"She goes after my co-jones, I'll plug her, so help me Jesus."
Just as you would expect of any cranky citizen of the Old West, regardless of his profession, this man has a gun. It's not a revolver of the proper period, but a 9-mm pistol.
"Maybe I ain't so well-appearanced, but I sure ain't no useless codgerdick, like you might think. I'm the night caretaker for this here resurrected hellhole, and I can more than do the job."
Although he's old, this man isn't old enough to be Gabby Hayes even if Gabby Hayes somehow could still be alive, and he isn't dead, either, so he can't be Gabby Hayes brought back to life as a flesh-eating zombie in another kind of movie altogether. Nevertheless the resemblance is so strong that he must be a descendant of Gabby's, perhaps his grandson, Gabby Hayes III. Flushed with excitement and awe, Curtis feels as humbled as he might feel in the presence of royalty.
"I can shoot me a man around the corner, by calculated ricochet, if I got to, so you keep that flea hotel in check, and don't you try to run nowheres."
"Where is your folks, boy?"
"They is dead, sir."
Bushy white eyebrows jump toward his hat brim. "Dead? You say dead, boy?"
"I say dead, yessir."
"Here?" The caretaker worriedly surveys the street, as though hired guns have ridden into town to shoot down all the sheep ranchers or the homesteading farmers, or whoever the evil land barons or the greedy railroad barons currently want to have shot down. The pistol wobbles in his hand, as if it is suddenly too heavy to hold. "Dead here on my watch? Well, ain't this just an antigodlin mess? Where is these folks of yours?"
"Colorado? I thought you said they was dead here."
"I meant they was dead in Colorado."
The caretaker looks relieved, and the gun doesn't shake as much us it shook before. "Then how'd you and this biscuit-eater come to be here after closin' time?"
"Runnin' for our lives, sir," Curtis explains, because he feels that he can tell at least a portion of the truth to any descendant of Mr. Hayes.
The caretaker's wrinkle-garden face sprouts a new crop where you would have thought he had no room to plant the seeds for any more. "You ain't tellin' me you run all the way here from Colorado?"
"Run at the start of it, sir, then hitched most of the time, and run this last piece."
Old Yeller pants as if in confirmation.
"Who's the damn scalawags you been runnin' from?"
"Lots of scalawags, sir. Some nicer than others. I guess the nicest would be the government."
"The gov'ment!" declares the caretaker, and his wrinkles rise like hackles, pulling his face into a surprisingly taut bristle of pure disgust. "Tax collectors, land grabbers, nosey do-gooders more self-righteous than any Bible-poundin' preacher ever born!"
Curtis says, "I've seen the FBI, whole SWAT teams of them, and I suspect the National Security Agency's in on this, plus one special-forces branch of the military or another, and probably more."
"Gov'ment!'" The caretaker is so beside himself with outrage that if beside himself could be taken literally, there would be two of him standing before Curtis. "Rule-makin', power-crazy, know-nothin' bunch of lily-livered skunks in bald-faced shirts! A man an' his wife pays social-security tax out the ass all their life, an' she dies just two checks into retirement, an' the gov'ment keeps all she paid, greedy bastards, she ain't really got her no account with 'em like they tell you. So here's me gettin' one monthly check no bigger than a brush-rabbit turd, hardly enough to buy me the makin's of a good long beer piss, while Barney Colter's worthless lazy donkey-wit son, who never worked a day in his useless life, he collects twice what I get 'cause the gov'ment says his drug addiction's left him emotionally disabled. So the doped-up little slug sits on his saggy ass, scarfin' Cheez Doodles, while to make ends meet, I haul myself out here to this historical hellhole five nights a week an' listen to blowsnakes blow, waitin' to be turned into buzzard brunch when my ticker pops, an' now facin' down dangerous wild dogs what wants to chew off my co-jones. You see the idea I'm gettin' at, boy?"
"Not entirely, sir," Curtis replies.
Because of all the excitement of trying to get Curtis's shoe and the fun of splashing in the outfall of well water, and also because Gabby's angry rant has frightened her, Old Yeller whines, squats, and pees on the pump platform.
Curtis perfectly understands her feelings about the caretaker. They have heard a lot of crankiness but not much lovableness, have been doused with buckets of crotchety talk but not with one teaspoon of tender-hearted sympathy; plus as yet there's no sign whatsoever of a banjo.
"What's wrong with your dog, boy?"
"Nothing, sir. She's just been through a lot lately."
And here comes more trouble for dog and boy: the giant-dragonfly thrum of the huge helicopter throbbing across the desert.
The caretaker cocks his head, and Curtis half expects the man's unusually large ears to turn toward the sound like the data-gathering dishes of radio telescopes. "Holy howlin' saints alive, that thing sounds big as Judgment Day. You mean them egg-suckin' bastards is chasin' you in that?"
"That and more," Curtis confirms.
"Gov'ment must want you bad as a damn gopher snake wants to get its snout in warm gopher guts."
"I'm not so happy to hear it put that way, sir."
Pointing the flashlight at the ground between them, Gabby asks, "What they want you for, boy?"
"Mostly the worse scalawags wanted my mother, and they got her, and now I'm just sort of a loose end they have to tie up."
"What they want your mother for? Was it… a land thing?"
Curtis has no idea what the caretaker means by land thing, but the opportunity exists to make an ally of this man. So he takes a chance and replies, "Yes, sir, it was a land thing."
Spluttering with anger, Gabby says, "Call me a hog an' butcher me for bacon, but don't you ever tell me the gov'ment ain't a land-crazy, dirt-grabbin' tyrant!"
The very thought of butchering anyone repulses Curtis; in fact, the suggestion entirely bewilders him. And he's too polite to call the caretaker a hog, even if the peculiar request was as sincere as it sounded.
Fortunately, Curtis isn't required to formulate an inoffensive response, because at once the fuming caretaker inhales a great chest-expanding breath and blows out a storm of words: "Me and the missus, we bought us this sweet piece of land, not a nicer plot of dirt up in Paradise itself, got its own water source, got this grove of big old cottonwoods been there so long they probably has dinosaur bones a-tangled in the roots, got some good pasture with it, taken us the better part of fifteen years to pay off the blood-suckin' bank, then more years savin' to carpenter-up a little place, an' when we finally gets ready to dig us a foundation, the gov'ment says we can't. The gov'ment says this here butt-ugly, bandy-shanked stink bug what lives on the property might be disturbed by us movin' in, which would be what the gov'ment calls an ecological tragedy, because this sticky-footed, no-necked, crap-eatin' stink bug maybe exists on only a hundred twenty-two tracts of land in five Western states. So me and the missus have ourselves this sweet property we can't build on, an' no jackass ever born ain't crazy enough to buy it from us if they can't never build it, neither
. But, oh, it sure do give me a special fine fuzzy-good feelin' in my heart to know the dung-eatin', flame-fartin' stink bug is all snug and cozy and AIN'T NEVER COIN' TO BE DISTURBED!"
By now Old Yeller is hiding behind Curtis.
In the east, the chop-chop-chop of the helicopter grows louder, and this ceaseless cutting sound echoes off the hard land, back into the wounded air. Steadily, rapidly closer.
"Iffen they catch you, what they plannin' to do, boy?"
"The worse ones," says Curtis, "will kill me. But the government . . . most likely they'll first try to hide me someplace they think is safe, where they can interrogate me. And if the worse scalawags don't find me where the FBI's hidden me . . . well, then sooner or later the government will probably do experiments on me."
Although his claim sounds outrageous, Curtis is describing what he genuinely believes will happen to him.
Either the caretaker hears truth resonating in the boy's voice or he is prepared to believe any horror story about a government that values him less than it does a stink bug. "Experiment! On a child!"
Gabby doesn't need to know what type of experiments Curtis would be subjected to or what purpose they would serve. Evidently he's able to stir up endless hideous possibilities in the pot of paranoia that is ever boiling on his mental stove. "Sure, why the blazes not, what better them dirty bastards got to do with my taxes but go torture a child? Hell's bells, them is the type what would hack you up, cook you in some rice, serve you with salsa to the damn stink bugs if they thought that might make the damn stink bugs happy."
Beyond the eastern crest of the valley, a pale radiance blooms in the night: the reflected beams of headlamps or searchlights from the two SUVs and the helicopter. Flowering brighter by the second.
"Better move," Curtis says, more to himself and to the dog than to the caretaker.
Gabby glares at the rising light in the east, the frizzles of his beard seeming to bristle as if enlivened by an electric current. Then he squints so intently at Curtis that his sun-toughened face crinkles and twills and crimps and puckers like the features of an Egyptian mummy engaged in a long but losing battle with eternity. "You ain't been shovelin' horseshit, have you, boy?"
"No, sir, and my ears aren't full of it, either."
"Then, by all that's holy and some that's not, we're gonna feed these skunks our dust. Now you stay on me like grease on Spam, you understand?"
"No, sir, I don't," Curtis admits.
"Like green on grass, boy, like wet on water," the caretaker explains impatiently. "Come on!" In that quick but hitching gait familiar from his grandfather's many movies, Gabby runs past the front of Smithy's Livery toward the hotel next door.
Curtis hesitates, puzzling over how to be grease, green, and wet.
He's still a little damp from playing at the pump, though the desert air has already more than half dried him out.
In spite of her previous reservations about the caretaker, Old Yeller trots after him. Apparently instinct tells her that her faith is well placed.
Trusting his sister-becoming and therefore Gabby, Curtis lights out after them, past the livery and onto the boardwalk in front of Bettleby's Grand Hotel. Bettleby's is a forty-foot-wide, three-story, shabby clapboard building that could no more satisfy a taste for grandness than a cow pie could satisfy when you wanted a slice of grandma's deep-dish apple.
Suddenly the chop of the helicopter rotors explodes into a boom-boom-boom, no longer muffled by the valley wall.
Curtis senses that if he looks to his right, across the street and over the roofs of buildings on the other side of town, he will see the aircraft hovering at the crest of the valley, an ominous black mass defined only by its small red and white running lights. Instead, he keeps his mind on Old Yeller, keeps his eyes fixed on Gabby and on the hobbling beam of the flashlight.
Past the hotel, tightly adjoining it, stands Jensen's Readymade, ALL-DONE OUTFITS FOR LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. A hand-lettered sign in the window announces that fashions "currently to be seen everywhere in San Francisco" are now for sale here, which makes San Francisco seem as far away as Paris.
Past Jensen's Readymade and before reaching the post office, Gabby turns left, off the boardwalk and into a narrow walkway between buildings. This passage is similar to the one by which Curtis and Old Yeller earlier entered town from the other side of the street.
The chopper approaches: an avalanche of hard rhythmic sound sliding down the valley wall.
Something else is coming, too. Something marked by a hum that Curtis feels in his teeth, that resonates in his sinuses, and by a rapidly swelling but also quickly subsiding tingle in the Haversian canals of his bones.
To counter a rising tide of fear, he reminds himself that the way to avoid panicking in a flood is to concentrate on swimming.
The wood-frame structures, crowding them on both sides, glow golden as the flashlight passes. Shadows ebb up the plunk walls in advance of Gabby, flow down again in his wake, and spill across Curtis as he wades after the caretaker and the dog.
Overall the faint fumes of recently applied paint, with an underlying spice of turpentine. A whiff of dry rabbit pellets. So peculiar that a rabbit would venture in here where it might easily be trapped by predators. Tan fragrance of a discarded apple core, fresh this very day, still a human scent clinging to it. Coyote urine, aggressively bitter.
Reaching the end of the passageway, the caretaker switches off the flashlight, and the moonless dark closes over them as if they have descended into a storm cellar and pulled the door shut at their backs. Gabby halts only a step or two into the open dirt yard beyond the west side of town.
If not for the dog's guidance, Curtis would collide with the old man. Instead, he steps around him.
Gabby grabs Curtis, pulls him close, and raises his voice above the thunder of the incoming chopper. "We goin' spang north to the barn what ain't a barn!"
Curtis figures that the barn-what-ain't-a-barn, whatever it might be, isn't far enough north to be safe. The Canadian border isn't far enough north, for that matter, nor the Arctic Circle.
Judging by the sound of it, the helicopter is putting down at the south end of town, in the vicinity of Smithy's Livery. Near the evidence of the sodden platform and the wet footprints in the dirt around the water pump.
The FBI-and the soldiers, if there are any-will be conducting a sweep south to north, the direction in which Gabby and Curtis and Old Yeller now flee. They'll be highly trained in search-and-secure procedures, and most if not all of them will be equipped with night-vision goggles.
Peripherally, to his left, Curtis becomes aware of a faint pearly radiance close to the earth. Alarmed, he glances west and sees what appears to be a low skim of mist blanketing the ground, but then he realizes he's looking out across the salt flats not from a higher perspective, as before, but from the zero elevation of the valley floor. The illusory mist is in fact the natural phosphorescence of the barren plain, the ghost of the long-dead sea.