Book excerpt

The Folk of the Fringe

Orson Scott Card

Tor/Forge

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?"

"I figure."

"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.

"You're through."

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.

"You hope."

"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.

A pause.

"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?"

Teague nodded.

"How do we know th Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead. Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead both won Hugo and Nebula Awards, making Card the only author to win these two top prizes in consecutive years. There are seven other novels to date in The Ender Universe series. Card has also written fantasy: The Tales of Alvin Maker is a series of fantasy novels set in frontier America; his most recent novel, The Lost Gate, is a contemporary magical fantasy. Card has written many other stand-alone sf and fantasy novels, as well as movie tie-ins and games, and publishes an internet-based science fiction and fantasy magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.  Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, Card directs plays and teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and youngest daughter, Zina Margaret.