Sudden Independents - By Ted Hill Page 0,1

with concern. Hopefully his bike wasn’t trashed. “That’s how I get around,” he said. He righted the motorbike on its two wheels, settling it against the tree. “If it breaks down, then I’m walking.”

“I like walking.”

Hunter clamped a hand over his own sweaty forehead where his pulse pounded. This was the reason he never babysat the younger kids back home. “Do you have a brother or sister, or are there any other kids nearby, maybe somebody older who takes care of you?”

“Nope, it’s just me.”

Hunter knew that wasn’t possible. The only survivor settlements nearby were Cozad and Independents, and they were divided by a hundred-sixty miles. Maybe she got separated from one of the caravans that sometimes rambled through, going from one coast to the other. Whatever happened, someone brought her along this far. No one survived out here alone—especially not little girls.

He knelt, getting eye to eye with Catherine and growing more irritated by her infuriating grin. “You’re what, six, maybe seven?”

“I’m six or seven what?”

Hunter rubbed his hand over his face. He hated his next question before he asked it, but this conversation wasn’t getting any easier. “Do you remember your parents?”

“Sure I do,” Catherine said, looking up to the sky. “Father’s in Heaven.”

He’d already guessed that answer, figuring he knew the next one as well. “What about your mom?”

Catherine smiled at him and patted the tree. Its leaves ruffled in the breeze as if the tree acknowledged its status as the little girl’s mother.

Hunter shook his head and walked back into the heat. He picked up a rock at the edge of the irrigation ditch and threw it far, not caring where it landed.

Now that he was two days overdue at Independents, Jimmy would be having a fit, and this stop was delaying the unavoidable confrontation. His older brother wanted him to stick to a schedule, but Hunter didn’t need that crap. He’d had a dad once.

Hunter picked up another rock and flung it hard.

“Do you have something to eat?” Catherine called from the shade. “I’m hungry.”

Hunter side-armed one more rock and watched it sail over the tall grass before he returned into the comfortable shade. He removed his bag from the back of the Kawasaki and sat with it between his legs. Catherine plopped in front of him. Dragging out the last of the flatbread and beef jerky, he offered Catherine the bread. She clapped her hands, apparently pleased with the meager meal, and ripped into it like a starved kitten, taking big bites and swallowing chunks. Hunter chewed on the sinewy stick of meat, hoping he wouldn’t chip a tooth.

“So what’s your name?” Catherine asked.

“I’m Hunter.”

She leaned up on her knees and inspected his face closely. The scrutiny made him uncomfortable. “You look like a Michael.”

Hunter blinked. “How did you know that?”

Catherine tapped the side of her head.

He looked away. “Well, I’m Hunter now. I hunt for stuff. My parents named me Michael, but they’re gone.” Hunter choked down the lump that always caught in his throat when he mentioned his parents. He made fists to keep his hands from shaking.

Catherine patted his knee the way his mother used to, surprising him out of the dark spiral of his thoughts. He remembered his parents less every day. He hated revisiting the nightmare of their last moments. Catherine scooted next to him and rested her head on his shoulder. A secure happiness overcame him, which he couldn’t explain.

“I like it under my tree,” Catherine said. “Don’t you? It’s nice and shady. She’s a good tree, full of life and happy memories. I like her bark the best. It’s so big and knobby. Here, feel.”

She grabbed Hunter’s hand and placed it on the tree. The bark felt big and knobby, just like she said. He smiled.

Hunter stuffed the leftovers into his backpack. “Catherine, would you like to go to Independents with me?”

She bounced beside him like a loose ball. “You mean to live with you?”

“Well, not with me, but with the other kids there. I can’t leave you here all by yourself.” Hunter gauged the sun’s position. “We better go now if we want to make it home before dark.”

“Don’t you think home is a cozy word?” she asked. “Home, home, home. How will we get home?”

Hunter thumbed at his motorbike. “I’ll give you a lift on my two-wheeler.”

“I need to say goodbye first.” Catherine jumped up and turned toward the cottonwood. She gave the tree a big hug. “I love you, tree, but Hunter is taking

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