And then he saw her stumble out onto the tracks....

One foot in front of the other, mostly looking down, almost hypnotised by the rhythm.  On his next glance to the front, he saw someone.  Someone female, up ahead.  She was walking along the tracks ahead of him.  Who knows where she had come from...she hadn't been there until just now. 

He walked a little faster, to catch up.  Company would be welcome.  But something was off.  She wasn't walking purposefully, unlike him.  She seemed to be meandering across the tracks, veering off course.  He slowed his pace a little.  Was she drunk?  She stopped...and fell.

He ran up to where she lay, and hunkered down.  She was young, maybe sixteen, seventeen, in there somewhere.  She was breathing, but looked pale.  He took her hand,  Cold.  Clammy.  Soft and delicate.  He patted it, looked at her face.  Her eyes flickered open, found his.   She pulled her hand away and her eyes widened in fear.

''Hey.''  he tried to keep his voice as low and soothing as he could.  ''It's fine.  I saw you take a fall.   Are you hurt?''  From the distance he'd been, he couldn't be sure, but it had seemed to him that she had just...crumpled to the ground.

She lay still, looking at the sky, then at him, as if taking stock of her situation.

''N...no.  I figure I'm mostly fine.'' she said, a little hesitation in her tone.  ''I feel awful empty, though.  I didn't eat anything for a while.''

''Where did you come from?''  he asked.  ''You seem real young to be out on your own in the wilds.''

''I been walking for maybe a couple of days.'' she said, sitting up a little.  ''I got lost, walking with Amy, my big sister.  I turned my back and she was gone.  I been looking for her since.''  A liitle colour had returned to her cheeks but she paled again.  He feared she was about to pass out once more.

''Well,''  I said.  ''You need something in your belly, that's apparent.''  He rummaged in his pack.  ''It's not much but it'll maybe perk you up till we can find real chow.''   He handed her the remaining half of his candy bar, and she devoured it, looking up at him with gratitude in her large blue eyes.   When she had finished, she closed them, and he watched as a single fat tear trickled down one pale cheek.  He put one hand on her shoulder.  Truth to tell, he wanted to do more than that, maybe hug her close,  she looked so small and lost, but he was afraid of making her more fearful. 

He reached into the small green pack again, pulled out his water bottle, and handed it to her.  She put it to her lips and tipped her head back.  As he watched her drink, he spotted the marks on either side of her throat.  Bruises.  Faded,  but still there to tell a story.  A violent one.

''Where were you and your sister headed?''  he asked softly.  ''Or were you running away from someone.

She hung her head, more tears flowing. 

''I was living with Amy and her man, Nate.''  she said, so quietly that he had to strain to hear. ''It was his birthday last week and we all went into town to celebrate.  I guess....''  she looked up at him.  ''He took too much liquor.  He's a nice guy... He's a very nice guy...sober.''  She drew her knees up and sat up further, hugging them to her.

''When we got home he carried on drinking - one of his buddies had given him a bottle.''  she shook her head.   ''As the night went on he just...flipped out.  Started yelling at Amy on account of how she was acting in town.  Said she was flirting, and carrying on like a ....''  She tailed off, playing with the hem of her chambray skirt.

She looked at him again.  He nodded in encouragement.

''Time went on and he got...nasty.''  More tears fell and she wiped them with a grubby hand, leaving grey tracks on her cheeks.  ''He grabbed her hair and started hitting her in the face.''

She pushed her fair hair back, tucking it behind small, child-like ears,and carried on.

''I tried to get his hands away and he started on me.  Grabbed me by the throat.''  Her hands went to her neck, rubbing the yellowing bruises.  She swallowed.  ''Then Amy grabbed the skillet and hit him over the head.''  She looked into his eyes, looking for a reaction.  Shock?  Condemnation?  Respect?

''And then?''  he asked, taking her hand.  She didn't remove it.

''We just ran.  We didn't know if he was alive or dead, but we knew he had to get out of there, anyhow.'' 

''Yeah, I guess that's what I'd have done too.''  he said, smiling gently at the girl.  ''And while you were running, she disappeared.  Do you think she went back to him?  To check he was all right?''

''No. No, she wouldn't.  We were looking out for each other.  She would never have gone back.  It...it wasn't the first time.  Whenever he had a drink she dreaded what would happen.  Two days ago, we heard someone call Amy's name.  We didn't know if it was Nate.  To me, it sounded like someone else, but she just turned and ran.  And then...''

''You couldn't find her.''  She nodded.  ''Would you like me to help?'' 

''Would you?''  she searched his face.  ''I don't even know your name.''

''I'm  Danny.''  he said.  ''What do I call you?''

''Sarah'' she replied. ''But people mostly call me Sal.''

He shook her hand, in mock formality.  ''Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Sal.'' he said, bowing his head respectfully, bringing a ripple of mirth from the young girl.  She covered her mouth, looking guilty.

''Don't worry.''  he said,helping her to her feet.  ''We'll look for your sister.  Even if we don't find her, you'll be safer with me than on your own.''

Danny and the girl brushed off their clothes and continued walking along the tracks.

The End

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