Finally the silence and emptiness returned. The swift long low convertible cars were gone. He heard the last horn fade.
The road was empty again.
It had been like a funeral cortege. But a wild one, racing, hair out, screaming to some ceremony ever northward. Why? He could only shake his head and rub his fingers softly, at his sides.
Now, all alone, a final car. There was something very, very final about it. Down the mountain road in the thin cool rain, fuming up great clouds of steam, came an old Ford. It was traveling as swiftly as it might. He expected it to break apart any instant. When this ancient Ford saw Hernando it pulled up, caked with mud and rusted, the radiator bubbling angrily.
“May we have some water, please, señor!”
A young man, perhaps twenty-one, was driving. He wore a yellow sweater, an open-collared white shirt and gray pants. In the topless car the rain fell upon him and five young women packed so they could not move in the interior. They were all very pretty and they were keeping the rain from themselves and the driver with old newspapers. But the rain got through to them, soaking their bright dresses, soaking the young man. His hair was plastered with rain. But they did not seem to care. None complained, and this was unusual. Always before they complained; of rain, of heat, of time, of cold, of distance.
Hernando nodded. “I’ll bring you water.”
“Oh, please hurry!” one of the girls cried. She sounded very high and afraid. There was no impatience in her, only an asking out of fear. For the first time Hernando ran when a tourist asked; always before he had walked slower at such requests.
He returned with a hub lid full of water. This, too, had been a gift from the highway. One afternoon it had sailed like a flung coin into his field, round and glittering. The car to which it belonged had slid on, oblivious to the fact that it had lost a silver eye. Until now, he and his wife had used it for washing and cooking; it made a fine bowl.
As he poured the water into the boiling radiator, Hernando looked up at their stricken faces. “Oh, thank you, thank you,” said one of the girls. “You don’t know what this means.”
Hernando smiled. “So much traffic in this hour. It all goes one way. North.”
He did not mean to say anything to hurt them. But when he looked up again there all of them sat, in the rain, and they were crying. They were crying very hard. And the young man was trying to stop them by laying his hands on their shoulders and shaking them gently, one at a time, but they held their papers over their heads and their mouths moved and their eyes were shut and their faces changed color and they cried, some loud, some soft.
Hernando stood with the half-empty lid in his fingers. “I did got mean to say anything, señor,” he apologized.
“That’s all right,” said the driver.
“What is wrong, señor?”
“Haven’t you heard?” replied the young man, turning, holding tightly to the wheel with one hand, leaning forward. “It’s happened.”
This was bad. The others, at this, cried still harder, holding onto each other, forgetting the newspapers, letting the rain fall and mingle with their tears.
Hernando stiffened. He put the rest of the water into the radiator. He looked at the sky, which was black with storm. He looked at the river rushing. He felt the asphalt under his shoes.
He came to the side of the car. The young man took his hand and gave him a peso. “No.” Hernando gave it back. “It is my pleasure.”
“Thank you, you’re so kind,” said one of the girls, still sobbing. “Oh, Mama, Papa. Oh, I want to be home, I want to be home. Oh, Mama, Dad.” And others held her.
“I did not hear, señor,” said Hernando quietly.
“The war!” shouted the young man as if no one could hear. “It’s come, the atom war, the end of the world!”
“Señor, señor,” said Hernando.