What do you know about someone named Moses Todd?
And she can feel her insides twisting up.
How do you know that name?
Because that’s the name he gave when Johns found him down at the gate. He’s in the parlor at the moment. Richard is giving him a recital.
They let him in before James knew what was happening, he explains to her. He was already sitting on the couch when James saw him, sipping iced tea and listening to his brother Richard play. An arm extended over the back of the couch and one leg crossed expansively over the other. He smiled when he saw James.
Good evenin, the man said, rising from the couch and extending his hand.
A big man, and his clubbed fist closed over James’s hand like a softened brick.
James, his grandmother said, let me introduce you to Mr. Moses Todd. He’s traveling.
A pleasure, James said.
Another of your grandsons, I reckon?
My boys, she nodded. Their father is ill, so he won’t be joining us. But we have another guest, and I’ll introduce you to her when she returns. Sarah Mary likes to take walks in the evening.
James noticed something lock down in the man’s eyes.
It’ll be my honor to say hello to her, Moses Todd said.
We’ve been so blessed these past few days, his grandmother said. Richard, James—haven’t we been blessed?
Very blessed, Richard confirmed. And lucky for them—it’s not safe out there.
SHE FOLLOWS James Grierson back down the path and stops at her car and takes a pistol out of the duffel in the backseat—and then they enter the house through the kitchen, making as little noise as possible.
In the hall outside the parlor, she can hear Richard at the piano playing a song that reminds her of a lullaby. Between the notes she can hear the wooden ticking of the grandfather clock by the door. She waits until the song is done and she can hear clapping—which means that Moses Todd’s hands are occupied—and then she throws open the door and advances with the gun aimed steady at his head.
He is as big as she remembers, thick as a tree and craggy as one too. His dark beard is untrimmed, and his greasy hair is swept back from his forehead.
He continues to sit, unmoving, when he sees her, but a smile emerges on his lips.
My goodness! Mrs. Grierson gasps, putting a hand to her mouth.
What’s happening? Richard says.
Hello, girl, Moses Todd says, and he rises to his feet, stretching himself to his full Paul Bunyan height.
I’ll kill you if you take a step, Temple says.
You certainly will not, Mrs. Grierson says. I don’t know what this is about, but—
Richard, James says, take Grandmother upstairs.
But what’s happening? Richard says again.
Goddamnit, Richard, just do it.
Richard shrinks into an anxious knot like a snarling badger, but he goes to his grandmother and takes her by the arm and leads her out of the room.
They listen to the footsteps ascend the stairs.
It ain’t nice to point guns at guests, Moses Todd says.
You’re my guest, James says. Not hers. And she’s the one with the gun.
That’s a true thing, Moses nods in acknowledgment.
Move over there, Temple says, pointing to a dark wooden chair with a seat cushion made of patterned satin. Go slow.
Moses Todd sits in the chair and James gets some rope from the basement and ties his wrists to the arms and his ankles to the legs.
How you know you’re on the right side here? Moses Todd asks James while he’s knotting the rope.
She’s been in this house eight days and hasn’t killed anyone yet, James says. And you have a troublesome look about you.
Fair enough, Moses says. But did she tell you she killed my brother? And she did it with her bare hands, like an animal. Is that somethin she mentioned over your evenin vittles?
James casts a brief look in her direction but doesn’t wait for either confirmation or denial.
I guess you two have some things to talk about, he says. I’ll be in the next room. You’ll call out if you need anything?
How you been, girl? Moses says once James is gone.
I been fine.
He sucks in his lips, and his whole beard changes shape like a sea urchin, and she can see his white tongue moistening the corners of his mouth as if he’s settling in for a long speech.
Nice accommodations you found for yourself, he says and uses his head to gesture all around him.
Yeah, they’re right people. A little screwy, some of em. But they do keep a household.
How’s the food?
Best I ate in a while.
She sits down on the couch near the chair and rests her elbows on her knees. She sets the gun on the coffee table, and he looks at it. It would be within his reach if he were not tied.
You better be careful, girl. You best be sure I can’t bust this rope and make a grab at that.
If you can do it, I invite you to. It’ll finish the job one way or the other.
He looks at her for a long time, his eyes searching her—but not under her clothes like where his brother’s eyes went. The eyes of Moses Todd dig into her head and make curious explorations.
A hearty laugh bursts from his throat, and she jumps a little. She can see little bits of food crusted in his beard.
You got qualities, child, he says. You sure got qualities.
How’d you find me anyway?
I’m a tracker. Grew up with hunters in Arkansas. Filthy men, you wouldn’t like em. But they taught me how to track and hunt. And there ain’t many towheaded girls on the plains these days—yours ain’t a hard trail to sniff out.
She looks him up and down, suspiciously.
I don’t guess you’re that good a tracker, she says.
I’m here, ain’t I? Hey, did you see the horde they got downtown a couple miles back? Downright blindin—I was drivin through them like mosquitoes. You don’t wanna get caught in the middle of that without a quick means of exit.
Yeah, I saw it. They learned to eat other things. Horses, raccoons. They’ve gone cannibal, some of em.
Is that right. He shakes his head. Now that is a unqualified perversion of nature, ain’t it?
It don’t bode well for starvin em off, she agrees.
I reckon when you leave here, he says, you won’t be going back through town then.
She looks at him.
Listen, she says. I know why you’re comin after me. I know what you intend.
I guessed as much from bein tied to a chair at gunpoint.
Your brother, I took care of him—so he wouldn’t come back, I mean. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. I took care of it.
I know you did, and I’m obliged. But it don’t quite make up for killin him in the first place.