In which Niall comes to the rescue, or is it Natalie?
“Wake up Niall.”
“I said, wake up. We have to get moving. It’s almost dawn.”
“Okay, Steve. Let me get my eyes open. Do we have any coffee?”
“Yes and I brought you a cup.”
“You’re a life saver. Give it to me.”
“It’s right over there. All you have to do is get out of that sleeping bag and it’s yours.”
Steve stepped back from Niall’s swinging arm, laughing.
“You’re a monster, a sadist… Okay, I’m getting up.” Niall unzipped the sleeping bag and pulled himself erect. He managed to struggle into his clothes without having to open his eyes very often. Then he staggered from the tent, his attention fixed on the steaming cup of coffee on the camp stool near the fire.
“Well if it isn’t Lazarus back from the grave. Want some breakfast? Better say yes it’s going to be a long day.”
“Arnie, how did you learn to cook so well?”
“It’s easy when you have all this gear. Man, I could live here forever. How many trout do you want?”
“Three’s plenty for me. Any biscuits?”
“Of course. We eat well this morning because it may be our last meal for quite a while.”
“Have you decided what we’re going to do?”
“Steve and I discussed it last night. As we see it, we have to go in quietly and capture the Mayor or some member of his family and try to work a trade.”
“What about this underground of rebels you were talking about?”
”There weren’t that many of us to begin with and with Cal and Billy in their hands they’ll know everybody in the band within a few hours.”
“So what can you do even if you spring ‘em?”
“We can leave, that’s what. The outside world is nothing like they said it was. They’ve been lying to us for years. If we can get the rest of our guys out, we can at least give them a better life even if we can’t convince everybody else.”
“What about my friends? How do they figure in this?”
“They’re not my problem. If they want to leave with us, I don’t mind but if the only way I can get my friends out is to leave them behind, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
“Is that food ready yet?” Steve yelled from the jeep where he was securing gear for travel.
“Yes. Come and get it or I’ll turn Niall loose on it.”
The three soon settled down to workmanlike eating, with the young men eating about twice as much as Niall. Finishing, they struck camp, loaded everything onto the jeep and departed about an hour after dawn. They drove for several miles with Steve at the wheel and finally chose a spot that allowed them to get the Jeep well off the road and hide it in the brush. Each of them carried a backpack, canteen, and a rifle.
“Niall, are there really cities bigger than Albuquerque?” Steve asked.
“Oh yes. Albuquerque’s really small as cities go. I’ll bet there are at least 50 cities in the country that are bigger.”
“I’m going to live in Albuquerque after we get done here.”
“You don’t have to decide now. We’ve got our whole lives before us. The sky’s the limit for us, Steve. I’m going to school. I’m getting an education. I want to go to the moon… or China, or someplace great!”
“I’m getting a fast car like those cars I played with when I was a kid.”
“You’re going to have to earn quite a lot of money to buy one, Steve. Maybe you’d better do like Arnie and go to school for a while first. It’ll make earning money lots easier if you have some skills and a reputation.”
“I bet girls like guys with fast cars. What do you think, Arnie?”
“All the girls I know just want somebody who can raise plenty of food. I don’t know what the outsider girls like.”
“From what I remember, Steve’s right. They do like guys with fast cars. I worked with a guy back in Virginia who had a fast car and he must have dated half a dozen girls in the couple of months that I knew him. Of course, he had a steady source of income and could take them out to nice restaurants and entertainment venues.”
“Yeah, you got to be rich to really attract the girls.”
“You’re too young to be a cynic, Arnie. You need more of Steve’s attitude while you’re young. There’s plenty of time to be cynical when you’re my age.”
They continued along a rather difficult trail for a time, avoiding the usual paths that the boys figured would be watched by the Mayor’s men. It was just bad luck for Niall that he had an accident, slipping on a rock that turned under his foot, landing heavily and awkwardly, and breaking his ankle. After considering the situation for a time, the young men decided to push on without Niall. They promised to come back for him if they could and told him to get to water (being kind enough to point out that if he moved downhill he would eventually come to a stream) and wait. Then they went on.
Niall was alone, in pain, and already feeling cold and it was mid-morning. He decided to start for the water now because he wasn’t sure how long he would have the strength. He began crawling and soon realized that crawling was very hard on the knees for an old person. By then he was near some trees and detoured to look for sticks that might serve as crutches. He didn’t find anything that was really satisfactory but found it easier to hobble along in sort of a hop while clinging to a curved staff-like branch than to crawl.
After about an hour he realized he had no idea where the path was any more and began to just follow the easiest route that went downhill. Several times he had to go back uphill when he discovered that he was in a cul-de-sac of bushes or terrain too steep to negotiate without falling. His hands were becoming blistered and his good leg was trembling with fatigue. The ankle was significantly swollen now and the throbbing was almost too much for him so he found a reasonably level place and lay down with the hurting part higher than his waist.
Time passed very slowly.
Niall went back over in his mind how he had gotten in this situation. The repeated trips to gun shops over three days before he had managed to buy three guns and about 500 bullets, the trip to Albuquerque to prove to the boys that it wasn’t a radioactive shell of a city, the boys’ trip to a dentist who was horrified at the condition of their teeth and gums, everything that they had done in preparation for the rescue and now he himself needed rescue. At least if things got too bad, he could use the rifle on himself but that extremity was days away. He had some food in the pack and a sleeping bag and his canteen of water. He might even be able to last for a couple of weeks. But he’d never get back to civilization unless someone found him.
A strange but familiar noise awoke Niall from a light doze. Yes! It was a helicopter but would they see him?
“You’ve got to get word to the Mayor. It’s his daughter. She’s got a bad fever. Doc says there’s nothing he can do. Please, Preacher, send word. Let Cindy go if you won’t send one of the men.”
“Ma’am, the Mayor told us to lie up quiet here so the raiders don’t find us. That’s why we got to do without fires on account of the smoke. Nobody likes these raw potatoes but we just got to live with it. Now your daughter has just got to live with that little fever for a while. If the Doc can’t help her, the Mayor can’t help her neither.”
“It’s not a little fever. It’s going to kill her if we don’t do something.”
“We have to wait and that’s final. Now you go tend your daughter and leave everything to me.”
“ Come along, Mary, maybe I’ve got something in my bag that might help,” Natalie said and urged the Mayor’s wife away from the preacher. They went back into the house and up to the second floor, passing blankets and other signs that people had been sleeping on the floor. All the chairs were filled with women and children. The children were fretful and complaining about having to stay inside and from time to time arguments and squabbles broke out among them. There were several babies and the smell in the house was pretty bad but water was in short supply since they only had the one well and the preacher had forbidden them to go to the creek.
Upstairs the situation was no better, only warmer. The stench was almost overpowering. There were blankets and clothes everywhere and many of the smaller children wore little or nothing. In the master bedroom the new mother was flushed and fretful. Her younger sister sat at her side with a pan of water and a cloth which she dipped in the water from time to time and placed on the forehead or neck of her patient in a futile effort to ease her suffering.
“It’s been a day and a half since she delivered and she’s getting worse rather than better. Please believe me that we do have medical care available on the outside. We have good doctors with plenty of medicines. There’s plenty of food and good, clean clothes to wear. You’ve seen my cosmetics. You know those aren’t from fifteen years ago. They’d be all dried up and useless if they were fifteen years old. You smelled the perfume. You used the soap. You know I’m right. We have to get your people to let us come in and help you all. We won’t take your land or make you do anything you don’t want to do.
Please, for her sake, you have to let us help.” Natalie was almost crying from frustration. Her face was smudged and dirty. Her hands hadn’t been washed in more than a day. She was still wearing the same underwear she had worn the day before. She felt miserable.
“I know. I believe you. We bin wrong all these years. I think I’ve known it for some time but I just couldn’t betray my husband by not supporting him. He was a rock when we needed it. We owe him loyalty. He’s done so much for us.” Tears slowly came down her cheeks as she looked at her daughter and thought how admitting being wrong all these years, about all the needless suffering because of his stubborn pride, was going to destroy the man her husband had been. The guilt and shame would be impossible for him to endure. But now she weighed the psychological death of her husband against the sure physical death of a young woman they had given life and her heart was torn within her.
“Cindy, I got to ask you to do something.”
“What’s that, mama?”
“I got to ask you to slip out and go get your father. He should be somewhere near the mine. You’re going to have to make him understand that Rebecca is dying and unless we let these outsiders go and get help for us, she and most likely her little baby are going to die. I shouldn’t ask you to do this, child. If there are raiders out there it could be horrible for you. I know they could force you to show them where we are and worse. But Natalie says there aren’t any raiders. Natalie says that it’s all nice outside and everybody has got what she’s got and more. You’ve seen her things. There’s no way those could have been made without factories and everything. Your daddy and the Preacher have been wrong all these years. So I got to ask you to do this, darling. Are you willing to try?”
“Oh mama, of course I am. Where are the men on watch?”
“I think if you go out the back like you were going to the outhouse with a chamber pot and then you slip around by that old cedar tree you can get to the path to the mine.”
“Sure, Mama. That’ll be easy. They’s expecting folks coming in not going out. I’ll be fine.”
“I snuck you a little extra potato out of the kitchen. You can eat that for lunch. Now go.”
“I’ll be back soon Mama, with Daddy. You just wait.” And off she went carrying what had once been a dish pan in its better days.
”Now all we can do is wait. I can’t leave Becca and you don’t know the way. It’s all up to Cindy now.
Cindy was still close enough to being a tomboy to have every confidence in being able to get away from the farm unnoticed. She also was glad to get away from the stifling upstairs bedroom and the smell and the depressing feeling of not being able to help. As she trotted along the path that led toward the mine that was about five miles up the valley, she daydreamed about what it would be like outside. She thought of beautiful clothes, of food, of perfumes, and of boys who were clean-shaven and who smelled good. She thought of going places in cars though she didn’t really know for sure what that would be like. Then she realized that her father might be very angry with her for not obeying the Preacher.
She slowed her trot since she was getting tired anyway and began to think of how she might approach her father with some chance of not getting punished. Her father had always been rather gentle with her since she was the baby of the family and a girl but he had not “spared the rod” when he thought it necessary. She hated looking for a switch for her punishment, knowing that if the switch was not big enough she would get five extra swats from a switch her father picked.
Her slow jog deteriorated to a medium brisk walk.
Finally she decided to blame her mother for everything. She was acting on the strictest of orders. Her mother had required that she sneak away from the farm and carry this most important message to her father. But what was the message exactly? It would sound better if it sounded like she had memorized it. That way her father could hardly doubt that she was but a messenger and had not gone off on her own.
How would mother say it if it were a message for him word for word? “Becca dying. Get help.” No that was too brief. Mama would say a lot more than that. “Rebecca dying of fever. We must ask the outsiders for help.” No, that wouldn’t work. There had been several deaths that Cindy could remember in the Valley and they hadn’t asked the outsiders for anything then. So why should they now?
“Daddy, you’ve been wrong all these years…” No that would get her a slap across the face before she was told to get the switch. Maybe Natalie’s being here could help. Maybe she could be the key. Hostages! That might do it. They could trade Natalie for medical treatment for Becca. No that would require negotiating. There had to be some other way.
Lost in thought, she walked right past one of the guards who were on the lookout for the raiders. Of course he was asleep. He had been up for a long time for five days running. First there had been the boy’s rebellion. Then there was the posse to bring them back before they brought the outsiders down on them. Then when the boys were brought back, some of them at least, there was the doubled guard duty and the rush to set up the ambush. And now he had been sitting here in this thicket for hours and there was nothing happening. As the day grew warm it was only natural that he would doze off.
“That’s it!” she exclaimed. The startled guard squeezed the trigger on his gun which fired a shot. That woke him up right and proper and almost scared Cindy to death. The shot also alerted the men ready for the ambush. So when Cindy came running down the path, terrified that the raiders were right behind her, there were several more shots as the now terrified men shot at their imaginations. Hearing the others shoot, those with guns cut loose as well. In short order over 75 shots were fired. Cindy was in hysterics lying on the ground with her arms wrapped around her head. Finally the Mayor was able to restore order. It was only then that the men heard the anguished wails of Cindy and realized that they might have just shot a woman or a child. Carefully, a couple of the braver men ventured through the brush quietly until they could see Cindy, whose tears had subsided to some degree as the quiet returned and she realized that she wasn’t shot and, better yet, there seemed to be no one chasing her.
“Cindy child, what are you doing here?” Fred exclaimed as he recognized the girl still lying on the road.
“I came to see Daddy,” Cindy wailed, filled with renewed fear of the punishment she expected.
“It’s Cindy, the Mayor’s daughter. I don’t see any raiders. Don’t nobody shoot. We’re coming in on the path. No shooting!”
Fred, with Cindy held behind him, cautiously walked through the trees, waving his right arm over his head. Several men came out of their hiding places and Cindy’s sobs grew in volume as she caught sight of her father standing with his arms crossed just ahead.
“Cindy, what are you doing here?”
“Daddy” she said still sobbing and ran to him and threw her arms around his waist. “Daddy, I was so scared. Somebody shot and I ran and then everybody was shooting at me. Oh, Daddy, I was so scared.”
“Well, of course you were. I think you scared about twenty men right here all by yourself,” he said looking around at the several embarrassed faces of those who had come out of hiding. “I think we’ve all had a good scare.”
”Even you, Daddy?”
“Even me. I thought my little girl had been shot. Do you have any idea how frightening that is to a daddy?”
“No, daddy. Is it as bad as being shot at by a bunch of men?”
“Oh it’s far worse than that. It’s just about as scary as anything can be. It just turns your insides to the biggest empty place in the world.”
“Well, then I’m going to have to scare you again, Daddy, because Rebecca’s dying. Doc says he can’t do anything more for her without medicine and Natalie used all her pills and Becca’s still hot as can be and she doesn’t talk sense any more and the water I use is all warm anyway and it smells really bad there, Daddy. And Mama sent me. She made me come.”
“I see. What do you think I should do, Cindy?” The mayor looked down at the daughter he had almost lost and thought about the daughter he was fast losing. He thought about how life in the Valley was getting more and more difficult to support. He thought about the lack of food and the lack of ammunition and the lack of medicine and all the things that were lost when the people of the Valley shut out the rest of the world.
His pride hurt. His chest hurt from unshed tears. He thought of John Wayne. John was always right. He never had to admit that he had messed up. He thought of Clint Eastwood. It didn’t help. The heroes always were right. They never had to stand up before people who had trusted them, who had placed their fate and future in the hands of the hero who had made the wrong decisions for all the right reasons.
He thought of Job in the Bible who had kept faith with God even when he lost everything. Well, he still had his faith in God, didn’t he? He was still a good man. A real hero does what has to be done no matter how embarrassing it is. No matter how ashamed he feels. Even if it costs him the love of the only woman he really loved. How could she respect him now? But look at Cindy. Her face is dirty and tear-stained. She almost died a few minutes ago because of me and my fear of the outsiders.
The Mayor turned to his men and said in a loud voice. “Everybody come on out. The ambush is over. The raiders ain’t coming. We’re all going home.”
The men came out from their various places of concealment and walked toward the Mayor.
“Mayor, what do you mean the raiders ain’t coming?”
“Fred, it’s been two days. They’ve had Cal and Arnie for three days. If they were coming they’d have been here by now. Let’s get the guards in and go get the women.”
Orders were given and the word was spread. The outlying scouts were called in and everybody headed for Gordon’s place.
As Cindy walked at her father’s side, her mood began to swing up again. The possibility of not being punished, which had seemed so improbable, suddenly seemed a near certainty. Her father was somber but he certainly didn’t seem angry at her, anyway. Her imagination even started toying with the idea that maybe if the outsiders did take care of Becca maybe, just maybe, they’d have a real dress for Cindy made like Natalie’s clothes were made.
They found the formerly sleepy guard hiding behind a tree. He almost shot at them and demanded the password. They yelled at him to stop being stupid and let them by because the whole thing was over. There weren’t any raiders.
“Fred, did you remember to get Jean?” the Mayor asked.
“Yes, I did, but when I got to where we’d tied him I found that he had escaped. There’s no telling where he is now.”
“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter any more. He’s pretty worthless either way.”
“What are we going to do with the Payer?”
“I think we’ll take him to the roadblock and let him go. But first we’re going to ask him if he can get a real doctor for Rebecca. I don’t know what else we can do. At least we didn’t kill him. Good Lord, you don’t suppose the Preacher killed him do you?”
With a fresh worry on his mind, the Mayor lengthened his stride and Cindy had to skip sometimes to keep up. They were yelling for the Preacher as they approached Gordon’s place so the guards there were wide awake and welcomed them, asking how many of the raiders they had killed. It seems that the sound of the gunfire had been audible from Gordon’s and they had all been very worried.
The Mayor’s wife came running out of the house in tears (which none of the men had ever seen or ever expected to see) and threw herself into the Mayor’s arms hugging him tightly.
“Did I do good, Mama? I brought Daddy just like you wanted.”
“You did just fine, darling. I’m very proud of you.” Mary put an arm around her youngest and hugged her too.
“Mary. I need you and everybody else to hear what I’ve got to say so would you ask everybody to come outside, here?”
“Of course, darling. Everybody come on out. Come on. They’re all safe. They are all safe, aren’t they? There wasn’t anybody shot was there?”
”Yes, dear. We shot a bunch of trees but we didn’t hit anybody.”
“Mr. Mayor, welcome back. Did we defeat the raiders? Are they all dead?’
“Preacher, we’re all alive and we haven’t killed anybody. Nobody came. Now bring that payer out here along with Cal and Billy.”
“No raiders came? How do you know they aren’t coming?”
“Just get the Payer and the boys out here. We need to talk.”
The men were joining their families in the front yard. Not that it was much of a yard, just a clearing in the woods that had some green stuff growing in various places. Some of the green really was grass but most of it was other things. Most of it didn’t have thorns, though so people found various places to sit or leaned on a convenient tree. The Mayor stood at the top of the steps on the front porch. When the Payer, Cal, and Billy were all on the porch beside the Mayor he raised his hands and asked for quiet.
“Some of our people are not here as yet but they should be coming in soon. I’ve asked everyone to be here because we, not just me but we, need to make a decision. I have been your Mayor for the fifteen plus years we have been here in the Valley. It’s our home and we’ve defended it as best we could. We came here for refuge in a time of troubles. Those of us who are old enough to remember what it was like in the last days before we came here know that people were dying for lack of food and shelter. Here we made many of our own shelters and grew and hunted for our own food. We took care of each other in times of sickness and other troubles. We are a community.
But the times are changing. Many of the tools and assets we had when we arrived have worn out or been lost. I look around at us now and see that we are poorly dressed. I see that many of us are gaunt from lack of food. I have wept at the funerals of my beloved friends who died for lack of medicines. I look at my own house, which should have been painted years ago, and I see rot and decay. I see my bathroom, which has been useless for years because we don’t have electricity. I use an outhouse and bathe in the kitchen because that’s where the hot water is. I don’t see so good any more because my glasses were broken years ago and we have no way to replace them.
When we first came here we were democratic. Things were voted on and decided by the whole community. As time went by I saw our needs and I wanted to force things to go well. So I tried to make people do what I thought was the right thing. After a while, there weren’t any more votes. I decided everything. I paid the guard and they did what I told them to do. When some folks objected to doing what I told them to do, I had to punish them to keep them safe. I was a father to them and I dared not spare the rod.
Naturally, I needed more money and I had to work the old silver mine to make sure I had enough. So I had to make people work in the mine. At first I tried paying them but it was costing more silver in wages that we could get out of the ore. So I found using mine work as a punishment convenient. That way I didn’t have to pay anything to get the silver. Of course I had to be sure then that there were enough crimes and criminals to keep the mine going.
People began to talk of leaving the Valley. Oh, I know they didn’t say these things to me but I heard enough of the rumors to know what they were thinking. I knew that wouldn’t be safe, so I asked the Preacher to mention how bad things were on the outside from time to time in his sermons to remind you all what we’d come to the Valley to escape. By then I had the only radio that was working because I had the last fuel for our generator, so I was the one who heard about the bad things happening out there. I didn’t mention the good things. Then, after a year or so I couldn’t use the radio anyway. But the Preacher and I could imagine what it must be like out there. We had both read science fiction stories as kids. It didn’t take much imagination to elaborate on some of those stories just a bit.
But finally, things have gotten so bad here that my own son has begun what I have been calling a rebellion against me. Some of his rebels have left the Valley despite my guards and two were brought back along with some outsiders. We have one of those outsiders here and another is with my sick daughter upstairs caring for her. That outsider saved my daughter’s life when Doc couldn’t, as Rebecca gave birth to my grandson. In other words, I owe an outsider for the lives of two members of my family.
Preacher and I have been telling you how bad Payers are. Preacher has been saying that the Payers are Sons of Satan. He has told you that Payers do vile things. But let’s ask two of our number who have actually spent some time with this Payer what he did.
Cal, step up here.” Cal stepped forward beside the Mayor.
“Cal, how did you first meet this Payer?”
“The boys and I were hiding near the road from the roadblock about three miles out and the outsiders drove up in their car.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, we had a gun that your son gave us and we pointed it at the outsiders and took them prisoner.”
“Did the Payer fight back or do anything to resist?”
“No. Not that I recall. He didn’t do anything much. He even helped get food for supper and did most of the cooking.”
“While you had charge of him, before my guards got there and took over, did he try to teach you Communism or anything like that?”
“No he didn’t say anything like that. Of course he talked to Billy a lot more than he talked to me.”
“Then we’d better hear from Billy. Come on up, son.” Billy somewhat timidly came forward on the porch to stand beside Cal.
“Billy, when you were talking to the Payer did he say anything out of line? Did he tell you anything about Communism?”
“No. Mostly we talked about what life was like on the outside. He had a lot of silly notions. He tried to tell me that they was all rich and nobody was hungry. He tried to tell me that Albuquerque wasn’t bombed and that there weren’t gangs of outlaws roaming the country. I had to straighten him out to let him know that I knew better and that he couldn’t fool me.”
“So you told him what it was really like outside?”
“Yes, sir. I told him what the preacher said. Was I wrong?”
“No, Billy. You did the right thing. It’s just that the preacher may have been a little mistaken about some things. Was the Payer nice to you otherwise?”
“Yes, sir. He showed me several things in the woods that were good to eat and he taught me a couple of new snares. He was pretty nice otherwise.”
“Okay, boys, you can join the others now.” Cal and Billy somewhat eagerly left the porch and joined their families in the yard.
“Fred, come on up here. Fred, did the Payer give you any trouble when you took him from Cal?”
“No sir. Not that I gave him a chance to. I had two of my best men guarding him.”
”Did he resist in any way? Did he try to slow you down or anything of that sort.”
“No, he just went right along. Of course, near the end he got a little winded and we had to let him rest some.”
“Did you at any time hear him talking on a radio or anything like that.”
“No sir. He said that watch was a radio but he didn’t have it on him so he couldn’t have used it anyway. I had it.”
“So as far as you know this Payer has done nothing at all that would hurt any one of us.”
“I guess so. He certainly didn’t hurt anyone that I know of.”
“Preacher, your turn.” The preacher came up onto the porch. He was looking a little warily at the Mayor as if he didn’t quite know what to expect.
“Preacher, you’ve had the responsibility for guarding the Payer for the last two days.”
“I done it, too. He hasn’t escaped and he hasn’t been able to hurt anybody.”
“So would you say that the Payer has been rather quiet?”
“He just smiles at people. Maybe he talks to his guards a little. I know he played with some of the boys. But he didn’t hurt them none.”
“Thanks, Preacher. You’ve done a good job.” The Mayor shook hands with Preacher before gesturing that he should join those in the yard.
“Now I’d like you all to hear from the Payer himself. Payer?”
“My name is Felipe Sanchez and I am from Albuquerque, born and raised.” Felipe stuck out his hand toward the Mayor and after a second’s hesitation, the Mayor took it.
“Payer, sorry, Felipe, what do you weigh?”
“Before I visited here I weighed about 210 but with all the exercise I’ve been getting, I would say I’m probably down a few pounds from that now.” And he patted his belly with a smile.
“You look pretty fat to us, Felipe. In fact, you’re about the fattest person we’ve seen in years. How did you get so fat?”
“Good food does that to me. People have been nice enough to offer me good food. What could I do? One hates to refuse hospitality, even when there’s a gun in the hand of one’s host.” Again Felipe had a broad smile on his face.
“Felipe, you told me a story about the outsiders when you first met me. Was it true?”
“Oh, no. It was mostly lies. But it was what you wanted to hear. Of course when you heard it you were still dissatisfied.”
“Yes, I was. It parroted back to me what I had told Preacher to say. It was obviously a lie and you didn’t even try to make me believe it. Would you tell us the truth now?”
“Happily and easily. What would you like me to talk about?”
“Are there armed gangs outside?”
“None that I ever heard of until I met your young men. They’re the first armed gangs I have ever known.”
“What about the gangs I heard about on the radio that invaded Columbus and other towns back at the money change?”
“Those gangs and the others that were causing trouble at the transition are all gone. Some left the country. Some were killed. Some spent time in prison and are now released. There haven’t been any such gangs for at least 14 years.”
“What about the cities? Have they been destroyed in war?”
“None of them have been destroyed or even successfully attacked. We still have enemies abroad but they dare not attack us because we would stop trading with them.”
“Is there plenty of food?”
“Oh, yes. We export much of the food we produce but there’s still more than enough for all our needs.”
“What about doctors and medicine?”
“There are lots of doctors and plenty of medicine.”
“Would any of the doctors be willing to come here and treat our ills?”
“I am sure they would. You see, they would be paid pretty well for it. Would you like me to ask some doctors to come? And food and clothes. Would you like me to ask people to bring you good food and clothes like mine?”
The crowd began to murmur at the prospect.
“He’s tempting you. He’s a Satan. Don’t trust him.” Preacher had been on his feet and he was struggling to get up the porch stairs yelling his warnings at the top of his piercing voice.
“Quiet, Preacher. Hush. If you want to talk against letting the outsiders come in you’ll get your chance. Just be patient.”
“But they’re lies. Don’t you see what he’s trying to do? He’s trying to get you to let the outsiders come in and change our ways.”
“Your Honor, he’s right you know. I am trying to get you to let us come in and if you do it will change your ways,” Felipe said with his smile still beaming.
“He admits it! He blatantly admits wanting to destroy us.”
“We don’t want to destroy you at all. That wouldn’t help us. We want to welcome you to our way of life. You have much to give us just as we have much to give you.”
“He even admits wanting to steal from us. You heard him. In his own words he admits wanting to take what we have.”
“Preacher, he didn’t say that. You know he didn’t mean it the way you say. Preacher, look around you at what we have and at what they have. What do we have that they would want? Preacher, we are dirt poor. You can’t get much poorer than we are. We have nothing for them to steal.”
”They want our women. They want to take our children and raise them to be godless heathens.”
“Preacher, look at my wife and remember how Mrs. Carraway looks. She’s about ten years older than my wife. Do you really think their women with all their makeup and hair curling and pretty clothes are going to be less attractive to them than our women?”
The Mayor turned to Felipe and said “Will they really bring food and clothes and medicine?”
“I will personally pay them for having done so. I think they’ll come.”
“Why would you do that for us? We took you prisoner. We threatened your very life. I personally hit you across the face. Why would you help me?”
“Because hurting you wouldn’t help me at all. Because hurting your family would hurt people that I don’t even know. Because your daughter loves you, so you must be a good man. There are lots more reasons but those should be ones you would understand.”
“Preacher, you can speak to the others and I’ll listen to everything you have to say. But as for me and my family, I’m going to ask the outsiders for help.”
The preacher mounted the steps quickly at first but as he neared the top he slowed.
He looked out at the people in the yard. He saw the hungry, dirty faces of the children. He saw the tattered, patched clothing of their parents. He saw the worry and fear on the faces of the women and the eagerness on the faces of some of the teenagers.
“You all want to let them in, don’t you? You want to give up. I might be able to scare you into keeping them out for a while longer but, in the end, you’re going to let them in, aren’t you.”
Several heads were nodding and Fred said, “Preacher, I’ve followed you and the Mayor for 15 years. I’ve given you the sweat of my brow and the blood from my veins. I even had a baby of mine die for lack of medicine. But look at us, Preacher. Look at what we’ve become. We can’t keep going like this. We’re headed to Hell as surely as the sparks fly upward. We’re making it right here by our fear and our distrust. Listening to the Mayor, I realized that we were treating strangers as if they were enemies even when they did nothing to us and even helped us. Nothing any of these outsiders did hurt any of us but we were ready to kill them. We almost killed one of our own in the woods a couple of hours ago just because we were afraid of outsiders we know nothing about.
Preacher, we have to do this. We have to find out what the world out there is really like because it can’t be any worse that the world we’re making right here. And if it’s what these outsiders, no these new friends say it is, then we can make a little bit of heaven right here instead. We got to try, Preacher, for our kids’ sakes if not for our own.”
“Then I have to do this thing with you. I can’t abandon you when you need the support of God the most. If you all must do this thing I won’t leave you.”
There was a general sigh and words like “good man”, “I knew he wouldn’t leave us”, and “God be praised” were heard around the yard. The Mayor once again shook Preacher’s hand and then hugged him in a bear hug. Fred was next and after a confused several minutes Cindy was heard to ask, “How are we going to do it? How are we going to tell the outsiders to come in?”
“I don’t know, Cindy,” the Mayor said.” I guess we’ll take him and Mrs. Carraway to the roadblock and let them go.”
“It won’t be that hard, Mayor.” Felipe said. “I think all you’ll have to do is wait a couple of hours.”
”What do you mean?”
“You remember that wrist watch that you took from me?”
“Yes, it’s been in my pocket.”
“Well it really is a radio and it really has been listening to everything you said and what the people around you have been saying. I would bet that by now there are several helicopters leaving Albuquerque for here with medical teams in them. I would also bet there are trucks in some of the small towns in the area which are being loaded with food, clothes, and, yes, even toys, and they’ll be at the roadblock in an hour or two.”
“The roadblock. Fred, is it still manned?”
“Not if my messenger got there by now.”
“Well, let’s get some guys down there to tear it down. We don’t want to keep the food or the toys out any longer than we have to.”
There was a general cheer from the children and some of the men and quite a number of the boys set out toward the roadblock.
Niall struggled to move and then his ankle reminded him of why he was lying in such a strange position. The helicopter swept overhead and went on into the distance. The sounds of the birds and the occasional squirrel returned. Niall fell back, feeling worse than ever.
“You’re in quite a fix, aren’t you?”
“What? Where are you? Who are you?”
“Just a little bird.”
Am I hallucinating? What in the world is happening?
“Well actually, just a little flying machine. I’m about twenty feet over your head and a little to the West of you. Yes that’s me. I’m the hawk with its wings still spread. They don’t really fold, you see, and they have solar panels on the top so I can go for a long time without needing servicing.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“Just keeping an eye on you. We’ll have a couple of guys with you in about twenty minutes. We could have been sooner if you’d have gone someplace the helicopter could land. As it is, it’s been truck and back pack so you’ve had to wait.”
“You mean you’ve been watching me all this time?”
“Well, no, not all this time. Just the last half hour or so. The high flyer craft has been monitoring your position and when he reported the others had left you and you were moving very slowly, I was sent in to find you. You do have a love of trees, don’t you? You would make it hard to spot you. Anyway, here I am and we have your position so the rescue team should be here shortly.”
“Do you know what’s happened to the others?”
“The two men you were with or are you talking about Felipe and…”
“I’m asking about Natalie and Jean and Felipe, yes. What’s happened to them?”
“They’re just fine as far as I can tell.”
“What are they doing?”
“Jean is taking a rather extended walk in the woods, going who knows where. He seems to be going in a rather large circle. I guess we ought to pick him up as well. Felipe is on a farm up the valley about five miles. He got the people to let us come in. Natalie is in the farm house, so I don’t know what she’s doing.”
”Is she all right?”
“As far as I know. Nobody’s said anything about her being hurt or anything.”
Niall felt a sudden wash of relief. He even forgot about his foot for a while. Natalie was all right. He was a little surprised at the strength of his feeling. He hadn’t realized that the level of his anxiety over her safety was so great. He began to reassess his relationship to Natalie.
Then he heard the purposeful tread of several feet in the woods above him and his rescuers were upon him.
“Okay, fella. Where’s it hurt?”
“It’s worst in my left ankle. I think that’s broken. The rest of me is just sore and tired. Sorry to get you out here like this. I didn’t break my ankle on purpose.”
“Ah, that’s what they all say. I think they do it on purpose, don’t you Bob?”
“Of course, they love to interrupt us right in the middle of a game. It would serve them right if we just left them out here in the woods on their own.”
“Tell you what I’ll do. If you go ahead and save my life this time I promise to mend my ways and never trouble you again.”
”They all say that, too.”