The Sheriff took it and shined his flashlight on it. Conger watched, breathing shallowly. They had worked hard on the wallet, studying historic documents, relics of the times, all the papers they felt would be relevant.
Duff handed it back. “Okay. Sorry to bother you.” The light winked off.
When Conger reached the house he found the Appletons sitting around the television set. They did not look up as he came in. He lingered at the door.
“Can I ask you something?” he said. Mrs. Appleton turned slowly. “Can I ask you — what’s the date?”
“The date?” She studied him. “The first of December.”
“December first! Why, it was just November!”
They were all looking at him. Suddenly he remembered. In the twentieth century they still used the old twelve month system. November fed directly into December; there was no Quartember between them.
He gasped. Then it was tomorrow! The second of December! Tomorrow!
“Thanks,” he said. “Thanks.”
He went up the stairs. What a fool he was, forgetting. The Founder had been taken into captivity on the second of December, according to the newspaper records. Tomorrow, only twelve hours hence, the Founder would appear to speak to the people and then be dragged away.
The day was warm and bright. Conger’s shoes crunched the melting crust of snow. On he went, through the trees heavy with white. He climbed a hill and strode down the other side, sliding as he went.
He stopped to look around. Everything was silent. There was no one in sight. He brought out a thin rod from his waist and turned the handle of it. For a moment nothing happened. Then there was a shimmering in the air.
The crystal cage appeared and settled slowly down. Conger sighed. It was good to see it again. After all, it was his only way back.
He walked up on the ridge. He looked around with some satisfaction, his hands on his hips. Hudson’s field was spread out, all the way to the beginning of town. It was bare and flat, covered with a thin layer of snow.
Here, the Founder would come. Here, he would speak to them. And here the authorities would take him.
Only he would be dead before they came. He would be dead before he even spoke.
Conger returned to the crystal globe. He pushed through the door and stepped inside. He took the Slem-gun from the shelf and screwed the bolt into place. It was ready to go, ready to fire. For a moment he considered. Should he have it with him?
No. It might be hours before the Founder came, and suppose someone approached him in the meantime? When he saw the Founder coming toward the field, then he could go and get the gun.
Conger looked toward the shelf. There was the neat package. He took it down and unwrapped it.
He held the skull in his hands, turning it over. In spite of himself, a cold feeling rushed through him. This was the man’s skull, the skull of the Founder, who was still alive, who would come here, this day, who would stand on the field not fifty yards away.
What if he could see this, his own skull, yellow and corroded? Two centuries old. Would he still speak? Would he speak, if he could see it, the grinning, aged skull? What would there be for him to say, to tell the people? What message could he bring?
What action would not be futile, when a man could look upon his own aged, yellowed skull? Better they should enjoy their temporary lives, while they still had them to enjoy.
A man who could hold his own skull in his hands would believe in few causes, few movements. Rather, he would preach the opposite —
A sound. Conger dropped the skull back on the shelf and took up the gun. Outside something was moving. He went quickly to the door, his heart beating. Was it he? Was it the Founder, wandering by himself in the cold, looking for a place to speak? Was he meditating over his words, choosing his sentences?
What if he could see what Conger had held!
He pushed the door open, the gun raised. Lora!
He stared at her. She was dressed in a wool jacket and boots, her hands in her pockets. A cloud of steam came from her mouth and nostrils. Her breast was rising and falling.
Silently, they looked at each other. At last Conger lowered the gun. “What is it?” he said. “What are you doing here?” She pointed. She did not seem able to speak. He frowned; what was wrong with her?
“What is it?” he said. “What do you want?” He looked in the direction she had pointed. “I don’t see anything.”
“They? Who? Who are coming?”
“They are. The police. During the night the Sheriff had the state police send cars. All around, everywhere. Blocking the roads. There’s about sixty of them coming. Some from town, some around behind.” She stopped, gasping. “They said — they said –”
“They said you were some kind of Communist. They said –”
Conger went into the cage. He put the gun down on the shelf and came back out. He leaped down and went to the girl.
“Thanks. You came here to tell me? You don’t believe it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you come alone?”
“No. Joe brought me in his truck. From town.”
“Joe? Who’s he?”
“Joe French. The plumber. He’s a friend of Dad’s.”
“Let’s go.” They crossed the snow, up the ridge and onto the field. The little panel truck was parked halfway across the field. A heavy short man was sitting behind the wheel, smoking his pipe. He sat up as he saw the two of them coming toward him.
“Are you the one?” he said to Conger.
“Yes. Thanks for warning me.”
The plumber shrugged. “I don’t know anything about this. Lora says you’re all right.” He turned around. “It might interest you to know some more of them are coming. Not to warn you — Just curious.”
“More of them?” Conger looked toward the town. Black shapes were picking their way across the snow.
“People from the town. You can’t keep this sort of thing quiet, not in a small town. We all listen to the police radio; they heard the same way Lora did. Someone tuned in, spread it around –”
The shapes were getting closer. Conger could make out a couple of them. Bill Willet was there, with some boys from the high school. The Appletons were along, hanging back in the rear.
“Even Ed Davies,” Conger murmured.
The storekeeper was toiling onto the field, with three or four other men from the town.
“All curious as hell,” French said. “Well, I guess I’m going back to town. I don’t want my truck shot full of holes. Come on, Lora.”
She was looking up at Conger, wide-eyed.
“Come on,” French said again. “Let’s go. You sure as hell can’t stay here, you know.”
“There may be shooting. That’s what they all came to see. You know that don’t you, Conger?”
“You have a gun? Or don’t you care?” French smiled a little. “They’ve picked up a lot of people in their time, you know. You won’t be lonely.”
He cared, all right! He had to stay here, on the field. He couldn’t afford to let them take him away. Any minute the Founder would appear, would step onto the field. Would he be one of the townsmen, standing silently at the foot of the field, waiting, watching?
Or maybe he was Joe French. Or maybe one of the cops. Anyone of them might find himself moved to speak. And the few words spoken this day were going to be important for a long time.
And Conger had to be there, ready when the first word was uttered!
“I care,” he said. “You go on back to town. Take the girl with you.”
Lora got stiffly in beside Joe French. The plumber started up the motor. “Look at them, standing there,” he said. “Like vultures. Waiting to see someone get killed.”
The truck drove away, Lora sitting stiff and silent, frightened now. Conger watched for a moment. Then he dashed back into the woods, between the trees, toward the ridge.
He could get away, of course. Anytime he wanted to he could get away. All he had to do was to leap into the crystal cage and turn the handles. But he had a job, an important job. He had to be here, here at this place, at this time.
He reached the cage and opened the door. He went inside and picked up the gun from the shelf. The Slem-gun would take care of them. He notched it up to full count. The chain reaction from it would flatten them all, the police, the curious, sadistic people —
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