Chapter 30


But Doc was backing away toward the television set, his face blanched as he watched the bayou's entrance. Behind him, the Flying Nun was airborne.

Gauh struggled to stand, but his wounded leg-the thighbone broken-would not allow it.

With a full-throated snarl, all pistons pumping, Train's armor-plated Baby came tearing past the watchtower, veered, and headed directly at the platform.

Doc starting firing. Gault made a amgling, cursing noise. Dan grinned, and heaved himself up to his kneees.

The Swift boat did not slow a single knot, even as bullets pinged off the bow's armor. It hurtled toward the platform, a muddy wake shooting up behind its stem.

Dan saw what was going to happen, and he flung himself as hard and far as he could to one side, out of the Swift's path.

In the next instant Baby rammed the platform and the piling cracked with the noise of a hundred pistols going off.

The pilings trembled and broke loose, the entire house shuddering from the blow. But Train kept his fist to the throttle and Baby kept surging forward, ripping through the platform, shattering that sliding glass doors, through the living room, through the prefab walls of Gault's dream house, and bursting out through the other side. Train jammed the engine into reverse and backed the Swift out between the two halves of the house, and as he cleared the broken walls the insides began to fall out: ahemorrhage of animal-skin-covered furniture, brass lamps, faux marble tables, pinball machines, exercise equipment, chairs, and even the kitchen sink.

Dan clung to one half of the platform as it groaned and shivered, the walls of the house starting to collapse into the water. On the other half Doc saw the television set [email protected] away from WM its plug still connected and. the =mn so showing the images to which he was addicted.

He dropped his Pistol, his [email protected] gone and his face stricken with crazed terror. He flung both arms around the television in a desperate embrace, but then the [email protected] beneath his feet slanted as the foundation pilings gave way. The set rolled DOC right into the water, and there was a quick snap, crackle and pop and his body stiffened, smoke tinging his head like a dark halo before he went under.

"Dan! Dan! Grab my hand!"

It was Arden's voice. She was @ding at the bows railing, reaching for him as the boat began to back away from the splintered wreckage.

Dan clenched his @, drawing up his Im reserves of strength. He jumped off the Platform, missing Arden's hand but grabbing hold of the railing, his legs dangling in the water.

"Pull him upt Purl him up!" Train shouted behind the pilothouse's bullet- glass.

[email protected] seized Dan's legs and wrenched at him.

The fingers of one hand were puned from the @ He was hanging on with five digits, his shoulder about to come out of its socket. He looked back, and there was Gault beneath him, Patches of the man's skin and face scorched in a gray, scaly pattern by the electrical shock, frozen nerves drawing his iPs into a @'s-head rictus, one eye rolled back and showing chalky yellow.

Gault made a hissing,noise, the muscles twitching in his arms.

Another arm slid down past Dan's face.

In its hand was a derringer.

The little gun went off A hole opened in Gault's throat. Bright red blood fountamed up from a severed artery.

Other arms caught Dan and held him. Gault's head rose, his mouth open. His hands loosened and slid down Dan's legs. The muddy, churning water flooded into his mouth and filled up his eyes, then his head disappeared beneath its weight.

Dan was pulled up over the railing. He saw the faces of Murtaugh and Eisley, and then Arden was beside him and there were tears in her beautiful eyes, her birthmark the color of summer twilight. Her arms went around him, and he could feel her heartbeat pounding against his chest.

He put his arms around her, too, and hung on.

Then the darkness swelled up around him. He felt himself falling, but it was all right because he knew someone was there to catch him.

[email protected]@'s Island Dan opened his eyes. He was lying on the deck in the shadow of the pilothouse, the engine vibrating smoothly and powerfully beneath him, the blue sky above, the sound of the hull pushing deep water aside.

A wet rag was pressed to his forehead. Arden looked down at him.

"Where are we?" he whispered, hearing his own voice as if from a great distance.

"Train says we're in Timbalier Bay. We're gain'to a place called Avrietta's Island. Here." She'd poured some of the filtered water into the cup of her hand, and she supported his head while he drank.

Someone else-a man without a shirt-knelt beside him.

Hey, al' dinosaur you. How you doin'?"

"All right. You?"

Train's face had paled, purplish hollows under his eye "Been better. Hurtin' a little bit. See, I knew being' ugly as ten miles of bad road's gonna pay off for me someday. That al' bullet, he say I getting' in afnd out mighty quick, this fella so ugly. "You need to get to a hospital."

"That's where we bound." Train leaned a little closer to him.

"Listen, you gonna have to start associatin' with some more regular fellas, you know what I be sayin'? I take one look at that little bitty hand and arm movin' 'round on that fellas chest, my mouth did the open wide. Then I look at that little bitty head hangin' down, and I like to bust my teeth when I step on my jaw. And that other fella-the quiet one-he look in the face like somebody I seen, but no way can I figure where."

"It'll probably come to you," Dan said. He felt his consciousness-a fragile thing-fading away again.

"How'd you get 'em out? The speedboat?"

"Oui. Skedaddled outta there, fired up Baby and huuuuuwheeee!

she done some low-level flyin'."

"You didn't have to come back."

"For sure I did. You rest now, we gonna get where we goin' in twenty, thirty minute." He patted Dan's shoulder and then went away.

Arden stayed beside Dan and took one of his hands in hers. His eyes closed again, his senses lulled by the throbbing of the engine, the langaid heat, the aroma ana caress of the saltwater breeze sweeping across the deck.

They passed through clouds of glistening mist. Sea guns wheeled lazily above the boat and then flew onward.

"There she is!" Train called, and Arden looked along the line of the bow.

They had gone by several other small islands, sandy and flat and stubbled with prickly brush. This one was different.

It was green and rolling, shaded by tall stands of water oaks.

There were structures of some kind on it.

As the boat got nearer, Flint stood at the starboard siderail watching the island grow. He was wearing Train's T-shirt because he felt more comfortable with Clint undercover and because the sun had blistered his back and shoulders. Train had come up with a first-aid kit from a storage compartment and Flint's arm wound was bound up with gauze bandages. He had taken off his remaining shoe and his muddied socks and tossed those items overboard like a sacrifice to the swamp.

Next to him stood Pelvis, his bald pate and face pink with sunburn.

Pelvis hadn't spoken more than a few words since they'd gotten aboard; it was clear to Flint that there was a whole lotta thinkin'gain'on in Pelvis's head.

Tiuin turned the wheel and gwded them around to the Avrietta'3 Island island's eastern side. They passed spacious green meadows.

A herd of goats was running free, doing duty as living lawn mowers. There was an orchard with fruit trees, and a few small whitewashed clapboard buildings that looked like utility sheds. And then they came around into a natural harbor with a pier, and there it was.

Flint heard himself gasp.

It stood on the green and rolling lawn, there on a rise that must have been the island's commanding point. It was a large, clean white mansion with multiple chimneys, a fieldstone path meandering between water oaks, and weeping willow trees from the harbor to the house.

Flint's heart was racing. He gripped the rail, and tears burned his eyes.

It was. It was. Oh God, oh Jesus it was ...

not.

He realized it in another moment, as they approached the pier.

There was no stained-glass window in front. The house of his birth had four chimneys; this one had only three. And it wasn't made of white stone, either. It was clapboard, and the paint was peeling. It was an old antebellum mansion, a huge two-storied thing with columns and wide porches. The rolling emerald-green lawn was the same as in his dreams, yes. A few goats were munching the blades down. But the house ... no.

He still had a star to follow.

"Mr. Murtaugh?" Pelvis said in a voice that was more Cecil's than Elvis's. "How come you're cryin'?"

"I'm not cryin'. My eyes are sunburned, that's all. Aren't yours?"

"No."

"Well," Flint said, and he rubbed the tears away. "Mine are$ .

I Train had cut their speed back. The engine was rumbling quietly as they drew closer. So far they'd seen no one. Arden had left Dan to stand at the bow, the breeze blowing through her hair, her eyes ashine with hope. In her right hand was gripped the pink drawstring bag with her little plastic horses in it.

"I been wonderin'," Pelvis said. "'Bout what you offered."

"And what was that? Flint knew, but he'd been shrinking from the memory.

"You know. 'Bout you being' my manager and all. I sure could use somebody to help me. I mean, I don't know how successful I could be, but-I, "Chopin you're not," Flint said.

"He's dead, ain't he? Both him and Elvis. Dead as doornails."

He sighed heavily. "And Mama's dead, too. It's gonna take me awhile to get over that one. Maybe I never will, but ... I figure maybe it's time for Pelvis to be put to rest, too."

Flint looked into the other man's face. It was amazing how much more intelligent he looked without that ridiculous wig. Dress him up in a nice suit, teach him how to talk without mangling English, teach him some refinements and anners, and maybe a human being of worth would come out of there. But then, it would be an almost impossible task, and he already had a job as a bounty hunter. "I don't know, CeciL"

Flint said. "I really don't."

"Well, I was just askin'." Cecil watched the pier approach.

"You gonna take Lambert back to Shreveport?"

"He's still a killer. Still worth fifteen thousand dollars."

"Yes sir, that might be true. 'Course, if you decided here pretty soon you wanted to like ... give it a try at being' my manager, helpin' me get on a diet and get some work and such, then you wouldn't be a bounty hunter anymore, would you?"

"No," Flint said softly. "I guess I wouldn't." A thought came to him, something the man at the cafe in St. Nasty had said, speaking about Cecil: Hell, I'll be his manager, then.

Get out of this damn swamp and get rich, I won't never look back Maybe he could walk away, he thought. Just walk away.

From Smoates, from the ugliness, from the degradation. He still had his gambling debts and his taste for gambling that had gotten him so deep in trouble over the years. He couldn't exactly walk away from those things-those faults Avrletta's island th -but if he had a purpose and a plan, he could work em out eventually, couldn't he?

Maybe. It would be the biggest gamble of his life.

He found himself stroking his brother's arm through the T-shirt.

Clint was as famished as he was. As tired, too. He was going to sleep for a week.

Get out of this damn swamp andget rich, I won't never look back.

He had never been able to get out before, he realized, because he'd never had anything to go to. what if ... ? he wondered.

What if.7 Maybe those two words were the first steps out of any swamp.

"Comin' close!" Train called. "Jump over and tie us up, fellas!"

As Flint and Cecil secured the lines to cleats, Train stepped onto the pier and walked to an old bronze bell supported on a post ten feet high. He grasped the bell's rope and began to ring it, the notes rolling up over the green lawn and through the trees toward the white house on the hill.

In just a few seconds three figures came out of the house and began to hurry down the path.

They were nuns, wearing white habits.

"Sister Caroline, I sure'null got some hurt people here!"

Train said to the one in the lead as they reached the pier.

"Got a fella with a hurt leg, one with an arm needs lookin' at.

And I do mean lookin' at. Believe I could use a Band-Aid or two myself, ay?"

"Oh, Train!" She was a sturdy woman with light brown eyes.

"What's happened to you?"

"Gonna tell you all 'bout it later. Can you put us upo"We always have room. gaster Brenda, will you help Train to the house?"

"No, no, my legs ain't broke!" Train said. "Tend to that man lyin' there!"

Two of the nuns helped Arden get Dan up on his feet.

Sister Caroline rang the bell a few more times, and two more nuns emerged to answer the call.

"What is this place?" Arden asked Sister Caroline as Dan was taken off the boat.

The other woman paused, staring at the birthmark. Arden moved so their eyes met. "This island is the convent of the Order of the Shining Light," Sister Caroline answered.

"And that"-and she nodded at the white mansion-"is the Avrietta Colbert Hospital. May I ask your name?"

"It's Arden Halliday."

"From?"

"Fort Worth, Texas." Arden turned to Train. "I thought you told me the Bright Girl lived here!"

"The Bright ... oh, I see." Sister Caroline nodded, glancing from Arden to Train and back again. "Well, I prefer to think we are all bright ... uh ... women." She gave Train a hard stare. "Does she know?"

"Non.

"Know what?" Arden asked. "What's goin' on?"

"We shall see," Sister Caroline said flatly, and she turned away to direct the others.

Dan was being walked up the path supported between two nuns, one a young girl maybe twenty-three, the other a woman in her fifties. The shadows of the oak and willow trees were deliciously cool, and a quartet of goats stood watching the group of pilgrims pass.

"Just a minute," someone said, beside Dan.

The nuns stopped. Dan turned his head and found himself face-to-face with Flint Murtaugh.

Flint cleared his throat. He had his arms crossed over his chest, in case Clint made a spectacle of himself. These fine ladies would get a shock soon enough. "I want to thank you," Flint said.

"You saved our lives."

"You did the same for me."

"I did what I had to."

"So did l," Dan said.

They stared at each other, and Flint narrowed his eyes and looked away, then returned his cool blue gaze to Dan.

"You know what I ought to do."

"Yeah." Dan nodded. Everything was still blurry around the edges; all of this-the morning's events, Gault's strong Avrietta's Island hold, the gun battle, the Swift severing of the house in two, this green and beautiful island-seemed like bits and pieces of a strange dream. "Tell me what you're gonna do."

"I think-" Flint paused. He had careful considerations to make.

He held a man's future in the balance: his own. '41 think ... I'm gonna get out of this damn swam " he saicl p "Pardon me, Sisters." He looked up the path at the man walking alone. "Cecil, can I talk to you, please?" He left Dan's side, and Dan saw Murtaugh put his hand on Eisley's shoulder as they began to walk together.

The closer they got to the house, the more in need of repair Dan saw it was. He counted a half-dozen places where rainwater must be leaking through loose boards. A section of porch railing on the first floor was rotten and sagging, and several of the columns were cracked.

The place needed repainting, too, otherwise the salt breeze and the damp heat would combine to break down the wood in a very short time.

He bet the old house had termites, too, chewing at the foundation.

They needed a carpenter around here, is what they needed.

Dan tried to put weight on his injured ankle, but the pain made him sick to his stomach. He was getting dizzy again, and his head was pounding. The blurred edges of tuw got still more blurry. He was about to give out, and though he fought it, he knew the sickness eventually had to win.

"Sisters?" he said. "I'm sorry ... but I'm real near passin' out."

"Train!" the older one shouted. "Help us!"

As Dan's knees buckled and the darkness rushed up at him once more, he heard Train say, "Got him, ladies." Dan felt himself being lifted over Train's shoulder in a fireman's carry before he [email protected] @ut completely, and Train-weak himself but unwilling to let Dan hit the ground-took him the last thirty yards to the house.

Late afternoon had come.

Arden was freshly showered and had slept for five solid hours in a four-poster bed in the room Sister Caroline had brought her to, on the antebellum mansion's first floor.

Before her shower another nun about Arden's age had brought her a lunch of celery soup, a ham salad sandwich, and iced tea. When Arden had asked the young woman if the Bright Girl lived here, the nun had given her a tentative smile and left without a word.

On the way to this room they'd passed through a long ward of beds.

Most of the beds were in use. Under ceiling fans and crisp white sheets lay some of the patients of the Avrietta Colbert Hospital: a mixture of men, women, and children, white, black, and Latino. Arden had heard the rattling coughs of tuberculosis, the gasping of cancerous lungs, the slow, labored breathing of people who were dying.

The nuns moved around, giving what comfort they could.

Some patients were getting better, sitting up and talking-, for others, though, it seemed the days were numbered. Arden heard a few Cajun accents, though certainly not all the patients were of that lineage. She was left with the impression that this might be a charity hospital for the poor, probably from the Gulf Delta area, and that the patients were there because no mainland hospital would accept them or-in the case of the elderly ones who lay dying-waste time on them.

The same young nun brought Arden a change of clothes: a green hospital gown and cotton slippers. Not long after she'd awakened there'd been a knock at the door, and when she'd opened it there stood a tall, slim man who was maybe in his mid-sixties, wearing a pair of seersucker trousers, a rumpled white short-sleeve shirt, and a dark blue tie. He'd introduced himself in a gentle Cajun accent as Dr.

Felicien, and he'd sat down in an armchair and asked her how she was feeling, was she comfortable, did she have any aches or pains, things like that. Arden had said she was still tired but otherwise fine; she'd said she had come here to find the Bright Girl, and did he know who she meant?

"I most think I do," Dr. Felicien had said. "But I gonna have to beg off and leave that for later. You try to get yourself some more sleep now, heah?" He'd gone without answering any ftu-ther questions.

Avrietta's island A fan turned above her bed. Her window looked out toward the Gulf, and she could see waves rolling in.

Shadows laY across the lawn. She had figured this room belonged to a doctor or someone else on the staff. When she went in the small but spotless bathroom to draw water from the faucet into a Dixie cup, she looked at her face in the mirror, studying her birthmark as she had a thousand times before.

She was very, very d.

What if it had been a lie? All along, a lie? Maybe Jupiter hadn't been lying, but he'd just been plain wrong. Maybe he'd seen a young and pretty blond woman in Lapierre when he was a little boy, and maybe later on he'd heard the myths about a Bright Girl-a faith healer who could cheat time itself-and he'd mixed up one with the other? But if there was a Bright GirL then who was she, really? Why had Train brought her here, and what was going on?

She lifted her hand and ran her fingers along the edges of her birthmarl What would she do, she asked herself, if this muk-this bad-luck stain that had ruined her life-had to remain on her face for the rest of her days? What if there was no magic healing touch? No ageless Bright Girl who carried a lamp from God inside her?

Closing her eyes, Arden leaned her face against the mirror. She'd reft she was so close. So very close. It was a cruel trick, this was.

Nothing but a cruel, cruel trick.

Someone knocked at the door. Arden vmnt to open it, thinking that it was probably Dr. Felicien with more questions or the young nun.

She opened the door and the face that looked at her both startled and horrified her.

It belonged to a man.. He,had neatly combed sandy-brown hair on the right side of his head, but on the left side there were just tufts of it. A terrible burn and the subsequent healing Process had drawn the skin up into shiny parchment on that left side, his mouth twisted, the left eye sunken in folds of scar tissue. The left ear was a melted nub and the man's throat was mottled with burn scar. His nose, though scarred, had escaped the worst of the damage, and the right side of his face was almost untouched. Arden stepped back, her own face mirroring the shock she felt, but at once that feeling changed to shame. If anybody understood what it meant to look at someone shrink away from you in a display of ill manners and idiocy, it was she.

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