Becka falls down. That's how it starts.
Maybe not the most graceful beginning, but that's okay. Becka doesn't want something graceful, anyhow.
Becka just wants something real.
She doesn't mean to, obviously. She's on the road away from town, heading out to forage - Gram tells her all the time not to use the roads, but Becka just found these boots three days ago and she doesn't want to get them all muddy, not right away. Everything Becka owns gets dirty sooner or later. Everything in the world gets dirty sooner or later. But Becka would kind of like it to be later, this time.
So she's walking on the road when she hears hooves, and if Gram's said it once, Gram's said it a thousand times: it's not the roads that are dangerous, it's the people who ride on them. Staying on the road to meet whoever comes isn't worth clean boots.
Becka hurries off into the ditch quick as she can, the horse coming up fast like horses do, and then it happens: she falls down.
She doesn't go down too hard, which is nice, but it's some kind of pricker or thistle that's tripped her, something that's dug in deep to the laces of her new boots. She rolls over and sits up to pull at them, trying to keep her breathing quiet, and that's when the guy on the horse yells, "Hey!"
Shit. Becka yanks at the pricker - it's not even about the boots anymore, but it would take her at least as long to get them off her feet as to get the laces untangled from this stupid thing-
"Hey," the guy says again, from a lot closer.
Becka's head snaps up.
He's about three feet away, half down the slope of the ditch, his horse waiting quietly on the roadside. And maybe he's dangerous - but if he's her weight or heavier, he sure doesn't look it. He's got a uniform, but no gun; and the uniform isn't Holnist anyway.
He smiles at her, a little gaptoothed but plenty kind. "I'm Carrier 17," he says, like that's any kind of name. "You okay?"
"Fine," Becka says, and accepts the hand he holds out.
Carrier 17's real name is Jamie, Jamie Hu, and he laughs when Becka asks him what the hell he's the seventeenth carrier of. "Mail," he says, and proudly opens the flap of the bag he's got slung over his shoulder.
"Mail?" Becka says.
"Letters," Jamie says. "Just things people want to tell, or if there's somebody they're hoping to find. People used to write them to each other all the time, before."
Becka doesn't have to ask when; there's only one thing before means when people say it like that.
Jamie tilts his other shoulder toward her, and taps a finger against the embroidered patch on his sleeve. "Me, I'm an official postman - in service of the Restored U-nited States." He says it just like that, like the u's its own word, but Becka knows what he's talking about. Gram tells her about the States sometimes - that they'd be somewhere in Oregon, that there used to be a Washington and an Idaho and a California, schools and libraries and museums instead of Holnists and hunger. That everything used to be different.
She gazes at the little rectangle, dusty red and white stripes and a cluster of stars in the corner. The stripes aren't all the same width and some of the stars are a little lopsided, but Becka kind of likes how it looks. Maybe just because it's something that she knows used to have meaning; something that meant things were good.
And now Jamie Hu's smiling at her over it, sewed onto his jacket shoulder, like maybe there's a chance things are going to get good again; and Becka wishes with a sudden powerful hunger that she had one on her shoulder, too.
"How do you get to be a postman?" Becka says.
"Another postman gives you the oath," Jamie says, shrugging, and then he must see the expression on her face. "Uh, but this is my first ride, I only got sworn in yesterday - I, um," and he scuffs a boot in the dirt of the road. "I don't remember all the words. But if you go down the road where I came from, you'll get to Pineview. All you got to do is ask for Ford Lincoln Mercury."
"Ford Lincoln Mercury," Becka repeats.
Jamie grins and nods, and then touches his head with the side of his hand, and swings back up onto his horse.
Ford Lincoln Mercury, Becka says to herself silently, and watches Jamie Hu, Carrier 17, ride away down the road.
She's a little afraid Gram won't want her to go, but when she tells Gram the story, Gram ushers her out the door with a light in her eyes. "Go on, go on!" she says, and tosses a tied-up bedroll at Becka's head.
"Gram!" Becka cries, laughing, and catches it.
"I only send you for food to get you out of my hair, anyway," Gram says, but the way her smile wobbles tells Becka she doesn't really mean it. "I'll be fine," she adds, and steps out of the doorway to touch Becka's wrist. "You know Charlie Wittmore and his wife are always coming out here to check on us; they won't stop just because your pretty face isn't here anymore." Her gaze goes far away. "The Restored United States, huh," she murmurs, and then she looks at Becka and smiles. "If that's what we got to work with, we better make it work."
It takes Becka two and a half days to get to Pineview. Jamie said he'd only left the day before, but he had a horse, and Becka's only got her own two legs. Winter's coming on, but it's not here yet - good thing, too, or it might have taken Becka a lot longer.
She spends a good chunk of those two and a half days repeating the name to herself: Ford Lincoln Mercury, Ford Lincoln Mercury. By the time she gets to Pineview, it's half turned into a song, something to keep her paces right - Ford Lin-coln Mer-cu-ry - and it's the first thing that comes out of her mouth when the man at the town wall asks her business.
He blinks down at her. "You mean Johnny?" he says, dubious, and then turns his head: there's a clatter off to the side, somebody coming up the stairs to the walltop.
"Wait, wait!" whoever it is yells, and then a second head pops up over the wall. "You looking for me?"
"Ford Lincoln Mercury?" Becka repeats, and the guy smiles like - like the old sunrises, the really bright ones from when Becka was littler, gold and red and pink all across the sky.
"Yeah?" he says.
"I'm here because I - I mean, I - I met Carrier 17 on the road," Becka blurts out, and then stops, makes herself take a slow breath. She remembers that thing, that little salute Jamie Hu gave her before he climbed back on his horse, and she flattens her hand out and puts the side of it to her forehead. "I aim to be a postman," she says.
Ford Lincoln Mercury grins down at her, and makes the other guy open the gate.
There isn't a lot to see, to start with. Ford takes Becka to a big old building, a barn or a warehouse or something. "We had a real post office here in Pineview," he says, a little bitterly, "but Bethlehem burned it up - it and our flag, too." He looks at her over his shoulder and smiles. "But I'm making a new one."
He is. The warehouse or whatever is big and empty, shadowy walls and rattling catwalks overhead, except for one little corner Ford's filled up; there's a wobbly little table and a chair with a cracked leg, a lopsided pile of letters, and draped half over the table is a span of red and white stripes.
"I was working on it when I heard you at the gate," Ford says, and shows her one bloody brown fingertip before he sucks it ruefully into his mouth. "I don't have a thimble."
"I do," Becka says, because Gram insisted that she learn to patch up her own things and Becka wasn't any better at it to start with than Ford seems to be. She's got it in her pack along with half a dozen needles and five or six spools of thread, ranging from the thin stuff she uses when she's mending her underwear to the fat tough line for a jacket or a shoe.
Ford's face brightens - all over, everywhere, like he's never heard anything so wonderful. "I got red and white and blue, scissors to cut the stars with; I found a big spool of white thread to sew the stars on, even a needle," he says. "But I couldn't get hold of a thimble."
"Well, I'll lend you mine," Becka says, "if you swear me in for a postman."
Ford blinks. "What, Jamie didn't - I mean, Carrier 17?"
"He couldn't remember the words," Becka says. "He didn't want to do it wrong."
"Well, of course he didn't," Ford says, sounding pleased by this display of good judgment. "It was his first day - I should've made him memorize it, but we got so many letters going along the road to Silverlake, I just sent him out. Here," he adds, and points to something leaning against the wall with a proud flourish. "I saved it from the old office."
It's a big old piece of stone, gray except where it's soot-black. Becka thought it was just junk, something left over from before Ford moved the post office in here, but now that she looks at it closely, it's got words on it. Must have taken Ford an awful long time to drag it here from wherever it was.
"Hold your hand up, come on," Ford says, and beams at her when she does. "What's your name?"
"All right, Becka Stearns," Ford says. "Now repeat after me: neither snow, nor rain, nor heat ..."
It's weird, but she really does feel different once she's said it: bright and sure, not quite like she knows what she's doing but like maybe she will - like she's got a purpose now. Before it was just - it was whatever was right ahead of her, finding berries or hunting deer with Mr. Wittmore, dodging the Holnists if they showed, keeping dry in the rain and warm in the winter. Now there's something further out ahead of her to reach for, and Becka can't wait to grab it.
Ford smiles at her knowingly. "Feels good, doesn't it," he says, and Becka grins back. "Now how about that thimble, Carrier 18?"
She's got to make her own uniform, but Ford promises it won't take too long. He's scrounged a bunch of old jackets, all she needs to do is find one that fits and add the patches: the flag, the funny little eagle head, the words that go under. He had one ready for Jamie, but since Jamie left he's been trying to finish the flag.
Besides, he says, he's going to need her help.
"There's a couple carriers due back sometime today, and more tomorrow," he says, "and they don't just take mail out, they bring it back here. Sometimes they find the place on the road, but sometimes it comes back and it's got to go out again a whole different direction. I need all the letters for Wade River to go to Wade River, right?"
"No matter whose bag they come from," Becka says, nodding.
"I got to have a better system than piles on the table," Ford says. "I want - I want a real post office. You know?"
Becka looks at the wide open space of the warehouse-barn, and thinks about it. "You need a place to put them, first," she says.
They get the sheet metal from the sheriff. The town's got a stock to help people make roofs, but there just aren't that many people moving into Pineview these days, and the sheriff grudgingly lets them have a few strips.
The saw comes from Ms. Vargas; it makes a horrible noise on the sides of the warehouse, which are all this ugly corrugated stuff, and after twenty minutes of them filling the whole town square with shrieking, Ms. Vargas comes back and does the rest herself.
Mr. Williams runs the town woodcutters, and with his boards they can prop the sheet metal up in kind of a V. He doesn't make them pay for the wood - or the nails - except with the promise that once Ford's finished the post office flag, he'll make one for Mr. Williams.
All told, by the end of the day they've got a slot in the wall and a chute leading away from it. The way Becka figures it, the carriers coming back can dump the mail in through the wall; the chute's nice and wide, the V a broad shallow angle, and anybody inside can sort it pretty good.
"Except," Ford says, looking at it critically, "where'll we put them once they're sorted?"
It can't be tables, they decide. Each person sorting would need a table big enough to hold a pile of mail for every single town, and somebody else would have to get each of those piles together, too.
They end up sitting together on the floor, shoulder to shoulder, with their backs against two legs of Ford's cracked chair. "How are we going to do it, then?" Becka says, and Ford taps a finger against his chin and doesn't answer.
At least not right off. "It's a pretty tall space," he says at last. "If we could - if we could hang something down-"
"Sacks, like," Becka says, and Ford looks at her with stars in his eyes.
"One for every town," he says, "and if - if they went around, maybe. It wouldn't be perfect, you'd have to wait for the right town to come around sometimes, but if the whole thing turned-"
"And make it bigger," Becka says. "Make it longer, or wider, so there's a space for the sacks to get taken down and emptied. And somewhere to put the sorted ones-"
Ford puts a hand over her mouth, laughing. "Tomorrow!" he says. "Tomorrow, save it for tomorrow. Except maybe let's write it down so we don't forget."
They don't get it done before the carriers come back, but they get pretty far along. They start with the sacks and the sorting shelves - Ford labels the bags, one for each town, and Becka uses their spare wood from Mr. Williams to build a row of cubbyholes. They'll need more than one row, but they've got some time, and it'll help to have more than two people.
The first carrier to arrive after Becka comes is a boy named Zane, real tall and narrow and serious-looking. "Dump them in the wall!" Ford yells out to him as he rides up the street, and Zane nods like this is at least as important a mission as getting the mail at all, and guides his horse carefully toward the slot where the chute is.
The sheet metal makes a bit of a clatter, but nothing falls over. Becka throws her fists in the air in victory, and Ford whoops. "We're going to make this a real post office in no time," he says.
Zane ties his horse up out front and then comes in, straightening his cap. "I like what you've done with the place," he says gravely, and then his narrow mouth tilts up, just a little.
Zane is Carrier 11, from out west somewhere; Becka has to admit to him that she doesn't know the name of the town, when he says it, and he nods - so serious! - and says it doesn't matter.
"We have a map," he says. "One of the old ones, marked over with the new towns. That's how Ford plans the routes for us - he won't give you one unless you've memorized everywhere you need to go."
The day the fourth carrier arrives, Becka finishes her jacket. Carrier 5 and Carrier 8 - Judy Perez and Miriam Jones - have finished the big round frame, and together all six of them haul it up by the pulley Zane screwed to the ceiling. It doesn't hang quite level, but it doesn't fall down either, and watching it rise into the air crams Becka's chest so tight full of feeling she has to laugh or else explode.
"Yeah," Judy says, misunderstanding, "it's a little funny-looking. But, hey, if it works, who cares?"
"Yeah," Becka says, and can't help straightening her new jacket's sleeves.
"Ford got you a horse yet?" Judy says.
"What? Oh, I - no," Becka says, and Judy smiles.
Becka's ridden horses before - Mr. Wittmore had one, sweet gray mare named Nancy, that he'd lend out to people needing to move loads or plow small plots. But she's never had one for her own, nothing like that.
The post office has a stable, a medium-sized barn-thing around the side of the warehouse. "Ford never thought we'd be able to find enough in a million years," Judy says, leading Becka around, "but one of the carriers - 3, you haven't met her yet - her family owned a ranch before. She came to Pineview with a dozen horses, and her dad brought along ten more once they realized we needed them."
Becka's never seen anything inside the little barn but a lot of hay, and gear she knows is for horses but never learned the words for - but there are carriers back now, and four horses stomping contentedly in their stalls. "This one's mine," Judy says, reaching over the half-door to pat the flank of a bay. "Inez."
"She's lovely," Becka says, although she actually can't see much except the mare's ass.
Judy laughs. "Her face is even nicer," she says with a wicked little grin, and then laughs again when Becka covers her face with her hands.
The unassigned horses get kept someplace else - carriers have to take care of their own, but Ford decided it wouldn't be fair to make some of them tend two at once, according to Judy. "Ms. Goldstein only ever owned one horse, but she used to teach a riding program," Judy says. "She keeps the others for us."
Ms. Goldstein apparently lives just down the main street of Pineview - Becka really should know these things, but she's spent just about every second of her time in Pineview in the post office. Including the parts where she's asleep.
Anyway, Ms. Goldstein is a middle-aged woman with dark hair, dramatic locks of white at her temples; she makes a face and closes the door when she sees Judy.
"Ms. Goldstein!" Judy cries, but she's laughing as she pounds dramatically on the door.
Ms. Goldstein is laughing, too, when she opens it again. "How many times do I have to tell you to call me Ava?" she says. "Honestly, Ms. Perez."
The horses are around the back - there are at least three or four of them, but honestly Becka only sees one.
She's pale; not exactly pure white, but pale, with a gray mane and tail. Becka doesn't really know that much about horses, not technically. But the others are eating quietly - and the pale gray one is prancing around them, kicking her feet up and shaking out her mane, like she doesn't know how the rest can stand to be so still.
"That one," Becka blurts out, and then remembers where she is. "I mean, uh - do we get to pick?"
Ms. Goldstein - Ava - chuckles, and leans against the fencepost. "Sure," she says. "And you're sure you don't want one who'll be - a little calmer?"
"I want that one," Becka says firmly.
She names the mare Dancer, because every time Becka looks at her all she sees is Dancer's feet in the field outside Ava Goldstein's, up and down in the grass.
The second she leads Dancer into the post office stable, it starts to eat at her; she's finished her jacket and her cap, she's got a horse for her own, she's been sworn in for weeks - but surely she can't really be a postman if she hasn't taken any letters. And Ford must see it coming, because he gives her a route the next day.
He ushers her over to the map with a proud smile, and for a minute Becka's so starry-eyed - letters, her own letters! - she can hardly see the route. "I'd make you keep helping me with the sorter," Ford says, motioning overhead to the rig on the ceiling, "but I don't want you to mutiny, so I figured I'd better give you a run."
Becka makes herself take a deep breath, and looks at the map for real. "... That's it?" she says, staring at the map and then at Ford. She can feel her face turn doubtful.
"Everybody gets short ones the first time!" Ford says defensively. "So you can make your first deliveries without having to worry about getting lost. And we got a lot of letters for Milltown."
He points to Milltown's cubbyhole, and Becka has to admit that it's got a pretty sizeable stack of letters in it.
"I haven't ever been that way," Becka says grudgingly. And it'll be her first run as a postman - it doesn't have to be long, it just has to happen.
She gets a mailbag of her very own, and she fills it with the Milltown letters, plus a much smaller batch for Bridgeway, which is on the same road. As she's going out to where Dancer's tied up, she bumps a carrier coming in.
"Sorry!" Becka says, "sorry, I didn't-" and then she looks up into the smiling face of Jamie Hu.
"You made it!" he says, and then straightens and puts the side of his hand to his forehead. "Becka, right? And look at you - you're a real postman now."
"That I am," Becka says, and Jamie finishes the little salute and then shakes her hand.
"Nice to meet you," he says, "Carrier 18," and Becka can't do anything but smile.
Becka's never felt anything like how she feels riding down the road with a full mailbag slung over her shoulder; she digs her fingers into Dancer's mane and laughs, and by the end of the first hour her face hurts from smiling.
And a little from the cold, to be honest - the road to Bridgeway's pretty windy. She can't be laughing every second of the day and a half it takes to get there; but the patches on her shoulders, the weight of the letters, keeps her warm inside somewhere even when she's shivering.
Bridgeway's a little town that's sprung up on an overpass, part of the interstate roads Gram's told Becka about. Two bridges, right next to each other, and the folks in Bridgeway have built their own bridges between so you can cross from one to the other. And they've had a mail call before, because when Becka rides up the narrow gates of the right half of Bridgeway are already opening. The man who waves her inside is smiling, and there's a crowd gathered to watch Becka come in.
Their eyes all linger on the patches at Becka's shoulders, the cap on her head and the mailbag slung at her hip; and maybe it should be weird how little they care about her face, but mostly it makes Becka grin. She's a part of something good, and they know it when they look at her, just like she'd known it when she saw that flag on Jamie Hu's sleeve.
"Carrier 18 of the Postal Service for the Restored United States," Becka says, loudly enough to make it carry a little, and hearing the words come out of her own mouth is like nothing else in the world. She clears her throat, and sits up straight in Dancer's saddle. "I got post here for the town of Bridgeway."
Becka digs into the mailbag - she put Bridgeway's mail in an inside pocket so it wouldn't get mixed with Milltown's - and pulls out the first letter. She alphabetized them on the road, to keep her fingers moving in the cold; she'd been terrified she might drop one, but she never did.
"A letter for Emily Broud," Becka calls out, reading off the envelope; and a redheaded woman gasps and starts pushing closer.
"Thank you," she says, when she takes the letter from Becka's hand; her tone's almost reverent. "Thank you so much."
"No problem," Becka says, wholly truthful, and smiles down at her from Dancer's back before squinting down at the next letter. "Dominguez? Ale - um - Ali-"
"Alvaro," shouts a young man near the back, and laughs. "My sister - her handwriting is terrible."
"Yes it is," Becka agrees, and swaps the letter to her other hand until the guy can get closer. "The next one is Lily Hirakawa?"
Milltown's not like Bridgeway, it's quite a bit bigger, and there's so many more letters - they take her to a building instead of having her read the names off in the town square, and they give her a chair to sit in and a glass of water. They let her stay the night, too, on a big spring mattress someone saved from before; and when she heads out in the morning back to Pineview, she feels as light on her feet as Dancer.
It's snowing when she reaches the walls of Pineview - just a flurry, and Becka's sticking her tongue out to catch a little of it when the gates start to open.
The sheriff is the one who lets her in, and Becka almost waves to him cheerily, has her hand halfway up, when she sees the look on his face. "Sheriff Briscoe, what-"
"Come on in," he says, gruff. "You all right?"
"Of course I'm all right," Becka says, "I was only running mail-"
"Where to?" says the sheriff.
"Milltown," Becka says blankly. "I - Milltown. And Bridgeway."
Sheriff Briscoe heaves a sigh, and then nods to her. "All right," he says, "go on."
She takes returning mail to the slot and Dancer to the stable with her heart lodged tight in her throat. It's quiet in the post office, quiet like it was when it was just her and Ford Lincoln Mercury, except there's at least twenty carriers inside, all looking at each other and saying nothing.
"What happened?" Becka says; it comes out far too loud, when everybody else is so still.
Ford looks up, and Becka can't quite work out all the pieces that make up the expression on his face. "Becka," he says. "You all right?"
"Why is everyone asking me that?" Becka says.
Ford bites his lip. "It's Judy," he says. "There were - there were Holnists on the road."
It's two days before Becka gets to see Judy, and by then they're pretty sure Judy's going to be fine. A woman named Heidi Andrews is Pineview's town doctor, and she doesn't make anything sound prettier than it is. "Might still get infected," Dr. Andrews says to Becka briskly, "and if she gets a serious case of sepsis there's jack shit I can do about it. But she didn't die from the bullet and she didn't die from the blood loss, so she's got a shot."
"Thanks," Becka says, a little faintly.
It's much more reassuring to talk to Judy, who's sitting upright and looks almost normal, except for the bandaging on her shoulder. "Plus my hair's disgusting," Judy says brightly. "Dr. Andrews says she's got better things to do than wash it for me, it's practically standing up on its own. Don't sit too close, I bet I smell terrible."
Becka laughs, and the wetness that was building in her eyes kind of slips away. "I've been in the office with twenty people and horses next door for two days," she says. "You better not sit too close to me."
So Judy's going to be fine; but all the same it's sobering. Becka's there when Judy tells Ford about it, Ford with the map on his lap so he can mark exactly where it happened. And Becka's always known you've got to watch out for Holnists, that if you see their uniform you run until they kill you or until you can't run anymore. But she's been lucky: she's never seen them herself, and they've never taken anybody she knows.
She should've known that would change once she met two dozen new people from ten different towns, once she started riding around on the roads. But she hadn't really realized it - not until now.
Becka goes out on two more runs while Judy's still recovering, short ones; Ford doesn't send anybody out on Judy's route. "The snow's coming," is what he says to Becka, but Becka can see something like guilt in his eyes.
The day Judy comes to the post office is the first day they get a letter from the Postman - the Postman, the one who swore Ford in and started their branch of the postal service, brought them the news of the Restored United States. Ford comes running in with it, bright-eyed, and when Judy asks him what it is, he laughs.
"It's for you," he says, and holds it out.
Judy takes it with her uninjured arm and flips it over. "From-" she says, and then gasps - and then grimaces when her own sharp breath jars her shoulder. "It's from back east! From the Postman."
She reads it out loud to them slowly, savoring every word; Becka couldn't quote it later if she tried, but the feeling it gives her is the same feeling she got when she finished her jacket, when she rode up to Bridgeway and handed that first letter to Emily Broud. When Judy's done, everybody cheers and claps, and Ford assigns the day's routes with a bigger smile on his face than he's worn in a week.
He gives Becka a slightly longer one, Martin's Ford to Penneton to Crowshill and back again; she loads up her bag and swings onto Dancer's back, and guiding Dancer out onto the road again is a little bit like going home.
The real snow starts on that run, long steady storms that blanket everything with a white so fine that it makes Becka wonder how she could ever have thought Dancer was a pale gray.
She's on her way back, in Penneton for the second time, when it happens. Later, Becka spends a lot of time wondering why. Martin's Ford and Crowshill are both larger than Penneton, and Martin's Ford has a crossing over the river - surely if the Holnists were going to show up anywhere, it should have been there.
Nobody's expecting it. Who would? The winters aren't like they used to be when Becka was a girl; the air's clearing up slowly, the dark of the year not as cold as it once was. But people still don't do much in the winter, most of the time. Fall's a rush of harvest and labor, and then you hole up with everything you can get your hands on and wait for spring to spring.
Becka stays in Penneton for supper, even after she's given out the mail and collected all the letters Penneton has to give in return. It's good, a thick savory stew, and they were generous with the meat, serving supper to a postman. Becka's trying to decide whether it's fair to go back for thirds when the things they're trying to thank her for are only her doing her job; and then somebody screams.
The scream gets cut off with an awful, gurgling, wet sort of yelp, and everybody at the Penneton community table goes silent.
"It can't be," somebody says, wavering, and then the table explodes with noise, only to be outdone by the slamming of something against the town gates.
"No, no," Becka whispers, her eyes straining in the dark, like if only she can see what's making the sound that'll make it not be Holnists.
Somebody grabs her arm, and she startles up off the table bench - but it's only a Penneton man. Simon, she thinks, Simon something; he gave her a letter.
Simon Something has Becka's mailbag, and he shoves it at her chest. "Quick, miss," he says - that's right, he's the one who keeps calling her miss. "You've got to get out of here."
"But they'll - I've got a horse," Becka says, trying to think - there's hundreds of people in Penneton, they can't all fit on her horse, but maybe-
A horse shrieks somewhere, and Becka whirls and runs toward the sound. Not Dancer, not Dancer-
It isn't Dancer. It's a bay with white socks, a pretty little thing, thrashing on the ground and screaming - Becka doesn't dare look closer. She yanks at Dancer's reins; the knot isn't very complicated, but in the dark, to her panicked fingers, it's holding like it's been soldered.
At last, at last, the knot comes apart. Becka can hear the shots now, rapid slews of fire alternating with the steady barking of smaller handguns. It's easier to listen to the jerking rhythm of it than to the screaming.
She swings herself up onto Dancer's back and digs her heels in, hard - not that Dancer needs much encouragement. She pins the mailbag close against her side with her elbow and leans low over Dancer's neck, and she can see the gate ahead of her in the dark, the lanterns still lit along the top.
Becka's halfway there when something slams into her hip. She thinks she's run into something, steered Dancer too close to a house, because that's what it feels like - that hard, and it takes a good few seconds for it to start to hurt.
And then, suddenly, it really hurts. Yeah, it hurts like slamming into something, that low bone-level ache that means you're going to be dark blue in two days; but also like tearing something, searing, like being cut deep and burned at the same time. Becka curls helplessly over it, gasping - that's why the second bullet hits her in the arm instead of in the gut.
Becka screams without even meaning to, it hurts so bad. She was using her left arm to hold herself up, but she can't anymore; she drops to Dancer's neck and runs out of breath, starts to sob wildly. There are tears in her eyes, overflowing and smearing Penneton into a blur of dark and light. Dancer's stopped, uncertain, shifting her weight nervously, and if Becka doesn't get her moving they're both going to die.
There's breathing, harsh, somewhere further away than Dancer but closer than the Holnists - closer because Becka can hear it, but whoever's doing the breathing isn't shooting her down. "You've got to get out, girl," says Simon Something hoarsely, and that sharp sound, that sound that isn't a shot, is him slapping Dancer hard on the flank.
Dancer's already nervous, and the slap sends her into a sudden gallop. Becka finds enough air to scream again, thin, into Dancer's mane; she closes her eyes tight and wraps the arm that doesn't feel like it's burning around Dancer's shoulder. Don't let go, she tells herself, don't let go, and she clings and waits, braced, for a third shot to finish her, but it never comes.
"Hey," Gram says, gentle.
Becka opens her eyes.
There's a familiar sort of ceiling over her head, no snow, no wind - no Dancer, either, but the strap of her mailbag is wrapped around her hand. Her knuckles ache when she straightens her fingers. "Gram?" she says.
It comes out on a rasp, and Gram's face goes away, only to return with a mug in front of it. She tilts Becka's head up, and Becka's been sick before: she knows to drink slow, to swallow steadily.
Gram's as good as Gram always is at holding Becka's head just right and lowering it down carefully, but it's reflex to tense a little, and Becka barely manages to trap the groan behind her teeth before it can escape.
"If you don't want to feel like that, don't get shot twice," Gram says, setting the mug back down somewhere off to the side.
"What are you doing here?" Becka says, and then, belatedly: "Where is here?"
"Pineview," Gram says. "A very nice young man with an excellent name came riding up through the middle of a snowstorm to tell me Becka Stearns had been shot by Holnists and could I please come along."
Becka closes her eyes and smiles. She'd always kind of thought Gram would like Ford. "And how could you not," Becka says, "when he asked so nice?"
"Exactly," Gram says, business-like. "I saw you move your hand, dear, and you're awake, which means it's time to ask you to let go of that mailbag."
Becka's fingers tighten helplessly. Don't let go. "I can't," she says.
Gram looks at her for a long moment, and then touches her forehead with one dry, cool hand. It feels heavenly. "No one's going to deliver that mail but you," Gram says. "But it'll be easier for you to rest if you let go, sweetheart."
Becka tries. She thinks about it real hard - tells herself that Gram's right there, Gram wouldn't lie; that no one will take it. But somewhere deeper than the gunshots, deeper than everything, she's afraid to. If she lets go, the letters will be gone, gone like everybody the Holnists shot who wasn't as lucky as Becka, and once things are gone like that they never come back-
"I can put them on the bed," Gram says. She doesn't try to move the strap, only leans down to lift the bag around Becka's hand, and sets it by the hip Becka wasn't shot in.
Becka bites her lip. The letters are right there, she can see them. The bed's not galloping; the letters won't fall off. She unwinds the strap from her hand one finger at a time, and Gram doesn't rush her.
"The Holnists, did they - are the other carriers okay?"
"Yes," Gram says. "One saw Holnists on the road, but she hid in time; and there was a boy who got spotted, but he ran. Fast enough to get away clean, which is more than you can say."
Becka doesn't want to laugh, she's pretty sure it'll hurt, but it's sort of hard not to. "And Penneton?" she says.
Gram's face turns grave, and Becka knows what that means even before Gram says a word. "They set it on fire." Gram shakes her head. "They must've taken some - they always do - and this time they weren't looking to leave anybody."
Becka swallows, blinks the tears away. "How long?" she says next.
"Not too long," Gram says. "Dr. Andrews was worried, the first day - or so I hear, at least. But you never let go of that bag, so they knew you weren't dead yet."
At that, Becka does laugh - haltingly, and she tries to keep her hip and her arm still and mostly succeeds. "I'll be okay, Gram," she says, and closes her eyes again. Her eyelids are so heavy. "I'll be okay."
The letters are still beside Becka when she wakes up again; Gram's gone, but Ford's there instead, and he practically comes to attention when she coughs.
"Hey," Becka says.
Ford stares at her for a second, and then puts his face in his hands.
"Hey, Becka Stearns," Ford says softly into his own palms; and then he scrubs his hands over his forehead, his hair, and looks up with a smile. A little wobblier than his usual, but still bright - always so bright.
"I got holes in my jacket," Becka says.
Ford laughs. "I can lend you a thimble," he says. His smile is firmer the second time, until it slides away. "Look, about your letters, Becka-"
"Carrier 18," Becka says sharply. "I've got to deliver them, Ford. I've just got to."
Ford bites his lip. "They're - they're not your route-"
"Penneton wasn't my route, you shuffled me over because Theo got sick - and it wasn't his route 'til last month anyhow. We're still adding towns all the time!" Becka's started to shout, started tensing up, and her hip and arm are screaming; she makes herself stop and take a deep breath, and lowers her voice carefully. "I know I can't take them all, Ford. I know that. But as many as I can. Please." She joined up because she wanted things to be better - because even bad things can be made better. Getting hold of somebody's last words, whatever final sweet thing they wanted to say, is better than just knowing they died. The letters are what's left of Penneton, and Becka can't not deliver them.
Ford looks at her and sighs. "Figured you might say something like that," he admits. "And I can't exactly tell you not to. What am I going to say - the post isn't important?" He looks scandalized at the very idea. "But, look, I'm - I'm sending most everybody in pairs, now. Even without Holnists, it's good to do in the winter so nobody gets lost or stuck or nothing."
Becka considers this. He might be - fudging, a little, but in the end it's Ford: he isn't lying. And it probably is a good idea in winter. "When I get better," she says, "enough to ride a horse, I want to go. But I'll - can I take Judy?"
"Yeah," says Ford, "you can take Judy. I mean, I'll ask; but you remember she got shot. I think she'll want to."
"Good," Becka says. The ache's crawling up hot in her hip and her shoulder, more the longer she stays awake; but it's still not enough to keep her from falling asleep between one breath and the next.
When she can get on Dancer without ripping herself open everywhere, she does. The Penneton letters get sorted, and, sure enough, she and Judy can't take them all; but there's twenty going to White Rapids and fourteen for Stoneridge, which are on the same road. And it isn't too far, which is the only thing that makes Gram rest easy.
Usually it wouldn't take more than three days to get to White Rapids, and one more to hit Stoneridge; but Becka and Judy take it easy and ride out nice and slow.
Judy doesn't ask her whether she's okay or she wants to talk or anything like that, which is so weird Becka actually asks her about it on the second day. The question makes Judy throw her head back and laugh.
"I remember what it was like," she says, motioning to her shoulder. "I didn't want to answer anybody's stupid questions, like 'all right' was going to cover it, or I could really talk out watching people die. I just - I couldn't help them, I couldn't stop the Holnists, but I could take their letters. I could get their letters back to Pineview and get them delivered." Judy's voice has gone somber, and she sighs. "I felt so stupid, but that was the one thing I could do; so I wanted to do it so bad I felt like I could just die."
"That could've been the bullet hole," Becka says, just to make Judy laugh again; and Judy does.
"It's a little thing," Judy says, "but when it's the only thing you can do, the only thing you've got left - it feels big."
Becka thinks about that while they ride. It is a little thing - letters are a little thing. Becka's seen and heard them get read, and three-quarters of them are silly stuff, how's Marie and did you ever actually get married and the kids are so big now. But being able to send them out there, to talk to somebody far away - that's a big thing. It can be so hard to get around these days, Holnists and weather and needing a horse or a donkey or your own two feet; every little town can feel like an island, like it's the only place left in the world.
But it isn't. Nobody's alone on this earth - that's what the mail really means these days, and that's one of the biggest things there is.
Some of the folks with letters from Penneton are angry - no less than Becka expected, considering what she's got to tell them. Mostly they see the bandages around her arm and her waist, and they don't give her too much trouble; Judy only has to stop one guy in White Rapids from trying to yank Becka down and hit her, and he stops after two swings at Judy and starts to cry.
The last letter in Stoneridge is a thin one, small envelope, from Simon Eyres - that was his name. The guy who takes it is an older fellow, narrow and white-haired, and he nods at Becka gravely when she hands it to him. "I can see it cost you," he says quietly. "I'm grateful."
Becka can't answer - even if her throat were willing to let words by, she's got no idea what to say. But the old guy just nods again, and then gives her a shaky little salute.
The crowd in Stoneridge was quiet after Becka told them what happened, and smaller than usual to start with - it's snowing today. People have been trickling away while she's handed the letters out, and the last three go with the old man, one putting an arm around his shoulders as they walk. Becka watches them go until the falling snow blocks them out, and then blows out a breath that turns to mist in the air.
"Better?" Judy says.
Becka thinks about it. It's not really better, not the way most people would figure it; death doesn't get fixed, it just kind of is. "Finished," Becka says, and then clucks her tongue to Dancer and turns to ride back out the town gates.
The number of mail runs they do in midwinter drops like a rock, which is maybe for the best. Becka would hate it if she were the only one stuck sitting in the office, but as it is, most of them are temporarily grounded. And of course Dr. Andrews is glad - she never thought Becka should have gone riding out to White Rapids at all, let alone Stoneridge.
It gives them a chance to really refine the system, and they get a few new recruits trickling in to Pineview even through the storms. Becka swears two of them in herself - a brother and sister, Tim and Cate Saunders, and the stars don't go out of their eyes even when Becka hands each of them a jacket and tells them to start sewing.
Row by row, they add more cubbyholes to the shelves for sorted mail - and then more shelves, when they run out of room. Ava Goldstein finds them a bunch of wire baskets, which are easier to sort mail into than the floppy sacks they started out with, and tall, serious Zane spends two weeks tinkering with more and more pulleys. There's an upstairs in the warehouse that they can expand into, and soon he's got it rigged so they can fill baskets down below and then haul them up to stuff mailbags up top before slinging them back down to be picked up by the doors.
Ms. Vargas comes by and patches up the old stove they scrounged to keep from freezing - she even finds them enough tubing for a proper chimney, so the upstairs doesn't get full of smoke anymore.
But Ford's real project for the winter is the press. It's not something they found - there wasn't anything like that in Pineview or Ford would have begged it for the office months ago. The Saunders kids brought it with them on a sledge as a donation; from the grateful citizens of Benning, they'd said, which Ford had thought was real pretty.
Becka's assigned to figure out the ink, which is hell. The stove means there's plenty of soot for her to work with, but the first three tries come out blurry - okay when there's nice big text, but for pictures or small words it's terrible.
"It's not so bad," Ford says to her on the third try.
"It's terrible," Becka says, and sighs.
"Maybe there's too much water," Ford says, and claps her on the back - her right shoulder, always, even though her shot arm's almost all healed up.
"Too much water," Becka murmurs when he's gone, and then takes this idea to heart. They have oil for the horses' tack - maybe any water is too much water. She thins it out a little with turpentine after the first batch comes out completely disgusting; and the second batch is still maybe a little too thick, but for once the smaller print comes out readable.
The Saunders kids are the quickest at laying out the letters, but having to spell everything backwards means they make a lot of mistakes - until Gram gets hold of them, anyway.
Becka's so well-healed even Dr. Andrews can't tell her not to ride come spring. Ford's divided all their towns up into thirty real routes - thirty, that go all over the restored state of Oregon. Obviously Becka doesn't know what postmasters were like, before; but she's pretty sure none of them were as good at it as Ford Lincoln Mercury.
Her first ride that doesn't hurt, where there's only scars on her hip and her arm instead of wounds, goes up into the foothills - isolated, in places, and not much chance of Holnists. Becka's all right with that.
It's getting so it's not uncommon to find people on the road with letters, as long as you make sure they aren't wearing Holnist orange; so when Becka sees a couple folks when she's following the switchbacks near the mountains, she rides toward them instead of away.
A man and a woman, they are, and the man's got a gun, but Becka takes a deep breath and doesn't flinch. No orange, she tells herself, and makes Dancer slow.
"That's far enough," the man says, when she's still a couple paces away. "We don't want any trouble."
"Me neither, mister," Becka says, which is true enough.
The man's looking at her kind of funny - at her cap, and the patches on her jacket. "What are you?" he says slowly.
"Carrier 18, US Postal Service," Becka says, and sniffs. "Got any mail?"