Chapter 23


"I been there. They told me I didn't sound enough like Elvis.

Told me I couldn't play git-tar as good as him, neither."

"Well, hell! Don't try to sound like him! Don't try to look like him, or talk like him, or nothin'! Seems to me there was just one Elvis, and he's dead. Can't be another one. If I was you, I wouldn't touch a guitar again so long as I lived. I wouldn't wear my hair like that, either, and you oughta lose fik or sixty pounds.Get yourself lean and mean, then go see them Nashville cats. You play for them like you did here, you're gonna be makin' yourself some money! Hey, do me a favort" Burt reached for a napkin and pulled a pen out from it to him. "You're not gonna pass Pelvis took the bottle of it, then he poured some in "Didja hear the way they beside the cash register. "Here. Sign me an autograph, just so I can say I [email protected] you first. Sign it To My Friend Burt Dunbro."

"You ... want my autograph?" Pelvis asked, his cheeks reddening with embarrassment.

"Yep. Right there. To My Friend Burt Dunbro."

He put the pen to napkin and wrote what the man asked.

Then he started PelvHe stopped.

"What's wrong? Pen jammed up?"

There was just one [email protected] he was thinking, and he's dead.

Can't be another one.

Maybe there shouldn't be.

It had been fifteen years since he'd played piano in front of an audience. And that was before he'd dressed himself up as the Kin studied the records and movies and hip thrusts, bought the wig, the blue suede shoes, the regalia. It was before he'd let himself get fat on the Twinkles and peanut butter cookies and cornbread sopped in buttermill It was before he'd decided that who he was wasut good enough, and that he needed something much larger to cling to and hide inside.

But what if ... what if ...

What if he'd given up on his own talent too early? What if he'd let it go in favor of the Elvis disguise because he wasn't sure he was worth a damn? What if... what if... ?

Oh, Lord, it would be so hard to give it up now and try to go back It would be impossible to strike out on his own, without the King to help him. Wouldn't it?

But Elvis was dead. There couldn't be another one.

"Hold on, I'll find a pen that writes," Burt offered.

"No," Pelvis said. "This ones fine."

He was terrified.

But he got the pen moving, and with a hammering heart and a dry throat he scratched out Pelv and beneath it wrote Cecil Eisley.

It was one of the hardest things he'd ever done in his life, but when he was finished he felt something inside him start to unlc bit. Maybe in an hour he would regret name. Maybe tomorrow he would deny right now-this strange and wonderfill -he felt ten feet tall.

come over here!" Burt called. The mean-faced who didn't care for the classics came to the bar. Burt gave him twenty dollars and quietly told him what he wanted done. "Ya'll go on with GriW, he'll take care of you," Burt said to Flint, and to Arden he added, "Six o'clock. I'll see you here."

"Let's go, Lambert." Flint pushed the gun into Dan's side again.

"Take it nice and easy."

The two cab' Grill led them to were about a hundred Ins yards from the other structures of St. Nasty, up on a platform facing a cove of smooth black water. Grill produced a kMe penknife and pulled up its thin blade to slide into the first cabin's door lock. It took four seconds to open the door. "I better check for snakes," he said before he disappeared into the darkness within. Two minutes later a generator rumbled to life around back and then elmfic lights flickered on. "No snakes," he announced when he returned to the door.

"Just a skin." He held the long gossamer thing up to show them.

"Who's sleepin' in this one?"

When neither of the bounty hunters responded, Arden up her courage and said, "I guess I am." She c the threshold. The pine-paneled interior was hot, humid, and smelled of mold. There was a broken-down plaid sofa, a couple of standing lamps that appeared to have been purchased from a garage sale sometime in 1967, and a latchen area with a rusty stove and sink. A hallway went back to what must be the sleeping area and-hopefully-an indoor bathroom. It would do for a few hours, until six o'clock.

"Shower and toilet's between the cabins," Grill said.

"Pipes are hooked to a [email protected], but I wouldn't drink the water. And you'd best keep the front and back doors locked.

Lots of feras 'round here can't be trusted."

Arden closed the door and locked it, then she pulled the sofa over in front of it. She found a switch that operated a ceiling fan, and turning it on helped cool the room some.

When the lights were on I in the second cabin, Grill came out grinning. "Looky here!' He raised his right arm to show Dan, Flint, and Pelvis the thick brown snake his hand had seized, the head squeezed between his fingers and the coils twined around his wrist. "Big al'sumbitch moccasin. Found him sleepin'under a oat. Ya'll step aside." He reared his arm back and flung the reptile past them into the water. It made a heavy splash. "Okay, you can go on in."

Flint guided Dan through the door first. The place was basically the same as the first cabin, a moldy-smelling assemblage of cheap furniture, pine-paneled walls, and a floor of rough planks. Pelvis entered @, his eyes peeled for creepy-aawlies. "Thing 'bout moccasins," Grill said, "is that for every one you see, there're three or four you don't.

They'll keep to themselves if you don't step on 'em, but I wouldn't let that dog go nosin' 'round, hear?"

"I hear," Pelvis answered.

"Tough luck for that girl, huh? I mean, the way her face is.

Awful hard to look at, but hard not to look at, too."

"Thanks for lattin' us in," Flint told him. "Good night."

"Alhighty. Don't let the bedbugs bite. Nor nothin' else."

Grill chuckled a little to himself, slid his hands into the pockets of his blue jmm, and started walking back in the direction they'd come.

Flint closed the door and latched it. "Here, keep this on him."

He gave Pelvis the derringer, then he took the cuffs and their key from his pocket and unlocked them. "Hands behind you."

"I'm gonna have to go pee in a minute," Dan said.

"Hands in front of you," Flint corrected him. "Grip 'em together."

"I gave you my word I wasn't gonna run. You don't have to-I, "Your word's not worth fifteen thousand dollars, so shut up."

Flint snapped the cuffs around Dan's wrists and put the key inside his suit jacket. Dan saw a peculiar thing happen: the front of the man's shirt suddenly twitched, as if Murtaugh had just hiccupped. He recalled that he'd seen the same thing when Murtaugh was on the ground in Basile Pgrk, just before the Elvis clone had started hollering. He had the bizarre sensation that there was more to Murtaugh than met the eye.

"Watch him for a minute," Flint told Pelvis, and he walked back through the hallway to find out what the rest of the cabin held.

"Don't try nothin', now," Pelvis said nervously, holding a sleepy Mama and aiming the derringer at Dan's belly. "I'll shoot if I have.

to."

"Just take it easy." Dan could tell that the man was uncomfortable holding the gun, and though it looked like a peashooter, it could still do a lot of damage at such close -range. He decided silence would only increase the man's tension before Murtaugh returned. "What's your name?"

"Ce-" No, maybe he'd be ready to let go of it someday, but not yet. "Pelvis Eisley."

"Pelvis, huh?" Dan nodded; it figured. "Excuse me for sayin' this, but you and Murtaugh don't fit. You been partners long?"

"TWO days. He's @bin' me the ropes."

An amateur, Dan thought. "This is your first bountyhuntin'job?"

.'That's right. My very first."

"Seems to me you'd do better playin' piano in Nashville than doin' this kind of work."

"Eisley, don't talk to him." Flint came back in. What he'd found had been two grim rooms, each with two iron-framed, bare-mattreswd 00ts. He hadn't failed to notice that the legs Of the Cots Were standing in water-filled coffee cans to keep insects from climbing up them. If this was the executive quarters, he would have hated to see the work crew's barracks; then again, the cabin didn't look like anyone had been there in quite some time. But all he wanted was a few hours Of sleep, and he didn't need a Hilton hotel pillow.

Flint took the derringer back from Eisley. "Come on, Lambert.

You want to do your business, let's get it done."

Through a rear window he'd seen a tin-roofed shed that he figured must be where the shower and toilet were. The generator was sending juice to an electric bulb burning over the shed's door, but stepping in was going to be an act of either raw courage or sheer desperation.

Arden had @y forced herself-out of despemtionto walk into the shed. Fortunately, there was a light bulb inside as well as outside, but Arden approached the toilet with trepidation. There were no water moccasins coiled up inside, as she'd feared, but it wasn't the cleanest in the world. She did what she had to do, used a roll of tissue that could have sniped paint off metal, and got out as fast as she could.

In the room in which she'd chosen to sleep, she had put the pink drawstring bag atop a battered old pine chest of drawers. Now, under the single dirty light bulb that burned at the ceiling, she opened the bag and removed what was held within.

One after the other, she lined up five little horses side by side.

They had been bought at a (hine store in Fort Worth. They wemn't much, but they were everything. Five horses: two brown, one black, one gray. The paint was chipping off them, revealing the red plastic they were molded from. She knew their secret names, and they watched over her. They reminded her of a time when she'd been happy, when she could believe the future was vnde-open spaces, even through the Texas dust and gnt and the hard work that had to be done. They reminded her that once upon a time she had been needed.

She sat on the edge of a cot and stared at the small pwfic figures, her eyes @ and tired. She was wrecked, and she knew it. But her thoughts were still cuchng that flame, circling, circling. The Bright Girl. A touch from the Bright Girl, and she would be healed. Jupiter said so. Jupiter wouldn't have lied to her. No. A touch from the Bright Girl, and the mark-the ugly bad-luck mark that had tormented her all her life and caused her father to walk out the door and never come back and her mother to fall under the weight of the bottle-would be taken away. The Bright wasn't dead.

The Bright Girl was forever young and pretty, and she carried the lamp of God. Jupiter hadn't lied. He hadn't.

But what about Dan? He couldn't go any farther. If he was the man God had provided to take her to the Bright Girl, then why was he being wrenched away from her.9 She'd thought about trying somehow to get him away from the bounty hunters, but what could she do? And she'd seen it in his face, them in the cafe- he was sick and weary of running, and he could not go on. You His hands, she remembered Jupiter saying.

But what if Jupiter had been wrong?

Six o'clock, she thought. Six o'clock. She had to press that number into her mind so she could sleep for three or four hours and then get up in time. She had to forget about Dan, had to let him go.

As much as she wanted, she couldn't help him. Now she had to help herself, and it seemed to her that the morning would be her last chance.

Where she would go and what she would do if she found the Bright Girl's grave, she didn't know. She couldn't think about it, because that way led to black despair, She lay down and stared at the ceiling.

The five [email protected], her @man, would watch over her during the night. She Might dream of waking up, and hearing them pawing and snorting for her in the barn, saying hurry come to uy huny we will neyer hurt you we will never hurt.

At last, mercifully, her eyes closed. She listened to the rumble of the generator, the @p of frogs, and the chitterings of insects and night birds, the heavy thudding heartbeat of the Oil-Pumping machinery in the distance. She was afraid of what daylight might bring; she was equally afraid of knowing and of not knowing. A single tear trickled down the cheek on the deep-violet-birthmarked side of her face- [email protected] came for her, and took her away.

Pelvis had gone outside to let Mama answer nature's call.

While he was out there, he unzipped and added some water to the cove. After Mama was finished, he picked her up anded back inside, and that was when he saw a match flare on the plank walkway that led back over the swamp grass and rushes to the center of St. Nasty. He saw the orangedaubed face of a man as the match touched the tip of a cigarette, and then the match was flicked out into the water like a little comet.

He watched the cigarette's tip glow as the man inhaled.

Then the glow vanished.-Either the man was cupping the cigarette in his hand or he'd walked away, it was hard to ten in the dart Pelvis stood there, stroking Mama for a moment, but when she let out a few exhausted yaps at something that rustled in the watery weeds under the platform, he decided it was time to get back inside. He wondered how many snakes must be watching him, and the thought made him shudder as if someone had just stepped on his grave.

The sound of Scales "I'm goin' to take a shower,', Flint told pelvis when he walked through the door. "I want you to sit.in there and watch him, hear.9 Take the gun and just sit there. I'll be back in a few minutes." He'd taken Dan to the shed and found a gnmy cake of soap in the cramped little shower stall.

Though he had no towel, he couldn't bear his own body C)dor any longer. He started to turn away, but he had to ask a burning question.

"Eisley, where'd you learn the Chopin piece?"

I.Sir?

"The Chopin piece. The classical music you played.

Where'd you learn itT, "Oh, that was something' my piano teacher taught me.

Mrs. Fitch was her name. Said it was a good quick finger workout and 'cause you had to think about what you were doin' it calmed you down. I reckon it did the trick for my [email protected]"

"I never would've thought you could play classical music."

Pelvis @gged. "No big thing. Them fellas pooted in their pants like everybody else. You go on and take your shower, don't worry 'bout Lambert."

Flint left the cabin, not quite sure he would ever again listen to his tape of Chopin preludes with quite the same reverence.

Pelvis went into the bedroom Flint had chosen for himself and found the killer lying on one of the cots, his right hand cuffed to the iron bed frame. Pelvis sat down on the other cot, laid Mama aside, and held the derringer aimed at Dan.

"I wish you wouldn't do that," Dan said twenty seconds later, when it was clear Eisley meant to point the gun at him until Murtaugh returned. "I'd hate for that to go off."

"Mr. Murtaugh told me to. watch you."

"Can't you watch me and aim that gun somewhere else?"

"I could. I don'tWant to."

Dan granted and allowed a slight smile. "You must think I'm a big bad sonofabitch, huh?"

"You killed two men. That don't make you an angel in my book."

Dan started to sit up, but he thought better of making any quick moves. "I didn't.kill the man at that damn motel. His wife did it."

"His wife? Ha, that's a good one!"

"He was alive when I left there. His wife had already shot him in the gut with a shotgun, aimin'at me. She beat him to death after I was gone. Maybe she was mad at him because I got away. "

"Uh-huh. I reckon somebody else popped up and killed that fella at the bank, too. And you just happened to be standin' there."

"No," Dan said, "That one I'll bear the blame for."

Surprised to hear it."

Dan cupped his left hand under his head and stared up at the ceiling. A moth was going around and around up there, searching for a way out. "Blanchard had a family. It wasn't his fault things are how they are. There's no way on earth I can live with what I did, so I might as well die in prison."

Pelvis was silent for a moment. The derringer had wandered. He'd never met anybody who'd committed murder before, and he found his nervousness being replaced by curiosity. "What'd that fella do to you was so bad you had to kill him?" he asked quietly.

Dan was watching the trapped moth beating itself against the stark, bare light bulb. He was too tense to sleep yet, and the room was too hot. "I didn't go to that bank meanin' to do it," he answered. "Blanchard was takin' my pickup truck away from me.

It was the last thing I had. I lost my temper, a guard came in, and we fought. Blanchard pulled a pistol on me. I had the guard's gun, and ... I squeezed the trigger first. Didn't even aim. I knew Blanchard was finished when I saw all that blood. Then I got in my truck and ran."

Pelvis frowned. "You should've stayed there. Maybe pleaded self-defense or something'."

"I guess so. But all I could think about right then was getting' away- t9 "How 'bout the girl? We thought you took her hostage. Is she ...

kinda off in the head?"

"No, she's just scared." Dan explained how he'd met Arden, and about her belief in the Bright Girl. "In the mornin' she wants to go find some Cajun fisherman called Little Train. He's supposed to live in a houseboat a mile or so south of here. That fella who runs the cafe's takin' her. I don't have the right to tell her not to go, and I don't think she'd listen to me, anyway." An idea struck him, and he angled his face toward Eisley. "You could go with her."

"Me?"

"Yeah. They're leavin' at six." He managed to twist his cuffed wrist around so he could see his watch. "Going' on two-thirty. You could go with her, make sure she's all right.

If the supply boat doesn't come till afternoon, you'll be back in plenty of time."

"Back from where?" Flint peered through the doorway, his hair still wet. He had carefully and methodically scrubbed the grime from his and his brother's flesh. It had been torment to buckle the sweat-stiff miniature shoulder holster against his skin and then put on his swamp-tainted clothes again. Under his once-white shirt Clint was sleeping, but Flint could feel the soft bones shift every so often deep in his constricted guts.

"He was askin' me to go with the girl," Pelvis said.

"Burt-y'know, from the cafe-is gonna take her at six O'clock to see a Cajun fella lives a mile south. She's tryin' to find a-"

"Forget it." Flint took the derringer from him. "We're not nursemaids. I don't know what her story is, but we're leaven' here on that supply boat and she can go with us or not, it's up to her."

"Yes sir, but if it's just a mile off, I'll be back before-"

"Eisley?" Flint cut him off. "The girl's crazy. She'd have to be crazy to come down here knowin'who Lambert is. Get up off there, I've gotta lie down before I fall down."

Pelvis cradled Mama in his arms and stood up. Mama awakened and gave a cranky growl, then her bulbous eyes closed and she went limp again. Flint lay down on the cot.

Springs jabbed his back through the thin mattress, but he was so tired, he could have slept on a bed of nails.

"Arden shouldn't go off in the swamp with somebody she doesn't know," Dan pressed on. "It doesn't matter what you think of her. She could still get in a lot of trouble."

"She's not our business. You are."

"Maybe that's so, but she needs help."

"Not from us."

"Not from you, I guess." Dan looked up at Pelvis. "How about it?

Would you-" "Hey!" Flint sat up again, his deep-sunken eyes redrimmed and angry. "He doesn't have any say-so about this!

I'm callin' the shots! Now, why don't you shut your mouth and get some sleep? Eisley, you go on, too!"

Pelvis hesitated. The electric lights, and theirpools ofshadow, gave him little comfort. Severaltimes already he had imagined he'd caught a slow uncoiling from the corner of his eye.

"How come Mama and me have to sleep in a room by ourselves?"

"Because there're only two cots in here, that's why. Now, 90 on!"

"That was an awful big snake that fella found. I wonder which cot it was under."

"Well, I'll tell you what," Flint said. "You and the mutt can sleep in here. Just curl up on the floor between us, maybe that'll make you feel safer."

"No, I don't think it would."

"The lights are on. All right? Nothin's gonna crawl out and get you with the lights on."

Pelvis started to retreat to the other room. It seemed a vast distance away from the protection of Flint's derringer.

He paused again, his face furrowed in thought. "Mr. Murtaugh, don't you think it'd be wrong if we knew something' might happen to that girl and we didn't try to help her?"

"She can take care of herself."

"We don't know that for sure. Lambert says she's from Fort Worth, and she don't have any way to get home."

"It's not our problem, Eisley."

"Yeah, I know that and all, but ... seems to me we oughta have a little feelin' for her situation."

Flint glared at Pelvis with a force that seemed to scorch the air between them. "You haven't learned a thing from me, have you?"

"Sir?"

"Bounty hunters don'tfeel- You start feelin', and you start Gettin' interested. When you start getting' interested, you start letting your guard down. Then you wind up with a knife in your back. If the girl wants to go see some Cajun swamp rat, it's her business. She knows the supply boat's leavin' in the afternoon. If she wants to be on it, she will be." He held Pelvis's gaze a few seconds longer, then he lay back down, the derringer in his right hand. "I've met all the swamp rats I care to, in case you've forgotten the marina."

"No, I ain't forgotten."

"I'd say we were lucky to get out of that alive. while you're with me, I'm responsible for you-much as I hate it-to you're not gain'off in the swamp with some crazy girl and end up getting' your throat cut. Now go to sleep."

Pelvis chewed on Flint's logic, his brow still creased under his lopsided wig. Dan said, "She's not crazy. She's a decent person. I wish you'd help her."

"Lambert? One more word from you, and you're gonna spend the night with both arms between your legs and a sock stuffed in your damn mouth!"

"Sorry," Pelvis told Dan. "I can't." He summoned up his courage and went into the other room, where he laid Mama down on the cot and then settled himself beside her. He lay very still, listening for and dreading the sound of scales slithering across the planked floor.

Dan's head had been aching, a slow, insistent throb, for the past two hours. The pain kicked in again, getting between him and sleep.

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