But the other part of him was taking over. The part that had pulled his hind end through the jungles of Vietnam, the part that had roled him out of that hospi-tal bed when the doctors told him he was a heartbeat away from the Big One, the part that had lifted him into the sunshine after the foggy months of loneliness. It was the part that George thought of as Old Leatherneck. Sort of a secret identity that he took on when times got tough. And he realy needed Old Leatherneck now, be-cause times didn't come any tougher than this.
Another bad thing about closing his eyes was that he kept seeing
The Woman in White. So he forced his eyelids open, thanks to his secret identity. Wood splinters sprinkled down and stuck to his tears. Something warm and wet trickled down his right temple, but he wasn't too concerned with that at the moment. First he wanted to figure out what that purplish, raggedy thing was, the thing speared on a split two-by-four a few feet over his head. It was oddly familiar, but out of place, like a sailboat in the middle of a cornfield.
The purplish thing wriggled. No, it had only slid down a little on the broken tip of the board, making a sound like Jell-0 dropping onto the floor. Even in the gloomy light and swirling dust, George could make out five litle stubs dangling like the teats on a cow's udder. That's when Old Leatherneck kicked in like a dozen cups of percolated coffee.
"So it's a goddamned hand, Georgie-Boy. What's the problem? How many people in this world was born with no hands at all? Why, you saw Joes in Nam that lost every frigging limb they had, and al they could do was lay around flopping like beached puppyfish. So get the hell over it."
George gulped, and the imaginary broken glass in his mouth worked its way down his throat. The dead fingers above were splayed out as if waiting for a high five. George hoped Old Leatherneck didn't cut him one inch of slack this time. Because he didn't believe there was an inch to spare.
"And since you're the only bozo laying around down here in this crap heap of a falen-down shed, then odds are pretty good that it's
George turned his head a little so that he couldn't see the hand. He roled his eyebals down to look at his body. He couldn't see anything past his chest because a pile of hemlock ceiling joists were spilled like jumbo tiddlywinks across his gut. He tried to wriggle his shoulders and pain erupted in flaming colorbursts.
"Okay, soldier. You gonna whine like a litle girlie-boy, or are you gonna stand up and haul your wrinkled rump hole out of here?"
George didn't see any way he could stand up. For one thing, he couldn't feel his legs.
"Excuses, excuses. Well, Georgie, it could be a
lot worse. 'Cause in case you didn't notice, there's a slick sheet of roofing tin about four inches away from your main neck-vein, and that could have just kited on down and done some business. Then we wouldn't even be having this lovely little chat." The sharp edge of the tin caught the dying sunlight. As he watched, the piece of roofing slid closer with a metallic squeak. More cracking came from high above in the invisible carnage of the eaves. Something slith-ered in the soft shadows.
"No, it ain't no snake. Never mind that the copper-heads and rattlers get active this time of year, doing the last twist before going off to hibernate. Ain't no
in here, Georgie." George thought of that old Johnny Cash song, about how the snakes crawl at night. But the song had it wrong. Snakes slept at night because they were cold-blooded. George knew, because he'd looked it up. George gulped again, trying to squeeze a little of that mountain air into his bruised lungs. A small drop of liquid fell between his eyes. More blood collected at the ruined wrist hanging above him. The swelling tear-drop of blood dangled from the end of a stringy bit of tendon. He wondered if the hand was his left one or his right one.
"Hell of a wonderer you are, Georgie. But I'll tell you, since you've always needed to know things. It's the old hammerer, the crap-wiper, the hand that shook the hand of Senator Hallifield at that Republican bar-becue in Raleigh. Yep, them fingers there used to grip the two-seamer curve ball that took you fourteen-and-three back in your senior year. Them are the knuckles that got one good sock to the jaw of that hippie Selma run off with. But, hey, it's dead weight now. Water under the bridge. Let's worry about the meat that's stil
George wished he could feel his feet. Then he wouldn't be so afraid that he was turning into one of those puppyfish. Something inside his crushed gut spasmed and gurgled. With every shalow breath, broken rib bones reached deeper into his chest for a scoop of fresh or-gans. And who did he have to blame?
"Nobody but you and that snoopy nose of yours, soldier. Just got to poke into things that ain't none of your business. Just got to goddamned
don't you? Always did, and always will. But if you don't get off that fat rump of yours,
ain't even going to last till sundown." Sure, George liked to know things. He wanted to know why dragonflies were caled "snakefeeders." He wanted to know why Selma had worked the springs of their old brass bed with a flea-ridden liberal longhair. He wanted to know why that picture of Ephram Korban that hung in the manor gave him seven kinds of creeps. He wanted to know why that old bat Abigail and his buddy Ransom had warned him away from this neck of the woods. Most of all, he wanted to know why the Woman in White had been dancing in the shed the mo-ment before it fell down around him.
"Ain't no earthly good dwelling on what you can't figure out," came the distant voice of Old Leatherneck. "You'd best get back to the situation at
if you know what I mean." Another drop of blood plopped onto his face, this time on his chin. George started to reach up and wipe it away, then was reminded that the arm that did his wip-ing was severed at the wrist. Pain lanced up his shoul-der, as bright and yelow red as Napalm.
George squinted through the jagged and crisscrossed lumber overhead. A few muted shafts of light spilled through the rubble, dust swirling slowly in the air. That meant a bit of daylight was left. Time had taken on a weird, stretched-out quality, kind of like in Nam when the grunts hunkered down for incoming even before the first mortars whistled through the air.
"Hey, Georgie, give me a litle credit here. I puled you out of that mess, didn't I? So don't give up on me yet. But I need a little help. You've got to have a little goddamned
Hope. Hope got you up in the morning. Hope put you to bed and tucked you in. Hope was the last thing you held on to when everything else was gone. The thought chiled George, or it may have been the cold sweat that covered his face.
"I'm holding on," George whispered. He usually didn't talk back to Old Leatherneck. He figured only crazy people talked back to the voices inside their heads. But then, there sure were a hel of a lot of crazy people around Korban Manor. Ransom Streater claimed to see people who weren't there, or those who had passed on long before. George wished one of them would have a vision now, do that Sight thing Abigail was always going on about, see him trapped under the old shed.
But Korban Manor was nearly a mile away, and not many messed around in this neck of the woods. Chances were, nobody was in shouting distance even if George could baloon his lungs up enough for a good scream. Chances were, the other hired help was busy around the house, packing in the latest batch of rich artists, Miss Mamie glaring at them if they dared to rest for even a minute. Chances were, even if he managed to crawl out from under three tons of wood and steel and glass, he'd leak away the rest of his blood before he made it back to the trail, let alone to the wagon road or manor.
But first he'd have to get free. Then he could worry about the rest of it. He looked to his right, to the side of his body that was missing a part. A section of the roof that was more or less intact sloped down from a point just above his waist to the ground fifteen feet away. The rubble above him was held up by a single bowed rafter.
If that gave
"Then it's 'Sayonara, Cholly,'" Old Leatherneck said, coming back from whatever shocked pocket of George's brain that the ornery bastard had been hiding out in. "Now move it." A two-by-four rested near George's cheek, the grain rough against his skin. If he could maneuver it, maybe use it as a lever, he could pry his left arm free. He moved his arm, and the bone of his elbow clubbed against the wooden floor. His right arm must have been asleep, because now it came to tingling life. He scooted the two-by-four against his side, and the payoff came. The end of his arm exploded in a bright burst of agony. This was
pain, the color of or-ange that shot out of the Human Torch's hands in those Fantastic Four comics he'd read as a kid. Still, he pushed the two-by-four along until he could cradle it in the crook of his injured arm.
"There you go, Georgie-boy," said his one-man chain of command. "Give 'em hel. Only, what are you going to use as a fulcrum for your little make-do see-saw?"
Old Leatherneck had a point, as much as George hated to admit it. But if he gave up now, then surviving Nam and Selma and the stroke and stepping on a copper-head was all for nothing. Sliding down along those miners' rails in the dark would be that much easier. Just as an experiment, because he needed to know, he closed his eyes. And he was deeper inside the long dark tunnel. The light at the living end was fainter now, fuzzier. And he was accelerating, sliding fast and smooth as if sledding on snow. The air was thin and cool as the final bend came nearer.
George relaxed, though he was shivering and his blood was starved for oxygen and his heart was ham-mering like a roofer trying to beat a rainstorm. Because in here, in the tunnel, it was
to give up hope. Nobody in here would hold it against him. He sensed that oth-ers were waiting to welcome him, huddled in the shad-ows, those who had ridden the rails before him. And he was rounding the bend, hell, this was easy, this
and then, the soft slithering sound pickaxed him in the skull.
What if there are SNAKES around the bend?
George opened his eyes and fought back to the mouth of the tunnel and saw that the sun was still hanging stubbornly in the sky somewhere above, and the AWOL hand was splayed out stiff and livid, wear-ing a bracelet of splinters and dirt. He'd almost gone under, and knew that shock was setting in. Back in An Loc once, some of the grunts had been sitting around knocking down Schlitz tall boys with George Jones on the record player. A young medic named Haley stubbed out a joint as big as a rifle barrel and told them why shock was a dying soldier's best friend.
"Some kinds of pain, even a plungerful of morphine won't touch," Haley said, a wreath of blue smoke around his head. "But shock, man, it shuts you down nice and easy. Blood pressure drops, breathing gets shallow, you get all sweaty, and you don't even know your Mama's name. Crash and bleed out, man, then drift off."
They'd told Haley to shut the hell up. And George had dodged his own run-in with fatal shock, at least so far. But lying under the crush of wreckage and running down Haley's list of symptoms, he was three-fourths of the way there. He stil remembered Mama had been named Beatrice Anne.
The torn hand was slipping off the broken tip of lumber. A drop of blood hit his cheek. George gritted his loose teeth and flipped the two-by-four onto his chest. He pushed with his stump of a forearm until one end of the board was under the joist that had his left arm pinned.
He tried not to look at his ruined wrist. Blood ran down the underside of his arm. If he didn't get a tourni-quet on it soon—
"Don't wait for that weed-brained Haley to swoop down in his Huey, Georgie-Boy. Some things, a man's gotta do for hisself. And a fixer-upper like you, some-body who's a real handyman—course, you're only
as handy as you used to be, ain't you?"
George wanted to scream at Old Leatherneck to shut up and go away. But George needed him, needed that taunting inner voice as badly as ever. Walking the lonely roads and horse trails of the Korban estate, he'd taken what companionship he could find. Sure, some of the folks down at Stony Hampton's cafe whispered about spooks and such around the manor, but after Nam, George figured the scariest spooks were the kinds that sent their sons into battle.
So when he'd seen the flicker of pale movement in-side the shed, he hadn't given the whispers much of a thought. He'd figured it was a possum or maybe a screech owl. Nothing that would have caused much damage. But George was paid to keep the place up and the critters out, or, as Miss Mamie said, "Just the way things were when Ephram was still lord and master here." So George had lifted the old metal latch and pushed open the creaking door, hoping that any snakes were scared away by the noise.
"But it wasn't no possum, nor no screech owl, was it?" whispered Old Leatherneck. George's eyes popped open. He must have drifted off. That was another one of Haley's signs. The two-by-four across his chest rose and fell with his shallow breathing. The sun had slipped low, the dark angles of shadows sharp and thick in the carnage.
Fear gave him a burst of energy, and he levered the two-by-four. His stub of a wrist screamed in fire-juice red.
"Hear that? Wasn't no possum, was it, Georgie?"
Now he wished the old bastard would shut up. He needed to focus, get the job done in a hurry, he didn't need—
Or it might be—
the long white slithery shadow