He hesitates on the threshold, troubled by both the risk that he's taking and the crime he's intending to commit. His mother has raised him with strong values; but if he's to survive this night, he will have to steal.
Furthermore, he is reluctant to put these people-whoever they may be-at risk. If the killers track him to this place while he's still inside, they won't spare anyone. They have no mercy, and they dare not leave witnesses.
Yet if he doesn't seek help here, he'll have to visit the next farmhouse, or the one after the next. He is exhausted, afraid, still lost, and in need of a plan. He's got to stop running long enough to think.
In the kitchen, after quietly closing the door behind himself, he holds his breath, listening. The house is silent. Evidently, his small noises haven't awakened anyone.
Cupboard to cupboard, drawer to drawer, he searches until he discovers candles and matches, which he considers but discards. At last, a flashlight.
He needs several items, and a quick but cautious tour of the lower floor convinces him that he will have to go upstairs to find those necessities.
At the foot of the steps, he's paralyzed by dread. Perhaps the killers are already here. Upstairs. Waiting in the dark, waiting for him to find them. Surprise.
Ridiculous. They aren't the type to play games. They're vicious and efficient. If they were here now, he'd already be dead.
He feels small, weak, alone, doomed. He feels foolish, too, for continuing to hesitate even when reason tells him that he has nothing to fear other than getting caught by the people who live here.
Finally, he starts up toward the second floor. The stairs softly protest. As he ascends, he stays close to the wall, where the treads are less noisy.
At the top is a short hallway. Four doors.
The first door opens on a bathroom. The second lends to a bedroom; hooding the flashlight to dim and more tightly focus the beam, he enters.
A man and a woman lie in the bed, sleeping soundly. They snore in counterpoint: he an oboe with a split reed; she a whistling flute.
On a dresser, in a small decorative tray: coins and a man's wallet. In the wallet, the boy finds one ten-dollar bill, two fives, four ones.
These are not rich people, and he feels guilty about taking their money. One day, if he lives long enough, he will return to this house and repay his debt.
He wants the coins, too, but he doesn't touch them. In his nervousness, he's likely to jingle or drop them, rousing the farmer and his wife.
The man grumbles, turns on his side . . . but doesn't wake.
Retreating quickly and silently from the bedroom, the boy sees movement in the hall, a pair of shining eyes, a flash of teeth in the hooded beam of light. He almost cries out in alarm.
A dog. Black and white. Shaggy.
He has a way with dogs, and this one is no exception. It nuzzles him and then, panting happily, leads him along the hallway to another door that stands ajar.
Perhaps the dog came from this room. Now it glances back at its new friend, grins, wags its tail, and slips across the threshold as flu-idly as a supernatural familiar ready to assist with some magical enterprise.
Affixed to the door is a stainless-steel plaque with laser-cut letters:
STARSHIP COMMAND CENTER, CAPTAIN CURTIS HAMMOND.
Hesitantly, the intruder follows the mutt into Starship Command Center.
This is a boy's room, papered with large monster-movie posters. Display shelves are cluttered with collections of science-fiction action figures and models of ornate but improbable spaceships. In one corner a life-size plastic model of a human skeleton hangs from a metal stand, grinning as if death is great fun.
Perhaps signifying the beginning of a shift in the obsessions of the resident, a single poster of Britney Spears also adorns one wall. With her deep cleavage, bared belly, and aggressive sparkling smile, she's powerfully intriguing but also nearly as scary as any of the snarling, carnivorous antagonists of the horror films.
The young intruder looks away from the pop star, confused by his feelings, surprised that he possesses the capacity for any emotions other than fear and grief, considering the ordeal he has so recently endured.
Under the Britney Spears poster, in a tangle of sheets, sprawled facedown in bed, his head turned to one side, lies Curtis Hammond, commander of this vessel, who sleeps on, unaware that the sanctity of his starship bridge has been violated. He might be eleven or even twelve, but he's somewhat small for his age, about the size of the night visitor who stands over him.
Curtis Hammond is a source of bitter envy, not because he has found peace in sleep, but because he is not orphaned, is not alone. For a moment, the young intruder's envy curdles into a hatred so thick and poisonous that he feels compelled to lash out, to hammer the dreaming boy and diminish this intolerable pain by sharing it.
Although trembling with the pressure of his misplaced rage, he doesn't vent it, but leaves Curtis untouched. The hatred subsides as quickly as it flourished, and the grief that was briefly drowned by this fierce animosity now reappears like a gray winter beach from beneath an ebbing tide.
On the nightstand, in front of a clock radio, lie several coins and a used Band-Aid with a blot of dried blood on the gauze pad. This isn't much blood, but the intruder has recently seen so much violence that he shudders. He does not touch the coins.
Accompanied by dog snuffles and a flurry of fur, the motherless boy moves stealthily to the closet. The door is ajar. He opens it wider. With the flashlight beam, he shops for clothes.
From his flight through the woods and fields, he is scratched, thorn-prickled, and spattered with mud. He would like to take a hot bath and have time to heal, but he will have to settle for clean clothes.
The dog watches, head cocked, looking every bit as puzzled as it ought to be.
Throughout the theft of shirt, jeans, socks, and shoes, Curtis Hammond sleeps as soundly as though a spell has been cast upon him. Were he a genuine starship captain, his crew might fall prey to brain-eating aliens or his vessel might spiral into the gravitational vortex of a black hole while he dreamed of Britney Spears.
Not a brain-eating alien but feeling as though he himself is in the thrall of black-hole gravity, the intruder returns quietly Jo the open bedroom door, the dog remaining by his side.
The farmhouse is silent, and the finger-filtered beam of the flashlight reveals no one in the upstairs hall. Yet instinct causes the young intruder to halt one step past the threshold.
Something isn't right, the silence too deep. Perhaps Curtis's parents have awakened.
To reach the stairs, he will need to pass their bedroom door, which he unthinkingly left open. If the farmer and his wife have been roused from sleep, they will probably remember that their door was closed when they retired for the night.
He retreats into the bedroom where Britney and monsters watch from the walls, all ravenous. Switches off the flashlight. Holds his breath.
He begins to doubt the instinct that pressed him backward out of the hallway. Then he realizes that the dog's swishing tail, which had been softly lashing his legs, has suddenly gone still. The animal has also stopped panting.
Dim gray rectangles float in the dark: curtained windows. He crosses the room toward them, struggling to recall the placement of furniture, hoping to avoid raising a clatter.
After he puts down the extinguished flashlight, as he pulls the curtains aside, plastic rings scrape and click softly along a brass rod, as though the hanging skeleton, animated by sorcery, is flexing its bony fingers in the gloom
Curtis Hammond mutters, wrestles briefly with his sheets, but doesn't wake.
A thumb-turn lock frees the window. Gingerly, the intruder raises the lower sash. He slips out of the house, onto the front-porch roof, and glances back.
The dog looms at the open window, forepaws on the sill, as if it will abandon its master in favor of this new friend and a night of adventure.
"Stay," whispers the motherless boy.
In a crouch, he crosses the roof to the brink. When he looks back again, the mutt whines beseechingly but doesn't follow.
The boy is athletic, agile. The leap from the porch roof is a challenge easily met. He lands on the lawn with bent knees, drops, rolls through cold dew, through the sweet crisp scent of grass that bursts from the crushed blades under him, and scrambles at once to his feet.
A dirt lane, flanked by fenced meadows and oiled to control dust, leads to a public road about two hundred yards to the west. Hurrying, he has covered less than half that distance when he hears the dog bark far behind him.
Lights blaze, blink, and blaze again behind the windows of the Hammond place, a strobing chaos, as though the farmhouse has become a carnival funhouse awhirl with bright flickering spooks.
With the lights come screams, soul-searing even at a distance, not just shouts of alarm, but shrieks of terror, wails of anguish. The most piercing squeals seem less like human sounds than like the panicked cries of pigs catching sight of the abattoir master's gleaming blade, although these also are surely human, the wretched plaints of the tortured Hammonds in their last moments on this earth.
The killers had been even closer on his trail than he'd feared. What he sensed, stepping into that upstairs hallway, hadn't been the farmer and wife, awakened and suspicious. These are the same hunters who brutally murdered his family, come down through the mountains to the back door of the Hammond house.
Racing away into the night, trying to outrun the screams and the guilt that they drill into him, the boy gasps for breath, and the cool air is rough in his raw throat. His heart like a horse's hooves kicks, kicks against the stable of his ribs.
The prisoner moon escapes the dungeon clouds, and the oiled lane under the boy's swift feet glistens with the reflected glow.
By the time he nears the public road, he can no longer hear the terrible cries, only his explosive breathing. Turning, he sees lights steady in every window of the house, and he knows that the killers are searching for him in attic, closets, cellar.
More black than white, its coat a perfect camouflage against the moon-dappled oil, the dog sprints out of the night. It takes refuge at the boy's side, pressing against his legs as it looks back toward the Hammond place.
The dog's Hanks shudder, striking sympathetic shivers in the boy. Punctuating its panting are pitiful whimpers of fear, but the boy dares not surrender to his desire to sit in the lane beside the dog and cry in chorus with it.
Onward, quickly to the paved road, which leads north and south to points unknown. Either direction will most likely bring him to the same hard death.
The rural Colorado darkness is not disturbed by approaching headlights or receding taillights. When he holds his breath, he hears only stillness and the panting dog, not the growl of an approaching engine.
He tries to shoo away the dog, but it will not be shooed. It has cast its fortune with his.
Reluctant to be responsible even for this animal, but resigned to- and even somewhat grateful for-its companionship, he turns left, south, because a hill lies to the north. He doesn't think he has the stamina to take that long incline at a run.
On his right, a meadow bank grows, then looms, as the two-lane blacktop descends, while on his left, tall sentinel pines rise at the verge of the road, saluting the moon with their higher branches. The slap-slap-slap of his sneakers echoes between the bank and the trees, slap-slap-slap, a spoor of sound that sooner or later will draw his pursuers.
Once more he glances back, but only once, because he sees the pulse of flames in the east, throbbing in the dark, and he knows that the Hammond place has been set ablaze. Reduced to blackened bones and ashes, the bodies of the dead will offer fewer clues to the true identity of the killers.
A curve in the road and more trees screen him from sight of the fire, and when he entirely rounds the bend, he sees a truck stopped on the shoulder of the highway. Headlights doused in favor of the parking lights, this vehicle stands with engine idling, grumbling softly like some hulking beast that has been ridden hard and is half asleep on its feet.
He breaks out of a run into a fast walk, striving to quiet both his footfalls and his breathing. Taking its cue from him, the dog slows to a trot, then lowers its head and slinks forward at his side, more like a cat than like a canine.
The cargo bed of the truck has a canvas roof and walls. It's open at the back except for a low tailgate.
As he reaches the rear bumper, feeling dangerously exposed in the ruddy glow of the parking lights, the boy hears voices. Men in easy conversation.
Cautiously he looks forward along the driver's side of the truck, sees no one, and moves to the passenger's side. Two men stand toward the front of the vehicle, their backs to the highway, facing the woods. Lambent moonlight spangles an arc of urine.
He doesn't want to endanger these people. If he stays here, they might be dead even before they empty their bladders: a longer rest stop than they had planned. Yet he'll never elude his pursuers if he remains on foot.
The tailgate is hinged at the bottom. Two latch bolts fix it at the top.
He quietly slips the bolt on the right, holds the gate with one hand as he moves to the left, slips that bolt, too, and lowers the barrier, which is well oiled and rattle-free. He could have stepped onto the bumper and swung over the gate, but his four-legged friend wouldn't have been able to climb after him.
Understanding its new master's intent, the dog springs into the cargo bed of the truck, landing so lightly among its contents that even the low rhythmic wheeze of the idling engine provides sufficient screening sound.
The boy follows his spry companion into this tented blackness. Pulling the tailgate up from the inside is an awkward job, but with determination, he succeeds. He slides one bolt into its hasp, then engages the other, as outside the two men break into laughter.
Behind the truck, the highway remains deserted. The parallel median lines, yellow in daylight, appear white under the influence of the frost-pale moon, and the boy can't help but think of them as twin fuses along which terror will come, hissing and smoking, to a sudden detonation.
Hurry, he urges the men, as if by willpower alone he can move them. Hurry.
Groping blindly, he discovers that the truck is loaded in part with a great many blankets, some rolled and strapped singly, others bundled in bales and tied with sisal twine. His right hand finds smooth leather, the distinctive curve of a cantle, the slope of a seat, pommel, fork, and horn: a saddle.
The driver and his partner return to the cab of the truck. One door slams, then the other.
More saddles are braced among the blankets, some as smooth as the first, but others enhanced with ornate hand-tooled designs that, to the boy's questioning fingertips, speak of parades, horse shows, and rodeos. Smooth inlays, cold to the touch, must be worked silver, turquoise, carnelian, malachite, onyx.