He saved the bit of apple pie for last, and he knew his stomach would soon return to its growling, surly ways. The dusty road led him through hills of scrub brush and sun-bleached rocks. The glory of the morning, the new sunlight striking the red canyon walls in the distance, both amazed him and caused pangs of homesickness.

The next town erupted from the sand as if it were thoughtlessly cast there by the child of giants. The only reason for its existence was the road which he was travelling on and the train tracks which crossed it in the center of town. The people were too poor to take either lifeline out of the town, or perhaps it was the fear of what lay beyond the horizon.

From behind, the Walking Man heard the building roar of an old muscle car catching up with him. The throttle eased off as it neared him, and he could feel unseen eyes staring at the back of his head. The throttle was suddenly punched, and an old Chevy Nomad sped past him into the dusty town.

The bad thing about towns like this one was that some folks resented outsiders, those who brought strange accents and tales. Most of the people would not even notice his existence, and a small minority would see his plight and try to help out someone worse off than they were. The Walking Man wanted to avoid all three groups if he could.

On the outskirts of the town were abandoned buildings and barns. The town seemed to suck the people in towards the center as it slowly died, taking the life energy of the denizens to ward off sudden implosion. The abandoned husks of humanity littered the surrounding countryside like an animal fouling its nest. The Walking Man peered at each structure carefully as he passed them, looking for signs of occupation. He stopped at the gate of a collapsed ranch house and entered the yard, the gate hinges protesting at the disturbance of their arthritic rust.

He walked to a trough next to a hand pump and inspected them both. The trough was still intact, but the water pump had a rusted lock installed. It took a few kicks before the lock departed, and he began to pump the handle.

It took almost five minutes of work before the first droplets of water began to dribble out. A few more pumps and brown rusted water began to flow into the trough. By the time it was half full, the water had turned clear, and the Walking Man took a long pull at the water. He splashed his face, washing two days worth of grime off into the trough. The water was cool and refreshing, and it tasted slightly metallic.

He was so occupied with the pump that he never heard the footsteps approching from behind.

The first blow from an old two-by-four broke a rib. He felt the warmth of the blood spreading into his punctured lung, and his breathing became labored. The second blow came from a worn Doc Marten boot, knocking him unconscious.

When he awoke, he couldn't tell if it was dusk or dawn. He kept his head still as he took his bearings, and determined it was dusk, since the sun was setting in the west, over the mountains. He heard people talking... more like arguing. They sounded young, and they were discussing him.

"Jesus Fucking Christ, you killed him. It's your fucking responsibility to bury his carcass," said one voice, a boy by the sound of it.

"He's a drifter, nobody will miss him," replied a deeper voice, one that seemed more ominous and dangerous.

A beer bottle crashed near the Walking Man's head, but he didn't flinch. "He had a picture of a wife and kid and a goddamn wedding ring. Someone will miss him, and I don't want to go to jail because you wanted to fuck with another drifter." The first voice sounded rather scared and lost. "You killed that fucking train-riding hobo two years ago, remember?"

"Yes, I remember," snarled the deeper voice, a young man with a smokers rasp. "Just don't you forget, or you'll be the next one I bury."

That shut the young boy up. Another beer opened, the Doc Martens walked purposely towards the road as the beer cap was tossed on the Walking Man. The roar of the Chevy Nomad announced its fury to the world.

The boy saw the Walking Man's eyes open, then shut quickly. "Jesus, you're still alive?"

The Chevy Nomad was being backed into the yard next to the Walking Man. It stopped short of his head by only a few inches. "Let's just leave him here and go," yelled the boy over the engine noise. The reply was short and negative.

The engine was killed, and the Doc Martens exited the vehicle. The Walking Man now had no choice but to try to get away. He started to stand, but the injury to his ribs prevented him from inhaling enough air. The punctured lung had collapsed. He blindly groped around for a stick or a rock to fend off the inevitable.

"All right, he's still breathing," laughed the older one. "But not for long!"

He bent over the Walking Man, hands together to strangle the helpless drifter. The Walking Man's hand found the smooth, wet opening of a beer bottle, and he brought it up towards the face of his attacker. The bully never saw the broken beer bottle in the dusky light. The Walking Man couldn't gauge the distance because of the injury to his head.

The sharp glass penetrated the throat of the Doc Marten wearer. His voice flowed out around the cut in red rivulets, dripping on the Walking Man's face and lips. The bully tried to stand up, then fell backwards. He twitched for a few minutes, then lay still.

The young boy watched with dish-sized eyes. He took a few steps backwards and fell into the trough. He splashed for a minute as the Walking Man pulled himself over to pull the boy out.

"Oh, God, please don't kill me!" he pleaded. "I didn't know what he was going to do, I thought we were just gonna scare you! I didn't mean for you to get hurt!" His eyes were wild, now riveted on the bloody bottle shard still in the hand of the Walking Man.

"I didn't mean to kill your friend, he left me no choice," said the Walking Man in a breathless and calm voice. "You can go."

He released the boy, who fell several times as he ran. In his panic, he ran away from the town.

The Walking Man groggily stood, then went to the dead body. He was surprised to see the eyes were open. Air was bubbling from the neck wound... he was still breathing. His face was twisted in fear and pain, and the Walking Man helped him into the passenger seat of the Nomad.

They drove into the town, following the little blue signs that said Hospital. By the time they arrived, they both had no strength, so the Walking Man just laid on the horn until a few nurses came out.

When he awoke, his right wrist was handcuffed to the bedrail. An old Deputy stood over him for a few moments, then left to get the Sheriff. An even older and leatherier man in a black ten-gallon hat entered the room, his gold badge shining in the light.

"You want to explain just what happened?" he asked in a tired voice.

"Accident," said the Walking Man around the tubes in his mouth and nose.

"Yeah, accident," repeated the Sheriff. "Just what Bobby Earl said. Some kinda accident that didn't damage the car but left the people inside almost dead."

He reached over and uncuffed the Walking Man. "Bobby Earl's mother paid for your medical bills after talking to her son. Something ain't right, but I can't hold you on that. Leave when you're able, and don't come back."

Seven days later, his ribs wrapped and his cuts sutured, the Walking Man dressed himself for the road. When he went over to the tray holding his last meal, there was an envelope next to the covered plate. Inside the envelope was a faded picture of a young woman and a small girl, a woman's wedding ring, and a note that said simply, "We're so very sorry."

Under the cover over the plate was a familiar-tasting apple pie.

The Walking Man left as he came, stomach full and into the early morning light.

turn back keep walking