The open sky stretched from sand to horizon and the riders advanced on the oasis. Kathleen Morales led her band of rebel outlaws, two dozen strong, toward the wide, limpid pool surrounded by long grass waving in the torrid breeze under the shade of the broad palm branches. But when they finally arrived at this rare shelter amid a vast wasteland of the east, they discovered they weren’t alone.
The desert bandit swung a leg over her saddle and dismounted, heavy boots making their mark on the damp soil. Her hair, a tangle of magenta, azure, and her natural brown, flew up as she landed, and the gold and silver of her nose and ear piercings sparkled in the filtered sunlight. She marched up to the tiny collection of refugees and declared, “Who the hell are you and what are you doing in my oasis?”
The rest of her party remained on their horses, Arabians for the most part, although a few favored the Hamdani, while their pirate leader advanced on the family. Zachary Ellis, Kathleen’s lover this month, fingered the hilt of his cutlass, while Isabel Garza, Kathleen’s half-sister, boldly drew her .45 from the holster on her right hip.
“Please, we meant no disrespect.” The old man couldn’t have been a day younger than seventy. He wore sweat soaked rags, and his long, silver beard was scraggy and moist. He looked desperate, but still held his arms out wide, sheltering the young woman and her brood of five behind him.
“I don’t care what you meant. I asked you a question.” She stood above them, all five foot five of her, arms crossed under an ample bosom, clothed in a raw cotton blouse and gray woolen trousers. Full, unpainted lips seemed to pout, but the rest of her face announced indignation with a hint of murder.
“We…” The man looked behind him briefly. The woman was young enough to be his granddaughter, sunburned face smudged with dirt, blond hair a rat’s nest across her forehead and shoulders. Her younguns ranged from three to eleven, and as she cowered behind the man, they cowered behind her. “That is, we had to get away from the city. The disease and all.”
“You carried it?”
“No, I swear, we’re all healthy.”
“Do you have the mark?”
“No, that’s one of the things we ran from. No chips for us, no Ma’am. Can’t abide by those government trackers.” He held out his right forearm and pulled back the torn sleeve. The skin was wrinkled but lacked the insertion scar.
Kathleen replied silently by doing the same. “No scar for me and mine, either. You got a name?” She sat in front of him now as a signal to her troop to finally step foot on the ground and tend to their animals by the pond.
“Name’s Quinn, Al Quinn. This is my Missus Lela and my young ones.” He moved to the right, and as a matter of pride, offered introductions. It was the first time he’d smiled, and she saw that his teeth were stained with coffee and red wine.
“Kathleen Morales. We’re the…”
“I know. I’ve heard of you. The Carolina Band. You take no truck from government or outlaws.”
“You knew this place was ours? You waited for us?”
“Guilty as charged, Ma’am. I mean we thought, well…”
“My band don’t need no stragglers. We’re all fighters born and bred.”
“No disrespect, but we’re not meaning to be a liability, and well…” He let his voice drop to a conspiratorial whisper. “…we know you all have families. I just want to trade.”
“What are you offering?” Kathleen leaned forward at least feigning interest while noticing everyone else was pretending to ignore them.
She blinked as if sand had suddenly swirled into her chestnut eyes. It had been a forever since anyone dared to breathe such a word.
“How do you think we made it this far outside the cities without horses or camels?”
“Guardian. Then you can protect us.”
“Not just me. We all are.”
“So that’s why you’ve got a wife young enough to be your…did you sire all of those children?” She watched them all still hiding behind their obviously pregnant mother. All, that is, except the eleven-year-old boy who she’d eventually learn was called Darrin. He stood over his Mom, a shadowy protector, face half-hidden under a straw colored mop.
“All except the boy there,” he nodded behind him. “His Pa took to sickness and died during the first wave.”
“Can you pass it, the cure?”
“That’s how the boy’s still alive, him and his Ma. The babies got it naturally when I spawned them inside of Lela.”
As a brief act of embarrassment, the young woman lightly swatted the older man on the back of his neck, which he ignored.
“Got a blood kit?”
“Not here. Back at our…” She stopped talking when she saw his grin. “So I see your deal. If I find out you’re lying, you and them will all die. I’ll do it personally.”
“Not lying. I wouldn’t risk them by doing so.”
“Fine. You’ll have to prove it, but if you’re telling true, and you’ll swear fealty to the Carolinas…”
“We’ll do all that and more. You’ll see. No Carolina bandit will ever fear going into a city again. To hell with masks, with chips, and with poison vaccines.”
“To hell with them,” she called out loudly. Every one of twenty plus Carolinas shouted “To hell with them,” in reply.
Kathleen stood and wheeled about on one heel. “We’ll stay here a day or two, rest up. Elijah, re-provision us from the crypt under the north boulder. Make sure Quinn and his family eat well. Come sunrise on next Friday, we ride for the Citadel. If our guest is telling a’rightly, we’ll all get the immunity, our wives, husbands, and children.” She looked back down at Al and Lela who were still sitting by the trunk of the biggest palm. “And when the last of those weak city folk pass on from the virus, the world will be ours.”
I wrote this for Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie’s First Line Friday for July 3rd. The idea is to write a short story or poem using the sentence presented as the first line in the work you craft. The first line is:
The open sky stretched from sand to horizon and the riders advanced on the oasis.
Since the whole COVID-19 pandemic thing is occupying the news and social media, I decided to write about it. Being something of a rebel and a maverick, I decided to thumb my nose at it a little bit.
Click the link above to read other stories based on the prompt or visit Mister Linky.
My short stories, “The Apollo Containment,” “The Babel Project,” and “Sorcery’s Preschool” are coming out in various anthologies in August 2020. Find out more about them and my already published tales at Powered By Robots.