Under the vultures moon, p.4

Under the Vultures Moon, page 4

 

Under the Vultures Moon
 


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  “I believe,” the driver stood on the dashboard, “I believe he was put there specifically for me to find. I believe he is a gift from the great ones. I believe they put him there to make amends, to atone for our sins.”

  Jed’s head was aching. The driver’s words swam over him. He beckoned for more water.

  “Ain’t much meat on him,” observed a woman to Jed’s left. He jerked his head, trying to spot which one of the covered faces has spoken.

  “Drier than a stick of jerky,” said someone to his right.

  Jed tried to stand; it sounded to him like these here folks were planning to eat him. His legs betrayed him and buckled beneath him. More cramps bent him in half.

  “See how he drunk that water? Too fast,” opined another commentator.

  “And look at the dust on him,” said another. “Cain’t give him back to the great ones a-looking like that.”

  There followed general murmurs of agreement.

  “Don’t you fret about that,” said the driver. “I found him; I get to spruce him up.”

  There followed general mutters of dissent.

  “You cain’t take all the glory for yer-self, Clementine,” said the one who’d compared Jed unfavourably to a stick of jerky. Several of the company concurred forcibly with this remark.

  The driver - Clementine - unwound the scarf from the lower half of her face. “I found him,” she pounded her chest. “I gets to present him.”

  “Typical Clementine!”

  “Selfish to a fault.”

  “Neighbours, neighbours!” Clementine made calming gestures. “Don’t y’all get your bloomers in a bunch. I gets to present him, but I’m gonna need your help. You - Abel; I’m gonna need him a clean shirt and breeches. Mary-Lou, I’m sure you can rustle up some of your pomade to make his hair smell sweet. All of you, you can be in the procession. Go on; get yourselves all gussied up. We got until moonrise to get this here boy ready. Are you with me, neighbours?”

  Everyone cheered. Suitably enthused, they began to shuffle from the barn, until only Jed and his rescuer remained.

  Clementine, a tall, well-built woman, climbed into the back of the wagon. She was wearing shawls and culottes and long, leather gloves. The only part of her that was visible was her face, the top half of which was dusty from the journey. Her lips were thin and looked a mite cruel. They parted in what Jed imagined she thought was a smile.

  “Still thirsty, boy?” she waggled another water skin as though teasing a dog.

  Jed reached for the skin but she snatched it away.

  “Listen up: I don’t want no trouble from you, boy. So you’re going to be a well-behaved little varmint, and a gentle and a kind. The next few hours can go very pleasantly for you, if’n you’ve a mind to it.”

  “And at moonrise?” Jed’s voice was croaky. The words clung to the roof of his mouth.

  “Ain’t nothing for you to worry your pretty head about, boy. Now, let’s get you out of them garments and give you a bath. If’n you don’t mind me saying, you give off a mighty whiff.”

  Jed backed against the corner. “I ain’t getting my garments off.”

  “Looky here, varmint” a sudden thought distracted and amused the big woman, “- a varmint in garments! Hoo-ee!” She slapped her thigh, sending up a cloud of trail dust, which made her cough. “If you’re shy, boy, I ain’t gonna peek. I’m be over yonder a-filling the tub. You can keep your under-things on until I’m gone. I’ll be taking your clobber with me and there ain’t no way out of this here barn but one, and that’ll be guarded. Folks won’t want you escaping, so don’t even try it. We don’t want to make a present of damaged goods.”

  “Say, what is all this about presents and great ones?”

  “You’ll find out at moonrise,” Clementine’s eyes twinkled with madness. Jed’s stomach sank but not just from drinking the water too dang fast.

  Whistling tunelessly, she ambled over to the far side of the barn. She collected a tin bucket. “Just going out to the pump. I reckon folks won’t begrudge me more’n my ration seeing how this is a special occasion.”

  No sooner had she gone than Jed sprang from the wagon. His sore feet gave twinges of complaint but he ignored them. A quick search of his surroundings confirmed what Clementine had said. There was no way out but one.

  The large woman returned, lugging the pail, now full of water. She emptied it into a tin bath. Strips of light poured in through the slats of the far wall, casting shadows like the bars of a prison cell across the scene.

  “Trapped,” Jed let out a sigh. When Clementine went to refill her bucket, he scuttled to the door. Five men pointed rifles at him.

  “Howdy,” Jed grinned awkwardly and waved. “Nice to see you fellows are looking after me so well.”

  He backed away. The water in the tub looked so inviting. Clementine came back with more.

  “Ain’t ice cold,” she sounded apologetic, “but it’ll cool you down and clean you up into the bargain.” She tipped the water into the tub. “Reckon ole Archie Cartwright’ll cough up a bar of soap if’n I bat my eyelashes at him. But you need to get yourself moving, boy. Get out of them clothes and into the tub before the water gets warm. Come on; I’ll get your garments washed while you have a relaxing soak. I know you must have walked miles, boy. I bet every joint you got is aching. I bet those feet of yours are about ready to drop off. Ain’t that so, boy?”

  Her voice was so soft and low, Jed almost found himself agreeing with her. But he didn’t move.

  “Tchah! I’ll go see about that soap. Never knowed such a shy boy. Ain’t nothing I ain’t seen afore, boy; I been married three times.” Chuckling she shuffled out.

  Jed waited until the door closed behind her. Then he pulled off his shirt and unhitched his belt - his holsters were gone, he noticed. He kicked off his boots and peeled down his pants. His feet almost sighed as he stepped into the refreshing water. He lowered himself in and immersed himself, staying underneath the water for as long as his lungs would allow. Then he sat up, resting his arms on the rim of the tub. He hadn’t felt this good for the longest time. At last, it seemed his head was clearing.

  Horse!

  He realised guiltily he hadn’t thought about Horse - he could ask these folks if they had seen him.

  As long as you ask them before moonrise, he told himself darkly.

  He lay back, looking at the patchwork of scars that made up his torso. He couldn’t remember which parts were originals and which were transplants; he had been operated on so many times. Oh, a skin graft here and there was neither here nor there - it was the working parts that mattered. Jed’s spleen had come from someone else, and so had his eye - but he couldn’t remember if it was the one that was damaged that was the replacement or the original. The hands - Doc Brandy’s masterpieces - were marvels of medical progress. At last they felt and operated like his own and you had to look very closely - and know what you were looking for - to see the join.

  “Landsakes, you have been in the wars!”

  Jed was startled to see Clementine standing over him. He hadn’t heard her come in. He clasped his hands over his privates. The big woman was still getting herself an eyeful. “I bet every one of those scars has a story behind it.”

  Jed didn’t speak. Clementine handed him a yellow block that smelled of lemons.

  “Give yourself a scrub with this,” she said. “I could do your back, if you’ve a mind...”

  Jed gave her a look of disdain that was enough to quash that idea. She moved away but did not leave. She turned her gaze away and listened to Jed splashing around.

  “Ain’t nothing personal, you must understand,” she said as though speaking to someone across the barn. “Just my good fortune to be the one to find you. What in hell were you doing out there all alone, boy? Never mind; that’s all by-the-by n
ow. Whatever troubles you’ve had are all the past. You’re all about the future now, boy. Why, come moonrise -”

  “I ain’t going,” said Jed. He stood up in the tub and faced her.

  “Now, boy - enough of that foolish talk.” Her eyes grew wide when she saw him.

  “I ain’t going,” Jed crossed his arms. “I’ll die first.”

  Clementine’s face clouded with panic. She hurried back to him but was somehow unable to take her eyes off his nethers. She didn’t see the bar of soap Jed had tossed in her path. The big woman slipped over and went down heavily on her back, striking her head on the floor.

  Jed stepped out of the tub. Clementine was out cold. Now, if I could get her clothes...

  He approached the unconscious woman as one might a sleeping bear. Holding his breath, he reached for the belt cinched around her waist.

  “Stop right there!” Jed heard the unmistakable click of a rifle behind him. Jed put his hands in the air and turned around.

  “Well, now,” said the rifleman. “Ain’t you the cheeky varmint? Get dressed.” He tossed some clothes at Jed’s chest. When Jed had put them on, the rifleman threw a length of rope. “Tie her up,” he barked.

  Jed obeyed. He didn’t ask why; he didn’t care but the fellow seemed hell-bent on telling him anyway.

  “With Clementine out of the way, I reckon I’ll be doing the presenting. Hoo-ee! You’ve done me a favour, boy. Is she secure? Are you sure, boy?”

  “Yup,” said Jed.

  “Good boy.” The rifle barrel swayed to the door and then back at Jed. “Slowly now; we’re going to take us a little walk afore moonrise.”

  Chapter Seven

  Moonrise!

  The rifleman told the guards that Clementine had given him custody of their special guest and she was staying back to tidy up. The guards couldn’t care less what Clementine was up to. They offered to accompany the rifleman, calling him Cletus, but he declined. “Helping out a helpless woman is one thing,” he told them, “but I reckon I can handle things from here.”

  He marched Jed away from the barn, giving him an occasional poke with the gun barrel just to remind him he was there.

  Jed, rankling from Cletus’s ungallant remark and believing Clementine (who seemed far from helpless to Jed) was hard done by, got his first look at Hellion’s Grove.

  The town was coated with dust blown in from the desert. It would be a never-ending task to sweep one’s porch clean, Jed figured, so nobody bothered. The dust swirled in eddies, collecting in drifts against the furniture of the street. Signs were unreadable, clouded with dust. On the surface - or rather, beneath this surface - the town looked much like any other. There was the usual accretion of businesses, some of them still open although, Jed glimpsed, their stocks were running low.

  There was no one around and Jed couldn’t blame them. No one would want to be out in the dust unless they had to. My face is going to need another wash, he mused, and my hair a good brush if I’m to be presentable... What in hell was all that about, anyway? Moonrise! What was going to happen at moonrise?

  “Get in!” Another prod came from the rifle.

  They had arrived at the town jail. Jed stepped through the open front door. A cell made from iron bars was waiting for him. Jed glanced around for something to aid his escape but the rifleman - this Cletus fellow - had taken precautions. There was not an object or a stick of furniture in the place, just the cell with its key waiting in the lock.

  “This should keep you - well, it’ll keep you, is what I’m trying to say,” Cletus chuckled. “You bide your time in there, boy, and I’ll be back for you -”

  “Let me guess: at moonrise?”

  “Ain’t nobody likes a smart ass,” Cletus grimaced. He shoved Jed into the cell and slammed the gate. He twisted the key and pocketed it. He walked out without another word. Jed heard him lock the front door.

  He gazed around his empty cell and sat on the stone floor. Through the bars in the high-set window he could see the sun was on its descent. The evening was approaching. The moon would soon rise.

  What the hell kind of way is that for measuring time, anyway? He wondered. When is moonrise exactly? Everybody knows sometimes you can see the moon by daylight - hell, it ain’t even a proper moon. This is the moon, what we’re all sitting, standing and crawling on. And this moon goes around a distant world we cain’t even see. No, what these folks call the moon ain’t nothing but an old station up in the sky, abandoned since the time of the first settlers. These folks seem to have reverted to primitive ways - perhaps their worship extends to the ‘moon’ - perhaps they know they ought to be grateful that thing stays up there in its orbit. Old Doc Brandy was of a mind that one day it would veer off-course ever so slightly, and would come crashing down and that would be the end of Vultures’ Moon and everything and everybody on it.

  Jed figured the locals would let him know when it was what they called moonrise soon enough. He would have to keep his wits about him and see if he could get away before whatever was scheduled to happen could come to pass. In the meantime, he took advantage of the opportunity to sit down and conserve his energy.

  His stomach warbled. He reckoned Clementine would have got around to fixing him some vittles afore long, but not Cletus - oh no, not him. He was a totally different kettle of fish. Jed wondered if Clementine hadn’t been unconscious when Cletus showed up, if the rifleman would have shot her...

  Jed...

  The gunslinger sat bolt upright. He strained to hear and then realised he was trying to use his ears.

  Horse?

  He waited with bated breath but there was nothing further. I guess I imagined it, he thought bitterly, but he tried again.

  HORSE!

  Nothing. Jed sat back against the wall. His new clothes were itchy and rough. The stitches were broad and uneven. Jed laughed to himself. Yeah, because that’s the worst of your troubles right now, ain’t it?

  He watched the shadows of the window bars elongate and stretch across the wall and floor and felt a sickening feeling in his guts that time was running out.

  ***

  Jed passed the following couple of hours thinking about Horse - or rather, thinking at Horse. No response was forthcoming and Jed wondered if he would ever be reunited with his four-legged friend.

  If he ain’t dead already, the gunslinger thought glumly. I sure as hell will be come moonrise.

  The shadows of the iron bars all blurred into the general gloom. Jed was roused from his thoughts by the turning of the key in the jailhouse front door. The shadowy shape of Cletus stood gloating.

  “Time’s come, boy.” He spat on the floor. “Now, afore I let you out of there, I’m going to tell you something. Ain’t no use you trying to escape or any of your clever monkey business. Oh, yeah; I know what you city folks is like. There’s guns trained on you every step of the way, including my own, and I’ll be ready to blast your backbone in two if I don’t like the way you look. Am I making myself clear?”

  Jed grunted. Cletus took this as assent.

  “Now, you keep right back agin that wall, you hear? Be a shame to shoot you right here - this jailhouse ain’t long been redecorated.”

  He laughed. Clearly he considered himself quite the joker. He unlocked the iron gate. With his rifle aimed squarely at Jed’s heart, he gestured to his captive to come out of the cell - real slow, mind - and put his hands on his head.

  Jed complied. Part of him (and that part was probably a transplant from some yellow-bellied coward) had given up. Let these hicks do what they may! Another part was just itching to see what the hicks had lined up for him.

  And if it was the final mystery that he’d solve in his lifetime, so be it.

  Cletus made him march along Main Street, prodding him in the lower back if he thought the pace wasn’t quick enough.

/>   For the most part, Jed kept his eye on what was ahead. That eye could only flicker to one side but he didn’t need to see the townsfolk to know they were there, lining the street, swathed in solemn silence. As Jed and Cletus passed, folks stepped from the side-lines and followed behind. Cletus was giggling to himself.

  “See yonder moon up there, boy? Shining bright!” he whispered to the back of Jed’s neck. “That ain’t no moon. How d’ye like that? It’s an old sky station, that’s what it is. Left up there by the Pioneers. You see, us hicks ain’t as back’ard as you think. We knows about technology, boy - that’s what this is all about.”

  Jed almost turned his head. Cletus jabbed him sharply. “Eyes front! Well, eye, boy!” A hoot of laughter escaped him but he quelled it, remembering the solemnity of the situation.

  “We give you to the glass heads and in return, they’ll switch the lights back on. Fair exchange ain’t no robbery, is it, boy?”

  The glass heads! Jed’s stomach flipped.

  Rather than being solved, it seemed Jed’s final mystery was only becoming more mysterious.

  They reached the end of Main Street and headed out of town. Old-fashioned oil lanterns suspended from stakes cast dim illumination on the trail.

  They’ll switch the lights back on...

  What did Cletus mean by that?

  The silhouette of a skeletal structure loomed ahead: a framework with a wheel at the top. Jed’s memory of the Grove’s history was correct; he was being taken to an old gold mine.

  The toe of his boot struck the rail of the track that led from the mine’s opening.

  “On your knees, boy.” Cletus struck Jed on the shoulder with the butt of his rifle. Jed lowered himself to the ground. He gathered a handful of dirt and stones, calculating whether he could chuck it in his captor’s eyes and in the ensuing seconds of blindness, make his escape. Where would he go? The rest of the townsfolk wouldn’t let him pass them. Into the mine? Was that his only hope?

  With no light, no weapon, no nothing...?

  The entrance to the mine was several yards away: a rectangular hole cut into the rock face, shored up by thick wooden beams. Could Jed sprint towards it and conceal himself in the darkness before Cletus put a bullet in his back?

 
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