“The quarantine must be imposed by fire.” The Doctor passed the rifle back to Yule. He went uphill to recover his mare.
The fiends never relented in their feast, nor did their attention turn toward the intruders – even despite Doc's gunplay. The lure of the wagoners was too compelling. The gratitude Yule felt toward those men for having in them so much blood was shameful – and then he realized he was doing it again. He had become distracted by his own morose introspection. All of a sudden Doc reappeared beside him, this time upon the Appaloosa.
“We ought get now, Sherwin.” Steering his mare off the beaten path, he added, “Before we become the next course.”
“Where are you going?”
“Well the trail's a no-go. We're gonna need to veer around.”
“Sanders, we don't know what's out there!”
“Yeah we do. That's what's got you showin' that yeller streak again.”
“Shouldn't we do something? These men need our help.”
“Sherwin, I already done put two of them fellers out of their misery.” As he faded entirely into the darkness at the trail's edge, the Doctor concluded, “We ain't able to help 'em any more. Now come on before it's too late.”
Just like that, the wagoners over yonder quit wailing. Then there was only the wet crunching of them being et. Doc was right – they were helpless. The most merciful thing had been killing them.
Yule didn't have a choice. Once again, it was either follow Doc into the forest right then or lose him to the dark and be left alone. Fortunately the Appaloosa's markings were luminescent, like an inside-out cosmos; dark brown stars spotting a lunar-pale sky. Its blond mane and tail were akin to a comet's tracer. Yule fixated on it to the exclusion of the deathly woods. He blocked out his other senses. They could only do him harm. He placed himself in the Doctor's care, trusting the quack and the Appaloosa to act as his compass.
In the High Country there are roads which have existed for thousands of years, far preceding the first European's footprint. Some of these roads were planned by the natives, others stamped down by deer and elk and other wild things. Yule reckoned the Appaloosa must have known instinctively where such ancient roads were found.
Next he knew they were galloping. Boulders and broad tree-trunks whistled past in the blackness. At their pace a collision with anything would prove fatal. This was neck-breaking speed, and neither Yule nor his horse could keep this sprint up for long. The paint was simply wearing out, while Yule was losing the last of his nerve. His eyes were wet. His chest burned from excited breathing Otherwise, he was numb. After a while it all became a blur.
Then the Appaloosa slowed to a trot. Yule came back into himself. Once again he could hear the distant mayhem and smell the gunsmoke. But he could see! Everything was ochre-hued. Up ahead the woods parted. In the clearing a lamp burned. It was hung upon a log cabin's porch. Its light was deliriously wholesome, carving sanctuary from the cruel wilderness.
“You ever seen a place so abandoned?” Doc asked. He halted his mare at the edge of the clearing.
Yule wiped his eyes and had a look. The shutters were wide open, as was the front door. The porch-hung lamp barely swayed. It was the sole light-source. The cabin was inhabited by shadows. Far as he could see there weren't any horses tethered any place. He had to agree with Doc. He had never seen a place so abandoned – nor so inviting.
“You reckon it's safe to catch our breath here?” Yule wondered.
“Your gun loaded?”
He slid the last bullet into the breach and answered, “Yep. This is it though.”
“There may be more arms inside,” Doc said. “We should see.”
The Appaloosa started toward the cabin. Yule aimed his rifle at the doorway and crept along after. Slowly, they came into the light. For the first time in recent memory, Yule's heart felt warm and mellow. He was grateful something fierce for that simple lamp. Somehow its glow muted the horrific score of the forest, and the ballistics out there hurt his ears less. In the lamplight, the deaths of men were made less real. Even the sideways rocking-chair on the cabin's porch was not so suspect.
“Should we wonder what happened to them that lived here?”
“Your guess is good as mine.” Doc arrived at the porch and climbed down from his mare without taking his eyes off the cabin's door. “But I can hear the crick off yonder, not so far – so that don't bode well for 'em.”
Yule dismounted beside the Doctor, keeping his rifle trained on the cabin's hollow. After tying their horses off on a corner-post of the porch, Doc took down the lamp and held it at arm's length to inspect the inside of the darkened shack.
“Ready?” he asked.
The former landowners had forgotten a copper mug on the porch just outside the door. Doc kicked it past the threshold and it rattled about. No dead fellers came lurching out to et them up, so he went inside. Yule came right after with his gun.
There wasn't much at all to the cabin. They entered through a spartan kitchen, little more than a basin full of dirty cookware and a cast-iron stove. Doc lit the way, carefully drawing the lamp back and forth. Through an archway they found the pantry. The folks who lived here kept an array of pickled things in jars. There were sacks of grain on the floor. Doc held the lamp low and Yule spotted a pair of mud-crusted boots. He saw overalls and long underwear in a pile. There was also a lady's gown and a washboard.
“No guns,” said Doc.
Yule followed him past the pantry. Here they entered the adjacent room. This was where the people slept. It was the last room the cabin held. Bear-skins were stretched and hung on the walls to keep out the cold. Plain as day, a pistol glinted on the nightstand. Doc passed the lamp to Yule as if it had suddenly begun to burn him. He rushed in and scooped up the pistol.
Popping the cylinder open, he inspected it and noted, “Two slugs.”
And there was someone else in the room, in the farthest corner where the lamplight was least present. They heard a rustling from back there – and then a keen squealing. The sound reminded Yule of the fawn he'd seen eaten. He swung the lamp that way and the flame wavered. He only exhaled when he was sure it would not go out.
“Fuck.” The Doctor repeated more loudly, “Fuck!”
Yule saw a wicker bassinet tucked in the corner. Doc was standing beside it, peering under its lace-trimmed hood. The pistol's barrel hung over the crib's edge. The babe inside cooed.
“Doc?” Yule asked, but Doc didn't answer. Yule inched closer. “Doc? Is that what I think it is?”
“Yes Yule,” the Doctor breathed. “I'd reckon it's out of the womb maybe twelve weeks. Barely been born.”
Yule bent over the bassinet, and couldn't believe his eyes. Inside lay the babe. He sought to confirm the child's authenticity by touching it, but just before his fingertips could stroke its fine hairs, the babe extended its hand and met his. Tiny pink fingers gripped Yule's thumb and squeezed. Yule couldn't believe his eyes – the babe's blue eyes. In them he beheld the heavens. He could suddenly decipher the designs of the whole universe. Those eyes were the key, a Rosetta Stone for his soul. Right then he knew it was fate. His son had not died in vain. Nor had Emma. They had been called back to Jesus because it was their time. He had been left behind because the Lord still had this purpose for him. His heart had been emptied out to make room for two more: this babe and Misty. A new family was thrust upon him. This was all happening exactly according to His plan.
Yule Sherwin wasn't one to bicker with God. He took a full breath for the first time in two years. He set the lamp on the nightstand, laid his rifle on the empty bed. He lifted the baby from the bassinet and held it against his bosom.
“My name is Yule,” he said. “You can call me Pa, if you'd like.”
“Sherwin, what the fuck're you doing?”
“I can explain,” Yule said. He rocked the babe in his arms, adding with a grin, “I've not gone so far mental.”
“Do you not see the interconnectedness of everything?” Yule asked. “There is a web spun divinely from past to present and future – and a strand of that web runs directly through me, too. That’s fate, Doc. To protect this babe – it is mine destiny!”
In an instant, Doc was in his face, blaring, “We need bullets! And torches! We need articles of destruction and we've got to put 'em to fierce fucking use! We ain't a rollin' nursery here! We ain't equipped for this! Shit Yule, even if'n there is a town left – and I sure ain’t hopeful – even if there is – there ain't never been a fucking orphanage in Red Junction!”
“What then? We can't leave this child alone out here to fend for itself!”
“Mayhap....” Doc paused. Never breaking eye-contact, he said, “Mayhap the most we can offer this kid is mercy. Like we shown those wagoners back yonder.”
“You will not harm this babe.” Yule meant it. He was reeling with righteous fire. His nostrils burned. “I will kill you first.”
More loudly than he thought himself able, Yule roared, “What the hell kind of doctor are you? What kind of a man?”
He reckoned it must be a sure symptom of insanity; two men unrelated by blood, at-best tenuously acquainted, embracing one another and weeping out loud. He and Doc did so right then, anyway – with the babe squeezed between them. The Doctor blubbered and admitted he was wrong. He begged for forgiveness. For a while they were a heap of tears.
Wiping his eyes, Yule finally said, “We should get out of here.”
“Alright,” Doc agreed, “but we still ought try and find more arms before we return to Red Junction. Three bullets ain't gonna cut it. And we ought get our hands on some sort of accelerant, too – for the quarantine.”
“Fine,” Yule said, but he didn't much care if the town burned or not. His mission was different. He had to get back to Misty. With any luck she was still asleep in his loft. “In my workshop I have a whole cask of lacquer for finishing wood. It is a fast and certain fire-starter.”
“Then let's make our way there.” Doc stuck the pistol in the waist of his trousers and said, “And en route we ought determine if any guns have been left to rust at the Lawless Camp outside town. I have faith we'll find a few.”