The courier pulled her jacket tight, mindful of the delicate bump inside her breast pocket, and shivered. Even this far south, the desert night wrapped around her like a curious ghost. Harsh winds shoved her from side to side and sand invaded each gap between cloth and skin. The world caressed her without invitation as though searching for the treasure she carried. She clenched her teeth and swallowed grit through her bandanna. Her chin lowered; her Stetson tilted downwards as an additional barrier. The satchel at her back slammed into her spine with each step. But no force could stop the wind.
Her breast fluttered. She patted the bump. “Stay inside,” she muttered. “It’s too dry.”
Tremors vibrated through the dusty ground, but the wind remained constant. She shifted her feet into a draw position and glanced over her shoulder. Man-made thunder pounded the sands, a staccato of hooves. Her fingers slid down to cool metal beside her hip.
Voices called through the wind. Their words as haphazard as their motion. The courier scanned the horizon. Nothing but plain sands and rock. No trees to climb, no boulders to hide behind, no town to seek sanctuary. Just her, the metal at her hip, and her precious cargo.
Three shadows reared to a halt and scattered sand that took flight with the wind. Men sat atop their stallions. Metal shone at each hip, reflecting the black of a starless sky.
The taller of the three tipped his hat. “Leavin’ so soon, little lady? It’s dangerous to travel these ‘ere parts at night.”
She pulled her bandanna down and licked dry lips. “Can’t agree, sir. Night’s the best time to avoid the day heat. Don’t go needin’ much water that way.”
He cracked a white grin in the dark and drew his gun. He titled it in his hand and let moonlight bounce off the metal. “What you be deliverin’ that can’t wait until dawn, little lady?”
“I dare say that’s none of your business, sir.”
“Now, see, I think it is my business. No one passes through our town without inspection, ain’t that right boys?”
The two men behind him murmured their agreement. Their hands inched towards their own pieces.
“So I’ll ask again, little lady.” The taller man cocked his gun. “What you be deliverin’ that can’t wait for me and my boys to take a looksy? Must be mighty important.”
She released the fingers from her gun and shrugged off her satchel. “See for yourself, sir. I ain’t carrying nowt special. Just letters and supplies.”
The satchel fell to the dust with a thump. The taller man slid from his horse and held his weapon so she could see down the barrel. He clicked his spare fingers and his two companions dismounted. One lit a torch as the other grabbed the satchel and rifled through it. Glass bottles of water and ink spilled. Paper scattered and blew away.
“Nowt in ‘ere. Boss,” one of the men grunted, and tossed the satchel to the taller man.
He took a quick look and threw it back to her empty. “Sorry about that, little lady. Seems yer papers got flown.”
The courier wrapped the satchel around her shoulder. “No harm done, sirs. Won’t be missing a bit of paperwork—”
Cold iron pressed against her forehead. “Maybe we should check what’s under that jacket.”
Starlight burst from her jacket pocket. She clenched her eyes shut as the men’s shocked words turned to screams and then howls loud enough to drown the wind. Warmth tingled her skin, hotter than any desert dawn.
The night stilled and the courier’s breath stilled with it.
She turned around, her back to the men, and held out her hand. A cool dampness slithered onto her palm. She opened her eyes to a tiny glowing figure. Crimson ash fluttered by.
“You shouldn’t ‘ave done that, you know salt isn’t good for your kind, even with all that burnin’ stuff you do.”
The tiny star snail wiggled its antenna as though shrugging.
“I’m supposed to be protectin’ you. I can’t do that if you get all dried up.”
The courier sighed and tucked the star snail into her breast pocket. She rummaged around for the remnants of her water. It didn’t matter so much if she dried up, but she’d keep the last star snail out of harm’s way until she could deliver it back to the heavens where it belonged.