Savage, p.21
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       Savage, p.21

           Richard Laymon
 

  But I was just fifteen, and had more gumption than sense.

  “I say,” said I. “If it isn’t the one and only Elmont Briggs.”

  I had to pretty near shout so he could hear me over the noise of the wheels.

  He turned around slow. He had a cigar between his lips, its tip glowing red in the wind. When he saw me, he plucked it out. He jabbed the air with it, pointing at me. “Sarah’s boy.”

  “I’m nobody’s boy, Elmont.”

  “Has she sent you to fetch me?”

  I stepped up closer to him. And sorely wished I had my clothes on. I was barefoot, my nightshirt blowing about like a woman’s dress, the cold gusting up under it. I couldn’t help feeling somewhat at a disadvantage. This was no way to be dressed when confronting a scoundrel.

  “Speak up, boy. Does Sarah wish me to join her?”

  “You’re to stay away from her.”

  “Am I?” He showed me his teeth. They looked gray in the darkness. I reckon he was smiling. Then he poked the cigar between them and gave it a puff.

  I slapped the cigar out of his mouth.

  He grabbed the front of my nightshirt, hauled me up against him and smashed his knee into my belly. The blow picked me clear off my feet. When they came down on the grille again, he was rushing me backward. He shoved me into the guard chain. Then he let go, ducked down and grabbed me around the legs. I couldn’t do much more than catch hold of his hair before he hoisted me over the chain and pushed.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

  Farewell to the Train and Sarah

  My grip on Elmont’s hair didn’t save me. Some came out in my hands, is all.

  Then I was plunging headfirst, flapping and kicking, feeling the breath of the speeding train against my back. Time seemed to drag awful slow. It gave me plenty of chance to wonder what I might land on and whether I’d get myself cut in half by the wheels. I even had a chance to see my body sprawled out dead by the tracks, my nightshirt up around my chest. Seemed awful, making an indecent spectacle of myself that way.

  Figured I might have time to arrange the garment, but I was still considering it when I struck the ground.

  Not headfirst, though, thank the Lord. It was my back that hit. If my wind hadn’t been knocked out already by Elmont’s knee, the landing would’ve done it. I smacked down hard, but that wasn’t the end of it. I bounced, and the ground was so steep it flung my legs up and somersaulted me. I tumbled and rolled for quite a spell, and finally came to a stop in some soft grass.

  I lay sprawled there, hurting all over but happy to be alive. While I fought to wheeze some air into my chest, the clatter of the train faded down the tracks. Nobody must’ve seen me go overboard except Elmont, because it didn’t stop. Pretty soon, the whistle tooted a farewell to me.

  When I was able to breathe again, I got to my feet. I felt a trifle wobbly, so I didn’t go anywhere but just stood where I was.

  At the bottom of the railroad embankment. The high slope loomed over me, all rocks and weeds and bushes. From where I stood, I probably couldn’t have seen the train even if it had still been there. All that remained of it was a distant rumble and some ragged tatters of smoke black in the moonlight.

  Turning around slow and careful, I saw nothing except woods. Not a road or a house or a human being, nor the glimmer of a campfire.

  I wasn’t frightened, though.

  I hurt too much to feel fear or much of anything else besides my hurts. My bones ached. My hands and knees burned, and so did parts of my back and rump. I’d been scuffed and scratched up considerable during my fast trip down the slope.

  The nightshirt was clinging to my back. With dew, I hoped. I shucked off the shirt and held it out under the moonlight. It was shredded some. It looked mighty filthy, but I could only see a few dark spots that I took for blood. The better part of the dampness was dew, which came as a relief.

  I put the shirt on, then made my way up the embankment. It wasn’t a pleasant journey in bare feet, but a sight less distressing than the quick trip down it. When I got to the top, I sat on a rail to brush the grit and pebbles off my feet. The rail still felt a bit warm from the train going by.

  The tracks stretched off into the distance, gleaming like silver.

  I wondered what Sarah was thinking right then. She was likely all warm and snug in her bed, worrying about how come I was taking so long at the toilet. Maybe figured my supper hadn’t agreed with me.

  It was me who hadn’t agreed with Elmont.

  I could’ve kicked myself for knocking that cigar out of his mouth. Now he was riding along the rails with Sarah, all pleased with himself for removing a certain impudent servant boy.

  With me out of the way, no telling what he might get up to.

  He’d probably no sooner chucked me over the side than he’d gone looking for her.

  No. Wouldn’t do that. Too wily.

  He’d want Sarah to fall asleep and not catch on till morning that I’d gone missing. Then he’d be at her full time.

  It got me angry and miserable thinking about such things. Pretty soon, I realized I wasn’t helping the situation by sitting on a rail. So I got up and started after the train.

  The cinders hurt my feet. The wooden ties weren’t a whole lot better. So I took to walking along the smooth iron of a rail. The only trick was keeping steady. Every so often, I’d fall off and do more damage to my feet.

  But I kept at it. There was bound to be a depot up ahead, and likely a town. Just a matter of getting there. Of course, it might be twenty miles off. Or fifty. So long as I followed the tracks, though, I’d reach it sooner or later.

  I tried to tell myself that Sarah’d be there waiting for me. The only chance for that was if she got worried and searched the train and figured out I was nowhere aboard. She might do just that. She sure wouldn’t be able to get the train to come back for me, but she was bound to make it stop at the first station and let her off. Then she’d be shut of Elmont, and we’d be joining up again soon as I found the depot.

  More than likely, though, Sarah’d drifted off to sleep. It’d be morning before she realized I was gone. By then, the train would be a few hundred miles south.

  It was mighty depressing to contemplate.

  But I judged things would turn out. All I needed to do was stick with the tracks, keep on heading for Tombstone, and we’d find each other by and by.

  Unless Sarah decided to take up with Elmont, give up on me, and head off for parts unknown with the scoundrel.

  That was out of my hands, though.

  I tried not to worry my head about such things. The trick for me was just to keep on walking and find civilization.

  The rail had been warm at first. But it cooled off pretty quick. Before long, it felt like ice under my feet. The wind picked up, too, and turned nippier by the minute. It slipped clean through my nightshirt, and tossed it about, and rushed up underneath it.

  Finally, I took to shaking so bad and my feet were so numb that I fell off the rail every third or fourth step. I gave up on the rail, and hobbled along on the gravel and cinders and wooden ties. They weren’t near as cold as the iron. My feet thawed out enough to let me feel every sharp thing they stepped on.

  What I did was rip off my long sleeves and bind them around my feet. That helped some. I kept on going. No matter how far I trudged along, though, the tracks just kept on stretching out empty ahead of me and I never saw a thing except forests on both sides.

  I allowed I’d likely freeze up stiff before I ever came to the next depot.

  At last, I went down the embankment. It was mighty rough on my feet and hindquarters, but I got to the bottom. There, the wind wasn’t so bad. Couldn’t feel it much at all once I’d made my way into the trees and burrowed into the moist leaves. The ground was hard and lumpy. I still felt cold and miserable. But I fell asleep, somehow.

  Morning improved matters considerable. I woke up to find warm sunlight shining down on me through the treetops. It felt so fine I just lay ther
e, soaking up the heat and listening to the birds sing. Other than the birds and some bugs humming about, I heard a breeze rustling the leaves and a sound I couldn’t quite place. It was a rushy noise like a strong wind. It didn’t gust and fade like wind, though. It whushed along steady.

  All of a sudden I knew it must be a river.

  And me with my mouth as dry as sand.

  I stood up quick, forgetting about my aches and pains. Right off, they reminded me of themselves. I let out a yowl. The way my feet felt, I might’ve been one of those fellows the General told me about—one of those captives who got staked down by Indians and had his feet toasted. The rest of me wasn’t much better off. I stood there hunched over like a cripple. That didn’t get me any closer to the water, though.

  Finally, I straightened myself up. I turned toward the sound of the stream, and started to move. The first few steps were pure torture.

  The pain was rather like a plunge in frigid water, shocking and horrid for a bit, but not so bad after you’d gotten used to it. Pretty soon, the pain eased off some.

  I hobbled along, dodging tree trunks, ducking under low limbs, taking the long way around thickets and boulders and deadfalls in my way, sometimes pushing on through bushes that scratched my legs and snagged my nightshirt. Before long, I was breathless and pouring sweat. My nightshirt felt like it was pasted to my skin. The sleeves came off my feet a few times, and I had to stop and fix them before I could go on. Other times, I stopped for no reason other than to wipe my face and catch my wind.

  At last, though, I came to the river.

  What a grand sight! A lane of water thirty or more feet across, curling and tumbling its way over a bed of pale rocks. It was mostly shadowed by the trees, but here and there it shimmered with patches of sunlight.

  I stood on the bank, gazing down at it, so struck with admiration that all my torments seemed to vanish.

  This was my river. I’d trekked through the wilderness and discovered it. Me, Trevor Wellington Bentley, a lad from London. Like Natty Bumpo or Daniel Boone, I’d made my way over the trackless, uncharted land of the American frontier to find a secret wonder.

  Battered as I was, I felt just bully.

  It seemed as if nothing in the world existed except me and the woods and my river.

  The rocks along the shore hurt my feet, but not my mood. Pretty soon, I stepped into the clear, rushing water. It was almighty cold! So cold I swear my feet hissed and steam curled off them. But they felt a whole lot better.

  Crouching down, I scooped water into my mouth. One handful after another. It was the sweetest liquid that ever passed my lips. It was magical nectar. I felt like I was drinking mountain tops and sunlight and shadowy glens and a chill wind from the forest.

  When I couldn’t hold any more, I waded along through the currents. With every step, my stomach sloshed. I kept close to shore, and didn’t stop till I came to one of the sunny places.

  Hanging on to a boulder, I untied the sleeves and shook them out. I washed them, spread them out on the rock to dry, then did the same with my nightshirt.

  The water froze me up frightful when I plunged in. It put me in mind of when I’d dived into the ocean to save Trudy. I hadn’t thought about her much in recent times, and wished she hadn’t snuck up on me now. A whole passel of bad memories started running through my head.

  But they didn’t last long. When I stood up and breathed the fresh air and saw the pale blue sky and the green trees and the river running along, all the horrible things didn’t stand a chance. I was alone in the wilderness, nobody around to cause me troubles or worry.

  The water didn’t seem so cold any more. It felt soothing on my scrapes. I stayed in it for quite a while, paddling about and floating. Tom Sawyer himself likely never had a better time on the Mississippi than me in that river. I wished there was a Jackson Island where I could camp—but of course I had nothing to camp with. Even if I’d had matches for a fire, I had no food to cook on it.

  My stomach, which was bruised on the outside from Elmont’s knee, felt rather empty on the inside. That didn’t worry me much, though. I allowed I could always find something to stave off starvation, one way or another. I’d worry about it later.

  For now, I was mighty content.

  I gathered my footwear and nightshirt, which were already dry, then waded over to a flat slab of rock hanging out from the shore. I climbed onto it and sprawled out. The sun warmed me up. Soft breezes with just a touch of coolness brushed along my skin.

  I felt uncommon lazy. Everything seemed pretty near perfect, except I got to wishing Sarah was here with me. We could swim in the stream together, and lay out on the rock to dry. I got an awful hankering to see her stretched out in the sunlight, all bare and wet and shiny. See her and feel her and so on.

  Well, of course we’d never get together again if I didn’t start moving.

  I was loath to stir myself, though. It would be a shame to leave my river. I wished I had a raft or canoe. Then I could just float along peaceful, take a drink whenever I got the urge, jump in to cool off when the sun got too hot, and have a fine time. That’d be a blessing for my feet, too.

  But I had no raft or canoe, and didn’t see how I could make one.

  I could follow the river, hike along its shore or wade and swim if the terrain got too rough. That notion struck my fancy, and I nearly decided to have a go at it. But there was no way to judge where the river might take me.

  Part of me didn’t much care where it’d take me. I could just roam along forever, exploring. But mostly I wanted to join up with Sarah the quickest way possible, and that meant returning to the tracks.

  I took one more swim. While splashing about, I wondered if there might be a way to carry some water with me. Of course, I had no container. I drank as much as I could hold, and pondered the problem.

  The General once told me how the Apaches could carry around a huge load of water, enough to last a small party of warriors for days. What they’d do was kill a horse and take out its small intestine. They’d clean it out the best they could, then fill it up. When they had yards and yards of gut fit to burst with water, they’d wrap it around a horse they hadn’t killed yet, and be on their way.

  Well, I didn’t have a horse available. I’d spotted some squirrels and gophers and such, but didn’t hold out much hope of catching one. Besides, the whole notion seemed a trifle gory for my taste.

  Thanks to Whittle, I’d seen my share of intestines. I wanted no more truck with such things.

  But I did hit on a plan, thanks to the General’s story. After wrapping the sleeves around my feet, I soaked my nightshirt real good. Then I didn’t wring it out or put it on. Instead, I draped it loose over my shoulders.

  I started on my way, not at all happy to leave the river behind, but hoping it wouldn’t wander far from the tracks so I might be able to find it later, if need be.

  It was hot work, trudging back through the woods. The water in my nightshirt stayed cool for a while, and felt good the way it dribbled down my skin. Pretty soon, though, it turned so warm I couldn’t tell the difference between the water and my sweat.

  Finally, I came to the embankment. I scurried up, sorely missing the shade of the woods. The sun felt like fire, and the breezes had traveled elsewhere. I wished I’d just stayed at the river.

  All burning and breathless and drippy, I stumbled onto the flat ground at the top of the slope. And sat on a rail. And squealed and leaped up when it scorched my rump.

  After a wait to catch my breath and allow the pain to fade, I unslung my nightshirt and tipped back my head. I reckon I squeezed quite a lot of river water into my mouth. It was mixed with dust and sweat, but did wonders for my thirst. In my head, I gave thanks to the General for giving me the idea.

  When I couldn’t wrestle any more water out of the nightshirt, I put it on and started following the tracks. I’d learned my lesson, and stayed off the rails.

  They were so shiny in the sunlight that they hurt to look at
.

  I walked between them, keeping my eyes on the gravel and cinders. I kept my ears open for trains, too. Another was bound to come along, sooner or later. For all I knew, several might’ve gone by while I was away. I probably would’ve heard them, but maybe not.

  Anyhow, I didn’t hanker to get run over. And maybe I could even get one to stop and pick me up.

  The farther I walked, the surer I got that a train would whistle in the distance. From behind me. I’d turn around and wave my arms. It’d toot for me to clear out of the way, but I’d stay put so the engineer didn’t have any choice but either to put on the brakes or splash through me. In my head, the train always stopped with a few feet to spare. The engineer and fireman, they leaped down to shout at me, but I acted quite meek and polite, explained my situation, and they settled down and asked me aboard. They gave me a ride to the next station, and there stood Sarah on the platform, thrilled to pieces and weeping for joy as I ran to embrace her.

  It was a splendid daydream.

  I played it out quite a few times in my head. Even improved on it, having the train approach from the front, heading north, with Sarah riding in the locomotive to keep a lookout for me.

  Reality came back to me, though, when I spotted a bridge in the distance.

  A bridge meant a gorge. A gorge might mean water. Maybe this was a place where my river cut across to the other side of the tracks. I was mighty cooked by then—wet on the outside and dry on the inside. The river was precisely what I needed to set matters right.

  I hurried along smartly, eager to get there.

  By and by, the rushy sound of water came along. This just had to be my river!

  But I stopped dead, just short of the bridge.

  The rail on my left was almost where it belonged. But not quite.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

  Desperados

  The spikes meant to pin the rail down firm had all been yanked and scattered about. The rail was off to the side by half a foot.

 
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