Under the vultures moon, p.16

Under the Vultures Moon, page 16

 

Under the Vultures Moon
 


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  There’s a cave several feet away, to your left. Bring the boy there.

  Wyatt shivered against the gunslinger’s legs and said he was frightened.

  “I know you are, son,” said Jed. He could have added, “Me too.”

  Bring him! That’s right; this way...

  With a hand on the boy’s shoulder, Jed walked Wyatt towards the pitch black hole gaping ahead of them.

  Come in, come in...

  When darkness surrounded them, Jed felt the air change, felt everything change. There was a lurch in his innards, like when you put your foot down on a step that isn’t there, and he knew they were back in Shish’s realm, somewhere deep within the surface of Vultures’ Moon.

  The blue sphere bobbed in front of them. Wyatt’s eyes grew wide with wonder. He tried to touch it but Jed knocked his hand away.

  “Welcome, little one,” Farkin Shish emerged from a shimmering wall, in the size and shape of Wyatt. The boy’s mouth made a huge O. “Come with me,” Not-Wyatt extended his hand. “I’d like you to meet a Horse.”

  He led the boy away. Jed followed, his gun drawn - for comfort more than anything else.

  The walls and floor rippled as they approached the stall where Horse was imprisoned. Jed’s breath caught in his throat when he saw the deteriorated condition of his companion. Horse’s legs were bowed and buckled. His ribs were visible and the skin around the feeding holes was puckered and sore. His eyes were rolling in his head, their corners encrusted, their whites a vivid red. Electrodes had been jabbed into his exposed brain like candles in a birthday cake.

  Jed drew near and stroked Horse’s matted mane. The critter didn’t respond to his touch.

  “His senses are switched off,” explained Shish. “He wouldn’t withstand the pain otherwise. So be assured he is feeling none of this.”

  “Let him go,” Jed growled, aiming his revolver between Not-Wyatt’s eyes.

  “In time,” said Shish. “When I’ve taken what I need. Come and sit here, Wyatt,” he beckoned the boy to a seat that had just pushed itself from the glimmering wall. As though hypnotised, Wyatt obeyed. The blue sphere hovered overhead, pulsating faster and faster in its rising excitement.

  More electrodes appeared as though the wall was giving birth to them. Not-Wyatt’s hands reached for them and attached them to the boy’s head.

  “Now, sit quite still and you won’t feel a thing.”

  Jed felt powerless to stop it. He found he couldn’t move. The floor was holding onto his boots and rudimentary arms sprouted from the wall behind him to hold him in place.

  A low, throbbing sound began, growing louder and faster. Horse trembled in his stall. A front leg stamped the ground - it was an involuntary action. His neck arched and fell and his bedraggled tail twitched and flickered.

  On the chair, Wyatt sat motionless like a doll. The electrodes on both boy and critter twinkled as the remnants of Farkin Plisp were passed from one to the other.

  Abruptly the throbbing ceased. Not-Wyatt clapped his hands.

  “It is done!” he gasped in delight. He unhooked the boy’s electrodes and then his head exploded into smithereens of flesh, brain and glass.

  “What the hell?” Jed found the arms had disappeared and his feet were free. Not-Wyatt’s headless body fell to the floor, jerking wildly. The boy on the chair opened his eyes. They were blank but there was a faint blue glow somewhere behind them.

  “Howdy, Jed,” Clementine appeared from nowhere as she divested herself of Zeke’s chameleote coat. “I went back to that tunnel in the hills. Thought I’d find you here.”

  On the floor, Not-Wyatt was writhing, trying to retain his humanoid shape. A new head appeared like glass on the end of a blower’s pole, forming a bubble and solidifying.

  “Fools!” Shish was screaming inside and out of their heads. “Bullets cannot stop me.”

  Jed was unfastening Horse from his bonds. The critter slumped lifeless against the bars.

  “Oh, shut up,” said Clementine. “I’ve done had enough of you.” She threw something at Shish who disappeared from sight. The blue sphere burst like a head of dandelion seeds and each tiny piece winked out.

  “What the hell?” Jed repeated.

  “Only a live chameleote can kill them things,” Clementine explained, “but I reckon the skin of a dead one should keep him where we cain’t see him.” The large woman threw back her head and laughed heartily. The laughter echoed, booming off the cave walls, and Jed saw they were not underground anymore.

  “Is it over?” Wyatt asked. “It’s good to see you, Jed.”

  Jed was confused but for the time being, all his attention was on Horse, who was slumped at his feet. He folded the flap of Horse’s scalp over the opening in his skull and, kneeling beside him, cradled the critter’s head in his lap.

  “Come on,” Clementine took Wyatt by the hand and led him into the canyon. “Let’s leave these two in peace.”

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  The Reckoning!

  Horse’s recovery was a slow but steady one. Young Doc Willoughby was fetched from town and everything he’d learned from Doc Brandy was brought to bear. Physically, Horse was easy to stitch up. His external wounds all but healed themselves as soon as he was hooked up to the best fodder on offer at the Double Cross, where a makeshift sickbay was rigged up for his convalescence.

  But he wasn’t speaking. He was strangely absent. There was no light in his eyes and he recognised nothing or no one. Jed never left his side, urging his companion to get better, sending increasingly desperate thoughts in the hope that one day Horse would reply.

  Clementine stopped by to visit Jed twice a day, bringing food that went untouched, and giving updates on the boy’s condition. “Young Wyatt’s doing well,” she reported, “Appetite on him like a buzzard. Only right for a growing boy. And he’s so sweet-natured and thoughtful, I declare. I’ve put in an application to Judge Knott to adopt him right and proper - the boy, I mean, not the judge! See, I’m fixing to stay here in Tarnation. Seems as good a place as any, and what with Zeke passed, well, I ain’t got no friends nowhere else.”

  Jed had wondered how she’d got the old coot to part with his treasured chameleote coat.

  He reached out and squeezed a hand that was as large -perhaps larger - than his own.

  “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said softly.

  “And don’t worry - I ain’t seen - the boy’s showing no signs of...” Clementine’s voice trailed off. She was unwilling to name the thing that was potentially living inside the boy she now regarded as her son.

  “That’s good,” said Jed.

  “What is?” said Horse. “What did I miss?”

  “Ssh,” said Jed. “I’m trying to have a conversation.”

  “Charming as ever!” said Horse and that’s when Jed realised he was speaking again and threw his arms around the critter’s neck and hugged him as tight as he could.

  ***

  Weeks passed. Wyatt was thriving under Clementine’s care and with Billy to go and play with, there was no happier boy in the whole of Silicon County. Jed took Horse out of the Double Cross every day for longer and longer walks as the critter’s strength and abilities returned. His white coat was beginning to gleam again.

  “How do you feel?” Jed asked, feeding him a rare treat of sugar lumps dipped in red eye.

  “No different,” said Horse. “I don’t think there’s any Plisp left in me, if that’s what you mean. I guess my circuits or whatever it is you call them, have reprogrammed themselves. Guess you’re stuck with me the way I am.”

  “Oh. Goody,” smirked Jed. But he fed his Horse another sugar lump. “And the boy? What do you reckon about the boy?”

  “Well...” Horse had been filled in on the course events had taken and Jed’s reasoning behind
those events, “I think Farkin Shish underestimated Plisp, or misunderstood him. There was a part of Plisp that was always your friend, Jed. Even at the end. I don’t think he’d ever let anyone else get the better of you. He wanted that privilege for himself. Shish’s plan would never have worked.”

  “And Shish?” Jed looked at the ground. Somewhere deep beneath them, the vengeful varmint was trapped. Jed’s reading of the underground history records had revealed that there was no one else: Shish had been acting alone, out of loneliness perhaps. And now he’d be lonely forever.

  “He won’t get out from under that skin in a hurry. Perhaps never. And it serves him right, is all I can say. Now, come on; let’s get some air.”

  “Are you sure you’re ready for it?”

  “Of course I am. What do you take me for?”

  “I ain’t going to say. There might be ladies within earshot.”

  Horse tossed his mane. “You getting on or what?”

  “If it’ll make you shut up.” Jed swung his leg over the saddle. Before his backside touched the leather, Horse was off at a gallop, rapidly picking up speed and rising into the cornflower sky.

  In his yard, Billy nudged his playmate Wyatt to look up just in time to see their hero and his marvellous critter streak high overhead like a shooting star.

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  William Stafford, Under the Vultures Moon

 


 

 
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