Daphne had never worried about drowning in the desert before and she wasn’t about to start now.
An old, familiar ache in her left knee flickered back into life as she scrambled up the hill. Lemon scampered up inches ahead of her with a dull whine. The water frothed brown and kept rising.
She’d climbed as high as she could now. All that was left to do was keep Lemon away from the current and hope the flash flood didn’t sweep them away. Daphne wrapped her arms around her companion and struggled to slow her ragged breathing as the water uprooted a long-dead White Thorn Acacia with a sickening snap.
Lemon growled as the tree was slowly dragged away. She stroked his damp, yellow fur and thanked the gods he was so good at following commands quickly in an emergency. Six hours ago ago he’d been napping lazily in the shade as she irrigated one of her gardens. Three hours ago they’d huddled in a cave as an unexpected thunderstorm dumped several inches of water onto the desert. Now they shivered in the anemic winter sunlight as the temporary river rose.
Daphne opened her pack and examined its contents: two flasks of lukewarm water, a wool blanket, a spade, one serving of Arizona walnuts, a sharp knife, and a tinderbox. Without a safe place to light a fire or enough flammable materials to sustain it sharing the blanket with Lemon would have to do if it wasn’t safe to return home by nightfall. As much as she missed her sons Daphne was grateful they were old enough to look after themselves now. They were no doubt better off up in the mountains than they would have been had they stayed in the valley with her this winter.
A flash of unexpected color drew Daphne out of her thoughts. She could just make out a pale, gaunt, red-headed man clinging to a tree about three hundred feet away. He pushed his hat up and offered a weak wave. Daphne waved back, briefly wondering who the stranger was and what he had been doing in her valley. She’d lived in and around the Mingus Mountain area since early childhood and knew every one of the 204 men, women and children that eked out a living there. None of them were redheads, very few were as ghostly white as this stranger and absolutely no one visited her valley without letting her know they were in the area! Had he been kin to anyone from her community she was certain they would have explained local customs to him if not brought him over themselves for a neighbourly visit.
Everyone knew Daphne liked a quiet, private life but she certainly knew how to entertain visitors! The gods knew they didn’t receive much news from the rest of the States these days. Severe droughts had lead to food shortages and limited the time and energy most folks had for walking or riding a horse into parts unknown. To tell the truth Daphne missed the way things had been when she was growing up. Not all of the visitors had been friendly, of course, but most of them were kind men and women who saw glimpses of a little daughter or sister left behind months ago in the shining eyes of the small girl who listened shyly to their stories about what life was like in South California, Nevada, or New Texas, or even (once) a mysterious place called Tennessee. Spending a few days with them before they journeyed on was a refreshing break from seeing the same faces over and over again.
The sun was slipping behind Mingus Mountain. Daphne noted with regret that while the flood was slowly soaking away it was still too deep for her to safely cross. She wished there was a way to share her food and blanket with the strange man who at this point was staring down at the water and wiggling his feet. His face was too small and far away for her to gauge what he was thinking but she hoped he knew enough about flash floods to stay put for now. Even if he knew how to swim the current could become unexpectedly deep and strong over uneven terrain and there was always the risk of being hit by debris.
Slowly but surely the man was climbing down the tree.
“No!” Daphne shouted. “It isn’t safe!” For a second he paused as if he’d heard her but then continued his descent.
“Stop!” she yelled. Either the canyon swallowed her warning or he chose to ignore it because in a few seconds his legs had disappeared into the muddy water and he was wading knee, waist, chest-deep across the newly-formed river. Daphne held her breath. The shadows were lengthening now and it was growing a little more difficult to see what was happening. Suddenly the man’s head bobbed underneath the water eliciting a small groan from Daphne and a whine from Lemon.
One one thousand. Two one thousand. Three one thousand. His head bobbed up again. Daphne hadn’t realized she was holding her breathe until she exhaled. He wasn’t a strong swimmer but at least he’d learned the basics somewhere. With such a severe drought going on most folks his age had never had the opportunity. Twenty more feet of dog paddling and he should be safe. The man’s progress was slow but steady against the current.
A log slid around the river bend. Had it not been for her keen eye Daphne would never have seen something just a few shades darker than the water slipping up and down with the unforgiving current. As it was she noticed the danger just before the log slammed into the man’s head. Her stomach dropped as he sank into the water.
Four one thousand. Five one thousand. Six one thousand. He did not reemerge.