Chapter 27


"Hey, we're gonna get out of this," Flint tried again. He thought it was the most idiotic thing he'd ever said in his life. "You can't go off and leave me now, hear.7" Pelvis shook his head, and he swallowed with a little dry, clicking noise.

Flint watched another alligator gliding past, so close he could have reached out and poked it in the eye if he cared to lose a hand Well, that'd be an right; held still have two.

Hold on, he told himself Hold on, now. Control yourself.

It's not over yet, they haven't shoveled the dirt over you.

Hold on. "I'll bet this is all a big mistake," he said. "I'll bet when that fella wakes up, he'll come see us and we'll tell him the story and he'll shoot us on out of here." His throat clenched up. "I mean, scoot us out of here." Eisley's silence was scaring the bejesus out of him, making him start to lose his own grip. He'd gotten so used to the man's [email protected] the silence was driving him crazy. "Eisley, listen.

We're not givin' up. Pelvis? come on, talk to me."

No response.

Flint leaned forward, the sun beginning to scorch his back and sweat to his eyebrows. "Cecil," he said, I'm gonna slap the crap out of you if you don't look me in the face and say somethin'." ' But it was no use. Flint closed his eyes and put his uncuffed hand against his forehead. At his chest Clint's arm suddenly twitched and the hand fluttered, then it fell motionless again.

"What'd you call me?"

Flint opened his eyes and looked into the other man's face.

"Did you call me Cecil?" Pelvis had lifted his head. His split lip had broken open again, a little bloody fluid oozing.

"Yeah, I guess I did." A rush of relief surged through him.

"Well, thank God you're back! Now's not the time to crack up, lemme tell you! We've got to hang tough! Like I said, when that fella wakes up and we tell him what a big mistake all this is-" "Cecil, "

Pelvis whispered, and a wan smile played across his crusty mouth. Then it passed. His eyes were very dark.

I think ... they're cookin' Mama," he said.

"No, they're not!" Hold on to him! Flint thought in desperation.

Don't let him slide away again! "That fella was just pullin' your chain! Listen now, get your mind off that.

We've got other things to think about."

"Like what? Which one of us they're gonna kill first?" He squinted up at the sun. "I don't care. We ain't getting' out of this."

"See? That's why you never would've made a good bounty hunter.

Never. Because you're a quitter. By God, I'm not a quitter!" Flint felt the blood pounding in his face. He had to calm down before he had a heatstroke. "I said I was gonna get Lambert, and I got him, didn't I?"

"Yes sir, you did. I don't think neither one of us is gonna be spendin' much of that reward money, though."

"You just watch," Flint said. "You'll find out." He was aware of his own wheels starting to slip. Control! he thought.

Control was the most important thing. He had to settle himself down before the pressure of this situation broke him. He enfolded Clint's clammy hand in his own, and he could feel their common pulse.

"[email protected] is what a bounty hunter needs. I've always had it.

Ever since I was a little boy. I had to have it to keep Clint from jumpin'around when I didn't want him to. Jumpin' around and makin' everybody look at me like I was a frea]L [email protected] is what You need, and a whole lot of it."

"Mr. Murtaugh?" Pelvis said in a soft and agonized voice that had very little of Elvis in it ' "We're gonna die today.

Would you please shut up? Flint's brain was smoking. He was burned up. His pail skin cringed from the raw sunlight, and there was water, water everywhere, but not enough to cool himself in. He licked his lips and tasted sweat. An alligator nudged [email protected] side the boat, a long, scraping noise that made the flesh of Flint's spine ripple. He needed to get his mind fixed on something else-anything else. "You'd be worth a damn," he said, "if you had a manager."

Pelvis stared at him, and slowly blinked. "What?"

"A manager. Like that fella said. You need a manager.

Somebody to teach you selfdiscipline, get you off that damn junk food. Get you to stop tryin' to play Elvis and be Cecil. I heard what he said, I was standin' right there.-"Are you ... Sayin' what I think you're sayin'T, "Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not." Flint reached up, his fingers trembling and wiped the beads of sweat from his eyebrows- "I'm just sayin' you've got a little talent to beat the piano, and a good manager could help you. A good businessman Somebody to make sure you got paid when you were supposed to. You wouldn't have to be a singer, You could be in somebody else's band, or play backup on records or whatever.

There's money to be made in that line of work, isn't there?"

"Are YOU crazy, Mr. Murtaugh?" Pelvis asked. "Or am I?"

"Hell, we both are!" Flint had almost shouted it. Control, he thought- COntrOl- @ the sun was @ fierce. A Pungent, acidic reek-the smell of swamp mud and Ptor droppings-was up off the water.

"When we get out of here-winch we will, after we talk to whoevees in charge around here-there's gonna be tomorrow to think about- You're not cut out to be a bounty hunter ... and i,ve been lookin' for a way to quit i ' t for a long time. I'm sick of the ugliness of it, and I was never getting' anywhere. I was just goin' around and around, like ... like a three-armed monkey in a cage," he said. "Now, it might not work.

Probably won't. But it would be a new start, wouldn't-" "Gettin' awful hot out here, ain't it?"

The voice caused both of them to jump. Monty was walking along the pier, splotches of sweat on his shirt He was holding a plate of food, and he was chewing on some stringy meat attached to a small bone.

"Ya'll ain't gone @mmin'yet?"

Neither Flint nor Pelvis spoke. They watched the big, brown-bearded man chewing on the bone in his greasy fingers.

"Don't feel much like talkin', do you?" Monty glanced quickly up at the sun. Then he threw the bone into the water beside their boat.

The splash drew the attention of the alfiptors, and three or four of them quickly converged on the spot like scaly torpedoes. Water swirled, a tail rose up and smacked the surface, and suddenly an underwater disagreement boiled up, two reptilian bodies thrashing and the rowboat rocking back and forth on the muddy foam of combat.

"Them boys are hungry this mornin'." Monty started sucking the meat from another bone. "They'll eat anydamnthing, yknow. Got cast-iron stomachs. Bet they'd like to get their teeth in you, freak.

Bet you'd be a real taste sensation."

The alligators, finding no food on their table, had stopped squabbling. Still, they crisscrossed the pond on all sides of the boat. "Don't you men think this has gone far enough?"

Flint asked. "We've learned our lesson, we're not comin' back in here anymore."

Monty chewed and laughed. "Well, that's right. 'Course, you ain't leavin', either." He flung the second bone in, and again the reptiles darted for it. "Hey, Elvis! You want some breakfast?"

Pelvis didn't answer, and Flint saw his eyes glazing over . n.

"It's realllll good. Lotta meat on them bones, I was surprised.

Want to try a bite or two?" He held up a hunk of white meat, and he grinned through his beard. "Woof! Woof!"

he said.

Pelvis shivered. A pulse had started beating hard at his temple.

"Hang on." Flint grasped Pelvis's arm. "Steady, now."

"I think he wants the rest of it, Mr. Freak. Here you go, Elvis!

Arrrruuuuuu!" And as he howled like a dog, Monty tossed the rest of the plate's meat and bones up into the air over the corral.

Before the first piece of meat or bone splashed the surface, Pelvis went crazy.

He lunged over the rowboat's side. The chain of the handcuffs connecting their wrists jerked tight, and with a shout of terror Flint was pulled into the water with him.

For the last mile and a half Train had cut the Swift's husky [email protected] to one-fourth speed-about seven knots-to keep the noise down. Now he switched off the engines and let the Swift coast along the narrow bayou. "@in' close," he said behind the spoked wheel in the pilothouse. Dan stood at his side, and Arden had found a benchseat to park herself on toward the stern. "She gonna run minute or two, then we doin' some wadin'."

Dan nodded. The rifles, Pistol, and the ammunition backpack had been stowed away in a locker at the rear of the pilothouse. After leaving the cove Train had brought them along a whes of channels at speeds approaching twentyeight knots, the Swift's upper limit. Before them, birds had flown and alligators had dived for @. Train had told Dan his real name was Aloin Chappelle, that he'd been born on a train between Mobile and New Orleans, but that he was raised in Grand Isle, where his father had been a charter fisherman. During his tour of duty in Vietnam his parents had moved to New Orleans, and his father had accepted a consultingjob with a company that built fishing boats.

Train had the swamp in his blood, he'd said. He had to live there, in all that beautiful wilderness, or he would perish. Held known that the Swift boats-based on the desip of tough little utility craft used to ferry supplies out to oil derricks in the Gulf of Mexico-were built by a contractor in the town of Berwick, which Dan and Arden had put through forty miles north of Houma.

In 1976 he'd bought the armorplated bulk of a @lus Swift and started the three-year labor of restoring it to a worthy condition. Baby could be sweet as @ one day and a raging [email protected] bitch the next, he'd told Dw but she was fast and mmble and her shallow draft was ideal for the bayous. Anyway, he loved her.

"Takin' us in there," Train said, motioning with a lift of his chin toward another channel that wound off to the left "Gonna get Flint, so tell the lady if she hear some thumps, we ain't gonna wind us up ass-deep and sinkin'."

Dan went back to relay the message. Train steered Baby into the channel with a steady hand and a sharp eye. Tree branches scraped along the sides and half-submerged M and swamp @ parted before the prow. @rad the ma tiucken4 cutting the light to a dark green muril The Swift was slowing down now to the speed of a man's walk and Train came out of the pilothouse and picked up a rope with one end secured to the forward deck and at the @wing, end an iron grappULng-hooL The boat shuddered, something bumping along the lmel. Train threw the hook into the underbrush, pulled hard on the rope, and it went taut. In another few seconds Baby eased to a stop.

They got ready. Dan was sweating in the fierce wet heat, but he wasn't afraid. Maybe just a little. In any case, the job had to be done.

"L=ve the pistol here," Train said as Dan took it from the locker.

"She might be gonna need it."

"Me?" Arden stood up. "I've never fired a gun in my Iffel"

"Ever'fin got a number-one time." Train popped a clip into the automatic. "I'm gonna tell you 'bout this safety et can hil catch here, so you pay a mind. You g you'self a erw e we gone, only two fellas to save you neck be Mr Smith and Mr. Wesson.

Ay?"

Arden decided it would be very vnse to pay close attention.

"Take tree relm. We need more'n that, we gonna be haulm'butt," Train told Dan after Arden's quick lesson was done.

Dan took three of the Browning's box magazines from the backpack, put one in each front pocket and the third in a back pocket. Train did the same with the Ruger's ammo, then he put on a gray-and-green camouflage-print cap.

" "3out quarter-mile -from here, them fellas be," he said as he slung the Ruger barrel-down to his right shoulder so water wouldn't foul the firing mechanism. "They got guns enough to blow the horns off Satan: rifle, shotgun, machine gun, ever' damn kinda gun. So from here on we mighty careful or we mighty dead."

While Dan strapped on the Browning rifle, also barreldown, Train opened a jar of what looked like black grease and streaked some under his eyes. "Don't want no glare blindin' you when it come time to take a shot. You misspoofl. That's all she wrote." He handed the grease to Dan, who applied it in the same fashion. Then Train got his face right up in Dan's, his eyes piercing. "We get in a knock-ass firelight, am I gonna can count on you? You gonna stick it to t em, no second thought? By the time you got second thought, you be twice dead.

Ay?"

"I'll do what I have to," Dan said.

"They got a man spyin' for 'em in a tower, up where he can see the Gulf and the bayou one turn 'round. They got a big metal pte blockin' the bayou, and a bob wire fence I round the whole place." He nodded toward the forbidding wilderness, thick with spiky palmettos, hanging vines, and cypress trees. "We gonna go through there. Ain't got no serpent-bite kit, so keep both them eyeballs lookin'."

"I viiii.ll "If we see us two dead bodies layin' out, we comin' straight back quiet as sinners, on Sunday. Then I make a radio call to Gran' Isle. Okay?"

"yeah @n eased over the transom and lowered himself into the water.

The swamp consumed him to the middle of his chest.

"Dan?" Arden said as he started to go over. Again her tangled emotions got in the way of her voice. "Please be careful," she managed to say.

"I was wrong to let you come. You should've stayed at Train's place."

She shook her head. "I'm where I need to be. You just worry about getting' in and back" Dan went into the water, his shoes sinking through three inches of mud.

"Listen up," Train told Arden. "You might gonna hear some shootin'. We don't come back half-hour after them shots, we ain't comin'. Radio's up on a shelf over the wheel.

Got a fresh battery, you'll see the turn-on switch. We don't come back, you need to start callin' for he'p on the mike.

Tam through them frequencies and keep cauin'. That don't bring nobody, you got the water jug, the pistol, and you two legs. Ay?"

"Just so you know." Train turned away and started moving.

Dan paused, looking up at Arden's face. The deep-purple birthmark was no longer ugly, he thought. It was @ the unique pattern of a butterfly's wings, or the color and markings of a seashell never to be exactly duplicated in a thousand years.

"I'll be back," he @ and he followed Train through the morass.

When they'd gotten out of Arden's earshot, Train said quietly, "Them febas kill us, they gonna find her, too, eventual. What they'll do I ain't gonna think on."

Dan didn't answer. He'd already thought of that.

"Just so you know," Train said.

They waded on, and in another moment the wilderness had closed between them and Baby.

Nasty brown water had flooded Flint's eyes and mouth, choking off his shout of terror. Pelvis was @ beside him, insanely @ to get across the'ptor corral at the man who'd chewed Mama's flesh. Flint felt Clint's arm thmsh, his brother's bones squirming violently inside his body. The thought of Clint's infant-size lungs in water and drowning opened a nightmarish door on gruesorae possibili ties. He started fighting to get his balance as he'd never fought in his life. He got his legs under him, and his shoes found a bottom of mud and mess that could be described only as gooshy.

He stood up. His head and shoulders were out of the water.

Still, Clint was -trapped below. Pelvis was standing up, too, his muddy wig hanging on by its last piece of flesh-colored tape, a strangled, enraged scream shredding his throat. With a surge of pa r that Flint had never we dreamed the man possessed, Pelvis starting dragging him through the water to reach the pier.

Monty was laughing fit to bust a gut. "It's show time, boys!" he hollered toward the house.

Flint stepped on something that exploded to life under his feet and scared the pee out of him. A scaly form whipped past them, its tail thrashing. The tail of a second alligator slapped Pelvis's shoulder, and he grunted with pain but kept on going. All around them the pond was a maelstrom of reptiles fighting for the meat and bones Monty had just thrown in. Flint saw one of them coming from the left, its snout plowing through the foam and its catslit eyes fixed on him.

Even as Pelvis kept hauling him, Flint struck out with his unhindered left arm at the thin which looked large enough to make two suitcases and a handbag. He struck the surface in front of its snout, but the splash was enough to make it wheel away, its tail whacking muddy water into the air. Then Pelvis was hit at the knees by an underwater beast and he was knocked off his feet, the alhptor's barklike flesh coming up from the depths for an instant, which was long enough for the crazed Pelvis to give a bellow and pound at it with his free fist. The startled reptile skittered away with a snort, pushing a small wave before it. With his feet under him again, Pelvis [email protected] Flint onward.

Two of the beasts were going at it fang to fang over a chunk of meat, their noisy combat drawing the attention of four or five others.

A battle royal erupted, the monsters fighting on all sides of Pelvis and Flint. But more alligators were rising up from the bottom, and others were speeding in to graze past them as if to test how dangerous this particular 00fiE sooTH food might be before they committed their jaws to a bite.

Pelvis was single-mindedly pulling Flint toward the pier, while Flint was doing everything he could to keep the alligators away: kicking, slapping the water with the flat of his hand, and shouting gibberish.

But now the alligators were getting bolder. Flint managed to jerk the shoe from his right foot, and he used that to hammer the surface.

And suddenly a horrible, thick body with gray mollusks clinging to its hide erupted from the water beside him, a pair ofjaws wide open and hissing. Flint slammed his shoe down across the alligators skWL going for an eye, and the jaws snapped shut. The head whipped to one side and its rough scales flayed the skin off his left arm from wrist to elbow. A mollusk's shell or some growth with a sharp edge did its work as well, and suddenly there was blood in the water.

"Get 'em out! Get 'em out, goddamn it!" somebody shouted.

They had reached the piers end, which was three feet above the pond. Pelvis, his wig gone and his contorted face brown with mud, was trying to grip the timbers and pWI himself up, but not even his maddened strength could do it with Flint on the other cuff. Blood floated on the surface around Flint's arm, and he saw at least four alligators coming across the corral after them, their tails sweeping back and forth with eager delight.

To the Edge There was the racket of an electric motor and a chain rattling.

"Grab it! Both of you, grab it!"

The winch's hook and chain had been lowered. Pelvis and Flint clung to its oversize links as a beggar might grasp hundred-dollar bills. The motor growled, and the chain began to hoist them up.

Hands caught them, pulling them onto the pier. Below Flint's muddy shoe and sock, three alligators slammed their snouts together.

they started fighting in the blood-pink foam, and as their bodies hit the pilings the entire pier trembled and groaned.

But now Flint and Pelvis had solid wood under their feet.

Flint could smell his blood; it was coming from a blue-edged gash across his left forearm and dripping from his hand to the planks. He staggered, about to pass out, and he found himself clutching Pelvis for support. Through a haze he looked at the choppy pond and saw two alligators battling for something between their jaws that appeared to be a [email protected], scruffy bird. It took him a few seconds to realize it was Pelvis's wig. He watched with a kind of strange fascination as the two monsters ripped it apart and then each of them submerged with a souvenier of Memphis.

His chest heaving, Pelvis stared slack-jawed at the faces of Doc, Monty, Mitch, and two other men he didn't recognize.

Doc was wearing his sunglasses again.

"

"Crazy as hell, man!" Doc was blasting Monty. "I don't want 'em dead till he sees 'em!"

"Well, shit!" Monty fired back. "How was I supposed to know they were fool enough to jump outta the-" Flint had felt Pelvis's body tense. He thought of a hurricane about to wreak death and destruction.

Pelvis pulled back his right fist and then drove it forward like a fleshy piston into Monty's nose. With a gunshot pop of breaking bones the blood spewed from Monty's nostrils all over Doc's Harvard T-shirt.

Monty staggered back, his eyes wide and amazed and the blood running into his beard as if from a faucet. One step.

Two steps.

And into the corral, right on top of the reptiles fighting below the end of the pier.

"Oh, Jesus!" Doc shouted, blood on the lenses of his sunglasses and spotting his cheeks.

"Monty!" Mitch hollered, and he ran to operate the hook and chain.

But the sense had been knocked out of Monty, and maybe that was for the best because he might have been unaware exactly of his position. One of the other men Pelvis hadn't recognized drew a pistol and started shooting at the alliptors, but they had already taken hold of Monty, one with jaws crunched into his left shoulder and another gripping his right leg. The winch's chain came down, but Monty didn't reach for it. The alligators started shaidng him the way Pelvis had seen Mama shake one of her teddy bears. He recalled, in his dim cell of thinking at the moment, that the stuffing had come out everywhere.

So, too, it was with Monty.

Now Mitch had pulled his pistol and was firing, too, but the taste of blood and living meat had driven the creatures to a frenzy. More of them were racing over for a share.

During the shooting, amid the thrashing bodies and the gory splashing, at least two bullets went into Monty. Maybe he was dead before his bones started to rip from their sockets.

Maybe.

Doc didn't want to see any more. He'd known Monty was finished when he went in there, bleeding like that and with the 'gators already so riled up. He'd seen them go after the ranger, so he'd known. He turned away, removed his dark glasses, and slowly and methodically began to wipe the blood off the lenses with a clean part of his T-shirt. His fingers were trembling. Behind him Mitch threw up into the corral.

"Bummer," Doc said, mostly to himself.

He took the handcuff key from his pocket. He unlocked the cuffs and let them fall. Pelvis blinked at him, still dazed but his fury spent. Flint grasped his injured arm and then pitched to his knees, his head hanging, Doc reached back, drew the .45 from his waistband, cocked it, and laid the barrel between Pelvis's eyes. "You're next,"

he said. "Walk to the edge."

Pelvis was already brain-blasted; seeing that man eat Mama for breakfast had done him in. He knew what was waiting for him, but without Mama-without his adored companion-life wasn't worth living. He walked to the edge.

Below him was something the alligators were still tearing at. It was getting smaller and smaller. It had a beard.

Doc stood behind him and put the automatic's barrel against the back of his naked head.

"Do it!" Mitch urged. "Put him down!"

Flint tried to stand, but he could not. He was near fainting, the smell of blood and mud and 'ptor filth was making him sick, the harsh, hot sun had drained him. He said, "Eisley?" but that was all he could say. He hadn't reft Clint move since they'd come out of the water, but now the arm gave a feeble jerk and Clint's little lungs heaved like a hiccup deep in the folcrs and Oassages of Flint's intestines.

Doc put his other hand up to shield his face from flying bits of bone and brain matter. Ms finger tightened on the triggerHe heard a gurgling noise.

He looked around, and saw brown water trickling from the mouth on the bizarre baby head that grew from the freak's side.

Flint heard boots clumping on the pier. There was the sound of bare feet on the planks as well.

Doc saw who was coming. He said, "Takin' care of business, Gault.

Shondra don't need to see this."

"What's goin' on?" Flint heard a woman's irritated voice ask. A young woman, she sounded to be. "Noise woke us the fuck up. Who was hollerin' so much?"

"Shondra, you best stay put. Monty went in."

The slide of bare feet stopped, but the boots kept walking.

"Bastard here killed him!" Mitch said. "Doc was fixin'to blow his brains out!"

"These are the two from the marina." Doc was talking to whoever wore the boots. "This one got me in the eyes with the spray. One over there shot Virgil."

The boots approached Flint. They stopped beside him, and Flint lifted his head and saw they were made of bleached beige snakeskin.

"Dig that third arm, man. Got a little baby head growin' out his ribs, too. Gen-yoo-me it-eak from freak city. I ain't seen nothin' like him since I ate a bag of magic mushrooms in Yuma, spring of 'sixty-eight. Damn, those were the days!"

P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com

***