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Everyone else could be distracted, bribed, fooled, or, if all else failed, possibly even reasoned with. Not Rosamund.
Each sunrise she had long since learned to expect a clean pail of water, a small breakfast, and an affectionate pat on the head as she ate. During harvest season she was used to carrying baskets of produce back to the house to be processed. A few trading missions a year might carry her away from home for a few days, a week at most, for the household to trade for the few things it couldn’t produce on its own.
But evening was always her time. Someone – usually one of the children – would brush the animals as Daphne softly told all of them one or two of the stories that had been passed down from the time before. The rhythmic sounds of the woman’s voice falling into soft grooves as the heroes and heroines leapt into action was soothing. Sometimes the burro flicked her ears at the climax of the plot, leading Wilma to believe that Rosamund understood far more of what she was hearing than one might expect. When the stories ended the humans always checked the water supplies one final time before Rosamund settled down for the night with Mariposa’s burro, Dusty, by her side.
So it was with a hoof-deep sense of irritation that Rosamund allowed her favourite human to lead her out of the lean-to while Dusty slurped up the last, precious dregs of well water that had been delivered curiously early today. As always, Lemon pranced from one member of his pack to the next as Isaac very quietly shut the door. Rosamund had never learned to love the noisy, little beast, but she’d long since realized that he was all bark and no bite.
Lemon yipped as Daphne slowly climbed on top of the beast for the short ride to Salt River. Had her knees not been so sore Daphne could have easily walked to the meeting place, but it would be a much faster trip this way.
“Shh!” She frowned at him, tossing something small into the air. He caught it before it landed and swallowed it in one gulp.
“Lemon, you didn’t even taste that,” Daphne faux-scolded in a whisper. “If you’re quiet I’ll let you have another one.”
Ephraim knew how long it took to gather water, and he’d grow suspicious if his brother tarried for too long. They hadn’t figured out a good excuse for Daphne to wander so far away from home, so her older son would be even more confused if he noticed her missing, too. One could only spend so much time telling stories to the animals before someone came looking for you, after all. While most of Ephraim’s attention was focused on the new baby and keeping the rest of the household running smoothly, there would come a time when he started looking for her.
The ride to the river was quick and quiet. Lemon had calmed down a little as he aged, and while he was still a fairly young dog Daphne did notice that he seemed slightly less interested in chasing the wild rabbits than he had been even a year or two ago. A cursory sniff and practice bark – if only to tempt her into throwing another piece of cheese to him – were about as far as his sense of adventure took him on ordinary nights.
Nevada Reed stood at the edge of the river just as the afternoon began haemorrhaging into evening. Sean, her husband, was running late as usual, and she would much rather wait for him at the meeting place than sit at home with hummingbirds buzzing around her gullet.
Daphne nodded her hello, not bothering to slip off of her ride. It would be a short visit.
“How is it looking?” Isaac asked.
“Any word yet?”
“No. It’s as quiet as ever,” she said as she tilted her head over and scratched her right ear.
“You’ve heard from Avery, then?”
Daphne frowned. He was normally the most punctual member of their group, especially with the rumbles of the past few months. No one had seen the soldiers in years, but Milton had been fielding a slowly increasing number of strangers moving through their community.
Peoria, at least, had weathered the last five years fairly well. They’d bounced back quickly from the peculiar illness that killed so many in Mingus, and unlike surrounding communities the soldiers had never found much to be interested in their homes or fields. Their lack of wealth or any consistent type of trade protected them from the worst of the occupation.
Milton hadn’t been so lucky. It wasn’t as dangerous as Mingus, but from all reports it was still recovering from the shock of the past few years. As someone born and bred in the unlucky town, Avery was the perfect person to speak for it when Daphne and the Reeds began covertly travelling around to see who was interested in organizing some sort of early alarm system if – when – the soldiers returned.
For three years their system had worked seamlessly. Any suspicious visitors or activities were reported to other communities right away. At first it was a valley watch in name only. It had only been in the last year or two that trade had slowly resumed and people began travelling during the cold season once again, but even the false alarms gave Daphne a sense that she was doing something to protect her community.
About a week ago Avery spotted two men walking down a dry creek bed. They had no family in the area and nothing to trade. Their language was peppered with words that no one had ever heard before, and despite the danger of travelling in such a state they carried only one small water flask each. By the time Avery found them all of their water supplies were long gone and their lips were crusted over with thirst. It was as if they’d never been in a desert before.
The story made Daphne’s stomach knot up.
Especially when Avery casually mentioned that the younger man carried around a flat stone in his knapsack that he only examined when he thought no one was around.