“It’s time for us to go,” Pa said when he found them there.
Laura lay cradled in Ma’s lap, beneath the shade of an apple tree. Mary and Baby Grace huddled close beside. Somewhere up above them, birds chirped. Pa knelt down with them and took Laura and Mary in his arms both at once and pressed his face against their cheeks each in turn. His voice was steady, but Laura felt his hand shake as it squeezed her shoulder.
“It’s alright,” he told them. “Everything’s alright. It’s just time for us to go.”
Laura said nothing. Her mind felt all muddied up, as if her thoughts were struggling to catch up with her senses. The world around her still seemed muted and distant, as if reaching her through some fog. She could not even begin to guess how long she had been there beneath the tree, huddling together with Ma and Mary and Baby Grace.
She remembered feeling a tug on her arm and hearing Ma’s voice repeating her name, but the tug and the voice had both seemed to come from far away, as if they were happening to someone else. She remembered being pulled backwards, away from the edge of the overlook. Yet, even as her view of the house and the valley below had disappeared beneath the curve of the hillside, the images stayed with her. Part of her was still down on the porch of main house, with Pa, Mabel, and Tobias Goatherd.
And the two bodies. She could picture them clearly even now. One lay on the deck of the porch, the other in the brambles beneath the railing. With their gray cloaks bunched up around them, they might have been mistaken for bundles of rags.
They were gone, the bodies of the two strangers, by the time Laura and her family made it back down to the bottom of the hill. Laura imagined Pa or Mabel hauling them away in one of Tobias Goatherd’s barrows. She wondered where they took them, but she didn’t ask.
She tried to voice some of her questions as Pa led them down the hill, but Pa had hushed her before she could even find the words.
“Later, Soybean,” he told her. “Right now you must gather your things and help Ma pack the car. It’s past midday, and we should try to get some road behind us before dark.”
Pa loaded the barrel of saltmeat and goat cheese into the handcar. Then he greased the axles with a fresh coat of tallow. When that was done, he disappeared into the house for a time to speak with Tobias Goatherd. Meanwhile, Ma rummaged through the bed of the car, finding crevices into which to tuck the new jars of apple butter and bundled strips of apple leathers, shifting their belongings around until everything was packed up just as tight as could be. Last in went the supplies that would need to come out first, the things they would need when they stopped to make camp, out on the open road once again.
Soon, the car was full and everything tied down into place. Laura’s blue batman bag was ready to slip onto her shoulders. All that was left was to say goodbye.
Mabel watched them from afar as they gathered their things, her expression as cryptic as ever. After the packing was finished, Mary and Laura sat beside the car. Ma was nursing Baby Grace. Pa and Tobias Goatherd had still not emerged from the house. Laura looked over to Mabel.
The wildgirl was in the same spot, sitting atop the weathered remains of a creetrock wall, her bare feet dangling just above the weeds. She and Laura stared at one another from across the yard. It felt strange, the distance between them. She remembered sitting side by side in the shed that very morning, mixing milkpaint.
“Should we be scared of her, do you think?” Laura whispered to Mary.
Mary looked over at the wall where Mabel sat. After a pause, she shook her head.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I don’t think she would hurt us. I don’t believe she’s bad.”
“I don’t think so either,” said Laura.
It was hard to imagine that the scrawny girl perched on the cracked creetrock wall was responsible for the violence Laura had witnessed from the hilltop. Could she have been mistaken about what she thought she’d seen? But no. The image was too fresh and crisp in her mind. The flash of the knife, the way the man in the gray cloak had flailed and cried out.
As Laura sat there, absently tugging weeds up from the creetrock gravel beside her knees, all the questions bubbled back up through her thoughts
“She saved Pa,” Mary whispered. “Those men might have . . . we don’t know what mightn’t have happened.”
Mary reached behind her for her Queen carrysack. She unbuttoned one of the pockets that Ma had stiched into the side and pulled out a band of braided hemp. She held it up.
“I was making this for her,” she said. “It was almost finished.”
Laura had seen Mary working on the necklace but had never examined it up close. It was lovely. The hemp fibers were expertly woven, spiraling round and round and criss-crossing one another in mesmerizing patterns. And between each hemp knot, the necklace held some tiny treasure. Small silver rings, smooth glass pebbles, and other tiny lectric charms gleamed as the braided cord swayed beneath Mary’s fist.
Laura thought for a moment. She dug something out of her own carrysack and stuffed it in her pocket. Then she stood.
“Come on,” she said to Mary.
Together, they walked towards Mabel. Ma called out to them as they passed. She looked like she was about to stop them, but then she just sighed.
“Go on,” she told them, with a weary shake of her head. “Just don’t stray. We must be ready to go as soon as Pa is done speaking with Mr. Goatherd.”
Mabel hopped down from the wall as they approached. The three of them stood there for a moment facing each other. Laura’s eyes drifted down towards Mabel’s hips, where the smallest tip of the girl’s leather-sheathed knife was peeking out from beneath her tunic, but she immediately jerked her gaze back up. A gust of wind made the weeds dance around their ankles.
Mary showed Mabel the necklace.
“It’s for you,” she said. “It’s not finished, but if you just tie off the end like this, you can hardly notice. Here.”
Mary twisted the loose threads together in a pretty little knot and then lifted the necklace up to the girl’s throat. Mabel flinched and backed away. But then she stepped hesitantly forward again and bowed her head. Mary reached up and tied the braid loosely around her neck.
The necklace came to rest just above her collarbone. Mabel touched one of the glass shards that hung suspended within the web of hemp, feeling it between thumb and forefinger. Her face withdrew into her neck like a turtle as she tried to get a better look at the necklace. Laura stepped forward.
“Here,” she said. “I wanted to give you something too.”
She held out the small black screen she’d found in the boxes by the Misisip.
“You can see yourself in it. Look.”
Mabel took the screen and held it up to her face. She tilted it this way and that, transfixed by her reflection. She toyed with the hemp necklace, adjusting the way it draped around her throat. Finally, she looked up at them. Her lips were pinched in an ambiguous grimace, but the smile in her eyes was unmistakable.
Tentatively, Mary stepped forward and put her arms around the wildgirl. Then Laura did the same. Mabel seemed to go limp. She let her weight fall against them until finally they all tumbled over into the weeds. Laura and Mary both sat up giggling. It was one of the strangest hugs they had ever had.
Just then, Pa and Tobias Goatherd came back out onto the porch. Laura and Mary stood up and brushed themselves off. They made their way back to the car, followed by Mabel.
Pa had the parchment map, rolled up and tucked under his arm. He stuffed it into the back of the cart before circling around, making sure everything was secure. Tobias Goatherd watched from the porch, running his fingers down his long white beard. Mabel scampered up the steps to stand behind the old man. She clutched his arm and rested her head against his shoulder.
While Pa finished checking the car, Tobias Goatherd called down to Ma.
“I’m awful sorry things fell out how they did, Ma’am,” he said. “There’ll be candles burning for you and your family at the Herald’s Shrine, asking that the King Above guide you safe and true to your new home out on the Wastes. You’re always welcome at Happy Valley Orchards. I hope you and your girls will make your way back here someday. When times are different.”
They left by the big road, the road that divided Happy Valley Orchards Restup and Reptilsoo right down the middle. The road had no name, not on Rakesh Halfsilver’s map and not as far as Tobias Goatherd had known, but it must have been one of the old number roads. It was the biggest Merican road they’d seen since they’d crossed the Misisip, its creetrock foundations so thick that hardly anything grew on top.
The two strangers with their bayonets and gray cloaks had arrived on that same road, coming from the east. Laura and her family took the road in the opposite direction, westward, chasing the sun.
Only when the great car spike had disappeared behind them over the horizon did Laura try again to ask about the men that Mabel had killed.
“Who were they, Pa?”
Pa didn’t answer at first. He kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead. Laura fell in beside him, trying to match him step for step.
“Were they bandits?” she pressed. “Cannibals?”
She shivered at the word. Pa shook his head with a short, hollow laugh. He looked back at Ma and Mary, who had fallen a few paces behind. Finally, he took a deep breath.
“I don’t mean to be keeping secrets from you, my little soybean,” he told her. “The world’s complicated sometimes is all, and some things, well, I just don’t know how to go about explaining them to you and your sister so you’ll understand. I’m still trying to get the whole business straight in my own head. But you’re right to ask, and I reckon I’ll just have to do my best.
“You see where the road ahead curves around that hill yon? We’ll make camp for the night on the other side. And then we’ll all have some words about what happened back on that porch, best as I understand it. Now is that a fair bargain?”
They camped before dusk in an open field beside the road. There was no wood for a fire, and they ate a cold supper of cheese and apples. Pa sat beside the car, his back against the spokes of its tall wheel. He looked tired, but he called Laura and Mary to him.
They curled up on either side of him, and he wrapped a strong arm around each of them. Ma pulled her stool up next to them, Baby Grace swaddled up in her lap.
“Ma tells me you girls saw some of what fell out,” Pa began, “and I’m sorry for that. I imagine you were scared, seeing those strange men with guns and then things boiling over the way they did. I was scared myself, I don’t mind saying. And when the wildgirl swooped in from nowhere . . . Well, it’s a serious thing to see a man meet an end like that. I’ve been witness to the like more than once over my years, and I can tell you. Doesn’t matter who they are or what the circumstances. A thing like that stays with you. I wish I could tell you different, but that’s the way of it. I’m sorry.
“I was your age or near about the first time I saw one person take another’s life. Have I told you the story of the time I saw the horses?”
Laura knew the story or parts of it, but she had never heard Pa talk about it like this, so frank. As the stars came out overhead and a cool night wind began to blow through the tall grass, Laura cuddled closer into Pa’s side and listened.
THE STORY OF PA AND THE HORESEMEN
“When I was little, I lived on a farm in a land far to the east called Upstate, with my Uncle Frederick and his husband, Louis. Uncle Louis died in the Second Hyperflu not long after, but at the time it was the three of us living on that farm, raising oats and jimcorn and chickens.
“There was a lake beside Uncle Freddie’s farm. It was the best source of fresh water for some ways around, and so it wasn’t unusual for travelers to pass through. On the far side of the lake, there was a cluster of abandoned houses where folks would stop and make camp. Generally, they were heading north, part of the great migration that emptied out the old Ghost Cities of the Lantic Coast.
“But then one summer a group of men arrived going the other way, towards the places where everyone else seemed to be fleeing. That wasn’t the thing that made these particular travelers so memorable, though. What got folks to talking was that these men had horses.
“Now, I had never seen a horse before. Uncle Freddie had owned one long ago, but it had died of a sickness called the cattle fever that swept through those parts before I was born. Indeed, these were the first horses anyone in Upstate had seen for some time, and they created quite a stir.
“The men made camp in the ruins across the lake. I’d seen them arrive myself, watched them from a rocky landing as the dark shapes of the riders picked their way through the trees along the opposite shore. When Uncle Louis announced his intention to pay a call on the newcomers to see what they might have for trade, I begged to go too. I wanted to get a closer look at the animals I had heard about in so many stories. But Uncle Freddie and Uncle Louis wouldn’t allow it.
“When Uncle Louis returned that evening, he told us more about the mounted travelers.
“’Hard-looking men,’ he said. ‘Not talkative types, but courteous enough. They didn’t volunteer what their business is down south, and I didn’t pry. They’re well-provisioned but naught in the way of surplus. They’re not here on trade convoy, you can be certain of that.’
“He did ask them how they came by their horses, though. Even before the cattle fever came, no one in Upstate or anywhere thereabouts had managed to breed a healthy foal for as long as anyone could remember. As I say, seeing mounted men was a mighty unusual sight.
“Well, the travelers were cagey on that point too. ‘Up north’ was all Uncle Louis could get out of them.”
“’That’s when I took my leave,’ he told us. ‘They say they aim to stay for a day or two and fish the lake. I told them they were welcome to it.’
“Well, word about those horses spread quick. The next day, I was working in the fields when I saw a group of children coming up the path towards me. Leading the way was a girl whose family tended the next farm over from Uncle Freddie’s. She was joined by two brothers who lived with their granddad in a bunker in the woods not far from the lake. The older one was nearly a grown man, tall and broad-shouldered, with the shadow of a beard around his chin, but there was something wrong with his wits. He would often come down by the lake and splash around for hours in the muddy shallows. Folks around there called him Mook, though I reckon his given name was more like Mike or Mark or somesuch.
“The girl—I wish I could remember her name but it’s fled me—she calls out. ‘Hey Charlie Ingalls,’ she calls to me. ‘We’re going to go see the horses! Want to come?’
“Well, I knew my uncles wouldn’t want me going near the men’s camp. And I tried to shake my head no, but somehow my head nodded yes. And the next thing I knew I was skipping and laughing with the other children, making my way towards the other side of the lake, my hoe lying abandoned in the jimcorn field.
“We quieted as we approached the old houses, creeping cautiously through the trees. Mook kept making excited little grunts and had to be shushed. Finally, we came to an old stone wall overgrown with moss and creepers. I slipped my boot into a toehold and lifted myself up to peep over.
“There they were. Four of them, each a different pattern of dappled white and black and brown. They were tied up beside an abandoned stone cottage. Wonderstruck, I watched them stamp their tall muscular legs as they jostled with one another and tossed their manes into the air. They were beautiful.
“The others had climbed up beside me. They were watching the horses too, peeping their faces up over the wall. There was no sign of the men anywhere. Then, Mook decided to climb over. He hoisted himself clumsily up, then sprawled belly-down over the top of the wall, before tumbling head-first down the other side.
“Mook’s brother called out to him to come back, but that simple-minded young man just clapped his hands as he bobbed closer and closer to the horses, bouncing from foot to foot in that funny tip-toed walk of his.
“Suddenly, there was a shout. Hey you, it said, get away from them horses. Immediately, I ducked down behind the wall. Ooooooooh, I heard Mook moan in confusion. The horses made agitated noises. There were more shouts, closer, angrier. Don’t move, the voice warned, get your hand out of your pocket. Get your hand out—
“And then the gunshot that made me run. I leapt down from the wall, and I ran, and I didn’t stop until I was back home.
“I was scared to say what had happened at first, but Uncle Freddie eventually got it out of me. He and Uncle Louis argued about what to do. Finally, as evening fell, they locked the farmhouse doors and barred the shutters, and Louis and Freddie took turns at watch. When morning came, they found that the men on the other side of the lake had pulled up stakes and moved on.
“Uncle Freddie never scolded or faulted me over what had happened with Mook and the horsemen. But I felt awful with guilt just the same. The next day, I stayed on the farm and tended to my chores while Uncle Freddie and Uncle Louis went to inspect the deserted campsite. After that, it was seldom spoken of. I saw Mook’s brother once or twice more down by the lake, but the boy disappeared soon after, and Uncle Freddie said he’d heard their granddad had abandoned the bunker and gone west.
“Uncle Louis died the following winter,” said Pa. “And it wasn’t long after that we left Upstate behind ourselves, Uncle Freddie and me. We just carried on. After a while, the memory got to feel distant, like something I’d just heard about in a story. The sound of that gunshot stayed with me for some time though. I’d hear it sometimes in quiet moments, and I’d feel the fear and guilt again, the same as I’d felt scrambling down from that wall.”
Pa grew quiet then, staring up at the stars. Laura lay against him, rocked gently by the slow rise and fall of his chest. She could have let herself drift off to sleep right there, except that something still nagged at her.
“But Pa,” she asked finally. “What about Mabel? What about those men?”
Pa laughed and kissed her forehead.
“You’re too sharp by half, my little green soybean,” he told her. “I should’ve known you’d not let go of a question once you’d got your teeth sunk into it. We grown-ups have a way of making everything about ourselves, I suppose. About the past. But what’s that to you? Alright. I’ll try again to tell you what I know.”