"Unless someone can come up with a better idea," he said, "I suggest we follow their lead."
He turned to John. "Maybe you'd better stay here and-"
"Like h.e.l.l," John said. Without giving anyone a chance to stop him, he began moving off in one of the directions Luke had indicated.
The branches of the underbrush clawed at his clothes and his skin, raked at his eyes, but he kept pushing through, calling out, praying for a reply.
"Poppy, it's me! Katie's father! I'm here with your uncles." Over and over. "Poppy, it's me..." As he came to the base of a small rise, lightning flashed. He looked up and gasped. Someone was standing on its crest, someone huge, and he was holding something in his arms.
Something child sized... and limp.
Oh, God! he thought. Is this Snake? I should have a gun!
Then he heard a voice shouting to him: "Are you Katie's daddy?" That wasn't Snake's voice.
"Yes... y-yes, I am." The figure started crashing down the rise toward John.
God, he was big. "I think she's hurt."
"Oh, no!" John staggered forward, arms outstretched. Please, God, not now, not when she's so close to going home! "Give her to me!" As the big man laid her gently in his arms, John crushed her to him.
Katie? And then he knew it was Katie oh yes it was Katie his Katie-Oh, Katie, it's been so long!-and she was soaked and she was cold but he could feel her heart beating and he wanted to drop to his knees and bury his face against the dripping rat tails of her sodden hair and sob out his uncounted joy and relief at having her back again, but he had to get her out of here, get her inside where it was dry and he could see her in the light and- "I found her in a gully," the giant said. "I think she fell and hit her head." Aw, no, not her head! Not again!
John turned and began carrying her toward the lights of the house.
"Where's Poppy?" the giant asked from behind him.
"She's hiding out here," John said, still moving away. "A man with one eye is trying to hurt her. Her uncles and some other men are here to help her."
"I'll help her too," the giant said. "I can find her. I'll save her from the one-eyed man."
John glanced back. As lightning flashed he saw the giant's face and a diagnosis popped immediately into his mind: Fragile-X syndrome.
"You do that," he told him. "And... thanks for finding Katie." But the giant was already crashing away through the brush in the opposite direction.
"Hang on, Katie," John said as he edged closer and closer to the house. "Daddy's got you now and he's never letting you go." Finally he was clear of the brush. He broke into a run and carried Katie toward the light of an open doorway.
"So you found her," Lester said as John ducked through the opening and dropped gasping to his knees.
John could only nod as he gently laid Katie on the dry floor and checked her head. He found a b.l.o.o.d.y, one-inch gash in her scalp-on the side opposite her old fracture, thank God-with a goose-egg hematoma swelling beneath it. Quickly he lifted her eyelids and watched her pupils constrict. Good! Her breathing was shallow but regular. She could have been asleep. Except for the blood. Had she fallen and hit her head? Or had she suffered a seizure out there? Either way she'd suffered a significant concussion. He needed to get her to a hospital.
He glanced over at Lester. The old man was propped against an inside wall holding a dirty cloth against his b.l.o.o.d.y left flank. He looked pale but alert.
"Are you all right?"
"About as well as a man can be with a hole in his side, I guess. But I don't think the slug did much more'n puncture my love handle and one of my ass cheeks." Lester winced and took a swig from a big ceramic jug. "Hurts like h.e.l.l, but this eases the pain. You want some? Take the chill off." John shook his head. He knew he should check out the old man too, but he couldn't bring himself to leave Katie's side. Not yet.
At a noise behind him he turned toward the door, hoping to see either Decker or Canney, or even one of the Mulliners. But it was someone else. John didn't get a good look at him-didn't give himself a chance. He saw the black eye patch and the next thing he knew he was charging across the room, arms outstretched, fingers curved into claws, an animal-like growl building in his throat. Six days of pent-up rage, fear, terror, frustration had finally found a target.
He rammed his shoulder into the man's midsection and knocked him down. Then he was on him, pummeling him with his fists, battering at his face, wanting to rip the skin off him, pound him into the dirt, and keep pounding at him until Snake was flattened, until he was little more than a thin smear of b.l.o.o.d.y jelly.
But his attack lasted only seconds, and his red fantasy was shattered by the deafening explosion of a pistol only inches away and a tearing, concussive blow to his right shoulder that spun him completely around and left him lying on his back, writhing with the pain from his shattered shoulder, and Snake standing over him, his one eye blazing, his teeth bared, his dark hair plastered over the sutured lacerations that crisscrossed his shaven scalp, and his pistol pointed between John's eyes.
"You lied to me, Vanduyne," was all he said before he pulled the trigger.
But nothing happened. Through a haze of agony John saw Snake's index finger pulling the trigger over and over, heard the hammer falling, but no shots. He kicked at Snake's legs and knocked him off balance, but only for an instant. Snake leaped forward and smashed the useless pistol against John's head. As John fought to remain conscious, Snake straddled him and wrapped his fingers around John's throat.
"I've wanted to do this since I first saw you," Snake whispered as his thumbs pressed on John's trachea. "You and Poppy. Because of you two..."
John flailed at him with his left hand but the room was spinning and his vision was blurred and he had no strength and he needed air, oh God he needed air.
And just as his vision was fading he saw a shadow behind Snake, saw something moving, and then an amber liquid halo suddenly bloomed around Snake's head. The fingers around John's throat loosened as Snake stiffened and his one eye went wide, so wide, and his jaw dropped open and he sagged to his left and dropped from John's view.
Taking his place was a young woman with very short, very black hair, a chalk-white face, blood-caked cyanotic lips, and the remains of Lester's ceramic jug dangling from her fingers. The rest of the jug lay in pieces on Snake's inert form. She teetered left and right like a drunk, then dropped to her knees and stared at him. Her mouth moved but no words came.
Dimly, John heard Lester's voice in the background.
"You got'im, Poppy! You got'im good!"
Poppy wanted to ask about Katie but she didn't have any more air. She felt like she was drowning, like her chest was going to explode, and her legs wouldn't hold her up. Her vision had narrowed to a tunnel through a black fog, and to her left, at the end of the tunnel, she saw Katie. She tried to move toward her but fell flat on her belly. As she crawled her way, the black fog increased, pushing in, narrowing the tunnel. She reached out. She needed to touch her... one more time... just once more before the black fog took everything...
After Poppy toppled forward, John struggled to sit up. He gasped in agony and his vision filled with bright spheres. He was pushing up with his left arm, but each increment of movement jostled the bone fragments in his right shoulder and it was like being shot again.
Finally when he was upright, cradling his right arm with his left, he saw the woman Lester had called Poppy crawling toward Katie, reaching for her.
"Aw, Poppy," he heard Lester say. "What he do to you? What he do to your back?" And then John saw the bloodred bubbles clustered at the hole in her back, moving up and down with her increasingly shallow breaths.
Dear God... a sucking chest wound. Where had she been? How on earth had she managed to get here with that? The room swam about him as John struggled toward her on his knees.
Poppy... she'd saved his life just now, and saved Katie's many times, and now... what was she doing now?
John was close enough to see Poppy's glazed eyes, fixed straight ahead on Katie as she reached for her.
She knows she's dying, he thought. And there was nothing he could do for her-not here, not in this place, even with two good arms. Nothing.
No-maybe there was.
He swiveled and ignored the screaming burst of agony as he let go of his right arm and reached for Katie's hand with his left. He got hold of her fingers and pulled them toward Poppy's outstretched hand, then curled Poppy's fingers around Katie's. He watched Poppy's face and thought he saw her smile as the light faded from her eyes and the bubbles around the hole in her back broke and no new ones took their place...
Though John had never met her, had only spoken to her three times, he was almost overwhelmed by a terrible sense of loss, as if a rough gem had been swallowed by the earth.
And then he felt himself fading. The pain, the blood loss... he knew his blood pressure was heading for the cellar. He inched back and... the room began to fade...to blur... he wasn't sure but he thought he saw a huge man come in and drop to Poppy's side... thought he heard Lester speak to him, call him Levon and tell him to do something... thought he saw the big man grab Snake by his feet and drag him outside.
And then everything faded to gray.
He awakened to find the tiny room filled with people and babbling voices. He became vaguely aware of Gerry Canney asking him about Snake, what had happened here, where he'd gone...
"Go?" He started to say something about Snake not "going" anywhere, but caught Lester giving him a sharp look from across the room.
"Like I told you, Mr. Government Man," Lester said, "he came to and stumbled back outta here!"
John didn't get it but knew from Lester's glare that he should go along, so he mumbled something barely coherent about not knowing anything about Snake's whereabouts.
"I want him!" Luke Mulliner said, kneeling teary eyed over Poppy's sheet-draped body. "I want to find him first!"
"You'll find him," Lester said softly. "You may not be first, but don't you worry, Luke. You'll find him."
As Agent Geary fitted a makeshift sling around John's right shoulder, Bob Decker stepped up, cradling a blanket-wrapped bundle in his arms. He knelt and showed him Katie's face; her eyes were open but she looked dazed.
"Katie!" God, how he wanted to hold her, but his right arm was useless and he barely had the strength to lift his left. "Katie, you're safe now." She only nodded vaguely. She was still shocky. Would she ever get over this?
And then he was being helped to his feet. Canney draped John's left arm over his shoulders and grabbed him around the waist.
"Agent Canney," John said. "And I thought you didn't like me."
Canney's grin was tight. "You're a royal pain in the ass. Doc, and I'm just moving you out of here-as fast as I can. I figure now that you've got Katie back, you won't be getting in my way anymore."
"You figure that right." He hobbled outside on Canney's shoulder and looked at the sky. The storm had moved on. The rain had stopped and the sky was lighter now, hinting that the setting sun might peek through before it dipped below the horizon.
And then he looked around and saw them. The Appletons-the too short and the too tall, the straight and the crooked, the too pale and the mottled, the smooth and the lumpy-they stood about the clearing in front of their house, staring at the strangers who'd invaded their domain. A silent, eerie sendoff.
"Christ, this is a weird-looking bunch," Canney whispered. "Gives me the creeps."
"Recessive traits," John said.
"Inbreeding. Brings all sorts of faulty genes out of the closet."
We make a pretty odd sight ourselves, John thought as he looked around at their little procession. Matt Mulliner led the way down the slope, followed by Luke carrying Poppy's sheet-wrapped body, then Geary, and Decker with Katie. Over his shoulder John saw Levon carrying Lester as easily as Decker was carrying Katie.
"As soon as we get you three to a hospital," Canney said, "we're coming back full force for Snake. We don't have to worry about keeping a low profile anymore."
"If you're talkin' 'bout that fella with the eyepatch," Lester said from behind, "I doubt that'll be necessary."
"We're sure as h.e.l.l not going to forget about him."
"Don't mean you should. I'm just saying the pines has a way of takin' care of his sort."
John glanced back at Lester and caught the old man's wink. What was he up to?
He got his answer a few minutes later when they reached the clearing and found Snake facedown in a puddle. Geary ran up to him, gun drawn, but it was obvious he was long dead.
"Must've tripped and fell," Lester said.
Geary and Matt Mulliner had a hard time lifting the body because Snake's face was sunk so deep in the muck at the bottom of the puddle. Finally it came free with a sucking pop.
"He must have 'tripped and fell' pretty d.a.m.n hard," Canney said, giving Lester a hard look.
John wondered if Canney had noticed Levon's muddy hands, or the churned-up mud around Snake's hands and feet, as if he'd been kicking and clawing...
But Lester was unruffled. "Like I said, the pines has a way of takin' care of his sort." And suddenly John realized that Snake's death closed the circle.
It's over, he thought, and with that he felt himself fading again. He had to lean on Canney a little more heavily until they got him into the back seat of the Roadmaster. He was already riding the ragged edge of unconsciousness and the grinding pain of the transfer all but pushed him over, but he hung on because Decker was slipping Katie in next to him. John wrapped his good arm around her and snuggled her close.
At last, at last, at last, she was safe and back where she belonged. He kissed her cool forehead and felt as if he were going to explode with gratitude. Decker, Canney, the Mulliners, even the Appletons, but most of all...
He watched Luke seat himself on the passenger side of the pick-up, still clutching Poppy's sheet-wrapped body. He didn't seem to be able to let go of her.
Thank you, Poppy Mulliner, John said in his mind, from his heart, from his soul. Wherever you are, thank you.
As Decker, Geary, and Matt lifted Snake's body, John heard the bearded brother tell them to toss it into the back of the pickup- "with the rest of the trash."
"Katie, Katie, Katie," John whispered, squeezing her tighter, barely able to hold back the tears, "it's so good to have you back again." She looked up at him. She seemed more alert now.
She gave him a little smile, then closed her eyes again.
She whispered a single word. "Poppy." John wished she'd said Daddy, but he'd take Poppy- he'd take anything. Just hearing her voice was enough.