We met at the intersection of two county roads in the middle of the prairie. I was going east. He was going south. It was just happenstance that we met the way we did, as the wheat field to the north side of the road concealed him from me, and me from him, until we were each within a hundred feet of where the roads met.
I must have been weary from my journey not to be looking out for strangers as I approached that crossroads. My rifle was slung and my eyes were aimed directly in front of me. Then, from the edge of my field of view I noticed movement. I could feel my stomach tighten up in fear as I stopped in my tracks and looked up to see a man standing in the road on the north side of the intersection. From the expression on his face, he was as surprised as I was.
He looked to be about fifty years old, with torn, dirty clothes and a pack on his back. In the days before the world changed he might have been called a hobo, except for the slung lever-action rifle and the pistol on his hip.
“Hello there!”, I yelled, “I’m not hostile! Just crossing the road on my way east!”
“Keep your rifle slung!” he yelled back, “And keep on moving on down the road!”
“I’d rather meet you in the middle of the road, then we can each go our own way,” I said, not wanting him being able to shoot me once I had crossed the road. I’d had a bad experience back in Spokane when I had accepted the “courtesy” of a man who had insisted that I go first. Lucky for me that he missed. His luck ran out when I turned and drew my pistol. I didn’t miss.
“Alright, then,” said the stranger, “We’ll meet in the middle.”
We both walked slowly into the middle of the intersection, eyes on each other and hands straight down at our sides. Neither of us wanted the other to think that a threatening move was imminent. We stood there, face to face, sizing each other up for what felt like hours. In reality only a few seconds had passed.
Sensing that if this stranger had wanted to harm me he would have made a move by now, I stuck my hand out while cracking a half smile, and said, “Name’s Pete. What brings you this way?”
The stranger grasped my hand like a drowning man grasps a rope, and said, “Bill. Headed south. Can’t take another winter ‘round here the way things are now.”
The way things are now. That is why I am headed east. Well, that and some unfinished business.
Bill and I stopped looking straight at each other, and he let go of my hand. I could see Bill had become less tense, probably glad to encounter a human being who meant him no harm. I have to admit that I was happy to have human contact myself, as I had been on the road for weeks having seen few people. Those I had seen either shied away or made it clear they wanted no contact.
“Headed any particular place?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation going a bit longer. It had been a while since I had actually talked to anybody, and I wasn’t ready to move on yet. Someone once said that conversation was a lost art; these days it was just lost.
“Not really,” he said, “I just figured I’d go south until I found some place I wanted to stay. Right now I’m more interested in finding some water than anything else. You wouldn’t have any you could spare, would you?”
“Not much. I’ve got half a canteen left and I was hoping to find someplace to refill my water bottles. I figure that somewhere along this road there’s a farmhouse that’ll have a well or a pond. Maybe up over the next rise,” I said, as I raised my hand and pointed east down the road I was traveling.
Bill turned to look to the east. Since it was still morning, he put his hand up to shield his eyes and looked down the road. “Well, it seems as good an idea as any. You mind having company? Two might be better than one.”
“Not at all,” I said. Then we began trudging east in search of water.
* * * * *
The sun was beating down on us from high in the sky as we reached the top of the rise. Although I had a wristwatch, I seldom looked at it anymore. All I need to know now are night and day, and when each is beginning and ending.
About a mile or so off in the distance I could see a line of tall trees originally planted to provide some shelter from the frequent windstorms. A windbreak meant a farm, a farm meant a house, and a house meant a well. There would be water, if we could get to it.
Bill and I had stopped in the road to gaze at the windbreak and to scan for signs of the farm beyond it. I let my pack slip from one shoulder so I could get my binoculars from the side pocket. Looking down the road at the farm, I could make out the outlines of a house and an equipment barn behind the windbreak. I could see no signs of life, but that was not unusual these days. No one who intended to continue living would casually flaunt his existence. We would have to find out if anyone was alive at the farm.
We talked about how we would approach the house, and decided that the best approach would be to continue walking down the road, then to holler to the house to see if anyone answered. It did not seem to make much sense to us to attempt to sneak up on the house, as anyone in a second story window or the upper level of the equipment barn could see us over a mile away. We had no evil intentions, only to ask for water, so we figured that an open approach matched our intentions.
We agreed that we would keep an eye out for signs of mutant zombie bikers, a turn of phrase I had read in some post-apocalyptic fiction. Not really mutants or zombies, but a colorful description of the bad guys who always seem to find each other and make life miserable for survivors. At the first sign of MZBs, we would get off the road and find a hiding place to observe the farm and decide what to do next. Bill pulled out his own pair of well-worn binoculars, put the strap over his head, and let hang down from his neck. We were ready to keep moving.
As we approached the farm we would stop here and there to get a better look at the house and the yard around it. By the time we reached the edge of the yard, neither of us had seen any sign of life at the farm. The grass in the yard looked like it had not been mowed in over a month, debris had blown up against the side of the house and equipment barn, and weeds were growing knee-high in front of the man-door and overhead doors to the pole barn. There were no vehicles of any kind visible anywhere on the property. Looking through binoculars at the dirt driveway which ran some hundred yards from the road to the house and the barn, I saw no sign of tire tracks.
I looked at Bill to gauge his reaction. Seeing nothing which would change our plan, I turned to face the house and yelled, “Hello the house!”. No answer.
Bill said, “Give it a minute and yell again. If there’s someone in there, give ‘em a reasonable chance to get where they wanna be.” He put his binoculars up to his eyes and started scanning the house and barn.
I cupped my hands around my mouth to shout at the house again, “Hello the...”, which was all I managed to get out before I was shoved from the side and fell onto the road with Bill nearly on top of me. At the same time I heard five or six shots in rapid succession coming from the farmhouse. I started to yell, “What the hell?”, but thought better of it as I looked over at Bill and saw he had his index finger up to his lips.
“Quiet,” he whispered, “He may think he hit us. Start inching backwards to the ditch on the far side of the road.”
Not having a better plan, I did as Bill suggested. A couple of minutes later we were crouching in the ditch. Bill had his own pair of binoculars up and was searching the house. “I saw a rifle poke out of the upstairs window. That’s why I pushed you down. From the sound of it, probably was only a twenty-two.”
While Bill continued to peer through the tall grass with his binoculars from the safety of the ditch, I unslung my rifle, made sure I had a round chambered, and lay prone waiting for some sign of activity from the house. We didn’t have to wait long.
“The front door is opening,” said Bill, “It looks like someone is coming out.”
I could see the slim figure of a human being next to the doorframe of the house. Then it retreated and the door closed. I looked at Bill, but he continued watching the house, then scanning each side of the house and the pole barn. After a few minutes I could tell that Bill had a fix on something at the west end of the house.
“Looks like he’s trying to sneak into the field,” Bill whispered. I looked to the corner of the house, and sure enough, I could see a head poke out and look toward the road, then withdraw behind the house.
A few minutes later the figure dashed into the adjacent field and disappeared.
“I think he’s trying to cross over and come up behind us,” I said to Bill.
“Yeah, I think you’re right. Can you crawl back into this field to get behind him? I think he will try to come up behind the ditch. I’ll wait and watch to see if he crosses the road.”
“I can do that,” I said, “Whoever gets the draw on him first, yell out, then wait for the other. Okay?”
I slowly took off my pack, turned, and belly-crawled with my rifle in my hand through the wheat field behind us. After I had crawled about fifty yards back from where Bill was still laying against the side of the ditch and watching the road, I sat down and lifted up my binoculars and scanned the area between me and the ditch. Nothing, yet.
For the next half hour or so I kept scanning the field behind Bill, still seeing no movement.
“Hold it right there! Put the gun down, put your hands up, and come up on the road!” I heard Bill yell. I turned with the binoculars to look down at the road near Bill, then directly across the road from him. I could see a pair of hands appear in the air, partially obscured by the grass growing at the side of the road.
I started walking, toward Bill, hunched over to keep my profile low. As I approached Bill’s location I could see the hands slowly move higher as the person made his way up the side of the ditch to the road. A few times the hands dipped as the person lost footing for a moment, but before long a thin figure in a dirty t-shirt and jeans appeared from the ditch and stood at the side of the road.
“My God,” Bill exclaimed, “It’s just a boy!”
* * * * *
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