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Kele pulls away and smacks his hand. Squints raises his gun to tranq him, but Van Gogh doesn’t let him.
“We’ve wasted enough ammo. Save it until we need it.”
Lev tries to swallow his fear. If there was any doubt as to what these lowlifes were, it’s gone. They are hunters of human flesh. Parts pirates.
“Take me,” Lev says, hardly believing he’s saying it. “I’m the one you want. I’m a tithe, which means I’m worth more on the black market than other AWOLs.”
Van Gogh grins. “But not nearly as much as the right little SlotMonger.”
Suddenly there’s the pfft of a tranq shot, and Squints’s eyes go uncharacteristically wide before he falls to the ground, with the flag of a tranq in his back. A tranq fired by a custom-made zebrawood rifle.
8 - Wil
At the first sound of a rifle crack, Wil’s attention snapped to the clearing. He saw Pivane fall to the ground, and Wil was instantly on his feet, running back to camp. His heart hammering, he circled the camp quietly, slipping into Pivane’s tent to grab his rifle. Then, having found an unseen position from which to fire, he shot the tallest one, who dropped like a bag of bones.
Now, still wielding his uncle’s rifle, Wil emerges into the clearing, his aim trained on the leader, but the leader is quick. He pulls out an old-fashioned revolver—the kind that takes only real bullets—and shoves it against Lev’s temple.
“Drop it or I kill him.”
They freeze in a standoff.
“Thirty-eight caliber, my friend,” the gunman says. “You can tranq me, but your friend will be dead before I hit the ground. Drop the rifle now!”
Wil lowers it but doesn’t drop it. He’s not that stupid. The leader considers the action, then takes the pistol away from Lev’s head, shoving him to the ground.
“What do you want?” Wil asks.
The leader signals his remaining conspirator—the goat-ugly one with the scraggly beard. He pulls something from his pocket and gives it to Wil. “We found this posted in Denver last week.”
It’s a flier on bright red paper that reads: SEEKING PEOPLE OF CHANCE PARTS. TRIPLE RECOMPENSE FOR SPECIAL GIFTS.
Light suddenly dawns. Parts pirates? These intruders are parts pirates?
“People of Chance are protected,” Wil says. “We can’t be unwound.”
“Hardly the point, Hiawatha,” the leader says, smoothing his oily hair over an ear that doesn’t exist. “This requisition isn’t strictly legal, which makes it very profitable.”
“So let’s cut to the chase,” says the other parts pirate. “Any of these here kids got special skills?”
A moment of silence, then Lansa says, “Nova can do high math. Algebra and stuff.”
“Oh, yeah, Lansa?” says Nova. “Why don’t you tell them how good you are with a bow and arrow?”
“Both of you shut up!” yells Lev. “Don’t turn on each other. That’s what these dirtbags want!”
The goat-faced one glares at Lev, then kicks Lev in the side.
Wil advances on him, but One-Ear raises his pistol at Wil. “Let’s all take a deep breath, shall we?”
Lev lies in the dirt, the grimace fading from his face. He makes eye contact with Wil to let him know that he’s okay. Hurt, but okay. Wil has never felt so powerless. He thinks of his grandfather. What would he have done?
“Such lovely choices,” the leader says, looking at the batch of kids. “Perhaps we’ll take the lot.”
“Do that,” says Wil, “and our entire tribe will hunt you for the rest of your miserable lives, and I promise you those lives won’t be long. . . . But that won’t happen if one of us goes of our own free will.”
“That’s not yer choice to make!” says Goat-Face. “We choose!”
“Then choose wisely!” Wil says. Near his uncle he sees his guitar where he left it at breakfast, propped against a log. Everything seems to go quiet, though dimly he’s aware of the two pirates talking to each other. Plotting. Choosing.
Wil knows how he can protect the children. He knows how he can save Pivane and Lev.
He lays his uncle’s rifle on the ground and walks to his guitar.
“Hey,” Goat-Face yells at him, and scoops up Pivane’s rifle. “Where do you think yer going!” Wil picks up his guitar and sits on the log. He knows it’s the only weapon he needs.
He thinks of Una, and the last thing she said to him. She had carved him a pick of rare canyon sinker wood—trees lying submerged for months in the Colorado River—and she gave it to him when he left for this vision quest. Now he pulls it from between the strings and turns it over in his fingers, thinking of her words:
“I will not miss you, Guitar Boy,” she said, clearly meaning that she would, but refusing to say it out loud.
He kisses the pick and puts it in his pocket. He will not waste it on the likes of these monsters. He will play with his bare fingers. He will play a song of their greed. Of their malice. Of their corruption. He will entice them until they are so consumed by their own lust for money that they will see him as their shining meal ticket and forget the others.
“Tell me what this is worth,” Wil says, and begins to play.
The music soars through the camp. He starts with a complicated baroque piece, then switches to a fiery ChanceFolk traditional and finishes with the Spanish music he loves best, but all angry. Accusing. Music that is both glorious and stirring, yet at the same time a secret indictment of the men he is playing for. Each piece makes his fingers tingle and electrifies even the trees surrounding them.
As always, his audience waits in a charged silence long after the last note is played. Even the leader’s gun is pointed at the ground, as if he’s forgotten he’s holding it. Then something happens. Something different.
He looks at Lev, still sitting in the dirt, gun oil smudged on his neck, mud on his cheek. Lev’s eyes are fixed only on Wil. He claps with all his might, bringing his hands together powerfully, shattering the silence with his singular applause. Then Kele joins in, then Nova, then all the kids who are still conscious. It becomes rhythmic, as the applause falls into unison.
“Stop clapping!” the goat-faced pirate screams. His face pale, he points a shaking tranq rifle at Lev. “Stop it! You’re freaking me out.”
The other one laughs. “You’ll have to excuse my associate. You see, his brother died in a clapper attack.”
Looks like they blew up the wrong one, Wil wants to say, but he realizes that the quickening pace and rising volume of their clapping says it much better than words.
Finally the chorus of applause falls off, with Lev’s loud clapping the last to cease, leaving his hands red from the passion of it.
The lead parts pirate holds eye contact with Wil and nods, sealing Wil’s fate. “You’ve got yourself a deal.” Then he orders his comrade to tie the others up.
“What about Bobby?” Goat-Face asks, pointing to their tranq’d accomplice.
The leader spares a single look at the unconscious pirate, aims his revolver, and puts a bullet in his head. “Problem solved.”
Then the two of them duct-tape the kids’ hands and feet and tie all six together, weaving a rope through their trussed limbs. Kele almost spits at them till he catches Wil’s warning look.
Goat-Face ties Lev alone to the tree near where Pivane lies, leaving Lev struggling against the tight ropes.
“Let me say my good-byes,” Wil asks the leader.
The man sits on the log where Wil played his guitar, waving his tranq pistol as a warning. Apparently Wil is now too valuable to shoot with real bullets. “Make it quick.”
As Goat-Face finishes securing Lev to the tree, Wil approaches Lev. Goat-Face takes a step back, watching Wil warily as if he expects to be attacked.
“Wil, what are you doing?” Lev whispers. “These guys are for real. You don’t come back from a chop shop.”
“My choice, Lev. It’s your job now to take care of these kids. Calm them. Reassure them. Pivane will wake up in a few hours. You’ll all be fine.”
Lev swallows and nods, accepting the responsibility.
Wil summons a wry smile for Lev before the parts pirates take him and his guitar away. “Thanks for the applause, little brother.”
9 - Lev
In the village three hours later, Lev leans against Pivane’s dusty truck, only half listening as Pivane tells the sheriff what happened. He watches the kids rushed to their cars and taken home. Only Kele looks back and waves good-bye to Lev.
The sheriff returns to his car to relay the report and then heads back up the mountain to retrieve Bobby, the dead parts pirate—probably wishing it was one of them who took him out, and not one of his own gang.
Lev can’t help but notice the cold glare that the policemen throw at him before they leave.
“Your petition to join the tribe has been denied,” Wil’s ma tells him, the pain in her voice partly for him and partly for her son who will never return. “I’m sorry, Lev.”
Lev accepts the news with a stoic nod. He knew this would be the decision. He knew because of the looks everyone has given him since he returned from the vision quest. Those who know him see him as a walking gravestone with Wil’s name etched on his sienna face. Those who don’t know him see only a harbinger of the world that so cruelly took Chowilawu away. Wil’s music—his spirit —cannot be replaced by any musician on the rez. The wound will be raw for a very long time. And there’s no one they can blame for it. No one but Lev. Even if they allow him to stay, Lev knows the rez can no longer be his sanctuary.
Pivane volunteers to drive him to the reservation’s northern entrance: immense bronze gates bookended by towers of green glass. Lev leans forward to see the bells in the towers and the rearing, life-size bronze mustang suspended above the gate. Wil told him that fine, nearly invisible wires and a clear glass bridge support the mustang. When Chinook winds blow through the valley, children gather, hoping to see the horse escape its fetters and fly away.
“Where will I go?” Lev asks simply.
“That is for you to decide.” Pivane leans across him and retrieves his wallet from the glove compartment. Then he hands Lev a huge wad of cash.
“Too much,” Lev manages, but Pivane shakes his head.
“By accepting this gift, you will honor me . . . and you will honor him,” Pivane says. “The children told me how you offered yourself to the pirates before Wil did. It was not your fault they chose him over you.”
Lev obediently shoves the money into his pocket. He shakes Pivane’s hand as he gets out of the car.
“I hope your spirit-guide takes you to a place of safety. A place you can call home,” Pivane says.
Lev closes the door, and in a plume of dust the truck disappears down the street. Only then does it occur to Lev that he has no spirit-guide. He never completed his vision quest. There is nothing and no one to guide him through this dim, foggy future.
A security guard nods as he exits the pedestrian gate, and Lev heads for a bus stop a hundred feet away. He sees nothing else but a barren plateau, spotted with sage, which stretches to the horizon, not quite as barren as he feels inside.