Chapter 26


"Your money, I don't want. Got everting I need, I'm a rich man."

"You mean ... you won't-" "Won't take no money, non. Who tell you 'bout the Bright Girl way up there in Fort Worth rex-ay-ass?"

"A friend who was born in LaPierre. He saw her when he was a little boy, and he told me all about her."

"Oh, them stories. That she's a young beautimous girl and she don't never get old or die. That she can touch you and heal any sickness, or cancer ... or scar. Your friend tell you all that?"

"Yes."

"So you believe mighty hard, and you come all the way down here to ask her touch. 'cause that mark, it hurt you inside?"

"Yes."

Train reached toward her face. Arden's first impulse was to Pull away, but his gaze was powerful enough to hold her.

His rough brown fingers gently @ the birthmark d th,e,n, drew back- "YOU strong-hearted?" he asked.

... think I am. "Either am or not.tt "I am," she said.

Train nodded. "Then I take you, no sweat."

Dan couldnt re ai il an ll to re m n sent any longer. "Don't e h .

e 's nO such Person! There can't be! I don't care if she's supPosed to be some great miracle worker, no woman can hve a hundred Years and still look like a young girl! ." say I take her to see the Bright Girl. Train's voice was calm. "I say, too, the Bright Girl ain't who she come to find."

f-l 'What?" Arden shook her head. "I'm not followin, you.

"When we get there, you see tings clear. Then we find out how strong you heart.

Dan didn't know what to say, or what kind of tricks this man was trying to Pull. None of it made any sense to him.

What had to gnaw at him again was the fate of Murlaugh and Eisley. He couldn't stand the thought that his Pulling the trigger in Shreveport had resulted in the death of Harmon DeCayne and now, most likely, the two bounty hunters. There would be four murders on his head, and how could he live with that and not go insane? He remembered what Burt had said about Train, back in the cafe: He ets " , 9 a round the swamp. If anybody would know, itd be him. ."men Dan had to asil were two other men with us. We were at St- Nasty. Around five o'clock, four men with gain broke in Our cabin and took 'em away. The one in charge was called Doc. Do you know- "Oh, shit!" Burt put his hands to his ears. "I dont wanna hear this! I don't wanna know nothin' about it!"

"Hush up!" Train's voice rattled the screens. "Let 'im talk!"

"I'm not stayin' around for this! No way! Ya'll have fun, I'm getting' back up the bayou!" Burt started out but paused at the door.

"Train, don't do nothin' stupid! Hear me? I'll be expectin' the cat and turtle by Tbesday. Hear?"

"Go home, bon ami, " Train said. "And to you safe passage."

"Good luck," Burt told Dan, and he went out and crossed the gangplank. Train walked past Arden to a window and watched Burt untie his boat, climb in, and start the engine.

"He's okay," Train said as Burt steered the motor skiff back up the narrow bayou the way they'd come. "Hard-workin' fella."

"He knows who Doc is, doesn't he?"

"Oh, oui. And so do I." He turned away from the window; his face seemed to have drawn tighter across the bones, his eyes cold. "Tell me the tale, ay?"

Dan told him, omitting the fact that he was wanted for murder and that Murtaugh and Eisley were bounty hunters.

He omitted, as well, the fact of Murtaugh's freak-show background.

"Doc said he was takin' 'em somewhere by boat. He had some kinda score to settle with 'em, but I'm not sure what it was."

Train leveled that hard, penetrating stare at Dan.

"Friends of you, they is?"

"Not friends, exactly."

"Then who they is to you?"

"More like. . . fellow travelers."

"Where was they travelin' to?"

Dan looked at the elephants and tigers in the rug. He could feel Train watching him, and he knew there was no use in lying. Train was no fool. He sighed heavily; the only path to take was the straight one. "Flint Murtaugh and Pelvis Eisley are their names. They're bounty hunters. They tracked me down here. I met Arden in a truck stop north of Lafayette and brought her with me."

"I came because I wanted to," Arden said. "He didn't force me."

"Bounty hunterr" Tn" repeated. "What crime you did?"

"I killed a man. Train didn't move or "He worked at a bank in Shreveport. There was a fight. I lost my head and shot him. The bank's put fifteen thousand dollars reward on [email protected] Murtaugh and Eisley wanted it." "Huuuuwheeee," Tn" said sol'dy.

"You can have the reward, I won't give you any trouble.

Can You call the law or somebody on that shortwave @, "I ready tell you, I don't need no money. I,m rich, liviie as I do. I love this swamp, I grew up in it. I @ to fish and hunt. What I don't eat, I sell. I boss myself. I go like thousan' doba in my Pocket-pooj.7 There go my riches Then I want an(ything fifteen thousan' dalu, but no more there is. No, I don't need but what I got. He frowned, the @es deepening around his eyes, and he mbbed hir, silvered chin. "If them bounty hunters after you, how come for you wanna heP 'em? HOw come you even tellm' me this?"

"They dont deserve to be murdered, that's why! They haven't done anything wrong! "Hey, W Calm down. Flyin' you head off ain't heP nobody." He motioned toward the porch. --Yaii go out there, set, and take the breeze.. I'll be there direct."

"What about the shortwave? "Yeah, I could call the law way over to Gran, ile. Only @ is, they ain't gonna find you ... fella travelers," he decided to say. "Likely they dead a'ready. Now go on out and so ytsefflt There wasn't much of a breeze on the porch, but it was a little cooler there thin made the boat. Dan was too jumpy to sit, though Arden settled in a wicker chair that faced the cove. "You're goin' with me, aren't your' she asW him "We're so close, you've got to go with me."

"I'll go. I UM don't believe it, but I'll go." He stood at the =M, looking out at the water'sUM surface. "@- he said. "There's gotta [email protected], somebody can do!" "Oui, YOU can take a smaller of this here." Train came OntO the POrch- He had uncWW a small metal @ and he offered it to Dan. "Ain't 'shine," he said when Dan hesitated.

"It's French brandy. Buy it in Grand Isle. Go ahead, ay?"

Dan accepted the flask and took a drink. The brandy burned its flaming trail down his throat. Train offered the flask to Arden, and when she shook her head he took a sip and sloshed it around in his mouth before swallowin "Now I gonna tell you 'bout them men, so listen good. They got a placebout five mile southwest from here. Hid real fine.

I ain't got an eye set for it, but I come up on it when I'm huntin'boar near Lake Calliou. They been there maybe tree month. Set up camp, brung in a prefab house, build a dock, swimmin' pool, and all whatcha like. Got a shrimp boat and two of them expenseeve cigarettes.

You know, them fast speederboats. Then they put bob wire 'round eveeting." He swigged from the flask and held it out to Dan again. "I hear from an al' Cajun boy live on Calliou Bay them men be poachin"ptor. Season don't start till September, see. Ain't no big ting, it happen. But I start to windin'in my head, how come they to poach 'ptor.? Somebody owns hisse'f two of them cigarettes, he got to poach 'ptor? Why's that so, ayT' He took the flask back after Dan had had a drink. "Ol' boy says he seen lights at night, boats comin' and goin' all hours.

So I go over there, hide my boat, and watch through my dark vision binocs 'cause I eat up with curious. Took me two night, then I see what they up to."

"What was it?" Arden asked, pulling her thoughts away from the Bright Girl for the moment.

"Freighter in the bay, unloadin' what look like grain sacks to the shrimp boat. All the time the two cigarettes they circlin' and circlin' 'round, throwin' spotlights. Andhuuuuwheee!-the men in them boats with the like of guns you never did saw! Shrimp boat brung the @ sacks back in, freighter up anchor and went." He had another swig of Napoleon's finest. "Now what kinda cargo unloaded by night and be that worth protection?"

"Drugs," Dan said.

"That's what I'm figurin'. Either the heroin or the cockaine.

Maybe both. All them miles and miles of swamp coast, the law cain't hardly patrol a smidgen of it, and they boats in sorry shape. So these fellas bringin' in the dope and shippin' it north, likely takin' it up by Bayou du Large or Bayou Grand Calliou and unloadin' at a marina. Sellin' some of it at St. Nasty, too. Burt's the one found out fella named Doc Nyland was hangin"round the poolhall, givin' men free samples to get lem interested.

Peacekeeper tried to do r-omethin' about it, he went missin'. Only ting is, I cain't figure why they poachin' the lptors. Then-boom!-it hit me like a brick upside my head." Train capped the flask.

"They worry somebody gonna steal them drugs away from lem. Worry so much they gonna be hijack they gotta figure a waY to move 'em safe.

So what they gonna do, ay? They gonna put them drugs somewhere they cain't be easy stole."

His mouth crooked in a wicked smile. "Like inside live ptors."

"Inside 'em?"

"Sans doute! You wrap that cockaine up in metal foil good and tight, then you jam it down in them bellies with a stick!

How you gonna get it out unless you got a big knife and a lotta time to be cuttin'? That'd be the goddangest mess you never did saw!"

"I'll bet," Dan agreed. "So what are they doin? Shippin' the 'ptors north to be cut open?"

"Oui, puttin"em on a truck and takin"em to a safe place.

Even if them 'ptors die of bad digestion 'fore they get where they goin', the cockaine still protected in there."

Iylm so, but I can't understand how Murtaugh and Eisley got mixed up with a gang of drug runners. Is Doc Nyland their leader?"

Train shook his head. "I sinn somebody else over there, look like he was bossin'. Fella don't wear no shirt, showin' hisse'f off.

Standin' by the pool, them irons and weight bars layin' eveewhere. His girlfrien', all she do is lay there sunburnin'. I'm figurin' he's the honch."

Dan looked out through the screen at the water. The sun was up strong and hot now, golden light streaming through the trees. A movement caught his attention, and he saw a moccasin undulating smoothly across the surface. He watched it until it disappeared into the shadows. It seemed to Dan that in this swamp the human reptiles were the ones to be feared most of all. He lifted his forearm and stared at his snake tattoo.

Once, a long time ago, he had been a brave man. He had done without hesitation what he'd thought was the right thing. He had walked the world like a giant himself, before time and fate had beaten him down.

Now he was dying and he was a killer, sick at heart.

He felt as if he were peering into a snake hole, and if he reached into it to drag the tinng out, he could be bitten to death. But if he turned his back on it like a coward, he was already dead.

An image came to him, unbidden: Farrow's face and voice, there on that terrible night the snipers' bullets had hissed out of the jungle.

Go, held said. It had not been a shout, but it was more powerful than a shout.

Go.

Dan remembered the glint of what might have been joy in Farrow's eyes as the man-a citizen of Hell, one of the walking damned-had turned and slogging back through the mud toward the jungle, firing his M 16 to give Dan and the others precious seconds in which to save their own lives.

Farrow could not live with himself because he'd gone south. There in the [email protected] of Cho Yat, his simple mistake with the rod-wrapped chocolate bar had resulted in the death of innocents, and Farrow had decided-in the muddy stream, at that crisis of time-that he had found an escape.

Dan had once been a Snake handler, a good soldier, a decent man.

But he'd gone south, there in that Shreveport bank, and now he was a citizen of hell, one of the wa* damned.

But he knew the right thing to do.

It was time to go.

"You brai getting' hot," Train said in a quiet voice.

"You have guns." It was a statement, not a question.

"lWo rifles. Pistol."

"HHow many men? "

Train knew what he meant. "I count eight last time.

Maybe more I don't see."

Dan turned to face him. "Will you take me?"

"No!" Arden stood up, her eyes wide. "Dan, no! You don't owe them anything!"

"I owe myself," he said.

"listen to me!" She stepped close to him and grasped his arm.

"You can still get away! You can find-" "No," be interrupted gently, "I can't. Train, how about it?"

"They'll kill you!" Arden said, stricken with terror for him.

"Oui, " Train added. "That they'll try."

"Maybe Murtaugh and Eisley are already dead." Dan stared deeply into Arden's eyes. It was a strange thing, but now he could look at her face and not see the birthmark.

"Maybo they're still alive, but they won't be for very long. If I don't go after 'em-if I don't at least try to get 'em out of there-what good am I? I don't want to die in prison. But I can't live in a prison, either. And if I don't do something, I'll carry my own prison around with me every hour of every day I've got left. I have to do this. Train?" He directed his gaze to the Cajun. "I'm not askin' you to help me, just to get me close enough. I'll need to take one of the rifles, the pistol, and some ammo. You got a holster for the pistol?"

"I do."

"Then you'll take me?"

Train paused for a moment, thinking it over. He opened the flask again and took a long swig. "You a mighty strange killer, wantin' to get killed for somebody tryin' to slam you in prison." He licked his lips. "Huuuuwheeee! I didn't know I was gonna get dead today."

"I can go in alone."

"Well," Train said, "it's like this here: I knew a fella, name of Jack Giradoux. Parish ranger, he was. He come by, we'd have a talk and eat some cat. I don't tell him about them men 'cause I know what he'll have to do. I figure not to rock the boat, ay?" He smiled; it was a painful sight. The smile quickly faded. "If he don't,find 'em, I figure, he don't get killed. He was a good fella. Few days ago fisherman find Jack's boat on Lake Tambour. That's a long way from where them men are, but I know they must've got hold of him and then towed his boat up there.

Find his body, nobody ever will. Now I gotta ask myself, did I done wrong? When they gonna find out I know about 'em and come for me, some night?" He closed the flask and held it down at his side.

"Lived forty-five good year. To die in bed, non. Could be we get it done and get out. Could be you my death angel, and maybe I know sooner or later you was gonna swoop down on me. It's gonna be like puttin' you hand in a cottonmouth nest. You ready to get bit?"

"I'm ready to do some bitin'," Dan said.

"Okay, leatherneck Okay. With you, I reckon. Got Baby to carry us, maybe we get real lucky."

"Baby?"

"She my girl. You meet her, direct."

"One more thing," Dan added. "I want to take Arden where she needs to go first."

"Non, impossible. Them men five miles southwest, the Bright Girl nine, ten mile southeast, down in the Casse-Tete Islands. We take her first, we gonna be losin' too much time."

Dan looked at Arden, who was staring fixedly at the floor.

"I'll leave it up to you. I know how much this means. I never believed it ... but maybe I should have. Maybe I was wrong, I don't know." Her chin came up, and her eyes found his. "What do you say?"

"I say-" She stopped, and took a deep breath to clear her head.

So many things were tangled up inside her: fear and jubilation, pain and hope. She had come so far, with so much at stake. But now she knew what the important thing was. She said, "Help them."

He gave her a faint smile; he'd known what she was going to decide. "You need to stay here. We'll be back as soon [email protected] "No." It was said with finality. "If you're goin', I am, twit "Arden, it might be rougher'n hell out there. You could get yourself killed."

"I'm goin'. Don't try to talk me out of it, because you can't."

"Clock's tickin'," Tiain said.

"All right, then." Dan felt the urgency pulling at him.

"I'm ready."

Train went into a back room and got the weapons: a Browning automatic rifle with a four-bullet magazine, a Ruger rifle with a hunters scope and a five-shell magazine, and in a waist holster a Smith Wesson 9men automatic that held an eight-bullet clip. He found extra magazines for the rifles and clips for the automatic and put them in a faded old backpack, which Arden was given charge of. Dan took the Browning and the pistol. Train got a plastic jug of filtered water from the galley, slung the Rugees strap around his shoulder, and said, "We go."

They left the houseboat and Train led them to the vine-covered floating structure next to the pier. He slid open a door. "Here she sets."

"Jesus," Dan said, stunned by what he saw.

Sitting inside was Train's second boat. It was painted navy gray, the paint job relatively fresh except for patches of rust at the waterline. It resembled a smaller version of a commercial tug, but it was leaner and meaner, its squat pilothouse set closer to the prow.

The craft was about fifty feet long, and thirteen feet high at its tallest point, a tight squeeze in the oil-smelling, musty boathouse.

It had not the gentle charm of an infant, but the armor-plated threat of a brute.

Though the machine-gun mounts and the mortar had been removed and other'civilian modifications made to the radar mast, Dan recognized it as a Swift-type river patrol boat, the same kind of vessel Train had crewed aboard on the deadly waterways of Vietnam.

"My baby," Train said with a sly grin. "Let the good times Reptilian The sun had risen on a small aluminum rowboat in the middle of a muddy pond. In that rowboat Flint and Pelvis sat facing each other, linked by the short chain between their cuffed wrists.

At seven o'clock the temperature was approaching eightyfour degrees and the air steamed with humidity. Flint's shirt and suit jacket had been stripped off him, Clint's arm drooping lethargically from the pale, sweat-sparkling chest.

Beads of moisture glistened on Flint's hollow-eyed face, his head bowed. Across from him, Pelvis still wore his wig backward, his clothes sweat-drenched, his eyes swollen and forlorn. Dried blood covered the split sausage of his bottom lip, one of his lower teeth gone and another knocked crooked, tendrils of crusty blood stuck to his chin. His breathing was slow and harsh, sweat dripping from the end of his nose into a puddle between his mud-bleached suedes.

Something brushed against the boat's hull and made the craft lazily turn around its anchor chain. Flint lifted his head to watch a five-foot-long alligator drift past, its snout pushing through the foul brown water. A second alligator, this one maybe three feet in length, cruised past the first.

The cat-green eyes and ridged skull of a third had surfaced less than six feet from the rowboat. Two more, each fourtooters, lay motionless side by side just beyond the silent watcher. Flint had counted nine alligators at any one time, but there might be others asleep on the bottom. He couldn't tell one from the- other, except for their obvious size differences, so he really didn't know how many lurked in the sludgy pond. Still, they were quiet monsters. Occasionally two or three would bump together in their back-and-forth [email protected] driftings and there might be an instant's outburst of thrashing anger, but then everything would calm down again but for the rocking of the boat and the thudding hearts of the men in it. Flint figured the ariptors were prisoners here just as he and Pelvis were.

The pond looked to be sixty-five feet across, from one side of a half-submerged, rusty barbed-wire fence to the other.

Beyond the alligator corral's heavily bohed gate was a pier where two cigarette speedboats-both of them painted dark, nonreflective green-were Wed, along with the larger workboat Flint had seen unloading the reptiles at the Vermilion marina. Eight feet of the pier was built out over the corral, and at its end stood a bolted-down electric winch Flint figured was used to hoist the alligators up onto the workboat's deck. During the thirty-minute journey to this place in one of the speedboats, Monty had gleefully ripped the jacket and shirt off Flint's back and taken the derringer's holster. Then, when they'd reached their destination, Doc and the others had debated for a few minutes, what to do with them until "he"-whoever "hell waswoke up.

Their current situation had been dreamed up by Doc, who got Mitch to row them in the aluminum skiff through the corral's gate while Monty had followed in a second rowboat. There had been much hilarity from a group of men watching on the pier as Mitch had thrown a concrete brick anchor over the side and then got into the boat with Monty, leaving Flint and Pelvis at the end of their chain.

The party had gone on for a while-"Hey, freak! Why don't you and Elvis get out of that boat and cool yourselves off?"-but the men had drifted away as the sun had come up. Flint understood why; the novelty had faded, and they'd known how hot it was going to get out here.

Every so often Mitch, Monty, or some other'bastard would stroll out to the pier's end to take a look and throw a remark at them that included the words "freak" or "motherfuckers," then they would go away again.

Since Pelvis had been smashed in the mouth, he'd not spoken a single word. Flint realized he must be in shock. Monty had taken Mama with him, and the last time the bearded sonofabitch had come out to check on them, the little bulldog wasn't in his arms.

Flint could smell meat cooking.

Being burned was more like it.

The pier continued on past the boats to a bizarre sight: a large suburban ranch house with cream-colored walls, perched on wooden pilings over the water. The place looked as if it had been lifted up off the'mowed green lawn of the perfect American town, helicoptered in, and set down to be the envy of the neighborhood. There was a circular swimming pool with its own redwood deck, one of those "aboveground"

pools sold in kits; here the pool was not above ground, but on a platform above swamp. On the pool's deck was a rack of barbells, a weight bench, and a stationary cycle. Next to it was another large deck shaded by a blue-and-white-striped canvas awning, and on the far side of the house the platform supported a television satellite dish.

Other walkways went off from the main platform, connecting the house to three other smaller wooden structures.

Cables snaked from one of them to the house and the satellite dish, so Flint reasoned it stored the power generator. Though the alligator corral, the pier, and the swimming pool were out under the full sun, most of the house was shaded by moss-draped trees. Around the house and the corral and everything else the swamp still held green dominion. Flint could see a bayou winding into the swamp beyond the farthermost of the three outbuildings, and there were red buoys floating in it to mark deeper passage for the workboat's hull.

His survey of the area had also found a wooden watchtower, about forty feet high, all but hidden amid the trees at the bayou's entrance.

Up top, under a green-painted cupola, a man sat in a lawn chair reading a magazine, a rifle propped against the railing beside him.

Every few minutes he would stand up and scan all directions through a pair of binoculars, then he would sit down again and return to his reading.

"We," Flint said hoarsely, "are in deep shit."

Pelvis didn't speak; he just sat there and kept sweating, hir, eyes unfocused.

"Eisley? Snap out of it, hear me?"

There was no answer; A little thread of saliva had spooled down over his wounded lip.

"How about sayin' something'?" Flint asked.

Pelvis lowered his head and stared at the boat's bottonl Flint sniffed the air, catching the smell of burned meat. it struck him that that bastard Monty might be hungry again, and he Pelvis was probably thinking the same thing he was: Mama was on the breakfast grill.

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