14. Bad news comes to Fagen|
Fagen took the reins and walked the wagon past Minnefee into the darkness at
the center of the bridge. The moment they were out of earshot the woman
began, "I had to come back and see you," she cried. "God would never
forgive me if I did not."
Fagen couldn't see her face in the gray moon-shadow, but heard the alarm in
her voice and knew something was very wrong. He reached up and covered her
hands with his own. "Tell me, missus. What is it?"
"Your friend Ellis, the bear, you said he was in quarantine."
"You said the doctor had given him Chaulmoogra oil for his skin."
"Yes, I did, but tell me, what's this all about?"
The woman looked around, scanned the area for demons, and then leaned down
from her seat, her words an urgent whisper. "Chaulmoogra oil comes from the
nut of a tree that grows in Indonesia. I am very sorry to tell you this Senor ,
but its only use is for the treatment of leprosy."
Her words hit Fagen with the force of a pile driver. Suddenly his heart
stopped, flip-flopped in his chest, and then pounded wildly, the hammering
growing in intensity until he was certain it would burst. He couldn't
believe what he'd heard. Surely the woman was mistaken. It was
not possible she should pronounce the most hideous, the most unspeakable of
death sentences upon his cousin, his life-long friend. The pressure
in his chest crept upward, strangling him, starving him for air, his head swimming
in darkness. He saw the woman's lips moving, but her voice was inaudible
over the roar in his brain. "If he leaves his quarantine tent,
it is not to return to duty my young friend, but to be taken to the place of
the unclean, where even God cannot help him. The place from which no man returns. God
save you both, Senor !"
At that the woman snapped the reins and trotted off into the night. Fagen
stood looking after her, his blood turning to ice water. He wanted to
cry out, to shower her with odious and loathsome curses, profane her as she
had just done to him. If he'd carried his rifle, he'd have shot her
on the spot and tossed her remains in the river for the sand crabs, but deep
inside he knew what she said must be the truth. Ellis had no fever,
and he had no rash. He himself had said many times he didn't have the "itches." The
doctor must have known, or at least suspected the truth all along. That's
why he'd quarantined Ellis so quickly, why he'd placed armed guards around
Leprosy! Fagen rolled the awful word around in his mouth,
swallowed it, and his bowels turned to water. In his mind's eye he pictured
a rotting shell of a man dressed in a hooded robe, his face too horrifying
for words, his fingers and toes lying on the ground all around him. The
Biblical picture, the only one he'd ever known, and until now he thought it
only happened to people in old books. It was impossible for him to imagine
Ellis' face under that hood, impossible even to think about.
David Fagen stumbled dumbly back across the bridge. He pinched himself,
knew he was awake, but felt as though he floated through space as if in a dream
and saw neither the sky above nor the ground beneath his feet. Suddenly
a blood chilling cold gripped him, and his entire body trembled uncontrollably. At
that moment it seemed pain and anguish were the only sensations that kept him
in his skin. He walked past the guard station. Out of the white
noise in his brain he heard Minnefee's malevolent cackle. "That your
new girlfriend, Fagen? She's too old. I liked the other one better. What
was her name...Loretta? Where's she at now? If you're done with
her, send her on over to me."
"The place from which no man returns." That's what she'd said. What
was she talking about? What kind of place was it a man can't return
from? Where was it? In the furthest reaches of his
imagination Fagen could picture another man surviving in the land of the unclean,
Sergeant Rivers, perhaps or maybe even himself, but never could he envision
gentle, unsuspecting Ellis Fairbanks there.
It couldn't happen. The army wouldn't let it. They'd send him
to a hospital, find a doctor to cure him. Ellis had given his soul to
the army, they'd not abandon him now. Fagen remembered their conversation
that night in their tent at Camp McKinley. "The army's like a wife. She's
even better than a wife because she can't divorce you. You give your
life to her and she can't ever turn her back on you." Suddenly Fagen's
bone chilling cold turned to fear and then panic. He knew he had to
get back to camp, and he had to get back now.
He looked at the men sleeping on the bridge. Minnefee the only one
even half awake, Fagen knew he'd be no problem. He eased himself over
the railing, dropped quietly to the ground, untied Lieutenant Alstaetter's
horse and led him up onto the bridge. Minnefee cocked an eyebrow and
started to say something, but Fagen spoke first. "Lieutenant saw a snake
down there. He wants me to tie his horse up ahead a little way."
The guard yawned. "What are you tellin' me for, lover boy. It
ain't none of my business." Fagen walked Alstaetter's Cleveland Bay
to the center of the bridge, mounted, and without looking back, dug in his
heels and raced away into the night.
The full moon shone high overhead as the horse's hooves pounded a staccato
on the dusty road leading to camp. His mind a blur, Fagen had no idea
what he would do - what he could do to help Ellis. He only
knew he must get back to camp that night. Unseen by human eyes, he rode
through a dozen sleeping hamlets and the rhythm of his being fell into time
with the steady, metered cadence of the Bay at full gallop, and the miles melted
away under him.