The next time Eddie regained consciousness, he found his arms slung over two sets of shoulders. Bryce and the woman hoisted him, legs dragging, into a little weather-beaten house.
"Aren't you afraid you'll get sick?" Bryce asked, addressing the woman.
"Youu smmell like sage brushhhh and flowers," Eddie said, his head lolling against the woman's shoulder.
Inside, the house smelled like canned peaches and cinnamon rolls. Eddie's first impulse was to ask for something to eat. His second was to vomit. He caught sight of another woman, dressed like a pioneer in an old timey movie. She jumped up from her chair as Eddie's head flopped forward and left him staring at the floor.
"Jane, what are you dragging into my house."
"Our house, darlin'. This boy's got the pox something fierce. His friend here has it too."
"I feel fine," said Bryce.
"Have you looked in a mirror?"
Eddie stared at the moccasins on the feet of the pioneer woman. "Those shoezzz look comferble," Eddie slurred.
"They're drifters, aren't they?" asked the pioneer woman.
"Yes. They drifted in on the river, and if you patch them up, Loretta, we can let them drift right back out, and we don't have to deal with their corpses on our grazing land."
"I thought you said it wasn't fatal," Bryce said.
"It isn't. But a pair of sick lumps like yourselves would be coyote meat out there on your own."
Eddie drew up his eyes. Loretta was the pioneer woman, Jane was the cowboy... cowgirl... sheep girl, whatever. The two woman locked eyes, communicating in a secret language all their own.
Loretta looked doubtful and scared. "I was saving my spark for mother," she said. "She's been drifting since it happened."
"Since wha'?" Eddie mumbled.
Loretta scowled. "Since the world went to hell."
Eddie shook his wobbling head, his brain sloshing around within. "Noooo. Not hell. There was a tree."
Loretta's eyes blazed.
Bryce nudged Eddie in the ribs with an elbow. "Knock it off, idiot," he whispered.
"Your mother can wait one more day," Jane said. "She's not so bad."
"She's been calling for my dead father for the past hour," Loretta said. "Says she needs him to fix the chicken coop."
"Well, I tell you what," Jane said. "You fix these boys up, and I'll put them to work fixing the chicken coop so your mother can stop communicating with the dead."
"Do the chickens have large talons?" asked Eddie.
Bryce elbowed him harder.
"Owwww," Eddie whined.
Loretta's eyes darted across all their faces. "I assume you'll be wanting dinner," she said to Bryce.
"Um, I like dinner, but my friend here is in no shape to—"
She put up a finger to silence him. She frowned and said, "get your friend on the couch."
Eddie's head rolled around helplessly as they dragged him into the next room. They dropped him onto a velvet couch where he collapsed sideways.
"So, what? You make a poultice or something?" Bryce asked.
Loretta blinked at him. "What's a poultice?"
"Actually, I don't really know."
Loretta pushed him aside and knelt beside Eddie. "What's your name, son?"
Eddie muttered incoherently.
"What was that?"
"I said if my driver's license is right, I'm Edwin Foster."
"So do you use an herbal concoction," Bryce asked. "Or do you—"
"Shut it," Jane said.
Loretta closed her eyes. She waved her left hand over Eddie's head as she held up her right hand. She looked like she was swearing on an invisible bible that wouldn't sit still. Her eyes rolled up, her mouth moved in foreign whispers. Occasionally, Eddie recognized his own name in the words she spoke. This lasted for about twenty seconds. Then she dropped her hands.
"Okay," she said. "Next."
"Wait," Bryce said. "That's it? You just wave your hands and go all Exorcist, and now we have to fix your chicken coop?"
"Well, look at him," Jane said.
Bryce stooped and peered at Eddie. Eddie stared back, uncertain what had happened. He was dizzy, right? He was ready to vomit...
... except when he sat up, he felt neither. His head was clear.
"Stand up, son," Jane said. "Make room for your friend." As Eddie stood up, Jane pushed Bryce onto the couch. Small yellowing patches spread across Bryce's forehead. He had the pox as well. Loretta performed the same ritual for him. Eddie watched as the yellow patches grew faint. When she withdrew, Eddie wondered if they had ever been there at all.
Loretta stood and nodded. "Well, that's done."
"So I'll put them to work on the chicken coop," Jane said.
Loretta's eyes looked tired, dark circles hanging beneath each like gray half moons. Eddie wasn't positive, but he didn't think they had been there before the healings. "No," she said. Give them a minute to get right. Fetch them a slice of pie. I've got to go see to mother."
A minute later, Eddie, Bryce and Jane sat around a small wooden table in the kitchen, each with a slice of pie and a tin cup of water. Eddie was wary of eating so soon after his illness, but after his first nibble of the berry pie, he began wolfing down huge forkfuls, berry sauce dripping down his chin.
"What just happened," Bryce asked. "Loretta used some kind of magic on us?"
"Well, yes. Wasn't that obvious? She's got a knack for healing." Jane nibbled at a piece of pie crust.
"I guess. It's just... I didn't think magic was real."
Jane's eyes narrowed. "Is this where your con starts?"
"What do you mean?"
"Of course magic is real. What are you playing at?"
"Where we come from, magic is all make-believe—something out of fairy tales."
"Where do you come from?"
Bryce told her a little about his home and his experiences over the last few days. Jane ate while he talked, looking doubtful.
As they spoke, Eddie noticed the old radio at the end of the table. It looked like something out of an old movie, a wooden box, peaked at the top like a gothic arch. Ornate carving decorated the front where two black dials protruded. Eddie turned it on, and soft static shushed out of the speaker. He fiddled with the dials.
"And you're saying out west is all one big desert now?" Jane asked Bryce.
"Northwest. We've been coming down that river for a few days, a few hundred miles."
"That river used to be a little stream. This whole world has gone crazy. I've heard tales of all kinds of wild folk wandering in down in Holcomb, speaking all kinds of languages."
Bryce nodded towards Eddie. "He speaks all kinds of languages."
"That right? Well mabe he can be of use." She slapped Eddie's hand away from the radio and cranked the knob. Where she stopped, the static ceased and a single male voice spoke. "You recognize that language?"
Eddie listened for a moment. "Yes, I guess."
"What's he saying?"
Eddie listened, then translated. "... citizens are instructed to stay inside at night. Lock all doors. Report any suspicious activity. Remember, these abductions are coming from the sky. The invaders appear to be flying on the backs of winged reptilian creatures. For lack of a better word, we'll call them dragons..."
Eddie turned to Bryce. "There's dragons?"