Devon McAllister walked down a tree-lined back road, not really sure where she was but certain that she was far away from the family compound. She felt safe enough that she no longer took cover when she heard a vehicle approach. She'd been walking for at least eight hours and saw the first rays of light coming over the mountains behind her. This reassured her that she was traveling west, toward the coast. She carried her three-year-old daughter, Mercy, and a backpack stuffed with a few items of clothing and forty dollars that had been given to her by the kindhearted stranger who had given her a ride.
She was exhausted but would not stop to rest until she reached Highway 101. Every so often she would put Mercy down and hold her hand, but that made the walking unbearably slow. When she heard a vehicle, she just kept her head down, staring at the ground.
It was a truckit drove past them, but then it stopped up ahead. It was cranberry-red and old, but in mint condition. A man got out and yelled to her. "Miss? Need a ride?"
She walked toward the vehicle. "Am I close to Highway 101?" she asked.
"I'm going that way. I'm on my way to work," he said. "I can give you a lift."
He was an older guy. He wore a red, white and blue ball cap and his cheeks and chin were stub-bled in places that he'd missed with his razor. Though it was June, he wore a jacket. The early morning was misty, which told her she must be in a valley near the Pacific. "Where are you headed?" Devon asked.
"Thunder Point," he said. "It's a very small town on the coast in Coos County. I work at a beach bar and I open the place in time for breakfast. Been there a few years now. It's mostly fishing towns around there."
Well, she'd gotten out of Douglas County, but she wasn't sure where Coos County was. She didn't know where anything wasshe rarely left the compound and had never been to any of the small coastal towns. Still, she knew that Highway 101 stretched as far north and south as she needed to get. Highway 5 was bigger and closer to the compound and if anyone was looking for a couple of runaways hitching rides, they'd probably start there. "How close to 101 is your town?"
"Plenty close. Want me to drop you there?"
She walked toward the truck. "Thanks," she said. "You're sure?"
"No trouble," he said.
She put her backpack in the truck bed. Holding Mercy on her lap, she buckled them in together. She kept her head down, her hands tucked between her knees.
"Name's Rawley Goode," he said. She said nothing. "You got a name?"
"Devon," Devon said. She shouldn't use her real name. What if someone came poking around, asking if anyone had seen a woman named Devon? But she was almost too tired to lie. Not to mention nervous. At least she hadn't said Sister Devon.
"Well, you're not an escaped convict, are you, Devon?" he asked.
She looked at him. "Is there a prison around here?"
He smiled. "Just kidding," he said. "Where you headed?"
For lack of a better answer she said, "Seattle. Eventually."
He whistled. "You're a long ways from there. What brings you to this old back road?"
She shrugged. "It's where I was dropped off, but I'm heading for 101."
"You hitchin' rides?"
She nodded. Her ride over the mountain had been planned, but was kept secret. "Yes, 101 will have more traffic," she said.
"Unless the police see you. Then it could get complicated."
Devon wasn't really headed to Seattle, but she just said that because that was where she came from originally. She thought there might be a shelter or charity of some kind in one of the bigger towns on the coast. "I don't know this area very well. Is there a town or city near Highway 101 that's pretty big? Big enough that it might have a shelter or maybe a hostel?" she asked him.
"Couple," Rawley replied. "Listen, I have an idea. You decide exactly where you need to go and I'll fix you up with transportation. How's that?"
"Why?" she asked suspiciously. "Why would you do that?"
"I been in your spot, hitchin' rides, lookin' for the easiest way to get from here to there, takin' a little help sometimes. I normally went to the VA when I needed a little assistance." He paused. "You got room for a little breakfast? 'Cause that's my job in the morningperking the coffee, warming up egg sandwiches, watching the sun come over the mountains. It's not far from the highway, neither. I could show you a map while you and the little one eat something."
"No, thank you. I have a couple of apples for later."
"I know that look of no money," he said. "Been wearin' it and seein' it for forty years now. No charge for the map. Or the breakfast. Then I'll give you a ride to wherever you need to go to catch your next ride. It ain't no gamble. I admit, I ain't always been the best person in the world, but I ain't yet done nobody harm. You can hang on to those apples."
Rawley didn't know for certain, but he was pretty sure the young woman was from The Fellowshipa small religious compound along the river in Douglas County. She was wearing their "uniform" or "habit" of overalls, sturdy shoes, long-sleeved T-shirt with one button at the neck and a long, thick, single braid down her back. He'd donated to the group a couple of times himself and had noticed that the women were all attired the same while the few men in evidence all wore their own combinations of jeans, plaid or cham-bray shirts, hats and down vests. A few months back, when Cooper had been renovating the old bait shop and turning it into a first-rate bar and cafe, Rawley had taken the used industrial-size washers and dryers, along with a lot of kitchen wares they couldn't use, over to The Fellowship compound.
They were a private bunch, but he knew they had a roadside stand near their compound where they sold produce, quilts and woven goods. He'd only stopped once and had seen a group of them gathered around the stall, the women doing the business and the men helping with the heavy work, but mainly just presiding over everything. And he'd seen a few of them wandering around the Farmers' Market in Myrtle Creek where they sometimes had a stand, again the women together in a tight knot and the men following along or standing behind them, watching.
He had never given the group a second thought until this morning when he found the young woman and her child walking down the deserted road at dawn. Now he wondered what that group was all about. Beautiful, young, smiling, soft-spoken women apparently watched over by big, silent men who were clearly in charge.
The girl seemed skittish, so Rawley played his cards close to his vest. As they drove the twenty minutes to the beach at Thunder Point he kept the conversation light, only saying things like Gonna be a right fine day and Fog'll burn off the water early today and Should get up around seventy degrees, and that's a heat wave on the ocean.
She kept very quiet, offering the occasional Mmm-hmm but nothing more. Her little girl rested her head on her mother's shoulder and a couple of times they whispered quietly to each other. As they drove down the hill toward the bar she saw, for the first time, the beach sheltered by the rocky coastline, the bay studded with giant rocks and the fog at the mouth of the bay just lifting. All she said was, "Wow."
"Pretty, ain't she?" Rawley replied.
Moments later they arrived at the bar. Rawley parked out back behind the building and used his key to open the place up. It was 6:00 a.m.
"Come on inside, sit up at the bar and I'll put on the coffee and heat up some eggs. Got some fruit, too. And Cooper, the owner, he likes his Tony Ti-gersyou or the little one like Frosted Flakes?"
"Anything is very generous," she said. "And appreciated."
"Like I said, I passed your way plenty of times. I got a lot to pay back."
As he turned to get things started, Rawley noticed the coffee was already brewing. He looked out the window and saw a lone man out on the still bay on a paddleboard. That would be Cooper, getting in a little early morning exercise. And as he watched, a Razor ATV came across the beach with a big black-and-white Great Dane riding shotgunSarah, Cooper's woman, must have a day off from the Coast Guard.
Good, he thought. Cooper and Sarah would be out on the water for a while. That would give him enough time to figure out what to do with Devon. Because obviously something needed to be done. A woman and a small child with a single backpack out walking the back roads at dawn with no money and no plan
It didn't take a genius
He wet a cloth with warm water and handed it to Devon in case she wanted to wipe the grime of the road from her hands and face, and she did so. Then wiped off her daughter's hands and face, muttering a very soft "thank you" as she put down the cloth.
Rawley got started with the food. He put out a fruit plate, a box of Frosted Flakes, two bowls, utensils, a carton of milk, a couple of small glasses. Then he pulled two egg sandwiches out of the cooler and popped them in the microwave.
Devon served her little girl, sharing everything. When the egg sandwiches arrived she gave voice to her thoughts"So much food."
"Traveling makes a person hungry," Rawley said. And then he poured himself a cup of coffee. While they tucked into their breakfast he wandered out to the deck to think. He wanted to see where Cooper and Sarah were, and give Devon and her little girl time to get some food in their stomachs. If he watched them eat, they'd try not to eat too mucha man who'd been hungry and had taken charity knew this.
Hamlet, the Great Dane, was tied to the dock while Sarah paddled out to join Cooper on the bay. Rawley propped open the doors to the deck so Cooper would know he was on duty and that the place was open for business. A few moments later as he stood on the deck with his cup of coffee, Cooper waved. Rawley lifted a hand back. Then he watched them glide over the calm water, chasing the fog out of the bay.
By the time he went back inside, Devon and her little girl had put away a good deal of food and that made him smile. He went back behind the bar with his coffee. "Fill you up?"
"Oh, yes, sir," she said, giving her mouth a pat. "If you'll write down your name and address for me, I'll try to repay the kindness when I'm able."
"I'd rather you pass it on, Devon," he said. "That's what I try to do when I can."
"Of course. I'll do that, too."
"So. Looking for a larger town? One with a shelter?"
"That seems a good place for me to start," she said.
"Mind if I ask? What put you in these straits?"
She took a breath and stroked her daughter's back. "It's not complicated. I lost my job and couldn't find another. I got some benefits and food stamps, but it wasn't enough to pay the rent and I didn't have family to take me in. So, here I am."
"What kind of work you lookin' for?" Raw-ley asked.
Devon laughed a little bit. "I've been working since I was fifteen, I can do a lot of things. Office work, waitress work, worked in a nursing home for a while. I even worked on a farm. I cleaned, cooked, worked in child care a lotonce I was a teaching assistant in a preschool. I went to college. But none of those things paid enough to keep me and Mercy comfortable. I had a boyfriend, but he left. See?" she finished, tilting her head to one side. "Pretty simple. Just rotten timing. Bad luck."
Rawley leaned on the bar. "You know, there's this place on the river. Some kind of religious group. They call themselves The Fellowship. I could drive you out there, see if they'd take you in for a while, fix you up with some"
"No!" she said hotly. "Please, no! If you could just give me a lift to the highway."
He held up a callused hand. "Shh," he said. "Devon, I know you're from there. I don't know why and you don't have to tell me, but it's pretty clear you needed to be out of the place if you'd drag your kid out in the dark of night and walk over a mountain." He frowned. "She is your kid, ain't she?"
"Of course!" She looked down. "I got a ride over the mountain. I should just get going
The child looked like her mother. Rawley was just checking. "Just sit. I can help you out here. You and the little one would be safe while you figure things out. You don't have to be out on the highway, takin' your chances."
She just looked at him with those big blue eyes, her peachy lips parted. Her daughter continued to move Frosted Flakes around in her bowl, apparently oblivious to the conversation. "Why?" she whispered.
"I told you why. You need details? There was this war you're too young to even know about and I came home a mess and no one wanted any part of me, of any of us. A lot of us wandered, just trying to forget or get the noise in our heads to stop. We had the VA but folks didn't even know how to help Vietnam vets. Like I said, I took a lot of charity. I worked some here and there, slept on the street some, helped out at the VA some. NowI got a house and a job. That's my story. You keep yours till you feel safe. But, girlwe're gonna have to make some changes 'cause I knew where you came from the second I seen you walkin' down the road."
Her eyes got pretty round at that, but she remained mute.