“You recollect you owe me fifty dollars, Belter?”
“You tryin’ to sneak out? By God, I’ll horsewhip you!”
“All the excitement, and it slipped my mind, sir.”
“It slipped his mind.” Teece gave a vicious wink at his men on the hardware porch. “God damn, mister, you know what you’re goin’ to do?”
“You’re stayin’ here to work out that fifty bucks, or my name ain’t Samuel W. Teece.” He turned again to smile confidently at the men in the shade.
Belter looked at the river going along the street, that dark river flowing and flowing between the shops, the dark river on wheels and horses and in dusty shoes, the dark river from which he had been snatched on his journey. He began to shiver. “Let me go, Mr. Teece. I’ll send your money from up there, I promise!”
“Listen, Belter.” Teece grasped the man’s suspenders like two harp strings, playing them now and again, contemptuously, snorting at the sky, pointing one bony finger straight at God. “Belter, you know anything about what’s up there?”
“What they tells me.”
“What they tells him! Christ! Hear that? What they tells him!” He swung the man’s weight by his suspenders, idly, ever so casual, flicking a finger in the black face. “Belter, you fly up and up like a July Fourth rocket, and bang! There you are, cinders, spread all over space. Them crackpot scientists, they don’t know nothin’, they kill you all off!”
“I don’t care.”
“Glad to hear that. Because you know what’s up on that planet Mars? There’s monsters with big raw eyes like mushrooms! You seen them pictures on those future magazines you buy at the drugstore for a dime, ain’t you? Well! Them monsters jump up and suck marrow from your bones!”
“I don’t care, don’t care at all, don’t care.” Belter watched the parade slide by, leaving him. Sweat lay on his dark brow. He seemed about to collapse.
“And it’s cold up there; no air, you fall down, jerk like a fish, gaspin’, dyin’, stranglin’, stranglin’ and dyin’. You like that?”
“Lots of things I don’t like, sir. Please, sir, let me go. I’m late.”
“I’ll let you go when I’m ready to let you go. We’ll just talk here polite until I say you can leave, and you know it damn well. You want to travel, do you? Well, Mister Way up in the Middle of the Air, you get the hell home and work out that fifty bucks you owe me! Take you two months to do that!”
“But if I work it out, I’ll miss the rocket, sir!”
“Ain’t that a shame now?” Teece tried to look sad.
“I give you my horse, sir.”
“Horse ain’t legal tender. You don’t move until I get my money.” Teece laughed inside. He felt very warm and good.
A small crowd of dark people had gathered to hear all this. Now as Belter stood, head down, trembling, an old man stepped forward.
Teece flashed him a quick look. “Well?”
“How much this man owe you, mister?”
“None of your damn business!”
The old man looked at Belter. “How much, son?”
The old man put out his black hands at the people around him, “There’s twenty-five of you. Each give two dollars; quick now, this no time for argument.”
“Here, now!” cried Teece, stiffening up, tall, tall.
The money appeared. The old man fingered it into his hat and gave the hat to Belter. “Son,” he said, “you ain’t missin’ no rocket.”
Belter smiled into the hat. “No, sir, I guess I ain’t!”
Teece shouted: “You give that money back to them!”
Belter bowed respectfully, handing the money over, and when Teece would not touch it he set it down in the dust at Teece’s feet. “There’s your money, sir,” he said. “Thank you kindly.” Smiling, he gained the saddle of his horse and whipped his horse along, thanking the old man, who rode with him now until they were out of sight and hearing.
“Son of a bitch,” whispered Teece, staring blind at the sun. “Son of a bitch.”
“Pick up the money, Samuel,” said someone from the porch.