The man took a moment to look out over the burning orange color of the sky. The clouds had taken on a strange bluish tint since the falling away. He looked wistfully out over the dried and dead land. It seemed as if the world was empty now. In actuality, the world held less than half its previous population.
It was a little over a year ago that the meteor fell. The resulting radiation triggered a mass epidemic that killed most of the female population almost immediately. It had been nine months since the last woman in this area died. Taking one last look, he pulled the shutters to his lone window closed. One couldn’t be too safe in this day and time. He’d learned the hard way after most of his goods were stolen long months ago.
Just before closing the doors flush, he noticed the reflection of the sun off of glass in the canyon below. Squinting, he studied the glint more carefully. It bobbed and moved, a slightly unsteady movement in the fading sun. He recognized it for what it was ... an interloper.
Gathering his gun, he moved to the porch of his claimed cabin, settling in the deep shadows formed by the intersection of house angles. Resting on his haunches, he braced the shotgun over his left forearm, staring straight down the barrel at the intruder.
Trudging up the uneven hill, the traveler shifted his back pack to settle again on his sore shoulders. He’d been walking for ten days, trying to get somewhere with more people after his own town had been pretty much wiped out.
Although he was tough, he knew he couldn’t survive alone. So he’d listened to the short wave radio, trying to find the closest settlement. Then, packing everything he could carry – mostly food and tablets to purify water – he set off. Today, he’d been walking since dawn and was about ready to drop. He’d hoped to find shelter rather than sleeping out in the open again. Glancing up and shading his eyes, he thought he could make out a shuttered ranch house.
As the hunched figure approached the wide steps to the porch, the man called out, “How many are you?” He could see one lone figure, but the high plains could be deceptive. There were many dips and rocks to camouflage oneself in.
The traveler slowed as he heard a cautious voice, and he raised his hands in a show of peace. He knew how spooked people were these days – he had been, himself, and he still carried a revolver on his hip. “Just one,” he called back, voice a rough rasp from disuse. He hadn’t talked much for months ... no one to talk to.
The rough voice did nothing to dispel the man’s worries, even as the traveler held his hands up in a universal gesture of peace. Rising slowly, the man stepped out of the shadows with the gun still trained on him. “Who are you? How did you find me?”
Stopping in place, the traveler took a breath, trying to calm his racing heart. It was always dangerous to approach a stranger. “My name’s Rob. I’m just traveling. I’ve walked from outside Bremerton, just looking for a settlement,” he explained, trying not to sound threatening.
“Closest settlement is three days’ walk from here,” the man offered, gun dropping slightly but still aimed in the general direction of this Rob. “I’m the only one for miles in any direction. Most folks use old 98,” he motioned to the far north. “It’s still fairly well kept. Easy walking on the old pavement.”
Rob’s face darkened in concern. He had enough food and water to make it three more days, maybe. Glancing back to the man in front of him, he slowly lowered his arms, though he kept them at his sides. “Thanks. Is there somewhere sheltered around here where I can sleep for the night?” he asked cautiously. Some people didn’t want anyone else nearby, and if this man was like that, Rob might have to walk far into the night.
The man lowered the gun completely, seeing the despair in the traveler’s countenance. “You can stay here if you are willing to share news of the others.”
Blinking in surprise, Rob straightened, smiling some. “Yeah? I don’t have much to trade, a little money, is all,” he offered.
The man shrugged, reaching behind himself to open the door. What did he have to lose? His possessions had long been stolen. What little he had amassed since then was just that ... very little. “I find I might enjoy talking to someone other than my reflection.” He motioned inside the small house, the dim light of the lantern flickering invitingly in the growing dark.
Walking closer, slowly, Rob pulled off his large hat as he stepped up on the porch, glancing to the man who was taking him in ... because? Rob swallowed hard. He could be in a lot of trouble, he knew, and he stopped to study the other man, trying to gauge what kind of chance he was taking. He could be robbed, beaten, or even killed if he went inside this man’s house.
The man noticed the close scrutiny from the dark eyes that were revealed when the hat was removed. Stepping into the room in front of Rob, he turned his back to him in an unspoken display of trust. “I’m Ellis. My grandparents used to live here. Remarkable house, if you ask me. Gravity flow water from the tower out back. You can have a bath if you wish.”
A bath. Rob practically sagged in relief. “You must be an angel,” he rasped, carefully easing the heavy pack off his shoulders and setting it inside the door. He glanced up to see this Ellis moving around inside the cabin, and Rob shrugged off his coat, wiping at his sand-irritated eyes.
Ellis turned to see the other man unload his dusty pack. The man was several inches taller than him, but he figured he could wear some of his grandfather’s old clothes. He motioned for Rob to follow him. Leading him to the single bathroom in the building, he indicated the taps and handed the man a bar of soap. Leaving the room, he found an old pair of overalls and a faded shirt. Stepping back into the room, he noticed the other man watching the running water with a look of wonder. “Here’s some clothes. I’ll make something to eat. When you’re done, just let the water out. I use it to irrigate the plot out back.”
Nodding in exhausted shock, Rob could hardly believe his luck. “I’ll pay you back, somehow,” he promised, looking up to meet Ellis’s eyes the first time.
The tired, amber eyes shocked Ellis. They were beautiful, shining like colored glass in a dusty and tired face. “Maybe you will,” he murmured, “but it’s not required. I’m sorry I was so gruff ... it’s just that ... the only ones who usually ... well ... we’ll talk about it later. After you’ve had food and we’re both ready to rest.”
Rob nodded again, this time in understanding. “I’ll be quick,” he said. “And Ellis,” he added as the other man made to shut the door behind him, “thanks.”