interest in knowing. He's sure that Hot Pants would never wish for him to know either: she's too proud for that but not enough to be above the cheap sort of reassurance she's demanding now. Diego has no intention of giving it to her, no reason at all to give it to her.
"Hey, what is the point of revenge?" there's no implicit, arrogant moral lesson, in the question, she's simply unraveling like he was only a minute ago. Diego feels the same mix of annoyance, fear and disgust that – unbeknownst to him – pervaded Hot Pants just then: they are afraid to look at each other and see their weaknesses in the eyes of the other, so afraid they can't even allow themselves to admit that much.
"If you want the dead to forgive you so badly, why don't you go and pray to your God some more?" Diego jumps to his feet without waiting for a reply. There isn't one. Hot Pants must have realized she was incurring the risk – the danger – of exposing herself. It's necessary, yet definitely no good for them to be together—not if they want to keep on living as they have up until now, to remain the people they have struggled so much to become even when such people are nothing more than the remnants of a whole human being, scraps of anger and sadness just barely capable of surviving out of spite.
They gather their things in silence, each perhaps pretending to be alone. After that, they mount their horses and resume the chase, running, parallel lines never touching, constantly looking back to the past even as they ride towards the horizon, towards their end and the future they never lived.