An hour later, the little group stood restlessly at the gates of the Archer compound, anxious and murmuring among themselves. Caleb and Bethany were crying; they didn’t want to leave the baby goats, and Ruth was trying in vain to quiet them. Zeke stood next to Jebbadiah, and for once his face was as blank and impassive as his mentor’s. The mood was pensive as everyone said goodbye. Patricia tried once more to convince Jeb to stay, saying we were all crazy for wandering around looking for a city that didn’t exist. Not when we could stay here and not worry about cold and starvation and Rabids ever again.
“If not for yourself, Jebbadiah, then do it for the children,” Patricia said, rheumy eyes flashing as she gazed over the group. “Surely you can see that this crazy wandering is only going to get them killed? Let them stay here, if you care anything for them at all.”
Jeb’s expression didn’t change; he regarded her with the same cold aloofness that he showed everyone else. “I thank you for your concern, Patricia, but I will decide what is best for this family, as I’m sure you will do the same for yours.”
“Jebbadiah, you stubborn fool—”
“I will not separate this family,” Jebbadiah said, a bit sharper this time. “It is not my place. However, if any wish to remain behind, I will not stop them.” He turned, sweeping his steely gaze over the group behind him. “Do you hear that?” he called, almost threateningly. “Any who wish to remain her, to abandon their faith and stay with the Archers, step forward now.”
Nobody moved. The only sound was Caleb, valiantly trying to muffle his sobs. Zeke finally stepped forward, scooped the boy into his arms, and began whispering to him. Caleb buried his face in his shoulder.
Patricia shook her graying head at us all. “You all are damn fools,” she sighed, “but I certainly can’t stop you. Remember, ya’ll are still welcome here, if you change your mind.”
“We won’t,” Jeb told her with absolute authority, “but thank you again for everything. Zeke!” he called, and Zeke returned to his side immediately, setting Caleb beside Ruth. “Let’s move out.”
It was a very quiet party that shuffled through the dirt and gravel to the massive iron gate waiting at the end of the yard. Larry opened the gate for us, corroded hinges creaking horribly as it swung open, revealing the fields and the dark woods beyond. Catching Darren, he pointed over the trees, off to the west. “If you follow the road, there’s a town ‘bout ten or twelve miles from here. It’s empty; most the folks that lived there either died fast or moved in with relatives when the plague hit. Ain’t no ammo left, probably, but there are still some supplies if you want to give it a gander.”
“Thanks,” Darren said, and Larry clapped him on the shoulder. Stepping behind the fence, he raised a hand in mournful farewell, as the gate creaked shut behind us and closed with a bang that seemed to echo across the fields.
Instantly, I felt very exposed and vulnerable, standing there on the open plain, our safe haven forever closed to us. Caleb and Bethany began sobbing again, their small voices unnaturally loud in the stillness. Jeb turned a piercing glare on Ruth, fervently trying to shush them.
“Quiet them now, before they bring the whole Rabid population down on us,” he hissed. Ruth went white, and she shook Caleb’s arm, pleading with him to shush. Zeke glanced over, looking like he wanted to help, but Jeb snapped his fingers and began speaking to him intently as they moved forward, so he had no choice but to follow.
I slid through the crowd, moving past Teresa and Silas and Darren, bringing up the rear. Ruth shot me a glare as I approached, but she was so busy with the sobbing children, she didn’t have anything to say to me as I slipped up behind them.
“Hey,” I muttered, bending down so they could hear me. “I saw Patch this evening.”
Both of them stopped, hiccupping as they turned to stare at me with wide eyes. “You did?” Bethany whispered. “Is he all right?”
Ruth’s eyebrows shot up. I ignored her, keeping my attention on the two kids, relieved that they had stopped crying. “Yeah, he’s fine,” I answered. “He’s so fat from that milk we gave him he can barely move. He just rolls around on his belly.”
They giggled, but then Caleb’s face fell. “I miss him,” he sniffed, and Bethany echoed his sentiment. “I wish we could have brought him with us.” His lip trembled, on the verge of more tears.
Ruth shot me a stony look, already blaming me for making them cry again. I quickly switched tactics. “But he’d be lonely without the other goats,” I said in a reasonable, cajoling voice. “Wouldn’t you be lonely, if you were all alone without your sister or Zeke to look after you?”
“I guess so,” Caleb muttered, sounding unsure.
“Besides,” I went on, hardly believing I was saying this, “maybe they’ll be goats in Eden. A whole herd of them; white ones, black ones, spotted ones, you name it. And maybe your sister will get one for you and you can raise it; your very own baby goat.”
“What about me?” Bethany chimed in, her chubby face hopeful.
“You can have one, too,” I told her, growing more uncomfortable with promises that I’d never be able to keep. Ruth glared poisoned daggers at me, but she was the least of my problems. As Caleb grinned and Bethany unexpectedly grabbed my hand, hugging my arm, I looked up to see both Zeke and Jebbadiah watching us from the front of the party. Zeke gave me a faint nod, but Jebbadiah was staring at me, no expression at all in his steely gray eyes.