9. Desert

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Flash Fiction February

Mouse rubbed his jaw. The muscles were tight from clenching his teeth which had been chattering all night as he tried to sleep in the shallow cave he found as the sun began to set last night. Having no skill in fire building, he merely huddled against the rounded wall and tried to make himself comfortable on the rocky ground.

It was almost impossible to sleep, however. Each sound in the dark — a distant howl, the clattering of rocks knocked loose by a beast climbing the cliff above, the soft pads of feet nearby — made him jump and see huge mouths full of impossibly sharp teeth like knives. He hadn’t expected the cold, either. Though the day had been hot enough that he had soaked through his clothes, as soon as the sun passed beyond the orange cliffs and demon-shaped rocks, a chill rose up from the ground like death itself.

Mouse wasn’t exactly what you’d call a survivalist. His soft hands and clean face — now pocked with a four-day-old beard — spoke of a life absent of physical labor. The dexterity of his fingers was apt more for inscribing letters in a ledger than crafting handmade tools in the wilderness. And he knew more than anyone that he couldn’t last a week alone in the wastes. But here he was.

The caravan was beset by raiders. Alerted by the sudden noise and screams, Mouse did what he always did — he hid. Scrambling out of the carriage, he maneuvered his small body above the axle, hoping the bandits didn’t do anything to spook the animals. The ploy worked well, since they weren’t interested in the carriages themselves, just their contents and the horses. The screams and cries of the other passengers lasted for at least thirty minutes. Thirty minutes while he squeezed his eyes shut and pushed his hands over his ears and thought about obscure taxes he could add to his employers’ logbooks to offset the small amount of coin he habitually skimmed off the top of their profits. Just a rounding error here, a percent there, over many transactions, over and over. In another six months, he hoped he would have enough to break free of their employ and set off west somewhere. Somewhere coastal. Somewhere nice. With some sort of fruity drink in his hand, and a scantily-clad waiter asking him if he wanted a refill.

Just thinking about warmer climes snapped him back to his current reality and the sudden rumble of his empty stomach. He hadn’t eaten anything in several days. Not since the raid. He occasionally found some scrubby brushes that didn’t look edible, and he could see evidence of animals — their small prints in the sandy washes, their filthy droppings littered everywhere — but never saw any close enough to catch. And if he did catch one, then what. Strangle it to death? He had no weapon. Perhaps with a rock he could batter something senseless, but he doubted he had the strength for even that. He knew his energy was waning.

As the thought occurred to him, Mouse heard a horrible cry. Not quite a wail, but a persistent and distorted voice, echoing against the canyon walls. As he nervously raised his head, he saw a figure rise up shadowed by the bright morning sun, a pair of long, curving horns beset on either side of the fearsome beast’s head. It made the sound again, a sort of mournful moan, nearly human but not, and the sound made his bowels clench. He slid himself back against the wall of his shallow cave, trying to make himself small and unthreatening.

The form moved closer, the sun blinding at its back. Its horns glowing fiendishly red in the light. If Mouse had been a religious man, he’d have prayed to his deity right now. However, Mouse never put faith in the gods and, instead, tried desperately not to wet himself in his terror. He could hear the beast’s hoarse breath and the heavy cloven feet crunching on the dry soil below. Again, it bellowed, this time baring its horrible teeth and Mouse thought now, surely the creature intended to make a breakfast of him. He thought about all the things leading up to this moment, the bribes he paid to join the caravan, the plots and plans he had made to liberate the wealthy merchants of their money with tales of beachfront properties that didn’t exist. Perhaps there were things he could have done that would have prevented this horrible and unfortunate demise, if only he had been cleverer.

The crunching footsteps were closer now, and he was staring into the black eyes of the foul creature. Its two horns spiraling like a descent into madness, sharpened and likely dripping with the blood of its last victim. The beast bleated again, this time close to his face, and opened its mouth wide. This is it, Mouse thought, this is truly the end. He squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the pain.

Which…never came. Instead, he heard a crunching, chewing sound. He looked up to see the creature taking large bites out of the small green leaves growing on the bush emerging from the rocks next to him. Now that the sun had risen above the cliffs, he was able to get a clearer view of the creature which, a moment before, he was sure was a demon spawn from the nine hells. It looked…peaceful, its eyes placidly regarding him in a large, triangular face. It took a moment to smell him, its nostrils flaring briefly, then paid him no more attention. The hair on the beast appeared almost fuzzy, certainly warm and welcoming, and the tail on its rump was small with a slight tuft at the end. After a moment, he began to piece together the features with things he remembered reading in stories.

Mouse was staring at what he was relatively sure was a bighorn sheep.

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