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Jax squatted behind a crumbled, vine-encrusted wall and eyed the ruins ahead. The streets were choked with weeds and scrub, and the pavement lifted and twisted where upheavals had shifted the earth. The rusted skeletal remains of vehicles and scraggly deformed trees provided plenty of hidey holes for rodents or bigger things. It looked like it had once been a small town. Now it was a grey tomb sprung up from the surrounding forest. Some of the still stood, although the majority had major damage--parts of their roofs missing, walls and windows gone, and many leaned as though a good wind would topple them. The air smelled of death and decay.
Shifting, he eased the cramped muscles in his legs and back. Pulling his bow from the top of his pack, he strung it. Notching an arrow taken from the sheath at his hip, he moved again, conscious of the slight scraping sound his leather boots made. Rising, he peered closer into gaping black doorways and through glassless windows. The early evening light was bright enough for him to move ahead without difficulty, but he disliked going into a new town without at least some scouting first.
He glanced upward. The sky was clear for the moment. But, in the not too far distance, great heavy clouds darkened the landscape. Rain fell in sheets behind him. Lightning flashed. He needed to get under cover.
"Damn," he muttered. Moving ahead, he kept to the shadows when he could. Darting into the first ramshackle building, he quickly raced for the next when he spotted human remains in the corner. A family, by the looks of it. Nothing left but a little skin and a lot of bones.
He clambered over enormous blocks of cement, dust pothering up aroundhis shins. He skirted a wall, heading for a doorway as quietly as he could. Bow at the ready, he peered inside. He saw nothing.
He reached out with his senses for any movement or noise that would indicate he wasn't alone. The roof had fallen in on part of the first room. Making his way deeper into the building, he saw another gaping doorway. He stopped just outside and listened. Nothing moved, so he stepped inside. Rustling sounds came from the far wall, and he quickly turned toward them, bow raised. A family of rats, as large as old world house cats, scrambled for cover. Debris littered the room. Checking the ceiling, he thought it looked solid enough. At least he'd be dry, or semi-dry. Very few roofs didn't leak.
Pushing some of the refuse to one side with his foot, he cleared the corner farthest from where he'd seen the rats. He unstrung his bow and leaned it against the wall, close at hand with the arrow next to it, while he slid his pack to the floor. He arched his back and stretched for the first time since donning the cumbersome carry-all that morning. The loose jerkin stuck to him, sweat trickled down his back and sides and had darkened the leather around his waist where his tool belt held the material tight. Knife, compass, med kit, sidearm with fourteen live rounds left in their little sleeves, and a small leather bag half-full of hardtack and roasted meat. He'd been lucky. Three days ago, he'd found a cave where the hunting was good, and the berries ripe enough to be almost palatable. Two malformed hares and time enough to dry the berries, then pound them into half of the meat, gave him supplies to last nearly a week.
He nudged his pack closer to the wall with his toe then squatted in front of it. Once he had it opened, he dug out the small pouch where he kept his flint and steel and the bundle of dry tinder. Reaching out, he snagged several pieces of finished wood and wondered what they'd been before they were broken.
A few minutes later, he sat with his back against his pack, a small fire warming him. The wind was picking up, and in no time, it howled through the empty building, sending dust and debris whirling into the air. Jax was used to it, and after noticing he'd picked lucky--his corner was out of the main draft--he settled into making his dinner. A chunk of hardtack first, and he hoped he had enough water to wash it down. He pondered setting out traps for a rat or two, but decided against it. He still had meat, and he'd finish that before going after more.
Unstrapping his water bottle, he took a tentative drink from the half-gallon jug. The tepid water was still good, but the jug was nearly empty and he had no idea when he'd get the chance to fill it again. He drank a little more, then put the stopper back in and refastened it his pack.
Acid rain began. At first, it was a gentle hissing sound tapping on the roof, but it quickly intensified and sounded more like a thousand tiny feet stamping overhead. He smelled its chemical stench and knew he'd be inside for awhile. He'd just gotten comfortable with a small piece of rabbit in his hand when he heard a noise from the main part of the building--a scuffling sound he knew was too heavy for the rodent population to incur.
He wolfed the meat down, barely taking the time to chew it, and reached for his single action Colt .45. He kept the handgun in good repair for just these kinds of circumstances. Not many people had them, so he had the edge, usually.
Deftly he thumbed one of his precious cartridges into the chamber, and flicked the action closed with a snap. Rising slowly, he crept closer to the doorway, all of his senses in high gear. Reaching the entrance, he dropped to one knee and peered around the jamb, searching for whatever had made the noise. The roof leaked in dozens of places, and small pools of liquid dotted the grimy floor, reeking to high heaven.
It took him seconds to locate the noisemaker. He lifted the muzzle of the .45 and grimaced. Across the room, what looked like a bundle of rags lay on the floor, just inside the door. The pile moved. A tanned, well-muscled arm reached out, the hand scrabbled at the floor and the fingers clawing at the debris. A moan reached him.
He inhaled, catching the stink of chemicals and burning cloth, and worse. He glanced outside and saw a dog lying a few feet away. What remained of its coat was matted, and the exposed flesh was blackened, burned.
Jax watched for a moment, deciding what he should do. The man was most likely a traveler like himself, looking for the same thing he was. But, he could be dangerous, very dangerous. Starving men, even bands of them, roamed what remained of civilization, taking what they wanted and destroying whatever they didn't.
Another moan set him into action. He lowered his gun but didn't unload it, and approached the man. The cloth covering the man's back and legs smoldered, but the exposed flesh and the dark mop of shoulder length hair seemed undamaged. Beside him lay a pack very similar to the one Jax carried, but it wasn't as well rounded. That meant the man had few provisions. He did have a water bottle that looked clean, and was hopefully full.
"Help me," came a soft, demanding voice. The man's head rose, and a smudged face with a pair of deep set, brilliant blue eyes turned his way. Pained eyes, beseeching eyes that somehow urged him to a decision.
Jax squatted beside the man, taking stock of him and his gear. He was thin, but not emaciated, so possibly a little food would bring him around. On his belt he carried a compass, a long knife, and two pouches that Jax couldn't guess at their contents. Neither was large. His clothing, although ragged, might have been functional before the rains. His boots, however, were almost new, and that was the deciding factor. Good footwear was essential, clothing was necessary, but it didn't have to be pretty.
Sliding the .45 into his pocket, he reached down to help the man up. It was much too easy, and when he finally stood straight, Jax understood why. He wasn't as tall as Jax's six feet, possibly six inches shorter and had a very slender build. With his arm wrapped firmly around the man's waist, they made it into the safer, drier back room. Easing him down beside the fire, Jax went back to retrieve his pack, and anything else he might have dropped.
Beside the pack was a bow, much like his own, but he couldn't spot a sheath or any arrows. He grabbed the pack by the straps and, after a quick check around, went back to his little sanctuary.
Entering the room, he found his "guest" sitting cross legged and his hands held out to the fire. He'd taken off his outer wear. "Thank you." The man's voice was stronger. "I ran one hell of a long way to get here before the rain set in." He turned, and again those piercing blue eyes focused on him. "You have food?"
The bluntness might have been out of place a thousand years ago but, in the world of pollution and acid rain, it was the norm. Survival wasn't assured. Men died easily. They were expendable. It was the women who weren't. Jax shrugged that thought away and replied, "Yeah, I have food." He nodded to the man's pack and the bottle hanging from it. "You have water?"
A smile crept across the mud-dabbed face. "Yeah. I crossed a creek on the way. It's clean."
"Good." Jax went to his pack and unfastened the small bag holding his food. Going to the opposite side of the fire, he handed it over and settled down. "Name's Jax. Yours?"
"Trev." He took the bag, and with no further ceremony dug into it. Pulling out a small slab of rabbit, he eagerly sank his teeth into the light brown meat. Sharp teeth and grimy fingers tore a chunk off and the sigh of pleasure came from knowing he wouldn't starve, not that day at least.
Jax had felt the same, on numerous occasions, so he smiled at the man. "You from here?" he asked when Trev had chewed and swallowed a few more morsels of meat.
"From the crèche north of here. Been out for nearly two years, but never seemed to go far. Had a few run-ins with men who thought I'd be easy prey because I'm not huge. As you can see, I did okay. You?"
"South. Two weeks walk, I reckon, if you walked it straight through." He allowed his eyes to take in the slender man facing him. Lean, but with hard muscles beneath the tattered clothing, he was well worth looking at. The shirt might have been red at one time, but was now threadbare and a pale orange. His jeans had holes in the knees. "I've been heading north for about two months. Wanted to check out the countryside. Animals are coming back. Saw a pack of wild dogs yesterday. Got a rabbit the day before."
Trev dug a piece of hardtack out of the bag and gnawed on it, finally freeing a marble-sized chunk. Chewing, he sat looking thoughtful for a moment. "There's a breeder looking for males inside the walls at the southern edge of the city. She's young, and from what I've heard, good looking."
"That's where you're aimed for?" Jax reached for his food bag. It was much lighter when he palmed it. Thoughts of trapping a rat or two crossed his mind again, but only for a moment. Rabbit was better, and maybe he'd find better game. "Water."
Trev nodded, pulled the bottle loose, and handed it over. "Take your fill." He rubbed his belly and smiled. "Yeah, I'm heading for the fortress. I heard tell that tomorrow she'll be looking at new men. I plan to be among them."
Unscrewing the cap, Jax nodded, then drank deep. The water was fresh and sweet, much better than the stale draft he had, and he savored it as it slid into his stomach. Dragging the back of his arm across his mouth, he capped the bottle and handed it back with a quick, "Thanks."
Trev's hand brushed his and he glanced down at the smaller one, the fingers shorter but strong looking. He didn't pull away. And neither did Jax. "It's going to be a cold one, what with that rain and wind."
Trev's eyes found his and both men smiled. "Yeah, I know," said Trev.
Posted April 18, 2011
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Posted January 28, 2013
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