Of course the fact that they were all stoned out of their gourds may have helped a little.
Somewhere along the way I set the gourd aside and accepted a plate heaped high with stew. I had been drinking not only because I wanted to but also with the thought in mind that the stew would be easier to take after a couple of belts, and now I tried it, and it was great. I guess there was human flesh in it. When all is said and done, I don’t think there’s any way to avoid that conclusion. I’ve tried rationalizing my way out of it often enough, God knows, but it won’t hold up. There was human flesh in that fine kettle of flesh, and I ate a heaping plateful of crud served from that kettle, ate it without picking it over, ate it unselectively and voraciously, and the argument that I might well have actually consumed nothing more unorthodox than pork and chicken and lamb (or chevon) is pure sophistry.
They were never going to believe this in Paramus.
Once I had finished with my food I let myself withdraw from the party. The festive mood had not quite caught hold of me, and I was afraid that another gourd of punch would make me lose my cool. I went back to my hut to check on Plum. She was still sleeping, and from the tenor of her breathing she was sleeping well, untroubled by nightmares. I wished her well and stretched out beside her for a few moments of rest. I went through the full cycle of relaxation exercises, all of which were easier on a full stomach and with a modicum of alcohol in my system. Certain muscle groups were stubborn – the eyelids, the solar plexus area, the calf of my left leg, each of them showing a persistent propensity for tightening up of their own accord. But I managed to unwind fairly well, and when I packed it in after a half hour or so and yawned and stretched and yawned again and sat up, I was better rested than I had been in a couple of days.
Outside, the party was just getting into top form. The bloody minded cannibals were dancing up a storm. They had discarded their clothing, and their red genitals flashed in the firelight. There seemed to be a limitless supply of the malt liquor, and it seemed to have a far greater effect upon them than it had on me. Every once in a while one of them would go rigid and fall over as if he had been clubbed. His fellows would leave him where he lay, and he would just stay there without moving anything.
It occurred to me, and not for the first time, that this would have been an ideal time for the three of us to get the hell out of there. I had been thinking this ever since they trotted out the booze, and the more the red crotch set drank, the more sense the idea made to me. But Bowman was still in Sheena’s hut, and there were two sober guards in front of that hut, and Plum was asleep, and we hadn’t made plans, and it looked as though we would have to put it off for a day or two. Not for too long, though, because judging from the familiarity my cannibal friends were displaying out there, feasts were not that unusual a part of army life. It looked as though they did this sort of thing rather often.
I did slip outside three or four times looking for Bowman, but it was no use. The first few times the sentry was doing his job and I couldn’t even get close to Sheena’s hut. The final time I got to it and inside it, and I called Bowman’s name a few times and got no response whatsoever. He seemed to be asleep, so I gave it up and went back to Plum. Now and then she would make a frightened noise and I would soothe her back to gentler sleep.
I was in the doorway at sunup when Bowman left Sheena’s tent and staggered across the central clearing, weaving his way through a maze of inert human forms. I gave him a wave and he came over and dropped to the ground, breathing very heavily. “Shee-it,” he said. “That woman ought to be outlawed. I never thought I’d live to have so much I wouldn’t want any more, but the day has done come. I know how Samson felt when he got that haircut. Maybe it wasn’t his hair they cut. You ever think of it that way?”
“You did?” He shrugged, disappointed. I said something about how nice it would have been if we could have gotten the hell out of there that night, what with all of the others stoned. “Yeah, but we get another chance in two days,” he said. “There’s a party after every raid, and there’s a raid comin’ up tomorrow.”
He scratched a map in the dirt. “She laid it all on me in between the acts. We’re here now. This here is the Yellowfoot River. It swings up and then winds down and out, and it’s the very same Yellowfoot that you followed north from Griggstown.”
“We followed the highway. That brilliant road the Retriever built.”
“Beautiful, ain’t it? You got to give the man credit.” He smiled and clicked his tongue. “Dig it, this here’s the Yellowfoot, and right at the top of this bend is the leprosarium. We break camp in a couple of hours and head for the river and get ourselves some boats, and then we-”
“The leprosarium, Tanner cat. Like a hospital for people with leprosy.”
“I know what a leprosarium is, for Christ’s sake.”
“Well, don’t get shirty, man. You asked so I told you. The idea is we spend today getting ready and tomorrow we hit the place sometime in the afternoon. We’ll be headin’ downstream, so that takes the pressure off. It ain’t all that far anyway. We hit the leprosarium-”
“Wait a minute. We hit the leprosarium? We kill doctors and nurses and, God help them, lepers?”
“That’s the drill, baby.” He furrowed his brow, scratched his head. “I get your drift, Tanner cat. I truly do.”
“I do. It don’t seem right, killing the lepers, wrecking the leprosarium. It don’t seem right at all.” He sighed mightily. “But to tell you the truth, I don’t see what choice we got open. We maybe can escape when the right time comes, but we sure can’t manage it now. And tomorrow’s the day we hit the lepers. So what else we gonna do?”
Fat black flies buzzed in the reeds that lined the riverbank. Bees worried the trumpet-shaped blood-hued blossoms of a puri-puri vine, which in turn worried the trunk of a stately wali tree. To our right, one of the younger members of the company flipped pebbles into the sluggish brown water.
I squatted and explored myself for lice. I felt as sluggish and brown as the Yellowfoot River. It was noon, and it was hot, and after a rough morning’s march to the river we were playing the usual game of hurry up and wait. I stifled a yawn and scratched an itch and tried to remember what coffee tasted like.
Bowman was giving Plum a hard time. “You sure do look like a boy,” I heard him say, “but I know better, don’t I? Because I had a long uninterrupted look at you at that mission, Plum kitten, and that wasn’t no boy I was lookin’ at.”
I don’t know whether Plum blushed or blanched or what. It was impossible to tell beneath the coloring.
“And I sure did like your color, Plum kitten. Earl Grey tea with sweet cream in it. That’s rare, that combination. Black is beautiful, but brown can stick around when it looks like you.”
Plum looked extremely uncomfortable. He was bugging her, and she didn’t like it, but at the same time she wasn’t prepared to reply sharply or get up and walk away. He had that effect on people. And I suppose, too, that in part she gloried in the flattery. It would have been extraordinary if she hadn’t.
I found it annoying, and not merely out of simple jealousy combined with my own protective feelings toward the girl. These factors were there, but so was the conviction that our situation called for more urgent matters than verbal seduction. In less than twenty-four hours we were scheduled to participate in an act of barbarism unparalleled in our experience and unexceeded in human history. The idea of depriving a gaggle of wretched lepers of their few remaining organs was utterly appalling. And the knowledge that every passing hour increased the likelihood that we, too, would be similarly deprived did nothing much for my state of mind either.
I said, “Look, we just don’t have time to waste. We have to cut out of here before that raid.”
“Can’t be done, Tanner cat.”
“It has to be done.”
“During, maybe. If we run into a little resistance at the leper place there might be enough going on so that the three of us could shove one of the dugouts back into the water and get clear before they knew we were gone. Not much chance the lepers will put up a big fight though, is there? Some of the staff will have guns for defense against animals, but the way this gang fights they’ll be out of the play before they get to their guns, and what are the lepers goin’ to do? Beat us off with their stumps? No, tomorrow night’s the time. Everybody be drunk and passed out, and we can slip a boat into the river and be miles away before they know we’re gone.”
“Why can’t we do that tonight?”
“Because they won’t be drinking tonight, man. And when they don’t drink they don’t do anything sloppy.” He let out a long sigh. “Used to be different before I came along. They would all sleep at once, didn’t even post a single damned sentry. I changed all that. Taught ’em to post a dozen men at a time on two-hour watches. They ring the whole camp and keep in touch with birdcall hoots.”
“You taught them that, did you?”
“And taught them to fight dirty.”
“Well, if you can’t lick ’em, you join ’em.”
“There’s a difference between joining them and turning them into a professional army.” I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate, opening them at the sound of a giggle and a slap. Plum had giggled, and Bowman had been slapped. I did my best to ignore this.
I said, “All right. We’ve got to make our move tonight. It may not be as hard as you think. For one thing, they don’t expect anything. I don’t mean to be critical, but these troops of yours don’t seem geared for long-range planning, Sam. They aren’t the thinking type.”
“True. They live in the moment.”
“In the now. Exactly. Which means that it might be difficult to take them with a headlong rush or a sudden surprise attack, but that calculated subterfuge might have a chance.”
“In other words,” said Plum, “we con them.”
“Or in still better words,” said Bowman, “we think white. We fake out the trusting natives when they least expect it.”
He sounded bitter. “Maybe it offends your black pride,” I said, “but try to live with it. These are desperate times. After all, the odds are something like fifty to three.”
“Fifty to two,” Bowman said. “You won’t be playing.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Well, she told me last night, man, but I was saving it for a surprise. Sheena, man. Like Uncle Sam in all them recruitin’ posters. She wants you.”
“Tonight,” he said, grinning pleasantly. “You and Sheena, Tanner cat. It’s your turn in the barrel.”