Chapter 20


"You dirty sonofabitch, you!" the woman hollered into his face.

"You call him Mr. Prestey!"

Flint gritted his teeth, the sweat standing out in bright oily beads on his face. "Mr. Presley, tell this lady how I'm a friend of yours, and how hurtin' me would be the same as burtin' you. Would you tell her that, please?"

"Well ... that'd be a lie, wouldn't it? I mean, you made it loud and clear you think I stand about gut-high to an ant."

"That was then. This is now. I think you're the finest man I've ever met. Would you please tell her?"

Pelvis scratched Mama's chin and cocked his head to one side. A few seconds ticked past, during which a bead of sweat trickled down to the end of Flint's nose and hung there. Then Pelvis said, "Yes'm, Mr.

Murtaugh's a friend of mine. " The woman removed her shotgun from Flint's forehead.

Flint let his breath rattle out and staggered back a couple of steps. "That's different, then," she said, uncocking the gun.

"Different, if he's your friend. My name's Rona, you remember me?"

"Uh . . ." Pelvis glanced quickly at Flint, then back to the madwoman. "I ... believe I . . ."

"I seen you in Biloxi." Her voice trembled with excitement.

"That was in-" She paused. "I can't think when that was, my mind gets funny sometimes. I was sittin' in the third row. I wrote you a letter.

You remember me?"

"Uh . . ." He saw Flint nod. "Yes'm, I believe so."

"I sent my name in to that magazine, you know that Tiger Beat magazine was havin' that contest for a date with you? I sent my name in, and my daddy said I was the biggest fool ever lived but I did anyway and I went to church and prayed I was gonna win. My mama went to live in heaven, that's what I wrote in my letter." She looked down at her dirty overalls. "Oh, I-I must look a fright!"

"No ma'am," Pelvis said quietly. "Rona, I mean. You look fine."

"You sure have got fat," Rona told him. "They cut your balls off in the army, didn't they? Then they made you stop singin' them good songs. They're the ones fucked up the world. Put up them satellites in outer space so they could read people's minds. Them monkey-cock suckers! Well, they ain't getting' to me no more!" She tapped her helmet. "Best protect yourself while you can!" She let her hand drop, and she looked dazedly back and forth between Flint and Pelvis.

"Am I dreamin'?" she asked.

"Rona?" Flint said. "You mind if I call you Rona?" She just stared blankly at him. "We're lookin' for somebody. A man and a woman. Did you see anybody pass by here?"

Rona turned her attention to Pelvis again. "How come they tell such lies about you? That you was takin' drugs and all? How come they said you died?"

"I ... just got tired, I reckon," Pelvis said. Flint noted that he was standing a little taller, he'd sucked his gut in as much as possible, and he was making his voice sound more like Elvis than ever, with that rockabilly Memphis sneer in it. "I wanted to go hide someplace."

"Uh-huh, me, too." She nodded. "I didn't mean to burn that house down, but the light was so pretty. You know how pretty a light can be when it's dark all the time? Then they put me in that white car, that white car with the straps, and they took me to that place and stuck pins and needles in my head. But they let me go, and I wanted to hide, too. You want some gumbo? I got some gumbo inside. I made it yesterday."

"Rona?" Flint persisted. "A man and a woman. Have you seen them?"

"I seen them grave robbers, stearin' his boat." She motioned across the channel. "John LeDuc lived there, but he died, Stepped in a cottonmouth nest, that's what the ranger said.

Them grave robbers over there, stearin' his boat. I hollered at 'em, but they didn't pay no mind."

"Uh-huh. What do you get to if you keep followin' this bayou?"

"Swamp," she said as if he were the biggest fool who ever lived.

"Swamp and more swamp. 'Cept for Saint Nasty."

"Saint Nasty? What's that?"

"Where they work on them oil rigs." Rona's gaze was tied on Pelvis. "I'm dreamin', ain't I? My mama comes and visits me sometimes, I know I'm dreamin' awake. That's what I'm doin' now, ain't that right?"

"How far is saint Nasty from here?" Flint asked.

"Four, five miles."

"Is there a road out from there?"

"No road. Just the bayou, goes on to the Gulf."

"We need a boat," he said. "How much for yours?"

"What?"

"How much money?" He took the opportunity to slip the derringer into his pocket and withdraw the wet bills he'd taken from the girl's wallet. "Fifty dollars, will that cover the boat and motor."

"Ain't no gas in that motor," she told him. "That ranger comes 'round and visits me, he brings me gas. His name's Jack, he's a nice young fella. Only he didn't come this week. "

"How about paddles, then? Have you got any?"

"Yeah, I got a paddle." She narrowed her eyes at Flint. "I don't like your looks. I don't care-if you are his friend and he's a dream I'm havin'. You got something' mean in you. "Sixty dollars," Flint said. "Here's the cash, right here."

Rona gave a harsh laugh. "You're crazier'n hell. You better watch out, they'll be stickin' pins and needles in your head 'fore long."

"Sooner than you think, lady." He shot a scowl at Pelvis.

"Mr. Presley, how about openin' those golden lips and helpin' me out a little bit?"

Pelvis was still thinking about two words the madwoman had uttered: Cottonmouth nest. "We sure do need your boat, Rona," he said with genuine conviction. "It'd be doin' us a big favor if you'd sell it to us. You can even keep the motor, we'll just take the boat and paddle."

Rona didn't reply for a moment, but Flint could see her chewing on her lower lip as she thought about the proposal.

"Hell," she said at last, "you two ain't real anyhow, are you?"

She shrugged. "You can buy the boat, I don't care."

"Good. Here." Flint offered sixty dollars to her, and the woman accepted the cash with an age-spotted hand and then sniffed the wet bills. "We'll need the paddle, too," he told her, and she laughed again as if this were a grand illusion and walked into her shack, the interior of which Flint could see was plastered with newspaper pages and held a cast-iron stove. Flint told Pelvis to help him get the motor unclamped from the boat's stem, and they were laying it on the platform when Rona returned-without her shotgunbringing a paddle.

"Thank you, ma'am," Pelvis said. "We sure do 'predate it."

"I got a question for you," Rona said as they were getting into the boat. "Who sent you here? Was it Satan, to make me think I'm losin' my mind, or God, to give me a thrill?"

Pelvis stared into her leathery face. Behind the football helmet's protective bar her deep-socketed eyes glinted with what was surely insanity but might also have been-at least for a passing moment-the memory of a teenaged girl in her finest dress, sitting in the third row of a Biloxi auditorium.

He worked one of the gaudy fake diamond rings from a finger and pushed it into her palm. "Darlin'," he said, " you decide."

Sitting in the stem, Flint untied the rope that @red the boat to the platform and then pushed them off with the paddle. Pelvis took the bow seat, Mama warm and drowsy against his chest. Flint began to stroke steadily toward the center of the channel, where he got them turned southward.

He felt the current grasp their hull, and in another moment they were moving at about the pace of a fast walk. When Pelvis looked back at the woman standing in front of her decrepit shack, Flint said acidly, "Made yourself another fan there, didn't you, Mr. Presley?"

Pelvis stared straight ahead into the darkness. He pulled in a long breath and slowly released it, and he answered with some grit in his voice. "You can pucker up and kiss my butt."

Home Sweet Hellhole In the starfire dark Dan and Arden drifted past other narrower bayous that branched off from the main channel.

They saw no other lights or shacks, and it was clear that their detour off the bridge had left LaPierre miles behind.

When the mosquitoes found them, there was nothing they could do but take the bites. Something bumped hard against the boat before it swam away, and after his heart had descended from his throat, Dan figured it had been an amorous alligator looking for some scaly tush.

He got into a pattern of paddling for three or four minutes and then resting, and he and Arden both cupped their hands and bailed out the water that was seeping up through the hull.

He said nothing about this to Arden, but he guessed the boat was a rusty nail or two from coming apart.

Most of the pain had cleared from Arden's head. Her vision had stopped tunneling in and out, but her bones still ached and her fingers found a crusty patch of dried blood in her hair and a lump so sore the lightest pressure on it almost made her sick. Her purse and suitcase were gone, her money, her belongings, her identification, everything lost.

Except her life, and the drawstring bag in her right hand. But that was okay, she thought. Maybe it was how things were supposed to be. She was shedding her old skin in preparation for the Bright Girl's touch. She was casting off the past, and getting ready for the new Arden Halliday to be born.

How she would find the Bright Girl in this wilderness she didn't exactly know, but she had to believe she was close now, very close.

When she'd seen the light in the shack's window back there, she'd thought for a moment they might have found the Bright Girl, but she didn't think-or she didn't want to think-that the Bright Girl would choose to live in a tarpaper hovel. Arden hadn't considered what kind of dwelung the Bright Girl might occupy, but now she envisioned something like a green mansion hidden amid the [email protected] trees, where sunlight streamed through the high branches like liquid gold. Or a houseboat anchored in a clear, still pool somewhere up one of these bayous. But not a dirty tarpaper shack. No, that didn't suit her image of the Bright Girl, and she refused to believe it.

She strained to see through the darkness, thinking-or wishing-that just ahead would be the glow of another lantern and a cluster of squatters' shacks, somebody to help her find her way. She glanced back at Dan as he slid the paddle into the water again. The man Godprovided, Jupiter had said. She'd never have left the motel with Dan if she hadn't been clinging to Jupiters instincts about him.

Jupiter had always been a mystic; he had the sixth sense about horses, he knew their temperaments and their secret no-es.

If he said a docile-looking animal was getting ready to snort and kick, it was wise to move away from the hindquarters And he knew other things, too; if he smelled rain in the midst of a Texas drought, it was time to get out the buckets.

He read the sky and the wind and the pain in Arden's soul; she had come to realize during her years at the youth ranch that Jupiter Krenshaw was connected to the flowing currents of life ira a way she couldn't fathom. She had trusted and believed him, and now she had to trust and believe he'd been telling her the truth about the Bright Girl, and that he'd seen something in Dan Lambert that no one else could recognize.

Sho had to, because there was no turning back.

'They drifted on, the skiff being drawn along with the slow but steady current. They passed evidence that others had come this way: a few abandoned and crumbling shacks, a wharf jutting out over the water on rotten pilings, a wrecked and vine 4mped shrimp boat whose prow was jammed between the trunks of two huge moss trees.

Dan felt meanness overtalang him, and he caught himself dozing off between stretches of paddling. Arden likewise had begun to close her eyes and rest, fighting thurst but not yet ready to drink any of the water they were gliding through.

Dan let himself sleep for only a few minutes at a time, then his internal alarm went off and roused him to lmep the boat from drifting into the half-submerged trees on either side. The water was probably eight or ten feet deep, he figured. Their boat was still in the slow process of sinking, but he went to work bailing with his hands and Arden helped him until their craft had lightened up - ' .

Dan noted that the branches overhead were g to unlock and draw apart. In another M=ty minutes or go-a little over an hour since they'd set off in the boat-the bayou merged into a wider channel that took a long curve toward the southwest. Heat hotnmg shin2mered in the @, and an oomional fish jumped from the channel's ebony surface and sped down again. Dan looked at the water in the boat and decided it wasn't wise to think too much about what might be the depths, =Mng those fish want to grow wings. He paddled a few strokes and then rested again, the muscles of his back starting to cramp.

"You want me to paddle awhile?" Arden asked "No, I'm all right."

[email protected] the paddle across his knees, he let the current do the work. He scratched the welts on his forehead where a couple of mosquitoes had been feasting, and he sorely missed his baseball cap. "How about you?

You hangin' in?"

"Yeah."

"Good." He listened to the quiet sound of the hull moving through the water. "I sure could use a cold six-pack! I wouldn't kick a pizza out of bed, either."

"I'H take a pitcher of iced tea with some lime in it," she said after a moment of defibemtion. "And a bowl of strawberry ice cream."

-A Dan nodded, looking from side to side at the dense walls of foliage that lined the bayou. Yes, he decided; a man could get lost in here and never be found. "This ought to take us out to the Gulf, sooner or later," he said. "Could be daylight before we get there, though." He made out ten forty-four by the luminous hands of his watch. "Once we clear the swamp, maybe we can find a fishin'camp or something'along the coast. Could be we can find a road and flag a car down, get you a ride out of here."

"Get me a ride out? What about you?"

,Never mind about me. You took a pretty hard knock on the head, you need to see a doctor."

"I don't need a doctor. You know who I need to find."

"Don't start that again!" he warned. "Hear me? Wherever Lapierre is, were long past it. I'm getting' you out of here, then you can do what you please. You ought to get back to Fort Worth and count yourself lucky to be alive."

"And how am I gonna do that? I lost my purse and all my money.

Even if I could find a bus station, I couldn't buy a ticket."

,I've got some money," he said. I-Enough to buy you a bus ticket, if you can hitch a ride back to Houma."

l,yeah, I've sure got a lot to go back to," she answered tersely.

'"No job, no money, ncythin'. @ Soon I'll be Out on the street. How do you think I'll do at a shelter for the homeless?"

"Youll find a job, get back on your feet."

,Uh-huh. I wish it was that easy. Don't you know what it's like out there?"

-yeah," he drawled, "I believe I do."

She grunted and allowed herself a faint, bitter smile. "I pess so. Sorry. I must sound like a whinin' fool."

--Times are hard for everybody. Except the rich people who got us into this mess." He listened to the distant call of a night bird off to the left, a lonely sound that tugged at his heart. "I never wanted to be rich," he said. "Seems to me, that's just askin' for more problems. But I always wanted to pull my own weight. Pay my bills and take pride in my workThat's what was important to me. After I got back from come this way: a few abandoned and crumbling shwks, a wharfjutting out over the water on rotten pilings, a wrecked and [email protected] shrimp boat whose prow was i between the of two huge moss trees. Dan felt weariness [email protected] him, and he caught himself dozing off between hours of padftn. Arden likewise had begun to close her eyes and rest, fighting @ but not yet ready to drink any of the water they were gliding throug)L Dan let himself sleep for only a few minutes at a time, then his mtemal alarm went off and roused turn to keep the boat from dnftmg into the half-submerged trm on either side. The water was probably eight or ten feet deep, he figured. Their boat was still in the slow process of but he went to work bailing with his hands and Arden helped him until their craft had lightened up Dan noted that the branches overhead were to unlock and draw apart. In another twenty minutes or so-a little over an hour since they'd set off in the boat-the bayou merged into a vnder channel that took a long curve toward the southwest.

Heat lightning shimmered in the sky, and an occasional fish jumped from the channel's ebony surface and sped down apm. Dan loolmd at the water in the boat and decided it wasn't wise to think too much about what might be the depths, making those fish waM to grow winp. He paddled a few strokes and then again, the muscles of his back starting to cramp.

"You want me to paddle awhiier' Arden @ "No, I'm all right."

Resting the paddle across his lmem heletthe nt do the wort He scratched the welts on his forehead where a couple of mosquitoes had been feasUM and he sorely missed his baseball cap. "How about. you? you hangin' in?"

4ty ."

eah to "@." He lilftened the quiet sound of the hull moving through the water. "I sure could use a cold sixpack! I wouldn't kick a pizza out of bed, either."

"I'll take a pitcher of iced tea with some lime in it," she said after a moment of deliberation. "And a bowl of strawberry ice cmm."

Dan nodded, looking from side to side at the dense w of foliage that lined the bayou. Yes, he decided; a man could get lost in here and never be found. "This ought to take us out to the Gulf, sooner or later," he said. "Could be daylight before we get there, though." He made out ten forty-four by the luminous hands of his watch. "Once we clear the swamp, maybe we can find a fishin' camp or something'along the coast. Could be we can find a road and flag a car down, get you a ride out of here."

"Get me a ride out? What about you? "Never @ about me. You took a pretty hard knock on the head, you need to see a doctor."

"I don't need a doctor. You know who I need to find."

"Don't @ that again!', he warned. "Hear me? Wherever LaPierre is, we're long past it. I'm getting' you out of here, then yet' can do what you please. You ought to get back to Fort Worth and count yourself lucky to be alive.

"And how am I gonna do that? I lost my purse and an my money.

Even if I could find a bus station, I couldn't buy a [email protected]* "I've got some money," he said. "Enough to buy you a bus ticket if you can hitch a ride back to Houma."Yeah, I've sure got a lot to go back to," she answered tersely. "No job, no money, nothin'. Pretty soon I'll be out on the sftd. How do you think I'll do at a shelter for the homeless?"

"You'll find a job, get back on your feet."

"Uh-huh. I wish it was that easy. Don't you know what it's like out there?"

"Yeah," he drawled, "I believe I do."

She grunted and allowed herself a faint, bitter smile. 1-1 guess so. Sorry. I must sound like a whinin' fool."

"Times are hard for everybody. Except the rich people who got us into this mess." He listened to the distant call of a night bird off to the left, a lonely sound that tugged at his heart. "I never wanted to be rich," he said. "Seems to me, that's just askin' for more problems. But I always wanted to Pull my own weight. Pay my bills and take pride in my work.

That's what was imporunt to me. After I got back from 'Nam, I had some tough [email protected], but things were workin' out.

Then ... I don't know." He caught himself from going any further.

"Well, you've got your own road to travel; you don't need to walk down mine."

"I think we're both headin' in the same direction."

"No, we're not," he corrected her. "How old are your, "Twenty-seven."

"The difference between us is that you've got your whole life ahead of you, and I'm windin' it down. Nobody said livin' was gonna be easy or. fair, that's for damn sure. I'm here to tell you it's not.

But you don't give up. You're gonna get knocked down and beat up and stomped, but you don't quit. You can't."

"Maybe you can," Arden said quietly. "I'm @ of being' knocimd down, beaten up, and stomped. I keep getting' up, and something' comes along to knock me down again. I'm tired of it. I wish to God there was a way to ... just find some peace- "

"Go back to Fort Worth." He slid the paddle into the water and began pushing them forward again. "Somethin's bound to open up for you. But you sure don't belong in the middle of a swamp, tryin' to find a faith healer."

"Right now I don't know where I belong, I don't think I ever have known." She was silent for a moment, her hands woriang around the pink drawstring bag. "What was your best timer, she asked. "I mean, the time when yoi; thought everything was right, and you were where you wein supposed to be. Do you know?"

He thought about it, and the longer he thought the @er the question became to answer. "I guess. . . maybe when I'd firstjoined the marines. In boot camp, on @ Island. I had a job to do-a mission-and I was getting' ready for it.

Things were black and white. I thought my country needed me, and I thought I could make a difference."

"You sound like you were eager to fight."

"Yeah, I was." Dan paddled another stroke and then paused. "I @ being' over there the first couple of months.

At first it seemed @ I was doin' something' important. I didn't like to idll-no man in his right mind does-but I did it because I was fightin' for my country. I thought. Then, later on, it all changed. I saw so many boys get killed, I couldn't figure out what they were dyin' for. I mean, what were we tryin' to do? The VietCong didn't want my country. They weren't gonna invade us. They didn't have anything we needed. What was that all about?"

He shook his head. "Here it's been over twenty years, and I still don't know. It was a hell of a lot of wasted lives is what it was.

Lives just thrown away.

"It must've been bad," Arden said. "I've seen a couple of movies about Vietnam, and it sure wasn't like Desert Storm, was itr' "Nope, it sure wasn't." Movies about Vietnam, he thought, and he lowered his head to hide his half-smile.

He'd been forgetting that Arden was all of four years old when he'd shipped to 'Nam. "

"My best time was when I was livin' on the youth ranch, she said.

"It was a hard place, and you did your chores and toed the line, but it was all right. The others there were like I was. All of us had been through a half-dozen foster homes, and we'd screwed up and gotten in trouble with the law. It was our last chance to get straight, I guess.

I hated it at first.

Tried to run away a couple of times, but I didn't get very far.

Mr. Richards put me to work cleanin' out the barn. There were five horses, all of 'em old and swaybacked, but they still earned their keep. Jupiter was in charge of the stable, that's where I met him."

"You think a lot of him, don't you?"

"He was always kind to me. Some of those foster homes I was in ... well, I think solitary confinement in prison would've been better.

I had trouble, too, because of ... you know ... my mark. Somebody looked at me too long, I was liable to lose my temper and start throwin' plates and glasses. Which didn't make me too popular with foster parents. I wasn't used to being' treated like I had sense." She shrugged. "I guess I had a lot to prove. But Jupiter took an interest in me. He trusted mo with the horses, started lattin' me feed and groom 'em. After a while, when I'd wake up early mornin's I could hear'em callin'for me, wantin'me to hurry up. You know, all horses have got different personalities and different voices, not a one of 'em alike. Some of 'em come right out of the stall to meet you, others are shy and hang back. And when they look at you they don't care if you're ugly or deformed. They don't judge you by a mark on your face, like people do."

"Not all people," Dan said.

"Enough to hurt," she answered. She looked up at the stars for a moment, and Dan went to work with the paddle once more. "It was a good feelin', to wake up and hear the horses caRin'.you," she went on. "It was the first time I ever felt needed, or that I was worth a damn.

After the work was done, Jupiter and I started havin' long talks.

About life, and God, and stuff I'd never cared to think much about. He never mentioned my mark; he let me get to it in my own time. It took me a while to talk about it, and how I wished more than anything in the world I could be rid of it. Then he told me about the Bright Girl."

Dan said nothing; he was listening, but on this subject it was hard not to turn a deaf ear.

"I never really expected I'd ever be lookin' for her," Arden said.

"But the way Jupiter talked about her ... she seemed like somebody I'd know, if I ever found her. She seemed so real, and so alive. I mean, I know it sounds crazy for somebody to live so long and never get old.

I know the faith healers on TV are frauds tryin' to squeeze out the bucks. But Jupiter would never have lied to me." She caught Dan's gaze and held it. "if he said there's a Bright Girl, there is. And if he said she can touch my mark and take it away, she can. He would never have lied. And he was right about you, too. If he said you're the man God sent to help me find her, then I be-" "Stop it!" Dan interrupted sharply. "I told you I didn't want to hear that"-bullshit, he almost said, but he settled on-"junk."

She started to fire back a heated reply, but she closed her mouth.

She just stared at him, her eyes fixed on his.

Dan said, "You're chasin' a fairy tale. Where it's gotten you?

Do you think you're better off than before you left Fort Worth? No, you're worse off. At least you had some money in the bank. I don't want to hear any more about the Bright Girl, or what Jupiter told you, or any of that. Understand?"

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