PHOTO SUBMITTED BY:  Pombé

Dawn in the Savage Divide found the campsite slowly stirring. Close to the border with the Mire, the small group of settlers was aware of the lurking dangers that came in the form of their fellow human being. Raiders were ever-present, using the Divide’s natural design to hide pockets of claimed territory that travelers avoided. The unfortunate reality, however, was the lack of trails that could easily bypass such places. The mountain range of Appalachia was unforgiving, and the familiar Trail that once cut a spine along the range was barely recognizable. Those few areas where the Trail survived and offered a bit of stability to move across the range were built up into blockades, either from the Raiders or the Brotherhood of Steel as they vied for dominance in the region.

Settlers and traders were at the mercy of the elements as much as they were from the interests of established gangs. Small caravans had to be creative, employing a combination of survival skills, firepower, and sheer luck, in order to get across the Divide. Those that survived the trek always came with stories, of what they’d seen and managed to avoid, of the men and women lost, of the bleached bones that were a testimony to the dismal odds facing them.

Many caravans carried hope on a razor’s edge, with each nightfall bringing not only the blessed relief from walking but also the rising terrors of what lurked beyond the shadows.

This caravan was no different. Settlers were willing to risk everything for an opportunity to simply carve out a small piece of existence. What made this particular caravan of horizon-seekers different from others, however, was that they were not alone. Lady Luck, it seemed, favored this small group.

He went by Pombé and offered to guide the settlers through the Divide with minimal raider contact. Maybe it was the Responder backpack, or perhaps his open demeanor, but the normally suspicious caravan was quick to trust this man with their lives. It likely also helped that the Responder’s fear of wasps was about as humanly honest as one could get--a story the group enjoyed retelling every night as the fire died down, with each retelling earning yet one more embellishment. Last night the good-natured Responder added his own embellishment, tossing in a raider scouting party that was dumbstruck by the Responder running as if his hair was on fire from a single wasp across the Devil’s Backbone.

As the camp settled into the routine of preparing for their last day in the Divide, Pombé stood off to the side with an older woman in a tattered duster that’d seen better days. There was a grittiness about her, a sense of a matriarch that would fight tooth and nail to make sure her family, blood or adopted, made it through each grueling day and night towards something better. Facing eastward, the two were in deep conversation.

“You’ve got about a half day's walk until you’re safely in the Mire,” Pombé said, pointing against the rising sunlight with a squint. “Safe’s relative, though, Heather,” he added, dropping his hand and turning a bit to face her with a measure of concern etched onto his face.

“Yeah, I reckon nothing’s ever truly safe. We aren’t looking to do anything other than keep on moving,” Heather said with a slow nod.

“You could always try to make contact with the Free States, maybe see if they’re open to you settling your family in a small corner.”

“I appreciate the thought, Pombé, but we want to go a bit further east, then turn a bit north. There’s trouble brewing and I don’t wanna be around to see it,” Heather said with a frown. Reaching out a hand, she placed it on his arm as her expression softened. “You know you’re welcomed to join us, Pombé. You’re a good man and the family’s taken to you.”

Placing his hand atop hers in gratitude, the Responder smiled a bit. “Someday, I might just find you and hold you to that, Heather.” His hand fell away and a touch of sadness stirred in his expression. “You’re right. There’s trouble brewing and I can’t just ignore that. Responders don’t walk away. We walk towards it, whatever it is.”

“Well, I can understand that. Can’t say I’m surprised. People like you aren’t easy to find these days, sadly. But… hopefully, that’ll change.”

Pombé adjusted the left strap of his backpack and grinned as the small group of children darted past them in that expression of early morning energy. “It will, Heather. You’ll see. I’m sure of it.” Turning, Pombé put the rising sun on his left and headed south, leaving the caravan to finish their morning preparations for the proverbial last mile.

It would change, he knew, but change never happened over-night. That meant he couldn’t just hang up the Responder backpack and trade in the rifle for a fishing pole just yet. Eventually, sure, but today was not that day, not when the Savage Divide stretched in front of him, and the promise of a hopeful future was still just a fleeting dream for many.

There was work to do, and he was a Responder. First to the front. First to the fire.