The Ride Home
The horse plodded through red dust, a dozen sheep bleating in protest as I herded them down the hillside to the lowland grass. I never knew -- no one did -- what drove crazy sheep to climb the steep hills upward to where the air was too thin.
But up I had gone, me and the horse, to find the crazy animals. Sheep at least tended to stand together and I found them all in a hollow where the air had settled a little thicker. Their coats were almost glowing red with dust and it was going to be a ten day or more before I got them cleaned, or else sell the wool at a loss. No one around here wanted more red clothing.
The sheep were happy to be going home, though, so we made good time down the steep path, Ryder sure-footed despite the loose rock. We'd had to go this way more than once. I was going to have to rebuild the sheep wall and hope we didn't get another quake any time soon.
Before long my gauge gave a satisfying beep and I took off my airmask and eased Ryder's harness mask back down again. He gave a snort of appreciation. The sheep had stopped bleating and rushed forward having spotted spots of green not far away. I pushed them away from the newer grass just getting a foothold on the higher level of ground. They protested but Ryder knew the work as well as I did, and down we went, the sheep starting to pick up speed again as they scented home. I could see the blue glint of Aonia Lake glittering ahead while across the horizon darkness fell and stars began to gleam.
Something moved at the corner of my eye and I turned in the saddle, pulling back on the reins. And there I saw something very rare: Another rider stood on a hilltop clear across the chasm between us. I'd only seen another rider once before in my life. I stopped and stared and I thought he must have also, from the way they'd paused there. I pulled my laser pistol and shot a short blue burst up into the darkening sky: The salute as old as the settlements. Hello stranger. I see you.
A moment later the rider returned the symbolic greeting before horse and rider disappeared back over the ridge.
I rode down into the Aonia back lands with the increasingly grassy knolls and watched as Phobos chased the stars overhead. The beacon light of the Valentine holding finally swept through the sky, a welcome sight in the dark, empty world.
I'd had a long, hard day, but for all of it, there was no place like home.
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