It’s okay, Maury, she says. That shivaree ain’t gonna hurt you. It’s just God makin a spectacle of himself at the marryin of earth and heaven. He’s gotta do it every now and then so we don’t forget who’s in charge. Come on, just keep your eyes on the tracks, and give a listen to my vocal melodies. I’ll sing you through it.
She takes him by the hand and the two march on, her voice carrying high and far into the gray sky above until the clouds pass and the sun shows through in long straight ribbons so clear and defined it looks like you could slide down them if there were a ladder that could reach that high.
On a big rock jutting out over the river, they lie flat on their backs and let their clothes dry out, and she feels the tickle of the droplets on her skin and it feels excruciating and delightful.
If you close your eyes and look at the sun, she explains to Maury, you can see the miniature animals that live on your eyeballs.
When she looks over, she sees Maury has fallen asleep.
She sighs and looks again at the receding clouds.
My lord, she says, a girl can sure enough cover some ground in this life. I bet I got places to go that I don’t even know exist yet.
IT IS their fifth day walking when she hears the noise. At first she thinks it’s thunder again, but the sound lasts too long, it just keeps going, not like thunder or a crashing wave, the things of nature that break once and then sputter out. She reaches down and feels the steel rail with her hand.
We best step to the side, Maury. This could be our ride if they ain’t a trainful of mutants—but I’m guessing the inheritors of the earth ain’t the ridin-the-rails type.
She takes the gurkha knife from her sack and holds it behind her back.
Could be trouble, she says, but truth be told my feet could use a break. Stand up straight, Maury, and try not to look so evil of portent.
A diesel engine comes into view from the east followed by three boxcars, their doors slid open like the black maws of giant fish. It begins to slow immediately after coming around the bend, and when it stops it stops for her, the beast of steel and chain and grease inching to a halt on the tracks just feet from where she stands with Maury, its air brakes coughing and metal straining against metal—and she thinks of David and Goliath or other stories where the monster pauses and kneels down, its limbs creaking, to take the measure of its puny foe.
She grips the blade tighter behind her back.
She neither smiles nor frowns. She is aware of all the sounds around her, the chirping birds and the rippling of the river in the distance and the wind through the trees.
The locomotive engine is shaped like a bulldog, pug-nosed and jowly. It is painted a forest green with a yellow winged emblem across the front of it, but the dust of a thousand journeys has collected on the surface, giving it the look of something that has recently risen from the earth.
A door in the side of the engine slides open suddenly and the sooty face of an old man emerges. He’s wearing a baseball cap, and he takes it off and fans himself with it as he looks Temple and Maury up and down.
At the same time, she begins to notice the faces of other men peeking out the sides of the boxcars farther down.
The old man spits into the dirt and wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt.
You two in trouble? he asks.
I don’t know, Temple says. Are we in trouble?
Not by us you ain’t.
That’s good to hear.
The old man wipes the sweat from his forehead and leaves a streak of black.
Where you headed? he asks.
Good thing. You don’t wanna be goin east. There’s bad business back there.
Is that right?
Slugs I got used to. But after a while you see more’n you want to see and you just stop lookin.
The old man nods his head at Maury.
What’s his story?
He don’t talk. He’s just a dummy.
The old man’s eyes go back to studying Temple—but just in a studying way, not trying to get a bead on her or anything like that.
How old are you? he asks.
Fifteen, she says, taking a chance on the truth and the fatherly instincts of the man in the cap.
Fifteen! You’re too young to be wanderin the countryside. Too young by a mile.
I tried to be older, she says. But it’s somethin that’s hard to force.
He chuckles and rubs his eyes and looks out over the shrubby verge to the river below and then back at her.
What you got behind your back? he asks.
She reveals the gurkha knife, holding it up to show him.
What were you planning on doin with that?
If you turned out to be trouble, I was gonna kill you with it.
The old man looks at her with eyes still as toad ponds in the aftermath of a storm when the air is gluey with ozone. Then he begins to laugh.
THE OLD man’s name is Wilson. He and his men, eight in number, run the rails between Atlanta and Dallas, picking up strays like Temple from the cactusland and delivering them to safer, more populated communities. They also break up clumps of slugs where they come across them, putting nails in their skulls with a butane-powered nail gun, then piling them up and burning the corpses.
Wilson was an engineer going way back. He was on a run back from D.C. when the trouble started, that first day when the dead began to get up and walk around like living folk. His family, his wife and his two kids, they were already got by the time he reached home. Everything changed all at once. This new world, this world now a quarter of a century old, it wasn’t anything he ever got to confront with his family standing beside him. The world changed and he changed all at the same time, and he aims to keep moving since it seems like there’s nowhere to settle and no one to settle with. He remembers, he says, that Wilson of before—but only just barely.
The others are ex-military men, mostly. Some mercenaries who floundered without an economy to exploit, opportunists who, having gathered piles of cash, found themselves at a loss for anything to spend it on that couldn’t be taken for free and with the world’s permission. America having changed to benefit them, their accounts suddenly cleared, they reverted to the only actions that still seemed mercenary in this topsy-turvy landscape: They rode the countryside like desperadoes, helping people.
There they sit, at a rickety card table attached with brackets to the inside wall of the boxcar so it doesn’t spill over with the starts and stops, playing Omaha poker and drinking booze out of tin mugs, or sitting with their legs out the open side of the car, watching the landscape go by and breaking down their guns to clean them, or carving miniature figures out of basswood with pocketknives. There they are, the new knights-errant of this blasted homaloid—lost men who find lost men and carry them to safety by their dusty collars.