Under the Vultures Moon, page 5
The townsfolk were grouped in a semi-circle. Jed saw they had unhooked the lanterns from along the trail and were pooling their dim radiance to cast a warm glow on the scene before them. It was almost picturesque, Jed mused, if you overlook the part about my imminent murder.
A collective gasp came from the community. Jed looked over his shoulder. A soft light was emitting from the mine entrance. Its faint luminescence became stronger as the bearer of the light source approached. The townsfolk held their breath. The shadows they cast wavered as fear seized them.
A tall, cloaked figure shuffled from the mine, stooping to avoid bashing its head on the crossbeam. Once out, it drew itself up to its full height and extended an arm to point at Jed and Cletus. The figure’s hand was covered by the long sleeve of its hooded robe.
“I - I - it is I who brings this offering,” Cletus stammered, nodding and bowing. He indicated Jed with both hands in case there was any misunderstanding about who was to be sacrificed. “Oh, great ones, we beseech thee. Return to us the power of your benevolence. Restore our town to the former glory you once bestowed upon us. We beseech you. We implore you. We beg you!”
He gestured to the crowd to join in. Random cries of ‘we beg you’ and ‘we beseech you’ came from all sides, until the townsfolk got themselves organised into a regular chant.
Jed’s eye flickered to Cletus’s rifle. The man was distracted, caught up in the chanting. Perhaps he could grab it...
The chants were suddenly silenced. The hooded figure had raised both hands and its lantern with it.
Everyone - Jed included - held their breath. The hooded figure was about to make some pronouncement or signal its response to their entreaties.
The figure raised its lantern high above its head and then, running forward, dashed it at Cletus’s feet. The glass smashed and the oil caught fire, roaring its way up and over Cletus’s whole body. Jed rolled away from the burning man. The crowd was in confusion. Jed found his arm was being pulled - the hooded figure yanked him to his feet and dragged him towards the mine.
Into the darkness they plunged. Here the passage was wide and square but as the ground beneath Jed’s feet dipped downwards, the walls became rougher and more uneven. Jed had to use his free hand to prevent himself from being dashed against the rock.
At last, the hooded figure stopped running and came to rest, breathing heavily. Jed, panting, tried to squint through the gloom.
Gulping in the musty mine air, the figure lowered its hood. Jed couldn’t see the face but when he heard the voice, it was unmistakable.
“Reckon we’ll be safe in here for a good while yet.”
“I know your head is fit to bust with questions,” Clementine’s voice became steadier. “Hold your horses for a while until we gets out of this hole.” She produced another lantern from within her garment and, with tinder and flint, lit the wick.
“I guess I ought to thank you, ma’m.”
“That can wait too. Now, come on. Stick close to me; I knows this old mine better’n my own back yard. I reckon those dang fools will soon realise they’ve been hornswoggled afore much longer. I don’t know if they’ll venture in here but, well, I’ve been wrong before.”
She jogged away, discouraging further discourse. Jed followed. The passage opened onto a cavern where the rails split off into different directions, leading into various tunnels.
“Most of these are blocked off. When the seams were exhausted, they was shut down. Or in some cases, they caved in of their own accord. Stick close to me and mind you don’t turn your ankle. I could carry you but I ain’t disposed to.”
She continued on her surefooted way and Jed was minded of the lonesome goat on the hilltop. He quickened his step, unwilling to get too far from the light of her lantern, and almost went over on his ankle right away.
Shouts and catcalls came from behind, amplified and roaring along the passage. The dang fools had cottoned on.
“Oh, shoot!” Clementine cussed. “Maybe they’re smarter than I figured. Get on board the express train to freedom!”
She shone the lantern on a truck - little more than a crate on wheels - standing on the rails. Jed climbed in. He was amazed to see his own clothes in there, as well as an abandoned cargo of rocks and ores. Clearly, he had misjudged and underestimated the formidable Clementine.
“All clean and pressed. Ain’t no time to explain or get changed.” She braced herself against the truck and shoved it with all her strength. The rusty wheels began to turn, giving a screech of protest. The truck picked up speed; Clementine clambered on board. They both looked back to see a glow of lamplight appear at the passage’s mouth. The townsfolk bundled into view, jeering and shouting.
“There they are!” cried one.
“After them!” said another.
The townsfolk clamoured to give chase. They split off into a range of other trucks to pursue the fugitives. As Jed and Clementine rolled into a tunnel, the townsfolk fired off the first shots. Bullets pinged off the rock face and the side of the truck. Jed ducked down. So did Clementine but only to grab a hefty chunk of ore. She stood and lobbed the ore at the nearest truck, braining the man at the front. The truck veered off the rail, tipping over and squashing the occupants against the jagged rock wall.
“Yee-haw!” Clementine bellowed in self-congratulation.
“Clementine, watch out!” Jed warned, pointing over his rescuer’s shoulder. Clementine turned and too late saw the low-hanging ceiling the truck was heading under. She was hit square in the brow. She fell on top of Jed and the truck rushed on, gathering momentum as the rails reached a steep incline. Jed floundered beneath the bulk of the big woman. For the second time that day, Clementine was out cold. Bullets zinged overhead.
Cries of the townsfolk grew louder. Jed freed himself from the deadweight of Clementine and peered over the rim of the truck. Some of the pursuers were riding along a rail parallel to his. They hollered and pointed and fired at their escaping sacrificial offering. Following Clementine’s example, Jed hurled lumps of ore in their direction. There was no time to aim, and barely enough light to see. Jed tried to knock out the occupants but instead found his missile got wedged in the wheels of the leading truck. Sparks sprayed out; the wheel screamed and stopped spinning, flinging the truck and its occupants forwards. The townsfolk were thrown against the rocks. Almost instantly, the second truck collided with the overturned first one. The lanterns its passengers were carrying burst into flame. The survivors flailed and staggered around, crying in agony.
But Jed’s truck kept rolling. The tracks were suddenly surrounded by air. He glanced down. The rails were supported by scaffolding so tall Jed couldn’t see what was supporting the scaffolding.
“There he is!”
Another truck was careering along on another track that snaked sometimes nearer sometimes farther from Jed’s. The occupants took pot-shots. Jed had to dodge the ricochets. One man fired and was shot by his own rebounding bullet. His body toppled forwards and out of his truck. There was a general cry of dismay as he plummeted past the scaffolding and was engulfed by the darkness below.
On the floor of the truck, Clementine stirred. There was a red welt on her forehead but the skin was unbroken. Dazed, she murmured. Then she shook her head to clear it and resumed hurling chunks of ore at their pursuers.
The tracks converged. The trucks came within a foot of each other. The townsfolk clawed at the side of Jed’s truck, trying to seize their prized prisoner. One man jabbed at the gunslinger with the butt of his rifle. Jed snatched it and fired - it was empty. He threw it away. Clementine punched the fellow clean on the jaw. He fell back taking down some of his travelling companions with him.
The tracks curved away again, divided by a broad pillar of stone. Clementine urge
“Get ready to jump!” Clementine advised. She nodded to a ledge that was also approaching. The other truck emerged from the other side of the pillar and the folks inside it were taking aim.
“Now!” said Clementine. She and Jed threw themselves from the truck, a second before it smashed into the wall. The impact caused it to rebound - the largest ricochet of the chase - into the supports of the other track. Struts and scaffolding were reduced to smithereens and the rail, truck, townsfolk and all collapsed in a commotion of noise and destruction.
Jed was clinging to the edge, hanging on by his fingertips. From far below a dust cloud rose but didn’t quite reach him. Clementine extended her hand to pull him up. They sat, breathless in the gloom, with their backs against the wall. An eerie silence filled the cavern. If any of their pursuers was still alive, they were no longer in pursuit.
“Thanks,” said Jed. “What now?”
“We ain’t out of the woods yet, so to speak,” Clementine laughed. “If we edge along this ledge, there’s a tunnel leads back to the entrance. If’n you’re up for it.”
“Surely am,” said Jed. “But what about you? You took quite a hit to your noggin.”
Clementine dismissed his concern with a wave of her hand. “Just keep moving, cowboy. Sooner we get out of here, the sooner we can have us a powwow.”
It took them an hour but they made their way out. Clementine took off her robe, reasoning she would not arouse as much suspicion if she was dressed as herself. If there was anyone hanging around the entrance, she could claim to have been one of the chasers rather than a chasee.
There was no one about.
Clementine beckoned to Jed to come out. “We cain’t go back to town,” she stated the obvious. “But I know a place not far off. Where they used to store the explosives. The path’s overgrown now; ain’t nobody been there for years.”
She strode on her way, expecting Jed to follow. It occurred to him he could strike out on his own and fend for himself - Hell, he could probably cover more ground without her. But what would become of her? She had effectively ostracised herself from her own community in order to save his life. He couldn’t just abandon her.
Clementine pushed a path through grass that was as tall as she was. Jed trailed in her wake, casting glances over his shoulder as the grass closed behind them. Clementine came to a sudden halt and Jed walked into the back of her.
“This is it,” she said. She heaved her shoulder against a door. A gust of foetid air escaped, hitting Jed like a punch in the nose.
The shed was compact and still housed several crates marked with warning signs. Clementine caught him looking. “Reckon those old sticks ain’t fit to scratch your behind with. I could probably blow my nose with more effect than them rotten things.”
Jed chuckled. “You’re probably right.”
A volley of cloth hit him in the face and chest.
“I reckon you’d forget your head if it wasn’t sewed on,” she teased him. Jed recognised his clothes. “Snatched them from the truck afore we jumped,” she said. “Here.” She reached into her blouse and withdrew his hat. She tapped it back into shape and planted it on his surprised head.
“You are truly a remarkable woman, ma’m,” said Jed, touching the brim.
Clementine lowered her broad backside onto a crate, which creaked beneath her. She gestured for Jed to sit opposite.
“Ain’t going nowhere afore sunup,” she said. “Might as well have our powwow now.”
“I understand and I forgive,” Clementine began, “why you tried to escape from the barn. Hoo-ee! I came a cropper on that bar of soap, didn’t I just? But you jumped the gun, son. If you’d just played along, I would have saved you from those nut-jobs long afore they got you to the mine. You should have just trusted me - although I understand out here when you’re on your onesome, trust is in mighty short supply. Anyhow, it don’t make no difference; old Cletus came in and got in the way of my plans, didn’t he just?”
“I’m real sorry about that bar of soap, ma’m, and I cain’t thank you enough for saving my sorry hide.”
“Quit jawing and listen up! I’ll tell you what things is like in Hellion’s Grove. These past ten years or so, life’s been tough - tougher than usual, I mean. Place had fallen into decline and it looked like the rot had set in for good. But then, along came the - well, you’ve heard the term ‘glass heads’?”
Jed nodded. It was a term he cared not to hear at all.
“They come along - I cain’t say from where - and to this day I ain’t never seen one - but folks started talking. Old so-and-so had met one on the back roads. Such-and-such’s brother-in-law had an encounter behind the saloon... Word got around. These strange folk were going to help us find our way back to the lifestyle we had when the Grove was a boomtown. We’d have light again by night. We’d have air purifiers and coolers and what-not. The place would be clean and safe and happy again - although I cain’t say I recall it being a particularly happy place even when folks was making money like it was sweat. That’s by-the-by anyhow. The strange ones delivered what they promised. The Grove began to look and feel and smell like its old self again. It was too good to be true.
“Which of course, it was. Afore long, just enough time went by for folks to get hooked back on the old way of life again, the strange ones made their demands. They stated what they wanted in return. If we wanted to keep our side of the bargain we would have to pay a terrible price.
“Only at first did it sound terrible. When folks weighed it up, the pros and the cons, it was decided that it was only a little thing these strange ones wanted, and it was a perfectly reasonable request in the light of - well, the light.
“All they wanted was a baby. They wanted someone in the town to give up their newborned child as payment for our veneer of civilisation, ’cause that’s all it ever turns out to be: a veneer. There was a ballot and a couple was chosen. Them poor folks pleaded and cried and begged the town council to cast the votes again, to choose somebody else, only spare their little boy. Well, folks was touched - of course they was - but they hardened their hearts agin’ the couple and when the time came they took the little baby down to the mine, just like they took you tonight.
“The strange ones come out - there was two of them - in robes like I tried to emulate with my disguise - and they said they understood how difficult it was to surrender one’s own flesh and blood and so they said they was willing to change the terms of the bargain. The couple could keep the boy for ten years, they said, before the debt would be called in. Well, if you asks me - and you didn’t but I’m going to tell you anyway - that seemed mighty crueller to me. Ten years to bring up and love a child and then have him torn from you, when he’s become a person! Well, the couple was overjoyed - of course they was! They’d been granted a reprieve of a kind. The strange ones withdrew into the mine and nobody heard from them again.
“Now, that couple was like royalty in the Grove. They wanted for nothing. Folks was feeling generous towards them and a mite guilty too and not to mention relieved, I shouldn’t wonder. And that little boy grew up and you’ve never seen a happier child, I’d wager. He wanted for nothing. Everybody knew who he was and, if’n his folks hadn’t had their heads screwed on right, that little boy would have been spoiled rotten. It was like he had a terminal disease and folks were keen to make his abbreviated life as comfortable and as enjoyable as possible.”
Jed was nodding. Pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.
“The time ran out,” he said, scratching his chin. “The couple took their boy and left town.”
“That’s right... Where did you say you were from?”
“Well, the day came around for the boy to be handed over only of course, the boy was long gone. The strange ones said nothing. They just went back into the mine. The townsfolk all went home, thinking that was the end of that, but when they woke up the next morning, they saw the difference, all right. There was the heat, for one thing - this place is built in the middle of a desert, you may have noticed - and all the support systems was gone. There was no coolers, no purifiers and when the evening rolled around, no light in the streets. The town was thrown into panic. Folks demanded the council take charge and negotiate a new deal with the strange ones. Well, a delegation went into the mine but they couldn’t see nothing. It looked like the strange ones had abandoned the place just like the miners had done when the gold run out.
“As you can see, the place fell into rack and ruin. It was as though those ten years of peace and good living had never happened. Folks said we should ride out and find that boy and bring him back. Others said we should offer up a different child but of course nobody was willing to come forward and give up their own kiddie. So, when I found you, stranger, all but dead in the desert, I thought a chance had come to put a stop to this nonsense. I was going to offer you up to the strange ones - only I know there ain’t no strange ones no more, if ever there was - and then sneak you out of there and on your merry way. You see, I was stalling, playing for time. Give that couple chance to put more distance between the Grove and themselves.”
Jed looked at his boots. “They got to the far side of Crosspatch Hill,” he said.
He told her of the couple’s progress from Palmerston to Crosspatch Hill and onto the shuttle and the crash.
“Dead, then!” Clementine clutched at her chest. “I’m sick with sorrow to hear that.”
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