NOTE: This previously-unposted flash appears in my Will and Diana Adventures book of stories. Readers unfamiliar with these stories may want to read up on Will and Diana's world before proceeding.
The donkey cart bounced along the road, its patched rubber tires churning up clouds of dust. Macy clutched the seat as the cart lurched into a pothole. “Watch where you’re going.”
Cascabel flicked the reins across the donkey’s back. “Maybe you should drive if you think you’d be so good at it.”
“Maybe we should camp closer to water.” Macy cast a glance toward the bed of the cart to make sure none of their containers had fallen over.
Sachi moved her horse closer. “There’s things I’d rather do than guard the water run, so I hope we find another well soon.”
“At least we get extra this way.” Diana said from where she walked her horse on the other side. “Direct from the source, where it tastes good.”
The other girls nodded. Water that tasted like plastic containers was only slightly better than no water at all.
They came down a hill and started the next rise.
“Hold up,” Diana said. “I think Balto’s got a stone.”
Cascabel stopped the cart and set the brake. Diana dismounted to check the donkey’s feet, but there was no stone.
“Unhitch him,” Sachi suggested.
Diana unhitched the donkey and sure enough, he was limping. The girls huddled to discuss their options, but their instructions for these types of situations had been clear. Sachi would ride back to camp for assistance while Diana would hitch her horse to the cart and try to maintain their progress at the annoying pace of the injured donkey.
The girls had gone half a mile in sullen silence when they saw a cluster of riders in the distance.
“That was fast,” Macy said.
Diana squinted at the horizon. “Too fast. And where’s our fresh donkey?”
Cursing, the girls scrambled for their weapons, but Diana knew with a sick feeling in her stomach that unless Sachi showed up with reinforcements, it was she who would have to defend the three of them. The other girls were only camp supporters.
The riders came nearer and it was clear they weren’t from an enemy unit, nor were they locals going about their business. These were young men dressed in flashy finery, desert pirates moving from one raiding opportunity to another.
If they had been a pack of starving wolves, Diana would’ve been less terrified. Unaffiliateds were unpredictable. They might trot past without a second glance or they might do something horrible, like—
“Maybe one of us would be enough,” Macy said. “I could—”
Diana glanced at her. Macy sat pale and wide-eyed, holding her pistol in a trembling grip. She had worked in a brothel and wasn’t above using her old tricks to distract an enemy guard, but this was different. “No.” Diana turned toward the men who were closing on them rapidly. “Make them fight for us.”
There was no time to unhitch her horse, so she walked to meet them, carrying her M16 in a way she hoped made it clear she knew how to use it. The men kicked their horses and swooped upon her, circling in a manner that called to mind the tales Apaches told of how their ancestors isolated enemies before a kill.
“What’s with the big gun, little girl?”
“Need a boyfriend? I’ve got a big gun, too.”
Diana tried to think, but the circling riders were making her dizzy. She could take out any one of them, but then the others would have her for sure, and Macy and Cascabel would be left unprotected.
“Are your friends as pretty as you? We can show you a good time.”
Dammit, where were Sachi and the reinforcements?
“What’s in the wagon, cutie?”
“Water!” she said in exasperation. “And will you stop and talk to me like normal people?”
To her surprise, they did stop. A man with pale eyes and a spattering of tattoos across his face edged his skittish horse toward her. He made no move to draw his weapon and instead twitched his shoulders beneath his velvet shirt. “You say you got water?”
“Yes. No jewelry, no batteries, no—”
He cut her off with a wave of his hand. “Where you going?”
Diana had started to relax but now she moved the M16 back into position. “None of your business.”
Instead of taking offense, he looked away. When he met Diana’s eyes again, it was with a note of vulnerability. “I’ve got a guy laid up not far from here. None of us has had water since yesterday morning—”
“There’s a spring five miles back on this road.”
“And we’re less than a mile from a guy who’s dying.” He rubbed his face. “We won’t molest you. Just share, okay?”
Sensing she had no better options, Diana started walking toward the cart, indicating with a jerk of her head that the raiders should follow. As she drew near, she motioned for Macy and Cascabel to put down their weapons. “They say all they want is water. Let them take what they want.”
Macy and Cascabel stepped away from the cart and watched in fascination as the men grabbed the containers and raised them to their lips, gulping noisily and spilling water on themselves. One barrel was big enough for their horses and they took turns letting the animals drink. When they were satisfied, the man with the pale eyes approached Diana again. “We’re going to take some of this water to our friend.”
By now the others had mounted their horses, each carrying one of the smaller containers in his lap. They hadn’t gone far when the pale-eyed one jerked on the reins and cantered back. Macy and Cascabel scurried under the cart in a panic, but Diana held her ground. The man wheeled his horse in front of her and tossed something at her feet. “Thanks, pretty lady.” He kicked his horse again and chased after his companions.
In the silence that followed their fading hoof beats, Diana bent to retrieve the gold piece. It was a large one, heavy and valuable. She was polishing it with the tail of her shirt, her hands still shaking and her mind reeling, when a new movement on the horizon caught her attention.
It was Sachi.
With relief, Diana dropped the coin in a pocket. “Well, it’s about fucking time.”