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Authors: Robert Jackson Bennett

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BOOK: Mr. Shivers
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CHAPTER SEVEN

They kept going southwest and managed to get a ride from a truck driver who had already delivered his payload of chickenfeed.
They went some twenty miles crouched in the back. They climbed down where he turned off the road and headed to the highway
and he shook his head as he drove away.

As they walked a car coming from the opposite direction pulled over. “I’d head back if I was you boys,” a man shouted at them
from the window. His family was in the back and all his belongings were strapped to the roof.

“Why’s that?” said Roosevelt.

“Storm’s coming. A duster.”

“A what?”

“A duster. Dust storm. You won’t be able to see three feet in front of your face tomorrow if you keep going.”

“Thank you,” said Pike.

“You boys not going to stop?”

“We don’t have a choice.”

“You all are nuts,” said the man as he rolled up his window. “Bugshit. Just nuts.” The wheels spun and he careened down the
road.

“Bastard doesn’t even know how to drive,” said Hammond. “And he’s calling us nuts.”

They kept going. As midafternoon came they passed over an old road and a crumbling gully. There they heard a muffled shouting
from far to their left. Pike motioned off the road and they stepped quietly into the cover of the weeds as Pike looked over
the top.

“What was that?” said Hammond.

“Some people are camped along the road, I’d say,” said Roosevelt. “Just off to the south of us.”

“So?” said Connelly.

“I don’t like this,” said Pike. “This whole area’s deserted, especially after that fella who told us about the… the…”

“The duster.”

“Right. Could be cops, could be bandits.”

“Bandits?” said Hammond, and laughed.

“I’ve seen them before. Hell, I’ve been robbed by them before. And if there’s as many migrants all over the place as it seems
then the cops are sure to be frothing at the mouth.”

“Pretty sorry bandits or cops, talking so loud,” said Roosevelt. “We could hear them from miles away.”

“Maybe so. But I still don’t like it.”

“I could go take a look,” said Connelly.

“What?” said Pike. “Take a look? What do you mean?”

“I mean I walk up to them and look at them and if I don’t get shot then I guess things are okay.”

“That sounds like a terrible plan to me,” said Roosevelt.

“I don’t see what’s wrong with it. I don’t think it’s cops or outlaws. If it’s cops I’m going to see my sister in town and
if it’s robbers I don’t have much to rob, now do I? Just look at me. And it’d be a lot of work to rob me for a whole lot of
nothing.”

“He’s got a point,” said Hammond.

“You serious about going?” said Roosevelt.

“Yeah. Suppose so.”

“Well, here,” said Roosevelt, and he took out his gun and held it out to Connelly.

“Jesus!” Connelly said. “Get that goddamn thing away from me!”

“What? Why, what’s wrong with it?”

“It’s a gun, that’s what’s wrong with it. I don’t know nothing about no guns.”

“It’s for protection. Just carry it and flash it so they know what’s up.”

“If they see me walking toward them with a gun in my hand they’re likely to shoot me dead. I like having my head on my shoulders
and I like the teeth I got. I’m not waving a gun at anyone.”

“Well, damn,” Roosevelt said.

“If that’s settled,” said Pike, “we’ll stay here and watch you go. You get into any trouble, Mr. Connelly, you holler like
you’ve been struck by lightning and we’ll come running.”

“If you say so,” said Connelly, and began down the ravine.

He walked along the remains of the gully a ways before spotting them up ahead. They were squatting along the edge of the ditch
where the side had fallen in, brown figures among the dry clay rubble. There were five of them, four men and a woman. He saw
one man’s bright bald head gleaming with his considerable backside turned to him. The three other men scrabbled with tinder
in the ditch. Two seemed to be twins, with blond-red beards and moth-eaten porkpie hats, and the last was a scraggly, ratty
thing who seemed more beard than man. Far to the outskirts sat the woman. She was thin and wore a leather jacket with jeans
and boots and she had a handkerchief wrapped around her head, pulling her light brown hair back into a bun. She drew lines
in the sand and watched the men with a face torn between irritation and exasperation.

As Connelly came up the large man turned to look, saw him, and said without surprise, “You wouldn’t happen to have any matches,
would you, mister? We’ve been trying to figure this out by hand and the only thing we’ve gotten is splinters and swears.”

“Got a few,” said Connelly. He took out a box of matches, shook it, and handed it to him.

“God bless,” said the scraggly one, and took it from the large one. He began striking them in clumsy blows, snapping each
one.

“Damn, Roonie,” said the woman, “you didn’t ruin your fingers trying this, did you?”

“Sorry, Lottie,” said the man softly. “Didn’t mean to waste your matches, mister.”

“It’s all right,” he said.

The woman took the matches, then knelt and deftly struck one and held the flame down to the kindling. Soon the wood was crawling
with flames. She sheltered it and blew at the base and soon the fire had grown through the wood like bright yellow vines filling
a trellis. She took the matches, shook them again, and threw them to Connelly. He caught the box with one hand, and he and
the woman looked at each other for a moment before the large man said, “Thanks a bunch. We been sitting here for hours trying
to get this started.”

“Never seen a man manage it by hand.”

“I suppose you heard us fighting from off the road.”

“I did. You folks robbers?” asked Connelly.

They looked at each other, confused. “No,” said the fat man.

“Cops?”

“No. Why?”

Connelly leaned back and yelled, “It’s all right. Just folks.”

“What?” said the woman, but then saw Pike and the others come sheepishly crawling out of the roadside. “Oh,” she said. “You
boys really thought we was going to jump you?”

“These are strange times, ma’am,” explained Pike.

“Then let’s not make them any stranger,” said the fat man, laughing. “Come down and sit with us a bit. Where you all headed?”

Hammond pointed down the road.

“Where we’re heading, too,” said the woman.

“They said there was a storm coming,” said the scraggly one.

“We heard the same,” Roosevelt said.

“Where in the hell are our manners,” said the fat man. “My name is Monk, that there is Lottie—say hello, Lottie—and these
boys are Jake and Ernie and the fella rubbing his knuckles is Roonie.”

“Hello,” said Roosevelt, and tipped his hat. They introduced themselves. Connelly noticed the woman watching him, sizing him
up.

“We don’t have much,” said Roonie. “Just some rolls is all. We’d be happy to share them in thanks for the matches. We’d be
starved without them.”

“And we’d be happy to share what we have with you, Mr. Roonie,” said Pike, rummaging in his sack.

“How long have y’all been walking?” asked Lottie.

“A ways,” said Hammond. “We took a truck down here, walked about six miles since. I’m hungry as hell and don’t mind saying
so.”

They heated old rolls and tinned meat and some of them smoked cigarettes, the new friends eager as they had not had open flame
in some time.

“Any idea what’s down the road?” asked Hammond.

“Farmland, or what used to be farmland,” said Lottie. “After that there’s a meager little town that’s not much more than a
wide spot in the road.”

“You wouldn’t to have happened to been passed up by anyone, have you?” asked Pike.

They looked at one another, mouths full. “No,” they said.

“No one?”

They shook their heads.

“Why?” asked Monk, suddenly suspicious. “Who you looking for?”

“Nothing. You would have remembered him.”

“Would I?”

“I would expect so, yes.”

“And why would I remember this strange person?”

“He’d be a scarred man. Scarred along the cheeks like—”

He stopped as the other five jumped to their feet and yelled. The woman and the twins tensed and moved away and Monk stared
from face to face, bewildered. Everyone was on their feet except Connelly, who stayed seated at the edge of the ditch before
the fire. He was unable to say why but he felt no threat, or not yet at least.

“What’s going on?” said Roosevelt.

The other five looked at each other and Monk said, “You all are looking for the shiver-man?”

Everyone was silent for a great while.

“Yeah,” said Connelly.

Lottie said, “So are we.”

No one moved. Then Connelly reached forward and poked at the edge of the fire with his foot. “Well. That’s something.”

“Why you looking for him?” said Roonie. “What do you want with him?”

“Why? What about you?” Hammond said.

“We’re no friends of his, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Pike quickly. “I doubt if such a man has friends of any kind,
Mr. Monk.”

Monk mopped sweat from his brow with a soiled piece of fabric and thought. “Good God almighty,” he said, “if this isn’t crazy
as all hell.”

They looked at each other for a few minutes longer, sometimes making to whisper to one another before becoming embarrassed
and giving up.

“Rolls are done,” said Connelly, and reached forward and lifted the food off the flame. “You all going to eat or what?”

“What do you want from him?” Lottie asked them.

“Nothing good,” said Connelly.

“Would nothing good be killing?”

He looked at her a long, long while. “It would,” he said.

The other group considered this, then sat and began eating. Pike and the others followed, still watchful.

“I think it’s sort of funny,” said Connelly.

“What is?” said Lottie.

“How surprised we are. I mean, we met our own already. The folks we traveled with before this. So there’s no reason to be
upset if we meet more, is there. Makes sense that there’s got to be more who’s after him, and for the same reason.”

“I don’t think that’s very funny,” said Lottie. “That’s not very funny at all.”

“No,” said Connelly. “I guess it isn’t, is it.”

The two groups looked at each other. Then they sat and began eating and did not speak for some time.

Once they were done eating they shared their stories. The other party spoke of lost kin, of dead friends, of loved ones slain.
Lottie would not tell hers, merely shaking her head. All the stories were familiar, all the tellers quiet and broken-eyed.
How far had they all tracked him? Were they to put their separate paths end to end Connelly would have guessed it would stretch
across the country. A line of crimson footprints, twisting through the desert flats…

Connelly shook himself.

“And what’s the most recent thing you heard of him?” said Pike softly.

The other party exchanged looks. “You haven’t heard?” asked Lottie.

“No. Heard what?”

Monk leaned in. “You know that town up ahead? Wide spot in the road?”

They nodded.

“We hear there’s an odd fella set up there for the night. Face all messed up. Heard it not more than four hours ago, from
a man off the road.”

A deafening silence fell over all of them. Hammond got to his feet and stood staring down at Monk.

“You mean it?” said Roosevelt.

“I surely do.”

“Good God…” whispered Hammond. “He’s here. He’s here. He’s right over that fucking field over there, is that what you’re telling
me?”

Roonie nodded. “Would be. We’re going to wait ’til nightfall. Going to sneak up on him. Get him that way.”

“What? You’re waiting?” said Hammond.

“We are,” said Monk.

“No! No, the hell with that!” he shouted. “Come on! He’s right over there! We got one shot at this and we’re going to sit
around a damn fire eating fucking tinned meat, is that? Jesus!”

“Waiting’s smart,” said Roonie, but he looked ashamed.

“You’re cowards,” Hammond said. “Cowards is what you are. You’ve come all this way and now you’re afraid.”

Roonie got to his feet. “You say that again. You say that again to me.”

“If you had an inch of spine,” said Hammond softly, “you’d have done it already.”

“What about you, boy?” asked Monk. “You killed a man? Are you a killer?”

Hammond faltered and made to turn away. He quivered and lashed out and kicked a nearby log, sending it flying.

“Hammond!” Pike said loudly. “Sit down! These folk talk sense.”

“What’s sense is going over there right now and putting a bullet in whatever brain he’s got,” said Hammond.

“That’s not sense, that’s idiocy. What we do is right, but no lawman knows that. You shoot that man in broad daylight and
you’re liable to get shot yourself.”

“That doesn’t matter and you know it,” Hammond said, his voice smooth and quiet and deadly.

There was a moment of quiet.

“You don’t think we want the same?” said Monk. “You don’t think we said the very words you’re saying now? Yes, we do have
one shot. And I don’t aim to mess it up.” But Connelly noticed how he turned bright red as he spoke, and how he mopped sweat
from his brow.

Hammond shook his head and did not respond.

“Come on,” said Roosevelt. “Sit down, Hammond. Don’t lose your head now. If you do you’ll do it wrong and he’ll just wind
up laughing at you again. And you don’t want that, do you?”

“No. No, I don’t want that.”

“Then sit.”

He did. He wiped at his face, hiding his tears and smearing dust over his cheeks and eyes. In the fading light he looked like
some child of war, face painted and awaiting battle.

“Make no mistake,” said Monk. “We mean to kill him, yes. We need to see this thing dead. And we will. We’ll come in at night.
Find him. We’ll all get him, make sure he can’t escape. Then we move. And… and we take all the time we need.” Again the chubby
hand rubbed sweat away from his eyes.

“And we need a great deal of time,” Hammond said.

BOOK: Mr. Shivers
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