Five of us duck behind a boulder scorched by the day's heat as the approaching car's headlights pierce the night.
“Get down,” Clay whispers, drawing up his revolver. The steeliness of his voice sends gooseflesh galloping over my arms.
I curl up, my knees tucked into my chest, my back dug into the boulder's hard surface. Beside me, Ethan scrunches down until he's a little bit of a thing, a wiry jackrabbit of a kid with his bony arms around his knees. When I lay my hand on his shoulder, he’s trembling. Mama crouches on the other side of him, one hand wrapped around her pregnant belly, the other on Ethan’s arm. Even though we've cropped her hair short and she wears men’s clothing, it'll be easy to tell she's a woman. No man has a stomach that round unless he's got a belly full of tapeworm.
Rayburn, the Breeders' doctor who helped us escape, sits beside her, clutching one of Clay's revolvers to his chest. I roll my eyes. A gun in Rayburn’s fist is like a handsaw in the hands of a toddler: just as useless as it is dangerous. I heft the rifle. The warm stock fits snugly in my palm like it was made for me. I'm a decent shot, even in the dark, but I've got five shells left—maybe. Five precious shells. I try not to think about what will happen when the bullets are gone.
Clay shifts beside me, his thigh brushing against mine. I know this low crouch hurts his wounded leg. All night he's walked beside me without complaint, but he’s getting weaker. The speckle of sweat on his brow is unmistakable no matter how many times he wipes it away when he thinks I got my eyes on the horizon. He hasn't had time to heal, but how could he? We've been driving and starving for days. Then our truck ran out of gas yesterday. We knew it would happen. It didn't make it any less of a punch in the gut when it did.
The sound of a car motor reaches us, a wheezy, choking sound. Whatever approaches is not some new, souped-up Breeders' vehicle, but that doesn't mean they’re friendly. Everyone on this road is our enemy the way I figure.
The chugging motor draws closer, the ground vibrating in anticipation. I press my back to the rock and look up at the sky, trying to slow the patter of my heart. I recognize a constellation amongst the splattered stars, but I can't remember the name. Cassiopeia? Andromeda? Six pinpricks of light in the shape of a W. My step-daddy, Arn, used to teach me stars’ names, pointing with his calloused fingers, drawing lines to connect them. Now Arn's a few months dead and my memories of him are fading. I look away and push the sadness down deep.
Then the car is upon us, headlights streaking everything into long, black shadows. We all crouch together and wait. Breathe. Pray. The car rumbles past, tires bumping down the pitted road. One red taillight glows as they continue along their way. I blow out a breath and wonder where they're headed. Hopefully to a town not far from here. We need food and a car if we're ever going to get back to Auntie.
A hand on my chest draws me out of my thoughts. Clay's tensed arm presses me back to the boulder. I open my mouth to protest, but then I hear it. The squeal of brakes. The slam of doors. They've stopped. They're getting out.
Mama's hand tightens around my arm. Rayburn looks at me through his greasy black curls, fear etched on every feature. He pushes up his glasses, the revolver wobbling in his hand. In the moonlight, I find Clay's face. Beneath his cowboy hat, his brow is folded, his lips a tight line. He's calculating. How many shots to take them out? What angle? I can see the discharge of his gun in my mind's eye. Hopefully it won't come to that. We can't waste bullets.
Footsteps head our direction, boots scraping the pavement, slow and steady. Two sets. Two men. Each step toward us makes my heart lurch. With my back to the boulder, I can't see them and it's making me crazy. There's only one reason they'd have stopped: they spotted us.
I shift and Clay's hand tightens. “Stay down,” he breathes in my ear. Then he stands.
What in God's name is he doing? I reach for him, my heart slamming in my chest. Is he trying to get himself killed?
“Ho there,” he shouts. He levels his revolver. “That's close enough.”
I rise up ever so slightly and peer over the boulder.
Two men stand in the middle of the busted two-lane highway. The first is tall and skinny with a wide-brimmed hat and a shaggy beard. His bug-eyes and long neck make him look like a lizard in a trench coat. I can't make out the rest of his features, but his clothes are worn and holey. Maybe he's a rancher or a lower-class road gang member. The man beside him is a little better dressed in patched jeans and a sleeveless leather jacket. His head is bare and the moon reflects off the bald surface. He's wearing cracked glasses that make him look owl-like.
“Whoa, friend,” owl man says, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender. He's missing both pinkies. “That's quite a pistola you’ve got there. Give 'er a rest. We come in peace.”
Clay shakes his head, his aim never wavering. “Ain't nobody come in peace these days. Turn round and get back in yer dirt wagon.”
Lizard man chuckles behind his scraggly beard, his neck bobbing back and forth. He pushes back his hat and narrows his bug-eyes. “Well, now,” he drawls slowly, “that ain't too neighborly. We jist stepped out to take a piss. We ain't got guns.”
“You ain't got guns showing,” Clay says. “Doesn’t mean you ain't got guns. You can take a piss a couple miles down. Now get back in yer car or I'll stop asking nice.” He thumbs down the safety with a click that cuts through the desert.
The two men stand stock-still, hands at their sides. Lizard man tilts his head slightly, considering Clay. “Ain't nobody had bullets in these parts for months. What you so worried about us seeing behind that boulder?” He narrows his eyes and takes a step forward. “I know you ain't alone.” A smile curls on his mouth, slow and nasty.
Clay's jaw hardens. “I asked you nicely.” He takes a step forward, aiming. “This is how I ask now.”
The gun fires. The shot cracks through the night like a bomb. Mama gasps. The gunpowder spark lights up Clay's face: his eyes squinted, his jaw granite. Lizard man whirls sideways, left arm out like a sail. A spray of blood wets his partner's shirt. Lizard man staggers twice and falls to his knees, facing his friend. Bent over and clutching his wound, lizard man stares.
Then he starts howling.
“Clay,” I whisper. Will he shoot them both? We need every bullet in that gun. He says nothing, just keeps aiming.
Lizard man half-runs, half-staggers back to the car. Blood plops on the pavement with a heavy, wet sound. His partner pushes up his round, blood-splattered glasses, fear crinkling his face. “You didn't havta!” he shouts as he turns to run. “You didn't havta shoot 'im.”
Clay narrows his eyes, still aiming. “I don't havta shoot you either.”
Owl man lets out a little squeal as he runs back to the car jumps into the driver side. The car engine chugs to life and they peal out in a spray of gravel. When the taillight is a little red dot in the distance, Clay slumps down beside me.
I place my hand on his arm, smiling, but once I see his face my smile fades. Sweat sprinkles his forehead and rolls down his neck. His face is pale, yet his cheeks blaze red. The revolver clatters to the dust as his arm sags against the boulder. The calm gunslinger act has cost him.
Leaning over to him, I wipe the sweat off his brow with my sleeve. “Clay,” I whisper, “you did it. You scared 'em off.” I press my hand to his cheek tenderly. I hate seeing him like this.
His hand cups mine, his sky-blue eyes shining in the moonlight. There's no smile on his face. “This time.” Slowly, he reaches for his revolver and flicks out the chamber. Five bullets rest in their cylindrical beds. He frowns and snaps the barrel back with an awful click. Rayburn's revolver has six shells and I have five. I know what he's thinking. What happens when we run out of bullets? What happens to us?
My mama stands, drawing my eight-year-old brother, Ethan, up with her. Her cotton T-shirt flutters against the swell of her newly pregnant belly. “Can you walk?” she asks Clay softly. He nods, pushing up, hiding a wince of pain behind a small quirk of his mouth. As I help him stand and take a sip of water from our canteen, a chilly wind stirs. Clay's body shivers. Then he throws his arm around me and shuffles forward.
We walk on the shoulder of the road. North, toward home and whatever awaits.
The Believers releases November 29th, 2013. Sign up for sequel notifications above.