Tuesday, February 23, 2010

6th installment-Decker

"So where do you suppose a guy would take a crap around here?" Decker, exhausted, aching from his abused head to his now-fuzzy toes, recalled a long row of porta-potties and wished he'd stopped to use them. The stairs extended upward as far as they could see, lit by streamlined electric fixtures mounted at every other switchback landing. He didn't look back to see how far they'd come; he knew it was a vertiginous sight. They'd been climbing for at least an hour.
The Furge personality had remained fairly subdued since the accident on the river, but it was beginning to reassert itself as Decker grew more tired. He wondered fleetingly if, somewhere in a parallel universe, Furge was contending with similar intrusions. Such thoughts were chased from his mind by the burning ache in his head, legs and back, and the downward pressure of an impending bowel movement. He hoped they'd soon see an end to the infernal stairs, or he'd be forced to do something terrifying and rude. He almost wished Aida hadn't lost her great-great grandmother's hat.
Another twenty minutes of monotonous trudging and they could see an end to the zig-zagging row of lights, if not the end of the stairs. Decker had started counting steps as a distraction, and now he couldn't stop. He couldn't tell if he was repeating numbers, either. At least it kept him from being quite so aggravated at Aida's constant prattle, though. Degren hat tried to engage her in less banal conversation, but she kept slipping back into commentary about decolletage and decor, decorum and debutantes. Decker imagined how completely comfortable Tut was becoming now that his beloved conversationalist was absent.
The stairs terminated in a small platform that straddled the narrow creek it had followed, tucked into a near-straight chimney that sloped into the stone bluff of the river. Here the creek veered about forty five degrees to the right, becoming much more horizontal in its path as it swirled lazily in a smooth trough that wandered a hundred feet or so along a widening ledge before it issued from a high tunnel. There were several other tunnels that opened on the narrow shelf behind the deck; Decker made his apologies for temporarily deserting the party and chose one. He followed it to the bitter end of reflected light before he stopped to take care of business.
He'd just decided not to sacrifice any of his attire to the cleanup, but instead take a brief dip in the creek, when he heard a scuffling noise from further up the tunnel. Hastily scraping away what remainder he could with his fingers and wiping them on the rough stone, he yanked up his trousers and pressed himself into the shadows of a narrow crevice in the cave wall.
He peeked out on a strange apparition; limned in the light of a rusty red hurricane lantern held aloft in dirty, bony fingers, came a wildly-bearded, squint-eyed rustic miner. He was muttering under his breath about the "dad-blamed awful steenk" when he stepped squarely in the very source of his olfactory distress. He froze at the soft squelch his dusty Wellington made. "Awwwww, shee-hut!" he declared loudly, "What dad-blamed two-bit greenhorn laid down sech a prize, right in the middle of the dad-blasted tunnel?"
Decker was in spasms. He reached up to cover his mouth, hoping to block the strangled guffaw that lurked there, too late realizing which hand he'd raised. This was too much; an emu snort fired out of his nostrils, causing his concussed brain to throb mightily and stars to explode before his eyes. When he opened them, he was looking down the barrel of a wickedly long, large six-shooter.
"I spose you was the culprit what laid that rotten egg in the middle of my tunnel, funny guy?" Up close, Decker could see the grimy sweat lines on the miner's ruddy neck, the dusty nose hairs weaving themselves into the man's unruly mustache. "Yuh got no respeck fer another man's rightful claimed property?"
Decker was near complete delirium. "I-I'm sorry," he choked out, "I-I h-had no idea...." He couldn't hold it back any longer; the laughter burst forth in a cascade of echoing mirth. He raised his hands and slowly emerged from his place of concealment, completely palsied with laughter. His only rational thought was to sidle around slowly, hoping to get the fellow facing up the tunnel so he wouldn't see Decker's companions coming if they heard the ruckus.
"You are plumb loco, aren't you, pardner?" There was a tinge of humor slipping into the miner's tone. "Guess it is pretty funny though, hey?" He burst out in a wild barrage of laughter, spurring Decker into breathless tears, then cocked the big pistol and pressed it into Decker's left nostril. "Not that funny, though." The leathery face was suddenly dead serious, and only inches from his. "I got yer shit all over my boot, ya fuzzy wacko. That's gotta cost ya."
Decker wasn't feeling so much like laughing anymore, either, though the bright edge of hysteria vibrated at the edges of his vision. He tried to compose himself, stammering, "Um, um, I got nothing, I-I'm really sorry! How c-could I know this was somebody's cave? I had to go so bad..."
"Aw, shut up, you quivering nincompoop!"
Decker had managed to make a sly semicircle of movement, barely missing the squashed pile. He thought he saw Degren's silhouette against the cave wall a short way down; at least he hoped that's what he saw. "L-look, mister, um, look here, mister!" For some reason he was falling into the miner's curmudgeonly drawl. "You ain't got the cave posted, so how could I know it were yours? I just figured it was a nice, outta-the-way place to do my business and get on. Ain't my fault you didn't put yer brand on that hole!"
"Cletus McKettle don't gotta take that kinda lip from nobody, specially not a pants-draggin' coyote like you! I oughtta blow yer nose fer ya right here and now!"
Fatigue and discomfort had frayed Decker's patience to little white-hot tungsten curls wriggling in the back of his brain. Ignoring the pain of the barrel pressing against his nose, Decker leaned forward into the lanky miner. "Look here, you sap-suckin' yella crumb-snatcher! I tol' you I was sorry, so if'n you need to fill my head with lead, you jest go ahead and yank that trigger!" He found himself striding forward, while Cletus was stumbling backward, pulling the gun out of Decker's nose so he could wave his arms for balance. As he approached the place he thought he'd seen Degren's shape. he thrust his palms into the already-overbalanced fellow's chest and toppled him like a dead-rooted tree. As Cletus' dusty, rawhide-clad back struck the cave floor, his pistol flared with a deafening report and the bullet struck the ceiling, sending a spray of rock chips in every direction. Decker dived on Cletus' writhing form, grabbing for the gun and successfully wresting it from his grasp. He turned it on the wrathful miner and drew back the hammer with his thumb. "Sorry, bud," he grated, offering his best fish-eyed glare, "you jest pushed me too dang far."
Degren stepped out of the shadows with a confused but admiring look on his face. "Hey Furg-uh, Decker, you handled that guy really well! I was afraid I'd have to step in..."
"Step in what, Degren?" The hysterical laughter was rising in Decker's throat again.
"Now, dang it, don't nobody got no respeck fer a man's rightful property?" Cletus moaned disheartened-ly into the fetid air, but tapered off when his captor swung the eye of the pistol to point at his Adam's Apple. "Look here," he quavered, "we can be reas'nable about this, cain't we...gennlemun?"
"We'll be reas'nable, as you say," Decker replied, kneeling on Cletus' chest, "when you quit squirming and start acting like your life matters to you. I'm in no mood to toy around; my ass crack is on fire, my hand is full of shit, and I'm sitting on just about the smelliest reject from a 'B' western that I've ever imagined, never mind that he's got my shit on his boot! Clete, my boy, if you stop squirming RIGHT NOW..." (he did) "...I'll get up off of you. Then, when I've had a chance to back away, you can get to your feet nice and slow. I promise not to shoot you anywhere permanent if you follow these orders to the letter."
The disgruntled miner got to his feet, hands in the air. Decker motioned him down the tunnel; head down, he pigeon-walked toward the light while fuming under his breath. When they broke out into the light of the deck, Aida was standing there making noises that oddly resembled Cletus' grumbled tirade.
"Degren, you take the gun while I get washed up. Make old Cletus here take off that boot and rinse it in the stream, too." Decker handed off the pistol and immediately started stripping down. He spied a nice eddying pool about thirty feet up from the deck. He stuck his toe in the water; it was medium bath temperature. "Aahhhh, nice..." He slipped into the water and found the perfect spot to recline. After he'd rinsed off, he laid back and stared up at the newly-expanded group. Suddenly, a notion sprang into his mind "Say, Cletus! I made the assumption that you are a miner, but it didn't occur to me until just now that you might be able to help us find what we came here for. If you can, we'll be happy to give back your gun and leave you alone here. You wanna listen?"
"Yuh got the drop on me, so talk away."
"First off, let's not be strangers. This is Aida."
"Uh, pleasure, ma'am."
"The pleasure is all yours, I am certain."
"Now, Aida, no need to be haughty." Decker squinted up at the irate duck, then pointed to Degren. "And this is Degren."
Cletus stood silently until Decker glared at him and shot eyes toward the pistol. "Um, Good t'meecha."
"Okay, here's the deal," Decker said, feeling his head was near exploding with pain and fatigue. Cletus, we're looking for an old rusty key that's sitting on top of a powder keg in a mine somewhere near here. Know anything about it?"
"Degren, just point that thing at his kneecap and pull the trigger. Yeah, that thing in front of the handle, inside that little metal oval."
"Wait! Ayuh, I do kinda recall that I found an old key a few days ago. Not worth anything I'm sure, but I figgered it was like my lucky charm. It was right in front of a sweet little vein."
"Well, it's actually our lucky charm. Degren, come on over here and give me the gun now. Okay, here's how it works. This little lever on the top has to be pulled back, just like it is, for it to make the nice boom like it made up in the cave when you pull that trigger. Every time you pull the trigger, you have to cock the lever back again so it will fire again. This one will do that five more times before you have to put more bullets in." He kept an eye on Cletus while he checked the chambers. "No, we're not going to worry about what bullets are right now. After a while, Cletus is going to lead us to the key. Then he's going to walk back to where we're sure we can find our way to the stairs, and he's going to stop. We'll leave his gun in the cave I first went into, and if he's good, we'll let him have his bullets back, too. Right now you have to search him for bullets and other weapons. Cletus, strip."
"In front of the duck?"
"In front of the duck."
They went through all of the embarrassed miner's possessions, then let him put his clothes back on. The search yielded two straight razors, a bowie knife, what appeared to be a Confederate bayonet, a folding Barlow knife with half the blade broken off, a pouch full of silver dust and nuggets, a few odd coins, and thirteen bullets.
"Guys, I really need to rest now. Keep a good eye on him, and wake me up in about, er, well, let me sleep until I wake up."

He was dreaming of a fiery sunset on the red desert bluffs. There was a warm breeze; the blast-oven heat of the day had already tempered down to a comfortable state, though he knew it would soon become uncomfortably cool.
It had been a wonderful day. They had spent most of it in the cool waters of Snake Creek, cavorting like children, catching forearm-length trout, skewering them on a small fire by the stream bed and roasting them for lunch. He didn't think he could ever be happier than he was right then, looking into that magnificent sunset with his eternally pledged Degren at his side.
He awakened in the warm pool, and Degren was there. He was pointing a strange metal stick at something that looked only marginally human; the fur on its face was long, dull and straggly, not smooth and shiny like human hair. It's eyes, too, were more the animal than the man. He wondered what Degren was doing with this strange creature.
At Degren's side was another odd creature; a humongous duck. Furge's heart thundered in his chest. "I must be dreaming again," he thought, "but I liked the other dream much better."
The duck glanced over at him. "Decker is awake," the duck said. This was obviously a dream. Ducks couldn't talk, and it had called him by a strange name.
"Degren, love, am I dreaming?" His own voice sounded strange, as though he were speaking from someone else's throat. "Degren, what's going on?"
Degren's head swung back and forth between Furge and the strange man-thing. "Decker...." There was a flush of unease on Degren's face, as though he didn't recognize Furge, or didn't want to.
"Degren, please! What's happening here? Oh, wake me up if this is a dream, it is just too strange!" There was a voice rising up inside him, a voice that was not his own. For a moment he fought it, but when he raised his eyes to Degren again in a silent plea, his lover's face was a stone mask.
"Decker, you must wake up." Degren's voice trembled as he spoke "DECKER!"
Furge, fervently hoping this was only some terrible nightmare, let his consciousness submerge as though into a deep, death-like sleep.

Decker swam up to consciousness as though through thick gelatine. He could hear the muted echo of Degren's call; he could distantly sense the urgency in his tone. It was tempting to remain submerged in the warm, embracing fluid. Regretfully, he let his mind's eye open into a reality that was almost....his. There were shades of someone else's panic still surging in his body; a coppery taste at the back of his mouth, a heartbeat that was far too rapid for his resting state, and the ragged edge of adrenaline thrumming in his tautened muscles.
He was awake. "DECKER, WAKE UP!" Degren's face was less than a foot from his. His eyes opened to see Cletus inching toward them, his gaze locked on the pistol. Decker raised his arm out of the pool and pointed, looking at the approaching figure. Degren caught the apprehension in his eyes and lurched up, swinging the gun toward Cletus. The barrel cracked against the miner's cheekbone, throwing him toward the edge of the precipice. Decker lunged out of the pool and grabbed for an ankle, just getting a grip, then hauled back on the scrawny leg, inadvertently sending him flopping into the pool.
"Consarn dang-blasted mule lovin' dirt monkey!" Cletus sputtered and choked on the warm water, flapping his arms and staggering for footing.
"You asked for it, you sneaky little weasel," Decker thrust his foot into the miner's chest, pushing him under the water. He came up coughing and cursing in bad movie cowboy-ese. Decker scrambled out of the pool, laughing and pointing at Cletus. "You've probably been in need of a bath for a year or two, anyway!"
"I had one last time I was in town, no more'n nine months ago!"
"Well, you're having one now, and you're not getting out until I say. Too bad about the cheek"
"Whut? Yer joshin' me, right?" Cletus pawed at his cheek where the gun barrel had struck him, then stared at his bloody hand. "Aww, yuh cracked my cheek wide open!"
"Nope. You shouldn't have tried to pull that dirty little trick on my friend here, so now you're gonna get clean. Wash, boy!"
"But I..."

They each munched on another one of the foil-wrapped rations, and offered one to the scrawny, soaking wet miner, who crinkled his nose at it but scarfed it down as though he hadn't eaten for days. They were thirsty, but hesitant to drink from the stream. Cletus told them the stream water was fine, so they let him take a long draught, then watched him while they ate. When it seemed obvious that he'd suffered no ill effects, they all quenched their thirst with the warm water.
It was only a twenty minute walk to Cletus' stash of blasting powder, and there on one of the barrels, just as the printout had predicted, was a rusty old key that looked as though it might fit an old treasure chest. There was scrolled engraving on both sides of the grip end, which was shaped like a club from a poker deck. The key shaft itself was quite complex, with spurs and grooves on all sides of its 3-dimensional configuration. Even with the rust it seemed to be intact, though it was impossible to know for sure until it found its slot.
Once they'd gotten to familiar territory, they left Cletus behind. They left him everything except the gun and bullets in the first cave; they decided that it would be wise to have some form of self-defense in case of any other such encounters along the way.

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