I stood by the flowing river, the cool wet sand squishing up between my toes. Grant and Eddie, both wearing their dirty tank tops and ragged shorts were down by the shore, fishing poles stretching out over the rushing, sparkling surface of the water. I waved to them and they nodded back. We had become a small family here.
A few of the children, those who had survived the winter, had found two crawdads and were pitting them against one another like two gladiators in an arena. They were all very dirty, the life of vagabonds not hard for them to live. They did not know they were living in a fallen world.
My first warning of something new was the familiar owl noises that Darren made when intruders arrive, but then I saw the old man, striding down the path to the river with a walking stick in hand, the ring of white hair around his head, the short cropped white beard covering his sun-weathered face. He held his free hand out, palm toward me, and I could hear him saying something, but could not make it out.
Julia and Mr. Coffman grabbed their rifles and ran out to stand on the beach in a threatening manner, and my eyes scanned the bushes on the other side of the river to see our scouts, their clothing sprouting twigs and leaves, training their own guns on the man.
Where was Gideon?
“State your business here!” growled Mr. Coffman, his days of being a high school principal giving him that authoritative sound. School was so long ago. I wish we were preparing for homecoming again. I knew what Mr. Coffman was thinking. We wouldn’t have room for them on the boat. We must not let them see it.
The old man paused, a smile forming on his sun-baked face.
“I don’t mean any harm,” said the old man calmly, his voice strangely soft. “I am with a group of travelers who would like to share resources. We will be building a raft to get on down the river. We will not stay more than two days.”
“How many?” said Julia forcefully, strands of her blonde hair escaping her pony tail, falling lightly across her face. “We got troubles of our own.”
Mr. Coffman lowered his rifle and put his meaty hand on Julia’s rifle barrel to guide her to do the same.
“Send your group down slowly,” he told him, his eyes scanning the top of the hill near the bridge. “Unarmed would be the best way. Make sure of it.”
I had never seen Mr. Coffman trust so readily, but there was something about this old guy that just seemed…well…fatherly.
After a bit of hand shaking and uneasy introductions, four more people came down the path toward the river camp: a girl, two young men and a soldier. I thought the soldier had a kind face. Both of the boys looked confused and the girl smiled when she saw Julia. After a bit, we all kind of stand-offishly accepted them. It was only for a short time, anyway, as they said and they would be leaving.
I approached the soldier thinking about my husband, long gone to war. He was a Ranger, too. But this man’s patches were… And his last name read…Farmer…and that was when I blacked out.