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GROOGLEMAN
by
Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald

Chapter I


In the First Year came the Plague, and in the Tenth Year the Burning, and afterward came the Grooglemen out of the Dead Lands . . .

A History of the New World From the Beginning to the Present Day, by Absolom Steerforth, Speaker of the Amity Crossroads Assembly.


The stranger came on a cold twilight between the end of autumn and the beginning of winter, in the year that Daniel Henchard turned thirteen.

There'd been a portent in the sky the night before -- a red star shining against the evening like a drop of blood. The star passed across the heavens from north to south, growing now brighter and now dimmer as though it moved through scraps of cloud too thin for the eye to see.

"Trouble coming for sure," said Bartolmy Henchard; but his brother Sam, Dan's father, said no -- the red star had gone away from them, and taken any trouble it carried along with it. They argued it that way back and forth until bedtime, since Bartolmy was always expecting the worst of things and Sam was not, and Dan went to sleep with their voices still wrangling in his head.

The next morning dawned chilly and clear, with high wispy clouds overhead and a hard edge to the light. A thin crusting of frost glinted up from the lee of the fence posts, and from the brown furrows where stalks had been plowed under. A sharp wind blew from the hills. By noon the clouds had lowered and the sky spat flakes of snow; not many, but stinging on the bitter wind.

Just after sundown, when Dan was coming back from tending the fire in the smokehouse, he saw a traveler coming across the fields from the direction of Little Gap. The man's face was only a pale blur in the fading light, but even from a distance Dan could tell that he didn't have the shape or the stride of anybody within a day's walk. Over his right shoulder he carried a long-barreled rifle.

Dan thought about what that might mean. A long rifle was a rare weapon -- it took a skilled gunsmith to make one, and a skilled marksman to use one. Nobody in Dan's family had such a thing. The Henchards were farmers, not hunters, and the musket Dan's grandfather had brought with him over the mountains was all that they'd ever needed. A trapper or a trader might carry such a rifle, if he knew how to use it and thought he might have reason, but so might a troublemaker or a lawless man.

The stranger was heading right toward the farmhouse. He must have seen the Henchards' chimney-smoke from up along Little Gap and followed a line straight to it across the open fields. As the man drew closer, Dan saw that he was tall and thin, cleanshaven, with black hair whipped about his face by the north wind. Something about the way he moved made Dan think that he'd been walking for a long time without a chance to rest.

Dan hurried his steps and reached the porch at the same time the stranger did. Then he saw an odd thing, though he didn't think much about it until a long while afterward: the man took the rifle from his shoulder, put it across his body, then grounded the butt on the planks of the porch all in one smooth motion. Only then did he seem to notice where he stood.

He drew his eyes back from the far distance to look at Dan. "Can a lone man have shelter here for the night?"

He didn't have the valley way of speaking; the words came out slowly, with something of an overmountain roll and lilt to them, and something else that wasn't from over the mountains at all. "I've been running ahead of the weather for so long I'm near done in."

Dan hesitated to say yes or no. But Aunt Min must have been standing inside and listening the whole time, because as soon as the stranger put down his rifle and spoke a proper greeting, she swung wide the door.

"Step inside," she said, "and sit by the fire. This is no time of year for a man to be sleeping out under the sky."

The stranger came into the house and let Aunt Min show him to the high-backed bench that stood by the hearth. He propped the long rifle up against the wall, near his right hand, and sat with his coat wrapped around him in a way that made Dan think about how cold the wind must have been, coming down through Little Gap. There were still a few snowflakes trapped in the coat's dark folds; Dan watched them melt into blotches from the heat of the fire.

Aunt Min shook her head and dipped up a bowl of broth from the kettle simmering on the hearth. "This'll warm you some. You look like you need it."

"Thank you kindly," the man said. "For the food, and for the shelter." He took a few spoonfuls of the broth and then seemed to recollect himself. "What is the name of this place?"

"Henchard's farm," Min said. "A half day's walk out of Crossing. I'm Min Henchard, and the boy, here, is Dan."

The man nodded. "Folks call me Joshua."

"A good name," said Min. "You rest a while, and when the men come in we'll all have supper."

By this time the sky outside the farmhouse was dark. Min lit a tallow candle and put it in the front window. The window was made of real glass -- Sam Henchard had brought the panes all the way from overmountain as a gift for Dan's mother, the year before the plague took her. Dan could still remember how much she had liked them.

After a while Dan's cousins Gabe and Micah came back from walking the fences; and not long afterward, with a great stamping and banging, Sam Henchard and Bartolmy came in as well. Bartolmy looked dark to see a stranger sitting by the hearth, but he couldn't speak against Aunt Min after she'd offered Joshua a welcome. And Sam was always glad to see and talk with travelers, and share memories of his own journey back overmountain.

Supper was meat and vegetables and broth from the kettle on the hearth, and hearty dark bread to sop with. Sam Henchard gave Joshua the guest's place at the head of the table and asked him to lead the prayer -- a courtesy to a visiting stranger, but a test of his upbringing as well.

Joshua bowed his head and spoke. "He that will love life, and see good days, let him hold back his tongue from evil, and his lips from guile." The prayer came without faltering or stumbling, as though he had said it many times before. He didn't use the same words that Sam and Bartolmy always did, but Dan thought the meaning would be close enough. "Let him turn away from evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and follow after it."

"Amen," said Sam, and they all began to eat.

As soon as the meal ended, it was time for sleep. Dan could tell that his father had hoped for some talk around the hearth, but everyone saw that Joshua was too done in for tales and conversation. He was swaying a little in the chair where he sat, and while he always answered politely, he seemed to come back from a long way off in order to do so. Aunt Min made him up a pallet in the warm spot near the chimney, the way she always did for a guest, and he went to sleep as soon as he stretched out on it. The long rifle lay on the wooden floor close beside him.

Dan went upstairs to his own bed in the attic room that he shared with Gabe and Micah. Sometime in the middle of the night, he woke to the rattle of the shutters, and the loud voice of the wind rising. He listened for a minute or two, feeling thankful for the roof overhead and the banked fire on the hearth belowstairs. Then he slept again.

***

In the morning the world outside was pale with snow. A high wind drove the flakes sideways, so that all the fences and outbuildings vanished into a mass of swirling, scudding white. When the Henchards came down to warm themselves by the fire, they found Joshua still lying on his pallet and too sick to rise. He was pale, shivering so hard that each tremor could be seen and sweating at the same time, and his eyes were fever- bright.

Bartolmy seemed almost pleased to find him that way. "I told you a red star meant trouble," he said. "I say put him out now and be safe."

Dan looked at the flying snow beyond the panes of the glass window. In weather like this, nobody went outside who didn't have to. Even a healthy man could get lost in the blinding whiteness and freeze to death within reach of his own doorstep. A man as sick as Joshua would never be able to find shelter.

Sam Henchard shook his head. "I won't put a man out in killing weather if I can help it. If it's plague he's got, it's already in here with us and we're too late to stop it."

"Common ills can make a body as dead as the plague can," Bartolmy insisted. "It just takes longer. I say we should put him out."

Dan listened to their argument and watched Joshua wrap himself tighter in his blanket as the shivers came and went. The red coals in the fireplace hissed as clots of snow fell down the chimney and turned to steam. Dan hoped Joshua was listening to the fire and not to the two men talking.

"We're settled folk here," Sam said at last. "Not woods- runners or lawless men. Joshua's eaten with us and blessed our bread. He stays."

When Sam Henchard spoke that way, not even Bartolmy would go against him. Joshua lay sick and shivering all during the morning, and at mid-day was still not able to rise and share the noon meal.

Nobody talked much at the table. Plague had come through Crossing once already in Dan's lifetime, and the common ills came with every change of season. The memories made it hard to forget that a sick man lay not far off, one who had sat and taken sup with the family only the night before. But Speaker Ashe at the Crossing Assembly always preached that hospitality was one of the chief virtues, and that sometimes virtue was painful to uphold.

After the last of the food was cleared away, Aunt Min wiped her hands on her apron and said the thing that Dan, at least, had been thinking all along.

"We have to do what's right by him and fetch a weller."

"Only a fool would go out in a snowstorm, looking for a weller or not," said Bartolmy. "Best to wait until the sky clears."

Sam Henchard stood and began putting on his coat and hat and gloves. "I was the one who said to keep him in. I'll go over to the Johnsons' place and fetch back Leezie -- she'll come no matter what the sky."

He went out into the falling snow, and the rest of the Henchards settled in to do as much of the farm work as they could manage indoors while they waited for his return. Though Dan was the youngest, the plague that had killed his mother and nearly taken the whole family had never touched him at all; and the chore of tending the sick man fell to him.

"Don't worry," he said to Joshua as the afternoon lengthened into evening and the light outside the window faded. "We'll have a weller here for you soon."

Joshua's eyes opened and focussed on Dan. "Not a good idea. Should have put me out, like the man said."

"Bartolmy croaks like a crow," said Dan, "and he doesn't like strangers."

"Strangers bring trouble." Joshua's gaze drifted away from Dan's face, and his voice faded as his thoughts rambled. "You don't know who they might talk to, and you don't know where they've been. Put them out. Else the grooglemen may come and take you all."


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