RIDERS OF THE WASTELAND
By Heather Pillman
Years back something happened. None of us now living are old enough to remember it, but our fathers and mothers did. They who went before us told us the story of what once was. Life was different then. People lived together in large groups called cities, and they built buildings and houses. Then everything was taken away, and all that once was, was lost and forgotten. Those that survived tried to rebuild at first, believing the whole time that everything would go back to the way it once was. But this was not to be. There were those who took to the craziness of things. They reverted to living like animals instead of human beings. They formed small tribes and attacked those weaker than them.
There were also a series of wars waged in the wastelands for fuel, but when that was used up, there was nothing left of the once great civilization that came before us. Many split up and left to try and find a better place. Some believed that there had to be something left of the world, and they went to search for it. In this way, families divided and separated. Wives from husbands, fathers and mothers from children, and soon all that was left were scatterings of wanderers, those who lived in the wastelands, and traded to survive. They did not search for a home they simply existed.
Chapter 1: The Stranger
In the middle of the desert, miles from any visible signs of life, the sun beats down upon a man. He is running fast despite the incredible heat. He seems to be running from something, but from what exactly it cannot be said. There does not appear to be anyone or anything chasing him. There is nothing for him to be running toward either, nowhere to hide in the vast, desolate wasteland. Nonetheless, on he runs. All of the sudden, as if from out of nowhere, a low rumble can be heard in the distance. The man pauses for a moment and looks back as the drone grows louder, a massive cloud of dust can be seen rising from the earth. Now the man abandons what he has been carrying with him, a bundle of long pieces of wood, or perhaps some type of weapon, a long scarf that he has had tied around his face, a long black robe of some sort, and a large leather container of what appears to be water. Now that the man has stripped his heavy clothing away, his true appearance can be made out.
He has cast off everything but a utility belt he has had around his waist. He appears to be what people once referred to as "middle aged," although the phrase is not used anymore because most no longer live to be that old, especially when they reside alone in the wasteland. He is not of especially tall stature, but he is muscular, he would have to be to have survived alone so long. He appears to be a drifter of some sort. His face is rugged from years of harsh desert sun. His eyes are a clear blue. The left eye also appears to have been injured, as the pupil is fully dilated, and there is a scar on his eyebrow. They could be considered cold eyes. Perhaps years ago his eyes had had feeling in them, but little remains now. His hair is a dark brown, almost black, flaked throughout with white. At the man's temples the hair is completely white. He is clad in solid black.
He desperately sprints in an attempt to put distance between him and his pursuers. It is clear now what the sound is that the man is running from. It is the sound of horses. As the rumble of hooves grows closer, he realizes that he has sheer moments to find some sort of shelter, lest he be run down.
He sees in the distance a small fenced-in area. He clambers toward it, hoping for some protection. When he gets to the fence, he has only moments to survey his surroundings. In these few moments he reckons that this was once a farm of some sort. There are low, shrubby plants in rows all around him. They are mostly dead. Some plants appear to have been yanked out by their roots. There is a small ruin of a foundation in the center of the yard, most likely it was once a house. There are some trees, also dead, scattered about the yard. Just then, in the center of the ruins, a figure emerges as if from the ground. The man thinks it must be a mirage; no one can appear out of thin air. He makes a last dash toward the silhouetted form. As he draws nearer he realizes that this so-called mirage is in actuality a young woman. She turns and looks toward the gang.
The man runs toward the girl, and looks around for her hiding spot. He sees a trap door of some sort. He didn't notice it before; the sand must have camouflaged it. He prepares to drop into the hole when all of the sudden the girl stands between him and the door. In one swift movement he throws her aside and dives in. Moments later the girl follows, slamming the door just in time.
In the hole the stranger can feel the girl's eyes on him. He doesn't move. For mere moments there is silence inside the tomb-like underground dwelling. It is dark as pitch, and neither one can see, but they can hear. The girl holds her finger over her mouth in a gesture of silence, more to herself than anyone else. The neighing of the horses can be heard just above. Suddenly the men dismount. Silence is all around them both. Then, the muffled sound of several men's voices can be heard.
"Where the hell did they go?" the first voice demands.
"Beats me, they just disappeared," another replies.
"Well, where could they have gone, there's nowhere to hide," the first voice asks again. This is followed again by silence. Then the first voice says, "Oh well, we ain't goin' to find anything now with dark coming quick."
There are more footsteps above and dirt and rocks fall through the cracks in the trapdoor.
"Well I got a few things here, plus what that man in black left in the desert, I think we can head back. We'll just tell Sipher that someone must have helped him."
At this the horses can be heard galloping away. The two in the hole, remain silent until the sound has completely died. At that, a light fills the room. The girl seems to have opened the trap door slightly, letting what's left of the sunlight creep into the hole.
With this new light the man takes his first look around, surmising his hiding place. It is one large room filled with all sorts of things. There are large containers of water, some cans of dog food, a bed of some kind, and in one corner a stack of what the man thinks were once called "books". The girl notices the man staring.
"I've lived here my whole life. No one knows about this place, it's best left that way," the girl answers to his wondering look. "You understand what I mean?"
"Looks like ya got all you need here," the man says.
For the first time, the man takes a look at the girl who's inadvertently saved him, this girl he's now indebted to. She's not as young as he had first thought, but she is not what you'd consider a grown woman either. She's deeply tanned, thin, and muscular. Her hair is shoulder length, brown in color, and is slightly curly. Her expression never changes; it is one without emotion. Now that he thinks back on it, the girl did not seem rattled at all by the approaching gang. He wonders why.
"Just in case you're wondering, I live alone," she says flatly.
"Yeah, me too," he replies with the same lack of emotion.
"Well, if you're thirsty, considering how much running you've just done, there's some there against the wall," she says pointing in the direction of the large containers of water. "And if you want any food, you can have a can of whatever you like over there."
The man limps over to the water, picks up a container and downs as much water as his mouth will allow. He douses his head and hair as well, then collapses to the floor of the shelter.
"So," she says, "ya got a name?"
When the man doesn't respond she goes over to him and sees that he has passed out from exhaustion. She decides to leave the questioning until the morning. She pulls his boots from his feet and places them close beside him, making sure he has no weapons on him. When she is secure in this knowledge she closes the trap door, and the silence, and darkness of night closes in on her.
Chapter 2: The Stranger Has a Name
Just before the break of dawn, the girl creeps beside the man and tries to stir him. She shakes him gently at first, and when these first attempts fail, she begins to worry that perhaps the man is dead, she then raises her voice to wake up. All of the sudden the stranger suddenly comes to and in one quick motion slams the girl to the floor with his hand wrapped tightly around her throat. She begins to struggle, trying to fight free of his grasp. He releases her begrudgingly. She quickly slides away from him.
She sits there looking at the ground, rubbing her throat where his hands have nearly squeezed the breath out of her, looking him straight in the face. She is shaking all over. He has scared her nearly to death. She hadn't expected him to react that way.
"What the hell did ya think ya were doin'?" he shouts at her coldly.
She does not respond, just continues to stare. Then suddenly she stands and turns her back to him. Just as she is about to take a step away he says, "Look, what was I supposed to think of someone shaking and yelling at me in the middle of the night?"
She stops in her tracks, and without turning around, she says in a calm voice, "I didn't mean to frighten you. I was just trying to wake you up, and you wouldn't. I thought you was dead. That's all." Then a few moments later, "I shoulda just smothered ya in your sleep."
He sits there in silence a bit longer before he falls back asleep again quickly. The girl sits there on her pallet of blankets and clothing. She decides that there is no way she can possibly go to sleep now, having had the scare of her life. So, she sits in the dark stillness, waiting anxiously for daylight to come creeping through the cracks of the trap door above.
When morning breaks, she is still awake, watching the man on the floor. When he finally stirs and sits up, she turns away. The stranger on the floor yawns, and looks around. He sees the girl sitting there with her back to him. He stands, stretches, and puts on his boots, which he notices are sitting neatly beside him.
"Look, I think I'll be leaving now," the stranger says.
"I don't think so mate," replies the girl. "We have a deal now, you and me. I expect ya to keep it. I mean...I saved your life, you owe me."
"You expect me to stay here another night? We're both sitting ducks!" the man says.
"Look, the truth is I don't want ya here at all, but you're strong, like I reckoned you was. Maybe even stronger than that, so maybe ya can be of some use to me."
"Of use to ya? What do ya mean by that exactly?"
"You'll just have to wait and see, won't ya?"
"I don't have any plans of staying here permanently."
"I know," she admits.
"Well, let's get some things straight then. Do you know who those guys are?"
"Don't you know?" she says.
"Yeah. They was tryin' to steal my stuff. So I broke one's nose, and another's arm," he explains.
"That gang, the ones that were after you, they've been around here for years. That's why I hardly ever leave this place anymore, but lucky for you I did yesterday, huh?"
The man sits there in silence thinking, "why should I care?" He isn't going to wait around to find out. All he has to do is help this girl with whatever the hell she wants him to do, and then leave. Although, he doesn't have his supplies anymore, having ditched everything during the chase. If he stays with this girl a little longer, maybe she'll give him some things he might need. And if she doesn't, he'll just take what he wants. All of the sudden, the girl interrupts his musing.
"Now that I've answered some of you're questions, why don't you answer some for me?" she asks him.
"What exactly do you wanna know?"
"Well, how about what your name is so that I don't have to refer to you as 'You.'" When the man does not answer her she tries once more. "You do have a name don't you? Or has it been so long, that you don't remember it anymore?"
"Max," he responds, again with no emotion, as if saying the name brought back bad memories from the past.
"Well Max, I'm Arkie. That's what my dad called me anyways."
Neither one really treats this admission of personal information as an introduction. Both sit in silence, expressionless.
"Anything else ya wanna know?" he asks.
"Well, I'd ask ya where ya came from and all, but I know ya wouldn't answer that. Besides, it ain't none of my business anyway."
"No, it ain't," he responds stoically.
Chapter 3: The Fallout Shelter
"What is this place?" Max asks. "I've never seen a shelter like this before."
"It's a fallout shelter," Arkie replies. "Ya know they made 'em in case of nuclear war."
"Fallout shelter? I didn't know that such places existed. How did ya come to find it?" Max asks.
"I told you. I've lived here my whole life. I was born here. My father was born here too. My granddad was the one that owned it. There used to be a house above it, 'fore the nuclear annihilation destroyed everything that used to be here, and turned it into wastelands. They was designed to keep people safe from the fallout ya know?"
"Yeah, I guess this one worked then, huh?"
"Guess so. Maybe too well, seein' as I've never left."
"Where are they now?" he asks her.
"Your folks or whoever? Where are they now?"
"Oh. They're dead, just like everyone else. That goddamn gang that almost got you got the two of them. Ya see, my father was a great man until my mother was killed. The gang found my mother and father one day above ground farming. They took them both. Raped and killed my mother, while my father watched. Luckily I was hidden safely in the shelter.
Then they let my father go. Thought it was grand fun to have destroyed a man's very life, and so they let him go so that he could live with those images of my mother in his head forever. They killed him that day too...his spirit anyway. Only it took four years for the real thing to happen.
My father taught me everything I needed to know to survive here. As soon as I mastered it all, he came to me one night and told me he loved me, and to go back to sleep. In the morning I awoke to the sound...the sound of a gunshot. Afraid it was the gang, I ran to the top of the trap door to see my father with a hole in his head...the bastard left me all alone!"
Although the man Max detected the sound of sadness and anger in her voice, Arkie gave no outward sign of this. She simply stared blindly toward the light streaming in from the trap door.
Max wondered what he should say, but decided against anything.
"No one knows that story, 'cept for you now. Don't go feelin' sorry for me or nothing. I've done all right by myself; I don't need anyone to help me live. One of these days I'll trek outta here and join up with a tribe and help rebuild or something. After I kill every last one of those bastards out there who did this to my family and me."
Chapter 4: The Morning
"Did you ever have a family Max?" Arkie asks.
"That's none of your damn business!" he spits at her.
"I didn't think so. A man like you could never care about anyone but himself," she retaliates, stepping closer toward him, unafraid of the consequences.
Just then Max punches Arkie in the face. She falls to the floor of the shelter, but quickly struggles to stand back up. The pain is searing through her head, like her whole face is an open wound. She is almost sure that her face is bleeding where he has hit her, she can taste the dirty metallic taste of blood in her mouth.
As soon as Arkie has a chance to regain her balance Max shoves her against the wall of the shelter, his hand familiarly clenched around her throat, ready to squeeze.
"Don't pretend to know a goddamned thing about me! You don't know anything!" he screams in her face.
She can feel his breath on her as he speaks, can feel the muscles of his hand flexing. She can feel her own heart pounding in her ears. She looks into his eyes, and without hesitation, spits in his face. While Max wipes the saliva from his face with his free hand, Arkie drives her knee hard into his groin. She then pushes away from his hold on her, and punches him hard in the face. She has the chance for one last kick to the gut as Max rolls on the ground with pain and surprise. He can't believe a woman has done this to him, and not even a woman, a girl. Not wanting the attack to persist, he yells at her to stop. She backs away from him, but does not turn her eyes from his.
"I told you my father taught me to survive! Don't do it again!" she says.
"You either!" he replies, calm once again, but in a husky, voice.
The two do not speak again, until midday when Max silently gets up and walks into the noon sun.
Arkie had not seen or heard the man Max since he left. She wonders if he has gone for good, part of her hopes not. She climbs out of the hole and stands looking anxiously in every direction, but she sees no one. Then, to her relief, she sees a dark figure that has to be him walking over the top of a far off dune. He seems to be carrying something on his back, but what she cannot tell. When he gets close enough to see more clearly, she realizes that he is carrying a bundle of some kind.
"What's that?" she asks him.
"My stuff that the gang didn't want," he answers.
"Did they leave anything good for ya?"
"Just some clothes. They took my weapons, and my water."
"I'm surprised they didn't take everything. Consider yourself lucky," she says.
"Lucky? I have nothing left!" he shouts.
"Well, at least you ain't dead."
"Yeah...thank goodness for that," he replies bitterly.
Chapter 5: The Gang Attacks
"I'm not gonna stay here forever. One of these days I'm going to pack it up and leave these damned wastelands for good," Arkie suddenly admits.
Max looks at the girl. Again she has surprised him by her admission of personal feelings. He feels uncomfortable around her, worse than he ever felt with those kids he'd helped years back. However, she lacked their innocent charm. She already knew too early how awful the world truly was. So she had hidden herself away from everyone.
Max did not realize it until that very moment, but he was just like her. She had a past so similar to his own that it scared him. He had nearly forgotten about his tragic past; he had nearly forgotten about the two people in his life he had lost. He hated the world for ruining his seemingly perfect life, so did she. But unlike him, she hadn't given up. She believed that there was some place better out there. And for all the times Max had been faced with those who hoped for something better and had turned his back or had not believed, he wanted to now more than ever.
She too wanted revenge for what she had lost, she would not leave until it was done, and maybe this man could help her somehow. Maybe he was the one she had been waiting for...the man from nowhere, the man with no past.
Just then, as if her thoughts had conjured them up, she heard the gang. They were galloping at a high speed. She didn't need to see them to know. The man Max had led them right to her.
Quickly she runs to the corner of the shelter and pulled a large box out from under the bed. "Do you know how to use a gun?" she asks. She pulls two large guns from the box. One shot gun, and one rifle. She has two boxes of ammo for each.
Max looks at her in shock. "You have guns? I haven't seen one of those in a long time."
"My father saved these for me. They were for life and death situations only. He only bothered to use one bullet to kill himself."
"Wait a minute," Max says upon opening a box of ammo, "these are tranquilizer darts."
"Oh. Don't use those. I've got real ammo too!"
"But...what are they for?" he asks puzzled.
"For fuck's sake! They were for the cattle that grazed here 'fore the War, that's what!" She yells, "They won't do us no good now!"
"I know how to use a gun. What about you?" Max asks.
"I used one bullet every year since I could hold a gun. I know how to shoot. My dad taught me. Which one do ya want?"
Max takes both guns. He loads the rifle with the tranquilizer darts, and hands it back to Arkie.
"Hey wait a minute! I told you those ain't going to help us!" she screams.
"Listen, here's what we're gonna do. You shoot their horses, and I'll take care of them. Ya got it?"
"Yeah, I got it."
Max leads the way up through the trap door and into the dizzying desert sun. Arkie sprawls on the sand, covering herself in it. Max looks over, sees she is camouflaging herself, and does the same. This may buy them a little time.
The mob of men rushes toward them. Max and Arkie wait calmly. The gang rides swiftly toward them. There are at least ten men on horses, a few more on foot. "Why does everything always come to this", Max thinks. Why couldn't they all just leave him alone?
The men on the horses are old, older than Max is used to seeing. Many have flaked gray hair like himself. They are wearing the usual rags. The men ride their horses bareback. Max looks quickly into the eyes of the men and sees the all-too-familiar look of cold-blooded hate. The men ride with only clubs as their weapons, but they are strong. After all, these men are killers, just like the rest of them. The horses, already glistening with sweat, pound their feet into the desert sand, their eyes as fierce as their riders'. Their nostrils flare with the intake of the sweltering heat. Max gazes into the eyes of these creatures too, and sees that these beasts do as they are told. They are loyal servants to their masters. All of the sudden, Max is called back from his reverie by the sound of hooves on the sand close by.
Max waits until it feels as if the horses will run them down then nods his head. The shooting begins. Arkie strikes quickly, picking off three of the front horses. Their riders topple to the ground. Max quickly races toward the three unhorsed mean and knocks them out by hitting them in their heads with the butt of his shotgun.
The next wave comes before either is aware of how many men there are. At least a dozen men and beasts charge them head on, now seeing where Max and Arkie are hidden. Max and Arkie split up. Max leaps on a horse and taking a club from another rider, charges toward the gang. The gang rides toward him steadily surrounding him. He charges one rather small, blonde-haired man. Max grabs the man by his hair and tosses him off his horse. Quickly another man closes in on him. This man jumps from his own horse to Max's. He hits Max repeatedly in the head and back before Max's horse bucks, and the man falls to the ground. The other men back off as Max charges toward another gang member, and is thrown this time to the ground as well. A gang member takes his club and hits Max square in his bad knee. Max howls with pain and rolls to the floor. All of the sudden Max begins to wonder where the girl is. He looks out over the battered and bloody bodies of the horses and men, but can't seem to find her among all the chaos. He finds her in time to see a tall rider on a jet-black horse racing toward her with his club held high. The rider clubs Arkie in the head and hauls her onto his horse. Then the man yells, "Back to camp now! We have who we came for!" and the riders turn and follow as quickly as they came. The man who stands with his club held high above his head, hits Max in the head and knocks him out, then he too leaves.
Max again is alone, surrounded by destruction and the smell of death. And he wonders to himself if this too will end like everything else. With him being alone...always alone.
Chapter 6: The Leader
When Arkie finally comes to, she opens her eyes to find nothing but darkness all around. She blinks to make sure that her eyes are really open. She has a large sore bump on the crown of her head. She wonders where she is now. It comes back in a flash, her gunning the horses down, the black horse charging her, Max nowhere in sight, the man on the black horse raising his club, and then nothing.
She tries to move to discover where she is; it appears to be a cage of some kind. She is alone. A beam of light then floods the room. It is so bright compared to the darkness that she has to shield her eyes. The door of the cage swings open and a large, hard hand comes down on her head and grabs a handful of her hair. Dragging her to her feet, the stranger pulls her out of the cell and into the light.
She is scared, yet all she can think about is getting some water. Since she has no idea how long she has been in the cell, she has no idea how long it's been since she has had anything to drink.
The hand on her head jerks her back to her senses when it slams her to the ground. In fear of looking up to what awaits her, she stays where she is, unmoving. Then a voice as deep as thunder, yet not half as loud, tells her to look up. She does what she's told. After a moment her eyes focus in on a tall man seated in a chair. The room she has been placed in is large and almost barren. The man sits on a chair covered in animal skins. He is fair skinned, dark haired, and muscular and oddly familiar.
This is the man Sipher. He wears animal skins, and his hair is braided tightly. This is the man who called himself, "The Savior of the Wastelands." His gang, "Sine Quibus Non", had longed roamed the wastelands looking for followers.
"Who is the man that was helping you?" he asks.
Realizing that he is talking to her she replies, "I don't know who he is. Just a wanderer."
"This wanderer injured two of my best men three days ago, and many more yesterday. Tell me who he is, and where he is, or suffer."
"I told you, he has no name and no past. He's nobody."
"Where did the guns come from?"
"They were his, he was carrying them with him, he heard you coming and ran up to me, handed me a gun. He never spoke to me," Arkie quickly replies.
"Those were your guns, I ridded that man of all his possessions three days ago. He had no guns. They were yours...where have you been hiding, Arkie?" he asks.
"How do you know my name?"
"I haven't forgotten about the little girl who watched me have and kill her mother while she stood and watched. Too frightened to life a finger, a little coward. Have you come back to take your revenge?" he remarks, his voice like ice.
Too shocked for words, Arkie looks back down at the ground. She remembers the incident all too well. She could have done something. But she did nothing, she was worse than a coward. That's why her father hated her so much; not only did she ruin her own life, but his as well. Both her parents' blood was on her hands.
"I will kill you," she says bitterly, "I swear it."
He laughs heartily at her defiance. "Have you grown so brave?"
"I'm not the same person I was then."
"Well, if you will not tell me anything about your wanderer friend, then perhaps I can use you."
"Use me...for what? Use me like you used my mother?" she screamed.
"No my dear girl, you will be bait for someone better. I'm so glad I found you at last, Arkie." The words were like poison.
Max dug into the junk scattered around the shelter, trying to find supplies. He had a bundle of food, water, and some other supplies. These supplies would last at least a few days. He picked up the guns, ammo, and a piece of cloth to cover his head and face with. He climbed to the top of the top of the hole, and shut the door behind him. So, that was it. He would gather his things and be on his way once more. He wondered if perhaps he was the reason these things kept happening. He looked around at the remnants from the fight the day before, and suddenly recalled the girl helping him. People didn't help one another anymore, not strangers anyway. He thought of the way she had screamed at him when he accused her of not knowing pain, how she had responded to it with spit in his face, a swift kick to his manhood, his gut, and a punch to his face. He remembered the story of how she had lost her parents, and in spite of himself, he thought of his own long forgotten family. But he was not the same man as he had been then. Not even a shadow of that man remained now. All that was left were his brilliant blue eyes, those eyes that had once smiled down upon his wife and child. He had chased after those who had robbed him of his happiness and made them suffer as he had. Now with no one left to hate, he was empty inside. He had been empty since the day they died. He had become like those men he had hunted down. He was a shell of a man. Not even a man, a savage like everyone else.
He thought of the tribe of children he had helped years ago, how for just a few days he felt as if he could rejoin the human race, then all hell broke loose. For the sake of their lives, he risked his own worthless one. He had hoped to die right then, but it was not to be. He was tired now. Tired of hiding. So his mind was made up on what to do next. He had made a deal after all...a deal he would keep this time.
Chapter 7: The Punishment
They had tied Arkie to a post at the top of a twenty-foot scaffold. Her punishment was to stand here without food or water or shade, until the man Max came to save her. To Arkie this meant she would either starve, die of thirst, or worse the sun would kill her. She was going to die; there was no doubt about it. The man Max was long gone with her supplies, running away again.
In spite of herself, she began to give up. Why couldn't her father have just shot her in the head or hung her? She never had a chance to get revenge all her years spent waiting for someone to help her. Why didn't she just pick up and leave years ago? She was a coward.
No one else was allowed to come and speak to Arkie except the gang leader. Later that day he made a visit to her.
"Are you going to tell me who he is, or must I leave you out here all night too?" he cooed.
Arkie was already sunburned all over and on the verge of collapse, but she somehow managed to answer him. "I don't know who he is, and I don't care."
"You should care if you value your life at all."
"Well I don't," she hissed.
"You know, you remind me of your mother. Even after this long, I still remember her face when I..."
"Shut up you bastard," she screamed hoarsely.
"So pure, so beautiful...." He leaned forward and tried to kiss Arkie. Seeing as her hands and legs were bound, she did all she could do to make him stop. Surprisingly enough, she managed to bite his lip, and soon tasted blood in her mouth. He screamed and pushed her off of him. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and held it to his lips. He looked back up and her and with his still bleeding lip, took her face gently in his hand, and slapped her with all his strength with the other. Arkie screamed in pain. Her sunburned cheek burned like fire, and there was nothing she could do. The Leader left her to be alone in her pain.
Then from somewhere deep inside her a loud pitiful cry left her body and a single tear rolled down her stinging face. Arkie was scared into silence yet again. Not because of the slap, but because of the single tear that she had not remembered shedding since her mother had died. It was a tear of sorrow, pain, and despair.
Chapter 8: A Stranger at the Gates
Arkie was awakened by the sound of voices yelling from down below here. From what she could decipher, there was apparently a man standing outside the camp. Because she was high in the air she could see that this was true. The man was dressed all in black. His face too was covered in black sheath. You could not see his face. For a moment Arkie thought of the wanderer Max, she wondered where he was now.
Finally the voice of Sipher could be heard above everything else as he ordered silence. His order was obeyed and a deafening quiet settled over the camp. Sipher peered out of the massive door of the camp at the stranger. "Who are you?" he asked. "What is your business here?"
The stranger did not answer, but remained standing where he was. "I said who are you and what is your business?" he tried again. Again there was no response from the stranger. Sipher grew furious and ordered that the stranger surrender immediately or he would be shot. Then suddenly the man's deep, angry voice broke the silence, "You won't shoot me...not if I shoot you first!" Then the man pulled a shotgun from behind his back and shot two guards who were stationed high above the door. The two men's bodies thudded heavily onto the sand below.
At this point no one moved, no one so much as breathed. Sipher then let out a laugh that among the silence rang eerily through the air. "What are you going to do? Kill everyone?"
"Yeah, 'cause it all ends here," the man said.
"Why risk your life? You won't survive for long," Sipher replied.
"I don't care."
"You think you're some kind of hero? Heroes don't exist anymore."
"I'm just trying to survive," was all he said.
"All of us are just trying to survive, mate. What makes you and me any different? Why don't you just put down the guns and join us?" A pause followed this statement then, "I know who you are. You're ruthless, you could be a help to me."
Then the stranger removed his head covering to reveal his clear, blue eyes. Above on the gurney, Arkie realizes that the stranger is the man she had saved. She wishes she had the energy to scream out for him, but she cannot. At last, with her heart beating as fast as a bullet shot from a gun, and the sun as hot as hell, Arkie feels her mind clear. Her body begins to go numb. If the ropes hadn't been restraining her, she would have collapsed to the ground. Instead her body hangs lifeless and limp, in a standing position.
Chapter 9: The Hero
Max demands, "Where's the girl?"
"You can't have her, she's mine. Just like her mother and father," Sipher replies, never breaking eye contact.
"You leave me with no choice."
"You leave me with no choice. Open the gates, bring him to me now!" Sipher screams.
Max waits for the first man to walk out, he raises his hands in mock surrender, and as the man holds his gun out, Max makes his move. He grabs the barrel of the gun, snatches it from the man, slams the butt of the gun into the man's face, and knocks him unconscious. He then takes the gun he is holding and shoots two more men in their legs, and rushes inside the doors before anyone has time to react.
It takes him mere seconds to absorb his surroundings. In those few moments after he pushes his way inside, he locates Arkie who is unconscious above, and Sipher who flees to his horse. Max weighs the choice quickly in his head, raises the rifle and shoots the huge, black horse in its leg.
Max tries to find a way to the girl. Most of the other members of the gang are running by now. He spots, from the corner of his eye, a ladder leading up. He makes a dash for it, throwing the rifle behind him where it hangs from a rope tied to him. From behind him Max hears the sound of panting, and winces when he feels a knife gore him in his calf. He stops and with his other foot kicks the man hard in the face until it is bloody. When it seems like the man will fall, Max quickly grabs hold of the man's shirt. He waits for another man to begin climbing the ladder then releases the bloody-faced man. The two bodies fall to the ground with a wet thud.
Max climbs the rest of the way using both arms and his good leg. At the top he completely removes his head covering. He figures the girl must be dead already. He is too late again. He limps over to the girl. Her head hangs lifelessly down. Max unties her hands first, then bends to unite her legs. Max lowers the dead weight of her body to the ground. On her face he notices a deep red-colored welt across her cheek. It is noticeable despite the burned, peeling skin of her face. He shakes her gently, not knowing what to do. She seems to be unconscious. He pulls a flask from his belt and pours some water into her mouth. He decides to bring her with him. She is alive, that's enough. He hefts the girl up over his shoulder, and proceeds to climb slowly downward.
Max notices the trail of blood leading out of the camp...Sipher's black horse, and his injured leg. Max looks around to find a safe place to hide the girl for a while. He observes a small tent in the center of the camp, and after securing the remainder of the camp he leaves her there.
There are only a few horses left. Max chooses the healthiest looking one and mounts. He turns the horse and heads toward the swiftly setting sun, following the trail of blood leading into the wastelands.
After a few minutes of riding Max sees the black horse collapsed dead on a dune. There are footprints leading off to the right of the horse and he follows them. It will be simple now.
Max sees that the prints lead toward a large dune. He gallops toward it. The sound of a bullet rips through the air and Max's horse plummets to the ground. Max is tossed to the ground like a stone. He struggles to get to his feet planted, and stands back up. Then another shot hits him in his shoulder. The pain surges through Max, and again he is brought to the ground. Max rolls to his back in time to see Sipher standing above him.
"Lucky for you, that was my last bullet," Sipher remarks stoically.
Sipher lifts a foot and crushes into Max's injured shoulder. Max screams in pain and rolls onto his stomach. Just as the pain begins to alleviate, Sipher kicks him in his bleeding calf. Again Max is in agony, and he rolls in an attempt to get away. Sipher lifts his foot again, ready to kick Max again, but Max catches his foot and hurls him to the ground.
The man is on him again in no time, punching Max in the face, over and over again. Max reaches up and grabs the man's face and punches him as hard as he can. Sipher moans and rolls off of Max.
Max has little time to react, but looks up as Sipher readies Max's horse to run Max over. Max hesitates not a second, and runs toward the fierce pounding of the horse. Just as Sipher and Max are about to collide, Max leaps onto the horse and pulls Sipher from it. The two men tumble to the ground and the huge horse lands on top of Max, and Max is knocked unconscious by the fall of the horse.
Sipher stands and wipes his bleeding face with his soiled handkerchief. Suddenly he hears the pounding of horse hooves close behind him. He turns quickly and looks in time to see a horse run straight into him. He lands face down in the sand when a foot kicks him in his kidney. The man rolls over to see the girl Arkie, with her bruised face. Her bare feet step down on his face, breaking his nose. She leaps down on him and pounds his face with her fists over and over. She screams, "You killed them, you son of a bitch! You tried to kill me, and you killed him too! Why?"
Something again breaks loose inside of Arkie and she unleashes her years of anger and hatred for the man upon his face. He is a bloody, sputtering mess. She is possessed by this anger, this urge to kill the man responsible for everything terrible that had ever happened to her.
All of the sudden, she hears a sound as unfamiliar as any known to her, her own name. "Arkie, stop," the voice tells her. Her fists slow, and then finally stop. She turns and sees Max standing before her, alive. In her own amazement she stands up and says, "You're alive. I thought you were dead."
"It's not that easy to kill me."
A hand grabs her ankle, and pulls her to the ground. Max grabs Sipher, and kicks him aside. "Leave now," Max says with the rifle pointed at the man's head. Max shoots into the sand beside the man's foot, and with that Sipher runs off into the desert.
"Max?" Arkie pleads, her face streaked with blood and sand. "Why did you come back?"
He simply stares at her, blood dripping from his leg and shoulder. "'Cause, we had a deal."
Although the words are a little unclear at first, Arkie remembers her deal with Max when she agreed to help him. She stands once again and walked over to him. And then she did something else that she had not since she was a young girl, she smiled. "Thank you," was all she could say.
And Max smiled back, having not done it himself in years, his blue eyes happy again. "You still believe that there's someplace better out there?"
"There has to be," she said. "Don't ya think?"
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