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datatime: 2022-09-25 16:32:13 Author:iCXUHcXP

A rifle shot echoed from the woods, followed by two more. Sister and Paul looked at each other uneasily, but the young highwayman lay motionless and undisturbed. The noise of rifle fire continued intermittently for another minute or so, followed by the angry shrieks of what sounded like several animals-but their cries were fading as they retreated. Paul reached for the moonshine jug to coax out the last drops, and Sister leaned back to contemplate tomorrow.

Glory screamed, "Josh" as he barreled at the barn door.

"Okay," Sister agreed. "And thank you."

Rusty knew he'd collapse before he got ten paces from the shack. He almost wept with frustration, but he knew also that Swan needed to be watched over. He nodded and sank down wearily to his knees.

"Thanks for the warning," Sister said.

Aaron darted on ahead, and Josh and Glory followed as fast as they could. Josh found some of the speed he had once shown on the football field at Auburn University in making the two hundred yards between the shack and the barn. Other people were out in the street, running toward the fire as well-not because they wanted to extinguish it, but because they could get warm. Josh's heart almost cracked; over the roar of flames that covered all but the structure's roof, he could hear Mule's frantic cries.

"Besides, if you two get killed tomorrow, I want the glass ring. You won't be needing it." He leaned against the boulder and closed his eyes. "You'd better sleep while you can."

"Nothin'," she said. "Just the Pit, and-" She stopped suddenly, because both of them knew.

"Fire"

Rusty knew he'd collapse before he got ten paces from the shack. He almost wept with frustration, but he knew also that Swan needed to be watched over. He nodded and sank down wearily to his knees.

The bombs were falling again, the earth erupting into flames, humans burning like torches under a blood-red sky.

He pulled his boots on, put on his gloves and his heavy coat. Glory and Aaron raced to bundle up as well. Red embers burned in the stove's grate, and Rusty was sitting up from his bed of rags; his eyes were still dazed, and cloth bandages were plastered to the side of his face and the wound at his shoulder. "Josh?" he said. "What's goin' on?"

"Who put you in charge?"

"Oh, we didn't come out here to warn you. We followed you to keep you from getting killed." Robin climbed down the boulder, and the other boys did the same. They stood around the fire, warming their hands and faces. "It wasn't hard. You left a trail that looked like a plow had gone through. Anyway, you forgot something." He opened the other duffel bag, reached into it and brought out the second jug of moonshine that Hugh had given Paul. "Here." He tossed it to Sister. "I think there's enough left for everybody to have a swig."

"Besides, if you two get killed tomorrow, I want the glass ring. You won't be needing it." He leaned against the boulder and closed his eyes. "You'd better sleep while you can."

"Why?" Paul asked. He was wary of the boy, didn't trust him worth a damn. "What's in it for you?"

"Oh, we didn't come out here to warn you. We followed you to keep you from getting killed." Robin climbed down the boulder, and the other boys did the same. They stood around the fire, warming their hands and faces. "It wasn't hard. You left a trail that looked like a plow had gone through. Anyway, you forgot something." He opened the other duffel bag, reached into it and brought out the second jug of moonshine that Hugh had given Paul. "Here." He tossed it to Sister. "I think there's enough left for everybody to have a swig."

"I did." The firelight threw shadows in the hollows of his face, glinted off the fine hairs of his beard. His long hair, still full of feathers and bones, made him look like a savage prince. "I've decided to help you get to Mary's Rest."

"Who put you in charge?"

Swan said something in a soft, delirious voice, but Rusty couldn't make it out. She tried to sit up, and he put his hand on her shoulder to restrain her. Touching her was like putting his hand to the stove's grate. "Hold on," he said. "Easy now, just take it easy."

There was, and the moonshine's fire heated Sister's belly. Robin sent the three boys out to stand guard around the camp. "The trick is to make a lot of noise," Robin said after they'd gone. "They don't want to shoot anything, because the blood would drive the other animals crazy out there." He sat down beside the fire, pulled his hood back and took his gloves off. "If you want to sleep, Sister, you'd better do it now. We'll have to relieve them on watch before light."

"I did." The firelight threw shadows in the hollows of his face, glinted off the fine hairs of his beard. His long hair, still full of feathers and bones, made him look like a savage prince. "I've decided to help you get to Mary's Rest."

He pulled his boots on, put on his gloves and his heavy coat. Glory and Aaron raced to bundle up as well. Red embers burned in the stove's grate, and Rusty was sitting up from his bed of rags; his eyes were still dazed, and cloth bandages were plastered to the side of his face and the wound at his shoulder. "Josh?" he said. "What's goin' on?"

Rusty stood up, but his legs were weak and he staggered against the wall. He felt like a deballed bull, and he was furious at himself. He tried again but still didn't have the strength to even get his damned boots on.

"I did." The firelight threw shadows in the hollows of his face, glinted off the fine hairs of his beard. His long hair, still full of feathers and bones, made him look like a savage prince. "I've decided to help you get to Mary's Rest."

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