A bowl of eggs sat on the counter. Still a little dirty, fresh from the morning gather. No chickens missing this morning... a small blessing... and perhaps due to a reputation owned by the same man who owned the chickens.
The kitchen was clean, if a bit bare. Everything in it's place, and that place was put away where it belonged. It marked an orderly mind, and a healthy respect for the value of hot water and a scrub brush.
The Man was not old, and he wasn't young. He was in between, of those years when nobody is quite sure. Old enough to have earned respect... after all, he made it this far. Not old enough to take for granted though. He was that age where a working man's body begins evolving from mere muscle, and into something closer to hardened cut Oak. The skin on his arms was darkened from working in the sun, and beginning to show the wrinkles that brings... but the flesh underneath looked to be iron.
The morning was no special one, but a visitor was coming. He'd been told, or warned as the case may be, by a neighbors young boy sent with the words written on a scrap of paper. "A guy was asking after you. Sent him your way on the long path". Not a lot of words, on not a lot of paper, delivered by quite a small boy. Enough. Like most things these days... just enough.
The Man had friends, or at least people who thought well of him. He'd earned those good thoughts over the years by showing up just when a neighbor needed him. When the work was done, whatever it be, he seldom accepted anything in exchange. The debt was understood, and the Man banked the goodwill of his neighbors like other men did silver in a lock box.
The Man knew there were reasons someone might seek him out. He knew this because he was not a fool.
His not being a fool was a life long affliction, and had led him years ago to a harsh conclusion. The world was changing, it wasn't a nice change, people were not going to like it, and trouble was on the horizon. It was clear to the Man, long before it was to most others, that the idea of money was going to be different soon. There wasn't going to be any value left in a dollar, for people to steal away in the name of doing good things for those as refused to do for themselves. Money was worth what it would buy, and there would be precious little to buy before long, in a world where hard work was punished and sloth rewarded.
The Man quietly changed his life around. Cash was turned into things easy to buy early on..... and much, much harder to find as time went buy. The yards around his house were turned from mowed lawn into working vegetable plots. Evergreens came down, and fruit tree's were planted in their place. The house was made over into a more efficient place to live, needing only a little electrical power to be comfortable. In truth, the words 'need' and 'electrical power' were divorced. The Man needed no power at all to live comfortably.
Hardening the house for hard times, along with the garage and a small garden shed... those were more difficult jobs to accomplish. A day's labor here and there, along with supplies bought used and cheap, and the property took on new features. The windows were more efficient... and had shutters that looked like old wood, in keeping with the age of the house. In reality, they were steel, carefully painted to conceal their nature. The doors, front... back... and cellar... were neatly and tastefully landscaped with healthy flowering shrubs and ferns. That the plants were contained in concrete planters weighing a solid ton each, and blocking an easy run at the doors.... that was something not so easily noticed.
The Man had done more than change his lifestyle to suit the times he saw so obviously rushing at the world. He had also turned his cash into things of value, and his home into the safest place he could.
He knew his visitor was coming from the barking of his two dogs. His mixed breed mutts were working dogs. They knew all their jobs well, and warned their pack leader of the intrusion as they were supposed to. Little escaped their notice, and this day was no different. Not tied by anything more than training, the voice of command, and their love of the Man; No leash was needed with these dogs. They watched the newcomer carefully from far outside his reach. The Man in the house knew where the visitor was by the sound.... how loud and how far away. Starting with a single whoof as the stranger approached the property, and now a steady slow beat of barking... a few seconds between each... as the dogs took turns tracking the visitor to the house. They quieted as the stranger set foot on the porch, their job done. The silence as much a warning as the barking, the dogs watched closely as the visitor knocked on the kitchen door.
Seated at the table, the Man and the stranger spoke over glasses of cool water. The Man was courteous and quiet spoken, while the stranger was.... not as gentle of word. They spoke of why the visitor had sought out the Man.
"I hear you are the guy I need to talk to" said the stranger.
"Maybe" said the Man. "Tell me what it is brought you here, and we'll see".
The Man had spoken the same words many a time, over the same table. Some years of putting needful things aside had found him quietly well equipped to deal with hard times. When people found their cash had turned to valueless scraps of paper, his neighbors had learned him a good man to be friendly with. If a person had a family in need of something not available for any pile of useless cash, like maybe a Spring's garden seeds, or the .22 ammunition needed to keep the critters from eating the corn faster than the kids would.... then 'The Man' was who he came to see. A deal might be struck. A few days labor in exchange for... whatever was needed. Maybe a share of the food grown from the seeds, maybe a half dozen rabbits harvested with each box of precious rimfire ammo.
The visitor at the table this morning was not a neighbor. He was a stranger, and he didn't come at the side of someone the Man knew. That meant he was an unknown factor, and that was something to be very careful of these days.
"I need something to defend my family with. I need a gun. I hear you have some to trade" said the stranger.
"Could be. Not much I need to trade for, but I'm open to suggestions" said the Man, as he took a sip from his glass of water. His eyes stayed on the stranger. "What kinda gun are you needing?"
The visitor didn't touch his glass. "A pistol. Something big enough to make a guy think twice when he looks at it from the wrong end, but small enough I can carry".
These words were not what was usually said at this point. Most people who came to bargain for a weapon were looking for a rifle to shoot game with, and feed their family. Rarely, a shotgun.... since the shells were harder to find and expensive for what you got with each shot. A pistol? That was hardly ever asked for, and never a big bore pistol. They cost a lot to buy ammunition for, and a well aimed .22 rifle was more sure of bagging a deer with less damage to good meat. No.... a carry pistol was not something the Man was asked for every day.
"I got silver to trade, and tools. I brought silver with me, and the tools I can walk back another day if we make a deal" said the stranger.
"I don't need much in the way of silver, or tools for that matter" said the Man. "I suppose I could put them away till I meet someone who needs them more than I do. Wouldn't you rather trade some work rather than your tools?"
"Ain't got time to spend working here. I have other things I need to do. Like I said, I got silver, and tools I can get more when I want them" said the visitor, and he reached into a coat pocket and laid a cloth bag on the table. It hit with a ring that was unmistakeable to ears that had heard it before. Silver coins and bullion rounds make a 'clink' like nothing else does. "Now, what have you got I might trade this for?"
The Man stood up slowly, and walked over to a kitchen cabinet. He had placed some trade goods there earlier that morning, amongst them a 9mm Ruger pistol. He'd bought it, along with a dozen others just like it, as police department trade-ins several decades before. The local police had moved up to something more powerful and newer, selling off their old sidearms in order to help with the cost of upgrading. Since buying the lot of them, he'd traded just a couple away to neighbors who had the need. The Man was of the idea that having his neighbors liking him, and their families safer from the roaming thieves that occasionally came around.... was a good idea.
The Man pulled the slide back on the pistol with it pointed safely at the far wall. It locked back, as it should when empty of ammunition. Walking back to the table, he sat down and laid the pistol in front of him. With a shared glance, each person reached for the others offering and examined it. The Man poured out the silver on the table, careful to keep it and his hands in plain view, as he counted and judged the coins and silver rounds. Enough was there to make it a fair trade, although silver had little interest to most people just now. It might again one day, but these days local people had little wealth to 'store' in anything that couldn't be eaten or worked with.
The stranger handled the weapon like he had some idea how it worked, and what to do with it... although he showed no sign of being trained to it. He let the slide run forward, and dry fired the pistol a few times, working the double action trigger to feel if it was crisp, and the hammer fall solid with no weak springs. The Man noticed the stranger was not especially careful where the pistol was pointed as he worked the action, letting the muzzle drift in ways that made him uncomfortable. In fact, his whole comfort level was dropping pretty fast, with the stranger and the situation.
"Magazines?" said the stranger.
"Two" spoke the Man slowly.
"Ammo?" asked the stranger, in a lower voice.
"I can let you have a box of hard ball with it, but that's all" the Man stated, watching the stranger's eyes as he said it.
"I want hollow points" was the reply, although the man didn't raise his eyes away from the pistol on the table in front of him.
"That's what everyone wants, but what I have to trade is hard ball. That's all there is." said the Man, as he casually dropped his right hand into his lap, and his left moved away from the silver and laid on the edge of table.
The stranger looked up after a moment, and his voice had a different edge to it. Not a dangerous edge, but not a friendly one either. "I said I want hollow points, and that's what I will get in this deal". It was a voice the Man had heard before, from one politician after another. It was the voice of a thug and a bully.... a voice that demanded everything and gave nothing but grief and pain in return.
The Man got up slowly from the table, picking up the pistol and racking back the slide so it locked open again. Not turning his back on the stranger, he reached over and laid the pistol on the kitchen cabinet near where he'd first got it from.
Turning to the stranger, the Man looked down at him calmly... and began speaking with the tone of someone who had reached a decision he'd never waver from.
" We have no bargain to make. I don't know you, I'm not comfortable with you, and I sure as hell am not going to arm you. That's a hard fact".
"Now you have a choice to make. If you think you are a smart man, you might try coming back tomorrow and asking me real nice to change my mind. Ain't gonna happen, so save yourself the effort".
"If you are a stupid man, but brave, you might try to take what's mine. That won't work either. I will gut shoot you and you will die slow, screaming. I don't miss".
"If you are stupid and a coward, you might try and pay someone else to do your dirty work for you. That won't happen either. They will die cursing your name and I will hunt you down and makes their curses come true".
"The best thing you can do is walk away and never look back. You and I have no business together and never will. I may not know you, but I know your kind. You are a taker and a looter. Someone who would demand something for free rather than work for it. Here you are, and here you've come up against something you ain't going to like. A man who can't be threatened, can't be bullied, and knows you for exactly what you are. Now... take your silver and get out".
The Man watched as the stranger carefully gathered his cold silver back into the bag, without a word. The stranger didn't meet his eyes, nor say a word, but his face was dark as thunder as he slowly walked out the back door and down the path. It was clear the Man had pegged this one right, and the stranger was a critter who was used to bullying people into giving him what he wanted. The dogs were silent this time, simply following with hackles raised, and teeth slightly bared. They knew where this game was going. They'd played it before. Their pack leader didn't like the stranger, and that meant they didn't either. Some things in a dog's life are simpler than in a mans.
The Man let his hand come away from his belt slowly, taking a deep breath which strained his side against the full sized Colt 1911 at his waist, under the loose shirt.
Now that he could do it without giving anything away, he glanced over between the open kitchen door and the wall, where a short 12 gauge pump action shotgun was stored only a step away.
With a sigh, the Man began walking from window to window, closing the shutters. He moved carefully along, converting the comfortable home into a sort of fortress.... not that he'd be in it. Shortly after full dark he'd be at his rest in his shed, along with his dogs. There he would have a fine view of the only way to approach the house, which would be well lit with 12 volt floodlights mounted under the eaves. The only way to get near the other side of the house were hidden paths cut through briar patches planted ten years before, now higher than a mans head and heavy with thorns. Only he and the dogs knew those paths, which even the local deer avoided. The shed was more than it looked from the outside, with a comfortable place to bed down... and walls surprisingly thick. It had other surprises too, including a way in and out most people would never see or know of.
The thing about the house which no one but the Man understood was this: It was a fortress, in it's way. It looked strong and safe because it was strong and safe... during normal times. The Man understood though... there is no such thing as a fortress that can't be overwhelmed or starved out in time. That's why he defended his home from someplace else than inside it. Safety lay in being someplace other than where people thought you would be, and able to do things they didn't know you could do. When he defended his home, nobody really figured out how till it was far too late... and that was a hard lesson no one had ever survived.
Reaching into a closet, above the door where no one could see, he pulled a rifle from it's rack. It was a simple bolt action .22 rimfire, only it had a suppressor mounted on the barrel. With the big optics mounted above the action, it could silently deliver death's summons with pinpoint accuracy out to a hundred yards. The heavy subsonic bullets loped along fast enough to drop a man without any fuss, giving no more than a dull thump as they struck. The Man had a full case of that special ammunition tucked away, 5000 rounds of it. He never traded it with anyone.
When the motion sensors tripped the floodlights, any nightfall bandits would be silhouetted against the well lit house like little tin targets in an old fashioned arcade game, and they would fall with little more effort.
The Man's name was Banner, an old name his mother thought sounded dignified. These days, there were few people in the world who knew it. Most of the locals simply called him 'The Man' when they spoke of him, and 'Sir' when they spoke to him. He just had that effect on people, and he didn't do much of anything to change it.
Banner hoped with all his heart that he was wrong about the stranger, but he wasn't a man who let that get in the way of doing what needed done. At the very least, it would mean more nights sleeping with the dogs in the shed than usual, although Banner didn't see that as a chore. What he'd have to do if the stranger came back with friends in the dark of night.... that would be a chore, but a necessary one not to be regretted. Sometimes the sheep dog needed to protect his flock. Perhaps that is why most of the neighbors just called him Sir.
The stranger hadn't looked that bright, or that smart. It was going to be a hard day.... and a long night.