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THE FOLK OF THE FRINGE (WEST)
It was a good scavenging trip eastward to the coast that summer, and Jamie Teague had a pack full of stuff before he even got to Marine City. Things were peaceful there, and he might have stayed, he was that welcome. But along about the start of August, Jamie said his good-byes and headed back west. Had to reach the mountains before the snows came.
He made fair time on his return trip. It was only September, he was already just west of Winston—but Jamie was so hungry that kudzu was starting to look like salad to him.
Not that hunger was anything new. Every time he took this months-long trip from his cabin in the Great Smokies to the coast and back, there were days here and there with nothing to eat. Jamie was a champion scavenger, but most houses and all the old grocery stores had their food cleaned out long since. Besides, what good was it to scavenge food? Any canned stuff you found nowadays was likely to be bad. What Jamie looked for was metal stuff folks didn't make no more. Hammers. Needles. Nails. Saws. One time he found this little out-of-the-way hardware store near Checowinity that had a whole crate of screws, a good size, too, and not a speck of rust. Near killed him carrying the whole mess of it back, but he couldn't leave any; he didn't get to the coast that often, and somebody was bound to find anything he left behind.
This trip hadn't been as good as that time, but it was still good, considering most of the country was pretty well picked over by now. He found him some needles. Two fishing reels and a dozen spools of resilient line. A lot of ordinary stuff, besides. And things he couldn't put in his pack: that long visit in Marine City on the coast; them nice folks north of Kenansville who took him in and listened to his tales. The Kenansville folks even invited him to stay with them, and fed him near to busting on country ham and sausage biscuits in the cool of those hot August mornings. But Jamie Teague knew what came of staying around the same folks too long, and so he pushed on. Now the memory of those meals made him feel all wishful, here on fringe of Winston, near three days without eating.
He'd been hungry lots of times before, and he'd get hungry lots of times again, but that didn't mean it didn't matter to him. That didn't mean he didn't get kind of faint along about midday. That didn't mean he couldn't get himself up a tree and just sit there, resting, looking down onto I-40 and listening to the birds bullshitting each other about how it was a fine day, twitter twit, a real fine day.
Tomorrow there'd be plenty to eat. Tomorrow he'd be west of Winston and into wild country, where he could kill him a squirrel with a stone's throw. There just wasn't much to eat these days in the country he just walked through, between Greensboro and Winston. Seems like everybody who ever owned a gun or a slingshot had gone out killing squirrels and possums and rabbits till there wasn't a one left.
That was one of the problems with this part of Carolina still being civilized with a government and all. Near half the people were still alive, probably. That meant maybe a quarter million in Guilford and Forsyth counties. No way could such a crowd keep themselves in meat just on what they could farm nearby, not without gasoline for the tractors and fertilizer for the fields.
Greensboro and Winston didn't know they were doomed, not yet. They still thought they were the lucky ones, missing most of the ugliness that just tore apart all the big cities and left whole states nothing but wasteland. But Jamie Teague had been a ways northward in his travels, and heard stories from even farther north, and what he learned was this: After the bleeding was over, the survivors had land and tools enough to feed themselves. There was a life, if they could fend off the vagabonds and mobbers, and if the winter didn't kill them, and if they didn't get one of them diseases that was still mutating themselves here and there, and if they wasn't too close to a place where one of the bombs hit. There was enough. They could live.
Here, though, there just wasn't enough. The trees that once made this country beautiful were going fast, cut up for firewood, and bit by bit the folks here were either going to freeze or starve or kill each other off till the population was down. Things would get pretty ugly.
From some stories he heard, Jamie figured things were getting pretty ugly already.
Which is why he skirted his way around Greensboro to the north, keeping his eyes peeled so he saw most folks before they saw him. No, he saw everybody before they saw him, and made sure they never saw him at all. That's how a body stayed alive these days. Especially a traveling man, a walking man like him. In some places, being a stranger nowadays was the same as having a death sentence from which you might get an appeal but probably not. Being invisible except when he wanted to be seen had kept Jamie alive right through the worst times of the last five years, the whole world going to hell. He'd learned to walk through the woods so quiet he could pretty near pet the squirrels; and he was so good with throwing rocks that he never fired his rifle at all, not for food, anyway. A rock was all he needed for possum, coon, rabbit, squirrel, or porcupine, and anything bigger would be more meat than he could carry. A walking man can't take a deer along, and he can't stay in one place long enough to smoke it or jerk it or salt it or nothing. So Jamie just didn't look for bigger game. A squirrel was meat enough for him. Wild berries and untended orchards and canned goods in abandoned houses did for the rest of his diet on the road.
Most of all a walking man can't afford to get lonely. You start to feeling like you just got to talk to some human face or you're going to bust, and then what happens? You greet some stranger and he blows your head off. You put in with some woodsy family and they slit your throat in the night and make spoons out of your bones and leather bags out of your skin and your muscle ends up in the smokehouse getting its final cure. It led to no good, wishing for company, so Jamie never did.
That's why he was setting by himself in a tree over the chain-link fence that marked the border of I-40 when he heard some folks singing, so loud he could hear them before he saw them. Singing, if you can believe it, right on the road, right on the freeway, which is the same as to say they were out of their minds. The idea of making noise while traveling on I-40 was so brazen that Jamie first thought they must be mobbers. But no, Winston and Greensboro had a right smart highway patrol on horseback, and these folks was coming from Winston heading west—no way could they be mobbers. They was just too dumb to live, that's all, normal citizens, refugees or something, people who still thought the world was safe for singing in.
When they came into sight, they were as weird a group as Jamie'd seen since the plague started. Right up front walked a big fat white woman looking like silage in a tent, and she was leading the others in some song. Two men, one white and one black, were each pulling wagons made of bicycles framed together with two-by-fours, loaded with stuff and covered with tarps. There was two black girls about eighteen maybe, and a blond white woman about thirty-five, and a half-dozen little white kids. Looked like a poster pleading for racial unity from back before the plague.
These days you just didn't see blacks and whites together much. People looked out for their own. There wasn't a lot of race hatred, they just didn't have much to do with each other. Like Marine City, where Jamie was just coming back from. There was black Marine City and white Marine City. They all pretended to be part of the same town, but they had separate police and separate courts and you just didn't go into the other folks' part of town. You just didn't. It was pretty much that way anywhere Jamie went.
Yet here they were, black and white, walking along together like they were kin. Jamie knew right off that they couldn't have been traveling together for long—they acted like they still trusted each other, and didn't mind being together. That's how it was for the first few days of traveling in the same company, and how it was again after a few years. And seeing how careless they was, Jamie knew for a fact that they'd never live a week, let alone the years it'd take to get that long-time trust. Besides, thought Jamie, with a bitter taste in his mouth, some folks you can't trust no matter how long you're together, even if it's all your whole life.
The fat lady was singing loud, in between panting—no way was she getting enough breath—and the kids sang along, but the grownups didn't sing.
"Pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked."
The song went on like that, the same thing over and over. And when the fat lady stopped singing "walked and walked," some of the kids would smartmouth and keep going, "walked and walked and walked and walked and walked and walked," until Jamie was sure somebody'd give them a smack and tell them to shut up. But nobody did. The adults just kept going, paying no mind. Pulling their bicycle carts, or carrying packs.
Not one gun. Not one rifle or pistol, nothing at all.
This was a group of walking dead people, Jamie knew that as sure as he knew that the kids were all off pitch in their singing. They were coming to the last border of civilization between here and the Cherokee Reservation. They were going to sing their way right off the edge of the world.
Jamie didn't have any quarrel with himself about what to do. He didn't give no second thought to it. He just knew that their dying might be in his reach to stop, and so he reached out to stop it.
Or rather stepped out. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and slid out along the limb that hung over the chain-link fence, then dropped. He scooped up his pack and shrugged it on, then walked on down the embankment. Five years ago it was mowed nice and smooth all year. Now it was half grown with saplings, and it wasn't easy getting through it. By the time he reached the freeway they were a hundred yards on, still singing. A different song this time—"Give said the little stream, give oh give, give oh give"—but it amounted to the same thing. He could hear them, but they hadn't even heard him rustling through the underbrush, noisy as can be.
"Good evening," he said.
Now they stopped singing. Those carts stopped moving and the kids were scooped up and most of them were scrambling for the edge of the road before the sound of Jamie's voice had quit ringing in the air. At least they knew enough to be frightened, though by the time a mobber was talking to you, there was no way you could escape just by running. And not one of them had pulled out any kind of gun, even now.
"Hold on," said Jamie. "If I meant to kill you, you'd be dead already. I've been watching you for five minutes. And hearing you for ten."
They stopped moving toward the shoulder.
"Besides, folks, you were running toward the median strip. That's like a chicken running from the farmer and jumping into the cookpot to hide."
They all stayed where they were, except for the black man, who came back out to the middle of the westbound lane. The fat lady was still there, her hand resting on one of the bicycle carts. She didn't look frightened like the others, neither. She didn't look like she knew how to be scared.
Jamie went on talking, knowing how his easy relaxed voice would calm them down. "See, the mobbers, when they set up to bushwhack folks, they never attack you from just one side. You run to the median strip, and you can count on finding even more of them down there waiting to catch you."
"Seems you know a lot about mobbers," said the black man.
"I'm alive and I'm on the road and I'm alone," said Jamie. "Of course I know about mobbers. The ones who didn't learn about them real fast are all dead. Like you folks."
"We aren't dead," said the fat woman.
"Well, now, I guess that's a matter of opinion," said Jamie. "You look dead to me. Oh, still walking, maybe. Still singing at the top of your voices. But forgive me if I'm wrong, I kept thinking you were singing, 'Come and kill us, anybody, come and take away our stuff!' "
"We were singing 'Give said the little stream,' " said one of the kids, a blond girl about ten years old maybe.
"What he means is we should've kept our mouths shut," said one of the teenage black girls. The skinny one.
"Which is what I said back at the Kernersville exit," said the one who looked like her bra was about to bust from pressure.
The black man shot them a glare. They looked disgusted, but they shut up.
"My name's Jamie Teague, and I thought I'd give you some advice that would keep you alive maybe five miles farther."
"We're still safe enough here. We're in Winston."
"You just passed the Silas Creek Parkway. The Winston Highway Patrol doesn't come out this far too often. And once you pass the 421 exit, they don't come out here at all."
"But bushwhackers wouldn't be this close in to Winston, would they?" said the fat woman.
People were so dumb sometimes. "What do you think, they wait out in the middle of the wilderness, hoping for some group of travelers who managed to fight off every other band of bushwhackers between here and there? The easy pickings all get picked close in to town. Didn't the highway patrol tell you that?"
The black man looked at the fat woman.
"No, they didn't," he said.
"Well then," said Jamie, "I think you must've offended them somehow, cause they know the interchange at 421 is just about the most dangerous spot to walk through, and they let you head right for it."
The fat woman's face went even uglier. "No doubt they were Christians," she said. She didn't spit, but she might as well have.
A sudden thought came to Jamie. "Aren't you folks Christians?"
"We always thought we were," said the white guy. He was still at the side of the road, his arm around the blond woman. He talked quiet, but he looked strong. It was almost a relief to have the white guy talk. It was weird to have a black man do most of the talking when a white man was in the group. Not that Jamie thought it ought to be the other way. He'd just never seen a group of both colors where a black man was the spokesman.
Now the black man interrupted. "Thank you for your advice, Mr.—Teague, was it?"
"It wasn't advice. It was the facts. The only safe way out of town for a group your size, since you need a road for them bikes, is to go back to Silas Creek Parkway, go north to Country Club Road, and head west on that. You can hook onto 421 farther west, and it won't be so dangerous."
"But we're going on I-40 all the way," said the fat woman.
"All the way to hell, maybe. Where do you plan to go?" asked Jamie.
"None of your business," said the blond woman. Her voice snapped out like whip. She was a suspicious one.
"Every overpass on the interstate is taken by one group of mobbers or another," said Jamie. "It's shelter for them, and easy to find their way back after raping and killing their way through the countryside. Even if every one of you had a machine gun and those carts were full of ammo, you'd be out of bullets before Hickory and dead before Morganton."
"How do we know that's true?" asked the blond woman.
"Because I told you," said Jamie. "And I told you because it was plain you didn't know. Anybody who knows that stuff and still uses the freeway must want to die."
There was a pause, just a bit of a second where nobody answered, and it came into Jamie's head that maybe they did. Maybe they actually kind of halfway hoped to die. These were definitely crazy people. But then, who wasn't, these days? Anybody still alive had seen terrible things, enough to push sanity right out of their heads. Jamie figured sanity was barely hanging on to most folks by their ears or hair, ready to drop off at the first sign of danger, leaving them all loony as—
"We don't want to die," said the white man.
"Though the Lord may have his own private plans for us," said the fat woman.
"Maybe so," said Jamie. "But I haven't seen the Lord doing many miracles lately."
"Me neither," said the blond woman. Oh, she was bitter.
"I've seen a lot of them," said the white man, who must be her husband.
"Let me tell you about miracles," said Jamie. He was enjoying this—he hadn't talked so much in ten days, not since he left Marine City, or Camp Lejeune, as they used to call it. And Jamie was a talker. "If you folks keep going the way you're going, the next ten miles will use up your whole lifetime quota of miracles, and you'll be killed by mile eleven."
The black man was believing him now. "So we go back to Silas Creek Parkway, head north to Country Club, and go on out of town that way?"
"It's a trap," said the blond woman. "He's got a gang of mobbers on Country Club, and he wants to steer us that way to get bushwhacked!"
"Ma'am," said Jamie, "I suppose that's possible. But what's also possible is this." Jamie unshouldered his gun and had it pointing right at the black man in a movement so fast nobody even twitched before he had the gun set to shoot. "Bang," said Jamie. Then he pointed the gun at each of the grown-ups in turn. "Bang, bang, bang, bang," he said. "I don't need no gang."
Jamie didn't expect their reaction. One of the children burst into tears. One of them was shaking. A couple of kids ran over and hid behind the fat woman. All of them had such a look of horror in their faces, staring at Jamie like they expected him to mow them all down, kids and all. The grown-ups were worse, if anything. They looked like they almost welcomed the gun, as if they expected it, like it was a relief that death was finally here. The black man closed his eyes, like he was expecting the bullet to be a lover's kiss.
Only the fat woman didn't get weird on him. "Don't point a gun at us again, boy," she said coldly. "Not unless you mean to use it."
"Sorry," said Jamie. He shouldered the rifle again. "I was just trying to show you how easy it is to—"
"We know how easy," said the fat woman. "And we're taking your advice. It was decent of you to warn us."
"The Lord has seen your kindness," said the black man, "and he'll reward you for it."
"Maybe so," said Jamie, to be polite.
"Even if you do it unto the least of these my brethren," said the black man.
"Which is definitely us," said the fat woman.
"Yeah, well, good luck, then." Jamie turned his back on them and headed for the shoulder of the road.
"Wait a minute," said the white man. "Where are you going?"
"That's none of your business," said the black man. "He doesn't have to tell us that."
"I just thought if he was going west, like us, that maybe we could go along together."
Jamie turned back to face him. "No way," he said.
"Why not?" asked the blond woman, as if she was offended.
Jamie didn't answer.
"Cause he thinks we're so dumb we'll get killed anyway," said the white man, "and he doesn't want to get killed along with us. Right?"
Jamie still didn't say anything, but that was an answer too.
"You know your way around here," said the white guy. "I thought maybe we could hire you to guide us. Partway, anyhow."
Hire him! What money would they use? What coin was worth anything now? "I don't think so," said Jamie.
"Me neither," said the fat woman.
"We don't trust in the arm of flesh," said the black man, sounding pious. Was he their minister, then?
"Yeah, the Lord is our Shepherd," said the fat woman. She didn't say it piously. The black man glared at her.
The white man gave it one more try. "Well it occurs to me that maybe the Lord has shepherded us to meet this guy. He's got a gun and he's traveled a lot and he knows what he's doing, which is more than we can claim. We'd be stupid not to have him with us, if we can."
"You can't," said Jamie. Warning them was one thing. Dying with them was something else. He turned his back again and walked back into the scrub forest alongside the road.
He heard them behind him. "Where'd he go? Like he just disappeared."
Yeah, and that was with Jamie not even half trying to hide himself. These folks would never even see the bushwhackers that got them. City people.
Once he was up in the tall trees, though, he didn't just head out west on his own path. Without really deciding to, he climbed back into the same tree as before, to see what these people decided to do. Sure enough, they were turning their carts east.
Fine. Jamie was shut of them. He'd done what he could.
So why was he walking eastward, too, parallel to their path? The Lord is their shepherd, not me, thought Jamie. But he had some misgiving, some fear that he couldn't rightly name; and having taken some responsibility for them, he felt more.
They didn't even make it back to Silas Creek Parkway. There were twenty highway patrolmen, dismounted and guns at the ready. Jamie had never seen so many all in one place. Were they expecting an invasion of mobbers?
No. They were expecting this little group of travelers. This was what they had come for. Jamie couldn't hear what was said, but he got the message right enough, from the gestures, the attitudes, the gathering despair in the little group of refugees. The highway patrol wasn't letting them back into Winston, not even long enough to take the parkway north to Country Club and out. It made Jamie feel sick inside. He had no doubt that the patrol knew what I-40 was like, knew what would surely happen at the 421 interchange. The highway patrol was planning on having the mobbers do murder for them. For some reason, the highway patrol wanted these people dead. They had probably assembled there to go out and collect the bodies and make a report.
Some favor Jamie had done them. There had been some feeling of hope before as they sang; now the hope was gone, there was no spring in the children's step. They knew now that they were heading for death, and they had seen the faces of the people who wanted them dead.
They had seen such faces before, though, Jamie was sure of it. The adults among them had not been shocked when Jamie pointed a gun at them, and they showed no anger now at the highway patrol. They were convinced already that they had no help, no friends, not from the civilized towns and certainly not from bushwhackers. No wonder the blond woman had been so suspicious of him.
But the white guy had shown some hope in the help of a stranger on the road. He had thought he could strike a deal with Jamie Teague. It made Jamie feel kind of good and kind of bad all at once, that the guy had found some hope in him. And so, as they headed west again, Jamie found himself paralleling them again, and this time going faster, getting ahead of them, crossing the freeway back and forth, as if he were scouting their path on either side.
I am scouting their path, he realized.
So it was that Jamie came to the 421 interchange, silently and carefully, moving through the thick woods. He spotted two bushwhacker lookouts, one of them asleep and the other one not very alert. And now he had to decide. Should he kill them? He could, easily enough—these two, anyway. And heaven knows bushwhackers probably did enough murder in a year to give them all the death penalty twice over. The real question in his mind was, do I want to get into a pitched battle with these bushwhackers, or is there another way? It wasn't like he was going to get any help from these people—not a weapon in the bunch, and not a fighter, probably, even if they had a gun. If there was any fighting, he'd have to do it all.
He didn't kill them. He didn't decide not to, he just decided he had time to get a good look at the bushwhacker town under the overpass and then come back and kill these two if need be.
The bushwhacker town was built on the westbound side of I-40, sheltered under the 421 crossover. It was like most he'd seen, made of old cars pushed together to make narrow streets, enough of them to stretch four car lengths beyond the overpass. Outdoor shade from cloths stretched between cars here and there, a few naked children running around shouting, some slovenly women cussing at them or cooking at a fire, and men lolling around sleeping or whittling or whatever, all with guns close to hand. A quick count put the fighting force here above twenty. There was no hope of Jamie taking them on by himself. By surprise he might kill even a half dozen—he was that good a shot, and that quick—but that'd still leave plenty to chase him down in the woods while others stayed and had their way with the refugees coming up the road. Jamie wasn't against killing scum like this, not in principle, but he did figure on its only being worth doing when you had a chance of winning.
Right then he should have just gone on, figuring there was nothing else he could do for them. They were just some more statistics, some more people killed by the destruction of society. The fall of civilization was bound to mash some people, and it wasn't his fault or his job to stop it.
Trouble was that these folks he had seen up close. These folks weren't just numbers. Weren't just the corpses he was always running across in abandoned farmhouses or old dead cars or out in the woods somewhere. They had faces. He had heard their children singing. He had bent them out of their path once, and it was his duty to find some way to do it again.
How did he know that? Nobody had ever told him any such duty. He just knew that this is what a decent person does—he helps if he can. And since he wanted so bad to be a decent person, even though he knew as sharp as ever that he was surely the most inhuman soul as ever walked the face of the earth, he turned around, snuck past the sleeping lookout again, and returned to the refugees before they even got back to the place where he first met them.
Not that he figured on joining up with them, not really. He might lead them west to the Blue Ridge, since he was going there anyway, but after that they'd be on their own. Go their separate ways. He'd have done his part and more by then, and it was none of his business what happened to them after that.
Tina held her peace. Didn't say a thing. But she thought things, oh yes, she told herself a sermon like Mother used to before she died—of a stroke, back before the world fell apart, thank heaven. It was Mother's voice in her head. No use getting mad about it. No use letting it eat your stomach out from the inside, give you colitis, make you do crazy things. No use yelling at those sanctimonious snot-faced highway patrolmen with their snappy uniforms and manure-spouting horses and shiny pistols at their belts. No use saying, You aren't any different than the filth who massacred babies on Pinetop Road. You think you're better cause you don't pull the trigger yourselves? That just means that besides being killers, you're cowards too.
No use saying any of that.
But Tina knew that everybody knew what she thought, even if she did hold her tongue. Long ago she discovered that all her bad feelings got written out in big bold letters on her face. Tender feelings not so much. Soft feelings, they were invisible. But let her feel the tiniest scrap of anger, and people would start shying away from her. "Tina's on the warpath," they'd say. "Tina's mad, I hope not at me." Sometimes she didn't like being so transparent, but this time she was glad. Because she saw how each one of those patrolmen looked at her while their commander was telling his lies, how each one met her eyes and then looked away, looked at the ground, or even tried to look meaner and tougher, it all came to the same thing. They knew what they were doing.
And Tina capped it by turning her back on the commander while he was still explaining about how he doesn't make the ordinances, the city council does—she turned her back and walked away. Walked slow, because folks her size don't exactly scamper, but walked nonetheless. The little orphaned kids from her Primary, Scotty and Mick and Valerie and Cheri Ann, they turned and followed her at once, and when they went, so did the Cinn kids, Nat and Donna. And then their parents, Pete and Annalee; and then those two black girls from the Bennett Ward, Marie and Rona; and only then, when everybody else was walking west, only then did Brother Deaver give up trying to persuade that apprentice hitler to let them pass.
Tina felt guilty about that. To walk off and embarrass Brother Deaver like that. His authority was scanty enough as it was, being second counselor in a bishopric that didn't exist anymore, what with the bishop and the first counselor dead. No need for her to undermine it. But then she'd always had trouble supporting the priesthood. Not in her heart—she was always obedient and supportive. She just kept accidentally doing things that made the men look somewhat indecisive in comparison. Like this time. She hadn't really figured that anybody would follow her. She just couldn't stand it anymore herself, and the only way to show her contempt for the highway patrolmen was to turn away while they were talking. To leave while it was still her choice to leave, instead of when they got fed up and leveled their guns at them and frightened the children. It was the right time to leave, and if Brother Deaver didn't notice that, well, was it Tina's fault?
Her legs hurt. No, that was too vague. With every step, her hip joints crackled, her ankles stabbed, her knees weakened, her soles stung, her arches sagged, her back twisted, her shoulders knotted tighter. Why, this is an honest-to-goodness exercise program, she realized, walking the twenty-five miles from the Guilford College Exit to the place we're going to die. I thought my muscles were in good shape from all that custodial work at the meetinghouse, all the waxing and washing and polishing and chair-moving and table-folding. I had no idea that walking twenty-five miles would make me feel like a mouse that got played with by a half-blind cat.
Tina stopped dead in the middle of the road.
Everybody else stopped, too.
"What's wrong?" asked Peter.
"You see something?" asked Rona.
"I'm tired," said Tina. "I ache all over, and I'm tired, and I want to rest."
"But it's only three in the afternoon," said Brother Deaver. "We got three good hours of walking left."
"You in some hurry to get to the 421 turnoff?" asked Tina.
"It might not be what that man said, you know," said Annalee Cinn. She always had to take the contrary view; Tina didn't mind, she was used to it.
Besides, Peter had a way of contradicting her without making her mad—which was, Tina figured, why they got married. The world couldn't have handled Annalee Davenport unless somebody stood near her all the time to contradict her without making her mad.
"I thought so, too, honey," said Peter, "till that cop sent us back. He knows 421 is death to us."
"The real number of the Beast," said Rona. Tina winced. Whoever persuaded Rona to read Revelation ought to be . . .
"Now you know you didn't think he might be lying," said Annalee. "You wanted to have him join us."
"Well I can see why he didn't," said Tina. "Everybody talks real sorry about what happened, but they all wish the mobbers had finished the job so they didn't have all these leftover Mormons to worry about."
"Don't call them mobbers," said Brother Deaver. "That makes them sound like outsiders. That's just what they want you to think—that nobody from Greensboro—"
"Don't talk about them at all," said Donna Cinn. For an eleven-year-old, she was pretty plainspoken. No sirs and ma'ams from her. But she spoke plain sense.
"Donna's right," said Tina. "And so am I. We might as well rest here by the side of the road. I could use some setting time."
"Me too," said Scotty.
It was the voice of the youngest child that decided them. So it was they were sitting in the grass of the median strip, under the shade of a tulip tree, when Jamie came back.
"This isn't such a big tree," said Annalee. "Remember when they divided the First Ward into Guilford and Summit?"
It was a question that didn't need answering. There used to be so many Saints in Greensboro that the parking lot was completely full every Sunday. Now they could fit in the shade of a single tulip tree.
"There's still three hundred families in Bennett Ward," said Rona.
Which was true. But it was a sore point to Tina all the same. The black part of town was just fine. Nobody was going to make them leave. Who would've thought, back when they formed a whole ward in the black part of town, that six years later it'd be the only congregation left in Greensboro, with most whites dead and all the white survivors gone off on a hopeless journey to Utah, taking along only a handful of blacks like Deaver himself. It was hard to know whether the blacks who stayed behind were the smartest or the most fearful and faithless; not for me to judge, anyway, Tina decided.
"They're in Bennett Ward," said Brother Deaver. "And we're here."
"I know that," said Rona.
Everybody knew that. They also knew what it meant. That the black Saints from Bennett Ward were going to stick it out in Greensboro; that out of all of them, only these two girls, for heaven only knew what reason, only Rona Harrison and Marie Speaks had volunteered to journey west. Tina hadn't decided whether this meant they were faithful or crazy. Or both. Tina well knew it was possible to be both.
Anyway, it was in the silence after Rona last spoke that they noticed Jamie Teague was standing there again. He'd come up from the south side of the road, and was standing there in plain sight, watching.
Pete jumped to his feet, and Brother Deaver was mad as hops. "Don't go sneaking up on folks like that!"
"Hold your voice down," said Teague softly.
Tina didn't like the way he always spoke so soft. Like a gangster. Like he didn't have to try to talk loud enough—it was your business to hear him.
"What did you come back for?" asked Annalee. Sounding hard and suspicious. I hope Teague doesn't think she really means that.
"I saw the patrol turn you away," said Teague.
"That was an hour ago," said Brother Deaver. "More."
"I also went ahead to see if maybe the mobbers at 421 weren't too much to fight through."
"And?" asked Pete.
"More than twenty men, and who knows whether their women shoot, too."
Tina could hear the others sigh, even though they didn't voice it; she could hear the breath go out of them like the air hissing out of a pop-top can. Twenty men. That was how many guns they'd have pointing at them. All these days, and we'll face the guns after all.
"So what I'm thinking is, do you plan to stay here till one of them wanders up here and finds you? Or what?"
Nobody had an answer, so nobody said anything.
"What I'm trying to figure," said Teague, "is whether you folks want to die, or whether it's worth the trouble trying to help you get out of this alive?"
"And what I'm trying to figure is what difference it makes to you," said Annalee.
"Shut your mouth, Annalee," said Tina, gently. "I want to know what you have in mind, Mr. Teague."
"Well it isn't like you're in a car or anything, right? You don't have to wait for an exit to get off the freeway."
"We do with these carts," said Pete.
"Are those carts worth dying for?"
"All our food's on there," said Brother Deaver.
"They come apart," said Tina.
The others looked at her.
"My husband designed them so you could just take them apart," she said. "For fording rivers. He figured at least one bridge was bound to be out."
"Your husband's a smart man," said Teague. But there was a question in his eyes.
"My husband's dead," said Tina. "But we both knew from the first plagues that we'd end up making this trip, and without gasoline, either. I suppose most Mormons have thought some time or other that there'd come a time when they had to make their way to Utah."
"Or Jackson County," said Annalee.
"Somewhere," said Tina. "He figured the carts wouldn't be much good if we couldn't ford a river with them. Only in this case, I guess we're fording a freeway."
"More like a portage around a rapids," said Teague.
"I like that," said Pete. "These carts are boats, the freeway's a river, and the overpasses are waterfalls."
"A metaphor," said Brother Deaver. He was smiling. He always got some kind of thrill out of knowing a fancy name for things.
Just like that, and Teague had got them out of despair and into hoping again. Made them all wonder why nobody had thought of taking apart the carts and just walking into the woods. Maybe it was because they were city people who thought of freeways as things you couldn't get off of except at places with an arrow and the word EXIT. But Tina thought it was probably because they all expected to die; some of them were maybe even disappointed they weren't already dead. Or not disappointed, exactly. Ashamed. Living just didn't have all that much attraction to them. Even the children. They weren't ready to walk on and greet death with hymns and rejoicing, but they might well have sat there waiting for death to stumble over them. Till Teague came back.
They moved the carts as far into the underbrush on the north side of the road as they could, then unloaded them and carried all the bundles up to the chain-link fence. Teague carried heavy wire-clippers with him—this wasn't his first time going through a fence, obviously—and he made them notice how he cut low. "You got to crawl through," he said, "but then they can't see the cut from the road, and they're less likely to follow you."
"You think they aim to follow us?" asked Marie, scared.
"Not the highway patrol," said Teague. "I don't think they care. But if the mobbers see a new break in the fence—"
"We'll crawl," said Tina. And if she was willing to crawl through, nobody else could complain about it. But she had merely spoken what the others needed to hear, to get them moving, to keep them safe. The question of whether she herself was actually going to crawl through anything was still very much undecided.
Once the cart was unloaded, they carefully dismantled the two-by-four frames that bound each pair of bikes together. Teague wouldn't let them do it, though, till he had looked carefully at every lashpoint. Tina liked him better and better. He wasn't in such a hurry that he got himself into a mess. He took the time to make sure he could make things work right later on.
She also noticed that he did none of the unloading and carrying. Instead he watched constantly, looking up and down the freeway and into the woods. One time he ran up the hill, skinnied under the chain-link fence, and climbed a tree fast as a squirrel. He was back down a minute later. "False alarm," he said.
"Story of my life," said Pete.
"Pete's a fireman," said Annalee.
"Was," said Brother Deaver.
"I am a fireman," said Pete. "Till I die I'm a fireman." He spoke fiercely.
Brother Deaver backed off. "I meant no harm."
Teague lost his temper for a second. "I don't give a flying—"
He didn't finish, cause right then he caught Tina's eye and she looked at him just like a misbehaving child in Primary. She had a look that could tame the wildest brat. She used it on bishops and stake presidents too sometimes, and they calmed down even quicker than the kids.
Brother Deaver felt the need to say the obvious. "I hope you'll continue to watch your language around the children."
Teague never took his gaze from Tina's eyes. "I know I'll sure as heck watch my language around her."
"Tina Monk," she said.
"Sister Monk," said Brother Deaver.
"Tell those kids not to make a path up there," said Teague. "Walk in different places through that open grassy place."
The bikes and two-by-fours got through fine. So did everybody except Teague and Tina. And there she stood, looking at that little bitty hole and feeling exactly how thick she was from front to back. How tired she was. How she wasn't in the mood to shimmy through there with everybody watching. How she wasn't altogether sure she could do it without help. She imagined Brother Deaver or Pete Cinn grabbing two hands onto her wrists and pulling and pulling and finally collapsing in exhaustion. She shuddered.
"Well, go on," she said to Teague. "I'll come on later."
Brother Deaver and Pete Cinn started to argue with her, but Annalee shut them up and made them pull stuff over the crest of the hill.
"Sister Monk," said Annalee, "we aren't going nowhere without you, so you might as well make up your mind and get through there."
"The only way I'll get through is if you cut that fence from top to bottom and I walk through," she said.
"Can't do that," said Teague. "Might as well put up a flashing neon sign."
"Good-bye and God bless you all," said Tina. She started walking down the hill.
Teague fell in step right beside her. "Maybe you're a dumb lady, after all, ma'am, and that's fine with me. But when I scared those little ones, it was you they went to."
"I can't shimmy under that fence, not uphill," she said.
"You're about wore out, I guess," said Teague.
"I'm about a hundred and fifty pounds too heavy, is what."
"I'll push you."
"If you lay a hand on me I'll break it off."
He laid his hand on her shoulder. "OK, I've touched it. Skin with a lot of fat under it. So what. Get up there and I'll push you under the fence."
She shuddered at the touch of his hand, but she also knew he was right. There were lots of reasons to die, but dying because you couldn't stand the humiliation of some man pushing his hands into your fat and pushing you up a hill—that wasn't a good enough reason.
"If you get a hernia, don't expect me to knit you a truss," she said.
Back at the fence, she made Annalee go up the hill. "You keep everybody on that side. I don't want anybody watching this."
Tina noted with satisfaction that Annalee may be contrary sometimes, but not when it counts. As soon as she was on her way up the slope, Tina sat down with her back toward the fence, then lay down.
"On your stomach," said Teague.
"I plan to dig in with my heels."
"And then how do I push you without giving offense, ma'am? Crawl through and grab saplings on the other side."
She rolled over. He immediately shoved his hands into her thighs and started pushing. It was a hard shove he had—the boy was strong. And it didn't feel humiliating. It felt plain irresistible. He was moving her at a good clip without her even helping. And uphill, too.
"Maybe I've been losing weight," she panted. With all her weight on her lungs, she didn't have much breath.
"Shut up, ma'am, and grab onto something."
She shut up and grabbed a sapling and pulled. With all her strength, sliding herself forward, feeling him pressing upward on her thighs, feeling the grass tear loose under her breasts and belly, the dirt slide into her clothes, the chain-link pushing down on her back. Her arms had never pulled so hard in her life. She could hardly breathe.
So she was. Covered with dirt and sweat from neck to knees, but through the fence. She got up onto all fours, then rolled over to a sitting position, feeling, as always, like a rotating planet. She sat there to rest for a moment. While she did, Teague rolled the cut flap of chain-link back down and tied one corner of the bottom in place with a short piece of twine he took out of his pocket.
"Let's go," he said. He held out a hand. She took it, and he pulled her to her feet. Then he stood there, holding her wrist, looking at her face. "I don't want you carrying anything. I don't want you so much as holding hands with a little kid who gets tired."
"I'll pull my weight," she said.
"And nothing else," he said. "From the look of you, I'd say you're ten miles from a heart attack."
"Stroke," she said. "In my family, it's strokes."
"I mean it," Teague insisted. "And if you get tired, you make everybody stop and rest."
"I'm not going to slow them down just because I'm—"
"Fat," he said.
"Right," she said.
"I'll tell you, ma'am. They need you, and they need you alive. You pull nothing, you carry nothing, you drink whenever you're thirsty, and you rest whenever you're tired."
"And I tell you that I'm in better shape than you think. I was custodian at the church, I worked my body all day every day, and furthermore I never smoked a single cigarette or drank a drop of liquor from the day I was born."
"You're telling me why you ain't dead already," said Teague. "I'm telling you how not to be dead tomorrow. You watch. You stay alive on this trip of yours, you'll thin out."
"Don't tell me what to do."
"Walk up this hill."
She turned around and started walking up. Briskly, to show him she could do it. Ten paces later, her right leg gave out. Gave right out, and she stumbled and fell on her face. Not a bad fall, since she was going uphill anyway. He helped her up, and she let him half-pull her the rest of the way. It was plain that she had used herself up, at least for one day. They made their camp right there on the far side of the hill, just a hundred yards farther on than the gap where they came through. Teague wouldn't let them light a fire, and he spent most of the time till dusk scouting around or climbing trees and looking.
It was a warm night, so they slept right there in the woods on the far side of the hill, out of sight of the road, out of sight of everything. Yet they could hear, not all that far off, the crackling of a fire and folks laughing and talking. Couldn't make out the words, but they were having fun.
"Mobbers?" whispered Pete.
"Barbecue," said Teague.
Citizens of Winston. Protected by the law. A couple of miles away, mobbers hoping to kill and strip passersby. And in between them, quiet, listening, Tina Monk, breathing heavily, the pain in her unaccustomed muscles making it impossible to sleep, her weariness making it unbearable to be awake. Laughter. Pleasant company. Someone had all those things tonight, all those things that come with peace. How dare they have peace, when their highway patrolmen sent a dozen souls to what they thought was certain death? You are responsible, you laughers, you friends and lovers, you are the ones in whose name those stolid killers acted. You.
Then she slept and dreamed of crawling through tight places. Cramming her bulk into a narrow shaft, her clothing climbing up her body as she thrust herself farther in, farther, until she could put the cover on. Then lying there in the heat, the close air, hearing shooting, the sound of it echoing, amplified through the air-conditioning system; and screams. Every bullet meant for kin of hers. Brothers and sisters, all of them, screaming in pain and terror while Tina Monk, building custodian, Primary president, choir leader, cowered in the air-conditioning system trying to keep her breathing soft enough that no one would find her. They shot her husband at the top of the stairs down into the furnace room. When she finally opened the door, it was Tom's body she had to shove out of the way in order to open it, Tom's blood that made prints of her shoes as she walked up the stairs. His sweet and patient face, she saw it now in her mind as she slept her dark unquiet sleep.
Herman Deaver knew that he had no authority. Bishop Coward could say he was in charge, as the only high priest in the group, but it wasn't spiritual leadership they needed. This wasn't a prophetic journey; there was no Lehi to wake up with dreams that told them where to go; there was no divine gift of a liahona with pointers on it to show the way. There wasn't even a trace of manna on the ground in the morning, just dew soaking them, making the morning stiff and clinging and miserable.
I can explain, very clearly, how Shakespeare's Hamlet is in fact not contemplating suicide in the "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy, but rather deciding whether to endure suffering as a Christian or take vengeful action. What Herman Deaver could not explain, to himself or anyone else, was why he, a high priest, a temple-going Saint, a professor of literature, why he was so terribly sorry to be alive. I apologize. My mistake. An oversight. An error of scheduling. If only you had sent a reminder. To be or not to be was not the question at all. Hamlet did not care about vengeance or justice. What he wanted was his father back. Good intentions—but he took away his friend Laertes' father instead. Now we're alike, eh what? Even steven. Get up, Deaver. Set an example, even if you aren't the leader. You're the chaplain now, that's what you are, so at least keep morale up by being perky and chipper and energetic. Ignore that pain from your burning prostate. It isn't agony yet. Not till you take the first leak of the day.
"The boys' lavatory is that stand of bushes over there," said Sister Monk.
Since his eyes were closed, Deaver didn't know if she meant him or not. But he took it as if she did, and struggled to his feet, squinting to see as the first sunlight slanted through the branches. It burned, it burned, it burned; the sunlight, his prostate, the urine tearing at him as it passed out of his body and sizzled on last year's leaves. When I was young I never thought it would be such agony to do this. I never thought at all. I can feel all my bones.
This much courtesy they still had: they didn't start the meeting till he was back. Or perhaps they hadn't noticed yet that he wasn't in charge. That Peter, so young and strong, that he was more listened to; that Tina Monk, always forceful and now more so than ever, that she now made decisions in her simple forthright way. Perhaps they thought of this as "giving counsel." But the decision was made before he spoke. He didn't mind this. He welcomed it. Decisions were not his strong suit. Teaching was his strong suit. They could make decisions; then he would explain to them why it was a good idea. That's the skill of the scholarly critic. Explaining after the fact why somebody was great, who everybody already agrees was great. The metaphor of the freeway as river, with portages around the rapids, that was far easier for him to comprehend than the way this gentile, Teague, made sense of what he saw when he stared at the uninterrupted wall of forest green.
"We need you," Pete was saying. "We got no right to ask it, but we need you to guide us or we'll never get there."
"Get where?" Ah, a sensible question. Of course Teague goes straight to the point. Get where? To heaven, to the celestial glory, Jamie Teague. To life eternal, where we will know the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent.
"To Utah," said Tina. Oh yes. The immediate destination. The short-term destination. How far-sighted of me. Over-sighted.
"You're crazy," said Teague.
"Probably," said Tina.
"Not really," said Pete. "Where else can people like us go?"
"That's two thousand miles away. For all you know, all kinds of bombs landed there. It might be hot as D.C."
"There was still radio for a while. Utah wasn't hit bad."
"Or wiped out by plague."
"There'll be something," said Pete.
"We know." Pete grinned. "We may not look like much to you, but out there Mormons are in charge. I promise you that wherever there's four Mormons, there'll be a government. A president, two counselors, and somebody to bring refreshments."
Deaver laughed. He remembered that jokes like that were funny. Some others joined in. Mostly children who didn't get the joke, but that was good. It was good for the children to laugh.
Deaver couldn't help but be hurt, though, when Teague looked for confirmation, not to him, but to Sister Monk.
"It's true," she said. "We've been preparing for this for years. We knew it was coming. We tried to warn everybody. Put no trust in the arm of flesh. Your weapons will mean nothing. Only trust in the Lord, and he will save you."
"How's he been doing so far for you folks?" asked Teague.
It was a bitter and terrible question, so Deaver knew that he was the only one who could answer it. "You understand that the promise refers to large groups. America as a whole. The Church as a whole. Many individuals will suffer and die."
Teague only now seemed to realize that he had maybe given offense. "I'm sorry," he said.
"It's a natural question," said Deaver. "In the Book of Mormon, the prophets Alma and Amulek were forced to watch as their enemies threw whole families of the faithful into a fire and burned them alive. Why doesn't God reach out and save these people, Amulek asked. And Alma said, Death tastes sweet to them; why should the Lord prevent it? But the wicked must be allowed to do their wickedness, so that everyone will know that their terrible punishment is just. Then Amulek said, Maybe they'll kill us, too. And Alma said, If they do, then we'll die. But I think the Lord won't allow it. Our work is not yet done."
Deaver could feel their eyes on him, could hear how their breathing had become quiet. The children especially, they listened to him, they watched his lips as he spoke. He knew that they understood what the story meant to them. Our work is not yet done, that's why we're alive.
But don't ask me what our work is. Don't ask me what we're supposed to accomplish, if by some miracle we survive a two-thousand-mile journey through hell until we reach the kingdom of God on the mountains.
Teague did not break the silence; Deaver knew from that that he was a sensitive man, despite his youth, despite the fact that he was a gentile. For the first time it occurred to him that Teague might even be a potential convert. Wouldn't that be a miracle, to baptize a new member here in the wilderness!
"The Church will be strong in Utah," said Tina Monk. "And you can bet we won't be much safer anywhere else than we were in Greensboro and Winston."
"You're Mormons, right?" said Teague.
"You mean you only just now guessed that?" said Annalee. She was always disrespectful and sharp-tongued. Deaver heard that marriage had mellowed her. He was grateful he never knew her before.
"You never said right out," said Teague.
"Does it make a difference?" asked Deaver. Will you not help us, now that you know we are—what is the term?—the cult of the anti-Christ? The secret worshipers of Satan? Secular Humanists masquerading as Christians in order to seduce impressionable young people and lead them into unspeakable abominations?
"It does if you're going to Utah," said Teague.
"I-40 to Memphis," said Pete. "Then up to St. Louis and I-70 to Denver. After that, who knows? They might even have trains running or buses."
"Or a weekly space shuttle flight," said Teague.
"Don't underestimate the resourcefulness of the Mormon people," said Deaver.
"Don't underestimate how much trouble a few nukes, some biological warfare, and the collapse of civilization can cause," said Teague. "Not to mention how the climate's changed. How do you know Utah isn't buried under glaciers?"
"They don't form that fast," said Pete.
"Two thousand miles," said Teague. "With winters colder and longer now than they used to be—how far you think you'll get before September?"
"We didn't expect to do it in one year," said Deaver.
"We need you," said Pete. "We'll hire you."
Teague laughed. "And pay me what?"
"A house and a job in Utah," said Pete.
"You can guarantee that?" said Teague. "You guarantee that I'll have a little plot of ground? A house with hot and cold running water? A nice little job to go to? Eight to five? What about location—I don't want to have to commute more than fifteen minutes to—"
"Shut up," said Tina.
Teague shut up.
"We can promise you that there's peace in the mountains of Utah. We can promise you that if you lead us there, you'll be rewarded as best they can. We can promise you that in Utah, you can reap what you plant, you can keep what you make, you can count on being as safe tomorrow as you are today. Where else in all this world are those things true?"
"I'm not about to become a Mormon," said Teague.
"No one expects it," said Sister Monk.
"They'll just expect you to be a good man," said Deaver.
"Then forget it," said Teague.
"A good man," said Deaver. "Not a perfect one."
"How bad can a man be and still be good?"
"You have to be good enough to take a helpless group like us two thousand miles, with no promise of payment beyond our word."
Deaver saw, with satisfaction, that Teague was being won over. He halfway suspected that Teague wanted to be won over. After all, he had already invested a lot of time and effort in helping them get off the freeway. He was risking a lot, too—if the highway patrol caught them here, they'd no doubt be in trouble. And the fact that there wasn't any shooting last night—the patrol might well notice that and come looking for them.
Maybe Teague thought of that at the same time, because he stood up suddenly. "I'll think about it. But for now we've got to get moving. It'll be slow going for a while, till we can put the carts back together on a road. Put the heaviest stuff on bikes. I hope those things have airless tires."
"Of course," said Tina. "My husband never considered anything else. What good would bikes be on a cross-country trip, if they're always going flat?"
"The little kids will carry the two-by-fours."
Annalee started to protest. "They're too heavy for—"
"They'll rest a lot," said Teague. "We're going to do this all in one trip. Grown-ups will be carrying a lot more."
It turned out that Scotty, Mick, Cheri Ann, and Valerie could only handle four of the two-by-fours, but Pete thought of using the others to make a kind of sedan chair, which he and Deaver bore on their shoulders, with a much heavier burden on the two-by-fours between them than they could possibly have carried on their backs.
Sister Monk started to pick up a bundle of dried food.
"Put it down," said Teague.
"It's light," said Sister Monk.
Teague didn't say another word. Just stared at her, and she stared back. To Deaver's surprise, it was Sister Monk who gave in. He'd never seen such a thing in all his years in the Church. Sister Monk backed down to no man, or woman either. But she backed down to this Jamie Teague.
It was the first time Deaver realized what Teague must have seen right off—that Sister Monk wasn't doing so well, physically speaking. Deaver was so used to her being fat, and having that mean nothing so far as her being a hard worker in the Church, that it didn't occur to him that this journey was different. But now that Teague's insistence on her carrying nothing had brought the matter to Deaver's attention, he could see how flushed and weak she looked, how her walk was none too steady even in the morning after a night of sleep. For the first time it occurred to Deaver that she might not make it through the trip.
It made him angry, to realize how much he had unconsciously been depending on this woman. Wasn't he the one with the authority? Wasn't he supposed to lead? Yet he was depending on her. Well, he wouldn't, that's all. Nobody's indispensable. If we can get along without—
No, he wouldn't start listing the indispensable people who were dead, bulldozed into the mass grave in the parking lot of the stake center on Pinetop Road. There was no point in a census now. They were gone, and this meager handful of Saints was still alive. That meant that the Church was still alive, and would go on, sustained by faith and the Lord and, with any luck, this stranger who came out of nowhere offering help unasked. An angel would have been more useful, but if this Jamie Teague was all the Lord had to offer in the way of help, he'd have to do. If it was, in fact, the Lord who sent him.
They made it in one trip. One long trip, with frequent stops. Teague wasn't actually with them most of the way. He ranged ahead, leaving south and returning from the north. Sister Monk actually led them, spotting the marks Teague had made on tree trunks, showing which way to go. At the end of the day they were back on the road. U.S. 421 this time, a two-lane expressway, with the overpass some miles behind them. Exhausted as they were, Teague made them rebuild the carts before they gnawed on their jerky and went to sleep. "You'll want to be under way at dawn," he said. "Not sitting around in the open building carts. That was just one overpass."
So they rebuilt the carts, and he finally let them build a very small fire so they could boil up some soup and give the children a decent meal. Hungry as they were, the kids could hardly keep their eyes open long enough to eat. And when they were asleep, Teague laid out his conditions for traveling with them.
"I'm not good enough to take you two thousand miles," he said, looking Deaver in the eye. "I only promise to take you as far as the Great Smokies. I haven't traveled west of there anyway, only between the mountains and the sea, so I don't know any more about the country than you do. But I've got a cabin there that's good for the winter. It's where I live. I know my neighbors there, I've got trade goods from my traveling to buy food, and we've kept it free of mobbers. It's as much as I can promise, but I think I can teach you a few things along the way, give you a better chance next spring."
"If that's as far as you go with us," said Pete, "then we can't pay you anything at all. We got nothing you need, until we get to Utah."
Teague pulled up a tuft of grass, started splitting the blades up the middle, one by one. "You got something I need."
"What is it?" demanded Annalee.
Teague looked at her coldly.
Deaver offered an explanation. "Maybe we're people he thinks are going to die if he doesn't help us. Maybe he needs not to see us dead."
Deaver saw Teague's expression change again. An unreadable look, hiding some strange unnameable emotion. Am I right? Is Teague's motive altruistic? Or is there something else, so shameful Teague can't hardly admit it? Does he plan to betray us at some terrible time? Never mind. If the Lord means us to thrive, he'll protect us from such treason. And if he doesn't, I'd rather die by trusting a man who may not be as good as he seems than by being so suspicious I refuse a true friend.
Sister Monk changed the subject. "You by yourself, Jamie Teague, you can generally avoid trouble, I imagine. You can pretty much be invisible out in the woods, and stay off the roads. But with us, trouble's going to come. We'll be on the roads most of the time, too many of us and too clumsy to hide. Somebody's going to spot us."
"Might be," said Teague.
"You got the gun, Jamie Teague. But do you figure you can kill a man with it?"
"Reckon so," said Teague.
"Have you ever killed anybody?" asked Pete. There was awe in his voice, as if having killed somebody was a magical act that would endow this stranger with supernatural power.
"Reckon so," said Teague.
"I don't believe it," snapped Annalee.
"We want him as a guide anyway," said Deaver, "not a soldier."
"Where we're going I don't think there's a difference," said Sister Monk. "You're an English professor. Pete's a fireman, trained to save lives, to risk his own life—but none of us has ever killed anybody, I think."
"Wish I had," murmured Pete.
Sister Monk ignored him. "And what if the only way to save us was to sneak up on somebody and kill them. From behind, without even giving them a fair chance. Could you do that, Jamie Teague?"
"How do we know that?" said Annalee.
Teague waved her off with a gesture of impatience. "I killed my mother and father," he said. "I can kill anybody."
"My God," said Rona Harrison.
Deaver turned to snap at the girl about not taking the name of the Lord in vain. But then it occurred to him that with Teague confessing to patricide, saying "My God" seemed pretty tame by comparison.
"Well now," said Pete.
"Isn't that what you wanted to hear?" asked Teague. "Didn't you want to know whether I was bloodthirsty enough to do the killing you need done to save your lives? Don't you want to know that your hired soldier has references?"
"I wasn't trying to pry into things you don't want to talk about," said Sister Monk.
"They deserved it," said Teague. "The court gave me a suspended sentence because everybody agreed they deserved it."
"Did they abuse you?" asked Annalee. Finally she was curious instead of suspicious. A mind like a grocery store newspaper, thought Deaver.
"Annalee," said Sister Monk sharply. "We've all stepped too far."
"I've answered the question you need to know," said Teague. "I can kill when I need to. But I decide when I need to. I give orders, I don't take them. That clear? If I tell you to get off the road, you get—no arguments. Right? Cause I don't aim to stick around and kill all comers just cause you aren't willing to do what it takes to avoid a fight."
"Brother Teague," said Deaver. He pretended not to notice how startled Teague was to be addressed as Brother. "We will gladly accept your authority about how and when to travel, and on what path. And I assure you that it is the desire of our hearts to kill no one, to harm no one, to leave things undisturbed wherever we go."
"I don't want you killing anybody for me anyhow," said Marie Speaks.
Everybody looked at her—she'd been talking like a teenager so long that nobody expected her to have an opinion on something serious like this.
"I die myself first, you got that?"
"You crazy," said Rona. "You lost your mind, girl."
"Killing a bushwhacker isn't murder," said Pete.
"Neither is killing a Mormon," said Marie. "So I hear." Then she got up and walked over to where the little ones were sleeping.
"She's crazy," said Rona.
"She's Christian," said Deaver.
"So am I," said Pete, "but I know there's times when the Lord lets good people fight back. Think of Captain Moroni and the title of liberty. Think of Helaman and the two thousand young men."
"Think about sleeping," said Teague. "I'm not taking first watch tonight, I'm too tired."
"Me," said Pete.
"No, me," said Deaver.
"You, Mr. Deaver," said Teague. "Your timepiece there still work, or is it on your wrist from nostalgia?"
"It's solar," said Deaver. "It works fine."
"Watch till midnight. Then wake Pete. Pete, you wake me at three."
Then Teague got up and went to the bushes they had designated as the boys' lavatory that night.
"Murder's the unforgivable sin," said Annalee. "I don't want a murderer telling us what to do."
"Judge not lest ye be judged," said Deaver. "Let him or her who is without sin cast the first stone."
That was the end of the discussion, as Deaver knew it would be. There wasn't a one of them who didn't feel guilty for one reason or another. For just being alive with so many others dead, if nothing else. Maybe Marie had learned the right lesson from it after all. Maybe killing was never worth it.
But Deaver heard the people breathing around him, he looked and watched the children's chests rising and falling with each breath, and then he imagined somebody coming and raising a knife to them, or pointing a gun at them. That's not the same thing as somebody raising a weapon against me personally. I might have the courage to let the blow fall and not defend myself. But there's not a chance in the world that I'd let them harm a hair on those children's heads. I'd blast the bushwhackers to hell and back if I thought they'd harm the children. Now maybe that's murderousness, maybe that's a secret lust for blood in my heart. But I don't think so. I think that's the indignation of God. I think that's what Christ felt when he said it was better to tie a millstone around your neck and jump into the sea than to raise your hand to harm a child.
Teague killed his mama and his daddy. That was a hard one. Not mine to judge. But I'll be watching that boy differently now. Watching real close. We didn't escape one band of murderers just to fall in with a worse one now. Bad enough to kill strangers because you don't like their religion. But to kill your own mama and daddy.
Deaver shuddered, and stared into the darkness beyond the flickering firelight.
The fifth day after Teague joined them, they were heading toward Wilkesboro. Travel was getting into a regular rhythm now, and nobody was half as sore as they were the third day. And it wasn't so scary anymore. A few times Teague had come rushing back from scouting ahead and made them get off the road, but this wasn't freeway now and most times they could run the bikes up behind some bushes without dismantling the carts. The only portage was crossing I-77. Mostly it was just walking, one foot after the other.
One of those times in hiding, Rona made Marie peek through the bushes and watch the horsemen going by. They looked like a rough crew, and to Marie it looked like one of them had three human heads hanging from his saddle. Three black human heads, and it made her shudder.
"Canteens," Teague said, but Marie knew better. She knew lots of things folks didn't think she knew. So now, on the afternoon of the fifth day out of Winston, when Marie was feeling hot and tired and wanted a little entertainment, she got a meanness on her and started doing a number on Rona.
"You got your eye on him," said Marie.
"Do not," said Rona. She sounded outraged. This was working fine.
"You say his name in your sleep."
"Nightmares is what."
"You were thinking of him just now when you smiled."
"Was not. And I didn't smile."
"Then how do you know who I'm talking about?"
"You're a queen bitch, that's what you are," said Rona.
"Don't you talk to me with words like that," said Marie. She was the one supposed to be needling, not the other way around.
"Stop acting like a bitch and people won't call you one," said Rona.
"At least I don't get the hots for murderers," said Marie. That got her back.
"Said he was himself."
"He had good reason."
"They used to torture him."
"He say that?"
"I know it."
"Murder is the unforgivable sin," said Marie. "He'll be in hell forever, so you just don't even bother thinking about marrying him."
"Shut your mouth! I'm not thinking about marrying him!"
"And he's white and he's not Mormon and he'll never never never take you to the temple."
"Maybe I don't care."
"If you don't care about the temple, why are you going to Utah?"
Rona looked at her strangely. "Well it ain't to go to the temple."
Marie didn't know what to make of that, and didn't want to find out what Rona meant. But the meanness wasn't gone out of her yet. So she turned back to the old topic. "He's going to hell no matter what."
"No he's not!" And Rona gave Marie a shove that nearly knocked her on her butt.
"What's going on here!" It was Brother Deaver, of course. None of the white folks ever told them off about anything. "Haven't we got things bad enough without you two tailing into each other?"
"I didn't tail into her," said Marie.
"Saying he was going to hell!"
Marie felt Brother Deaver's hand on the back of her neck. "The Lord is the judge of men's souls," he said softly.
Marie squirmed to get free of his grasp. She was eighteen now, not some kid that grown-ups could grab onto whenever they wanted.
"So if you can't keep your heart free of condemnation, Marie, I think you'd better learn to keep your mouth shut. Do you understand me, girl?"
She finally broke free. "You got no right to tell a black girl what to do!" she said—loudly now, so that others farther back could hear. "You just teach your own white kids and leave me alone!"
It was a terrible thing to say, she knew it and she was sorry. But it also got him to shut up and leave her alone, which was what she wanted, wasn't it? Besides, he did marry a white woman, which was the same thing as saying black women were trash. Well, see what it got him—all of them shot dead along with all the other white Mormons, while he was at A&T, where the white Christian Soldiers didn't dare to go. That's the only reason he wanted her to forgive Teague for being a murderer—because he felt like a murderer, too, him being alive because he was black, while his wife and kids were shot down and bulldozed into a parking lot grave. He wanted everybody to be nice and forgiving. Well she knew the law of heaven, didn't she? She wasn't just a Sunday School Mormon, she studied the doctrine and read all the time, and she knew that Christ's atonement had no force over them as murdered. Though truth to tell, his face looked stricken like he was about to die, and just from her cruel hard words against him. She might even have apologized on the spot, except that right then they heard horses' hoofs and all hell broke loose.
The mobbers came up a side road, just sauntering like they didn't expect trouble. Must have come up since Teague passed that road in his scouting. There was only two of them, and for a minute Marie hoped they'd think this group was too much for them. But the mobbers sized them up quick and didn't even pause a minute. They had guns out before they got to 421.
"We don't mean you no harm," Brother Deaver said, or started to say, anyway, when the one mobber got off his horse and whipped him across the face with his pistol, knocking him down.
"That's our speech," said the mobber, "and we do all the talking, got it? Everybody lie down—on your bellies."
"Look at what they got in the way of women, Zack, if that ain't pitiful."
"That blond one—"
"Keep your hands off her," said Pete. He started to get up. The taller one with the long beard gave him a kick that looked like it might tear his head off.
"She's dessert," said the tall one. "We got dark meat for dinner."
Marie thought she was already as scared as she could be, but now when the cold barrel of a shotgun was pressed against her forehead, pressing down real heavy, she tasted terror for the first time in her life.
"Please," whispered Rona.
"Now you just hold still while I get this off you, honey, and open wide for papa, or Zack's gonna blow your girlfriend's head clean off."
"I'm a good girl!" Rona whined.
"I'll make you even better," said the long-bearded man.
"No!" Rona screamed.
Marie felt the painful motion of the gun as Zack drew a charge into the chamber. "Don't fight with them, Rona," said Marie. She knew it was a cowardly thing to say, but Rona didn't have the gun at her head.
"You little kids best close your eyes," said Zack. "Wouldn't want you finding out the facts of life too young."
Marie could hear the other one set down his shotgun and start unzipping himself, mumbling to himself about how if she gave him a disease he'd hang her head from his saddle, which told Marie that she did see what she thought she saw. It made her gag all over again.
"Hold still," said Zack, "or it won't go so nice for you when I—"
Suddenly the gun barrel jammed sharp into her head as Zack slumped on it; not even a second later she heard the crack of a gun going off not far away. Zack's shirt blossomed open and spattered blood; Marie grabbed the shotgun barrel and tore it away from her face.
The other mobber muttered something and fumbled for his gun, but then another cracking sound and he was down, too.
"Teague!" Marie shouted. She got to her feet, her head bleeding. Everybody was getting up. Pete had Zack's shotgun in a second and pointed it at the two mobbers—but they were stone dead, each killed with one shot.
"Catch the horses!" Teague was shouting that. And he was right, had to catch the horses, they could pull the carts, they could carry stuff, had to catch them, but Marie couldn't find them, not with blood pouring down into her eyes—
"Marie honey, here, are you all right?" Sister Monk was dabbing at her with a cloth. It stung like hell.
"Did he shoot Marie?" It was one of the little boys.
"Just jammed his gun in her head when he was dying is all—Donna Cinn, you get the little ones back to the side of the road." Sister Monk taking charge as usual. And as usual everybody hopped to do it. Only this time Marie didn't mind at all, didn't mind those big old hands dabbing at the blood on her face.
Then she noticed Rona making a grunting noise, and she turned to look. Brother Deaver was tugging at Rona's sleeve, but Rona wouldn't quit stomping her foot down on the bearded mobber's face. It wasn't even human anymore, but she kept stomping and now the skull broke through and her shoe sank down in a ways.
Now Teague came up, leading one horse. He handed the reins to Deaver, stepped astride the dead man's body, and took Rona in his arms and just held her, saying, "You're OK, you're OK now, you're safe."
"Took you damn long enough," said Pete. He had the other horse, and he sounded more scared than mad.
"Came as soon as I heard the horses. Had to make sure it was only the two before I started shooting. Rona, I'm sorry, I'm sorry you got so scared, I'm sorry he treated you so bad, but I had to wait until he set his gun down, don't you see."
"It's OK, he didn't do nothing," said Annalee.
Rona screamed into Teague's shirt.
"I don't call it nothing to have her lying there with her skirt up like that," said Teague.
"I just meant he didn't—"
"If it didn't happen to you then you just shut up about what's nothing or not," said Teague.
Brother Deaver held out a little blue swatch of cloth. "Here's your underwear, Rona—"
Rona turned away. Sister Monk snatched the panties out of Brother Deaver's hand. "For heaven's sake, Brother Deaver, use some sense. He touched these! She isn't going to put them back on."
"Rona, I'm sorry, but we've got to get moving," said Teague. "Right now, right this second. Those gunshots are bound to call more of them—these two might have twenty more a mile behind them."
Rona turned away from him, staggered to Sister Monk. Marie didn't mind much, having Sister Monk switch from nursing her to comforting Rona. It was plain Rona was in worse shape.
Teague got the other two men to help him hoist the corpses onto the horses.
"Leave them here," said Annalee.
"Got to bury them," said Teague.
"They don't deserve it."
Pete explained, real gentle. "So nobody finds the bodies and chases after us to get even."
A minute later they were off the road and cutting along the edge of some farmer's field, half-screened by trees. Teague pushed them to go faster, and quieter, too, his voice just a whisper. Finally they were down a hill in a hollow. Teague had Brother Deaver and Brother Cinn dig a single large grave, while Annalee kept the children away from the horses.
"Bury these, too," said Teague.
That was the first time Marie noticed that both saddles had heads tied to them. They looked even worse close up than the heads Marie had seen from a distance.
"I'll take them down," said Rona. She set right to untying the thongs from the saddle.
"Me too," said Marie. She didn't even let herself wonder whether it had been a girl or a boy, a man or a woman.
Teague took his rifle and went back up the hill to keep a watch on the road.
Marie didn't puke and neither did Rona. Mostly Marie was just thinking about how grateful she was that her head wasn't on the horse. Then Marie helped Sister Monk strip the corpses and empty the pockets of everything. Three dozen shotgun shells. All kinds of matches and supplies. They stuffed it all in the saddlebags, which were already near full of stuff the mobbers no doubt stole from other folks just today. In twenty minutes both corpses were in the hole, dressed in their ragged underwear, the heads tucked around them, their limp, filthy clothes tossed in on top of them. Only Marie had noticed how Sister Monk wrapped Rona's blue panties inside one of the dead men's shirts. Rona insisted on helping then, tossing dirt onto the bodies until they were covered up.
Marie couldn't keep from speaking. "They were poor."
"Everybody's poor," said Pete. "But they kept alive by stealing the little that others had and likely killing them, too."
"Feels wrong, having their victims' heads buried with them," said Sister Monk.
"The victims don't mind," said Brother Deaver, "and we didn't have time to dig more holes. Marie, can you get up the hill real quiet and tell Brother Teague that we're done here?"
But Teague had already seen from up the hill, and he slid down the slope. "Nobody coming. These two might've been alone," he said. "It's getting late enough, maybe we ought to camp farther on down the hollow here. If I remember right there's water. The horses'll need that. We can work the rest of the afternoon rigging up some kind of harness for the horses to pull the bikes." Teague looked at the grave. "Get some dead leaves on here. Something to make the soil not look so fresh-turned. And if this happens again, save out their clothes. Dead people don't need them."
"We'd never wear them," said Brother Deaver.
"You would, if it got cold enough, and you got naked enough."
"I've never been that naked," said Brother Deaver.
"Brother Teague," said Marie.
"I was wrong about not wanting you to kill for me."
"I know," said Teague. And that was all he said to her. "Mr. Deaver, Mr. Cinn, you got any objection to hanging on to those shotguns?"
"If they do, I don't," said Sister Cinn.
Brother Deaver and Brother Cinn kept to themselves any objections they might have had. They slung the shotguns over their shoulders. Brother Cinn dropped a few shells in his pocket; then he dropped some in Brother Deaver's pocket. Brother Deaver looked at him in surprise, then embarrassment. Marie was a little disgusted. Didn't college professors know anything?
Mostly, though, Marie watched Teague. That's why she was the only one who saw how Teague kept clenching and unclenching his jaw. How his hand shook a little. And late that night, she was the only one who woke up when he took a walk in the moonlight.
She got up and followed him. He stood beside the grave, looking nowhere in particular, his hands jammed in his pockets. He showed no sign of noticing she was there, but she knew he had heard her coming from the minute she got up from the ground.
"You're such a liar," said Marie. "You didn't kill your parents."
He didn't say a thing.
"You never killed a living soul before today."
"Believe what you like," he said.
He just stood there with his hands in his pockets until she went back to the camp. She lay there wondering why a man might want other folks to think he was a murderer when he wasn't. Then she wondered why she wanted so bad to believe a man wasn't a murderer when he said right out that he was. She lay awake a long time, but he didn't come back until after she was asleep.
As for Rona, Marie was sure that girl really did have a crush on Jamie Teague, before. Seeing how Teague saved her from rape and probably from having her head bounce along on some mobber's saddle, you'd think she'd be totally in love with him now. But no, not Rona. From then on it was like Teague didn't even exist, except as just another grown-up. Like he was nothing special.
There's just no understanding some people, Marie decided. Maybe Rona just couldn't be grateful and in love at the same time. Maybe she couldn't forgive Teague for waiting to kill the mobbers till they had her panties off. Or maybe Rona just couldn't ever be married to a man that watched her stamp a dead man's head to mush. Rona never told her, and Marie never asked.
Marie carried a scar on her forehead to the end of her life. She'd touch it now and then, and from the start she was glad to have it. She always remembered that it could have been much worse for her than a gun barrel leaning on her head. She could've been in Rona's place.
Day after next they came to the mountains, where the road sloped upward so steep that they had to stop and rest every twenty minutes or so. Pete was grateful they had the horses now, to pull the carts, though he didn't say so out loud; it didn't do to start saying it was a good thing to have the horses, not with Rona still so upset about how they got them.
Pete concentrated on the children, his own and the orphans. They were the ones who suffered most, he knew that. The youngest of them, Scotty Porter and Valerie Letterman, they weren't even born when the first plague struck. The famous Six Missiles had already fallen before Scotty and Valerie said their first words. He murmured to Annalee one time, "Think there's any chance of getting them into a college-prep kindergarten?" But she'd either forgotten all that craziness from the old days, or else she didn't think it was funny. She didn't think much was funny these days. Neither did Pete, for that matter. But at least he tried now and then. Sometimes, for hours, maybe even days at a time, he didn't think about his father killed in the missile that got D.C., or his stepfather shot by looters, or his mom and Annalee's folks and all their brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews crammed into the cultural hall at the stake center, not being sure what was going to happen to them, but knowing deep down all the time, knowing and being terrified. I was in plays on the stage where the guys with the guns stood. I played basketball on the floor where the bullets gouged up the wood finish and blood soaked in under the polish. I was baptized in the font behind the stage, where the men from the city hooked up the hoses to wash out the blood. The Baptists were already talking about making it a Christian library when Pete went there to lay flowers in the parking lot where he had first kissed Annalee after a dance, where now his kin and his friends lay in a jumbled heap of broken bodies under the dirt.
That was the whole world to these children. It had always been in turmoil—did they even realize that things weren't supposed to be this way? Would they ever trust anything again, now that their parents had been taken away from them?
Teague asked him once, when they were alone together, leading the horses. "Whose kids are those?"
"Donna, the big one, she's mine, and so's Nat, he's my boy."
"Any fool can see that, they're so blond," said Teague.
"Mick and Scotty Porter, Valerie Letterman, Cheri Ann Bee, they're orphans."
"Why'd you bring them along? Wasn't there anybody in Greensboro who could've took care of them?"
"That's what took us so long leaving. Fighting everybody to get the right to take them with us."
"But why? Don't you know how much faster we'd go, how much safer we'd be without them?"
Pete held himself back, kept himself from being angry, like he always tried to do and almost always succeeded. "It's like this, Teague. If we left them, they would've been raised up Baptists."
"That ain't so bad," said Teague.
Pete held himself back again, a long time, before he could answer quiet and calm. "You see, Teague, it was mostly Baptist preachers who spent fifteen years telling people how Mormons were the anti-Christ, how we had secret rituals in the temple where we worshiped Satan. How we and Jesus and the devil were brothers, and how we weren't Christians but pretended to be so we could steal away their children, how we Mormons owned everything and made sure we got rich while good Christians stayed poor. And then when bad times came, all those Baptist preachers washed their hands and said, 'We never told anybody to kill Mormons.' Well, that's true. They never taught murder. But they taught hate and fear, they told lies and they knew they were doing it. Now, Teague, do you see why we wouldn't let these Mormon kids get raised by people who'd tell such lies about the religion their parents died for?"
Teague thought about that for a while. "How come these kids got out alive? I heard the Christian Soldiers went through killing the wounded."
So Teague had heard the story. "These four went to Guilford Primary. When the Christian Soldiers were going around arresting people, they got to Guilford Primary school, and Dr. Sonja Day, the principal, she met them at the door. Didn't have a gun or anything. She just shows them the ashes of the school records, still smoldering. She says to them, 'All the children in this school are Mormon today, and me and all the faculty. If you take anybody, you take us all.' Faced them down and they finally went away."
"Think about it, Teague. Mormon kids were ripped out of class in fifty schools in the county. If more principals had guts—"
"One out of fifty's above average, Cinn."
"That's why America deserves all that's happened to her. That's why the Lord hasn't saved us. America turned to loving evil."
"Maybe they were just afraid," said Teague.
"Afraid or weak or evil, all three roads lead to hell."
"I know," whispered Teague.
His whisper was so deep and sore that Pete knew he'd touched some wounded place in Teague. Pete wasn't one to push deeper at a time like that. He backed off, let a man be. You don't go poking into a wound, that just gets it all infected. You keep hands off, you let it heal up, you give it time and air and gentleness.
"Teague, I wish you'd take me with you when you scout around or go hunting or whatever."
"I need you to stay with the rest. I don't figure Deaver to be much good with a shotgun."
"Maybe not," said Pete. "But if you don't go with us beyond these mountains, somebody's got to be able to do some of what you do."
"I been walking the woods for ten years now, long before the plagues started."
"I got to start sometime."
"When we get to the Blue Ridge Parkway, I'll start to take you hunting with me. But you carry no gun."
"Take it or leave it. Can you throw?"
"I pitched hardball."
"If you can't hunt with a rock, you can't hunt. Bullets are for killing things big enough to kill you. Because when the bullets run out, there won't be no more."
The higher they got into the mountains, the more relaxed Teague got. After a while, he stopped having them look for sheltered, hidden places to camp in; they camped right out in the open. "Mobbers don't come up this high," said Teague.
"Because when they do, they don't come back."
At the Blue Ridge Parkway, Teague laid out a whole new set of rules. "Walk spaced apart, not bunched up. Stay on the pavement or close to it. Nobody goes off alone. Don't hold anything in your hand, not even a rock. Keep your hands in plain sight all the time. If somebody comes, don't move your hands above your waist, not even to scratch your nose. Just keep walking. Above all, make plenty of noise."
"I take it we're not afraid of bushwhackers anymore," said Brother Deaver.
"These are mountain people around here, and Cherokees beyond Asheville. They don't rob people, but they also don't ask a lot of questions before they kill strangers. If they think you might, just might cause them any trouble, you're dead where you stand. So make it plain that you aren't trying to sneak up on anybody and you stay visible all the time."
"We can sing again?" asked Sister Monk.
"Anything but that 'walked and walked and walked and walked' song."
It was a glorious time then. The Blue Ridge Parkway crested the hills, so they had sky all round them, and the mountains were as pretty as Pete had ever seen them. His real dad took them along the parkway most autumns when he was growing up. One year they drove it clear from Harpers Ferry down to the Cherokee Reservation. Pete and his brother griped the whole way till their dad was promising to amputate limbs if they didn't shut up, but now the trip was glorious in memory. Sometimes Pete forgot he was a grown-up, walking along here, especially when he walked on ahead so he couldn't see any of them. It wasn't autumn yet, though autumn wasn't far off; still, it felt good, felt like coming home. He'd heard other folks say that, too, about the Blue Ridge. About the Appalachians in general. Felt like coming home even if they grew up in some desolate place like California or North Dakota.
Teague made good his promise. It near drove Pete crazy the first few times, when his rock always missed and Teague's almost never did. But after a while he got the knack of it. It was like pitching with a smaller strike zone. By the time they skirted around Asheville, he could clean a squirrel in two minutes and a rabbit in three. He also learned how to choose a hunting ground. You always look for a cabin and walk up singing, so they know you're coming. Then you ask the owner where it's OK to hunt, and if he'd like you to split your catch with him. To hear these mountain folks talk, you could hunt wherever you liked; but Teague would never so much as pick up a rock unless the folks had said "That holler down there" or "Along that slope there," and even though they always said, "No need to bring me none," Teague always took the whole catch to them and offered them half. He wouldn't leave until they'd accepted at least one animal. "They can't claim you stole it then," said Teague. "If they took part of it, it wasn't poaching."
"What's to stop them from lying and saying you stole it?" asked Pete.
Teague looked at him like he was stupid. "These are mountain people."
Whenever they returned from hunting, Pete loved to hear the sound of the children singing, and the grown-ups too now, more and more. Most of all he loved hearing his Annalee's voice, singing and laughing. When they climbed up out of the piedmont and into the mountains, it was like rising out of hell. This is what redemption feels like, he thought. This is what it's like when Christ forgives you of your sins. Like putting you on the top of a green mountain, with as many clouds below you as above; and all your bad memories just washed away with the rain, got lost in the morning fogs. All those bad memories were lowland troubles, left behind, gone. Pete had been born again.
"I never want to come down out of here," he told Annalee.
"I know," she said. "I feel like that too."
"Then let's don't go down."
She looked at him sharply. "What's got into you, Peter? You talk like Teague, you walk like Teague. If I'd wanted to marry a hillbilly I'd've gone to Appalachian State or Western Carolina."
"A man belongs up here."
"A Latter-day Saint belongs in the kingdom of God."
"Look around you, Annalee, and tell me God doesn't love this place."
"There's no safety here. You feel good cause we don't have to hide every night. But we aren't staying in the open cause we're safe and free, we're staying in the open so somebody won't shoot our heads off. We'd never belong here. But we're already citizens of Utah. Every Mormon is."
After that Pete didn't mention his desire to stay in the mountains, not to Annalee, not to anybody. He knew that after a while they'd all come around to his point of view. When you get to heaven, why go farther? That's what Pete thought.
"Sister Monk, your dress is getting longer," said Valerie Letterman one day.
"I must be getting shorter," Tina answered.
"You're getting prettier."
"Child, you're going to make a lot of friends in this world."
But Valerie was right. Walking more than two hundred miles was every bit as effective as stomach stapling in the old days. She'd already hemmed up the skirts of all her dresses twice, as her bulk evaporated. She could feel the muscles working under the flesh of her arms and legs. She could spring to her feet all at once, instead of step by step—all fours, kneel up, one foot planted, two feet squatting, and the last terrible unbending of the knees. That was ancient history now. She rolled out of her blanket—it was cold at night up here—and got right to her feet and felt like every step she was jumping several feet into the air. All the pills she'd tried, all the doctors, all the diets, all the exercises—but the only thing that worked was to walk from Greensboro to Topton.
No trouble all through the mountains. No danger that felt like danger, except a few tight minutes at the Cherokee border, till somebody came along who recognized Jamie Teague. And at last they left the paved road and climbed up a dirt track, all overgrown now that no cars ever came through, and came to a two-story house completely dwarfed by giant oak trees.
"I thought you called this a cabin, Jamie Teague," she said.
"My foster parents called it that," he said. "They were summer people. But as soon as I was old enough, I stayed year-round."
Tina caught up that information and remembered it. Teague had foster parents before he was old enough to decide where he was going to live. So if he was fostered out because he killed his parents, he must have killed them when he was young. Probably very young.
The door was not locked. Yet inside, the house was untouched by thieves or vandals. It was deep with dust and dead insects—no one had entered all summer, least of all to clean. Yet every implement was in its place, and Annalee immediately set everyone to work cleaning up. Tina knew she should have joined in—she probably knew more about cleaning than everybody else put together—but for some reason she just felt an aversion to it, just didn't want to. And the more she thought she ought to help, the less she felt like helping, until finally she fled the house.
"Stop," said Teague.
"You don't just walk outside and go where you want," said Teague.
"My neighbors don't know you yet."
"They'll know me soon enough," she said. "I've always been a good neighbor."
"It ain't like the neighbors down in the city, Mrs. Monk."
"If you can't bring yourself to call me Sister Monk, then at least call me Tina."
Teague grinned. "Go in there and get everybody ready for an expedition."
The expedition was a trip to each of four neighbors' houses, singing and talking the whole way. The houses were set so far apart you couldn't see any of them from the other. But that didn't matter. They were neighbors all the same. They were the reason Teague's house was untouched. And they could be deadly.
"Mr. Bicker," said Teague. "I see you pulled a good crop of tobacco."
"Mountain tobacco's only a speck better than chewing dog turds," said Bicker, "but I got a few leaves curing anyway."
"Mr. Bicker, you see these folks I got with me?"
"Do I look blind?"
"I've been with these folks since Winston, and they treated me like kin. We've been eating out of the same pot and walking the same road, and stood back to back a few times. They're staying the winter with me and then they're moving on. I showed them the property line, and they all know what land is mine and what land is yours."
Bicker sniffed. "Never knowed city people could tell one tree from another."
But we can read, thought Tina, and we don't let snot trail on our upper lips. She had sense enough not to say it.
"City people or not, Mr. Bicker, they're my people, all of them."
"Them is colored there."
"I call that a deep suntan, Mr. Bicker. Or maybe Cherokee blood. But they'll be gone in spring, and you'll hardly notice they're around."
"But they'll be around," said Teague. "Every one of them. Every last one, alive and moving around in the spring."
"Hope there's no influenza," said Bicker. Then he went back into his cabin, laughing and laughing.
Teague led them away. "Sing," he told Tina, and she led them in singing.
"This is like Christmas caroling," said Annalee's girl Donna.
"Except we didn't used to sing carols so people wouldn't shoot at us," said Tina.
"Oh, Bicker's all right," said Teague. "He'll be fine."
"Fine? He practically loaded his shotgun right in front of us."
"Oh, he's a good neighbor, Tina. You just got to know how to treat him."
"I don't call it a good neighbor when he merely agrees not to kill you before spring."
But Tina was pretty sure Teague didn't entirely know what he was talking about. After all, he'd been a boy up here, not a girl. There was one kind of neighborliness between men, which mostly consisted of not stealing from each other and not sleeping with each other's wife. Then there was the neighborliness of women, which Teague wouldn't know a thing about.
So she made sure to go along with him as he started going around trading the things he'd gotten on his trip to the coast. All kinds of tooled metal, threads and needles, buttons, pins, scissors, spoons and knives and forks. A precious pair of binoculars, for which Teague got a queen-size mattress in exchange. Bullets to fit half a dozen different guns. A bottle of vitamin C and a bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol Caplets, both for an old lady with arthritis.
And right after he got through bartering, Tina would start in talking about how she was near helpless cooking wild game. "I make a fair broth, and I expect I can use my sweet dumpling recipe with honey for the sugar, but you must know ten dozen herbs and vegetables that I'll just step on thinking they're weeds. I don't want to be a bother, but I can trade sewing for cooking lessons. I've got a decent eye with a needle." Teague was dumbfounded at first—it was obvious that in all the time he'd been trading with the menfolk, talking in words of one or two syllables and sentences of three or four words, he'd never had an inkling of how a woman goes calling, of how women help each other instead of trying to drive a bargain. "It's called civilization," she said to Teague, between visits. "Women invented it, and every time you men blow it all to bits, we just invent it again."
By Christmas she had Bicker himself coming over for supper every night, bringing his fiddle and a memory of a thousand old songs, none of which he sang on key, which nobody minded except Tina, who had been cursed with pitch so clear she could sing quarter tones in a chromatic scale. Never mind—the kids didn't have to live in fear of getting their feet shot off if they happened to stray over the line into Bicker's land. And Teague just sat there singing and laughing along with everybody else, now and then getting this look of surprise on his face, like he'd never had a notion that folks in these mountains ever did such things as this.
In only one thing did Tina follow Teague's heartfelt advice. She never told a soul, nor did anybody else, that they were Mormons. They never sang a Mormon hymn, and on Sunday mornings, when Brother Deaver and Pete Cinn broke bread and blessed the sacrament and passed it, and then they preached, why, they kept the shutters closed and never sang. It wasn't the hate from the TV preachers and the Baptist ministers of the city that they feared. It was an older kind of loathing. Put a name like Mormon on somebody, and he stopped being folks and started being Other. And around here, Other got ostracized at the least, and usually got burnt out before spring planting.
But it was a good winter all the same. And Tina noticed how Teague listened and finally came downstairs during church meetings, and even asked a question now and then about something from the Book of Mormon or some point of doctrine he'd never heard of before. Sometimes he shook his head like it was the craziest mess he'd ever heard of. And sometimes he kind of almost nodded. At Christmas he even told the Christmas story, pretty much following Luke.
Tina held school every day, at first just for the kids in their group, but pretty soon for whatever mountain kids could make it through the snow. She got Rona and Marie to teach sometimes, so she could divide the classes. Brother Deaver taught grammar to Donna and the older kids from the nearby cabins. The worst thing was, no paper to write on, and nothing to write with. They wrote with burnt sticks on the porch, then scrubbed the porch with snow and started over. Mostly, though, they did their writing and arithmetic in their heads, reciting their answers. Tina realized she was growing old when the kids regularly out-ciphered her—she just couldn't hold as many numbers at once as they could. That was when Rona became the permanent arithmetic teacher.
They didn't teach geography at all. Nobody knew geography anymore. Everything had changed.
All through the winter, Teague took Pete along to teach him more about hunting and tracking, and Pete learned pretty well, Tina gathered; at least Teague seemed to get closer to him all the time, approving of him, trusting him. At the same time, Tina noticed that Pete seemed to get more and more distant from his family. There wasn't much room for privacy, but as the only married couple, Pete and Annalee had a room to themselves. The day after Christmas Annalee told Tina that she might as well sleep on the dining room table for all the lovemaking she got anymore. "I might as well be a widow, he never even talks to me." And then: "Tina, I think he isn't planning to go on west with us."
Tina let things ride through January, watching. Annalee was right. Pete never took part in their frequent speculations about Utah. Teague would tease them all sometimes, when nobody else was around. "Nothing grows out west," he'd say. "They probably all moved on to Seattle. You'll get to Utah and nobody'll be there."
"You don't know what you're talking about, Jamie Teague," said Tina one time. "You don't know our people. If it floods we all go into the boatmaking business. If there's a hurricane we all learn to fly."
Others picked up on it. "If the corn crop fails, we learn to eat grass," said Donna.
"And when the grass gets used up, we chew up the trees!" said Mick Porter.
"And then we eat bugs!" shouted his little brother Scotty.
"And worms!" shouted Mick, even louder.
Annalee put a hand on Mick's mouth. "Let's keep it down." Didn't want the neighbors to hear them talking about Utah.
"You can bet they're making gasoline out of shale oil," Tina said. "That's no tall tale. I bet there's still tractors plowing there, and fertilizer."
"I believe the fertilizer," said Teague. But his eyes danced a little, Tina could see that.
So she pressed her case. "And what have you got here, Jamie?"
It wasn't Teague who answered. It was Pete. "He's got everything," he said. "Safety. Good land. Enough to eat. Good neighbors. And no reason to move on, ever."
There it was, out in the open.
But Tina pretended that it was still Teague she was talking to, instead of Pete. "That's this year, Jamie. You make your trips down into the Carolinas. You go into abandoned houses, you visit places and tell stories and they give you gifts. And what do you collect to bring back here? Needles and pins, scissors and thread, tools and all the things that make life halfway livable. Think about that! Do you think those things will last forever? Nobody's making them anymore, and someday the scavenging will run out. Someday there'll be no more thread, no more needles. What'll you wear then? Some rag of homespun? Anybody spinning yet?"
"Lady down in Murphy spins and weaves real good," said Teague. Pete nodded like that answered everything.
"Enough for everybody in the hills? Jamie, don't you see that folks around here are just holding on by their fingernails? It isn't as plain to see here because you don't go to sleep in fear of mobs every night. But it's all slipping away. It's fading. And whoever stays here is going to fade, too. But out west—"
"Out west they might all be dead!" said Pete.
"Out west the temple is still standing, and the wards are all still functioning, just like they always have. They're growing crops on good land—in peace—and there'll still be hospitals and medicines. What if you marry someday, Jamie? What if your kids get some disease? A simple one like measles. And they end up blind. A kidney infection. Appendicitis, for heaven's sake. You see any more doctors growing up around here? Every year you'll slip back another fifty years."
"It's safe here," said Pete. But his voice was fainter.
"It isn't safe compared to safety," said Tina. "It's only safe compared to the open lands where the mob rules. And someday you know the mobbers are coming up here. They'll have killed off or run off everybody down there who isn't protected by an army. Those mobbers aren't going to settle down and learn to farm, you know. They won't attack the Cherokees, either. They'll come to places like this—"
"And we'll kill them all," said Pete.
"Till you run out of bullets. Then there's no more shooting from behind trees. Then you fight out in the open against ten times your number, by hand, till they sweep you under. I tell you there's only one place safe in all America, only one place that's growing upward against all the dying."
"Says you," said Pete.
"Says all the history of the Mormon people. We've been driven out and mobbed and massacred before, and all we ever do is move on and settle somewhere else. And wherever we settle there's peace and progress. We never hold still. I'm betting we don't even have to get to the mountains to find them. I'm betting they send people out to meet folks like us and help us safely in. That's what they used to do, in the covered wagon days."
All this time Tina only looked at Teague, never once at Pete. But out of the corner of her eye she could see how Pete deflated when Teague nodded. "I guess you aren't crazy to try to get there after all. I just wish I had more hope of your making it."
"The Lord will protect us," said Tina.
"He was doing a slim job of it till Teague came along," said Pete.
"But Jamie came along, didn't you, Jamie? Why do you think you happened to be there when we needed you so bad?"
Teague grinned. "I reckon I'm just a regular old angel," he said.
Still, Easter came and no decision had been made. They had a church service on Easter Sunday, but nobody preached this time. They just bore testimony. It wasn't like the old days, when people used to get up and recite the same old I'm-thankful-fors and I-know-thats. This time they spoke from the heart, spoke of terrible things and wonderful things, spoke of love for each other and anger at the Lord and yet in the end spoke of faith that things would all work out.
And after a while they started talking about the thing they'd only hinted at all these months together. The thing that had happened back in May, almost a year before. The terrible death of so many of the people they knew and loved and missed so bad. And the even worse thing—that they themselves had not died.
It was Cheri Ann Bee who started it off. She was seven now, and not even baptized yet, but she still bore her testimony, and at the end she said something real simple, but it about broke Tina's heart. "I'm sorry I didn't get sick that day and stay home," she said, "so I could've gone with Mommy and Daddy to visit Heavenly Father." Cheri Ann didn't cry or anything; she just plain believed that things were better with her mother and father. And as Tina sat there with tears in her eyes, she wasn't sure if she felt like crying out of pity for this girl or if she felt like crying because she herself didn't have such plain and simple faith, and lacked something of that perfect trust that death was just a matter of going to pay a call on God, who would invite you into his house to live with him.
"I'm sorry, too," said Brother Deaver, and then he did cry, tears running down his cheeks. "I'm sorry I went to work that day. I'm sorry that the Christian Soldiers were so afraid of provoking the black community of Greensboro that they didn't come take me out of class at A&T and let me hold my babies in my arms while they were dying."
"His kids wasn't babies," Scotty Porter whispered to Tina. "They was bigger than me."
"All children are always babies to their mama and papa," Tina answered.
"I called my mama that morning," said Annalee, and wonder of wonders, she was crying, too, looking as soft and vulnerable as a child. "I told her how Pete was keeping the kids home from school and we were making a picnic of it at the fire station. And she said, I wisht I could come. And then she said, Can't talk now, Anny Leedy, there's somebody at the door. Somebody at the door! It was them at the door, and there I was talking to her on the phone and I didn't even say I love you one last time or nothing."
There was silence for a while, the way there always was in testimony meetings from time to time, when nobody stood up to talk. It always used to be so tense when nobody talked, everybody feeling guilty cause the time was going to waste and hoping somebody else would get up and talk cause they didn't feel like it. This time, though, the silence was just because everybody was so full and there wasn't a thing to say.
"I knew," said Pete, finally. "I had a dream the night before. I saw the men coming to the doors. I was shown. That's why I kept the kids home. That's why I got us all over to the fire station."
"You never told me this," said Annalee.
"I thought it was crazy, that's why. I thought I was plain out of my mind to take a nightmare so serious. But I couldn't leave you all home, feeling like I did." Pete looked around at the others. "My station, they stood by me. They turned on the hoses and drove them back. My captain said to them, 'If you touch any fireman or any fireman's family, don't be surprised to find your own house on fire someday, and the fire engines a little slow to show up and save you.' And so they went away, and we were alive." Suddenly his face twisted up and he sobbed, great and terrible sobs.
"Petey," said Annalee. She put her arm around him, but he shrugged her off.
"God showed me a vision, don't you see? All I could think to save was my own family. Not even my brothers and sisters! Not even my mama! I had a chance to save them all, and they're dead because I didn't give warning."
Brother Deaver tried to soothe him with words. "Pete, the Lord didn't command you in that dream to give warning. He didn't tell you to call everybody and tell them. So he probably meant to take the others to himself, and spare only a few to suffer further in this vale of tears."
Pete lifted his face from his hands, a mask of grief with reddened eyes staring out, wild and terrible. "He did tell me," said Pete. "Warn them all, he said, only I just thought it was a nightmare, I was too embarrassed to claim to have a vision, I thought they'd all think I was crazy. I'm going to hell, don't you see? I can't go to Utah. I'm rejected and cast off from the Lord."
"Even Jonah was forgiven," said Brother Deaver.
But Pete wasn't in the mood to be comforted. It was the end of the meeting, but it was a good meeting, Tina knew that. Everybody said the things they'd been holding back all along, or had those things said for them. They'd done what a testimony meeting was supposed to do. They'd confessed their sins, and now there was hope of forgiveness.
It was afternoon of Easter Sunday. The day had warmed up right smart, and Jamie shed his jacket and felt the wind cool on his back and arms, right through his shirt, and felt the sun hot, too, right at the same time. Best kind of weather, best kind of day.
"I guess you got an earful today."
Jamie turned around. He couldn't believe he hadn't heard a big woman like Tina come lumbering up behind him. But then she wasn't so big these days. And he had a lot of noisy thoughts going round in his head.
"I figured a lot of this out before, anyway," said Jamie. "I heard tales of the Greensboro massacre."
"Is that how they tell it? That our people were massacred?"
"Sometimes," said Jamie. "Other times they call it the Purification of Greensboro. Them as says that usually allow as how other places need purification, too."
"I hope all our people are heading west. I pray they all have sense to go. We should've gone years ago."
"May be," said Jamie. But he knew this wasn't what Tina came to say.
"Jamie," said Tina.
This was it.
"Jamie, what's holding you here?"
Jamie looked around at the trees, at the bright spring grass, at the distant curls of smoke from two dozen chimneys spread out through the hills.
"You hardly speak to your neighbors, leastwise you didn't till we came here, Jamie. You got no close friends in these hills."
"They leave me alone," said Jamie Teague.
"Too bad," said Tina.
"I like it. I like being left alone."
"Don't tell me lies, Jamie."
"I was a loner before the collapse, and I'm a loner now. Whole thing made not a speck of difference to me."
"Don't tell yourself lies, either."
Jamie felt anger flash out inside him. "I don't need anybody talking like a mama to me. I had one and I killed her dead."
"I don't believe that lie," said Tina.
"Why?" demanded Jamie. "Do you think I'm so nice I'd just naturally never kill a soul? Then you don't know me at all."
"I know there's times you kill," said Tina. "I just don't believe you killed your mama and papa. Because if you did, then why are you still so mad at them?"
"Leave me alone." Jamie meant it with all his heart.
But Tina didn't seem interested in leaving him alone. "You know you love us and you don't want to lose us when we leave."
"Is that what you think?"
"That's what I know. I see how good you are with the kids. What a friend you been to Peter. Don't you see that's half why he wanted to stay, to be with you? We all count on you, we all lean on you, but you count on us, too, you need us."
She was pushing too hard. Jamie couldn't stand it. "Back off," he said. "Just back off and leave me be."
"And when we pray, you fall silent, and your lips say Amen when the prayer is over."
"I got respect for religion, that's all."
"And today when we all confessed the blackest things that hurt us to the soul, you wanted to confess, too."
"I confessed a long time ago."
"You confessed a terrible lie. That's what I keep wondering about, Jamie Teague. What sin are you hiding that you think is so bad that it's easier to confess to killing your mama and papa?"
"Leave me alone!" shouted Jamie. Then he ran off from her, ran off up the hill, scrambling fast so he knew there was no hope of her keeping up. Didn't matter. She didn't chase him.
Mick Porter took his brother Scotty with him everywhere. Never let that little boy out of his sight. Have to look out for a kid like Scotty, always running off, always getting into things like he shouldn't.
In the old days it wasn't like that, of course. In the old days Mick used to complain to Mom about how Scotty always had to do everything the same as him. Mick used to wallop Scotty sometimes, and Scotty'd break down whatever Mick made out of legos or blocks, and it got to be like a war. But that all ended. Just didn't happen no more, on account of who'd break up their fights and send them to their rooms till they could just treat each other like civilized human beings now? Mick felt like he was almost Scotty's dad. I am his only kin, and he's my only kin, so look out, everybody else, and that's all.
So Mick had Scotty tagging right along with him, gathering fallen sticks for kindling and getting in some rock-throwing practice, too. Mick wasn't up to getting squirrels, yet. He still had kind of a hard time hitting the same tree he was aiming at. Scotty, of course, had no idea about aim at all. He just felt good if the rock went more than five feet in the general direction he threw it.
Hardly a surprise, then, when Scotty threw his latest rock and it went sideways, whizzing right past Mick's nose and then going thunk, right into something soft not more than a few feet off.
"OK, I'm dead, just skin me gentle so you don't wake me up."
Mick near to swallowed his tongue he was so surprised. There was Mr. Jamie Teague, sitting right there, and until he spoke Mick hadn't even noticed him. He just held so still all the time.
"I hit something!" said Scotty.
"You hit my jeans," said Mr. Teague. "If I was a squirrel I might not be dead, but I'd sure be crippled."
"We can't cook you," said Scotty.
"Guess not," said Mr. Teague. "I'm sorry about that."
"We don't eat people anyhow," Mick told Scotty.
"I know that," Scotty said, his voice full of scorn.
Mick turned his attention to Mr. Teague. "What you doing just setting there?"
"I just said that."
"Of course you were thinking," said Mick. "Everybody's always thinking. You can't turn it off."
"And ain't that a damn shame, too," said Mr. Teague.
Scotty gasped and covered his mouth.
"I'm sorry," said Mr. Teague. "I grew up in a family where 'damn' was the nice way of saying stuff."
"I know a worser word," said Scotty.
"No you don't," said Mick.
"He might," said Mr. Teague. "You never know."
"It's another word for poop," said Scotty.
"Don't that beat all," said Mr. Teague. "Better not teach me what it is, now, Scotty. I might slip and use it in polite company."
Mick sat down near Mr. Teague's leg, and looked him in the eye. "Sister Monk says you didn't really kill your mama and daddy."
"Does she now."
"I heard her," said Scotty.
"Is she right?" asked Mick.
"I used to dream about killing them. But after they took us kids away from them, nobody ever told us where they were. Jail, I guess. I always meant to look for them and kill them when I got eighteen and could leave my foster parents, so-called, but the collapse came before I could get a fair start. So you see I meant to do it, and it wasn't my fault I didn't do it, so the way I figure it, I did it in my heart so I'm a murderer."
"No sir," said Mick. "You never did it. You got to kill somebody to be a murderer."
"Maybe so," said Mr. Teague.
"Then you'll come with us?"
Mr. Teague laughed out loud. He pulled his legs up close to his body and hugged them. They were the longest pair of legs Mick ever saw. Even longer than Daddy's legs used to be.
"You think my daddy's a skeleton now?" asked Mick.
Mr. Teague's smile went away. "Maybe," he said. "Hard to say."
"The Christian Soldiers killed him," said Mick.
"And Mommy," said Scotty.
"Those are what murderers are," said Mick.
"I know," said Mr. Teague.
"Brother Deaver says they killed our mama and daddy because we believe in a living prophet and how Jesus isn't the same person as God the Father."
"That's right, I guess."
"What did your mama and daddy believe?"
Mr. Teague took a long breath. He crossed his arms on top of his knees, and then rested his chin on top of his arms. He looked right between Mick and Scotty so long that Scotty started breaking twigs and Mick began to think Mr. Teague just wasn't going to answer, or maybe even he was mad.
"Don't break them sticks, Scotty," said Mick. "We can't use it for kindling if it's all broke up."
Scotty stopped breaking twigs. Didn't sass or stick out his tongue or nothing. It was all different now.
"My mama and daddy believed in getting by," said Mr. Teague.
"Getting by what?" asked Scotty.
"That's what you wanted to kill them about?" asked Mick.
Mr. Teague shook his head.
"You aren't making sense, you know," said Mick.
Mr. Teague grinned. "Guess not." He reached out a long arm, and with a single long finger he lifted Mick's chin. Mick didn't like it when grown-ups started moving parts of his body around or grabbing his hand or whatever, like they thought he was a puppet. But it wasn't so bad when Mr. Teague did it, especially because he didn't act like he was planning to make Mick do something or yell at him or anything. "You love your little brother, don't you?"
Scotty looked at him.
"Course," said Mick.
"Not when you're mad at me," said Scotty.
"I'm never mad at you anymore," said Mick.
"No," said Scotty, as if he was realizing it for the first time.
"I had a little brother," said Mr. Teague.
"Did you love him?" asked Mick.
"Yes," said Mr. Teague.
"Where is he?"
"Dead I guess," said Mr. Teague.
"Don't you know?"
"They put him in a mental hospital same time they locked up my folks. Put my little sister in a mental hospital, too. Then they farmed out me and my older brother to foster homes. Never saw any of them again, but I reckon my little brother, being crazy like he was, I reckon he didn't last long after the collapse."
Mr. Teague was breathing kind of fast, and not looking Mick in the eye anymore. It was kind of scary, like Mr. Teague was a little crazy himself. "How'd he get crazy?" asked Mick. He wondered if the same thing was happening to Mr. Teague.
"Does he scream?" asked Scotty. "Crazy people scream."
"Sometimes he screamed. Mostly he just sat there, looking past you. He'd never look folks in the eye. It was like you wasn't even there. Like he was erasing you in his own mind. But he looked at me."
"How come you?"
"Because I brought him food."
"Not your mama?"
Mr. Teague shook his head. "It was when I was five. Your age, Scotty. And my little brother, he was three."
"I'm five and a half," said Scotty.
"And my little sister, she was only two."
"Was she crazy?" asked Mick.
"Not then. But she was sick. And so was my little brother. Both of them, all the time. Ever since they was born. My brother got pneumonia and cried all the time. Lots of bills to pay. My little sister was fussy, too. I used to hear Mama and Daddy yelling at each other all the time, about money, about too damn many kids. Fighting and screaming, and Mama screaming about how she just couldn't take any more, she just couldn't stand it if us kids didn't just shut up and let her be for just a couple of hours, that's all she wanted, just a couple of hours of silence, and she was going to have it by God or she'd kill herself, see if I don't, she said, I'm going to cut my wrists and die if you don't shut up. And me, I'd shut up all right, I kept my mouth shut. The older kids, they were in school. But my little brother, he was just sick and out of sorts and he just kept crying and whimpering and the more she yelled the more he whimpered and then my sister, she woke up from her nap and she started crying even louder than my brother did, they just screamed and screamed, and my mama screamed even louder, she just got this horrible face, and she picked up my sister and I thought she was going to throw her on the floor, but she didn't do it. She just took her and grabbed my brother by his arm and dragged him along, dragged them over to the cedar closet that had a lock on the door and she opened it up and shoved them inside and closed the door and locked it. Cry and whine all you want to but I'm not going to hear any more, do you understand me? I just can't stand it any more I'm going to have some peace."
"Daddy locked me in the bathroom one time when I was bad," said Mick.
"Did they have a light in there?" asked Scotty.
"They had a light. There was a switch and my brother could stand on a box in there and turn it on, so he did. But they didn't like being in there. They screamed and yelled and cried like it was the worst thing in the world, and my brother banged on the door and rattled the handle and kicked the door and stamped his feet. But Mama just went downstairs and turned on the dishwasher and went into the living room and turned on the stereo and laid there on the couch listening to the radio until she fell asleep. Every now and then my brother and sister, they let up on their yelling, but then they'd start all over again. When the older kids got home from school they knew right off to stay away from Mom, and they didn't even ask where the little ones were. They knew you don't mess with Mom in a mood like that. Anyway, Mom got up and fixed dinner, and when Dad came home we ate, and Dad asked where the little kids were, and Mom said, Learning to be quiet. And when she said that, Dad knew not to mess with her, either. Except at the end of the meal he said, Aren't they going to eat? And so Mom slopped food onto a couple of plates and put spoons on them and then she handed me the key and said, Take them their dinner, Jamie. But if you let them out I'll kill myself, do you understand?"
"They was really in trouble I guess," said Scotty.
"When I opened the door my brother tried to get out, but I pushed him back in. He screamed and cried louder than ever, except he was hoarse by then. My sister was just setting in a corner with her face all red and covered with snot, but he kicked me and tried to shove me out of the way, but I knocked him down and then I knocked him down again and then I slid their plates in with my foot and slammed the door and locked it. My brother kicked and yelled and screamed for a while, but then he quieted down and I guess they ate their dinner. Later on they screamed and yelled some more, about going to the bathroom, but Mom just pretended not to hear, she just shook her head. They're not getting out by yelling, they're not getting their way by yelling."
"They spent the night in there?" asked Mick.
"Next morning she gave me the key and one bowl of oatmeal and two spoons. This time they were both back in the corner. They'd made themselves pillows and beds kind of, out of the rags in there, we kept the old rags in that closet. And my sister looked like she was afraid of getting hit, and it stunk real bad, because she'd done her poop in a shoebox, but what could she do, if Mom wouldn't let her out to use the toilet? I told Mom, and she just said, Empty it and put it back. I didn't want to, but you don't argue with Mom when she's like that."
"Gross," said Mick.
Scotty just stared. Mick knew it was because he messed his pants a couple of times lately, after the Christian Soldiers killed Mama and Daddy, and so talking about pooping in a shoebox kind of embarrassed him.
"I kept thinking, Mom's going to let them out pretty soon. I kept thinking that. But every morning I took them breakfast and emptied the shoebox and the mason jar we left in there for them to piss in. And every night I took them dinner on a plate. Sometimes I could hear them talking in there. Sometimes they played. That was all at first though. After a while it was always quiet, except when one of them was sick and coughed a lot. When the bulb burned out I told Mom but she just didn't say anything. I said, The bulb's out in the cedar closet, but she just looked at me like she'd never even heard of a cedar closet. I finally got my big brother to change the bulb while I watched the door so they couldn't get out. That first time—other times from then on he wouldn't do it, so I had to tie my little brother's hands and feet together so I could change the bulb. When I started first grade, I'd feed them and do the box in the morning before school, and take them dinner at night, just the same thing, day after day, week after week. Most of the time my brother and sister just sat there when I opened the door, not looking at me, just staring at each other or at nothing at all. But every now and then my brother would scream and run at me like he wanted to kill me, and I'd knock him down and slam the door and lock it. I was so mean to him and so angry and so scared that somebody would find out what I was doing to my own brother and sister, how I was keeping them locked in a closet. Nobody else in the family ever even saw them after my brother changed the light bulb that time. Mom didn't even make up the plates for them, I had to do it after everybody left the kitchen. When they grew out of their clothes, I tried to sneak some of the clothes I grew out of, but then Mom would say, What happened to those pants of yours, what happened to that blue shirt, and I'd say, They're in the cedar closet, and she'd look at me that way and say, Those are perfectly good clothes and if they don't fit you anymore we'll give them away to the poor. Can you believe that?"
"We used to give old clothes to Goodwill," said Scotty.
"They were naked in there, and their skin was white and they looked like ghosts, their eyes empty and never looking at me except when my brother screamed at me and ran at me, and every time I slammed the door and locked it, I wanted to kill them, I wanted to die, I hated it. I'd go to school and look around and I knew that I was the most evil person there, because I kept my little brother and sister naked locked up in a closet. Nobody even knew I had a little brother and sister. And I never told them. I never even walked up to a teacher and said, Miss Erbison, or Mrs. Ryan, or whoever, any of them, I could have said, I got me a little brother and sister at home that we've kept locked in the cedar closet since they was three and two years old. If I'd've done that, maybe my brother wouldn't have gone so crazy, maybe my sister wouldn't have forgotten how to walk, maybe they could've been saved in time, but I was so scared of what my mom would do, and I was too ashamed to tell anybody what a terrible person I was, they all thought I was an OK guy."
He stopped talking for a while.
"Didn't they ever get out?" asked Scotty.
"When I was in seventh grade. I did a report on Nazi Germany and the concentration camps. I read about the tortures they did. And I thought, That's me. I'm a Nazi. And I read about how all them Nazis, they all said, I was just following orders. Well that was me, just following orders. And then I read how after the war they put them on trial, all those Nazis, and they sentenced them to death for what they did, and then I knew I was right all along. I knew I deserved to die, and my mom and dad deserved to die, but my little brother and sister, they deserved to go free, they deserved to have a day of liberation. So one afternoon when my little brother got hate in his eyes and ran at me, I didn't knock him down. I stepped out of his way and let him run by me. He ran out of the closet and looked around, like he'd never seen the hall before, and I guess he never had, really, he never remembered it. And then he sat down on the top step and bumped his way down the stairs, like he always did when he was a little kid, and I realized that he'd forgotten how to go down stairs. And then all of a sudden I thought, he's going to go in the kitchen and Mom's going to see him and get mad. And I got scared, and I thought, I got to catch him and put him back, or Mom will kill me. So I started to chase down the stairs, but he didn't go into the kitchen, he ran right out the front door, stark naked, I never thought he'd do that, but what did he care about naked, he never wore clothes in seven years. He just ran down the street, screaming and screaming like a creature from space, and I ran after him. I would've called out to him, yelled for him to stop, but I couldn't."
"Why not?" asked Mick.
"I didn't remember his name." Brother Teague began to cry. "I couldn't even remember what his name was."
It was only then, with Brother Teague crying into his hands like a little baby, that Mick even noticed that Sister Monk and Brother Deaver had both come up sometime, they were both there listening, they probably heard the whole story. Sister Monk came over and knelt down by Brother Teague and gathered him into her arms and let him cry all over her dress. Brother Deaver bowed his head like he was praying, only silently. Scotty noticed that, too, and bowed his head, but then when nobody said a prayer he lifted his head and looked over to Mick.
Mick didn't know what to do, except that it was a terrible story, a terrible thing that happened to Brother Teague's crazy sister and brother. Mick never heard of anybody forgetting how to walk or climb down stairs, or forgetting his own brother's name. When he tried to imagine somebody locking Scotty into a closet and never letting him out, it made Mick so mad he wanted to kill them for doing that. But then he tried to imagine if it was his own mama who locked Scotty up, what then? What would he do then? His mama never would've done such a thing, but what if she did?
It was just too hard to figure out by himself. All he knew was that Brother Teague was crying like Mick never heard anybody cry before in his whole life. Finally he just had to reach over and take hold of Brother Teague's ankle, which was the only part of him that Mick could reach. Mick's hand was so small he couldn't even grab, it was like he was just pressing his hand against Brother Teague's leg.
"You shouldn't feel bad, Brother Teague," said Mick. "You're the one who let him out."
Brother Teague shook his head, still crying.
"I wish these kids hadn't heard that story," said Brother Deaver.
"Some things you can only tell to children," said Sister Monk. "It'll do them no harm."
Brother Teague pulled his face away from Sister Monk's dress. "I knew when you came. I was telling you. Isn't that how it's done in your testimonies?"
"That's right, Jamie," said Sister Monk. "That's how you do it."
"Now you see why I'll never be a worthy man, Mormon or not," said Brother Teague. "There's no place for me out west."
"It was your mama made you do it," said Mick.
"I was the one who pushed him back inside," said Brother Teague. His voice was awful. "I was the one who turned the key." Then he reached down inside his shirt and pulled up a key on a leather thong. A common ordinary door key. "This key," he said. "I had the key all along."
"But Brother Teague," said Mick, "you weren't eight years old yet when it all started. You weren't baptized yet. Don't you know Jesus doesn't blame children for what they do before they're eight? I turn eight next week, and when I'm baptized I'll be like I was born all over again, pure and clean, isn't that right, Brother Deaver?"
Brother Deaver nodded. "Mm-hm," he said. He was crying now, too, though Mick couldn't figure why, seeing how it was Brother Deaver himself who interviewed him for baptism and taught him half this stuff right after testimony meeting today.
Scotty must have been getting bored now that the story was over. He got up and walked over to Brother Teague and poked him on the shoulder to get his attention. "Brother Teague," he said. "Brother Teague."
Brother Teague looked up just as Sister Monk said, "Leave him be, now, you hear?"
"What do you want, Scotty?" asked Brother Teague.
"Now that we're calling you Brother Teague, does that mean you're going west with us to Utah?"
Brother Teague didn't say anything. He just rubbed his eyes and then sat there with his face covered up. Sister Monk and Brother Deaver stayed with him, but Mick couldn't figure out what was going on anymore, and besides, he had to think about the story, and anyway he needed to take a leak and he couldn't do it in the woods unless he got a lot farther away from Sister Monk. So he took Scotty by the hand and led him off to a bunch of bushes higher up the hill.
The whole next week everybody ignored Mick and Scotty and the other kids. There was no school, just packing up and getting ready to go. On Saturday they went down to a deep slow place in the river and baptized Mick in his underwear, because he didn't have any white clothes except his shorts and t-shirt, and Brother Teague had to be baptized in his most faded boxers and a t-shirt he borrowed from Brother Cinn, because Brother Teague didn't have any white clothes at all. Brother Teague came out of the water shivering just as bad as Mick did.
"Water's cold, ain't it?" said Mick.
"Isn't it," said Sister Cinn.
"Damn cold," said Brother Teague.
Funny thing was, nobody so much as blinked that Brother Teague swore, right after his baptism, too. Mick couldn't say ain't, but Brother Teague could cuss. Which just goes to show you that kids just can't get away with anything, Mick figured.
"That's done it," said Brother Deaver. "You're one of us now."
"Guess so," said Brother Teague. He looked as goofy as a kindergartner, with his hair all wet and sticking out and that smile on his face.
"It's just a sneaky Mormon trick," said Brother Cinn. "Once you're baptized, we don't have to pay you for leading us anymore."
"I been paid," said Brother Teague.
Next morning they had a prayer meeting and headed off west toward Chattanooga. They only made it to somewhere between St. Louis and Kansas City that summer, what with getting arrested in Memphis and nearly lynched in Cape Girardeau. Winter was hard, so far north, but they made it, trading tales of how the Saints suffered through the deadly winter in Winter Quarters, Iowa, after getting driven out of Nauvoo. We're just following in their footsteps, living out their story.
The next summer, crossing the plains, all of Brother Teague's woodlore came to nothing. Trees got too sparse to hide in, so they had to learn to travel in the low places between the sweeping swells of the rolling prairie land. The mobbers of the plains didn't care much about highways either; they could come on you at any time. All the grown-ups learned how to shoot—it was worth wasting a few bullets now, said Brother Teague, to be sure they'd not be wasted if it came to a fight.
Never did see any mobbers. But there were signs of their passing. And one day they spotted a column of smoke a long ways off to the south, too thick and black to be a cookfire. "Somebody's getting burned out," said Brother Teague.
"Think we'd better hunker down and hide?" asked Brother Cinn.
"I think you best keep lookout while everybody waits here in this gully," said Brother Teague. "But I need to go see what's going on."
"Dangerous," said Sister Monk.
"No lie," said Brother Teague. "But we need to know which way the mobbers rode after they got done there."
"I'll go with you," said Brother Deaver. "There might be survivors. You might need help."
They came back in the evening. Brother Teague had a little boy perched on the horse behind him. "You can light up a cookfire," said Brother Teague. "They rode south."
Brother Deaver lifted the boy down off Brother Teague's horse. "Come on, son," he said. "You need to eat."
"What happened?" asked Sister Monk.
"No need talking about it now," said Brother Deaver. Plainly he meant no use talking about it in front of the boy.
At dinner Mick and Scotty sat on either side of the new boy. It was like he was a foreigner. He looked at the food like he'd never seen mush before. When they spoke to him he didn't even act like he heard them.
"You deaf?" asked Scotty. "Can't you hear me? You deaf?"
This time the boy shook his head just a little.
"He can hear!" shouted Scotty.
"Course he can hear," said Sister Monk, from off by the cookfire. "Don't go pestering him."
"Your folks get killed?" asked Mick.
The boy shrugged.
"Our folks did. Got shot down back in North Carolina couple years ago."
The boy shrugged again.
"What's your name?" asked Mick.
The boy went still, like a statue.
"You got a name, don't you?"
If he did, he never let on. After dinner Brother Teague gave the boy his own bedroll to sleep in. Boy didn't even say thanks. He was a strange one.
But strange or not, Brother Teague never let the new boy out of his sight the whole rest of the way. Always watching out for him, talking to him, pointing things out. Mick couldn't help but feel a stab of envy—Brother Teague was doing all the things he used to do with Mick, and here the new boy didn't even bother to answer. It was Scotty who cleared it up for Mick. "It's like Brother Teague got to talk to his little brother again," he said. It made sense to Mick, then, and so he didn't try to butt in, and it hardly bothered him at all to see the new boy perched on Brother Teague's horse with him all the time, or Brother Deaver's whenever Brother Teague was off scouting or doing something dangerous.
It wasn't two weeks later that outriders from Utah found them and led them the rest of the way home, with spare horses no less, so they could all ride. They made a wide circle around the ruins of Denver, but once they were up in the mountains it was Mormon country. "Didn't used to be," said Sister Monk. But it was Mormon country now, and the locals were glad enough about it, seeing how the Mormons brought law and order, and places without Mormons were dying or dead.
They ended up in a tent city called Zarahemla, which was going to be the new capital; Salt Lake City was mostly evacuated now, since the scientists said the Great Salt Lake was just getting started on flooding the valleys. Tina Monk took the children up to Temple Square for a picnic, so they'd get a look at what used to be the great Mormon city. "Now it's going to be the Mormon Sea," she told them. "But you remember what it was." There were sailboats on State Street, and the water was lapping at South Temple; Temple Square was still dry because of a levee of sandbags. People were crammed into Temple Square, looking at things, saying good-bye. The temple was a mountain of granite. It wasn't going anywhere, ever. But the basement levels were already flooded, and soon it would no longer be part of the life of the Church.
"Mankind was too wicked," Sister Monk told the children. "But maybe the Lord is just going to hide the temple from us for a while, until we're worthy to get it back."
The story of the Greensboro Massacre and their trek from North Carolina spread pretty quick. They met the new governor, Sam Monson, who just got elected under the new constitution of the State of Deseret. He was a young man, not all that much older than Brother Teague and a good sight younger than Brother Deaver. But he greeted them all with respect, promised jobs for the grown-ups, and kept his word.
What he couldn't do was keep them together. The orphan laws required kids with both parents dead and no kin to be fostered with families that had both a mother and a father. There was an awful lot of orphans these days. Best they could do for Mick and Scotty was to foster them to the same home together.
Mick was sure that if Brother Teague had been a married man then, he would have adopted that new boy they found; as it was, it near broke Brother Teague's heart to turn him over to the authorities. But he couldn't argue. More than any of them, the new boy needed a family to take care of the boy day and night, something Brother Teague just couldn't do, especially since his new job was being an outrider, which meant finding folks heading toward Deseret and guiding them back safely. A good job for him, and he knew it, but it meant he was gone six weeks at a time.
It might have been they could've lost touch with each other; that's what happened with most companies. But being the sole company ever to come in from the Greensboro massacre, that gave them a story that bound them together. Tina Monk visited and wrote letters; Brother Deaver came every now and then and brought Mick and Scotty along with him when he was in town giving a faith-promoting talk in a nearby ward. The only one they lost track of was the new boy, him being with them only a couple of weeks, and never saying a word or even telling them his name. Mick felt bad about that sometimes, but it couldn't be helped. They'd helped him somewhat, as best they could, but he just wasn't one of them, just hadn't been through it all with them. There was no blame attached to losing touch with him. That's just the way of it—everybody doing his best, fitting in and helping others all he can.
Mick remembered that journey all the days of his life, as clear as if it happened yesterday, and whenever he saw Jamie Teague after that, like at Jamie's wedding with Marie Speaks, and once when they ran into each other at Conference, times like that they'd greet each other and laugh and tell folks that they were the very same age, they had the very same birthday. And it was true, too, because they were born again in ice cold water on that spring morning in the Appalachians.
THE FOLK OF THE FRINGE. Copyright 1989 by Orson Scott Card
Posted December 9, 2008
America as we know it has been destroyed by a combination of nuclear and biological weapons. However, the final death is caused by a collective cultural lack of belief in anything non material. Amidst this manifest destiny of death and destruction remains a few oasis of civilization when a fringe survivor group forges a society along the expanded shores of The Great Salt Lake. With this background, awesome award winning Orson Scott Card provides five interrelated tales about the efforts of these few to reconstruct civilization anchored by religion. <P>Each story is well written and paints an optimistic future on top of a gloomy present and a dead past. The cast seems genuine adding to the reality of a doomed future America. Fans need to understand that this fabulous anthology is not a story a night collection because the theme makes the short stories seem more like chapters of a fantastic science fiction novel though each entry can stand alone. Mr. Card once again proves he is the ace of genre writers. <P>Harriet Klausner
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Posted February 14, 2013
I was reluctantly a third of the way into it and realized I just couldn't handle the religious angle and clunky characters. There was good stuff but not enough of it.
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