Under the Vultures Moon, page 6
Jed took a decision. He trusted Clementine with the truth.
“Boy’s alive,” he said quietly. “I left him with friends.”
Clementine’s shoulders rose and fell with relief. “Landsakes! It does a body good to hear good news. Where is he? You’re sure he’s quite safe?”
“Sure as I can be, ma’m.”
“But where? Perhaps you should move him!”
“Where he is he’s as safe as he’ll be anywhere,” said Jed, wondering if that conveyed what he wanted it to say.
Clementine pressed him to name the place but Jed convinced her it was better -for her - if she didn’t know.
She was appeased but muttered something about there being no need to worry himself on her behalf. Jed said he had no doubt she could protect herself and thanked her again for all her efforts to keep him alive.
“I reckon we get some shuteye now,” he said. “In turn.”
They each insisted the other take first kip. In the end they had to resort to the toss of a coin. As Clementine stretched out on a couple of creaking crates, Jed thought over what she had told him.
It explained why Wyatt’s relatives had wanted no truck with him. They called him a devil boy and a demon child because he was doomed, cursed in their eyes. They didn’t want folk from Hellion’s Grove turning up on their doorstep and burning them out of house and home. That much was understandable at least.
But the shuttle - would these crazy folk have gone that far? To kill all those innocent people! It was like flushing out an ants’ nest with boiling water just because one of the little critters bit you on the finger. Were the folk of Hellions’ Grove so driven, so caught up in their madness, their craving for the easy life?
And were there any of them still out there, on the boy’s trail? Would they find their way to Tarnation?
Clementine oinked and snorted in her sleep. Remarkable woman, Jed had to say. He let her sleep right through the night. He owed her that much at least.
When dawn came, and thin beams of light stabbed through knotholes in the shed walls, Clementine stirred. She rubbed her eyes and castigated Jed for not letting her take her turn at keeping watch.
“Shucks,” he shrugged, “I got permanent shuteye in one half of my head, don’t I?”
Clementine didn’t find this attempt at humour funny. Jed decided he wouldn’t try again.
“Clementine!” a man’s voice shouted from outside.
“Come out of there and bring that yellow-bellied galoot with you!”
Jed snarled. His hands twitched for the guns he was no longer wearing. Nobody calls him a coward and gets away with it. Clementine put a finger on her lips.
“We know you’re in there, Clementine, you turncoat. Bring out the sacrifice and we’ll treat you reasonable.”
“Don’t make us come in a-shooting,” said another voice from another direction. Jed wheeled around. The shed was surrounded.
He pointed to his chest and then to the door. He was going to go out alone. Clementine shook her head emphatically and repeated his gestures; she was going to go out alone. A silent argument broke out until Jed pulled out his coin. He was about to flip it when the men outside called again.
“Ain’t got all day, Clementine,” said one.
“Count of ten,” said another they hadn’t heard from before. Jed exchanged a look with his rescuer, causing her to glance at the crate he was sitting on. She shook her head.
He nodded vigorously, stood up and tried the lid. The crate was nailed shut.
Clementine pushed Jed aside and pulled the lid from the crate like lifting greaseproof paper from a jar of jam.
His pride injured, Jed snatched up half a dozen sticks of explosives.
Clementine did the same.
She got to work with her tinder and flint.
The interior of the shed grew lighter as the fuse of each stick fizzed and burned into life.
Jed and Clementine looked at each other and smiled - a smile of thanks, and goodbye in case it all went wrong.
Their hands full, Jed and Clementine charged from the shed with a roar, pushing the door off its hinges.
They lobbed sticks of explosive at the men, who scattered in all directions. Several of the sticks puttered and fizzled out, but they were not all duds. One man was blown backwards. Most of him landed quite a way off - his head was never found. Jed and Clementine kept their would-be captors at bay, blasting a path from the shed, flattening the tall grass in a wide circumference.
The men were retreating. Jed cast around, trying to account for them all. He heard a gun click behind him. Oh yeah, of course; the one behind the shed.
Jed tossed a stick over his shoulder and urged Clementine to run.
The shed was thrown sky high. The force of the explosion rushed at the fugitives’ backs, casting them face down in the dirt. The shed continued to explode in mid-air as the crates ignited. The deadly display of fireworks claimed the lives of two more of their pursuers.
Jed took Clementine’s arm and they scrambled away from the scene. Jed would have taken them pell-mell further into the desert but Clementine yanked him in another direction. The men had ridden from town in a cart. They commandeered the vehicle but the horse yoked to it was too skittish to do what it was told. Jed climbed down and whispered in the critter’s ear. The horse shivered and snorted and from that moment was as good as gold.
“What did you say to him?” Clementine asked as Jed climbed back on. Jed shrugged.
“I sent him a picture of how good his life would be if he gets us away from here. Giddy up!”
He clicked his tongue and the horse trotted urgently and efficiently, drawing them away from the devastation they had wreaked.
Jed didn’t look back. Had the self-same explosives been used to destroy the shuttle?
If the folks of Hellion’s Grove were indeed responsible for that terrible disaster, he was not sorry one jot for the high body count resulting from his escape.
No, sir; not one jot.
They travelled at speed along the desert track. The range of hills Jed had crossed soon rose in stature before them. Clementine kept glancing back to see if they were being followed, but they weren’t.
“A-licking their wounds,” she reckoned. Jed said nothing. They were approaching the tunnel mouth, their quickest route to the other side of the hills. As they drew closer and the opening yawned empty before them, the horse became increasingly nervous. Its eyes rolled wildly and it tossed its mane, as though trying to tell its driver it did not want to go into that dark place.
At the entrance it came to a halt; Clementine was jolted backwards from her seat into the cart. She laughed as she got up but stopped when she saw Jed had climbed down and, holding the harness, was whispering urgently into the critter’s ear. After a few minutes, he gave up.
“Ain’t no use, ma’m. Critter’s stubborner than any mule.”
Clementine wrung her hands. “What are we going to do? We cain’t leave him here.”
Jed spat in the dust. He was more concerned about their welfare than the horse’s at this juncture. “Going to have to walk him through,” he said. “I’ll talk to him all the way, if’n you don’t mind bringing up the rear and keeping the cart straight and true.”
Clementine was gazing back the way they had come. She made a visor of her hand, shielding her eyes against the sun. She was looking for any signs - clouds of dust, perhaps - that said they w
Clementine swooned. Jed hurried to her side to support her.
“Why, thank you, Jed,” she fanned herself with her hand. “I don’t know what came over me. I felt a little faint all of a sudden. I’m a little light-headed. I guess I missed my breakfast!”
Jed said he reckoned that was the case, but he was thinking the woman had taken two blows to the head within the space of one day - less than that! - and if they were anywhere near civilisation, by which he meant a group of people who weren’t trying to kill him, he would have taken her to see the quack right away.
She assured him she was ready to resume their journey. While he led the horse by the bridle, she walked behind the cart, as much pushing it as leaning against it for support. Jed whispered to the horse, sending it images of calmness, of warm stables, of plentiful food... The critter remained tense and looked ready to bolt at any second.
Progress was very slow. When they were at the centre, equidistant between entrances and the light from outside was mere pinpricks in the velvet curtain of the dark, Jed suggested they pause for a breather. Clementine didn’t respond but she must have heard him because the cart stopped moving. Jed raised a hand to stroke the horse’s neck. His hand touched nothing but air. The horse was gone!
Momentarily panicked, Jed groped around in the darkness. The critter couldn’t have just disappeared. He called out to Clementine but again she didn’t answer. He felt behind him - there was no cart. He turned around and around, completely disoriented.
But horse, cart and Clementine were all gone.
Jed tried to locate the source of the voice. “Horse?”
Jed walked in the direction he imagined Horse to be calling from. He held his hands in front of him, clutching at empty air, expecting to collide with the tunnel wall at any moment. The voice seemed to come from somewhere else each time it called his name.
The ground beneath Jed’s feet sloped downwards. There was a light ahead, not the bright beam of daylight, but a soft blue glow. Jed stumbled towards it, moving downwards ever downwards. The slope became steeper and he was falling, tumbling forwards, rolling over himself, unable to stop.
The blue glow increased in intensity as he drew closer to it, until he dropped into it like a stone into a pond. The blue light absorbed him and his consciousness ebbed away.
He dreamt of horses - of Horse - and was filled with longing to see his friend. Images flashed and collided, crowding each other out: Clementine, and explosions, and the boy, and the lonesome goat - the goat’s eyes swapped with the boy’s - the devil boy’s - and he saw the shuttle crash over and over, and the boy’s dead mother - and the mine - he was pelting along in the truck but the rail was taking him into the path of the shuttle, which was going to crash again and again, and he was inside the shuttle seeing the boulders approach and the shed was exploding and he was in the bath tub in the barn and he threw the soap and the shuttle slipped on it and crashed -
Howdy, Jed. I’ve waited so long to meet you and here you are at last.
Jed woke up. He was on the floor of a cave, was his first impression, judging by what he could see beyond the ubiquitous blue glow. The voice was both inside and outside his head, sounding out the words as Horse had used to - but the speaker or transmitter was not Horse.
“Who’s there?” Jed was on the alert. “Where am I?”
Such unimaginative questions! I begin to believe your reputation has been somewhat overblown.
Jed got to his feet. “Show yourself, you coward! Then I’ll ask you some better questions.”
The blue light flickered in time with the laughter of the voice that was in and out of his head. Oh, Jed! You do amuse me. Plisp always said he found you delightful in your posturing. Always have to be the hero, don’t you, Jed?”
Jed clenched his fists. Mention of his old adversary made him angry. But Farkin Plisp was dead and he’d been the last of his kind.
Oh, Plisp is very dead, in a sense, but you’re wrong about him being the last. He was wrong too. He knew we were here but he turned his back on us. He -
The voice broke off. There was a brief silence while the speaker composed himself.
“Plisp had a temper on him too,” said Jed with a sneer. “Much good it did him.”
You must pardon me, Jed. We have got off on the wrong foot. We mean you no harm. Truly. In fact, our association could be mutually beneficial - in ways you perhaps cannot envisage.
“You can stop your jawing right there,” Jed turned away from the light. “I ain’t having no discussion with nobody I cain’t see.” He even crossed his arms to show how unmovable he was on that point.
After a silence, the voice said, Very well.
The light glowed brighter until it became stark and unbearable, filling the space. Jed closed his eye but had to put his forearm across his face to shield himself from the brightness. All of a sudden the light was gone. Only the faint blue glow remained. Jed lowered his arm. His single eye squinted, readjusting.
There was a small figure standing in front of him. Jed rubbed his eye to make sure he was seeing it correctly.
“Howdy, Mister,” said Wyatt.
Under the Vultures’ Moon!
Wyatt took Jed by the hand and together they walked through the blue light. Jed could see they weren’t in a natural cavern or grotto but an artificially created space - a room - an underground cathedral of smooth surfaces and sharp angles. The walls rose impossibly high - the ceiling was out of sight. How deep are we? Jed gasped.
He was aware that the boy was reading his thoughts. Had he always had that talent? Jed hadn’t noticed it before.
No, the voice spoke in Jed’s mind and the boy’s lips moved in synchronisation. You see, Jed; I am not the boy you know. I am a - how best to describe it? - a copy? The boy’s shoulders twitched in a shrug; the word would have to do. I appear to you in this form because it is a form you care for. You feel protective towards this boy. You would not hurt him. If I were I to appear in my true form, you would not like it.
“Try me,” said Jed. He pulled his hand free of the not-boy’s. “I ain’t taking another step less’n you tell me where we’re going and what this is all about?”
Not-Wyatt waggled an admonishing finger. Oh, Jed. You’re as stubborn as all the other humans. Come; let me show you. Let me give you the ten-cent tour. I think you’ll like what we’ve done with the old place and when you’ve seen the things we can do, Jed, you’ll never want to leave.
Jed spat on the floor. Not-Wyatt looked amused. He walked on; Jed stayed where he was. The blue light formed a cloud behind him, gaining in brightness and mass. It nudged him in the direction taken by the not-boy. The blue light formed a perfect sphere and bobbed along in the air behind Jed in case he had any more ideas about standing still.
Jed had the impression of the space growing smaller the further they walked. The great hall shrank into chambers and the smooth and sharp angles became rounded and less regular. Jed also had the impression that they weren’t actually moving at all, that it was the space around them that was changing, creating the illusion of travel.
“Would you mind keeping out of my thoughts? It would be a politeness.”
The smirk again but the not-boy nodded. “We shall communicate in the more conventional manner of your kind,” he said out loud. “It’s somewhat pedestrian, but -”
“- we’re walking, ain’t we?” Jed cut in. “Pedestrian’s fine by me.”
The not-boy’s eyebrows twitched as he processed the interruption. “Humour! I see. The most important survival tool.
“Not particularly,” Jed spat. “Just greasing the wheels of conversation.”
“Metaphor too! I’m impressed.”
“I ain’t as dumb as you look,” Jed grumbled.
The not-boy laughed. “We will talk, Jed, when we arrive at journey’s end. In the meantime, relax. Enjoy the view. This place is really rather beautiful when you open your mind to it.”
He swept his hand through the air and the nearest walls shimmered and bubbled with iridescent colours, like ripples in a pond and oil in a puddle. The display was accompanied by a burst of tinkling music, as though someone was playing a harp with a bell - or the other way around.
“Purty,” said Jed. But he chose not to open his mind to it. He could see how a man could become distracted by such purty doings, how he could lose himself at one of those walls, making the colours dance and the music play, and before he knew it, that man’s time would all be spent up.
He pulled his hat further down his forehead and kept his eye looking dead ahead.
They entered a corridor that was almost cylindrical. The floor gave under Jed’s tread; it was liking walking on a mattress or on a bed of leaves. The cylinder glowed where they were, turning dark again as they moved on; it was the same blue light that felt like more of a presence. Benign for now; but Jed suspected it could turn malevolent at the flick of an absent switch.
The air was growing more humid. Perspiration sprouted on Jed’s face and ran down his neck and back. The not-boy seemed unaffected by the change in conditions. Jed found his legs became heavier; it was getting harder to move his feet with every step. The floor was becoming clingy, ever more reluctant to let his feet go. Jed’s head throbbed with the mugginess and the oppressive quality of the air. His lungs felt like clenched fists and Jed couldn’t stand up straight.
“We could stop to rest,” Not-Wyatt offered. Right on cue a ledge was extruded from the wall. Jed managed to shake his head. He had the feeling that if he set his butt down on that seat, he may as well kiss it goodbye. Nobody knows how or when their end will come but Jed sure as hell didn’t want his to be from absorption into some piece of alien furniture.
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