Jacob blinked the sweat from his eyes. The harsh afternoon sun burned, even in the relative shade of the watchtower, and he longed for the end of his shift to arrive so he could get down from the tower and under better cover.
Next to him, Hank wiped his brow for what seemed like the hundredth time that day.
“Man, it’s hot,” said Hank. The phrase had long-since lost any meaning. Like every other time Hank had said it, Jacob didn’t bother replying. There wasn’t anything to say. After you’ve talked about how hot it is for several months in a row, the conversation got repetitive.
Jacob suddenly saw something move out in the wilderness in front of them.
“What’s that?” Jacob pointed toward the movement. As Hank looked into the distance, Jacob grabbed the binoculars from the small table in the corner.
“Don’t see nothin’ but desert,” said Hank, looking in the wrong direction. Jacob peered through the binoculars. If it was an attack, they needed to know as soon as possible so they could sound the alarm.
“It’s a man,” said Jacob after a few moments of studying the shape. The man looked to be in bad shape from what Jacob could see. His clothes were rags, and the way he was staggering, he looked near death. For a moment, Jacob thought it was Lewis, his missing brother. Then, the illusion was gone.
As he looked closer, Jacob could make out some wounds on the man’s body. “He’s injured.” There were gashes on his arms and legs and at least one bleeding wound on his torso.
“Sucks to be him,” said Hank, losing interest.
“We’ve got to help him.”
“You know the rules. No outsiders in the settlement.”
“But, he’s injured. Besides, look at him. Look at his injuries. He must be a survivor from a raider attack. He might be able to tell us how many people they had, what sort of weapons they used, maybe even in what direction they came from or left in. If they try to attack, we can be ready for them.
“The rules say, ‘No outsiders.’” However, Hank sounded less convinced than before. “Tracy will skin us if we let him in.”
“We can’t just leave someone out there to die,” insisted Jacob. “Come on, help me bring him in. I’ll take full responsibility.”
Hank looked as if he wanted to argue more, but after looking at the staggering man again for a few moments, he mumbled some sort of agreement.
Jacob went down to the front gate. On his signal, Hank began to turn the wheel to lift the bar across it. Once it had been raised enough, Jacob pushed the gate partially open and slipped through. Looking around for signs of trouble, he approached the man. As Jacob got near, the man’s strength gave out, and he collapsed into the dust.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got you, friend,” said Jacob. “You’re safe now.”
“Raiders... Nearby...” rasped the stranger.
“You’ll be safe with us,” said Jacob. “Come on, just a bit further.”
Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, Jacob half-carried the man toward Raventon. The man’s blood stained Jacob’s shirt, and he mumbled something as they made their way to the settlement gate. From this side, the scrap-metal palisade looked imposing, offering the only safety in the open plains that surrounded it, and Jacob was eager to get back inside its walls.
He had hoped to get the man inside before Tracy was aware of what was happening. But by the time they reached the gate, she and several of the thugs she called her bodyguards were already there, blocking the entrance.
“Stop right there,” she said with an icy tone to her voice. It was a tone that would make a twister think twice before moving any further.
“This man is badly injured and needs help,” said Jacob. “We can’t just leave him outside.”
“You know the rules as well as everyone else. No outsiders are allowed inside the settlement.”
“He says there are raiders nearby. He can tell us more about them, so we can prepare in case they try to attack. He can be useful.”
“And how do we know we can trust him?” asked Tracy. “We don’t know who he is, or where he came from.”
“Please…” The man gasped for air. “From Mayfield.”
Several others had approached the gate, and there was a murmur from them at mention of the town’s name.
“Mayfield was wiped out by raiders six months ago,” said Tracy. “Bodies littered the streets. The entire town was looted. No one survived.”
“Some of us… taken as slaves,” rasped the man. “Escaped two days ago. Last one alive.”
More murmuring came from the crowd at the news that a large group of raiders was so close.
“Mayfield was heavily defended. How did it fall?”
“Leader sold out… Sold us for money.”
Tracy seemed to consider things for a moment. “Can you tell us how many raiders there were at your camp, and their level of equipment?”
The man nodded. Tracy looked at Jacob. “Very well, he may come in. But your family will be responsible for him. If he breaks any rules, you will all bear the punishment.”
Jacob swallowed hard but then nodded in agreement.
Tracy and her bodyguards stepped aside, allowing the two men to enter the settlement.