Daphne’s knee was on fire by the time she arrived at the creek. The long walk to collect water had been shrouded in stony silence. Even Lemon sensed the heavy mood in his pack, and he managed to avoid chasing almost all of the rabbits who bolted across their path.
“What did the snail say when he hitched a ride on the turtle’s back?” Ephraim asked as they lowered their jugs. Daphne and Isaac exchanged puzzled glances but said nothing.
“Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” Ephraim said with a grin.
“Ugh,” Isaac said. “That’s your worst one yet.”
“It’s funny, though!”
“No, it’s dumb. Mom, tell him it’s not funny.”
“What? Snails are hysterical. I even saw your mouth twitch once your pea brain understood the joke.”
“Yes, I was amazed at your stupidity. Mom must have dropped you on your head when you were a baby.”
Daphne sighed and shook her head. “Boys,” she said, “We have five large jugs, and you can see how shallow the stream is this time of year. Stop arguing.”
“I was just trying to lighten the mood,” Ephraim grumbled. Three more people had died of the mysterious disease in the last week. Dozens more were ill, and all community functions had been cancelled while families cared for their own. Nevaeh’s visits had slowed to a trickle once her daughter and newborn grandson grew ill, but on her last visit she’d shared curious stories about soldiers who had shown up at the courthouse just after Daphne left.
They were looking for the man who died in the flash flood earlier in the year, and their leader was disappointed when Lucio showed them where he was buried and the few, waterlogged possessions he left behind. Rumour has it they were going from house to house to see if what Lucio told them was actually true. Daphne wasn’t sure if she should be relieved that the mysterious stranger would be mourned by someone or annoyed that soldiers would soon trample through her house in search of clues that didn’t actually exist.
Daphne grimaced as she lifted the last jug out of Shade Creek. Pain shot through her leg as she attempted to lift it.
“I can’t do it,” she admitted. She knew it was foolhardy to run all the way home last week, but her knee really should have improved by now. Not counting the original injury she’d never been incapacitated more than a few days after pushing herself too far.
“You’re getting old, Mom,” Ephraim said with a wry smile. “Leave it here. I can always come back later to pick it up.”
“I’m not old, I’m tired,” Daphne said.
“Is that why you have so many grey hairs?”
“Ephraim Galen, you know I have a sore leg.” Isaac’s top lip quivered before he turned his head away and pretended to adjust the straps on his jugs.
“I’m joking, I’m joking!”
“You’re not supposed to tease people about these things,” she said as she rubbed her knee and took a slow, hesitant step east. The pain had settled down to a dull roar. She would pay dearly for it tomorrow, but today she just might be able to make it home.
Two people in dusty, brown uniforms were milling outside their house when Daphne and her family arrived at the small house her grandfather had built so many years ago. Lemon barked in glee and ran up to greet them.
“That is one terrible guard dog,” Isaac said quietly. “I thought he was supposed to keep you safe when we’re away?”
“He does,” Daphne said. “He chases all of the mice and rabbits away and licks every visitor to death if they show the slightest interest in petting him.”
“Greetings!” the shorter soldier said with a bright smile. “Your neighbours told us you were out drawing water and should be home soon after dinner. The People’s Republic of Utah has ignored rural concerns for far too long. We’re here to fix that.”
“What does that have to do with you searching my home?” Daphne asked cooly.
“We’re looking for evidence that will lead us to some very dangerous people. I assure you that none of your personal belongings will be harmed in any way,” came her cheerful reply as Lemon finished licking the stranger’s hands and began sniffing the pale, nervous man standing next to her.
“I’m not hiding anyone or anything,” Daphne said as she straightened her spine to take advantage of all of the five feet, two inches of her height. “You don’t have the right to do this.”
“Oh, we’re not illegally searching your property,” the woman said as Lemon’s nose inched between the man’s legs. “The constitution specifically states that any search is warranted if it is carried out as part of a legitimate police investigation. Look, I have the paperwork right here.”
The last few drops of color leeched out of the frightened man’s face as he crushed himself against the wall.
“Call off your hell beast,” he said with a squeak. Ephraim and Isaac sniggered until a sharp look from their mother wiped the smiles from their faces.
“Private Sutter, it’s just a dog,” the woman said as she unfolded a long, dirty sheet of paper. An idea was forming in Daphne’s mind.
“I have had some training issues with him,” Daphne said. “If he thinks you’re a threat, there’s not much I can do to stop him.” Private Sutter gasped and closed his eyes as the dog began licking the man’s hands.
“Why do you think your soldiers haven’t found any other animals on the property? Even the mice know what he’s capable of,” Isaac said. If nothing else, he had inherited his father’s ability to spin the truth in so many circles it fainted under the pressure of weaving lies and and the truth into one seamless garment.
“It is odd that they don’t own livestock,” said an older man as he walked out of the front door. Two skinny teenagers in uniforms several sizes too large for them quickly followed him. “They’re the only family in the valley that doesn’t have any sheep, chickens, or goats, and I’ve seen what can happen when an uncontrolled dog thinks you’re threatening her family.” Daphne wondered when he would realize Lemon was neither female nor dangerous.
“I’m sure we can work something out,” the woman said. Every other family had read her orders and given in. It was odd that this one put up so much resistance but she was determined to get to the bottom of it. Maybe they’d finally get somewhere in this investigation?