THE HOT SUN beat down on Joe but the blistering rays did little to penetrate his thoughts. The heat of the waste was a constant in his life. The dust in the air, the silence, eerie to most, comforted Joe. He found himself constantly in danger of falling into that comfort, a mistake that’d surely be his end if he allowed it. The waste was not a place for idle thought.
Joe's craft glided across the sun baked dirt, its sail filled with a gust of warm wind, faint tire tracks the only proof of his crossing. Joe moved the rudder with the expertise of experience, ensuring his silent passing, freeing his mind to focus on his imminent need to find a town and resupply. Joe weighed his distaste of modern society with his need to survive and decided it was time to leave the comfort of his waste cruiser, a craft of his own design that resembled a boat with wheels. Powered by wind, steered by his hand. It wasn't a large vessel but it fit Joe and his horse just fine. Moira was below deck, enjoying the shade and whatever grain Joe had left from his last brush with civilization.
Joe was a Waste Walker. A derogatory term given to people that didn't fit with the emerging society of a post industrialized world. A term given to the folks that found life in the nothingness of the endless desert instead of the confines of the small strongholds of this empire or that. But the empires needed people like Joe. They needed them to help build trails from hold to hold, to find precious resources, to scour the waste in search of goods from the old times.
Joe's vessel was filled with those goods, debris from a forgotten era. Metals scavenged from burnt out buildings, cushions from derelict houses that's roofs barely pierced the dirt that consumed them. Joe roamed the waste looking for treasures to trade and lived by his own code. He shared the waste with like minded folks and devilish minded folks. The landscape was studded with undesirables. Criminals, thieves, murderers. Sometimes in gangs, sometimes alone. Joe was more cautious of the lone ones than the gangs. Took a smart person to survive out there on their own. Gangs clung together in the hope that someone knew what they were doing, but more often than not they didn't. Joe had scavenged many things from the remnants of a lost gang not yet swallowed by the sand. Occasionally he'd catch wind of a bounty dodger in his area and do his best to monetize the situation, but mostly Joe just traded treasures and tried to keep to himself.
Joe's radio whined with the approach of civilization. The whir and buzz of radio waves reaching out to him causing his deep concentration to deteriorate into the present. He flipped the dial and let it track until he found the right station.
"-berg, Population 2,000. Jurisdiction of Sheriff Martin Cope. Vestige of Vincent Gray of the Golden Army. Westberg, Population 2,000. Juris-"
Joe tracked the radio to the next station with little hesitation. The who's who of the approaching little piece of society meant nothing to him. He chose to stay out of their petty squabbles, their desperate land grabs and attempts to bring more poor souls into their flock. A less cynical man would've been impressed by a population reaching into the 2nd thousand, but for Joe, that just meant he had a fair chance at making some trades and lightening his cargo hold.
"Travelers. Welcome to Westberg. Trader's are welcome from dusk till dawn. Hello travelers. Welcome to Westber-"
Joe flipped the switch on his radio and it cut out.
"Hear that Moira? Place is open for business." His voice rattled deep in his throat, his words barely audible while his vocal chords kicked off the rust of disuse.
JOE ALLOWED THE wind to carry his cruiser within a few miles of Westberg, opting to stash his unique craft instead of dealing with the questions of the gawkers. Joe allowed the craft to coast to a stop before bringing in the sail and tethering it to its 6-foot mast. He collapsed the mast with deft hands and disappeared into the hold to gather the goods he’d be taking into town.
Moira greeted him with a happy whinny and the stomp of a hoof. Joe grabbed her by the muzzle with a gentle hand and stroked here broad, white nose. Moira leaned into his heavy build and snorted loudly as Joe’s hands left her.
“Sorry sweetheart. Got business to be looking to, you just hold tight, hear?” Moira watched Joe walk away before burying her head back in her trough.
Joe walked past all kinds of crates and boxes overflowing with relics, a wall jeweled with guns of all sort and shape. He stopped at the gun wall and picked a few rifles from their tethers, tossing them into a wooden wagon chained to the middle of the hold. He rummaged around the cargo hold tossing in all sorts of items; bundles of wood, rusted chains, sheet metal, etc. He worked until the sweat ran down his back and only when the wagon looked about to burst did he stop. Joe unhitched the back door and walked Moira out, hitching her to the wagon. She strained against the weight but her powerful frame made short work of pulling it out of the hold.
“Stay here girl.” Joe patted her neck and fed her the remnants of an apple he’d been working on earlier.
Joe quickly returned to the craft and pulled a camouflage tarp over it. He'd scavenged the enormous tarp from an old military outpost, it’d probably been meant to cover planes but it served Joe’s purposes just as well. He’d managed to find a few untarnished M-16's there too but he'd traded those long ago. Worthless, except in the eyes of collector's. They always asked the same thing.
"Ammo?" But all of the ammo was old, scaly green, rusted. He harvested what metal he could and melted it down, but that was about it. Sometimes he'd bring back a box or two of shells to sell with the guns but they'd never fire. He honestly had no idea if the guns even worked in the first place.
Moira whinnied unhappily against the load behind Joe but he just hushed her and kept her moving. The waste stretched all around them, the signs of humanity dotting its sands as they drew ever closer to Westberg. Joe was hoping the town would have some water and food to trade, the fact that they were open said a lot in his favor but even still, it was never a guarantee.
Moira made good time across the smooth terrain around the town and Joe found himself staring in disbelief as Westberg came into view. The stronghold jutted out of the sand like an open wound, refusing to scab over. The walls were made of hard packed earth and rose about 8 feet high. An even better sign that they had water to trade. The front gate was two giant metal doors crafted out of hammered and pressed car hoods. Strong enough to keep out the riff-raff but Joe doubted much else.
Moira trotted through them into a busy square. A pair of guards gave Joe and his wagon a once over as he trotted by but quickly turned their attention to other things. No one paid Joe much notice, except for a young man in the uniform of The Golden Army, a pair of shiny sergeant’s insignia weighing down the limp collar of his tan jacket. His dessert camo was worn and sun dyed, faded and dirty. He motioned for Joe to stop and Joe complied.
"Afternoon," Joe managed in his grizzled, seldom used voice.
The soldier stared at him for a moment, picking over the crags and creases in his face, committing them to memory. His eyes darted to the paperwork in his hand and he started barking questions at Joe.
"Name and business." Joe bristled at the official tone and took his time to wet his mouth before responding.
"The bounty hunter?" The soldier’s eyes jumped from his paperwork in a blur, his question cutting Joe off at the "d" of his name. Joe licked his lips, annoyed.
"Not today. Trader." The soldier's eyes refused to be shamed by Joe's scowl, his ears denying to hear Joe's words.
"It's an honor, Mr. Reed!" As Joe feared, the young soldier abandoned his post to offer a handshake.
Joe sighed and fought the urge to deny the soldier. His hand snaked down slowly and clasped the soldiers in an overly firm grasp.
"Trader today." He squeezed and the soldier’s eyes widened in pain.
Joe released the soldier's hand and the young man quickly trotted back to his post, shaking out the pain in his hand, trying to hide it from Joe with his body.
Joe fought a smile and won. Serves him right.
"Josiah Reed, trader." The soldier spoke out loud as he wrote then offered Joe his certificate of trade.
"No inspection?" Joe was baiting him but the soldier wasn't interested.
"Your reputation proceeds you, sir. You're free to set up shop anywhere on the right of the square."
"Got any water?"
"Yes sir. Man over yonder has the water wagon. He's a tough trade though, fair warning."
Joe nodded in consideration, then clucked at Moira to move on.
JOE EYED THE trade area, not seeing any openings. The square was alive with activity. Busy hawkers fought the war of words, shaking goods at passing patrons. Joe only had to listen for a few minutes before he figured the lay of the land and the worth of his own goods.
Joe spotted the water wagon and steered Moira towards it, coming to a stop just next to it. A small weasel faced man in a sweat stained plaid shirt rushed out from behind his setup, pink faced and ready to confront Joe.
"Hey! You can't park there! You're blocking out my stand!" The man's cheeks glowed as he trotted up to Joe's wagon, his fists balled at his sides. Joe chose to disregard him and stepped off his wagon. The little man, further enraged, shoved Joe hard in the chest, but Joe absorbed it like granite, choosing to ignore the attack.
The little man turned a brighter shade of red and opted to take a swing at Joe. Joe dodged out of the way and chopped the little man in the throat, simultaneously snaking his leg out behind him. The man flipped over Joe's leg, kicking up a tiny cloud of dirt upon impact. He sputtered in surprise, gripping his throat in agony, flat on his back.
"What the hell!" A large man with a Neanderthal brow ducked out from behind the make shift stand and bee lined towards Joe. Joe sighed, locking eyes with him. By now a small crowd had gathered to watch.
"Who the hell you think you are!?!"
Joe let the man get a little closer before he surged forward, giving the man a double fist to the chest. Like water in a bowl, Joe flowed backwards, sending a spinning kick at the stunned man. The hard heel of his boot clipped the man above the ear and he dropped like a tossed stone.
The crowd gasped in shock, but Joe ignored them, making his way back to the small man on the ground. The man was still clutching his throat, gasping for air, but Joe paid it no mind, using the plaid shirt as handles to pull the man to his feet.
"Now, I was going to offer you some trade to take over your spot but after your reception I figure I'm owed it. You have about three beats of the heart to pack up and get. You understand?" The man nodded his head stupidly, the hint of a smile creasing his lip.
Joe hadn't survived the waste as long as he had by being stupid. He hadn't built up a reputation by missing things, no sir, and this time was no different.
His free hand shot into the folds of his dirt caked duster and returned with a weapon of his own design.
It had the look of an old cowboy colt but instead of a sleek metal design it was rigged up with a wheel of loaded bolts, 10 in total, all drawn and ready. The revolver of the weapon was outfitted with a system that spun the bolts into position and the hammer was designed to unlock them and let them fly.
The long weapon was immediately intimidating to a population so unaccustomed with weaponry. Weapons were illegal in the city so most folks had never seen anything other than what the local army had so when Joe's Doomsayer came out the crowd gasped.
Joe never took his eyes off of the small weasel faced man and could see in the glassy glint of his eyes that his large friend had stopped in his tracks.
"You can't have that in here!" The small man finally managed.
"But then I do, so what's that tell ya?" The man turned liquid in Joe's grasp but Joe's tired muscles held him anyway. Joe cocked the hammer back on his weapon and the crowd gasped again. The weasel faced man went rigid in his hand again and started to splutter.
"Three beats of a heart you said! I heard ya." The man craned to look around Joe's angry eyes, looking for his friend. "Dave! Go ahead and get the stuff loaded up! We're out of here!"
Dave nodded, his face drained of color, before racing back to the stand. Joe kept his eyes locked on the small man, the sound of things being tossed into a wagon telling him Dave was doing what he was told.
Joe released the small man and tipped his faded booney hat to him.
"Pleasure." The man just looked at him for a moment before racing off to help Dave.
Joe put Doomsayer back in its place and watched the two men hurriedly fill their wagon. As if on cue the young soldier from earlier rushed through the crowd, bursting through and drawing his rusted sword. Two more soldiers of varying ages raced up behind him and followed suit.
The three men just stood there for a moment looking for the danger before they pieced the incident together. The young soldier locked eyes with Joe and went pale as the salt flats.
"Afternoon," Joe managed, irritated at the whole thing.
"Did you... Did you just pull a weapon?" The soldiers dropped jaw managed to convey his wounded pride to Joe, but Joe figured the boy still had lessons yet to learn and felt nothing for him.
"No such thing. I wouldn't have a weapon cuz you'd a confiscated it, right?"
The soldier's jaw worked up and down, the words he desperately wanted to utter stillborn in his throat.
"Anyhow, the disputes resolved and I think it's time these fine folks get a move on with their day. Isn't that so?" Joe's voice raised so the crowd could hear and the chicken ones took their cue leaving the brave behind to meddle, but as the crowd thinned even the brave ones decided maybe Joe was best left alone, after all, he was just defending himself.
"I think it might be best if you moved along too, Mr. Reed." The young soldier trembled as the words tumbled out.
"Nonsense!" The soldier whipped around, and as his face grew even paler. Joe knew Vincent Gray had arrived.
"Mr. Gray!" The young soldier saluted Vincent with his fist over his heart, his head bowed.
"Mr. Reed, I presume?" Joe frowned, sighing knowingly.
"Just trying to do some trade. Bit of a misunderstanding is all."
"I see. Well then, feel free to get to it. I believe a spot has opened up?" Vincent motioned to the newly vacated spot, the dust from the small man's departure still swirling in the heat.
"Appreciate it." Joe tipped his hat and grabbed Moira by the reins, walking her over to the empty space.
"Although, I will have to let Sergeant Benner confiscate that exquisite weapon you carry. Truly! I have seen nothing like it." Joe stopped in his tracks, fishing the weapon out of the folds in his duster. He held it out and waited without turning for the soldier to collect it. The soldier obliged him.
"Better be seeing that again, or if not, I better be seeing it's worth in food and water."
Vincent cackled laughter in response and Joe got the feeling that things were gonna end twisted between them.