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“It’s ok! Flapjack loves people.”
Daphne stared at the disgruntled burro slowly flicking his ears as Sean adjusted the straps on his back. The plan was for Daphne to ride Flapjack to Salt River. She had slowly been increasing the distances she travelled away from home in an effort to discover the flexibility of her new mobility limits, but Daphne had no illusions about her ability to walk several miles over rugged terrain at a brisk pace.
Most burros weren’t strong or large enough to carry an adult. Since Flapjack was a little bigger than the average burro and Daphne was a few inches shorter than her peers, though, Sean thought it just might work.
Now if they could only get Flapjack to agree with his human’s prediction. He didn’t seem to mind it when Daphne climbed onto his back the first time to make sure her knee would allow her to ride him comfortably. The scratchy wool blanket Sean used as a makeshift saddle was briefly surprising, but once Flapjack adjusted to the occasional brush of fabric against his legs he accepted that change as well.
What really bothered him were the straps under his belly that were meant to keep the blanket in place and the harness Sean kept trying to pull over the irritated burro’s head. Every time Sean pulled the straps into a snug fit or attempted to use the harness Flapjack froze, glared at his human, and refused to budge until he was released. It didn’t help that Lemon was barking with excitement and straining at his leash. As much as Daphne would miss him today she was glad her furry companion was staying home. Every time the dog barked the muscles in Flapjack’s neck tensed up and his ears flew back against his head.
Paige and the children were staying home today, too, as Sean only had one burro capable of carrying an adult and the council needed Daphne to witness what was about to occur.
“What if you ride him bareback?” Ephraim asked.
“I don’t know if I could,” Daphne said. Truth be told she’d only ridden one other animal – a mule – as an adult, and that was nearly fifteen years ago when she was too pregnant to walk long distances any longer. Few families owned mules or burros large enough to carry humans, and those that did tended to shy away from loaning them out. Carrying the handful of items they regularly traded with other communities was a far more valuable use of that energy.
“You might as well give it a try. It doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere the traditional way.” Isaac said as he hung back from the group. Daphne had not been pleased to learn that so much of the food she had preserved had fed MacArthur’s family over the summer. She knew their food supplies had been stolen and their land hijacked by the invaders, but she felt that her first responsibility was to keep her own family safe. Under different circumstances she would have been happy to share, but as it was she honestly didn’t have enough food for the folks she’d already assumed responsibility for.
Daphne sighed and nodded as Sean reluctantly removed the blanket, harness, and ropes. It wouldn’t be a very comfortable ride, but it was the best they could do. Sean helped her climb onto Flapjack’s back. The burro shook his head, flicked his ears, and took a hesitant step in the wrong direction.
“This way, Jacky,” Sean said as Lemon pranced at the edge of his lease. Slowly but surely Flapjack followed his human companions to Salt River.
Salt River shrunk to about two-thirds of its original size each summer, but it was still the largest above ground body of water anyone in the Mingus Valley area had ever seen. Daphne and her companions were among the first Mingus people to arrive at the river that morning. Mariposa, one of the newly elected ombudsmen of Peoria, had arrived an hour earlier to make sure that their neighbours would have a friendly welcoming committee.
“Mariposa!” Sean shouted as his cousin stood up and shook the dust off of her pants. It had been nearly a year since their last meeting and despite the serious nature of this event he looked forward to hearing the latest news from the Peoria branch of his family tree. If nothing else it would serve as a welcomed respite from the inevitable conflicts that were on their way.
When Gerald’s father was a young man the two communities had fought bitterly over water rights during an unusually severe drought that nearly wiped both of them out of existence. The treaty that ended that battle held fast for over 20 years, but when a shorter drought hit when Gerald was a young man the two communities briefly went back to raiding one another’s property in retribution.
It was during one of these skirmishes that Gerald lost two fingers on his left hand. He had always been a peaceful young man, and when his wounds healed he volunteered to serve on the council in the hope that peaceful resolutions to water rights would prevent his children from sustaining similar injuries when they came of age.
As the small crowd slowly coalesced, Gerald – who had just arrived – began handing out fishing poles and nets. With any luck they’d catch a few fish while they hashed out what each community knew about their sudden invaders and decided what should be done about it. After all of the supplies had been handed out and the lines cast the group began to talk.
Mariposa was surprised to hear that the soldiers had been so violent in Mingus. Her community had also been visited by them, but once everyone was vaccinated and all of the houses were thoroughly searched the soldiers paid little attention to what they did or where they went unless they wandered too close to Salt River.
She frowned as Gerald described the destruction of the Everson’s home and what happened when Aunt Lucy’s vaccine fell out.
“What I really don’t understand is why the soldiers didn’t vaccinate themselves,” she said. “Several days ago they stopped making courtesy calls on us, and when I sent a few scouts to check up on their encampment we realized that quite a few of them have that fever that was going around this summer.”
Isaac’s stomach lurched as he remembered what Alvarez had whispered to Rey Bryant after performing Isaac’s health scan a few weeks earlier.