Addie slid through the forest as silent as a lynx, her beaded moccasins muffling her footfalls. The young stag wasn’t as quiet. When it vanished from sight, she could track it by the crackle of autumn leaves under its hooves. Finally, it stopped to feed and she closed the gap between them until she could see it, small antlers lowered as it tugged at a patch of grass not yet brown and withered.
Addie eased the bow from her back, notched an arrow, and took aim. The buck’s head jerked up. She loosed the arrow, but it was too late—the buck was in flight. Addie fired a second but too quickly, spurred by frustration and anger, the arrow lodging in a nearby maple.
When the crash of the fleeing deer subsided, she peered around the dawn-lit forest. Something had startled the beast and it hadn’t been her. She would never have been so careless.
Addie pulled her coat tighter against the chill. The jacket was too small for her now—she’d grown nearly a half foot in the past year—but she refused to let Preacher and Sophia buy one from the traders. She wanted to make one exactly the same way, doing everything from killing the deer and mink to curing the leather to sewing the cloth. There was not another twelve-year-old in Chestnut Hill who could claim the same. Not a girl of any age. Her parents may not have given her much, but they’d taught her to look after herself.
They’d also taught her—unintentionally—how to sense danger. So now, after the buck had bolted, she went still and listened. She paid particular attention to noises from the north, upwind of the deer, presuming it was a scent that had startled it. After a few moments, she heard the tramp of boots on a well-packed path.
Addie eased her bow onto her shoulder and pulled her skinning knife from its sheath. Then she slunk soundlessly through the woods. She knew exactly where to go—there was only one trodden path in the area, used by the villagers to get to the lake. When she was near enough to see figures, she crouched behind a low bush.
It was two men. One was middle-aged, perhaps thirty, the other so ancient that even with a cane and the younger man’s arm, he shuffled along. Neither was from the village. A hundred people lived in Chestnut Hill and Addie knew every one. The only travelers they saw were trappers and traders, and precious few of either so deep in the forest, three days’ ride from Toronto. These men were neither traders nor trappers. Settlers, then? Lured north by the promise of land or work on the railroad or in the mines? Settlers needed supplies, though, and these men carried only packs on their backs. No wagon. No cart. Not even horses.
And where had they come from? The road lay on the other side. The men headed toward town on a path that only led from the lake. Trappers did come through the forest, but she saw no sign of such gear on these men. They hadn’t come across the lake—it was too small, with no settlements nearby save Chestnut Hill.
Addie slipped through the forest to get a closer look. Both men had short hair and neatly trimmed beards. Though they wore long coats, she could see their clothing underneath. White shirts and black trousers. They looked as if they were heading to church.
Missionaries. Perhaps they’d been traveling on foot from Greenville, ten miles away, and gotten lost in the forest, taking the first well-trodden path they saw. It didn’t matter where they had come from, only that they were heading to Chestnut Hill.
How would Preacher feel about other men of faith in his town? She ought to warn him. With any luck, they’d just be passing through. Chestnut Hill might not even allow them to stay, given that it still reeled from the tragedy that had Addie out in the woods, avoiding the glowers and glares of villagers, blaming her for the simple fact that she lived. That she’d survived.
She was about to start back when the younger man looked straight at her. She froze, telling herself she was mistaken; there was no way he could have heard her, no way he could see her now, dressed in brown behind the dying leaves of a cranberry bush. But he didn’t simply glance her way. His eyes bore straight into hers, and when they did, she swore her heart stopped.
“You there,” he called. “Girl.”
How could he tell she was a girl? She was dressed as a boy, in trousers, her dark hair pulled back.
“Girl,” he called again. “We’re heading to Chestnut Hill. Is this the way?”
Her parents had taught her to look after herself because no one else would do it for her. She knew now they’d been wrong—and so she did try to be kind, to be helpful as Preacher and Sophia counseled. Yet even as she spurred herself to step from behind the bush and lead this man to Chestnut Hill, she looked into his eyes and she could not move, could not speak.
The man released his grip on his elder’s arm and started toward her.
“We’re here to help, child,” he said, his voice low and soothing, like Preacher coaxing Sophia’s cat from under the porch. “We know what Chestnut Hill has suffered and we wish to—”
Addie bolted from her hiding place, running back toward the village like she had a black bear on her tail.
Preacher was taking confession behind the village outhouse. As the wind sliced through the weathered boards, bringing a blast of the stench from within, he reflected that this might not be the place to conduct such a holy endeavor.
He also reflected that it was rather a fitting choice, given the astounding inappropriateness of the entire situation. He was as suited to the position as the location was to the task.
He’d come to Chestnut Hill to teach, along with his wife, Sophia. They’d been doing so in Toronto together, and when this offer came, Sophia begged him to consider it. They’d been wed six years, and she had yet to conceive, a situation that bothered her far more than it did him. She’d begun to wonder if it was the noisy and noisome city affecting her health. The job in Chestnut Hill seemed the best way to test such a theory. Preacher didn’t care much where they lived, as long as she was happy, and off they went.
They’d arrived in Chestnut Hill to find the local priest had been taken by the same influenza as the schoolteacher. So the council had made a decision. Two teachers was a luxury, one they were willing to bestow on their beloved children, but it seemed equally important that they be reared as proper Christians. Sophia would teach and her husband would take the priest’s place.
Preacher had argued most strenuously against this arrangement. He was not a man of the cloth. That was all right, the council had replied—they’d never really wanted a papist anyhow and the good father had simply been the only man who’d take the position. Preacher could obviously read the Bible. That was enough.
It was not enough. He knew that, felt the deception in his gut every day. He was not a God-fearing man. He wasn’t even a God-loving man. Sophia was the churchgoer, though he’d attended when he could, to please her. She’d offered to take the position instead, but the council had been aghast at the suggestion. Men taught the word of God. Even, it seemed, wholly unsuitable men.
So, from that moment on, he was Preacher. Despite his best efforts to retain his name, only Sophia called him Benjamin. To everyone else, he was Preacher. The false servant of God.
Now he sat straddling a wooden bench, his back to old Millie Prior, listening to a litany of offenses too trivial to be called sins, as he tried not to inhale the stench of the outhouse. As for why he held confession here, it was the village’s decision—not a commentary on his ability but based, like all their choices, on simple convenience and expediency. Even if it was a papist custom, the people still expected confession, and the outhouse was discreetly removed from the village, used only when folk were out and about and couldn’t get home to utilize their own facilities. It had a bench, in case people had to wait their turn during a festival or such. It made sense, then, to have the priest—and now the preacher—hold confession there.
As he listened to Millie admit to envying her sister-in-law’s new dress, a commotion sounded in the woods behind him. When he saw who it was, he had to blink, certain his vision was impaired. His foster daughter never made a noise, and here she was, barreling toward him like a charging bull, dead leaves and branches cracking underfoot.
“Preacher!” Addie said, stumbling forward. “There’s men—”
As Millie glared over, Preacher said, “I’m sorry, child. I’m hearing confession. You’ll need to leave.” Then, behind Millie’s back, he motioned for Addie to simply step to the side and pantomime the news, which she did, mouthing that she’d seen missionaries heading to town as he gave Millie two Hail Marys and absolved her of her sins.
“But I’m not done, Preacher,” Millie said. “I still—”
“We ought not to take up too much of the Lord’s time, Miz Prior. If you need unburden yourself of more, we can do it at your next confession.”
She grumbled, but there was no rancor in it. Everyone knew God was a busy man—she simply thought she deserved more of his time than others. Once she was gone, Preacher strode over to Addie. She was obviously agitated, but he knew better than to offer any of the usual parental comforts, like a hug or even a squeeze on the hand.
When he was a boy, he’d found a dog half-dead in an alley and though he’d nursed it back to health, it was never quite right, always wary, always expecting the worst. His mother said someone had beaten it when it was a pup, and he ought to do his best to be kind to it, but he ought never to expect too much. It would always cower at a raised hand, anticipating a beating, no matter how often it got a pat on the head. Addie never cowered, but she had that same look in her eyes, always wary, always expecting the worst.
“Missionaries, you said?” he whispered as he walked over to her, hiding in the forest until Millie was gone.
“Two men. I don’t like the looks of them.”
“Indigent?” he said. When she looked confused, he said, “Vagrants?”
“No, they were dressed as fine men. I just . . . I didn’t like their looks. They said they were coming to help us. After . . . what happened.”
Preacher sucked in breath. “Snake-oil salesmen.”
“Yes!” Addie said. “That’s what they put me in mind of. Peddlers. We had some a few years back, when they were thinking of putting the railroad through here. They sold my ma a cream that was supposed to make her look young again and it didn’t work and my pa got so mad . . .” She trailed off, her gaze sliding to the side. “It wasn’t good.”
No, Preacher was certain it wasn’t. Not much had been “good” in Addie’s young life. Sometimes, the wilderness did things to people, especially those like her folks who stayed out there, away from the villages. People weren’t supposed to live like that. It was as if the forest got into their blood, leached out the humanity. He’d been there when they’d found Addie’s parents. You’d have thought a wild creature broke in. That’s what they told Addie anyway. Whether she believed it . . .
Preacher looked down at his foster daughter, holding herself tight as she peered into the forest, watching for trouble. No, he hoped she’d believed them, but he doubted it.
“I’ll go warn the mayor,” he said. “No one needs the kind of comfort they’re selling. Perhaps we can stop them before they reach the village. Can you run home and tell Sophia? She might hear a commotion, and she ought to stay inside and rest.”
“Is she still feeling poorly?”
He nodded. “But if anyone asks, she’s busy writing lessons for when school starts again.”
Addie gave him a look well beyond her years. “I know not to tell anyone she’s unwell, Preacher.”
He apologized and sent her off, watching her go, bow bobbing on her thin back. Their house was across town; it was quicker cutting through the village, but she always took the forest. Once she disappeared, he headed into town.
Sophia was indeed unwell, yet it was no grave cause for concern. Celebration, actually. After three years in Chestnut Hill, her dream had been realized. She was with child. And it could not have come at a worse time.
Preacher strode toward the community hall. That’s where the mayor and his wife would be. Where he ought to have been, even though it wasn’t Sunday. For the past month, he’d spent more time in the hall—which doubled as the church—than he had at home. Tending to the living. Tending to the dead.
So many dead.
These days, the only villager as busy as Preacher was the carpenter, building coffins. Tiny coffins, lined up in the community hall like props for some macabre play—a tragedy unlike anything the Bard himself would have dared put to paper.
Thirty-six dead in a month. One-third of the entire village. Eight elderly men and women had passed, but the rest were children. In September, twenty-four children had trooped to Sophia’s class for the year. When they reopened the school, she’d have six. And there would be no little ones starting for years after that. No child below the age of five had survived.
Diphtheria. Not that anyone other than Preacher and Sophia used the word. Here, it was simply “the sickness,” as if there were no other that mattered.
What had Chestnut Hill done to deserve this? How had they offended God?
They had not. Preacher knew that. He’d gone to university. He knew about Louis Pasteur and the role bacteria played in disease. That was why Sophia had disbanded school as soon as they realized it wasn’t merely children’s coughs and colds. That was why they had urged the town to quarantine the sick. They had not listened, of course. Everyone knew the way to treat ailments of the chest was with hot tea, a little whiskey, and plenty of prayer.
Except that God was not listening, and the more their preacher insisted that this tragedy was not a punishment from on high, the more they became convinced that Preacher himself had done something wrong. Displeased the Lord. Failed to make some proper . . . Well, they weren’t sure what—only heathens offered sacrifices, but they were convinced he’d failed to do something.
Or perhaps he had done something . . . for his own child. For his foster daughter. Addie had lived, hadn’t she? Preacher could point out that Addie had been on one of her hunting trips when the diphtheria broke out, and as soon as she returned, they’d sent her back into the woods with supplies, to stay another week. Also, she was twelve, past the age of most victims. It didn’t matter. The preacher’s daughter had lived where their children had perished. And now his wife was pregnant? That would only seal the matter, which was why Preacher and Sophia had agreed to not breathe a word of it until they had to, hopefully months from now.
“Preacher?” a voice called as he stepped into the village lane. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
He turned. It was Mayor Browning, helping his wife into the community hall, where their son lay in one of those small coffins, the last victim of the outbreak.
“May I speak with you?” Preacher said. “I know it couldn’t be a worse possible time but—”
A commotion sounded at the end of the road. Someone calling a welcome. Someone else ringing a bell, telling the town that visitors had come, an occurrence rare enough to bring everyone out, no matter how dark the mood.
He was too late. The strangers had arrived.
Addie raced home through the woods. As she did, she tried not to look at the houses that backed onto the forest, tried not to remember the children who’d lived there. She hadn’t known most of them very well. She’d not even gone to school until her parents passed and she came to live with Preacher and Sophia. Still, she had known the children, and there’d been many times she’d come this way and seen them. Sometimes, if Addie felt Sophia’s invisible hand prodding her, she’d even call a hullo.
When she reached the mayor’s house, she circled wide into the forest, so she wouldn’t need to see it at all. Not that it helped, because her path ended up taking her by the fallen oak tree where she’d last seen Charlie Browning, the mayor’s son. They’d been tramping around in the woods before her hunting trip, before the sickness came. Just tramping around and talking, as they usually did. Then they came to the fallen oak and sat and kept talking. It’d been night, and she’d leaned back to look at the stars, her hands braced against the log. Her hand had brushed his, and he’d laid his on hers, and when she’d looked over, he’d given her a smile that was shy and nervous and not like Charlie at all.
She’d seen that smile and she hadn’t pulled her hand away, even if she thought perhaps she ought to, and now . . . Now she wasn’t sure if she wished she had or not. She thought of that summer night, and she was glad he’d been happy that last time they’d been together, but . . . perhaps it would have been easier if he hadn’t been. If she hadn’t been. If they’d fought and now she could look back and say she hadn’t liked him very much, that they hadn’t been very good friends after all. It hurt too much otherwise.
They hadn’t even let her see him after he’d gotten sick. Preacher and Sophia said it would have been all right, if it was a short visit and she didn’t touch him. But Mayor Browning and his wife wouldn’t let her, not even when she heard Charlie in the sickroom, coughing and calling for her. Perhaps tomorrow, they said. When he was feeling better. Only there was no tomorrow. Not for Charlie.
Addie circled the mayor’s house and continued on until she reached the little clapboard cabin she shared with Preacher and Sophia. It was one of the smallest homes in town, only four rooms. Addie had her own bedroom, and it didn’t matter if it was half the size of Charlie’s; it was hers, something she’d never had at her parents’ house, where she’d slept by the fire. Sophia assured her that when the baby came, it would sleep in their room, and they’d build a new house before it was old enough to need its own. Addie had said it didn’t matter, not really. It did, though, and she was glad they understood.
Addie went in the door and found Sophia at the kitchen table, composing lessons. Sophia wanted to reopen school in a week. She said the children needed to be reassured that life would return to normal. But Addie had heard people saying they weren’t going to send their children back. Perhaps next year. Getting an education wasn’t all that important in Chestnut Hill. It wasn’t as if you would do anything with it. Wasn’t as if you were going anywhere else.
Addie didn’t plan to tell Sophia there’d be no school. Her foster mother needed to get back to normal too, perhaps more than anyone else. Each death had been a blow that Addie swore she could see on Sophia’s fragile body. There’d been days when it was all she and Preacher could do to make Sophia eat. That’s when Preacher told her about the baby, so she’d understand how important it was for Sophia to be healthy. Addie had already known. Her mother had lost three babies after Addie, and she’d recognized the signs of pregnancy. She’d kept quiet, though, until they’d seen fit to tell her. Now she guarded that secret as ferociously as a bear with a single cub. It was theirs, and it made them a family—truly a family, trusting one another with their deepest secret. No one was going to take that away from her.
“Addie,” Sophia said, rising with a smile. “What did you catch?”
Alarm filled Sophia’s pretty face, and Addie could have laughed, as if returning empty-handed portended the end of the world. Sophia knew she always caught a deer or a few rabbits and if she hadn’t, then something was wrong. Having a person know you that well . . . it felt good.
“There’s men coming,” she said. “Preacher says they’re snake-oil peddlers, on account of the deaths.”
The alarm on Sophia’s face grew. “Oh my.”
“It’s all right. Preacher will stop them. He just wanted me to tell you. Are you feeling poorly?”
A wan smile. “Better today. Let me make you some breakfast—”
“I already ate. Took biscuits this morning before I left.” Addie paused, still just inside the door. “Can I go back? Help Preacher if he needs me? He seemed mighty worried.”
“Go on, then. I’ll stay inside. Last thing anyone needs is hearing me tell those peddlers where they can put their wares.”
“You can tell me,” Addie said with a grin.
Sophia laughed. “Go on, now. Tell Benjamin I’m feeling fine. I’ll make a hot lunch for both of you.”
When Addie headed back out, she could hear a hullabaloo down the road and knew Preacher hadn’t been able to stop the peddlers. Addie blamed Millie. True, the old woman had left as soon as Preacher asked, but Addie blamed her anyway, for taking up his time with something as silly as confession when he had so much else to attend to these days. Addie believed in God; Sophia said she ought to, so she did. She just didn’t figure He had time to be listening to old gossips confess their sins. Not if He obviously hadn’t had time to listen to Addie’s prayers and save Charlie.
Addie stayed in the forest as she circled around to the commotion. People were spilling out of their houses now. Eager for the distraction. As she drew close, she could hear the whispers starting already. The men were doctors. No, they were undertakers. No, they were from the government, putting the whole village under quarantine.
The advantage to moving through the woods was that Addie could get a lot closer to the situation than those who’d just come out their doors. Someone had brought the two men straight to Preacher and the mayor, down by the community hall, so she was able to creep alongside it and hear everything unfolding.
“We’d like to have a word with you, Your Worship,” the younger stranger was saying, and Addie figured that meant Preacher, but it was the mayor who answered.
“Whatever you’re selling, we aren’t interested.”
“I’m sorry,” Preacher said. “It’s been a very hard month for us. We really would prefer to be left alone in our time of crisis. We’ll certainly provide a hot lunch, though, and replenish any supplies you need before you go on your way.”
“I understand your hesitation,” the younger man said. “But I can assure you that we did not come to profit from your tragedy. Instead, we offer . . .” He cleared his throat. “I hesitate to say more in public, Your Worship. Please, grant us a few minutes of your time. After hearing what we offer, if you wish us to move on, I assure you, we will, without another word to anyone.”
Mayor Browning clearly wanted the men to leave. He was a brusque man by nature. Now his only child had just passed, and he had no patience for intrusions, no more than he’d had when Addie tried to visit Charlie. Yet Preacher took him aside, pulling him closer to where Addie hid.
“Let’s allow them to have their say,” Preacher said. “They’re here now. If we refuse, they may try to sell their snake oil on the side. We’ll hear them out, refuse their offer, and escort them, politely, from town.”
Mayor Browning allowed that this was probably the most expedient way to deal with the situation. When he went back and told the strangers to have their say, though, they insisted on having the whole town council present at the meeting. That led to more discussion, but finally the mayor broke down again. There were only two others who made up the council and they were there, anyway, listening in. He’d bring them all inside and get this over with, so he could return to his grieving wife.
Addie went in the back door of the community hall. It led to a small kitchen, where they would lay meals for a festival or other special occasions. Now the table was covered in food brought for the bereaved, most of it left untouched for days and starting to stink.
She could hear Mayor Browning in the next room, asking his wife to leave for a few minutes. She argued—her child would be in the ground soon enough and she wanted to spend every last moment at his side. But the mayor was firm. She ought to go, but only briefly. Leave out the back door and take some air. He’d call her back when he could.
Addie quickly retreated and hid herself under the porch as Mrs. Browning left. Then she crept inside again.
The hall had two main rooms with a wall between them, which could be removed for large gatherings. During the funerals, they’d kept the wall up—bodies would be laid out in the back room, while service for one victim would take place in the front. From the voices, Addie could tell that the men were holding their meeting in the front room, so she slipped into the back one.
As soon as she saw the open coffins, she went still. She’d just finished thinking that this was where they kept the bodies and yet she hadn’t really thought about it at all.
He’s here. Charlie’s here.
I won’t look. I won’t. I’ll just walk—
Walk across to the other wall. Where his coffin lay. She couldn’t see Charlie, nestled too low, but she could tell it was his by the items laid on the table. All the parents had done that—set out small personal belongings that would be laid to rest with the child. Things that mattered to them. Things that mattered to Charlie.
An American coin from a trader who told wild tales of life in the South. A ribbon from a parade in Toronto, on his trip there five years past. A drawing of a pure black Arabian horse, the sort of fine mount he dreamed of owning. Finally, an eagle feather, from last summer, when they’d climbed the bluffs together. He’d wanted her to have it, but she’d found one for herself. Now she wished she’d taken his gift. Something to remember him by.
She could still take it.
Steal from the dead? What would Preacher say?
Addie swallowed and yanked her gaze from the feather. She could hear voices settling in the next room as the introductions finished. This was what she’d come for—to hear what the strangers wanted. Not to lose herself in grief and wicked thoughts.
She hurried to the wall and pressed her ear against it.
Preacher tried not to pace as the other members of the town council introduced themselves. It was not a quick process. While there were only four, including himself, explaining their positions took some time. No one in Chestnut Hill held a single occupation, not if they participated in public life. The village was simply too small for that.
To supplement his own income, Preacher hired himself out as a scribe, composing letters for the largely illiterate population. He helped Sophia with the garden and chickens. He rode four hours a week to retrieve the village mail. And he’d begun letting Addie teach him to trap, though that was primarily an effort to participate more fully in his foster daughter’s life.
The mayor also ran the trading post out of a room in his house. The blacksmith covered any issues of law enforcement. The doctor raised cattle and hunting dogs. And, of course, when each explained his council position, he had to make it sound more important than it was, necessitating further pointless delay.
“And my name is Eleazar,” the younger stranger said as the council finally completed their introductions.
“Eleazar? Is that French?” the blacksmith—Dobbs—asked.
“It’s biblical,” Preacher said. “The first son of Aaron.”
“Yes,” Eleazar said. “It is a foreign name to you, I’m sure, but my family has been in this country since before the war with the Americans. My colleague’s roots go back even further.” A smile flickered on the man’s face. “Rene is indeed French, though I hope you will not hold it against him.”
The old man gave a creaky laugh. Preacher marveled that he managed to stay on his feet, let alone that he had traveled here on foot. Rene had to lean against Eleazar even now, and as much as Preacher hated to draw this meeting out any further, he could no longer watch the old man teeter.
“Please,” he said. “Have a seat. We don’t have much time to spare, but your walk must have been long. Rest your feet.”
“Thank you, Benjamin,” Eleazar said.
Preacher stiffened at the use of his Christian name. He could tell himself it was too familiar and they ought to use his surname. But the truth was that after three years of lamenting the fact that he seemed to have lost his name, lost his identity, he took offense now. It felt disrespectful, as if the man was refusing to acknowledge his place as the village’s spiritual representative. Which was ridiculous, of course. Preacher was just being testy.
Eleazar continued. “I understand you have suffered a great tragedy. Diphtheria, wasn’t it?”
The men nodded.
“And, if I may ask, how many were lost?”
“Thirty-six,” Preacher said. “We lost thirty-six souls.”
“Most of them children?”
Preacher tried not to squirm. None of the men sitting here needed each fact recited, every reminder thrown in his face. He could tell by Eleazar’s soft tone that he didn’t mean it that way, but that was what it felt like. Each of these men had lost someone—the blacksmith his eight-year-old son and toddling daughter, the doctor two grandchildren, and the mayor his son. The pain of waking daily to a world without them was reminder enough.
“Yes,” Preacher said. “Mostly children. I’m sorry to be blunt, but if you would like a fuller explanation, I would happily provide that in private. I don’t think we all need to be part of such a conversation, not when Mayor Browning’s boy lies in the room behind us.”
Preacher kept his voice low, but he would admit that was a little sharper a rebuke than a man of God ought to give.
“Your Worship,” Eleazar said to the mayor. “I apologize. I did not realize—”
“There was no way you could,” Preacher said. “However, under the circumstances, you can see why we’re being more abrupt than is Christian. If you could please tell us what you want, so we can return to grieving for our children . . .”
“What if you didn’t have to grieve?”
Preacher’s head whipped up as his eyes narrowed. “What?”
Eleazar leaned forward. “We are here to offer life, my friends. Renewed life. The resurrection of your children.”
Preacher shot from his seat so fast that it crashed over behind him. “You would dare—” He struggled to get the words out. “I have seen peddlers prey on the fears and misfortunes of others, but I have never, in my life, heard anything as outrageous or egregious—”
“We are not peddlers, Benjamin. We are, like you, men of God—”
“You are not.”
“Preacher,” the doctor murmured. “Let the man finish.”
Preacher glanced over at Doc Adams, normally the most levelheaded and reasonable of the group. The old sawbones held himself very still, giving no reaction, but deep in his gaze Preacher saw something terrible. He saw hope, and he wanted to stamp it out, no matter how cruel that might seem, because this was the wrong sort of hope, the absolutely wrong sort.
“There’s no harm in letting him finish,” Mayor Browning said, his voice uncharacteristically quiet.
Yes, Preacher wanted to say. There is harm. Great harm. He’s offering you the thing you want most. The thing you know you cannot have. You must resist the temptation by refusing to listen.
Yet how could he say that? These were grown men, not schoolchildren to be lectured by a teacher—or a preacher. If he suggested that they were not capable of seeing through lies to truth, he would insult them. Which he’d gladly have done, to be rid of these hucksters, but it was too late. They’d already heard the insidious whisper of the serpent. They would find a way—any way—to listen to the rest.
“Please proceed,” Preacher said stiffly as he righted his chair. “Forgive my interruption.”
Eleazar waited until Preacher was seated again. Then he folded his hands on his lap and said, “This is no snake oil, my good men. I would not exploit your tragedy that way. When my ancestors came from the old country, they brought with them special knowledge. Great knowledge. Passed on from God himself.”
The man glanced at Preacher, as if expecting another interruption. Preacher clenched his teeth to keep from saying anything. He’d not give Eleazar the satisfaction. He had to trust that the village men were not fools. Let them listen and recognize lies.
“You are familiar, I’m sure, with the story of Lazarus? Raised from the dead by the Holy Son, Christ Jesus?”
“I can assure you we are,” the mayor said.
“Mr. Dobbs mentioned that my name seems odd. It is my family name, and it has a meaning that is indeed biblical. It’s another form of Lazarus. My ancestor was that poor man, raised from the dead, taught the art of resurrection by Christ Jesus himself.”
“No,” Preacher said, rising. “I’m sorry, gentlemen. I can’t countenance this. To say this stranger is descended from Lazarus is one thing. Even to say he can raise the dead is merely preposterous. To claim that Jesus taught his ancestor the skill? That is blasphemy.”
The others had to know that. They took their faith more seriously than he. All of them, as much as it pained him to admit it. Yet not one even looked his way. They kept their gazes averted, and when he saw that, he knew that they recognized the blasphemy. And they chose to ignore it.
“Is it not . . . possible?” Doc Adams said.
Preacher turned to stare at him. The doctor? He was the most educated among them. The one who made his living following the natural science of the world. Who knew that dead was dead.
“It can happen, can’t it, Doc?” Dobbs asked. “I mean, I’ve heard of things like that.”
Doc Adams nodded. “And I’ve seen it. A man on the dissection table at the university. We cut into him, and he started awake.”
“Because he wasn’t dead,” Preacher said.
Mayor Browning turned to him. “Are you saying that the doctor who pronounced him so was wrong?”
“Yes, that is exactly—”
“I am surprised you would be the one arguing most vehemently, Benjamin,” Eleazar said in his soft voice. “A man of faith ought to believe in miracles. In the mercy of God.” He paused and looked Preacher in the eye. “Unless you are not such a man of faith.”
Preacher blanched. He was certain the barb was thrown wild, that Eleazar did not truly see into his heart, and yet, with his reaction, he confirmed it. And in Eleazar’s response, a faint smile, Preacher knew he was lost.
“Our preacher is a good man,” Doc Adams said. “If he is skeptical, it’s because he . . .” The doctor seemed to struggle for a way to put it.
“He doesn’t have a dog in this fight,” Dobbs said.
The doctor flinched and Dobbs flushed. “That didn’t sound right,” the blacksmith said. “But they know what I mean. He hasn’t lost anyone. His wife lives. His daughter lives.”
“Foster daughter,” Doc Adams corrected.
“It’s the same thing,” Preacher said. “While you all know how I feel about the loss of our children, I would not dare match my grief to yours. So I take and concede the point. However, my having not lost anyone means that I’m the only one who can see this clearly and—”
“Preacher?” Mayor Browning turned to him. “I’m going to ask you to step outside. We want to hear what these gentlemen have to say.”
Preacher forced a nod. “All right then. I will remain silent—”
“No.” The mayor met his gaze. “I don’t believe you will. I am asking you to leave. Please don’t make me insist.”
Preacher looked into the mayor’s face, the set of his jaw, the flint in his gaze. Dobbs rose to his feet, squaring his thick shoulders, as if he were a tender of bar, ready to throw an unruly patron through the door. Doc Adams shrank back, taking great interest in a mark on the wall.
No one here would take Preacher’s side. They wanted to hear what the men had to say. They needed to. His job was to counsel them to make wise and spiritual decisions, but if their ears were stopped, he must leave them to make their own mistakes. He could hope they’d hear the lies for what they were but, at worst, they would lose only coin and pride.
“All right,” Preacher said. “If anyone needs me, I’ll be home with my wife. Good day, gentlemen.”
Preacher left without argument. Which the mayor took to mean he wasn’t as strenuously opposed to the idea as he pretended.
Their preacher was an odd duck. A fine enough man—he just had odd ideas. City ideas. Dobbs thought him soft, and while it was true that he wasn’t like the men who’d lived out here all their lives, the preacher held his own. He just spent more time in his head than a man ought to. Worried more than a man ought to.
That was, Browning decided, what had happened here. Preacher felt obligated to object to anything that might smack of dark arts, but it was only a perfunctory objection. A strong perfunctory objection, Browning would give him that, and yes, the man had seemed genuinely upset, but . . . well, he’d left, hadn’t he? If Browning wanted to see that as a sign that his protest lacked conviction, then he could and he would.
Besides, this wasn’t the dark arts. It was faith. Eleazar was right—the Lord Jesus Christ had raised a man from the dead. It was right there in the Bible. That made it a miracle. A gift from God, not the Devil.
“Go on. Tell us more,” he said when Preacher had left.
“Thank you, Your Worship. We can return the living, but only if they have been dead four days or less, like Lazarus. I presume there are children that meet that criterion?”
“My son,” Browning blurted.
There were others, of course, but in that moment, he did not even pause to consider them. They did not matter. His son—his only child—lay dead twenty feet away, behind the wall. What would he give to see the boy alive again? There was part of him that dared not even ask the question because the answer terrified him.
“And my granddaughter,” Doc Adams said. “And Mr. Dobbs’s son and—”
“My daughter died five days ago,” Dobbs said. “Is that—”
“No,” Eleazar said softly. “It is too long.”
“Like my grandson,” Doc Adams said. “Gone a week now.”
“My daughter was wee still,” Dobbs said. “My wife can have others. My son was growing into a strong lad. If you could return him . . .”
He said it so casually, Browning marveled. If you could return him. As if asking for a simple favor. If you could bring a pie on Sunday, that would be lovely. Browning knew Dobbs loved his boy. But it was not the same as his own situation. Dobbs had two other children and apparently planned others to replace those lost. Browning’s wife had lost their first two in infancy, to influenza. She was past the age of bearing more. Without their son, they had nothing. No child. No grandchildren. No great-grandchildren. Only the two of them, growing old in their loneliness and their grief.
“Tell us more,” Browning said again.
“There is a price,” Doc Adams said. “Surely there must be a price.”
Eleazar looked uncomfortable. “Yes, I fear there is. I cannot perform this miracle often. That was the stricture given by the Lord Jesus Christ. We must be very careful imparting our gift, so as not to disrupt the natural order of things. I search out tragedies, such as yours, where it can be of most use. That means, however, that there is a cost, to allow my assistant and me to live frugally and continue our work.”
“How much?” Dobbs asked.
“My normal rate is one thousand dollars for a resurrection.”
Doc Adams inhaled sharply. Dobbs looked ill. Browning began quickly calculating. He had money and a few items he could sell. Yes, he could manage it. When he looked at the faces of the others, though, he felt a slight pang of guilt. A thousand dollars would be impossible for them. Men at the mines bragged of earning that much in a year.
“Most of us would not be able to afford that,” Browning said, quickly adding, “Though a few could scrape it together.”
“Understandable,” Eleazar said. “And while that is my fee, normally I am performing a single resurrection, so I require an exorbitant amount, as it is all I may earn for a year or more. However, as there are multiple resurrections required here, I did not intend to charge so much for the good people of Chestnut Hill. How many children would there be, if price were no object?”
“Seven,” Doc Adams said. “I pronounced seven poor children dead in the last four days.”
“Then my fee would be three hundred dollars apiece.”
Doc Adams exhaled in relief. Browning knew he could afford that with ease. He glanced at Dobbs as the younger man counted on his fingers.
“Would you require cash?” Browning asked. “Or would goods be sufficient?”
“If they are easily transported goods—horses, jewelry, furs—yes, we would take them for market value.”
Dobbs nodded, a slow smile creasing his broad face. He could manage that. Most could. It was not a small amount—one could purchase three good horses for as much. But at least half of the families would be able to get by and there were enough wealthier folks in town to lend the rest. That would be important, he realized. He could imagine the rancor it would bring to Chestnut Hill if there were parents unable to afford the fee. Best to lend it to them, at a reasonable rate.
“We could manage it,” Browning said. “For all seven.”
“But we’d need the children back first,” Doc Adams cut in. “What you’re offering is, as you said, a miracle, and those are few and far between. We cannot simply trust you can do as you claim.”
A kernel of panic exploded in Browning’s gut. He wanted to shush the doctor. Tell him not to insult this man, who was offering a dream come true, lest he take that dream and vanish whence he came.
As soon as he thought it, though, he was shamed. Was this not what Preacher had warned of, when he said the men were coming? They’ll want to prey on our tragedy, Mayor. They’ll offer us impossible things for our hard-earned cash, and I fear the village folks are too grief-stricken to think straight.
Browning had agreed wholeheartedly . . . when he thought the men might only be selling some elixir of youth or happiness. Instead, they offered something even more unbelievable, and here he was, ready to leap on it without a shred of proof.
“The doctor is right,” Browning said. “We’ll need the children resurrected before we pay the full cost. We can arrange something, of course—a contract or such.”
Eleazar smiled. “I doubt any court would recognize a contract to raise the dead, but yes, of course I do not expect you to pay us without the children. In fact, I do not expect you to even agree to pay us without proof. That is why I will resurrect one child first, free of any charge. In demonstration.” He turned to Browning. “You said you had a son newly passed?”
Browning’s heart pounded so hard he could barely force a nod.
“May I ask his age?”
“He just passed his thirteenth birthday.”
“A boy on the cusp of becoming a man. I am particularly sorry for your loss then. I know the disease usually affects only the very young and the very old.”
“He was the eldest of the victims,” Doc Adams said. “He’d suffered a cold this summer—a serious one that affected his lungs. While he seemed quite recovered, I believe it must have made him vulnerable.”
“Indeed.” Eleazar glanced at the old man, Rene. “Then with my assistant’s aid and the mayor’s approval, I will return this boy to life.”
“When?” Browning blurted.
Eleazar smiled, indulgent. “He will be back in time for your wife to serve him dinner.” The smile faded, his gaze growing troubled. “There is, however, one other—”
Eleazar stopped, looking sharply toward the door at the back of the room.
“Sir?” Doc Adams said.
“I thought I heard something. Is anyone back there?”
Browning shook his head. “My wife left that way before we began. The room was empty.”
“So there is a door?” Eleazar rose and walked to it, swinging it open fast and peering in as the others scrambled to their feet.
As Eleazar strode through, Browning hurried after him. He found the man in the back room, looking about. Browning could see into the kitchen, where the rear door was closing.
Someone had been there. Eleazar hadn’t noticed it, though, and Browning didn’t point it out. Browning was not about to do anything to upset him. Not after what he’d just said about . . .
Browning’s gaze swung to the coffin, the largest in the room, two chairs placed in front of it, where he and his wife had spent the night.
His wife. Dorothy. What would she say? Her heart might break with joy.
Eleazar strode over, scattering Browning’s thoughts.
“There’s no sign anyone was here,” Browning said. “Perhaps mice? Or coons in the eaves.”
“I’m sure it was nothing,” Eleazar said. “I’m a touch anxious about what I have to say next. My fears likely got the best of me.”
“What you have to say?” Browning paused. “Yes, you were saying there was something else.” His heart thudded anew. No, please, nothing else. Nothing that would stop this man from bringing Charlie back.
Eleazar was walking again, moving to Charlie’s coffin.
“Is this him, then?” he asked. “Your boy?”
Browning stayed where he was. He wasn’t looking in that coffin. If there was a chance he could see his son alive, he didn’t wish to see his corpse.
Was there a chance?
Dear God, let it be possible. Let his boy rise from that coffin, not the pasty-faced child with the mottled lips and eyelids, that sick child, that dead child. Let him rise as Browning remembered him.
Browning cleared his throat. “Yes, that’s Charlie.”
Eleazar smiled. “He’s a fine boy. Well-formed. Don’t you agree, Rene?”
Browning had not even noticed the old man there. Rene leaned over the coffin, and something in his face made Browning go cold. He wanted to leap forward. Yank the old man back. He swallowed hard. Rene nodded, jowls bobbing.
“You have a fine boy, sir,” Rene said, and there was nothing in his clouded old eyes but kindness.
“Thank you.” Browning turned to Eleazar. “You said there was more?”
Eleazar nodded. “Another price, I fear. One that cannot be negotiated.” He walked back to Browning. “I said earlier that I use my powers sparingly because that is the Lord’s will. There is another reason. The second price. Unlike our Lord, I am but a mortal man. I cannot return the soul to a body for nothing, as he did. There must be an exchange.”
“A soul for a soul.”
Browning blinked. “I . . . I don’t understand.”
“I do,” said a voice behind him.
Browning turned to see Doc Adams in the doorway, looking ill.
“Yes,” Eleazar said. “Our good doctor understands. I cannot steal a life from heaven, like a base thief. I take a soul for you, I give a soul to Him. For a child to live again, someone must die.”
Preacher was poring over a Latin book with Sophia. The words . . . well, as he’d joked to her, they could have been Greek for all he understood of them. He knew Latin, of course. At this moment, though, his mind was otherwise too occupied to translate them to English. He was trying to distract himself from what was happening at the community hall and it was not working.
His wife was also trying to distract him, and had been since he’d explained when he came home.
“You can do nothing about it,” Sophia said. “They must make their own choices and their own mistakes.”
Which is what he’d told himself. Yet he could not shake the feeling that he ought to have done more.
“You cannot,” his wife said, as if reading his thoughts. “You dare not, under the circumstances.”
Again, she spoke true. His position was precarious enough of late, worse now with the baby on the way. If he were to argue against listening to these men when his daughter had survived and his wife was with child. . . ? Who knew of what they might accuse him.
“I’m going to start teaching Latin to the younger children,” Sophia said, thumbing through a well-used book. “Simple words, as I do with French. The names of animals and such.”
What younger children? he wanted to ask. The three below the age of eight who’d survived? He knew they could not think like that. Better to focus not on the loss but on those that remained, on how the smaller class would mean more attention for each pupil, more work they could do, such as starting Latin sooner.
Preacher was saying just that when the front door banged open, Addie rushing in, words spilling out so fast that they couldn’t decipher them. Both Preacher and Sophia leaped from the table and raced over, thinking she was injured.
“No,” Addie said. “I’m well. It’s the men, what they’re offering. To bring back the children.”
“Yes, we already know,” Sophia said, leading the girl inside. “It’s terrible and—”
“Terrible?” Addie pulled from her grasp. “It’s wondrous.”
Preacher moved forward, bending in front of the girl. “Yes, it would indeed be wondrous . . . if it was possible. It’s not. They’re taking advantage of our grief. Promising the impossible because they know we’re desperate enough to pay the price.”
“You’re wrong,” Addie said, backing away.
“So they aren’t charging a fee?” Preacher asked softly.
Addie said nothing.
“Adeline?” Sophia said, her voice equally soft but firm. “Did they say there would be a cost?”
“Yes, but they’re reducing it, on account of there being so many children—”
She hesitated. “Three hundred apiece.”
“My Lord,” Sophia breathed. “That’s . . .”
“Exactly the right price,” Preacher said grimly. “As much as they can charge and still have people pay it . . . with everything they own.” He turned to the girl. “You see that, Addie, don’t you? These families have lost their children and now they may lose everything else, in a desperate and hopeless attempt to regain them.”
Addie shook her head. “It’s not like that. He’s going to do a demonstration. Free of charge.”
“What? That’s not poss—” Preacher began.
“It’s a hoax, Addie,” Sophia said, laying her hand on the girl’s arm. “Swindlers have many of them. They’ll conjure up some trick and—”
“And what if it’s real?” Addie said, crossing her arms. “You don’t know that it isn’t. You don’t.”
“Yes, we do, sweetheart. They cannot—”
“You’re wrong,” Addie said. “They’re going to do the demonstration. They’ll bring Charlie back. And I’ll be there to see it.”
She turned and raced out the door as Sophia and Preacher stared at one another.
“Charlie?” Sophia said finally. “Oh, Benjamin. Of all the children . . .”
“I know,” he said. “She does not need that. I’ll go and be there for her when she’s disappointed.”
“Not disappointed,” Sophia said. “Heartbroken. I’ll go with you, too. I’m well enough, and I ought to be there for her.”
He nodded and gathered her bonnet and coat.
Someone must die.
You knew there was a trick, Browning told himself. There had to be.
No, it wasn’t a trick. It was a hitch. He ought to have known it couldn’t be as easy as paying cash on the barrel. A life given for a life returned. That was how it worked, and he ought to have been relieved, now that it made sense.
Relieved? Someone has to die for Charlie to live.
His wife would do it. That was the first thing he thought, even as the idea horrified him. Dorothy would gladly give her life for her son’s. Yet that didn’t help at all. What would the boy do without his mama? What would Browning do without his wife? Their family would be torn asunder as much as it was now.
I could get another wife. I can’t get another son.
Again, his mind recoiled, but again, it didn’t quite drop the idea. Dorothy was a good housekeeper and a fine cook. He would not wish to lose her. But if he had to choose . . . and if the decision was hers, made on her own, without his prodding . . .
“You cannot expect us to do that,” Doc Adams was saying. “While there are those who would give their lives for the children, we would again need proof before such a decision could be made. No one will sacrifice himself on such a chance.”
Browning turned sharply on his heel, to motion for the doctor to be silent, not to give offense, but again Eleazar seemed to take none, only nodding in understanding.
“The good doctor is right,” Eleazar said. “Normally, there would be someone near death willing to offer his or her life—eager, even, to leave this world of pain and pass into the kingdom of heaven. But you have lost all your elderly and infirm in the same tragedy that claimed the lives of the young. There is but one elder remaining.”
“No,” Doc Adams said. “I fear there is not.”
“Oh, but there is.” Eleazar motioned to his assistant. “Rene has offered himself for this demonstration.”
“What?” Dobbs said, stepping forward.
Browning made a move to shush him as his heart filled with hope again.
“It’s all right,” Rene said in his creaking old voice. “A man as young as your blacksmith cannot understand what it is to wish his life done. I pray that he may never know the horrors of age. My body has failed me, and yet it stubbornly clings to life. I cannot end it myself or I would be damned. So I offer it to this village, to the mayor’s young son. I will die so he may live.”
That was the end of the discussion. It had been decided, apparently, even before the men arrived in Chestnut Hill. The old man would die so the younger one could prove his skill. With Charlie. Browning’s son would live again, and there would be no price to pay. None at all. Of course, he would not tell the others that. He’d pretend that he’d paid his three hundred to help cover the cost of others. As for the other price . . .
How will I tell them? Where will we find volunteers?
Did it matter? Charlie was coming back. The others could deal with that choice themselves when the time came.
Eleazar killed his assistant in the back room.
There was no hesitation, no preparation. He didn’t even say what he was doing, only asked Dobbs and Browning to take Charlie’s coffin out the front, where the villagers could see. They were not to say what was to come—it must be a surprise. As they’d told him, they didn’t want to raise hopes unnecessarily. Take the coffin out and make some excuse, and he’d be there in a moment. Doc Adams ought to speak to anyone still outside. With that, Eleazar and the old man disappeared into the kitchen.
Browning was still carrying Charlie’s coffin to the door when Eleazar appeared.
“Rene has passed,” he announced.
“What?” Dobbs nearly dropped his end of the coffin.
“It was swift and merciful. Doctor, could you please confirm it is done? He’s resting in the back.”
Doc Adams did as he was asked, while Browning and Dobbs carried the coffin outside.
Most people had gone home now, content to wait and hear what the mysterious men wanted. Some had lingered, though, and when they brought out the coffin, a gasp went up.
“All is fine,” Doc Adams assured them as he came out. “All is fine. The men have asked us to bring one of our dearly departed into the sunlight, so they might better see his condition.”
Whispers snaked through the smattering of people. The men were doctors then, or scientists. A few left in disappointment.
As Browning stepped away from his son’s closed casket, he caught sight of a man striding along the road, a slender woman beside him, her blond hair pushed up under a bonnet.
Preacher. Bringing his schoolteacher wife to chastise them.
He’s going to stop this. Take away your chance. Take away your Charlie.
The warnings seemed to slide around him, whispers like . . .
The voice of God. That’s what it was. Resurrection was God’s work, and now this “preacher” thought he’d stop it. The preacher who hadn’t stopped Charlie from dying. The preacher whose own daughter lived. A girl who’d wanted to see his son before he passed.
The voice whispered, You know there’s a reason she lived. And a reason your son died. A strong, healthy boy, older than the rest, contracts the illness after the rest? It’s unnatural.
Browning shoved past the villagers, ignoring their grunts of surprise. He bore down on Preacher. The schoolteacher started forward, chin raised, eyes flashing, but her husband pulled her back with a whispered word. He strode forward to meet Browning.
“If you dare—” Browning began.
“Dare what? Dare stop you from something we both know will fail?” Preacher said, lowering his voice. “If I thought it would do any good, I’d try, but your course is clearly decided. Nothing will help now but for you to see failure, however hard that will be for all of us.”
Browning clenched and unclenched his fists. The rage still wound around his gut like a cyclone.
Hit him. Show him who’s the mayor.
But he’s given me no cause.
Hit him anyway. Drive him off. Tell him begone. He’s a doubting Thomas. He’ll spoil everything.
“If you’ll excuse us,” the schoolteacher said, elbowing between the men. “Addie is here somewhere, and we’d like to find her.”
Browning looked down at the woman. It took a moment for his gaze to focus, the rage still nearly blinding him. He felt his fists clench again. Felt them start to rise. Then he realized what he was doing, whom he was about to hit, and they dropped quickly, and he stepped back.
“Thank you,” the schoolteacher said.
“Your Worship?” It was Eleazar, calling to him. “We’re ready to begin.”
Addie could see Charlie’s closed coffin, out in front of the community hall. She could also see Preacher and Sophia, searching for her in the small gathering. She started scooting around the building, but her foster parents were splitting up now, one heading for each side, knowing if she wasn’t in the crowd, she was still in the forest.
She raced to the back porch and swung onto the railing, then up to the roof.
Like Charlie taught me to do.
While Addie was an expert tree climber, she would never have considered using those skills to sneak around town. Spying on folks wasn’t right. As Charlie said, though, “When you’re a child, no one tells you anything, so you need to eavesdrop sometimes, to know what’s going on.” They’d tried listening in on the town meetings through the chimney, but it didn’t really work. So they mostly just climbed up here to get a better view of anything taking place in the village square.
Like bringing a boy back to life.
Bringing Charlie back to life.
She crawled across the roof carefully, slipping a little as she went but always catching herself in time. Below, she could hear Preacher asking someone if they’d seen Addie. They hadn’t. No one had.
If Addie went down there, she wasn’t sure that Preacher would stop her from watching. He probably wouldn’t. He and Sophia really were teachers, right down to their bones. They’d explain why she ought not to watch, but if she insisted, they’d let her, believing it was always best to see a thing for yourself. To learn a lesson for yourself.
She didn’t care. She wasn’t going to watch this with them standing beside her, suffocating under the weight of their disapproval. Even recalling their expressions when she told them made her want to scream. Made her want to charge back home, grab her belongings, leave, and never come back.
They’d betrayed her. That’s what she felt, and it hurt worse than any of her dead father’s beatings. Eleazar had promised to bring Charlie back, and they wouldn’t even consider that he might be able to work miracles. Sophia and Preacher—the very people who’d taught her about God.
She took a deep breath and calmed herself as she crept to the front. She stretched out there, then inched forward until she could peer down.
Below was Charlie’s coffin. Still closed. Eleazar knelt beside it. Addie couldn’t see the old man—Rene. He must have stayed inside, where it was warm.
Mayor Browning stood at the foot of the coffin. Dobbs and Doc Adams flanked him. All three stared at the coffin as if mesmerized. The other spectators milled about, peering over and then whispering to themselves, as if wondering what the fuss was about. They hadn’t been told. Good. If people knew, they’d all come running and they’d crowd around and Addie wouldn’t see the miracle. Wouldn’t see Charlie rise.
If she listened closely, she could hear Eleazar talking. She couldn’t understand what he was saying, though. It wasn’t English.
Because Christ didn’t speak English. That’s what Sophia told her when she’d asked why the Bibles were translated. Jesus spoke another language and so did the people who wrote the Bible. Hearing Eleazar speaking in a foreign tongue proved he was no fraud.
He finished the words, and then he reached for the coffin lid. Addie held her breath, her heart beating so hard it hurt.
What if Preacher and Sophia were right?
When were they ever wrong? When had they been cruel to her? Misled her?
“No,” she breathed. “They are wrong. They must be.”
As Eleazar opened the wooden lid, Addie squeezed her eyes shut, prayed as hard as she could.
Please, God, let him live. I know you didn’t listen before. I know why—
Addie’s heart clenched, and she couldn’t hold her breath any longer, panting for air as pain filled her.
I know why you didn’t listen. I was evil. I was wicked. I . . . I . . .
She couldn’t even form the words in her head. What she had done. The sin for which God had punished her.
I deserve that punishment. But Charlie doesn’t. Please let him come back.
She heard a gasp from below and her eyes flew open. He’s alive. He’s really . . .
Addie stared down. Charlie’s coffin was almost exactly under her perch, and when she opened her eyes, she saw his face. His pale, dead face. His sunken, closed eyelids.
No, he is alive. That’s why they gasped.
Only it wasn’t. She looked at the faces of the villagers, the women shrinking back, and she knew the sound came from them, a simple reaction to seeing the poor dead boy. She had but to see Mayor Browning’s expressionless face to know Charlie did not live.
Yet the mayor’s face was expressionless. It did not crumple with grief and disappointment. He stood there, resolute. Waiting.
Eleazar bent over the coffin. He lifted his fingers to Charlie’s face and traced them over his pale forehead. When he pulled them back, there were three red lines left there.
“Is that blood?” someone whispered.
“Of course not,” another hissed back.
Eleazar spoke again, in that foreign tongue, touching his fingertips to Charlie’s eyelids, his nostrils, and then his lips. When he reached the lips, he held his fingers there, his head bent, words flowing faster until . . .
Eleazar stopped abruptly, as if in midsentence. His head jerked up. His fingers pulled back and . . .
Charlie’s lips parted. Or they seemed to, opening so little that Addie was certain she’d blinked, certain she was seeing wrong, that his lips had been like that already or were moved by the man’s fingers.
Yes, moved by the man’s fingers. A trick. Isn’t that what Sophia warned of? Charlie’s lips moved by chicanery and—
His eyes opened. Addie stopped breathing.
Trick. It’s a trick.
Charlie sat up and looked about. His gaze lit on Mayor Browning and he smiled, and Addie knew there was no trick.
After Charlie sat up in his coffin, the village erupted like a volcano in one of Sophia’s books. Some people ran shrieking that the dead had risen. Others fell and gave thanks to God for his infinite mercy. And still others barely drew breath before demanding to know why Charlie had been resurrected—why him, why not their child.
“Charlie was returned to us as proof of this man’s holy power!” Browning’s voice boomed over half the town. “I offered my own child to be tested, as is only right. As your mayor, I must take that risk for my family, before asking you to take it for yours!”
“Is he truly alive?” Millie Prior pushed through and peered at Charlie as Doc Adams examined him. When she reached to poke him, Eleazar grabbed the old woman’s hand hard enough to make her shriek.
“Please,” Charlie said, his voice low and rough with disuse. “She meant no harm.”
“He speaks,” Millie breathed.
He speaks, Addie thought. But he doesn’t sound like—
She bit her lip, as if that could stopper her thoughts.
“Yes,” Charlie said. “I can speak, but barely. I feel . . .” He gripped Eleazar’s hand for support.
“He’s very weak,” Eleazar said. “I’m sorry if I startled you, my good woman. I do not wish him to be poked and prodded about during his recovery. Your doctor is examining him now.”
Doc Adams rose. “The boy lives. He breathes. He speaks. His heart beats. His blood flows.”
Millie dropped to her knees. “Praise be. Dear Lord, thank you . . .”
As she continued, Doc Adams explained which children could be resurrected. Eleazar took Charlie’s hand and helped him from the coffin. He told Mayor Browning to fetch his wife and then announced that he would take Charlie inside to rest. Addie waited until they were gone, then scampered back across the roof.
Addie eased open the back door to the community hall. Inside, she could hear Eleazar talking to his assistant. She closed the door silently behind her. While Eleazar was occupied, she’d speak to Charlie. Yes, he was weak, but she’d take up none of his time or his strength. She simply wanted to . . .
She didn’t know what she wanted. What she expected. Only that she’d been robbed of the chance to see him before, and she would get it now. No one would take that from her now, and if something went wrong—
It won’t. He’s back.
If something went wrong, at least she wouldn’t lie awake, wishing she’d seen him one last time. So she crept into the community hall while Eleazar spoke to Rene.
She hadn’t even reached the kitchen door, though, before the conversation stopped.
“I need to rest now,” Charlie said, and she realized Eleazar hadn’t been talking to his assistant, Rene, at all.
This would make things more difficult. Eleazar and Charlie were both in the front room, and the assistant was here somewhere, too.
It didn’t matter. She would see Charlie.
She peered into the back room before she slid through. There were three coffins now, the fourth gone. Something caught her attention on the floor. An eagle’s feather, under the table where Charlie’s coffin had lain. When they’d picked it up, they’d let his treasures scatter.
Anger darted through her. Those things of Charlie’s had been so important to his parents after he’d died. Now they were as they’d been in his life—useless clutter. How many times had his mother tried to throw out that eagle feather, saying it was filthy? It was treasured only after he was gone, like Charlie himself. His father had paid him no mind when he was alive—
Addie wiped the thoughts from her mind. Unchristian, Sophia would say.
She paused again, caught on that new thought. Preacher and Sophia. She hadn’t even seen them after the resurrection. They’d been there, lost in the crowd. Were they regretting their hasty judgment? Looking for her to apologize?
Stop thinking. Start moving. Or you’ll lose your chance.
She stepped into the room, gaze fixed on that feather, to retrieve it for Charlie. She picked it up and as she rose, she caught sight of a figure and stifled a yelp as she wheeled. It was Rene. He sat in front of one of the other coffins, with his back to her. His head was bowed. Asleep.
Addie exhaled in relief. She ought to be more careful. She’d been checking the room for him when she’d gotten distracted by the feather. She tucked it under her jacket now and silently tiptoed to the door joining the two rooms. He never stirred.
The adjoining door was closed tight. Addie turned the handle as carefully as she could and then eased it open. Through the crack she could see Charlie. He sat in a chair, leaning back, his eyes closed, looking like . . .
Well, looking like Charlie. Exactly like the Charlie she knew, his color coming back, the swelling fading. His dark hair hung in a cowlick over one eye, and Addie smiled, expecting him to reach up and push it impatiently aside, as he always did. He seemed too tired for that, though, and just sat there, slouched in the chair.
Eleazar was across the room, rummaging in his pack. He muttered to himself as he did, doubling the noise.
“Charlie?” Addie whispered.
A little louder. “Charlie?”
His eyelids flickered. Then they opened, and she was looking straight into those eyes she knew so well, gray-blue, like the sky on a windy day. She looked into them and saw . . .
Nothing. Not a flicker of recognition.
Because he can barely see me through this crack in the door.
She glanced at Eleazar. He was still retrieving things from his pack, turned away enough not to see her. She inched the door open until her face fit in the gap. Then she grinned at Charlie and, in her mind, she saw him grin back, as he always had, ever since the first time they met, when her ma brought her to town for supplies. Charlie had been in his father’s shop room, and he’d snuck a licorice whip from the jar for her. That’s who Addie saw in her mind—that boy, that grin—and it took a moment before she realized she wasn’t seeing it in front of her.
Charlie wasn’t even smiling. He looked right at her and that expression in his eyes never changed.
He doesn’t know me.
Because he’s tired. He’s confused.
She lifted the eagle feather and waggled it. He frowned.
Addie glanced at Eleazar. He was reading a book, muttering to himself as he turned the pages. Addie opened the door a little more and slipped through. Charlie sat barely three paces away. She crossed the gap and held out the feather. He only stared at her. She laid it on his blanket-draped lap.
“Here,” Eleazar said. “I’ve found that—” He looked up and saw her. “Who are you?”
“I-I’m Addie. Adeline. I came to see—”
“He’s not ready to see anyone. Begone, girl.”
She backed up to the doorway. Charlie didn’t look down at the feather, as if trying to remember where it came from. He didn’t look at her either. He closed his eyes as if she’d already left.
His eyelids flickered open, and he glanced over with annoyance.
“He needs his rest, child,” Eleazar said, striding toward her. “He’s not himself yet. You need to leave.”
She retreated through the door into the rear.
“No!” Eleazar said, raising his voice. “Not that way.”
But she was already through, already racing across the room. As she reached the kitchen door, she heard Charlie’s voice, and she thought he was calling her back, telling Eleazar he remembered her now. She turned, and as she did, she saw the assistant, Rene, saw his face now as he sat there, head bowed. Saw the bruises around his neck. Saw his eyes. Open. Bulging. Dead.
Addie spun and bolted out the kitchen door.
Mayor Browning’s wife was home now with Charlie. When he’d left, she’d been sitting at their son’s bedside, watching him sleep, looking very much as she had the night before, sitting at his coffin’s side. She’d even had the same look on her face, anxious and afraid.
When he’d first told her the news, she’d shouted at him, for the first time in their marriage. She’d even thrown something—a plate she’d been washing, shattering it against the wall as she cursed him. She seemed to think he was pulling a prank. Yes, he’d been known to make them. Yes, sometimes, perhaps, they bordered on cruel, but this was not one he’d ever have attempted. He’d struck her, another first for their marriage. Struck her full across the face, bellowing at her that she was an ungrateful wretch, that he’d done this for her—brought back her boy—and this was how she treated him.
She’d raced out of the house then, not even pausing for a bonnet or a cloak, gathering her skirts and running like a girl through the streets, graying hair streaming behind her.
Now they were home. Her boy was home. Yet she was not beside herself with joy. Not falling to her knees to thank the Lord. She hovered over Charlie, pushing his cowlick aside, tentatively, as if the slightest touch might send him back to the other side. It was not what Browning expected. Not what he wanted. But he supposed it might take time for her to accept the miracle as real.
Eleazar had summoned him back to the community hall. Yes, summoned him, as if he were a common innkeeper. That rankled, but Browning reminded himself of the incredible debt he owed the man. Eleazar wished to speak about the other children, and he had a right to be somewhat abrupt—time was wasting, the children were wasting.
So Browning returned to the community hall. Doc Adams and Dobbs were already inside with Eleazar.
“How is Charlie?” Dobbs asked.
“That’s to be expected,” Eleazar said. “I fear he will not be his usual self for several days. He will require sleep, and he may be somewhat confused. His memory is weakened also. Do not overtax him.”
“We won’t,” Browning said.
“Now, on to the matter at hand—the rest of the children. Doctor? As I was saying, I’ll ask that you go round the parents up now. I’ll need them all here to discuss my fee.”
“About that,” Doc Adams said. “I’ve been thinking on the . . . other part. I-I’m not certain how to tell—”
“You won’t. Just bring them here. I’ll discuss the rest with these two gentlemen.”
As the doctor left, his words repeated in Browning’s mind. The other part. How would they tell people that to bring their children back, they had to pay a life? Before Charlie was resurrected, it had seemed simple enough. Of course people would pay that price, terrible though it was. This was their children. His own wife would have gladly given her life for their son.
Except, now, having seen Charlie return, Browning wasn’t as certain. No, in fact, he was quite sure that if he’d told Dorothy the cost, she’d have flown at him like a harpy, as she’d done when he said Charlie was back. She’d never have believed him. She certainly wouldn’t have offered to die for the chance to resurrect their son. She’d have thought him mad.
It is madness. Desperate madness. How had they ever agreed—
No, not madness. Charlie was alive.
“How’re we gonna do it?” Dobbs asked, and when Browning looked over, the blacksmith was sitting down, his face pale.
“Strangulation,” Eleazar said. “That is the swiftest and cleanest way.”
Dobbs raised his gaze to the man, his eyes filling with horror. “I only meant finding volunteers. We don’t need to . . . to . . . take them, too, do we?”
“Do you expect me to?” Eleazar’s eyes flashed with annoyance. “I took Rene’s life because I owed him as much, for his years of service. He trusted me to be swift and kind. It is still an unpleasant task, one I don’t intend to repeat six more times.”
Dobbs looked as if he might be sick. Browning’s mind reeled. Six times. Strangle six people. Take six lives. How had this seemed simple before?
“Now, you must do it quietly,” Eleazar said. “You cannot announce this price or you will have chaos. Even if you get your volunteers, there will be resentments and rancor for years.”
“Even if we get our volunteers?” Browning turned to the man. “I thought . . . You’ve done this before. People must have volunteered.”
“Certainly. If, as I said, they are ill or elderly and wish to escape this life. Sometimes, though, that is not the case, which is what it seems here.”
“Then how. . . ?” Browning swallowed. “You brought Charlie back in front of them. Now the doctor is out telling them they can have their children back for three hundred dollars. If they arrive and we say it’s not true . . .”
“It damned well better be true,” Dobbs said, pushing to his feet. He turned on Browning. “You tricked me.”
“Your son was the demonstration. He’s alive, and you didn’t have to pay anything for it. No money. No life. Now my boy lies in his coffin, and you’re telling me he’s not going to come back unless I kill someone?”
“I never said—I didn’t volunteer Charlie. Mr. Eleazar asked for him. You were sitting there when he did. You heard everything.”
Browning turned to Eleazar and the man nodded, but his agreement seemed a moment too slow.
“You two made a deal,” Dobbs said to Browning. “On the side, before Doc and I arrived.”
As Browning sputtered, Eleazar rose, shaking his head. “That’s ridiculous. His Worship heard the plan when you did.”
The words were the right ones, but something in Eleazar’s tone didn’t properly support them. Browning could see it as Dobbs’s meaty face mottled with fury.
They won’t believe me, no matter what Eleazar says. They’ll think I used my position to strike a bargain.
“I’ll pay,” Browning said quickly. “I will donate my three hundred to help anyone who falls short, at no rate of interest.”
“And the rest?”
“I had nothing to do with the rest. Mr. Eleazar offered his assistant. Everyone else will have to find a suitable volunteer.”
“How?” Dobbs’s voice rose. “My wife? Myself? Bring back one child and leave the rest with no one to raise them? No one to support them? Another of my children? Pick the one I like least? How is a father supposed to do such a thing? There is no one else. We have no other family in Chestnut Hill.”
Perhaps you ought to have thought of that before you agreed. That’s what Browning wanted to say as his guilt turned to outrage at the injustice of it all. He hadn’t offered Charlie. He hadn’t brokered a special deal.
Browning squared his shoulders. “If you cannot pay, then perhaps—”
The mayor never saw the blow coming. He felt Dobbs’s fist hit his jaw, sending him reeling back. He recovered and swung at Dobbs but missed, the younger man grabbing his arm and wrenching, sending him flying into the wall.
“Gentlemen,” Eleazar said. “Really. Must it come to this?”
He sounded almost bored, and Browning turned on him, the outrage filling him as pain coursed through his jaw. They were turning on each other now, and Eleazar was to blame. Eleazar had brought this to Chestnut Hill. He’d—
Resurrected Charlie. This was the man who’d granted his fondest wish.
Browning’s fists dropped to his sides.
“There are other ways,” Eleazar said. “They may be distasteful, but given the alternative of not returning the children . . .”
“What do you propose?” Browning asked.
Eleazar took a seat again. “In every village, there are . . . those who are not fully contributing to community life.”
The blacksmith’s face screwed up in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“I mean those who live on the outskirts, both physically and metaphorically. Those living outside the village. Those who drink more than they ought. Perhaps aren’t quite as intelligent as others. Perhaps not as mentally sound. Perhaps don’t fit in—the native population and such. Are there any of those around Chestnut Hill?”
“Some,” Dobbs said. “There were little Adeline’s parents, but they’re dead now. There’s others too. Old man Cranston and his wife. They’re crazy, both of them. Trapper Mike. He’s half-Injun, with a squaw wife. Timothy James, another trapper, when he’s not too drunk to remember to empty his traps.”
“See, there’s five, with only a few moments of thought. I’m sure there are more.”
Dobbs nodded, thinking it through. Dear God, was he really thinking it through? No, he couldn’t be. Not that way. He was seeing a solution and seizing it, with no thoughts except how this brought his boy back.
“You’re . . . you’re suggesting we commit murder,” Browning said slowly.
“Hardly. I’m suggesting you remove an unproductive segment of the local population. A potentially dangerous segment. Have any of these people ever caused problems for you?”
Dobbs nodded. “Timothy James went after one of Millie Prior’s granddaughters a few years ago. Grabbed her in the forest and touched her before she got away. Old man Cranston shoots at anyone who steps on his property. He doesn’t even have property. No one knows what he considers his, on account of him being crazy. And Trapper Mike? Folks around here swear he steals from their traps. Never caught him, but he’s sneaky. I don’t doubt he does it. Then there’s Paul over by the lake. Won’t tell nobody his last name. I hear he’s a fugitive. I’ve been trying to get an accounting from the Mounties, but they haven’t come by Chestnut Hill in near on a year.”
“Because you aren’t on the railroad route,” Eleazar said. “The authorities are ignoring you. Leaving you to defend this town all by yourself . . . Sheriff. I’d say it’d be your God-given right to go talk to those folks, and if they give you any trouble, well, I think you’ve had enough trouble from them. Who knows what they’ll do next? You need to look after your town.”
Dobbs nodded. “I do. Look after my town and its children.”
“Now, you, Mayor Browning.” Eleazar turned to him. “I’d say it’s your responsibility to accompany the good sheriff.” He paused. “If your people don’t get their children back after you got Charlie. . . ? I’ve seen some ugly things in these wilderness towns. Folks can go a little wild themselves out here. A mob is a wicked thing, Mayor.”
Browning looked from Eleazar to Dobbs. And he knew he didn’t have a choice. This was the cost of bringing his boy back. The real cost.
Addie raced all the way home. She got there just as Preacher and Sophia arrived. Any other time, walking together, they would have been talking or whispering, and Preacher would have had his hand on Sophia’s arm. Today it was as if each walked alone, silent and stone-faced with shock.
Preacher saw Addie first. He seemed to take a moment to recognize her. Then he said, “Adeline,” and Sophia started from her stupor.
“You were there,” Sophia said. “You saw.”
“I—we don’t know how to explain it,” Sophia said. “It is . . . beyond reckoning.”
“There must be something to it,” Preacher murmured, as if to himself. “Some science. Perhaps the boy was not dead. I’ve read of such things. Perhaps it’s not diphtheria but some new disease. These men pretend to raise the dead, but they know the children were never truly gone, so . . .” He shook his head. “No, I don’t see how that’s possible. Doc Adams would have noticed.”
They reached the porch. Preacher ushered them inside. Neither seemed to have noted that Addie hadn’t breathed a word. As soon as the door closed, she said, “Something’s wrong with Charlie.”
Preacher blinked, as if waking from sleep. “Wrong. . . ?”
“Besides the fact that he’s been raised from the dead?” Sophia stopped and her cheeks flushed. “I’m sorry, Addie. I don’t mean to be sharp. I’m still trying to reconcile what I saw. That a boy could rise—”
“It’s not Charlie.”
She got them into the living room, prodding them along as if they were the children. “I went inside to see him. Whoever—whatever—is inside Charlie, it’s not him. Or he’s wrong. Very wrong. He didn’t know me at all.”
Preacher lowered himself into a chair. “Eleazar said he’d be exhausted—”
“It was more than that. He had no idea who I was. He didn’t recognize a feather that he wore in his cap for half a year. He didn’t care to try to recognize it. Or me. It was not Charlie.”
“But that’s . . .” Sophia trailed off and shook her head. “I’m not sure if that’s more or less incredible. How would it not be him? Who would it be?”
“What would it be,” Addie said, correcting her. “Eleazar has summoned a demon into Charlie’s body. He is possessed.”
Preacher and Sophia didn’t much like Addie’s possession notion. It seemed quite reasonable to her. She’d grown up in a world where monstrous things happened, and rather than run from the idea, she’d always embraced it. Nothing thrilled her so much as stories of hags and squonks, loup-garous and wampus cats.
She knew all about possession. It was right there in the Bible. And it was real, too. Millie Prior’s cousin up in North Bay had been possessed, and they had to bring a priest all the way from New York City to exorcise her. If priests did it, then it must have been real. Addie didn’t see how you could argue with that. Preacher still did.
Eventually, they seemed to accept that something might be wrong with Charlie.
“If he was brought back, it would make sense that he’d be . . . not right,” Sophia said. “It’s unnatural. It’s not the work of God. I know that.”
“The work of the Devil,” Addie said.
She could tell Sophia didn’t like that idea much either. If Addie found herself pulled toward demons and evil, Sophia sought out angels and goodness. That’s the way she was. As for Preacher, Addie figured he didn’t quite believe in angels or devils—he just knew this was wrong. The dead ought not to come back, however much one might wish it.
“His assistant is dead, too,” Addie said.
Sophia stared at her for a moment, then managed to say, “His. . . ?”
“Rene,” Preacher murmured. “Or Mr. Rene. I’m not sure if it was a Christian name or family.”
“There is no Christian in these men,” Sophia muttered. “You mean the old one, then? He was the assistant? And you say he’s . . . he’s . . .” She couldn’t seem to finish.
“Dead. I saw him at the hall. I thought he was asleep, but his eyes were open and . . . he was dead. I’m sure Eleazar has killed him.”
She went still. Preacher did too, and Addie could tell they were processing the shock of her news.
“But why?” Sophia said finally. “Why bring him here, only to kill him?”
“I’m going to find out,” Preacher said, rising. “Addie? Stay with Sophia and watch out for her. I’ll return as soon as I have answers.”
When Preacher said he was going to get answers, he didn’t mean to find out why Rene had been murdered and what was “inside” Charlie Browning. The first step was confirming that what Addie said of Rene was true. Not that he suspected her of lying. She’d never do so on such a grand scale.
No, Addie believed what she said to be true. While he could not take her claims as truth, he had been a teacher long enough to know that you did not doubt a child to her face. Few things eroded her confidence more. You accepted the truth of what she said and quietly investigated on your own. As he was doing now.
When he arrived at the community hall, Doc Adams was coming out. Preacher stopped on the road, behind a cluster of people. Through the open door, he could catch a glimpse of Eleazar with the mayor and Dobbs.
Another meeting. He wouldn’t be welcome there. He watched Doc Adams hurry away, fending off questions from those gathered outside. Of the other council members, the doctor would be most likely to speak to Preacher, but he was clearly on a mission. Preacher was too—a mission that involved finding answers, not asking for them.
Once the doctor had left, Preacher retreated two houses over and cut through to the forest. He came out behind the community hall and entered through the back door. As he walked through the kitchen, he could hear Dobbs shouting about something, but the walls were too thick to allow him to hear more than angry, unintelligible words. By the time he opened the door into the back room, the dispute was already over, the voices low again.
He slipped through the doorway and—
There was Rene. Preacher had been so caught up in the voices that he’d forgotten why he was really here. One glance in Rene’s direction and he knew Addie was right. The man was dead. Still, despite what his eyes told him, he had to check.
He pulled off his boots and crossed the floor silently. When he reached the old man, he put his fingers to his neck and then checked for breathing, and the whole time, a voice in his head was saying, The man’s eyes are open. He has bruises around his neck. His skin is cold. Do you have to question everything? Yes, apparently, he did. So he checked, and he confirmed that Rene was indeed deceased.
As Sophia had said, why bring the old man here on foot, a difficult journey, only to kill him? There was something missing.
Preacher stood there, puzzling it out, until he remembered that the men were still talking in the next room. He ought to have been listening in. When he got to the door, though, he could hear the mayor and Dobbs leaving. Preacher left quickly and ducked through the kitchen doorway as Eleazar walked into the back room.
“Now, what am I going to do with this?” Eleazar mused aloud. “I ought to have had the blacksmith carry it out back to the woods.” He sighed and crossed the room, and Preacher could hear him lifting the old man, testing the weight.
“Let’s get this over with,” Eleazar muttered.
Preacher hurried out the back door.
When Preacher got to the road, there was no sign of Dobbs and Browning. He asked those gathered which way they went. They pointed, but the two men were already out of sight. Had they gone into a house? Headed home? No one seemed to know. They were all waiting for Eleazar.
Preacher caught sight of Doc Adams at the far end of the road. He started that way but didn’t get far before someone hurried out to stop him. Maybelle Greene, a widow whose two children had both survived the outbreak. He’d have liked to see that as the grace of God, but it probably had more to do with the family having been ten miles away visiting her sister at the time.
“Preacher,” Maybelle said as she hurried up to him. “I heard what they’re saying. Is it true? That man brought Charlie Browning back?”
She stopped, her face clouding as she looked both ways. No one was nearby, but she still leaned in as she said, “I ought to be happy. Thanking God for his mercy. But . . .” She looked up at him. “They say it’s God’s work, but I can’t quite reckon that. Why would God take our children, then send this man to bring some back? Why not just take fewer? Or none at all?”
That was the question, wasn’t it? Along with “Why would God take them at all?” but few dared ask that one. In his heart, Preacher believed that God simply didn’t concern Himself in the daily affairs of man. He’d given them the tools they needed to survive—the intelligence to discover things like the causes and cures of disease. It was up to them to use those tools against forces of nature that sought to keep the population in check. It was not a popular answer. So instead, he’d babble about God’s plan and God’s wisdom and the book of Job and such.
To Maybelle, he only said, “This man—Eleazar—claims to do God’s work.”
“Does he truly do it?” Maybelle asked, her dark eyes searching his.
“I hope so,” he murmured. “But that’s what I’m trying to find out.”
She nodded, seeming satisfied. As he took his leave, he saw Doc Adams coming out of the house down the road.
Preacher broke into a run, garnering a few askance looks from passersby. He reached the doctor as he still stood on the porch, talking to the Osbournes, who’d lost a child three days past. When the Osbournes saw Preacher, he expected them to want to talk, seek spiritual guidance. Surely Doc Adams had been there about their child. But they caught one glimpse of him and immediately withdrew, cutting the conversation short and closing the door.
The doctor saw Preacher then and went still.
“I’d like to talk to you,” Preacher said.
“I’m very busy.” Doc Adams started to scurry off. “I can speak to you later—”
Preacher swung into his path. “I’ll only take a few moments of your time. Were you telling the Osbournes that their daughter can’t be returned?”
“No, I was telling them that she can.”
“For three hundred dollars.”
Doc Adams tried to pass. “You ought to speak to the mayor—”
The doctor paused. “Gone?”
“He left with Mr. Dobbs. On some task, it seems. So . . . three hundred dollars is the price of a child’s life?”
“Yes, and the Osbournes will pay. We will make sure everyone can pay. Now, if you’ll excuse me—”
“Three hundred and what else?”
Preacher hadn’t honestly expected any “else”—it was an arrow fired wild—but when he saw the other man’s expression, he knew that arrow had struck home.
“I heard there was something more,” Preacher said. “Something you aren’t telling the families.”
Doc Adams’s face went bright red. He blustered, asking who’d told Preacher and insisting it was merely rumor, people talking, that there was no other price. Finally, when he seemed to see that Preacher wasn’t going to back down, he started down the street.
“I have work to do,” he said. “Other families to inform of the wondrous news.”
“And families to tell that they will not have their children returned. You yourself admitted they cannot all be returned. Has Mayor Browning set you on that task as well? Deliver the good news and the bad?”
“It was not the mayor—”
Doc Adams clipped his words short and kept moving, shoulders hunched, as if against the cold, but there was no more than a light breeze.
Preacher strode up beside him. “So it was Eleazar who sent you on this mission. Then he sent the mayor and Dobbs on another, one that ill suited you.”
Doc Adams glanced over, eyes narrowing, then quickly looked away. “I don’t know what—”
“I was there. Outside. You left. They kept talking. Arguing, even. Then Browning and Dobbs left. Eleazar wanted to discuss something with them out of your earshot. I’m sure you know it. He sent you away, just as the mayor sent me away when I balked. What did you balk at, Doctor?”
The doctor’s expression told Preacher he had not balked. Not openly.
“He knew you would,” Preacher said. “That’s why he sent you off before the subject was raised. Because, like me, you are a fellow of conscience and—”
Doc Adams spun on him. “Good God, man. Do you never stop? You’re like a hound with a bone. Leave it be.”
“I will not. I’ll ask until I have answers. What’s the other cost? What else must we pay for our children’s return?”
The doctor turned and resumed walking.
“The old man’s dead, you know,” Preacher said.
Doc Adams glanced back.
“Rene. Eleazar’s assistant. He’s dead.”
Again, it was the expression that gave the doctor away. Preacher had expected shock. He didn’t see it.
He’s not surprised. He’s not horrified. He knew, and however it happened, this man—this good man—has no compunctions about it. How is that possible?
When the idea hit, Preacher brushed it aside. It was as wildly fantastical as Addie’s claims of demons and possession. And yet it clung there, like a burr, prickling his mind as he caught up and walked alongside the silent doctor.
“That’s the price, isn’t it? To return life, you must give life.”
The older man’s shoulders slumped and when he looked over, it was with an expression Preacher saw each week . . . in the face of a parishioner at confession.
“Yes,” Doc Adams said. “That is the price. But the old man gave his life willingly. He volunteered.”
“And now you need to find a volunteer for each child? Is that what you said to the Osbournes?”
“No, I was told not to tell them.”
“Then how does Eleazar expect to get volunteers, if no one knows they’re needed? He requires . . .” Preacher trailed off. “That’s what they were discussing without you. How to fulfill that part of the bargain. And whatever Eleazar suggested, he knew you would not countenance it. That’s why he sent you off.”
Doc Adams shifted. “I don’t know anything about that.”
“I know, which is why I need to find the mayor and Dobbs.”
Preacher took off before the doctor could say another word.
Addie had been anxious when Preacher set off in search of answers. Now, almost two hours later, she paced the house, glancing out the windows, stepping onto the porch, and peering down the street. At first, Sophia would tell her to rest, find something to occupy her, not to worry about Preacher. The last few times she’d gone outside, though, she’d come back in to find Sophia standing inside the doorway, waiting for a report. Addie would say she could not see him and Sophia would deflate, only to rouse herself with assurances that Preacher was fine, he could look after himself.
Finally, as the second hour drew to a close, Addie said, “I want to go look for him.”
Sophia said nothing, which Addie knew meant she wished to say yes but knew she oughtn’t.
“I’ll be quick,” Addie said. “He’s probably down at the hall, talking to the mayor and Eleazar. I’ll find him, and then I’ll come straight back.”
Sophia nodded. Addie gathered her things and went.
Preacher was not in town. Neither was Mayor Browning nor Mr. Dobbs. As Addie learned, Preacher had been asking after them, and someone had last seen Dobbs and Browning heading into the woods, and Preacher had gone off in pursuit.
Addie followed. They’d taken the main trail out of town, which made tracking difficult. She looked for small signs—a broken twig, a boot print in damp ground—and kept her ears attuned. She was no more than a quarter mile from town when she heard Browning and Dobbs returning. She snuck into the forest to watch as they passed. Soon she saw them, trudging along, faces grim, not speaking. There was a purpling bruise on the mayor’s jaw. She stared at that, then began drawing back farther to let them pass, when she spotted something on Dobbs’s boots. They were light brown, tanned leather . . . and one was speckled red.
Addie crept hunched over through the undergrowth, until she was close enough to see the glistening specks. More on his trouser leg. Blood. There was no doubt of it.
Addie tried to inhale but couldn’t force the air into her chest. Her heart pounded too hard.
Mr. Dobbs is speckled with blood. Preacher is missing. Preacher, who dared argue against their plan. Dared suggest it was not the work of God.
She held herself still until they were gone. Then she dashed onto the path and broke into a run.
Addie tore along the path, convinced she would at any moment stumble over Preacher’s dead body. She did not, which only made her more panicked, certain it was out there in the forest, where she would not find it, where scavengers would feast—
She took deep, shuddering breaths to calm herself, then began retracing her steps along the path, slower now, searching for any sign that someone had left the path. When she reached the first fork, she heard something. She stopped, her eyes squeezed shut as she listened. Then she tore down the secondary path, branches whipping her face, until—
Preacher’s voice. Preacher’s footfalls, pounding along the path. Then he was there, standing in front of her. No blood to be seen.
“Addie? Are you all right? Is it Sophia? Is she—?”
“Sophia is well.” She bent, catching her breath. “All is well.”
She hiccuped a laugh. All is well? Charlie is possessed by a demon monster. All is not well. But right now, it is. Preacher is fine. Unharmed.
Preacher came over, face drawn in concern, hand resting on her arm as she found her breath.
“It’s all right,” she said. “We were only worried about you. Me and Sophia.”
“Sophia and I,” Preacher said.
Addie burst out with a real laugh then. No matter how dire the situation, he could not fail to correct her grammar, as gently as if they were at the supper table, saying grace.
When she laughed, Preacher gave a crooked smile and shook his head, murmuring an apology before saying, “Well, you’ve found me. And I did not find what I was looking for.”
“The mayor and Mr. Dobbs? I saw them a ways back. Returning to town.”
“They’ve finished their mission then,” he whispered beneath his breath.
He looked startled, as if he had not meant to speak aloud. “They were out here for something. I know not what. Come. Let’s go back to town.”
As they began to walk, Addie thought about the blood on Dobbs’s boot. He had not hurt Preacher, but he had hurt something. Some animal? She recalled stories of dark magic, with animals sacrificed to the Devil.
“Perhaps we ought to find where they’ve been,” she said.
“That’s what I was trying to do.”
“No, you were trying to find where they are. I can track where they’ve been.”
He hesitated. “All right then. I don’t want to leave Sophia for long, but if we can discover what they were doing, we ought to.”
Addie was indeed able to track where the mayor and blacksmith had gone. And when she found out, Preacher wished to God she hadn’t. He wished he hadn’t asked. Wished he’d found this on his own, before she’d arrived. A merciful God would have made sure of that.
She’d tracked Dobbs’s and Browning’s footsteps back to where they’d left the main trail. It had taken time, but she’d eventually determined that they’d taken a secondary one, little more than a half-cleared path through the trees. Preacher had not known where the trail led. Addie had. He was certain of it. But it was not until they saw the cabin ahead and he said, “What’s that?” that she said, “Timothy James’s place.”
Timothy James. An odd creature, like most who made their living in the forest. Preacher had heard whispers about Timothy James, that he’d come here fleeing the Mounties, that he’d been caught with a little girl. Preacher had been furious—if there was a man like that in their midst, they ought to warn the children. But Dobbs said it wasn’t true. Timothy James was merely odd. Preacher had always wondered if Mr. Dobbs’s reluctance to drive the man out had anything to do with the fact that he brought in good furs and he accepted less than market rates for them.
Now, seeing that cabin ahead, Preacher knew where Browning and Dobbs had been going. What they’d done there. He’d told Addie to wait while he ran ahead.
He found Timothy James behind his cabin. Lying on the ground. Rope burns around his neck. His shirt covered in blood.
“He must have fought.”
It was Addie’s voice. Preacher wheeled to see her standing there, looking down at the body.
“They tried to hang him,” she said. “Or strangle him. Like Rene. But he fought and they had to stab him.”
She stated it as a matter of fact, and for a moment, he was frozen there, unable to react. Her thin face was hard and empty, her eyes empty, too. He’d seen that look on her once before. That horrible day two years ago, when Addie had shown up on Preacher’s doorstep in her nightgown, her feet bare and bloodied and filthy from the two-mile walk.
Something’s wrong with my parents, she’d said.
They’d gone back, Preacher and Dobbs and Doc Adams. Rode on the horses, Preacher with Addie, who they’d dressed in Sophia’s clean clothes, her thin arms wrapped around him. They’d gone back to her parents’ cabin, expecting they’d taken ill, and instead found . . .
Preacher swallowed, remembering what they’d found. Remembering Addie beside him, her face as empty as this, hollow and dead, looking at the horrific bodies of her parents.
Preacher strode over, took her by the shoulders, and did what he’d done two years ago—turned her away from the sight and bustled her off. She let him take her around the cabin, then dug in her heels and stopped.
“Why did they kill him?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. That’s why you made me stay on the path. You knew he was dead.”
Preacher hesitated. She was right, of course. She wasn’t a child. That was the problem. He wanted to tell her not to worry, not to think on it. She didn’t require an explanation. He was the adult, and he could make that decision, as parents did for their children. Yet he knew that to do so was to loosen his already tenuous grip on his foster daughter. Treat her as a child, and he’d earn her disdain. He would have taken that chance if he thought it would truly stop her from learning the truth. It would not. She’d proven already that she was as curious—and as dogged—as he.
“They killed Rene, too,” she said as he tried to decide what to tell her. “Is it the same thing?”
“Yes, it appears so. Eleazar claims that to give life . . .” He struggled for the kindest words.
“They must take it,” she said, again as if this were a simple matter, one that anyone ought to be able to see. “They killed the old man to bring back Charlie. And now they’ve killed Timothy James . . .”
He didn’t hear the rest of what she said. He knew the rest. They’d killed Timothy James to bring back another. Then, once that child was raised from the dead, there were five more . . .
“We must go,” he said. “Back to town. Immediately.”
Preacher heard the weeping before he saw the town ahead. Wailing and sobbing and crying out to God. That’s what he heard, and he ran as he hadn’t since he was a boy. Ran so fast he could no longer hear anything but the crash of sound, like the ocean’s surf, rising and falling.
From the end of the main road he could see the crowd. The entire village it seemed, gathered down at the hall, the mass of them blocking the road. People sobbing. People on their knees. People standing in stunned silence.
He looked back for Addie, but she was right there.
“Go to Sophia!” he said.
She hesitated, but she seemed to see the fear in his eyes, nodded, and veered off in the direction of the house. Preacher kept running. When he reached the crowd, he prepared himself for what he might see. The horrors that could cause such wailing.
On a normal day, if the villagers saw him coming, they’d make way. He was the preacher. But now, even when he nudged through, they resisted, pushing him back until he had to shove past, as if he were at a cockfight, jostling for a better view.
Finally, the villagers seemed to see him, to recognize him. Or they simply realized he would not be held back. The crowd parted. There, at the front, he saw . . .
Children. All six of them. Sitting up in their coffins, looking about, as if confused, their parents grabbing them up, hugging them, wailing.
Now that the thunder in his ears had died down, he realized what he was hearing. Sobs and wails of joy. Praising God. Thanking God.
He looked at those six children and those six families, and there was a moment when he wanted to fall to his knees with the others. To say, This is a miracle. To accept it as a miracle.
Then he remembered the body in the woods. Timothy James, lying in the dirt, covered in blood, staring at the sky.
Six children alive. Six people dead.
Dear God, who else did they take? Who else did they murder?
He reeled, stomach clenching, gaze swinging to Dobbs, embracing his child, his big body shaking with joy. Preacher glanced down, about to back away. Then he saw the blood on Dobbs’s boot. Timothy James’s blood on his boot. Timothy James’s murder on his hands.
“What’s going on?” a voice cried.
Everyone went still. The voice asked again, and it was a high voice, a reedy voice. A child. Preacher turned to see one of the resurrected—six-year-old Jonas Meek—pushing his mother away as his gaze swung over the crowd.
“Who the bloody hell are all of you?” the boy asked.
Eleazar leaped forward as the crowd gasped and the boy’s mother fell back, crossing herself. Jonas began to push up from his coffin, his face fixed in a snarl as he said something Preacher didn’t catch.
“Restrain him!” Eleazar said. “Quickly!”
Two men leaped in to do it as Eleazar strode forward, cloth in hand. He pressed it to the boy’s face, ignoring his struggles. Preacher caught a whiff of something familiar from his college science classes. Chloroform.
As Jonas went limp, Eleazar’s voice rang out over the stunned crowd. “I warned you that this might happen. I will sedate them all now, to prevent further injury. They are confused and will act most unlike themselves for a day or two. But all is well. Your children are returned to you and all is well.”
Preacher stepped forward, but before his boot even touched down, Dobbs was there, moving unbelievably fast for a man of his size. He planted himself in front of Preacher.
“You don’t belong here, Benjamin,” he said.
Dobbs stepped forward. “I said you don’t belong here.” He lowered his voice. “I would suggest you run on home, preacher boy. Back to your wild brat and your pretty wife. You ought not to leave your family alone.”
Preacher looked up into the man’s eyes and his gut chilled. There was nothing there. No compassion. No compunction. Perhaps there had been, when he’d undertaken his task, but now that it was done, Dobbs had severed any part of himself that might have felt guilt. He’d done right, and if Preacher dared suggest otherwise . . .
“He’s right,” another voice said. It was Mayor Browning, moving up beside Dobbs. “Go home, Benjamin. You aren’t wanted here.”
“But, Preacher,” someone said. It was Maybelle, pushing through the crowd. “What do you think of this? Can you speak to us about it?”
“No,” Browning said. “He cannot. This isn’t your preacher. It’s a false man of God, one who would deny this miracle, who would tell you it’s wrong, sinful.”
Behind Browning, Eleazar stood watching, lips moving, and that chill suffused Preacher’s entire body.
It is as if he is putting words in their mouths. As if they are puppets to his will.
“This preacher would take back our children,” Browning said. “Steal them from us again.”
Preacher started to argue, to say that was not it at all, but there seemed to come a growl from the crowd, and when he looked about, he felt as if he were surrounded by wolves, scenting a threat in the air—a threat to their young and to themselves. He saw that and knew what he must do. The only choice he had.
He closed his mouth, backed away from the crowd, and raced home.
Addie was arguing with Sophia when they heard Preacher coming up the steps. Sophia wanted to go out, to see what was happening. Addie had to block the door to keep her in.
“You ought not to see,” Addie was saying. “Preacher doesn’t want it.”
“I’m not a child, Adeline—”
“But you are with child. You cannot be upset. You might lose the babe.”
That had stopped her, as Addie knew it would. Then Preacher’s footsteps clattered up the steps, and he threw open the door and said, “Pack your things. You’re leaving. Now.”
Sophia argued, of course. She often did. Addie had never seen a woman who felt herself so free to dispute her husband’s word. Or a husband who allowed it. Certainly, in her own home, her mother had only to issue the smallest word of complaint, and she’d be abed for days, recovering. To actually argue? Addie had only seen that once. And when it was over, her mother would never argue again.
But Sophia did. And yet, even as she disputed her husband’s word, she did not stand there and holler at him. She could see how agitated he was, and she immediately set about packing as he asked, while arguing about leaving.
Preacher wanted them to go. Her and Sophia. Immediately. He told Sophia what had happened, in the gentlest terms possible, but they still shocked her into a near trance, gaping at him as if he’d gone mad. Addie confirmed it was true, all of it. Rene and Timothy James had been murdered to bring back the children, and there was something very wrong with the children, and they had to flee.
“But . . . but the villagers,” Sophia said. “They are almost all innocent in this. We cannot abandon them—”
“I’m not. I’m sending you and Addie on ahead. I need to find out precisely what has happened here and warn those who will let themselves be warned. Then I will join you.”
Sophia pulled herself up to her full height—which barely reached Preacher’s chin. “I am not going anywhere without you, Benjamin.”
“Yes, you are. You and Addie and the baby. Dobbs has already made his threat against my family. You will leave, and I will do what I can here, which I cannot do if I’m worrying about you.”
“Preacher’s right,” Addie said.
She walked up beside Sophia and took her hand. It felt odd, reaching for another person, voluntarily touching another person. But she took her hand and squeezed it.
“You need to go,” Addie said. “For your child.”
Sophia looked down at their hands, then at Addie.
“All right,” she said. “I’ll go. For my children.”
What had Eleazar done? Dark deeds, Preacher was sure of that. Murder. Inciting others to murder. And more. But what more? What exactly was wrong with Charlie and the others? That was what he had to discover.
Of the children who’d been raised, only Charlie was awake. The others had all been sedated. Deeply sedated. He confirmed that by paying a visit to the Meeks. They were a God-fearing couple who’d always been kind to him, and he’d seen the look on Ella Meek’s face when her son started spewing such venom after the resurrection. She was frightened. So Preacher spoke to her.
Jonas had not stirred since he’d been chloroformed. Eleazar had told them that if he did, and he said anything untoward or concerning, they were to give him another dose, from a small bottle he’d left. The boy was fine, simply not himself. Not yet.
“But he’s only six years old,” Ella Meek said to Preacher. “He doesn’t even know those words he was saying. He’s a good boy. A quiet boy.”
And so he was, one of the quietest in the town. All his family was, prompting the joke that they truly earned their surname. Meek and mild.
“And the others have been told the same?” he asked.
She nodded. “All of them.”
All except Charlie. Who was, by all accounts, resting comfortably at his home. It was time for Preacher to pay the boy a visit.
Addie had lied to Preacher. She would, perhaps, eventually feel guilt about that. But not today. Today did not count by any proper reckoning. Sophia knew of the promise and had participated in breaking it, which proved the world had, indeed, turned upside down.
Addie had promised to stay with Sophia. To ride through the forest, where they’d not be seen, then over to the road and hightail it to Greenville. That was not what she had done. She’d gathered the horses—they had two—and met Sophia on the wide main path. It was quite impossible to hide the taking of the horses, but no one seemed to pay her much mind. In truth, no one had even noticed. They rode until they had to dismount and steer the horses along the secondary path to Timothy James’s cabin. Then Addie ensconced Sophia there, shotgun in hand, and went back to town. For Preacher. To keep him safe.
“I’ve come to apologize,” Preacher said, standing on Mayor Browning’s front porch, hat in hand. “I was wrong, and I see that now. My lack of faith blinded me. Mr. Dobbs is right. I am not fit to be a man of God. I will be withdrawing from my position immediately.”
“What?” The reply came from deep within the house. Dorothy Browning pushed past her husband. “Quit? No. Our town needs you, Preacher, perhaps now more than ever—”
Browning nudged her back. “We’ll talk on this later, Benjamin. It’s a poor time.”
“I know. I didn’t come here to resign so much as I came to apologize. I was wrong. I misspoke. A miracle has occurred in Chestnut Hill. Seven miracles.”
The whole time he spoke, Browning nodded absently, as if urging him along. Finish up and begone, man.
“Charlie is well, then?” Preacher asked.
Dorothy made a noise, but a glare from her husband cut her short.
“May I see him?” Preacher asked. “Addie is most anxious to speak to her friend again. I’ve told her this is, as you’ve said, a poor time. However, she asked me to give him this.”
He pulled a stone from his pocket. It was a pretty one, veined with fool’s gold. He’d found it two doors down, by the roadside.
Preacher continued. “She says it will lighten his spirits. It’s hers, and he always admired it.”
“He’s not—” Dorothy began.
“I’ll take it and give it to him,” Browning said.
“May I?” said Preacher. “It would mean so much to Addie if I could tell her his response.”
“He’s gone,” Dorothy said. “With that—” Browning glowered at her, but she squared her thin shoulders and said, “He’s gone with that man. They went a-walking a while back. He says Charlie’s weak, and then he takes him a-walking. The boy has—”
“That’s enough, woman,” Browning cut in.
She continued. “The boy—my boy—has scarcely said two words to me. Too weak to converse, that man says. But Charlie can walk and converse with him, easily enough.”
“Well, I’ll leave the stone, then,” Preacher said. “And I’ll leave young Charlie with Eleazar. The man does not wish to see me, I’m certain, so I will stay clear.”
Preacher found Eleazar and Charlie. They had not gone far, just deep enough into the woods that they wouldn’t be overheard, and far enough off the path that they wouldn’t be seen. Preacher snuck up as best he could. It would not have satisfied Addie, but the two were in such deep conversation that they did not notice him.
“Are you certain that is enough food, boy?”
“I am, sir.”
“I don’t think it is. My instructions were clear. We will be walking in this forsaken wilderness for at least two days. We need more food.”
“I have enough, sir. Much of it is dried.”
Preacher paused, shaking his head as if he was mishearing. It was not the content of their conversation. While he was startled to hear they were leaving together, that paled against surprise of the voices themselves. Of who was delivering which lines. He was hearing wrong. He must have been.
He crept forward until he could see the two figures. Charlie was bent on one knee, examining the contents of a pack, while Eleazar stood behind him.
“This money and these goods are not the full accounting,” Charlie said. “There’s eleven hundred dollars and perhaps two hundred more in goods. That’s five hundred short.”
“Yes, sir,” Eleazar said. “I imagine it is. But this is not a wealthy village. They are gathering more, but I presumed you wanted to be gone before the children fully woke.”
“Don’t be smart with me, boy,” Charlie snapped.
Eleazar cleared his throat. “Given the situation, sir, I might suggest you’ll want to stop calling me that.”
“In private, I’ll call you what I want. How long would it take to get more from them?”
“Too long. And that was not the primary purpose of this trip. We got you something far more valuable than money, did we not?”
Charlie snorted. “A child’s body is not particularly valuable. Now, a strong young man’s . . .”
“It will be such in a few years. We ought to count ourselves lucky that there was a boy of goodly age in the last week who died. You’d not have wanted to be brought back as a toddling child. Or a girl.”
More grumbling. When Preacher had first heard them speaking, his mind had reeled. Then something in his gut steadied it, saying, Yes, this makes sense. Of course, in the larger scheme of things, the fact that an old man’s soul had been put into the body of a dead boy did not make sense, but given all that Preacher had seen, it was more sensible than any explanation he’d considered.
The soul was the essence of life. Charlie’s was long gone. In heaven, he trusted. And if one believed that, and one believed the scriptures, then a merciful God would not allow a child to be stolen back from paradise. The body would need to be returned to life with a soul still wandering this world. The soul of someone recently departed.
It had seemed odd that Rene had been Eleazar’s assistant, but the man had been so doddering that it would have seemed more shocking to realize the situation was reversed. Now it seemed it was indeed the case. The old man—the leader, the teacher—had been in need of a new body, and they had taken it here, in Chestnut Hill.
As for the other six children . . .
Dear God. The other six.
Timothy James’s soul. The souls of five others. Murdered, only to awaken in the bodies of children . . . children whose parents they would hold responsible for their deaths.
Preacher turned away from Eleazar and Rene. What they had done was a horrible thing, deserving a terrible punishment, but right now, there were others about to be punished even more terribly, others who’d known nothing of the murders, who’d only wanted their children—
“You do realize we are not alone, I hope,” Rene said, his voice as easy as if he were discussing the possibility of rainfall.
“What?” Eleazar said.
“Someone watches from the woods. I trust you plan to take care of that.”
Eleazar let out a curse. Preacher began to run, not caring how much noise he made, only that he got back to the village in time to warn them before—
Something grabbed his legs. He did not trip. He was certain of that. He felt the pressure, something wrapping about them as he ran, and there was no time to stop. He fell face-first to the ground.
“Preacher Benjamin,” Eleazar said, crashing through the forest behind him. “You are a persistent man. I will grant you—”
“No, you fool,” Rene exclaimed. “Not him. I meant—”
It was Addie. Eleazar spun toward her voice, back toward the clearing where Rene stood. Preacher clambered to his feet. He could see no sign of Addie, but he had heard her. He had very clearly—
The twang of a bow. He saw the arrow. Saw it heading straight for Rene. Saw it hit him square in the throat.
Eleazar let out a howl of rage and ran for the girl, now standing ten paces away, stringing her bow again.
Addie couldn’t ready her bow fast enough. She ought to have been able to—she’d made sure she would have time to fire two arrows. One for the monster that had stolen Charlie’s body and one for the monster that had helped him. Yet as she strung the second arrow, the ground seemed to fly up under her feet, as if by magic.
She toppled backward, and Eleazar was on her, wrenching the bow away with one hand while grabbing her coat with the other. She went for her knife, but before her fingers could touch the handle, he’d grabbed it himself. Then he whipped her around, knife at her throat, shouting at Preacher to stop.
Preacher halted in midstep, and stood there, his eyes wild with fear, breath coming so hard she could hear it.
I’m sorry, she thought. I ought to have shot Eleazar first. Let you escape. But all I could think about was Charlie. That monster in his body.
The monster that was dying now. Lying on the ground, wheezing its death rattle, arrow lodged in its throat.
“Let her go,” Preacher said.
“I cannot,” Eleazar said. “I need—”
“I know what you need. And I know that what you have isn’t satisfactory. What you had wasn’t either. So I’m offering you a trade.”
“Are you? Interesting . . .”
“Take it,” Preacher said. “It’s what he’d want. You know it is.”
Addie struggled to figure out what they were talking about. Preacher was making sure she didn’t. She could tell that, and a knot of dread in her gut grew bigger with each passing moment.
“Take it,” Preacher said. “Quickly.”
Eleazar seemed to be considering the matter, but then, without warning, he grabbed Addie by the hair and whipped her against a tree. Her head hit the trunk hard, blackness threatening as she fell. She lay there, fighting to remain awake, as she heard them continue.
“You did not need to do that,” Preacher said.
“Oh, I believe I did. She’s a feisty little one, and I don’t think she’ll like what I’m about to do.”
“Just get it done. Quickly please.”
Addie managed to raise her head and saw Eleazar walk to Preacher. She saw his hands go to Preacher’s neck, wrapping around it, and she understood what he’d meant. That with Charlie’s body dying, the monster—Rene—needed a new vessel. Eleazar had been going to take hers. Preacher had offered his instead.
“No,” she whispered. “Please no.”
She could see her bow there, only a few paces away. She dug her fingers into the dirt and pulled herself toward it and—
And she passed out.
As Preacher watched Addie lose consciousness, he had a sudden vision of her death, of Eleazar killing him for his master and then walking over, kneeling and wrapping his fingers around the girl’s neck. Preacher’s hands flew up, catching Eleazar’s, stopping them as they squeezed.
“Wait!” he said.
He held the man’s hands still as he looked at him.
“You’ll not hurt her,” he said. “After it’s done.”
“I have no cause. You’ll have given me what I want.”
“It was not a question,” Preacher said, locking eyes with the man. “You are accustomed to bodies where the soul is long departed. If Rene’s soul still lingers now, then so will mine, for a time. If you hurt the girl . . . I cannot lie and say what I will do, because I do not know what I may do. But I am certain I can do something, and so I will, if she’s harmed.”
“As I said, I’ll have no cause once Rene has his new body. A girl child is no threat to me. As for telling anyone, I’m quite certain that by now, your village has already realized something has gone very, very wrong.”
The village. The other children.
“No,” he said. “You—”
Eleazar’s grip tightened. Preacher tried to stop him, to say more, but the man squeezed with inhuman strength and then—
Preacher jolted upright. He was lying on the forest floor, Charlie’s body beside him. He scrambled to his feet and looked around, but there was no sign of Eleazar.
Something had gone wrong. He’d been tricked.
Preacher whirled, searching for his foster daughter, seeing no sign—
No, there she was, across the clearing, still on the ground. He raced over and dropped beside her. He put his hands to her thin chest and—
His fingers passed through her. He stumbled back, falling on his rear. Then he looked down at his hand, the grass poking through it, undisturbed.
Nothing has gone wrong.
He gasped, the sudden realization as agonizing as a bullet to the heart.
I’m dead. I’m gone.
Sophia. Dear lord, Sophia. I’ll never see her again. Never see our child. Never see Addie grow up.
He hurried to the girl again. She was breathing. He could see that. As he rose from her side, a scream split the night.
The village. The villagers. The resurrected children.
Preacher ran toward Chestnut Hill. At first, he weaved around trees and bushes, then realized there was no need and tore through them. He could hear more now, shouts and screams and cries for God.
Soon he could see the houses in the distant darkness. Lights flickered. Doors slammed. Shots rang out. And the screams. The terrible screams—of shock, of pain, of horror.
He came out of the woods behind a house, following some of the worst cries. A woman lay on the grass, not screaming now, but making horrible gurgling noises. Atop her was a boy covered in blood, his face contorted and wild as he raised a stone, hitting her again and again, smashing her face until she couldn’t scream, until Preacher could only tell she was a woman by her dress.
He ran toward them, shouting for the boy to stop, please stop.
As he drew near, he could see the child under that mask of blood. Jonas Meek. Little Jonas Meek. And the woman below him, gurgling her last? His mother.
“No,” Preacher whispered. “No.”
The boy flickered, as if he were the ghost, beginning to fade. So too did his mother and the blood-soaked grass below them. Something tugged at Preacher. He tried to fight it. Tried to stay, to help, to do whatever he could, but the pull was too great, and as he scrambled for a hold, feeling himself lifting, he caught sight of something moving at the end of the woods.
He saw himself. Standing there, with Eleazar, watching Jonas Meek beat his mother to death and laughing. He was laughing.
When Addie woke, Eleazar and Preacher were gone. It was growing dark, and she knew she wouldn’t find them, but she still raced down the path they would have taken, only to get a quarter mile along it and realize she wasn’t even sure this was the way they’d gone. She made her way back to the clearing and tried to search again, to no avail.
And what good would it do if I found them? It’s too late. He’s gone. Preacher’s—
She couldn’t finish the thought. Her knees buckled, and she fell to the ground, weeping as she hadn’t wept when Charlie died, hadn’t when her parents died.
Preacher was gone. Dead. Possessed by that thing, and if she found him, all she could do was what she’d done for Charlie—set his body free. Did that even matter? Their souls were gone. In heaven, she hoped. In heaven, she prayed.
Preacher had given his life for her, and she wasn’t even his child. Now he’d never see his real child, because of what he’d done for her, a stranger who’d come into his life and slept in his house and eaten his food. He’d let her in and he’d given her everything. Absolutely everything.
There had been, she realized now, always a part of her that didn’t quite trust Preacher and Sophia’s motivations in adopting her. They were good people. The best she knew. But surely no one could be that good, no one could voluntarily take her, not when her own parents had begrudged every morsel she took from their larder.
She’d always suspected that there was more to it, that the town paid Preacher and Sophia to care for her. That still made them good people—of all those in the village, she’d known them for the shortest length of time, and yet they were the ones who’d taken her in. But surely they were receiving some compensation. They ought to have been.
Except they weren’t. She knew that now. They’d taken her because they’d been worried for her. They’d kept her because they cared for her. And now Preacher had given his life for her because . . . well, perhaps because he loved her.
Addie picked herself up then. She dried her eyes, and she walked to Charlie, and she said her good-byes. He wasn’t there. He hadn’t been there for three days. But she said them anyway, hoping he’d hear, wherever he was.
Then she gathered her bow and her knife, and she set out. She had a job to do. A job for Preacher.
There was death in the village that night. Addie could hear it as she walked back toward Chestnut Hill. Screams. Horrible screams, as the “children” awakened and everyone learned the truth. They’d murdered people outside the village and put them into the bodies of children, and now the children had awakened, possessed by those vengeful spirits.
This was what Preacher had been running to stop when Eleazar caught him. He’d known what was coming, and he’d wanted to warn them. If he were here now, he’d race to that village and save whom he could.
Addie decided he’d done enough for the village. They’d brought this on themselves, and even if Sophia would say there were many who were innocent, Addie disagreed. They’d let Eleazar into their town. They’d ignored Preacher’s warnings. Now they should face whatever wrath their actions had unleashed.
They would not all perish. Likely only a few. She supposed that was terrible enough, if they were innocent of murdering Timothy James and the others. But she did not think as Preacher and Sophia did. It wasn’t how she’d been raised, and there were parts of her that all Preacher and Sophia’s goodness could not heal.
Addie had spent the last two years haunted by the grave sin she had committed the night her parents died. What she’d done. Or, perhaps, what she’d failed to do.
She’d heard the fight. A dreadful one. The worst ever. She’d listened to her father beating her mother. That was nothing new, but this was not like any other time. Her mother’s screams were not like any Addie had ever heard.
Addie had lain in her tattered blanket by the fire, feigning sleep as her father beat her mother to death, and she had done nothing to stop it. Her mother never stopped the beatings he gave to Addie, so why ought Addie to interfere and risk turning that rage on herself?
When it was over, the house had gone silent. She’d risen then, and seen her father sitting in his chair, shotgun in hand. Her mother’s body lay crumpled and bloody on the floor.
“You’ll hang for this,” Addie had said, and what she’d felt, saying it, was not horror or fear but satisfaction.
“No, I won’t,” he’d replied, and put the gun between his legs, pointed it at his head, and pulled the trigger.
For two years, Addie had lived with that. With listening to her mother die and not intervening. With telling her father what she thought and making him splatter his brains across the room. It was her fault. Her sin. For two years, she’d regretted it, and now she did not. Now she realized they had brought it upon themselves, and had she interfered, she’d only have been lying there with them. They had not raised her to interfere, so she had not. As she would not now.
So she circled wide around the village, ignoring the screams, and continued on.
Addie found Sophia in Timothy James’s cabin. She told her that Preacher was gone. Sophia wept as if she’d break in two, so much that Addie feared for the child.
She told Sophia what had happened. Or part of it. That Eleazar had returned the old man to Charlie’s body. That he’d returned the souls of the murdered to the children’s bodies. But there Addie’s story for Sophia changed.
In Addie’s version, Preacher had made his escape. He’d run to the village to warn them. He’d arrived too late, the children reawakening, but he’d fought for the villagers. He’d warned who he could and then he’d helped fight off the threat. He’d fought for his village, and he’d lost his life doing it. He was a hero.
That part was true. He had sacrificed his life—for Addie. And she would never forget it. He’d given her a family, and now she’d protect that family with everything she had, in every way she could.
So she told Sophia the lies that would set her heart at rest, and then she gathered her up, got her on the horse, and took her away from that place of death, off to find a place where she could bear and raise Preacher’s babe, and where she could be happy.
Where they all could be happy.