Third and final part in a short story set in the same world (different time and location) as The Darkest Hour. Catch up on Part 1 and Part 2, if you need a refresher. As always, let me know what you think.
By the time the stranger stopped, Johnny’s arms ached from holding on, and his face felt like it’d been through another spinner. His eyes burned, open or shut, but he was so tired, he mostly kept them closed.
They pulled off the highway into a copse of trees. Johnny’d never been this far from home. Were they even in his micro-nation anymore? The stranger cut the motor and walked the cycle into a thicket before pulling Johnny off the back and setting him on the ground.
Johnny curled himself into a ball and sniffed.
The stranger folded his arms over his chest. “What’s your name, little guy?”
Johnny ducked his head into his knees and didn’t answer. No one called him little. Ever. Johnny’s mom used to say he was born weighing as much as a calf and hadn’t stopped growing since.
A sigh. “I know you’ve had a rough couple of days. And I know you don’t trust me. But until I find some family or friends that you can go to, we’re stuck together, and it’d be nice to know what to call you.”
Johnny held his breath, not moving until he heard the shuffle of the man’s feet retreating from his side. Then he peeked out.
The man rummaged through the saddle bags on his cycle. “Okay, not going to talk yet. But I bet you’re hungry.” He pulled out some flat bread and dried meat. “Can’t start a fire. I doubt they’ll follow us this far, but I don’t want to risk drawing any more attention to ourselves.” He set the food down on the ground in front of Johnny.
Johnny’s mouth watered.
“Go ahead, no use being hungry and scared.” The man tore a bite from his own flat bread and leaned on the cycle.
Johnny’s stomach won. He tore into the food. It was probably close to lunch time by now. He’d eaten dinner with his family before the spinner came in the night. Was that only yesterday? It felt like a hundred years ago.
The man didn’t try talking to him again. When he finished, he walked into another thicket to relieve himself. Johnny watched his back, embarrassed, but unable to look away. When the man came back, Johnny found his voice.
“A-a-are you going to sell me?” he whispered, still crouched on the ground.
The man stared down at Johnny, his face stony. When he knelt on the ground, Johnny flinched, but the man didn’t hurt him. He pulled up the sleeve of his jacket and held out his arm for Johnny to see. On the stranger’s forearm was a tattoo, a series of black lines with numbers below it.
“You know what this is?”
Johnny had never seen one before. Everyone said that once you got sold, you never came out. But he knew that the mark was a slave’s. He shivered.
“I’ve been to Peetzland. I wouldn’t do that to another person. Especially—” he stopped. Cleared his throat. “Especially not a kid.”
Johnny stared at him with wide eyes. “You were a slave? And you escaped?”
The man’s face softened. “I had help. Now, will you tell me your name so we can get you somewhere safe?”
The shadow of a smile crept onto the man’s face. “Johnny. Little Johnny, it’s nice to meet you. Tell me, did you have any family living nearby—grandparents or aunts or cousins? Or farther away. We’ll find them and get you back to the people who love…” The man trailed off because Johnny was already shaking his head.
“There’s no one. My family got turned inside out in the spinner.”
“Inside out?” The man rubbed his forehead. “I know. And that must be really hard, but the spinner didn’t get everyone. Just a few houses. Your uncles, cousins, or maybe a friend? They’ll be just fine.”
“We didn’t have any cousins or anything like that.” Johnny scrunched up his nose. Was that odd? He’d never really thought about it before.
The man blew out a breath and stood back up, turning his back to Johnny. In the light of day, the bulk of the bow pulled at the stranger’s jacket and Johnny could see the quiver that held the arrows too. In the dim light of the morning it had made the stranger look monstrous. Knowing that it was actually a weapon didn’t really change that.
“There must be someone. Who did your parents call when they were in a bind? Or who called them?”
“Momma said you can’t rely on anyone but yourselves.”
The man mumbled something—it didn’t sound nice– and walked away. Johnny’s heart began to race again. What would the man do with him? He couldn’t hold still any longer. He jumped up and trotted after the man.
“How—How did we—you get away? There were so many of them and they had guns.”
The man turned around and studied Johnny’s face. “I had a bow. That’s better than a gun.”
Johnny squinted skeptically and the man’s worried expression melted into a laugh. “They only had two guns. I separated the first guy from his gun, and shot the second out of its owner’s hands. The guns were their only advantage.”
“They had more people!”
“That can be an advantage, yes. It can also be a disadvantage. They had to load everyone up and turn their bulky vehicles around to follow us. By that time, we were long gone.”
“Plus, you knifed their tire.”
The man ruffled Johnny’s hair. “You can never be too careful.” He looked up at the trees above them, turning slowly in a circle. “Lost an arrow, though. I hate losing arrows. This should make a good camp for the night. You like sleeping outside Little Johnny?”
Johnny shrugged. His father let them sleep out in the fields after harvest when the earth was soft from having been churned up. They’d light a fire and sing songs and in the morning their breath came out in puffs of cloud.
The answer must have been good enough for the man because he nodded and set about preparing camp. Johnny watched him pull more out of the saddle bags than it looked like they could hold. Even so, it wasn’t much.
“What’s your—what do I call you?” Johnny asked as the man unfurled a single sleeping back.
He looked up at Johnny and something sad passed over his face. “You can call me Arrow.”
Spoiler, Arrow is a character from The Darkest Hour, although he’s going by a different name now. If you’ve read The Darkest Hour, do you have any guesses about who he could be? I can’t resist a good re-telling, and this is a sort of prequel to a Robin Hood retelling that I haven’t written yet. Someday I hope to make that happen.