NO ONE KNEW where she had come from. Some said she was a sign of the Last Days when darkness shall cover the earth and the angels shall sound their trumpets. Some said that perhaps the mother of abominations in the scriptures wasn’t a church at all but a person, and her arrival heralded the persecution and bloodshed that had been foretold. Others said she had been there before and believed, in her woman’s pride, that she had been wronged and had returned for blood. A very few, the smallest number, thought she was nothing more than a woman who wore pants and purchased property—mistaken in her ideas and sinful undoubtedly—but no more trouble than any other woman from The Outside, easily handled with a few firm words while carrying a hunting rifle. This last group kept their thoughts to themselves, knowing their more imaginative neighbors craved signs from God in everything that blew through Zion.
But everyone agreed, even before they saw her, that the woman who had bought the ranch north of Zion was ungodly and sinful and would bring a blight upon the valley.
That morning Brother Richardson had awakened to the first frost of the season, ice crystals sugaring the fields. Richardson knew that a frost at the end of October was nothing unusual. But his neighbors would see it as a confirmation of their worst fears. She has done this, they would say. With all the superstition of medieval peasants. Eve has come to Eden.
He leaned his forehead on his palm. You mean the serpent. The serpent was the one who brought evil to Eden. Just imagining the arguments he could have with his neighbors wearied him. Especially Jed, little Emma’s father.
Little. He sipped his coffee. She was already 15. As was his daughter Laura. He had seen the elders eyeing the two girls as they walked out of church last Sunday, collapsed against each other in giggles.
He looked out his kitchen window at the slow trickle of men and women walking towards the fields. The husbands carried rakes, and the wives puffed their steaming breaths into their hands, all of them ready to help with tilling the fields but not awake enough to have noticed the frost. Their best laid plans were no good now. They’d have to wait for the sun to melt it or pray for a better day. God usually granted better days if you just waited long enough.
He went to the sink to rinse his mug, neither of his wives being up yet to do it for him. Let them sleep. In sleep, their foreheads were smooth as ironed sheets, their eyes soft. He never saw Sariah and Jane look so peaceful during the day.
He turned to the window again. Something was up on the northern ridge. He leaned on the counter and squinted. It looked like a horse. A bear. A buffalo.
Then a herd of cattle crested the ridge, and he realized it was a horse and rider. The rider led a small herd, fewer than 50 head. But still. It was nothing he’d ever seen in Zion.
The rider was now carefully guiding the horse down the sage-spotted hillside. Its movements looked almost dainty. Such superb skill.
The horse made quick time and was soon trotting down the road winding through Zion. As the cattle loped towards them, the people on the road stopped. They looked, too. Everyone looked.
The rider wore a sheepskin coat and a cowboy hat, and Richardson caught his breath as he realized it was the ranchwoman riding straight for them. Shit. He strapped on his overalls and zipped up his coat and banged out the front door.
As soon as he reached the road, he grabbed people he knew. Elder Fife. Brother Michaels. Brother Sorenson. “Why don’t you head on home? We’ll have to wait for the frost to thaw anyhow.”
He hadn’t needed to panic. As soon as it was clear that the rider was a woman, the husbands took their wives by the elbow and steered them homeward. Some of the wives turned to raise a defiant finger to the rider as she cantered down the road. Doors slammed. Blinds dropped behind windows. The road emptied.
By the time she got there, no one was left but Richardson standing on the shoulder.
“Morning.” He said.
She nodded. He noticed a rifle strapped over her left shoulder.
“These here are private lands,” he said. “If you don’t want trouble, you best not be riding through.”
His words did not have the usual effect. She halted her horse, and a corner of her mouth lifted in a smirk. “Maybe it’s trouble I’m looking for.”
He looked up at her, a braid draped over one shoulder and streaked with gray. It was his turn to cock a smile. “That would be a first, ma’am.”
“You ain’t scared?” She said.
He almost laughed. “I’m not one to run from cattle.”
She scanned the row of shut doors, drawn blinds. “I meant of me.”
“I don’t see anything to be scared of.”
She clicked her tongue, and the cattle moved on, flowing around her horse like a stream around a boulder.
“Look harder.” She spurred her horse, and it joined the current of creatures around her.
He stayed watching from the side of the road as she drifted away from him. For an instant, she turned back, a gloved hand perched on her horse’s haunch. “It’s either me or Isaiah. So if it’s not me you’re scared of, then you better keep an eye on him.”
And then she turned back to the herd and galloped ahead.
Back inside, Richardson saw the dust rising in their path long after the cattle had gone. It felt like a storm had swept through the valley, one that had left the air cold and sharp. No one here told Outsiders sacred things. And nothing was holier than a name.
She had known their prophet’s name.