It was dark when Laura woke.
Everything was a jumble. She couldn’t sort out at first where her memories ended and where the dreams began.
She remembered something stalking her. She could still feel it, icy on her skin, the terror of being treed by some unseen predator. That had been real, surely. But the demon face in the bushes? Yellow eyes with square black pupils. Long snout. Had she seen that truly or was that a part of the nightmares that followed?
She remembered falling, down down, and that was about where things began to blur. The face stayed with her, hovering over her, its features twisting and changing, dissolving in and out of focus. She felt as if she were still falling, while at the same time she saw herself from above, lying there asleep beneath the apple tree.
At some point, the face in the bushes began to take on new aspects. Its snout and misshapen pupils faded away. Its yellow eyes became those of a person driven mad by the Ague. The look in them was savage and threatening, but now they flickered with an unmistakable humanity that only made the face more horrible.
She dreamt they came for her then. Laura watched helplessly from above as the fiends came shambling out from the bushes in ones and twos, converging on her paralyzed body. And at the same time she was back inside that body. She felt the touch as one of the yellow-skinned horrors scooped her up. She saw herself hanging limp in its skeletal arms. She could do nothing but wait in mute terror for the fiend to begin tearing into her flesh in its delirium.
But then she was back home. Safe in the little house in the Big Woods. It was morning. The smell of soybread drifted up to the loft where she lay, and she could hear Pa playing his two-string on the porch and singing one of his old traditionals.
I gazed a gazeless stare
We walked a million hills
I must have died alone
A long, long time ago
Who knows? Not me
I never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world
The scene meandered, with little regard for coherence of time or place. Jack was there. And Marco, the boy soldier who had deserted the Army of Faith’s Spear Triumphant.
Finally, Laura woke again. This time, it was dark. She was inside, abed, but it wasn’t her loft back home. Someone was squeezing her hand, and Laura turned her head to find Ma gazing down at her.
Laura tried to sit up. She opened her mouth to speak, but Ma shushed her gently and pressed a damp cloth to her forehead.
“Easy now, Laura,” said Ma. “You took quite a fall. We need to make sure nothing’s broken.”
Disoriented, Laura tried to look around. She was lying on a bed, built low to the ground, on a mattress stuffed with hay or straw. Twilight trickled in from a small window above her head, but otherwise the room was illuminated only by a lantern hanging from the far wall. From within its metal cage, the candle cast a flickering glow across half of Ma’s concerned face.
Only as her eyes adjusted could Laura make out the figures standing behind Ma, crowding the small room. There was Pa, holding Baby Grace in his arms, and there was Mary right beside him, hanging onto his coat. When Laura looked in her direction, Mary let out a little sob of relief and clutched Pa tighter.
But there were two other figures that Laura did not recognize. They stood a few steps apart from Mary and Pa, nearer the curtain-covered door. Laura stared at them for a moment, half convinced that they were lingering phantoms from her dream. The fickle lantern light obscured them in dancing shadows. Yet, as Laura stared, the strangers did not disappear.
The first was a man. He was shorter than Pa, and his back was stooped. His head was bare but for a ring of long gray wisps circling the back of his skull from ear to ear and a single lonely tuft sprouting from the very top of his forehead. His beard, long and white, hung from his chin in wild curls.
The second figure appeared to be a girl, perhaps a bit older than Mary. She fidgeted beside the doorway, as if afraid to fully enter the room. Her hair was short but tangled. She had been staring intently at Laura, but when Laura made eye contact, the girl looked away and ducked deeper into the shadows.
Seeing that she was awake, the old man approached Laura. He looked her over, scratching at the underside of his beard and bobbing his head up and down as if in appreciation of a song that only he could hear.
Laura’s body was wrapped in a wool blanket, but her right leg stuck out from underneath. Laura looked down, and there she saw half a dozen little metal pins sticking up out of her knee. Laura knew that they were medicine needles, and she made an effort to keep her leg still so as not to disrupt their healing effects.
The old man tapped each of the needles in turn. Then he held up a crooked finger in front of her face and asked her to follow it with her eyes as he waved it slowly back and forth. He raised two more fingers and asked Laura how many there were. She said that there were three.
“Leg may have a minor sprain,” the old man said at last. His voice was thin, and it whistled faintly as his words made their way past a mouth missing half its teeth. “But it don’t seem the bump to her head is like to do any lasting harm. The Prezdent Above was watching over her, I don’t doubt. I’d keep those needles in another hour or so to be safe, but with a bit of rest, I warrant your girl will end up no worse for her tumble.”
He turned to Ma, straightening up as much as his crooked back would allow.
“She can spend the night here, in Mabel’s cottage,” he told her. “Best not to move her unnecessarily. You’ll want to stay with her here, I suppose. I’ll have Mabel prepare a room in the main house for your man and the other girls. It’ll be a deal less cramped.”
“We really don’t want to trouble you more than we already have,” said Ma.
“Trouble? Pshaw, not a bit, Ma’am,” the old man said. “The Prophet teaches that every guest is a blessing. And I’m sad to say we don’t get as many guests out this way as we used to, not with the situation down in Davenport being what it is.”
“Well, sir, we’re mighty obliged to you for your hospitality,” Pa said.
As Pa stepped forward into the candlelight, Laura saw the lines that worry had creased into his face. She felt a pang of guilt at all the trouble she’d caused.
“Try and get some more sleep, little one,” the old man said, turning to Laura, the whiskers around his mouth curling upwards in a kindly smile. “In the morning, if you’re feeling better, Mabel will take you around on a tour of the grounds. Would you like that?”
Laura wasn’t sure how to respond, but the old man’s smile was disarming. She nodded.
“Yes, I’m sure you would. Have you heard of Happy Valley Orchards? Pilgrims once traveled from all corners to pay tribute to the relics housed here. As I was telling your daddy just before you woke, it has been my honor to be its custodian for more years now than I care to say. My name is Tobias. Tobias Goatherd folks call me down Davenport way. You just let me know if you need anything. For now, I’ll fetch you back a nice cup of nettle tea to help you sleep.”
“Thank you, Mr. . . . Mr. Goatherd,” Laura managed to say.
Tobias Goatherd smiled again.
“A resilient girl you’ve got here, Ingalls,” he told Pa.
As the old man turned to leave, there was a sudden flurry of movement from beside the door. The girl with the short, tangled hair ducked past Tobias Goatherd and emerged next to Laura’s bedside. She stood there a moment, looking down at Laura with an odd expression on her face. Then, without a word, she thrust a hand toward Laura. In it was Oprah the ragdoll.
Caught off guard, Laura stared at the doll a moment. Finally, she reached out and took Oprah from the young woman’s stiff, outstretched hand.
“Thank you,” Laura murmured, looking up with curiosity at older girl. The girl didn’t say anything. She just cocked her head and stared back.
Finally, clutching Oprah to her chest, Laura cleared her throat.
“I’m Laura,” she said.
The girl’s mouth twitched. Then, she spun around and dashed abruptly from the room. Laura watched her go in bewilderment, wondering if she had done something wrong, but Tobias Goatherd was quick to reassure her.
“Don’t mind Mabel, sweetheart. That’s just her way. It was her what found you after your fall. Carried you all the way back here and fussed over your wounds while I tracked down your Mommy and Daddy. She’s taken a shine to you if I’m not mistaken. I hope you’ll forgive her acting a bit queer. I don’t know but what she’s never met a little girl before.”
Laura just nodded, unsure what to make of any of this.
“I’ll let you folks get settled in,” the old man continued. “Ingalls, perhaps you’ll join me on the porch of the main house before you retire? It’s been a spell since we’ve seen any travelers out this way, and I’d be obliged for any news you have to share from the north country.”
Pa said that he would. Then Tobias Goatherd gave them a little bow and left. Pa handed Baby Grace to Mary and approached Laura’s bed. Brushing aside a damp strand of hair, he planted a small kiss on her forehead before following the old man out the curtain-covered doorway.
Mary came over to lie at the foot of Laura’s bed. Ma dampened the cloth and pressed it again to Laura’s brow. Feeling overwhelmed by the day’s events, Laura was about to shut her eyes when, from somewhere outside, somewhere just beyond the open window above her bed, Laura once again heard the monstrous cry that she remembered coming from the bushes on the hilltop just before her fall. At the sound of that horrible, burbling scream, her forgotten terror suddenly returned. She tried to sit up, but Ma gently guided her back down.
“Shhhhh,” Ma told her. “It’s only the goats.”
Laura tossed and turned in bed. As tired as she felt, the questions rolling about in her head would not let her sleep.
Who was this Tobias Goatherd? And what were those frightsome statues she had seen from the hilltop? Who had set those lectric cars atop their iron spike?
Why couldn’t that odd Mabel girl speak? Were goats friendly animals and may Laura pet one?
Eventually, Ma removed the needles that were mending the energies in Laura’s leg. Then, she left to help get Mary settled in wherever she and Pa would be sleeping.
The bleating of the goats continued from time to time as Laura lay awake, but the sound no longer frightened her. At some point, in between the sound of the goats, Laura heard talking.
She scooted up in bed and listened more closely. It was Pa and Tobias Goatherd. Their voices were coming from somewhere outside, drifting in through the bare window above Laura’s head. Soon, Laura began to smell the sour, earthy smell of Pa’s pipe. As the men smoked, their conversation became louder and more jovial. Tobias Goatherd said something that made Pa laugh, and that laughter gave Laura a warm feeling. She leaned towards the window and tried to make out their words.
“And you, sir?” she heard Pa say. “How does a man come to make his home in a place like this, tending to these queer monuments?”
Tobias Goatherd’s chuckle drifted in through the window on the heels of another whiff of pipesmoke.
“Oh, that’s a long story,” he said. “But I’ll try to sum it up as best I can, if you’ll indulge me. I was born east of here, across the Illinoy, on the outskirts of Old Shicago, a place that folks in those days called Southside.”
“I saw the Great Towers in my youth,” came Pa’s voice. “My uncle Frederick often spoke of a trip he took to Old Shicago, long ago, before it was abandoned. Do you have memories of it then? From before the Great Bust?”
There was a pause, long enough that Laura thought that the men might have gone inside or lowered their voices. But then she heard something that sounded like a sigh or maybe a laugh, and Tobias Goatherd began speaking.
“From before? Hard to say, Ingalls. Hard to say. You know, old timer like me, back in my day, no one talked about no such ‘Great Bust.’ This beard of mine was already turning white when I heard that name used first time. Good deal after the fact. And never been quite sure what this ‘Great Bust’ refers to, to be honest with you. Seems to me some folks mean the one thing, some folks ‘tother.
“Are we talking about the storms and drought and such? The money crisis? Some say the Year of the Five Prezdents, that was the beginning of the end, but others say no, it was the May Madness what drove the nail in the coffin. I was born after the First Hyperflu, mind you, but that was still a good many years before the arrival of the Ague. So where’s that put me? This so-called Great Bust mighta happened a hundred years ago or two hundred or just fifty-odd, depending on who you talk to.
“Well, I’ll leave those questions to the scholars. All I know is the world had gone to hell long before I came into it. But I’ll tell you this, Ingalls. I’m old enough to remember the lights. Yes, sir. That’s true enough. I remember the lights.”
THE LIFE OF TOBIAS GOATHERD
“When I was a boy, I lived in a little house beside the big city.
“We could see the Great Towers from out our kitchen window. Or that’s the way I remember it anyhow. I can still picture the way the lights glowed from the lectric towers at night. Not always, mind you, but from time to time. Whenever the lectric fuel was flowing.
“I remember we had all manner of lectric contraptions inside that little house. One for washing clothing and another for washing dishes. And a lectric screen with the most marvelous pictures inside, all moving and talking and acting out all the old showtales.
“It’s all a bit fuzzy, what I recollect of old Shicago Southside. I left when I was a deal younger than your girl, the young tree climber in that hut yonder. Haven’t laid eyes on the Great Towers since.
“My mother was a teacher. My father . . . I confess, I no longer remember what my father did. They both perished in the fires during the May Madness. I fled Southside soon after with my older sister, and we never returned.
“We ended up in a displacement camp. It was run by soldiers what called themselves the Nashnell Guardsmen. They claimed to be under the command of the Merican Prezdent himself, though in those days there were more than one person who claimed that title. Later, the Guardsmen were driven out, and operation of the camp was turned over to a local militia loyal to the Illinoy Governor.
“Those were difficult years most everywhere. I had it easier than most, I reckon. My sister took up with one of the Guardsmen. He gave us food and kept us safe from some of the camp’s rougher elements. When the Guardsmen went east, he defected to the Illinoy militia and thus continued to look out for us.
“He was a good man, or better at any rate than many of the men who oversaw that camp. He treated my sister with kindness and respect as best I can remember. They both died in an outbreak of the Yellow Madness a few years later. May the Prophet be at their sides.
“I was fourteen when my sister died. Or fifteen or thirteen. Or older maybe. Who can say? At any rate, it was around then I left the camp.
“Life in the camp had been harsh. I’d witnessed my share of death and suffering. But it didn’t prepare me for the things I saw in the years that followed, not by a stretch.
“I moved from place to place for a time. I travelled with a group, other boys and girls who had survived the displacement camps and had nowhere to go when the militias melted and the chaos of the Hard Years set in. I was their leader, I suppose, in retrospect. We roamed back and forth across the Illinoy, scavving and foraging and doing what we could to survive. During that time, I saw things . . . And we did things . . .
“Well, but that’s the past. ‘The past is a rhyme etched in sand,’ as the Prophet says. My little bandit gang was eventually absorbed into the army of a caudillo named General Blair. Weren’t given much choice in the matter, though I don’t recall anyone protesting the conscription. The General’s men promised us three meals a day, something most of us hadn’t known for some time.
“I knew a bit of soldiering thanks to my sister’s benefactor back at the camp. He’d taught me how to care for a rifle and some basic military theory and tactics and so forth. As a result, I rose quick through the ranks of General Blair’s forces. Constitutional Patriot Front, we called ourselves. Before long, I was commanding my own brigade.
“I can see now that the CPF was up to much the same sort of banditry as me and my roving gang of hoodlums had been. But we had uniforms, and we always had some excuse or other for our pillage. Now, if that uncle of yours taught you any history, you might know that Blair’s army was routed by Lucius Ortega at the Battle of Beardstown. That’s Lucius Ortega the First, mind you, not his son. Anyhow, General Blair was killed in the fighting and that was the end of the CPF.
“I was there at Beardstown. And I tell you without the slightest shame that my unit surrendered before the explosions even began. Ortega had offered amnesty to any soldiers who laid down their arms, and I’d seen men shift their allegiance from one flag to another plenty enough times in my life. Loyalty was something leased not sold, that’s how I looked at it. To me, treason was just one more survival tactic.
“After Beardstown, I found my way across the Misisip to Davenport. And it was there that I first heard the words of the Prophet, Deshawn LaCore. The conduit of the Davenport fellowship was a woman we called Mother Chloe. She was one of the First Called, one who had known the Prophet himself in life. Listening to her relate the Prophet’s teachings, I looked back upon my life, on the violence I had witnessed and the suffering I had caused, and I was ashamed. But when Mother Chloe laid hands upon me to cleanse my aura, I could feel the toxins leaving my body. The shame was gone. I was reawakened.
“I spent many years in Davenport, working first as a ferryman and then a wheelwright and finally as apprentice to a doctor. The doctor was a fellow member of the Faith to whom I’d been introduced at prayer meeting. It was he that taught me what I know of needlework and such.
“Then, one day, the Prezdent Above appeared to me in a dream. I know how foolish it sounds, but that’s the plain fact of it. I don’t know how to say it any other way. He came to me and told me to strike out into the wilderness, and so I did. I settled my affairs, packed my meager belongings, and left Davenport, following the old number roads. Finally, the Prezdent Above led me here, to this valley, a valley filled with fruit, like the garden of Paradise that once covered the world before it was corrupted by man.
“When I saw the dinosaurs, I knew it to be a sign, for there is a passage in The Collected Sayings that speaks of such creatures. They are ancient beings. Before God created man, they roamed the earth for millions and millions of years. But ‘what grows must die, what waxes must wane and what comes together must fall apart,’ as the Prophet teaches. The Prezdent Above brought the cycle of the dinosaurs to an end, leaving mankind their bones to remind us of the impermanence of all things.
“It’s my belief that in Lectric Times, this must have been a place of worship, a holy site. As I explored the ruins, I came across its other monuments. The axman and his bull. The tree of cars. And then in that brick building yonder—it once housed a menagerie of sorts, if I understand the Merican inscriptions—there I found the relic that I had been brought here to seek. Hidden in this forgotten outpost, far from any settlement or convoy route of any note, were the earthly remains the Herald, the very angel God sent to call the Prophet to his mission.
“I knew then my life’s work. The Prezdent Above sent me here to care for these relics. And I’ve strived from that day on to create a fit home for them, a place where folks of the Faith can come to ask the Herald’s blessing. As you can see, I’ve tried restore the site’s monuments to some of their former magnificence. The better glorify the Prophet’s teachings.
“For some good many years after, pilgrims flocked to this holy place once more. Word spread. Time was when I’d have more travelers showing up at my door than I could properly house. But that was before the persecutions began in Davenport. The whole Lacorian Fellowship fell under suspicion thanks to General Rhee and his zealots, to where Old Man Ortega—that’s the son, mind you, not the Butcher of Beardstown—he went and practically outlawed the Faith all together.
“Oh, the Prophet’s light burns brighter than ever in people’s hearts, don’t you doubt it. But outward shows of piety like going out on pilgrimage? Well, it’s just too much risk for most folks.
“The Ortegas don’t much bother with the likes of me, not way out here, and I keep good relations with the local supervisory. But I don’t talk so freely about the Herald’s Shrine as I used to, that’s true enough. I suppose the time may come soon when it will be forgotten once more.
“But that’s the way of things, Ingalls. I’ve no complaints. No bitterness, no, not a bit. Why, as I near the twilight of this long life, I find myself more blessed than ever. Just look around you. The hills are abundant with fruit. And my flocks are thriving. Brought a single pair up from Davenport some time back, and the Prezdent Above has seen fit to multiply their numbers year upon year.
“And then, as if these blessings weren’t enough, one day He sent me Mabel. I’d never had the opportunity for children of my own, and perhaps He sensed my loneliness.
“Early one winter, I realized that someone was raiding my supplies. If it had just been food that was disappearing, I’d have suspected some wild animal. But when tools began to go missing, I knew that there must be someone camped in the hills beyond the old number road. So I lay in wait one night. Hearing a rustling, I crept up to my shed. Flinging open the door, my lantern light fell upon a child, disheveled and naked.
“I thought for certain she must have the Ague, and I might have shot her if I had been able to aim my rifle with lantern in hand. Instead, she escaped, and God gave me the chance to reflect. I’d seen Yellow Madness up close, mind you. I knew the signs, and this child had neither the look nor the behavior of a fiend.
“Over the course of months, I slowly won her trust. Began the long process of taming her, one might say, for she was like a wild animal when the Prezdent Above first sent her to me. She’d been on her own a good while, her whole life maybe or near about. I’d seen children like that in the years after the camps broke up. Ferals. I never have managed to teach her language, though whether there’s some physical malady that causes her muteness or it was simply too late by the time I got to her, I do not know.
“Wild she remains in many ways, but she has a good heart. Her aura glows with greater kindness and gentleness than many who are a good deal more acquainted with the society of men.
“It’s an odd thing to happen to one so late in life as me. My little bandit gang roaming the Illinoy shared a certain bond of necessity, I suppose. So too with my regiment in the CPF. And of course I knew the solace of being united in Faith during the years I spent worshipping with Mother Chloe and the Davenport Fellowship. But it’s only now, in this final chapter of my life, for the first time perhaps since my sister left all those years ago, that I finally feel as if I have a family. Look out for yours, Ingalls. It’s the greatest blessing the Prezdent Above can bestow upon a man.
“Pshaw. What a sentimental old bore I must sound like! I blame this pipeleaf of yours, Ingalls. It’s got my mind running off all wistful and contemplative-like. Is this what you folks grow up in those big north woods? I dare say it’s a good deal stronger than what they smoke down in Davenport, I’ll tell you that.
“Well, yes, I suppose one more small bowl before bed won’t tip the scales one way or ‘tother. You’re a good man, Ingalls. You take care of that family of yours. A blessing. A blessing.”
The smell of pipeleaf wafting past Laura’s window grew stronger and then subsided. Pa was speaking. His voice was softer than the boisterous old man’s, and Laura found she could not make out his words. The goats were bleating again. At some point, the sounds from outside worked their way into Laura’s dreams, as the wily hand of sleep gently brushed her eyelids shut.