Part One of this story.
Sleep found Daphne in skittish catnaps when night fell. She woke up the next morning with a stiff knee and sore shoulder from racing up the hill and sleeping on a cold, hard surface but Lemon seemed no worse for the wear.
The desert had slurped up all but a few muddy patches of yesterday’s flood so Daphne packed up the blanket began her short walk home. The red-headed stranger was nowhere to be seen but she walked slowly past the tree that had sheltered him hoping to find clues about his identity.
There were none.
By the time Daphne limped up to her small, adobe shack she had created and discarded half a dozen theories about the strange’s man history:
- He was looking for a husband or wife. With such low population densities it was easy to be related to everyone in your community. Some folks married a first or second cousin, others visited nearby towns in the hope of meeting someone from a new family.
- Arizona was finally reintroducing their state government and this politician (?) was travelling around to spread the good news. Daphne hadn’t been born yet when the old one disbanded but her grandfather had vivid memories of what life had been like back then.
- A distant community wanted to set up a trade route. What, exactly, either side could afford to trade was something Daphne hadn’t figured out yet. No one was as hungry as they had been when Daphne was a girl but there still wasn’t a surplus of food in any house.
“Glad to see you’re still alive,” came a husky, droll voice from the entrance of Daphne’s adobe hut. “I was beginning to think I’d lost my least bothersome neighbour.” Nevaeh stood in the shadows, her sunhat pushed back from her brow. She was a tall, angular woman in her early 40s whose short, thin, curly black hair stood nearly on end.
“It’s good to see you, too,” Daphne replied. She hesitated for a moment before telling Neveah the story of the flash flood and the stranger she’d seen fall into the water.
“No, can’t say that I’ve heard of any strangers in these parts,” Neveah said, taking off her hat and scratching her temples. “MacArthur lost a few sheep to that damn flood and no one has heard from the Reeds yet but everyone else muddled through it ok. Your fields are looking healthy, too. You lost a few seedlings but you should still have a good harvest. I checked them this morning before starting my rounds.”
Daphne had expected as much. No one and nothing passed through the valley without Neveah’s approval. At times her strict attention to every jot and tittle of daily life was a little overbearing but Daphne was grateful to hear that she’d still have something to eat over the long, hot summer.
“Have you heard from your daughter yet?” Daphne asked. Neveah’s only living child had settled down to raise her children a few miles away from her mother.
“No, I was planning to visit her next. Would you like to come with me and sit a spell? No one knows how to soothe that fractious baby of hers like you do.” Daphne rubbed her sore knee and declined. What she really needed was a hot meal and long nap.
The next two days passed uneventfully as Daphne’s knee healed. For a time it was all she could accomplish to weed and irrigate her nearest garden. Lemon wasn’t used to spending so much time at the house and had grown as restless as his human by the time she was feeling well enough to walk any further than necessary. He soon began flushing rabbits out of the underbrush and chasing them around while Daphne napped. She didn’t like it when he startled her furry, little friends but both Daphne and Lemon knew that he wouldn’t know what to do with a rabbit even if he ever managed to catch one.
The small house that improbably housed Delphine, her husband, their three children and several thin dogs was bustling with activity when Daphne arrived on a warm afternoon. MacArthur Everson was cursing up a storm as he described how the flood swept away three pregnant ewes before he could do a damned thing about it.
“How in the hell am I going to feed my family this summer when half of my breeding stock is gone?” he asked with a sour grimace. “A man can’t live on vegetables and nuts alone.”
Daphne smiled. MacArthur had grown to adulthood in one of those rare pauses between droughts and had never quite adjusted to the idea that sheep were more valuable as a renewable source of wool and milk than as a few hearty meals. Old or sick sheep might be slaughtered but none of his neighbours tasted meat more than a few times a year. It was simply too wasteful to consider any other option.
As she lifted her head Daphne noticed Sean Reed walking up the path carrying a soggy satchel. They lived on opposite sides of the valley and rarely spoke to one another. A young, extroverted man who spent all of his free time organizing community events and had never cared to learn how to read or write didn’t have much in common with a quiet, literate woman who preferred to keep to herself. Sean’s boots were muddy and his face was grim.
“I found a body,” he said. “but he wasn’t one of us.” Immediately the buzz in the room ended.
“Was he thin, pale and red-headed?” Daphne asked. Sean nodded and described how he’d had to dig a makeshift grave for what had once been a man. The corpse had been badly damaged in the flood and was in no condition to be examined for further clues even if their community still had a doctor. She explained her earlier encounter with the stranger briefly. No one else had experienced a similar event or heard anything about the stranger.
“Daphne, I was wondering if you could read his documents for us? Most of the words were washed away in the flood but I think there are a few sentences left.” Sean pulled a slim, waterlogged book out of the bag.
Daphne suspected that the person who had copied it had used a water-soluble ink. Some of the words were terms she’d never heard of before but Daphne pronounced them to the best of her ability as she read aloud the bits and pieces of the book that had survived the flood:
…Your territory manual…
…Battle of Fort Evergreen…
…signed the Declaration of…Henderson, Nevada… 2212. Your assigned representative is..
Hemorrhagic hantavirus…If your community requires more doses of the vaccine contact Ma…
Tax collectors will begin…
As confused as Daphne was about how, exactly, a “vaccine” could reverse the course of a disease that even the gods feared she was even more intrigued by the last decipherable line:
For more information see our website…