“It’s time for us to go,” said Pa when he found them there.
Laura lay cradled in Ma’s lap, beneath the shade of the 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 her sisters.
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. but 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 there, down on the porch of main house, with Pa and Mabel, and Tobias Goatherd and the two bodies.
If she closed her eyes, she could see those bodies 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.
Yet, by the time Laura and her family reached the house, the bodies of the two strangers were gone. Laura wondered what had happened to them, but she didn’t ask. She had tried to voice some of her questions as she followed Pa back down the hill, but Pa had hushed her before she could even find the words.
“Later, Soybean,” he told her. “Right now you must get yourself ready to leave. It’s past midday, and we should try to get some road behind us before dark.”
And so without questions and without further discussion, Laura gathered her things. Then she helped load up the handcar.
Pa lifted their barrels of saltmeat and goat cheese into the car. Then he set about greasing the axles with a fresh coat of tallow, while Ma rummaged through the cargo box, 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.
Tobias Goatherd emerged onto the porch at one point. He watched them work, a somber expression on his face, but he said nothing.
Finally, when Pa had satisfied himself that the handcar was ready to travel, he joined Tobias Goatherd on the porch. The two men spoke in low tones, before disappearing together into the house.
They were gone a long while. Ma finished loading and securing their supplies. When that was done, she took Baby Grace and set her stool down beside the car to nurse. Nearby was Mary, sitting on the ground beneath the shade of the handcar, her knees pulled up against her chest.
Laura went over to join her sister. Her blue batman bag hung from her hand by its straps, swinging and slapping against her ankle as she walked. Laura tossed the bag down next to Mary before flopping to the ground beside her. Together, they sat quietly shoulder-to-shoulder in the handcar’s shadow, picking at the weeds that poked up through the gravel.
At one point, Laura looked up. Directly across from them, on the far side of the yard, was Mabel. The wildgirl was perched atop the remains of a creetrock wall, her bare feet dangling just above the weeds. She had been sitting in that same spot for quite some time. From there, she had watched as Laura and her family gathered their things, her expression as cryptic as ever. Now, Laura found herself returning the girl’s gaze. In silence, the two of them stared at one another from across the yard.
Laura twisted a dandelion stem thoughtfully round and round her pinky. That very morning, she and Mabel had sat side-by-side in the shed, mixing milkpaint. Now, the wildgirl seemed almost a stranger. The distance between them felt enormous.
“Should we be scared of her, do you think?” Laura whispered, without breaking Mabel’s gaze.
Mary looked over at the creetrock wall. 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 reconcile the scrawny barefoot girl seated on the wall with 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.
“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 stitched 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 looked at the necklace. She had seen Mary working on it 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. Smooth glass pebbles, copper coins, colorful chips of hardmold, and other tiny lectric charms sparkled 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 facing each other. A gust of wind made the weeds dance around their ankles. Laura’s eyes momentarily drifted down towards Mabel’s hips, where the smallest tip of the girl’s leather-sheathed knife was peeking out from beneath her tunic. She looked away and tried to pretend not to have noticed.
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 tell. 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 Prezdent 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 along the road that ran down the middle of Happy Valley Orchards. The road had no name, not on Rakesh Halfsilver’s map and not as far as Tobias Goatherd knew about, 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. It was wide enough in some places to fit three or four cars across, and its creetrock foundations were so deep that hardly anything grew on top.
It was the same road that had brought the two strangers in the gray cloaks. They had come from the east. Laura and her family took the road in the opposite direction, westward, chasing the sun. As the great car spike of Happy Valley disappeared behind them over the horizon, Laura thought again about those men.
“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?”
Pa gave a short, hollow laugh. He shook his head. Glancing back at Ma and Mary, who had fallen a few paces behind, 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 there, best as I understand it. Now is that a fair bargain?”
They camped that night in an open field beside the road. There was no wood for a fire, and they ate a cold supper of cheese and apples as dusk settled over the Yowa countryside. Pa sat beside the handcar, his back resting against its wooden spokes. He looked tired, but he called Laura and Mary to him.
They curled up on either side of him, and he wrapped an 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.”
The men had wanted silver. That seemed to be the short of it.
The explanation didn’t feel especially satisfying to Laura. As the stars came out overhead and a cool night wind began to blow through the tall grass, she kept asking questions. Pa did his best to answer.
Laura knew that she was just a little girl and couldn’t expect her parents to tell her everything. Yet, as Pa tried to explain to her 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 said 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.”
As the men approached the porch of the main house, however, Tobias Goatherd confessed they didn’t look familiar. New recruits perhaps, he told Pa, scratching beneath his beard. At that, Pa’s uneasiness had returned.
The tall stranger, the one with the long curly hair, greeted them warmly. But there was something studied about his smile that Pa distrusted. His stouter companion, on the other hand, hardly met their eyes. According to Pa, 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. Pa had felt a certain tension in the air, but, despite the short man’s pointed manner, the conversation struck a cordial enough tone at first. Tobias Goatherd had fetched a cool jug of cider from the cellar, which the travelers seemed to appreciate. They’d 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. “The old man, 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, when folks start talking of territory and sovereignty and land claims and the like.”
Pa reckoned that it might all have something to do with the situation down in Davenport. Regional supervisors were appointed by the Clan Council, Pa explained. And, for as long as Pa could remember, the Clan Council had been controlled by Old Lucius Ortega. Only, now, talk was that Old Man Ortega was very sick. And people seemed to disagree about who should be Clan Chairman next. It was a confusing time to live in Ortega territory, it seemed. Pa figured that, with all the uncertainty and everyone picking sides and all, it might be tough to always know who was in charge of what.
The two strangers had looked the part of Ortega men, Pa allowed. But he supposed that anyone could find themselves a gray cloak. After it was all done, Tobias Goatherd had insisted that the men hadn’t been official tax collectors at all, just some bandits roaming the frontiers and intimidating honest folk. He said that the seals were wrong on the papers they’d shown. Sloppy forgeries, he told Pa. And when he’d asked after men he knew in the local supervisory garrisons, the strangers had been vague and evasive.
Still, whether the men were real tax collectors or just bandits, Pa was of a mind they should have offered them 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 his trade in fruit and cheese, not to mention donations by pilgrims visiting the Herald’s Shrine. 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 later. 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.”
The evening was growing chill, and Pa pulled a blanket from the handcar and draped it over Laura’s shoulders.
“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.”
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. Tobias Goatherd, on the other hand, had maintained a composure throughout that seemed to trouble Pa. When he 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 and Tobias Goatherd planted a kiss on her forehead.
Pa began telling Laura and Mary about how he had helped Tobias Goatherd carry the shorter man’s body down the porch steps and hoist him into a wheelbarrow. Suddenly, he stopped himself with a wince. Laura realized then that Pa hadn’t meant to say as much as he had, that somewhere along the way he had forgotten he was talking to Mary and Laura and started talking more to himself.
Pa gazed up at the stars. Laura could see his eyes tracing one constellation then another, as if making sure that each was in its proper place.
“Have I told you the story of the time I saw the horses?” he said at last.
Laura knew the story, but, as Pa began to tell it, she quickly realized that it was different this time. There were parts she had never heard. She 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 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 jimtaters 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 stop there. On the far side of the lake, there was a cluster of abandoned houses where they would stop and make camp. Mostly, they were heading north. These were the days when the old Ghost Cities were still emptying out. We saw plenty of displacees from Baltimore and Filidelf and the like pass through our way, folks fleeing the endless wars, looking for a new home not so ravaged by chaos and disease.
“But one summer a group of men arrived going the other way, towards the very places everyone else seemed to be trying to get away from. That wasn’t the only thing that made these particular visitors so memorable, though. What really got folks around Upstate to talking was that these men had horses.
“Now, I had never seen a horse before. Uncle Freddie had owned one, but all the horses in those parts had died some years before I was even born. Killed off by the same fever that took most of the cattle. So 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. A neighbor had seen the riders arrive, and I listened in fascination as she and Uncle Freddie discussed the visiting horsemen. When Uncle Freddie announced his intention to pay a call on the group 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 Freddie returned, 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 couldn’t resist asking them about their horses, though.
“‘Mentioned as how seeing mounted men is a mighty unusual sight in these parts,’ Uncle Freddie said. ‘Told them how, even before the cattle fever, no one hereabouts had managed to breed a healthy foal for as long as I could remember. Where had they come by their animals, I asked them. Well, these fellows, they were cagey on that point too. “Up north” was all I could get out of them. And that’s about when I took my leave. They say they aim to stay for a day or two and fish the lake. I told them they were welcome to it.’
“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 boys, 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 Turnip, though I’ve no idea why.
“The girl—I wish I could remember her name but it’s fled me—she calls out to me. ‘Hey Charlie Ingalls,’ she says. ‘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 it 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 jimtater field.
“We quieted as we approached the old houses, creeping cautiously through the trees. Turnip 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 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, Turnip 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.
“Turnip’s brother called out to him to come back, but the 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 Turnip 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. All night long, they 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 that boy 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 Turnip’s brother once or twice more down by the lake, but he disappeared soon after, and Uncle Freddie said he’d heard their granddad had abandoned his bunker and gone west.
“Uncle Louis died the following winter. 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.”