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"Adam is going to go focking apeshit when he catches up with us", said Kieran, breathlessly.
"Serve him right", said Joby "I tried to get to talk to him before we set off but he just kept ignoring him".
They slowed the second horse, nicknamed Dobbin Junior, to a stroll. The wagon was out of sight behind them, and they themselves were now barely a mile from Xuste. They had saddled up the horse and cantered off with a "see you in Xuste" immediately after breakfast.
"He'd never have agreed to this anyway", said Joby "And sometimes you have to take your life into your own hands and do you own thing".
"We never passed Gimmit on the road", said Kieran "Isn't that peculiar? I kept expecting to see him".
"Perhaps he knows a short-cut".
"I hope there's a bar in this village", said Kieran "Preferably one that will only be too delighted to give Vanquishers of Evil a few free drinks. Come on, we'd better get off and lead Dobbin Junior over the next bit, as the road keeps disappearing".
The only trail that they could locate which led into the village was a rough track which had been created out of the cinders of old fires. Xuste itself was a cluster of shacks arranged around a water-pump. In the heat of the afternoon there was no one about ... no one except Gimmit that is, who was sitting on the ledge next to the pump as though he'd been waiting for them.
"How the fuck did he get here so soon?" said Joby "That's impossible. I know he set out first, but we were cantering on the horse!"
"As you said earlier, perhaps he knew a short-cut", said Kieran.
"Well whatever it was, don't give him the satisfaction of asking him", said Joby.
They stopped at the pump and refilled their water-gourds, then they filled a bucket which they had found lying on the ground and left Dobbin Junior to ease his thirst. All the while Gimmit watched them with a look of quiet amusement on his face.
"I'm sure you'd like something more exciting than water", he said, eventually "A nice cold beer for example?"
"Where can we get one?" said Joby, finding that such a temptation was simply too much.
"There's a bar in one of the shacks over there", said Gimmit, gesturing behind them "As long as you don't expect chilled wine and caviar, I'm sure they'll oblige".
"We haven't got any money Joby", said Kieran.
"No need. You'll find my Master in there. Just say Gimmit sent you, and he'll do the rest".
"Your Master?" said Joby "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Don't you want a beer?" said Gimmit.
"What's that mark on your wrist?" said Kieran "It's like a burn-mark".
"Just a little accident I had some time back", said Gimmit "A little accident with a paraffin stove. These things happen".
"Why don't you come into the bar with us?" said Kieran.
"I'm not high enough to do so".
"It's only a seedy village bar", said Joby "Not a swanky hotel".
"I still have no right to enter, but I'm sure you will be very welcome", said Gimmit "I'll mind the horse for you, although we don't tend to get rustlers out here".
"It's very hard to argue when you feel like you're dying of thirst in the desert", said Kieran "It helps as well that we know the others will be along soon".
"We hope", said Joby "Adam might be so brassed off he'll leave us here".
"Come off it", said Kieran "That means he'd have to pass up on the opportunity to give us a piece of his mind! You know he can't resist that".
The bar was a one-room affair that looked as though it had been nailed together out of pieces of hardboard. There was a tree standing in the middle which grew out through a hole in the roof. Apart from a couple of lopsided tables and chairs, the only other item of a furniture was a long plank table covered in assorted dusty bottles. This was the bar itself.
There was a handful of local men scattered about, who looked distinctly uneasy on seeing Joby and Kieran, as though their presence meant they would have to perform a horrendous task at some point. Looking like the odd one out was a fat lard-coloured man with a bald head. His button-like eyes and layer upon layer of flesh around his neck made him look like an overweight turtle. He was also about as drunk as it was possible to be without falling into a coma.
"I hope he's not Master", Joby whispered.
"I can't believe that", said Kieran "Does he look as though he'd inspire devotion in someone?"
They moved over to the plank table, and Kieran noticed that the edges of every surface in the room and a couple of joists in the ceiling were hung with garlic.
"Two beers please", Joby said to the barman, who responded immediately, even though his eyes telegraphed that he'd rather they had sought their custom elsewhere.
The tops were flicked off two bottles and placed in front of them. Joby picked up one and was dismayed to find it was very warm. Hot beer on a hot day was nauseating.
"We can't pay", said Kieran, awkwardly "We were told to say that Gimmit had sent us".
The barman didn't reply. He merely nodded in a perfunctory fashion, and began to swab down the table with a cloth as though he had a nervous twitch.
"Got a right pair in you two haven't we?" the fat one suddenly exclaimed "A right couple of arse bandits and no mistake".
"Is he talking to us?" said Joby.
"Ignore him", said Kieran "He's out of his head".
The rest of the customers got up and filed out of the room without saying a word. Neither the fat man nor the barman commented on this.
"What's with the Dracula repellent I wonder?" said Kieran, looking around at the garlic "Have we still got vampires out this way?"
"I think we should leave", said Joby, nervously "This was a crazy idea, let's get out of here. I don't like the atmosphere".
"You haven't finished your beer", said Kieran "Anyway it's nice and cool in here after the glare of the sun. I feel like staying for a while".
"Kieran!" Joby exclaimed. He grabbed his friend's wrist and pulled him outside.
"Spoilsport", said Kieran "I was just beginning to enjoy meself winding 'em up".
"You're fucking mad", said Joby "Don't you ever do that to me again".
"Do what to you?"
"Worry me like that. You can sense what this place is like. I don't understand you. You're fucking irresponsible that's what you are. You think just because everyone says you're the Vanquisher of Evil that you're indestructible".
"You were the one who wanted an adventure", Kieran protested "It's just sometimes I can't resist winding people up when they're being too serious".
They reached the pump, where they found Dobbin Junior standing dozing in the hot sunshine, his leg muscles locked together as a support. There was no trace of Gimmit at all, and the villagers had bolted back into whichever holes they had come from. Kieran and Joby sat down and drank from their water-gourds.
"Can't you sense the evil in this place?" said Joby, after a long silence.
"Yes I can", said Kieran "Why do you think I was carrying on like that earlier? I was trying to protect myself. By protecting myself I can protect you too".
"You don't seriously think there can be vampires here do you?"
"I don't know, but they've put those smelly flowers up for a reason".
"I wish the family would hurry up and get here".
"You great coward Joby. You wanted adventure, and at the first hint of unease you're calling for Adam like Lonts on a bad day".
"You're scared too or you wouldn't be picking on me!" said Joby "I'm sorry Kiel, it's all my fault. It was my stupid idea. I suppose I've just got bored with trudging across the desert, and never getting to be alone with you. I can't even talk to you in bed at night. There's always someone else around".
"It doesn't matter", said Kieran "They'll be here soon anyway. It's Gimmit who makes me more nervous than anything. He is seriously weird. One minute going on about what a free spirit he is, the next swearing blind devotion to some unknown man".
"Hey, fucking arse bandits!" the fat man yelled from the bar-room doorway "Clear off and take your filthy ways with you. I've never understood men like you".
"That's alright then", Kieran shouted back "We've never understood men like you either!"
"Smart-mouthed cunt", screamed fat man "You might think you've beaten the Devil, but you don't count for shit round here. Get that?"
"Loud and clear", said Kieran.
Fat man stumbled back into the bar.
"Friendly lot round here", said Joby.
"Mmm", said Kieran, distracted by the sight of a large black raven which had perched itself on top of the pump, and to all intents and purposes gave the impression of eavesdropping on them "I don't know why, but some of the things he was coming out with just then reminded me of Angel. It must be the foul-mouthed abuse. Just like how Angel spoke to me back at the Colony".
The raven ruffled its feathers and flew off with a squawk.
The wagon rumbled into the village eventually. Kieran and Joby ran to meet it. Hillyard was walking at the head of the horse, leading it gently over the cinder track. Ransey was walking at the rear of the wagon. Of the other two there was no sign.
"There you are!" Hillyard exclaimed, peering out from under the brim of his cap "I hope you've got your flak-jackets with you. Adam's furious".
"Where is he?" said Kieran.
"Having a lie-down in the back. So's Lonts".
"I'm surprised they can bear it the way this thing lurches about", said Kieran.
"Nice of you to wait for us", said Ransey "I was beginning to think it was something we said".
"Perhaps we were nervous about travelling with a professional hitman", said Joby, tartly.
"Oh get you!" Ransey exclaimed.
Hillyard led the wagon to a patch of dry grass beyond the village pump. Joby and Kieran jumped up into the back. Lonts sat bolt upright on his bed-roll when he saw them.
"We wanna talk to Adam", said Joby, hauling him to his feet "So bog off. I'm sure Hillyard can find you something to do. Well, what are you waiting for?"
"I need my clothes, Joby", said Lonts.
Kieran sighed and handed him the garments. Lonts left the wagon somewhat reluctantly.
"We've come to say we're sorry we ran off", said Kieran, as he and Joby stood next to Adam's bunk.
"I did try telling you", said Joby "Only you wouldn't listen".
Adam pulled on his shirt and got out of the bunk. Before leaving the wagon he slapped both of them once round the face.
"I'm not putting up with that!" Joby cried, after he'd gone.
"Give him a few minutes to calm down", said Kieran "Then I'll go and talk to him".
Adam strolled down to what appeared to be a ruined chapel, a short distance from the edge of the Xuste settlement. Hillyard followed close behind him like a prison warder on exercise duty.
"Go away!" Adam exclaimed "I don't need you fussing round me".
"You shouldn't wander off alone round here".
"For crying out loud Hillyard, you can see me from the wagon! What do you think's going to happen, that I might get abducted by white slave traders?"
"Here comes Kieran", Hillyard glanced over his shoulder "Looks like he wants a private word".
"Send him away", said Adam, stamping around fallen masonry arranged like broken giant's teeth on the ground.
"His Excellency doesn't wish to see you", said Hillyard, when Kieran caught up with him.
"That's just tough shit then isn't it?"
Hillyard went back to the wagon, leaving them alone.
"I don't wish to talk to you", said Adam, turning his back on Kieran.
"Aren't you being a bit dramatic?"
"Oh well why not? I mean, I'm an old queen, we're famed for our histrionics".
"What brought that on?"
"A feeling of self-loathing", said Adam "I'm a loner Patsy. You'd be better off leaving me alone".
"I don't believe you are", said Kieran "Just circumstances in your life made you that way. I can understand you being angry with me and Joby".
"I was", said Adam, turning to face him at last "Or rather exasperated actually. But that's not what's upsetting me".
"What then? Come on Adam, I'm not going to let you shut me out. Tell me what all this is about".
"What's he done now?" Kieran sighed.
"No, he hasn't done anything. Pats, am I right to encourage our relationship?"
"Of course you are! Lonts has improved no end these past few months, and that's all your doing", said Kieran "He worships you".
"And that is extremely terrifying", said Adam "It's just that two men over the past few weeks have scorned what I'm doing with him".
"As those two men were Brenfar and Gimmit, I wouldn't take too much notice. You're being silly Adam. I believe in what you're doing. Just ignore those who try and make out you're a child molester or something. They've usually got ulterior motives for saying that. Lonts is good for you in return. By looking after him I think you're laying the ghost of your father at long last".
"Sometimes he makes me feel like my father!"
"Cobblers", said Kieran, and he walked up to Adam and slipped his arms round him "What your father did to you was child abuse".
"He never did anything like that".
"There are other forms of abuse than sexual. There's downright brutality for a start. You could've had him up in court for the whippings he gave you".
"Lonts could do the same to me, using that argument".
"There's no comparison. Anyway Lonts may act like a small child at times, but physically he isn't one. Not like you were. I'm surprised your old man didn't permanently damage you".
"I think my skin got fairly resilient after a while", said Adam, wryly "Perhaps Lonts's will too".
"You are not your father", said Kieran "Keep telling yourself that. If your father had been put in charge of Lonts, the boy would be fit for nothing but a high-security mental institution by now. You can see your own results with him for yourself".
"Don't move Pats", said Adam, suddenly "There's a spider the size of a crab lurking by your foot".
"Oh shit, I can't stand those things".
"I'll carry you out of the danger zone", Adam picked him up and took him away from the area of the ruined chapel before setting him down again.
"The wonder of the desert", said Kieran "Every single bloody thing is exaggerated and made bigger and more threatening".
"It's the silence that gets me", said Adam "There used to be a saying about the Sahara, that it was where you could hear God talking to Himself".
"I think God abandoned this world a long time ago", said Kieran "We're on our own now".
The villagers were conspicuous by their absence that evening. No one came out with small gifts, and no children appeared to stare and shout, or follow them around. It was as if the locals had gone to earth like foxes, and wouldn't emerge until they'd left for good. Someone who did reappear was Gimmit. He hung around on the edge of their camp like a lost soul. The others didn't exactly ignore him, but neither did they encourage him to be sociable. Gimmit kept his conversation to the bare minimum, and didn't say another word about his mysterious "Master".
After a while he retreated behind a sun-bleached boulder where he set up his tent. When everything was in place he sat down and proceeded to roll a joint. Lonts came over whilst he was doing it.
"They've let you off the leash then have they?" said Gimmit.
"They're cooking and feeding the horses and things", said Lonts.
"No little chores for you to do?"
"I don't think they can be bothered to find me anything", said Lonts "I learnt how to roll cigars in Kiskev".
"This isn't a cigar".
"I can see that. Can I have a pull on it when you're ready?" Lonts sat down next to him on the hard sand.
"I think I can find something better than that", Gimmit burrowed amongst his layers and pulled out a small silver box. He opened it and Lonts saw a small selection of white pills inside "Take one. It'll make you feel relaxed and at ease with yourself".
"No way", Lonts shook his head "I'm never going to take pills ever again. I had enough of them in hospital".
"Not like these you didn't".
"Alright", Gimmit reluctantly pocketed the box, and then handed Lonts the lit spliff "Try this then".
Lonts drew on the spliff gently.
"That's no good", said Gimmit "You have to take it all in. Fill your lungs with it, otherwise it's a waste of time".
"What happens now?" said Lonts, after not having the full-scale coughing attack that Gimmit had expected.
"Give it a chance! Relax, and it'll creep over you slowly".
At that moment though Lonts heard Adam asking where he was in the distance. He got up to leave.
"Have to run back now do we?" said Gimmit.
"He'll come looking for me otherwise".
"Don't you get fed up with being a little sheep?"
"I'm not", Lonts protested "From what I've heard you're more of a sheep than me. Who's this Master person?"
"Would you like to meet him?"
"I don't know. Depends what he wants".
"To meet you. He's heard you're not well".
"I'm better now. I'm better!" Lonts shrieked indignantly and ran back to the wagon.
It was soon noticeable that Lonts was getting excitable. He seemed uncertain whether to laugh or lose his temper, and in the end achieved a bizarre combination of the two. Adam sent him to bed, and then followed him into the wagon to find out what was the matter with him.
"Why do you say that?" Lonts screamed "Now YOU'RE saying I'm ill again".
"Calm down", said Adam.
"Gimmit was saying I wasn't well earlier, and yet you told me I was getting better".
"You are. Now what's brought this on? You seem all tense".
"Adam", Lonts began to sob "You won't send me away again will you?"
"How many more times do I have to tell you? You are staying with us, and that's final".
"Even if I get really bad again?"
"Even then", said Adam "But I don't think you will somehow".
"I might though, that's what scares me", said Lonts "I don't know when I'm being odd. I think I'm doing fine, and then I find people looking at me all strange, and then I know I've shown myself up again. And I don't understand why or how".
"Calm down. I don't know what's got into you this evening. What else has Gimmit been saying to you?"
"He told me I was a sheep".
"Really", Adam sighed "Well I've heard far worse insults, although personally I don't think you look like a sheep at all".
Lonts giggled madly at this, and it took Adam several minutes to get him to lie down and be still. Even then Lonts insisted on making daft bah-ing noises.
"I hope that isn't going to go on all night", said Adam "Go to sleep".
They were prepared for anything to happen in Xuste that night, but in the end the only event of note was the fat man staggering drunkenly around the wagon after they'd all gone to bed, shouting insults. He concluded his performance by peeing up the outside of the canvas. He waddled off in a more sober mood when Ransey yelled out that he would pump a few bullets up his backside if he didn't make himself scarce at once.
"Disgusting old git", said Joby "What have we ever done to him?"
"Doubtless he carries on like that with all visitors", said Adam "It's the only variety in life he gets".
"That's his problem then isn't it?" said Joby "Particularly if he's daft enough to choose to live out here".
In the morning Hillyard suggested having a day of rest at Xuste, as he was getting increasingly worried about the state of the horses.
"We've kept 'em on the road for several weeks without a break", he said "They look done in to me".
"You absurd creature, Hillyard", said Adam "They are bred for this life".
"I still think we should have a break. I mean, there's nothing here to be scared of is there? Nothing happened last night, so I don't see what the problem is".
"If we do stay", said Adam "Then the onus is on you to top up all our supplies. It is three hundred miles to the next settlement of any size, as I'm sure you don't need reminding. And chances are we'll wear down our present stocks even further if we sit around here stuffing our faces all day".
"You could end up eating anything out here", Hillyard protested.
"Exactly. If it moves then you poach it. We haven't much choice".
"Perhaps we could go round door-to-door like gypsies", said Joby.
"We haven't got anything to barter with", said Adam "Although if Hillyard fails to find supplies we'll put his body up for auction".
"That won't raise much", said Joby "I don't mind sticking this place for another day, not now we've survived a night here. Nothing at all happened. I always said the last lot of villagers was just being paranoid".
"It's not the most sociable of places", said Adam "But perhaps it's not nearly as sinister as we thought".
"Don't be so sure on that", Kieran muttered, as the raven flew onto the top of the wagon and stared down at them all.
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