I’d been down in the Cheyanna strip pits for so long I’d just about forgotten what the sun looked like, when Cracker pulled me off the sorting line and told me I’d done my time and was free to go. Wondering if he was pulling a funny on me, I followed his fat arse through the dim, winding tunnels where it seemed like I’d spent pretnear my whole life working and eating and sleeping and dreaming of blue sky; then it was up a narrow flight of steps carved into the gray shale of the south wall to the ore platform.
Many a time I’d watched that contraption haul piles of yellow-threaded chunks up the long, dark shaft hacked through the rocks overhead, and had seen it bring down a few unlucky men like me; but the only time I’d set foot on it myself was the long-ago day it’d dropped me smack-dab in the middle of hell.
“Climb on, Dooley,” Cracker said, nudging me none too gently in the back. And I knew then that he weren’t funning me.
I stepped on, Cracker right behind me. He gave a couple of sharp tugs on a rope and the platform lurched, then rose upward into that hollowed-out tunnel barely bigger than the lashed-together timbers under our feet. The four thick cables attached to its corners seemed alive, hissing and vibrating as they roiled up into the darkness. The noise put me in mind of Albo snakes, with their red eyes, and slick white bodies as long and skinny as a whip.
Up we went, on and on. And when at last I saw a pinprick of light overhead, I knew that I wouldn’t have to sleep no more with my arms wrapped around my head to keep the Albos from wriggling into my ears or nose.
The dot of light got bigger and bigger, filling the mouth of the shaft with a white glare that my eyes couldn’t bear. I shielded them with my hand, but that weren’t enough; I had to look away, down at my grimy boots instead of the clean, blue sky above.
“Here,” Cracker said in a voice made gravely by too many years breathing Cheyanna’s dust. “This’ll help.” He pressed a wad of dirt-smudged white cloth into my hands.
It was a kaul, a head covering worn by the traders who traveled the roads between Cheyanna and the outside world: a hood that fit over your head with a narrow slit cut out for your eyes. Without it or something like it, a man could go blind out in the desert staring day in and day out at all that white sand.
I mumbled a “Thanks,” and pulled it over my head. And looked around, having my first drink of daylight in…”How long?”
I turned a slow circle. Not a lot to see: four husky tripods, each topped with a winch operated by a shackled Nube; a few rickety buildings, all listing to the north, away from the never-ending southern wind; and harnessed to four humpbacks, a wagon, its rocky cargo alive with glints and glimmers of gold. Just about how it’d looked when I’d…
I turned to Cracker. “How long?” I asked again.
Cracker’s washed-out blue eyes met mine. “Huh?”
“How long have I been down there?”
“Oh, ’round about five years, I’d say.”
Five years. Five long years since Ma had got sick and dried up, and I’d stolen that cow so Baby Thomas could have milk. Five years since I’d been arrested and the cow had been returned to Mr. Gossett, and Baby Thomas and Ma had died. Reckon I was along about seventeen now.
The door of the nearest building squeaked open and a tall skinny man covered head to foot in white stepped out. The head part turned in my direction and an arm raised, gesturing a come-on.
“That there’s Leem,” Cracker said. “He’ll take you to the nearest town. Where you go after that’s your own business.”
After four days of steering the plodding humpbacks northward through the Zonnia Desert, chased by the heat and sand and wind, Leem pulled the team up at the top of a steep hill. The land ahead fell away into a broad valley where the white sand gave it up to patchy dry grass. Here and there, a few wind-twisted trees raised crooked limbs toward the flat, blue sky. In the far distance, a wide river uncoiled along the base of a reddish-colored mountain range. And in the middle of all that flat land, a little town huddled in upon itself as if it was feared of all that open space.
Leem tapped my shoulder, pulling my eyes from the town to him. He handed me a canteen of water, then jerked his head to the side.
“You want me to get off here?” I asked.
His brown eyes blinked a “yes”.
“You ain’t going down there?”
He shook his head.
Leem opened his mouth, gave me a good look at teeth and gums, but no tongue. Then he pointed a dark-brown finger at the town.
I looked at the pitiful huddle of buildings again, and I saw what he’d seen: a church steeple. Christians would be there, Christians that didn’t take kindly to folks that looked different or acted different or talked different from them. Leem might lose more than his tongue in a place like that.
But I’d be all right. I had yellow hair and green eyes and white skin; I’d fit right in.
I looped the canteen’s strap over my shoulder and crawled down from the wagon seat. Leem snapped the reins to the right, and the humpbacks turned east.
“Thanks!” I said to his retreating back. The wind whipped around, catching up the sand around my boots and my one shouted word, pushing both north. I didn’t think Leem heard me. He never raised a hand or looked back. Then he was gone, swallowed up in the blowing sand.
The wind didn’t blow near as hard down off the hill. It still had a bit of a kick to it, but after four days of eating sand, it seemed no more than a breeze to me. Halfway across the scrubby stretch of grass, I took off the kaul Cracker had given me and dropped it amongst a clump of weeds; I didn’t need it no more.
I walked a little farther. The town got a little closer.
And my eyes fell on the church steeple.
I turned around and went back to the scrap of white. I kicked out a hole in the sandy soil, pried the kaul off the bristly weeds, and dropped it in the depression, then toed the dirt back over and tromped it down.
A man couldn’t be too careful, not in a town with a church, ’cause where there was a church there’d be a preacherman, and Lord knows, their kind weren’t a forgiving lot.
I thought real hard about turning back. Mayhaps the desert would treat me kinder than a preacherman would. Then something howled. Another something joined it. And another. I hadn’t heard that particular racket in five years, but I knew right off what it was: cyclotes.
A lifetime’s habit pulled my eyes up to the sky. How long till dark? How long till them one-eyed killers came out of their dens and roamed the flatlands?
To the west, a blood-red sun was sinking toward a jumble of big rocks plugging up that end of the valley. To me, them rocks looked like a place any cyclote would be happy to call home. And then I spied movement in amongst that pile, and I knew I didn’t want to be out here after the sun went down.
I took a long swallow from the canteen, then headed off toward the town again, my feet moving faster than before. And pretty soon, I was running. I’d seen what was left of a body after cyclotes had been at it: a few gnawed bones and bits of hair. Better to tangle with a preacherman and a swarm of Christians than a pack of mangy cyclotes.
I saw her and all thoughts of cyclotes and Christians and preacherman flew right out of my head.
She was sitting up high on the seat of a wagon hitched across the dusty street, her back to the setting sun. At first, all I could see was her hair, a yellow mop of curls that tumbled down over her shoulders pretnear to her waist. Then the sun slipped a little lower and I saw her face. An angel, she was, every feature perfect, from up-slanted eyes as blue as the blossoms on a whisit vine, to full pink lips that parted in a smile when she saw me.
“Hello,” she called out, her voice every bit as sweet as her smile. “Don’t think I’ve seen you before. You live ’round here?”
All I could do was shake my head. Her beauty dried up the words before they could get out of my mouth.
She crooked a finger. “Come ‘ere.”
I didn’t remember crossing the street, but there I was right up next to the wagon, staring up into that perfect face.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
Again, I shook my head.
She glanced past me. “He doesn’t know who he is, Pa.”
A hand settled on my shoulder. Strong fingers took hold, nudged me around, and I was staring directly at a white, turned-up collar.
“You don’t know who you are, son?”
My eyes moved up a few notches to a stone-hard face, to a set of black eyes that’d never looked kindly on anyone or anything. For the third time, I shook my head.
Lord, all that shaking was making me dizzy; I hadn’t had nothing to eat since I’d left the strip pits. Now, humpbacks and desert people like Leem could go a long time without eating, but I weren’t no humpback or desert trader, and I was getting mighty empty.
Behind me, a female voice that was somewhere between a growl and a purr, said, “He’s lying, Pa.” But it weren’t her voice.
I turned back to the wagon, cocking my head and looking up. And leaning out around that perfect face was another face, one with cold blue eyes and rose-red lips, terrible in its beauty. The mouth turned up in a vicious smile.
The angel frowned. “Hush, Maira, you’re scaring him.” And she raised her hand and placed it over those awful red lips.
Then her hand jerked down. Up to the mouth again. Back down again. And I saw that they shared that hand, that arm.
Two gals up there. Three arms.
My belly rolled, my head spinned in dizzy circles. And I was falling down into the dark, back into the pitch-black bowels of the strip pits.
Something weren’t right; there was too much light. So much that it squeezed in behind my crossed arms and lit up the backs of my eyelids. Why, there was never this much light down in the pits.
I weren’t in the pits no more. I was a free man.
The ore wagon…crossing the desert…
What was that smell? Lord, was it…bread baking?
“Do you always sleep like that, son?”
I yanked my arms down away from my head, and I was face to face with the man who owned the mean eyes and white collar: a preacherman. The man she’d called Pa.
The preacherman was here, he was real. So she had to be real too.
My eyes jumped over his shoulder, then did a quick circle of the room. I saw log walls, a few rough-cut pieces of furniture, a rag rug spread on bare boards, and a big window with real glass. But I didn’t see her.
“They ain’t in here,” the Preacherman said.
I looked back to the face hovering over mine. A broad smile cracked it open, and Lord, it was an unnatural smile, as out of place on his face as it would’ve been on a pissed-off grazzle. In the back of my mind, I knew I should’ve been a lot more worried about him than I was, but right then all I was concerned about was—
“But they’ll be in directly,” he said. “After me and you have a talk.”
They? Did he mean her? Her of the pink lips? But there’d been red lips too. My mind shied away like a sore-titted cow from a milker’s hands, refused to let the other one in. Only her.
The Preacherman grabbed a straight-backed chair and pulled it up next to the bed.
I was in a bed?
I looked around a bit more, a little closer to home. Yep, I was in a bed, all right. And as naked as a plucked bird. I yanked the covers up under my chin, and saw my hands. They didn’t seem right, not like my hands at all. I looked at the palms, then the backs. Why, they were spic and span, right down to the chewed-off fingernails.
“I have to say, son, you cleaned up pretty good. Get all that dirt off, I can see what my Loi saw in you.”
Loi? Was that the angel? Was she the one who’d washed me, and dear lord, took off my clothes? Heat crawled up my neck and spread over my face.
The Preacherman laughed. “I was the one who tended to you, not my daughters.” The chair gave a squeaky groan as he settled onto it. “Their eyes are yet pure.”
Again, I saw red lips.
“Look at me, son.”
And like my eyes didn’t have a will of their own, they turned to the man sitting beside the bed. A big man, he was, tall and barrel-chested. But it weren’t his size that made my heart bang against my ribs, and neither was it his white collar; it was his soulless black eyes that feared me.
“What’s your name?” he asked, a kindness in his voice that didn’t reach those eyes.
He doesn’t know who he is, Pa.
And I knew what I had to do. “I…I don’t know, sir.”
“Where’d you come from?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know that either.”
He kind of stared at me then, his eyes pinning mine and looking deep. I didn’t look away; I knew that’d be a mistake. I let him look his fill, and after a bit, he lifted his eyes to the ceiling and nodded his head. Then back down to me. “What do you know, son? What’s the first thing you remember?”
Where’d be a good place to start? My mind stepped back out into the desert, upon the hill, looking down at the town. Too far. Burying the kaul, hearing the cyclotes howling. Naw. Looking up into blue eyes, smiling pink lips.
“A gal…sitting in a wagon…smiling at me.”
“Nothing before that? No ma, no pa?”
I met the Preacherman’s eyes. “No, sir.”
I reckoned what he saw there must’ve satisfied him. He lifted his eyes to the ceiling, and his lips started moving. I reckoned he was praying, though I couldn’t make out any of his whispered words until with a loud “Amen,” he got up and went to the door and pulled it open. “You can come in now, daughters.”
Part 2 here
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