The men had wanted silver. That seemed to be the short of it.
The answer hadn’t felt especially satisfying to Laura when Pa had tried to lay it out for her the night before, and, when she awoke the next morning, her questions seemed to have only grown as she slept, like seedlings sprouting new shoots in the moist night air. As they struck camp, ate a cold breakfast, and continued once more down the road, Laura kept on asking Pa her questions about the two gray-cloaked strangers, and Pa did his best to answer them.
Laura knew that she was just a little girl and couldn’t expect her parents to tell her everything. But as Pa continued to talk to her, more and more openly, about what had happened back on Tobias Goatherd’s porch, Laura began to realize that Pa himself didn’t really understand. And that thought upset her far more than Pa keeping things from her.
“I had a pit in my stomach, right from the moment I saw their shapes coming up the road,” Pa told her at one point. “But when I ran back to tell the old man, he didn’t seem over concerned. Some Ortega boys up from the local supervisory, he reckoned. Some in the garrison’d grown fond of his cheeses over the years, I was to understand, and they sent someone up from time to time to trade. Even so, when your Ma told me you girls were away picking apples, that set my mind a good deal at ease. You did the right thing staying put where you were.”
While Ma had taken Baby Grace and gone to find Mary and Laura, Pa and Tobias Goatherd had waited on the porch of the main house for the two strangers. By then, the men had reached the ruins of Happy Valley Restup and turned down the footpath towards the house. Tobias Goatherd didn’t recognize them. New recruits perhaps, he told Pa, scratching beneath his beard. Pa’s uneasiness returned. All the while, he never thought to wonder what had become of Mabel the wildgirl.
The tall stranger, the one with the long curly hair, greeted them warmly. But there was something studied about his smile that Pa distrusted. The stout man, the one with the hunch, hardly met their eyes. He kept looking about, as if taking stock.
The strangers claimed to work for one of Clan Ortega’s supervisors, but the name wasn’t one that Tobias Goatherd recognized. The shorter man kept trying to ask questions. How many people lived on this settlement? How many livestock did they have? How many acres under cultivation? How many guns? How many bullets?
The taller man laughed the questions off, apologizing for his companion. There was a certain tension. Yet, the conversation struck a cordial enough chord at first. Tobias Goatherd fetched a cool jug of cider from the cellar, which the travelers seemed to appreciate. They discussed weather and the latest news out of Davenport. Pa asked them whereabouts they were from, and their answers seemed forthright.
It was when the men began talking about taxes that things began to go bad. Tobias Goatherd explained that he had an arrangement with an official named Malcolm Syed out of a place called Hawkeye Crossing. But the shorter man snapped how Hawkeye Crossing had nothing to do with it.
“Now for my part, I can’t say I exactly knew who had the right of it,” Pa admitted. “Tobias, he was perfectly matter-of-fact. He’s got papers that show his claim to the land, he tells them just as cool as you please, all legal and proper and stamped by this man Syed. But even I know it’s a tricky business, land claims this far out on the frontiers.”
In part at least, it seemed the source of the trouble was all the way down in Davenport. Supervisors were appointed by the Clan Council. Old Lucius Ortega had been Clan Chairman for as long as Pa could remember. Only, now, talk was that Old Man Ortega was very sick. And people in Davenport disagreed about who should be Clan Chairman next. This made things confusing for everyone living in Ortega territory, especially out in the remote supervisories, since no one seemed certain just who was in charge.
The two strangers looked the part of Ortega men, that was true enough, allowed Pa. But anyone could find themselves a gray cloak. Tobias Goatherd had insisted after it was all done that the men hadn’t been official tax collectors at all, just some bandits roaming the frontiers and intimidating honest homesteaders. They’d had papers with them, but Tobias Goatherd said the seals were wrong. Sloppy forgeries, he told Pa. And he said how when he’d asked after men he knew in the local supervisory garrisons, the strangers had been vague and evasive.
Still, Pa was of a mind they should have offered the men something just to send them on their way. They’d wanted silver. How much seemed open to discussion. Tobias Goatherd claimed he had none, though even Pa found that difficult to believe, what with donations from pilgrims to the Herald’s Shrine and his trade in fruit and cheese. In any case, Pa reckoned the strangers might’ve accepted their tax in kind. Tobias Goatherd could have offered them fresh supplies at least.
Instead, the old man had been amiable but firm. He knew their sort, he told Pa when it was all over. Such men take and take. Appease them, let them think for a moment that you recognize their power over you, and they will never stop. He recited some passage from The Letters of DeShawn LaCore, though Pa couldn’t recall its relevance.
Laura thought a lot about that after Pa explained it to her.
“I think Tobias Goatherd was right,” she said finally. “If you showed those men what you had, they’d just take it. And they’d know they could just come back and take more. Whenever they want.”
It was late morning. They had covered a good distance since striking camp. The creetrock road was smooth and unbroken here, and Pa kept the handcar rolling at a crisp and steady clip. Laura had to take big steps if she wanted to stay apace with Pa and ask her questions.
“You may be right, Laura,” said Pa. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about people, it’s that no two are alike. I’m cautious about judging a man by his ‘sort’ or pretending I know what he’s like to do. We’ll never know now, I suppose. I just can’t help thinking things didn’t have to go as they did. But done is done.”
Pa seemed troubled by the way Tobias Goatherd had acted after Mabel attacked the men. The old man had seemed surprised when the wildgirl suddenly swung onto the porch brandishing her knife. But not surprised enough, it seemed to Pa.
The killing had shaken him, Pa confessed. He told Laura how the barrel of his rifle had rattled about uncontrollably as he tried to steady his hands. Yet, when Tobias Goatherd had risen to his feet, the look in the old man’s pale eyes was one of sad resignation. There was no trace of the shock or the horror that Pa felt. With the shorter man still bleeding on the ground beside them, Tobias Goatherd had gone to Mabel and gently cupped the sides of her face with his hands. Pa had watched speechless as the wildgirl bowed forward while Tobias Goatherd planted a kiss on her forehead.
After, Tobias Goatherd had clapped Pa gravely on the shoulder and murmured some words of regret. Beside them, Mabel knelt to wipe her knife on the stranger’s cloak. Tobias Goatherd seemed to know just what to do about the bodies, and Mabel followed his lead without instruction. Pa had helped carry the short man down the porch steps and hoist him into Tobias Goatherd’s wheelbarrow, before leaving to check on Ma and Laura and her sisters. When he returned, the bodies were gone without a trace. Even the puddles of blood had been cleaned. Only an ambiguous dark stain on the porch remained. Tobias Goatherd told Pa he’d paint that over soon enough.
“I hope the old man was right. Maybe they were just bandits, out here running some hustle or other on their own,” he said.
Pa didn’t say the other options, but Laura thought she could imagine them. Maybe the strangers really did work for someone. Maybe for Clan Ortega like they said. Maybe one faction or another in Davenport was fooling with the supervisory maps or maybe the men or their supervisor had made a mistake.
Or maybe they worked for some other warlord, just pretending like he had authority from the Davenport Council, or they were part of a bigger bandit gang. Or maybe Tobias Goatherd wasn’t telling things completely straight.
Whatever way the truth of it was, Pa had decided they couldn’t risk staying in Happy Valley Orchards another day.
“And remember,” Pa reminded Laura and Mary again. “If we come upon others on the road, you’re not to mention where we’ve been or who we’ve met. Especially if they have on gray cloaks or gray vests.”
“We wouldn’t say anything at all to strangers, Pa,” said Mary. “No matter what they were wearing. We know better than that.”
Laura nodded in agreement, but she thought to herself that staying silent would feel a good deal easier if she was allowed to carry a nice long knife beneath her tunic.
It was mid-afternoon when they reached a fork in the road. The wide old number road that had run through Happy Valley Orchards kept going west, up and over the horizon, but a smaller path turned south. What creetrock remained was no more than a patchy layer of gravel, which disappeared for long stretches beneath soil and grass. They stopped while Pa consulted the map. Then he nodded to Ma and began to turn the car.
The road meandered through groves of buttonbush and hazelnut. They camped that night by a creek. There was wood enough for a nice roaring fire, and they all felt their spirits much improved.
Ma boiled up a pot of apple leathers and saltmeat until both were soft and juicy. Then she took a handful of hazelnuts that Laura and Mary had helped her gather, wrapped them in cloth and struck them over and over with a rock. She sprinkled the crushed hazelnut into the boiling pot along with a few pinches of other herbs from her jars.
The stew was sweet and spicy and thick, and it warmed Laura all over. When they had all had their fill, there was hardly a drop left inside the pot. After supper, Laura went to the handcar and returned with Pa’s two-string. Slyly, she laid it on the ground beside him. Pa laughed and allowed as how he could take a hint.
He rested his back against a log and stretched his legs out, crossing one over the other. Then he rested the drum of the instrument on his thigh and picked up his bow. The taut snakeskin across the barrel’s mouth thrummed. He began to sing.
A lonely mother gazes out of her window
Staring at a son that she just can’t touch
Walking down the road with no one by his side
But he doesn’t realize he hurts her so much
All her praying only quickens his footsteps
‘Cause he can’t help lying wake nights to wonder
So he leaves to make his fortune the best way he knows how
Trading hither for the perilous yonder.
Don’t go chasing waterfalls
Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to
I know that you’re gonna have it your way or nothing at all
But I think you’re moving too fast
The next day and the next and for a good many days after, they followed that road south. It was tiring at first. Laura’s legs had forgotten what life on the road was like. But soon they remembered. Before long, walking was once again as natural to her as breathing, and it was the moments of rest, lingering in one place for too long, that felt strange.
She told Ma as much. That’s your father’s wanderlust, Ma told her. She made it sound like it was some dreadful disease that Laura had caught.
The familiar rhythm returned. One foot in front of the other, propelling her steadily forward, towards new places and new experiences. There was something soothing about it, entrancing. How far away Happy Valley Orchards seemed and how quickly. More and more, Laura’s questions about days past were crowded out by her curiosity about what lay ahead. Soon, they would see the Great Eighty Road, Pa promised, the enormous old number road that once stretched the whole length of Old Merica, from Eastern Sea to the Western. Laura imagined walking it end to end, seeing all the wondrous sights and meeting all the strange peoples who must surely live in between those far-flung oceans.
Eventually, their road south wound down through a wooded basin where the land was soft and marshy. Pa had to go slow and careful to make sure the wheels of the handcar wouldn’t sink down into the moist earth.
Laura saw animals she had never seen before. When they stopped one afternoon beside a little pond bristled all over in reeds, Laura watched tall white herons stalking through the water on their spindly legs, trying to spear fish with their long sharp beaks. And then there was the big snake with the dark brown stripes and the diamond-shaped head that Laura had come across coiled up behind a log. Pa said it was a viper and warned her to stay well away. Laura took one last look back at the snake. It was motionless as a stone, but its black eyes seemed alert, cold but watchful.
It was good land for game, and they often camped early so that Pa would have a chance to go out hunting. One evening, he came back with the biggest bird that Laura had ever laid eyes on slung over his shoulder. Pa said that it was called a turkey. They roasted it over the campfire that night. The meat was mild and savory, and there was so much of it that they could hardly eat it all before it spoiled. Even Jack had all the turkey he could eat.
“If you think that turkey was something, just wait until we get to the Wastes,” Pa told Mary and Laura, as he carved up the last of the meat the following night, plopping the choicest cuts into Ma’s stewpot and tossing the scraps to Jack. “Wastebirds can grow to be taller than a man, to hear some tell it. I reckon that’s an exaggeration. You know how folks are. But they’re mighty big as birds go, you can believe that much. That big tom I bagged yesterday, why he’d look like a woodpecker next to a wastebird if you credit even half of what travelers say.”
As they passed through that moist green country, the Merican road they followed vanished as often as not, swallowed up by clubmoss and creepers. Every so often they passed the burnt orange shells of lectric cars, wagons, and plows. Crusty tufts of lichen clung to their shoulders, and branches curled out through their ribs. Laura sometimes mistook them for part of the vegetation.
The road seemed little used, and it was not until they drew closer to their destination that they began to encounter signs of recent habitation amid the wilderness. They had still seen no people, but, as the Great Eighty Road approached, they began to come across the traces of campsites, clearings where trees had been felled and every so often a ring of stones arranged around a cold fire pit.
Late one day, they stopped by a cluster of creetrock ruins. Timber beams had been erected against several of the old walls, forming a series of simple lean-to shelters. Pa called out, asking if anyone was home. After scouting about, he decided the site had been abandoned for some time, and that night they camped cozy beneath a lean-to.
That was a good thing, because the next day they awoke to a light drizzle.
The rain continued all morning. Mary kept her hood up, but Laura couldn’t bear to shroud her face for long, with nothing to watch except her boots trudging along the soggy road. Inevitably, she would toss her hood back and just let the rain speckle her cheeks and forehead, droplet by droplet, until enough droplets gathered together to drip from her nose or chin. Ma would make her cover her head then, and for a while Laura’s world would narrow once again behind a tunnel of stitched lectric fabrics and buckskin.
It was early that afternoon when their road ran straight into a river. When he saw the trail drop off ahead, Pa set down the handcar. Laura followed at his heels as he walked carefully out onto a creetrock precipice that overlooked the riverbank.
Creetrock pillars rose out of the water where a bridge had once been. They seemed to get shorter and shorter as they approached the center of the river, as if slowly wading down to bathe beneath its surface. Down on the banks beneath the creetrock overlook, an iron beam, bowed and rusted, slithered out of the water and up through the rocks and mud like a great brown river snake.
It was the widest river Laura had seen since the Mighty Misisip. From where she stood, the trees on the other side were nothing but a distant green curtain. And, where the Misisip had been still and solid when Laura had crossed it that winter, this river rushed rumbling past her, hissing white foam as its waters collided with the creetrock pillars. Laura watched the ripples of raindrops sweep across the river’s span and knew they could not cross.
Yet, Pa did not seem concerned.
“End of the line,” he announced. “Tobias warned we’d lose the road at the Yowa River. The going may get a might rougher from here out. But not to worry. Shouldn’t be far now to the Eighty Road.”
There was a muddy trail that ran alongside the river. Pa kept his hatchet handy, tucked through the loop of his belt, for he often needed to stop and chop aside encroaching bushes to make way for the handcar. Their progress was slow.
A little while later, not long after turning aside at the collapsed bridge, they finally encountered people. Their rough side trail led them back down alongside the riverbank, at a bend where the waters slowed. There, on the other side of the river, they saw a group of women. They were fishing. Their thin, supple poles hung out over the water and bobbed up and down as the current tugged them. Pa hailed them.
“Bound for Hawkeye Crossing!” he shouted. “How far?”
Some of the women waved. Laura heard one of them shout something, but she couldn’t make out the words over the rumble of the river. Pa tried again.
“The Old Eighty Road! This way?” he shouted, pointing downriver.
More indistinct voices came from the other bank. Pa shook his head and shrugged. They continued down the trail.
When the way became impassable, they were forced to leave sight of the river. Pa dragged the handcar up a path that turned and backtracked so many times that Laura soon lost any sense of which direction they were heading. The sound of the river faded into the distance and disappeared.
“Charles, are you sure this is the right way?” said Ma when they had walked what seemed to be a good many hours. “I fear we’re going in circles.”
“We’re close, Caroline,” Pa assured her. “Did you see those ruins we passed some ways back? The Eighty Road can’t be far off. If we can just make it through this last rough stretch, we may yet lay eyes on it by day’s end.”
Unfortunately, the day was ending quickly. The rain had stopped. Light streamed sideways through the trees, painting their trunks in checkered patterns of amber and gray.
Ma and Pa finally resigned themselves to making camp for the night. They had just begun to look for likely spots to set down their bedrolls when the little trail they had been following burst from underneath the trees and out into open sky.
One moment Laura’s boots were sloshing up a muddy hill, and the next they came slapping down onto a plateau of creetrock, as firm and flat as could be. She stopped. Her gaze slowly panned up from slab of creetrock beneath her boots. As she looked, she found that the gray, lectricmade stone just kept spreading out and out and out. Laura turned in a circle. Behind her and ahead of her both, as far as Laura could see, there it was. The Great Eighty Road.
It was wider than all the other Merican roads they had travelled laid side by side together, as wide as the wide river that had separated them from the fisherwomen.
Cracks arced across the creetrock like lightning forks or else coiled in upon one another like spider webs. Little islands of soil and vegetation sprouted here and there from its fissures. Yet, as the Eighty Road unfurled out into the distance, its imperfections were swallowed by the road’s sheer scale. Out towards the farthest west and out towards the farthest east, the old number road stretched, straight and smooth, a thick unbroken band of gray, stark against the walls of trees that framed it.
While Laura gaped, Pa was still struggling to drag the handcar up the final slope. Ma had turned back to help. Finally, the car’s wheels found traction at the road’s crumbling edges, and Ma and Pa joined Laura upon the gray vastness of the Eighty Road. Ma murmured a prayer under her breath. Pa wiped the sweat from his forehead and stared out across the endless ribbon of creetrock with a look of wonder. He let out a whistle of appreciation.
“Well, here it is,” he said. “How do you like it, girls? The road that will take us to our new home on the Wastes.”