The sun was hot and all around me there was nothing but wheat. Great golden seas of it rolling in the wind. A group of crows wheeled across the sky. It was blue, mostly, but off to the north I could see a line of darkness coming. Early summer in Nebraska, but still springtime up in Canada. It was going to rain and I needed a hole someplace.
I nudged the mare with my heels and she bobbed her head a little, ripping off a mouthful of grain and chewing it while we moved, like a little brown and white boat leaving a wake of bent wheat behind us. I'd had her almost a month and if she'd felt any animosity towards me for killing the guy who'd owned her, Hubcap didn't show it. Maybe she knew he'd had it coming. Maybe if she knew who I was, she'd figure I had it coming too.
We stayed clear of roads. They were dangerous and unpredictable and we both knew it. When we came upon one we had to cross, or maybe follow a little ways, Hubcap would stop and whinny and turn her big black eyes to look at me. I'd just shrug and give her a cluck and a kick and apologize later. We didn't do a lot of talking on the roads either.
I checked my compass against my map and there was a town just over the next couple hills. Someplace called Stewartville, population small. I glanced over my shoulder and the clouds were closer. I couldn't do with another night in the rain. The first couple had almost killed me, but I hadn't known a whole lot then either. But anytime you get wet and cold it's a bad thing. I remembered when I was a little girl dancing in the rain.
"Anybody do that anymore, Hub?" I asked her, but she ignored me. It was a dumb question anyway.
There were a few cars, mostly gutted for parts or burned out shells. A couple buildings with windows smashed out. Looked like somebody had torched the gas station, but that wasn't unusual, none of it was. There was a big building that looked like a castle keep, sort of. All stained red brick and chalky mortar with a flat roof. I studied it through my eyeglass, which was just half a pair of binoculars. The other half I'd traded for penicillin and aspirin when I'd really needed those.
There was smoke coming from the building, or maybe from just behind it, I couldn't tell. Somebody was there, cooking maybe, or trying to make something, and who knows what. I'd found a guy in South Dakota who was making glass. He'd always wanted to learn how to do it, he'd told me, and now he finally could. He made the worst glass in the world, all yellow and crooked, but he was happy. He'd given me a little shot glass when I'd told him I was leaving. We'd been together for five days and a week later I couldn't remember his name.
I rode down slowly, approaching across a field overgrown with weeds. There wasn't anything else I could do, really. I wasn't going to sneak in, and I wasn't going around. I needed to trade and rest and talk to somebody. You go two or three weeks without hearing another person's voice and it does things to you. You start talking just to hear some words, to stay in practice, and then you wake up suddenly, finding yourself in the middle of a conversation with nobody at all. It isn't real madness, not yet, but it makes you nervous, you know?
I had my rifle unslung and sitting across the saddle so whoever was in there would see it. They wouldn't like me any less for having a gun, and they'd be suspicious if they didn't see one. Everyone had a weapon; most people had two or three. Hub was my only real concern. A horse was valuable, mostly for its meat, but also if you wanted to get someplace. I removed my hat, a wide-brimmed felt fedora damp with sweat, and shook my hair loose, glad for that hot sun momentarily. It would catch the yellow in my hair. I wanted them to know I was a woman and so I was worth more than my horse, maybe. It was what I'd come to trade and I figured they'd know that, whoever it was.
We were about a hundred yards away and I hadn't seen anyone, or even heard anything for that matter. Just some magpies up in the air, screeching a little because we were riding through their broken field. I came to the edge of town, where the weeds ended with a little ditch and an oil stained gravel parking lot started. The place used to be a Texaco once, now it was black and twisted. Across the way, some 40 yards and across the main street was the brick building. It was the "Stewartville Armory 1923" according to a bit of masonry above the main doors. There were big wooden doors, banded and charred from the looks of them. There was even a pole for a flag, but there wasn't any flying of course, just some old frayed cord dangling in the breeze.
I sat there on Hubcap for five minutes or so while they wondered what to do. I didn't imagine Stewartville got very many visitors. Most of the stragglers were dead by now, or had found a community someplace or just made one of their own. I shifted a little, feeling my ass getting sore and Hubcap tore at the grass under the weeds, ripping clumps of dirt and roots out of the soft black earth.
One of the big doors opened finally and a man stepped out, shielding his eyes. He was tall, I thought, thin but not skinny. He'd been eating well and that was a good sign. He wore old jeans, faded but not holed or anything, and a chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He walked towards me slowly and I didn't see a weapon, but I had to assume there was somebody marking me, probably through one of the second floor windows. I didn't move a whole lot, content to wait for him and he didn't look back. A lot of people will when they're nervous or scared, but he didn't.
"Howdy," he said from twenty feet away, standing with his hands empty at his sides. He had good skin, healthy and already a little tan. Black hair going to gray, mostly on his face though. He didn't have a lot of beard, just a scrappy inch maybe, and it suited him I thought.
"Hi." I nodded. "I'm ridin' through." I couldn't say much more than that, asking for something isn't the way it's done generally. And I didn't have anything for trade except me, and he could already see that much.
"Kay." He seemed to shrug, or maybe I just imagined it.
We didn't speak for half a minute or so, maybe more, and if he wasn't interested I really would have to ride on through. Either that or fight. The birds had settled and there wasn't much more than the occasional sound of the breeze blowing through the weeds, and that wasn't very loud. I moved as if to pull the reins, yanking Hub's head so we could go around, but the man stopped me.
"Storm's comin' up," he observed, jerking his head just slightly towards the dark horizon.
"Yeah." I looked that way, turning more than just my head. Turning more than I needed to and sitting a bit straighter; trying to show myself off a little. When I looked back he was nodding at me.
"Put your horse round back of the armory. There's a little spot, you'll see it." He didn't wait for an answer, he just turned around and I gave him a good head start before urging Hub onto the gravel.
The back of the armory was a pleasant surprise and well hidden from anyone approaching the town. There was a largish garden planted and air was thick with the smell of ripening vegetables. There was a row of tomatoes, the plants bound with wire to a section of weathered picket fence, the white paint peeling and littering the ground like snow. The fruit was just starting to show red, and my mouth watered at the sight of them. There were peppers too, small and green, and onions and other plants I couldn't identify. It was a good garden and I knew some people back where I'd come from who would have killed for a tenth of it.
There was a shed too, like a small garage with the door missing and inside were a couple sheep and a ram, tied in crudely constructed stalls. A small area was enclosed in chicken wire and there were chickens pecking at the old dry straw that covered the rough dirt floor. A couple barrels of rain water were nearby, old rusty 55 gallon drums with the tops cut off. An empty one had already been set up beneath the gutter of the shed's roof. I found a spot for Hub towards the back left corner and walked her inside, tying the mare's bridle to a support and set to work removing her pack and saddle.
"I got hay, if he'll eat it." I heard the man's voice and I turned my head to look at him.
"She," I corrected him lightly. "And she'll eat anything."
I grunted as I pulled the saddle off Hub's back and dropped it a few feet away, close to the wall. I grabbed the pack and moved it close too, leaning my M-16 within easy reach as I undid the leather straps. I found my little shoebox, tied shut with string, and my clothes all rolled up and tied as well.
"Here." He'd come back dragging a ragged half-bale of green and golden hay, still fresh it looked like. "I reckon you'll want to sleep out here tonight, but you don't have to." He was rubbing his chin, like he was trying to remember his manners. I sat there on my heels looking at him. "Outhouse around the corner there and uh, there's water too for washin' yourself up. Drinking water's inside and I got some stew on."
"Thanks." I stood up and he looked at me uncertainly.
"Okay." He seemed to think better of saying anything more and he turned around, walking through the back door of the armory.
I fed and watered Hub, then took care of myself. Hanging my rifle on a handy nail and stripping out of the clothes I'd been wearing for the better part of a week. I washed them first, my trousers and shirt, my thin panties and socks, even my hat. I set everything aside and went to work checking myself for bugs. I used my little mirror, a folding compact I kept in the box with all my other bath stuff, looking around my 5'4" frame carefully. I frowned a little at the weight I'd lost. I used to weigh a hundred and thirty, as I recalled, and I'd thought I was fat. Now I was maybe 105 and my ribs showed beneath my pale skin, my hip bones too, if I tilted them just so. I had a tan face and arms and neck, down to the tops of my breasts, but that was it. The rest of me looked like a ghost.
Not really wondering too much if anyone was watching, I washed myself next. I couldn't do anything about it if they were, and I needed a bath. I opened my shoe box and frowned at the little cake of soap. It was wrapped up in big oak leaf that had been green and soft, but now it was yellow and brittle. I washed myself thoroughly, front and back and then my hair. It was a luxury and wasteful, but I needed it. I looked around and found some rhubarb, tearing off a leaf and wrapping my little bit of soap back up.
I shaved under my arms for the first time in more than a month, using short slow strokes and wincing because the blade was old and dull. I didn't bother with my legs, they'd never needed shaving. I more or less shook myself dry, wiping down my skin and shaking my hands. I bent over scrubbing at my shoulder length hair, trying to comb my fingers through it. I brushed my teeth with a bit of baking soda and brushed my hair with my old hairbrush, frowning and jerking my head against the tangles. By the time I'd finished all that, I was dry enough, and hopefully worth a little more to whoever lived there.
I dressed quickly, putting on the only dry clothes I owned. Heavy socks and a pair of real dungaree trousers and a man's corduroy shirt. They were all in good shape and fit me okay, just a little loose. I fitted my belt through the loops, sliding the leather sheath for my folding Buck knife so it hung over my left front pocket. I packed my shoebox and slung my rifle over my shoulder after checking the safety on. It was just for show now, I was deep in it and I'd been feeling that funny euphoria of adrenalin since I'd crossed the street an hour before.
My wet clothes hung over the chicken wire in the shed and I checked Hub quickly, chiding myself a little for not doing that first. Her shoes were okay, that was the good thing about traveling open range, but I'd need to file her hoofs sometime soon. The horse was happy enough though, and she'd be sleeping soon. I was tired too, although I wasn't really feeling it right then. I was taking my time, putting off the inevitable.
I entered slowly, keeping my gun pointed down at my side. It was safed and I kept my fingers a long way from the trigger. I didn't know who would be in there, or how many of them. Part of the reason I'd taken so long was to make sure they were happy about letting me in. They'd had plenty of chances to do something about it if they weren't.
"Feel better?" It was the same man, standing at a large heavy wooden table and cutting vegetable it looked like.