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Temple of the Sinai
Gradually, Hutch's days on the ranch fell into a routine. Every morning he rose early and joined the others at breakfast, which was always eaten in silence. Mornings were spent in the dairy, processing the goats' milk from the milking of the previous night and from that morning. Sister Hannah taught him how to make both a fresh cheese and a strong, salty cheese that was later aged. They were also responsible for the use and upkeep of the ranch's single large refrigerator, run by a generator, that stored the cult's most perishable items. For the most part, though, the members eschewed technological advances such as refrigeration, preferring to live off simple foods such as grains, fruits and vegetables.
Hannah explained that the Temple teaching did not require vegetarianism. "But we have little meat, only when we butcher one of the sheep or goats, so it is reserved for special occasions. Then, we roast and eat an entire beast at once."
Since Hutch was much stronger, physically, that his slender instructor, he went out of his way to help her with the heavy jugs of milk and crocks of fresh cheese. He wondered about their conversation of his first day, how she had hinted at having had help in the dairy once before. On his third day he decided to broach the subject.
"There's a lot of work around here for just one person," he observed casually. "How did you keep up before they assigned me to you?"
"Not very well, for the last couple of weeks," she admitted. She was growing less shy now, and seemed to be getting used to having Hutch around. She still, however, tended to avert her eyes when she spoke to him. "I used to come back in the evenings to finish, when I was supposed to be meditating." She flushed guiltily. "Before that Brother Aaron and I kept up pretty well, even though he was just a boy."
"Brother Aaron?" asked Hutch, innocently. "I don't think that I've met him. Did he get tired of the dairy and move on?"
She shook her head, the slight movement rippling the snowy white kerchief on the head. "No...," she said faintly, "I think this was the only place he was happy. He was like a little brother to me, especially after my husband died." The words, spoken matter-of-factly, struck Hutch hard enough to distract him from his intention to pursue the subject of Aaron. This grave and gentle young woman was already a widow, at the ripe old age of, what? Twenty-three or twenty-four?
"I'm sorry," murmured Hutch. The words seemed pitifully inadequate. "How...how did you lose your husband?"
She pressed her lips together, and did not answer for a moment. "An accident," she said finally, walking out of the dairy with a pair of scoured milk buckets to return to the milking shed. She was already out of earshot before Hutch realized she still hadn't fully explained what she knew about her former assistant, Brother Aaron.
It's got to be the same one, Daniel's brother! he thought excitedly. Same name, and Daniel's brother had been only seventeen years old. Plus, Hannah had implied that the boy had been unhappy here on the ranch. Did she, perhaps, know what had really become of Aaron?
Afternoons of his first week were spent, along with most of the rest of the ranch's male members, working on the spring planting. The hard labor was not exactly pleasant, but it was mindless, and it allowed Hutch to free up his brain to begin to puzzle out some of the mysteries. What had really happened to Hannah's husband, and to Aaron? Where were the missing babies? And why did Hannah seem to be hiding something?
Hutch had to admit to himself that he was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the young dairymaid; more so since she had let slip her widowed status. He'd noticed the plain wedding band at their first meeting; it had made sense, with her covered hair and serious adult manner. He had the feeling that these people married young. Yet now, when he was working at various mind-numbing tasks, he felt his mind wander back to her--to her soft voice, her shy half-hidden face, her graceful motions as she went about her tasks.
He put off reopening the conversations about Aaron and the deceased husband, curiously reluctant to disturb her composure. Instead, he coaxed her to talk about everyday matters. He discovered that, as a widow without children, she had moved back in with her sister and brother-in-law. He learned that she had a small patch of herbs growing by her sister's cabin, and that she knew much of their culinary and medicinal uses. He found that she knew a surprising amount about nutrition and vitamins. Questioning her about this one day, he made a chilling discovery whose significance he almost didn't see at first.
"How do you know so much about this?" he asked one day, watching her prepare an iron-containing tonic for her pregnant sister. He had maneuvered around behind her, looking over her shoulder, not-quite touching her back.
She smiled wistfully. "There was a nurse who came out here a while back, from town, to teach us. She had a special class for...some of us."
Reflexively, Hutch shot her a startled glance. Head down, grinding away with a mortar and pestle, she didn't appear to have noticed. He swallowed, throat suddenly gone dry, and tried to pick up the conversation without missing a beat.
"Well, you must have been a good student," he said lightly. "Was the nurse training you to become the ranch healer, or something?" he asked, trying to get some clarification on what her words implied.
"No, I guess I just remembered better than the other pre...the other women in the class. I really wanted to learn something new." The brief slip of the tongue, uttered in Hannah's low voice, was unmistakable.
Pregnant. Hutch's mind filled in the missing letters, and his head reeled. He struggled to keep his surprise off his face. Hannah must have been one of the pregnant women in the nurse's nutrition classes, during the rubella epidemic two years ago. But where was her baby?
He cleared his throat. "It's almost noon, I should be going. I'll see you tomorrow." He smiled at Hannah as he left.
Today was Tuesday of his second week with the cult. This week he was spending his afternoons at the school, helping the children with their lessons one on one. The cult's children were extraordinarily well behaved; the teacher merely taught a few lessons and then set them at their work. Hutch's job was merely to drift around and help out when the youngsters were puzzled. He also taught a daily geography and history lesson, though the later was substantially watered down. Reading and mathematics were the main curriculum, but information about the outside world was scant.
Because of the desert heat, the children did their chores in the morning cool, then spent the long hot afternoon sitting quietly in school. It made sense, Hutch realized; but it also made the schoolroom a sleepy, stuffy place. He was glad when the session was over and he could return to the bunkhouse to wash before supper.
That night he lay awake, thinking about his conversation with Hannah. He'd been unimaginably lucky to be assigned to help her, he now realized. If he could be patient and earn her trust, perhaps he could coax the rest of the story out of her, and find out what had happened to her baby and the others.
And then what? Originally, the detectives had hoped to gather enough evidence to justify a raid on the ranch, sneak out, and send in a larger force with a warrant. Hutch now realized that if Hannah truly had knowledge of murders committed at the Temple of the Sinai, he and Starsky would need to sneak her out as well, to testify. Deep in his heart, he also knew that he didn't want to leave her here in the hands of these people, if there was any truth to the story. Taking Hannah along would complicate matters greatly.... Hutch realized that he desperately needed his partner to confer with, to bounce things off of. Working alone was more difficult that he'd imagined.
He finally drifted off to sleep, only to have uneasy dreams in which he asked Hannah to leave with him only to have her betray him to the elders.
Sunday at the ranch was spent in quiet prayer and contemplation. Only absolutely necessary labor was performed. Unfortunately for Hutch and Hannah, goats didn't take Sundays off. They met at the dairy earlier than usual to process the available milk and still be at the group worship service on time.
As they hurried to finish, Hutch laid a hand on Hannah's forearm, almost without thinking. He had never touched her physically prior to this, and he felt her bare arm beneath his hand as if he had never touched human flesh before. She drew back and raised startled green eyes to his face.
"I'm sorry," Hutch murmured. "I didn't mean to startle you. I just wanted you to know I won't be here tomorrow morning to help you. I'm riding back into town in the morning with Brother Isaiah. I need to talk with my friend, David, up in Independence. I want to see if I can get him to come up here for a while." He smiled at her reassuringly. "But I'll be back by late afternoon. I won't be teaching on Monday, so I can come back and see if you need any help."
Hannah looked away, and didn't answer. Unwilling to end the conversation on that note, he pressed further. "Do you want me to bring you anything from town, Hannah?" He had never called her by her first name before, only "Sister."
She shook her head. "Ken," she whispered, "why do you want to bring your friend here? Leave him where he is, where he has a life." Hutch was amazed to see her eyes fill with tears. She brushed past him and was abruptly gone in a rustle of skirts.