"Where is everyone?" I asked as we hit the ground f loor without running into any of the clan's numerous members.
Last night, Patricia had proudly told us that they had three generations of Archers living under one roof: brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, grandmothers, grandfathers, the whole family tree. I'd seen at least a half dozen people taking care of Joe when we'd followed Patricia into the house, and I'd suspected even more had been sleeping in their rooms.
Where was everyone now? I heard banging noises coming from the kitchen, but other than that the old farmhouse was silent.
Zeke shrugged. "I think most everyone is outside, taking care of the animals, finishing work in the fields, and making sure the wall is safe. Martha told me they keep goats and sheep out in the pasture during the day, but they have to bring them in at night. Otherwise the rabids will get them."
"Zeke?" A frail, reedy voice came from the kitchen.
"Is that you?"
Zeke grimaced and ducked behind a wall, blowing out the candle as a small white-haired old woman came out of the kitchen with a frying pan in one bony claw. She blinked when she saw me, thick glasses and toothless gums making her look like a lizard.
"Oh," she said, not able to hide her disappointment. "It's you. The girl."
"Allison," I provided.
"Yes, of course." Martha wasn't even looking at me anymore, rheumy eyes scanning the candlelit room. "I thought I heard that boy out here. Is Zeke with you?"
"No," I said firmly, not glancing at the corner where Zeke was vigorously shaking his head. "I haven't seen him."
"Oh. Pity." Martha sighed. "He must be in the barn with the others. Such a handsome lad, that one." She sniffed and peered at me, narrowing her eyes behind her glasses. "Oh, good. You found your clothes. I was going to tell you I had washed them, but you were sleeping so soundly, I couldn't even rouse you. You sleep like the dead!"
"Yeah." I shifted uncomfortably. I am so definitely locking my door tonight. That, or I'll nail the damn thing shut. "I guess I was tired. We-our group-we sleep during the day and travel at night. I'm not used to being up in the afternoon."
"Sleeping is one thing." Martha nodded her wrinkled head sagely. "You, my girl, were out like a log." I started to reply, but she appeared to lose interest now that Zeke wasn't around.
"Well, if you see that boy, tell him I'm making a pie just for him. Boys like pie. Dinner will be ready in an hour. Be sure to tell your people."
"I will," I muttered as she vanished back into the kitchen.
I glanced at Zeke, hoping he hadn't picked up on my unease.
He just shrugged, and I raised an eyebrow.
"The mighty hunter," I quipped as we snuck out the back door, escaping into the yard. "He can take down vicious rabids and rampaging boars, but one old lady can make him f lee in terror."
"One scary old lady," he corrected me, looking relieved to be out of the house. "You didn't hear what she told me when I got up- you're so cute I could put you in a pie. Tell me that's not the creepiest thing you've ever heard." His voice climbed a few octaves, turning shrill and breathy. "Today for dessert, we have apple pie, blueberry pie and Ezekiel pie." We laughed together, our voices bouncing off the farmhouse walls. Outside, the twilight air was cool and hazy, and when I took a breath, I could smell smoke, dirt, livestock and manure. It was a clean smell, much cleaner than the Fringe and the city streets. Chickens milled about the yard, scattering before us, and a shaggy black-and-white dog watched us from a rusty tractor. It growled at me, curling its lips back as I met its gaze, but Zeke didn't notice.
"Now it's my turn," Zeke said, watching his feet as we walked down the muddy path to the barn. I glanced at him, frowning, and he kicked a pebble into the grass, following it with his gaze. "To thank you," he elaborated. "For helping me with Joe, and for killing that pig...basically for saving our lives. I don't think... I mean, if you hadn't been there..." I shrugged. "Don't worry about it," I said, embarrassed.
"You would've done the same and so would Darren, and I think we both got really lucky that night. No one got hurt, so it's over."
"It almost got me," Zeke muttered, almost to himself. "I felt its teeth catch my leg as it went by. Thank God it didn't break the skin. If Jeb were to find out..." He trailed off.
"What?" I prodded.
He shook himself. "Nothing. Never mind. I would just... he would lecture my ear off, that's all." I watched him intently, but he wouldn't meet my eyes. "Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks." He shrugged. "And you're welcome to tag along with me and Darren whenever you want."
"You know what I mean."
We had reached the barn, a faded gray building that smelled of straw and goat poop. A warm yellow glow came from inside, along with the murmurs of people and the bleating of livestock. Slipping through the large double doors, we found Jeb near the front, talking to Patricia, while the rest of the group had sprawled around them, sitting on bales or leaning against fence railings. Matthew sat in the corner, holding a bottle for the baby goat in his lap, while Caleb and Bethany looked on in delight.
"Thank you for your hospitality," Jeb was saying as Zeke and I eased inside. "We appreciate you offering your home to us, but we don't want to be a bother."
"Oh, Jebbadiah, stop it," Patricia said, overruling him. "It's no bother at all. Y'all are welcome here, for as long as you need. We have enough food, and if you don't mind sleeping in the barn, there's more than enough space to go around. I must say, it's a mite strange that y'all sleep during the day, but I'm not here to judge, no I'm not." She cast her gaze over the rest of the group, smiling at Matthew, Caleb and the baby goat. "I know it's too soon to decide," she continued in an almost wistful voice, "but if ya'll decide to stay on a more permanent basis, we can always extend the house. We done it before, we can do it again."
"We cannot stay long," Jeb said firmly. "And I do ask that our sleep cycles not be interrupted, but perhaps we can find other ways to repay your hospitality."
"Just you prayin' over our man Joe, that's enough, preacher," Patricia said, her face turning somber and grim. "And maybe, if you really wanted to help, you could spare a couple of your men to help us watch the wall at night, keep the fires going and keep an eye on the critters. Since ya'll are night folk, anyway."
"Yes." Jebbadiah nodded and suddenly caught sight of Zeke and me, standing by the front doors, watching. "Yes, we can do that," he continued and beckoned to Zeke, clapping him on the shoulder as he came up. "You've met my son," he said with a trace of pride. "Ezekiel will be in charge of the night watches and anything else you need done."
"It'll be nice to have more people on the watch," Patricia mused and gave Jeb a tight smile. "Very well, preacher, we accept your offer. I'll have David and Larry show your boys the way we do things here at night."
They nodded at each other, two rigid, no-nonsense leaders finding something they appreciated in each other. For a second, I had the absurd thought that they would make a pretty good, although terrifying, couple, and snickered out loud at the image.
Three pairs of eyes turned to me. "And this is Allison," Jeb said blankly, with none of the pride he showed for Zeke.
"She is the newest member of our little family, though Ezekiel tells me she's quite dangerous with that sword. Apparently she took down the rampaging wild boar very nearly by herself." The words were hollow, stiff. He might not be condemning me, but he sure wasn't praising me, either.
So much for our little heart-to-heart by the river. I guess he still has to keep the cranky-bastard appearance going for the rest of the group.
"We've met," Patricia said with a small approving smile.
"Joe said he watched you two from the tree. Said you moved faster than anyone he's ever seen."
I shrugged, uneasy, but thankfully Zeke stepped in. "How is he?" he asked, a note of genuine concern in his voice. It still surprised me how worried he could be for a complete stranger.
Patricia's face fell, growing dark. "Alive," she murmured, and her voice dropped to nearly a whisper. "He's in the Lord's hands now."
David and Larry, the two older farmhands, showed up later that night and explained what needed to be done. First, and most important, was guarding the wall, the barrier that surrounded the compound and kept the rabids away. Platforms and walkways had been constructed along the inside of the wall, giving the watch a clear view over the open field of anything coming out of the woods. Not only did the platforms need to be manned, but the bonfires that burned just outside the wall needed to be continuously fed. And someone needed to stay in the barn with the animals, for they would panic if they so much as smelled a rabid outside.
Zeke, Darren, Jake and I were drafted to help with the night watch. Ruth also volunteered, hoping to be close to Zeke, but the job required that you knew how to shoot a rif le, and delicate little Ruth was scared of guns. So she was put in charge of watching the sheep and goats, while I was shown how to use a hunting rif le. I tried not to act smug at the look on Ruth's face when they passed me the gun without hesitation, but it was hard.
"Nice," Zeke muttered, gazing down the barrel of the rif le, sweeping it over the fields below. We had taken the platform closest to the forest, where we had come out with Joe the previous night, and Zeke was kneeling with his elbows resting against the railing. "I used to have a rif le like this. Scoped, too. It made shooting game a lot easier, till I dropped it from a tree and cracked the stock." He grimaced and lowered the gun. "Jeb...was not happy with me."
I winced in sympathy. "How long do you think we'll be here?" I asked, leaning against the railing, hoping the rickety planks would support me. "It's not like Jeb to stop like this.
Why is he even considering staying here a few nights?"
"He told me he wants to stay until the 'Joe thing' is resolved," Zeke replied. "Patricia asked him to pray for Joe, but I think it's more than that. I think he wants to be certain that we're not leaving a demon behind."
A demon? I thought, but movement out in the field caught my attention. "Zeke," I muttered, pointing toward the woods.
Zeke straightened, bringing up the rif le, while I watched the monsters creep closer, their awful, rotten stench drifting over the breeze. There were three of them, pale and emaciated, moving across the field, straight toward the wall.
They moved unnaturally, sometimes on all fours, sometimes hunched over, their jerky, spastic gait making my skin crawl.
Two of them were completely nak*d, but one still had the remnants of a tattered dress clinging to its body, dragging it through the mud.
"Rabids!" Zeke called, his voice echoing through the compound. Instantly, Darren and Larry scrambled down from the platform opposite ours and hurried toward us. They clambered up, the platform creaking under their weight, and I stepped back to make room. Zeke dropped to a knee and leveled his gun at the rabids, but Larry held up a hand.